Transit (2018)

Taking a brief break from my week’s theme of African cinema, I wanted to highlight a new release to UK cinemas this week which is one of my favourite films of the year I’ve seen so far, and which is definitely worth a trip to the cinema to see. The director’s previous film, Phoenix (2014), has already made it to the Criterion Collection (though it will be some time before a review of that makes it to my blog). However, he’s definitely a well-regarded contemporary German director worth watching.


For whatever reason, I’d not seen a Christian Petzold film before, but this is mesmerising work. In the early scenes, Georg (Franz Rogowski) is meeting a man at a café in Paris; there’s tension in the air as several police vans go hurtling past, and a sense that both these characters are being hunted; a plot is set in motion whereby Georg must deliver some documents to a fellow of theirs. So far, pretty standard thriller stuff, but then some dialogue suggests they are in flight from Germany and some unnamed authoritarian power, and suddenly you wonder if this is in fact the 1940s — there are no mobile phones in evidence and there’s none of that self-conscious recreation of the past you get with historical dramas (though there are some dowdy decaying hotel rooms with a faded sense of history to them), but the streets and the vehicles are modern, so there’s an immediate disconnect. Petzold exploits this beautifully, in updating a Nazi-era novel, to evoke an alternate reality which, sadly, doesn’t ever seem so very far from our own. We never do learn who people are running from — the characters here end up in Marseille desperately seeking passage via sea to Mexico or the US — or what exactly is the “cleansing” the fascists are enacting, but you never really need to know except that the characters live in fear. There aren’t many films that conjure a dystopia in a sunny French seaside city without the need for gloomy lighting or fascistic banners: this is our world, precisely unaltered and unadorned, but yet undeniably a dangerous place.

Transit film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Christian Petzold (based on the novel by Anna Seghers); Cinematographer Hans Fromm; Starring Franz Rogowski, Paula Beer; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 10 August 2019.

کفرناحوم Kafarnaum (Capernaum, 2018)

I’ve now had a week of Arabic language cinema, with several examples from the small country of Lebanon, where director Nadine Labaki has made a number of films to increasing critical notice starting with the likeable Caramel (2007). Now her latest film Capernaum (referencing ancient Palestine in the Bible, but focusing on Syrian refugees) is apparently the highest-grossing Middle Eastern film ever, so I could hardly omit it this week. I visited the country in 2017 and found it to be both beautiful and also enormously varied, with many different people living in close quarters, not least the huge number of Syrian refugees whom you can’t help but see everywhere (whether the refugee camps dotted across the valleys, or the homeless beggars on the streets of Beirut). When it came out, I remember reading some savagely negative reviews of the film, but equally I’ve seen a lot of praise, so I feel conflicted, and can understand the arguments on both sides.


I don’t exactly know how to feel about this film, though I know exactly how the director wants me to think, because it’s not exactly subtle. That said, perhaps there’s a case that subtlety is beside the point when you’re looking at the state of being a refugee (or the children of one), about being dehumanised by government decrees and forced into ghettoes, separated from parents with no legal recourse, having almost no opportunities and thus a ripe target for exploitation: perhaps that’s the kind of attitude that history has already taught us leads to the greatest horrors, and whatever creative strategy can be deployed should be applauded.

I don’t know this kind of life, of course, but this film seems to delight in presenting the most abject and dehumanising experiences and serving it up for our entertainment. I hope it changes minds and policies, because it must have been difficult to repeatedly force children to act through what’s shown here, even if it reflects something of some of their real lives. There are compensations: the central performance of young Zaid (Zaid Al Rafeea) is excellent, not precocious or cute, but just the right level of gritty determination butting up against the reality of what he can possibly hope to achieve as such a young person, not to mention the Ethiopian woman who plays Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), who is also brilliant. But the picaresque narrative as Zaid bounces around various inadequate situations is constantly interrupted by a court case in which the kid is suing his parents for being born, which feels like a very self-consciously filmic framing device rather than something from lived experience, more like a crutch for the plot.

For all this, I admire much of the filmmaking craft, even if I feel conflicted about the way it’s used. Perhaps I’m being unfair: this is undoubtedly an angry film about a topic (children in peril) that inspires righteous fury, as it does in me when I think about it, about the plight of so many young people in such a small and under-equipped country as Lebanon, and about the dangerous futures for them, for their (new) country, for the region. I just didn’t always feel like this film was the best way of presenting it, and I felt somewhat similarly about, for example, Dheepan, but then again I’ve also just had a quick look at other online responses and I see a lot of love (and also a lot of defensive reactions against opinions apparently not a million miles from my own), so I’m willing to concede I’m misjudging it.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Nadine Labaki نادين لبكي; Writers Labaki, Jihad Hojaily جهاد حجيلي and Michelle Keserwany ميشيل كيسرواني; Cinematographer Christopher Aoun; Starring Zain Al Rafeea زين الرافعي, Yordanos Shiferaw يوردانوس شيفراو; Length 126 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Sunday 24 February 2019.

Une saison en France (A Season in France, 2017)

A warm, human story about an excellent father (Eriq Ebouaney) and his kids trying to make a new life in Paris after fleeing civil war in the Central African Republic. It moves slowly, showing the father’s life working in the markets (having been a French teacher back home), and that of his brother, who’s a former philosophy professor, still dressed up snappily in a suit and tweed jacket as, dispiritingly, we realise he’s heading towards a shop where he’s working on security. All of them have new connections, new relationships, they have jobs and places to live, and yet ultimately no security, and the film is absolutely focused on just how tenuous everyone’s hold on security is in this kind of place, especially as we move towards the end, surveying the bleakness that awaits, the systemic deracination that Western nations (and Europe specifically) have effected on those who are in this desperate situation.

Film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Mahamat-Saleh Haroun محمد الصالح هارون; Cinematographer Mathieu Giombini; Starring Eriq Ebouaney, Sandrine Bonnaire; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Thursday 20 June 2019.

Lost in Lebanon (2017)

I was actually in Beirut and Lebanon the week this was released in UK cinemas (well, in one cinema), and I can attest to the fact it’s a very small country — we did some travelling within the country and it only takes a few hours to drive across the width of the country, through the fertile Bekaa Valley towards the Syrian border (there are some very beautiful Roman ruins at Baalbek), and it can’t be that much longer north to south. It is also, not just relatively but by most measures, a very peaceful country.

Prior to the war in Syria, it had somewhere around 4-4.5 million people, with a fairly even mix of religions, but now there’s fully a third more just of Syrian refugees, most of them Muslim. Everywhere you go, you can clearly see these encampments, and Lebanese resources are stretched thin dealing with the issue. It’s not of course just Lebanon’s problem, though, and there’s one European aid worker in the film (Fritz) who is very clear about the way that the western governments (who have done little to mitigate the effects of war in Syria, and much to fuel it) are largely derelict in their duty of care to those displaced.

What Lost in Lebanon does is to humanise the issue through focusing on a handful of those displaced from neighbouring Syria. It’s not all gloomy — they are all trying their best to help their fellow refugees, to get involved with educating the children, and trying to find a diplomatic solution and a way to keep improving facilities — but the film captures very well the frustration, the sadness and even, at times, the rage. Nobody wants to live away from their home, especially when it’s so close you can practically see it at times, and certainly not as a virtual prisoner within another country, unable to move around or take a job or get further education or improve your situation. That said, the people in this film do their best to present a vision of relative normalcy in what is an unfortunate situation, and one can only hope that one day Syria will return to stability and peace, and that the people here are able to be involved in its rebuilding.

CREDITS
Directors Georgia Scott and Sophia Scott; Cinematographer Sophia Scott; Length 80 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Thursday 1 June 2017.

LFF 2016 Day Ten: On Call, The Son of Joseph, By the Time It Gets Dark and The Wedding Ring (all 2016)

Ramping up to the final weekend, I had my first day of four films on Friday 14 October. All were at least interesting, and some were excellent. All four featured their directors doing a Q&A, though time constraints meant I sadly couldn’t stay for the first one (and the one I’d most have wanted to listen to).


La Permanence (On Call, 2016)

La Permanence (On Call) (2016, France, dir. Alice Diop)
There’s a very simple setup to this documentary: a consulting room at a Parisian hospital visited by a stream of refugees seeking medical attention, one of the few places they can receive such care. The doctor on call patiently deals with the people he sees (supported by a psychiatrist), but the team clearly have access to only limited resources (they even run out of prescription pads at one point). The camera films one side of the table or the other, but it’s the faces that dominate, and we see some return in happier circumstances than their original visit, but this is by no means always the case. It’s clear sighted and quietly powerful about the troubles people have experienced, and the further bureaucratic hoops we require them to jump through.


Le Fils de Joseph (The Son of Joseph, 2016)

Le Fils de Joseph (The Son of Joseph) (2016, France/Belgium, dir./wr. Eugène Green, DOP Raphaël O’Byrne)
This latest film is stylistically of a piece with Green’s other work that I’ve seen — which is to say, denaturalised acting, deadpan delivery, frontal framings, aiming for an exaltation of the text over any kind of actorly psychology. If you’re on-board with his project there’s plenty to like here, and a lot that’s quite funny too (my favourite was the utterly self-regarding young author at the start, and Maria de Madeiros’s literary critic tottering into a police standoff clutching a champagne flute). It’s about a young man without a father who is searching for one, manages to loop in a fugitive-on-the-run storyline, and then overlays a Christian allegory as the structuring device. The literary world doesn’t come out looking great, but plenty of the individual shots in the film do.


Dao Khanong (By the Time It Gets Dark, 2016)Dao Khanong (By the Time It Gets Dark) (2016, Thailand/France/Netherlands/Qatar, dir./wr. Anocha Suwichakornpong, DOP Ming-Kai Leung)
When you structure your film to have the logic of a waking dream or a memory flashback — and in this the film shares a lot of the same power as last year’s Cemetery of Splendour by fellow Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul — it can have the unfortunate effect of lulling a viewer who is watching it at one of those awkward times of the evening into a bit of a doze (I’m talking about me). I therefore had the uneasy feeling of not really knowing what was happening and wondering if there was something crucial I had missed in the few minutes I had my eyes shut, but at length I realised that no, this is just the film, and the effect is entirely intentional. It also points up the absurdity of assigning films star ratings, because it looks like I’ve given it a low score, but actually this is probably the film I’d most like to revisit. It has a tricksy looping structure which replays some scenes with different actors, which seems to present its characters’ stories alongside fragments of their memory, dramatic recreations and even music videos, to further confound any easy narrative understanding. There is, though, an intellect at work, questioning historical representation, the play of memory, the ethics of filmmaking, and any number of other subjects. In short, for all its gently undulating rhythms (the sound design emphasises the low hum of machinery, fans, or blowing wind throughout), it represents some pretty exciting filmmaking.


Zin'naariya! (The Wedding Ring, 2016)

Zin’naariya! (The Wedding Ring) (2016, Niger, dir./wr. Rahmatou Keïta)
Like Laos the other day, Niger is another country you don’t see many films from, given its lack of a film industry, or indeed much in the way of a film culture. So it’s all the more reason to celebrate that not only has a film been made there, it’s directed by a woman, it looks gorgeous, and it was entirely funded by African money. A young woman (played by the director’s daughter) has returned from studying in France, lovelorn over the boyfriend she met there who himself has returned to his homeplace. She retains hopes of marrying him, as her family use whatever means they can to help bring them together — although this largely involves a local mystic who reads the patterns in shells. In truth the story moves along at a fairly unhurried pace, but the actors (not least the lead) do a great job in making the film watchable, and the camera can’t help but find light and colour wherever it looks in this small tightly-knit community. The focus is on the women in the community above all, and their laughter and wisdom keeps the film moving through some slower patches.

Dheepan (2015)

I get the sense that as a Palme d’Or winner at the Cannes Film Festival, this was a controversial choice, but when you watch it, it makes total sense. Quite aside from its genre trappings (which only really assert themselves towards the end, when the vengeance becomes rather more gung-ho), it’s a warmly humanist film about refugees which strikes a strong note of tolerance and understanding. That’s not to say the title character is a hero — as played by Antonythasan Jesuthasan, he’s a flawed, slightly bitter man, whose experiences as a Tamil Tiger soldier have shaped him, and are the reason he’s driven to seek a better life. In doing so, he adopts a new name, picking up a similarly desperate woman in the refugee camp to be his ‘wife’ (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), who in turn essentially barters for a motherless child to be their ‘daughter’ (Claudine Vinasithamby). Their new location in France is a forbidding housing estate called ‘the field’, which is indeed surrounded by greenery, albeit the scrubby suburban variety, but which is a crumbling place ruled by gangs (led by a James Franco-alike turn from Vincent Rottiers). From thereon in, the film works to get across a sense of the “family”‘s life in France, at work and at school, beset by a series of small bureaucratic aggressions which take their toll, but never overwhelm the three. It’s never quite feels like the masterpiece the award suggests it should be, but it’s still a fine film from a director with some form on this ground.

Dheepan film posterCREDITS
Director Jacques Audiard; Writers Audiard, Thomas Bidegain and Noé Debré; Cinematographer Éponine Momenceau; Starring Antonythasan Jesuthasan அந்தோனிதாசன் யேசுதாசன், Kalieaswari Srinivasan காளீசுவரி சிறிநிவாசன், Claudine Vinasithamby குளோடின் வினாசித்தம்பி, Vincent Rottiers; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Wednesday 13 April 2016.

Hotline (2015)

UK Jewish Film Festival logoThis screening at the UK Jewish Film Festival was introduced by a programmer, and there was a Q&A afterwards. I didn’t stay for this, as I couldn’t stomach the idea of politicians bickering with journalists about Arab-Jewish relations and the wider regional conflicts the film engages with.


The treatment of refugees by the governments of developed nations has been a big topic for some time, and continues to crop up in all kinds of discussions (whether related to refugees or not; the last few days have seen that they provide a convenient figure of blame in all kinds of crises). The recent conflict in Syria has seen a huge influx into mainland Europe, but Israel has had its share of refugees too, primarily coming overland from North Africa via the Sinai peninsula, as revealed in this documentary. The ‘hotline’ of the title isn’t really a telephone call centre, but an NGO dealing with the plight of refugees, and the statistics presented by its charismatic and outspoken director Sigal Rozen reveal that Israel has granted refugee status to virtually nobody since 1951. Rozen and her staff are seen helping the refugees to navigate the tedious bureaucratic processes from their small Tel Aviv office, as well as stumping for them in community meetings and in parliamentary committees. The film largely opens with one such meeting, where Rozen is almost literally attacked by the aggrieved residents, to whose vicious taunts and hate speech she can only counter by repeating her message that this is a problem created by politicians and that needs to be addressed by them; her office can only try to help the migrants to settle where the government allows. In the process, we get plenty of this kind of head-to-head (or head-to-brick-wall) conflict over matters of basic human decency, but we are left with a picture of how difficult it is in modern democracies to really deal with such urgent matters when there is no political will to do so. Of course it’s a complicated subject, and though the film engages with some entrenched and specific local issues that exist in this part of the Middle East, one can imagine the same events taking place in small underfunded offices across Europe.

CREDITS
Director/Cinematographer Silvina Landsmann; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at Phoenix, London, Thursday 12 November 2015.

Westen (West, 2013)

A few years ago, Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others, 2006) achieved great success in depicting how life was lived in former-Communist East Germany, and now Westen builds on similar themes. Our protagonist is Nelly (Jördis Triebel), who at the start has gained permission somehow to leave East Germany with her son. After a stressful few hours having to undergo humiliating bureaucratic procedures, she makes it across and signs up at a refugee centre, where she is given a bed and a chance at freedom, but little more. Indeed, she finds herself going through much the same bureaucratic procedures, leading her to snap at her interviewers that this is exactly why she had left the East. The drama is located in Nelly’s struggle to gain the freedom she imagined she’d find in the West for her and her son — a matter of passing official inspections and gaining elusive stamps — where instead she encounters only the same petty mindedness and paranoia over Stasi spies that she felt before. There are some subplots of relationships she has with various men within the refugee compound, and her sometimes-fraught relationship with her son, soured by the paranoia she feels, but the film is focused most of all on Nelly herself. Being on screen for much of the film, Triebel does an excellent job in conveying a sense of her trepidation and paranoia — sometimes with very little in the dialogue itself, for she feels guarded and cagy in her interactions, an understandable holdover from her time in the East. The filmmaking style takes a leaf from the Dardenne brothers in its unmoored handheld camera style, often finding itself lagging behind the forward-moving figure of Nelly, though it’s not quite as relentlessly applied as in, say, Rosetta. A very fine drama, all told, and well worth watching.

West film posterCREDITS
Director Christian Schwochow; Writer Heide Schwochow (based on the novel Lagerfeuer by Julia Franck); Cinematographer Frank Lamm; Starring Jördis Triebel; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at Ciné Lumière, London, Monday 15 June 2015.

The Good Lie (2014)

You just have to look at the poster to get the sense that this will be (yet another) feel-good story of poor African people redeemed by magical white Western saviours, but — and I think most reviewers have pointed this out — that would be largely inaccurate. Even when Reese Witherspoon’s employment agency counsellor does appear, once our refugee heroes have made it to the United States, it’s made clear that she’s largely clueless about the refugees’ situation and constrained by many other factors from being of more help to them (though she does what she can). No, this ends up being a story primarily of three Sudanese men and one woman, in two acts: first, as they struggle as children to flee bloody warfare in the late-1980s, eventually reaching a Kenyan refugee camp; and then over a decade later when they are relocated to the United States (a programme which largely ceased in September 2001). It makes plain the struggles that they and their compatriots faced in this period — one which was never exactly top of the Western news agenda (where one African conflict somewhat shaded into all the others) — and imbues a great sense of empathy and humanity to these four embattled young people. Once the film moves Stateside (where we stay with the three guys in Kansas City, Missouri, while their sister is sent away to Boston), there’s a bit of fish-out-of-water comedy, and though one senses that the struggle narrative of the first half could easily be picked up and folded into tensions around immigrants and race, the film thankfully opts instead to embrace a hope for positive change. So The Good Lie may not be perfect, but it’s also warm-hearted and generous to its protagonists, and ultimately a fascinating story well told.

The Good Lie film poster CREDITS
Director Philippe Falardeau; Writer Margaret Nagle; Cinematographer Ronald Plante; Starring Arnold Oceng, Ger Duany, Emmanuel Jal, Reese Witherspoon; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at Olympic Studios, London, Sunday 10 May 2015.