She’s only made three feature films, but on the basis of just that work Valeska Grisebach is one of the most interesting German-language filmmakers of the last few decades. She was trained at the Vienna Film School, though she isn’t Austrian (she was born in Bremen), and is often included in the so-called ‘Berlin School’ with Angela Schanelec (whom I’ll cover later this week), Christian Petzold and others. She makes unglamorous films with non-professional actors that often resist the more florid aspects of storytelling, not a million miles from say Kelly Reichardt or Claire Denis. This perhaps accounts for why she’s been able to make so few, but those she has made are all excellent and well worth checking out (though her graduate film, Be My Star, is somewhat rougher aesthetically).
One of the major reasons I like to watch documentaries is that they bring me stories from all parts of the world, from all walks of life, and from the perspectives of people whose lives and experiences I will never share and could often never be part of. This film is directed by two British women (from an anthropology background, I gather), but is filmed in Nepal, touching on child trafficking and exploitation but in a way that really benefits from the time the filmmakers spent with their subjects. It’s a real problem with documentaries that the best ones require a huge amount of time and patience to make, whereas ones which are dashed off quickly tend to be insubstantial and misleading. This film is produced by Elhum Shakerifar (Hakawati Films), who has also produced the excellent Of Love & Law and A Syrian Love Story amongst others, and programmes Middle Eastern and North African films at the London Film Festival (quite often providing some of my favourite film experiences at the LFF each year).
Seeing a synopsis of this documentary, I was not expecting very much, but in blending an account of human trafficking of children from poor, rural areas of Nepal into travelling circuses in India, with the story of their rescue and rehabilitation into their own native circus based in Kathmandu, the film ends up being rather lovely. It’s certainly not a combination that one might expect to pay off: earnest accounts of the wonder of the circus arts hardly make for a natural bedfellow with harrowing accounts of what is essentially slavery, you would think. However, there’s an assuredness to the direction and photography that is aided by, as ever, charismatic and watchable lead characters, most notably two women who have grown up in these circuses, and have found a new sense of direction once reunited with their families. Of course, there are difficult questions — most notably, why their parents sold them in the first place — but the women are all united in trying to ensure that this practice does not continue, as well as fighting against the prejudices people have against circus performers (which seem to roughly align with what 19th century Victorians thought about actors).
Directors Kate McLarnon and Sky Neal; Cinematographer Ben Marshall; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury (Bertha DocHouse), London, Monday 16 April 2018.
Ulrike Ottinger is a filmmaker who came out of the 1970’s New German Cinema, making distinctive and odd films like Madame X and Ticket of No Return, before moving on to film a number of works in Mongolia and the furthest east, where she has shown a huge amount of interest in ethnography. This film fits in with that, and while it is in a sense a travelogue, it’s also very much a film about the way that history is latent in the present cultures of the Bering Sea, and the continuum of practices since the 18th century (when some of the texts she reads over these images are taken from). History, then, is indivisible from present-day life, and undoubtedly will continue to be for many generations.
An epic ethnographic documentary in four parts, this covers the cultures and people living around the Bering Sea, both on the Alaskan and Russian sides. As you might expect from the running length it does so in some detail, and as suggested by the title, it also links in historical perspectives. Specifically these come in the form of texts written by naturalist Georg Steller (who accompanied Bering on his exploits), then a century later by Adelbert von Chamisso, a poet and botanist, as well as a little bit from James Cook. However, it’s director Ulrike Ottinger’s voice and cinematic style which dominates the film, though in a respectful way, observing and allowing the people of the region to move about their lives and tell stories when they feel compelled.
It’s difficult to sum it all up in a short review, but the sense I got was of a continuity between Steller in the 18th century and the modern scenes, as a lot of the same practices and customs take place that he described, even if political changes have meant movements of the populations and the closure of the borders between the two nations (which come closest at the top of the world, between the Big and Little Diomede Islands, between which also runs the International Date Line). A lot of the shots of the expanse of this wilderness are breathtaking, but it’s in the simple details too that the film shines, in just pointing the camera at the people, and if some of the sequences seem too long for comfort (some hunters skinning and cutting up a seal), others you feel could go on for an entire chapter (the indigenous people demonstrating their dances was a particular highlight).
Director/Writer/Cinematographer Ulrike Ottinger (based on texts by Adelbert von Chamisso and Georg Steller); Length 720 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 24 May 2020.
Having mentioned there are few women directors in Thai cinema in my recent review of The Island Funeral, it’s good to see a new contingent of Thai women’s voices, not least Anocha Suwichakornpong, whose newest film (co-directed with the British director Ben Rivers) Krabi, 2562 is out on home streaming (via Mubi) today in the UK. Another recent Thai woman making films is transgender director Anucha Boonyawatana, who has made a number of films, and her most recent film is on BFI Player, though I saw it at the BFI Flare film festival a couple of years ago.
It’s very hard to watch this film and not think of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s mysterious films set in similar lush jungle landscapes, but what’s great about contemporary SE Asian cinema is there are other directors I can call to mind too who are doing similar things, women like Anocha Suwichakornpong or Lao director Mattie Do. What’s striking in all these films, aside from the setting, is the atmosphere and pacing. There are long, quiet stretches which would be ponderous if they weren’t so heavy with feeling between the two lead characters (Sukollawat Kanarot and Anuchit Sapanphong). There are scenes set in a crepuscular half-darkness such that the light glancing off one man’s facial features can easily be imagined as a craggy landscape when you are struggling to stay awake in a warm cinema when you’ve had a few drinks first (that’s on me, not the film), but I prefer to think of that as an oneiric cinematic effect. It’s a film that’s about a relationship between two men on the one hand, but also about the relationship between life and death, specifically refracted through a Buddhist consciousness. The temporality of life is symbolised by the threading together of elaborate jasmine flower arrangements (the malila of the title) which start to wither even as they are created, but it is also literalised in later stretches of the film. It inhabits an enigmatic register, in which the mysteries it suggests are never easily resolved, but there’s a narrative there which is left for the viewer to interpret.
Director Anucha Boonyawatana อนุชา บุญยวรรธนะ; Writers Boonyawatana and Waasuthep Ketpetch วาสุเทพ เกตุเพ็ชร์; Cinematographer Chaiyapruek Chalermpornpanich ชัยพฤกษ์ เฉลิมพรพานิช; Starring Sukollawat Kanarot ศุกลวัฒน์ คณารศ, Anuchit Sapanphong อนุชิต สพันธุ์พงษ์, Sumret Muengput สำเร็จ เมืองพุทธ; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Friday 30 March 2018.
Thai cinema isn’t exactly filled with women directors, so one of the few who is working (sporadically), since her first feature film in 2003, is Pimpaka Towira. This Thai film, like the recent Pop Aye I reviewed earlier, is also a road movie of sorts, tracking its way slowly across the Thai countryside.
A strange, slow film with a very conscious way about it, moving slowly across the Thai landscape. It’s a road movie featuring a trio — a brother and sister (Aukrit Pornsumpunsuk and Sasithorn Panichnok) and the brother’s friend Toy (Yosawat Sitiwong) — who are journeying to their aunt, who it turns out lives on an island quite far from the urban trappings of civilisation. Other reviews I’ve seen have talked about the political references, but those are for people deeply embroiled in Thai politics and culture — as a lay viewer, I didn’t really pick up on much of that at all. Rather this feels like a spiritual quest in which several characters are challenged by their situation to find new ways of relating to one another and the world — or something of that nature. It’s also beautifully shot, with a graceful wandering camera which encompasses these characters, often in long sinuous takes. However, it requires a tolerance and patience for its slow cinema approach to unfolding the drama.
Director Pimpaka Towira พิมพกา โตวิระ; Writers Towira and Kong Rithdee ก้อง ฤทธิ์ดี; Cinematographer Phuttiphong Aroonpheng พุทธิพงษ์ อรุณเพ็ง; Starring Sasithorn Panichnok ศศิธร พานิชนก, Aukrit Pornsumpunsuk อุกฤษ พรสัมพันธ์สุข, Yosawat Sitiwong ยศวัศ สิทธิวงค์; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Close-Up Film Centre, London, Thursday 27 September 2018.
This film is made by a Singaporean director, and I can’t really include that state in my ‘mainland SE Asian cinema’ theme week because it’s an island, albeit one very close to the mainland, with a long history of connection (historically with Malaysia), as well as a number of physical bridges. However, this film was made and filmed in Thailand, so it deserves to be part of this week on that basis. It’s also rather delightful, and though I’m not sure how one might watch it now, it’s worth looking out for.
After only a few films into the 2017 London Film Festival, already this felt like a highlight. At a certain level it maybe isn’t anything new per se. After all, it’s essentially a road trip buddy movie, in which a disenchanted elderly man (Thaneth Warakulnukroh) takes a slow trip back to his family’s roots, as the filmmaker contrasts urban and rural living with a critique of capitalist building developments, and offers a poignant view of those lives lost somewhere in between. But then again, the buddy on the road trip is the titular elephant (actor name Bong), and the man (who is an architect) uses it to reconnect with his younger life, as he reassesses his life’s work and his marriage. The film feels profound in the way it considers the fullness of this man’s (and indeed the elephant’s) life, even as it wears its peripatetic narrative lightly. It also manages to fit in a few beautiful and haunting shots, and some strong supporting character work.
Director/Writer Kirsten Tan; Cinematographer Chananun Chotrungroj ชนานันต์ โชติรุ่งโรจน์; Starring Thaneth Warakulnukroh ธเนศ วรากุลนุเคราะห์, Penpak Sirikul เพ็ญพักตร์ ศิริกุล; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Thursday 5 October 2017.
Another strong area of interesting regional cinema in Southeast Asia has been Vietnam which, aside from a few films by Trần Anh Hùng I’d seen decades ago, I have regrettably not been very good at keeping up with in recent years. One recent example that got a UK release was this period drama directed by Ash Mayfair, a young Vietnamese woman director making her feature debut.
I really liked the languid pacing and style of this Vietnamese period film, about May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My), a young girl who is married to a wealthy landowner as his third wife (the clue is in the title). Still, it’s a moving depiction of what in the period was not considered an unusual situation, and the film is about her contending with the familial situation into which she finds herself placed, negotiating her feelings with the other wives, and with the other family members. I can’t say that a great deal happens — there’s a secret affair that May witnesses, and meanwhile she strikes up her own feelings towards one of the other wives, but this all comes out in fairly oblique ways. Indeed, the woman directing the film is (understandably) good at avoiding sexualising or sensationalising the story, given the young age of her lead actress, and so it registers far more on an emotional level, though the visuals do have a real beauty to them.
Director/Writer Ash Mayfair; Cinematographer Chananun Chotrungroj ชนานันต์ โชติรุ่งโรจน์; Starring Nguyễn Phương Trà My, Mai Thu Hường, Trần Nữ Yên Khê; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Saturday 16 November 2019.
Nowadays this seems to rather divide the critics I follow, though this was hugely lauded on its release (at least internationally), and so I wonder if this plays differently with parents. It certainly fits into the sort of faux-rustic and hazily sentimentalised vision of traditional values that’s always played well to a certain strain of middlebrow filmgoers, at least when it’s in French (and not everything derided by the New Wave as cinéma du papa was bad, but there hasn’t been any shortage of these kinds of titles in all the years since then). Perhaps I’m just betraying some kind of inner cynicism, but this feels too calculated to be effective. The rough, rude peasantry — whether the poor couple seen right at the start who barely give a thought to the bereaved kid, the farmer family who take in Paulette (quite against their instincts), their bitter rivals in the village — all seem to exist solely to contrast with the innocence of the two children. There are also the bookended titles, further pulling this away into the realm of the cozily fabulistic, though the film’s opening minutes have a simple, vicious intensity that is never quite matched for the rest of the running time. Together the two kids make a little graveyard in a derelict mill to all the dead animals they find, starting with Paulette’s beloved dog, getting themselves into trouble with the local priest as the boy starts grabbing all the crosses he can find. I don’t mean to be too down on it, though, because there’s still plenty to commend it, particularly in terms of the expressive acting of these kids. Let’s just say this isn’t to my taste and leave it at that, because it’s certainly brought plenty of others joy.
- The disc presents the alternative opening and ending for the film (all that remains in the finished film is the credits written on the pages of a book), but it explicitly has the two kids living happily, hardly peasants any more, and playing by a big pond, where the boy tells the little girl a story about children very much like them. It’s a framing that puts the horrifying context of the film safely in the past, and it’s surely to the film’s credit that they didn’t end up using these sequences.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director René Clément; Writers Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost (based on the novel by François Boyer); Cinematographer Robert Juillard; Starring Brigitte Fossey, Georges Poujouly; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 17 May 2020.
Moving onto my next country in the Global Cinema series, with a short documentary from Albania (albeit directed by a Dutch filmmaking team). It covers the same subject matter as Italian director Laura Bispuri’s well-regarded debut Sworn Virgin (2015), though I haven’t seen that and it doesn’t appear to be easily available, hence turning to what’s available on streaming services.
Republic of Albania (Shqipëri)
population 2,800,000 | capital Tirana (557k) | largest cities Tirana, Durrës (113k), Vlorë (80k), Shkodër (79k), Elbasan (77k) | area 28,748 km2 | religions Islam (58.8%), Christianity (16.9%) | official language Albanian (shqip) | major ethnicity Albanians (83%) | currency Lek (L) [ALL] | internet .al
A country of diverse geography located on the Adriatic and Ionian Sea. Its name comes from the Latin, possibly derived from the Albani tribe (though the Albanian name for the country is usually interpreted as meaning “Land of the Eagles”). Though part of many historic civilisations, an autonomous principality (Arbanon or Arbër) dates to the 12th century, and the Kingdom of Albania to the 13th century. After the Ottomans conquered them in the 15th century, independence was officially declared on 28 November 1912. A short-lived kingdom under Zog I lasted until World War II, at which time the country was occupied by first Italy and then Nazi Germany. Dictator Enver Hoxha took charge of a Communist government following the war, proclaiming an atheist state allied to the Soviets. It has latterly joined NATO but never been formally admitted to the EU, over questions around free and fair democracy. Currently it is ruled by a President and Prime Minister.
The earliest Albanian films were made in the early-20th century, although production only really started in earnest in the 1940s, and a national film archive was founded in that same decade. Production continues sporadically, with a number of film festivals taking place, particularly in Tirana.
Wild Flower (2016)
This documentary weighs in under an hour in length, but there’s a lot of pathos to this documentary portrait of a ‘burrnesha’ (sworn virgin), a practice that developed out of a harsh code that prevented women from leading their own independent lives, and allows them some semblance of equality in a patriarchal society. Lule, the lady in question here is nearing the age of 80 and lives as a sheep farmer out in the rough hills of Albiania; her commitment to her sheep is unwavering and even as she starts to be brought into town by her family, who want her to retire, she still fusses over her sheep. We get to see her living in her small, rough-hewn home, tending to her sheep, nimbly climbing out of the sheep shed’s window at one point, and otherwise leading them around the hills. It’s a fascinating little glimpse into another way of life that continues, to a certain extent, even now in modern Europe.
Director Fathia Bazi; Cinematographer Koen van Herk; Length 54 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Sunday 10 May 2020.
Moving back to proper indie films is another of Lynn Shelton’s small but well-crafted features dealing with relationship dramas in the Pacific Northwest. She always worked with the finest actors, and it really pays off at times (though it’s not my favourite of her films, preferring Laggies and Touchy Feely). I’ll cover her final film tomorrow.
I like plenty about the improvisational aesthetic that this film fits into, that world of “mumblecore”, low-key relationship drama, situations focusing on believable people in relatable circumstances. I like all three of the actors, and Lynn Shelton is a fine director. I did, however, feel like the set-up here was a little bit overwrought, as if a plot discarded from a telenovela or soap, which meant I found it difficult to connect with the characters. That said, of course, the acting was all superb, and it’s largely set in a striking part of the Pacific Northwest.
Director/Writer Lynn Shelton; Cinematographer Benjamin Kasulke; Starring Emily Blunt, Mark Duplass, Rosemarie DeWitt, Mike Birbiglia; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 27 April 2017.