Only two films today, as I used the evening to have some birthday drinks for myself, but both films I saw were written and directed by a woman who also took the lead role, and one gets the sense that both films are about their respective directors. As such the ways that they each approach themselves as subject probably reveal plenty about their respective situations, as the Korean film is more broadly comical.
Iranian cinema may have its own domestic identity, but plenty of creative talents from the country have been nourished overseas, in exile (whether formal or self-imposed) from their home country. Women like Mania Akbari or Ana Lily Amirpour have become quite well-known in their respective areas (whether visual art or genre cinema), and there are several others who have had some success. I focus on two below who made films in 2017.
Perhaps going in with low expectations from some decidedly lukewarm reviews helped, but I ended up really rather liking this story of confused identity. It’s an emotive subject matter (mix-ups at birth have been the subject of several good films) but the film doesn’t wring it out for melodrama. That said, I found it affecting (in a low-key way) and the lead character Pierre’s clash with his new family to be quite moving. The gender fluid identity issues — specifically the believability of his emotional journey (and I use the masculine pronoun because that’s the one used in the film by the character, played by Naomi Nero) — aren’t an area I can really comment on, but although they do seem to be a reflection of deeper familial divisions being explored, it doesn’t feel like they are being deployed exploitatively, though of course I’d be keen to read some trans opinions. What I’m left with is the lead actor’s defiance of normative expectations about his behaviour, and the seething undertow of anger from his birth father, though the film ends with a touching moment of emotional openness.
Director/Writer Anna Muylaert; Cinematographer Barbara Alvarez; Starring Naomi Nero; Length 82 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Friday 24 March 2017.
It’s an overwhelming experience this film, a very early touchstone for a transgender community still rarely represented on-screen (especially in 1990), and seeing it followed by a panel discussion of people of colour involved in the ball community added extra layers and made it clear there’s plenty to criticise — mostly in terms of how the scene is presented, how the personalities are little more than icons, and whether this is a form of gentrification of a subculture. Primarily, it made clear to me that this is not a fleeting fad that has since disappeared, but is part of almost a century of continuous development, just that mostly it’s been out of sight of those such as myself (and presumably the director of this film).
As for the film, whatever criticism one may make about some of the ways it frames its talent, the sheer energy and presence of these performers is real and amazing. They ARE fabulous, they take control of their space, of the viewer, they step beyond the frame of the filmmaker and outside the bounds of any conventional criticism, along the way creating a vocabulary which has flourished ever since. Almost all of the key players of the film are dead now, and only 25-30 years has passed. Many of them reflect cogently and sometimes with ruefulness in the film about the conditions of society which hold them back, but then their performance and their lives make such an impression as to make it clear how important it is to be part of a community of people in safe and nurturing spaces. I can only hope such spaces continue to be available to those who need them.
Director Jennie Livingston; Cinematographer Paul Gibson; Length 78 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Tuesday 29 November 2016.
At one level this is a Swedish coming of age film, with intolerant school bullies picking on young women, who look to each other for love and support. However, it quickly becomes evident that one of them, Kim (Tuva Jagell), feels uncomfortable with her gender identity, while Momo (Louise Nyvall) has feelings for Kim. Via a fantasy expedient of a magical plant, the film allows the young women to transform Cinderella-like into men for a night, thereby experiencing facets of privilege and masculinist behaviour, in their interactions with a group of rebellious boys who go to their school. It’s actually done really well, at least from my admittedly gender-normative point of view. There’s a delicate artistry to the transformation sequences and it makes tangible, via its magical premise, some of the identity fluidity that’s (I think) natural when you’re growing up.
Director/Writer Alexandra-Therese Keining (based on the novel by Jessica Schiefauer); Cinematographer Ragna Jorming; Starring Tuva Jagell, Louise Nyvall, Wilma Holmén; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Thursday 10 November 2016.
These two documentaries by veteran English documentarian Kim Longinotto (co-directed by Jano Williams) have titles which nicely complement one another, as well as both being filmed in Japan. They also share an interest in looking into underrepresented aspects of Japanese culture, respectively women’s professional wrestling and female-to-male transgender nightclub hosts. Both are fascinating in their ways, though they don’t aim to provide full context — the wrestling documentary, Gaea Girls, doesn’t get into the foundation of the Gaea Japan league or any backstory about the figures involved, while Shinjuku Boys doesn’t really go beyond the confines of the Marilyn Club in Tokyo. Still, what’s there is still engrossing, particularly in the feature-length Gaea Girls, which throws us into an organisation run by the buzzcut and imposing Chigusa Nagayo to train up wrestlers, though at times it seems more like a ladies’ reformatory school as we see parents dropping off their sullen daughters to take up the wrestling lifestyle. Few of them seem cut out for the sport (and several drop out or run away over the course of the film) but as the documentary progresses, we start to focus on Takeuchi, who despite her diminutive stature seems determined to make it, even as she’s seen effortlessly swatted about by Nagayo — and in a few disarming sequences, brutally bloodied and beaten (within the ring, of course). Her monosyllabic responses and lack of clear reasons for her persistence are in contrast to Nagayo’s engagement with the documentary, as she talks about her own violent upbringing. On the other hand, the Shinjuku Boys seem not to come from the same kind of background, though the film’s thematics fit in with a wider discussion in modern times about transgender issues and rights. The language deployed by the interviewees covers a range of identities, from one who still uses the female pronoun and considers their work as dressing up, to another who is committed to his new identity and has a male-to-female transgender partner. It’s a relatively short work, but it remains interesting throughout, and both are made with care and respect, as with Longinotto’s other films.
Gaea Girls (2000)
Directors/Writers Kim Longinotto and Jano Williams; Cinematographer Longinotto; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 21 January 2016.
Shinjuku Boys (1995)
Directors Kim Longinotto and Jano Williams; Cinematographer Longinotto; Length 53 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Tuesday 12 January 2016.
On the Wikipedia entry it states that director Sean Baker was inspired by films seen at the New Zealand International Film Festival, and I can empathise with this, as this was my main window into the world of cinema when I was at an impressionable age (my 20s). Low-budget New Zealand filmmakers really do work with nothing (I shared a flat with one for a few years), so working under pressure and improvising with what’s available is very much a necessity. That spirit of fvck-it-let’s-just-make-a-film comes across well in Tangerine, which to some is famous for being the ‘film shot on an iPhone’. More importantly, it’s a film which represents characters who don’t often make it to the mainstream multiplex, and does so in a sympathetic but rounded way. The transgender characters (and actors) portrayed here are neither saints nor villains, but just people, albeit ones who are marginalised in a city (Los Angeles) that, more than many, judges on appearances and is surely difficult to live in for those without money. And so it’s an LA not often seen in Hollywood cinema, of wide streets and seedy back alleyways, of indistinguishable chain restaurants and, in a surprising parallel plot, a regular working-class Armenian couple’s home. It’s also set at Christmas, perhaps for extra alienation, as certainly the Los Angeleno Christmas vibe is hardly what most people think of when that holiday is depicted (though perhaps it may put at least some viewers in mind of religious virtues of forgiveness and tolerance). In any case, it’s a bitter, cut-throat world of prostitution and drug deals, of bitter relationships forged in adversity, and — most noticeable — the film is, quite frequently, caustically funny. It may not be a polished film in any traditional sense, but it’s visually striking, and is made and acted with plenty of vigour that more than makes up for any longueurs.
Director Sean Baker [as Sean S. Baker]; Writers Baker and Chris Bergoch; Cinematographers Baker and Radium Cheung; Starring Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Panton Street, London, Tuesday 29 December 2015.
I saw this Australian feature right after The Diary of a Teenage Girl (they were both released in the UK in the same week) and the comparison between the two is in some way instructive. They’re both films dealing with a teenage girl’s coming of age, diarised in visual form, against a backdrop of parents who keep themselves at a distance from the protagonist’s life. In the case of 52 Tuesdays, whose protagonist is the 16-year-old Billie (Tilda Cobham-Hervey), that distance is because Billie’s mother (Del Herbert-Jane) is transitioning to becoming a man called James. He therefore decides he needs time to himself (no easy decision of course), and so Billie is sent to live with her father for a year (also a fairly distant figure given his busy work life as a chef), visiting only on Tuesday evenings. It’s this premise — which comes about partly due to the filmmakers’ own work/life schedules — which gives the film its structure, as the weeks are counted off with intertitles. Some are very short snippets of conversation (or, more often, lack thereof), but others are extended, and for various reasons Billie doesn’t always visit her mother. The story of James’ transitioning is fascinating yet sensitively rendered, and the film deals to a certain extent with the fallout from that — both in Billie’s life and in James and those around him. But more central is Billie’s own sexual awakening, which comes about as she gets more into drama and filmmaking, recording video diaries which we see throughout the film. There’s a slightly mannered game going on here, limning the divide between fiction and documentary, but you could count the difference between the two films in the way this diary is used: in both films it becomes a point of generational conflict, but here it’s used as a method to try and control and limit Billie’s sexual expression, though this is surely partly due to societal shifts between the 1970s and now on such matters. Even if 52 Tuesdays moves towards a point of resolution that seems unmatched to the gaping emotional wounds that have opened up between its characters (and would surely require many more Tuesdays to reconcile), it’s still a fascinating film and well worth checking out.
Director Sophie Hyde; Writers Matthew Cormack and Hyde; Cinematographer Bryan Mason; Starring Tilda Cobham-Hervey, Del Herbert-Jane; Length 109 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Saturday 8 August 2015.