NZIFF 2021: Quo vadis, Aida? (2020)

The centrepiece film of my Whānau Mārama – New Zealand International Film Festival last month — both halfway through the festival and halfway through the total number of films I saw — was this festival favourite of last year, finally making its way to NZ’s shores. It’s a tough watch certainly, but brilliantly made (seemingly a co-production between half of Europe from all the countries and production companies attached).


It’s fair to say this isn’t a cheerful watch and if I’d paid much attention to the write-up I’d probably have known that going in. I have seen Grbavica, an earlier film by the same director, so I get the sense she makes films that engage with the modern history of her country — or at least that’s what gets international attention (since I see she also has a film called Love Island which I now want to watch, but that’s an aside) — but this one tackles the Srbrenica massacre head-on. That said, you don’t really need any historical context to become aware of just where this drama is heading, because much of it is carried in the intense, cold, hard stare of its title character, a Bosnian translator working for the UN (and played brilliantly by Jasna Đuričić). When the Serbs under Ratko Mladić (Boris Isaković) march into Srebrenica, displacing the Bosniak Muslim population, the UN take shelter of them and promise airstrikes in retaliation, but as seen here through the eyes of Aida, there is an increasing sense of desperation and futility amongst the (Dutch) UN officers in charge on the ground.

The film tracks all this without resorting to any sentimental metaphors or grandstanding, because it’s carried through the demeanour of Đuričić, as she scurries back and forth around the UN compound trying to secure the safety of her family and being pulled into making increasingly hollow and craven announcements on behalf of her bosses. Nobody ever really states what’s happening, but everyone knows it, and that’s really where the film is operating, on a sense of shared desperation and complicity in genocide, because there’s no political will to do anything else. Yet when the inevitable happens — and thankfully it’s never seen explicitly — it’s still a kick in the guts, whether or not it was ever really preventable. The film leaves us back in Bosnia years later, where everyone still knows everyone else, knows what they did, what side they were on. The film has a repeated motif of just looking into people’s eyes, and in every set we see here reflected back at us, the inevitability is etched.

Quo vadis, Aida (2020) posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jasmila Žbanić; Cinematographer Christine A. Maier; Starring Jasna Đuričić Јасна Ђуричић, Izudin Bajrović, Boris Isaković Борис Исаковић, Johan Heldenbergh; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Saturday 13 November 2021.

It Must Be Heaven (2019)

Well it’s been a few weeks since my last themed week, and now that I’m settled in Wellington (albeit in a temporary rented accommodation in Lower Hutt), I’ve been able to return to seeing films. Therefore this week will be loosely themed as ‘films I’ve seen in the cinema since arriving in New Zealand’. I can’t therefore promise any consistency, but it will be a fairly loose collection of random films that have been on release here recently, along with some one-off screenings (there has been an African Film Festival this past weekend, and there’s an Italian one ongoing, though it tempts me less).


Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman has written, directed and starred in a number of deadpan comedy films over the years, of which I’ve only previously caught up with one (2002’s Divine Intervention, which I appear to have liked only somewhat). However, if this film is typical, there’s a strong connection with the tradition of Jacques Tati, if not the mordant satire of late Buñuel (via a filmmaker like Otar Iosseliani, who is brought to my mind during the Parisian section particularly).

Suleiman silently observes those around him in three sections, in his home of Nazareth, in Paris and then in New York, in a series of setpieces that suggest a certain critical view of Palestinian life, and which become retrospectively clearer in a film producer’s office during the Parisian section, as the producer tells Suleiman that his work isn’t specific enough, being about the Palestinian experience but in a way that could be set anywhere — which indeed he has done with this very film. Paris is eerily quiet, but with an undertone of militaristic threat (police officers chasing a lone suspect on segways is particularly amusing, or the tanks rolling along a boulevard in the background). There’s this constant play with his themes that is often rather hilarious, if in a muted way, and the precise framing and fine acting from Suleiman in just reacting to the absurdist events around him lends his film a real piquancy.

It Must Be Heaven film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Elia Suleiman إيليا سليمان; Cinematographer Sofian El Fani سفيان الفاني; Starring Elia Suleiman إيليا سليمان; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Tuesday 3 November 2020.

LFF 2020: Stray (2020)

My London Film Festival took place entirely online this year (they did put on some actual screenings, but I did not venture to any). This was my first film, an American documentary about the animals in a Turkish city. It was a pleasant enough start to the week of films.


It’s impossible, I suppose, in thinking about this (American) film about the stray canine population of Turkey’s largest city of Istabul, not to think also about the recent documentary Kedi, which deals with felines in the same city. This cleaves closely to the dog point-of-view, the camera rarely making it above knee height on any of the humans, as it follows a number of dogs around the city. Of course, it’s not just about dogs — there’s a fair amount of circumstantial evidence of protests against Erdoğan’s rule, and of the way in which dogs become part of the fabric of urban society. But it also very much rewards the dog lovers amongst the audience.

Stray film posterCREDITS
Director/Cinematographer Elizabeth Lo; Length 72 minutes.
Seen at home (BFI Player streaming), London, Wednesday 7 October 2020.

Holiday (2018)

I couldn’t find a category in my themed weeks in which to house this Danish-Dutch-Swedish co-production (albeit set in Turkey). There’s been a lot of talk in the last few years about what a “#MeToo” film might look like, but there have always been filmmakers making dramas about the psychological violence of patriarchy, and this is very much a film about that, which may not make it the film you most want to watch when you’re winding down at the end of a year — this is absolutely not to be confused with the more seasonally-appropriate The Holiday (2006), a very different film entirely — but it’s a compelling and direct drama all the same.


It’s probably fair to say this isn’t an easy movie to watch. The exquisitely poised formal style of the film, people framed in bright open, modern spaces (it’s set at a beach house in Turkey being rented by criminals) and with a largely fixed camera, creates the impression of a languid atmosphere, but yet there is evident tension reverberating through every frame. This is created from the start by situating us with a young blonde woman, Sascha (Victoria Carmen Sonne), who is being picked up by an older man. It’s not clear what their relationship is, but it becomes evident that he is not happy with her and when he slaps her it immediately puts the whole audience on edge. This man turns out to be a minor side character who’s not seen for much of the rest of the film, and when the filmmaker, Swedish director Isabella Eklöf, moves the action on to Sascha with her boyfriend Michael (Lai Yde) at the beach house, she momentarily allows us to feel relaxed by their apparently loving interaction. However, it soon becomes clear that he’s keeping her (she refers to him as her boss at one point) and that he’s involved with shady business, so his behaviour towards her and around her slowly comes to seem a little more creepy and insidious, especially when she makes friends with some other tourists in their resort. Although the film follows Sascha, she never gets any monologues to explain how she feels, and much of the emotional journey is mapped out on her face and through her actions. What we’re left with is a film that seems to inscribe patriarchal violence into every frame, into the setting, the architecture, the vehicles, but that hardly lessens those scenes where it erupts into actual violence (even when it’s implied or just heard off-screen), and the transfigurative effect that it plays on the psyche of those like Sascha who are abused; her own turn towards the end of the film feels entirely within the scope of this story.

Holiday film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Isabella Eklöf; Cinematographer Nadim Carlsen; Starring Victoria Carmen Sonne, Lai Yde, Thijs Römer; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Wednesday 7 August 2019.

Mustang (2015)

There’s no shortage of coming of age movies, which makes their general contours rather over-familiar and sometimes wearisome. Still, the world is large enough and inspiration diverse enough that it should always be possible to make something seem fresh, which is what Turkish-born French director Deniz Gamze Ergüven has done here. It’s a story of five sisters growing up without parents (their guardians are their uncle and grandmother) — which has given rise to superficial comparisons with The Virgin Suicides (1999) — whose burgeoning awareness of themselves comes into conflict with the repressive mores of their rural community, kicked off with a carefree frolic in the waves with some schoolboys. Their uncle then progressively starts entrapping them further within the home until their (arranged) marriages, making their acts of rebellion ever more circumscribed. Unlike Coppola’s film, Mustang is grounded within the experiences of the sisters, and it’s their point of view — specifically that of the youngest, Lale (Güneş Şensoy), who also narrates — which the film explores.

It would be misleading to call it triumphant, as there’s plenty of unsettling content: in terms of its setting, it seems less about the specifics of rural Turkey as of traditional patriarchal society where women’s sexuality is feared and controlled, and this is expressed via several means (an initial series of micro-aggressions which swiftly pile up). Yet this is all touched on in an artfully distanced way that almost lulls us into believing these characters are protected from the worst outcomes of patriarchy (they’re not of course), but which also preserves vestiges of hope for the sisters (who are presented with little more hope than for a good match to a tolerant husband). These manifest as little shards of narrative possibility: weaknesses in their fortress home; the presence of a nearby road and the uncle’s unguarded car. In these ways, by the end we are able to cheer small acts of defiance which also build their own momentum of resistance. It’s all directed with a deft touch and acted sensitively by (mostly) non-professionals. There’s hope for the coming of age film yet.

Mustang (2015)CREDITS
Director Deniz Gamze Ergüven; Writers Ergüven and Alice Winocour; Cinematographers David Chizallet and Ersin Gok; Starring Güneş Şensoy; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Sunday 28 February 2016.

Dedemin Fişi (2016)

There are few things more disorienting in a cinematic context than going to see a film that’s made within a foreign film industry and which is not intended to be seen outside that country (or at least, by people who are not embedded within that industry’s cultural context). You can usually tell such films when they show up here by the fact they are only screened at cinemas near an existing ethnic population, and that their titles are rarely translated into English. So I can’t tell you exactly what the title of this film means, but it’s something to do with a grandfather dying, because that’s the film’s premise: a family are brought back to their home town (Malatya in Eastern Anatolia) to be by the bedside of their ailing patriarch, who has a number of commercial concerns which need to be divvied up amongst his kids and grandkids. Another thing I gather from the internet is that this film brings together the cast and crew from a popular Turkish TV show, which may explain its broadly caricatured comedy and extensive ensemble cast. From an outsider’s perspective, then, the humour doesn’t translate particularly well — it leans rather heavily on frantic mugging and comedy misunderstandings, which are probably more amusing if you know the actors, though there’s an amusing running gag about the Malatya-based wife (Özge Borak, I think), whose presentation plate set gets progressively smashed during the film. Less successful is the brief bit where the wife of the German-based son harangues her husband in German while Nutella is smeared on her upper lip in a familiar moustache-like shape. Still, I’m hardly in the best position to judge, except that it’s all very colourful and seems to be well-meaning.

Dedemin Fişi film posterCREDITS
Director Meltem Bozoflu; Writers Eray Akyamaner, Sila Cetindag, Ugur Güvercin, Murat Kepez, Ayberk Sak and Sükrü Özbey; Cinematographer Turksoy Golebeyi; Starring Alper Kul, Erdem Yener, Özge Borak; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Saturday 30 January 2016.

दिल धड़कने दो Dil Dhadakne Do (2015)

There’s probably no good reason that this film should work, but somehow — despite its wealthy characters, exotic cruise-liner-set locations (primarily Istanbul), and sudsy, at times sentimental, melodrama — it does. Perhaps this is down to director Zoya Akhtar and her female co-screenwriter, and the believability of some of their characters: there’s the mother and father Neelam and Kamal (Shefali Shah and Anil Kapoor) holding their marriage together under the strain of his philandering, their daughter Ayesha (Priyanka Chopra) who runs a successful business but doesn’t love her husband, and their playboy son Kabir (Ranveer Singh) who won’t settle down like his parents want. Yet even if this could be a quality slice of televisual soap opera at times, the emphasis must still remain on the quality, beautifully filmed and acted with panache. On the downside there’s the way things resolve themselves towards a sentimental denouement, often matched with syrupy musical cues — the title does after all translate as “Let the Heart Beat” — but after almost three hours it does at least feel somewhat earned. The device of having the film narrated by the family’s dog is a little precious, too, but it allows for a fair amount of physical comedy that never quite tips into the gross-out territory that Piku unexpectedly went to earlier this year — another film with a strong female protagonist. In that role Priyanka Chopra more than holds her own, believable as a self-made woman in control of her life, even with Ranveer Singh mugging and joking winningly for the camera as her dissolute brother and a powerhouse Anil Kapoor as her controlling dad. The constant changes in tonal range can get a bit trying towards the end (surely a feature of Bollywood cinema), as we veer from light-hearted comedy to dance numbers to histrionic melodrama, but the quality of the acting and writing finally wins through.

Dil Dhadakne Do film posterCREDITS
Director Zoya Akhtar ज़ोया अख़्तर; Writers Reema Kagti ৰীমা কাগতি, Zoya Akhtar and Farhan Akhtar फरहान अख्तर; Cinematographer Carlos Catalan; Starring Priyanka Chopra प्रियंका चोपड़ा, Ranveer Singh रणवीर सिंह, Anil Kapoor अनिल कपूर, Shefali Shah शेफ़ाली शाह, Farhan Akhtar फरहान अख्तर; Length 170 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Monday 8 June 2015.

Kış Uykusu (Winter Sleep, 2014)

The films of Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan certainly have the kind of big, sweeping qualities that attract a film festival jury, hence his Palme d’Or award at the Cannes Film Festival this year, which to my mind is overdue (his last film, 2011’s Bir Zamanlar Anadolu’da, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, still represents my favourite of his strong body of work). The camerawork is exceptional, picking out figures against the vast, beautiful landscapes he likes to work in, suggesting a harsh and difficult terrain for his characters, though the bulk of the film takes place in rather cosier indoor settings. There’s something of the epic quality that marked the films of similarly Cannes-feted Greek director Theo Angelopoulos — certainly a lot of the same kinds of weathered, world-weary faces — but with, to my mind, less pomp and less self-conscious artistry at work. The comparisons seem necessary as, quite aside from the award, Ceylan has inched beyond a three-hour running time with this latest work, a largely domestic drama set in the same Anatolian landscape as his previous film. What I enjoy about his films, which have for some time been co-written with his wife Ebru, is the precarious sense of relationships in turmoil and how that relates to a wider community. Here we have ageing ex-actor Mr Aydin (Haluk Bilginer), who owns a hotel on a beautiful hilltop promontory, and aspires to be a writer and academic. He has a younger wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen) who keeps her distance, largely due to Aydin’s pompous self-involvement — he can never let an argument go, and just keeps pushing at people, including his sister and a local imam who’s renting one of his properties. The imam and his family are living in poverty and their story runs alongside that of Mr Aydin and his wife’s charitable efforts, giving the lie to their own beliefs about themselves and the work they do. Even if Aydin is one of the more aggravating central characters of recent cinema, there’s still a sense of why he acts the way he does, and that it comes from what he thinks of as a good place, though more often than not the effect can be toxic on those around him. It’s all very subtly evoked and despite the excessive running time, I never felt bored with the way it unfolds, deliberately and at times slowly, but with a graceful majesty.

Winter Sleep film posterCREDITS
Director Nuri Bilge Ceylan; Writers Ceylan and Ebru Ceylan; Cinematographer Gökhan Tiryaki; Starring Haluk Bilginer, Melisa Sözen; Length 196 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Sunday 19 October 2014.