LIFF#11: Girls of the Sun (Les filles du soleil, France-Belgium-Georgia 2018)

The Kurdish women fighters led by Bahar (Golshifteh Farahani) at the front

Girls of the Sun was screened at Cannes this year as part of the Official Competition. It was one of only three films directed by women in the main competition in this year of #MeToo. Unfortunately, while the other two women (Alice Rohrwacher and Nadine Labaki) were both genuine contenders for the big prize with Happy as Lazzaro and Capernaum, Eva Husson’s Girls of the Sun was given something of a ‘thumbs down’ by the Cannes critics. I would like to have refuted their putdown, but I have to admit that the film has flaws (not helped by Screen 5 at the Vue suffering sound problems again).

The ‘girls’ of the title are actually women who have joined the Kurdish military in order to fight to liberate their home town which was taken by Daesh. With their husbands and fathers executed, the women and their children were kidnapped and then the young boys were taken to be trained as Daesh fighters. The women, who subsequently escaped, were then recruited for the fight. It’s a harrowing and important story which deserves to be more widely known – see this report on Kurdish women in the Peshmerga. The film was shot in Georgia and the central role is taken by Golshifteh Farahani, the Iranian actor who was so good in About Elly (Iran 2009) but who later left for France and who has subsequently appeared in international films. Farahani plays the role of Bahar, the commander of what the promo material calls a ‘batallion’ of female soldiers. In fact by the time the fighting proper begins this appears to be reduced to more like a small squad of less than ten.

Emmanuelle Bercot (with the eyepatch) as Mathilde

Eva Husson, making only her second cinema feature as writer-director makes a number of important strategic decisions which perhaps seemed a good idea at the time but which I think perhaps didn’t quite work out as she planned. First she decided to present her story as a non-linear narrative with a series of flashbacks woven into the main narrative showing how the women were first kidnapped and how some escaped. At the end of the film we saw possibly the same explosion as at the beginning – which Keith suggested meant that everything was actually a flashback to two different time periods. He may well be correct. I confess at the beginning I was trying to cope with the loud and unfortunately distorting soundtrack comprising rather bombastic music scored by Husson’s regular collaborator, the American musician Morgan Kibby. The second choice was to include the character of a French war correspondent Mathilde played by Emmanuelle Bercot (who I last saw in Mon Roi, 2015). Bercot is a powerful figure (with six directorial credits) and in the film’s opening sequence her character seems to be the protagonist. But in time we realise that Mathilde’s role is mainly to observe/witness the story of the female fighters. Since there is a sub-genre of ‘journalist under fire’ pictures with examples from Hollywood, European and ‘international’ cinemas, I found this a little confusing – as if Eva Husson was not quite sure what to do with her character while the audience is expecting the journalist to become an active agent in the narrative. The journalist’s role seems to be partly as listener when Bahar tells the women’s story. She also enables us to see how dangerous war reporting is during this kind of close fighting.

I don’t want to give the impression that this is a ‘bad film’. Golshifteh Farahani and the other women are convincing fighters and the action scenes are exciting enough. There is a strong sense of this being the story of women literally observed by a woman and that’s fine. I just had the nagging feeling that it wasn’t working as well as it should. It’s perhaps significant that at one point (or was it soon after the film ended?) I was reminded of the Bollywood action epic earlier this year with Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif which imagined a similar scenario with women needing to be rescued from a terrorist stronghold in Iraq. Katrina Kaif’s ‘super spy’ is very impressive in taking out so many black-clad warriors with her choreographed martial arts techniques. This is a very silly film but actually quite entertaining. Girls of the Sun is very serious (rightly so) but a bit clunky by comparison. I remembered later that Agnès Poirier had written an angry piece in the Guardian during the Cannes Festival in which she calls the film exploitative and argues that is not a feminist film since the two lead characters are defined mostly by motherhood rather than by their political activity. She was defending film critics who had called out against the film from the #MeToo activists who blamed poor reviews on male film critics. She has a point but perhaps both sides of the argument need to cool down a bit. Eva Husson’s background suggests an intelligent and talented woman from a family steeped in anti-fascist action. She won’t have attempted to exploit Peshmerga women – but perhaps the script needed a bit more development?

LIFF#10: The Ear (Ucho, Czechoslovakia 1970)

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The power goes out on the couple

Like A Squandered Sunday, The Ear wasn’t released until the after end of the Cold War, in 1989, as its portrayal of Czechoslovakian political life, in the ‘Normalisation’ post-’68 period, is damningly satirical. When those in power can’t stand criticism you know you’re in trouble (see Trump). This is another of the Time Frames strand at the Leeds International Film Festival, The Ear narrates the squabbles of a government minister and his wife in the aftermath of an official reception at Prague Castle, which is shown in flashback.

This was The Ear’s writer’s last film as he died of cancer in 1971. Procházka had done well to survive as a filmmaker for so long because he constantly pushed against official censorship. Director Karel Kachyňa continued to have a fruitful career (despite having made several films with the ‘frowned upon’ Procházka). Peter Hames, in The Czechoslovak New Wave, suggests that Kachyňa successfully portrayed Procházka as the ‘ideas man’ whilst he was merely a metteur en scene (he ‘just’ shot the script).Whether this was a betrayal I don’t know; it was just as likely to have been a pragmatic position to take against repression. Whatever the case, Kachyňa’s direction is perfect in its portrayal of Ludvik’s (the minister) growing conviction his days are numbered.

He and his wife return from the party to find things aren’t as they should be at home. Doors are locked; then unlocked. Things have been moved and there are men in the garden (it is the middle of the night). Ludvik thinks back to the evening, using ‘subjective’ shots (we are Ludvik), trying to find clues that may signify his fall from favour. His wife, Anna, is both pissed (drunk) and pissed off because Ludvik has forgotten their wedding anniversary again. Radoslav Brzobohatý and Jirina Bohdalová are superb as the warring couple and their collapsing marriage mirrors the political paranoia of the time. The political is personal as Ludvik had only married her for convenience and all his actions as a government minister – and by extension true of all government ministers – are about self-survival.

The titular ‘ear’ are bugs the secret police have placed to listen for sedition. The couple even have to have sex in the kitchen to get some privacy. In the absurdist tradition of Czechoslovakian cinema, there are a number of batty scenes, including a toilet that won’t flush and an invasion by goons who want some booze.

The Ear is another example of the brilliant ‘new waves’ of eastern Europe during the ’50s and ’60s.

LIFF#9: In den Gangen (In the Aisles, Germany 2018)

Marion (Sandra Hüller) and Christian (Franz Rogowski) in the coffee room

In the Aisles is a German comedy-drama. Nick didn’t like it all but I found it very satisfying and several others I spoke to after the screening said it was excellent. However, I can see how it may appeal differently to different audiences. Reading some of the reviews after its appearance in official competition at Berlin at the start of the year, I can see that many reviewers have a different reading to me. Perhaps it’s because I’m always looking for the setting and social context of films. Some reviews refer to a ‘sweet romance’ but though that is an element it certainly doesn’t define the film. My favourite shot in the film is a large tank full of carp (a popular Christmas dish in parts of Eastern Europe) in a dingy section of the store. One attempts a futile leap to escape.

The film opens in the nighttime setting of a large supermarket – Lidl on steroids. Our focus is on the stockmen – and women – who are mainly forklift operators  moving pallets from the warehouse to the shelves in the supermarket. The credit sequence sees forklifts sailing gracefully down the aisles and almost dancing as they meet to the sound of ‘The Blue Danube’. The stately progress of the forklifts will make many think of Kubrick’s ship and space station in 2001. But the mood is broken by the introduction of a new worker, Christian (Franz Rogowski) who has been hired as an assistant for Bruno (Peter Kurth) in ‘Beverages’. Christian appears at first to be clumsy and impulsive, but almost mono-syllabic. We fear for him in a section where any mistake might mean broken glass and showers of beer. But Bruno turns out to be a good trainer and eventually Christian will pass his training and become a competent forklift operator. He will also become infatuated with Marion (Sandra v) aka ‘Ms Sweets’ and gradually an attraction develops between them, though Marion gives no sign that it will develop further. These three characters are the focus of the narrative and each is given a section of the film named after them. Most of the action stays within the main supermarket building until Bruno, smoking a cigarette in the yard, begins to tell Christian something about himself and how the supermarket came to be built. From this point on, the narrative slowly begins to change, not least in exploring something of the world outside- primarily, the homes of Christian, Marion and finally Bruno.

Christian and Bruno (Peter Kurth) take a fag break and Bruno thinks about his trucking days

The supermarket was built on the site of an old trucking company – the company for which Bruno and several of the other workers in the supermarket once worked. Its location is close to a major autobahn route through what was the GDR or East Germany. This film is in many ways an ‘Eastern’ German production, with regional funders from the East and most of the main cast and crew, including co-writer and director Thomas Stuber and stars Sandra Hülller and Peter Kurth. Bruno refers specifically to ‘re-unification’ and the assumption is that the trucking company closed and the supermarket opened as a result at some later date after the formal process of re-unifying the country in 1990. Bruno loved being a truck driver and the camaraderie he experienced. Some of that sense of collective responsibility survived the transfer to the supermarket and we see it still in operation at the Christmas Party. But now Bruno is getting towards retirement. Marion would have been a child – young teenager in 1990 but she is still possibly affected by memories of the East. Christian is younger. He made mistakes as a teenager but now he sees that he has a second chance. I’m not going to spoil what happens but my reading is that the way the three central characters deal with the enclosed world of the supermarket is some kind of metaphor for how German workers have come to terms or not with capitalism in the 21st century. This ties in to some extent with the concerns of other German directors such as Christian Petzold and I note that Franz Rogowski also appeared at Berlin this year in Petzold’s Transit (Germany 2018). I may be completely wrong in this but that’s how I see it.

A stately glide down the aisles . . .

The film is a comedy-drama but the comedy comes from observation of the many nuances of the inter-relationships of the workers. The sense of observing is enhanced by camera position and framing and occasional overhead shots. Much of the camerawork (by Peter Matjasko) employs shallow focus fields so that much of the image is slightly out of focus when we see the central characters. I assume that this is intended to convey the sense of being enclosed and having a limited perspective on events outside. The fantasy of ‘outside’ is also conveyed (as in many similar films) by the large photograph of a tropical beach which covers the wall of the small room with a coffee machine where Christian and Marion meet briefly (see the first image). Nick might not have enjoyed the film but he was better than me in spotting the subtle uses of sound, including the reference to the ‘sounds of the ocean’ inside the warehouse which are eventually revealed (by Marion) to be made by the forklift. I enjoyed the use of music throughout the film in a score that includes classical and ‘roots’ music.

The only outright comic moment is, fittingly, included in the sequence dealing with forklift training and if you’ve ever had to endure po-faced Health and Safety training you’ll probably find it very funny. I did. But truth to be told, there aren’t too many laughs in a film that moves slowly through its 125 mins. But I never felt that there was a wasted minute and I’m glad I spent the time with Christian, Marion and Bruno. This is a pretty good trailer:

  

LIFF#8: School’s Out (L’heure de la sortie, France 2018)

Education without a future

Sébastien Marnier’s second film as a director (he also co-wrote) is pleasing in that it deals with the key political, indeed existential, issue of our time: ecological destruction. It’s couched as a thriller where Laurent Laffitte’s Pierre takes over, as a substitute teacher in a private school, a class of gifted children. Their previous teacher jumped out of the class’ second floor window during a test. The slow burn development of what’s going on in the six of the kids’ creepy minds is satisfying but the denouement can’t hold the burden of what precedes it.

The kids could be out of The Damned or Village of the Damned such is their apparent disassociation from the social world; unsurprisingly the other children in the school see them as elitist (which is a bit rich considering they all are privileged). Pierre endeavours to understand them (suitably he’s completing a thesis on Kafka reflecting the absurdity of the situation he finds himself in) and rails against the Principal who (a malaise in France as well as the UK apparently) is only concerned with results. However, it is always difficult to convince a teacher (ex in my case) of the veracity of school life and I cannot believe that violent attack on Pierre would have been shrugged off in such a perfunctory fashion (unless that’s France for you).

There are plenty of beautiful, portentous, shots of the sky and I kept expecting aliens to arrive but, as the horrifying ‘found footage’ of animal cruelty and desecration of the Earth shows, the real threat are humans who are depriving our children of a future. Zombie Zombie’s music heavy-handedly emphasises the point, however the film needed a bigger climax though the final scene is quite haunting.

LIFF#7: Chris the Swiss (Switzerland, 2018)

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Bleak times

The horrors of the civil war in former Yugoslavia should not be forgotten and debut director (who also scripted) Anja Kofmel investigates the time and place through a personal journey. Her cousin, Christian Würtenberg, was a fearless journalist who was killed when Kofmel was eight years old. Twenty years later she, and the film crew, try to find out how he died.

Of course there’s no doubting the heartfelt nature of the documentary, it supplements actuality footage and interviews with animation, the visual style of which is apparently derived from a nightmare she had as a child about Chris’ death. However, although we do find out details about Chris’ demise, the detective work feels perfunctory and doesn’t reveal much about the war (except Opus Dei seem to have been involved with the Pope’s blessing). Although Kofmel wrote the script in the first person, and she appears on camera, the English voiceover is spoken by New Zealander Megan Gay in a middle class English accent (at first I’d assumed Kofmel to be English because of this). The credits also list a ‘German narrator’. I’m not sure of the point of doing this but it distanced me from the narrative, which, given its personal nature, was a disadvantage.

It was difficult to gauge the reliability of the interviewees and, although the conclusion is convincing, the reasons behind Chris’ death necessarily remain speculative. The animation, an expressionist monochrome, looks good but features evil-like skittering black things that are too close to Hollywood and they undermine the realism of the documentary. The weak script renders commonplace the extraordinary events; maybe the film suffers overall because of Kofmel’s inexperience as a filmmaker. Certainly it is worth seeing, if only to remember the terrible time, but this personal journal does little to enlighten.

Town on Trial (UK-US 1957)

Supt Halloran (John Mills) brings a drunk Fiona Dixon (Elizabeth Seal), the mayor’s daughter, home to meet her parents as the maid looks on

This is a real gem of UK crime cinema, spiced up by the inclusion of two US actors and a stronger Hollywood feel than was the norm for British pictures in the 1950s. Nothing could be more ‘English’ than the murder of a ‘floozy’ in a Home Counties small town social club where the middle classes meet to play tennis, swim and generally frolic. Yet the arrival of Superintendent Mike Halloran (John Mills) as a hard-bitten and abrasive investigator soon sets the locals talking – to each other but not to him. Although the events and characters are very familiar and I can see why some IMDB ‘users’ see the film as a precursor to current police procedurals such as Midsomer Murders, the style and the tone of the film do seem quite striking. Halloran is no avuncular John Nettles type. He drives his men and doesn’t tread lightly in dealing with the locals.

There is certainly some noirish cinematography by Basil Emmott and the script by Ken Hughes and Robert Westerby is sharp. Director John Guillermin, star John Mills and cinematographer Basil Emmott combined for I Was Monty’s Double in 1958. In this film they have a supporting cast filled with familiar British character actors. The potential murder suspects include Derek Farr as that familiar post-war character, the bogus war hero and Alec McCowen as a disturbed young man. Geoffrey Keen with rimless specs is the pompous Town Mayor, Dandy Nichols is a landlady and Harry Fowler a band-leader. Elizabeth Seal as the adventurous daughter of the Mayor nearly steals the film with an outrageous dance. The Americans are represented by Charles Coburn as a disgraced Canadian doctor acting as the local GP and Barbara Bates as his niece working as a children’s nurse. Bates is probably best remembered in the UK for her small but important role in All About Eve (US 1950). I thought she was excellent in Town on Trial. She plays the only woman to confront and almost charm Halloran, whose gruff manner is partly explained when he tells her that he was once married with a daughter but mother and child were killed in an air raid. Several commentators suggest that Mills ‘can’t do romance’ but I believed his relationship with Bates here and I’m coming to the conclusion that the more I see of the variety of his work, the better an actor he appears to be. I used to groan when I saw his name in the cast but I’m changing my mind.

Barbara Bates as Nurse Elizabeth Fenner. Her uncle played by Charles Coburn is in the background right, out of focus

The mystery behind the film for me is the company Marksman which produced the film for Columbia in the UK. Columbia seemed to use a number of small companies in the 1950s and this is something I will try to explore in the future. I’m quite surprised that this film has not received much critical attention. It doesn’t even figure in British Crime Cinema, eds Steve Chibnall and Robert Murphy, Routledge 1999 – but as the editors point out, crime cinema in the UK in the 1950s has received little attention by UK scholars.

The alternative title of the film is The Case of the Stocking Killer so I don’t need to say any more about the murder method. The film takes place in the fictitious town of ‘Oakley Park’ which is supposed to be somewhere on the Thames close to London (a town of 50,000 is mentioned). Largely a police procedural, the film also develops as a satire on the bourgeoisie of the town and ends with a thriller finale that seems to have borrowed something from Mine Own Executioner (UK 1947) – and a couple of other plot points as well. According to IMDb the film was intended to be shown in a 1.75:1 ratio, certainly non-standard and very close to contemporary 16:9 TV sets at 1.78:1

LIFF#6: 25 Watts (Uruguay 2001)

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2001 but no mobile phones

I like to watch films having as little idea about them as possible, something that is pretty easy to do at a film festival where I’ve heard of hardly any of them. I chose this on the basis it is Uruguayan; I’ve never seen a film from that country. At first I thought it was from the 1970s, the black and white mise en scene suggested as such but then I noticed the Walkman (or equivalent), Kurt Cobain poster and DVDs. Whether the film has a retro look I have no idea as my knowledge of Uruguay is as limited as its film industry which produces very few films a year.

The subject matter and look of the film recall Clerks (US 1994) with the slackers doing little during the day (it was part of the Time Frames thread) but hanging around, trying to get a girl, watching porn, drinking and ‘doing’ drugs. However co-directors, Juan Pablo Rebella, Pablo Stoll, bring a playful visual style that engages throughout. In one virtuoso shot an extreme close-up of a glass of water has a character behind it and, as he gets blown off in his attempt at a chat up, the soundtrack adds bubbles as if he’s drowning. Another shot is from beneath a bed as a (soon to be ex) girlfriend gets dressed having engaged in breakup sex.

There are lovely cameos of eccentric characters; particularly the ex Royal guard who describes the boredom of standing up all day without talking. He’s clearly lost his grip on reality as a result.

Of course such a film will tell me little of the social and political context of Uruguay at the time but it wasn’t intending to.

LIFF#5: The White Reindeer (Valkoinen peura, Finland 1952)

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Beauty in the arctic

The White Reindeer is a weird amalgam of Finnish folklore and what appears to my untutored eyes to be ethnographic filmmaking. However, a quick glance along the casts’ filmographies shows that most of the cast are actors and their adeptness in the frozen north with reindeer and skis is obviously born of their culture. The glimpses of Sami life are probably the most fascinating aspect of the film from the reindeer races, the weddings and reindeer herding. Director Erik Blomberg (who also coproduced, co-wrote and photographed!) brings visual flare to what must have been a tough shoot. Only occasionally is the mise en scene compromised; for example, at the climax there are already ski-tracks visible – presumably from previous takes.

The narrative, a mythic tale designed to demonise (literally) sexually voracious women, is less than gripping. The startling images make up for the lack and Bergstrom seemed to me to use the top of the frame for more action than is usual. This gave a sense of the immense landscape; one exceptionally spectacular shot was of a herd of reindeer flowing into the distance (below).

Eyes are drawn to the top of the frame by the flowing reindeer

In addition, the transition scene – the cursed woman turns into a white reindeer – uses negative effectively. The soundtrack, which I take to be Finnish/Sami folksongs, adds to the eerie otherworldliness of the images though the sound was compromised by distortion in the bass (cinema’s fault – the Vue, Leeds – not the film’s). The White Reindeer was, for me, eye-opening drama in which the milieux is more important than the narrative.