Armenia: The Colour of Pomegranates

(1968; dir: Sergei Parajanov; language: Armenian; original title: Նռան գույնը or Sayat Nova).

I think I can safely say that I’ve never before seen anything like The Colour of Pomegranates. Made in the then USSR by the Armenian/Georgian director Parajanov, the film is a poetic imagining of the mental landscape of 18th century Georgian/Armenian poet, priest and troubadour, Sayat Nova. Although the film follows the stages of Sayat Nova’s life – childhood, sexual awakening and falling in love, entering a monastery, and death – that’s about the extent of the narrative. Rather than telling the story of the poet’s life, the film sets out to “recreate the poet’s inner world”, resulting in a surreal collage of image and music, interwoven with extracts of Nova’s poetry.

I chose The Colour of Pomegranates as Armenia’s film for a variety of reasons. None of the other films I found that fit my criteria looked super inspiring, and this one distinguished itself through being from a genre and time period that I haven’t yet reviewed here. But mostly, I chose it because during my research about Armenian film Parajanov’s name kept coming up, as he is rated as a ground-breaking and extremely highly-regarded film director. Parajanov was born in Soviet Georgia to Armenian parents, and made films in various locations within the Soviet Union, and in various languages. Maybe I’m revealing my great ignorance here, but I’d never heard of him, and finding out about significant film-makers that my blinkered diet of North American and Western European had excluded is one of the reasons I have embarked on this world cinema odyssey. The story of Parajanov’s career is a sad one, as both he and his films suffered constant repression from the Soviet government for the span of several decades, and Parajanov was imprisoned several times. The Colour of Pomegranates is apparently viewed as his masterpiece, as well as the film of his which seemed most Armenian, set and filmed in Armenia in the Armenian language.

For all that the description of the film given above might sound pretentious and impenetrable, I have to say that The Colour of Pomegranates is probably the most beautiful film I have ever seen. I’m not normally a viewer of “art films” such as this, where the language of film is used for more poetic and symbolic than narrative purposes, but Pomegranates is just so visually sumptuous and unique that watching it is almost hypnotic. The film takes the form of a series of exquisite tableaux vivants, carefully composed of actors (including the Georgian actress Sofiko Chiaureli in six roles); elaborate costumes and textiles (many of which based on Armenian traditional and folk designs); symbolic objects ritually deployed; and animals (one of my favourite scenes was a gorgeous old church filling rapidly up with sheep). According to the director, the imagery of the film was inspired by “the Armenian illuminated miniatures. I wanted to create that inner dynamic that comes from inside the picture, the forms and the dramaturgy of colour.”

As for deeper meaning, the film’s wikipedia page cites one commentator’s assertion that the film is a celebration of Armenian/Georgian culture in the face of oppression: “There are specific images that are highly charged — blood-red juice spilling from a cut pomegranate into a cloth and forming a stain in the shape of the boundaries of the ancient Kingdom of Georgia and Armenia; dyers lifting hanks of wool out of vats in the colours of the national flag, and so on.” I must admit these details were lost on me while watching the film, but I can well believe that this is so, especially given the Soviet administration’s reaction to the film. Certainly, the film offers a rich taste of Armenian poetry, textiles, churches and religious rituals, as well as being simply a film experience unlike any other.


Bosnia and Herzegovina: Grbavica

(2006; dir: Jasmila Žbanić; language: Bosnian; English titles: Grbavica: Land of My Dreams (US), Esma’s Secret: Grbavica (UK); co-production with Austria, Croatia, and Germany).

Grbavica is set about a decade after the horrific Bosnian War in the 1990s, and focuses on single mother Esma (Mirjana Karanović) and her 12-year-old daughter Sara (Luna Mijović). Against the backdrop of a traumatised city and population, the film slowly unveils Esma’s personal trauma as the seemingly banal issue of a costly school-trip for Sara forces revelations that Esma would rather keep to herself. I should say now that it is difficult for me to say anything about this film without giving away “spoilers”, but as Esma’s secret is signaled to the viewer from the very first scene, and as the film isn’t a salacious “twist ending” thriller but rather a portrait of trauma, I don’t think this matters a whole lot. But, just a heads up anyway. I chose this film as a well-received Bosnian film (it won the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival), and one that addresses an issue from Bosnia’s recent past that is still devastatingly significant today. I also thought it was high time to include some women-centred films on this blog (I think this is even the first one I’ve reviewed here that passes the Bechdel test), so I chose Grbavica over the Palme D’Or-winning When Father was Away on Business (1985 – also starring Mirjana Karanović), which I would also like to see.

Grbavica is a film driven by the psychological and emotional situation of its protagonists, rather than plot. The relationship between Esma and her daughter becomes increasingly strained when an expensive school trip is planned, and the poor and overworked Esma is unable to come up with the money. Sara is initially not concerned, because it is announced that children of war martyrs are allowed to travel for free; Sara has been told by her mother that her father was a martyr killed in the war, and she demands from Esma the necessary certificate. Esma, however, offers only increasingly shaky excuses, and secretly tries to find the money to pay for the trip. Eventually Esma is forced to admit to Sara that Sara’s father was not a Bosniak martyr but in fact one of the many Serbian soldiers that gang-raped her daily at an internment camp during the war. (At this point I wanted to reach through the television and shake the school staff and say that if the kids of Bosniak martyr fathers get a free place on the school trip then the kids of Bosniak rape survivors should too! Why are only the men heroes?) This admission brings some sort of reconciliation between the two, but not exactly a happy ending.

I read a couple of reviews that called it predictable and/or slow, and I can’t help but feel that they are missing the point. Yes, the central plot device of the school trip and the required certificate is banal and could even be deemed contrived – but that isn’t the point of the film, and neither is the revelation of Esma’s “secret”. Viewers wanting melodrama or titillation should not watch this film. Instead it’s a study in trauma, which is somewhat drawn out and banal in that it is carried with people throughout their lives. The whole point of the film is the difficulty of picking up the pieces of a “normal” life after going through hell, and when the reminders of that hell are all around you, and physically manifested in your daughter.

One of the things I really admired the film for was its focus on the lingering trauma of the war, rather than attempting to dramatise the war itself. There are no sensationalised flashbacks depicting rape or war, everything is told through Karanović’s gut-wrenching performance. The viewer sees Esma having panic attacks, struggling with depression, and freaking out when a mother-daughter pillow fight culminates with Sara pinning her down. Esma’s actions and reactions, and the state of the city itself tell the viewer more than enough. The fact that mass graves are still being dug up, that identifying the dead has become an arena where people forge new relationships, that children casually repeat the stories of how their parents died, tells the viewer more than enough about both the war and its lingering effects. Indeed, Grbavica shows us that war isn’t over when the fighting stops, its effects live on. What happens to a society where an entire generation is decimated, degraded, and traumatised? What happens to the new generation, how do they relate to their parents and the past?

But most importantly, the film focuses on the aftermath  of a specific aspect of the Bosnian war – the systemic mass rapes carried out by Bosnian Serb soldiers against between 20,000-50,000 women, primarily Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims). This was a strategy of ethnic cleansing, intended to traumatise the population so much that they would be forced to flee and never return. Certainly, as Grbavica shows, many have done so for that or other reasons, and refugees from the Balkan wars of the 1990s are today scattered all over the world. But the film focuses on those who stay, even in Grbavica – one of the most heavily hit areas of Sarajevo. It deals with the new significance of ethnic divisions in Bosnia following the war and the mass rapes, and the difficult position of many of the children born to Bosniak women as a consequence of rape. The film also shows Esma’s conflict over her relationship with her daughter. While she is adamant that she loves Sara, and indeed works literally night and day to earn the money to send her daughter on the school trip Sara has her heart set on, it is difficult for Esma to shut out the memory of where Sara came from. Another key theme of the film is the difficulty of even beginning to heal after such an extensive trauma. The film suggests that being about to talk about one’s experiences is a vital first step, and that arenas to do so are needed. Although the women’s support centre is derided by Esma and some of the other women in the film, somewhat reasonably so, it is also in the end the place where Esma can safely unburden herself to an audience of women who have been through the same or similar things.

On the production-side, the film was also well done. The performances of the two lead actresses were great and the cinematography was haunting – buildings with bullet holes and crumbling post-war cityscapes that served as an eloquent physical expression of the film’s themes of a city and country struggling to construct a present and future while the harrowing past haunts its population. I was hooked from the opening sequence, which actually gave me the shivers: the camera pans over the faces of a group of women lying piled up together with their eyes closed on a richly patterned carpet. Unresponsive and still, they could be dead – a reminder of the scale of the horror in Bosnia, even if the film follow the story of only one woman, who opens her eyes when the camera lingers on her. I got the feeling that behind the closed eyes of each woman, there was a trauma – shared, but individual. The film could have chosen any of them – and even if the themes might have been the same, each woman’s life and experiences are to some extent a private burden to be borne. Fiction is a wonderful way of helping people come closer to an understanding of the unthinkable, but selecting one story can work to single it out – to ignore the others or ask it to stand in for them. This simple introductory sequence, and the scenes from the women’s centre, was a powerful indication that Esma’s trauma is not the only one.

The only part of the film I didn’t really enjoy was the confusing subplot involving some kind of criminal dealings between Esma’s shady night club boss and the guy that nearly became her boyfriend. Maybe I was just a bit tired, but I really couldn’t follow what was going on there, and I don’t really think it added anything to the film. Their scenes also felt like they belonged in a cliché mobster film, in stark contrast to the honesty and emotional complexity of the rest of the film. Another issue I had was to do with the translation rather than the film itself (I watched the Nordic region release with subtitles in Swedish): apparently the film’s script refers to the rape perpetrators as “Chetniks”, a derogatory term for Bosnian Serb soldiers during the war, rather than “Serbs”, in order to avoid ascribing guilt to an entire ethnicity. This distinction was not preserved in the translation.

In sum, watching Grbavica, I learned about the Bosnian war and its effects in a very personal and emotive way; in a way that was more effective than simply reading historical accounts. The film also gave me a lot to think about more generally, in terms of rape as a weapon of war and the lingering effects of war (and rape). I am definitely keen to see some more of the director’s work.

Shoutout: Another well-received Bosnian film (Oscar-winning, in fact) which I have already seen also deals with the Bosnian War. No Man’s Land (2001) is grimly farcical parable of a meeting between a Bosnian Serb and a Bosniak in a trench between the opposing front lines, both wounded and trapped until dark. Things escalate when the UN and the international media get involved, with cynically predictable results. While not as nuanced or sensitive as Grbavica, and not as unique, it is also worth a watch.

Azerbaijan: Buta

(2011, dir: Ilgar Najaf; language: Azerbaijani)

Screenshot 2014-05-08 22.05.19

Buta is a fable-like drama film about a lonely little orphan boy called Buta (Rafig Guliyev) and the remote village where he lives. Over the course of the film, Buta makes friends with an old man who used to be in love with his grandmother, deals with bullies, discovers what a rainbow is and finds proof that the Earth is round. Sub-plots include a romance between a city-slicker salesman and a pretty local teenager, and Buta’s grandmother weaving an epic carpet. I chose it from a not very substantial pool of candidates because someone had faith enough in it to put if forward as Azerbaijan’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar, and while not nominated for the Oscar it did win the prize for Best Children’s Feature Film at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards. So, technically, an award-winning Azerbaijani film.

Screenshot 2014-05-08 23.30.01

While the summary given above may be pretty much what happens in the film, one could say that the film is really about buta – the beloved paisley motif which is an unofficial symbol of Azerbaijan. Apparently, the design can represent either an almond, a bud, family life or love, among other things. The symbol of the buta runs throughout the film, metaphorically drawing together the various threads that don’t otherwise really have a lot to do with one another – that the boy Buta grows into himself; that the old soap-merchant he befriends once loved and lost Buta’s grandmother; that a soap-merchant from the city arrives and falls for a local girl, who does marry him. The symbol also runs literally throughout the film: the film is called Buta, the boy is called Buta, the village is sometimes called Buta, the boy’s grandmother and Goncha the pretty local girl are weaving huge carpets with central buta designs, the grandmother has a buta-shaped birthmark and sings songs about buta while she weaves, and Buta – inspired by his grandmother – hauls stones to the top of a nearby hill to make his own design in the shape of a (you guessed it!) buta.

There were, in other words, a whole lot of butas. Perhaps I’m being uncharitable, but the sheer load of butas felt less like a beautifully woven carpet with flowing motifs, and more like someone was hitting me over the head with a buta-shaped hammer. I understand that the film acts as a modern-day fable, a story form which traditionally often involves a lot of repetition, but it really felt like overkill. And while the metaphor of the buta, to the extent that I understood it from the introduction, did sort of work to draw together the somewhat disparate threads of the film’s narrative, there were others that seemed out of place – part of the film’s climax [SPOILERS!!] involves the old soap merchant getting the village’s mill going again, and then promptly dying. Afterwards, Buta sees his first rainbow, the curve of which providing him with the evidence he sought that the world was round(?!). How these fit in with the story, such as it was, or the film’s symbolism, was not immediately obvious to me at least. I think if the film had done a better job of showing, rather than telling (in the form of repeated butas), it might have earned the adjective it seemed to aiming for: “lyrical”.

Screenshot 2014-05-08 22.05.49

Instead, unfortunately, the adjectives that spring to mind are “boring” and “twee”. At only a little over an hour and a half long, the pace of the film was so slow that it took me two fidgety sittings to get through, and I only continued watching because of this blog. The pacing was not helped by the stilted and phony performances from the child actors, and the contrived and cliched folk wisdom dialogue spouted by the village elders. Charm is key for films of this genre, and what charm Buta has to offer is gratingly forced. Of course, this may be a case of something being lost in translation, but it didn’t do anything for me in any case. Even less charming was the distressing violence carried out onscreen by the children. I mean, I’ve seen heaps of children’s films that involve bullies, but often the child-on-child violence is only implied, is off-screen, or you at least don’t see the blows fall. But within the first 10 minutes we see the (albino? or at the very least oddly blond in comparison to his sister) bully ringleader Azim just rock up and slap his tiny sister hard in the face, and it goes on from there.

In what may turn out to be a trend for the films reviewed in this project, the actual star of the film was the beautiful landscape of rural Azerbaijan, with wide and rocky river valleys, rugged hills and grassy plains. The film was sponsored by the Azerbaijani tourism board, and I can imagine that they are probably very happy with it. It also served as something of a celebration of rural Azerbaijani life – although the villagers in the film didn’t have a lot, they had their traditions and customs and vocally defended them against any criticism from the city-slicker. So, while I may not have enjoyed the film overmuch, I did in any case learn a lot about the look and feel of rural Azerbaijan – and a whole lot about buta.

Screenshot 2014-05-08 22.22.25

One further point of interest for me was the film’s echo of Albanian film Slogans previously reviewed here – a lot of the landscape looked similar (despite Albania and Azerbaijan being separated by Turkey and the whole Caspian sea), but especially the motif of children carrying stones up a hill to construct a design connected with their village’s identity. Coincidence, or is this a common thing in Eastern Europe?

Chile: NO

(2012, dir: Pablo Larraín; language: Spanish; France and US co-production)


NO is a drama based on the TV campaigns in the lead-up to the 1988 Chilean plebiscite that ultimately ousted dictator Pinochet from power. In the film’s depiction of events, after 15 years of rule by military junta Pinochet’s government responds to international pressure for democratisation by declaring a national referendum: should Pinochet remain leader for another 8 years – YES or NO? (The No vote meaning a subsequent democratic election of a president and government). In an attempt to make the referendum look fair, for one month prior to the vote 15 minutes of air-time each is allotted to both the YES- and NO-campaigns. The remaining air-time remains tightly controlled by the junta government. What initially seems like a safe bet for the regime turns out to be their undoing as the innovative NO-campaign convinces a fearful and sceptical constituency to evict Pinochet, a decision that he ultimately abides by. The film follows the young and talented advertising executive René Saavedra (played by Mexican actor Gael García Bernal), son of a socialist opponent of Pinochet’s regime and formerly exiled to Mexico. Head-hunted by one of his dad’s old friends, René is initially not keen to get involved in something as political as the NO-campaign, but eventually agrees to coordinate it. This decision pits him against his Pinochet-lackey boss, and puts both René and his family in the firing line.

I chose this film because it was well-reviewed and won screeds of awards, and it being an election year in both my countries of citizenship the political theme seemed topical. The subject-matter of the film was certainly thought-provoking, especially the conflict between René and some of the other NO-campaign  producers over the campaign strategy. Many of the NO-campaigners suspect that the vote will be rigged in Pinochet’s favour, but want to use the their allotted time to air the truth about the horrors of Pinochet’s regime. Others, such as René’s ex-spouse Veronica (Antonia Zegers), argue that running a serious campaign is tantamount to collaboration with the dictatorship in that it lends credibility to the facade of democracy Pinochet wants to show internationally. Once on board, René pragmatically draws on his commercial advertising experience and opts for a cheesy campaign with a catchy pop jingle and a rainbow motif that promises a brighter future for Chile without Pinochet. This offends many of the NO-campaigners, who want to focus on exposing the suffering, torture and disappearances carried out by Pinochet’s junta. And intuitively, it is offensive to further suppress their suffering in favour of a superficial jingle, but what NO shows is that vague hope sells better than concrete outrage. This is an issue well worth pondering for contemporary activists, given the challenges of mobilising people today. When the sheer amount and scale of oppression that people face on a daily basis becomes too great, it can appear so overwhelming that escapism and the dream of a better future becomes more attractive than dealing with current problems. But whether or not the tactics of the NO-campaign are a good solution to this challenge raises questions about means and ends that, in my view, are not easily answered (and which caused a lot of debate around the real life NO-campaign).

While addressing both an interesting issue and an important event in South American history, the film’s execution left me in two minds regarding what conclusions the film was trying to push me to. However, it must first be said that one of the highlights of the film was its slick and detailed production design. The shifts between the newly shot footage and the wealth of archival material were seamless, an effect aided by the decision to shoot on U-matic film of the type commonly used in that period. The 80s vibe was well-supported by close attention to period details with some fun set-pieces such as René’s experiments with the latest addition to the kitchen – a microwave. His colourful jumpers were also excellent. I was, however, a little bit less convinced by the character’s choice of skateboard as a form of transport. Did 30-somethings really skateboard in the 80s?

Indeed, the microwave and skateboard were given enough focus in the film that they took on symbolic value for me: the microwave connoting innovation and the future; the skateboard perhaps connoting a youthful freedom, particularly at the end after Pinochet’s fall, where the final images of the film are René skateboarding through the city. Big Daddy is overthrown, and the children are free. However, while promising, these symbols seem to stop at that promise, not actually delivering on a better future. Where is René skateboarding to? What will Chile actually do now that Big Daddy Pinochet is gone? What kind of future does the microwave enable?

Herein lies what I see as one of the film’s more interesting aspects, although I’m not sure it was intended that way; while the NO-campaign focussed on the promise of a better future, the vision of that future is utterly superficial (comparisons to Obama’s “Yes We Can” have been made, and are not un-warrented). Of course, the argument could be made that any future without Pinochet would be a better one, which indeed was what the other producers of the NO-campaign were aiming at with their desire to focus on the horrors of Pinochet’s regime. But René’s campaign was selling a shiny neo-liberal dream of freedom exercised through consumption, with a distinctly American (US) flavour. As Veronica points out at one point, the tall blond picknickers in the No-campaign’s video are a fantasy that have little to do with real Chileans. Should we as viewers interpret the campaign as a success, or as a selling-out?

The end of the film seems to try to have it both ways. When the NO-campaign has achieved its end and the population is rejoicing, René isn’t. He wanders off, feeling… something. Gael García Bernal’s liquid eyes are welling with emptiness. Is he worried about the future, that the dream he promised will be difficult to deliver, or not so appealing in reality? Or is he simply professionally disappointed that the campaign is over already? And while René’s motivations (merely professional, or political?) and the juxtaposition between the urgent needs of Chileans and the cheesy American dream that the NO-campaign was selling were certainly interesting, I kept feeling that the film was trying to nudge me out of a complex analysis and into firmly agreeing with René’s position. It left me uneasy – what story was the film trying to tell? It definitely felt like a complex and momentous instance of popular resistance was being shoved into a individualistic underdog good-guy versus big-bad bad-guys framework. And I wasn’t entirely sure that I accepted René Saavedra as a good guy.

In fact, I found myself agreeing more with one of the socialist detractors of René’s campaign, when he argued heatedly that “democracy is not a product”. The message of NO seems to be that actually, yes it is. What I can’t make up my mind about is whether or not the film is telling us that this is a good thing. To be clear, while getting rid of Pinochet is undoubtedly a cause for celebration, is the film’s philosophy that politics can be reduced to marketing also something worth celebrating? Ultimately the film felt more Mad Men than Wag the Dog; more of a celebration of marketing men and their craft than a warning about the power these people have over politics, and hence, our lives.

Reading a few reports on reactions from Chile, it seems like the film has prompted similar reactions locally. Larry Rother in the New York Times writes:

“In some quarters of both the political and the artistic worlds, Mr. Larraín, 36, is suspected of disguising himself as an admirer of the No campaign to advance a right-wing agenda that focuses on a heroic outsider instead of collective action by the center and left. ‘Here Larraín shows his more conservative profile,’ Matías Sánchez wrote in the magazine El Ciudadano. The film, he added, reflects ‘the crisis of identity of Pablo Larraín himself, who debates between advertising and film, between right and left, between being an aristocrat in Chile and a political filmmaker abroad.'”

Furthermore, there have been many reactions to the film’s fictionalised depiction of events, particularly the casting the creator of the NO-campaign as a politically apathetic outsider (rather than a politically organised duo who created the campaign through a process of focus groups), and giving too much credit to the media campaign and ignoring the contributions of activists in mobilising the NO-vote. As Genaro Arriagada, director of the NO-campaign says to the New York Times:

 “The film is a gross oversimplification that has nothing to do with reality… The idea that, after 15 years of dictatorship in a politically sophisticated country with strong union and student movements, solid political parties and an active human rights movement, all of a sudden this Mexican advertising guy arrives on his skateboard and says, ‘Gentlemen, this is what you have to do,’ that is a caricature.”

While fabrications are often unavoidable in fictionalised films about historical events, the use of documentary footage in the film, and the lack of detailed knowledge on the part of many international viewers (including myself), can lull foreign audiences into accepting NO‘s version of events. Ironically, the strongest parts of the film for me were the archival segments, prompting the question – why not just make a documentary? Why simplify and depoliticise the anti-Pinochet struggle, remove a lot of the key components of the NO-campaign, and insert “a Mexican advertising guy [on a] skateboard”? Perhaps the accusations about the director’s right-wing agenda or personal ambiguity hold some answers.

On a final note, I have to say that the only character in the film that really got me excited was Veronica. Although given very little screen time, she was the closest representative of the revolutionary determination that was required en mass to oust Pinochet in reality. A fearless, blunt and self-possessed person, I loved how she somehow always managed to be at the centre of any fight with the authorities. Her being the sole female character in the film undoubtedly also contributed to my affection for the character – how refreshing to see the dad left at home to look after the kid while the mother is off being a revolutionary! More Veronicas please, and less skateboarding advertising execs, no matter how groovy their jumpers.

As for what I learned about Chile: well, a smattering about the torture and disappearances and economic hardship under Pinochet; a glimpse of how things might not have been ideal under the country’s communist past; less about the Chilean left’s history than I had hoped; a lot about the historic NO-campaign, although not all of it historically accurate; and a local example of a universal conflict over representations of the past.