Faroe Islands: Dreams by the Sea

(2017; director: Sakaris Stórá; writer: Marjun Syderbø Kjelnæs; language: Faroese; co-production with Denmark; original title: Dreymar við havið)

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Dreams by the Sea is the first ever truly Faroese feature film, shot entirely on location with predominantly local talent. It tells a simple story of adolescence in the isolated island territory. Teenage Ester (Juliet Nattestad), like Disney’s Belle and many other village girls before her, wants much more than her provincial life. When rebellious Ragna (Helena Heðinsdóttir) with her dysfunctional family moves to the island, Ester is instantly attracted and a friendship develops. Each provides what the other lacks – excitement for Ester, and stability for Ragna. Together, they dream of leaving the island and taking on the world.

Although culturally and linguistically discrete, the Faroe Islands are not currently a country in their own right (they’re an autonomous territory within the Kingdom of Denmark), meaning they don’t fit the criteria I set myself of watching a film from every UN-recognised soverign nation-state. But those criteria are mainly set for expediency, and I’m not going to pass up the chance to include films from self-governing nations only a referendum away from independence. Well, at least not when they cross my path, like when Dreams by the Sea turned up in my local film festival.

The film centres on 16-year-old Ester, bored by her mundane life in a small Faroese village by the ocean. Her mother, like all the mothers in the village, is an enthusiastic knitter (the film features plenty of examples of the gorgeous Faroese patterned jumpers made famous to foreigners through the Danish TV-series The Killing). Her father leads Sunday School prayer sessions and tinkers with model planes. Her former best friend landed a modelling contract and moved away, and Ester is sick with envy, stuck on the island with her boring life: “it’s like everything is set in stone, nothing ever changes.”

Enter Ragna, who instantly stands out with her thick black eyeliner and surly attitude. Ester is instantly drawn to Ragna’s difference and apparent independence, and starts following her around the island – to her work in a kiosk, and to her home in “the Shed”, the cheapest ramshackle accommodation on the island. Ragna is initially a bit weirded out, asking “are you stalking me?”, but eventually she accepts Ester’s friendship.

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It becomes clear that Ragna’s independence and tough exterior has been formed over years of neglect by her alcoholic, unemployed and hard-partying mother (who is played with surprising pathos by an actress whose name I can’t find anywhere). For the naive Ester, even this is exciting new territory, and she enthusiastically embraces the world of alcohol and lack of parental oversight that Ragna is visibly tiring of. Ragna, on the other hand, longs for a stable father figure like Ester’s.

Although both discuss wanting to leave the island and make a life of their own, there is a difference in what each girl wants to leave behind. What Ester sees as freedom in Ragna’s life is its own form of confinement, with Ragna forced into caring for her mother and younger brother, and is less exciting than wearing and mundane in its own way. Each girl exoticises the other, Ester with a naked hunger and Ragna with a more mature, subdued wistfulness. As it turns out, Ragna does leave the island at the end of the film, but not under happy circumstances, nor her own steam. Her mother almost dies of an overdose, and Ragna is forced to seek other solutions for care of her younger brother, with her own future uncertain. Meanwhile Ester is left in her boring, stable, protected life, hopefully a little wiser as to where the grass is greener.

The film is entirely in Faroese, filmed on the island of Sandoy (population 1200) with a Faroese director, scriptwriter, stars and the majority of the crew, and has been celebrated as the start of a film industry in the islands. And it’s an astonishingly competent start, particularly given that only the editor (Amalie Westerlin Tjellesen) and the cinematographer (Virginie Surdej) had ever worked on a feature film before (both women, something you seldom see in e.g. Hollywood productions). The leads are excellent, with Helena Heðinsdóttir giving a mature and layered performance as Ragna and Juliet Nattestad offering one of the most honest portrayals of unabashed adolescent desire I have seen from a female perspective.

Some reviews have criticised the film’s pacing, with extended shots and sequences focusing on fairly mundane day to day interactions. While I agree that the film didn’t reach the level of drama that it perhaps aspired to, I don’t think that the pacing was a problem. Shot largely in a realist style, it is the everyday – both Ragna’s and Ester’s – that is the focus of the film. (One notable realist departure is that mobile phones are not to be seen. While I can understand the desire for a ‘timeless’ film that won’t be dated by incorporation of fast-evolving technology, this did seem a bit jarring given the ubiquity of phones in teen culture.)

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In my view, the editing supports the cinematography, which is one of the strengths of the film. Together, they let scenes breathe, so the viewer can soak into the atmosphere – both physical and psychological. The opening shot is like a watercolour of grey clouds with land, green, barely visible. The viewer is instantly struck by the beauty of the place, but also a sense of having reached the end of civilisation. An early close-up on Ester’s mother’s hands, knitting, confirms this. Wide frames of beautiful but washed-out island scenery reinforce the sense of isolation while close ups and point of view shots put us in Ester’s head and emphasizes the intimacy between the girls.

Where I did feel that the film faltered a little was the writing. Marjun Syderbø Kjelnæs is a respected Faroese writer, with some young adult publications under her belt, so I don’t doubt she knows what she’s doing. But the story of a sheltered girl idolising and forming an intense friendship with a tougher peer with problems of her own is far from a new one, and it made it difficult to watch Dreams by the Sea without comparing it to texts that have done a little bit more with the idea (e.g. Jacqueline Wilson’s children’s novel Bad Girls or Metin Hüseyin’s film adaptation of Meera Syal’s Anita and Me).

A key issue is that there weren’t really any consequences for the characters as a result of the central friendship, unlike in e.g. Bad Girls and Anita and Me. Ragna’s mother’s overdose was not causally related (as far as I could tell) to their friendship, and I’m not sure if Ester did learn anything from Ragna’s experiences – when she looks longingly at Ragna leaving the island for the last time, is it her friend she misses or does she still wish she was in Ragna’s place? Ragna  just gets yet another opportunity for stability snatched from her.

Nor did the film really develop the implied sexual tension between the leads. The camera’s framing of Ragna, coupled with Juliet Nattestad’s Ester looking at her like she wants to eat her with her eyes, added a level of ambiguity as to what it is Ester desires from her. The two were also fairly physical in their affection, and were often filmed in intimate settings. But here again I’m not sure if there actually was a lesbian subtext or if I was looking for it based on other films, such as Fucking Åmål (Show Me Love) or Heavenly Creatures, which also feature a stifled brunette becoming enamoured with a less supervised blonde and the attractions of a life beyond their unglamorous environs.

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Like these two films, Dreams by the Sea includes a scene where the intimate and insular relationship between the girls is disrupted by a heterosexual experiment (which is also the only overtly sexual encounter in each film), where the young man is aligned with the parochial context the protagonists want to flee, and is therefore explicitly or implicitly found wanting. In the case of Dreams by the Sea, despite the visual beauty of a tryst by mirror-like lagoons in the blue-grey Nordic twilight, the boys involved are the local louts whose main topic of conversation is who had the biggest ram last year.

And yet Dreams by the Sea neither goes all in on the lesbianism, as in Fucking Åmål, where their newfound romantic relationship makes the boring town survivable for the protagonists, nor does it hint as strongly at lesbian desire as Heavenly Creatures, where it is a component of a dangerously intense relationship that results in violence. Both of these other films link a desire for something different with homosexual desire, and pursue the consequences of both to a point of significant change in the protagonist’s character and situation. In Dreams by the Sea, neither the nature nor the consequences of the two girls’ desire for one another is fully developed, which lessens its dramatic impact and makes me wonder what the lesbian subtext was doing there (if I didn’t imagine it in the first place).

On the other hand, a familiar and generic story with broad appeal is perhaps a good canvas for the first Faroese feature film, that is perhaps more about the country itself than Ester and Ragna. The two girls do work as handy symbols of the contradictions of Faroese life – insular, parochial and dull, or a haven of sorts for those at odds with the mainland. This universality seems to be what director Stórá is going for; in his words:

“We all know either an Ester or a Ragna. They represent much of what we see in lots of people. They represent different sides of the Faroe Islands, and if we don’t recognise them, then it’s because we have been them ourselves.”

And, perhaps overt lesbianism is a bit much to expect from the first feature film in the Faroes, a highly Christian country that has traditionally not looked too favourably on homosexuals (although things are apparently changing).

Narrative discussions aside, one of the central pleasures the film offers for an international audience is the detailed portrayal of an isolated environment and culture. The gorgeous green islands against the salt-bleached colours of the cottages, and the cold grey and steel-blue of the sea and sky. The cry of the gulls and the gossip in knitting circles. The unusual amount of freckles, a legacy perhaps of the Celtic ancestry many Faroese have.

Director Stórá filmed in his hometown on Sandoy, promising a degree of authenticity that comes with familiarity. At a Q&A after the festival screening, the director said that the film offers a fairly honest portrayal of the island, particularly with regard to high degree of religiosity and the role that Christianity plays in the village. Even alcoholism and neglect, while not always discussed, are apparently not uncommon on the islands. However, Stórá joked that people sensibly never believe him when he claims that mobile phones haven’t made it to the Faroes.

And it wasn’t only foreign audiences that enjoyed seeing the Faroes on film. According to Stórá, Faroese are among the top consumers of films (per capita) in the Nordic region, but had never had a Faroese feature to watch. Dreams by the Sea apparently sold more tickets at home than Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Based on the talent displayed in this first feature, I certainly hope for many more. Hopefully the recently established Faroese Film Institute will help the local industry to ride the momentum of Dreams by the Sea‘s achievements.

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Moldova: Anishoara

(2016; writer/director: Ana Felicia Scutelnicu; language: Romanian; co-production with Germany; original title: Anişoara)

Ostensibly a coming-of-age film, Anishoara documents a year in the life of the titular 15 year old, as she finds first love and eventually forges a path towards independence and adulthood. But while the girl Anishoara is the visual and narrative focus of the film, it feels instead like a chronicle of a way of life, a time capsule of rural Moldova as yet forgotten by the march of modernity.

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Moldova is another entry on the list of countries which are not exactly renowned for their cinematic output. The Soviet era did see the production of well-received films such as Emil Loteanu’s 1972 romance Lăutarii, but when Anishoara was listed in my local film festival the choice of Moldovan film for the blog was an easy one; the film is beautifully shot and confidently produced, with an ethnographic perspective that offers a rich window into village life in one of Europe’s most neglected corners.

The plot, as such, is minimal. The film opens with the telling of a folk tale about a beautiful princess who fell in love with the sun, forgoing all other suitors. Mortally burned by her lover’s embrace, she regenerates into a starling, forever trying to reach the sun before falling to earth again. Enter Anishoara (Anishoara Morari), possessed of an unselfconscious beauty and a quiet but palpable presence. The film follows her through four seasons of her teenage life in a small Moldovan village, with each season culminating in a proposal and a rejection, before she gains the means to strike off on her own. The folk tale is thus more of a thematic frame than a literal metaphor: Anishoara, like the starling-princess, is a beautiful girl who rejects all suitors in search of an (unattainable?) ideal, a girl who wants to fly.

While the shifting of the seasons and Anishoara’s coming of age offer the semblance of a linear narrative, the film is more concerned with capturing a fixed time and place. Director Scutelnicu is openly captivated with the raw, self-contained beauty of both Anishoara and her village, having featured both in her previous short feature Panihida. A testimony to Scutelnicu’s enthrallment, the film is immersed in sensory details of the village life: the sounds as Anishoara uses hands and feet to apply mud to her home’s walls. The texture of mist, of cigarette smoke, of the steam from a horse. Anishoara’s grandfather’s wizened, toothless face. The ripple and rattle of wind through a field of bobbing sunflower heads. The sounds of birds, of frogs, of insects. The processing of corn by hand.

And yet, although richly evocative, the camera’s intense gaze is also impassive, keeping the viewer at a psychological remove. We may be offered a window into Anishoara’s life, but little is revealed about the inner workings of her mind or the emotional currents of the village. It is as though the fleeting moment director Scutelnicu seeks to capture – a girl on the brink of adulthood, a way of life in a remove village – has been cast in amber, preserved and observable, but temporally sealed off.

This temporal displacement is discernible in Scutelnicu‘s intention to “[share] with the public an almost silent and introvert sight on the human ages, the passing of time and the importance of moving out of the weight of existence.” And while time may pass in the film, it is a pre-modern time, governed by the rhythms of the seasons and the cyclical logic of folk-tales (such as that of the starling-princess, ever rising and falling). Anishoara acts to mythologise the present as though it is already long past.

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The film presents a world rooted in the old, on the cusp of the new. Tractors, motorbikes and buses have not entirely taken over from bicycles, horses and pony-carts. Traditional costumes are worn at Easter, and young people still turn out for village celebrations with traditional folk dance and songs. There are no televisions. The carousel at the funfair is rickety, and Anishoara is the only passenger. Church spires are the sole vertical challenge to the vast empty landscapes.

And yet this is not a world outside of our own – modernity exists simultaneously, just elsewhere. Why, otherwise, are there no working age people in the village? Have they disappeared to jobs in the city, or to larger farms as demanded by the march of industry? A jarring intrusion of the modern into the village occurs when a German tourist (William Menne) sets his sights on Anishoara. His visit to a salon to get his grey dyed a synthetic black, wearing a leopard-print hairdressers cape, could have been anywhere in today’s Europe, and is a reminder of both Anishoara and her village’s vulnerability.

The film’s almost documentary-like quality does raise questions about the reality of the way of life portrayed. While some of the actors are professionals, many are non-professionals from the village, whose ‘characters’ share their actual names. Scutelnicu describes the screenplay as “an open form… developed while shooting and reacting to the real life happening in front and behind the camera. The editing was also long and special, as the film had to be recreated and found new out of the material.” This certainly suggests a degree of genuineness to the culture and practices depicted, rather than an attempt to exaggerate a bygone pastoral simplicity for romantic effect.

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Indeed, the impassivity of the film’s gaze has been praised for neither romtanticising nor debasing Anishoara or her village. Moldova has the lowest GDP of any country in Europe, and is the only European country ranked below ‘high human development’ in the Human Development Index, and it shows. Anishoara and her family are poor. But they are not abject. The shops have little in them, but the village and surrounding countryside is beautiful. Anishoara seems to take pleasure in many aspects of her life and culture.

On the other hand, Scutelnicu does not shy away from hinting at some grimmer undercurrents to the girl’s life, particularly at the hands of men. Her grandfather threatens to “thrash her little bum”, and his drinking buddies joke about forcing themselves on her while she listens, rigidly upright in her bed in the next room. German visitor Mr. Schmidt leeringly places a wedding veil on her head, and even boyfriend Dragos (Dragos Scutelnicu) turns out to have a wife and kids back home in the next village. But despite the lingering threat of assault, it never occurs. As Variety‘s Jessica Kiang writes,

“more often than not the dramatic thing does not happen, merely the truthful one. And the truth here is that these lives are neither ennobled nor impoverished by the lack of werewithal; they simply are, as they have always been.”

This lack of drama could easily have made for a dull film, particularly as the film’s removed and observational quality means very little is actually revealed about Anishoara’s thoughts and emotions. There is minimal dialogue, and such as there is is desultory, as meaningful as silence. And yet Scutelnicu nevertheless achieves a charged atmosphere. Glances, environments, and even non-events come to take on a deeper significance: Dragos takes her on a trip to the ocean for the first time (Moldova is landlocked), but the chilly desolation of the wintry beach and the boredom of simply hanging out undercuts the romance. A visit to a cliff-side with ancient carvings while clouds speed in the blue sky overhead is an echo of the dreamy, mystical peril of Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock. And even if none of the men’s threats actually eventuate in assault, the matter-of-factness of their existence would itself be enough to understand Anishoara’s decision, at the end of the film, to get into a yellow bus and drive it off into the sunrise.

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The film reminds me of a style I associate with Sofia Coppola – luminous, visually rich but with a firm emotional separation between viewer and characters. In Anishoara as in The Virgin Suicides or Marie Antionette there is a similar impression of surface beauty and implied threat, where the viewer can neither touch nor intervene; there are hints of an interior life that can be guessed at but never fully known. (Are there films like this about men? Or is it always women, young women, who are beautiful, ephemeral, vulnerable with their penetrable bodies but sphinx-like with their impenetrable minds? A stray thought, I digress…)

Scutelnicu has created a beautiful, subtle film in which her gaze is a presence almost as tangible as those it observes. She shares with the viewer a young girl’s confrontation with her surroundings, without drama or explanation, offering witness to a way of life and a youthful innocence that is on the brink of being lost. The film was a great way to learn about Moldova – “a regional film without kitsch” (as Scutelnicu’s previous film was described), with detailed and dignified depictions of folk customs, agricultural practices, and what young people do (or don’t do) for fun. It was a particular privilege to see, in such detail, the beautiful Moldovan landscape throughout all four seasons – the clusters of run down houses in rocky valleys, the buttery sun on rolling fields in the steppes, the thick layers of snow in the winter.

But I can’t help wishing that the viewer was allowed more access to Anishoara’s inner life. What does she dream of? What makes her happy? Who is she really? Who are any of the villagers, when you scratch the surface? In this sense I don’t feel like I really got to know Moldova – I know what it looks like now, but not what makes its people tick.

Georgia: Line of Credit

(2014; dir/writer: Salomé Alexi; language: Georgian; original title: Kreditis Limiti)

Line of Credit is a case study of economics and class in struggling post-independence Georgia. The film follows forty-something Nino: a child of the Soviet-era bourgeoisie, she is now drowning in escalating spirals of debt as she attempts to maintain her failing business and former lifestyle in the Georgian capital city, Tbilisi. The choice of this film was partly based on availability (I saw it at my local film festival), but I was also intrigued by the subject matter, and by its status as the feature debut from a third generation of Georgian women film-makers. I’d love to check out her mother Lana Gogoberidze and grandmother Noutsa Gogoberidze’s work too.

Georgian cinema has a long and illustrious history, famously praised by Fellini in the following terms: “Georgian film is a strange phenomenon. It is special, philosophically bright, sophisticated and at the same time childishly pure and innocent. There is everything in it that can make me cry and I have to say that it is not easy to make me cry.” I don’t know if Fellini would consider Line of Credit consistent with the tradition he describes, and I don’t know if I would either – certainly it didn’t make me cry. However, a ‘strange phenomenon’ it is, with its subtle yet arresting interplay of contradictions: it is film both shallow and moving, drama and farce, timeless and bitingly contemporary.

The tone of the film is one such contradiction. Given its serious subject matter – the film could have been a long grind of a drama about debt-traps and despair. But what makes Line of Credit so unique, is it’s lens of wry humour where the viewer is treated to a comedy of manners so bitter that the laughs stick in the throat. This tone is expertly fueled by the look and feel of the film. Emotional connection with the characters is undermined by an absence of close ups; instead the cinematography favours overtly staged and too-perfectly framed medium and wide shots that produce a subtle denaturalising and distancing effect. This emotional shallowness is complemented by a bright colour palette and chirpy soundtrack, evoking at times a sense of comedic joie de vivre.

As a comedy of manners, the film is about a system rather than an individual woman’s plight. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, like many other post-Soviet states Georgia fell into a severe economic depression with the transition to a capitalist market economy. Civil war and military conflicts in South Ossetia and Abkhazia further aggravated the crisis, with many faring even worse than Nino and her family. The film’s post-script states that 14% of the Georgian population lost their homes between 2009 and 2013, as a consequence of high-interest loans. This is all relevant stuff, and the film shows us how the effects of these crises play out, but its real focus is on the behaviour that the transition to a capitalist economy encourages.

Nino’s life embodies the economic system – every social interaction takes the form of a financial exchange. She pumps her more financially stable friends for loans, manipulates the elderly blind co-owner of her house into gifting his ownership rights to her, and attempts to conceal from her mother the fact that she is selling and pawning most of their possessions (unsuccessfully on the latter count; as Nino furtively takes glasses out of a cabinet, her mother calls from the next room, “those glasses have no value, try the tea set!”). When her grandmother winds up in a coma, Nino seems more distressed about the 500 lari per day it costs to keep her on life support, and the unwillingness of the medical staff to take granny off it. While Nino isn’t all take, and repeatedly gives away some of her hard-loaned money to struggling friends and acquaintances, these feel more like largess doled out to reinforce the bourgeois status to which Nino clings, rather than a desire to help out of genuine emotional closeness. Giving financial support is one of the luxuries she can no longer afford, and yet she continues to do so, in turn landing many of her more financially stable friends in dire consequences as she bleeds them for credit.

The film occasionally strays over into moments of pure farce, such as the milking of a confused but easy-going French tourist for all he’s worth, or a stiffly hilarious scene where a skeptical but desperate Nino brings in a priest to bless the house. But the real farce is Nino’s naiveté, her willingness to accept obscene levels of interest, her self-delusion in her ability to pay off her loans, and her continued spending on the trappings of the life she is accustomed to as opposed to the one she is currently living. All this makes it harder to feel sorry for her, especially given the hints that the wealth she inherited hadn’t come to the family honestly. But the film doesn’t lay the blame on Nino, as the film isn’t really even about her, instead her predicament is used to show how capitalism makes assholes of us all. Nino’s employee comes to her aid with money she’d stolen from Nino in the first place, and Nino is obliged to drink champagne to ‘celebrate’ mortgaging her house. As Nino’s life falls apart (like Georgia’s newly capitalist economy), loan sharks, pawn shops, and greedy bankers rake in the profits.

Like fashion-plate Nino, struggling to sustain the trappings of former grandeur, the film presents Tbilsi itself as a city once replete with stately European splendour now descending into a particularly ugly morass of shabby pawn stalls and grotty loan-brokers; each a grasping symbol of a rat race with more losers than winners. It feels beneath not only Nino, but the rest of the country. Especially because it’s not only the former bourgeoisie who are in trouble – a carer working for Nino’s neighbour complains about her long commute to the job in Tbilisi and back to her farm, and the further full day’s work of caring from home, children and animals that awaits her there.

On a final note, I found it interesting that the economic actors of the film were almost entirely women. From the carer, loan-brokers, Nino’s employee, to Nino herself, women were the ones making and pursuing money. Men, on the other hand, tended to be portrayed as black holes – hardly present in the film and contributing little, and even getting in the way sometimes (such as when Nino’s plan to sell a valuable painting is ruined when her son admits its a fake – he’d already sold the original and frittered away the proceeds). Whether or not it is representative of Georgian society, it was certainly refreshing to see women taking an unquestioned and dominant role in various economic activities, and that they can be just as susceptible to human foibles and assholery when they do so.

The picture the film gave me of Georgia was one of a country in transition, and not necessarily towards a brighter future. The past reeks of corruption and entrenched class stratification, while the present is driven by an every-woman/man-for-themselves attitude where only (a select few of) the selfish succeed. Tbilisi looked like a city once beautiful, but now kind of run-down and depressing. I suspect much of Line of Credit is a familiar story for other post-Soviet countries in Eastern Europe, but perhaps – if Fellini is to be believed – it takes a Georgian film-maker to tell it like this.

Czech Republic: Closely Observed Trains

(1966; dir: Jiří Menzel; language: Czech, German; original title: Ostře sledované vlaky – also released in English as Closely Watched Trains)

Closely Observed Trains is based on Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal’s novel of the same name, and follows the awakening of Miloš (Václav Neckář), a young man who starts work at a provincial railway station during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. Coming from a family famous for slackers, and more or less proud of it, Miloš starts training as a signalman at the village railway station – his dream job with regard to the minimal effort involved. There he meets the station-master (Vladimír Valenta), a married (and sexually frustrated) pigeon-enthusiast who dreams of promotion, and the womanizing train dispatcher Hubička (Josef Somr). He also has ample chance to exchange longing glances and near kisses with the attractively pant-suited young conductor Máša (Jitka Bendová). While Miloš deals with raging hormones and sexual performance anxiety, the Nazi occupation causes trouble behind the scenes, until a sexy German resistance agent awakens Miloš in more ways than one. As usual, spoilers follow.

I chose Closely Observed Trains as it is probably the most internationally well-known and loved Czech film ever, winning an Oscar for Best Foreign Language film. Produced in then Czechoslovakia, the film is considered a classic of the Czech New Wave.

On one level the film is simply an amusing coming-of-age comedy with over-the-top male characters and a parade of objectified women (although I did approve of all the women in gorgeous 1940s trousers). But the real substance of the film is the juxtaposition of the parochial and often ridiculous personal obsessions of the main characters with the background Nazi occupation and its associated horrors. The film cleverly draws parallels between the two, often visually, to remind the viewer that there are more devastating forces at work in its protagonist’s lives than premature ejaculation and professional or sexual frustration.

Commentary seems to suggest that this aspect of the film is very Czech; that the very disregard in which the central characters hold the Nazi occupation works as a form of subversion. The subversive strength of this non-response can be seen in a scene where the officious Quisling inspector is effectively deflated by the central characters’ total lack of interest in his enthusiasm for the Nazis. In Richard Schickel’s essay for the Criterion collection, he relates Closely Observed Trains to the Czech national epic – Jaroslav Hašek’s satirical anti-war novel The Good Soldier Švejk:

We were frequently told that Svejk’s sly subversions of the warrior mentality represented the best that a small, geopolitically unfavored nation could offer in the way of resistance to its surrounding bullies, and we were glad to see that the work of a new generation of filmmakers—their attitudes formed during the Nazi Occupation of World War II, sharpened by the Stalinist dictatorship of the post-war period—confirmed the novel’s continuing relevance. The portrait of Czechoslovakia we pieced together from its films of the 1960s was of what we might now call a slacker nirvana, a place where private problems always took precedence over public issues, where ideological pomp was ever subverted by the imp of the perverse.

And yet, this subtle resistance doesn’t seem to be enough; a scene in the middle of the film where Miloš is held at gunpoint by Nazis inserts a note of seriousness – forcing both Miloš and the viewer to remember the proximity and fatal consequences of the Nazi war machine. This, of course, foreshadows Miloš’s sudden and violent end – a consequence of taking action beyond subtle subversion?

What I thought the film did particularly well was the use of visual allusions to send up that which Nazism, and the Soviet occupation under which the film was produced, held dear – namely, authoritarianism and control through bureaucracy. Recurrent visual gags – including the famous scene where Hubička uses the station’s rubber stamps to seduce a nubile telegraphist, and the subsequent farce of a trial which distracts the inspector at a crucial moment – render ridiculous the Nazi propaganda and machinery that surrounds the characters, thus lessening some of its power. This is what Schickel refers to above as “ideological pomp… subverted by the imp of the perverse.” It is worth noting, too that the director paid for this satire – suffering blacklisting and censorship under the Soviet occupation soon after the release of the film.

While the visual dimensions of the film were witty and well-executed, particularly in their satire of bureaucracy and authority, I was less impressed by the narrative and the thematic connection it made between male sexual virility and political action. Miloš is allegedly impotent sexually, and definitely impotent politically, until resistance agent Viktoria Freie (Naďa Urbánková) turns up for one scene to deliver a bomb and, apparently inevitably, a fuck. Although we are informed that she is a resistance agent, and also – for added titillation – a circus performer, Viktoria is more of a cardboard cutout than any Bond-girl, serving only as a sexual tool to help the protagonist “man up”. Even Miloš’s would-be girlfriend, the “nice-girl” Máša, could as easily be a figment of Miloš’s torrid imagination as we never see her doing anything not related to wooing (and at the end, mourning) Miloš. This film was definitely a man’s story all the way, with the female characters neatly divided into willing sex objects or humorously past-it mother types.

Another aspect of the film that I reacted to is the film’s treatment of animal cruelty. References to and depictions of animal cruelty turned up at a few points throughout the film – and unsettlingly I’m not sure if the onscreen stuff is simulated or real (films should really carry content warnings for this kind of thing). Apparently the original novel is damning in its critique of animal abuse, but if this is the case it doesn’t translate to the film, or at least not in any way that made sense to me. The film’s characters speak with disgust about the German animal transports and the terrible abuses carried out on livestock; is this a reference to the Nazi transportation of Jews, Slavs, Romani and other victims of the Holocaust? Perhaps. But what does it mean then when we see in lingering close-up the station-master and his wife caring for the animals they raise, but also striking rabbits to death? Something about the ease with which the authorities can kill seemingly indiscriminately? Or, in a scene where Miloš is clumsily propositioning the station-master’s wife, should her stroking of a goose’s neck to force-feed it be read as sexual or violent, or both? The pieces didn’t quite add up for me, and I found them more jarring than meaningful.

In sum, Closely Watched Trains was a fun and visually clever send-up of authoritarianism with a distinctly Czech flavour and a sting in the tail. However, I personally found it rather distastefully sexist and a bit thematically muddled, particularly with regard to its treatment of animal abuse.

Shoutout: for those who enjoy surrealism I cannot recommend enough the work of Czech film-maker Jan Švankmajer. His films are not only visually innovative and fascinating, but they usually have something to say as well. With a body of work including short and full-length films going back to the 60s, he is well worth a look at.

Austria: The Seventh Continent

(1989; dir: Michael Haneke; language: German; original title: Der siebente Kontinent)

The Seventh Continent is Austrian director Michael Haneke’s first feature film, and portrays in extreme detail a bourgeois Austrian family going about their stilted routine lives in 1980s Vienna. That’s about as much as it is possible for me to say about the film without discussing the ending, so if you don’t want to know what happens at the end then stop reading now.

In my research for Austrian films, I turned up the more recent success Revanche and the wonderfully titled Blood Glacier. Perhaps unfairly, the premise of the former didn’t exactly grab me, and while the latter was actually quite tempting I wasn’t sure if it would be the best choice for my purpose of also trying to learn a little about the country in question (though who knows?). I shied away from Oscar-winner The Counterfeiters for similar reasons, as it is set in Germany. So in the end I went with a Michael Haneke film, which seemed kind of inevitable. Haneke is probably easily Austria’s most famous film-maker, a staple at Cannes and renowned for making films that violently criticise bourgeois audiences, who in turn pour accolades upon the films. I saw Haneke’s interpretation of Austrian Nobel Laureate Elfriede Jelinek’s novel The Piano Teacher many many years ago, and remembered being entranced by the film, as well as being uniquely physically and emotionally affected. Seeing as many of Haneke’s films, including The Piano Teacher, are produced and/or set in France, I decided to choose one of his earlier Austrian ones.

I have to admit that for most of the film, I adored it. I loved the shots, the slow jerky rhythms, the spare sound. I loved the focus on the banal routines of everyday life on a level of detail and scrutiny that renders them obscene: the sounds of chewing that made me want to grit my own teeth; how ridiculous an average-looking naked man looks when he is washing himself in the shower; the pointless and aggravating amount of labour (domestic and otherwise) that goes into achieving what counts as a normal nice upper-middle class European life. I especially loved the tight focus on the hands interacting with objects – the story this film is telling is not a human one, conveyed through eyes that are windows to souls. It is a surgical examination of people’s lives as constituted by things. For me, this is where the film was most effective – showing up how empty of inherent necessity or meaning are the many many things I do, buy, worry about, and devote time and energy to without a second thought. Especially, it must be said, since I moved to Europe – where group pressure is more intense and the standards for ‘niceness’/behaving ‘properly’ are much higher. In general I think I’m just a fan of art about the everyday, that dares to devote time and space to the banal, that dares to be boring and yet also isn’t. Much as I love escapism, I also believe in the need to philosophically and artistically consider the mechanics and implications of everyday life, even and perhaps especially the banal aspects. Works such as The Seventh Continent, or Chris Ware’s amazing collection of comics Building Stories, succeed in not only representing the banal aspects of everyday life, but also examining how these routine actions actually shape people’s lives.

With The Seventh Continent, the effects of their lived routines can be seen in the dynamic between the Schober family members – Georg (Dieter Berner), Anna (Birgit Doll), and their child Eva (Leni Tanzer). They are a family that seems to be doing everything ‘right’, and yet they are all showing small signs of unhappiness. They are a family not without tenderness, and communicate, if infrequently, enough not to qualify for a referral to family counselling. All their communication, all their interactions, seemed honest and yet also scripted by internalised social norms – like going through the motions, but also believing that that’s what family is. In a recurring sequence throughout the film, various constellations of family members sit in silence in the carwash together for several minutes, while the machinery of modern society pummels their shell from without, and yet inside the proffered tenderness doesn’t provide the solace they require. But none of this spells anything out of the ordinary. The viewer is not permitted to find a human ‘explanation’ for the family’s fate. Indeed, the film relentlessly refuses to humanise or develop its characters, focussing more on their physical relationships with things than any emotional ones.

All this, of course, builds up a sense of foreboding on the part of the viewer. I saw Haneke’s films described somewhere as ‘anti-thrillers’ and that’s probably a good term for this one. On one level it’s mundane, on another mesmerizing – I certainly found it so even though I knew what was going to happen. Some have complained about the sheer length of the sequence that makes up much of the film’s climax, where the family methodically and thoroughly destroy, without passion, every single one of their belongings – clothes, photos, furniture, money, even the child Eva gets involved by calmly tearing up her drawings – before taking their own lives. But I have to agree with this reviewer (from a really great piece about this and others of Haneke’s films):

[the length of the sequence] is important: throughout the film the family is defined primarily by their relationships with objects rather than with one another, and when they engage in their ritual of self-destruction, they’re still interacting with objects, acting with the same mechanical precision and abstraction with which they’d lived their ordinary lives. The way Haneke films this, with the closeups of hands and the repetition, enforces the idea that the family is in the process of dying exactly as they’d lived. If the sequence weren’t so long and repetitious, if it were punchier and less deliberate, there would be a risk that it could be taken as a catharsis, and Haneke clearly doesn’t intend it as one: this isn’t rebellion, really, it’s giving up, succumbing to the numbing societal structure that had been beating this family down throughout the entirety of the film.

Essentially I thought the film was brilliant, until the actor playing Georg smashed the Schobers’ large fishtank and the camera lingers on the real actual fish flopping around on the floor in distress and gasping for oxygen and the child comes in and starts screaming and crying inconsolably. This upset me in multiple ways and ruined the film for me. Firstly, and most seriously, animal cruelty is never defensible. Doing it for a film, for multiple takes, leading to the death of some of the animal actors (an industry term, not mine, but one which I use as a reminder that animals are not objects and set-dressing but living beings), is outright reprehensible. This was cause enough to ruin the film for me, and to make me unlikely to watch another Haneke film (many of which, I have now found out, contain more extreme animal cruelty and slaughter). But the sequence with the fishtank also ruined the film for me artistically. Like Ed Howard in the review quoted from above, I was totally distracted from the film out of horror and concern for the suffering for the fish, and instead began to see the whole thing much more as a production – with a set, actors, cameras, and no real consequences for any of the living beings portrayed on the screen other than the fish who died in distress. And no, I don’t care if upsetting me and shocking me was “what Haneke was trying to do”. If that is the case then it seems to be more of a strategy of shocking for the sake of shocking – or as Jason Bellamy puts it in the review cited above: “less provoking the audience as a means to an end than … provoking the audience as an end unto itself,” something backed up by a quote here from Haneke about his film Funny Games (source of original quote not given, though):  “Of course, all the rules that usually make the viewer go home happy and contented are broken in my film. There’s this unspoken rule that you can’t harm animals. What do I do? I kill the dog first thing.” I find Haneke’s decision to cause and incorporate real animal cruelty in his films not only indefensible but also… just… cheap.

I don’t know, I could say more about the end, about how it was good/interesting how messy and gross and human the deaths of the family members seemed in contrast to their robotic and ordered lives. I could discuss how having Georg left till last to die and seeming the most calm about it actually made the whole thing feel more like a murder suicide and more distressing from a perspective of gendered power relations and the power relations between adults and children (not to mention humans and animals), but really I was just too disappointed and annoyed by the fishtank thing to even really engage with the rest of the film or develop these thought tangents further.

What did I learn about Austria? Apart from that they have problems with consumerism and destructive social norms in a way that is shared by most of Europe, and probably bourgeoisie all over the world, I think the case could be made that this film has something distinctly Austrian. Even though forty years separate the end of the second world war and the events of The Seventh Continent, it’s not a tremendously long time for a society to recuperate from the social diseases of Fascism and Nazism (indeed, the recent EU election results reveal a strong fascist presence in Austria even today), and struggling with repressed collective guilt seems like an effective recipe for an escape into materialism as well as strong social norms requiring everything to be ‘nice’. I’ve just started reading Elfriede Jelinek’s novel Wonderful, Wonderful Times, set in 1950s Vienna, and there are definitely strong elements of this in what I’ve read of the book so far. Whether or not this was something Haneke was going for or not, I can’t say, but that’s a bit of what I read into it anyway.

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.