Malawi: B’ella

(2014; writer/director: Tawonga Taddja Nkhonjera; language: English)

Malawi is ranked among the world’s least developed countries, and nurturing a local film industry doesn’t seem to have been a priority. Apart from Charles Shemu Joyah’s The Last Fishing Boat and Seasons of a Life, there aren’t a whole lot of Malawian feature films out there. I’d like to check out Joyah’s films too, but when I saw B’ella listed in the local film festival line-up, I leapt at the chance – especially as director Nkhonjera was holding a Q&A afterward. Nkhonjera spoke positively about a growing interest in film-making in Malawi (although funding is still an issue), so hopefully more films will come!

Perhaps because Malawian feature films are such a rarity, B’ella is a film that tries to do everything. The blurb on the film’s website states that the film “covers issues such first love, friendships, school bullying, peer pressure, self-confidence, the importance of education, gradual loss of traditional values, teacher-student relationship, stigma connected to HIV and more,” and they’re not exaggerating. B’ella (Vinjeru Kamanga) is a 17-year old Malawian girl with a lot on her plate. Her best friend is sick with AIDS after selling sex to provide for her family, the school bitch Kalilole (Chimwemwe Mkwezalamba) is flirting with the guy she likes, her parents have high expectations of her as their eldest daughter, her maths teacher (Tony Khoza) keeps telling her she needs extra lessons, and she’s also just trying to find her place in the world as the adult she is on the brink of becoming. But B’ella’s strength and leadership are really allowed to shine when said maths teacher gropes her and proposes marriage, and B’ella leads the charge to make sure this kind of exploitation will no longer be tolerated. Throw in the build-up to an epic high school music concert (that never eventuates), the forging of a friendship with a chastised Kalilole, death in the family, and even a rumination on the acceptability of the word mzungu, and you’ve got… well, you’ve got the film B’ella.

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It’s definitely a roller coaster of a film. The film’s NGO-sponsors claim they wanted to show “that a Malawian girl is just like any other girl in the universe, growing up and looking for her identity in the jungle of every day life”. While B’ella’s jungle might be more intense than that of the average teen, maneuvering through the emotional turbulence of adolescence is something most can probably identify with. From this perspective, even the film’s abrupt tonal shifts make more sense – who else but a teen can go from mourning the death of a loved one to taking a carefree leap off a waterfall with their new best friend/former enemy? But I do feel like the film might have been more powerful had it not attempted to cram in so many issues, allowing the impact of presumably life-changing events to be explored in greater depth. As it is the film often strayed over into preachiness, with its catalogue of teen issues and the just slightly too perfect B’ella clearly set up as a role model: the perfect friend, the perfect daughter, the perfect love interest, the perfect mediator, the perfect sister and the perfect advocate. (This perhaps, is a consequence of the film being sponsored by an NGO – boNGO Worldwide – who list it under their ‘Youth and Adult Education / Awareness Raising Films’ section). In fact it is a major credit to Kamanga’s performance that the superwoman B’ella is anything other than insufferable. Instead, Kamanga gives B’ella an aura of groundedness and genuine warmth.

Screenshot 2015-08-29 22.27.09If B’ella was too much of a saint, her foil Kalilole was too much the stereotypical Alpha Bitch. Sure, the character shows how class differences can manifest even in the poorest places, but her story did nothing to vary the well-worn narrative of redemption through the humble protagonist’s innate goodness. (And why oh why are women’s emotional transformations so often signified by a change in hairstyle? In this case, a reformed Kalilole removes her weave and adopts a shorter style with her natural hair, like B’ella). And of course she and B’ella like the same guy, who is in the end put off by Kalilole’s shallowness and drawn to the obviously perfect B’ella. However, even if the Mean Girls aspects of the film were a bit uninspired, B’ella’s crammed running time offered plenty more in the drama department.

As an educational film clearly intending to offer young Malawians a female role model, it is perhaps unsurprising that it includes such a broad assortment of calamities. Malawi is burdened by a low average life expectancy, HIV/AIDS, and child-headed households, and has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world (contributing in turn to the country’s devastatingly high maternal mortality rate). If the film offers young people tools to cope with the issues, or perhaps even combat them, then it would assuredly be a force for good. As an international viewer, I was less captivated by the helter skelter ride through Malawi’s development issues than I was by the small moments where the film was allowed to breathe and dwell on more banal interactions between its cast. The director mentioned at the Q&A, for example, that (no) hugging between friends is a taboo that the film challenges. Is this reflective of a change in Malawian culture around expressing intimacy? I also appreciated the moments when the action strayed over to a group of boys from B’ella’s neighbourhood, who frankly and sympathetically helped each other explore norms of masculinity and sexual (dis)interest – definitely not something one normally finds in your average American teen flick. I liked the space made for boys too to question the roles provided for them, in a film that was otherwise so determinedly focussed on inciting girl power that it risked becoming a slogan (in the style of a certain shoe company that shall remain nameless).

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Although eventful, and helped along by a confident and vibrant score by local artist Muhanya, the film is somewhat let down by its production values and a lack of polish. It is predominantly the performances of Kamanga and Mkwezalamba that carry the film, providing it with a luster and professionalism that is rather lacking from some of the supporting cast, many of whom were sourced from a local high school. Khoza – a radio personality – also does an excellent job of his film debut in the role of the maths teacher, endowing him with the perfect mixture of banal self-righteousness and sleaze. But complaining about poor production values hardly feels appropriate for the product of a vastly under-resourced film industry, and I imagine that director Nkhonjera has every right to proud of what he managed to achieve with the presumably low budget he had to work with.

In fact, hearing him talk at the Q&A made all too clear the challenges involved in the production process, and gave answer to some of the niggles I’d had watching the film. For instance, the school concert finale that never eventuated turned out to have been beset by filming difficulties. I was also confused by the European woman who wandered through the film at several points, contributing nothing but a distracting white presence, as though to remind the viewer that no African story is complete without a white filter – be it a coloniser or an aid worker. Finding out that she is the director of the NGO sponsoring the film made her on-screen involvement more understandable, if not narratively excusable. Overall, I got the impression that Nkhonjera was working with what he had, which wasn’t a lot, and was trying to make a film for a range of audiences and purposes. That the film even made sense is an achievement, and the fact that it is engaging, warm and at times genuinely stirring is a testament to the skill and energy of its director and leads.

Indeed, I think that the film’s unevenness can be ascribed more to the clash of purposes than any lack of talent or production values. It is at once a creative endeavour to show Malawi to Malawians, an educational film designed to fit an NGO’s purposes, and also a film directed at international audiences. With that brief, it could hardly be anything but choppy. Especially as the picture of Malawi intended for international audiences was somewhat at odds with the film’s educational focus on Malawi’s hardships. The film’s sponsors state “we want to break the cliché of showing Malawi, and other African countries, as poverty-stricken places, but show the reality – Malawi being a beautiful place in which people have difficulties and joys just like anywhere else in the world.” It is difficult to both break the stereotype of the impoverished sub-Saharan African nation and delve into the country’s poverty-related issues, but B’ella certainly gives it its best shot. And the enthusiastic showing off of the upsides of Malawian life is definitely another of the film’s successes. Shot (and set) in semi-rural Chazunda, a community on the outskirts of Malawi’s commercial city Blantyre, the film glories in Malawi’s dusty reddish earth, cloud-muted rolling hills, green forests and rocky waterfalls. Viewers are treated to colourful markets, and both traditional and modern performing arts. I’m not sure if all this balances out the dramatic deaths and sexual abuse that much of the film focusses on, but it certainly reveals a side of sub-Saharan Africa that rarely makes it onto Western screens; people going about their lives with purpose, vigour, enjoyment, ambition, and all the rest of the activities and emotions that can be said to characterise humans

In the end, the sense of Malawi that B’ella left me with was of people doing their thing, enjoying the good parts and doing their best with the bad parts. And while the film was uneven in pretty much every way a film can be uneven, I’m going to apply that philosophy to my viewing of the film: enjoy the good parts, and make the best of the rest. With the enthusiasm and emerging talent highlighted in B’ella, I certainly hope the Malawian film industry continues to bloom.

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Lebanon: Caramel

(2007; director: Nadine Labaki; writers: Nadine Labaki, Rodney El Haddad, Jihad Hojeily; languages: Arabic, French; original title: Sukkar banat سكر بنات; co-production with France).

According to my cursory research, Lebanon boasts one of the strongest cinematic traditions in the Arabic-speaking world (second only to Egypt), with both film-making and cinema attendance being popular pursuits from the early 20th century onwards (Wikipedia has a good overview). As such there are a wealth of films to choose from, from Lebanon’s post-independence golden age (their first contribution to Cannes was Ila Ayn? in 1958) to contemporary films from international prize-winning (female) directors such as Randa Chahal Sabag, Danielle Arbid, and Nadine Labaki. From this abundance of riches it was difficult to choose one for the blog. I was tending towards Bosta (2005), a road movie depicting the clash between tradition and modernity through the fusion of techno with traditional Levantine dance (dabkeh). It was a runaway success in Lebanon and one of few films made after the Lebanese Civil War without international funding. However, in the end I let accessibility make the decision for me, and went with the film that kept catching my eye at the local library. And so…

Caramel is a salty-sweet romantic comedy of the type that sets female friendship front and centre. Despite running an apparently successful beauty salon, 30-year-old Layale (Labaki) still lives with her parents, shares a bedroom with her brother, and sneaks into the bathroom to make clandestine calls to her married lover. Nisrine (Yasmine Al Masri), one of Layale’s employees, is finding it difficult to play the perfect Muslim woman her boyfriend’s family expects, and when marriage looms she realises her non-virginity is also an issue. The salon’s other employee, quiet tomboy Rima (Joanna Moukarzel), seems a little adrift until an extremely attractive client appears on the scene. Frequent client Jamale (Gisèle Aouad) and neighbouring tailor Rosie (Sihame Haddad) give insights into the lives of middle-aged and older women, where age and responsibility clash with romantic notions of beauty, fame and romance.Screenshot 2015-07-23 21.15.30

Caramel is actress Nadine Labaki’s directorial debut, and she leads a cast of largely unprofessional actors who give performances of genuine warmth and verve. It’s attractively filmed, with a deft comedic touch (one of my favourite scenes was the genre-required wedding finale, where upon looking up to catch the tossed bouquet, Layale also catches some fresh bird guano). In many ways the film is a typical romantic comedy, and would easily hold its own with many of the better Hollywood offerings of the sort. The film bubbles with meet-cutes, sexual tension, and a mustachioed policeman’s humorously unrequited desire.

But the heterosexual relationships feel like window-dressing for the film’s main focus – exploring inter-female relations in all their joys and sorrows. It is this that the film’s title connotes. Ostensibly referring to the caramel the salon uses uses for hair-removal (and snacking), caramel is also a metaphor for the film’s core relationships: sweet, indulgent, feminine, and very painful when it rips all your hair out – even though that’s what you asked for. And in contrast to many romantic comedies which set up catty competition between women, most of Caramel‘s inter-female relationships are moving ones of support and solidarity, despite disparities in age or religion, and even at the cost of romantic happiness.

Screenshot 2015-07-23 21.26.49For Labaki, the salon setting is important in facilitating these relationships. She describes it as a place where women can be women together, where women open up and reveal themselves in all their flaws and vulnerability, in the hopes of improvement. This is inevitably true, and yet it seems to me that even (or perhaps especially) within this female sanctum men’s presence is still felt. Women can be women together in their quest to be a certain kind of woman, the woman men want, and women reveal their flaws only to have them fixed or disguised. Many arguments have been made for the inherent radicality of female bonding, and in many ways I agree with them, but this film brought home to me the feminist shades of grey – that female bonding doesn’t necessarily challenge patriarchy. Instead it might just help women to survive patriarchy (which is still better than not surviving it) or at times even shore it up.

So while woman-to-woman support and friendship might rule the day in Caramel, these instances of support are often related to situations dictated by men (or oppressive gender norms). These range from the comparatively innocuous – Rosie finally accepts a makeover from the salon team when she meets a man, and now has a reason to invest in her appearance – to the more extreme: worried that her wedding night will somehow reveal her previous sexual experience, Nisrine brings her friends with her when she visits a clinic to have her ‘hymen’ ‘restored’ (illustrated by the visual metaphor of Rosie sewing). This is obviously something Nisrine needed support with, but also something nobody should feel they have to do (especially as I’m not even sure what a surgeon would actually do as my understanding was that ‘hymens’ don’t actually exist, or at least not in the sense of something that ‘breaks’ and can be ‘restored’).

For me, it is precisely this interplay between inter-female solidarity, romantic comedy tropes, and persistent patriarchal interference that makes the film interesting. Not only is it a gentle antidote to more saccharine treatments of girl power and heterosexual fulfillment (a touch of salt in the caramel, if you will), it also felt evocative of the many facets I associate with Lebanon, and particularly Beirut. The Beirut we meet in Caramel is still in some ways ‘the Paris of the Middle East’ – stylish, bohemian, indulgent, and cosmopolitan. Women are economically and socially independent, men wear hats and tailored suits, and everyone seems to speak a mixture of Arabic, French and English. Veins of sensuality and sexual promise abound, Rima’s homosexuality (while not discussed) appears to be tacitly supported by her friends, and inter-religious friendships cause no friction. And yet…

… and yet a soldier (or heavily armed policeman?) wonders what Nisrine and her boyfriend are doing in a parked car together, forcing them to get engaged. And Layale cannot get a hotel room for her and her lover without evidence of marriage. The clash between desire and authority, between expectation and surprisingly rigid reality, spoke volumes about life as a woman in contemporary Beirut – and more than a simple portrait of oppression or liberation would. In Labaki’s words:

“It started with something I used to feel and am feeling sometimes, this contradiction between [the fact that] I live in a country that is very modern and exposed to Western culture, and at the same time I’m confused between this culture and the weight of tradition, religion, education and there’s always a lot of self-censorship, self-control. I’m a little bit lost between these two things, and I don’t know who I am exactly. I looked around me and felt that all women around me were feeling the same thing.” And: “You are confused: Are you this free woman who’s doing what she wants, or are you a more conservative woman? You are searching for your identity.”

This confusion and search for identity plays out most obviously in Rima’s story, or rather that of her gorgeous client. Described by Labaki as “the perfect example of a perfect woman,” she is nevertheless happy to embrace Rima’s gentle (and sweetly sensual) nudges into a more daring lesbian identity haircut.

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Given the amount of armed conflict Lebanon has seen, war is conspicuous in its absence in Caramel. But I can understand the desire to paint a warmer and more dynamic picture of one’s country, especially at a time when war seemed to be a demon of the past. This is not necessarily just escapism – war can easily come to define a country, laying foundations for future violence or international disinterest. Labaki herself felt an initial conflict around the film’s ‘light’ tone and subject matter:

“[The 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War] started exactly a week after we finished shooting. It was very surprising. We thought the war was behind us, and we hadn’t imagined that one day we’d be at war again. It was very hard for us, because we had just made a film that talked about life, love, colorful women, while our country was at war. As a filmmaker, you feel like you have a mission, you want to do something for your country. We had a lot of doubts about what the film said, but now I know that it was my mission after all: This is my country, not the clichéd image that people have in their heads of a country at war. It has a message of hope.

As far as I’m concerned, Labaki has achieved her mission. Caramel was a fun, sweet film that provided a glimpse into the positive and the negative aspects of being a woman in Lebanon, and showed up the beautiful Beirut in all its cosmopolitan glory.

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.

Laos: Chanthaly

(2012; director: Mattie Do; writer: Chris Larsen; language: Lao; original title: ຈັນທະລີ)

Laos’s film industry is fairly young; under Communist rule since 1975, its film output was for a long time limited to government-issued propaganda. However, the last decade or so has seen the government open up to the potential of an independent film industry, and a clutch of feature films have emerged. The Ministry of Information and Culture still has to approve all scripts, which means that these films have tended to play it safe. This makes the film Chanthaly, from rising star Mattie Do, all the more interesting, as it bears the distinction not only of being the first Lao feature directed by a woman, but also the first Lao horror film – a genre far from government propaganda or tourist-tempting rom-coms. Chanthaly was thus an obvious choice for my Laos entry, as well as a chance to widen the generic horizons of the blog so far.

chnSickly Chanthaly (Amphaiphun Phimmapunya) lives in Vientiane with her conservative, overprotective father (Douangmany Soliphanh) and her greyhound Moo. She has grown up believing that her mother died giving birth to her, weakened by the same heart condition that Chan herself has inherited. Forbidden from leaving the house and walled-in yard, the lonely and bored Chanthaly spends her days making her father’s meals and operating a small-scale laundry business her father set up for her. Her life takes a disturbing turn when she starts to have visions of a ghostly woman, and discovers memories of events that her father says could never have occurred. How did her mother really die, and has her spirit actually departed? Is Chan’s mind playing tricks, or is her mother trying to get a message to her? And if she must choose between her health, her sanity, and her mother’s ghost, which is the right choice?

Although branded a horror film, I don’t think I’d really describe it as scary. Director Do points out that this is largely a cultural thing (in an interview with Little Laos on the Prairie):

Since we weren’t ever thinking about this film having much of a life outside of Laos, we tried–and I don’t know how successful we were at this–to really think about making a movie that would be scary for a Lao audience, understanding that a Lao audience has never seen a scary Lao movie. If that makes sense. And then we had to balance that with what we could actually do with our limited budget and resources, and with what a wary Department of Cinema would actually approve. So it’s not a blood and guts horror movie, and it’s not a monster movie.
    After I got my approval, I sat down and read the script again and I thought, ‘Wow, from a western horror standpoint, I don’t know if this is going to be scary.’ But then at the Luang Prabang Film Festival the audience was screaming and little kids were covering their eyes. So much of the film revolves around the ubiquitous spirit house and Lao superstition, and although the film gives a little bit of detail about that for an audience that might be unfamiliar with the ins and outs of Lao beliefs, there are a few things in the movie that are really terrifying to our Lao audience that might not even be unsettling for a foreign audience.

While some of the chills may very well have escaped me, the film was nevertheless a distinctly unsettling one. Instead of jump-in-your-seat scares or clutch-your-pillow terror, the film opts for a slow build-up of unease that is as much emotional as it is physical. This tension and uncertainty is underscored by an oppressive, claustrophobic atmosphere. Disjointed scenes flick from day to night, dream to reality, presence to absence, drawing the viewer into Chanthaly’s increasingly disturbed emotional and mental state. And while I often find that horror films lose some of their power as the story progresses and the hidden threat is revealed, Chanthaly is in many ways the opposite –  it’s when the true nature of the ghost is unveiled that everything starts to get sad and horrible.

chanthaly-2While not qualified to judge how distinctly Lao the film is, to me it felt like a different approach to ghosts than anything I’ve seen in Western, Japanese, or even neighbouring Thai horror films. As Do mentions in the quote above, the film’s ghost is rooted in the animist beliefs held by many Lao alongside the widespread Buddhist faith. According to these beliefs spirits (phi) co-exist with mortals, and can be placated with offerings in the ‘spirit houses’ found outside many Laos homes and buildings. Particularly important for this film are the phi phetu, malevolent spirits of those who die violently or in childbirth. From this perspective, there’s probably a lot to be scared of when Chan starts seeing the ghost of her mother, particularly after her father angrily knocks over their spirit house.

Not knowing anything about Laos beliefs before seeing the film, I found the destruction of the spirit house more emotional than dread-inducing; for Chan, it was a key spiritual link to her mother, and it felt like a violation of both women when Chan’s father knocked it down. And for me, it was the film’s poignant treatment of the supernatural that set it apart from other horror films I’ve seen. Supposedly, ghosts and the undead are frightening because they confront us with a deep-rooted fear of death. But any fear Chanthaly has of phi phetu or her own death is outweighed by longing for her mother. The discomfort comes as both viewer and protagonist try to figure out if these feelings are sensible.

And while a horror film protagonist trying to figure out if she’s crazy may not be a particularly new idea, Chanthaly gives the trope resonance by charging it with broader social tensions. Whether Chan is really seeing ghosts, or should simply submit to meds that don’t give her hallucinations, is a loaded question given that Laos’ Communist government has frowned upon the traditional belief systems and attempted to promote a rational atheism. But perhaps even more significant is the film’s treatment of gender roles and women’s struggle for self-determination. Chanthaly’s disobedience in pursuit of her mother’s ghost can be seen as a rejection of her father’s control over her life.

Do is steadfastly humble about the making of Chanthaly, but perhaps her greatest accomplishment is that she makes the most out of her limited resources. Shooting the entire film in her apartment only served to heighten the sense of claustrophobia, and although featuring mainly non-professional actors, the film was impeccably cast and well-acted. Waif-like pop-singer Phimmapunya makes almost tangible her character’s physical frailty and mental listlessness, without giving over to the grating docile passivity of many Cinderella figures. It’s a complex part, and Phimmapunya inhabits it. Soliphanh, too, is excellent as Chan’s father, managing to make the character sympathetic and even sweetly tragic, rather than simply an overbearing patriarch.

Even the bit parts are bursting with character; although only seen through Chanthaly’s eyes, I believed in them enough to imagine what their lives might look like beyond her limited view. And no discussion of the film’s acting would be complete without heaping praise on Do’s own Mango as Moo, one of the most expressive dog actors I’ve seen in a while. Even director Do acknowledges, in a drunken review of her own film (apparently it’s a thing over at Twitchfilm), that Moo is one of the film’s star turns. (For those like my sister Laura who need to know, in this horror film the dog doesn’t die).

Perhaps the one disappointment I had with the film in the context of this blog is that Chanthaly‘s insular focus meant that very little of Laos actually made it onto the screen – not even the cityscapes of Vientiane where the film is set. I do however feel like I learned a bit about urban Lao life in terms of chafing and pernicious gender roles, and a particular anxiety over the role of religion and superstition in a modernising, politically secular Communist country. I also learned that Lao ghosts are in a class of their own.

Shoutout: The Rocket (2013; dir: Kim Mordaunt).

For an international audience wanting a more general (but arguably less ‘authentic’) view of Laos, a film like Australian director Kim Mordaunt’s The Rocket is worth a watch. Made by foreigners and thus not subject to in-production censorship by the Laos government, The Rocket touches on governmental corruption and abuse, the legacy of the American invasion (in terms of live shells littering the landscape, and persecution of the Hmong), Laos’ poverty and exploitation by richer nations, a range of gorgeous jungle scenery, and some real footage of an impressive (and startlingly dangerous) rocket festival. But while it’s a good film and well worth a watch, it remains a film made by and ultimately for foreigners. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with that, but the contrast between it and Chanthaly has prompted me to reconsider the politics of the Western gaze and cinetourism, questions which I’m still chewing over.

Antarctica: The Great White Silence

(1924; dir: Herbert Ponting; language: English)

The Great White Silence was originally filmed (and later edited together) by photographer Herbert Ponting as a record of Robert Falcon Scott’s expedition to the South Pole. It’s an absolutely jaw-dropping film, and as soon as I saw it I knew it was one for the blog. Of course one could argue that the film is technically British, and that Antarctica isn’t a country, but the point of the project I set myself isn’t to be overly pedantic, but rather to gain insight into landscapes and ways of being beyond what I would normally be exposed to. From this perspective, it feels counter to the spirit of the project to exclude a film that is so totally an evocation of place and how its (temporary) human and (indigenous) animal inhabitants live simply because the large continent it depicts happens to be one of the few places on Earth that isn’t really a country. It also has in common with several of the films previously reviewed that it’s a damn good film and ought to be more widely viewed.

The Great White Silence

Scott’s tragic expedition looms large in the consciousness of New Zealanders, close as we are to that icy continent (indeed, it was from our shores that Scott’s icebreaker the Terra Nova set out). Thus, as an account of Scott’s expedition, The Great White Silence didn’t offer any narrative surprises. All the familiar elements were there: the spirit of adventure as Scott and his crew race to the South Pole, only to find themselves beaten by the Amundsen-led Norwegians; the self-sacrifice of Oates immortalised in a poignant and understated one-liner; and the devastating irony of Scott and his remaining companions’ eventual demise only a short trek from the supplies that would have saved them.

While the historical narrative itself is stirring stuff, the magic of the film is how much it adds to the familiar story. It’s both chilling and fascinating to see Scott and fellow expedition members in real time, their personalities, physicality, and interaction with their formiddable environment made real in a way that written accounts unavoidably fall short of. The viewer sees them preparing for their journey across the interior, handling their animals, playing football on the ice, and demonstrating their survival strategies. Somehow actually seeing those bundled-up people, in the middle of the endless icy expanse, makes it easier to understand the true extent of Antarctica’s inhospitality and the desperate, even idiotic nature of the endeavour.

It’s genuinely amazing that such a historical artefact as this film exists, and is accessible even today thanks to the British Film Institute’s careful preservation and excellent restoration. The moving images it contains would have been the first recorded in the Antarctic interior, and are astounding in terms of the practical difficulties involved in creating them but also in terms of their quality. I’ve seen March of the Pengiuns, and although made almost 100 years previously the Great White Silence is the better film. It is a testament to Ponting as a cinematographer, to both his artistic eye and his willingness to stand around forever in unimaginably cold temperatures in order to get the shots he wanted. Even if one weren’t interested in Scott or the history around him, the film would be well worth a watch simply for its haunting and achingly beautiful images – the drama of looming icebergs the size of cities, the unearthly patterns of young ice forming on the ocean, the volcanoes of Ross Island spewing ash, the hills of Aotearoa/New Zealand (the last green land Scott ever saw) fading into a misty dusk. These are highlighted by Ponting’s tints, preseved by the BFI, and aimed at evoking the experience of light and colour in that white expanse rather than precise verisimilitude.

The film is evidence of Ponting’s creative  and innovative approach to filming challenges. Never shy of turning the camera on himself, he is sensitive to viewer interest in the process of capturing the images. Just as I was marvell ing at the footage of the ship’s iron-clad hull carving through the pack ice and wondering ‘how did he film that?’, Ponting answers with a shot of himself tied to some kind of wooden spar sticking out from the side of the ship. Knowing that he would not be accompanying Scott’s smaller team to the Pole, Ponting also shot simulations of the Pole Team’s progress across the interior, which he was then able to put to poignant use once the tragic results of the expedition eventuated.

I liked too that the film wasn’t all pomp and tragic glory, even if those aspects are integral to the Scott narrative. Ponting’s humour shines through in the intercut title cards, as does his interest in animals. Not only do the expedition’s dogs and ponies feature as characters, but the habits of Weddell seals, orcas, skuas and Adélie penguins make up a significant portion of the film – an understandable decision given that Ponting’s film was the first cinematic documentation of these species. Although a friend of mine maintains that the film suffers from an excess of penguins, I tend to disagree. Ponting’s friendly, over-anthropomorphising, and close attention to the animals makes these sections feel like a 1920s David Attenborough documentary – cute and gently entertaining.

It must be said that the film is to some extent a product of its time, in a sense that goes beyond the genial narration through title cards. Scott’s expedition has been much mythologised, perhaps part because of its tragic conclusion, but the span of nearly a century also allows for a critical distance to the narrative presented in the film. Rather than accepting Scott and his crew as heroes who died for King and Country and the Good of Science, I couldn’t help but see the whole mission to be the first to the Pole as an exercise in senseless nationalism and suspect colonialism. Scientific expeditions in all honour, but was the chance to bag the Pole really worth the deaths of those men? According to the film the answer is presumably yes, but watching it I couldn’t shake the feeling that these football-playing self-sacrificing British gentlemen were hideously lost and never really should have been there, in an environment to which they were so ill-suited and had no place in. The fact that the expedition took along a cat mascot called ‘N****r’ seems a perfect symbol of the wrongness of that period’s British attitudes to exploration and ‘new’ horizons.

No account of the BFI’s release of the film would be complete without a mention of Simon Fisher Turner’s impeccable soundtrack. Turner’s modern contribution blends spare and subtle tones with eerie sound samples, perfectly complimenting the moody drama and hostility of the landscape. This is occasionally interrupted by more upbeat period music, including a recording of one of the gramophone records actually brought on the expedition. This dedication to mood and setting is surpassed only by the inclusion of silence recorded in Scott’s hut on Antarctica (which stands to this day).

Although praised by the King at the time, Ponting’s film did not achieve the success it deserved. The BFI’s re-release as part of the centenary of Scott’s expedition is a chance to remedy that. It’s an amazing film as a historical text, but it’s also enough of a good film to captivate modern audiences. Part epic drama, part cute animal documentary, part art film, part study in the weird extremes to which nationalism and the spirit of adventure can take a person, this film has a lot going on and a lot going for it. And unlike March of the Penguins, I felt like it really gave me a sense of what it might be like to visit Antarctica.

Special thanks to my dear friend Hayden who told me about this film. Read his review here, and check out the rest of his blog where he reviews all kinds of weird and wonderful films.

Bhutan: Travellers and Magicians

(2003; dir: Khyentse Norbu; language: Dzongkha; original title: ཆང་ཧུབ་ཐེངས་གཅིག་གི་འཁྲུལ་སྣང)

Travellers and Magicians is a good title for this story-within-a-story. The outer story follows a collection of travellers in the beautiful mountainous landscape of rural Bhutan, as they all for various reasons wend their slow way towards the capital, Thimpu. One of them, a Buddhist monk, tells a fable-like story about an impetuous young magic student who loses himself in a forest and becomes entangled in a web of lust and threat. The film was written and directed by Norbu (also known as Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche), a Bhutanese Buddhist lama and director of another international hit The Cup. I chose Travellers and Magicians as it is Bhutan’s first feature film, and because it is supposedly a film much anchored in Bhutanese culture.

The film begins in a small rural village in Bhutan, where we meet Dondup (Tshewang Dendup). Dondup is a public official who has recently been assigned to the village, and he is bored to tears. Long-haired Dondup loves all things Western, and sees the United States as the land of his dreams where scantily-clad women, American music and riches await. When the chance of a work visa to the United States arrives he rushes off in a very un-Bhutanese manner, bound for the sole bus connection to Thimpu and determined to get to the capital before the offer expires. Slowed down and frustrated by various well-meaning villagers, Dondup misses the bus and is forced to hitchhike. While waiting for rides, Dondup is gradually joined by a humble and nearly silent apple-seller, a gregarious monk (Sonam Kinga), a carousing drunk, and an elderly rice-paper maker and his beautiful young daughter Sonam (Sonam Lhamo). Travelling together in various constellations over a couple of days and nights, the monk spins a tale in installments about another hot-headed young man who longed to leave village life behind him. Inspired by a Bhuddist fable, the monk’s story follows Tashi (Lhakpa Dorji) who finds his heart’s desire deep in the forest in the form of a gorgeous women Deki (Deki Yangzom). Unfortunately Deki is married to a jealous (and abusive) old man who stands in the way of Deki and Tashi’s budding relationship.

I thought that the concept of the film was an appealing one – a mixture of a road movie and fairy tale – and both storylines made excellent use of the stunning scenery of Bhutan, from mountain to forest. Dondup made for an amusing protagonist with his sneakers, boom-box, denim gho (Bhutanese garment), and his undeserved arrogance. Although the film’s message wasn’t a subtle one – learn to appreciate your own place instead of chasing after castles in the air – it was allowed to evolve gently and humorously, and Dondup’s fate (like that of his companions) is left unresolved.

Although clearly aimed at a Western audience, presumably riding on the success of Norbu’s previous film The Cup, the message of the film touches on something I can well believe is an issue for Bhutan, and indeed many other countries: the fleeing of youth from ‘traditional’ ways of life in the country to the attractions of city-living or even to foreign countries. Certainly successive Bhutanese governments have taken weighty legislative steps towards ‘securing’ Bhutanese culture – legislation which raises a lot of ethical questions for a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual country, and which has led to disturbing human rights abuses. On the one hand, the film’s message of valuing what you have is an easy one to sympathise with, as is the country’s pioneering concept of Gross Domestic Happiness (instead of GDP). On  the other, the film rings somewhat false considering the number of Bhutanese refugees who actually have fled to the US and elsewhere because ethnic discrimination in Bhutan rendered them stateless and without access to many basic human rights.

Another aspect of the film that I found a tad grating was how much of a boy’s film it was. The two female roles in the film, Sonam and Deki, both seemed to exist solely as a sexual/romantic lure for each story’s male protagonist. Deki is the object of Tashi’s fantasies and is the impetus for his moral journey. Sonam embodies the allure of domesticity and village life that just might tempt Dondup into staying in Bhutan, and thus is key to his moral journey. In this sense they can be seen as props, existing to help develop the male protagonists, rather than developing as characters in their own right. I wanted to know how Deki ended up in her horrible marriage, and why Tashi didn’t take any action to stop her abuse (other than fantasising about removing his rival and claiming Deki for himself)? I wanted to know more about Sonam’s decision to abandon her education in order to support her father, and how she felt about that. But the unhappy positions of these women were just taken for granted. (However, the fact that before their respective suitors turned up, both Sonam and Deki’s lives revolved around caring for an old man is perhaps less a problem related to the film and more a problem in Bhutanese society: according to UN Women, Bhutanese women are in reality faced with major domestic burdens.)

In sum, this film offers a beautiful glimpse of a country that is among the less accessible in Asia. Travellers and Magicians showcases traditional Bhutanese dress, music and sports (archery), as well as a pervasive (Buddhist?) laissez-faire mentality of contentedness and appreciating what’s around you. I’ve mentioned a couple of gripes regarding the film’s narrative treatment of women, and how the film’s message is something of a slap in the face to Bhutanese refugees, but otherwise it was an enjoyable mix of spell-binding cinematography, gentle humour, and simplistic moral lessons.

Argentina: The Official Story

(1985; dir: Luis Puenzo; language: Spanish; original title: La historia oficial, also released in English as The Official Version)

The Official Story was one of a group of films to be released shortly after the fall of Argentina’s last military junta. Set in Buenos Aires during the dictatorship, the story follows an upper-middle class history teacher Alicia (Norma Aleandro) as she begins to suspect that her adopted daughter may be a child stolen from of one of Argentina’s ‘desaparecido’ – the between 9,000 and 30,000 people forcibly disappeared under Argentina’s Dirty War. The film won screeds of awards, including an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and thus felt like an obvious choice for my Argentinian entry. Others that are now on my to-watch list are the more recent The Secrets in Their Eyes (2009), which deals with a similar topic through a murder mystery framework, and the fun-looking con-artist flick Nine Queens (2000).

In some ways, the narrative of the film is a fairly simple one. When her illegally adopted daughter Gaby turns five, Alicia attempts to get her husband Roberto (Héctor Alterio) – a government official – to finally tell her the details behind the adoption. His cagey avoidance of the subject sparks an uneasiness that soon turns into suspicion when Alicia’s old school friend Ana (Chunchuna Villafañe) returns from exile and confides that she had been kidnapped, raped and tortured by the junta, and had seen babies snatched from other political prisoners. As Alicia attempts to learn more about how Gaby came to be her daughter, her emotions and her conscience are set at odds with one another in more ways than one.

I found it to be an immensely powerful and moving film (yes, I cried), and a surprisingly subtle one. For a film that could easily have dissolved into melodrama, it did a fantastic job of refusing to back down on the complexity of human emotion. Neither Alicia nor Roberto were particularly sympathetic – a conservative bourgeois woman and her government operative husband – and Roberto got more and more awful as the film went on. But unappealing as they were, both Alicia and Roberto were complex and very human. Even after some unforgivably abusive behavior at the end, I was still convinced that Roberto had a soul and was suffering, even if I didn’t grieve for him as much as I did for some of the others. However, it is Aleandro’s magnificent performance as Alicia that was the film’s real star turn (and won her an award at Cannes); it is Alicia’s internal conflict that is the centre of the film, and in Aleandro’s acting it is possible to see (or even feel) the thoughts and emotions running through her character’s mind.

Also contributing to the characters’ complexity, and the film’s subtlety, was the lack of answers. How much exactly did Roberto know about the torture and disappearances, and about where Gaby came from? Was it Roberto that turned Ana in? Was the woman who came forward really Gaby’s grandmother and what will happen with Gaby now? Will Alicia leave her husband? What happened to all of Roberto’s disappearing colleagues? How are the Americans involved in the junta’s activities? (Well, the last one has been answered by history). My viewing companion found these unanswered questions a little annoying, but I kind of liked that everything was left in a mess. It seemed to fit with the suspicion and secrecy of the film’s setting, as well as the fact that many of the Dirty War’s secrets will never be discovered.

It is interesting comparing this film to the previously reviewed NO about the fall of Chile’s military dictator (and member alongside Argentina of the ‘Condor’ dictatorships). Although the films clearly have different goals and even subject matter, there are nevertheless certain similarities between them, and it is the differences between the films’ handling of these points that made The Official Story by far the stronger film. Firstly in terms of its production. Instead of NO‘s integrated archival footage, The Official Story was filmed on location with live footage of the actors amid protests. For all that the fashions are equally dated, The Official Story – planned and written while the junta was still in place – conveys an authentic urgency that makes NO seem forced, soulless and commercial.

Secondly, the two films are also similar in that neither actually depict onscreen the abuses carried out under the countries’ respective dictatorships. As a relatively sensitive viewer, this is probably a good thing. But unlike NO, in The Official Story these crimes and abuses are nevertheless put firmly into focus, revealed with a delicate brutality to the viewer through the initially blind Alicia. The viewer is left to fill in the pieces, to mentally take in the facts and calculate the scale of the thing themselves – which is perhaps the only way to make something like that even close to understandable for those who have not experienced its like. For me, fathoming such horror takes living with it a bit, taking it in and processing it, rather than simply looking at the tally of the dead in a news story and thinking “that’s horrible”, before moving on. And The Official Story forced me, alongside Alicia, to internalise and live with the horror.

Thirdly, the two films both dealt with themes of progress and modernisation at odds with extant (anarcho-)socialist activism. In NO, the young unaligned advertising executive spurns the stuffy socialists’ desires to air complaints about Pinochet’s reign of terror, and saves Chile from dictatorship through an ad campaign that promises consumerism, Westernisation and moving-on as a panacea for the country’s suffering. In The Official Story, on the other hand, notions of progress, modernisation and capitalist ‘success’ are portrayed as blinkers and distractions from the government’s abuses, and as the tools of those who are profiting from the junta. While Alicia is freaking out over the truths she is beginning to learn about her country and her family, Roberto is busy making shady money and trying to press modern appliances on his mother, a contrast that speaks volumes about the priorities and motivations of Argentina’s bourgeois. Roberto is roundly schooled by his sweetly staunch anarchist father, in a scene that reveals the selfishness that enabled people like Roberto to be a party to the junta’s crimes. This meant that The Official Story felt more thematically and politically coherent than NO, which seemed to be attempting a bob both ways politically.

In terms of learning about the country itself, The Official Story had a lot more to offer than NO, mostly because stories about the junta’s crimes and their effects on Argentine society were put front and centre, rather than silenced. And although the main characters were from the bourgeoisie, other characters brought in views from other classes and political backgrounds. I think it also helped me to understand something not restricted to Argentina, namely how (comparatively) privileged and powerful members of a society (even history teachers!) can – willfully or otherwise – ignore the desperate situations of others in their society, and even be complicit in the abuse of others. Without relenting on Alicia’s responsibility and guilt, the film explored how this is made possible and maintained. It would be interesting to know how the film was and is received in Argentina – one of the criticisms of NO was the extent to which it erased and misrepresented the historical facts. One of Alicia’s students in The Official Story proclaims that history is written by assassins. Perhaps The Official Story and films of its ilk are steps towards remedying that.

As a final reflection, I said earlier that Alicia’s internal conflict is the centre of the film, and this conflict is offered up to the viewer: what would you do if you found out your child was stolen from another couple, who were probably tortured and murdered, and this probably with your husband’s knowledge? But for me the film, and this question, underscored the impossibility of justice or doing ‘right’ after crimes such as those witnessed by Argentina (and many many other countries). This is not to say that justice oughtn’t to be striven for, or that one shouldn’t listen to wronged parties that call for it. This is more of a musing that some damage is too catastrophic to mitigate or set right, which is a thought that seems as topical today as in the 1980s.