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.

Bahamas: Children of God

(2010; dir: Kareem Mortimer; language: English)

The film is set in 2004, when a “gay cruise” landing in the Bahamas ignited protests and put the rights of homosexuals on the agenda in the small predominantly-Christian island nation. Amidst the protests, troubled and repressed Nassau-based art student Jonny (Johnny Ferro) is sent by his teacher on a retreat to the beautiful and sparsely populated island of Eleuthera, as an attempt to put him in touch with his emotions. There, he encounters Romeo (Stephen Tyrone Williams), a young man who has everything going for him and yet who still can’t be what is expected of him. At the same time, Lena, the wife of a hard-line anti-gay preacher arrives on the island to drum up support for an anti-gay petition.

As one of the first Bahamian feature films, and a well-reviewed one that promised a Bahamian take on an important issue, Children of God was an easy choice. The fact that it also introduced an as-yet unrepresented genre to this blog – romance – and that is the first film reviewed here to pass GLAAD’s ‘Vito Russo Test’ of GBLTQ representation onscreen were other factors in the film’s favour.

Having read a few other reviews, I had very high expectations of this film, and I have to say that it did not disappoint. The acting and production values were excellent, making the film well worthy of its cinematic release. While I don’t think it’s fair, especially in the context of a blog such as this one, to judge the quality of a film purely on its production values – the availability of resources varies wildly from film-maker to film-maker and country to country – it was comforting in some ways to return to a film that looked, sounded and felt a bit more like the films I would normally watch. This perhaps reflects the relative prosperity of the Bahamas compared to the rest of Central America and the Caribbean.

However, while the production values and style of the film may have initially put me back in my comfort zone, the narrative was anything but. Through focussing on a range of fairly well-developed characters, the film succeeds in showing the damage that homophobia and bigotry wreak on all individuals in a society. We see the most direct targets, Jonny – tormented by his repressed homosexuality – and Romeo, unable to come out to his friends and family for fear of shattering their picture of him as the perfect Bahamanian boy. Just like the Shakespearean play that the characters’ names nod to, we see a romance destroyed by prejudice. But almost more interesting for me were the characters of Lena (Margaret Laurena Kemp) and her husband Ralph (Mark Richard Ford). Her marriage in a crisis after being diagnosed with an STI she caught from her husband, and being assaulted by her husband upon revealing this, Lena flees to Eleuthera with her son. Meanwhile, her virulently anti-gay preacher husband Ralph trawls gay bars for (unprotected) sex. Dominated by her husband (an early line from Ralph that chilled me to the bone: “you don’t say anything. You submit!”), she takes her fear, anger and disgust towards her husband out on her son instead, a child who is desperately trying to conform to the strict norms of heterosexuality his parents demand: “but those are girls’ toys, I can’t play with those”. In a society where homophobia is allowed to proliferate, parents are set against children, wives against husbands, neighbours against neighbours, pastors against pastors, lovers against lovers, and even self against self.

It definitely must be said that the film’s scenes of homophobia and domestic abuse were depressing, and archival footage of some of the real anti-gay rallies that were occurring in the Bahamas was actually downright shocking (I won’t quote the signs the protestors were carrying because nobody needs to read that stuff). But, like Romeo and Juliet, the heart of the film is the romance between the two central characters. This introduces a weight of beauty, humour, tenderness, lightness and hope into the film that makes the dark stuff feel peripheral. And the number of characters who come out in support of the pair towards the end of the film was also cheering – Romeo’s best friend, Jonny’s initially disapproving Dad, and the wonderful voice of Christian reason/love – the Reverend Ritchie (Van Brown). I found the latter’s public stance against Lena’s homophobic preaching very moving, and it is his perspective that gives the film its name – that all people are Children of God.

[SPOILERS BELOW! GO WATCH THE FILM AND READ THE REST LATER!]

I would argue that it is in fact the very beauty and lightness of the central romance that make the film, and its end, so powerful. In a narrative sense it gives the viewer something to root for – that Romeo and Jonny will defeat homophobia and be happy together. Romeo and Jonny seem ‘meant to be’. But of course, I was – perhaps willfully – forgetting my Shakespeare. While watching the film I was likening it to another gay youth narrative, that in the delightful Swedish film Fucking Åmål (realeased in some places under the title Show Me Love). In that film the two youths eventually become secure in their lesbian identity and each other, proudly coming out as a couple. With both Jonny and Romeo in each working up to this moment in different ways, this was the end I was hoping for. What I got instead was a punch to the gut that left me in tears. The fact is that homophobia and prejudice aren’t only social ills that divide people from one another, they are also deadly. It isn’t enough for Jonny and Romeo to stand up proud for whom they love. Pride and acceptance are not enough. Although fighting for pride and acceptance is important, if other Jonnies and Romeos are to have a future then they must be able to live in a society where homophobia and prejudice is stamped out. And that is a battle that everybody can fight, regardless of sexuality.

While the message of the film can be seen as a fairly universal one, the film also came across as firmly Bahamian. The evocative scenery of Eleuthera (from the Greek for ‘freedom’, apparently) and the excellent soundtrack of Bahamian beats were more than window dressing but actually furthered the story – creating an easy-going, beautiful place of freedom for Romeo and Jonny to develop their romance before facing the realities of Nassau. Also interesting was the intersection of nationalist and homophobic rhetoric in the polemics of Lena and Ralph – the religious movement they belong to in the film is taken from a real one, called ‘Save the Bahamas’. Like in countries around the world, nation and culture are invoked as a means to sow and legitimise hate – rhetoric that has less to do with the individual country and more to do with the spread of religious traditions that seek to divide and conquer. I would be interested to know how the film was received in the Bahamas, and if homophobia has lost any traction since 2004 (a cursory Wikipedia glance suggests… not really).

In sum, I thought it was an well-executed, captivating and affecting film that deserves a wider audience. I also learned that the Bahamas are beautiful, but also have a lot of scary issues with homophobia.

Afghanistan: Osama

(2003; dir: Siddiq Barmak; language: Dari Persian; original title: اسامه; co-production with Iran, Ireland, Japan and the Netherlands)

Osama is set in Afghanistan’s capital city Kabul, and gets off to a captivating start with a large group of women dressed in identical sky-blue burkas who are bravely protesting the Taliban. In particular, they are protesting the prohibition of women working – a prohibition that means that many women, especially widows, are unable to feed themselves and their families. Watching the protest and its violent dispersal by Taliban forces is a young girl and her widowed mother. The mother is a nurse at the local hospital, but when the hospital is forced to close due to the removal of funding, and the Taliban requirements for women to be escorted by a male at all times makes even finding under-the-table jobs difficult, the mother finds herself out of work and out of options. Despairing, she and her elderly mother decide that the only way to save their little family from starvation is to disguise the young girl (Marina Golbahari), their only child/grandchild, as a boy and send “him” to work. Their plans go quickly awry when the girl, in her guise as the boy “Osama”, is rounded up with the other boys her age and sent to a Taliban-run school for religious and military indoctrination. Spoilers follow.

I chose Osama because, well, there weren’t a whole lot of options. The film’s wikipedia page touts it as being the first film to be shot entirely in Afghanistan since the Taliban shut down the film industry in 1996. It has also been really well-reviewed, winning a Golden Globe and prizes at a range of festivals.

The story Osama tells is a litany of suffering – an oppressed people terrorised by the Taliban, where women and girls in particular suffer under strict regulations that must be followed on pain of death or sexual slavery. And yet these regulations also make their lives unlivable. So in a sense Osama is about the choices people make when the only choice is that between the rock or the hard place. Even if the decision the mother and grandmother made could be seen (rightly) as a terribly risky and unfair one, at least the film allows them to make a decision, and acknowledges that they have minds, creativity and wills of their own. On the other hand, the film’s main character is the girl, and she is given little to no opportunities for decision-making throughout the film. She is forced by her mother and grandmother into posing as boy, forced by the Taliban into their school, she is punished, abused, and sold into sexual slavery. Indeed one of the few explicit choices she is given is which of the ostentatious and forbidding padlocks her new “husband” (read: rapist slave owner) will use to lock her up – an obscene “choice” which she is naturally unable to make.

I have to say, I found the grinding horror of ‘Osama’s fate a bit difficult to take when it took over from any character development. To a large extent she remained a terrified child whose expressive eyes reflected only animal fear. As reviewer Christopher Orr writes at the Atlantic:

Barmak’s protagonist truly is helpless, in a way that films rarely have the courage to convey. This is no wishful feminist parable about a strong-willed young woman facing tough odds. “Osama” is a weak, confused, foolish girl, a pawn not only of the Taliban but of her mother and grandmother as well. She passively watches her life unfold as if she were outside of it, but with a constant fear in her eyes that shows she knows she’s not.

Unlike Orr, I didn’t see ‘Osama’ as foolish – and only as weak and confused as any child would be in that situation. Indeed, for me the best part of the entire film was a scene where, clichéd as the situation was, ‘Osama’ is expected to undress in order to participate in a lesson in ritual genital washing with a repulsive Taliban mullah. She manages to outwit him and preserve her boyish facade, and the mixture of relief and satisfaction in her own ingenuity that floods the girl’s face was a testament to the actress’s ability to portray more than raw fear. Unfortunately, this the only chance she was given. Now of course having ‘Osama’ constantly consumed by fear is probably quite realistic for the someone in her circumstances. But if the audience only ever sees this side of her, it is hard to sympathise with her as a whole person. Unlike Orr, I don’t see films that allow their female characters agency as “wishful feminist parables” – rather I see them as realistic portrayals of human beings who attempt various strategies to navigate their lives. This is something that the previously reviewed Hollow City did well, starring a three-dimensional child protagonist who although confused and vulnerable was never reduced to his trauma. This made his end feel like a punch in the gut, whereas ‘Osama’s fate simply felt inevitable from the get-go.

The other issue with making a film about all-encompassing victimisation is that it invites a saviour. In the case of Osama, none is forthcoming within the film – leaving a narrative space open to be filled by the viewer. This ties in with another aspect of the film that I had some problems with, namely its clear courting of international audiences. This isn’t something that necessarily has to be a problem – lots of films from small local industries know that whether or not their film gets made and distributed might depend on its international marketability, and indeed Osama was funded as a co-production with international partners who undoubtedly wanted some kind of return. And I certainly don’t have pretensions of being anything other than a member of an international audience. But what bothered me about Osama was the way it was courting international audiences: released at a time when the Taliban’s abominable treatment of Afghani women was used as a justification for yet another invasion of the geopolitically significant country – this time by the US and NATO – resulting in devastating civilian casualities. Although no mention is made of the invasion in the film – it being set pre-2001 – this silence and the context of its release means that it reinforces an idea that the war was justified to ‘stop the Taliban’. Especially as the women in the film are presented as hopelessly victimised an incapable of resistance themselves. This stands in contrast to statements from the human rights prize-winning organisation Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), who strongly oppose both the Taliban and the US/NATO invasion, and argue that the invasion stands in the way of a democratic uprising of Afghanis against the Taliban.

Just like the actress, Afghanistan itself is infantilised in the film, or at least rendered in a way that invites an international saviour.  Despite being filmed on location in Kabul, signs of ‘civilisation’ are nigh on non-existent. Buildings, shops, and tools look more rustic than in the previously reviewed 1970s Algerian film Chronicle of the Years of Fire. As reviewer for the Guardian James Meek explains, this effect was achieved by filming on the outskirts of Kabul:

In the film, Barmak strips out the clutter of semi-modernity, the cars and shop signs and street traders with which central Kabul seethed under the Taliban, as now. Among the dust and ruins of the outskirts, characters and objects take on an elemental, fabular quality, like the great heavy scissors with which the heroine’s hair is cut.

This excision of signs of “semi-modernity” also makes Afghanistan seem more exotically vulnerable, primitive and in need of assistance from ‘developed’ nations. And just in case foreign viewers were in any doubt that the Taliban were bad, the trial of our girl ‘Osama’ is held concurrently with that of two white Westerners – a journalist and a nurse – who are condemned to death and executed! This also felt like a cynical attempt to draw in a Western audiences, as though they could identify with these crimes in a different way than with the magnetic performance of Golbahari. Even the name given to the girl’s male persona seemed like audience-bait rather than any kind of meaningful symbolism.

Concerning to me also was the way that the film at times seemed to not only portray sexism, but also perpetrate it. Perhaps most worryingly, none of the female characters have names, not even the main character until she is given a male one. In contrast, most of the men referred to in the film, including those who are never seen, are named. This could be a statement on the part of the film-maker about women’s erasure from Taliban-controlled Afghani society. But taken together with other aspects of the film I began to wonder… For example, the film often seemed to place the blame on the women’s exclusion from society on the women themselves: the (un-named) girl’s (un-named) mother lamented “why did God create women?”, “why did I have a daughter and not a son?”, bemoaning women’s gender as a burden rather than raging against the regime that made it so. (I got excited when the grandmother countered with: “No, women and men are equal”, but then she followed it up with: “They suffer equally.” Sure, many Afghani men went off to war and died, while many women stayed home and died, but I didn’t see any young boys in the film being sold off into sexual slavery.) But perhaps my biggest disappointment on this count was the way that ‘Osama’s true gender was revealed – she got her period. A common trope of women dressing up as men to avoid oppression is that they are betrayed by their unruly female bodies – breasts, pregnancies or periods bursting out at an inopportune moment; this again places the blame on women’s bodies for their exclusion from the male norm, something which fits into rather than challenges the conservative and misogynistic systems that establish those norms.

Again, perhaps this was also some nuanced symbolism on the part of the director/writer, but reading an interview with the director reinforced my doubts. Despite Golbahari’s performance carrying the whole film, and the film’s international success, she was paid about £7 a day, a salary that was soon spent. The director’s version of how he found his lead actress was that she was begging on the streets and he “looked down and saw Marina. ‘Her face was amazing. I was shocked when I saw the eyes,’ he said. ‘I decided that this was the main character. She was surprised by the word ‘film’. She asked, “Uncle, what’s a film?” She told me she’d never seen a film and never watched TV.'” Her version: “Marina says it is not true she was begging when Barmak met her, or that she had never seen a film before. She’s glad she made the film, but doesn’t like the way she is turned into a boy in it. Life, she says, is better than it was before, but not as good as she had hoped.” These conflicting stories, where the director represents Golbahari as more ignorant and victimised than in her version, as well as the poor level of remuneration, do not convince me that the director is above objectifying or exploiting women and girls.

In many ways the problems I found with the film and its reception remind me of another famous Afghan girl – a person known simply as the subject of Steve McCurry’s photograph Afghan Girl which appeared on the cover of National Geographic in 1985, until she was identified as Sharbat Gula in 2002. Like Gula, Golbahari’s stunning eyes have captivated international audiences and become symbolic for Afghani suffering. Their respective photographer/director have made names for themselves internationally while the two girls are largely left to continued suffering. To me, this suggests a problem not only with the conflicts and powers that have caused this suffering, but also with the international consumption of it.

Belize: Three Kings of Belize

(2007; dir: Katia Paradis; language: English, with some songs in Garifuna; alternative title: Trois Rois)

Three Kings of Belize is a documentary by Katia Paradis, who describes herself as a citizen of both Canada and Belize. The film lovingly depicts the daily life and music of three aged Belize men who are all renowned local musicians. Paul Nabor is a fisherman, guitarist and Garifuna composer, who self-avowedly loves the guitar he has been playing for 53 years more than any of the women who have come and gone in his life. Florencio Mess is a Mayan harp player who lives off the land in his small village and makes traditional violins, guitars and harps. Wilfred Peters, MBE (after playing for the Queen of England), plays Creole accordion and is still travelling with his music around Central and North America.

To explain why I chose this film, allow to digress a little… I have been endeavouring thus far in the project to find fictional feature-length films directed by locals and filmed on location. The reasons for the latter criteria are fairly obvious, but my preference for fictional and feature-length films perhaps warrants some explanation. Basically, one of the reasons I started this project was because I realised that most of the stories I was being told by the films I watched were from the US or the UK, and that even if they were set in other countries it was still Americans or Brits that were making most of the decisions. I am and always have been a believer in the power of stories to expand people’s horizons, reveal insights into oneself and others, and establish empathy. This is not to say that documentaries cannot do these things, nor that they don’t tell stories, but for me personally I find fiction often does these things better – it somehow allows me to ‘be’ or ‘feel’ another person in a way that non-fiction doesn’t. Furthermore, who has the power to tell their stories is a political issue; I have seen several documentaries made by locals of countries other than the US and Western Europe, often depicting the oppression of the local population, but astonishingly few fictional feature films from these places. There could be several reasons for this discrepancy – it would probably look different if I had more disposable time and income to attend film festivals, for instance – but for me it also says something about a tendency for the cultures I live in to be more comfortable watching/funding/distributing a studied foreign population, and preferably a suffering one, than making space for their stories. The former perhaps making it easier to objectify them or distance oneself from them, rather than actually having to be them. In any case, I wanted to seek out fictional feature-length films where possible.

This didn’t turn out to be so easy in the case of Belize. Belize is a small country, both geographically and demographically (current population is a little over 300,000), and has only been independent from Britain since 1981, so there wasn’t a whole lot of locally-produced films to choose from. I found one, Stranded N Dangriga, whose trailer made it look so awful (think along the lines of an Adam Sandler or Eddie Murphy vehicle) that I didn’t think I could bring myself to sit through it – a cop out perhaps. In the end I decided that Three Kings of Belize, while a documentary, and while funded and produced by Canadians, was at least directed by a citizen of Belize and intimately connected to the evolving cultures of Belize. And it was in all likelihood more to my taste.

So, onto the review! The film is essentially a slow, sensitive and non-intrusive portrait of the three men as they discuss their music and careers, perform at home or in public, talk about their lives and their philosophies, and go about their daily tasks. Director Paradis lets them and their music do the talking, occasionally cutting away to shots of the men’s surroundings – everything from long shots of achingly blue seascapes to close ups on the flora and fauna of Belize. Where the panoramic shots of Azerbaijan’s countryside in the previously reviewed Buta felt in some ways like egregious tourist-bait, in Three Kings of Belize the combination of these shots with the grounded love the three musicians expressed for their land established instead a powerful sense of place and the strength it can provide. It reminded me of a concept from my home country, tūrangawaewae, which is often translated from Māori as “a place to stand”: “Tūrangawaewae are places where we feel especially empowered and connected. They are our foundation, our place in the world, our home,” (source: Te Ara, the Encyclopedia of Aotearoa New Zealand). Without claiming interpretative power over this concept, it seemed to me that Belize was tūrangawaewae for the three musicians, and that the film did a good job of expressing this to the viewer. While some might find the sleepy pace of the film a little slow, I think it was integral to allowing these older guys present themselves and their place in their own time and manner. It was also perfect viewing for the stickily-hot lazy Saturday morning when I watched it.

What gives the film poignancy, and lifts it beyond just being an exposition of some great tunes and three characterful old dudes, are the men’s ruminations on their old age and the changes in both music and Belize society. In different ways all three discuss their attempts to make a career out of music, highlighting music as a form of labour (rather than only a passion) and the decreasing value placed on their music. This is partly to do with a decline in the popularity of their respective genres – “some people say my band is an old people’s band… but I go places they don’t go!” – but also to do with changes in the way music is produced and consumed. Nabor, who has composed so many songs that he now doesn’t remember most of them until he hears someone else playing one, muses sadly that people now want to hear music from cassettes rather than directly from him – a distancing that he isn’t in favour of. One striking scene shows Peters gamely dancing along at his 75th birthday party to a modern song whose lyrics seem to consist of “shake it”; the contrast between old and young can’t be more distinct.

Furthermore, although each of the three men are renowned musicians, none of them are materially well-off. Peters, the more urban of the three, still travels internationally and performs at festivals with his accordion, but complains of having a “big name, small pocket”. Nabor and Mess live quiet rural lives where they are more or less self-sufficient. Mess shows off his organic gardening, and Nabor in his simple bush cabin fishes doggedly for his supper despite his old age. Again, this seems connected to their perspectives on Belize. The country is ‘modernizing’, and according to Mess many Belizeans are seeking unattractive jobs in order to buy things in the store – something he sees as redundant when those with knowledge can live off the land.

But perhaps more importantly the film highlights the important labour that these musicians conduct – preserving and enriching, as well as exporting, Belizean cultural forms. And labour it is – the musicians have devoted their lives to, and in some cases sacrificed their health for, their music. Whether one sees the commercialisation of music as a good thing or prefer a time when it had intrinsic value rewarded by gifts of money and food (as both Mess and Nabor experienced in their youth), I challenge anybody to watch this film and not mourn the fact that their labour is no longer valued to the extent it is due. However, the film does finish on a note of hope in this regard. Towards the end of a film Peters is greeted on the street by an avid young female fan, and the final scene shows two of the musicians making music together while small children join in on a chorus with the words “they must have a band at my funeral”.

As can be inferred from this post, Three Kings of Belize provided a wealth of impressions of Belize in terms of its gorgeous rural seascapes, flora and fauna, as well as lively urban milieux. I also learned about some of the social changes taking place in the country, and a lot about three fantastic local music traditions. One thing I would like to have learned more about was women in Belize; although directed by a woman, this film – like many of the others reviewed here – was dominated by men’s voices. One of the musicians fondly recalls his wife, who was “given to him” by her father. She was 13 at the time, and he was in his 20s, and their first child was born before she turned 14. While the musician recounts this as a romantic story, I couldn’t help wondering how his child-bride experienced it, something the viewer never got to know. Neither do we hear from the woman who appears in the film cooking for Peters – his wife? – or any of the women whom Nabor has prioritised his guitar over.