Czech Republic: Closely Observed Trains

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

Austria: The Seventh Continent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Armenia: The Colour of Pomegranates

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

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

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

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

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

Bosnia and Herzegovina: Grbavica

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Azerbaijan: Buta

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

Screenshot 2014-05-08 22.05.19

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

Screenshot 2014-05-08 23.30.01

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

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

Screenshot 2014-05-08 22.05.49

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

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

Screenshot 2014-05-08 22.22.25

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

Chile: NO

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

https://i2.wp.com/www.theclinic.cl/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/NO-.jpg

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Angola: Hollow City

(2004, dir: Maria João Ganga; language: Portuguese; original title: Na Cidade Vazia)

Hollow City is set in 1991, during the Angolan Civil War that had been raging since the 70s. The film follows 12-year-old N’Dala (Roldan Pinto João), who has just witnessed the murder of his parents and the destruction of his rural village Bié. Although traumatised, N’Dala is rescued along with some other children by a missionary nun and brought to the capital city, Luanda. There, he runs away and begins wandering the city, seeing its various sides and meeting diverse inhabitants, including the kindly fisherman Antonio, the fiery and selfish Rosita, an impulsive older boy Zé (Domingos Fernandes Fonesca), and Zé’s friendly but dangerous cousin Joka.

I chose Hollow City partly because it is one of the first Angolan feature films to be directed by a woman, and because I was intrigued by the intentions Ganga said she had for the film, namely to depict everyday life in Angola without sensationalising war:

N’Dala is an orphan and a refugee of war. He travels in a world devoid of prospects, living at the fast and reckless pace of survival… N’Dala’s story is fairly common in the everyday life of Angola and it would be too easy to fall into the sensationalism of war. Our good conscience, eased, will survive the gunshots, but N’Dala will not… As an Angolan woman I saw the day-to-day turbulence of Luanda, which, despite the recently-established peace, will continue to see for years to come, many children in its streets.

Watching the film, Ganga achieves this ambition through showing us the psychological violence of war, rather than action scenes. Throughout the film, the war is a threatening atmosphere, not totally stopping people’s everyday activities, but colouring them with fear and pessimism. As for N’Dala, his blurred and confused PTSD-flashbacks provide in many ways a more powerful idea of what it must actually be like to have lost your family through violence than if the viewer had simply seen them killed outright.

For me, another strength of the film was how it managed to take on what Ganga calls “the turbulence of Luanda”, exploring some of the more depressing sides of the city, without inviting any kind of patronising pity on the part of the viewer. Honest depictions of many of the problems facing African countries can easily play into popular European images of Africa as either inherently backward or irrevocably and unambiguously screwed up. It was one of the things that bugged me about Blood Diamond – the repeated phrase “TIA, this is Africa”, and the notion that the only way Africans can improve their lot is by leaving! Not only do these notions homogenise an entire continent, and the complex web of historic and contemporary causes and effects that shape the lives of its people today, they allow non-Africans to reduce these people to objects of suffering, rather than people who still, day after day, eat and sleep and make friends and meet challenges and solve problems and tell stories, etc. In Hollow City, however, the audience is guided by N’Dala – a charming, vulnerable, resourceful, loyal, daring, and strong-willed protagonist who leads a cast of other characters who each deal with life’s problems and pleasures in their own way. The viewer is presented with a city of landscapes and characters not so different from those to be found on other continents. In this way, the problems facing Angola are disassociated from the “This is Africa” narrative, and make room for a story that is fully human.

The film’s evocative cinematography made the most of the urban setting, to the extent that Luanda almost became a character in its own right. In contrast to films such as Algeria’s Chronicle of the Years of Fire (reviewed last week), which gloried in pastoral motifs as a symbol of national identity, Hollow City confronts both the viewer and N’Dala with a confused jostle of environments and identities. N’Dala misses his village, and prefers to sleep on the beach in Luanda with the fisherman, surroundings that remind him more of home. But Bié is gone and there can be no return. In the city, soldiers are juxtaposed with school children, Christian saints with an Angolan sea goddess, lively parties with empty streets after curfew. It’s hard to know how everything fits together, or what people really believe. It’s hard for N’Dala to find his place there (in a heart-breaking insight into the sorrow of refugees, N’Dala is bent on ‘escaping’ back to his decimated village, believing it to be the only place he can reconnect with his parents’ souls). If Chronicle was trying to construct an Algerian national identity, Hollow City depicts the scramble of a urbanising country torn by civil war, with cities flooded by internally displaced people trying to cope with their trauma and sorrows and make a new life; a country exploding with possibilities and lacking in security.

While the film was excellent cinematically, the weaknesses of the film are in many ways the somewhat muddled script. Attempts to draw some kind of parallel between N’Dala and N’Gunga are confusing and ineffective, and occasional cutaways to the desperate search of the nun for runaway N’Dala are more distracting than anything else. Further, the end left me wondering what the film was actually saying, if anything. Without giving away too much, what begins as a lively adventure of the country boy in the big city (a feeling boosted by a decidedly jaunty soundtrack), gradually becomes more sinister – revealing perhaps the answer to N’Gunga’s question: “are people the same everywhere, thinking only of themselves?” And yet not all the people N’Dala meets are like that – the nun, the fisherman and especially his friend Zé all take pains to care for him. Or was the message that the war has destroyed the whole country – that Luanda is no safer for the internal refugees than the massacres they have fled from? Or is it just a portrait of a country in turmoil, shown through the eyes of one of its inhabitants?

As a final note, I will say that this film was fascinating for me personally, as I have (as of yet) never set foot upon the African continent. It was wonderful to get a rich glimpse of a living and breathing African city, in contrast to all the grass huts and refugee camps that a lot of Western media seems to insist are the only structures to be found below the Sahara. Knowing about the rapid urbanisation many African countries is one thing, but seeing it is another. It also really brought home the bizarreness of colonialism – hearing this European language, from a country that isn’t exactly prominent in today’s Europe, and seeing all this colonial architecture – somehow seeing it in a new place brings the wrongness of it home again.

Final verdict, a thoroughly enjoyable and involving film, which compensates for a somewhat flawed script with powerful cinematography, lively music, and above all a well-acted and charming protagonist.