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.

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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.

Czech Republic: Closely Observed Trains

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Austria: The Seventh Continent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Armenia: The Colour of Pomegranates

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

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

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

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

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

Bosnia and Herzegovina: Grbavica

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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