Lebanon: Caramel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screenshot 2015-07-23 21.27.30

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

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

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

Bhutan: Travellers and Magicians

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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.

Australia: Ten Canoes

(2006, dir: Rolf de Heer; language: Yolngu Matha, Gunwinggu, English)

Ten Canoes is beautiful, hilarious, moving and fascinating, and difficult to categorise. The multiple-award winning film is presented as a story, with lively narration by the iconic David Gulpilil, telling of a party of goose-hunters in a time before European colonisation. The young, impatient Dayindi (played by Gulpilil’s son, Jamie) covets his older brother Minygululu’s beautiful youngest wife. In a story-within-a-story, Minygululu tells Dayindi a tale from even further back in Australia’s past, in an attempt to teach the young man about the virtues of patience, and that getting your hearts desire may turn out to be more than you bargained for. What at first proves to be a simple tale grows, as they say in the film, “like a tree”, incorporating a magician, a kidnapping, and a case of mistaken identity before everything draws together again. I thoroughly enjoyed the film, with it’s beautiful cinematography, talented cast, elegant structure, and humorous camera-work.

While Australia has a sizeable film industry and there are a lot of well-regarded films to choose from, I chose Ten Canoes because it’s something I’ve been wanting to see for ages, and had finally recently bought the DVD off my dear friend Hayden (who blogs here about all kinds of weird and wonderful films from various corners of the globe). But I thought it was especially appropriate for this project as it is the first film to be filmed entirely in Aboriginal Australian languages. I watched the version with narration in English, but on the two-disc DVD set you can also choose to watch it with the narration too in Aboriginal languages (with or without English subtitles). Some people have voiced concern about the film being directed and co-written by a white Australian, a concern which is definitely worth addressing. De Heer has responded by saying “[The People of Ramingining] are telling the story, largely, and I’m the mechanism by which they can.” Certainly, the credits has a promising list of Aboriginal names (although not so much in the higher-level production roles), and the documentary DVD extras that I watched showed de Heer (and the English language) taking a decidedly backseat role, but the fact that international and even local recognition of indigenous stories comes only through the lens and privilege of a white film-maker is something worth reflecting on in itself.

For me as a viewer, this film gave some rich glimpses into the language, culture and mythology of a people all too often forgotten, marginalised or outright silenced since Australia’s brutal colonisation. Aborigines in Australia are still abused and oppressed by the Australian government as well as large numbers of other Australians that interact with them. As a showcase of their Australia, before its invasion by Europeans, this film highlights the importance of language and stories as a political force, as a means to take control over the representation of one’s surroundings and to remember what has been lost.

It was also a pleasure to have an intimate encounter with the amazing landscape of Arnhemland, and learn about the ingenious ways that its inhabitants adapted to the challenges and resources of the local environment. Australia is a huge and diverse continent in terms of geography and ecology, of which I have only seen a little in person. The film’s soaring shots over the swamplands, and elegant movement through the trees, were as satisfying to my desire for new landscapes as any travel documentary.

Finally, the film was a comforting, funny, and joyous reminder that – trite as it may sound – people are people. Sometimes I find it difficult to imagine the internal lives and thought processes of people removed from myself by time or space. What did people think and feel 1,000 years ago, or 5,000 years ago – when the premises on which society was based seem so different? What goes on in the heads of people living today in surroundings so different from mine? These questions are one of the reasons that I’m pursuing this project, as I firmly believe that one of the best ways to challenge these barriers to empathy and understanding is to listen and learn from what other people are willing to tell. Films like Ten Canoes are excellent for this purpose – although the narrator of the film makes it clear that it is his story, not ‘our’ (the viewer’s story), the viewer can nevertheless find elements of themselves in these historic/mythical characters, and vice versa. Farts are, and it appears always have been, universally hilarious. Young people are and always have been hotheaded, overeager, and blinded by sexual/romantic desire. We are and always have been concerned with what happens to our poo. Relationships and responsibility are and always have been wonderful, worrying, and complicated. (Of course these are generalisations, but that’s the point – social aspects that have been recognisable throughout human history, if not necessarily true for each and every individual.)

Shoutout: More from Australia

For those interested in more Australian films, although most with a more white Australian focus, I can recommend the following favourites: The Castle (1997, comedy), Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002, drama about Australia’s stolen generation); Looking for Alibrandi (2000 teen drama); The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994, comedy-drama and pretty much a must-see); Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975, gorgeous mystery drama); and The Slap (2011, drama TV miniseries). High up on my to-watch list from Australia are: Lantana (2001); The Cars That Ate Paris (1974); My Brilliant Career (1979); Shine (1996); Walkabout (1971); and Mad Max (1979, no, I haven’t seen Mad Max. I’m sorry.).