Faroe Islands: Dreams by the Sea

(2017; director: Sakaris Stórá; writer: Marjun Syderbø Kjelnæs; language: Faroese; co-production with Denmark; original title: Dreymar við havið)

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Dreams by the Sea is the first ever truly Faroese feature film, shot entirely on location with predominantly local talent. It tells a simple story of adolescence in the isolated island territory. Teenage Ester (Juliet Nattestad), like Disney’s Belle and many other village girls before her, wants much more than her provincial life. When rebellious Ragna (Helena Heðinsdóttir) with her dysfunctional family moves to the island, Ester is instantly attracted and a friendship develops. Each provides what the other lacks – excitement for Ester, and stability for Ragna. Together, they dream of leaving the island and taking on the world.

Although culturally and linguistically discrete, the Faroe Islands are not currently a country in their own right (they’re an autonomous territory within the Kingdom of Denmark), meaning they don’t fit the criteria I set myself of watching a film from every UN-recognised soverign nation-state. But those criteria are mainly set for expediency, and I’m not going to pass up the chance to include films from self-governing nations only a referendum away from independence. Well, at least not when they cross my path, like when Dreams by the Sea turned up in my local film festival.

The film centres on 16-year-old Ester, bored by her mundane life in a small Faroese village by the ocean. Her mother, like all the mothers in the village, is an enthusiastic knitter (the film features plenty of examples of the gorgeous Faroese patterned jumpers made famous to foreigners through the Danish TV-series The Killing). Her father leads Sunday School prayer sessions and tinkers with model planes. Her former best friend landed a modelling contract and moved away, and Ester is sick with envy, stuck on the island with her boring life: “it’s like everything is set in stone, nothing ever changes.”

Enter Ragna, who instantly stands out with her thick black eyeliner and surly attitude. Ester is instantly drawn to Ragna’s difference and apparent independence, and starts following her around the island – to her work in a kiosk, and to her home in “the Shed”, the cheapest ramshackle accommodation on the island. Ragna is initially a bit weirded out, asking “are you stalking me?”, but eventually she accepts Ester’s friendship.

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It becomes clear that Ragna’s independence and tough exterior has been formed over years of neglect by her alcoholic, unemployed and hard-partying mother (who is played with surprising pathos by an actress whose name I can’t find anywhere). For the naive Ester, even this is exciting new territory, and she enthusiastically embraces the world of alcohol and lack of parental oversight that Ragna is visibly tiring of. Ragna, on the other hand, longs for a stable father figure like Ester’s.

Although both discuss wanting to leave the island and make a life of their own, there is a difference in what each girl wants to leave behind. What Ester sees as freedom in Ragna’s life is its own form of confinement, with Ragna forced into caring for her mother and younger brother, and is less exciting than wearing and mundane in its own way. Each girl exoticises the other, Ester with a naked hunger and Ragna with a more mature, subdued wistfulness. As it turns out, Ragna does leave the island at the end of the film, but not under happy circumstances, nor her own steam. Her mother almost dies of an overdose, and Ragna is forced to seek other solutions for care of her younger brother, with her own future uncertain. Meanwhile Ester is left in her boring, stable, protected life, hopefully a little wiser as to where the grass is greener.

The film is entirely in Faroese, filmed on the island of Sandoy (population 1200) with a Faroese director, scriptwriter, stars and the majority of the crew, and has been celebrated as the start of a film industry in the islands. And it’s an astonishingly competent start, particularly given that only the editor (Amalie Westerlin Tjellesen) and the cinematographer (Virginie Surdej) had ever worked on a feature film before (both women, something you seldom see in e.g. Hollywood productions). The leads are excellent, with Helena Heðinsdóttir giving a mature and layered performance as Ragna and Juliet Nattestad offering one of the most honest portrayals of unabashed adolescent desire I have seen from a female perspective.

Some reviews have criticised the film’s pacing, with extended shots and sequences focusing on fairly mundane day to day interactions. While I agree that the film didn’t reach the level of drama that it perhaps aspired to, I don’t think that the pacing was a problem. Shot largely in a realist style, it is the everyday – both Ragna’s and Ester’s – that is the focus of the film. (One notable realist departure is that mobile phones are not to be seen. While I can understand the desire for a ‘timeless’ film that won’t be dated by incorporation of fast-evolving technology, this did seem a bit jarring given the ubiquity of phones in teen culture.)

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In my view, the editing supports the cinematography, which is one of the strengths of the film. Together, they let scenes breathe, so the viewer can soak into the atmosphere – both physical and psychological. The opening shot is like a watercolour of grey clouds with land, green, barely visible. The viewer is instantly struck by the beauty of the place, but also a sense of having reached the end of civilisation. An early close-up on Ester’s mother’s hands, knitting, confirms this. Wide frames of beautiful but washed-out island scenery reinforce the sense of isolation while close ups and point of view shots put us in Ester’s head and emphasizes the intimacy between the girls.

Where I did feel that the film faltered a little was the writing. Marjun Syderbø Kjelnæs is a respected Faroese writer, with some young adult publications under her belt, so I don’t doubt she knows what she’s doing. But the story of a sheltered girl idolising and forming an intense friendship with a tougher peer with problems of her own is far from a new one, and it made it difficult to watch Dreams by the Sea without comparing it to texts that have done a little bit more with the idea (e.g. Jacqueline Wilson’s children’s novel Bad Girls or Metin Hüseyin’s film adaptation of Meera Syal’s Anita and Me).

A key issue is that there weren’t really any consequences for the characters as a result of the central friendship, unlike in e.g. Bad Girls and Anita and Me. Ragna’s mother’s overdose was not causally related (as far as I could tell) to their friendship, and I’m not sure if Ester did learn anything from Ragna’s experiences – when she looks longingly at Ragna leaving the island for the last time, is it her friend she misses or does she still wish she was in Ragna’s place? Ragna  just gets yet another opportunity for stability snatched from her.

Nor did the film really develop the implied sexual tension between the leads. The camera’s framing of Ragna, coupled with Juliet Nattestad’s Ester looking at her like she wants to eat her with her eyes, added a level of ambiguity as to what it is Ester desires from her. The two were also fairly physical in their affection, and were often filmed in intimate settings. But here again I’m not sure if there actually was a lesbian subtext or if I was looking for it based on other films, such as Fucking Åmål (Show Me Love) or Heavenly Creatures, which also feature a stifled brunette becoming enamoured with a less supervised blonde and the attractions of a life beyond their unglamorous environs.

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Like these two films, Dreams by the Sea includes a scene where the intimate and insular relationship between the girls is disrupted by a heterosexual experiment (which is also the only overtly sexual encounter in each film), where the young man is aligned with the parochial context the protagonists want to flee, and is therefore explicitly or implicitly found wanting. In the case of Dreams by the Sea, despite the visual beauty of a tryst by mirror-like lagoons in the blue-grey Nordic twilight, the boys involved are the local louts whose main topic of conversation is who had the biggest ram last year.

And yet Dreams by the Sea neither goes all in on the lesbianism, as in Fucking Åmål, where their newfound romantic relationship makes the boring town survivable for the protagonists, nor does it hint as strongly at lesbian desire as Heavenly Creatures, where it is a component of a dangerously intense relationship that results in violence. Both of these other films link a desire for something different with homosexual desire, and pursue the consequences of both to a point of significant change in the protagonist’s character and situation. In Dreams by the Sea, neither the nature nor the consequences of the two girls’ desire for one another is fully developed, which lessens its dramatic impact and makes me wonder what the lesbian subtext was doing there (if I didn’t imagine it in the first place).

On the other hand, a familiar and generic story with broad appeal is perhaps a good canvas for the first Faroese feature film, that is perhaps more about the country itself than Ester and Ragna. The two girls do work as handy symbols of the contradictions of Faroese life – insular, parochial and dull, or a haven of sorts for those at odds with the mainland. This universality seems to be what director Stórá is going for; in his words:

“We all know either an Ester or a Ragna. They represent much of what we see in lots of people. They represent different sides of the Faroe Islands, and if we don’t recognise them, then it’s because we have been them ourselves.”

And, perhaps overt lesbianism is a bit much to expect from the first feature film in the Faroes, a highly Christian country that has traditionally not looked too favourably on homosexuals (although things are apparently changing).

Narrative discussions aside, one of the central pleasures the film offers for an international audience is the detailed portrayal of an isolated environment and culture. The gorgeous green islands against the salt-bleached colours of the cottages, and the cold grey and steel-blue of the sea and sky. The cry of the gulls and the gossip in knitting circles. The unusual amount of freckles, a legacy perhaps of the Celtic ancestry many Faroese have.

Director Stórá filmed in his hometown on Sandoy, promising a degree of authenticity that comes with familiarity. At a Q&A after the festival screening, the director said that the film offers a fairly honest portrayal of the island, particularly with regard to high degree of religiosity and the role that Christianity plays in the village. Even alcoholism and neglect, while not always discussed, are apparently not uncommon on the islands. However, Stórá joked that people sensibly never believe him when he claims that mobile phones haven’t made it to the Faroes.

And it wasn’t only foreign audiences that enjoyed seeing the Faroes on film. According to Stórá, Faroese are among the top consumers of films (per capita) in the Nordic region, but had never had a Faroese feature to watch. Dreams by the Sea apparently sold more tickets at home than Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Based on the talent displayed in this first feature, I certainly hope for many more. Hopefully the recently established Faroese Film Institute will help the local industry to ride the momentum of Dreams by the Sea‘s achievements.

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Moldova: Anishoara

(2016; writer/director: Ana Felicia Scutelnicu; language: Romanian; co-production with Germany; original title: Anişoara)

Ostensibly a coming-of-age film, Anishoara documents a year in the life of the titular 15 year old, as she finds first love and eventually forges a path towards independence and adulthood. But while the girl Anishoara is the visual and narrative focus of the film, it feels instead like a chronicle of a way of life, a time capsule of rural Moldova as yet forgotten by the march of modernity.

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Moldova is another entry on the list of countries which are not exactly renowned for their cinematic output. The Soviet era did see the production of well-received films such as Emil Loteanu’s 1972 romance Lăutarii, but when Anishoara was listed in my local film festival the choice of Moldovan film for the blog was an easy one; the film is beautifully shot and confidently produced, with an ethnographic perspective that offers a rich window into village life in one of Europe’s most neglected corners.

The plot, as such, is minimal. The film opens with the telling of a folk tale about a beautiful princess who fell in love with the sun, forgoing all other suitors. Mortally burned by her lover’s embrace, she regenerates into a starling, forever trying to reach the sun before falling to earth again. Enter Anishoara (Anishoara Morari), possessed of an unselfconscious beauty and a quiet but palpable presence. The film follows her through four seasons of her teenage life in a small Moldovan village, with each season culminating in a proposal and a rejection, before she gains the means to strike off on her own. The folk tale is thus more of a thematic frame than a literal metaphor: Anishoara, like the starling-princess, is a beautiful girl who rejects all suitors in search of an (unattainable?) ideal, a girl who wants to fly.

While the shifting of the seasons and Anishoara’s coming of age offer the semblance of a linear narrative, the film is more concerned with capturing a fixed time and place. Director Scutelnicu is openly captivated with the raw, self-contained beauty of both Anishoara and her village, having featured both in her previous short feature Panihida. A testimony to Scutelnicu’s enthrallment, the film is immersed in sensory details of the village life: the sounds as Anishoara uses hands and feet to apply mud to her home’s walls. The texture of mist, of cigarette smoke, of the steam from a horse. Anishoara’s grandfather’s wizened, toothless face. The ripple and rattle of wind through a field of bobbing sunflower heads. The sounds of birds, of frogs, of insects. The processing of corn by hand.

And yet, although richly evocative, the camera’s intense gaze is also impassive, keeping the viewer at a psychological remove. We may be offered a window into Anishoara’s life, but little is revealed about the inner workings of her mind or the emotional currents of the village. It is as though the fleeting moment director Scutelnicu seeks to capture – a girl on the brink of adulthood, a way of life in a remove village – has been cast in amber, preserved and observable, but temporally sealed off.

This temporal displacement is discernible in Scutelnicu‘s intention to “[share] with the public an almost silent and introvert sight on the human ages, the passing of time and the importance of moving out of the weight of existence.” And while time may pass in the film, it is a pre-modern time, governed by the rhythms of the seasons and the cyclical logic of folk-tales (such as that of the starling-princess, ever rising and falling). Anishoara acts to mythologise the present as though it is already long past.

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The film presents a world rooted in the old, on the cusp of the new. Tractors, motorbikes and buses have not entirely taken over from bicycles, horses and pony-carts. Traditional costumes are worn at Easter, and young people still turn out for village celebrations with traditional folk dance and songs. There are no televisions. The carousel at the funfair is rickety, and Anishoara is the only passenger. Church spires are the sole vertical challenge to the vast empty landscapes.

And yet this is not a world outside of our own – modernity exists simultaneously, just elsewhere. Why, otherwise, are there no working age people in the village? Have they disappeared to jobs in the city, or to larger farms as demanded by the march of industry? A jarring intrusion of the modern into the village occurs when a German tourist (William Menne) sets his sights on Anishoara. His visit to a salon to get his grey dyed a synthetic black, wearing a leopard-print hairdressers cape, could have been anywhere in today’s Europe, and is a reminder of both Anishoara and her village’s vulnerability.

The film’s almost documentary-like quality does raise questions about the reality of the way of life portrayed. While some of the actors are professionals, many are non-professionals from the village, whose ‘characters’ share their actual names. Scutelnicu describes the screenplay as “an open form… developed while shooting and reacting to the real life happening in front and behind the camera. The editing was also long and special, as the film had to be recreated and found new out of the material.” This certainly suggests a degree of genuineness to the culture and practices depicted, rather than an attempt to exaggerate a bygone pastoral simplicity for romantic effect.

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Indeed, the impassivity of the film’s gaze has been praised for neither romtanticising nor debasing Anishoara or her village. Moldova has the lowest GDP of any country in Europe, and is the only European country ranked below ‘high human development’ in the Human Development Index, and it shows. Anishoara and her family are poor. But they are not abject. The shops have little in them, but the village and surrounding countryside is beautiful. Anishoara seems to take pleasure in many aspects of her life and culture.

On the other hand, Scutelnicu does not shy away from hinting at some grimmer undercurrents to the girl’s life, particularly at the hands of men. Her grandfather threatens to “thrash her little bum”, and his drinking buddies joke about forcing themselves on her while she listens, rigidly upright in her bed in the next room. German visitor Mr. Schmidt leeringly places a wedding veil on her head, and even boyfriend Dragos (Dragos Scutelnicu) turns out to have a wife and kids back home in the next village. But despite the lingering threat of assault, it never occurs. As Variety‘s Jessica Kiang writes,

“more often than not the dramatic thing does not happen, merely the truthful one. And the truth here is that these lives are neither ennobled nor impoverished by the lack of werewithal; they simply are, as they have always been.”

This lack of drama could easily have made for a dull film, particularly as the film’s removed and observational quality means very little is actually revealed about Anishoara’s thoughts and emotions. There is minimal dialogue, and such as there is is desultory, as meaningful as silence. And yet Scutelnicu nevertheless achieves a charged atmosphere. Glances, environments, and even non-events come to take on a deeper significance: Dragos takes her on a trip to the ocean for the first time (Moldova is landlocked), but the chilly desolation of the wintry beach and the boredom of simply hanging out undercuts the romance. A visit to a cliff-side with ancient carvings while clouds speed in the blue sky overhead is an echo of the dreamy, mystical peril of Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock. And even if none of the men’s threats actually eventuate in assault, the matter-of-factness of their existence would itself be enough to understand Anishoara’s decision, at the end of the film, to get into a yellow bus and drive it off into the sunrise.

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The film reminds me of a style I associate with Sofia Coppola – luminous, visually rich but with a firm emotional separation between viewer and characters. In Anishoara as in The Virgin Suicides or Marie Antionette there is a similar impression of surface beauty and implied threat, where the viewer can neither touch nor intervene; there are hints of an interior life that can be guessed at but never fully known. (Are there films like this about men? Or is it always women, young women, who are beautiful, ephemeral, vulnerable with their penetrable bodies but sphinx-like with their impenetrable minds? A stray thought, I digress…)

Scutelnicu has created a beautiful, subtle film in which her gaze is a presence almost as tangible as those it observes. She shares with the viewer a young girl’s confrontation with her surroundings, without drama or explanation, offering witness to a way of life and a youthful innocence that is on the brink of being lost. The film was a great way to learn about Moldova – “a regional film without kitsch” (as Scutelnicu’s previous film was described), with detailed and dignified depictions of folk customs, agricultural practices, and what young people do (or don’t do) for fun. It was a particular privilege to see, in such detail, the beautiful Moldovan landscape throughout all four seasons – the clusters of run down houses in rocky valleys, the buttery sun on rolling fields in the steppes, the thick layers of snow in the winter.

But I can’t help wishing that the viewer was allowed more access to Anishoara’s inner life. What does she dream of? What makes her happy? Who is she really? Who are any of the villagers, when you scratch the surface? In this sense I don’t feel like I really got to know Moldova – I know what it looks like now, but not what makes its people tick.

eSwatini: Liyana

(2017; directors: Aaron Kopp and Amanda Kopp; language: English and Swati; co-production with USA and Qatar)

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Liyana takes an interesting twist on the film within a film device by merging hard-hitting development documentary with a vibrantly animated children’s story. The film is partly the story of the a girl who departs on an epic hero’s journey to find and reclaim her two brothers from brutal kidnappers. It is also a live-action documentary about a group of children at the Likhaya Lemphilo Lensha orphanage in rural eSwatini*, who are creating and telling Liyana’s story as a way to process and discuss the traumas in their backgrounds.

* As part of his recent 50th birthday celebrations, King Mswati III decreed that the Kingdom of Swaziland would be renamed eSwatini. While I’m normally all for linguistic decolonisation, the lack of democracy in one of the world’s few remaining absolute monarchies does give me pause as to the legitimacy of the name change. But for lack of any argument as to why ‘Swaziland’ is better, I’ll go with the new one.

While various local film initiatives do seem to be in the works in the tiny, poverty-stricken kingdom, there aren’t a great many Swazi films to choose from as a foreign audience, even including foreign productions set and filmed there. Richard E Grant’s semi-autobiographical Wah-Wah is a notable exception, but with a solidly colonial perspective that is probably rather out of step with the average Swazi’s reality. Nor is Liyana an entirely local film, directed by Americans (although director Aaron Kopp grew up in Swaziland), Kickstarted, McArthur-granted, Abigail Disney and Thandie Newton among its executive producers, and with (the apparently ubiquitous) postproduction funding from Qatar. But Liyana is committed to showcasing Swazi stories, told (literally) by Swazis, making it the kind of film that this blog is all about.

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eSwatini has the highest rate of HIV-infection in the world, and consequently one of the lowest average life-expectancies. 200,000 children are left as orphans (in a country with a little over a million people), often with nowhere to turn for economic support or protection from abuse. The Likhaya Lemphilo Lensha orphanage is one safe harbour, established and run by the director Aaron Kopp’s family.

This set up could easily have led to a self-aggrandising development documentary about the Kopp family’s mission, but that clearly wasn’t the film that the duo wanted to make:

“Aaron: I knew we wanted to make a film about these kids. There are a lot of films about African kids that are exploitative and they profit from the suffering and the poverty. These kids were our friends and we wanted to make a film that didn’t make them feel vulnerable, embarrassed or any way shameful. We wanted to tell their story in a way that wouldn’t expose them.

Amanda: It’s about them.

Aaron: We wanted to put them in the driving seat because we knew they would take us on a wild ride.”

By structuring the film around a storytelling workshop, the subjects of the documentary are able to retain a level of ownership over how their stories are told. With some exceptions, it is generally the narrative choices the children make that bear witness to their experiences, allowing for a safe distancing between the traumas implied and any individual child’s background. It also allows a certain self-affirmation from the kids themselves, with storytelling becoming a metaphor for self-determination. In the words of the one of the kids: “Sometimes it’s more difficult to live your life than writing a story. But I am the storyteller, I want my story to end well.”

Under the guidance of the legendary Gcina Mhlope (South African activist, story-teller, writer and director), a narrative takes form. Mhlope leads them through the process of creating the character Liyana and her story, choosing the gender, name and look of the character (using cuttings from magazines to piece together her face), and building the story together. Nigerian-born artist Shofela Coker’s minimally animated stills illustrate the children’s lively and engaging narration, occasionally cutting to live action footage of the children’s hammy gestures and enthusiastic sound effects as they narrate a scene.

Indeed, this interplay is one of the film’s key strengths. Aaron Kopp explains, “as the children in the film tell the story, they’re energetic and charismatic, so we found that limiting the motion in the animation kept it from competing with the documentary footage of the kids.” Instead Coker created “breathing paintings”, a series of vibrantly coloured images that faithfully depict the varied Southern African landscape, and weave together the fantastical aspects of the story with mundane features of the children’s day to day lives.

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The story sees Liyana embark on a quest to recover her brothers from brutal kidnappers, proudly bearing her grandmother’s lihiya (Swazi traditional shawl) and accompanied by a white bull (the animated version of a real life bull belonging to the orphanage). Tracking the her stolen brothers across the varied Southern African terrain, the two companions traverse grassy mountains like the ones around the rural orphanage, escape crocodiles and hyenas, survive exhaustion and despair in the desert-like lowveld, and feast on mangoes in the forest. Her brave quest ends in triumph, freeing not only her brothers but all the other children kidnapped by the robbers, as well as the captive monster used to terrorise them (a move which seals the doom of the robbers when the unchained beast turns on them).

The fact that it is the children’s own story renders powerful aspects of the narrative that could otherwise seem overdone. As one of the kids puts it, “not everything is ok in Liyana’s family”, and this is putting it mildly. Even before her adventure begins, pre-teen Liyana has suffered poverty (her clay and stick hut with its thatched roof is described as “a poor house”), abusive alcoholism and paternal neglect, her parents dying of HIV, and rape. If told from a outsider’s view, this could come off as lip-service to a shopping list of “African problems” like that in B’ella, but coming from the children it instead bears a poignant witness to their collective backgrounds.

Significantly, this is however background, a fact of life, but not defining of Liyana nor integral to her hero’s journey. Once her circumstances are established, Liyana’s quest becomes one of perseverance, care, and community building as she returns home with all the rescued orphans to form a new family. The message, in the children’s words, is: “overcome fear, hold on to hope. Keep going.” Again, what could have been a trite cliché instead “reverberates with the hard-won celebratory ring of firsthand experience,” as reviewer Sheri Lynden puts it.

The children are also responsible for the moments of occasional wackyness in Liyana’s story. I particularly liked a detour where Liyana sees the sea for the first time (eSwatini being landlocked), and her bull snorts in disgust upon discovering that seawater tastes like “salty armpits”. The kids then imagine up a kind of meta sequence where Liyana imagines an undersea realm ruled by a king and queen whose wealth and majesty are evidenced by the nice clothes they wear and the good food they eat (is this a conscious reference to the disparity between King Mswati and his impoverished populace?).

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The conceit of the children’s narrative as a metaphor for their real experiences was hammered home by inter-cutting with documentary footage from their daily life at the orphanage. Where it worked was in showing the relationship between the children’s lives and their creative process, like when a monster constructed by one of the children was shown to be a prototype for the animated one in Liyana’s story, or where Liyana’s feasting on mangoes is shown to be a favourite pastime of the children as well. But transitions via e.g. a sunset to extended footage of the children playing football or having dinner together did feel a bit forced. The sequences themselves, while underscoring the theme of home and community as vital for healing, were somewhat overlong and felt at times like padding. (I did like getting to look around the rural landscape with green and craggy hills that reminded me of my native country, but I’m not sure I needed to watch the kids go swimming, beautiful as the scenery was).

In addition to being occasionally disjointed, the documentary footage also ran the risk of undermining the wise choice to let the children’s speak for themselves about their experiences via their constructed narrative. At one point the film follows the children to an HIV-clinic where they receive their medicine, and one young boy, Thulani, is being tested. The kindly doctor asks him where he lives, to which the frightened boy responds “Home”. It’s a nail-biting sequence waiting for the results, and an undeniably cute and thematic answer from the child, but did seem to me like the film had strayed into the kind of exposure that the film-makers claimed to want to avoid (even if the test results did come back negative).

On balance, however, I think the film-makers succeeded in creating an engaging and beautiful film. Its hybrid animation-documentary format puts the warmth and self-determination of its subjects at the centre without pulling any punches about the acute situation for many Swazi children. The film doesn’t have anything directly to say about the adult world in eSwatini, rife with extreme inequality and human rights abuses, but they are arguably present in some sense as an underlying cause of the children’s situation. Instead, the film is firmly from the children’s perspective – children who have already borne a lifetime of suffering, but who still find pleasure and hope in the world.

Ethiopia: Lamb

(2015; writer/director: Yared Zeleke; language: Amharic; co-production with France, Germany, Norway and Qatar)

Ephraïm and Chuni are best friends – Chuni is the titular lamb (grown into a teenage sheep), and Ephraïm (Rediat Amare) a boy desperately in need of stability and companionship. His mother has died in the latest drought, and his father has moved to Addis Ababa to look for work, leaving Ephraïm with impoverished relatives in a distant part of the country. His great aunt is imposing but kindly (and armed with her own personal whip called ‘the oncoming storm’ or something like that), but his father’s cousin Solomon (Surafel Teka) is disappointed in Ephraïm’s talent for cooking rather than farming – the former being women’s work, and a skill inherited from Ephraïm’s mother. To add to the tension, Solomon’s wife Azeb (Rahel Teshome) is consumed with concern for her sickly and undernourished daughter, and irritated by her stepdaughter Tsion’s (Kidist Siyum) predilection for reading instead of housework and finding a husband. Matters come to a head when it is decided that the menu for the upcoming religious celebration will prominently feature lamb…

Lamb felt like an obvious choice, as the first Ethiopian film to screen at Cannes and having garnered positive reviews internationally. Although not new to cinema, the country has struggled to maintain and strengthen the industry in the face of censorship under the military dictatorship and a perpetual lack of resources. Although a couple of recent films have attained international reach, Lamb looked like the one I would most enjoy. The aim of writer/director Zeleke to show off the splendour of even the most impoverished Ethiopian lifestyles also felt like a good fit for the intentions of this blog. (In fact, the lack of positive portrayals of Ethiopia internationally apparently posed another challenge to making the film – people were wary of appearing it!) In Zeleke’s words:

Ethiopians can be afraid of the camera because they know the country doesn’t have a good image abroad because of the famine and the poverty. It’s as if the only thing the world knows about it is its worst aspects… Despite the dictatorship and war and famine and poverty — I had even grown up in a slum — I still feel I had a fairy-tale childhood. There was a lot of love and good food and colorful characters and incredible Christian festivities that I’d grown up with… In Ethiopia, there is no colonial legacy. The culture is untouched. It’s a dream for a filmmaker and storyteller. Beauty and heartache, it’s there.

And indeed it all is there, so thoroughly and lovingly captured by the filmmakers that others have described Lamb as an ethnography from the inside (although I found one reviewer who questioned the script’s naturalism). The camera luxuriates in the rural setting, glorying in the dramatic hills and the intimate lives of their inhabitants, human and non-human alike. Lamb allows the viewer time to acclimatise, to study its protagonists’ fashions, hairstyles, farming tools, and religious practices. To jostle with them in dusty markets and ride buses with sheep tied to the roof. To learn the recipe for sambusas, and climb through an otherworldly forest to reach a jaw-dropping mountaintop.

But it’s also a film concerned with modern problems and Ethiopia’s place in global systems, and in particular how drought and financial vulnerability affects subsistence farmers. Ephraïm’s brusque aunt Azeb becomes more relatable when you realise she is witnessing her child literally starve to death, and his uncle’s decision to eat Chuni is also rendered less callous (spoiler alert: the lamb lives). The film is set in the droughts of the 1980s, and the situation is not necessarily that much better today. According to Zeleke:

Ethiopia is experiencing a changing climate. There is a debate in some parts of the United States, but here in Ethiopia it’s a reality. 85% are still farmers. So it’s not even a debate, it’s a reality. Our country was once very forested, very green. Today it’s mostly deforested, but outside of that, the pollution from wealthier countries is causing havoc on the lives of farmers here.

In the film, the main hope for the future comes from Tsion, already educating herself about methods to improve her family and her country’s lot. It was nice to see local scientists featured in her reading material, highlighting the level of knowledge and drive that exists in the country. Her father, however, is less interested in the nutritional equivalence of lentils to meat or the fertilising properties of urine, and so Tsion rejects her prescribed future as a farmer’s bride and runs off to find her way to a higher education.

Her story could have been a film in itself, but perhaps less simple, and therefore less effective.The true strength of the film is the universal appeal of a well-executed classic children’s narrative – the lonely child banished to imposing and vaguely hostile relatives, trying to find his place in the world. It succeeds in establishing a child’s perspective in a way that Azerbaijan’s Buta (for example) failed to do, partly thanks to the sympathetic performance of its young star, and partly because it takes the time to inhabit a child’s sense of wonder, and their ambiguous integration into the adult world, conveyed with scintillating cinematography by Josée Deshaie. One of my favourite scenes was of Ephraïm alone on top of a ‘magic’ mountain, where you could feel him letting his spirits loose into the vast green expanse beyond and the grass and untouched earth beneath him – a release from the stifling atmosphere of his new home and a place to properly mourn his mother.

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For me, the film was at its weakest when it deviated from the focus on Ephraïm or his family, and veered too far into showing off the positives of Ethiopia to a foreign audience. For instance, several reviewers have focussed on the religious diversity and harmony depicted at certain times in the film: Ephraïm is half-Jewish through his mother, which  reviewers point out doesn’t seem to cause any trouble for his Christian relatives, and he also has a friendly interaction with a young Muslim girl. These references were few, however, and felt shoehorned in more as a way to show off the absence of religious conflict in Ethiopia than as something of relevance to the film’s characters or narrative.

The temptation to cover everything is perhaps a common problem for pioneering film-makers from ‘developing’ countries. If yours is one of the first films about the country to be screen internationally, it’s natural to want to declaim the positives while also highlighting problems caused by global inequalities. But unlike Malawi’s B’ella, which suffered hugely from this, Lamb manages largely to stick with its central story – the friendship between boy and sheep in a majestic natural setting. (We’re unlikely to see a similar topic from Zeleke in the future – he has apparently vowed never to work with an animal again).

Even if Lamb is clearly targeting a foreign audience, that didn’t stop me (a foreign audience, after all) from enjoying it, and I did learn a fair bit about Ethiopia in terms of geography, farming practices, religious diversity, gender roles, cooking, and international relations. I also learned that you can take anything on a bus in rural Ethiopia. Given the size of the country and the extent of its history, I certainly hope there will be more Ethiopian cinema to come.

Indonesia: A Woman from Java

(2016; writer/director: Garin Nugroho; language: Bahasa Indonesian; original title: Nyai)

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Set entirely on the titular Javanese woman’s porch in Yogyakarta 1927, and filmed in a single 90-minute take, the film uses a series of visitors to explore the gender, economic and religious politics of Indonesian society at a time of burgeoning movements for independence. As she deals with each new visitor, the oppressive nature of Nyai’s past, present and future are revealed, as is the steely resolve underlying her prim composure and outward air of acceptance.

As A Woman From Java itself makes clear, the Indonesian film industry has a long history. Two of the film’s characters excitedly discuss the 1926 film Loetoeng Kasaroeng, the first to be produced in the Dutch East Indies (the colonial name for Indonesia), based on a Java-Sundanese folk-tale and featuring an indigenous cast. Although that film is now lost, more recent post-independence classics have emerged such as Usmar Ismail’s Lewat Djam Malam (After the Curfew), and Eros Djarot’s 1988 war epic Tjoet Nja’ Dhien which won big at Cannes. More recently the industry has achieved a different sort of renown with low-grade exploitation flicks and occasional cult hits like The Raid. Each of these would probably teach me something about Indonesia and I hope to see them one day. But in the meantime the opportunity to attend the European premiere of celebrated film-maker Garin Nugroho’s latest offering felt too good to pass up.

Nugroho’s films have been described as political, artistic and exploratory, but also incredibly varied stylistically, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect beyond my curiosity about the one-take format.  And after viewing it I’m still not really sure what to make of it. Artistic it certainly is, with elegant set and costume design and sensitively composed shots revealing an assured eye for beauty.  In fact, in spite of the restrictions of a single take, the camera work was excellent, moving smoothly from mid-shot to close-up, from corner to interior, allowing even the most subtle of colours and textures to breathe: the muted greens and tans of the house, the carved wooden screens, the batik shawls and sarongs and Western lace, the bright outfits of the dancers.

Perhaps my main reservation is the film’s theatricality – it felt to a certain extent like watching a recorded play. The camera’s consistent position on the far side of porch created a distinct fourth wall, but even aspects of the set design felt theatrical, such as the use of different entrances and exits as characters alternated their time on the porch. This theatricality was echoed in the somewhat stagey performances, as well as other aspects such as the use of soliloquy, the lighting design of the final seconds (a spot on Nyai while the rest fades to black), and the incorporation of song and dance as emotional symbols. Even the characterisation of the two servants, a man and the woman known only as “Maid”, felt like Shakespearean comic relief staples.

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Against this stagey production design, for me it was actually the sensitive camerawork that demarcated it from filmed theatre; shots like the opening one that starts at Nyai’s feet while her servants pray before panning up to include her whole body neatly use film’s ability to selectively frame as a way to establish her authority. And while the theatricality wasn’t necessarily immediately to my taste, the film’s narrative is so symbol-driven anyway that it’s hard to imagine the director taking a more naturalistic route. An unusual way to make a film, but it worked.

In an interview from 2007, Nugroho states that “in Asia we have a more symbolic relationship with narrative than you do in the West.

Certainly, A Woman From Java makes heavy use of symbol in order to encapsulate an entire Javan society (past, and, one suspects, with nods to the present) on one porch over the course of an hour and a half. It is ostensibly the story of Nyai (Annisa Hertami), a woman from Java, welcoming visitors on the occasion of her sickly older Dutch husband’s birthday. But each set of visitors represents a section of Indonesian society, and in turn reveal more about Nyai (and her husband’s) place in it. In fact, as the film reveals, Nyai herself has had her identity and individuality revoked; although born Asih (‘love’), she was sold by her father at age 15 into marriage with a Dutchman. As a consequence, she became Nyai, originally a term for married woman it became a specific and derogatory term for the mistresses of European men.

And what a pig of a European she was sold to. Willem is now aged and sick, falling asleep in between groping the young virgin dancers he ordered for his birthday, and pulling a gun on any native he doesn’t like the look of. I think his infirmity was a wise decision from the film-maker. Nyai’s overt sexual exploitation is presumably largely in the past, and yet her economic and social freedom is still curtailed by her forced relationship to a man. Willem himself is shown to be so weak in body and pathetic in character that it I doubt any one would want to identify with him. Thus, the risk of Nyai’s sexual slavery being titillating is mitigated, and the film is able to focus on Nyai’s pursuit of economic and legal emancipation against patriarchal and colonial structures.

It also means Willem can largely be kept in bed and out of shot so that Nyai is the one to greet all the guests that trickle in. Dancers and musicians (gamelan players!) come by for Willem’s birthday, but also visitors with other agendas. Nyai is visited by Muslim religious leaders keen to reclaim her from the infidel status her relationship to Willem confers, and they promise, unsuccessfully, to stop the local kids throwing dung at her. But it’s not religious or moral approval Nyai wants. That is revealed by a visit from her lawyer, paid for by Nyai’s dwindling stash of jewellery, who is finding a way for Nyai to legally inherit Willem’s estate. The lawyer proposes that Muslim law, rather than Dutch, might be a better way to go, but generally seems more interested in his project to unite Muslims, Communists, labourers and Indonesian nationalists to join forces and overthrow the Dutch. One wonders how much attention Nyai’s jewellery is actually buying her.

Another round of visitors are striking labourers from Willem’s plantation, who demonstrate the economic as well as physical brutality of colonialism. The labourers want some of their land back, being unable to subsist off what Willem pays them (some, on other plantations are paid in tin discs instead of real coins). What’s the difference, they ask, between this and the recently abolished slavery? Instead it has given way to new oppression at the hands of foreign capitalists, despite the lofty promises of liberalism and rights promised by the Western rulers.

Nyai is even allowed a rare moment of genuine pleasure with a surprise visit from a man from Surabaya. For reasons unclear, Mr Sastro is writing a book about Nyai and has been corresponding with her for years. His extravagantly sensual mustaches make the intent of this particular visit all too clear. His suggestion of narrative possibilities for the book: “one is about Nyai feeling guilty for marrying a European and then she runs off with a Muslim man, which ends tragically.” Rather than running away with Sastro, Nyai has her eyes on the prize. After the humiliation of being sold to Willem, she has gained back her dignity by educating and polishing herself – simultaneously improving her ‘worth’ as a woman, but also her self-worth and self-determination. But ultimately the arrival of the Dutch accountants put paid to all her efforts, and the camera finally enters the house as it is literally being taken from her piece by piece. And for the first time Nyai’s composure fractures, and she unleashes her fury on Willem before the film ends with Nyai dancing a chillingly slow Yogyakarta pistol dance, desperate but also triumphant.

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All in all, an intriguing film that successfully incorporates aspects of the theatre medium while also being beautifully shot. The one-take format worked well stylistically with the film’s theatricality, but also thematically – reinforcing the rigid borders of Nyai’s physical existence. Even if the theatricality isn’t completely to my taste, it was effective in conveying the message that the film wanted to achieve. This is unsurprising, given director Nugroho’s views on style and substance:

I never think about ‘Third World Cinema.’ For me every person or community of filmmakers develops their own style to make a statement… The real issue has to do with the relationship of cinema with social and political problems. European cinema was so dynamic in the 1940s through to the 1960s because of its relationship with political problems. Today, even though the quality is very good, European films are voiceless. By contrast, in Asia today we have so many crises. Political and economic life is so full of suspense and surprise. You can see Asian films reflecting this instability. This is my opinion: the cinema runs parallel with the political, the social and the cultural.

Suffice to say, watching this film I learned a lot about the political, the social and the cultural in pre-Independence Indonesia, and from a female protagonist’s perspective. I also learned that while Indonesian dancing is impressive and potentially violent, Indonesian love songs from the 1920s seem as cheesy as the ones that turn up on Indonesian karaoke today. I was a little disappointed not to see much of the Indonesian landscape, even if various aspects of Indonesian (or at least Javanese) culture did get a good showcase. In locking the action to a single take on one porch, it made the film feel insular in the same way that Laos’ Chanthaly did, and both films share a focus on isolated women shut up in a house that is both a refuge and a source of patriarchal control. I guess if I want to see an Indonesian female protagonist kicking ass outdoors I’ll need to find a subtitled version of Tjoet Nja’ Dhien somewhere.

Comoros: Kwassa Kwassa

(2015; director: Tuan Andrew Nguyen; writer: Tuan Andrew Nguyen/SUPERFLEX; language: Comoronian; production of Denmark and Vietnam)

Comprising a series of islands in the Indian Ocean, between Mozambique and Madagascar, Comoros is one of the smallest (and poorest) African nations. It is also a country I despaired of ever finding a film from. Diaspora film-makers such as Hachimiya Ahamada (Ashes of Dreams, The Ylang-Ylang Residence) and Ouméma Mamadali (Baco) have pioneered film-making in the country, but these are difficult to find (especially with English subtitles) now that their debut on the festival circuit is past. So when I saw Kwassa Kwassa listed in my local film festival, I thought – well, close enough. Kwassa Kwassa fails almost all the criteria I have for this blog: it’s a short film (19 mins), a documentary, and produced entirely by foreigners – helmed by Vietnamese director Nguyen and Danish art collective SUPERFLEX. And yet I include it here because it is perhaps the only film I will ever get to see that is filmed in and about Comoros.

The film opens with a boat alone in a blue sea, and a voice that says (in Comoronian): “you will listen to our voice, our voice will take you to the edge of Europe, and beyond. Two islands, same people, one European, and one not…”

‘Kwassa kwassa’ is the local word for the small open fishing boats used to ferry passengers from the Union of Comoros islands to Mayotte, a French territory in the Comoros archipelago and the farthest outpost of the European Union. The journey from Anjouan (where the film takes place) to Mayotte is only 70km, and yet this span of sea is the border between Africa and Europe, and (according to the film, at least) between penury and wealth, between despair and a future. Although only a short journey between two Comoronian islands, it is a journey forbidden by migration law and thus fraught with danger. The film states that more than 10,000 people have died trying to cross.

Against this background, the film focuses on the Anjouan-based makers of the kwassa kwassa boats. Exquisitely detailed montages of the boat-building process are overlaid with narration (by Soumette Ahmed – a local, one hopes?) detailing the geopolitical situation (historical and present), the dangers faced on the crossing and the reasons for attempting it, as well as ruminating on the mythical and incongruous nature of borders, nations, and Europe itself.

An art-film at heart, Kwassa Kwassa is beautifully shot. Detailed close-ups and snappy editing render the messy labour of manually crafting the fiberglass vessels into a work of art, simultaneously showing up the boat-makers’ craft and helping the viewer to experience the process on a tactile level. I was captivated. Also stunning are the aerial shots of Anjouan and the surrounding ocean, both visually effective and a testament to the artistic potential of drone-based camerawork. The clear turquoise of the Indian Ocean as it nears the shore, the glittering indigo of the deep open sea, and the run-down concrete bunkers of the settlement on Anjouan, studded with green explosions of palms.

However, I was less taken with how the film delivered its political and philosophical content – a desperately relevant challenge to conceptions of what and who is ‘Europe’ and the material violence necessary to uphold the demarcation between European and Other. But I felt that the film, in exploring the short and deadly journey between ‘African’ Anjouan and ‘European’ Mayotte, got that message across vividly without the slightly hammy disembodied whisper of the narrator pointing this out, or recounting the myth of Zeus and Europa (the point that Europa herself was an immigrant carried across the Mediterranean was also made, perhaps better, in Elfriede Jelinek’s The Supplicants).

For me, the comparison with the myth was a distraction, and served to focus the film on Europe and its aura of hope and security, bolstered further by the narrator’s description of Mayotte as “a sleeping beauty surrounded by thorns”. Both of these metaphors draw on a European fabular lexicon and make Mayotte out to be a prize, without dwelling on the stories and contexts of Anjouans who are willing to risk everything to claim it. For the film-makers, apparently, kwassa kwassa are not merely a literal means of conducting a dangerous and life-altering journey, they are also symbols of “a carrier of dreams of reaching a better life on the other shore”.

I would have preferred a little less symbol and a bit more detail about the lives of the non-Europeans – the Comoronians and others (the film shows a Vietnamese family also making the journey in the kwassa kwassa), and perhaps the legacies of colonialism and imperialism that have prompted them to take to the boats. Hints are dropped: there have apparently been 20+ coups in Comoros since independence from the French (many, according to the film, orchestrated by the French government); and poverty and injustice – “you can’t eat identity, but identity will always eat you, like the ocean”.

Nor do we get much insight into the motivations of the passeurs – those who ‘traffick’ the emigrants to Mayotte. Are they exploiting their desperate passengers, or are their charges fair compensation for the risks involved? If they have the capability to take themselves to Mayotte, why don’t they remain? And what indeed happens to those passengers that make it to Mayotte? I understand that as a short art film these details might have distracted from the concentrated motifs and parable that the film is going for, but I can’t help wondering if a film more grounded in the lives of the people it depicts would have provided more nuance and insight.

Despite these qualms the film is still powerful, partly through its shared intelligibility with the horrors currently unfolding on the shores of mainland Europe – a comparison the film makes overtly. Effective also is the stunning cinematography, and the contrast between the beauty of the Indian Ocean and its deadly potential. But really, the power is in the harrowing journey the passengers must undergo, and the film wisely gives its last few minutes over to this. The emigrants board the boat and it sets off. The only sound is the waves, the passengers are silent, intent. And then we see the boat alone, white and bullet shaped, on a dark blue sea.

In conclusion, though visually stunning, philosophically it’s an elevated and unsubtle film, with a European focus and little detail about the lives of everyday Comorians.  However, as an example of the incongruous violence that colonialism and current inequalities entail it is a powerful film, and one that makes me want to learn more about what leads a country to divide itself so harshly.

Uzbekistan: 40 Days of Silence

(2014; writer/director: Saodat Ismailova; language: Uzbek; original title: Chilla; co-production with Tajikistan, the Netherlands, Germany and France)

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Teenage Bibicha (Rushana Sadikova) undertakes a vow of silence – the titular chilla for a 40 day period. She moves in with her grandmother Bibi Soadat (Saodat Rahminova) in Bibi’s isolated mountain home, along with her worldly aunt Khamida (Barohad Shukurova) newly returned from ‘the city’, and Khamida’s illegitimate young daughter Sharifa (Farida Olimova). Through the subtle interactions between these characters, and meditative sound and imagery, the film examines the lives and choices of the three generations of Uzbek women as they negotiate the forces of tradition and gendered power structures.

My brief research into the Uzbek film industry turned up a decent number of well-received films from the Soviet era, and more modern hits such as Abdullajon (a science fiction comedy film which looks kind of fun), but unfortunately both the Soviet era classics and the post-independence productions are difficult to access with English subtitles. So, as is increasingly becoming the case, I let availability dictate and went with the Uzbek entry in my local film festival. As I’m also keen to include films helmed by women, and those with a clear focus on women’s lives, 40 Days of Silence seemed like a great choice for the blog. I was therefore a little disappointed to learn as the closing credits rolled that it was actually filmed in neighbouring Tajikistan (more photogenic? Cheaper? who knows…). But culturally and narratively the film seems solidly Uzbek, so I’m still going to use it here.

The film starts in a redly-lit basement with an oppressive metallic soundtrack. A stressed-looking Bibicha is surrounded by ghost-like apparitions of her family members, who debate whether or not she will survive her chilla. It is unclear why Bibicha is undergoing this ordeal, nor in what sense is poses a danger, but her undertaking is met with grave respect. (My initial thought was that she was pregnant, but this proved not to be). After this dramatic beginning, the rest of the film then resolves into a state of apparent calm, albeit one charged with tension and unease. The homely comforts of the women’s remote peasant life are overlaid with something unspoken and hard to pinpoint, a chronic and stifling atmosphere of oppression that bears relentlessly down on them.

40 Days of Silence is very much a festival film; it’s poetic, exploratory, and without much narrative drive or tension. In a lot of ways it felt like a film that wanted neither to show nor tell, but to use all the devices available to the medium to evoke a sense of the women’s lives and psyches on an almost tangible level. Some of these devices were more effective and well-executed than others – I personally was not a fan of the swirling blurred visuals used at one point, symbolic as they may be. Much more effective was the sensitive interplay between sound and image throughout the film. The central protagonist’s silence is most obvious aspect of this – her lack of dialogue forces the viewer to broaden their sensory awareness, taking in visual and auditory clues that combine to create a visceral experience of atmosphere, as opposed to plot or verbal forms of sense-making.

I’ve seen other films about vows of silence, and these tend to get their drama from instances where the protagonist really needs to talk. Few have captured the yawning stretch of isolation and dull introspection that such a vow might entail, a form of self-imposed solitary confinement. 40 Days of Silence conveys this through heightened attention to the mundane details of life at Bibi Saodat’s home – the fizz of rain leaking through the roof and landing on the heated hearth. The cacophony of goats going at the bare branches of the winter trees. The obscene guzzling of one bold goat who climbs onto the table to consume leftovers from the women’s dinner. The rasp of Bibi Saodat’s hands stroking those of her granddaughter. In contrast, the discordant tones of Aunt Khamida’s constant cell phone use become an unbearable agony, a comment perhaps on encroaching modernisation? And subtly invading these moments of quiet and stillness was a murky and disturbing soundtrack, like a white noise inside Bibicha’s head, charging the apparent normalcy with a lingering threat.

Reviewer Patrick Gamble put all this more concisely and poetically: “Dark, haunting scenes of personal reflection are accompanied by the throbbing, ominous vacuum of nothingness, and from the onset the audience find themselves in a nightmarish landscape where the pain and suffering of the past coexists with the present. By positioning us within the subjectivity of Bibicha, all other senses are sharpened. Ismailova utilises dense layers of sound, overlaid visuals and extreme close-ups to give a poetically tragic edge to what is, for Bibicha at least, already a sombre existence.”

Even Bibicha’s characterisation must largely be intuited from sensory cues – while Sadikova gives an impressive performance in what must have been a challenging role, her face is often partially or entirely concealed. The symbolism is understandable given the themes of women’s oppression and limitation, and in the context of debates (verbalised at one point in the film) over whether or Uzbek women should engage in the (as I understand it, non-traditional) practice of wearing a veil – a signal of the tensions around the meaning of Islam in an independent Uzbekistan. But even if symbolic, I kept feeling that if I couldn’t hear the actress speak, I at least wanted to see her. I was unwillingly distracted throughout much of the film by boredom stemming from not knowing what was going on, who was feeling what, or why. I put this down not to any of the performances but rather to the film’s experimental nature and its preference for layers of symbolism over anchoring these to narrative or characterisation.

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At times the camera broke away from the purely domestic, revealing wide vistas of Bibicha’s mountainous surroundings. But where shots such as these are often associated with freedom or the space to ‘find oneself’, in Ismailova’s film they do the opposite, intensifying – rather than relieving – the atmosphere of suffocation and confinement. We watch painfully as a barefoot Bibicha climbs a looming mountain of sharp shale; a cluster of buildings is an island in a looming veil of clouds; a forest of black twigs brings to mind the impenetrable isolation of the Sleeping Beauty; a blizzard rages. Outside her grandmother’s home, or in, Bibicha is hemmed in by the weight of her limited opportunities.

Although the source of Bibicha’s oppression are not explicitly stated, they are hinted at: poverty, isolation and an uncertain future, yes, but also gender and tradition. (This is perhaps unsurprising, given Uzbekistan’s record of women’s rights abuses). No men are seen on screen, but their presence is felt. At one point a radio interview plays, a woman twice a child-bride discussing the abuse she had suffered at the hands of her husband. Bibi Saodat groans, I know this so well. And yet she too is a bearer of tradition – her rhythmic voice extolling the iron will of the way of things. ‘The ghosts in your past define your present,’ Bibicha is told. At a party Bibi Saodat makes a toast to the fulfillment of the younger generation’s dreams, and I wonder what these could be. What were Bibi Saodat’s dreams, and what does she wish for her grandchildren? The film left me yearning to know more – what do women dream of in contemporary Uzbekistan, and how likely is it that those dreams are fulfilled? 40 Days of Silence made palpable rural Uzbek women’s oppression, but did not actually reveal much about their inner lives. I would have liked to know more about how Bibicha came to undertake her chilla and what it means for her – is it atonement or redemption, or is it a way to exert her will?

Director Ismailova states that40 Days of Silence is a story about women confronting crucial decisions: motherhood, the weight of tradition, homeland, sexuality, emotional expression, religion or self-destruction in modern society. The characters are inspired from situations lived by those who are close to me. Aside from women’s issues, I would like to explore an idea of lost identity, of living a complex re-evaluation and transformation of human values in a society deeply rooted in Islam, a society that was reshaped by communism and has recently become independent. How does this transformation ‘echo’ in women’s destinies, and in the way they perceive and confront their lives? The film is an experiment in approaching and beginning to unveil the blood-and-guts realities of Uzbek women’s intimate relations.”

And while much of this ambition is present in the film, particularly the notion of echoes of the past, I’m not sure that all of it was successfully realised – at least for a viewer like me with little to no prior knowledge of the country. The picture of Uzbekistan I got from the film – beyond the fact that it looks like Tajikistan – is one of a country undergoing changes, but where layers of historic trauma weigh heavily. Women’s existence seems to be one of little joy, little hope, and little room for change. While Ismailova’s film is admittedly experimental, and was at times very successful in evoking a sense of its characters’ psychological, cultural and geographical environs, I couldn’t help feeling it might have gone deeper into certain issues – particularly the role of women in independent Uzbekistan, and how this intersects for instance with nationhood and religion.

This article from Human Rights Watch, although somewhat dated now, offers an interesting introduction to some of the issues that the film appears to take up, but which I could never fully grasp while watching it.

Uzbekistan, which became independent in 1991, is a young state with claims to an ancient past. The desire to reanimate and reinvent national tradition, and thus to solidify the newly independent state’s claims to nationhood, has complicated women’s exercise of their human rights in the post-Soviet era… As in many post-communist societies, attitudes regarding women’s roles in society and the workforce, and the structure of family, grew more conservative during the turmoil that followed the break-up of the Soviet bloc. Social scientists have noted that ‘one of the more fully elaborated and vigorously promulgated components of Uzbekistan’s new national ideology is an imagined pre-revolutionary past in which the restriction of women to the private sphere supposedly enriched the lives of women and the entire nation.’ … This position is further complicated by the government’s contradictory stance toward Islam, which it also promotes as a facet of national culture and identity, but suppresses when it challenges state authority. Statements by government officials portray Islam on the whole as an encroaching threat to women’s exercise of their rights, ignoring facets of the region’s own Islamic heritage, such as the jadid movement, supportive of female emancipation.

Shoutout: Zulfiya

director’s short film about the dried up Aral Sea. Glimpse of similar rhythmic film-making, interaction between a largely silent female protagonist and her harsh surroundings, the danger of men, and tragedies of Uzbekistan’s history and present.