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.

Georgia: Line of Credit

(2014; dir/writer: Salomé Alexi; language: Georgian; original title: Kreditis Limiti)

Line of Credit is a case study of economics and class in struggling post-independence Georgia. The film follows forty-something Nino: a child of the Soviet-era bourgeoisie, she is now drowning in escalating spirals of debt as she attempts to maintain her failing business and former lifestyle in the Georgian capital city, Tbilisi. The choice of this film was partly based on availability (I saw it at my local film festival), but I was also intrigued by the subject matter, and by its status as the feature debut from a third generation of Georgian women film-makers. I’d love to check out her mother Lana Gogoberidze and grandmother Noutsa Gogoberidze’s work too.

Georgian cinema has a long and illustrious history, famously praised by Fellini in the following terms: “Georgian film is a strange phenomenon. It is special, philosophically bright, sophisticated and at the same time childishly pure and innocent. There is everything in it that can make me cry and I have to say that it is not easy to make me cry.” I don’t know if Fellini would consider Line of Credit consistent with the tradition he describes, and I don’t know if I would either – certainly it didn’t make me cry. However, a ‘strange phenomenon’ it is, with its subtle yet arresting interplay of contradictions: it is film both shallow and moving, drama and farce, timeless and bitingly contemporary.

The tone of the film is one such contradiction. Given its serious subject matter – the film could have been a long grind of a drama about debt-traps and despair. But what makes Line of Credit so unique, is it’s lens of wry humour where the viewer is treated to a comedy of manners so bitter that the laughs stick in the throat. This tone is expertly fueled by the look and feel of the film. Emotional connection with the characters is undermined by an absence of close ups; instead the cinematography favours overtly staged and too-perfectly framed medium and wide shots that produce a subtle denaturalising and distancing effect. This emotional shallowness is complemented by a bright colour palette and chirpy soundtrack, evoking at times a sense of comedic joie de vivre.

As a comedy of manners, the film is about a system rather than an individual woman’s plight. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, like many other post-Soviet states Georgia fell into a severe economic depression with the transition to a capitalist market economy. Civil war and military conflicts in South Ossetia and Abkhazia further aggravated the crisis, with many faring even worse than Nino and her family. The film’s post-script states that 14% of the Georgian population lost their homes between 2009 and 2013, as a consequence of high-interest loans. This is all relevant stuff, and the film shows us how the effects of these crises play out, but its real focus is on the behaviour that the transition to a capitalist economy encourages.

Nino’s life embodies the economic system – every social interaction takes the form of a financial exchange. She pumps her more financially stable friends for loans, manipulates the elderly blind co-owner of her house into gifting his ownership rights to her, and attempts to conceal from her mother the fact that she is selling and pawning most of their possessions (unsuccessfully on the latter count; as Nino furtively takes glasses out of a cabinet, her mother calls from the next room, “those glasses have no value, try the tea set!”). When her grandmother winds up in a coma, Nino seems more distressed about the 500 lari per day it costs to keep her on life support, and the unwillingness of the medical staff to take granny off it. While Nino isn’t all take, and repeatedly gives away some of her hard-loaned money to struggling friends and acquaintances, these feel more like largess doled out to reinforce the bourgeois status to which Nino clings, rather than a desire to help out of genuine emotional closeness. Giving financial support is one of the luxuries she can no longer afford, and yet she continues to do so, in turn landing many of her more financially stable friends in dire consequences as she bleeds them for credit.

The film occasionally strays over into moments of pure farce, such as the milking of a confused but easy-going French tourist for all he’s worth, or a stiffly hilarious scene where a skeptical but desperate Nino brings in a priest to bless the house. But the real farce is Nino’s naiveté, her willingness to accept obscene levels of interest, her self-delusion in her ability to pay off her loans, and her continued spending on the trappings of the life she is accustomed to as opposed to the one she is currently living. All this makes it harder to feel sorry for her, especially given the hints that the wealth she inherited hadn’t come to the family honestly. But the film doesn’t lay the blame on Nino, as the film isn’t really even about her, instead her predicament is used to show how capitalism makes assholes of us all. Nino’s employee comes to her aid with money she’d stolen from Nino in the first place, and Nino is obliged to drink champagne to ‘celebrate’ mortgaging her house. As Nino’s life falls apart (like Georgia’s newly capitalist economy), loan sharks, pawn shops, and greedy bankers rake in the profits.

Like fashion-plate Nino, struggling to sustain the trappings of former grandeur, the film presents Tbilsi itself as a city once replete with stately European splendour now descending into a particularly ugly morass of shabby pawn stalls and grotty loan-brokers; each a grasping symbol of a rat race with more losers than winners. It feels beneath not only Nino, but the rest of the country. Especially because it’s not only the former bourgeoisie who are in trouble – a carer working for Nino’s neighbour complains about her long commute to the job in Tbilisi and back to her farm, and the further full day’s work of caring from home, children and animals that awaits her there.

On a final note, I found it interesting that the economic actors of the film were almost entirely women. From the carer, loan-brokers, Nino’s employee, to Nino herself, women were the ones making and pursuing money. Men, on the other hand, tended to be portrayed as black holes – hardly present in the film and contributing little, and even getting in the way sometimes (such as when Nino’s plan to sell a valuable painting is ruined when her son admits its a fake – he’d already sold the original and frittered away the proceeds). Whether or not it is representative of Georgian society, it was certainly refreshing to see women taking an unquestioned and dominant role in various economic activities, and that they can be just as susceptible to human foibles and assholery when they do so.

The picture the film gave me of Georgia was one of a country in transition, and not necessarily towards a brighter future. The past reeks of corruption and entrenched class stratification, while the present is driven by an every-woman/man-for-themselves attitude where only (a select few of) the selfish succeed. Tbilisi looked like a city once beautiful, but now kind of run-down and depressing. I suspect much of Line of Credit is a familiar story for other post-Soviet countries in Eastern Europe, but perhaps – if Fellini is to be believed – it takes a Georgian film-maker to tell it like this.

Czech Republic: Closely Observed Trains

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Albania: Slogans

(2001, dir: Gjergj Xhuvani; French co-production; language: Albanian; original title: Parullat)

Slogans is an ironic/black comedy set in 1970s Albania, when the country was gripped by poverty and a repressive Communist regime led by Enver Hoxha. It is based on an autobiographical story by Ylljet Alicka. I chose it partly for its subject matter, and partly because it was the only Albanian film available at the city library.

The film is about Andrea, a young teacher from the capital who arrives in a small and poor Albanian village to teach at the local school. His first task is to choose a communist slogan for his class, out of two party-supplied alternatives. Choosing the shorter one, he learns that each class of students and their teacher must inscribe their slogan on the surrounding hillsides using whitewashed stones. A physically demanding task meted out and monitored by the school principal and the party representative, longer slogans are used as punishments for (perceived or actual) transgressions or disloyalty towards the party. As the film progresses, the paranoia and demands around party loyalty are revealed to Andrea in their bleak idiocy, and there’s little or nothing he can do about it.

The film did a great job of conveying the pettiness, emptiness and futility of the required exhibitions of loyalty to the party above all. The children seemed to learn little in the school apart from communist doctrines and propaganda on a level of abstraction and language well above anything that makes sense to 10-year-olds, and indeed many adults. One of the young pupils accidentally refers to the USSR as socialist and China as revisionist, instead of the other way round (contemporary Russian communism being out of favour with Hoxha’s regime), and this sparks a kangaroo-court trial at the schoolhouse where the boy is accused of deliberate subversion, his family punished, and the child left in tears. A similar trial falsely convicts the boy’s illiterate herdsman father of destroying the stone slogans, where Andrea’s character comes to the man’s defence saying, “the slogans are meaningless… for him, I mean, for him.” But they are essentially meaningless – the film isn’t actually about Communist ideologies, about the content of the slogans, but rather about the slogans themselves as political and social capital. Another villager has carefully maintained his stone slogan, “Vietnam will win!” for the past decade, faithfully following his original orders, without anybody having informed him that the war had ended.

These are all absurd, of course, and that’s where the wry comedy of the film is found. The slogans are meaningless, but their maintenance is paramount – when they fall down the hill in a mudslide, then, Sisyphus-like, they must be replaced. The climax of the film, where the town is getting ready for a high-ranking official to drive through, sees the whole town labouring to adequately perform to the high standards of adulation required of them by the local party representative, and yet the official, when he comes in his fancy black car, just drives past the village without slowing or acknowledging the people cheering him. Nobody seems to care about their efforts, except for the party rep who was happy to punish those who did not seem to be cheering and clapping with enough enthusiasm.

The film, for me, was one about people and the different ways we have of gaining and exerting power over one another. The village, where they had so little, was nevertheless mainly concerned with its own microcosm of power – where the length of a slogan built from stones (the only thing the village seemed to have in abundance) could tell you more about your place in society than the actual content of the words. The film-maker has stated that with Slogans he aimed for something other than a simple critique of Hoxha’s Communist regime, but to hold up a mirror to what life was like then:

“Albanian people want films that explain their life. They’re tired of the films and the culture of propaganda,” Xhuvani says. “For me the best thing to do is show how things were, not just to say that communism was bad, but to make films like a mirror. Some film-makers want to show democracy as a miracle – but it’s not a dream, it’s not a miracle, there are a lot of problems.”

I get the feeling that Slogans has achieved that. While predominantly financed by France, the film seems to put Albanians first, presenting them not as lumpen proletariat stooges under the yoke of a communist dictatorship, but as human individuals with a variety of responses to and strategies for coping with the reality of their situation.

As a film, Slogans is attractively produced, sharply written and engaging. If the topic seems bleak, the execution is nevertheless wonderfully wry, with enough moments of pure comedy to keep the viewer upbeat. Indeed, it is in some sense a typical fish-out-of-water comedy, where the city boy comes to the little isolated village, falls in love with the local ‘bad girl’, and shakes things up with his new perspectives and lack of knowledge of ‘how things have always been done’. It’s just that in this film, the girl gets sent away, and the shaking up has no effect other than to see some liquor, cigarettes and garlic change hands, and the protagonist get sentenced to 6 months hard labour, before returning to the unchanging village.