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.

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.

Malawi: B’ella

(2014; writer/director: Tawonga Taddja Nkhonjera; language: English)

Malawi is ranked among the world’s least developed countries, and nurturing a local film industry doesn’t seem to have been a priority. Apart from Charles Shemu Joyah’s The Last Fishing Boat and Seasons of a Life, there aren’t a whole lot of Malawian feature films out there. I’d like to check out Joyah’s films too, but when I saw B’ella listed in the local film festival line-up, I leapt at the chance – especially as director Nkhonjera was holding a Q&A afterward. Nkhonjera spoke positively about a growing interest in film-making in Malawi (although funding is still an issue), so hopefully more films will come!

Perhaps because Malawian feature films are such a rarity, B’ella is a film that tries to do everything. The blurb on the film’s website states that the film “covers issues such first love, friendships, school bullying, peer pressure, self-confidence, the importance of education, gradual loss of traditional values, teacher-student relationship, stigma connected to HIV and more,” and they’re not exaggerating. B’ella (Vinjeru Kamanga) is a 17-year old Malawian girl with a lot on her plate. Her best friend is sick with AIDS after selling sex to provide for her family, the school bitch Kalilole (Chimwemwe Mkwezalamba) is flirting with the guy she likes, her parents have high expectations of her as their eldest daughter, her maths teacher (Tony Khoza) keeps telling her she needs extra lessons, and she’s also just trying to find her place in the world as the adult she is on the brink of becoming. But B’ella’s strength and leadership are really allowed to shine when said maths teacher gropes her and proposes marriage, and B’ella leads the charge to make sure this kind of exploitation will no longer be tolerated. Throw in the build-up to an epic high school music concert (that never eventuates), the forging of a friendship with a chastised Kalilole, death in the family, and even a rumination on the acceptability of the word mzungu, and you’ve got… well, you’ve got the film B’ella.

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It’s definitely a roller coaster of a film. The film’s NGO-sponsors claim they wanted to show “that a Malawian girl is just like any other girl in the universe, growing up and looking for her identity in the jungle of every day life”. While B’ella’s jungle might be more intense than that of the average teen, maneuvering through the emotional turbulence of adolescence is something most can probably identify with. From this perspective, even the film’s abrupt tonal shifts make more sense – who else but a teen can go from mourning the death of a loved one to taking a carefree leap off a waterfall with their new best friend/former enemy? But I do feel like the film might have been more powerful had it not attempted to cram in so many issues, allowing the impact of presumably life-changing events to be explored in greater depth. As it is the film often strayed over into preachiness, with its catalogue of teen issues and the just slightly too perfect B’ella clearly set up as a role model: the perfect friend, the perfect daughter, the perfect love interest, the perfect mediator, the perfect sister and the perfect advocate. (This perhaps, is a consequence of the film being sponsored by an NGO – boNGO Worldwide – who list it under their ‘Youth and Adult Education / Awareness Raising Films’ section). In fact it is a major credit to Kamanga’s performance that the superwoman B’ella is anything other than insufferable. Instead, Kamanga gives B’ella an aura of groundedness and genuine warmth.

Screenshot 2015-08-29 22.27.09If B’ella was too much of a saint, her foil Kalilole was too much the stereotypical Alpha Bitch. Sure, the character shows how class differences can manifest even in (according to some definitions) the poorest places, but her story did nothing to vary the well-worn narrative of redemption through the humble protagonist’s innate goodness. (And why oh why are women’s emotional transformations so often signified by a change in hairstyle? In this case, a reformed Kalilole removes her weave and adopts a shorter style with her natural hair, like B’ella). And of course she and B’ella like the same guy, who is in the end put off by Kalilole’s shallowness and drawn to the obviously perfect B’ella. However, even if the Mean Girls aspects of the film were a bit uninspired, B’ella’s crammed running time offered plenty more in the drama department.

As an educational film clearly intending to offer young Malawians a female role model, it is perhaps unsurprising that it includes such a broad assortment of calamities. Malawi is burdened by a low average life expectancy, HIV/AIDS, and child-headed households, and has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world (contributing in turn to the country’s devastatingly high maternal mortality rate). If the film offers young people tools to cope with the issues, or perhaps even combat them, then it would assuredly be a force for good. As an international viewer, I was less captivated by the helter skelter ride through Malawi’s development issues than I was by the small moments where the film was allowed to breathe and dwell on more banal interactions between its cast. The director mentioned at the Q&A, for example, that (no) hugging between friends is a taboo that the film challenges. Is this reflective of a change in Malawian culture around expressing intimacy? I also appreciated the moments when the action strayed over to a group of boys from B’ella’s neighbourhood, who frankly and sympathetically helped each other explore norms of masculinity and sexual (dis)interest – definitely not something one normally finds in your average American teen flick. I liked the space made for boys too to question the roles provided for them, in a film that was otherwise so determinedly focussed on inciting girl power that it risked becoming a slogan (in the style of a certain shoe company that shall remain nameless).

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Although eventful, and helped along by a confident and vibrant score by local artist Muhanya, the film is somewhat let down by its production values and a lack of polish. It is predominantly the performances of Kamanga and Mkwezalamba that carry the film, providing it with a luster and professionalism that is rather lacking from some of the supporting cast, many of whom were sourced from a local high school. Khoza – a radio personality – also does an excellent job of his film debut in the role of the maths teacher, endowing him with the perfect mixture of banal self-righteousness and sleaze. But complaining about poor production values hardly feels appropriate for the product of a vastly under-resourced film industry, and I imagine that director Nkhonjera has every right to proud of what he managed to achieve with the presumably low budget he had to work with.

In fact, hearing him talk at the Q&A made all to clear the challenges involved in the production process, and gave answer to some of the niggles I’d had watching the film. For instance, the school concert finale that never eventuated turned out to have been beset by filming difficulties. I was also confused by the European woman who wandered through the film at several points, contributing nothing but a distracting white presence, as though to remind the viewer that no African story is complete without a white filter – be it a coloniser or an aid worker. Finding out that she is the director of the NGO sponsoring the film made her on-screen involvement more understandable, if not narratively excusable. Overall, I got the impression that Nkhonjera was working with what he had, which wasn’t a lot, and was trying to make a film for a range of audiences and purposes. That the film even made sense is an achievement, and the fact that it is engaging, warm and at times genuinely stirring is a testament to the skill and energy of its director and leads.

Indeed, I think that the film’s unevenness can be ascribed more to the clash of purposes than any lack of talent or production values. It is at once a creative endeavour to show Malawi to Malawians, an educational film designed to fit an NGO’s purposes, and also a film directed at international audiences. With that brief, it could hardly be anything but choppy. Especially as the picture of Malawi intended for international audiences was somewhat at odds with the film’s educational focus on Malawi’s hardships. The film’s sponsors state “we want to break the cliché of showing Malawi, and other African countries, as poverty-stricken places, but show the reality – Malawi being a beautiful place in which people have difficulties and joys just like anywhere else in the world.” It is difficult to both break the stereotype of the impoverished sub-Saharan African nation and delve into the country’s poverty-related issues, but B’ella certainly gives it its best shot. And the enthusiastic showing off of the upsides of Malawian life is definitely another of the film’s successes. Shot (and set) in semi-rural Chazunda, a community on the outskirts of Malawi’s commercial city Blantyre, the film glories in Malawi’s dusty reddish earth, cloud-muted rolling hills, green forests and rocky waterfalls. Viewers are treated to colourful markets, and both traditional and modern performing arts. I’m not sure if all this balances out the dramatic deaths and sexual abuse that much of the film focusses on, but it certainly reveals a side of sub-Saharan Africa that rarely makes it onto Western screens; people going about their lives with purpose, vigour, enjoyment, ambition, and all the rest of the activities and emotions that can be said to characterise humans

In the end, the sense of Malawi that B’ella left me with was of people doing their thing, enjoying the good parts and doing their best with the bad parts. And while the film was uneven in pretty much every way a film can be uneven, I’m going to apply that philosophy to my viewing of the film: enjoy the good parts, and make the best of the rest. With the enthusiasm and emerging talent highlighted in B’ella, I certainly hope the Malawian film industry continues to bloom.

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.

Argentina: The Official Story

(1985; dir: Luis Puenzo; language: Spanish; original title: La historia oficial, also released in English as The Official Version)

The Official Story was one of a group of films to be released shortly after the fall of Argentina’s last military junta. Set in Buenos Aires during the dictatorship, the story follows an upper-middle class history teacher Alicia (Norma Aleandro) as she begins to suspect that her adopted daughter may be a child stolen from of one of Argentina’s ‘desaparecido’ – the between 9,000 and 30,000 people forcibly disappeared under Argentina’s Dirty War. The film won screeds of awards, including an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and thus felt like an obvious choice for my Argentinian entry. Others that are now on my to-watch list are the more recent The Secrets in Their Eyes (2009), which deals with a similar topic through a murder mystery framework, and the fun-looking con-artist flick Nine Queens (2000).

In some ways, the narrative of the film is a fairly simple one. When her illegally adopted daughter Gaby turns five, Alicia attempts to get her husband Roberto (Héctor Alterio) – a government official – to finally tell her the details behind the adoption. His cagey avoidance of the subject sparks an uneasiness that soon turns into suspicion when Alicia’s old school friend Ana (Chunchuna Villafañe) returns from exile and confides that she had been kidnapped, raped and tortured by the junta, and had seen babies snatched from other political prisoners. As Alicia attempts to learn more about how Gaby came to be her daughter, her emotions and her conscience are set at odds with one another in more ways than one.

I found it to be an immensely powerful and moving film (yes, I cried), and a surprisingly subtle one. For a film that could easily have dissolved into melodrama, it did a fantastic job of refusing to back down on the complexity of human emotion. Neither Alicia nor Roberto were particularly sympathetic – a conservative bourgeois woman and her government operative husband – and Roberto got more and more awful as the film went on. But unappealing as they were, both Alicia and Roberto were complex and very human. Even after some unforgivably abusive behavior at the end, I was still convinced that Roberto had a soul and was suffering, even if I didn’t grieve for him as much as I did for some of the others. However, it is Aleandro’s magnificent performance as Alicia that was the film’s real star turn (and won her an award at Cannes); it is Alicia’s internal conflict that is the centre of the film, and in Aleandro’s acting it is possible to see (or even feel) the thoughts and emotions running through her character’s mind.

Also contributing to the characters’ complexity, and the film’s subtlety, was the lack of answers. How much exactly did Roberto know about the torture and disappearances, and about where Gaby came from? Was it Roberto that turned Ana in? Was the woman who came forward really Gaby’s grandmother and what will happen with Gaby now? Will Alicia leave her husband? What happened to all of Roberto’s disappearing colleagues? How are the Americans involved in the junta’s activities? (Well, the last one has been answered by history). My viewing companion found these unanswered questions a little annoying, but I kind of liked that everything was left in a mess. It seemed to fit with the suspicion and secrecy of the film’s setting, as well as the fact that many of the Dirty War’s secrets will never be discovered.

It is interesting comparing this film to the previously reviewed NO about the fall of Chile’s military dictator (and member alongside Argentina of the ‘Condor’ dictatorships). Although the films clearly have different goals and even subject matter, there are nevertheless certain similarities between them, and it is the differences between the films’ handling of these points that made The Official Story by far the stronger film. Firstly in terms of its production. Instead of NO‘s integrated archival footage, The Official Story was filmed on location with live footage of the actors amid protests. For all that the fashions are equally dated, The Official Story – planned and written while the junta was still in place – conveys an authentic urgency that makes NO seem forced, soulless and commercial.

Secondly, the two films are also similar in that neither actually depict onscreen the abuses carried out under the countries’ respective dictatorships. As a relatively sensitive viewer, this is probably a good thing. But unlike NO, in The Official Story these crimes and abuses are nevertheless put firmly into focus, revealed with a delicate brutality to the viewer through the initially blind Alicia. The viewer is left to fill in the pieces, to mentally take in the facts and calculate the scale of the thing themselves – which is perhaps the only way to make something like that even close to understandable for those who have not experienced its like. For me, fathoming such horror takes living with it a bit, taking it in and processing it, rather than simply looking at the tally of the dead in a news story and thinking “that’s horrible”, before moving on. And The Official Story forced me, alongside Alicia, to internalise and live with the horror.

Thirdly, the two films both dealt with themes of progress and modernisation at odds with extant (anarcho-)socialist activism. In NO, the young unaligned advertising executive spurns the stuffy socialists’ desires to air complaints about Pinochet’s reign of terror, and saves Chile from dictatorship through an ad campaign that promises consumerism, Westernisation and moving-on as a panacea for the country’s suffering. In The Official Story, on the other hand, notions of progress, modernisation and capitalist ‘success’ are portrayed as blinkers and distractions from the government’s abuses, and as the tools of those who are profiting from the junta. While Alicia is freaking out over the truths she is beginning to learn about her country and her family, Roberto is busy making shady money and trying to press modern appliances on his mother, a contrast that speaks volumes about the priorities and motivations of Argentina’s bourgeois. Roberto is roundly schooled by his sweetly staunch anarchist father, in a scene that reveals the selfishness that enabled people like Roberto to be a party to the junta’s crimes. This meant that The Official Story felt more thematically and politically coherent than NO, which seemed to be attempting a bob both ways politically.

In terms of learning about the country itself, The Official Story had a lot more to offer than NO, mostly because stories about the junta’s crimes and their effects on Argentine society were put front and centre, rather than silenced. And although the main characters were from the bourgeoisie, other characters brought in views from other classes and political backgrounds. I think it also helped me to understand something not restricted to Argentina, namely how (comparatively) privileged and powerful members of a society (even history teachers!) can – willfully or otherwise – ignore the desperate situations of others in their society, and even be complicit in the abuse of others. Without relenting on Alicia’s responsibility and guilt, the film explored how this is made possible and maintained. It would be interesting to know how the film was and is received in Argentina – one of the criticisms of NO was the extent to which it erased and misrepresented the historical facts. One of Alicia’s students in The Official Story proclaims that history is written by assassins. Perhaps The Official Story and films of its ilk are steps towards remedying that.

As a final reflection, I said earlier that Alicia’s internal conflict is the centre of the film, and this conflict is offered up to the viewer: what would you do if you found out your child was stolen from another couple, who were probably tortured and murdered, and this probably with your husband’s knowledge? But for me the film, and this question, underscored the impossibility of justice or doing ‘right’ after crimes such as those witnessed by Argentina (and many many other countries). This is not to say that justice oughtn’t to be striven for, or that one shouldn’t listen to wronged parties that call for it. This is more of a musing that some damage is too catastrophic to mitigate or set right, which is a thought that seems as topical today as in the 1980s.

Bahamas: Children of God

(2010; dir: Kareem Mortimer; language: English)

The film is set in 2004, when a “gay cruise” landing in the Bahamas ignited protests and put the rights of homosexuals on the agenda in the small predominantly-Christian island nation. Amidst the protests, troubled and repressed Nassau-based art student Jonny (Johnny Ferro) is sent by his teacher on a retreat to the beautiful and sparsely populated island of Eleuthera, as an attempt to put him in touch with his emotions. There, he encounters Romeo (Stephen Tyrone Williams), a young man who has everything going for him and yet who still can’t be what is expected of him. At the same time, Lena, the wife of a hard-line anti-gay preacher arrives on the island to drum up support for an anti-gay petition.

As one of the first Bahamian feature films, and a well-reviewed one that promised a Bahamian take on an important issue, Children of God was an easy choice. The fact that it also introduced an as-yet unrepresented genre to this blog – romance – and that is the first film reviewed here to pass GLAAD’s ‘Vito Russo Test’ of GBLTQ representation onscreen were other factors in the film’s favour.

Having read a few other reviews, I had very high expectations of this film, and I have to say that it did not disappoint. The acting and production values were excellent, making the film well worthy of its cinematic release. While I don’t think it’s fair, especially in the context of a blog such as this one, to judge the quality of a film purely on its production values – the availability of resources varies wildly from film-maker to film-maker and country to country – it was comforting in some ways to return to a film that looked, sounded and felt a bit more like the films I would normally watch. This perhaps reflects the relative prosperity of the Bahamas compared to the rest of Central America and the Caribbean.

However, while the production values and style of the film may have initially put me back in my comfort zone, the narrative was anything but. Through focussing on a range of fairly well-developed characters, the film succeeds in showing the damage that homophobia and bigotry wreak on all individuals in a society. We see the most direct targets, Jonny – tormented by his repressed homosexuality – and Romeo, unable to come out to his friends and family for fear of shattering their picture of him as the perfect Bahamanian boy. Just like the Shakespearean play that the characters’ names nod to, we see a romance destroyed by prejudice. But almost more interesting for me were the characters of Lena (Margaret Laurena Kemp) and her husband Ralph (Mark Richard Ford). Her marriage in a crisis after being diagnosed with an STI she caught from her husband, and being assaulted by her husband upon revealing this, Lena flees to Eleuthera with her son. Meanwhile, her virulently anti-gay preacher husband Ralph trawls gay bars for (unprotected) sex. Dominated by her husband (an early line from Ralph that chilled me to the bone: “you don’t say anything. You submit!”), she takes her fear, anger and disgust towards her husband out on her son instead, a child who is desperately trying to conform to the strict norms of heterosexuality his parents demand: “but those are girls’ toys, I can’t play with those”. In a society where homophobia is allowed to proliferate, parents are set against children, wives against husbands, neighbours against neighbours, pastors against pastors, lovers against lovers, and even self against self.

It definitely must be said that the film’s scenes of homophobia and domestic abuse were depressing, and archival footage of some of the real anti-gay rallies that were occurring in the Bahamas was actually downright shocking (I won’t quote the signs the protestors were carrying because nobody needs to read that stuff). But, like Romeo and Juliet, the heart of the film is the romance between the two central characters. This introduces a weight of beauty, humour, tenderness, lightness and hope into the film that makes the dark stuff feel peripheral. And the number of characters who come out in support of the pair towards the end of the film was also cheering – Romeo’s best friend, Jonny’s initially disapproving Dad, and the wonderful voice of Christian reason/love – the Reverend Ritchie (Van Brown). I found the latter’s public stance against Lena’s homophobic preaching very moving, and it is his perspective that gives the film its name – that all people are Children of God.

[SPOILERS BELOW! GO WATCH THE FILM AND READ THE REST LATER!]

I would argue that it is in fact the very beauty and lightness of the central romance that make the film, and its end, so powerful. In a narrative sense it gives the viewer something to root for – that Romeo and Jonny will defeat homophobia and be happy together. Romeo and Jonny seem ‘meant to be’. But of course, I was – perhaps willfully – forgetting my Shakespeare. While watching the film I was likening it to another gay youth narrative, that in the delightful Swedish film Fucking Åmål (realeased in some places under the title Show Me Love). In that film the two youths eventually become secure in their lesbian identity and each other, proudly coming out as a couple. With both Jonny and Romeo in each working up to this moment in different ways, this was the end I was hoping for. What I got instead was a punch to the gut that left me in tears. The fact is that homophobia and prejudice aren’t only social ills that divide people from one another, they are also deadly. It isn’t enough for Jonny and Romeo to stand up proud for whom they love. Pride and acceptance are not enough. Although fighting for pride and acceptance is important, if other Jonnies and Romeos are to have a future then they must be able to live in a society where homophobia and prejudice is stamped out. And that is a battle that everybody can fight, regardless of sexuality.

While the message of the film can be seen as a fairly universal one, the film also came across as firmly Bahamian. The evocative scenery of Eleuthera (from the Greek for ‘freedom’, apparently) and the excellent soundtrack of Bahamian beats were more than window dressing but actually furthered the story – creating an easy-going, beautiful place of freedom for Romeo and Jonny to develop their romance before facing the realities of Nassau. Also interesting was the intersection of nationalist and homophobic rhetoric in the polemics of Lena and Ralph – the religious movement they belong to in the film is taken from a real one, called ‘Save the Bahamas’. Like in countries around the world, nation and culture are invoked as a means to sow and legitimise hate – rhetoric that has less to do with the individual country and more to do with the spread of religious traditions that seek to divide and conquer. I would be interested to know how the film was received in the Bahamas, and if homophobia has lost any traction since 2004 (a cursory Wikipedia glance suggests… not really).

In sum, I thought it was an well-executed, captivating and affecting film that deserves a wider audience. I also learned that the Bahamas are beautiful, but also have a lot of scary issues with homophobia.