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.

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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.

Laos: Chanthaly

(2012; director: Mattie Do; writer: Chris Larsen; language: Lao; original title: ຈັນທະລີ)

Laos’s film industry is fairly young; under Communist rule since 1975, its film output was for a long time limited to government-issued propaganda. However, the last decade or so has seen the government open up to the potential of an independent film industry, and a clutch of feature films have emerged. The Ministry of Information and Culture still has to approve all scripts, which means that these films have tended to play it safe. This makes the film Chanthaly, from rising star Mattie Do, all the more interesting, as it bears the distinction not only of being the first Lao feature directed by a woman, but also the first Lao horror film – a genre far from government propaganda or tourist-tempting rom-coms. Chanthaly was thus an obvious choice for my Laos entry, as well as a chance to widen the generic horizons of the blog so far.

chnSickly Chanthaly (Amphaiphun Phimmapunya) lives in Vientiane with her conservative, overprotective father (Douangmany Soliphanh) and her greyhound Moo. She has grown up believing that her mother died giving birth to her, weakened by the same heart condition that Chan herself has inherited. Forbidden from leaving the house and walled-in yard, the lonely and bored Chanthaly spends her days making her father’s meals and operating a small-scale laundry business her father set up for her. Her life takes a disturbing turn when she starts to have visions of a ghostly woman, and discovers memories of events that her father says could never have occurred. How did her mother really die, and has her spirit actually departed? Is Chan’s mind playing tricks, or is her mother trying to get a message to her? And if she must choose between her health, her sanity, and her mother’s ghost, which is the right choice?

Although branded a horror film, I don’t think I’d really describe it as scary. Director Do points out that this is largely a cultural thing (in an interview with Little Laos on the Prairie):

Since we weren’t ever thinking about this film having much of a life outside of Laos, we tried–and I don’t know how successful we were at this–to really think about making a movie that would be scary for a Lao audience, understanding that a Lao audience has never seen a scary Lao movie. If that makes sense. And then we had to balance that with what we could actually do with our limited budget and resources, and with what a wary Department of Cinema would actually approve. So it’s not a blood and guts horror movie, and it’s not a monster movie.
    After I got my approval, I sat down and read the script again and I thought, ‘Wow, from a western horror standpoint, I don’t know if this is going to be scary.’ But then at the Luang Prabang Film Festival the audience was screaming and little kids were covering their eyes. So much of the film revolves around the ubiquitous spirit house and Lao superstition, and although the film gives a little bit of detail about that for an audience that might be unfamiliar with the ins and outs of Lao beliefs, there are a few things in the movie that are really terrifying to our Lao audience that might not even be unsettling for a foreign audience.

While some of the chills may very well have escaped me, the film was nevertheless a distinctly unsettling one. Instead of jump-in-your-seat scares or clutch-your-pillow terror, the film opts for a slow build-up of unease that is as much emotional as it is physical. This tension and uncertainty is underscored by an oppressive, claustrophobic atmosphere. Disjointed scenes flick from day to night, dream to reality, presence to absence, drawing the viewer into Chanthaly’s increasingly disturbed emotional and mental state. And while I often find that horror films lose some of their power as the story progresses and the hidden threat is revealed, Chanthaly is in many ways the opposite –  it’s when the true nature of the ghost is unveiled that everything starts to get sad and horrible.

chanthaly-2While not qualified to judge how distinctly Lao the film is, to me it felt like a different approach to ghosts than anything I’ve seen in Western, Japanese, or even neighbouring Thai horror films. As Do mentions in the quote above, the film’s ghost is rooted in the animist beliefs held by many Lao alongside the widespread Buddhist faith. According to these beliefs spirits (phi) co-exist with mortals, and can be placated with offerings in the ‘spirit houses’ found outside many Laos homes and buildings. Particularly important for this film are the phi phetu, malevolent spirits of those who die violently or in childbirth. From this perspective, there’s probably a lot to be scared of when Chan starts seeing the ghost of her mother, particularly after her father angrily knocks over their spirit house.

Not knowing anything about Laos beliefs before seeing the film, I found the destruction of the spirit house more emotional than dread-inducing; for Chan, it was a key spiritual link to her mother, and it felt like a violation of both women when Chan’s father knocked it down. And for me, it was the film’s poignant treatment of the supernatural that set it apart from other horror films I’ve seen. Supposedly, ghosts and the undead are frightening because they confront us with a deep-rooted fear of death. But any fear Chanthaly has of phi phetu or her own death is outweighed by longing for her mother. The discomfort comes as both viewer and protagonist try to figure out if these feelings are sensible.

And while a horror film protagonist trying to figure out if she’s crazy may not be a particularly new idea, Chanthaly gives the trope resonance by charging it with broader social tensions. Whether Chan is really seeing ghosts, or should simply submit to meds that don’t give her hallucinations, is a loaded question given that Laos’ Communist government has frowned upon the traditional belief systems and attempted to promote a rational atheism. But perhaps even more significant is the film’s treatment of gender roles and women’s struggle for self-determination. Chanthaly’s disobedience in pursuit of her mother’s ghost can be seen as a rejection of her father’s control over her life.

Do is steadfastly humble about the making of Chanthaly, but perhaps her greatest accomplishment is that she makes the most out of her limited resources. Shooting the entire film in her apartment only served to heighten the sense of claustrophobia, and although featuring mainly non-professional actors, the film was impeccably cast and well-acted. Waif-like pop-singer Phimmapunya makes almost tangible her character’s physical frailty and mental listlessness, without giving over to the grating docile passivity of many Cinderella figures. It’s a complex part, and Phimmapunya inhabits it. Soliphanh, too, is excellent as Chan’s father, managing to make the character sympathetic and even sweetly tragic, rather than simply an overbearing patriarch.

Even the bit parts are bursting with character; although only seen through Chanthaly’s eyes, I believed in them enough to imagine what their lives might look like beyond her limited view. And no discussion of the film’s acting would be complete without heaping praise on Do’s own Mango as Moo, one of the most expressive dog actors I’ve seen in a while. Even director Do acknowledges, in a drunken review of her own film (apparently it’s a thing over at Twitchfilm), that Moo is one of the film’s star turns. (For those like my sister Laura who need to know, in this horror film the dog doesn’t die).

Perhaps the one disappointment I had with the film in the context of this blog is that Chanthaly‘s insular focus meant that very little of Laos actually made it onto the screen – not even the cityscapes of Vientiane where the film is set. I do however feel like I learned a bit about urban Lao life in terms of chafing and pernicious gender roles, and a particular anxiety over the role of religion and superstition in a modernising, politically secular Communist country. I also learned that Lao ghosts are in a class of their own.

Shoutout: The Rocket (2013; dir: Kim Mordaunt).

For an international audience wanting a more general (but arguably less ‘authentic’) view of Laos, a film like Australian director Kim Mordaunt’s The Rocket is worth a watch. Made by foreigners and thus not subject to in-production censorship by the Laos government, The Rocket touches on governmental corruption and abuse, the legacy of the American invasion (in terms of live shells littering the landscape, and persecution of the Hmong), Laos’ poverty and exploitation by richer nations, a range of gorgeous jungle scenery, and some real footage of an impressive (and startlingly dangerous) rocket festival. But while it’s a good film and well worth a watch, it remains a film made by and ultimately for foreigners. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with that, but the contrast between it and Chanthaly has prompted me to reconsider the politics of the Western gaze and cinetourism, questions which I’m still chewing over.

Belize: Three Kings of Belize

(2007; dir: Katia Paradis; language: English, with some songs in Garifuna; alternative title: Trois Rois)

Three Kings of Belize is a documentary by Katia Paradis, who describes herself as a citizen of both Canada and Belize. The film lovingly depicts the daily life and music of three aged Belize men who are all renowned local musicians. Paul Nabor is a fisherman, guitarist and Garifuna composer, who self-avowedly loves the guitar he has been playing for 53 years more than any of the women who have come and gone in his life. Florencio Mess is a Mayan harp player who lives off the land in his small village and makes traditional violins, guitars and harps. Wilfred Peters, MBE (after playing for the Queen of England), plays Creole accordion and is still travelling with his music around Central and North America.

To explain why I chose this film, allow to digress a little… I have been endeavouring thus far in the project to find fictional feature-length films directed by locals and filmed on location. The reasons for the latter criteria are fairly obvious, but my preference for fictional and feature-length films perhaps warrants some explanation. Basically, one of the reasons I started this project was because I realised that most of the stories I was being told by the films I watched were from the US or the UK, and that even if they were set in other countries it was still Americans or Brits that were making most of the decisions. I am and always have been a believer in the power of stories to expand people’s horizons, reveal insights into oneself and others, and establish empathy. This is not to say that documentaries cannot do these things, nor that they don’t tell stories, but for me personally I find fiction often does these things better – it somehow allows me to ‘be’ or ‘feel’ another person in a way that non-fiction doesn’t. Furthermore, who has the power to tell their stories is a political issue; I have seen several documentaries made by locals of countries other than the US and Western Europe, often depicting the oppression of the local population, but astonishingly few fictional feature films from these places. There could be several reasons for this discrepancy – it would probably look different if I had more disposable time and income to attend film festivals, for instance – but for me it also says something about a tendency for the cultures I live in to be more comfortable watching/funding/distributing a studied foreign population, and preferably a suffering one, than making space for their stories. The former perhaps making it easier to objectify them or distance oneself from them, rather than actually having to be them. In any case, I wanted to seek out fictional feature-length films where possible.

This didn’t turn out to be so easy in the case of Belize. Belize is a small country, both geographically and demographically (current population is a little over 300,000), and has only been independent from Britain since 1981, so there wasn’t a whole lot of locally-produced films to choose from. I found one, Stranded N Dangriga, whose trailer made it look so awful (think along the lines of an Adam Sandler or Eddie Murphy vehicle) that I didn’t think I could bring myself to sit through it – a cop out perhaps. In the end I decided that Three Kings of Belize, while a documentary, and while funded and produced by Canadians, was at least directed by a citizen of Belize and intimately connected to the evolving cultures of Belize. And it was in all likelihood more to my taste.

So, onto the review! The film is essentially a slow, sensitive and non-intrusive portrait of the three men as they discuss their music and careers, perform at home or in public, talk about their lives and their philosophies, and go about their daily tasks. Director Paradis lets them and their music do the talking, occasionally cutting away to shots of the men’s surroundings – everything from long shots of achingly blue seascapes to close ups on the flora and fauna of Belize. Where the panoramic shots of Azerbaijan’s countryside in the previously reviewed Buta felt in some ways like egregious tourist-bait, in Three Kings of Belize the combination of these shots with the grounded love the three musicians expressed for their land established instead a powerful sense of place and the strength it can provide. It reminded me of a concept from my home country, tūrangawaewae, which is often translated from Māori as “a place to stand”: “Tūrangawaewae are places where we feel especially empowered and connected. They are our foundation, our place in the world, our home,” (source: Te Ara, the Encyclopedia of Aotearoa New Zealand). Without claiming interpretative power over this concept, it seemed to me that Belize was tūrangawaewae for the three musicians, and that the film did a good job of expressing this to the viewer. While some might find the sleepy pace of the film a little slow, I think it was integral to allowing these older guys present themselves and their place in their own time and manner. It was also perfect viewing for the stickily-hot lazy Saturday morning when I watched it.

What gives the film poignancy, and lifts it beyond just being an exposition of some great tunes and three characterful old dudes, are the men’s ruminations on their old age and the changes in both music and Belize society. In different ways all three discuss their attempts to make a career out of music, highlighting music as a form of labour (rather than only a passion) and the decreasing value placed on their music. This is partly to do with a decline in the popularity of their respective genres – “some people say my band is an old people’s band… but I go places they don’t go!” – but also to do with changes in the way music is produced and consumed. Nabor, who has composed so many songs that he now doesn’t remember most of them until he hears someone else playing one, muses sadly that people now want to hear music from cassettes rather than directly from him – a distancing that he isn’t in favour of. One striking scene shows Peters gamely dancing along at his 75th birthday party to a modern song whose lyrics seem to consist of “shake it”; the contrast between old and young can’t be more distinct.

Furthermore, although each of the three men are renowned musicians, none of them are materially well-off. Peters, the more urban of the three, still travels internationally and performs at festivals with his accordion, but complains of having a “big name, small pocket”. Nabor and Mess live quiet rural lives where they are more or less self-sufficient. Mess shows off his organic gardening, and Nabor in his simple bush cabin fishes doggedly for his supper despite his old age. Again, this seems connected to their perspectives on Belize. The country is ‘modernizing’, and according to Mess many Belizeans are seeking unattractive jobs in order to buy things in the store – something he sees as redundant when those with knowledge can live off the land.

But perhaps more importantly the film highlights the important labour that these musicians conduct – preserving and enriching, as well as exporting, Belizean cultural forms. And labour it is – the musicians have devoted their lives to, and in some cases sacrificed their health for, their music. Whether one sees the commercialisation of music as a good thing or prefer a time when it had intrinsic value rewarded by gifts of money and food (as both Mess and Nabor experienced in their youth), I challenge anybody to watch this film and not mourn the fact that their labour is no longer valued to the extent it is due. However, the film does finish on a note of hope in this regard. Towards the end of a film Peters is greeted on the street by an avid young female fan, and the final scene shows two of the musicians making music together while small children join in on a chorus with the words “they must have a band at my funeral”.

As can be inferred from this post, Three Kings of Belize provided a wealth of impressions of Belize in terms of its gorgeous rural seascapes, flora and fauna, as well as lively urban milieux. I also learned about some of the social changes taking place in the country, and a lot about three fantastic local music traditions. One thing I would like to have learned more about was women in Belize; although directed by a woman, this film – like many of the others reviewed here – was dominated by men’s voices. One of the musicians fondly recalls his wife, who was “given to him” by her father. She was 13 at the time, and he was in his 20s, and their first child was born before she turned 14. While the musician recounts this as a romantic story, I couldn’t help wondering how his child-bride experienced it, something the viewer never got to know. Neither do we hear from the woman who appears in the film cooking for Peters – his wife? – or any of the women whom Nabor has prioritised his guitar over.

Bosnia and Herzegovina: Grbavica

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Angola: Hollow City

(2004, dir: Maria João Ganga; language: Portuguese; original title: Na Cidade Vazia)

Hollow City is set in 1991, during the Angolan Civil War that had been raging since the 70s. The film follows 12-year-old N’Dala (Roldan Pinto João), who has just witnessed the murder of his parents and the destruction of his rural village Bié. Although traumatised, N’Dala is rescued along with some other children by a missionary nun and brought to the capital city, Luanda. There, he runs away and begins wandering the city, seeing its various sides and meeting diverse inhabitants, including the kindly fisherman Antonio, the fiery and selfish Rosita, an impulsive older boy Zé (Domingos Fernandes Fonesca), and Zé’s friendly but dangerous cousin Joka.

I chose Hollow City partly because it is one of the first Angolan feature films to be directed by a woman, and because I was intrigued by the intentions Ganga said she had for the film, namely to depict everyday life in Angola without sensationalising war:

N’Dala is an orphan and a refugee of war. He travels in a world devoid of prospects, living at the fast and reckless pace of survival… N’Dala’s story is fairly common in the everyday life of Angola and it would be too easy to fall into the sensationalism of war. Our good conscience, eased, will survive the gunshots, but N’Dala will not… As an Angolan woman I saw the day-to-day turbulence of Luanda, which, despite the recently-established peace, will continue to see for years to come, many children in its streets.

Watching the film, Ganga achieves this ambition through showing us the psychological violence of war, rather than action scenes. Throughout the film, the war is a threatening atmosphere, not totally stopping people’s everyday activities, but colouring them with fear and pessimism. As for N’Dala, his blurred and confused PTSD-flashbacks provide in many ways a more powerful idea of what it must actually be like to have lost your family through violence than if the viewer had simply seen them killed outright.

For me, another strength of the film was how it managed to take on what Ganga calls “the turbulence of Luanda”, exploring some of the more depressing sides of the city, without inviting any kind of patronising pity on the part of the viewer. Honest depictions of many of the problems facing African countries can easily play into popular European images of Africa as either inherently backward or irrevocably and unambiguously screwed up. It was one of the things that bugged me about Blood Diamond – the repeated phrase “TIA, this is Africa”, and the notion that the only way Africans can improve their lot is by leaving! Not only do these notions homogenise an entire continent, and the complex web of historic and contemporary causes and effects that shape the lives of its people today, they allow non-Africans to reduce these people to objects of suffering, rather than people who still, day after day, eat and sleep and make friends and meet challenges and solve problems and tell stories, etc. In Hollow City, however, the audience is guided by N’Dala – a charming, vulnerable, resourceful, loyal, daring, and strong-willed protagonist who leads a cast of other characters who each deal with life’s problems and pleasures in their own way. The viewer is presented with a city of landscapes and characters not so different from those to be found on other continents. In this way, the problems facing Angola are disassociated from the “This is Africa” narrative, and make room for a story that is fully human.

The film’s evocative cinematography made the most of the urban setting, to the extent that Luanda almost became a character in its own right. In contrast to films such as Algeria’s Chronicle of the Years of Fire (reviewed last week), which gloried in pastoral motifs as a symbol of national identity, Hollow City confronts both the viewer and N’Dala with a confused jostle of environments and identities. N’Dala misses his village, and prefers to sleep on the beach in Luanda with the fisherman, surroundings that remind him more of home. But Bié is gone and there can be no return. In the city, soldiers are juxtaposed with school children, Christian saints with an Angolan sea goddess, lively parties with empty streets after curfew. It’s hard to know how everything fits together, or what people really believe. It’s hard for N’Dala to find his place there (in a heart-breaking insight into the sorrow of refugees, N’Dala is bent on ‘escaping’ back to his decimated village, believing it to be the only place he can reconnect with his parents’ souls). If Chronicle was trying to construct an Algerian national identity, Hollow City depicts the scramble of a urbanising country torn by civil war, with cities flooded by internally displaced people trying to cope with their trauma and sorrows and make a new life; a country exploding with possibilities and lacking in security.

While the film was excellent cinematically, the weaknesses of the film are in many ways the somewhat muddled script. Attempts to draw some kind of parallel between N’Dala and N’Gunga are confusing and ineffective, and occasional cutaways to the desperate search of the nun for runaway N’Dala are more distracting than anything else. Further, the end left me wondering what the film was actually saying, if anything. Without giving away too much, what begins as a lively adventure of the country boy in the big city (a feeling boosted by a decidedly jaunty soundtrack), gradually becomes more sinister – revealing perhaps the answer to N’Gunga’s question: “are people the same everywhere, thinking only of themselves?” And yet not all the people N’Dala meets are like that – the nun, the fisherman and especially his friend Zé all take pains to care for him. Or was the message that the war has destroyed the whole country – that Luanda is no safer for the internal refugees than the massacres they have fled from? Or is it just a portrait of a country in turmoil, shown through the eyes of one of its inhabitants?

As a final note, I will say that this film was fascinating for me personally, as I have (as of yet) never set foot upon the African continent. It was wonderful to get a rich glimpse of a living and breathing African city, in contrast to all the grass huts and refugee camps that a lot of Western media seems to insist are the only structures to be found below the Sahara. Knowing about the rapid urbanisation many African countries is one thing, but seeing it is another. It also really brought home the bizarreness of colonialism – hearing this European language, from a country that isn’t exactly prominent in today’s Europe, and seeing all this colonial architecture – somehow seeing it in a new place brings the wrongness of it home again.

Final verdict, a thoroughly enjoyable and involving film, which compensates for a somewhat flawed script with powerful cinematography, lively music, and above all a well-acted and charming protagonist.