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.

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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.

Lebanon: Caramel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screenshot 2015-07-23 21.27.30

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

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

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

Bhutan: Travellers and Magicians

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Afghanistan: Osama

(2003; dir: Siddiq Barmak; language: Dari Persian; original title: اسامه; co-production with Iran, Ireland, Japan and the Netherlands)

Osama is set in Afghanistan’s capital city Kabul, and gets off to a captivating start with a large group of women dressed in identical sky-blue burkas who are bravely protesting the Taliban. In particular, they are protesting the prohibition of women working – a prohibition that means that many women, especially widows, are unable to feed themselves and their families. Watching the protest and its violent dispersal by Taliban forces is a young girl and her widowed mother. The mother is a nurse at the local hospital, but when the hospital is forced to close due to the removal of funding, and the Taliban requirements for women to be escorted by a male at all times makes even finding under-the-table jobs difficult, the mother finds herself out of work and out of options. Despairing, she and her elderly mother decide that the only way to save their little family from starvation is to disguise the young girl (Marina Golbahari), their only child/grandchild, as a boy and send “him” to work. Their plans go quickly awry when the girl, in her guise as the boy “Osama”, is rounded up with the other boys her age and sent to a Taliban-run school for religious and military indoctrination. Spoilers follow.

I chose Osama because, well, there weren’t a whole lot of options. The film’s wikipedia page touts it as being the first film to be shot entirely in Afghanistan since the Taliban shut down the film industry in 1996. It has also been really well-reviewed, winning a Golden Globe and prizes at a range of festivals.

The story Osama tells is a litany of suffering – an oppressed people terrorised by the Taliban, where women and girls in particular suffer under strict regulations that must be followed on pain of death or sexual slavery. And yet these regulations also make their lives unlivable. So in a sense Osama is about the choices people make when the only choice is that between the rock or the hard place. Even if the decision the mother and grandmother made could be seen (rightly) as a terribly risky and unfair one, at least the film allows them to make a decision, and acknowledges that they have minds, creativity and wills of their own. On the other hand, the film’s main character is the girl, and she is given little to no opportunities for decision-making throughout the film. She is forced by her mother and grandmother into posing as boy, forced by the Taliban into their school, she is punished, abused, and sold into sexual slavery. Indeed one of the few explicit choices she is given is which of the ostentatious and forbidding padlocks her new “husband” (read: rapist slave owner) will use to lock her up – an obscene “choice” which she is naturally unable to make.

I have to say, I found the grinding horror of ‘Osama’s fate a bit difficult to take when it took over from any character development. To a large extent she remained a terrified child whose expressive eyes reflected only animal fear. As reviewer Christopher Orr writes at the Atlantic:

Barmak’s protagonist truly is helpless, in a way that films rarely have the courage to convey. This is no wishful feminist parable about a strong-willed young woman facing tough odds. “Osama” is a weak, confused, foolish girl, a pawn not only of the Taliban but of her mother and grandmother as well. She passively watches her life unfold as if she were outside of it, but with a constant fear in her eyes that shows she knows she’s not.

Unlike Orr, I didn’t see ‘Osama’ as foolish – and only as weak and confused as any child would be in that situation. Indeed, for me the best part of the entire film was a scene where, clichéd as the situation was, ‘Osama’ is expected to undress in order to participate in a lesson in ritual genital washing with a repulsive Taliban mullah. She manages to outwit him and preserve her boyish facade, and the mixture of relief and satisfaction in her own ingenuity that floods the girl’s face was a testament to the actress’s ability to portray more than raw fear. Unfortunately, this the only chance she was given. Now of course having ‘Osama’ constantly consumed by fear is probably quite realistic for the someone in her circumstances. But if the audience only ever sees this side of her, it is hard to sympathise with her as a whole person. Unlike Orr, I don’t see films that allow their female characters agency as “wishful feminist parables” – rather I see them as realistic portrayals of human beings who attempt various strategies to navigate their lives. This is something that the previously reviewed Hollow City did well, starring a three-dimensional child protagonist who although confused and vulnerable was never reduced to his trauma. This made his end feel like a punch in the gut, whereas ‘Osama’s fate simply felt inevitable from the get-go.

The other issue with making a film about all-encompassing victimisation is that it invites a saviour. In the case of Osama, none is forthcoming within the film – leaving a narrative space open to be filled by the viewer. This ties in with another aspect of the film that I had some problems with, namely its clear courting of international audiences. This isn’t something that necessarily has to be a problem – lots of films from small local industries know that whether or not their film gets made and distributed might depend on its international marketability, and indeed Osama was funded as a co-production with international partners who undoubtedly wanted some kind of return. And I certainly don’t have pretensions of being anything other than a member of an international audience. But what bothered me about Osama was the way it was courting international audiences: released at a time when the Taliban’s abominable treatment of Afghani women was used as a justification for yet another invasion of the geopolitically significant country – this time by the US and NATO – resulting in devastating civilian casualities. Although no mention is made of the invasion in the film – it being set pre-2001 – this silence and the context of its release means that it reinforces an idea that the war was justified to ‘stop the Taliban’. Especially as the women in the film are presented as hopelessly victimised an incapable of resistance themselves. This stands in contrast to statements from the human rights prize-winning organisation Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), who strongly oppose both the Taliban and the US/NATO invasion, and argue that the invasion stands in the way of a democratic uprising of Afghanis against the Taliban.

Just like the actress, Afghanistan itself is infantilised in the film, or at least rendered in a way that invites an international saviour.  Despite being filmed on location in Kabul, signs of ‘civilisation’ are nigh on non-existent. Buildings, shops, and tools look more rustic than in the previously reviewed 1970s Algerian film Chronicle of the Years of Fire. As reviewer for the Guardian James Meek explains, this effect was achieved by filming on the outskirts of Kabul:

In the film, Barmak strips out the clutter of semi-modernity, the cars and shop signs and street traders with which central Kabul seethed under the Taliban, as now. Among the dust and ruins of the outskirts, characters and objects take on an elemental, fabular quality, like the great heavy scissors with which the heroine’s hair is cut.

This excision of signs of “semi-modernity” also makes Afghanistan seem more exotically vulnerable, primitive and in need of assistance from ‘developed’ nations. And just in case foreign viewers were in any doubt that the Taliban were bad, the trial of our girl ‘Osama’ is held concurrently with that of two white Westerners – a journalist and a nurse – who are condemned to death and executed! This also felt like a cynical attempt to draw in a Western audiences, as though they could identify with these crimes in a different way than with the magnetic performance of Golbahari. Even the name given to the girl’s male persona seemed like audience-bait rather than any kind of meaningful symbolism.

Concerning to me also was the way that the film at times seemed to not only portray sexism, but also perpetrate it. Perhaps most worryingly, none of the female characters have names, not even the main character until she is given a male one. In contrast, most of the men referred to in the film, including those who are never seen, are named. This could be a statement on the part of the film-maker about women’s erasure from Taliban-controlled Afghani society. But taken together with other aspects of the film I began to wonder… For example, the film often seemed to place the blame on the women’s exclusion from society on the women themselves: the (un-named) girl’s (un-named) mother lamented “why did God create women?”, “why did I have a daughter and not a son?”, bemoaning women’s gender as a burden rather than raging against the regime that made it so. (I got excited when the grandmother countered with: “No, women and men are equal”, but then she followed it up with: “They suffer equally.” Sure, many Afghani men went off to war and died, while many women stayed home and died, but I didn’t see any young boys in the film being sold off into sexual slavery.) But perhaps my biggest disappointment on this count was the way that ‘Osama’s true gender was revealed – she got her period. A common trope of women dressing up as men to avoid oppression is that they are betrayed by their unruly female bodies – breasts, pregnancies or periods bursting out at an inopportune moment; this again places the blame on women’s bodies for their exclusion from the male norm, something which fits into rather than challenges the conservative and misogynistic systems that establish those norms.

Again, perhaps this was also some nuanced symbolism on the part of the director/writer, but reading an interview with the director reinforced my doubts. Despite Golbahari’s performance carrying the whole film, and the film’s international success, she was paid about £7 a day, a salary that was soon spent. The director’s version of how he found his lead actress was that she was begging on the streets and he “looked down and saw Marina. ‘Her face was amazing. I was shocked when I saw the eyes,’ he said. ‘I decided that this was the main character. She was surprised by the word ‘film’. She asked, “Uncle, what’s a film?” She told me she’d never seen a film and never watched TV.'” Her version: “Marina says it is not true she was begging when Barmak met her, or that she had never seen a film before. She’s glad she made the film, but doesn’t like the way she is turned into a boy in it. Life, she says, is better than it was before, but not as good as she had hoped.” These conflicting stories, where the director represents Golbahari as more ignorant and victimised than in her version, as well as the poor level of remuneration, do not convince me that the director is above objectifying or exploiting women and girls.

In many ways the problems I found with the film and its reception remind me of another famous Afghan girl – a person known simply as the subject of Steve McCurry’s photograph Afghan Girl which appeared on the cover of National Geographic in 1985, until she was identified as Sharbat Gula in 2002. Like Gula, Golbahari’s stunning eyes have captivated international audiences and become symbolic for Afghani suffering. Their respective photographer/director have made names for themselves internationally while the two girls are largely left to continued suffering. To me, this suggests a problem not only with the conflicts and powers that have caused this suffering, but also with the international consumption of it.

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.