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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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.

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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.

Bahamas: Children of God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Armenia: The Colour of Pomegranates

(1968; dir: Sergei Parajanov; language: Armenian; original title: Նռան գույնը or Sayat Nova).

I think I can safely say that I’ve never before seen anything like The Colour of Pomegranates. Made in the then USSR by the Armenian/Georgian director Parajanov, the film is a poetic imagining of the mental landscape of 18th century Georgian/Armenian poet, priest and troubadour, Sayat Nova. Although the film follows the stages of Sayat Nova’s life – childhood, sexual awakening and falling in love, entering a monastery, and death – that’s about the extent of the narrative. Rather than telling the story of the poet’s life, the film sets out to “recreate the poet’s inner world”, resulting in a surreal collage of image and music, interwoven with extracts of Nova’s poetry.

I chose The Colour of Pomegranates as Armenia’s film for a variety of reasons. None of the other films I found that fit my criteria looked super inspiring, and this one distinguished itself through being from a genre and time period that I haven’t yet reviewed here. But mostly, I chose it because during my research about Armenian film Parajanov’s name kept coming up, as he is rated as a ground-breaking and extremely highly-regarded film director. Parajanov was born in Soviet Georgia to Armenian parents, and made films in various locations within the Soviet Union, and in various languages. Maybe I’m revealing my great ignorance here, but I’d never heard of him, and finding out about significant film-makers that my blinkered diet of North American and Western European had excluded is one of the reasons I have embarked on this world cinema odyssey. The story of Parajanov’s career is a sad one, as both he and his films suffered constant repression from the Soviet government for the span of several decades, and Parajanov was imprisoned several times. The Colour of Pomegranates is apparently viewed as his masterpiece, as well as the film of his which seemed most Armenian, set and filmed in Armenia in the Armenian language.

For all that the description of the film given above might sound pretentious and impenetrable, I have to say that The Colour of Pomegranates is probably the most beautiful film I have ever seen. I’m not normally a viewer of “art films” such as this, where the language of film is used for more poetic and symbolic than narrative purposes, but Pomegranates is just so visually sumptuous and unique that watching it is almost hypnotic. The film takes the form of a series of exquisite tableaux vivants, carefully composed of actors (including the Georgian actress Sofiko Chiaureli in six roles); elaborate costumes and textiles (many of which based on Armenian traditional and folk designs); symbolic objects ritually deployed; and animals (one of my favourite scenes was a gorgeous old church filling rapidly up with sheep). According to the director, the imagery of the film was inspired by “the Armenian illuminated miniatures. I wanted to create that inner dynamic that comes from inside the picture, the forms and the dramaturgy of colour.”

As for deeper meaning, the film’s wikipedia page cites one commentator’s assertion that the film is a celebration of Armenian/Georgian culture in the face of oppression: “There are specific images that are highly charged — blood-red juice spilling from a cut pomegranate into a cloth and forming a stain in the shape of the boundaries of the ancient Kingdom of Georgia and Armenia; dyers lifting hanks of wool out of vats in the colours of the national flag, and so on.” I must admit these details were lost on me while watching the film, but I can well believe that this is so, especially given the Soviet administration’s reaction to the film. Certainly, the film offers a rich taste of Armenian poetry, textiles, churches and religious rituals, as well as being simply a film experience unlike any other.

Andorra: No pronunciarás el nombre de Dios en vano

(1999, dir: Josep Guirao; language: Catalan; title in English: Thou Shalt Not Take the Name of God in Vain)

A tiny country wedged between France and Spain, it is perhaps understandable that Andorra doesn’t have a long list of locally produced films to its name. This film was chosen because it was literally the only one I could source that fit the local production criteria.
Writer and director Josep Guirao is apparently an experienced director, but I have to say that this film felt amateurish and poorly conceived.

No pronunciarás… is a gangster thriller short set in the year 2046 (although this date doesn’t seem to actually affect the action in any way). The film kicks off with a powerful and well-connected gangster boss interrogating a collection of religious leaders about how to recognise a true messiah. The viewer later discovers that the gang boss is holding captive a rival crook, Emmanuel, who claims indeed to be the first coming. Apparently the film is based on the science fiction novel The Branch by Mike Resnick, which I have not read but which sounds a lot more promising than this film turned out to be.

For the first five minutes or so, I was sort of enjoying the film. There was something comically jarring about the hammily-acted gangsters and disreputable looking ‘religious leaders’ (who looked a lot more like a collection of the film-maker’s friends than actual religious representatives) arguing heatedly about the finer points of Judaism vis-à-vis Christianity and their relationship to the concept of the messiah. Is this film going to be a send-up of the gangster genre, I wondered, or of theology, or both? By the time the theological debate hit the 20 minute mark, with no variation in pace, subject matter, or character, I was starting to get very bored and was no longer sure what the ambitions or point of the film was.The gruesome climax, when it finally came, also felt drawn out and tedious.

Overall the film felt uneven, overblown, and – at a running time of 32 minutes – at least 20 minutes too long. More than anything else, it felt like a group of friends had decided it would be cool to make a film about religion and gangsters and stuff. Not that I have anything against amateur film; indeed this film did an admirable job of eking the most out of a presumably tiny budget through strategic lighting and basic props. My criticism of the film is more that if it did have a point, it didn’t do a very good job of communicating it.

As far as enlightening me about the country of origin, this film was probably not such a good choice. It was interesting listening to the Catalan language, but other than that I didn’t get the impression that the film would have changed much if it had been produced in another country. I wonder how the film was received in Andorra, a largely Roman Catholic country, and if seen from that context the film might have had another meaning? Any Andorrans out there want to weigh in? Also, I understand that the central Jewish-Christian debate was based on the subject matter of the original story, but it did feel a bit strange to have the Muslim representative in the film so totally sidelined (did he even talk or have a line?), especially in a country like Andorra where Muslims greatly outnumber Jews (according to Wikipedia, at least). I mean, I know the film isn’t trying to be representative (or is it? who knows…), but the presence of the silent murdered Muslim just felt like tokenism. Not to mention the bloodthirsty atheist henchman…

Ultimately all I learned about Andorra from watching this film is that they have very little of a native film industry. If anybody out there knows of a better film produced predominantly in Andorra (with an Andorran director and cast), please let me know and I can revise this post.