Moldova: Anishoara

(2016; writer/director: Ana Felicia Scutelnicu; language: Romanian; co-production with Germany; original title: Anişoara)

Ostensibly a coming-of-age film, Anishoara documents a year in the life of the titular 15 year old, as she finds first love and eventually forges a path towards independence and adulthood. But while the girl Anishoara is the visual and narrative focus of the film, it feels instead like a chronicle of a way of life, a time capsule of rural Moldova as yet forgotten by the march of modernity.

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Moldova is another entry on the list of countries which are not exactly renowned for their cinematic output. The Soviet era did see the production of well-received films such as Emil Loteanu’s 1972 romance Lăutarii, but when Anishoara was listed in my local film festival the choice of Moldovan film for the blog was an easy one; the film is beautifully shot and confidently produced, with an ethnographic perspective that offers a rich window into village life in one of Europe’s most neglected corners.

The plot, as such, is minimal. The film opens with the telling of a folk tale about a beautiful princess who fell in love with the sun, forgoing all other suitors. Mortally burned by her lover’s embrace, she regenerates into a starling, forever trying to reach the sun before falling to earth again. Enter Anishoara (Anishoara Morari), possessed of an unselfconscious beauty and a quiet but palpable presence. The film follows her through four seasons of her teenage life in a small Moldovan village, with each season culminating in a proposal and a rejection, before she gains the means to strike off on her own. The folk tale is thus more of a thematic frame than a literal metaphor: Anishoara, like the starling-princess, is a beautiful girl who rejects all suitors in search of an (unattainable?) ideal, a girl who wants to fly.

While the shifting of the seasons and Anishoara’s coming of age offer the semblance of a linear narrative, the film is more concerned with capturing a fixed time and place. Director Scutelnicu is openly captivated with the raw, self-contained beauty of both Anishoara and her village, having featured both in her previous short feature Panihida. A testimony to Scutelnicu’s enthrallment, the film is immersed in sensory details of the village life: the sounds as Anishoara uses hands and feet to apply mud to her home’s walls. The texture of mist, of cigarette smoke, of the steam from a horse. Anishoara’s grandfather’s wizened, toothless face. The ripple and rattle of wind through a field of bobbing sunflower heads. The sounds of birds, of frogs, of insects. The processing of corn by hand.

And yet, although richly evocative, the camera’s intense gaze is also impassive, keeping the viewer at a psychological remove. We may be offered a window into Anishoara’s life, but little is revealed about the inner workings of her mind or the emotional currents of the village. It is as though the fleeting moment director Scutelnicu seeks to capture – a girl on the brink of adulthood, a way of life in a remove village – has been cast in amber, preserved and observable, but temporally sealed off.

This temporal displacement is discernible in Scutelnicu‘s intention to “[share] with the public an almost silent and introvert sight on the human ages, the passing of time and the importance of moving out of the weight of existence.” And while time may pass in the film, it is a pre-modern time, governed by the rhythms of the seasons and the cyclical logic of folk-tales (such as that of the starling-princess, ever rising and falling). Anishoara acts to mythologise the present as though it is already long past.

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The film presents a world rooted in the old, on the cusp of the new. Tractors, motorbikes and buses have not entirely taken over from bicycles, horses and pony-carts. Traditional costumes are worn at Easter, and young people still turn out for village celebrations with traditional folk dance and songs. There are no televisions. The carousel at the funfair is rickety, and Anishoara is the only passenger. Church spires are the sole vertical challenge to the vast empty landscapes.

And yet this is not a world outside of our own – modernity exists simultaneously, just elsewhere. Why, otherwise, are there no working age people in the village? Have they disappeared to jobs in the city, or to larger farms as demanded by the march of industry? A jarring intrusion of the modern into the village occurs when a German tourist (William Menne) sets his sights on Anishoara. His visit to a salon to get his grey dyed a synthetic black, wearing a leopard-print hairdressers cape, could have been anywhere in today’s Europe, and is a reminder of both Anishoara and her village’s vulnerability.

The film’s almost documentary-like quality does raise questions about the reality of the way of life portrayed. While some of the actors are professionals, many are non-professionals from the village, whose ‘characters’ share their actual names. Scutelnicu describes the screenplay as “an open form… developed while shooting and reacting to the real life happening in front and behind the camera. The editing was also long and special, as the film had to be recreated and found new out of the material.” This certainly suggests a degree of genuineness to the culture and practices depicted, rather than an attempt to exaggerate a bygone pastoral simplicity for romantic effect.

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Indeed, the impassivity of the film’s gaze has been praised for neither romtanticising nor debasing Anishoara or her village. Moldova has the lowest GDP of any country in Europe, and is the only European country ranked below ‘high human development’ in the Human Development Index, and it shows. Anishoara and her family are poor. But they are not abject. The shops have little in them, but the village and surrounding countryside is beautiful. Anishoara seems to take pleasure in many aspects of her life and culture.

On the other hand, Scutelnicu does not shy away from hinting at some grimmer undercurrents to the girl’s life, particularly at the hands of men. Her grandfather threatens to “thrash her little bum”, and his drinking buddies joke about forcing themselves on her while she listens, rigidly upright in her bed in the next room. German visitor Mr. Schmidt leeringly places a wedding veil on her head, and even boyfriend Dragos (Dragos Scutelnicu) turns out to have a wife and kids back home in the next village. But despite the lingering threat of assault, it never occurs. As Variety‘s Jessica Kiang writes,

“more often than not the dramatic thing does not happen, merely the truthful one. And the truth here is that these lives are neither ennobled nor impoverished by the lack of werewithal; they simply are, as they have always been.”

This lack of drama could easily have made for a dull film, particularly as the film’s removed and observational quality means very little is actually revealed about Anishoara’s thoughts and emotions. There is minimal dialogue, and such as there is is desultory, as meaningful as silence. And yet Scutelnicu nevertheless achieves a charged atmosphere. Glances, environments, and even non-events come to take on a deeper significance: Dragos takes her on a trip to the ocean for the first time (Moldova is landlocked), but the chilly desolation of the wintry beach and the boredom of simply hanging out undercuts the romance. A visit to a cliff-side with ancient carvings while clouds speed in the blue sky overhead is an echo of the dreamy, mystical peril of Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock. And even if none of the men’s threats actually eventuate in assault, the matter-of-factness of their existence would itself be enough to understand Anishoara’s decision, at the end of the film, to get into a yellow bus and drive it off into the sunrise.

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The film reminds me of a style I associate with Sofia Coppola – luminous, visually rich but with a firm emotional separation between viewer and characters. In Anishoara as in The Virgin Suicides or Marie Antionette there is a similar impression of surface beauty and implied threat, where the viewer can neither touch nor intervene; there are hints of an interior life that can be guessed at but never fully known. (Are there films like this about men? Or is it always women, young women, who are beautiful, ephemeral, vulnerable with their penetrable bodies but sphinx-like with their impenetrable minds? A stray thought, I digress…)

Scutelnicu has created a beautiful, subtle film in which her gaze is a presence almost as tangible as those it observes. She shares with the viewer a young girl’s confrontation with her surroundings, without drama or explanation, offering witness to a way of life and a youthful innocence that is on the brink of being lost. The film was a great way to learn about Moldova – “a regional film without kitsch” (as Scutelnicu’s previous film was described), with detailed and dignified depictions of folk customs, agricultural practices, and what young people do (or don’t do) for fun. It was a particular privilege to see, in such detail, the beautiful Moldovan landscape throughout all four seasons – the clusters of run down houses in rocky valleys, the buttery sun on rolling fields in the steppes, the thick layers of snow in the winter.

But I can’t help wishing that the viewer was allowed more access to Anishoara’s inner life. What does she dream of? What makes her happy? Who is she really? Who are any of the villagers, when you scratch the surface? In this sense I don’t feel like I really got to know Moldova – I know what it looks like now, but not what makes its people tick.

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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.