3. Free Solo

Free Solo is a climbing documentary that is really something special.

Oddly enough, I’ve actually seen quite a few climbing documentaries over the years – despite being the kind of person who gets vertigo at the top of a set of stepladders – and one of the commonalities among a lot of them is the focus on one extraordinary climber who is pushing the boundaries of mountaineering or climbing in general. This film is sort of that kind of film – Alex Honnold is definitely that kind of character for good and ill – and at the same time it absolutely isn’t that kind of film.

What the film does different that, for me, is at the heart of what makes it such a compelling film and why it lingers in the thoughts for days after watching, is that it puts Alex and his climb in context. Not just in terms of climbing El Capitan, or even in terms of free soloing – essentially climbing alone with no ropes or other safety equipment – as impressive as those things are, but as a member of a community. Throughout the film the camera pulls back to reveal the team around him, both the film crew – all experienced climbers in their own right – and the other climbers he trains with in the run up to his climb. He may be a bit of a loner living in a van and preferring to climb alone, but he is not alone, he has a mum and a girlfriend, friends and mentors in climbing and while climbing is his life, there’s more to him and his life than just climbing.

Co-director Jimmy Chin has some very frank discussions about responsibility and safety throughout the film, along with his acknowledged fear of seeing Alex falling through the frame and knowing that will mean that he’s falling to his death. (The flip side of this is shown in Alex’s admission before his first attempt that he’s made his peace with the fact that he may well fall to his death doing this, but that he can’t yet make his peace with the crew, his friends having to watch him fall to his death. Given the state of his ankle at the time of his first attempt, I genuinely believe it is that thought that causes him to abort the attempt and in doing so likely saves his life.) That sentiment is repeated throughout the film by both the crew and fellow climber – he’s going to do this whether I help him or not, and I don’t want him to die so I’m going to do everything in my power to help him be as best prepared as he can possibly be.

I really wasn’t prepared for how emotionally invested I was going to get in this film, or the sudden heart-stopping realisation I had during his first solo climb that I didn’t know if he’d made it, if he was still alive.

The film slowly builds that emotional investment throughout, by way of situating him a person who is cared about by those around him. We see the building relationship he has with his girlfriend Sanni, the place he has in the community of climbers – eating and playing with their families – and with the film crew. It would be easy for a film of this kind to feel voyeuristic but the film has a nice line in the power of looking and looking away. There’s some really effective use of graphics throughout his second attempt that both give an effective sense of the scale of the climb while also giving the viewer a much-needed release from the building tension. Tense is definitely the operative word during that climb, giving us both gorgeous vistas that emphasise the scale of the task and the achievement of it and tight close-ups that lay out the sheer skill and tenacity of Alex as a climber. Counter-intuitively though, some of the tensest moments are when we are pulled right back from the action, watching instead the impact that the climb is having on the film crew, on the way that one of them in particular (Mikey Schaefer) is so overcome with fear and concern for Alex that he can barely look through his own viewfinder. His pained looking and looking away is both deeply effective in its own right and strangely cathartic for the viewer, as though given permission to look away, to feel our own fear and acknowledge that we have come to care – and fear – for our protagonist too. It also – spoiler alert – allows us to share in the equally visceral joy in his victory, to cry and cheer along with the crew that he’s achieved his dream.

2. Widows

When I first saw the trailers for Widows earlier this year, I had two main thoughts, the first one was predictably enough, how cool a movie it looked, quickly followed by the growing feeling that I’ve seen this movie before. Wasn’t that the plot of one of those Lynda La Plante dramas in the 90s? (Okay, I admit it; I also thought two female-led heist movies in one year? Hollywood you are spoiling me! I do love a heist.) Turns out it was actually from the 80s but they must have re-run it when I was a teenager in the late 90s because I was definitely too young to have watched it the first time round. But the important bit, was that yes, it was the same story – enough of the same story that La Plante gets a story credit – which made it an interesting choice as the follow-up film for Steve McQueen to have made after the Oscar winning 12 Years a Slave. Yet in another way it’s a film that fits perfectly into McQueen’s filmography, which has always had a focus on bodies as political and interaction between politics and identity.

For all that Widows is set in Chicago, there’s something fundamentally British about the film and it’s preoccupation with class over race. I’m not sure you could see this film and think the director was from the US. Perhaps it’s better to say that this is a film about the immigrant experience of America. It’s a film of outsiders looking in; that contrasts the story of the American Dream with the generations long struggle of immigrants to both belong and become ‘respectable’. (Never more viscerally than in the stand-off between Veronica Rawlins and Jamal Manning early in the film, and all the layers of meaning to his chilling comment of ‘welcome back’.) It also highlights how fragile the realisation of that dream truly is, how easily it can be pulled out from under you, and all the ways your past can be used against you or simply catch up with you.

It’s really interesting to see the younger Mulligan consciously make the choice to offer a truce to his rival Manning in the aftermath of his own father’s bitter rant. An unspoken acknowledgement of Jamal’s earlier argument that the move from crime to politics is both a well-trodden path and one his own fore-bearers made. (Given the amount of Americans I have seen playing ‘Irish’ gangsters with correspondingly terrible accents, it was a strange pleasure to see the two major Irish-American characters played by actually Irish actors who’ve made their careers in Hollywood. I also suspect that there was a little quiet commentary on the fact that there are still a statistically significant percentage of the much-maligned ‘illegal immigrant’ populations in the US are Irish.) It does make you wonder how differently that whole scene might have gone if Jack Manning could have said that out loud in a way that Manning could have heard. That despite all the superficial differences of race and class and respectability, they are fundamentally the same kind of people, men cut from the same cloth.

All of the women involved in the heist are trying to pull themselves upwards – however different their methods – and that is fundamentally what ties them together. One of the eponymous widows, Linda, has a line when she opts into the heist where she says that ‘if this thing goes wrong, I want my kids to know I didn’t just sit there and take it, I did something’. And that attitude seems to apply to all the characters we follow in the film, rich and poor, they all feel trapped by their lives and they all want to fight back against that. Fundamentally that feels like the theme of the film, people kicking back against a world that fundamentally doesn’t care about what they want and will crush them if they stop fighting for a moment.

This is a film with layers, and the more you dig in the more you’ll find; just as surely as the wheels within wheels that the characters keep discovering and revealing, will crush them if they stand still for a moment too long.

1. The Shape of Water

The Oscars made their arrival last weekend. For all that the entertainment press in the UK sporadically make their regular cry of ‘The British are Coming’ that never actually seems to be the case. However, looking at the winners of the Best Director category over the last few years, it would perhaps to be fair to make the claim that ‘The Mexicans are Coming’, with Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro González Iñárritu – twice – and now Guillermo del Toro having all got the nod recently. It’s pretty much impossible to talk about the Oscars these days, without at least cursorily addressing the diversity issues that have been raised about it. Which in turn reminded me that I’d intended to have another go round at the 12 films project and an unexpected Oscar winner would be a good place to start.

Having been a fan of Guillermo del Toro’s films since I first saw Pan’s Labyrinth over a decade ago, I was both surprised and delighted to find both The Shape of Water and its director nominated for so many Oscars this year. (Just because I happen to think that del Toro is one of the best and most interesting directors working today, that doesn’t mean I expect the Academy to agree with me!) Having now seen the film itself, I’m no less baffled but even more delighted. It’s so rare to see genre films do well at the Oscars, especially ones as unapologetically strange and political as this one.

The Shape of Water is a delightfully strange and beautiful film, a cold war fairy tale with all the whimsy and darkness that ought to go along with that. Fundamentally, it’s a story about love – both romantic and platonic – and hope. It’s a film that wears its influences on its sleeve, embodying both the optimism and creeping insecurities – not to mention explicitly displaying the casual bigotry of the times – of both the films and wider society of the US in the early 1960s. In particular both the diner and the car show room, embody the duality of those Atomic age B-movies and the time they were made, with the shiny futuristic surfaces and the bubbling undercurrents of tension flowing just below it.

(Arguably, you know you’ve spent too much time in the horror and science fiction genres, when you hear Theme from a Summer Place and understand instantly its dual role in both comforting and quietly creeping out the audience.)

There’s something a little Amelie-esque about the theme that Alexandre Desplat has given to Elisa, but more widely the score and the soundscape in general arguably owe more to Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s earlier work with Marc Caro, Delicatessen. There’s both a tenderness and a nightmarishness to both films, a sense of something pure and good struggling to survive in the face of terribly mundane evil.

It’s a film to warm your heart and remind you that, even in these troubled times; people are still capable of great kindness and bravery. So while it may have been an unexpected to choice for the Oscar, it was not, I think, an undeserved one.

12 Films Project (Part 3)

New Year; new challenges. Plus ça change, as they say. I was looking for a new challenge to keep me writing here regularly, when I remembered about the 12 films project and having felt rather uninspired in my film choices last year, I wanted to diversify my film-watching. Shake things up a bit and try new, or at least different, things.

There’s a considerable part of me that is deeply disappointed that, the best part of eight years after I first did this challenge, this kind of project is still necessary. Yet in these troubled political times, it somehow feels more relevant than it ever was. That we see the world from different perspectives, that we are reminded that people who don’t look or think like us are people too. That their stories are important, and equally deserving of being heard.

To this end, I’m aware that in previous years my challenge films have leant toward those produced outside of Hollywood and Europe, which is both a natural product of my own film preferences and unfortunately plays into certain stereotypes about the kind of films that fit into this kind of challenge. So, this go round, I want to seek out films that qualify but are either in English or from other European countries. Films that you wouldn’t see the title of, and presume that they would qualify.

12. Rouge Parole

Given that it was the films that I saw when the Africa in Motion festival tour reached my local art-house cinema four years ago that spurred me to sign up for this project the first time round, it seems fitting that the final film of this round should be a film that arrived at my local cinema courtesy of the Africa in Motion festival once again. Like most of the films on offer that first time, this one was a documentary too. Rouge Parole tells the story of the revolution that rocked Tunisia and kick started the ‘Arab Spring’. Or rather it tells stories of the revolution. There is no central over-arching narrative or voice-over to guide us. Instead the film-makers present their audience with different people’s, often contradictory, accounts of flash-points and significant moments of the revolution. The differing accounts are often laid next to each other in the film, interspersed with television news footage, shaky camera phone footage and surreptitiously filmed contemporary recordings by local guerilla film-makers. There doesn’t seem to be any judgement in the inclusion of contradictory accounts, or differing opinions on what action sparked what event, or where the birth place of the revolution truly was. Instead it feels like a statement on the subjectivity of truth, the unreliability of memory and the way in which different things may be true for different people, especially within an oppressive state.

The impact and importance of social media on the fledgling revolution, is an important part of the official narrative we hear of the Arab Spring. The film gives social media credit for empowering ordinary people to act, but also gives it a place within many other important factors. Perhaps the moment when the film first opens up away from the story we expect to see, is when the film visits the office of some local film-makers, they talk about who they are and their experiences of filming the progressing revolution, the tiny space packed with equipment and the wall behind them lined with tapes. Suggesting months, if not years, of careful, circumspect work, recording and logging the brutalities of the regime and countless acts of protest. That one of the film-makers appears to be the cousin of Mohamed Bouazizi, the young man who infamously immolated himself into the history books tells its own story. Implies a refusal to let the act go unnoticed, forgotten or its meaning defamed by the authorities the way others had. It leads us on to other young men who had killed themselves in public acts of protest at the system that had crushed them. Which in turn leads to other ‘martyrs’ in other cities, of a fuse running further back than the official narrative acknowledges.

Having spent so much time over the last few years seeing the revolutions in Egypt and Libya through mostly European perspectives – and even the reports from the locals or ex-pats were largely mediated through Western media – it was a welcome change to hear viewpoints on those revolutions from a neighbouring country. To see the joy on a bookshop owners face as she proudly sells previously banned books, the consternation and struggles to adapt of local journalists, faced with an end to the censorship they’ve worked under for so long. In particular when we hear so much about Western aid it was nice to see the practicalities of even small parts of the relief effort for refugees arriving in Tunisia from Libya.

At the heart of this film for me, was a questioning of the idea of the single narrative, of the fallacy of trying to apply the same model to all the countries impacted by the Arab Spring. It begs the question: if this many stories can be told from Tunisia, how many more are waiting to be told and heard from across the region? How many will we be allowed to hear, and how many have already been silenced?

A Chadian Double Bill – 10. Abouna & 11. Daratt

Watching African cinema is always a bit of a haphazard experience for me as its shaped by the vagaries of, on the one hand what films have been released on Region 2 DVD and on the other that have come to the attention of the jury of a big film festival. The annual Africa in Motion film festival in Edinburgh (this year running from 25th October to 2nd November) is pretty much the only opportunity to see anything approaching a representative selection of any particular country’s filmic output or of any particular director’s oeuvre. So imagine my excitement when I was browsing the library shelves and discovered not only a copy of Cannes winner from two years ago A Screaming Man but also two of Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s previous films, Abouna (Our Father) and Daratt (Dry Season) which I pounced upon while I could.

Chad itself is a somewhat geographically diverse place and between Abouna (2002) and Daratt (2006) Haroun uses quite a variety of both urban and rural locations. The films were made either side of the most recent civil war to rock the country and in some ways the different preoccupations of the films show it. Yet in others, the latter film is more hopeful than the former – in the first, two boys going looking for their father and end up loosing much more, in the second a young man goes in search of vengeance for his father and finds things worth far more. Neither of the films is burdened with excess dialogue, nor do they shy away from the spaces and silences between people and conversations. Whether you choose to see that as demonstrative of the failures in communication between generations or communities is up to the viewer and their opinion may fluctuate from film to film. Perhaps it is telling that the deaf mute girl, Khalil, seems to have the least trouble making herself and her feelings understood of all the characters in the films.

But perhaps it is the similarities between the two films that is the most significant. The protagonists of both films are trying and failing to make a peace, however temporary or transient, with their unwilling circumstances. They are both films about coming of age, of facing responsibilities and failing in them, their young protagonists torn between their own desires and the needs of their families. The latter more than the former, suggesting that there might be a third way, a way to balance following one’s heart, with fulfilling one’s responsibility to family. Whether that can be mapped out onto the hearts of an entire nation, to draw a path like Atim’s between brutal revenge and complete amnesty, to make a true peace with the opposition even if forgiveness is beyond reach, is another question. But it’s nonetheless a hopeful question. One that puts the power back in the hands of those who have been buffeted and damaged by the violence and destruction of forces more powerful than they. It suggests that lasting peace will not come through grand gestures of governments and tribunals but through small individual actions and gestures over a long time.

Perhaps making bread is a more effective metaphor for making peace than it seems initially, requiring as it does a firm hand but a light touch, a lot of patience and being a rubbish way to exorcise your hate. (Bread will apparently taste bad if made with hate in your heart.)

9. Mesnak/Turtle

There was a strand at this year’s Glasgow Film Festival called The Edge of the World, which consisted of highlights from the ImagineNATIVE Festival in Canada with a sprinkling of Gaelic short films thrown in. This particular film was accompanied by a short called Glen Tolsta (about an isolated and now abandoned community on Lewis). It was particularly nice because both the directors were in the audience so they spoke a bit about their respective films at the start. As is the way of these things Ishbel Murray spoke in Gaelic first before continuing in English, so when it came to Yves Sioui Desard’s turn he spoke, briefly in Innu before continuing in English, which is the first time I’ve heard that in real life.

The film itself is essentially a retelling of Hamlet within a Native community in Quebec (on an interesting cultural/linguistic note, I realised while watching it that I’ve seen more films in Inuit languages that I have in Quebeçois) only with less violence, more drugs and the incest isn’t so much implied as explicit (a woman sitting next to me with two early/pre teen kids got up and left during the drug-taking scene – it was rated 15 for reason…) However it is a really interesting adaptation, sticking close to the original at some points and playing fast and loose at others. For a start Osalie (our stand-in for Ophelia) gets a great deal more to do and a bit more agency. Despite sharing her Shakespearean counterpart’s fate – that doesn’t actually serve as a motivator for Dave/Hamlets’ actions (other events to do with her do, but kind of understandably) at the end so her decision seems more about her than as a plot motivator. It abandons bits of the original that it doesn’t need and drafts in elements such as drug abuse and alcoholism, assimilation versus cultural resistance that make it feel more real and less allegorical.

There’s a lot of highly symbolic stuff with a turtle – who is, I supposed, our stand in for the ghost of Hamlet’s father (his spirit animal was a turtle) – who manages to imbue considerable personality despite being a turtle. There’s less of a focus on the revenge tragedy of the original. As someone says early on to the protagonist Dave, there is more to Hamlet than just revenge – there is grief and redemption and Dave certainly gets more of both of those than his Shakespearean counterpart.

The film is beautifully shot in quite gorgeous black and white. The various locations managing to be both mundane and stunning – the reservation isn’t all one thing it is portrayed like any other rural community with posh bits, normal bits and downright scabby bits.

8. Red Cliff/Chi Bi

The latest film for this challenge is somewhat familiar terrain for me. However, it was purchased on recommendation from several people I know (who rightly said ‘oh you’ll love this’) and its a film I own (whole other challenge I’ve been working on) that qualifies for this challenge. Also while I am normally a big fan of cinema that challenges me and makes me think, sometimes I just want action/adventure and explosions. It’s a big Chinese historical epic, which has long been a favoured genre of mine. Though most of the other films of this type that I’ve seen have been more centred on martial arts and the exploits of a couple of particular characters and their skills against a historical backdrop. Red Cliff however, is more about big sweeping battles, with a bit of intrigue, alliances and political manoeuvring on the side.

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4. Halaw/Ways of the Sea

Halaw: Ways of the Sea, is a film I know qualifies for this challenge because the bloke behind me in the queue to get in made a sarcastic comment about queue jumpers to a another bloke who apologetically explained he was the director…

It’s hard to describe a film about human trafficking as ‘enjoyable’, but it was well made, intriguing and had compelling characters. The performance of Arnalyn Ismael as young Daying is particularly notable, balancing the useful skill of being easily able to steal any scene she is in while being able to fade into the background when the scene requires it. The film is very stylistically shot without seeming to be. By that I mean that the film neither shies away from the harsh realities of the poverty its characters live in nor glamorises it. Rather it finds the beauty in mess, in a way that can arguably only be achieved by viewing somewhere through the eyes of someone who loves a place despite being painfully aware of its problems. This is a film that reminds us that one cannot live on the view, no matter how beautiful that view might be.

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3. 7 Sins Forgiven/7 Khoon Maaf

7 Sins Forgiven was one of those strange serendipitous film festival screenings where you head for a screening, realise you’re going to get there too late and that the film you wanted to see isn’t even on at the place you’re headed to, so you have to pick something else at random.

This film won out, as I flicked through the guide on the U-bahn (the guide to Berlinale is helpfully organised by section, cinema then time but is singularly unhelpful if you want to know all the films on around 1pm on Saturday across all cinemas – useful for the organised, less so for the last minute reschedule) by being on at a cinema I was already heading towards and having English subtitles. My main criteria when faced with a dilemma between screenings is ‘am I likely to see this anywhere else, any time soon?’ Films in Hindi don’t turn up at either my local art house cinema (never-mind the multiplex) so I went in completely blind and really close to the front of a promisingly packed screening.

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