Monthly Archives: February 2007

  • We Are All Fine Bizhan Mirbagheri Iran 2005

    We Are All Fine is a metaphysical black comedy which as a double take offers an oblique and penetrating look at contemporary Iran. We Are All Fine    Bizhan Mirbagheri  Iran 2005  Ahu Kheradmand;Mohson Moradi; Lehla Zarch
    Viewed Rotterdam Film Festival 1 Feb 2007

    Beware the empty centre

    We Are All Fine is a metaphysical black comedy which as a double take offers an oblique and penetrating look at contemporary Iran. 

    Mirbhagheri’s film begins with an event that comes close to being a proposition.  A family – an extended family of three generations – is visited by a stranger who says he is a friend of the eldest son who has left Iran to work abroad but has not been heard from in two years.  His message is that the son wants his family – mother father brother sister wife and child – to make a video letter to be sent back to him with the stranger.  The son wants to know how things are with them.

    The visitor goes leaving behind him uncertainly, endless unanswered and unanswerable questions and, as proof of his authenticity, a nondescript recently taken photo of the son.  The family believe it’s their boy: the full length picture shows a man standing in front of a wire mesh fence wearing jeans trainers a light jacket. The location( as one member of the family observes) could be anywhere; in a sense the figure is also everyman. 

    Borrowing a camcorder, the family decide to make the video for their son.   At this point the film starts to shift between two expressive modes: the film which documents the action and the video mode which records the feelings of the family trapped in their own expectations. The structural dynamic of the film stems from the alternation between the two systems of recording, between monologue and dialogue.   After considering and briefly trying to speak collectively the family take the decision that what they really want to do is to talk individually to their son so that unconstrained they can commune with him from their hearts.   At the point at which the video monologues are taken up the film enters a realm of communication that is religious in form: it’s like prayer, communication with the unseen.  The family, who continually try to revise edit wipe and redo their performances in attempts to find the right key or the ‘right’ tone offer their son:  accounts, justifications, confessions, brutal statements of unalloyed truth (“I am dieing” his father tells him).   They are speaking to the male who is the absent and empty centre of the house.  He is not there yet they have to speak to him and in this absence and emptiness he assumes a sort of god like abstraction.  He becomes an empty vessel for the outpouring of lamentation supplication and truth.  A man functioning and being as the form of God.  The absent male? Absent but omnipresent.

    I think that We are All Fine(WAAF) is a finely tuned reflection of a certain internalised psychic state of affairs in Iran.  Of course the film has social context: the revolution and the Iraq war are strongly alluded to. But in WAAF nearly all the action takes place inside the home of the family.  There are some exterior shots:  the military academy, the garment shop where the sister works (where her male manager is fired by the female boss), but essentially this is an interior film and it is through the interiority (both in monologue and dialogue) that we know what is happening.  The father is old sick and dieing; the sister is keeping the family afloat by working; the mother keeps the hearth; the wife takes their daughter to the out of school drama club.   The woman and the old father all have their problems and get on with living and dieing.  The younger brother is a good natured soul; perhaps naïve but  he  understands why his brother has deserted the family, and admits that he too might do the same thing.  The actuality is that it is the women who are living sustaining life; for how long can they take the strain? The men dream and then plan the execution of some sort of flight either abroad or perhaps to another kind of place.   With elegance and simplicity Mirbhagheri suggests that the empty centre he describes is not just a feature of this family but is replicated through his country.  Without intimate knowledge of Iran I do not know if Mirbhagheri is representing something actual.   But certainly Mirbhagheri (and his script writer) is a filmmaker with vision who has looked at his society and seen somewhere at  its core the phenomenon of the absent centre that is transformed into a vessel for outpourings as a component of the social assemblage.  He has conceived a subtle and telling form for conveying his insight, for by removing the male presence he has freed himself to be able to deconstruct the fabric of Iranian society.   Looking to filmmakers in the West, in comparison we have a generation of filmmakers who lack the capacity to see and understand their own situations.  Some see symptoms (lots of films about problems) but not the conditions.  Filmmakers who struggle to make films about ideas and as such are incapable of making films that probe and deconstruct psychic assemblage of  schizoid Western societies and their values.     

    Checking the film on the imdb to find the cast list I saw that (unsurprisingly) few people had seen the film. One person who had seen it commented on the bad acting.  In the West the acting profession has become part of the communications industry.  The consequences of this industrialisation of the art have in the course of 80 to 90 years completely taken over expectations of and demands made on actors.  In Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller through Willie Lomax, points out that to sell the product you first of all have to sell yourself.  The emphasis on the actor adopting a heightened emotional individuality as the chosen expressive mode to the exclusion of other styles of performing, has led to actors and actresses ‘selling’ themselves for role and ‘pitching‘ themselves into roles, to the exclusion of other expressive styles drawn from folk or classical traditions of performance.   In particular over the last 30 years in the UK and USA the soap opera has become the dominant form of an industrialised output defining the demands made of actors and actresses.  This form has increasingly exerted influence in curtailing the acting profession’s repertoire of dramatic responses.  The soap opera which is not a arena of ideas relies on idiosyncratic roles (parts) that have  to be filled out emotively by the players. The industry needs a type of overdetermined emotive response from its actors  to fill out the vacuity and  the emotional similarities of the various switchback plot lines.  The actors are required to respond and react in particular with expressive faciality (many shots and even complete sequences are in full face close up).   The players gestural responses have become corrupted or delimited by: multiple but crude variations of the rictus the forehead and eye muscles and expressive use of arms and hands as if they were huge levers pumping out reactive cues. (Sales men and women are taught a similar gestural vocabulary).

    In Iran there seems to be an acting tradition that isn’t distorted by the selling ethos.  Much of the action of WAAF is shot wide. and in its playing WAAF is understated and so shaped to allow to Mirgbhageri’s idea primacy.  It is the idea that unfolds and develops in the course of the film, rather than the characters.  Had it been played otherwise it would have been at the cost of the increasing urgency and power in the development of the film.    
    adrin neatrour

  • Transe – Teresa Villaverde – 2006 126 mins: Ana Morcira

    Viewed Rotterdam International Film Festival 3 Feb 2007
    The background actuality of Teresa Villaverde’s film lies in the criminal racket of people smuggling and in particular the entrapment of young Eastern European girls into prostitution. Transe is not as a movie about issues or dramatised statement of the obvious levels of exploitation in this activity. Transe is film. Transe – Teresa Villaverde – 2006 126 mins Ana Morcira
    Viewed Rotterdam International Film Festival 3 Feb 2007

    Once upon a time…

    Transe opens with the sound of the wind laid over the titles.  A wind that blows within and without through the film.

    The background actuality of Teresa Villaverde’s film lies in the criminal racket of people smuggling and in particular the entrapment of young Eastern European girls into prostitution.  Transe is not as a movie about issues or dramatised statement of the obvious levels of exploitation in this activity. There’s no shortage of that material.  Transe is film.  Film as a sensualised experience grounded in life but owing nothing to expectations about the form that life might take.  Villaverde renders her material as a film experience using camera light voice and portrayal to create an optic and sound world built on the premise of fairytale. 
    Towards the end of the brothel sequence in Transe Sonia (Ana Morcira) the protagonist sits on a chair in pick-up room.  She faces the camera looking back at but over and beyond the lens whilst a mirror ball (out of shot) reflects a recurring pattern across her.  The shot lasts perhaps 2 to 3 minutes. The flowing multifaceted pattern repeats itself across her face and on the wall behind her.  Sonia is rooted in an immobility of being.  The thing for me about this shot is that I can’t remember if it is mute or not. The power of the optical effect is both meditative and dynamic.  It suspends it animates  As it holds the viewer in its delicate tracery simultaneously it engenders a connection with Sonia’s wordless movement into retreat and defines the object status of her condition.  The shot (and there are others in the film) creates fusion of the objective and subjective: the objective and subjective points of view become one. We move from action into time.   We see the choice Ana makes: to take an internal line of flight that leads away from the world into which she has been trapped, into another world of ice and stillness where all you can hear is the wind.  Like the old Russian folk tales; except this is a tale of modern Europe.

    Transe is a fairy tale in the classic mode of Anderson in that in his tellings. Anderson’s descriptive writing is strong but economic, the action moves simply forward, the actors have feelings in relation to their situations but not generally in relation to other people and the forces in play are clearly boldly delineated.  Villaverde’s fairytale is an amalgam of motifs: Sleeping Beauty, Bluebeard, the Little Match Girl.  Villaverde’s story is a recasting of the fairytale in contemporary darkness.  Of course the material of the Fairytale often comes from dark recessive spaces of the collective mind and touches the reader with raw psychic fear before closure with some kind of redemption.  Transe is naked fairytale without the redemption coda.    Sonia in Transe is the little match girl reinvented in a malign godless universe.  When she has exhausted her own resources there is no God to pick her up shield and cradle her in his arms . From her sleep of death, the chamber of her flight, there will be no prince to wake Sonia with a kiss;  she must sleep forever.  From Bluebeard’s seventh room there is no escape – Sonia must join the dead wives.  Transe is not gender politics it is a psychic realisation of a loss of will.  No will to power life. 

    Transe moves from flow to immobility. Before leaving St Petersburg for Europe (because she wants to be rich), Sonia smears her sleeping young son with her blood.  The movement of the camera as Sonia leaves Russia tracking down ice, rails and  river, has a primal menstrual quality.  The camera takes on a biological rhythm that mimics the slow steady quickening of the womb.   As her sexuality is stripped out of her, Villaverde moulds Sonia’s situation on film using twists of the pan and the immobility of the locked off camera.  The life flow ceases: as Sonia finds herself abandoned her biology shrinks back, she withdraws into an internal psychic space where nobody can find her.  In a catatonic drift all sensation is withdrawn and she drifts between sleep and barely extant consciousness.  A body in name only, a body without organs.

    With Transe Teresa Villaverde has made a film that retains in its form the integrity of the ideas that energised it.  It‘s a film made as an exploration of a certain type of life unfolding in a particular situation. The events that are filmed are selected because they develop the notion of the central character’s actions and reactions to what is happening.  There is restraint and little overt violence on screen (though the violence and pornography of the situation is not in doubt) and as in the fairy tale it is the simplicity and directness of the telling that implicates the viewer in the film.  Villaverde’s faith in her form – the fairytale – contrasts strongly with Andrea Arnolds film Red Road. Also in the festival Red Road seems beset by compromises.  Again it has a fairytale mode, but the director seems to lose confidence and sells out her film to cinematic tricks and a banal plot line which ends up the dominant shaping force of the material.
    adrin neatrour

  • Sounds of the Sands – Marion Haensel (Belgium) – 2006 – Rotterdam 2007

    Viewing Haensel’s film Sounds of the Sands,shot in and about Africa, triggered thoughts about my own experiences of having my picture taken; having my image captured, by my dad. Appropriation of image……Sounds of the Sands – Marion Haensel (Belgium) – 2006
    Viewed Rotterdam Film Festival 1 Feb 07

    Lie back think of dad…….

    Viewing Haensel’s film Sounds of the Sands, triggered thoughts about my own experiences of having my picture taken; having my image captured, by my dad.
    There’s this thing about having your picture taken.  A lot depends on who’s behind the camera.  When I was a teenager one thing that really bugged me was dad pointing his camera at me.  The resentment I felt at being asked to do something I didn’t want to do –  to pose – was great, seemingly out of proportion to the situation.  Of course the paternal demand existed in a context: the context of an underlying bad relationship between me and my father.   I resisted what I saw as an attempt to make to do something I didn’t want to do.  Later I realised that what I was fighting was an appropriation of myself into his world of the false and the fake. My pic would be seamlessly inserted into his series of photographs and come to represent a line of memory perception.

    Marion Haensel’s film points up a characteristic of films made by Europeans or Americans in or about Africa –  they are not in or about Africa.  The films are about  what Westerners would like Africa to be.  The motivational concern of Sounds of the Sands seems to be to depict Africa as an image.  An image of Africa is presented as if the actual product that Haensel had in mind was a stunning poster and/or the tasteful coffee table book.  Here is Africa as images snatched out of context deterritorialised and appropriated for the benefit of the gaze of the Western consumer.   

    Sounds of the Sands(SoS) is no more than a parade of such images that flesh out exotic settings stripped bare of referents to both of time and place, leaving the viewer with a sanitised children’s story, a sort of Swiss Family Robinson fiction in which beautiful Africans die tastefully and without protest in the Sahara desert.

    Image – African’s are beautiful, and beautiful filmicly connotes noble(CF Leni Riefenstahl pics of the Nuer).  But this notion of nobility also points to potential disaster: the idea of the noble savage is lethally disempowering.  Ever since the eighteenth century Enlightenment European thinkers have described and noted with philosophical approval African (and AmerIndian) superiority of spirit over the West.  This Western projection and has sown seeds of disaster for the Continent, in that the Western interests and agents that have raped the land and its people, have been aided and abetted by a projection of African response of which they have no fear:  a sort of beautiful metaphysical fatalism.   Whatever trials tribulations atrocities are ‘sent’ upon the African they respond with nobility and generosity of spirit.  So it is in SoS. The actors in this film are physically beautiful, they are well behaved, they are noble.  What is more(and it one of the SoS’s features that betray its white provenance) they speak perfect received French not some damn patois) The man the woman the child:  the camera caresses their faces in close-up even as they experience death without protest.  The film in its shot composition which mimics a biblical iconography projects this statement about Africa to the audience.  They will take whatever shit is thrown at them with fateful equanimity.  We can let whatever happens to these people happen.   The serenity of the people will see them through and they won’t blame or be angry with us.  No shit.

    Of course the film, in its structure is a series of sequences without context.  No context means no focus for feelings, action or discourse.  Time and place are left vague and undefined, its set any place any time. It’s in Nowhere Africa.  If you’re an African farmer stuff happens. A drought drives the farmer teacher to make a decision to cross the Sahara with his wife family and live stock.  Except that he’s in a francophone African state we don’t know where he is or the reasons why there might be drought. It happens. And it happens that he thinks it best to cross the desert, which seems a difficult thing to attempt, though of course he is cheerful about it all. The lack of basic context: when – where – what – makes SoS seems entirely abstracted as an account.  An abstracted film about a part of the continent where we know there is turmoil and dislocation.  But we know there are causes for these things.

    Not only is the specific situation of the film decontextualised, the family of whom it tells are unlike any African family.  African families are known to be multigenerational and cross generational.  But in SoS the African family represented is nuclear.  A family form that for Africa seems to me to be a complete misrepresentation of how the people live.  No explanation is provided as to why there are no older generation present from either of the two family braches.  The suspicion remains that Haensel has Europeanised nuclearised his family in the script to present a more familiar and easier image of Africa to Western audiences.  To sell the idea that they are just like us: mama papa cute kids.  Meat for Freaudians.  Everything is cut to suit the faked profile of the film – nothing real must be allowed to sully the desired image.  If an older generation had been present in the script it would have necessitated  the filming of some tough difficult sequences.  Sequences that would have been difficult even for noble savages to handle without losing their fateful serenity.  The old folks would either have been left behind to die of thirst; or if they’d gone on the walk through the desert they would have been the first to die of exhaustion and heat.  So much the better for the plot to restrict it to the sanitised nuclear family.

    Bad things happen as the nuclear family and their stock cross the desert.  Bad men demand ransom, bad men want to fuck the women, want to take the boys away to train up as bad men.  Everything happens in vacuo, as if the only reason for the events was the dramatic, the ‘need’ of the film for incident.  So SoS scripts in a heavy macho dude in shades to make badass threats, point guns and generally play heavy.  The crossing of the desert is also something of a joke.  You might think that a film should pay attention to some of the detailed demands that this environment imposes on those who would travel across the barren dry interior.  But the African couple might as well be Bogart and Bacall for all they are seriously inconvenienced by the desert.  Even on its own terms SoS is profligately forgetful.  The man and his friend spend all their money buying a compass from a soldier.  Later when they split to go their ways we never know who took the compass; yet this tool is necessary for survival.

    It is difficult after viewing to see SoS as anything other than a neo-colonial vehicle aimed at further undermining the stature of the African psyche for European audiences.  The final sequence in a way says it all.  What remains of the little nuclear family group(after mum and one boy have died and the other boy been taken by bandits) finally sink down in exhaustion, lose consciouness and await death.  But what happens?  They wake up to find themselves safe and sound in a refugee camp run by a French aid agency.  The whites have found them and carried them back to the tents.  The whites have saved the noble savages – as usual –  so that they can ride again.  They couldn’t do for themselves.  Get it.
    adrin neatrour

  • Half Moon – Bahman Ghobadi (Iran 06) viewed Rotterdam Film festival 2 Feb 2007

    Bahman Ghobadi is a filmmaker who is making films from within the people. He is not an outsider coming into a culture or a society and then making a movie about the people and their problems. Ghobady is of the Kurds. Half Moon is about them and him and it’s a simply shot road movie in which every sequence is informed by understanding of the Kurdish situation.  
    Half Moon – Bahman Ghobadi (Iran 06) viewed Rotterdam Film festival 2 Feb 2007 

    Where you get to depends on how you travel

    Bahman Ghobadi is a filmmaker who is making films from within the people.  He is not an outsider coming into a culture or a society and then making a movie about the people and their problems.  Movies made by outsiders rarely amount to more than a series of superficial glosses impressions and images stitched together with themes derived from either character or issues (cf In this World – Winterbottom).  Films made by incomer directors usually say more about the director’s concerns than the society.  Ghobady is of the Kurds.  Half Moon is about them and him and it’s a simply shot road movie in which every sequence is informed by understanding of the Kurdish situation.  The shots in the film represent not just images and impressions but the complex matrix of the Kurdish people and their lives.  It is a film not so much about issues or problems but rather about music as a condition of a people.  

    In Half Moon the bus carrying the musicians is a dynamic vehicle that opens up the relationship between a people and the historical and geographical vectors that contain and shape their destiny.  In the West the road movie usually engages with character and forced situational encounters that typically resolve through violence.  Perhaps this is because there is nowhere for us to go in the literal geographic sense; for us the psychic fulcrum of the journey tends to pivot on an inner vector such as identity quest.  In Half Moon the travelling musicians have no doubts about who are.  The questions posed by Ghobadi revolve about an overcoming, a refusal to permit the world to corrupt spirit.    

    In Half Moon the old master musician charters a bus to take him and his sons from Iran to Iraq.  They undertake a journey from one country that does not exist. Iranian Kurdistan, to get to another country that does not exist, Iraqi Kurdistan, in order to participate in a large Kurdish music festival.  To make the journey they have to cross political religious cultural and social fault lines that deny the legitimacy of their people their journey and their music. 

    The master musician has spent months ensuring that he has all the correct travel permits, passports that will be needed to negotiate the complex series of barriers that will impede their progress.  Ghobady’s film is a road movie that is actually on the road.  Its strength is that in order to progress, the musicians have to engage in a continuous discourse with the worlds through which they are travelling.  In effect Half Moon is a discourse: with landscape; with social fabric of life; with the religious; with the geopolitical divisions of the land.

    The landscapes are overwhelming in the film, shimmering realities that suggest an absorption of individual subjectivities into their vastness. The land is a powerful presence: but it’s a presence not an image.  The landscapes are not beautiful celluloid backcloths against which a story unfolds.  They are, ‘in the story’, at the heart of the film’s discourse. Half Moon begins in the bright sun of Iranian Kurdistan and ends in the mountainous snow vistas of Turkey.  In this final sequence, what remains of the little group of musicians tries to pass over the snow covered heights of Turko-Iraqi border.  As the master musician ploughs through the snow we understand something about landscape: that it is of the earth and we are part of it.   The snow is a harsh environment and in its whiteness spreads across the visual field effacing all referents other than itself.  As it overpowers it becomes an embrace of death.  A death that is in the end accepted and even welcomed: a return to a primary union with the earth for which there is a longing and a belonging.  And this is neither sentimental nor romantic: it is simply the consequence of the spirit taking certain decisions in particular circumstances. The landscapes are, ‘in the story’, at the heart of the film’s discourse.  The landscapes are an evocation, a calling up of a history that is happening as the bus moves on its journey.  The landscapes are crisscrossed and marked out by invisible hidden lines that represent clan religious social and political boundaries and borders.  Each landscape has a menacing aspect and in their hidden folds they are guarded and policed by men with guns who enforce the integrity of these imaginary lines by force.

    One motif running through the film is the search by the master musician for a female singer.  The female voice is the soul of his music and without it his music is incomplete.  The female singer whom he had arranged to sing with them is unable to accompany them because of events in the natural world – severe floods have disrupted the life in her village.  For the master the female and the male are conjoined when they come together to play and sing.  In the moment of playing and performing they are in complete communion.  But in the non Kurdish fundamentalist religious culture the female is absent: contained constrained and bound tightly about with the male injunction to be invisible.  The female is missing from public life; where she should be, there is simply a hole, a not being there.  The female in public is undermined in two ways.  Through public censor and opprobrium her self confidence is destroyed, and lacking self belief through she is unable to find her voice.  Should the female retain self belief and assert her right to sing in public she may be assailed from without by the sentinels of religious policing who suspicious of  public performance by women and intolerant of musical interaction between men and women, forcibly intervene to prevent such occurrences.   The reality of this culture is that woman are absent from many fields and Half Moon is a psychical discourse into the consequences of this suppression, not just for the musicians but for the culture. 

    The bus follows an ever more demented and circuitous passage across Iran Turkey and Turkmenistan in its attempts to find a way across the forbidden borderlands.  As they crisscross the land they pass through the villages of the country, the musicians get off the bus for tea and to talk to the villagers.  And it becomes apparent that in this land the only people you see are old men.  Everyone you see is old and bent.  The women (young and old)are absent; and the young men are not there.  Some force has rounded them up like steers and taken them to another place.  The country is full of absence. Where there should be people they are not there.  The bus on its tortuous route runs into check points and road blocks all manned by young men.  It seems clear that all the young men have been appropriated by the state and given Kalashnikovs to intimidate and kill.  There is a process of brutalisation in play in which guns have replaced musical instruments in the stream of life.  The sounds in currency are the crack of the gun and the thud and ricochet of the bullet.

    The integrity of  Ghobady and his musicians make this a film of the affirmation of spirit.  Half Moon is not vacuous feel good road movie; it is a film that affirms faith in spirit and vision . The music in the film is wonderful.  In itself it is a force that asserts its right to have a central place in the world.  It can meet oppression death meanness of spirit with a call to joy to which the organised forces of destruction have no means of resisting.  The political regimes will come and go, religious fanaticism will rise and fall.  Music like the land will persevere.
    adrin neatrour