Monthly Archives: February 2022

  • Lingui, The Sacred Bonds   Mahamat-Saleh Haroun

    Lingui, The Sacred Bonds   Mahamat-Saleh Haroun (2021; Chad – International finance)   Achouackh Abakar Souleymane, Rihane Khalil Alio

    viewed Tyneside Cinema 8th Feb 22; ticket: £10.75

    subterfuge – artifice device or practice adopted to escape or avoid force


    Me excluded there were four other people in the cinema to see Haroun’s ‘Lingui, The Sacred Bonds’ (LSB). I was glad I’d decided to go see the film this night as it obviously would not be held over and this was my last chance to see it on a big screen. The audience size indicated that in general given the usual run of things, there is little interest in the UK in viewing films that originate outside the bounds of what is familiar. Films have many different functions of attraction: distraction, confirmation of world view, empathic analogy, polemics etc, but exposure to the unfamiliar does not usually count amongst them.

    ‘LSB’ shot by Haroun in Chad and telling of Chad, is of another order of existence, another order of perception. another world.  It is a fundamental human story telling of oppositions and oppression, a quest that resolves in resistance subterfuge and undermining.

    ‘LSB’ belongs to the type of film making that is rare now in the West but still used by some film makers from Africa and Asia: namely the incorporation of film making into the oral story telling tradition. In this respect Sissoko’s films come to mind as do the films of Ousmane Sembene. Haroun follows the moral code of the story teller: he simply shows the characters; he shows what befalls them and how they respond to each situation. He does not allow us to be enveloped or have our re-actions over determined by his characters psycho-emotional states of mind.   In LSB the actors act out their roles without simulation of the emotional. There is no exploitation, using faked states of mind to manipulate the audience response as a fake identity check with the characters. LSB is grounded in the simple logic of the unfolding of the story, the folding over of the developing situations and dilemmas that engages the audience’s imagination; as the story is told they travel with the characters: we the audience become at one with them in their quest.

    The opening sequence establishes a state of being. In a series of close ups shots, we see a car tyre being slit open with a work knife. It’s a tough job getting through the sidewall and tread, taxing the control and strength of the woman as she patiently cuts through the unforgiving material. Eventually she splits the body of the rubber tyre and is able to pull out the ‘prize’: its interior re-inforcing wire.   Amina uses this wire to make lamps and stoves which she sells to make her living. She lives on the scraps of life recycling the otherwise useless spent and discarded junk of Western industry. Amina herself is something of a discard. In this traditional Islamic society as a woman she is already a second class citizen which status is compounded by her being single and her having a child (Maria) out of wedlock. Consequently as an outcaste she is shunned by her family and experiences some social ostracism. This is her life. There is nothing more to be said. She cuts open tyres for the wire; she is not dependent on anyone, earning enough to keep herself and her daughter Maria.

    Amina is a nobody, of scant regard except as an object of the desire of others: her neighbour Brahim offers her marriage, which she declines; the Imam keeps an eye on her religious observance, using his high status to make demands on her to attend the Mosque for prayers. Then everything changes. The pregnancy of her daughter Maria turns her world upside down. After initial anger at Maria, Amina realises that her daughter must have an abortion. Maria must not be condemned to the same ignominy hardship and low esteem that she has suffered. Amina is activated. The woman in her moves, the germ of female agency once latent is energised. In a culture where women are invisible where religion and society preach shibboleths about the sanctity of life as a prop to hypocritical male morality, Amina will get Maria her abortion.

    And she does. Moving through a recessed parallel world that exists in Chad, Amina is able to negotiate with the hidden network that exists to take care of women’s needs in the face of men’s opposition. It is a world that exists to undermine men’s suppression of women, but it is not a world in open resistance to men. The men are too powerful. They are too ready to resort to brute force in order to crush open resistance. What the women do is to work the shadows: sabotage and subterfuge. This is the path Amina takes to negotiate the abortion for her daughter.

    Some might argue that the underground female network of agency that takes care of women’s needs is just a prop to the male dominated social system; but as this shadow world expands, the patriarchal structure can come under the sort of pressure that causes it to implode. And there is also empowerment. Amina at the end of the movie is a different woman: they don’t know it, but on her own terms she has taken on the establishment and won. Perhaps now emboldened after learning that Maria is pregnant through being raped, Amina takes and carries out her revenge – on her own terms.

    In LSB, Haroun’s scenario and cinematography binds us into his script. His pace is deliberate, allowing us to assimilate to understand. The camera depicts the world for the audience to see as it is: ochre walls, dark dimly lit interiors, crumbling structures. It is a simple world interpenetrated by a simple patriarchal authority in family and religion. What we do see through Haroun’s camera is the immobility of the male: whether it is the imam or the pater familias: they are stone. In contrast when during Amina’s peregrinations we see the town in full swing, we see the young men, no women, darting about on their motorbikes, interweaving, swerving, speeding never still, suggesting a world that is experiencing a new order of change.

    adrin neatrour






  • Nightmare Alley   Guillermo del Toro  

    Nightmare Alley   Guillermo del Toro           (2021; USA) Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchette; Toni Collette; William Dafoe

    viewed Tyneside Cinema 1st Feb 2022; ticket £10.75


    Bring on the clowns

    rococo – an exceptionally ornamental and theatrical style of architecture and decoration, combining asymmetry, scrolling curves, gilding, sculpted moulding and trompe d’oeil frescos. (Wikipedia)

    Del Toro’s movie is pure filmic rococo, the abandonment of content to the visual allure of hyper ornamentation in which form replaces meaning. From Gresham’s novel of the same name, del Toro has fashioned a scenario that is slow dull plodding, in which the sets replace action and the cardboard cut-out one dimensional performances replace characterisation.

    ‘Nightmare Alley’ makes me think that David Lynch has a lot to answer for in relation to the type of scripting and the style of dialogue adopted by del Toro – there is in fact a David Lynch ‘moment’ or ‘homage’ (perhaps), in the scenario, when Stanton comes upon a little white ‘rabbit’ sitting inexplicably still and alone in the middle of a hotel corridor. Del Toro seems to rival Lynch, in writing for his actors the sort of lines, which they are instructed (in parentheses) to deliver (with deliberation), as if they had some sort of cosmic resonance if not actual meaning: “Who are you?” These sort of lines come 6 a penny in del Toro’s movie as he tries to inject something akin to significance into the emptiness of the proceedings.

    Like a comatose body ‘Nightmare Alley’ is pumped full of fairground hype and psycho-babble to give it semblance of life. The fairground sets and attractions, and the later New York interiors raise a flicker of interest before fading out as the flaccid play out of the action overtakes the film. The action can only be described as enabling clunky pre-empted outcomes. The mechanics of the script work inexorably towards the laboured moral message of the end sequence, in which Stanton Carlisle, now a helpless wino ends up employed as the ‘the fairground geek’, completing his circuitous journey from A to B and back again.

    As a Mentalist Stanton’s recourse to a sort of robust stand-by cod psychology, employed on the hoof works Ok – “It’s always the father…”. But when the same hack clichés are transferred to the part of Cate Blanchette’s shrink, Lilith (sic) the vacuous longeur of the therapeutic interaction works only to prolong the duration of the film (which is well overlong) with endless proto Lynchian observational babble – “You hesitated when I asked you why you never drink.”  The problem is that the characters have no depth they are simply used by del Toro for their value in driving of the mechanics of the script. As pawns Stanton and Lilith’s underlying psychological drives, motivational attributions are uninteresting except as a pretext for their being in the same room together as prelude to the next sequence.

    If there is one terrifying thing in ‘Nightmare Alley’ it is Cate Blanchette’s lipstick. It’s slapped on like a clown’s and is reminiscent of the clown character’s lips in Victor Hugo’s ‘L’Homme qui Rit’.   In the Hugo novel his clown hero’s cheeks have been savagely slit open to increase the width of his mouth. This mutilation both heightens his clown persona and and simultaneously makes him an object of horror. Cait’s application of the red stick has a similar effect: with those lips dominating her presence she almost becomes a clown but at the same time her lips also transmit a warning of danger. Overall ‘Nightmare Alley’ might have been better produced as a quasi-clown film rather than a dull drama. Had this been the case the kiss between Stanton and Lilith could have been handled with due cinematic aplomb rather than as an anti-climax. To kiss Cate’s lips has to be a particular type of decision on the part of Stanton; the decision to be a warrior or a clown, to go down onto those red red lips guarding her mouth, with attitude. To take and conquer (or their illusions) or to ‘clown’ it, meaning perhaps the sort of playfulness that ends up with you being in the shit (which is the Clown’s natural home). Likewise Lilith has to have an attitude.

    And of course with all that red gunk on the line we want to see the aftermath of their mouth business. Instead predictably del Toro steers the middle course to nowhere. The kiss is shot to vacuous affect, the kiss is a nothing, a pressing together from which the two parties extricate themselves, and which is simply a moment before inevitably moving on to the next scene.

    ‘Nightmare Alley’ looks like a typical failure of directorial nerve. Instead of making the original novel a starting point for his own ideas, del Toro has opted to take the safe course of a literal adaptation. He has decided to invest his production money in the sets and come up with a script and scenario that are no more than a fileted version of the plot. The film ends up looking like it is: a failure of vision.

    adrin neatrour  

  • Balloon   Pema Tsedenb

    Balloon   Pema Tsedenb (2019; Ch;) Sonam Wangmo, Jimpa, Yangshik Tso 

    viewed Star and Shadow Cinema, 27 Jan 22:   ticket: £7

    Saying: “No!” to “Sorry!”

    Thinking about films with significant balloon content two movies come to mind which will be familiar to anyone with a knowledge of Cinema history.   Albert Morisse’s ‘The Red Balloon’ and the balloon shots in Fritz Lang’s ‘M’. The former film follows the flight of the eponymous balloon across Paris. Despite the balloon getting pricked and bursting, the film ends on an optimistic note with the balloons of Paris floating together in solidarity, emanating a feeling of hope. By contrast the shot in ‘M’ of the little girl’s balloon flying away over the tenements of Berlin denotes her murder, her death: it is a shot of sadness.

    In the final section of Pema Tsedenb’s ‘Balloon’ the camera, in a series of takes, follows the career of a single red balloon in the sky across the Tibetan landscape. As it travels each of the key players, in separate shots, turn to look up and follow it. The look on their faces, searching fearlessly upwards, is reminiscent of the looks on the faces of the people in those 1930’s Russian socialist realism films made by directors such as Dovzhenko. Dovzhenko’s characters also have the same look of mannered intensity as they look up into the middle distance towards a future where there will be socialism. This image of the resolute upward staring face became a trope for the shaping of the new man by socialism; it was of course also picked up and exploited by the propaganda posters and films representing the Chinese Communist Party.

    ‘Balloon’ is an extraordinary film with an unexpected ending. The remarkable aspect of Tsedenb’s balloon shot end sequence is that it has little to do with the narrative of Tsedenb’s film, whose scenario ends on a downbeat uncertain note. But then tagged on the storyline is the above final sequence comprising a series of metaphysical shots symbolising….what? Does Tsedenb want to point to Lang’s bleakness or Morisse’s vision of hope? Given the Chinese communist party’s recent interest in endings (they recently insisted on ‘Fight Club’s’ ending being changed to make it more optimistic), perhaps Tsedenb edited this final montage with the intention of rending the film acceptable to the Party censors? The use of the ‘heroic socialist look’ in his final sequence buying him protection against the Party’s perception of the film as promoting negativity, something particularly important in relation to the sensitive subject of Thibet.

    ‘Balloon’s’ grounding is in the life of pastoral herders in Thibet; we are set down amidst these people seeing their way of life, their religious culture their family and intimate relations. The underlying theme of Tsedenb’s movie is reproduction and its close relational concepts of fertility and replication. ‘Balloon’ is set at the time when Chinese ‘one child’ policy was enforceable law in Thibet. The narrative line binds together sexual relations, animal husbandry, re-incarnation, women’s choices and perspectives on modernity. It’s a script that feels overall positive about traditional Thibetan life and beliefs, that has an implicit sympathy with the people, in a manner that’s not expected in a Chinese produced and financed movie.

    Digression: Interesting that in the sphere of the filmmaking which is regarded by totalitarian regimes (at least until the advent of social media) as a key propaganda means for reaching and speaking to the ‘masses’, there is often some space for renegade non orthodox directors to make their mark: Tarkovsky, Parajanov, Wayda, and the Czech new wave film makers of the early ‘60’s whose films collectively moved way beyond the bounds of the regime’s political orthodoxy. In China, besides Tsedenb, there is also Bi Gan – though he hasn’t recently made a film. All these countries have film schools regarded as centres of prime excellence, and there seems to be within these centres a core of integrity and influence, that afford the protection that allows some film makers to develop their own filmic path, both political and aesthetic. The films of these directors don’t usually get wide distribution in the home land (if at all), but they are exported and distributed worldwide.

    ‘Balloon’ has one decisive moment. A event that changes everything in the play out of the script. It’s a moment in which everything stops, which has consequences that determine the courses of the lives of Tsedenb’s characters. Dargye, the herder, violently slaps his wife Drolkar across the face as they sit up talking on their bed.

    This action is visceral: the sound as much as the picture, the flat of his hand striking against the side of her face, the crack of a whip, she crumples.  

    Drolkar has just told him, that against his wishes she hasn’t ruled out having an abortion. An abortion will prevent Dargye’s hope that the soul of his recently deceased father will reincarnate in her growing foetus. This sudden violence of the husband on his wife has the effect of collapsing her world, concentrating her essence into a zen moment of realisation where everything is seen clearly seen anew. 

    From the script we see there is strength and integrity in the way Drolkar lives her life. She does what she has to do, her duty, as there is no other way to survive. Violence, intimidation, the imposition of Dargye’s will has no part in her way of living. Her husband’s blow ends everything: the foetus the marriage the relationship with her children. And Dargye also knows that this is so; that he has brought everything to a close, that after hitting Drolkar there is no going back. No apology no words of contrition can take back what he has done. It has finality. After the blow from her husband there remains only for Drolkar to arrange her affairs and quit the farm. Dargye saying: “Sorry!” changes nothing. Drolkar has had a moment of realisation.

    Tsedemb films with intent and integrity. Shooting in Thibet doesn’t prompt him to do a lot of landscape – meaningless drone shots – filling out the scenario with fake metaphore. In fact the landscape is shot sparsely, mainly featuring as a grey scrubby background to the story. What Tsedemb does do with the camera is striking. Much of the film has a documentary feel. His camera is chained to the ground, operating in the midst of life: the sheep, the meals, the bedroom, the clinic. Interspersed are different types of shots that work through reflections: action seen through windows, pools, hazy indistinct images that suggest parallel worlds, perhaps the worlds of the souls waiting on the fringes to be re-incarnated.

    Before the Uyghur’s in Xinjiang, the Thibets too were subjected to Han-isation. I don’t know if it was as brutal as the current situation, but Balloon does give some substance to a people now all but forgotten in the West – and perhaps in China too. 

    adrin neatrour