The Fencer (Miekkailija, Finland-Estonia-Germany 2014)

Märt Avandi as Endel Nelis, the fencer with a secret

Märt Avandi as Endel Nelis, the fencer with a secret

The Fencer is a beautifully-produced film that is likely to please audiences with its central story. It works as what might be called a ‘national popular’ film which tells a story that resonates with local audiences who want to identify with the film’s heroes and with the overall message which supports an idea of national identity.

Such films are perhaps most noticeable when they come from small countries with limited resources for film production. In this context a local story stands out and can even out-perform Hollywood films because of its local cultural importance.

Finland and Estonia

This film is essentially a Finnish creation – a Finnish writer, Anna Heinämaa, and director Klaus Härö, with a mixed crew of Finns, Estonians and Germans. The story itself and the actors are Estonian – the lead actor Märt Avandi is a well-known local actor, singer and television host.

The film was ironically the Finnish entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2016 Academy Awards and competed with the Estonian film 1944, which told another, related ‘national story’. Why are these film cultures so closely linked?

Finnish and Estonian are the two main languages in the Uralic language group, distantly related to Hungarian but not to any major Indo-European languages. The two countries are separated by the Gulf of Finland and the Russian territory of the Karelian isthmus – ceded by Finland after the 1939-40 ‘Winter War’. Finns and Estonians are united by their historical battles with Russia as well as their shared language culture.

Estonia and Russia

Estonia has a history of occupation from the 17th century onwards, first under the Swedish and then the Russian Empire. The country became independent after the First World War and a War of Independence in 1920 but was occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940 and then by the Germans in 1941. The Red Army returned in 1944 and Estonia was again declared a Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR). Independence finally came in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

During the Second World War some Estonians were forced to fight for the Red Army and some for the Wehrmacht – some fought on both sides at different times. Other Estonians fought with the Finnish Army against the USSR in the Winter War and the Continuation War (1941-44). These various conflicts are not well known in the West but they feature in Russian, Finnish and Estonian films. 

When the Soviet Union re-occupied Estonia, Russians were encouraged to move to Estonia and at the same time Estonians were being deported (or themselves fled) or sent to Russian labour camps. This is the background to The Fencer. The number of ‘ethnic Estonians’ in the early 1950s actually living in Estonia was only around 1 million compared to the Russian population of over 100 million and the nearly 200 million in the whole Soviet Empire. Most of The Fencer takes place in the last year of Stalin’s control over the Soviet Union. He died in March 1953. The Fencer is based on a true story which has been fictionalised. 

The Fencer tells of people’s universal need to hold onto their freedom and the right of a small country to defend itself against a superior opponent. Due to the events in Ukraine, I feel our film is astonishingly current. Shivers went down my spine when the second Crimean War began on the same day as our filming.   (Kai Nordberg, Producer of The Fencer)

The genre basis of the story is familiar as a sports drama in which a former star athlete will find and train a small local team who will go to a national final and fight against the odds. This is then combined with the nationalist story.

The film looks very good in a CinemaScope ratio as photographed by Tuomo Hutri and I was impressed by the lead performance.

Everybody Knows (Todos lo saben Spain-France-Italy 2018)

Laura (Penélope Cruz) and Irene (Carla Campra) meet Felipe (Sergio Castellanos) and his uncle Paco (Javier Bardem)

Everybody Knows opened the Cannes competition in 2018 to mixed reviews (although better than usual for the opening film) and it has taken some time to get into UK distribution. I suspect that audiences have discovered the film to be better than some of the early reviews suggested and the film opened reasonably well in the UK. I enjoyed the film very much and the interesting questions for me revolve around expectations for a film by the director of the Oscar-winning A Separation (Iran 2011) and The Salesman (Iran-France 2016) and the extent to which those same audiences know Asghar Farhadi’s earlier Iranian work.

When the film began I found it fast-moving and packed with incident. I struggled to follow all the dialogue in the subtitles and especially the relationships in a large extended family in a small village community. I also wondered if there was something ‘not Spanish’ about it. Later, as I watched Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz I was reminded of the Woody Allen film Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Spain-US 2008and thought how much better this Farhadi film was. But this does indicate that I couldn’t quite forget that this was a film in which the director was not working in his first (or even second?) language. I later read that Farhadi had written the script before he undertook production of The Salesman in 2016 and after he wrote The Past (2013) –  a film largely in French but also with an Iranian character. Re-reading those posts now I realise why, watching the new film, I was reminded of About Elly (Iran 2009). Everybody Knows is a different kind of story in some ways but comparing it to Farhadi’s earlier films and especially About Elly will reveal something, I think. But first I need to sketch out an outline of the new film (without any major spoilers).

Paco and his wife Bea (Bárbara Lennie)

Laura (Penélope Cruz) and her two children, sixteen-year old Irene and her young brother, arrive in a small village not too far from Madrid but sufficiently rural to be isolated. They have come from Argentina to attend the wedding of Laura’s sister Ana and they are staying in the hotel in the centre of the village owned by Laura’s elder sister Mariana and her husband Fernando. Laura’s husband Alejandro (Ricardo Darin) is at this point still in Argentina. Laura soon meets Paco (Javier Bardem). He was Laura’s childhood friend and the two were inseparable before she went to Argentina but she hasn’t seen him in the last 16 years and now he has a beautiful wife Bea (Bárbara Lennie) and owns half a thriving wine-producing business. Laura also meets her father who she is shocked to realise has grown old and frail – though he still has a temper. On the night of the wedding party all is going well until Irene, who had gone to bed early feeling a little unwell, disappears and at this point what might have been a familiar family melodrama becomes instead a melodrama thriller. Is Irene in danger? Did she go voluntarily or has someone taken her? We remember that in the opening credit sequence we saw someone wearing gloves clipping a newspaper story and now those clippings are found on Irene’s bed.

What follows is a typical Farhadi narrative as the family  – and the villagers who know something is wrong, but not what it is – begin to squabble and we wonder if lies are being told by some characters and why they might lie. We are back in a Farhadi world where telling lies becomes almost natural and where one lie begats another and so on. The difference is that in the Iranian film, Western audiences are likely to read the telling of lies as indicative of the repression in Iranian society. In About Elly, for instance, a group of married friends from Tehran rent a house by the sea for ‘a weekend away’ and one of the married women invites her child’s nursery teacher, Elly, to come with them. One of the men has just returned from Germany where he got divorced and in a moment of madness the group tell their landlady that he and Elly are a ‘honeymoon couple’. This is the first lie but more will occur when Elly goes missing. Has she drowned in the sea or fled back to the city? What can the group tell the police? They don’t actually know much about her.

The extended family gather to watch a video of the wedding in the hope of finding a clue to Irene’s disappearance.

In Everybody Knows, there is a great deal of family history that is slowly revealed and it will involve questions of social class, landowner and peasant, as well as relationships and infidelities. The village is a small community in which ‘Everybody Knows’. Most critics don’t seem to equate this family melodrama with any kind of analysis of Spanish society – as they would in the Iranian context. Instead, the film tends to be written about as a thriller genre film. On the other hand, there is something about the cast and the setting that invokes an Almodóvar film and Pedro appears in the ‘thanks list’ in the closing credits. The film it most reminds us of is Volver (2006) in which Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) returns to her home village in La Mancha to experience a host of family memories. The veteran cinematographer on that film (and others by Almodóvar), José Luis Alcaine, also photographed Everybody Knows. Several cast members have appeared in Almodóvar’s films.

I have only been able to find Press Notes in French and they reveal that Farhadi first visited Spain “fifteen years ago” and the kernel of the idea for the story emerged then. At that point in 2003 he had only just begun to make cinema films and the script idea changed over the next few years as he became more familiar with the work of the actors he would eventually cast. He wrote the first drafts in Farsi and had them translated, getting feedback until his Spanish collaborators were satisfied that the script was wholly ‘Spanish’. Because of the high-profile stars who were always busy it then took  several years to finally move into production. Farhadi argues that he doesn’t make ‘message films’, implying that he is mainly interested in ‘relationships’. However, I’m sure he knows the history of melodrama and he knows that it has been an important form commenting on and exploring moments of social change. I think therefore it’s reasonable to argue that in the fifteen years or so it has taken the film to emerge, families like the one in this narrative have been affected by changing social mores and issues associated with various forms of migration as well as suffering from the impact of financial crises etc. I don’t want to say more because I don’t want to spoil the narrative for anyone who hasn’t seen the film yet. But I think this will be a narrative worth some analysis over the next few years.

Cruz, Bardem and Darin are arguably the biggest Hispanic-language stars in  international cinema and one of the great pleasures of the film is to see them in scenes together. Farhadi’s great strength is in his rapport with his actors. I’ve seen some complaints that the film is too slow in its second half and that the thriller elements don’t conform to genre conventions. Farhadi’s films are long (this one is over 130 mins) but I found every minute riveting. The narrative does come to a conclusion but not what I would call a full ‘resolution’. There are several unanswered questions as to motivation and also about what happens next. It almost feels like a new story might be about to begin. I’d like to see the next instalment.

Here’s a North American trailer (the film is distributed in the UK and North America by Universal):

In the Fade (Aus dem Nichts, Germany-France 2017)

Katja and Nuri on their wedding day

This film by German-Turkish director Fatih Akin features a ‘powerhouse performance’ by Diane Kruger which won her the best female acting prize at Cannes in 2017. However, when the film went on release in the US and UK (it opened in UK cinemas in June 2018) it failed to do the business that a Cannes prizewinner might expect. Unfortunately that isn’t so unusual. Sometimes Cannes juries make poor choices. On this occasion though, the problem is elsewhere.

First, it’s an awful English language title. The original German title, which I would translate as ‘Out of Nothing’, is at least intriguing. Second, a brief plot outline suggests a conventional genre narrative and the film turns out to be something different. Diane Kruger plays Katja, the wife of Nuri (Numan Acar) a Turkish former drug dealer in Hamburg. She met him as a student buying dope and later married him when he came out of prison. He had been ‘clean’ and ‘straight’ for five years when he and the couple’s 5 year-old son are murdered. At this point Fatih Akin slows down the narrative and focuses on the shock and grief experienced by Katja. It is some time before the second part of the narrative (the film is split into three sections with title card headers) moves into the court case when the accused perpetrators appear in court. The third part goes on to address Katja’s reaction to the court’s verdict.

I can understand why some genre fans will feel disappointed by the film, but the focus is on Katja and Kruger’s performance, not revenge action. The story is inspired by real events in Germany that had a big impact on Fatih Akin and he wants to explore what those events mean for various characters rather than simply offer a form of crime action picture.

Katja with her lawyer Danilo (Denis Moschitto) in the courtroom

Diane Kruger is an attractive woman (she was originally a model, I think) and an accomplished actor. She represents the kind of European star familiar in the 1960s/70s but perhaps less so in contemporary cinema. She speaks French and English fluently and has appeared frequently in French and American cinema. Here she inhabits a character role. Dressed in jeans and leather jacket, with her hair straggly and her almost skeletal frame decorated with tattoos she is no glamour puss. It’s an intense performance which demands that we understand her grief and pain. She turns away her mother and her sister and the person she relies on most is her lawyer.

I found the court scenes very interesting. I don’t think I’ve seen a modern German court in action and I was reminded of the courtroom in the Danish drama A War (2015) in a similar setting. The two films are actually quite different but the austerity/plain décor of the courtroom is quite different from the traditional UK court with its ‘majesty’ and trappings of the ruling class. However, in the one weakness in the film’s casting, I found the defence counsel to be too much of a type, portrayed almost as a stereotypical skinhead bully. Not surprisingly, Katja finds the trial very difficult to cope with. I won’t spoil any of the narrative but it’s interesting that the ways in which the panel of judges comes to a decision reminded very much of the Japanese court in Kore-eda Hirokazu’s recent The Third Murder (Japan 2017). As in all courtroom dramas, there is always the possibility that there will be a tension between what we as the audience know, or think we know, about the crime committed and the proper procedures of a court of law where the judges may not have all the knowledge we, the audience, has.

Katja after the trial, contemplating what she will do next

Katja experiences trauma after the murder and it means that she ceases to menstruate. Towards the end of the narrative, after the courtroom drama she starts again. It appears to be a symbolic moment.

Aus dem Nichts is the kind of film that divides audiences. On IMDb there are ‘User Ratings’ of ‘1’ and also of ’10’. I would recommend the film but I beg you not to set up genre expectations of what you think might happen or what you might want to happen. If you simply approach the film with an open mind, prepared to go where it takes you, that is likely to provide you with the best experience. It’s an 18 film in the UK – because of the situation I think, rathe than what is actually depicted.

Casa de los babys (US-Mexico 2003)

The opening sequence of a nursery in an unnamed Latin American country

John Sayles has been away from UK cinema screens for a long time. I think Honeydripper was the last of his films to get a UK release back in 2008 . These days the ‘godfather of American Independent cinema’ is mostly based in Mexico it seems, or at least concerned with Spanish-language films. Casa de los babys is an earlier film made in Mexico, partly in English as well as Spanish. The film was never released in the UK but I bought a Region 1 DVD some time ago and finally managed to watch it. I wasn’t disappointed.

MGM’s poster for the film ignores the local characters

The ‘House of Babies’ of the title is a seaside hotel ‘somewhere in Latin America’. The country isn’t named but the location for the shoot is given as Acapulco. There are six ‘anglos/gringas’ who have come to this city in the hope of adopting a baby to take back to the US. Sayles has acquired a starry cast, no doubt attracted by his reputation for female-centred melodramas with a political edge. The Americans are Maggie Gyllenhaal, Mary Steenburgen, Marcia Gay Harden, Darryl Hannah, Lili Taylor and the Irish actor, Susan Lynch. The hotel they are staying in is run by the indomitable Rita Moreno.

Eileen (Susan Lynch) offers a book to one of the boys on the street

The large ensemble cast is no surprise in a John Sayles film. He often writes screenplays which bring together several personal stories and this film is no exception. The criticism of Sayles’ films tends to have been that, because he usually edits his own films, he allows the blend of narratives to develop into a meandering multi-strand narrative. That’s certainly not the case here. He’s still the editor but the film is a concise 95 minutes and if anything is cut short rather than allowed to dawdle.

Jennifer (Maggie Gyllenhaa) and Skipper (Darryl Hannah) with Rufino (David Baez), a local man who wants to emigrate to Philadelphia

The focus is not just on the Americans but also on the local characters, a maid in the hotel, the hotel manager’s family, three young boys sleeping on the street, a 15 year-old pregnant girl, a student and an older man desperate to emigrate to Philadelphia (the ‘home of Liberty’ as he explains to the women). Each of these characters shares the spotlight at some point, allowing Sayles to explore the complex relationships between ‘North and South’, ‘Latin America’ and ‘Anglo America’. The six women do not necessarily get along. Nan (Marcia Gay Harden) is the most aggressive towards the locals, while most of the others are, perhaps naïvely friendly (naïve because the don’t speak Spanish), and grateful for the opportunity. Leslie (Lili Taylor) is the most sussed, a Jewish New Yorker and a single woman who speaks Spanish. Skipper (Darryl Hannah) is mistrusted by some of the others and seen as fitness-obsessed. But like most of the women she has a back story to be revealed.

Asunción (Vanessa Martínez) is one of the most important characters who says little but reveals a great deal. Here she listens to Eileen’s story, although neither can understand the other’s language

I found the film entertaining and rewarding and, typically for Sayles, the narrative plays fair to all the characters, American or Mexican. Audiences might however feel short-changed as this is not a Hollywood film with a neat ending in which we find out which of the women gets a baby. But that’s OK, I think. The purpose of the narrative is to introduce us to the complexities of what adoption means and especially what it means in the power exchanges between North and South. But it also explores what it means for both the childless Anglos and the Latinas who lose/give up their babies.

Nan (Marcia Gay Harden) here with Eileen is the least likeable American character but she has a story as well

Reading some of the negative comments (which are more than balanced by the positive ones) on IMDb it’s amazing just how prejudiced some people can be. This isn’t in any way a didactic film. Sayles simply offers a number of scenes featuring the different characters and allows us to work out for ourselves what the meanings might be when they are edited together. That might sound like it’s a foregone conclusion but really it isn’t. There is a lot more material on the DVD dealing with the production itself and it’s clear that different people involved in the film have their own ideas about the ‘trade’ taking place.

It’s time, I think that some of the UK distributors decided to bring us the more recent John Sayles films on DVD/Blu-ray or download if not in cinemas. We can’t afford to forget what a terrific filmmaker he is – and how different he is to most American filmmakers. Search through the cast list here and you’ll find various actors and crew who have worked with Sayles during the last thirty years and more.

Ciao Ciao (France-China 2017)

The city girl back home

Ciao Ciao is the latest DVD release from Matchbox Films and a welcome surprise. Matchbox Films pick up a diverse range of films, but not usually a film like this which comes with the support of a Cannes Cinéfondation ‘Atelier’ tag and both a World Cinema Support Fund and CNC credit. Screened at the Berlinale in 2017, Ciao Ciao had a French release earlier this year and it perhaps says something about the current specialised cinema market in the UK that this is a DVD release. The film deserves to be seen on the big screen with cinema sound.

Writer-director Song Chuan is an experienced fiction and documentary filmmaker with a background in TV. His only previous cinema feature credit Huan Huan (2011) was a low-budget film with mainly non-professional actors and from a brief plot description it seems to have shared several elements with this new film.

Ciao Ciao with Li Wei

‘Ciao Ciao’ is a young woman who returns to her village in the hills of Yunnan after working in the great urban sprawl of Guangzhou. The film opens with a very long shot of a mountain valley as a train crosses a viaduct and then a car snakes up the mountain road to bring the city girl home. Liang Xueqin as Ciao Ciao is tall and slim with long black hair and with her designer clothes and handbags she is visually out of place next to the village women, yet somehow her performance and the camerawork still convey that she hasn’t forgotten her village life. Even in her high block heels she steps confidently over rocky tracks. We are not given a specific reason for her return, but her parents are evidently pleased to see her and hope that she will take care of them in their later years. They don’t see that her arrival could disturb the local community.

In the Press Notes (which I struggled to translate from the French) Song Chuan explains that he shot the film in his own home village. He suggests that it is now quite difficult to see traces of the village culture he grew up with in the 1980s and 1990s. Instead, he suggests, village life in the new high-growth economy means that money is everything and social behaviour is more direct – people do not express their true emotions but treat all exchanges as if they were economic transactions. Ciao Ciao’s mother sells corn liquor to supplement her income, buying it wholesale from an illicit distiller. Cia Ciao falls in with the distiller’s son Li Wei (Zhang Yu). He has also returned from time away from the village and spends his time whoring, drinking and gambling. All three activities involve illegal activity but corruption abounds in the village at all levels. A third character (played by Zhou Quan), a young man who runs a shop and claims to have been a hairdresser in Guangzhou, offers Ciao Ciao a different option. I won’t spoil the plot of what develops as an ultimately dark crime melodrama. It’s in some ways quite conventional in terms of narrative events but it’s presented in interesting ways and Song Chuan’s analysis of ‘the Chinese condition’ is clearly set out. This might be one reason why the film has not been released in China as far as I can see. Another might be the sex scenes which are carefully shot to be explicit without showing genitalia meaning that the film has a ’15’ Certificate in the UK. What is clear from these scenes is the offhand and misogynistic way Li Wei behaves towards Ciao Ciao.

. . . and with the hairdresser outside his shop

The aesthetics of the film are striking and they do seem to have been carefully thought through. My first reaction to the opening scenes was that I was looking at landscapes that might have appeared in the 1980s and early 1990s historical films of the so-called ‘Fifth Generation’ directors like Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige. This was odd because Ciao Ciao is presented in CinemaScope framings with very careful compositions – and some of these compositions reminded me very much of Sixth Generation directors like Jia Zhang-ke. His Unknown Pleasures (Ren xiao yao, China-Japan-France 2002) would make an interesting comparison. The difference is that Jia’s films tend to focus on the industrial cities of his own home region in Shanxi province in Northern China. One festival reviewer points out that the early framings are in long shot and gradually they become more focused on medium shots and MCUs as we get closer to the character’s real emotions. This could be the case, though the final scenes return to long shots.

I enjoyed the film and I was grateful to be able to see it. The DVD is available from December 3rd and it’s a very welcome release of an independent Chinese cinema film.

Spike Lee Joint 3: Four Little Girls (US 1997)

4littlegirls

Four children murdered in Alabama

I’ve been prompted by shootings of African-Americans in far too many incidents over the last few years to dig out some notes I used in 2003. The crime investigated in Four Little Girls, the Spike Lee documentary, is also alluded to in Selma, the 2014 film about Martin Luther King. I thought that Spike Lee had lost his way recently with a remake of Oldboy (which I haven’t seen but which seems to have been poorly reviewed) but BlacKkKlansman (US 2018) has confirmed that when he is on form, few American filmmakers have the same power. These notes come from an evening class screening.

Four Little Girls is perhaps a surprising film – a sober and conventional documentary from one of cinema’s angry men with a penchant for stylistically daring feature films. But the concerns of the film are in no way surprising, comprising a powerful argument for a rewriting of American history.

Spike Lee and the history of Black America

By naming his own production company ‘40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks’, Spike Lee set out his mission from his first feature, She’s Gotta Have It in 1986. The company name refers to the promise made to freed slaves at the end of the Civil War – a promise never kept that Lee wants to remind us about.

Most of Lee’s films have been about the experience of African-Americans in contemporary society. Some have been overtly ‘political’ in attempting to reassess the importance of historical figures such as Malcolm X or to validate contemporary struggles such as the ‘Million Man March’ celebrated in Get on the Bus (1996). Lee’s 2000 film Bamboozled is a calculated attempt to tell the story of racism in film and television, linking contemporary debates about African-American culture to the hidden history of exploitation stemming from the minstrel shows of the early nineteenth century. Bamboozled was also notable for its audacious use of digital video and contrasting celluloid stock (to distinguish the ‘real’ life of the performers and their ‘minstrel performances’) and its satirical take on the American television industry. By contrast, in Four Little Girls Lee takes a civil outrage and personal tragedy that happened in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963 – the firebombing of a church and the death of four little girls – and uses it to explore the embedded institutional racism that ran through American life, seemingly with impunity, before the struggles of the Civil Rights movement offered hope for a better future.

As a voice for Black America on screen, Spike Lee has been controversial not just as a director but also as cultural critic, not least in his attacks on Steven Spielberg for his ‘black’ projects, the adaptation of The Color Purple and the historical film Amistad. Lee’s anger always creates expectations about how he will tackle his own projects.

The documentary form

Lee used two of his long term collaborators, editor Sam Pollard and composer Terence Blanchard, to achieve the aesthetic he wanted for Four Little Girls. This was his first film with Ellen Kuras as cinematographer and she has since become a regular on Lee’s productions. What this group produced is a documentary film using several familiar sources – archive film footage, rostrum camera work (panning and zooming across still images) and ‘witness interviews’ with both the families of the girls and the representatives of the Birmingham authorities.

The ‘witness documentary’ gained a high profile in the United States during the 1970s and 1980s with notable films such as The Wobblies (US 1979) (about the ‘International Workers of the World’) and Rosie the Riveter (1980) exploring the experiences of women in work during World War II. The use of music and rostrum camera to recreate scenes from American history was particularly successful (i.e. critically and with audiences) in the case of the Ken Burns’ series on the Civil War broadcast on US public service television (PBS) in 1990.

American television has developed a tradition of screening prestigious documentaries ever since the ‘Direct Cinema’ films of Robert Drew and his associates such as D.A. Pennebaker and Richard Leacock in the 1960s demonstrated the attraction of ‘real’ images on the small screen. It is worth noting therefore that Four Little Girls was co-produced and distributed by the cable television giant Home Box Office. Although the film screened briefly in selected cinemas, its main impact has been via television where arguably it will have made more impact in educating Americans about their own social history.

Documentary and representations of social reality

Four Little Girls immediately raises the question – is documentary the most appropriate and effective way in which the ‘real world’ can be represented on the screen? How can documentary be used to create the drama which in Hollywood involves the general audience? Can documentary film really ‘educate’ an audience? These questions must certainly have been at the centre of the discussions between Spike Lee and Sam Pollard. The effectiveness of Four Little Girls in this respect is explored in this review:

There is a defining moment in Spike Lee and Sam Pollard’s Academy Award-nominated 4 Little Girls, a documentary about the 1963 Ku Klux Klan bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama which ended the lives of four girls. This moment provides a bridge between the legendary and near mythical status of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and the intimate and very human reality of the individual men and women who were involved in it: “When young people today ask me, ‘When are we going to be able to get together like you all were in the Sixties?’ – I tell them nobody was together in the Sixties,” says Reverend Andrew Young of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference(SCLC). “It was a small group of dedicated people who got it all started.”

For Pollard, the co-producer and editor of the film who will be present in Austin to introduce it during its Texas Documentary Tour screening this Wednesday, this represented the bridging approach that he and Lee were adamant on taking toward their subject matter. “It was important, first of all, to make sure the four girls came alive in the telling of the story. And the second thing was to make sure there was a social and political context for their existence. So we decided to use a parallel structure to tell the stories of the girls in juxtaposition to the evolution of the civil rights struggle as was specifically particular to Birmingham.”

And for a younger generation whose knowledge of the civil rights struggle comes primarily from history textbooks, this micro-analysis of the nuts and bolts of the battle-like process is a refreshing revelation, indeed. It is the storytelling strategy and its respect for the engrossing real-life events that gives the film its potency, and this reflects Pollard’s extensive bicameral experience in the film business. A filmmaker for over 25 years, he worked primarily in the documentary field (including serving as producer on the acclaimed PBS series Eyes on the Prize) before becoming Spike Lee’s editor on such narrative features such as Mo’ Better Blues, Jungle Fever, Clockers, and Girl 6. His expertise in both fields is evidenced by one particularly powerful interview with George Wallace. Using such narrative devices as jump cuts, different film stocks, and varying focal lengths, the scene cuts to the heart of the horror of George Wallace and everything he stood for in a little more than a minute of screen time. It represents a penultimate example of the fusion of high drama and documentary.

Despite the fact that they were conducted 23 years after the fact, the interviews with the four girls’ family members contain a startling immediacy. And each individual reflects back on the events with a remarkable bearing of both internal fortitude and grace that, despite all of the hate and chaotic insanity directed toward them, comes with the self-awareness of their moral certainty and rightness in the face of evil. Unlike the racist forces aligned against them, “They didn’t have a pathology,” explains Pollard. “They didn’t walk around thinking ‘We need to figure out a way to hate white people as much as they hate us.’ They understood the parameters of what their existence was all about and they figured out how to be real human beings and live and struggle within that.” Tommy Wren of the SCLC sums it up best in the film: “I used to be afraid of ‘Bull’ Connor [the malevolent Commissioner of Public Safety in Birmingham at the time who lead police attacks against marchers] until I discovered he was crazy.”

It was also the family members’ sense of moral rightness that led them to protect their story for as long as they did. Christopher McNair, father of one of the slain girls and something of the keeper of the story, had been approached many times over the years by filmmakers and authors who wanted him to lend his support and input to their projects. “Chris has a great reputation with and the respect of the community, and he was not going to have a filmmaker come there and exploit the family or their story,” says Pollard. “He finally agreed to cooperate with us and with his involvement, although there was some initial reluctance on the part of the other families, they too came around and opened up to Spike and me.” And it is our good fortune they did open up for a film that not only provides a further detailed historical account of events that still have significant relevance today (especially in light of the recent spate of bombings of African- American churches across the South), but also uncovers a gripping drama of human loss, tragedy, and redemption.

Marc Savlov, Austin Chronicle, 04-06-98

Roy Stafford, 30 January 2003

Here’s an interview with Spike Lee and journalist Howell Raines about the background to the making of the film. It’s quite long, but I hope worthwhile.

The Girl Who Kicked in the Hornet’s Nest (Luftslottet som sprängdes, Sweden/Denmark/Germany 2009)

Mikael Nykvist as ‘Kallie’ Blomkvist

(I discovered this in a pile of unpublished posts. I’m posting it now as a tribute to Mikael Nykvist who died ridiculously young (of lung cancer) at 56 in June 2017. I also note that a second ‘follow up’ title in the Millennium series by David Lagercrantz has been published in the UK and that Sony has now decided to produce an adaptation of the first Lagercrantz follow-up, The Girl in the Spider’s Web. Apparently Claire Foy is now to undertake the Lisbeth Salander role and the film comes out in a few weeks. I do wish they wouldn’t do this. I’ve read the Lagercrantz book and it’s fine but I’ve already forgotten the story. I’d prefer that the Anglo-American takeover of the Millennium series had never happened and that Stieg Larsson’s estate had stopped further exploitation. The original Nordic versions of the three central characters played by Noomi Rapace, Mikael Nykvist and Lena Endre will remain as the embodiment of Larsson’s characters for me.) 

The third instalment of the Millennium film trilogy suffered from the ‘diminishing returns’ that most film series eventually produce in terms of audience numbers. Certainly when I contemplated watching the film I felt dragged down by the knowledge that the third novel was extremely densely plotted and I’d been told that the third film was the weakest. In fact, I found it more enjoyable than the second film and possibly more interesting than the first (though of course not as thrilling to watch).

Annika Blomkvist (Annika Hallin) and Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) in court.

If you haven’t either read the trilogy or seen the first two films, much of this film may well pass you by. As was the case with the first film, the Swedish title offers a more useful clue to the way the narrative works with its reference to ‘castles in the air’ that are brought down. The first film’s Swedish title was ‘The Men Who Hate Women’ in which investigative reporter Mikael Blomkvist exposes a family of rich industrialists as fascists and violent misogynists. Lisbeth Salander is his co-investigator and her experiences during the investigation set up the second story which indeed has her central role given in the title – as the ‘girl who played with fire’. The reason for her attack on her father as a 12 year-old is revealed as the motivation she requires to seek him out. But at the end of the second book, Lisbeth has nearly been killed and she spends most of the third story in hospital recovering. The narrative effectively passes back to Mikael who, with his sister the lawyer Annika and Lisbeth’s loyal hacker contact ‘Plague’, finds the evidence that both liberates Lisbeth and exposes a whole secret network of Cold War warriors of the worst sort, first established in the 1980s without the knowledge of the Swedish government executive. Lisbeth’s ‘legal incompetence’ is one requirement of keeping the network created around her father secret.

Promoting Lisbeth, one of the great female characters of the last twenty years, ahead of the seemingly less interesting Blomkvist as an investigator is perhaps inevitable when marketing these stories. The final section of the film in which Lisbeth makes an electrifying court experience alongside Annika is a fitting climax to the story of female solidarity that is there in the novels but is to some extent sidelined in the earlier films. Blomkvist for me is not ‘uninteresting’ and he gives the Millennium series its spine and ties it back into the tradition of Swedish noir and police procedurals initiated by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö with their Martin Beck books, followed up by Henning Mankell and his Wallander novels. Mikael Blomkvist is an investigative journalist rather than a police inspector, but he has the same dogged determination to solve the crime and expose the bad guy. He’s a middle-aged and not particularly glamorous character (which is why Daniel Craig was arguably a poor casting choice in the David Fincher adaptation of the first novel in the trilogy). By bringing together ‘Martin Beck’ and ‘Pippi Longstocking’, Stieg Larsson certainly hit on a good way to attract a broad audience in Sweden. Re-reading the Martin Beck books recently, I noticed that the Swedish ‘secret service’ agency, Säkerhetspolisen, usually abbreviated as Säpo was a target for Sjöwall and Wahlöö and turns up again in the Millennium Trilogy.

With fascism on the rise again in Europe it’s important to keep Sieg Larsson’s trilogy alive as a warning. Here’s the original Swedish trailer with English subs: