Mira Nair on the shoot of The Namesake (India/US 2006)
In the autumn of 2007, Rona Murray and Roy Stafford offered an evening class at the National Media Museum in Bradford, UK, with the title ‘Women on the other side’. The class studied films directed by women. Four complete films were screened and these screenings were open to the public. In the other classes there was a focus on short extracts from a wide range of films
Why the title? In film and media studies, one approach to discussing the representation of social groups (and also ideas and values) is to suggest that there is often a dominant set of representations available that renders anything else as in some way ‘other’. A whole range of personal identities is thus seen in negative terms. Although women are more than half the population, cinema has been dominated by men so that women are presented as ‘other’. Part of this otherness is concerned with passivity. Women are often in front of the camera, to be looked at, whereas men are behind the camera controlling how women appear. When women become directors and cinematographers they move to the ‘other side’ — but does that mean that they automatically resist conventional ways of representing women (and men)? ‘Otherness’ is also an issue when considering cinema outside Europe and North America. Issues of ethnicity and religion and culture generally create questions of a ‘Non-Western’ other. The class focused on women directors who are ‘doubly other’ because of gender and culture.
Watching movies on a plane is at best a welcome diversion from the tedium of flying. On a long-haul flight it becomes more attractive. Even so, it isn’t the best basis for commenting on individual films. The screen is tiny on the back of the seat in front, the aspect ratio is usually wrong and there are constant interruptions. Even so I was grateful to see a Hindi movie (with English subtitles) on a flight to Nairobi, thanks to the selection of films on offer by Kenya Airways. Khosla Ka Ghosla (India 2006) proved to be a gentle and enjoyable social comedy, an almost ‘pure’ genre film with none of the usual trappings of Bollywood. A middle-class father is approaching retirement and the day has come when he has finally purchased a plot of land on which to build the family home of his dreams. However, he is conned out of the land by an unscrupulous builder/speculator who claims to have already purchased the same land and who has the legal resources to defend his claim. The key character in the ensuing comic narrative is the second son ‘Cherry’ – a young computer executive not really interested in the family and preparing to take up a career opportunity in North America. But, of course, at the last minute he can’t see his father humiliated so he attempts to help. The strategy that is finally adopted seems almost Ealingesque. Cherry’s girlfriend is an actor and she recruits her teacher and his son to effectively become con artists and to trick the evil speculator into ‘buying’ land that belongs to a government agency.
I thought the acting all round was very good and I thought I recognised some actors. Checking on IMDB, I found the father had also played the father in Bend It Like Beckham and the son had been the bridegroom in Monsoon Wedding.
On the return flight, slightly miffed that the Chinese (Hong Kong) movie showing on Boeing 767 services was not available on the 777 flight, I decided to try out the Hollywood studio offerings. It was probably meaningless to watch Casino Royale on such a tiny screen, but the action was certainly well staged and Daniel Craig is a decent performer. However, I found the plot incomprehensible at times. After spending a fortnight in Tanzania, I felt I really should look at The Last King of Scotland and how it captured events in Uganda in the 1970s. I had avoided watching the film in the cinema because I just didn’t fancy the story. All the clips I’d seen just made me wince. The film has been highly praised, not just for Forest Whitaker’s performance but also for the gradual development of what seems like a light-hearted story into the nightmare of Idi Amin’s presidency. Well, I gave it twenty minutes or so and it just didn’t work for me (which may have been a result of sleep deprivation). I just couldn’t believe in the James McAvoy character at all. I know this young actor is highly regarded and the profiles of him suggest he is a good guy, but he still looks like a clever schoolboy to me. I found Whitaker as Amin almost impossible to take. The IMDB entry on the film carries several interesting comments (and several stupid ones) and one young viewer suggests that the film worked precisely because he had no knowledge of Amin at all. Therefore the gradual revelation was very effective. I remember Amin very well and he wasn’t funny (although he was certainly widely satirised, I think).
I’ll have to give the film another go at a later date. The same goes for Hotel Rwanda.
I really wanted to like Grow Your Own, a British film supported by the UK Film Council which received a decent release, but attracted generally sparse audiences.
It features two ingredients I’m passionate about — the treatment of refugees and the allotment movement — and it’s written, in part at least, by Frank Cottrell Boyce. Boyce is one of the most respected scriptwriters in the UK and he has produced great scripts for Michael Winterbottom and Danny Boyle. His name on the credits was certainly what attracted me, alongside a strong cast. According to the attractive, but over-designed, website for the film, originally the story was going to be a documentary. The idea came from the experience of asylum seekers from Kosovo and Angola who were offered the chance to work on their own allotments in Liverpool as part of a scheme set up by a psychotherapist. Because asylum seekers can’t take paid work, the chance to work on the allotment gives them a focus.
The script for the feature film includes the stories of three families of asylum seekers and the initial hostility they face from the local allotment-holders. I think these stories are strong and a moving drama could have been the result. Unfortunately, what finally emerged was a meld of the emotional drama and a rather tired and silly social comedy which to me seemed like a throwback to Ealing in the predictability of much of the action. Boyce says in the Production Notes that he wanted to give it a ‘Bill Forsyth feel’. I think I can see why he thought this would work and there is a quirkiness about the set-up which could be developed in ways similar to Comfort and Joy (1984). However, such a strategy would need a highly skilled and sensitive director and Richard Laxton is a TV director with just one feature credit — the critically derided Life and Lyrics (2006). I haven’t seen anything else by this director, so it would be unfair to judge him on this film. Intriguingly the film was shot in CinemaScope and features an unusual colour palette (painting the sheds on the allotment is a plot feature). In fact, the setting in Liverpool is visually striking and unusual with lots of potential.
I don’t really understand what went wrong. The co-writer Carl Hunter from the Liverpool band The Farm had the original idea and he was also a producer. I can only assume that someone lost their nerve in allowing the comic elements to become dominant. The central relationship between a South Chinese family group and an ex merchant seaman on an adjacent plot has all the elements for great drama (including black comedy), but it isn’t allowed to develop. At one point the script even clumsily spells out what has happened in dialogue — even though we have already begun to understand events through the sensitive performance by Benedict Wong.
There are plenty of good things in the film and I laughed several times, but overall I just felt it didn’t hang together — the music wasn’t well used either). I hope Frank Cottrell Boyce bounces back soon.