Monthly Archives: August 2007

Sherrybaby

Maggie Gyllenhaal as Sherry Swanson in Sherrybaby

Sherrybaby is just one of three films made by women being shown at the National Media Museum this week (the other two are both costume films/romances, Lady Chatterley and Copying Beethoven). The obvious question to ask of any film written and directed by a woman is whether the story, characterisation or treatment is in some way distinctive because of the gender of its principal creator. In the case of Laurie Collyer’s film, the aesthetics are fairly conventional, but a case could be made for a story which focuses on a mother-daughter relationship and has at its centre a woman whose relationships with men have so far generally been either abusive or based upon some form of exchange value rather than genuine feeling.

My own view is that it is usually more interesting to look at the relationship between the writer/director and her lead actors. In this case, it isn’t unreasonable to suggest that Maggie Gyllenhaal must have had great faith in the script and felt comfortable working with Laurie Collyer. At the beginning of the film, Sherry Swanson has just been released from prison after serving time for thefts undertaken to feed a drug habit. The film resembles more familiar European social realist narratives in its detailed depiction of probation and hostel life. In the first half of the film, Sherry has a series of encounters in which she has sex with three different men, partly to get something from them and partly to feed her own desire. The scenes need to be graphic and they are. Just as with Jane Campion and Meg Ryan in In the Cut, Collyer and Gyllenhaal serve up sex that is both more ‘real’ and matter of fact and in a sense more ‘adult’ than in most conventional Hollywood treatments.

My only ‘problem’ with this film, which may be my own problem, is that Maggie Gyllenhaal is just too good an actor and too big a star for the film overall. This is not a criticism of her acting. Rather, for this male viewer, she is just too alive, too ‘magnetic’ as well as too beautiful and always dominates the frame in what is otherwise a small-scale and restrained film.

The film clearly got a great deal of publicity in the US, even if it didn’t play everywhere. The IMDB bulletin boards are crammed with comments, mainly on the sex scenes or on the aspects of dysfunctional family life on display. It is noticeable that few if any comments make any reference to the director. But quite a few do comment on Gyllenhaal — many in a way which makes me despair about audiences (though, of course, they are in turn criticised by others). Some comments also complain about a lack of ‘closure’ for the story. I think this does reveal that the narrative drive (a woman who seeks to win back her daughter’s affection and to escape from her past) in the film is not something that a mass US audience recognises. Yet I would say that there is a rather conventional ending to the film (which might, as some commentators suggest, be rather abrupt in depicting a change in behaviour).

Interviews with Laurie Collyer on indieWire reveal that she went to film school only after spending several years working in various welfare/care services. This experience is the basis for the story and it’s good to see an American film dealing with such issues. However, it says something about film distribution perhaps in that the film may not have achieved the limited profile it has managed without Maggie Gyllenhaal’s presence. In the UK, Ken Loach is able to make a film with similar characters, but using less well-known names.

Mr & Mrs Iyer (India 2002)

Mr & Mrs Iyer has won several awards on its tour around the international festival circuit. At home it has also been feted by critics and even if it has not had the commercial impact of a Bollywood film, being deemed a low budget ‘regional film’ for ‘urban audiences’ only, it has been widely seen.

“This is one of the year’s most unabashed and powerful love stories, using flawless performances, intelligent dialogue, crisp camera work and emotional connection that many similar films miss. Put together this is a symphony of the senses.” (Ram Kamal Mukherjee, The Asian Age)

The story idea is very simple – a man and a woman meet on a bus. The journey is disrupted by communal violence and the passengers react in different ways – John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) is just one possible narrative model. However, the resonance of many elements in the film depends on the complexities of Indian culture.

Communal violence – primarily the conflict between Hindu and Muslim – flared up in many parts of India during the 1990s. This film was shot in the hill country of West Bengal but the starting point for the director was a real life incident affecting bus travellers from the mountain resort city of Ranchi in neighbouring Bihar state. India has many religions and there are significant minority communities across the country, but the choice of characters and the location of this story are important. ‘Mrs Iyer’ is a Tamil Brahmin from South India. Brahmins belong to the upper caste of Hindu society and the Iyers are well known in India – so much so in fact that Konkana Sen Sharma, the daughter of director Aparna Sen, had to spend some time in the South learning the ‘Tam-Brahm’ way of speaking and gesturing. (The ‘Iyers’ entry on Wikipedia at <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iyers> gives interesting background.) The Muslim character played by Rahul Bose (and disguised by the nickname ‘Raja’) is a Bengali. The Bengalis were severely affected by the partition of India in 1947 with predominantly Muslim East Bengal going to Pakistan (and later separating to form Bangladesh) and predominantly Hindu West Bengal staying within India. The Bengalis and the Iyers from Tamil Nadu and Kerala do have things in common – a reverence for education and experience of elected Marxist governments. Raja, the wildlife photographer fantasises about a life with Meenakshi and tells her about the Periyar nature reserve in Kerala.

Bengal has a reputation for education and culture and Bengalis are proud of their history, but also very conscious of the process of division (the British had previously created ‘East’ and ‘West’ Bengal). By making the two characters Bengali Muslim and Tamil Brahmin, the filmmakers immediately set up the possibility that the film will operate in terms of a metaphor for the Indian state. We might expect the other characters on the bus to be similarly representative of Indian society as well (e.g. the Jewish man, the Sikhs and the ‘modern’ westernised young men and women).

Tamil and Bengali are distinctively different languages and this presents the characters with a communication problem. As educated Indians, the two could use either of the ‘official national languages’, Hindi or English. They choose to converse in English much of the time. English is convenient because it does not carry the sense of ‘Northern’ superiority embodied in Hindi. The North-South divide is an important and sometimes sensitive issue in India. English also makes the film more accessible outside India as well as in other Indian regions.

The Tamil-Bengali axis has another dimension and that is in relation to Indian Cinema. Aparna Sen has been a critic of Indian government policy:

“I don’t think the Government is at all interested in developing regional films. A Government which is supposed to be dedicated to the cause of good cinema, goes to Cannes with a mainstream film which can make an all out effort by itself! Nor does it promote filmmakers who have been winning awards year after year just because they don’t have stars, or don’t make films in Hindi. No effort either to show regional cinema on the national TV network at prime time. For 20 years I’ve been saying, introduce film appreciation courses from junior school. Our children don’t know there is an alternative to commercial cinema. Box office hits have their value, give joy to millions, but the language of cinema does not develop through mainstream cinema anymore than literature does through bestsellers.” (from an interview in The Hindu 20/9/2002)

Non-Indian audiences in the UK in the 1960s and 1970s got their cinematic images of India from the Bengali films of Satyajit Ray, a revered cinematic auteur whose films circulated in European and North American art cinemas. Film students and scholars in India have been inspired by Ray and by fellow Bengalis, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen. Indian audiences for what would now in the UK be called ‘specialist cinema’ are aware of this Bengali tradition and have expectations that are quite different to those of a Bollywood audience. They expect, for instance, a serious discussion of social issues and possibly a more literary/theatrical presentation than in a Bollywood film – and certainly no big stars or elaborately choreographed dances. Music, however, is important and in Mr and Mrs Iyer the score includes aspects of Indian music that act as counterpoint to the theme.

The way in which this film works is perhaps best illustrated by the scenes in the bus:

Meenakshi . . . accepts water from Raja, a fellow passenger, and drinks with the bottle held at a distance from the mouth. She shudders in disgust when she sees him sipping from the same bottle. Upon learning that Raja is a Muslim, her first reaction is “Oh God, I drank his water!” With this simple, single metaphor Sen conveys character, situation, centuries of conflicts, taboos.
(The Hindu ibid)

Aparna Sen
The director of Mr & Mrs Iyer is an iconic figure for Bengali culture. She began as a young actress in a Satyajit Ray film, Three Daughters (Teen Kanya) (1961), which featured three short stories adapted from the work of Rabindranath Tagore, Bengal’s Nobel laureate for literature in 1913. Aparna played a tomboyish girl with great success.

Later she also worked with Ismail Merchant and Shashi Kapoor, who produced her 1981 directorial debut 36 Chowringhee Lane with Jennifer Kendal playing a middle-aged Anglo-Indian woman ‘left behind’ after the Raj. Aparna Sen has continued to act and to direct, often working with one of the leading actresses of ‘Indian New Cinema’, Shabana Azmi, on films about women’s lives in India. Mr & Mrs Iyer is her seventh feature, but the first since 36 Chowringhee Lane to gain wider international recognition. She is a leading figure in Bengali culture and her other activities have included editing a women’s magazine. Married to a professor who teaches in the US, Aparna Sen spends time each year in Mexico and is clearly alive to the same kinds of ‘globalisation’ issues that inform other Indian women filmmakers such as Deepa Mehta (Fire) and Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding) who have both returned to make films in India after training in North America.

“Aparna Sen is not just a name in Bengali cinema, she is an idol to all modern women – who feel her to be a woman of substance.”
Ramkamal Mukherjee
<www.bengalonthenet.com> 08/06/2001 (no longer available)

Notes compiled by Roy Stafford 9/1/04 (revised 29/8/07)

The Journey (Sancharram, India/US 2004)

Shruiti Menon as Delilah and Suhasini V. Nair as Kiran in Sancharram

In preparation for a Saturday School on Indian Cinema, I came across this film from Kerala in South India, directed by Ligy J. Pullappally. It is partly derived from a real life incident in Kerala when two young women students at university fell in love but were sent back to their parents. The next day, one of the women committed suicide. Recognising elements in the news story that had been in her earlier short film, Ligy Pullappally set out to write a feature-length script which would offer a more positive narrative for lesbian relationships in India involving young women expected to marry according to family customs.

The Journey follows a higher profile film, Fire (1996), directed by the Canadian-based Indian director Deepa Mehta. This film featured major stars of Indian ‘parallel cinema’, including the central couple, Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das, and received a significant international release as well as raising controversy in India for what were seen in some quarters as attacks on the institution of marriage (the two women are sisters-in-law). By contrast, The Journey is a low budget feature with relatively little international distribution. I rented the film via the Guardian‘s rental service ‘Sofa Cinema‘ and discovered that it is distributed on DVD in the UK by Millivres Multimedia, a company specialising in gay and lesbian films.

Like Deepa Mehta, Ligy Pullappally was born in India but then moved to North America (Chicago) where she eventually became a ‘public interest lawyer’. She used some prize money to allow her to develop her interest in filmmaking and returned to Kerala to make The Journey –– which received support from the the state’s film commission. Technically, The Journey is an example of ‘diaspora filmmaking’. Gurinder Chadha with Bride and Prejudice and Mira Nair with a string of films (including The Namesake to be screened on this course) are further examples. Trained in the West, these women have each offered different perspectives on Indian culture and on concepts of Indian Cinema.

Although Ligy Pullappally is relatively inexperienced as a filmmaker, The Journey bears comparison with other films made in Kerala as ‘independent’ or ‘art’ films. There is a popular film industry in Kerala making comedies and action films in the regional language Malayalam, but the art cinema of Kerala also has a strong reputation in India — and in the case of director Adoor Gopalakrishnan, around the world. Kerala has the highest education achievement levels in India and a relatively good record on social equality — as well as vying with Bengal in the North East as a cultural centre. This makes the story of The Journey more poignant. Kerala is also unusual in India in having three distinct religious communities co-existing peacefully (on the whole). In the film, one young woman is a Hindu and the other a Christian — but both feel the power of tradition.

The Journey is a very simple story, but it is told with conviction and the setting (in the hills of Northern Kerala) and the characters are well presented. We may well look at an extract from the film on the course. If you want to know more, there is a useful ‘official website‘.

Floating Clouds and Late Chrysanthemums

The second Naruse Mikio screening at the National Media Museum this week provided an interesting comparison with When A Woman Ascends the Stairs. The same two stars, Takamine Hideko and Masayuki Mori were the leads in Floating Clouds (Japan 1955) and the focus was again on a ‘suffering’ woman in a melodrama, but there were also some striking differences.

First Floating Clouds was shot in Academy ratio, 1.33:1. Naruse does not have a distinctive visual style and the change of screen size should not be too significant, but for me the ‘Scope film seemed much more coherent in its use of framing and composition. Floating Clouds was quite conventionally shot and perhaps it was the rather abrupt edits marking shifts in time periods (i.e. character’s memories) that made it feel less coherent. Many of the scenes in small houses and narrow alleys in Tokyo were reminiscent of Ozu’s Tokyo Story. However, where Ozu’s camera often stays at the eye level of a child or someone kneeling on a tatami mat, Naruse simply follows the characters — when they are in a traditional room, the camera is low level but at other times it rises with them.

Floating Clouds has the attention to social detail that I’m coming to realise is a Naruse trait. The story deals with a couple returning to Japan after the war has ended from their posting with a forestry team in Indo-China (presumably Vietnam). The misery of the Occupation and the struggle to survive economically and morally provides the context for an abortive romance. Unlike When A Woman Ascends The Stairs, written by Kikushima Ryuzo, responsible for many of Kurosawa’s scripts, Floating Clouds is an adaptation of a novel by the very popular Hayashi Fumiko. In fact, Floating Clouds was the fifth Naruse film based on Ms Hayashi’s novels. Perhaps then Floating Clouds is more like the norm for Naruse? When I got to see Late Chrysanthemums (Japan 1954) just a few days later, this naive assumption was soon discarded.

In the pub after the screening someone suggested that the film was ‘Bressonian’ and that seems like a good reference. Whereas Floating Clouds is a fairly conventional melodrama in terms of structure and presentation, Late Chrysanthemums, based on three short stories by Hayashi, is almost a pure character piece with little plot but a lot of opportunity to reflect on the lives of ageing geisha. Four women in early middle age, like four flowers whose bloom is fading, struggle to make ends meet. Or at least three of them do. The fourth has become a moneylender (and property speculator), but money can’t buy her happiness and she is disappointed to find that men only want to borrow money. This film seemed linked, thematically and structurally, more to When A Woman Ascends the Stairs. Once again, we get the detail of everyday life in Tokyo. If anything, there are even more scenes of money changing hands. Aesthetically, the film seems more fluent and coherent than Floating Clouds, which now seems much more of a genre piece.

The two earlier films did make me think about Ozu. They show ordinary families in ordinary settings (although Ozu’s families are perhaps more genteel). There are plenty of Ozu railway scenes. Neither Ozu or Naruse got commercial releases in the UK in the 1950s and in retrospect it’s not difficult to see why. Mizoguchi and Kurosawa offered films that were at once more ‘exotic’, more exciting, more expressionist and more obviously ‘humanist’. Naruse’s films do require an appreciation of the day to day nuances of Japanese cultural life. Late Chrysanthemums also refers to memories of Manchuria (and rather surprisingly, to the prospect of going to Korea) — some knowledge of Japanese imperialism is required to fully appreciate these references. I’m not sure I would have appreciated Naruse when I was younger and when i was even more ignorant of Japanese culture.

I’m glad I saw these films and I’ll look out for the DVD titles that are already published.

Tanzania and Nollywood

Yvone Cherry and Stephen Kanumba as the couple in She Is My Sister

There are only a handful of Tanzanian films produced each year and few of these are screened outside the festival circuit. As a consequence, I’ve never seen one. When the British had colonies in Africa their policy was to offer training in making documentaries and instructional films. One consequence of this in East Africa is a general lack of commercial, entertainment-based filmmaking. Something similar was also the case in West Africa, but in Nigeria and Ghana an alternative, highly populist, video cinema movement began in the 1980s. ‘Nollywood’ now claims to be the world’s third biggest film industry after India and the US, with hundreds of cheap video films produced each year.

Nollywood has now spread to East Africa and I was fortunate to be given a VCD of a joint Tanzanian/Nigerian production entitled She Is My Sister (2007). This follows a previous joint venture Dar 2 Lagos (2007). I was given She Is My Sister because it is performed mostly in English. Most Tanzanian cultural products use Swahili but in this case three of the leads are Nigerian (as is the director) so English may simply have been more convenient. However, I’m not sure how that would affect the potential market for the film.

VCD is the preferred format for cheap film distribution in South and South East Asia and I’ve also noticed them in the Middle East, so it’s no surprise to find films on VCD in Africa as well. The image quality on my computer is not great, but it is watchable. There are two discs in the box and the total film length is around 74 minutes with 6 minutes of trailers on Disc 1.

She Is My Sister is recognisable as a melodrama in terms of its plot and exaggerated acting style. To deal with the stylistic features first, there is little to say. The film is presented in a standard TV ratio of 4:3. There are a couple of establishing shots of streets in Dar es Salaam, but otherwise the film is composed in medium shot, like a television soap opera, with occasional close-ups and occasional tableaux to show characters in their surroundings as in the shot of the couple with their new furniture above. The overall style is quite constrained compared to the trailers for other productions. (The trailers are highly wrought with flash edits and zooms, but this may simply be a trailer style.) Overall, the camerawork and editing is competent, although some shots are held for far too long. (At the beginning of the film we have to watch nearly every passenger get off a long distance coach before we meet the first significant character.)

Far more interesting is the overall narrative. This is in part a universal morality tale. Melodrama has often been an important mode for exploring social relationships at times of major societal change — such as in Europe in the 19th century. She Is My Sister focuses on a young woman, Rose, from a rural village who gets to university and then is able to get a job/open a business selling imported electronics goods. This all happens before the narrative begins and we see her return to her village where she finds her childhood sweetheart who she takes back to the city and introduces to her girlfriends. The ‘country bumpkin’, Danny, turns out to be very good at running the shop and before long the couple are married with a small child. Danny, played by Steven Kanumba who also wrote the script and seems to be one of Tanzania’s successful young stars, also becomes very attractive to Rose’s friend Flora. Flora is a repugnant character, an uber bitch played with relish by Nigerian actress Nkiru Silvanus. When she steals Danny, Rose’s whole life falls apart.

The plot is very thin and there are few surprises. The only narrative device of note is the use of flashback so that at the beginning Rose’s sister arrives in the city for a visit and discovers Rose no longer lives in a ‘gated mansion’, but is now in a squalid back street apartment. Rose then tells her the story . . . It is the elements of the narrative that are interesting. The rural/city contrast is often represented by an opposition of cunning v. authenticity and here the couple from the country are corrupted by the city lifestyle. The woman has an education, but she has been seduced by material gain and may lose everything when her man succumbs to the sophisticated woman. As in many of the Nollywood films, there is a second part to the story according to the title at the end of the film which warns us to “Watch out for She Is My Sister 2″. Perhaps Rose fights back?

Tanzania is a poor country, but most of the action in this film takes place in a world of flatscreen TVs, gated houses, servants and expensively decorated rooms. There is clearly an aspirational lifestyle being offered. The film has an 18 certificate, but there is no overt sexuality or graphic violence. Perhaps the immorality alone is enough to get this rating? Tanzania has strong Christian and Muslim communities. I don’t know if this has had an impact on certification. There is a hint of possible domestic violence, but nothing like what is evident in the Swahili language films trailed on the VCD in which violence, mainly but not always by men towards women, seems to be a common feature.

Provocation

Lisa Ray and John Abraham in Water.

I finally managed to see Deepa Mehta’s Water (Canada/India 2005) and I surprised myself by being quite moved by the film which deals with a clash between the tradition of widows being effectively imprisoned for the rest of their lives and the possibility of change in India coming from Ghandian political ideas. The focus of the narrative is a romance between a young widow and a law student and its impact on two other widows. My sense was that, despite the controversy which caused production in India to be stopped and moved to Sri Lanka and the film’s subsequent success in gaining an Oscar nomination, the UK reviews were rather lukewarm. I remember enjoying Fire (1996), the first of the ‘elemental trilogy’, but also finding it a strange Indian/Western hybrid. I’m intending to watch Earth (1998) later this week.

Water, I was convinced, was an Indian film. I didn’t research the film before I watched it so I wasn’t aware that it had been filmed in Sri Lanka. However, I did get a sense during the screening of watching landscapes in South India rather than on the Ganges. Lisa Ray and John Abraham were new to me. I can understand some of the comments about the realism question. Both actors are very beautiful and their parentage (Ray is Indian/Polish and Abraham is Iranian/Indian Christian) means that they look exotic in an Indian setting. But really it isn’t a problem and in a way their casting adds another level of meaning to any reading of the narrative. I was also surprised to be offered a selection of A. R. Rahman songs. At least one of these was mixed badly in the film print I watched, but overall they seemed to work.

The big issue, of course, is whether the film works in the same way in the West as in India. On IMDB, the Canadian reviews are generally excellent, partly pride in Canadian Cinema, partly a Western liberal response to the plight of widows in 1930s India, I guess. IMDB reviews and comments by Indians on the other hand are sometimes extremely negative. I attribute this to the obverse of the Canadian response — a feeling that the filmmaker has somehow betrayed Indian culture/is not proud of Indian Cinema, but also from a Hindu perspective, the film is disrespectful of religious teachings. There is a great deal about the controversy over Water scattered across the internet and I don’t particularly want to get embroiled in the politics of Hindu Nationalism. What interests me here is what the Indian critics have to say about the film — as a film. I came across this blog, seemingly by an NRI/desi with deep knowledge of Indian ‘parallel cinema’, that offered a withering appraisal — much of it focusing on aspects of the film requiring cultural knowledge. For instance, the spoken Hindi in the film is ‘stilted’ and doesn’t convey any authenticity. Similarly, the saris are polyester, the taxis in the street are wrong, the costumes are wrong and so is the representation of Ghandi at the end of the film. The blogger is angry with the film on nearly every level, including what is seen as a crass use of quotes from Hindu writings. Overall, the blogger pines for the directors and stars of parallel cinema. Lisa Ray and John Abraham are criticised for their acting. I’m always worried by these criticisms since appraisal of acting styles is often highly subjective. However, I can see that the film would have been very different if Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das had appeared as the two adult widows (the third widow is a child) as Deepa Mehta originally intended. (A report on the original shoot with an image of Azmi and Das is on this Bright Lights Film Journal page.)

I wish my knowledge of parallel cinema was more extensive, but I’ve seen quite a few and Water wouldn’t stand up to a comparison with the films of Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen or of Shyam Benegal. There were moments when the scenario and some aspects of the cinematography reminded me of those earlier films (I think it’s the second film of the Apu Trilogy from Ray, Aparajito (1956) which features the ghats of Benares) but overall Deepa Mehta’s aim was different. Like Mira Nair, she is trying to make films about Indian culture for both a Western audience and a younger popular audience in India. And on this score, according to a number of Indian reviews, she seems to have succeeded. The film is: “Art without being arty, which is truly rare and wonderful” as one young Indian blogger puts it. This doesn’t negate the cultural criticism (and I did find more) and I think that is a weakness. On the other hand, shifting production to Sri Lanka must have been a nightmare and to manage to acheive what she has in the circumstances deserves support. To attract audiences to a consideration of social issues, even if it involves some misunderstandings is something Bollywood hasn’t managed. Despite the criticisms some Indians seem to have supported Water as an Oscar contender (as the Canadian foreign language entry) over the Indian entry Rang De Basanti — I guess I should see that soon and look at a comparison.