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Arab Cinema, Festivals and Conferences, Melodrama, Spanish Cinema

London Film Festival #1: Family Melodramas

My first festival day comprised three very different family melodramas. Plans for Tomorrow (Planes para mañana, Spain 2010) is the debut feature of Joana Mancias coming after several well-received shorts. The film comes in a now familiar format comprising four interweaving stories each triggered by the same ‘inciting incident’ with the main events occurring over 24 hours. I don’t want to spoil the narrative tension, but you will have seen this before in the scripts by Guillermo Arriaga, especially Amores Perros. This was pointed out to me after the screening. I was thinking more about the films of Kieslowski, Tykwer and Medem, but on reflection these directors are aiming for something more narratively and thematically complex than this modest but engaging film.

Goya Toledo as Inés in Planes para manana

Three of the characters are women of a ‘certain age’. Inés is 39, with a career and an important job when discovers that she is pregnant – much to her long-term partner’s surprise. He doesn’t want a child. Antonia has been married for 20 years but the marriage is not fulfilling and on this day she has an interview for a new job and a phone call from an old lover who is in town and wants to see her. Marian is in a similar marital quandary, but her husband has already provoked a potential split and he has left the apartment, only to violently return when Marian refuses to let him in. Today he makes a scene at the bank where she works as a cashier. Mean while, Marian’s daughter, Mónica and Antonia’s son, Raúl have begun a virtual relationship involving intense exchanges of images and video and webcam dances for each other.

I enjoyed this film a lot and I found all the central characters interesting. The performances are all excellent (the players are all experienced in Spanish film and TV). Cinematography and direction are strong and there are some expressionist touches with blurring of focus etc. There is also a fantasy sequence and strong use of popular music, which I identified as rather soft indie nu-folk/rock, sometimes in English, sometimes in Spanish. I recognised something similar in the French psychodrama Anna M. (2007) but the bands meant nothing to me. I surmise from this that the focus of the film via the music is the teenage couple, though most of the narrative involves their parents’ generation. It may be important that when Monica and Raúl are with their mothers, they are often listening to music or communicating via the computer. Their world may be virtual, but they are ‘connected’ – which is more than the three women are with their partners.

In the bar afterwards I discussed the film with two women. One felt the film was ‘trite’, which always baffles me. It’s a genre film and works via the conventions of certain kinds of dramas. The other was more concerned with what the film ‘means’. I confess that as I reflected on the film, I realised that I’d been rather confused by the timescale and that I may have missed some of the interconnections. Perhaps it doesn’t stand up totally to scrutiny, but nevertheless it is an interesting film with plenty to offer to audiences. I would classify it as melodrama. No specific location was signalled, but I was interested to note that some scenes were shot in Cáceres, Extremadura with some funding support from the region. It opens in Spain next month.

En visits his grandma

Sandcastle (Singapore 2010) is the debut feature of Boo Junfeng and tells the story of three generations of a family over some fifty years. In some ways the approach reminded me of Hou Hsaio-hsien’s Taiwanese melodramas of the 1980s, though with perhaps a less forceful presentation of the politics. The melodrama is also mixed with a ‘coming of age’ narrative. The first Singapore film website I looked at seemed to be put off by the politics and before the festival screening, the young star of the film, Joshua Tan asked us to consider the film as a ‘family story’ and not to focus on the politics. Politics is clearly still a source of tension in what is to outsiders seen as a society in denial and subject to ‘self-repression’. En is a young man who has finished high school and is waiting to be called up for his military service. Events conspire to make this a busy summer. I’m guessing that this supposed to be around 2000 since En has an original iMac running OS 9. His summer promises a first romance with a neighbour but then he is required to go with his widowed mother to help look after his grandma who has Alzheimers. In his grandparents’ house he finds mementoes and hears stories about his father who died when En was still a young boy. En’s mother is a Christian and a schoolteacher and we see her leading a school choir in a rendition of a ‘national song’ (in English). This ‘respectable’ teacher is also in a long-term relationship with a senior officer in the Singapore military – who, of course, is a man designed to irritate En. At one point, when En’s iMac develops a fault, this man buys him a laptop with Windows 98 – no wonder En is pissed off! En’s ‘journey’ is about discovering who his father really was. Was he a student radical and a Communist in the 1950s and early 1960s? Is that why he had to go to Malaysia? Was En’s mother always so conservative and if so why did they get together?

Noha and her elder sister prepare for her wedding

I enjoyed Sandcastle and I’m intrigued by Stray Bullet (Lebanon 2010) which is also a family melodrama but this time placed firmly in the context of conflict. In a community of Maronite Christians in a North Beirut suburb, 30 year-old Noha is still a spinster teacher. It is 1976 when as a title informs us “the Palestinian camps had all surrendered” in what was one of the many periods of the Lebanese Civil War. Noha has already withdrawn from one possible marriage and now a fortnight before she is due to marry a cousin under strong family pressure, she decides to meet an old flame. But as the director, Georges Hachem told us after the screening, Lebanon was then in a ‘time of warriors’ – there was always the possibility of some kind of violence and things soon start to go wrong for Noha and her family. I found the first ten minutes of this film quite hard to follow, trying to work out all the family connections, but the second half developed into a full-blown melodrama. It is quite a short film (only 75 minutes) but very intense. It also has at its centre the wonderful Nadine Labaki as Noha. Her star performance in Caramel is matched here as the stubborn and determined Noha who is not prepared to submit to the pressure to marry – whatever the cost. The cost is high and this is a real melodrama with a non-Hollywood ending. Yet in the interesting Q&A that followed, a Lebanese man in the audience asserted that he thought that the film was a ‘way forward’ in presenting the personal lives of people during the Civil War. Although it is specifically about one Christian community, the story is one with which all Lebanese could identify.

The story behind the film is interesting in that as an independent production, Hachem (who was returning to Lebanon after working in Paris) was lucky to find a local producer, Georges Schoucair, willing to put up the production budget. Unlike most films from the region this didn’t require co-funding, although the French experience of both director and producer was important. I thought all the technical credits were very good for a film on this budget and I especially enjoyed the music. I hope that the film gets a UK release.

Discussion

2 thoughts on “London Film Festival #1: Family Melodramas

  1. Hi Roy, nice to see you have made it from Cambridge to London – you have been busy. All of these films look really interesting – I guess with film festivals you actually get a chance to watch these films in the right context, on the big screen. Stray Bullet looks particularly fascinating – what kind of an industry does Lebanon have? I guess it’s quite small but supported well? Have they got a selection of Indian films at the LFF? Thanks, looking forward to your next report.

    Posted by Omar | October 22, 2010, 11:35
    • Hi Omar. LFF was good – there are reports on 8 more films to come. Re the Lebanese ‘film industry’, I think there is only the one local independent producer. Most films made in Lebanon (or Syria, the other former mandate territory for the French) like Caramel will require French backing or other European monies. Apart from Hollywood, the only commercial films in the region come from Egypt. The new source of money in the Arab world is the Gulf and some money has gone into Palestinian films from UAE, but nothing consistent yet, I think. Turkey is another possible player as Turkish cinema is reviving (see also our earlier post on global TV soap operas and the success of Turkish TV in the Arab world).

      Re Indian Cinema, there were several Indian films in the LFF programme, but sod’s law meant that they were not on when I was there. I did catch one at the end of my visit and I’ll report on it next week (The filmmaker was present and he had some interesting points to make).

      Posted by venicelion | October 22, 2010, 22:00

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