Monthly Archives: May 2012

Himizu (Japan 2011)

Keiko trails her classmate Yuichi in one of the interesting compositions in Himizu (photo courtesy Third Window)

Before the tsunami hit the north-east coast of Honshu in March 2011, writer-director Sono Sion was working on an adaptation of a manga story about a 14 year-old boy. He was able to quickly change the setting of the film’s story to accommodate the aftermath of the tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear disaster. It’s been suggested that it was the topicality of Himizu that prompted the Venice Film Festival to include the film in competition in September 2011 and to give a higher profile to the work of Sono. However, this seems a trifle condescending. Sono is a director who has a controversial image in Japan but also a string of film productions, a genuine fanbase and previous success at film festivals in Asia and worldwide. He began as a poetry performer and avant-garde artist and his films have included Suicide Club (2001) and his most successful title, Love Exposure (2010).

Himizu‘ is the name of a Japanese shrew mole, a creature which lives quietly beneath the ground. It’s endemic throughout most of Japan. Sumida Yuichi is a 14 year-old boy whose parents have virtually abandoned him. His father is a drunk who is usually absent but returns occasionally looking for money and often beating up his son. Yuichi’s mother has a lover and has no interest in her son. The family own a house by a boating lake and earn a few yen from hiring out boats to anglers and courting couples. Yuichi responds to a lesson at school and decides that he wants to grow up to be a ‘respectable adult’ who lives a quiet life but does good things for people. However, Keiko, one of the girls in his class (with similarly bad parents), develops a crush on him and constantly irritates him with her enthusiasm for some form of relationship. This is the situation, I assume, in the original manga by Minoru Furuya –a series which ran in Young magazine in 2001-2. The story was unusual in focusing on Yuichi’s psychological state.

Sono’s film utilises the tsunami disaster in several ways. There is a central dream/nightmare sequence which seems to be experienced by at least one other character as well as Yuichi and involves a journey through a devastated landscape of smashed houses, cars etc. Meanwhile, in the real world a group of homeless people from the coast are camping in makeshift homes around the lake – forming a kind of Greek chorus in the narrative, but also a genuine alternative to Yuichi’s absent parents. Finally, of course, the aftermath of the disasters provides a constant topic of conversation and news broadcasts and a psychological environment of resignation, futility, breakdown and other usually negative moods punctuated by desperate attempts to look to the future. You’ll gather from this that Himizu is not a ‘fun’ film. There is a lot of violence in the film, both actual in the form of repeated beatings (including between Yuichi and Keiko) and verbal (parents who say that their children should be dead). The film is perhaps too long. But . . . although I felt I was struggling to watch the film, I still enjoyed it and felt that I got a lot from it. I enjoyed the cinematography and the almost Kurosawa-like obsession with extreme weather.

I’m not surprised that the Venice jury gave the acting prize for new talent to the two leads (Sometani Shota and Nikaido Fumi) who are always worth watching. I don’t want to give too much away about what happens, but I will say that one of the narrative strands includes a yakuza connection which could be just an indication of the way Sono draws on other genre repertoires but more importantly it allows a kind of commentary on parenting (and raises the interesting question of how criminals respond to the chaos created by the aftermath of the tsunami). However, the main genre focus of the film seems to be ‘troubled youth’ and I’d recommend Himizu as a good example of contemporary Japanese cinema in that respect.

Himizu is a Third Window release in the UK which opens in London at the ICA, Prince Charles and Renoir this Friday, June 1st. It will also have screenings in Brighton,  Scotland, Wales and Ireland. See all potential screenings on the Third Window website. The DVD/Blu-Ray release date is August 6th.

Here’s the official trailer (WARNING: it gives away a couple of major plot points)

The Echo of Pain of the Many (El eco del dolor de mucha gente, Guatemala/UK 2012)

The women of Guatemala fighting for justice

It was entirely appropriate that the UK première of this film should take place at WFA Media and Cultural Centre in Manchester. For thirty years and more WFA has been the leading community film and video centre in the North West of the UK, hosting cultural events with visitors from Africa, Asia and Latin America as well as producing and distributing all kinds of radical film material in the UK. The second reason why so many turned out for this screening is that the filmmakers, writer-director Ana Lucía Cuevas and cinematographer-soundman Fred Coker are based in Greater Manchester and both have worked at WFA.

The venue was as full as it could be with around 150 people and the doors closed to meet fire regulations. When the film began the audience quietened noticeably and well they might. This is a powerful and deeply moving film – not least because it combines a personal story and an important analysis of the political struggle in a Central American country.

The packed screening at WFA


When I was a child I heard the term ‘banana republic’ and accepted it as a comical remark. It was a few years later before I understood what it meant in the politics of the Americas. The American writer O. Henry coined the term at the beginning of the 20th century in reference to his time in Honduras, but the term also refers to that country’s neighbour Guatemala. These two countries in particular developed a political economy in which a middle-class élite of military and business leaders colluded with American agrarian exploiters to grow bananas cheap and pay as little as possible to the workers. The principal company involved in Guatemala was the United Fruit Company which from the 1940s gradually began to masquerade behind the brandname ‘Chiquita’. United Fruit controlled the railways in Guatemala from the start of the 20th century as well as major land concessions for banana plantations. When workers attempted to unionise and the democratic government (a brief respite from military dictatorship in 1944-54) sought to take back some of United Fruit banana land to give to landless peasants, the business/military élite in Guatemala appealed to the US to halt the spread of socialism/communism. Throughout the twentieth century, American troops and later the CIA have interfered in virtually every country in Latin America. (This timeline on the United Fruit Historical Society website is an excellent resource that will surprise even the most cynical reader.)

The CIA engineered a coup to topple the ‘socialist’ President Arbanz in 1954 and a succession of Army Generals became President in what was effectively a CIA puppet state. Guerrilla groups began to form in opposition and a Civil War began in Guatemala which lasted off and on until 1996. In the midst of the war the Guatemalan security forces – army and police – refined a number of terror tactics which ‘disappeared’ some 45,000 people. In 1984 Lucía Cuevas was a university student in Guatemala and like the rest of her family she had joined one of the major opposition groups in the country. She felt that her situation was so bad that she had to leave the country. A few months after her departure, her older brother Carlos, a student activist who was married and had a young son, was ‘disappeared’ by the security forces. Carlos was Lucía’s soul mate. Lucía came to Europe to complete her studies and she eventually settled in Manchester. With her friends and her surviving family she spent the next 25 years finding and trying to piece together evidence about what had happened – while at the same time struggling with the dilemma over remembering or trying to forget in order to be able to live your life. A few years ago when she was checking online for news from Guatemala she came across a report about newly discovered archives of material relating to the systematic ‘disappearances’ during the 1980s and 90s. She then resolved to go back to Guatemala to see if she could find more material evidence about what happened to Carlos. The film is a documentary record of her search – the title, from a poem, places her personal experience in the context of the many families who have experienced the pain of unexplained loss.

The film

The film narrative details Lucía’s research and is presented via new interviews and footage of her journey intercut with an impressive range of archive material. It is technically an ‘authored’ documentary, but unlike the filmmakers who ‘perform’ for their own camera, Lucía remains a remarkably composed interviewer and commentator – despite the shocking revelations she is witness to. The narrative is more or less chronological though some material is shifted back or forward to strengthen the engagement of the viewer. Lucía’s commentary stitches the material together elegantly. There is an unobtrusive and careful use of music and overall the film is beautifully photographed and edited. I’m not completely convinced by the decision to use fades to black at the end of each short sequence, but in his review Keith suggests that this allows the audience a moment to reflect on the import of what they have seen (and heard).

Lucía interviews Noam Chomsky

The pre-credits sequence introduces a woman who acts as a witness to the horrendous treatment of the indigenous peoples of Guatemala, the rural population subject to the tactics of genocide as a means of terror. We then see Lucia in Guatemala arriving at a newly opened mass grave with forensic archaeology in progress. The first sequences of the film proper feature Lucia’s visit to meet Noam Chomsky and to get access to materials held by the National Security Archive Project in New York. In these sequences the documentary uses archive material alongside the interviews to explain how the American state supported the Guatemalan regime in every way possible including the collection and collation of surveillance data gathered through US Embassies in Central America. Chomsky explains that the Eisenhower administration in the 1950s described any form of local social reform in Central America as ‘communism’.

The rest of the film is mainly concerned with Lucía’s investigations in Guatemala. What she finds is shocking and heartbreaking – particularly in relation to the fate of her brother’s wife Rosario and her baby son. Rosario and another of the young wives of the disappeared had formed a group to campaign for information about their loved ones but they were brutally dealt with by the authorities. Aspects of the history of terror are so horrible that the facts seem surreal. If I understood correctly the chroniclers of systemic terrorism kept meticulous accounts and didn’t destroy them after the 1996 Peace Accords because they assumed they had ‘impunity’. In 1995 an archive of a million documents was discovered!

One of the most impressive aspects of the film is the number of resolute women, the relatives of the disappeared, who Lucía is able to interview. She concludes that for them, and for herself, the long investigations have two purposes. They must find answers to what happened to the disappeared because only then can they grieve properly (the terror of not knowing is the intended long-term consequence deliberately used by the security forces). But second, they must carry on the process of prosecuting the guilty parties in court. That process has produced only a small number of convictions so far, but it’s a start. Meanwhile, however, the ‘intellectual authors’ of the terrorism, the military commanders, are now politicians – members of parliament and presidential candidates.

Discussion after the screening

Fred Coker responds to a question about the film

Most of the audience stayed for a discussion with Lucía and Fred. We were told that the film had been screened in Egypt and very much appreciated in a country where similar terror tactics had been used against the population. Someone suggested that it should be shown in Spain where legislation giving rights to those whose relatives were disappeared under Franco was passed only a few years ago. Someone else remarked that the surveillance of the population in the UK was increasing – many connections were being made around the political issues raised by the film. The film itself was praised in terms of filmmaking and the suggestion came that it could inspire younger Latin American filmmakers to explore previous documentary films from the region and help to recover the practice of social documentary. But the most emotional and heartfelt responses came from two Guatemalan women. A younger woman said that she had been shocked by what she had seen and that the film had opened her eyes to the history of her own country. She was very grateful – but urged us all to go to the country and see what a beautiful country it is. The other, older, woman who was part of Lucia’s family said that she felt able to speak about the terrible things that happened for the first time after seeing the film.

This is an important film and must be seen. DVD and Blu-Ray versions of the film are available and we’ll post here how to get hold of them and any other information about screenings. There are some other links on our previous posting here. The main source of information about the film is its Facebook page from where we have borrowed the first three images above, the fourth is from us.

Thanks to WFA, Lucía and Fred for an inspiring evening.

Disappeared in Guatemala

This important event in Manchester on Saturday 19th May features the UK premiere of The Echo of Pain of the Many – the story of how filmmaker Ana Lucía Cuevas learned the shocking truth about what happened to her brother, one of the ‘Disappeared’ of Guatemala in 1984.

Lucía is based in Manchester and she will introduce the film on Saturday after presenting it in Washington earlier this month. We’ll be attending the Manchester event and a full report will appear here next week. For details of how to get to WFA, download the leaflet here.

Read more about the background to the film here:

‘Unredacted’ Blog (US)

Guardian‘s Northerner Blog

The film’s Facebook page.

Trailer on Vimeo:


Faust (Russia 2011)

Johannes Zeiler as Faust

Aleksandr Sokurov’s version of the Faust story was released in the UK today but I saw it in the Bradford International Film Festival a couple of weeks ago. I have to confess that had it not been in the festival programme at the appropriate time, I probably wouldn’t have chosen to see it as I have a blank spot when it comes to ‘classical literature’ of any kind. I need to be interested in the sociology, the history or the politics of a narrative to really appreciate it. I think I once saw the Richard Burton version of Dr Faustus (UK 1967), but if so I’ve forgotten it completely. I wish I had seen Murnau’s expressionist version (1926) because the glimpses I’ve had of it suggest at least a masterpiece of design.

So, I approached the Sokurov version, with only the knowledge that the film won the major prize at Venice last year. I’m not sure that I can say that I enjoyed the narrative, but I can say that it was a fine spectacle on the big screen and I was never bored. Sokurov and his scriptwriter claim to have kept close to Goethe’s version of the story. The script is in German but most of the actors appear to be Russian except for the Austrian Johannes Zeiler as Faust and Hannah Schygulla, Fassbinder’s leading lady, as the moneylender’s wife. The film was shot on location in Iceland (the caves and mountain tops) and various locations in the Czech Republic with interiors in the Barrandov studios in Prague.

What struck me most was the look of the film. Sokurov chose to present it in Academy ratio (1.33:1) which for me made the link to Murnau very strong. He also employed a colour scheme that both muted the colours and gave them a yellow-green cast. Finally there seemed to be a distorting lens that featured in several shots (and which at various points I wondered whether this was the fault of the digital projection, but I think that it is meant to signify Faust’s state of mind as he is led through events by the Mephistopheles character – here, Muller, the moneylender). Photography is by Bruno Delbonnel, perhaps best known for his work with Jean-Pierre Jeunet on Amélie and A Very Long Engagement.

I have little idea about what the overall aim of the narrative might be – and it’s comforting in a way that Tony Rayns seems equally baffled in Sight & Sound (June 2012). I agree with Rayns that there is little sense of a moral struggle here. Faust is a scientist, more bothered by his lack of money than by a burning desire to solve a problem or discover something new. He treats his friends, family and assistant rather badly and allows himself to easily led by the grotesque moneylender. I don’t understand why/how Sokurov intends this to be the fourth part of a tetralogy about evil men and power (following his films on Hitler, Lenin and Hirohito). I saw the Hitler film, Moloch (Russia 1999) some time ago and again, all I remember is its formal ‘otherness’ and its depiction of the banalaties of Hitler’s recreation at Berchtesgaden.

I suppose what kept me going through nearly 140 minutes of Faust was a kind of spotting-game. Which other films, filmmaking styles etc. does Faust remind me of? This I found interesting. First the setting. Goethe (whose late 18th century/early 19th century re-working of the original from the 1570s seems to be Sokurov’s starting point) lived and worked all over Germany but is generally associated with Weimar. However, I felt that the film was strongly ‘Central European’ and at one point I thought about Svankmajer (who made his own part-animated film about Faust). I didn’t know at that point where the film had been made or that Faust was played by the Austrian Johannes Zeiler, but this clearly makes sense. On the other hand, Zeiler kept reminding me of Bruno S. as the title character in Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (1974). There probably isn’t much likeness but of course the time period and location are not dissimilar. Faust has a strange approach to costume and set dressing. Reviewers have suggested periods from the 16th to the 18th centuries and some have conjured up ‘medieval’. I think that there is a sense of, if not medieval, certainly a kind of rural backwardness – conceivable in land-locked Central Europe where new technologies like railways haven’t penetrated. On the other hand, some costumes certainly suggest early Victorian times in the 1830s-40s.

Let me throw in some other references. Certain scenes like the village bath-house, in which Muller’s grotesque and physiologically challenged body is exposed, reminded me of Bosch (and Rayns suggests also Brueghel). On the other hand I was also reminded of popular horror films associated with Poe (right period but wrong location) and the later gothic of Transylvania and Dracula. The closing sequence I’m afraid did remind me of both Monty Python and earlier British absurdist dramas in which our hero roams a post apocalyptic wasteland.

Not a lot of intellectual stimulus in the adaptation of the story then, but plenty of fun in watching and listening to the images. I hope this doesn’t sound too much like Transformers! Rayns launches more of an attack on Sokurov and I was disturbed to read that he is chummy with Putin.

Tezz (India 2012)

Mohanlal superstar as a British police officer in ‘Tezz’

How can I begin to write about this Bollywood film? I went to see it because I know someone involved in the UK shoot and the story promised to be set on the West Coast mainline rail route which I travelled regularly in my youth. I’ve seen plenty of Indian films with UK-based sequences and two Hindi films wholly set in London, but in all these previous films the action has been more or less confined to Indian diasporic communities. Not so here.

Tezz is one of those Bollywood films that happily ‘borrows’ Hollywood plots (and plots from other film industries) and ‘mashes’ them up. Here the borrowed plot ideas come from Speed, Runaway Train, Unstoppable and numerous other films. The anti-hero played by popular ‘heavy’ Ajay Devgan (or ‘Devgn’ has he is now known) is an Indian engineer who has been brutally deported from the UK in very unlikely circumstances. His ‘revenge’ is to place a bomb on board a UK train in the hope of getting a large ransom payout from the UK authorities. But since this is Bollywood, there is also a sub-plot in which he will pay for the eye operation desperately needed by the brother of one of his co-conspirators. The tagline for the film is something like “This is not a terrorist movie”.

Bollywood tends to create imaginary worlds and this is an imaginary UK so we really shouldn’t be bothered by the geographical nonsense that is the train’s route from London to Glasgow. Nor should we be bothered by the fact that the principal characters defending the train are all Indians – the train controller (Boman Irani), the security chief (Anil Kapur) and a cruelly under-used Mohanlal as a police sergeant who just happens to be on the train. Obviously there would be no problem in them all being British Asians. My main question is why was this set in the UK? The plot requires that the train is scheduled to take 10 hours to get to Glasgow. The real journey time is only 5 hours. I can only assume that because journeys in India are so long, 10 hours makes more sense for an Indian audience. So, is this meant primarily for the ‘all India’ audience? I suspect that it won’t work for NRIs. I’ve seen references to a ‘bullet train’ and the film certainly tries to use architecture alongside the railway shots to create a sense of glamour. I presume that cost considerations (and possibly the pre-Olympics work) prevented them from shooting on the Eurostar line from London to the Channel tunnel – the only high-speed operation in the UK.

The film was made mostly in the UK with shoots in London, Birmingham and Glasgow (and some scenic rural footage) with interiors shot back in Bombay. On the plus side, I thought some of the action sequences on Glasgow streets and especially a chase along the canals of Birmingham worked very well. But then there are the songs. A few nostalgic shots of the central character’s UK romance and wedding before his deportation are easily integrated as a montage with a music accompaniment (quite a nice track by Rahat Fateh Ali Khan), but a spectacular night club dance sequence with Mallika Sherawat is simply inserted into the action to the embarrassment of all concerned. The inclusion of songs is now becoming a real problem for mainstream Bollywood – as if producers can’t decide whether they are necessary or not. I think that they don’t work here because the overall narrative doesn’t make sense. If the script had presented the underlying family melodrama in a more coherent way that would have helped. Several Indian reviewers have suggested that the basic premise is ludicrous.

Overall this is a film with a good pool of talented actors and some well-worked action sequences. Unfortunately the script is nonsense and the prolific veteran Malayali director Priyadarshan seems to have completely lost control of it and wasted the potential. My favourite bit of silliness seems to be based on a sight gag that dates back to Buster Keaton’s The General in 1926 – but this time conducted with a train travelling at 70 miles an hour! The film flopped badly in India and disappointed in the UK on a 42 screen release despite quite a strong promotional campaign with a Facebook page here.

Here’s a Hindi dubbed trailer for the Indian release:


Le Havre (Finland/France/Germany 2011)

Marcel (Andre Wilms) and Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) in Aki Kaurismäki’s ‘Le Havre’. Photographer: Marja-Leena Hukkanen. ©Sputnik Oy

Le Havre is the third of a trio of top films at Cannes in 2011 to arrive in the UK over the last couple of months – or perhaps the fourth if you include This Is Not a Film alongside Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and The Kid with a Bike. It’s annoying that we have to wait so long – and that we have to sit through months of Hollywood ‘awards’ films before we get to the good stuff. Some of us would cheer a distributor who brought out films like these in January/February.

Aki Kaurismäki is an unusual filmmaker. A Finn now domiciled in Portugal, here he turns up with a film set in the major French port of Le Havre and funded by French and German film and TV companies plus Finnish public investment. Kaurismäki has made a film in French before but this one appears to be the first of a new trilogy he hopes to make in various European ports. I’m something of a newcomer to his films but the two I have seen have shared a number of elements that I understand are quite common across his work. His films tend to feature working-class communities and dockside is a familiar destination. These are genuine ‘communities’ in which people look out for each other and especially when some official policy initiative threatens someone in the community. Kaurismäki prefers to create an imaginary world that is presented as if it were in a 1950s/60s/70s movie. So, not only do the cars, clothes, music etc. signal ‘pastness’ but also the use of studio sets alongside selected locations – and the sets are photographed according to the lighting and camera conventions of that period. The music too must fit this time period. The overall effect is a warm humanism cut with dry wit. Kaurismäki is himself a cinephile and there are numerous references to other auteur filmmakers, some directly but others in more diffuse ways.

In Le Havre the central character is Marcel Marx who lives with his wife Arletty and his dog Laika. Max somehow survives as a shoeshine man (since in this world, men still have leather shoes). Max befriends a young boy from Gabon who is hanging around the docks after the immigration police raid the shipping container in which he and a large group of ‘illegals’ have made the trip to France. The narrative then involves the attempt to get the boy to London to join his mother. In this Max calls on the whole local community of shopkeepers, bar-owners and local workers. In the meantime, Arletty has been taken to hospital with stomach pains.

Laika and Idrissa (Blondin Miguel). Photographer: Marja-Leena Hukkanen. ©Sputnik Oy

The film looks wonderful (thanks to Kaurismäki’s long-time collaborator Timo Salminen). The look invokes several of my favourite directors. At one point it feels like a Truffaut film – and then up pops Jean-Pierre Léaud. There is also a beautiful shot of a tree in blossom that could be from Ozu. But the strongest connections are to the ‘poetic realist’ films of late 1930s French cinema, signified by the name Arletty and the location. Coincidentally, the BFI have just released a restored version of Le quai des brumes in which Jean Gabin is a soldier hoping to create a new life abroad after he migrates from Le Havre – but he becomes embroiled in a local dispute when he tries to save a young woman. Kaurismäki confirms the links to such films by playing various chansons on the soundtrack. One other reference that has been picked up is to the films noirs of Jean-Pierre Melville in which there are often distinct relationships between the dogged police detective and the romantic anti-hero. In Kaurismäki’s film Marcel has several crucial encounters with Inspector Monet.

Le Havre is the perfect length and if, as a viewer, you allow yourself to be taken into this imagined world you should spend a relaxing and heart-warming 93 mins. I’ve seen the complaint that the boy is too appealing and that the theme is somehow too ‘politically correct’, but I’m impressed by the director’s firm control over his material and I had no problems whatsoever with the film’s approach.

Here’s a trailer with the song ‘Matelot’ by The Renegades.