Monthly Archives: January 2015

Rurôni Kenshin (Japan 2012)

Kenshin arrives in town and learns about Kauro's dojo

Kenshin arrives in town and learns about Kaoru’s dojo

Rurôni Kenshin is that rare beast, a contemporary popular Japanese film that received a UK release in 2013. A famous manga series in Japan in the 1990s which became a popular TV anime series, the live action film was produced by Warner Bros. for a local release in Japan where it opened at No. 1. A year later it went into 8 UK cinemas with no mainstream publicity that I could see and flopped. I watched it on a rented Blu-ray. Apart from the usual South-East Asian territories such as Singapore, Thailand, Philippines etc. it doesn’t seem to have been released elsewhere in cinemas but still seems to have made more than $60 million. The success in Japan meant that following recent Hollywood practice, two sequels were made in a joint production and both were released in 2014.

For anyone not already a manga fan (I’ve only read a few), the generic mixes of these films developed from manga series can present problems. The original here was written as a shonen manga – targeting a male audience, mainly of teenagers. Ostensibly this film references the classic genre of the chanbara or swordfight film. But this isn’t quite what that term might suggest, although there are important links. The lead character is a young and extremely talented swordsman. In the opening sequence he’s fighting for the forces who overthrew the Tokugawa shogunate and restored the Emperor in 1868. Still a teenager, but having already killed many men, Himura Kenshin gives up his title as an assassin – ‘Battosai’ – and becomes a ‘wandering samurai’ with a sword that has the blade on the inside of the curve (the leading edge being blunt). This means he can still dominate in swordplay but he won’t kill any opponents. Since the restoration he has vowed to help people and communities.

Ten years later Kenshin finds himself helping out Kaoru, a young woman whose father has died leaving her the control of his dojo – a martial arts school, fencing in this case. The young woman is threatened by a samurai who has adopted Kenshin’s old identity and is murdering people and leaving Battosai’s calling card.The dojo also becomes a target for a corrupt business man who is pushing opium and building up an army of fighters. Kenshin is going to be involved in many fights.

The focus on young characters and the theme of atonement and service marks the film out as having its shonen roots. It then acquires other influences. A set of different genre elements have been imported from Chinese martial arts. In his Film Business Asia review Derek Elley suggests that some of these come via action director Tanigaki Kenji who has worked in Hong Kong with leading filmmakers such as Donnie Yen. I was aware of the Hong Kong/Taiwan/Mainland China connection at different times just in the depiction of the late 19th century world. The two factors that were new to me in a Japanese film were the aerial leaps in the swordfights (wirework?) and the various references to ‘schools’ of swordmanship and specific moves – just as might be found in Chinese martial arts. These links suggest wu xia films and there is also the possibility of supernatural elements as the villain deploys a form of paralysing hypnosis. A final element is Japanese pop music which re-emphasises the shonen angle and the focus on youth. The lead is played by Satō Takeru, a young actor well-known for lead roles on television and in another popular TV/film franchise, the long-running Kamen Rider, another manga based series about a superhero. A good-looking and gentle young man, Satō becomes a very believable action hero in the choreographed fight sequences.

The film is long by Western standards with not enough plot and deep characterisation to sustain it, but I enjoyed the spectacle and was intrigued by the shonen angle. Young samurai are found in the classic Kurosawa swordfight films, but usually only as apprentices to the masters – though they are sometimes allowed to have romances. This film is set in a later period which has featured in both the Tom Cruise picture Last Samurai (US/NZ/Japan 2003) and Twilight Samurai (Japan 2002) by Yamada Yôji. One other link to Kurosawa is the performance of Aoki Munetaka as a ‘streetfighter’, a brave-hearted warrior wielding a huge old sword – and reminding us of Mifune Toshiro’s performance as the would-be samurai in Seven Samurai. He too will move into the fencing school to support Kenshin and the small community (two young men, two young women and a boy) provide the ready-made ‘family’ for the sequels.

This film would be useful to study in relation to the ideas about contemporary Japanese cinema in Chapter 5 of the Global Film Book.

The trailer:

Background on School of Babel (La cour de Babel, France 2014)

One of Brigitte's more expressive students

One of Brigitte’s more expressive students

This screening will be introduced by our colleague Rona Murray and here she provides a little background.

Julie Bertuccelli’s film La cour de Babel (Schoolyard of Babel) should stimulate some interesting discussion on 5th February. A film about a class made up of recent teenage arrivals in France, this is the work of an experienced documentary maker as she tells a story of one academic year under the stewardship of their welcoming French schoolmistress, Brigitte Cervoni. It is also a French film about issues of social integration and enfranchisement which might seem particularly relevant given recent events in Paris.

Other French films, such as Nicolas Philibert’s documentary about a primary school, Être et avoir (To Be and To Have ) in 2002 or Laurent Cantet’s drama Entre les murs (The Class) in 2008 have also examined the French education system up-close. All three films share an ability to convey the emotional and social complexity taking place. School of Babel is not the same as The Class. Both the students and the teacher are quite different but in both cases the questions of integration raised are not solely ‘French’ ones but apply to us all.

Bertuccelli is an intriguing subject herself, having moved outside documentary into fiction filmmaking.  Her experience perhaps highlights how far documentary makers allow events to unfold and how far they need to take charge and construct a story to engage their audiences in the cinema. Read about the director’s previous ‘fiction’ film here.

Read more about School of Babel on our main blog here.

Background on Plot for Peace (South Africa 2013)

Jean-Yves Ollivier (third from right) invites some of the major stakeholders involved in regional peace efforts to a private game farm in the Kalahari Desert, in the Northern Cape. (from

Jean-Yves Ollivier (third from right) invites some of the major stakeholders involved in regional peace efforts to a private game farm in the Kalahari Desert, in the Northern Cape. (from

Plot for Peace tells an ‘untold story’. The whole world knows that Nelson Mandela was finally freed from prison in 1990 and that in 1994, after South Africa’s first democratic elections, he became President Mandela. The apartheid regime was no more. Many people in South Africa, black and white, had struggled over many years to end the system. War in the ‘front-line states’ against the South African armed forces was a ‘hot’ feature of the Cold War during the 1980s and around the world thousands of anti-apartheid activists fought to isolate the apartheid regime. There have been many books, films and plays telling stories about individuals in the struggles and more recently about Mandela himself, but few have attempted to explain how the battle was won without a massive conflagration and the devastation of South Africa itself.

Plot for Peace tries to give a different perspective on the events of the 1980s, focusing on one man, a ‘fixer’ who was able over several years to bring together the leaders of many of the major players in the global struggle and to establish at least the possibility of a peaceful, negotiated end to apartheid. Jean-Yves Ollivier is a remarkable man who was awarded an honour by the new South African government almost without any publicity. For some of those who did know what he had done he was the mysterious ‘Monsieur Jacques’. His story has now been put together in a film narrative in which, as far as possible, Ollivier and the leading figures he worked with tell the story in their own words.

Here the filmmakers discuss how the documentary came about:

and here Jean-Yves Ollivier discusses what he thinks about sanctions and the need to negotiate in a range of other global conflicts:

When I Saw You (Palestine-Jordan-UAE-Greece 2012)

Tarek (Mustafa A and his mother Gayheeda (Ruba at the refugee camp

Tarek (Mahmoud Asfa) and his mother Ghaydaa (Ruba Blal) at the refugee camp

When I Saw You is an important film. Well-made and times very beautiful, it is perhaps a film that surprises in what it achieves. Significantly, it is one of the first Palestinian films to be made almost entirely with Arab money and to receive critical acclaim and commercial distribution within the Arab world. It deals with issues of identity and the experience of expulsion from home and exile as refugees. From the perspective of contemporary audiences outside the Arab world, the story may seem slight in terms of ‘events’ even if it is rich in observations (a problem evident in Philip Kemp’s Sight and Sound review, July 2014). In some ways it is a ‘personal story’ even though the events take place in 1967 and the filmmaker Annemarie Jacir was not born until 1974. As she has said in interviews, the Naksa (the ‘set-back’) – the exodus of Palestinians forced out of the West Bank by the Israeli occupation following the Six Day War in 1967 – had a major impact on the Jacir family who were forced to leave Bethlehem. Annemarie Jacir grew up travelling between Bethlehem (where she was born) and the new family home in exile in Saudi Arabia before training as a filmmaker in the US. Having spent much of the early part of her filmmaking career in the Occupied Territories she is now barred from returning and she has settled in Jordan where When I Saw You is set and where it was shot.

The central character is 11 year-old Tarek who after a few weeks in a Jordanian refugee camp is still bewildered by events. His mother Ghaydaa is working in a makeshift garment workshop but his father has gone missing during the war and Tarek wonders how the family will be re-united. He’s taken aback to discover that many of the refugees have been in the camp since 1948 and he’s unhappy at the camp school where he doesn’t fit in. He’s determined to return to his Palestinian village and eventually simply sets off walking. Fortunately he’s found by someone who recognises him and he ends up in a secret camp of freedom fighters (fedayeen) preparing for forays into the Occupied Territories. The second half of the narrative concerns what happens in the training camp – where Tarek at first feels much more comfortable – and where his mother will eventually find him.

The fedayeen in the woods. Layth (Saleh Bakri) is on the right.

The fedayeen in the woods. Layth (Saleh Bakri) is on the right.

The time period of the film is very important. The late 1960s was a time of savage conflict but also considerable optimism. The fighters in the camp (never identified as a specific political faction) are drawn from many Arab countries. There are female fighters and the group is mainly secular, drawing on Marxist philosophies rather than religious faith. The weapons and supplies come from around the world, including Europe, China and the Soviet Union. In interviews Jacir admits that there is a romanticism in this representation but that this was true to a certain extent. She researched life in the training camps – which was widely recorded on film and in print journalism – and she does also hint at the tensions and conflicts within the group. Some of the scenes are conventional and familiar from various genre films. The guerilla fighter is a ‘rebel’ figure beloved of Hollywood and I was reminded of Westerns like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid with musical interludes and dancing around the camp fires. Tarek will learn to play a few notes on the oud and to develop skills in painting propaganda posters. But Tarek is not ‘political’, he just wants to go home and we see things from his perspective. He left the refugee camp because he couldn’t understand the concept of just ‘waiting’ for his father to to find his wife and son. The fighters are not necessarily glamorous because they handle weapons. They are attractive because they have an objective and because they work together. Tarek can play a role. Perhaps the key point is that Tarek seems much more likely to accept the group leader’s instruction to be patient and disciplined than he was to listen to his teacher in the refugee camp. But he is 11 years-old. How patient can he be?

I think I’ve worked out what the title of the film might refer to but since my explanation would give away the film’s resolution, I’ll restrain from giving it here. What I will say is that I think it refers to recognition of the pain of exile. For Jacir herself being in Jordan but not being allowed to cross the Jordan river back into Palestine must be painful.

When I Saw You has beautifully composed images courtesy of French cinematographer Hélène Louvart who has also worked for Wim Wenders on Pina (Germany/UK/France 2011) and earlier for Agnès Varda on Beaches of Agnès (France 2008). The Varda documentary ties in with Jacir’s own background as a documentary camera operator on Until When (Palestine 2004). One of the press features that appeared when When I Saw You was released in the UK carries this interesting observation by Nicholas Blincoe:

Her work bears comparison to that of her contemporaries in Iran – deceptively casual, studied cinematography, realistic performances and an eagerness to push the dramatic envelope. “I like to be rooted in real people and real situations,” she says. “Yet at the same time indulge in the freedom of what cinema is about: our dreams, our ability to change or escape”. (‘Annemarie Jacir: an auteur in exile’)

Inevitably, as Jacir toured film festivals she was asked questions in which she was bracketed with other recent Arab directors who happen to be women such as Nadine Labaki (Caramel, Where Do We Go Now?) and Haifaa al-Mansour (Wadjda). She has also been asked about comparisons to the already-established Samira Makhmalbaf, who is Iranian and not an Arab. However, she clearly does admire Iranian cinema and I think Blincoe makes a good observation. Tarek is played by Mahmoud Asfa, a non-professional who Jacir found in Irbid refugee camp after a lengthy search for the right boy. She chose him because he really seemed to have the same viewpoint as Tarek. He is excellent in the role and so are the other actors who are working in film for the first time even if they are experienced performers on stage or street theatre. (The two screen actors known to local audiences, Ruba Blal and Saleh Bakri are also excellent.) With her documentary experience and research Jacir is grounded in ideas about realism but she has enough of the imagination required to approach important issues in slightly oblique ways as many Iranian filmmakers have been forced to do. She has also expressed admiration for her mentor on the Rolex ‘Mentors and Protégés’ scheme – Zhang Yimou, the Chinese master who has made his own Iranian-influenced films such as The Long Road Home (China 1999). She was mentored during 2010-11 when she was working on When I Saw You.

When I Saw You offers many pleasures including an eclectic music soundtrack and a song performed by Ruba Shamshoum, a young Palestinian singer who was cast as one of the freedom fighters. (In this interesting review on The Electronic Intifada, Sarah Irving pinpoints how cleverly the music is used and how various bits of the popular history of the time are incorporated in the script.) In Europe and North America the film may be seen as an example of ‘specialised cinema’ likely to be seen in an arthouse cinema but Annemarie Jacir and her producer partner Ossama Bawardi worked hard to get the film shown in Palestinian villages as well as commercial cinemas in Jordan. Jacir sees the film as targeting mothers and children.

Here’s a taster in the official trailer from Philistine Films:

Palestinian cinema is featured as a case study in Chapter 6 ‘Middle East Without Borders’ in the Global Film Book.


Official website

Facebook page

Philistine Films

When I Saw You: Background

Annemarie Jacir. Photo: Stephen Freiheit from the bio on

Annemarie Jacir. Photo: Stephen Freiheit from the bio on

Filmmaker Annemarie Jacir was born in Bethlehem in 1974 but her family was already effectively exiled to Saudi Arabia and she travelled between the two locations until she went to the US for senior high school and eventually an MFA at Columbia. As a young filmmaker she won many international prizes for her short film like twenty impossibles (Palestine 2003) and for her first fiction feature Salt of This Sea (Palestine/Bel/Fra/Spain/Switz 2008). Both these films were shown in the Official Selection at Cannes.

Through her own production company Philistine Films, Annemarie Jacir has been a driving force in establishing the possibility of an independent filmmaking base for Palestinian filmmakers. One aspect of this is her leading role in the ‘Dreams of a Nation’ film festival held in the US and touring Palestine in 2003. Salt of This Sea required European funding for its production but When I Saw You is funded almost entirely from Jordan and the Emirates and has a Lebanese producer. Jacir premiered the film in East Jerusalem and fought hard to get commercial distribution in Jordan, screening in multiplexes which had not previously shown independently-produced Arab films. With her Palestinian producer partner Ossama Bawardi she organised fifty screenings in Palestinian villages. Palestine has only a handful of cinemas and only rudimentary facilities but has produced more internationally-renowned filmmakers than any other Arab country.

When I Saw You is a film set around the time of the Naksa – the ‘set-back’ in 1967 when large numbers of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza were forced to leave Palestine by the Israeli occupation forces following the Six-Day War. Those who were exiled in Jordan joined the large contingent of refugees who arrived during the Nakba in 1948. UNWRA (UN Works and Relief Agency reports that by January 2014 there were more than 2 million registered Palestinian refugees in Jordan with some 330,000 still living in one of the ten camps set up in 1948 or 1967. Nearly a third of Jordan’s population is made up of refugees (or the children of refugees). When I Saw You includes just two direct references to potential conflicts between Palestinians and Jordanians, both partly supportive and partly hostile.

Read our review of the film (no spoilers!) on The Global Film Book Blog.

The Tree (L’arbre, Australia-France 2010)

The two youngest children, Charlie and Simone (Morgana Davies)

The two youngest children, Charlie (Gabriel Gotting) and Simone (Morgana Davies)

I’m not sure how I missed this transnational production but, as the UK release schedule expands, smaller releases like this one appear only fleetingly in cinemas before going straight to DVD. I came across The Tree as one of the two earlier features by Julie Bertuccelli, director of School of Babel. (The film did actually close the Cannes Film Festival in 2010 but it was out of competition and therefore not much discussed in the international media.) There are several reasons why The Tree is worth watching. These include the production context, the presentation of Australian landscapes, the direction of child actors and another chance to catch a performance by Charlotte Gainsbourg.

The Artificial Eye Region 2 DVD carries an interesting ‘making of’ documentary (including a sequence of ant wrangling) in which we learn that Ms Bertuccelli was eager to adapt the Italo Calvino novel The Baron in the Tree, but then discovered that this wasn’t possible and started to look for other stories with a tree as a central character. When she read the novel Our Father Who Art in the Tree by Judy Pascoe she was immediately attracted and, with her producer Yael Fogiel, contacted the Australian adaptation rightsholder Sue Taylor. The three women got on well and an Australian-French co-production was organised with funders from both countries, including local film commissions and TV stations.

The original novel focuses on a little girl who experiences the death of her father and then believes that his spirit has in some way taken up residence in a large tree adjacent to the family home. While the rest of her family have their own ways of dealing with the father’s death, Simone climbs into the tree where she can ‘hear’ her father’s voice. Julie Bertellucci decided to change the central narrative by focusing on Dawn, the mother played by Charlotte Gainsbourg and her close relationship with Simone (aged 8 in the film). The other three siblings are three brothers, two older and one only a toddler. Since the oldest boy is studying for school-leaving exams there is a wide age range in the family and the five characters have very different perspectives. The shift to the mother-daughter relationship rather than simply the child’s view is interesting in the spin it gives to the film’s address to its audience. One of the commentators on the book’s appeal writes about Simone’s narration as being similar to Scout’s in To Kill a Mockingbird. Shifting to the mother-daughter scenario makes the film more consciously about ‘women’s lives’. Julie Bertuccelli adapted the novel herself and with her female producers and a mother-daughter central pair this was just too much female input for one disgruntled male spectator on IMDB.

Charlotte Gainsbourg is Dawn, posed here against one of many beautiful landscapes

Charlotte Gainsbourg is Dawn, posed here against one of many beautiful landscapes

The story is located in rural Queensland and the film was a long time in preparation as the director searched for the perfect tree. She didn’t want to design/construct a tree. Her documentary background convinced her that the tree had to be ‘real’. Eventually, after two years and many tree viewings the team found a giant Moreton Bay Fig tree (in the novel I think it’s a flame tree of some kind) in Bunnah in Queensland. Standing on its own with an interesting view of the local landscape, the house was constructed around the tree – providing one narrative thread since these fig trees have enormous root systems that threaten drainage pipes and the structural safety of the house itself. At the start of the film we see that the father’s job entails physically moving the wooden houses in the district by low loader, a kind of ironic marker for later events.

Bertuccelli’s focus on the mother leads to what many will see as a highly conventional narrative – she starts another relationship ‘too soon’ after her husband’s death. Yet this story is also a way of commenting on her marriage – she hasn’t worked for the past 17 years (or perhaps not at all) and she knows few people beyond the local women who are mostly older. She needs to get a job and to see something of the world beyond the house. By contrast Simone retreats towards the tree. The core of the narrative offers us an emotional narrative driven by the child’s imagination which draws on ‘arboreal magic’ and the potential power of the wider environment – the drought which threatens all the vegetation and the violent tropical storms. The story in this sense relates to both specifically Australian stories about the bush (I think that there is only one short sequence in which a boy who may be part of a local indigenous community appears with some wildlife) and to more general dramatic narratives in which families face natural disasters. So, how does a non-native Australian director fare in the environment? From my perspective she does well. The ‘reality’ of the tree certainly works. She tells us that the storm was photographed on the spur of the moment when it happened – rather than through preparation and design.

The tree stands in its 'magical reality'

The tree stands in its ‘magical reality’

But the film ultimately stands or falls on the central relationship and the two actors. I always find Charlotte Gainsbourg compelling but as Simone, Morgana Davies is remarkable. Her language (and delivery) sometimes sounds like an older child but her mix of strength and vulnerability seems absolutely right. The narrative may be slight in terms of action/events but it is rich in meanings and emotions and the film worked for me overall. Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian found it to be an “outrageously twee, spiritual and supercilious drama”. That seems a bizarre comment. Julie Bertuccelli shows how each of the children behave differently in response to their father’s/husband’s sudden death. Dawn is not the mother who bravely holds the family together. The children have strength in their own responses and though there are conventional aspects to the story concerning Dawn and the man she starts a relationship with, overall the narrative remains open-ended. The film is a form of family melodrama with elements of both fantasy and realism.

My only surprise was the size of the budget at €7.7 million. This is a ‘large’ budget by UK standards. French productions have become more expensive in recent years, partly through the inflated fees paid to actors. Charlotte Gainsbourg is certainly a star actor, but I’d be surprised if it was her fee that pushed up the cost. On reflection, it seems to me that the money went on preparation and an extended shoot. It was Bertuccelli’s first time directing children and as well as many retakes for the younger children, she seems to have encouraged the children to be a family on the shoot and not only in front of the cameras. I think that this shows in the finished film as they are believable as a family. Unfortunately the film was not successful in cinemas in Europe (around €2 million at the European box office) and I doubt that the Australian box office was any better. Perhaps the film will be the long term sleeper and prove profitable on DVD and TV as Screendaily predicted. I hope so, it deserves to be seen.