Monthly Archives: November 2015

Timbuktu (Mauritania-France 2014)

A woman publicly lashed for singing in her house

A woman publicly lashed for singing in her house

Abderrahmane Sissako (b. 1961) is one of the most feted African directors of his generation. His has been a life of movement between Mauritania, Mali and France with a period at film school in Moscow in the 1980s. Making films in many parts of Africa is difficult and Sissako’s output has been limited to just three features, a number of shorter films and two contributions to international ‘compendium’ films. The films may be few in number but they have won many prizes and in the case of Timbuktu have attracted significant audiences in France and North America . . . but they are difficult to see in cinemas in Africa.

Here are some of Sissako’s ideas about his films in his own words taken from interviews promoting Timbuktu:

I came to cinema accidentally, not out of passion and the desire to watch films. But when I went to formally study cinema, I was overwhelmed. And I’m still overwhelmed by it.

It’s true that [Timbuktu] doesn’t have a classic, linear narration. If you look at the different stories, there are different blocks, you can move them around, put them in different places. And for me, that’s what cinema is. In an hour and a half, you create a kind of harmony of communication. But I really enjoy the editing process. There are a lot of things that are involved in creation that I feel at that moment, in that editing moment. And film itself is a very fragile thing.

For me, the framing of the shot is an invitation. What I’m doing in the frame is inviting the viewer to enter into it. So I don’t impose the scene on them by saying: “Here, look at this. You’re gonna look at this.”

I think people are the same no matter where they are. And the problem is that they’re not portrayed as being the same. Yes, it’s true that every culture is going to have their own set of issues, but it’s the way in which they’re shown that makes it seem like they’re different. Africans are very often portrayed in a way that makes their issues seem mysterious, when in fact they’re really in many ways no different from Europeans. With Timbuktu, in the relationship between the couple, Kidane and Satima, when they’re talking about family issues, it’s really a conversation that could take place here as well. The father/daughter relationship is the same.

(Film Comment interview by Violet Lucca 23/1/2015)

What I wanted [with Timbuktu] was to show the impact – what it means – when a city is taken hostage. I think, in the West, people only feel a connection when there’s something they can relate to: the taking of a single hostage, for instance. It will draw their attention more than a whole population being taken hostage – that’s not something that enters into their consciousness the same way.

. . . after all [the jihadists] are human beings. At some point in their lives, they were ‘normal people’; one day, they changed. And each person, most likely for different reasons. The young rapper, in the video scene, who’s come from Paris – obviously he must have crossed over to the jihadist side for his own personal reasons . . . . I think it’s necessary to see things in that way, if we want to go beyond. Otherwise, we get this idea that, when we kill the bad guys, the problem disappears – and it’s not like that. It’s the role of the artist: the artist must give humanity to the people he or she is showing. If he doesn’t make them human, he begins to lose some of his own humanity.

. . . comparisons [with other films] don’t bother me too much. I think it’s good, too, when people from outside appropriate the film for themselves in that way, it encourages comments and discussion. Sometimes people need markers, reference points, that they can relate to. It’s more for them than it is for me.

. . . the writing of a film must always be open. An actor doesn’t learn his or her role; they live it. Once I see that the subject interests them, there’s something inside of them, I know they’re going to contribute something to the film, via the character.

(The L Magazine, interview by Steve Macfarlane, 28/1/2015)

Beck (Sweden 2015: Series 5)

Peter Haber and Mikael Persbrandt in the first of the Series 5 films of BECK

Peter Haber and Mikael Persbrandt in Rum 302, the first of the Series 5 films of BECK

I was surprised and delighted when five Beck films were picked up by the BBC and broadcast recently on BBC4. The first film I watched was enjoyable and entertaining but it seemed to miss the most important element of the famous series of books – the critique of Swedish society. However, I’ve watched four more and these new films have now definitely won me over.

Martin Beck is important as arguably the first protagonist of what has for the last seven or eight years become known as ‘Nordic Noir’ in the UK and elsewhere. (I’m sure it has been called something slightly different in Scandinavia for several years.) The ten novels by the team of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (living together as a couple) were written between 1965 and 1975. All ten novels were adapted for the cinema, some outside Sweden. (I discuss Bo Widerberg’s 1976 Beck film The Man On the Roof here.) The earliest film adaptations featured different actors playing Martin Beck but a series of six Swedish-German films in 1993-4 all featured Gösta Ekman as Beck. The current sets of films began in 1997 and (like the later Wallander films) are new stories using the central characters. Per Wahlöö died in 1975 and Maj Sjövall has not to my knowledge written any more Beck stories, so the 30 films since 1997 all use new stories.

The importance of the original 10 novels was that the writers, Marxists both, attempted to offer a critique of Swedish society. This meant a level of realism in the police procedural and a level of political awareness and moral commitment by Beck himself. This in turn inspired later writers such as Henning Mankell (who wrote an introduction for the most recent UK translation of the first Beck novel Roseanna first published in 1965). And it was this element that I thought was missing in the first of the films broadcast by BBC4. I realise now that this was the last film of ‘Series 4’ from 2009. In Sweden the 90 minute films have tended to go straight to DVD with only occasional theatrical releases, though I believe the more recent films have appeared first on TV in Sweden.

The four later BBC4 screenings are of the 2015 films from Series 5. Beck is played (as in all 30 films) by Peter Haber, a veteran Swedish actor in TV and film, best known outside the country perhaps for the original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo in which he played Martin Vanger. Haber is perfectly cast as Beck, embodying the character introduced in Roseanna all those years ago. The others in the team have been ‘updated’ and Beck now leads a team of five. His right-hand man is Gunvald Larsson (Mikael Persbrandt), almost the polar opposite of Beck but also complementary – someone decisive, cool under pressure but perhaps too quick to act, even if he is often shown to be correct. The two officers who do most of the leg-work are Oscar and Jenny and at the start of the fifth series, a new member is introduced in the form of Ayda, a young ‘civilian’ brought in as a research and IT expert. Ayda might be seen as the indicator of the influence of the recent explosion of female investigators in Scandinavian crime fiction. Her character’s name (Ayda Çetin) suggests that she is from a Turkish migrant background. She speaks several languages and is clearly adept in both IT skills and police/intelligence procedures. When they first meet there is a potential clash with Gunvald (because Ayda is not a police officer) which Beck quickly attempts to avert. The script seems to be pointing towards a future narrative involving Gunvald and Ayda.

In the third film of Series 5, Oscar is developed as a character partly through the coincidence that his wife is in the final stages of pregnancy at the same time as one of the characters in the case the team is investigating. Oscar is being teased, especially by Gunvald. He is a ‘new man’ in many ways and perhaps he is a little naive but he is a reliable and competent police officer. All this comes into focus when Jenny is asked about what it is like to work on the team. She then gives her own analysis of what might happen when Beck retires and each of the others ‘moves up’ a place. She seems quite happy that she will then be third out of four and a new member will be the junior. I realised at this point that I had become much more aware of the individual characters in the team and I was getting much more out of the show. The stories too seemed to be developing much more in line with how the novels had originally worked out. I should also mention that another new character in Series 5 is the new head of the whole police operation. This is Klas Fredén and he seems a familiar character from procedurals anywhere. He’s much younger than Beck and very managerial with arrogance and a ‘touchy-feely’ manner. Significantly he is immediately shown to be completely wrong in over-ruling Gunvald – again perhaps foreshadowing future developments.

Martin Beck is a wonderful character who is gentle and understanding but still an efficient cop who doggedly sticks to his task and solves crimes through hard work rather than flashes of genius. The critique is not direct but the crimes are contextualised in terms of recognisable human behaviour and not something fantastical. I’d very much like to see more of the thirty films please BBC4. In the meantime the arrival of The Bridge 3 is eagerly awaited.

Nordic Noir TV films are discussed in Chapter 9 of The Global Film Book.

A woman in Berlin

Nelly Senff (Jšördis Triebel) and Alexej (Tristan Göšbel) have just crossed the border from East to West Berlin, with the help of Gerd (Andreas Nickl).

Nelly Senff (Jšördis Triebel) and Alexej (Tristan Göšbel) have just crossed the border from East to West Berlin, with the help of Gerd (Andreas Nickl).

The most commercially successful film set in the last years of East Germany was The Lives of Others (Germany 2006) which had an enormous international impact through a story about a Stasi surveillance operator and his ‘targets’ which used many of the conventions of the thriller. Surprisingly, however, there have been rather more films about life in the old East Germany and what it meant to think about and then to move to ‘the West’ which work as forms of melodrama, exploring the emotional lives of characters rather than first as thrillers (there have also been comedies). Mostly too these have been films about women rather than men.

It’s possible to trace the development of a group of films about female characters caught up in the emotional turmoil of Germany, and Berlin in particular, between the collapse of the Nazi regime in 1945 and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Nelly the lead character in West (Lagerfeuer, Germany 2013) is one of the most recent examples of these women. We first see her in East Berlin in 1975 in what seems like a settled domestic situation but then suddenly it’s three years later and she’s entering West Berlin as a refugee with her young son. What follows is a drama about Nelly and her conflicted emotions about being held in a refugee ‘processing centre’ – an Aufnahmelager. There is an element of the thriller in what follows since Nelly finds herself being interrogated about her past in East Berlin and in particular about her partner. Rather than being ‘moved on’ and helped to find employment, Nelly is detained. Yet the thriller element seems to be there to underpin the melodrama. Is Nelly starting to imagine the threats she perceives? Can she trust anybody? Why does her son find it easier to adapt?

West is based on a novel by Julia Franck – and is based on the author’s personal experience. The film was adapted by Heide Schwochow and directed by her son Christian Schwochow. All three of these ‘authors’ moved from East Germany to the West and we must assume a high level of authenticity in the depiction of the refugee camps. When The Lives of Others was very successful it was heavily promoted and celebrated in the US where one commentator hailed it as ‘The Best Conservative Movie’ of the last 25 years. When West opened in North America it was marketed on the back of celebrations for the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Neither film deserves to be hi-jacked in this way. The attraction of a film like West is its humanity – the way it tries to deal with the personal lives of characters caught up in an ideological conflict. When Nelly answers her interrogators’ questions about why she has come to West Berlin with the response ” . . . for personal reasons” it cuts no ice. What should she say? “I want to be free!” That would be ironic since Western intelligence agents won’t let her go until she tells them something ‘useful’.

There are moments in West when Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun come to mind – although the two women are rather different. Maria fights her way through the rubble and chaos of Berlin in 1945 to succeed in the economic miracle of the 1950s. Nelly is perhaps more akin to the trio of heroines played by Nina Hoss in the films of Christian Petzold. In Phoenix (2014) another ‘Nelly’ has plastic surgery and seeks out her husband in the ruins of Berlin in 1946. In Barbara (2012) the eponymous character is a doctor in East Germany trying to get to the West in 1980 and in Yella (2007) Ms Hoss is a woman leaving the East after unification and finding the soulless capitalism of the West is not necessarily the answer. Interestingly, this film uses questions of what is ‘real’ to underline the stress on the character who moves across the border. Finally it’s important to remember Margarethe von Trotta’s Das Versprechen (The Promise 1994) in which a young woman escapes to West Berlin in the 1960s but then meets her ex-boyfriend, a scientist who has stayed in the East, at various international gatherings over the next 20 years. The story ends with the wall coming down in 1989 but again this is not a triumphant ending – the burden of living in the divided Germany is too great for pat solutions to work. Perhaps that’s true for all refugee stories – which stay with the people concerned for the rest of their lives rather than just as fleeting news stories for the more fortunate majority.