Spike Lee Joint 3: Four Little Girls (US 1997)

4littlegirls

Four children murdered in Alabama

I’ve been prompted by shootings of African-Americans in far too many incidents over the last few years to dig out some notes I used in 2003. The crime investigated in Four Little Girls, the Spike Lee documentary, is also alluded to in Selma, the 2014 film about Martin Luther King. I thought that Spike Lee had lost his way recently with a remake of Oldboy (which I haven’t seen but which seems to have been poorly reviewed) but BlacKkKlansman (US 2018) has confirmed that when he is on form, few American filmmakers have the same power. These notes come from an evening class screening.

Four Little Girls is perhaps a surprising film – a sober and conventional documentary from one of cinema’s angry men with a penchant for stylistically daring feature films. But the concerns of the film are in no way surprising, comprising a powerful argument for a rewriting of American history.

Spike Lee and the history of Black America

By naming his own production company ‘40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks’, Spike Lee set out his mission from his first feature, She’s Gotta Have It in 1986. The company name refers to the promise made to freed slaves at the end of the Civil War – a promise never kept that Lee wants to remind us about.

Most of Lee’s films have been about the experience of African-Americans in contemporary society. Some have been overtly ‘political’ in attempting to reassess the importance of historical figures such as Malcolm X or to validate contemporary struggles such as the ‘Million Man March’ celebrated in Get on the Bus (1996). Lee’s 2000 film Bamboozled is a calculated attempt to tell the story of racism in film and television, linking contemporary debates about African-American culture to the hidden history of exploitation stemming from the minstrel shows of the early nineteenth century. Bamboozled was also notable for its audacious use of digital video and contrasting celluloid stock (to distinguish the ‘real’ life of the performers and their ‘minstrel performances’) and its satirical take on the American television industry. By contrast, in Four Little Girls Lee takes a civil outrage and personal tragedy that happened in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963 – the firebombing of a church and the death of four little girls – and uses it to explore the embedded institutional racism that ran through American life, seemingly with impunity, before the struggles of the Civil Rights movement offered hope for a better future.

As a voice for Black America on screen, Spike Lee has been controversial not just as a director but also as cultural critic, not least in his attacks on Steven Spielberg for his ‘black’ projects, the adaptation of The Color Purple and the historical film Amistad. Lee’s anger always creates expectations about how he will tackle his own projects.

The documentary form

Lee used two of his long term collaborators, editor Sam Pollard and composer Terence Blanchard, to achieve the aesthetic he wanted for Four Little Girls. This was his first film with Ellen Kuras as cinematographer and she has since become a regular on Lee’s productions. What this group produced is a documentary film using several familiar sources – archive film footage, rostrum camera work (panning and zooming across still images) and ‘witness interviews’ with both the families of the girls and the representatives of the Birmingham authorities.

The ‘witness documentary’ gained a high profile in the United States during the 1970s and 1980s with notable films such as The Wobblies (US 1979) (about the ‘International Workers of the World’) and Rosie the Riveter (1980) exploring the experiences of women in work during World War II. The use of music and rostrum camera to recreate scenes from American history was particularly successful (i.e. critically and with audiences) in the case of the Ken Burns’ series on the Civil War broadcast on US public service television (PBS) in 1990.

American television has developed a tradition of screening prestigious documentaries ever since the ‘Direct Cinema’ films of Robert Drew and his associates such as D.A. Pennebaker and Richard Leacock in the 1960s demonstrated the attraction of ‘real’ images on the small screen. It is worth noting therefore that Four Little Girls was co-produced and distributed by the cable television giant Home Box Office. Although the film screened briefly in selected cinemas, its main impact has been via television where arguably it will have made more impact in educating Americans about their own social history.

Documentary and representations of social reality

Four Little Girls immediately raises the question – is documentary the most appropriate and effective way in which the ‘real world’ can be represented on the screen? How can documentary be used to create the drama which in Hollywood involves the general audience? Can documentary film really ‘educate’ an audience? These questions must certainly have been at the centre of the discussions between Spike Lee and Sam Pollard. The effectiveness of Four Little Girls in this respect is explored in this review:

There is a defining moment in Spike Lee and Sam Pollard’s Academy Award-nominated 4 Little Girls, a documentary about the 1963 Ku Klux Klan bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama which ended the lives of four girls. This moment provides a bridge between the legendary and near mythical status of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and the intimate and very human reality of the individual men and women who were involved in it: “When young people today ask me, ‘When are we going to be able to get together like you all were in the Sixties?’ – I tell them nobody was together in the Sixties,” says Reverend Andrew Young of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference(SCLC). “It was a small group of dedicated people who got it all started.”

For Pollard, the co-producer and editor of the film who will be present in Austin to introduce it during its Texas Documentary Tour screening this Wednesday, this represented the bridging approach that he and Lee were adamant on taking toward their subject matter. “It was important, first of all, to make sure the four girls came alive in the telling of the story. And the second thing was to make sure there was a social and political context for their existence. So we decided to use a parallel structure to tell the stories of the girls in juxtaposition to the evolution of the civil rights struggle as was specifically particular to Birmingham.”

And for a younger generation whose knowledge of the civil rights struggle comes primarily from history textbooks, this micro-analysis of the nuts and bolts of the battle-like process is a refreshing revelation, indeed. It is the storytelling strategy and its respect for the engrossing real-life events that gives the film its potency, and this reflects Pollard’s extensive bicameral experience in the film business. A filmmaker for over 25 years, he worked primarily in the documentary field (including serving as producer on the acclaimed PBS series Eyes on the Prize) before becoming Spike Lee’s editor on such narrative features such as Mo’ Better Blues, Jungle Fever, Clockers, and Girl 6. His expertise in both fields is evidenced by one particularly powerful interview with George Wallace. Using such narrative devices as jump cuts, different film stocks, and varying focal lengths, the scene cuts to the heart of the horror of George Wallace and everything he stood for in a little more than a minute of screen time. It represents a penultimate example of the fusion of high drama and documentary.

Despite the fact that they were conducted 23 years after the fact, the interviews with the four girls’ family members contain a startling immediacy. And each individual reflects back on the events with a remarkable bearing of both internal fortitude and grace that, despite all of the hate and chaotic insanity directed toward them, comes with the self-awareness of their moral certainty and rightness in the face of evil. Unlike the racist forces aligned against them, “They didn’t have a pathology,” explains Pollard. “They didn’t walk around thinking ‘We need to figure out a way to hate white people as much as they hate us.’ They understood the parameters of what their existence was all about and they figured out how to be real human beings and live and struggle within that.” Tommy Wren of the SCLC sums it up best in the film: “I used to be afraid of ‘Bull’ Connor [the malevolent Commissioner of Public Safety in Birmingham at the time who lead police attacks against marchers] until I discovered he was crazy.”

It was also the family members’ sense of moral rightness that led them to protect their story for as long as they did. Christopher McNair, father of one of the slain girls and something of the keeper of the story, had been approached many times over the years by filmmakers and authors who wanted him to lend his support and input to their projects. “Chris has a great reputation with and the respect of the community, and he was not going to have a filmmaker come there and exploit the family or their story,” says Pollard. “He finally agreed to cooperate with us and with his involvement, although there was some initial reluctance on the part of the other families, they too came around and opened up to Spike and me.” And it is our good fortune they did open up for a film that not only provides a further detailed historical account of events that still have significant relevance today (especially in light of the recent spate of bombings of African- American churches across the South), but also uncovers a gripping drama of human loss, tragedy, and redemption.

Marc Savlov, Austin Chronicle, 04-06-98

Roy Stafford, 30 January 2003

Here’s an interview with Spike Lee and journalist Howell Raines about the background to the making of the film. It’s quite long, but I hope worthwhile.

The Girl Who Kicked in the Hornet’s Nest (Luftslottet som sprängdes, Sweden/Denmark/Germany 2009)

Mikael Nykvist as ‘Kallie’ Blomkvist

(I discovered this in a pile of unpublished posts. I’m posting it now as a tribute to Mikael Nykvist who died ridiculously young (of lung cancer) at 56 in June 2017. I also note that a second ‘follow up’ title in the Millennium series by David Lagercrantz has been published in the UK and that Sony has now decided to produce an adaptation of the first Lagercrantz follow-up, The Girl in the Spider’s Web. Apparently Claire Foy is now to undertake the Lisbeth Salander role and the film comes out in a few weeks. I do wish they wouldn’t do this. I’ve read the Lagercrantz book and it’s fine but I’ve already forgotten the story. I’d prefer that the Anglo-American takeover of the Millennium series had never happened and that Stieg Larsson’s estate had stopped further exploitation. The original Nordic versions of the three central characters played by Noomi Rapace, Mikael Nykvist and Lena Endre will remain as the embodiment of Larsson’s characters for me.) 

The third instalment of the Millennium film trilogy suffered from the ‘diminishing returns’ that most film series eventually produce in terms of audience numbers. Certainly when I contemplated watching the film I felt dragged down by the knowledge that the third novel was extremely densely plotted and I’d been told that the third film was the weakest. In fact, I found it more enjoyable than the second film and possibly more interesting than the first (though of course not as thrilling to watch).

Annika Blomkvist (Annika Hallin) and Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) in court.

If you haven’t either read the trilogy or seen the first two films, much of this film may well pass you by. As was the case with the first film, the Swedish title offers a more useful clue to the way the narrative works with its reference to ‘castles in the air’ that are brought down. The first film’s Swedish title was ‘The Men Who Hate Women’ in which investigative reporter Mikael Blomkvist exposes a family of rich industrialists as fascists and violent misogynists. Lisbeth Salander is his co-investigator and her experiences during the investigation set up the second story which indeed has her central role given in the title – as the ‘girl who played with fire’. The reason for her attack on her father as a 12 year-old is revealed as the motivation she requires to seek him out. But at the end of the second book, Lisbeth has nearly been killed and she spends most of the third story in hospital recovering. The narrative effectively passes back to Mikael who, with his sister the lawyer Annika and Lisbeth’s loyal hacker contact ‘Plague’, finds the evidence that both liberates Lisbeth and exposes a whole secret network of Cold War warriors of the worst sort, first established in the 1980s without the knowledge of the Swedish government executive. Lisbeth’s ‘legal incompetence’ is one requirement of keeping the network created around her father secret.

Promoting Lisbeth, one of the great female characters of the last twenty years, ahead of the seemingly less interesting Blomkvist as an investigator is perhaps inevitable when marketing these stories. The final section of the film in which Lisbeth makes an electrifying court experience alongside Annika is a fitting climax to the story of female solidarity that is there in the novels but is to some extent sidelined in the earlier films. Blomkvist for me is not ‘uninteresting’ and he gives the Millennium series its spine and ties it back into the tradition of Swedish noir and police procedurals initiated by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö with their Martin Beck books, followed up by Henning Mankell and his Wallander novels. Mikael Blomkvist is an investigative journalist rather than a police inspector, but he has the same dogged determination to solve the crime and expose the bad guy. He’s a middle-aged and not particularly glamorous character (which is why Daniel Craig was arguably a poor casting choice in the David Fincher adaptation of the first novel in the trilogy). By bringing together ‘Martin Beck’ and ‘Pippi Longstocking’, Stieg Larsson certainly hit on a good way to attract a broad audience in Sweden. Re-reading the Martin Beck books recently, I noticed that the Swedish ‘secret service’ agency, Säkerhetspolisen, usually abbreviated as Säpo was a target for Sjöwall and Wahlöö and turns up again in the Millennium Trilogy.

With fascism on the rise again in Europe it’s important to keep Sieg Larsson’s trilogy alive as a warning. Here’s the original Swedish trailer with English subs:

 

Purple Butterfly (Zi hudie, China-France 2003)

Hui Ding (Zhang Ziyi) and Itami Hidehiko (Nakamura Toru)

MUBI has recently included several films by the Chinese auteur Lou Ye as part of its rolling monthly programme. They titled their mini-season of Lou’s films ‘Freedom and Defiance: The Cinema of Lou Ye’.  Lou Ye (born 1965) made his first features in China in 1994 and 1995, but it was not until 2000 that he became well-known internationally through the screenings of Suzhou River at international festivals. Suzhou River got a UK release and I used it for a couple of education events associated with ideas about New Wave cinema in China. I think only one of Lou’s subsequent films has even managed even a DVD release in the UK.

Suzhou River gained attention for three reasons I think. First it appeared to be a deliberate attempt to ‘play’ with the narrative ideas of Hitchcock’s Vertigo (US 1957). Second, it did so using a subjective camera and other distinctive aesthetic choices and thirdly its presentation of Shanghai as a modern ‘global city’, coupled with the first two points, led to it being seen as a good example of a ‘postmodern’ film at a time when ‘postmodernity’ as a concept was fashionable.

Lou Ye found himself in 2000 being described as a ‘Sixth Generation’ Chinese director, something which he resisted. The label has to some extent stuck though it has now dropped out of discussions about contemporary Chinese art cinema. In 2000 it generally described a group of younger Chinese ‘independent’ filmmakers, born after the Cultural Revolution who sought to make low-budget films rather than progress through work with the major state-controlled studios. Co-productions with France, Japan etc. were not uncommon as were links to TV, popular music and other ‘non-cinematic’ institutions. MUBI’s reference to ‘Freedom and Defiance’ was prompted mainly by Lou’s 2006 film Summer Palace which confronts questions about the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 and led to a Chinese ban on Lou’s films for 5 years.

Hui Ding with her Chinese resistance leader played by Feng Yuanzheng

Purple Butterfly is in some ways a companion piece to Suzhou River, again a film about a Shanghai romance with strong hints of film noir and a complex narrative structure. The film starts in Manchuria in 1928 where there is already a significant Japanese presence following victory in the Japanese-Russian War of 1895 and the subsequent control over the Southern Railway. Japan had also annexed Korea, bordering Manchuria to the east. Zhang Ziyi plays Hui Ding, a young Han Chinese working in a bookshop and learning Japanese. She has fallen in love with Itami Hidehiko (Nakamura Tôru) an older Japanese man and the couple spend blissful hours together, seemingly oblivious of the gathering tension in Manchuria. But eventually Itami is recalled to Japan.

The narrative jumps forward to 1930 and the similarly febrile atmosphere of Shanghai, the ‘global city’, a trading port where the Western nations have ‘concessions’. In the next few months Japan will fully invade Manchuria and prepare for invasion of the rest of China. In the meantime, Shanghai is awash with secret agents and resistance groups of various kinds. A young Chinese couple meeting at the railway station are mistaken for another couple and are attacked because they are believed to be carrying secret documents. The young woman (played by Li Bingbing) is killed but her partner Szeto (Ye Liu) survives and begins a search for vengeance. Hui Ding (aka ‘Cynthia’) is now in Shanghai as a member of a secret Chinese resistance group ‘Purple Butterfly’ and it won’t be long before Itami arrives in Shanghai as a Japanese secret agent.

Hui Ding and Itami Hidehiko together in a Shanghai nightclub

Given the relatively simple plot this is a surprisingly long film (128 mins) with some sharp bursts of violence as the agents of the Japanese and Chinese clash. But it is also languorous in dealing with the personal relationships and uses flashbacks, forcing the audience to piece together their understanding of the narrative flow. The big question is will Ding and Hidehiko get together again? If they do, will love triumph over commitment and patriotism? And how will Szeto view Purple Butterfly – which may have been responsible for his girlfriend’s death?

I found the film to be less successful than Suzhou River in fully engaging my attention and I was surprised by this as the background for the romance interests me a great deal. It may be that, as a film drawing heavily on film noir and stories of treachery and deceit, it fails to offer all the genre pleasures inherent in such narratives. Lou seems more interested in the look and ‘feel’ of Shanghai in the thirties than in the narrative events themselves. Ironically he ends the film with newsreel footage from the full-scale Sino-Japanese War that developed after these initial skirmishes – as if he had a wider perspective all along.

Perhaps I was spoiled by my relatively recent experience of watching The Age of Shadows (South Korea 2016) a genuine ‘resistance thriller’ by Kim Jee-woon set in Seoul in the 1920s? That film didn’t have the same level of intense ‘romance’ but it offered much more beautifully choreographed action. However, I don’t want to ignore Lou Ye’s beautiful evocation of Shanghai in 1930 or the strong central performances. Cinematographer Wang Yu (associated with Jia Zhang-ke and Ann Hui among others) offers us many close-ups in scenes with shallow focus and creates a real sense of the crowded streets of night-time Shanghai.  I wanted to watch more of the MUBI season, but as is often the case, I couldn’t find the time to complete my viewings of two other films before they disappeared.

This clip from the film has French subtitles and demonstrates the camerawork and lighting that creates the noir world of Shanghai:

Under the Tree (Undir trénu, Iceland-Poland-Denmark 2017)

Inga (Edda Björgvinsdóttir) with the ‘rude gnomes’ during the initial, low level skirmishes

At first, I was under the misapprehension that Under the Tree was a follow-up to Rams (2015), the Icelandic film that became a surprise arthouse hit in the UK in 2016. I was wrong. Under the Tree is a different writing and directing team. Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson wrote and directed the film with Huldar Breiðfjörð as co-writer.

But Iceland is a country with a small population and a small but vibrant film industry and the same lead actor, Sigurður Sigurjónsson, appears in this film and in Rams, the production context is very similar and the genre of ‘black comedy’ is exactly the same. I was bowled over by Rams which I found quite moving as well as tragic and darkly comic. I feel a little more distanced from Under the Tree and that is probably because the story idea, though ostensibly the same (warring neighbours), is presented in a more familiar setting/context.

Eybjorg (Selma Björnsdóttir) whose tan is threatened by the tree’s shadow

Two couples, Konrad and Eybjorg and the older Baldvin and Inga, are neighbours in a pair of houses in an undefined location, presumably on the outskirts of Reykjavik. Though the houses seem quite ‘modern’, Baldvin and Inga have a large tree in the front garden that casts a shadow over their neighbour’s patio. Eybjorg is a younger woman determined to sunbathe and frustrated by the shadow. This is the basis of the conflict and what ensues is similar in many ways to the classic stop-motion animation Neighbours (Canada 1952)  by Norman McLaren. Neighbours was clearly a political allegory about escalation and military conflict. I think it’s more difficult to pinpoint the purpose of Under the Tree, apart from its generic ‘pleasures’.

The film also has a secondary plot in which Atli, Baldvin and Inga’s son, offends his wife and is thrown out of their apartment (in a communal apartment block). He has to return home and begin legal action to gain access to his daughter. There is a clear parallel here between the conflict over the tree and the battle over the child. It seems in some ways that the young couple (whose behaviour I at first thought was wild and unreasonable) go about resolving their conflict in a ‘modern’ way. The parents’ behaviour is almost primitive. I should also mention that Atli had a brother who died and Inga hasn’t properly recovered from this. There might be a suggestion of a kind of psychological thriller or even horror film in Inga’s actions. ‘Missing’ children seem to be a recurring feature of the (limited) number of Icelandic narratives I’ve read.

Baldvin (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) is the only one not singing in the choir – still shocked by the escalation of the conflict

I’ve probably learned most about aspects of Icelandic culture from the crime novels of Arnaldur Indriðason and the adaptation of one of his novels Mýrin (Jar City 2006). The missing/lost children/siblings is a feature of more than one of these novels, as is the importance of choral singing. In Under the Tree there are two sequences of the male voice choir which includes Baldvin in its ranks. The exquisite sound of this choir offers a stark contrast to the ugliness of the relationships in and between the two households – all three sets of couples are at odds with each other. The choir also symbolises just what can be achieved through ‘harmony’ in a very direct way.

Konrad (Þorsteinn Bachmann) with a chainsaw. He wouldn’t, would he?

As well as the sound design which includes the choral singing, the cinematography in this film is also expressive. Polish cinematographer Monika Lenczewska manages to capture the peculiar light of an Icelandic summer with a subdued palette of colours. Somehow, her visual representation of the two houses and the streets of Reykjavik seems to conjure up an environment as bleak, in different ways, as the snowstorms of Rams. A picnic on the grass by the IKEA car park sums it up really. Under the Tree is a skilled production all round and I recommend it. But do be aware it is a very dark ‘comedy’.

The Bridges of Sarajevo (France-Bosnia-Herzogovina-Germany-Italy-Switz-Portugal-Bulgaria 2014)

An image from Sergei Loznitsa’s contribution

This compendium/portmanteau film features the work of 13 European directors who were asked to represent aspects of Sarajevo’s turbulent history. The film was completed for the centenary of the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand which triggered the First World War. Since then the city, which had been in Austrian-Hungarian control since 1978 after centuries as part of the Ottoman Empire, experienced a period as part of the Kingdom of Serbia, occupation by the Nazis who set up a puppet fascist state during the Second World War, become part of the post-war Yugoslavian Republic and then experienced the horrors of the Balkan Wars of the 1990s with a siege lasting four years. Now it is the capital of the Republic of Bosnia-Herzogovina. Each director has around 8-9 minutes to say something about Sarajevo and its story and the separate contributions are linked by an animation featuring representations of Sarajevo’s bridges.

I need to confess first that my knowledge of the history of Sarajevo over the last 100 years is not what it should be and that the wars of the 1990s left me completely bewildered (having been a supporter of Tito’s Yugoslavia as a ‘non-aligned country’ in the Cold War). Perhaps because of this, I realised that I was drawing on my understanding of Michael Winterbottom’s Welcome to Sarajevo(UK 1997) in my attempts to understand these short films. I was surprised how much I’d absorbed from the script of that film by Frank Cottrell Boyce and how many of the incidents from that film were familiar in this new film.

The thirteen directors, as indicated by the production nationalities above, come from several different countries. The four names most familiar to me directed contributions clustered together in the middle of the film. They are each quite distinctive. Jean-Luc Godard’s familiar large ‘banner’ statements in white upper case type are presented against still images and a montage of clips (I recognised at least one from Eisenstein). Similarly, Angela Schanelec shows us big close-ups of a small group of characters translating the statements of the 1914 assassin Gavrilo Princip with an un-blinking camera eye. Cristi Puiu offers us a long shot of a middle-aged couple in bed reading at Christmastime from a book which prompts the man to make several prejudicial remarks about various ethnicities and national groups in the Balkans – apparently it’s all the fault of Hungarians. The most striking visual treatment is from Sergei Loznitsa who superimposes large still photographs of combatants over street scenes from Sarajevo (both images in black and white). These superimpositions are striking and provocative – see the image at the head of this posting.

I’m not going to go through all thirteen contributions (but see below for more details). Inevitably, in a compendium film, some contributions work better than others for specific viewers – not because they are necessarily superior in terms of aesthetics, emotional impact or political sensibility, but often because of how they are juxtaposed with other contributions and how the rhythm of the overall film works for the viewer. I found some of the simpler personal stories about memory and migration and about family relationships to be not only affective in helping me to feel the impact of war, but also to remind me of the ways in which the Balkan Wars made their presence felt elsewhere in the world.

The on-screen text at the end of Leonardo Di Costanzo’s contribution. It tells us that 240,000 of the 5.9 million Italians mobilised were either imprisoned or executed for desertion, indiscipline or ‘auto-mutilation’ in an attempt to get sent home.

If you want a detailed description and an analysis of all the contributions you could try this review by Jay Weissberg in Variety. Weissberg knows a great deal about the history (or he is a very good researcher). His explanations of each contribution are helpful but I found some of his judgements made me very angry. I was particularly interested in the contribution of Italian director Leonardo Di Costanzo. His film doesn’t mention Sarajevo directly in its focus on Italian recruits fighting in the Dolomites in the Great War. It features a harassed officer forced to send out men to eliminate a sniper, who kills each one in turn. At the end of his film Di Costanzo presents some text informing us about the young men drawn into war to fight for a nation state only 70 years old. Weissberg comments: ” . . . such a didactic, straightforward approach would be better in a film made for high-school students”. What a silly statement. I’ve always found the Italian involvement in 1914 difficult to follow and I found the text helpful. The Italians fought against the Austrian-Hungarian forces and this film sits alongside the Cristi Puiu film (that Weissberg maintains is the best contribution) in identifying the nationalist rivalries which erupted in the break-up of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire which together controlled the whole of the Balkans before the rise of Serbia in the 19th century.

I think this film is available on various online sites and it is certainly worth seeing if you want to learn more about the 20th century events in the Balkans which still reverberate with meanings today.

Trailer (with French subtitles):

The Nile Hilton Incident (Sweden-Denmark-Germany 2017)

Noredin (Fares Fares) interviews the singer (Hania Amar)

The Nile Hilton Incident is an intriguing film, not only in its presentation of an exciting crime thriller in a precise location, but also as a film production which invokes a specific kind of response. In its own way it’s the perfect case study for ideas about global film.

This  film is a product of a familiar Nordic co-production set-up. It’s a Swedish-Danish production with German co-production money. The writer-director Tarik Saleh is Swedish and so is his leading man Fares Fares (who was actually born in Beirut). The female lead Mari Malek is a Sudanese refugee who spent four years in Egypt before gaining asylum status in the US and building a successful career as a DJ, model and actor. The film is photographed by Pierre Aïm, whose early success shooting La haine in 1995 marked him out as a filmmaker to watch. Much of the cast is Egyptian but also features North African actors and others from Arabic-speaking diasporas in Europe. The film’s dialogue is almost completely in Arabic and the original intention was to shoot the street scenes in Egypt. But, presumably because of the plot’s dénoument in the Tahrir Square protests of 2011 and the portrayal of State Security forces, permission was denied by the Egyptian authorities. The production was forced to transfer to Morocco with interiors shot in studios in Sweden and Germany. With all these ingredients the film might have struggled to achieve any form of coherence, let alone represent the crowded streets of Cairo. But based on my experience of watching Egyptian films and walking the streets of cities elsewhere with a similar feel, it all worked for me.

Salwa (Mari Malek), the Sudanese maid is a witness

The trick in a film like this is to manage to combine a story with universal elements and enough aspects of local culture to be convincing. One of the few ‘popular’ Egyptian films to get a UK release in recent years is Clash (Egypt-France-Germany 2016) and The Nile Hilton Incident doesn’t look out of place in such company. Police officers appear in both films but otherwise the genre frameworks are a little different. Noredin (Fares Fares) is a middle-aged police officer with a degree of seniority in a police district close to Tahrir Square in Cairo. He is shown doing  his rounds by car with a younger sidekick Momo. He accepts bribes from street traders and eventually we realise that the district is the fiefdom of Noredin’s boss (and uncle) Kammal. When Noredin is called to a murder scene he discovers the body of a glamorous nightclub singer in a Hilton hotel bedroom. The police already there don’t seem too concerned but Noredin believes the murder is the work of a professional killer.

The film’s narrative becomes familiar as soon as Noredin spots a clue and begins to pursue it. It will lead him eventually to another singer and to a seemingly respectable politician. He will also recognise that the hotel maid is a crucial witness. Noredin himself is a sad figure and he operates as a kind of modern Chandleresque investigator. He’s no white knight and his sense of honour is compromised by his acceptance of baksheesh, but he’s still our hero and we want him to come out on top even though he makes plenty of mistakes. Noredin could also be a Jo Nesbø character or any one of the police investigators across the world who try to deal with celebrities and politicians and find that their bosses don’t always support them. The maid is Salwa, a Sudanese worker whose status could be easily undermined. This character and her narrative importance again situates the film in line with Nordic noirs – the asylum seekers who shouldn’t be working (as maids or trafficked as prostitutes) and who won’t usually co-operate with police because of fear of deportation. In this sense Cairo is a city with an élite who need an ‘invisible army’ of illegals to keep them in comfort – as in most major Western cities.

Trouble in the streets.

In the final section the narrative becomes more specifically ‘Egyptian’ when it involves demonstrations in Tahrir Square. The trouble erupts on Egypt’s National ‘Police Day’, the starting point for the Egyptian version of the ‘Arab Spring’. The other scene that intrigued me is when Noredin visits his contact, the Lebanese singer, in a nightclub. While this is another familiar element in a US/UK/French etc. film noir, it is also an element in Egyptian films in which any excuse for a song or dance performance is usually taken, especially that of a Lebanese singer who is a beautiful woman. I’m sure Tarik Saleh wants his film to be shown in Egypt. Given the shooting ban this seems unlikely, but perhaps audiences will still find it via streaming services, satellites etc. I have no idea how the film would fare in Egypt – would the mix of Arabic dialects be a problem? Outside Egypt any audience with a love of film noir should enjoy the film immensely.

Here’s the UK trailer:

Gholam (UK-Iran 2017)

Surreal lighting is used in this promotional image for Gholam

This unusual film places a major Iranian star actor, known in the West for three leading roles in the films of Asghar Farhadi, into a downbeat slow-paced thriller set in parts of North London. The director is Mitra Tabrizian, Professor of Photography at the University of Westminster whose 2005 exhibition ‘Border’ appears to have been the starting point for a script written with Cyrus Massoudi. The film was a first feature for both Tabrizian and Massoudi. The impressive cinematography is by South African DoP Dewald Aukema (who photographed Skin (UK-RSA 2008), one of the most viewed posts on this blog). Overall, the film is very impressive, although it is oddly let down by barely visible subtitling (a thin white typeface), sometimes lost against white backgrounds. The two main languages are English and Farsi.

The dismal bedsit where Gholam (Shahab Hosseini) spends his brief leisure time

Shahab Hosseini plays the eponymous central character, a forty-something Iranian living in a dingy bedsit in what I take to be North East London, possibly Hackney/Dalston? Gholam drives a taxi by night and works in a very quiet garage for an older Iranian migrant by day. He has an uncle who runs a Persian cafe locally and he is subject to telephone calls from his mother in Tehran, wanting him to return home. There isn’t a great deal of plot, but a double narrative develops when Gholam is recognised by another Iranian as someone who was something of a hero as a teenage ‘warrior’, presumably in the Iran-Iraq War during the 1980s. Now he refuses to countenance helping in some form of covert activity (the narrative is actually set in 2011 during various forms of unrest in the Middle East). At the same time he has an altercation with three young white thugs who refuse to pay after travelling in his taxi. Throughout the film, Gholam seems disturbed and his mood seems to pervade the whole film. Here is a man who seems mired in his own despondency, unsure of what he wants to do and especially whether to return to Iran (we don’t know if he is a refugee or what his residency status in the UK might be). Despite this there are strangers (other migrants) who offer him kind words in shops or food stalls. He also meets and befriends a much older African-Caribbean woman (played by the veteran of many UK films and TV programmes, Corinne Skinner-Carter) and her chirpy neighbour played by Tracie Bennett a Lancastrian actor I haven’t seen for quite a while. These friendships seem positive but they have links to Gholam’s eventual fate.

I’m not sure what to make of this film. The performances are all strong and I should mention Gholam’s young cousin Arash (played by British-Iranian actor Armin Karima) who has embraced skate-boarding and rap, but still admires his older relative. As might be expected, Tabrizian has a strong feel for her migrant community characters and the London streets. There were moments when I thought about Rachid Bouchareb’s London River (2009) and Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things (2002), both set in similar London migrant communities with that sense of the ‘invisible workers’ driving taxis, cleaning hotels and offices etc. – or running food stalls and social clubs. The Iranian migrant in Europe is also featured in Asghar Farhadi’s The Past (2013) set in Paris and The Charmer (Denmark-Sweden 2017) by Milad Alami and set in Copenhagen. Gholam seems the most austere of all these films and it does need Shahab Hosseini’s commanding performance to sustain our interest. However, the thriller aspect takes over in the last section.

The setting of the garage seems to be inspired by this original image taken from the ‘Border’ exhibition by Mitra Tabrizian in 2005.

I’m surprised and also disappointed with my own lack of knowledge about Mitra Tabrizian. When I found her website, which lists the various projects and academic partnerships she has initiated or been part of since the 1980s, I realised that I certainly should have known this history. The film is dedicated to the memory of Stuart Hall and Jules Wright (who was a major figure in theatre and the art world, latterly as director of the Wapping Project). Tabrizian herself is an important link between Iranian and Western art practice in cinema and photography. Her collaborators on Gholam are drawn from a wide range of backgrounds and she similarly elicited support from the wider arts community in London. This makes the film distinctive but also means that it feels caught somewhere between a kind of downbeat neo-realist thriller and the kind of essay film that might be produced by someone like John Akomfrah. Tabrizian’s visual eye is complemented by the use of Iranian music on record and by tabla and oud music at various points. Distributed by Miracle Films, Gholam has received some good reviews and I would certainly recommend it. Its actual cinema appearances are likely to be only odd dates in sometimes out of the way places (see the official website for planned screenings) and VOD may be your best bet to catch it. It is currently playing on MUBI in the UK. Here’s the trailer: