Heal the Living (Réparer les vivants, France-Belgium 2016)

Simon (Gabin Verdet) and his girlfriend Julette (Galatéa Bellugi)

This is the third feature by the French auteur Katell Quillévéré. It’s adapted from a novel by Maylis De Kerangal and the screenplay is by the director and the highly-experienced Gilles Taurand. I’d seen and enjoyed Ms Quillévéré’s first two features, Love Like Poison (2010) and Suzanne (2013), and I was keen to see the third, although I knew it would be difficult for me to watch hospital scenes in an operating theatre (I’m very squeamish). The title is ‘bald’ in its meaning – to save lives by using the vital organs of healthy people who have died in accidents.

Simon’s parents Marianne (Emmanuelle Seigner) and Vincent (Kool Shen)

Anne Dorval as Claire, te heart’s recipient

The film is unusual in taking an emotional subject and structuring the narrative in such a way as to possibly slightly distance the audience. I have to be circumspect here since I watched the last section of the film through my fingers. In the first part of the narrative we follow three young men obsessed with surfing. They drive out to a beach near the port of Le Havre very early one morning and enjoy an exhilarating session, but as they drive back there is a tragic accident and 17 year-old Simon is seriously injured. This opening sequence is almost dialogue free and it really is a tour de force. Simon’s parents are summoned to the hospital and it is the task of Dr. Thomas Rémige (Tahar Rahim) to explain to the distraught parents that Simon is actually ‘brain dead’ and that they might consider donating his organs. Meanwhile in Paris, Claire (French-Canadian actor Anne Dorval) is told that her weak heart is failing and that she needs a transplant. I don’t think I’m spoiling the narrative to then reveal that the third and last section brings the other two strands together.

What is unusual is that Katell Quillévéré has decided to present the film almost like an observational ‘day in the life’ documentary. Although Tahar Rahim is top-billed as the ‘star’ of the film, he is only on screen for a short time. This is an ‘ensemble film’, so Quillévéré gives us a number of other characters, each of whom plays a small part in the overall story, but each of whom is in a sense ‘humanised’ in what is a highly-organised medical process. These characters include Simon’s girlfriend and the newly-appointed nurse who looks after him on the life support system, Claire’s doctor in Paris and her two grown-up sons, her ex-lover etc. and in the final section, the two junior doctors (?) who accompany the heart on its journey from Le Havre to Paris and contribute to the surgery team.

The registrar (Bouli Lanners) and the cardiologist (Tahar Rahim)

Jeanne (Monia Chokri) the nurse on the left has her own private ‘moment’ during the busy day

It is a brave move to play down all the possibilities of a family melodrama and not to invoke any genre touches in presenting such an emotional story. Reading reader’s comments on the best-selling novel that forms the source material, I learned that the film’s title comes from a line in Chekhov’s play Platonov (1878): “Bury the dead and repair the living”. The novel in French has been translated twice in English (for UK/Canada as Mend the Living and in the US as The Heart). I think the film’s English title is clever in referring to ‘healing’ rather than the more prosaic ‘mending’, although on second thoughts, ‘mend’ is quite an interesting term too. I’m intrigued that quite a few literary reviewers referred to the ‘straight to video’ or ‘movie of the week’ material of the narrative and commented on how the literary style ‘lifted’ the material. I thought of emotional drama/melodrama, but putting down such stories as implied by the comments above reeks a bit of snobbery, I think). I would have to agree, however, that it is Katell Quillévéré’s sheer skill in her staging of events and direction of her ensemble cast, all of whom are very good, that makes this such an accomplished film. Despite its ‘documentary/procedural’ feel, she also offers us at least two moments of fantasy that are beautiful to watch and work very well in the presentation of the story. The cinematography and editing are particularly good. The score is by Alexandre Desplat and it complements the editing and provides an emotional base for the narrative. The novel emphasises that all the events are contained in a 24 hour period. The film doesn’t explicitly state this (and I didn’t think about it) but there is always a sense of ‘controlled urgency’.

Heal the Living didn’t get much of a cinema distribution in the UK and even where it was available, not much of an audience. That’s a shame. I think Katell Quillévéré is a real talent. I’m not sure this is my kind of story but I was still engaged throughout and very impressed by how it is presented. If you are a fan of such stories I urge you to seek it out. (It’s on Curzon Home Cinema and no doubt other outlets.)

Fidelio – Alice’s Journey (France 2014)

Alice (Ariane Labed) is a woman in a traditionally male environment (at least as seen in films).

Alice (Ariane Labed) is a woman in a traditionally male environment (at least as seen in films).

At a time when the number of films directed by women has become a major issue in the anglophone world, it’s worth noting that in France things have moved on considerably. In a review of Mon Roi (2015) by the actor-director Maïwenn (Sight & Sound, July 2016), Ginette Vincendeau makes the point that currently over 25% of directors in France are female and that the major Paris film school Fémis now has gender parity in its student body. France offers the best opportunities for female filmmakers. However, Vincendeau goes on to point out that many of these female directors don’t necessarily share the expectations of feminist critics and audiences in terms of the films they decide to make – often auteurist works about individuals rather than social issues.

Lucie Borleteau (b. 1980) worked as an assistant to leading directors, including Claire Denis, before producing three ‘medium length’ films and then her début feature Fidelio – Alice’s Journey. She co-wrote the film with Clara Bourreau and drew on the expertise of her best friend who joined the Merchant Marine. The idea of a narrative about a woman on a large cargo vessel with a small group of men raises the possibility of a range of ‘gender issues’, but Borleteau’s work with the Greek actress Ariane Labed as Alice focuses on sexual desire and ideas about love and relationships as seen by a very self-assured and confident young woman.

Alice and her ‘journey’

Borleteau’s approach is signalled in this extract from an interview with her that is included in the film’s Press Notes:

(Interviewer) . . . the reality of people and situations, the way Alice has to constantly navigate the everyday sexism that comes with existing in a world of men was so familiar. There’s no climactic moment of overcoming anything specifically, it’s just a lived experience.

(Lucie Borleteau) Absolutely, I did not want it to be as if it’s a fight. She’s not a young mechanic, she’s 30 years old, she has experience, and nobody can say she’s not qualified. But of course, you have sex photos all over the ship, in cabins, and when they go for a port-of-call party, there are girls and all that. But that’s from what my friend told me about. In every situations, sometimes there are harder examples of sexism, and sometimes it can be quite casual. It’s good also to make films that are close to real life today. To me, films with a big climax where the character overcomes sexism are now old-fashioned.

Alice makes a clear distinction between love and monogamy. But the film is nonjudgmental.

Absolutely.” 

In Ariane Labed’s marvellous performance we see a woman who is at ease with who she is and what she wants to do. Part of that ease is expressed in her approach to lovers old and new. The film includes several scenes from Alice’s sex life, each of which is presented with an honesty and absence of coyness that fits the mood of the film.

What is Alice’s ‘journey’? The ship makes a journey which certainly has an end point. Its name is ‘Fidelio’ and this is reference to ‘fidelity’ is one of the symbolic elements in the film – as is the appearance of a poisonous snake in the bowels of the ship. In conventional terms the film’s narrative does not have the ‘closure’ of much of Hollywood. Alice doesn’t go on a ‘journey’ towards redemption or self-knowledge. Instead, the open-ending allows each of us to decide what happens next to Alice and the other characters. Audiences are likely to have different views on Alice’s behaviour and therefore on where she will go next.

When I discussed this film with an audience I was pleased to discover that most of them liked the film and agreed with the director’s statements. It struck me that in the film Alice gets to deliver dialogue that we might have heard before from male characters in a mainstream film about sexual encounters from a male point of view and this is one of the ways in which Lucie Borleteau makes a statement without being didactic. There is just one incident in which Alice is subject to a sexual assault and she deals with it in a way that seems perfectly reasonable but Borleteau shows that her actions have consequences. The narrative also gives us enough to question whether Alice’s overall approach to sex and personal relationships is as straightforward as she makes out – and as ‘pain free’. There is one scene in which Alice returns home to an extended family of sisters and this seemed like a whole new narrative strand could open up – perhaps another film?

Shipping and globalisation

It’s interesting to see a film about contemporary shipping. There are moments of almost documentary-like ‘procedure’ in the film, but mainly the globalised shipping world is represented through the ship’s crew and the communications with the (unseen) owners. Some scenes were shot on a ship sailing between Marseille and Tunisia. Interiors were mainly studio based. From a British perspective it is interesting to see the way aspects of French culture remain important on board ship and how all the ship’s officers are French even if the rest of the crew is multinational and English is often required for communication with Filipinos and other crew members. The British Merchant Marine seems to have virtually disappeared with ships registered under ‘flags of convenience’ and multinational crews. The only recent films I can recall seeing that feature merchant shipping have been French or Danish. Shipping in the globalised world is a cut-throat business and what happens to the Fidelio seems very real. I think Lucie Borleteau’s film offers us a great deal and should be more widely seen.

Fidelio is another gem from New Wave Films. Here is the trailer:

Mon Roi (France 2015)

Tony (Emanuelle Bercot) and Georgio (Vincent Cassel)

Tony (Emanuelle Bercot) and Georgio (Vincent Cassel)

StudioCanal has a habit of what strikes me as ‘dumping’ French titles on the UK market. They open in a handful of cinemas with little promotion and then go straight to DVD or online. These are sometimes titles from interesting directors or they have been hits in France but are presumably not expected to do well in the UK (e.g. La famille Bélier last year). Mon Roi is a film by actor-writer Maïwenn. Her previous film, Polisse (France 2011), won the Jury Prize at Cannes and was widely nominated for awards. It too had a relatively limited release in the UK, despite significant success in France. I was tempted to see Mon Roi at HOME in Manchester, partly because Peter Bradshaw’s Guardian review gave the film ‘One Star’ and described it as “an unendurable confection of complacent and self-admiring nonsense: shallow, narcissistic, histrionic and fake”. I’ve been agreeing with Bradshaw too often recently and this looked like an opportunity to end that run.

The ‘Roi’ in question is Georgio (Vincent Cassel) who tells his new lover Tony – Marie-Antoinette – that he is not a ‘jerk’ but ‘the King of Jerks’. The film begins in a familiar way with an accident in which Tony has a spectacular skiing accident (offscreen). We guess from various clues that the accident was at least partly her own fault, through inattention or deliberate foolhardiness. As a result of a serious injury she must spend several weeks/months at a rather nice rehabilitation centre by the sea. This gives her time to think back over the previous 10 years and her volatile relationship with Georgio. In flashback we see how they met and how the relationship developed.

Tony at at the rehab centre.

Tony at at the rehab centre.

I have to admit that there was a moment in the first half of the film when I wondered whether I could cope with watching the affair develop and then unravel. But later on I began to get more interested and overall I was pleasantly surprised. I don’t use ‘Five Star’ ratings but if I did this would be at least a Two Star and possibly a Three Star film. It certainly seems to provoke Love/Hate reactions with critics and audiences, but overall seems to score positively. Part of the interest is in the casting. Vincent Cassel plays close to his usual persona but is capable of both ramping it up and toning it down – and the latter can be quite chilling. Tony is played by Emmanuelle Bercot who I barely know of at all. Bercot is also an actor-director and she took on this challenge in the midst of directing her own films. She has the difficult task of ageing 10 years and at first I struggled to recognise the ‘younger’ woman as the same actor I saw in the rehab centre. She achieves this both through a change in her hairstyle, but also something about her eyes which I couldn’t quite figure out. Cassel has to age as well, but his features are both so well-known and so distinctive that I had no problems with his character. As I’ve often noted, films directed by women tend to have a more frank attitude towards representing sex on screen. There is certainly a lot of both Bercot and Cassel exposed on screen. They didn’t seem to have body doubles and for a pair of actors born in the late 1960s they both look in very good condition. I certainly didn’t have problems with the depiction of their sexual relationship.

Tony is a lawyer giving a public lecture watched by Georgio at the start of their relationship.

Tony is a lawyer giving a public lecture watched by Georgio at the start of their relationship.

Georgio is certainly a jerk – an arse I would call him. Tony is an independent woman, a high-flying criminal lawyer who falls deeply in love and agrees to marry and then have Georgio’s baby, both actions that will later rebound upon her. Her younger brother and sister-in-law see through Georgio, but that doesn’t mean Tony is a fool. The rows between Tony and Georgio are fierce – Bradshaw’s ‘histrionic’ perhaps – but they didn’t feel fake. I know men with some of Georgio’s traits and they seemed real to me. The final scene is in its own way chilling and Tony simply looked stunned. Bradshaw dismissed the flashback structure and all the rehab scenes but I enjoyed these. The centre seems to cater for young men with sports injuries and I thought the play with social class, gender and racial identity between Tony and the ‘lads’ was interesting.

Mon Roi feels very ‘French’. That’s perhaps a facile statement, but the film has a quality I can’t describe and it seems to go with a certain sense of humour, a perception of what is ‘cool’ and a willingness to explore the extremes of relationships. I liked all the performances and I’m struck again by just how many female filmmakers in France can get films made and into distribution compared with their British sisters. It’s a shame this hasn’t had a wider release and more discussion about the characters. Emanuelle Bercot tied with Rooney Mara (for Carol) as Best Actress at Cannes for her performance as Tony. I’m not sure I agree with that but she is certainly very good.

The Lesson (Urok, Bulgaria-Greece 2014)

Nade in her classroom.

Nade (Margita Gosheva) in her classroom.

The Lesson is another gem of of European Cinema that seems to have slipped by without too much fanfare. Well done New Wave Films for getting the film into UK theatrical distribution. It’s one of the most accomplished first features I’ve seen and notable as a directing job undertaken by a couple, Peter Valchanov and Kristina Grozeva. He is more inclined to editing and she to scriptwriting. They both directed and were together on set  – but so was their 3 year-old daughter, so they needed good communication with their crew. They were fortunate to get funding from Greece and also extra funding to finish the film for an international release from the German TV station ZDF. Even so, the film had to be made over several weeks/months as funding became available. They had a professional actor, Margita Gosheva, in the lead role of Nadezhda, but many parts were played by non-actors (often relatives or colleagues). Margita Gosheva’s husband Ivan Barnev, also an actor, plays Nade’s husband.

The story

The story is ‘torn from the headlines’ – a technique pioneered by Hollywood studios, especially Warner Bros in the 1930s. This headline referred to the desperate and surprising actions of a teacher. In The Lesson, Nade, a high school English teacher and part-time translator is faced with the kind of dilemma (finding money quickly to avoid losing the family home) that might make her consider any kind of action – and she does things that severely question her own code of ethical conduct. At the same time she is faced with a thief in her class and how to deal with the situation. The filmmakers say that the film is the first in a potential trilogy – the next will feature a railway worker who finds a large sum of money on the railway track.

The style and approach

The film is primarily a realist drama but it also includes elements of comedy (the comedy of embarrassment?) and eventually turns into a thriller narrative. The filmmakers believe that by adding these ‘popular genre’ elements they are able to make the film more, rather than less, realistic:

. . . this is very important point to us as directors and the stories that we want to tell. We want to tell dramatic stories, but with a bitter smile. For example, our previous short film, Jump, was more of a comedy with elements of drama and now it’s the opposite. It’s very important to mix these genres because for us this mix of humour and drama makes the story closer to real life.

Some reviewers have compared the style and approach to that of Ken Loach or the Dardenne Brothers. Like these filmmakers, Valchanov and Grozeva have used experience of making documentaries in their approach to making a fiction feature and they discuss using documentary methods in shooting the classroom scenes. This is also evident in the use of long shots and long takes – especially in the sequence when the rushing Nade discovers her car has run out of fuel and she takes a shortcut to catch a bus.

Loach perhaps uses more melodrama in his films – The Lesson eschews one element of melodrama by dispensing with a music soundtrack. Everything depends then on the sound design which is very good. The Dardenne Brothers do change their approach sometimes to suit the nature of the story (e.g. adding comedy or thriller elements). What is common to all three is the creation of strong characters who find themselves at the centre of events they struggle to control. Nade is in many ways like Sandra, the central character played by Marion Cotillard in the Dardenne Brothers film Two Days, One Night (2014).

The film depends on Margita Gosheva’s performance – the camera is always with her and we are forced to experience her distress while trying to get beneath her veneer of control. It’s a remarkable performance, aided, I think by mise en scène and framing. Nade’s mother has died a few years earlier and she was clearly a beautiful woman. A large portrait of her mother on the wall is often in shot, almost as if she is looking over what her daughter is up to. (Nade in turn has a small daughter who also plays a role in the set of ethical dilemmas Nade faces.

The money

It’s probably useful to know that the currency in Bulgaria is the ‘lev’, which is worth around 40p, so a 10 lev note is around £4 and at one point the hero’s whole future seems to depend on a missing 60-70p.

It’s difficult being a filmmaker in Bulgaria where around ten films are made each year and cinema attendance is only 0.7 visits per head of population. The only source of funds is the Ministry of Culture and there is still the suggestion of networks of the ‘privileged’ that existed before 1989. The film comments on both the economic crisis of 2008 and its aftermath and the possibility of corruption in a small town where those networks from the past may be re-appearing. The Lesson is a co-production with Greece and this seems a good strategy. Following the excellent Thirst (2015) at the London Film Festival last October, also by a female director, it looks like something worthwhile is happening against the odds in Bulgaria. I notice now that Ivan Barnev is in both films and that he played the lead role in Jiri Menzel’s I Served the King of England (Czech Republic/Slovakia 2006).

References

The quotes are taken from interviews and the Pressbook, obtainable via the New Wave Films website: www.newwavefilms.co.uk

Trailer

(Caution: There is a slight spoiler towards the end of the trailer)

The Golden Era (Huang jin shi dai, China-Hong Kong 2014)

Tang Wei as Xiao Hong in Golden Era

Tang Wei as Xiao Hong in Golden Era

This film was playing at the Glasgow Film Festival where I saw two other recent Chinese films, Dearest (China-HK 2014) and Red Amnesia (China 2014). I saw The Golden Era earlier at Cornerhouse in Manchester for the annual Chinese New Year treat courtesy of the Chinese Film Forum. Golden Era is a biopic, a melodrama and a very personal film by Hong Kong auteur Ann Hui (one of the case study directors in The Global Film Book). The Hong Kong entry for Foreign Language Oscar in 2015, The Golden Era did not make the final selection but this is no surprise given its length, large cast of mainly ensemble players and its lead character who is an important Chinese writer from the 1930s but not widely known outside China itself.

I usually prefer to see films ‘cold’ but in this case I think it would have been useful to have read some of the background on the narrative’s subject, Xiao Hong. This might have made it easier to understand the inter-relationships of the central characters and their movements during the turbulence in China in the 1930s. Xiao Hong was born in Manchuria close to the border with Russia in 1911 and eventually found her way to Hong Kong where she died in 1942. She tells us this in a ‘to camera’ statement at the start of the film and this is a strategy Ann Hui deploys throughout the film as different characters in the story comment on their ‘take’ on the writer and what happened to her. This is both a narrative device to disrupt the conventions of the biopic and something of a necessity because there are so many gaps in the known history of the character. This means we get some contrasting versions of what might have happened and why. The device made me think of Actress/Centre Stage (HK 1992) Stanley Kwan’s audacious film about the 1930s Shanghai film star Ruan Lingyu in which Maggie Cheung plays the star and appears as herself.

Xiao Jun  (Feng Shaofeng) and Xiao Hong (Tang Wei) the young lovers.

Xiao Jun (Feng Shaofeng) and Xiao Hong (Tang Wei) the young lovers.

The Golden Era is a complex story about a genuine rebel character. Originally named Zhang Naiying, Hong had an unhappy childhood and ran away from an arranged marriage only to find herself pregnant ‘out of wedlock’ and abandoned at 20 in a cheap hotel in Harbin. Her rescuers were from the local group of writers. She fell for one of them and the couple changed their names to Xiao. She became Hong, he became Jun. From her early beginnings as a writer Hong wrote about her feelings and about the social environment. In 1931 Japan occupied what a year later would become the puppet state of Manchukuo. Hong herself would later spend time in Tokyo where she coined the term ‘Golden Era’ to describe a special period in her own life – recognising that she had time to herself (Jun was not with her) to write and that this was what she prized most. (I found this to be a striking observation for a young woman in her twenties.) At other times she visited Shanghai and became part of semi-official Chinese literary culture. However, as the Japanese invasion of the rest of China began to take hold in 1937, she and her fellow writers began to move West, ahead of the Japanese and joining up with the Communist Party. Hong and Jun split – for several reasons. He wanted to fight, she just wanted to write. When she did eventually marry it was not for love.

It isn’t difficult to see what attracted Ann Hui to this project. She herself was born in Manchuria in 1947 and her mother was Japanese. Like Hong, she moved to Hong Kong (but as a child aged 5). For one of the most acclaimed female directors in Chinese film, Hong’s story is full of important examples of refusal to abide by the conventions that bound most Chinese women of the time – of family, of ‘romance’, of ideologies of ‘cultural work’. The role of Hong requires an actor of great presence and strength and this is a wonderful performance by Tang Wei, probably best known outside China for the lead female role in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution (China/US/Taiwan 2007). The remainder of the ensemble cast is very strong too, many are actors who seem familiar including Hao Lei as Ding Lin, another prominent female writer, but one who is a redoubtable CCP soldier.

The film appeared at major festivals including Venice (closing night film) and Toronto but it received a mixed reception. Variety called the film ‘stifling’ and ‘unilluminating’. I’m an Ann Hui fan but I confess that in the opening sequences, knowing that the film was 177 minutes, I did wonder where it was going to go and whether I’d be able to cope with so many characters. In truth I thought the second part of the film was preferable to the first. I think there are two reasons for this. One was that I began to feel more comfortable with the array of characters and secondly the film became more of a recognisable melodrama. I guess that around half the audience in Manchester were Mandarin speakers and I noticed that they laughed at one moment when I was responding to what seemed like classic melodrama. It may be that the subtitling didn’t carry a joke – or perhaps it was that the younger Chinese audience is less familiar with classic melodramas. I thought about the films of Xie Jin in particular, but was also reminded of my recent viewing of Spring In a Small Town (China 1948). In these films it is usually the woman at the centre of the story – and often it is relationships between women that really matter.

Thinking about melodrama also prompts considerations of the films problems – and potential solutions. The interior lives of writers are difficult to register on film. At the two extremes are sequences of someone writing in a room or visualisations of their ideas that might be quite spectacular. Xiao Hong’s biography does indeed comprise many scenes in rooms punctuated by dramatic events in a country mired in war (a lot of train trips, wagon rides and ferries). Melodrama at least offers us the pleasures of costume, colour, hair and make-up and this is a feature of The Golden Era. I enjoyed the cinematography of Wang Yu (Suzhou River, 24 City) and the art direction of Zhao Hai.

Reading the varied responses to the film I was struck by that of Derek Elley for Film Business Asia. He thinks that the film fails (he also refers to another recent version of the same story, Falling Flowers in 2012). Elley argues that Ann Hui is less comfortable with period films but he puts most of the blame on Tang Wei who he agues is completely miscast. I haven’t seen Ann Hui’s other period films so I can’t comment on that aspect. The Tang Wei argument is more troublesome. Elley clearly doesn’t rate her as an actress and argues she can’t hold the narrative together. I’m not sure she has to. The story is as much about the people around her and how they see her. Elley makes sharp comments. Here’s an extended quote:

Looking and acting way too modern throughout, Tang is unable even to come up with a consistent style of delivering her dialogue, wobbling between softer standard Mandarin and a hard, gutsy northern accent. She seems out of place from the start and doesn’t make Xiao Hong (for all her faults) somebody worth caring about across three hours of drama and tragedy. It’s a typically loose, unfocused performance by the 34-year-old actress that seeps out into the rest of the movie.

It’s always difficult watching a film and having to rely on subtitles and being unable to distinguish accents and dialects. But this is a common charge in many film cultures (I’m equally guilty of criticising UK and US actors for inappropriate accents). Perhaps that laughter quoted above was aimed at the delivery of the dialogue? As to the performance overall, Ann Hui is a vastly experienced and highly-celebrated director. I can’t really see her accepting the kind of performance Elley refers to. I acknowledge his comments and I agree with some of them up to a point but overall I enjoyed the film and Tang Wei’s performance. Unfortunately, like the other two films mentioned at the start of this review I don’t think that The Golden Era will be widely seen in UK cinemas. Distributors seem afraid of releasing Chinese films of any kind.

Here’s the international trailer with English subs:

And a Chinese trailer with English subs:

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.

Resources:

Official website

Facebook page

Philistine Films

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.