Hotel Salvation (Mukti Bhawan, India (Hindi) 2017)

Rajiv and family take a trip along the Ganges in Varanasi. Daya is with one of his new friends and his granddaughter Sunita. Rajiv and his wife Lata seem somewhere else.

Hotel Salvation is the latest Indian Independent film to successfully tour film festivals worldwide and now receive a limited general release in the UK. It was first launched at the Venice Film Festival last year. Its young (25 year-old) writer-director Shubhashish Bhutiani had already won prizes with Kesh (2013), his thesis film short from New York School of Visual Arts which also first screened at Venice, winning two awards. His début feature feels tonally similar to Court (2014) and seems to have followed a similar distribution pattern. It also shares one of the lead actors from Court, Geetanjali Kulkarni, who plays Lata, the wife of the central character, Rajiv (Adil Hussain). Rajiv is a hard-working family man with a student daughter living somewhere in Uttar Pradesh. His 77 year-old father Daya (Lalit Behl) lives with the family and one day he announces that his death is imminent and that he wants to die seeking salvation in the holy city of Benares (Varanasi). He expects his son to take him to Varanasi for his last few days. That’s the outline of the plot. When I saw the film at a preview a few weeks ago, the flyer promoting it from the distributor, the British Film Institute, gave a wholly misleading reference, quoting critics who likened it to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (UK/US 2011). I have nothing against that film, but Hotel Salvation is quite different and the reference simply shows the problems Indian films face with such ignorance from mainstream critics. The BFI now seems to have withdrawn the flyer, probably after so many negative reactions.

Rajiv (Adil Hussain) and his father Daya (Lalit Behl) arrive at the hotel.

Shubhashish Bhutiani had the idea for the film when he discovered the existence of the Varanasi ‘Mukti Bhawans’ or ‘Salvation Hotels’ – modest hostels which allow a dying person to stay for a maximum 15 days. If they have not died in that time they must move out – but some just re-admit themselves under a different name. The hostel has a priest on hand and access to all the necessary services. Varanasi is still well-known for its ghats – the stepped embankments that lead down to the Ganges, some of which are regularly used for cremations and pujas (religious rituals). However, the numbers are now restricted because of fears of pollution. Daya avails himself of what is on offer and makes a number of friends in his first fortnight while Rajiv grows increasingly frustrated, linked via his mobile to a boss who keeps asking him when he is returning. Later both his wife and daughter will come to visit with their own concerns and Bhutiani has said:

“What this film does is that it looks at the same incident from the eyes of three different generations. It is also reflective of present-day India when a section is busy consolidating cultural and traditional mores while there is a set of people wanting development and liberalism. In between, there is a struggle between the East and West and the issue of cultural dilution with internet telling us what people are eating and wearing in different parts of the world. Things like what is organic food?” (The Hindu, 18 April 2017, Interview by Anuj Kumar)

Bhutiani is a sophisticated young man, born in Kolkata, schooled in Uttarakhand and then New York but also familiar with his mother’s family background in Rajasthan. He states his identity as Indian but his perspective as global. It’s not surprising then that his film has a global appeal not unlike the films of Satyajit Ray, but, also like Ray, rooted in ‘real’ local traditions and cultures. Hotel Salvation is a gentle film, sometimes quite humorous and overall very affecting as we see the family individually learning about themselves and their relationships and eventually coming together. Adil Hussain is the most experienced actor in the film while Lalit Behl has just the one other role in Titli (India 2014). Interestingly, the theatre actor Hussain has complained that he has been ‘underexploited’ in films, including this one: “I want to get rid of this realistic acting for some time. I want to fly, and the stage is one place where I am allowed to fly”. (The Indian Express, 7 May, 2017). But it is precisely the realist representation which works so well here. The situation creates the drama and the actors express the emotion. I look forward to the future films of Shubhashish Bhutiani, a young man with lots of promise. I also liked the music by Tajdar Junaid and the cinematography by two Americans (?) who I’m guessing Bhutiani knows from New York.

The Golden Dream (La jaula de oro, Mexico-Spain 2013)

(from left) Juan (Brandon López), Sara (Karen Martinez) and Chauk (Rodolfo Domínguez) in THE GOLDEN DREAM

(from left) Juan (Brandon López), Sara (Karen Martinez) and Chauk (Rodolfo Domínguez) in THE GOLDEN DREAM

This terrific film comes to us with a glowing recommendation from Ken Loach. Its writer-director Diego Quemada-Díez began as a camera assistant on Loach’s Spanish-set Land and Freedom (1995). His work in different roles in the camera department has featured in two further Loach productions plus films by Spike Lee, Alejandro Inarittu and Fernando Mireilles among others. What he has learned from close contact with these leading directors is evident in this his first feature-length film.

‘The Golden Dream’ is about America, though the direct translation of the film’s title is the Golden – or ‘Gilded’ – Cage and it may refer back to a well-known Mexican song and later film about migration to the US. The current film has been described as a ‘poetic road movie’, though it is for much of the time a (freight) train movie. It takes three teenagers on a journey from Guatemala into Mexico where they attract a fourth traveller a young ‘Indian’ in Chiapas. The group includes a confident young man who makes himself leader and a similarly confident young woman who binds her breasts and cuts her hair to pass as a boy. After a setback, one of the original trio heads home but the others continue ‘jumping’ freight trains that they hope will take them all the way north to the American border and eventually to Los Angeles. Inevitably they will have adventures, suffer great losses and learn things about themselves. I don’t want to spoil enjoyment of the narrative so I’ll simply say that not all of them get to America and the other adjective to go with ‘poetic’ used in the synopsis is ‘severe’.

The poetry is in the images. This is a photographer’s film in the sense that meaning is carried more by the images than the dialogue. It’s not that I remember many specific images as such (even though many are striking), just that the story seems to flow so smoothly. The credited cinematographer is María Secco.

The three teenage leads are very good indeed (none have film experience as such, but all are ‘performers’ in some form of community arts) and the story is not romantic or sentimental. The travellers experience both the warmth and solidarity of the rails – and the violence and duplicity of those who prey on them as migrants. I enjoyed the musical performances in the film as well – these add to the quasi-documentary feel and the chief lesson learned from Loach is the strategy of filming the story ‘in sequence’ and briefing the cast only about the events of the day’s shoot in advance so that the actions/re-actions feel natural rather than ‘performed’.

Peccadillo Pictures distributes the film in the UK. It’s certainly worth seeing on a big screen if you can find it:

This film would make a very good companion piece to Y tu mamá también (Mexico/US 2001), a rather different form of ‘road movie’ discussed in some detail in Chapter 3 of The Global Film Book.

That Girl in Yellow Boots (India 2010)

Kalki Koechlin and Naseeruddin Shah in THAT GIRL IN YELLOW BOOTS

Kalki Koechlin and Naseeruddin Shah in THAT GIRL IN YELLOW BOOTS

That Girl in Yellow Boots seems to me very much a ‘gamechanger’ movie. It isn’t perfect and in the final scenes there was a moment when it didn’t seem to work, but overall I was riveted by this glimpse into an Indian world that I haven’t seen before on screen. I was a little taken aback by some of the very negative reviews, but heartened by the equally positive ones.

Anurag Kashyap has been called the ‘Godfather of Indian Independent Cinema’ and this film, which he directed from a script he co-wrote with his partner Kalki Koechlin (the ‘girl’ of the title), is certainly a good example of what an Indian ‘independent film’ might be. Koechlin is herself an Indian woman born to French parents who were then living in Ootacamund in Tamil Nadu. Educated in a school following the British system and subsequently at Goldsmiths, University of London she speaks French, English, Tamil and now Hindi. She plays the central character of Ruth – a British young woman who has come to India to find her father, ‘Arjun Patel’, who left the family’s home in the UK when she was a baby. He’s written her a letter but he doesn’t seem to want to be found. As a tourist, Ruth is struggling to get a visa to allow her to stay and in the meantime she earns money illegally as a masseuse in Mumbai, offering what she euphemistically describes as ‘handshakes’ for an extra Rs1,000. She appears to have a live-in boyfriend with a coke habit and she has hired a private detective to look for her father.

The narrative of the film is, to be honest, quite sketchy. Ruth seems trapped in a circuit between the visa office, her apartment, the massage parlour and meetings with people who might be able to help her – including trips to Pune where she is pursuing a possible connection in an ashram. At one point a gangster from Karnataka turns up searching for money that her boyfriend owes. Much more important than the story, for me at least, is the presentation of this world. Kashyap has said that he was inspired to become a filmmaker after seeing Bicycle Thieves and he has worked with Michael Winterbottom and has in turn inspired Danny Boyle. His work on Trishna with Winterbottom was after he made this film, but I’m wondering if he’d already seen Winterbottom’s A Mighty Heart (partly shot in Pune) and some of his British films. There are a couple of shots of Koechlin moving through Mumbai streets that reminded me of Gina McKee walking through London’s Soho in Winterbottom’s Wonderland (UK 1999). Winterbottom was in turn influenced by Wong Kar-wai’s films such as Fallen Angels (HK 1996).

Koechlin herself is wonderful, whether she is on her own, trading lines with a ‘parallel cinema‘ great like Naseeruddin Shah, or sparring with one of the much less experienced talents on show. The opening scenes are terrific (Koechlin is reported to have written these herself). If you’ve never been a tourist in India, these scenes give an accurate representation of waiting for Indian bureaucracy at work, but what they really offer is a sense of what it might feel like to be a young woman with white skin who speaks a little Hindi and who is vulnerable in the face of police and visa controls.

As in Kashyap’s other films that I’ve seen, the music is very good. The sources of music material seem to range over several genres and regions. Kashyap also seems to employ the same cinematographer on most of his films – FTII graduate Rajeev Ravi. Extravagant camerawork is common in Bollywood but this is controlled and uses locations very well. It’s amazing to think that the entire film was shot in 13 days.

The Lunchbox (India/Germany/France/US 2013)

Nimrat Kaur as Ila, choosing the food for her mouthwatering meals

Nimrat Kaur as Ila, choosing the food for her mouthwatering meals

After a second viewing, my thoughts about The Lunchbox are beginning to crystallise. This is an Indian cultural product which ‘reads’ in some ways (primarily its cinematography and editing) like an American Independent or an international festival film. As one of my regular viewing colleagues said to me, it’s difficult to make out who the audience is intended to be. But it doesn’t seem to matter. The film has been a hit in India and in overseas markets. The narrative is ‘universal’ enough to enable UK audiences outside the South Asian diaspora to enjoy the film without ‘getting’ all the cultural references. Presumably the Indian audiences have become so used to American films that they find the presentation familiar. But there are critics, in India and in the West, who want to argue against The Lunchbox. I’ll explore some of these below, but first I’ll discuss the film as I read it.

The origins of the film are in writer-director Ritesh Batra’s preparations for a documentary about Bombay’s dabbawallahs – the 5,000 strong network of carriers who transport a home-cooked meal to office workers in the city each day. Batra told The Hollywood Reporter that he became more interested in the people at either end of the process, the woman at home and the man at work, and therefore constructed a fictional narrative around the “1 in a million” chance that a meal could be delivered to the wrong person. The two people involved in this mix-up don’t know each other. Ila (Nimrat Kaur) is a wife trapped in what appears as a loveless marriage and who is trying to attract her husband’s interest by making the best meals she can for his lunch. But the lunches are going to Saajan (Irrfan Khan), a widower who is considering retirement from his job in a government claims department. Saajan is used to the mundane food that arrives from a contract restaurant and Ila’s meals are a revelation. When the mix-up continues the two, recognising what has happened, begin to correspond and thus begin a tentative epistolary romance.

Batra tells us in the film’s Press Pack that Ila and Saajan are both ‘prisoners’. She lives in a middle class Hindu enclave with little contact with the world outside apart from through her small daughter and an older woman upstairs who we never see, but whose instructions and ingredients improve Ila’s cooking skills. Saajan lives in an old Christian district in Bombay – his family name Fernandes hints at a possible Portuguese heritage long ago. It was only on a second viewing that I noticed the print of the Last Supper on the wall behind the dining table of the family in the house opposite Saajan’s verandah. He is not a very friendly neighbour but he envies something about the lives of the local families, whose children play cricket in front of his house. Batra suggests that Saajan is trapped in the past. Eventually Ila and Saajan will find something in common in nostalgia for the Bombay of the 1980s and for the television serials and filmi music of the time.

Saajan (Irrfan Khan) inhales the aroma of his dabba.

Saajan (Irrfan Khan) inhales the aroma of his dabba.

Ila also has her mother in another part of the city who is caring for her sick husband, Ila’s father. The key third role in the film, however, is Shaikh, the younger man who is earmarked to replace Saajan. Shaikh is played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui and is, I think, misunderstood as a character by many Western reviewers. It’s a difficult role to play and Batra went out of his way to cast Siddiqui, arguably the current hot star of independent Indian cinema. Shaikh is a Bombay ‘survivor’, an orphan who has had to fight to make his way in the world. He appears as annoying, almost obsequious in his approach to Sajaan. Part of this is his display of exaggerated mannerisms and speech. (Saajan routinely speaks English at work but Shaikh, like Ila, mainly speaks in Hindi – I wish I could tell if any of the characters speak in Marathi.) Siddiqui is also quite short and the contrast when he stands next to the tall Irrfan Khan is marked. It is important to the narrative that we recognise that Shaikh is annoying – but also that he is genuine in his attempt to better himself and provide for his (future) family. He may lie about his background to help his advancement but his persistence finally begins to break down some of Saajan’s defences against the world. In short, Shaikh helps to humanise Saajan. Although we never see her, Mrs Deshpande, the ‘woman upstairs’ has a similar impact on Ila, though in a very different way.

Shaikh (Nawuzuddin Siddiqui) and Saajan in their finery at the former's wedding

Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) and Saajan in their finery at the former’s wedding

My worry that the Western audience may not pick up all the cultural clues is based simply on my own experience. On first viewing, I sometimes found myself losing the narrative thread, partly because I was trying to think about aspects of the plot and therefore didn’t concentrate on the detail of what was happening on screen. It was only after I read the press notes and interviews and then watched the film again that it all made sense. Now the narrative seems straightforward. So why did I have problems? I did find Irrfan Khan’s accent for the English dialogue difficult to follow sometimes. I was also confused by some of the many journeys across the city – in buses, taxis, trains, tuk-tuks and Shaikh’s scooter. It certainly isn’t clear to the casual viewer that the three leading characters live in quite different districts, connoting social class, religion etc. Much of the cinematography covering these journeys uses a documentary approach and perhaps the film needs some conventional narrative devices to make these sociological distinctions clear? (Station names? Discussion of districts as places to live?) I certainly stumbled over one destination – Nasik. This is, I think, the third largest city in Maharashtra after Mumbai and Pune. No doubt less stressful than Mumbai, I’m still not clear why it is a place that Saajan might retire to. The confusion over journeys and destinations means that the film’s ending is ‘open’. I’ve seen some US reviews refer to a ‘feelgood movie’. I think that the film is certainly more optimistic than pessimistic about what might happen to the characters but I think the lack of a clear narrative resolution works against the usual meaning of ‘feelgood’ (a term I don’t like very much).

There is cricket in the film and plenty of train travel, but what about music? Music plays an important narrative role at two points, once with a reference to a particular song from a 1991 Hindi film and again in a more documentary style with the singing of a group of dabbawallahs. So the Indian cultural content remains but not the conventions of Indian popular cinema.

The Lunchbox was ‘launched’ successfully at Cannes in 2013 as part of the general celebration of Indian cinema. Crucially, it was then picked up for international distribution by Sony Classics. This meant that there was a marketing push across North America and subsequently in other territories where Sony sold on the rights to high-profile specialised cinema distributors. Indian films targeting diaspora audiences in the UK (and I assume other territories) are usually distributed by the UK offices of major Bollywood companies. They don’t therefore get discussed in mainstream UK media or placed before audiences outside the diaspora in specialised cinemas. The last significant release of an Indian independent film in the UK was Gangs of Wasseypur, but the distributor Mara Pictures, which describes itself as a ’boutique distributor’, did not have the muscle to promote its release properly. The Lunchbox has the backing of the UK’s premier specialised cinema brand Artificial Eye/Curzon. That has made a big difference to its chances of being seen.

So, what does it all mean? And how has the film been received? The best review of the film I’ve found is from the Indian critic Baradwaj Rangan. I read this review after I’d written the comments above and I agree with it 100%, especially the praise for Siddiqui and the analysis of the open-ended narrative. Most of the other reviews aim for a relatively simple acceptance of the pleasures of what is indeed a well-made film with quality performances (I was very impressed by Nimrat Kaur and Irrfan Khan is always worth watching). However, it is a first feature and it isn’t necessarily the ‘best’ of the new independent Indian cinema. It is clearly linked to the work of diaspora filmmakers such as Mira Nair but it is more of a chamber-piece than The Namesake with Irrfan Khan and Tabu. As an ‘opening up’ of the debates which the film has started, I recommend this ‘Minority View’ on Dear Cinema from  MK Raghavendra. I don’t agree with everything in his review but what he writes (and the comments he attracts) put the film nicely in perspective. One interesting question is how the director presents ‘nostalgia’ for Bombay in the 1980s and when the narrative is meant to be set. I haven’t been in the city since the 1980s and apart from the increase in traffic and the new cars it looked much the same as I remembered it. Sajaan’s office is piled high in papers with barely a computer in sight. I don’t remember seeing many mobile phones in use. These technologies are mentioned in the film and Ila’s no-good husband fiddles on his phone when he should be talking to her. But Raghavendra asks the reasonable question, why did Batra not allow his two leads to use mobiles? I think there are phone calls at various points but it is a good question. Would it present a problem for the script? (The negative comments on the film tend to blame the weakness of the script.) I did feel that watching Saajan trying to track down Ila by asking the dabbawallahs was rather like watching the father search for his bicycle in Bicycle Thieves. These might seem like trivial points but The Lunchbox, as the significant ‘breakout film’ for Indian independent cinema carries a burden of expectation. I think Raghavendra is partially justified in seeing the film as not being quite sure what it wants to be, caught between an observational documentary style and a rather contrived romance narrative structure.

The real danger is that Western critics will leap on the film as an example of the ‘real India’ – or the ‘real Indian cinema’ without the nuanced perspective the film requires. I’m saddened that this seems to have happened at Sight and Sound, the UK’s film journal ‘of record’. At least The Lunchbox got reviewed when most Indian films on release in the UK don’t (so much for recording UK releases). It’s good that the review went to someone other than the regular reviewer of Indian cinema but unfortunate that the person chosen either knows little about Indian cinema or simply chose to treat the film as a festival film on the American independent model. The review compares the film at one point with Slumdog Millionaire and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in terms of representing “contemporary Indian middle-class urban life”!

I hope now to see more recent Indian cinema and to return to The Lunchbox for some further thoughts a little later.

Nairobi Half Life (Kenya-Germany 2012)

Mwas (Joseph Waimiru) bewildered when he first arrives in Nairobi.

Mwas (Joseph Wairimu) – bewildered when he first arrives in Nairobi.

Kenya has the largest economy in East Africa and like Nigeria and South Africa it has a legacy of anglophone film culture from the British colonial period. Contemporary Kenya has managed to retain cinemas in Nairobi and Mombasa but unlike the other two countries it has so far not managed to export films for the international market even though a range of films are made locally. In 2013 two Kenyan titles were screened as part of Bristol’s African Film Festival, Afrika Eye in the UK. Nairobi Half-Life and Something Necessary (Kenya 2013) were well-received and have now begun a tour of UK venues. Nairobi Half Life was also an official Kenyan entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar in 2014, although it failed to make the shortlist.

In the past, Kenya was too often simply the ‘backdrop’ for adventure stories made by British or American producers. A good recentish example would be The Constant Gardener (UK-US-Germany 2005) which featured scenes set in the enormous shanty town of Kibera on the edge of Nairobi. Though this film had elements of ‘authenticity’ in its imagery (as might be expected from Fernando Meirelles,  the co-director of City of God) it was not really an African story. The two films screened at Afrika Eye were both made under the aegis of a partnership between German director Tom Tykwer’s One Fine Day production company and a local Kenyan company, Ginger Ink. What this meant in practice was that a local story and script was produced by a Kenyan creative team and Kenyan actors but aspects of post production were carried out in Germany and Tykwer and cinematographer Christian Almesberger were ‘supervisors’ of direction and camerawork. The music was scored by Xaver Von Treyer who worked closely with musicians in Nairobi (listen to a sample track here).

I should start my comments on the film by saying how much I enjoyed watching (and listening to) it. The performances of the leads are very good, the camerawork and editing, alongside the music, present all the vibrancy of city life and the narrative of what is a familiar genre film works well. The film was directed by David ‘Tosh’ Gitonga (who had been an assistant director on The First Grader (UK-US-Kenya 2010)).

The central character is Mwas (Joseph Wairimu), a young man desperate to leave his village and make it as an actor in the big city. What follows is a familiar story of the country boy landing in the city, suffering setbacks and falling in with a street gang. But Mwas really is a talented performer and he finds himself accepting an acting role in a local theatre group’s production at the same time that his new friends begin to escalate the scale of their criminal activities – partly, and largely unwittingly, because of actions begun by Mwas. It is this ‘double life’ for Mwas that creates his sense of ‘half life’. He can’t properly enjoy the new experience of acting (and meeting educated and sophisticated young people) when he is still committed to the street gang people who ‘rescued’ him.

My initial reaction to the film was that much as I enjoyed and admired it, I did have the feeling that there were two styles/two approaches in evidence that didn’t quite gell. In one sense of course this reflects the ‘half life’ for Mwas but I think that there is a more fundamental issue here about the ‘supervision’/mentoring by Europeans. No matter how well-intentioned (and well-thought through) the project, there is a sense of a hybrid film being produced. I was reminded of Metro Manila which has a similar narrative and genre mix. As in that film, the dialogue in Nairobi Half Life is mostly spoken in a local language, first Kikuyu in the village and the Swahili in the city. English words creep into Swahili much as they do in any modern urban language, but the crucial moment comes when Mwas meets actors who use English regularly (Swahili and English are the two official languages of Kenya). These meetings emphasise the social class differences in a society in which there is a relatively wealthy minority and a significant problem of rural poverty fuelling the drift to the city. I’m really skirting around the issue of ‘authenticity’ here. Nairobi Half Life tells a genuine African story but it does feel like an almost universal crime genre film with a realist style – and a conventional genre resolution to the narrative. It might be worth making a comparison with the gangster picture from the Congo, Viva Riva and the Canadian-directed War Witch (Rebelle) which both share some elements.

African filmmakers are faced with three choices in developing their own approaches. The first, evident from the early 1960s, was to accept training abroad and return to Africa to make films which attempted to offer an alternative to Hollywood/European models. The second is to take the overseas training but to then embrace genre models familiar from Hollywood and other commercial cinemas. The third is to stay home and try something rooted firmly in local culture – the Nigerian video film approach. I suspect that there are Kenyan variations on Nollywood and it would be interesting to see what they look like.

There are several interesting resources which give background on the production of Nairobi Half Life. This article from John Bailey and the American Academy’s outreach programme on cinematography visits Kenya and looks at classes of aspiring cinematographers linked to the Nairobi Half Life project. The film has its own Facebook page and One Fine Day Productions has details of its African workshops. Reviews of Nairobi Half Life have generally been very good, like this one. There are some others more critical, like this one.

Here is a One Fine Day Workshop documentary showing how the Kenyan project works in practice:

Stories We Tell (Canada 2012)

Sarah Polley (right) with cinematographer Iris Ng. Image from National Film Board of Canada, Ken Woroner.

Sarah Polley (right) with cinematographer Iris Ng. Image from National Film Board of Canada, Ken Woroner.

I was very much looking forward to Sarah Polley’s film. I hoped that I would enjoy it and I did – very much. This is a wonderful film in many different ways. A great deal has been written about the film and so I’m wary of spoilers. Having said that I found that the ‘twist’ in the final frames that I’d heard about didn’t seem very surprising after what had gone before. It’s very difficult to say anything about the film’s formal qualities and its overall approach without a SPOILER about how scenes are presented. So if you want to see the film ‘unprepared’, read no further until you’ve seen it all the way through.

At one point in the film Sarah Polley is interviewing her brother and he suddenly stops and says “what is this film about?” (in that Toronto accent that I can’t work out how to write down). Polley hesitates for a moment and then says that it is about many things – and indeed it is. It’s produced by the National Film Board of Canada, famous for the quality and range of its documentary projects. This ‘project’ started in 2007/8 and has had a long time in preparation, shooting and editing during which time Sarah Polley an actress and filmmaker best known for fiction material joined a documentary filmmakers ‘lab’ and was mentored by, amongst others, Wim Wenders.

Ostensibly Polley’s film is a story about the Polley family from roughly 1967 to the present day. It begins as a story told by Michael Polley, Sarah’s father, literally by him reading a narration, presumably based on his own memoir, in a recording studio under his daughter’s watchful eye (and being asked to repeat lines – she’s a perfectionist). But gradually a cast of characters appears, commenting on aspects of the story and in particular on their memories of the only missing family member, Sarah’s mother Diane who died when Sarah was only 11. Eventually too, the story will change its focus to become not just an investigation of the mystery of who Diane was and what she did, but also the truth behind a long-standing family joke that Sarah doesn’t resemble her father.

It did occur to me at one point that this was at least associated with a Rashomon type of narrative – the same story as seen by different witnesses. As similar questions are asked of a group of interviewees, they give similar and sometimes one-word answers. Polley cuts them together in a staccato montage – just as one of the interviewees predicted she would. Now if all the answers to all the questions were the same it wouldn’t be at all like Rashomon, but in fact they do differ slightly at first and then much more as the narrative develops. This is sophisticated filmmaking.

Sarah Polley with the Super 8 camera in one of the interview locations (love the cat).

Sarah Polley with the Super 8 camera in one of the interview locations (love the cat).

At the beginning of the film, Polley ‘exposes’ the artificiality of the interview process. We see the cameras, lights, microphones etc. and hear the embarrassed asides of some of the interviewees. But in the closing sequences of the film, when Polley returns to showing some of these distancing devices, we realise that the layers of meaning and the artifice of constructed documentary realism is much more subtle than we had imagined. We know now that one of the things the film is ‘about’ is documentary itself as a narrative form. The most obvious instance of this – which has certainly ‘shocked’/puzzled audiences – is that Polley has interwoven ‘real’ home movie Super 8 footage of the Polley family with ‘staged’ scenes similarly shot on Super 8 in which actors play the principal ‘characters’ in important scenes set back in the 1970s and 80s. The actors are very carefully chosen and no indication is given as to which footage is ‘real’ and which is ‘reconstructed’. Added to this are further sequences taken from other film archives (Sarah’s parents were well-known Canadian actors and they appear in some of these clips) and footage taken by Polley herself on Super 8  – we actually see her with a camera on a few occasions. Sometimes she cuts between these different sources of digital film and Super 8, showing the same scene in the different formats. The producer Anita Lee tells us in the Press Pack that: “the Super 8 film format is loaded. It already comes with this notion of nostalgia and the past. It’s a medium of a certain time. We associate Super 8 with home movies lost in basements, and we literally searched through people’s basements for the right Super 8 camera”.

The reception of the film is interesting. I suspect it is slightly different in Canada where Sarah Polley is a leading figure in the Canadian film and TV industry, but in the US and here in the UK, while the majority of critics have lauded the film, a minority have seemed to find it slight or indulgent or just not interesting. I can only think that they just haven’t seen things in the film or that they don’t have any interest in families or memories or ‘truth’ – fundamental I would have thought to our existence.

Sarah and Michael Polley in a family photo

Sarah and Michael Polley in a family photo

The film opens with a quote from Margaret Attwood’s Alias Grace (which Polley is set to adapt) and soon after, Michael Polley quotes Pablo Neruda “Love is so short, forgetting is so long”. Polley skilfully pulls at the different skeins of wool in the ball to reveal the complexity of memories and viewpoints and indeed who it is who is trying to exert control over the narrative. Contrary to the reviewer who moaned that the film is too long, I immediately wanted to watch it all over again. On a second and third viewing I think I will learn even more about how the different viewpoints are developed. Polley is fortunate that her siblings and her ‘fathers’ are highly articulate and also, for me at least, very engaging characters. This is certainly one of my films of the year. Please go and see it, and if you haven’t already, do try and catch up with Take This Waltz (2011) and Away From Her (2006), her fiction features which apply the same intensity to family relationships but as comedy-drama and melodrama. Stories We Tell confirms Sarah Polley’s talent as a filmmaker and also marks a triumph for the National Film Board.

Before Midnight (US 2013)

Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) check-in to a hotel.

Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) at check-in in the hotel.

So here is the most talked about film of the moment – a film which must mean something to anyone who has ever been in a relationship of any kind that has lasted more than a few years. It’s a beautiful-looking film with terrific performances by its two leads speaking the lines they created with director Richard Linklater – who demonstrates just how well he understands cinema as an art form. There are thousands of words already out there in which fans describe how much they love the film and a smaller number by those who want to find fault. I’m going to try to look at the film a little differently by thinking about in terms of its formal properties and the questions it raises about representation and ideology.

I should explain that I didn’t see the film in which the couple played by Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke first met – Before Sunrise in 1994. I did see the second film in which they re-kindled their relationship in Before Sunset (2004) and I remember that I enjoyed it very much but, possibly because I hadn’t seen the first film, nothing really stuck in mind other than the general idea of a film narrative based on a long conversation  between two people. I think that the third film stands up on its own. No doubt those who have seen all three will argue that it is much better viewed as a three-part long-form narrative. Linklater’s brilliance is that he can clearly please both camps.

The central question about the film for me is how the narrative, both in its content and in its formal strategies negotiates what I see as a series of contradictions or ‘binarisms’. The first of these is the use of cinematic devices connoting realism/naturalism v. the tightly structured and controlled two-hander acting displays. The devices include the long take, long shot sequences including the 14 minutes in the car, the scenes at the house, the walk through the village and the long hotel room sequence. In fact, after adding in the opening at the airport, there aren’t many more locations/set-ups in 109 minutes – most of the ‘action’ takes place in just five settings. If you haven’t seen the film, I should briefly sketch the outline (without giving away spoilers). Jesse (Hawke) is an American novelist who met Celine (Delpy), a French environmental project worker, on a train and then spent time in Vienna in 1994. In 2004 they meet again when Jesse is in Paris and decide to live together. Jesse has to leave his wife in Chicago with his young son. At the start of Before Midnight we meet Jesse saying goodbye to his son (now 14) at the airport in Kalamata in the Pelopponese region of Greece. The boy has been enjoying a vacation with his father and his new family and is now returning to his mother in Chicago. Outside the airport Celine is waiting. The boy’s departure is the ‘inciting moment’ because Jesse realises how much he has enjoyed being with his son and it prompts him to think about how he could be a much bigger part of  his son’s teenage years. But this is something which would clearly affect Celine and her future. The couple will have to talk.

The long take, long shot approach is associated with realist filmmaking, stretching from Renoir and Mizoguchi in the 1930s via a host of filmmakers, but perhaps most notably the Italian neo-realists of the 1940s, up to the present. Although it does occur in aspects of Hollywood cinema it is generally anathema to the streamlined, central-character-based Hollywood narrative form. In Before Midnight Linklater makes his strategy explicit by having Celine talk about a film she saw as a teenager. She doesn’t name the film, but its unique plot details – a married couple wandering through the ruins of Pompeii and being affected by the bodies of parents and children preserved by the lava flows – can only be from Roberto Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia (1954). Many of the audiences for Before Midnight won’t understand the direct reference so it isn’t particularly useful to compare the relationships between Delpy and Hawke and Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders in the Rossellini film. Even so, by making the reference at all, Linklater looks ‘out’ from the naturalism of the couple on the streets of a Greek village to the artifice of a cinema feature.

Walter Lassally (left), Ethan Hawke and Yiannis Papadopoulos relax while the women work in the kitchen!

Walter Lassally (left), Ethan Hawke and Yiannis Papadopoulos relax – while the women work in the kitchen!

The outdoor scenes, captured by the Greek cinematographer Christos Voudouris offer a ‘real place’ utilising the fantastic light. Linklater also includes some local colour caught in the long shot framing. More strikingly he elects to include passages of dialogue in the background in Greek that are not subtitled. There is also a moment when Celine talks in rapid French, also not subtitled. In neither case is the lack of translation a problem in moving the narrative forward – but what it does do is underline the sense of this being a film narrative that is taking place in a real location (in Rossellini’s ‘real world’) rather than a Hollywood confection that needs a colourful background. However, in the long hotel sequence, the verbal exchanges between Delpy and Hawke become more like a stage play – I thought of Coward’s Private Lives. This tension between the ‘natural’ (artfully constructed of course) and the skilfully contrived is linked to a second set of binarisms of character and actor and then of male and female, French and American, scientific/social/rational and artistic/romantic.

Delpy and Hawke are ‘film stars’ who manage to resolve the conundrum of the star image – how to project that sense of being somehow ‘special’ but at the same time just like you and me, to use their fantastic skills of timing and verbal dexterity to make the scripted seem naturalistic. This is highlighted in the scenes around the dining table when Patrick (Walter Lassally) speaks. Lassally at 85 has had a remarkable career in the cinema as a German refugee who became a leading cinematographer in the UK in the 1960s, eventually winning an Oscar for Zorba the Greek in 1965. Now he lives in Crete, so although he has not (as far as I know) acted before, his presence in the film is perfectly understandable. Yet when he speaks, he can’t manage the naturalistic speech of Delpy and Hawke and his lines therefore point towards their performances. Delpy by contrast can suddenly switch into another kind of performance when she pointedly plays the bimbo for everyone’s entertainment.

At times during the screening I actually closed my eyes because I found some of the dialogue just too real and too painful. At other times I allowed myself to become distanced from the conversation so that I could think about what the two characters represent. I felt at times that Delpy was being very ‘French’ and Hawke very ‘American’. There has been a great deal of discussion about the scene in which Julie Delpy plays topless. What’s more to the point, I think, is that she plays a romantic lead in an American film in which she is a 42 year-old woman with a real woman’s body, a little thicker and broader in places, but still beautiful and very sexy. By comparison Ethan Hawke seems rather brattish and definitely less mature, less ‘rational’ in his attitudes. It’s never clear how much the audience is expected to see Celine as at least in some way based on Delpy and Jesse based on Hawke. This is relevant because the plot includes the idea that Jesse has had successful novels published, supposedly based on the two earlier encounters between himself and Celine.

The long walk through the village and down the country road.

The long walk through the village and down the country road.

Reading interviews with Julie Delpy after the screening I’m a little puzzled as to what she was aiming for in her contributions to the script. She talks a lot about her feminism and she clearly alienates some American audiences with her atheism. These two facets do figure in Celine’s make-up as a character. Watching the film I did feel that at times Celine seemed too whiney and shrew-like – though most of the time I was completely with her. By contrast Jesse seemed too much like a little boy lost who had some useful practical arguments but who perhaps didn’t want to face up to facts. But perhaps this is the brilliance of the film? These are complex developed characters, not romcom cardboard cut-outs. I’m still thinking about the film. Go see it – you won’t be disappointed.