Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Best Films of 2020

The word ‘global’ has been used for a few decades but it truly took on a new meaning in 2020 when all countries around the world were impacted, albeit in different measures. The everyday lives of all people around the world was disrupted/stopped/changed in 2020. This included lockdown of societies such as halting of all sporting events around the world (professional/amateur) and the closing of all cinemas. Film festivals were canceled, postponed or moved to a virtual version. This directly impacted me as well. I had my ticket booked for Buenos Aires to attend BAFICI in April, a film festival I have wanted to attend for more than a decade. After SXSW film festival was the first major film festival to cancel in late March, others followed including BAFICI. Shortly after that, my film festival canceled my programming contract thereby cutting my 16+ years association with the film festival. However, the impact to me was minor giving the larger ramifications across the film world.

As the year progressed, it became clear that big studio films would get released one way or another, be it in a physical cinema in 2021 or digitally. However, the same couldn’t be said of independent films and countless foreign films. A lot of these films depend on the film festival circuit to gain distribution and traction. The disruption of the film festival calendar meant that a lot of these films were orphaned and even now, it is not clear if many of these films will find a home in 2021 when the cinematic field will be crowded by new films or delayed 2020 films.

The following list consists of many films (both 2019, 2020) that are still without a proper home and I truly hope that these films get distribution in 2021 and are seen by a wide audience.

Top 12 Films seen this year

1. The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open (2019, Canada/Norway, Kathleen Hepburn, Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers)

The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open is an essential film about domestic abuse that deserves to be seen by as many people as possible. By depicting events in real time, and keeping the aggressor off-screen, the two directors highlight abuse from the everyday complex decisions that impact people trapped in such relationships. 

2. Just like That (2019, India,  Kislay)

The mother is a revered character in Indian cinema and society (‘Mother India’), someone who is selfless and devoted to her husband and family. This portrayal has hardly been challenged in Indian cinema, especially Bollywood films which depict mothers as always standing by their husband/sons/families and often these films resort to depicting mothers as overly melodramatic characters speaking cliched dialogues. This is why Kislay’s debut feature is refreshing. The main character, Mrs. Sharma, is a 74 year-old woman who has recently become widowed. She is expected to live like other widows before her but she defies expectations. Mrs. Sharma wants to be independent, dares to open her first bank account, wants to go shopping at the mall, eat ice-cream, learn sewing and wants to live by herself in the upstairs portion of her son’s house. Her independence isn’t taken well, not by the son, daughter-in-law, neighbours and other family members. The film doesn’t just focus on Mrs. Sharma and the camera quietly captures intimate moments showing other family members and highlights problems caused by the patriarchal structure of society.

Such problems aren’t only restricted to India but impact all nations in varying measures. In this structure, women (young, married or widowed) are always expected to follow protocol but men are given leeway to behave as they please. Well Mrs. Sharma isn’t having any of that! For her entire life, including over 5 decades of married life, she followed protocol. Now at the age of 74, she is standing up for herself. Of course, her revolution isn’t loud or grand but consists of many tiny gestures; the kind of tiny gestures that are rare to find in cinema. This attention to detail is just one of the aspects that makes this one of the most precious films I saw this year.

Collective starts by investigation of suspicious deaths in hospitals but expands its frame to look at a larger corrupt system that links media, big pharma, political parties and hospitals. The film is set in Romania but its scope extends to all nations, regardless of whether they use public or private healthcare.

This urgent documentary came out in 2019 but is easily one of the most relevant films of 2020 because this year more people became aware of what epidemiology is and what the role of disinfectants is in keeping people safe. This film is a chilling reminder that bacteria doesn’t care for people’s official titles or beliefs.

4. The Alien (2020, Iran, Nader Saeivar) tied with
    There is no Evil (2020, Iran, Mohammad Rasoulof) tied with 
    Just 6.5 (2019, Iran, Saeed Roustayi)

Three different Iranian films but put together they provide an overarching picture of how oppressive government decisions and policies place undue stress on citizens.

The Alien, co-written by Jafar Panahi, shows how fear of an oppressive government can cause ordinary citizens to turn on each other or live in a state of perpetual anxiety.

There is no Evil illustrates the emotional toll on people that are tasked with carrying out the death penalty.

Just 6.5 is a high-octane thriller that shows social problems of addiction, homelessness, crowded jail cells with unflinching reality while featuring some of the most creative police procedural scenes shown in a film.

5. You Will Die at 20 (2019, Sudan co-production, Amjad Abu Alala)
A lovely fable about the never ending tussle between tradition and modernity, blind faith and science. The air of inevitability that hangs over the film reminds a bit of Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu while some dialogues and the Sudanese setting feel like a continuation of Tayeb Salih’s stellar book Season of Migration to the North.

6. El cuidado de los otros/The Care of Others (2019, Argentina, Mariano González)
The Care of Others is an absolutely sublime film that combines the filmmaking strengths of the New Argentine Cinema with that of the Dardenne brothers. Sofía Gala Castiglione  gives an emotionally devastating performance as the character of Luisa who has to grapple with guilt over her inadvertent part in a tragic incident.

7. Piedra Sola (2020, Argentina/Mexico/Qatar/UK, Alejandro Telémaco Tarraf)
Alejandro Telémaco Tarraf’s Piedra Sola is an immersive docu-drama that travels to a remote village high up in the Andean mountains bordering Northern Argentina and Bolivia, a location where past and future exchange places inverting our concept of time. The end result is a hypnotic film that overloads the senses.

8. Exil (2020, Germany/Belgium/Kosovo, Visar Morina)
A powerful film that shows how racism and discrimination in an office setting is hidden under the guide of microaggression and gaslighting and can be difficult to prove. Xhafer (Misel Maticevic) is convinced he is being targeted because he is originally from Kosovo. His colleagues struggle to say his name, try to sabotage his work but he can’t prove their intent. Slowly, he starts to lose his bearings resulting in his emotions spilling over. The slow-burn resulting in an explosion of emotions shares some sentiments with Maren Ade’s Everyone Else. This highly relevant film, co-written by Ulrich Köhler and also starring Sandra Hüller (Toni Erdmann), is set in Germany but its implications are universal as such office dynamics are commonplace in North America, including Canada.

9. De la noche a la mañana/Overnight (2019, Argentina/Chile, Manuel Ferrari)
A delightful film that reveals its charm and intent with some truly creative moments. An Argentine architect Ignacio (Esteban Menis) is told by his girlfriend that she is pregnant. The unexpected news is a shock and comes at the same time that he is supposed to travel to Valparaíso for a guest lecture. Until this moment, things appear straight forward but slowly, it becomes apparent that events are not as they seem to be as a series of absurd situations continue piling on.

10. Da 5 Bloods (2020, USA, Spike Lee)
Leave it to Spike Lee to show a different perspective of the Vietnam War thereby correcting a cinematic omission. Da 5 Bloods presents a Black American perspective and a nod towards the impact on the local Vietnamese population, aspects missing from previous Hollywood Vietnam War films. The release of this film proved to be highly timely as it came out when protests were taking place in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing. The issues of systematic racism and poverty raised by these protests inform events shown in the film.

Honourable mentions (8 films, alphabetical order):

City Hall (2020, USA, Frederick Wiseman)

The riveting debates shown in this documentary are what one would expect from a functioning democracy. Unfortunately, such debates are missing across the larger national political spectrum not only in the US but in most countries around the world. It is good to see such debates are taking place in Boston at the local municipal level but as hopeful as the words shown in the film are, will the words lead to any solid action? As the past has shown, words and promises often don’t lead to any meaningful policy change.

Days (2020, Taiwan, Tsai Ming-liang)

One of the cinematic highlights of the year was to see Tsai Ming-liang and Lee Kang-sheng collaborate once more on another feature. The two have been making pure cinema since they first worked on Rebels of the Neon God back in 1992.

Gulabo Sitabo (2020, India, Shoojit Sircar)

Amitabh Bachchan is a cinematic treasure and it is a sheer joy to see him find new depths to his already incredible acting accomplishments with his character of Mirza Nawab in Gulabo Sitabo. Writer Juhi Chaturvedi, director Shoojit Sircar and Amitabh all worked together last in the charming Piku (2015) and their joint venture has led to another creative film.

Let Him Go (2020, USA, Thomas Bezucha)

Kevin Costner and Diane Lane get top billing but the real star of this film is the Weboy house that was constructed from scratch. On the surface, it is the kind of isolated house that one may come across on many drives across Alberta. Yet, in the context of the film, it is chilling and oozes evil and is possessed by cinematic ghosts of past neo-noir and Westerns.

Mangrove (2020, UK, Steve McQueen)

All 5 Small Axe episodes are timely in the context of the world we now find ourselves in but the first episode Mangrove lingered long in my memory. The setting in the film is 1960-70s London but sadly, the film could be about contemporary USA.

Nothing but the Sun (2020, Paraguay/Argentina/Switzerland, Arami Ullon)

An urgent film that highlights the continuing impact of colonialism on the local indigenous South American population. The importance of recording history is highlighted by the film that shows how traditions and cultures can be lost. There are many memorable scenes in the film but one precious segment is about the Europeans bringing a new disease to South America that wiped out many of the Paraguayan natives. The disease talked about in the film is measles but those words take on a new meaning now.

This is Not a Burial, it's a Resurrection (2019, Lesotho/South Africa/Italy, Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese)

Visually the film evokes Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela but the film has a different tone and rhythm. It also raises many relevant questions about destruction of property in the name of progress. In the film, the progress is promised by a dam and one can visualize the impact by superimposing Jia Zhang-ke’s Still Life.

Window Boy Would also Like to Have a Submarine (2020, Uruguay/Argentina/Brazil/Holland/ Philippines, Alex Piperno)

This playful film evokes the structure of The Human Surge by showing an interconnected world where opening a door in one location places a person in another part of the world.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Films of Wong Kar-wai

Wong Kar-wai is an auteur whose signature style is instantly recognizable in his films due to the presence of eye-popping visuals, memorable music and characters that linger long in the memory. This style jumps out even if the film genre is crime (As Tears Go By, Fallen Angels), romance (Happy Together, In The Mood for Love), sci-fi (2046) or wuxia/martial arts (Ashes of Time, The Grandmaster). The core style of Wong Kar-wai consists of a few common elements whose presence is akin to his signature on each frame. These common elements are both visual and thematic and include rich colours, memorable music that echoes in each frame and the usage of chance encounters to explore relationships and feelings of the characters. Wong Kar-wai manages to ensure that each distinct element works in perfect harmony with other elements such that all elements enhance the overall film experience.

Wong Kar-wai’s films are a feast for the senses and that feast starts with his usage of colours. The frames in each Wong Kar-wai film are infused with colours that evoke mood and emotions. He often uses both warm (red, yellow) and cool colours (green, blue and purple) to fill the frame. In the hands of Wong Kar-wai, these colours help set the mood for the scene which aided by the music turns a scene into a tender romantic moment, a melancholy feeling or something seductive. This video by Glass Distortion highlights the usage of rich colours in Wong Kar-wai’s cinema. When needed, he has also shown his ability to drain all colour from the frame (Happy Together) to mirror the broken heart of the main character (Tony Chiu-Wai Leung) who fails to find anything interesting around him.

Music and songs have been an integral part of Wong Kar-wai’s cinema right from his first feature As Tears Go By which featured a Cantonese cover of Berlin’s “Take my Breath away”. Chungking Express is defined by the song “California Dreamin” and In the Mood for Love comes to life when the “Yumeji’s Theme” score comes on. In fact, the title In the Mood for Love is named after Bryan Ferry’s song of the same name. In Wong Kar-wai’s films, the music and songs don’t exist in isolation. Instead, the music is married to the visuals in such a way that one associates the memory of the film with a particular piece of music. This point is beautifully highlighted in the movie In The Mood for Love when “Yumeji’s Theme” is famously used for the noodle-stand scene between Maggie Cheung and Tony Chiu-Wai Leung’s characters. There is no dialogue in the scene and the score turns a normal occurrence of going to the noodle stand into a seductive waltz. 

Wong Kar-wai’s usage of music mirrors how many people associate a memory with a piece of music. We may not remember everything about our lives but often listening to a piece of music makes us recall a moment in our lives when we were doing something or were at a place when the music first played. In a similar fashion, we may not end up remembering all aspects of a Wong Kar-wai film but often particular scenes with music persist long after the film has ended.

The colours and music helps set the mood for the audience while the overall cinematography helps shape the visual experience when watching his films. Wong Kar-wai has worked with some of the best cinematographers in his films such as  Christopher Doyle, Andrew Lau Wai-Keung, Mark Lee Ping-bing, Kwan Pung-Leung, Darius Khondji and Philippe Le Sourd. However, one can still find similarities in the visual language of his films even though he has worked with different cinematographers. In Wong Kar-wai’s films, the camera can energetically buzz around the characters or it slows down to allow us to observe fine margins of time and distance that separate characters.

There is also the glorious usage of the step-printing technique which allows the viewer to experience both fast images and slowing down of certain elements in a frame. This technique was used to loving effect in both Chungking Express and Fallen Angels

There is a distinct purpose to the usage of all the different camera techniques. Slow motion or step-printing allows audience to focus on certain moments that are critical to a character’s life. In other instances, the camera allows audience an immersive experience in the film. In a wonderful sequence in Happy Together, the camera allows the audience to become an extra player in a carefree soccer game that employees at the restaurant indulge in during their breaks. In the case of his wuxia films, the camera allows us to properly observe the hand movements thereby emphasizing the art in martial arts. The cinematography helps craft the aesthetic beauty in his frames especially with how each frame is lit and how Wong Kar-wai manages to find beauty in normal everyday objects. This is illustrated by his usage of rain which is commonly found in his movies.

In the hands of Wong Kar-wai, rain attains a poetic beauty. Of course, one of the best uses of rain comes at the start of The Grandmaster which features a stunning fight sequence in rain and the camera movements ensures the entire sequence is a sumptuous work of art.

It is not only the visual elements in his films that share a common bond but even the thematic elements are linked. Many of the characters in Wong Kar-wai’s films are either lonely or isolated. Even if the characters are in a relationship, they are solitary as illustrated by In the Mood for Love where both partners of the main characters are always away. In his films, lonely characters are often pondering about their lives or waiting for something good to happen. Their waiting is highlighted by clocks which are prominently displayed on screen. 

Sometimes, the changing time in the clock signifies a key moment in the characters’ lives. On other occasions, characters wait for the clock to change time so that they can make a phone call or can meet someone. However, characters in Wong Kar-wai’s films don’t have to wait too long in their lonely state as each moment in the film is a chance for a character to turn things around. The opening words of Chungking Express perfectly describe a majority of Wong kar-wai’s films:

“Every day we brush past so many other people.
People we may never meet…or people who may become close friends.”

In his films, a chance to turn a new leaf is only a corner away and the possibility of finding a new love isn’t far away. That is why his films also feature many instances of characters running into each other, narrowly missing each other even though they exist in close proximity to each other. In Chungking Express, Cop 223 specifies he was “0.01 centimetres" from the one woman he loved. The mention of an exact measure is not a random dialogue because such close proximity of characters is on display in Wong Kar-wai’s other films as well. All it takes is one moment; a single second, for characters to collide into each other, or brush their hands against each other before the music starts and a new life begins.

With the aid of his signature elements, Wong Kar-wai has redefined cinema by freeing it from the shackles of traditional scripts and has instead turned cinema into a stylish art form where each frame exudes colour and rich emotions. He is interested in exploring spaces where humans interact, where they make connections or where they narrowly miss each other. He undertakes this exploration by portraying moments which involve glances, an encounter, an affair, heartbreak and agony. These scenes are not presented in silence but are instead stitched together with breathtaking music resulting in seductive, immersive and emotional experiences. This depiction of moments with memorable music gives his films a universal feel and that is a big reason why his films have gotten recognition around the world. His films could be set in Hong Kong or Buenos Aires yet the mood and feelings his characters evoke could take place in any country in the world.

Note: This article was originally published as part of the Cinematheque’s Master Series on Wong Kar-wai in 2017.

Saturday, December 26, 2020

Frederick Wiseman's Films

noun: documentary; plural noun: documentaries
    a movie or a television or radio program that provides a factual record or report.

A documentary film is a un biased non-fictional motion-picture intended to "document reality, primarily for the purposes of instruction, education, or maintaining a historical record”. Reference:

Frederick Wiseman’s name can be put against the definition of documentary because his films have documented places, people, cities, organizations, institutions, communities and buildings. He is highly prolific and has directed almost one film per year since his debut documentary in 1967 (Titicut Follies). The recent City Hall (2020) is his 45th feature documentary. However, for the longest time, it was hard for me to see his films in the same year as it was released. This is because his films were released at select film festivals and their length of 3-4 hours ensured that they never made it to my local city. In the years between 2005-2013, the gap between his film getting released and my time to see it got reduced to 2-3 years. Then in 2014, I finally saw a Frederick Wiseman movie in a cinema (National Gallery) in the same year of its release. That good fortune continued in 2015 when I saw In Jackson Heights a few months after its release. Finally, this year’s City Hall (released on PBS Dec 22) is the 3rd Wiseman film I have seen in the same year as its release. On top of that, his films are now more accessible than ever. Since 2018, all his films are  available to stream via Kanopy, which means anyone with a library card (at least in North America) can see his movies.

I planned a mini-spotlight which included re-viewing Titicut Follies after more than a decade and seeing a few other films for the first time. The goal was to finish viewing all films in time for premiere of City Hall on Dec 22.

Titicut Follies
Canal Zone
Public Housing
Belfast, Maine
City Hall

Of the above films, Welfare is a remarkable film that left me in awe. The film came out in 1975 and shows the challenges in trying to judge/handle individual welfare cases. The problems related to housing, unemployment, welfare have gotten much worse since the film came out as the gap between rich and poor has widened in the last 45 years. On top of that, the topic of welfare has been heavily politicized in America with politicians and certain media outlets dehumanizing those on welfare over the last few decades. The welfare system is shown be struggling to handle all the cases in 1975. It is hard to image how this system has coped in 2020 and will cope in 2021 with more job losses and a government that isn’t interested in helping address the core issues of poverty. The political parties and their media mouthpieces are not interesting in providing any solutions related to retraining people who have lost their jobs or how to diversify jobs.

There is a hint of a solution to some job creation provided at the end of Public Housing  (1997) which contains ideas on how residents can form their own businesses to generate some wealth. It is not clear how much such ideas made a difference or if they gained traction because one of the stats mentioned in City Hall (2020) shows that the average wealth of African Americans is substantially behind those of White Americans. This disparity is related to other minorities as well. In City Hall, a hispanic contractor mentions his plight in trying to win big contracts and not getting anywhere over 30 years. He says that there is clearly a disparity in how city council awards its contracts to companies but the film shows discussions and ideas on how to make things better.

The films of Frederick Wiseman shed light on relevant topics of economic disparity but are these films seen by anyone who is in the power to mount a change? Are these films merely meant to be praised by those on the left but they lead to no policy or political change? The protests in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing raised topics of systematic racist policies that have existed for decades and some of these policies are indirectly reflected in Wiseman’s films but only the recent City Hall shows a mayor with some words about making a relevant change.

It isn’t only economic disparity that has gotten worse in America but racism has gotten worse in the last few decades. In Welfare, a racist man speaks his mind to a black security officer. The racist is shown to be an isolated individual in the context of the film because everyone else in the film is shown to treat the welfare cases with some degree of patience and compassion. However, the words spoken by that racist have sadly now become part of the mainstream American landscape in 2020.

Location, Location

The films of Frederick Wiseman certainly help to give a sense of life in a community. Even though sometimes we only see a subset of a community, we can still get a feel for how people go about their daily jobs, their routines, their struggles and beliefs. Sometimes, the omissions tells a story in itself. One reason I wanted to see Canal Zone was to see how the way of life would be shown and what amount of history would be covered. The day-to-day canal operations related to the Panama canal locks and logistics around ships are fascinating but none of Panama’s history is shown. Instead, what we get is a very American way of life as the film mostly shows Americans involved in running the canal and going about their lives in exile. This shouldn’t be a surprise as the  film came out in 1977 and the US was still in control of the Canal. Hence, the overly American perspective devoid of the history of how the Canal came to be and the US’s involvement in Panama’s history.

After years of negotiations for a new Panama Canal treaty, agreement was reached between the United States and Panama in 1977. Signed on September 7, 1977, the treaty recognized Panama as the territorial sovereign in the Canal Zone but gave the United States the right to continue operating the canal until December 31, 1999. Despite considerable opposition in the U.S. Senate, the treaty was approved by a one-vote margin in September 1978. It went into effect in October 1979, and the canal came under the control of the Panama Canal Commission, an agency of five Americans and four Panamanians. Reference:

Reality fiction/Cinema vérité/Direct Cinema/Actuality

A few locations in Wiseman’s films made me think of Allan King. Wiseman’s Titicut Follies set in Massachusetts Correctional Institution came out in 1967, the same year as Allan King’s Warrendale set in Toronto’s Warrendale mental treatment facility. Wiseman’s Near Death (1989) is set at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston and looks at staff providing care to those in their final moments, an aspect covered in King’s Dying at Grace (2003) which looks at terminally ill cancer patients at Toronto Grace Health Centre.

As it turns out, the overlap in location and topic is only on the surface. It is clear after watching the films, there is a different method at work in Wiseman’s films compared to Allan King. When it comes to Allan King’s films, they can be called ‘Direct Cinema’ or ‘Actuality films’ (as per the Criterion Eclipse Series 24: The Actuality Dramas of Allan King).

By definition:

The actuality film is a non-fiction film genre that, like the documentary film, uses footage of real events, places, and things, yet unlike the documentary is not structured into a larger argument, picture of the phenomenon or coherent whole. Reference:

The above doesn’t apply to Frederick Wiseman’s films which indeed are structured “into a larger argument”. Instead, Wiseman called his film “reality fictions”.

He has called his work “reality fiction,” an acknowledgement that even nonfiction is usually a narrative form and that narrative is one person’s method of storytelling.

In an early interview for the American Bar Association, Wiseman explained his method. “There’s no such thing as an ‘objective’ film. I try to make a fair film. By that I mean that the final film is in a sense a report on what I saw and felt in the course of the shooting and editing.” Many hours of footage are edited down to a few hours of final film that is, he says, “subjective, impressionistic, and compressed.” Reference:

He never liked the term ‘cinema vérité’:

Frederick Wiseman never liked the term cinema vérité — it is “just a pompous French term that has absolutely no meaning as far as I’m concerned,” he once said — but his kind of non-fiction filmmaking is a case study in the philosophy and practice of its ideals. Reference:

The editing and selection of interviews, subjects, locations indeed add up to a picture that Wiseman intends to show.

Useful reading:

1. Mark Binelli recently in NY Times:

“The fact that Wiseman’s half-century-long project is a series of cinéma-vérité documentaries about American institutions, their titles often reading like generic brand labels — “High School,” “Hospital,” “The Store,” “Public Housing,” “State Legislature” — makes its achievement all the more remarkable but also easier to overlook. Beginning with “Titicut Follies” (1967), a portrait of a Massachusetts asylum for the criminally insane that remains shocking to this day, Wiseman has directed nearly a picture a year, spending weeks, sometimes months, embedded in a strictly demarcated space — a welfare office in Lower Manhattan, a sleepy fishing village in Maine, the Yerkes Primate Research Center at Emory University, the flagship Neiman Marcus department store in Dallas, the New York Public Library, a shelter for victims of domestic violence in Tampa, Fla., a Miami zoo — then editing the upward of a hundred hours of footage he brings home into an idiosyncratic record of what he witnessed. Taken as a whole, the films present an unrivaled survey of how systems operate in our country, with care paid to every line of the organizational chart.” Mark Binelli, NY Times 

2. A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis, NY Times, 2017

“One of the most important and original filmmakers working today, Frederick Wiseman has been making documentaries for 50 years. His movies are about specific places — institutions, organizations, cities and communities: the New York neighborhood of Jackson Heights; the coastal town of Belfast, Me.; the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind; American Ballet Theater; the National Gallery in London. What interests Mr. Wiseman is how these institutions reflect the larger society and what they reveal about human behavior.” A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis (2017)

3. Ben Kingsberg NY Times 

4. Michael Ewins, BFI, 10 Essential Films 

5. Louis Menand on City Hall

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Thou Shalt Not Kill and Collective

Thou Shalt Not Kill (2018, Romania, Catalin Rotaru, Gabi Virginia Sarga)
Collective (2019, Romania/Luxembourg, Alexander Nanau)

One of the earliest films associated with the Romanian New Wave was set in a hospital: The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005). 

Critics labeled it a dark comedy but I viewed it as a bloodless horror film. The hospital is again the site of horror, this time far more chilling, in 2018’s Thou Shalt Not Kill. The film is inspired by true events and makes one question what goes on in any hospital around the world (disclosure: I programmed Thou Shalt Not Kill for a film festival back in 2019). 

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and Thou Shalt Not Kill show the dangers of a hospital from two differing perspectives: a patient waiting to be helped in The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, a doctor trying to save patients in Thou Shalt Not Kill. Both characters appear to be doomed and helpless in a corrupt bureaucratic system. 

An overarching view of that corrupt system is covered by the documentary Collective.

Thou Shalt Not Kill and Collective overlap on the lack of proper disinfectants in the hospital. These two films show that hospitals, which should be safe places for its patients, end up causing far more danger to patients than their initial injuries. One aspect of the corrupt system around big pharmaceutical companies is shown in Thou Shalt Not Kill but the full investigative picture is given in Collective which highlights the links between media, big pharma, political parties and hospitals.

All these three films are set in Romania but their scope extends to all nations, regardless of whether they use public or private healthcare. The topics raised by Thou Shalt Not Kill and Collective are more relevant in 2020 and going forward because all of us around the world are more aware of what epidemiology is and what the role of disinfectants are in keeping people safe.

Saturday, December 19, 2020

The Films of Khavn De La Cruz

The camera zips around a small room, then down the stairs, looks around the surroundings and then rises above the building to give a view of the neighbourhood. From the street view to the sky, then back down before settling for a long ride inside a van. The film is Khavn’s Bamboo Dogs (2018) and the van is different from that shown in Brillante Mendoza’s Kinatay yet the air is sinister, not murderous but it feels ominous. What follows is a potent mix of corruption and crime all depicted in cool lighting, a stylish flourish that also lights up Khavn’s earlier film Ruined Heart (2014), shot by master cinematographer Christopher Doyle. 

The lovely cool colours of these two films contrast the black and white images that populate Khavn’s other films. In fact, he isn’t afraid of depicting the ugliness of the world around him, a world where violence is abundant but that violence is cyclical and follows a long history dating back to the barbaric colonial times. This aspect is illustrated by Balangiga: Howling Wilderness which is based on a historical incident involving a colonial massacre.

In just a few films, it is clear that Khavn has his own unique style, one where music plays a key part and that is because Khavn composes the music for a lot of his own films. In fact, it was the music Khavn worked on another director’s film that first drew my attention to him. Khavn worked on the music for John Torres’ award-winning Todo Todo Teros (2006). Torres’ film opened a new path for my journey into the new Philippine cinema that was making the rounds at film festivals during the 2006-2010 time period. During these few years, I sought out as many Filipino films as I could at film festivals and some finds included Jeffrey Jeturian’s brilliant The Bet Collector (2006), Brillante Mendoza’s Tirador and Foster Child (2007), Lav Diaz’s Death in the Land of Encantos (2007), Adolfo Alix Jr.’s Adela (2008), Raya Martin’s Independencia, in addition to Khavn’s Squatterpunk (2007).

Over the last decade, I focused more on the works of Lav Diaz and Mendoza while stopped following the works of Khavn.  As it turns out, Khavn has been incredibly prolific over the last decade and has directed more than a dozen features (fiction and documentaries). A correction was in order so a mini-spotlight of the following features:

Bamboo Dogs (2018)
Balangiga: Howling Wilderness (2017)
Alipato: The Very Brief Life of an Ember (2016)
Ruined Heart (2014)

The availability of digital cameras played a key part in the production of the Filipino movies I encountered in the 2006-2010 time period as the digital medium allowed new directors to make films on a shoe-string budget and get their voices out. A point highlighted by John Torres when he won the VIFF Dragons and Tigers Award for Todo Todo Teros in 2006. When Torres was given his cheque for $5000, he remarked that money would enable him to make 10 more movies! The rise of digital cameras also played a key part in the evolution of Khavn’s cinema, an aspect on display in his Digital Dekalogo” manifesto where he writes:

“But technology has freed us. Digital film, with its qualities of mobility, flexibility, intimacy, and accessibility, is the apt medium for a Third World Country like the Philippines. Ironically, the digital revolution has reduced the emphasis on technology and has reasserted the centrality of the filmmaker, the importance of the human condition over visual junk food.”

When discussing films that show the harsh lives of ordinary Philippine people, I often end up drawing lines back to the works of Lino Brocka. This real or imaginary line to Brocka’s films can be drawn from the works of Lav Diaz and Brilliante Mendoza. I can now drawn this line to Brocka from Khavn’s films. In addition, Khavn’s films overlap with some aspects of Lav Diaz and Raya Martin’s works (Independencia) in their depiction of colonialism’s brutal aspects while having shades of Mendoza's works in highlighting corruption and poverty. However, these references form just a subset of Khavn’s entire arsenal of filmmaking. Ruined Heart is a perfect example of his divergence from other Filipino directors. The film is an immersive musical journey where hardly any dialogue is spoken. The few words that are heard are akin to poetry. 

A love story against the backdrop of a criminal world is depicted in a musical video format. The baggage of dialogue isn’t required because cinema has long fed us enough to know what is happening. Instead, we can get lost in a world of dazzling images and pulsating music. This world is a complete contrast to that of his other films and illustrates that Khavn has a lot of creative variety to offer. This is again emphasized with his 2020 film, Orphea, co-directed with Alexander Kluge. 

Khavn's films won’t be found on the regular streaming options heavily used in 2020 but thankfully, there is a place to view his films legally:

Khavn De La Cruz films on vimeo demand.

Wednesday, December 09, 2020

A Herdade / The Domain

 A Herdade / The Domain (2019, Portugal/France,  Tiago Guedes)

A cigar dangling from his mouth, constantly. A drink in hand, always.

Changing political situation. Secret handshakes and not so secret allegiances.

A man haunted by his past and caught in the middle. In the middle of something he doesn’t understand.

The territory covered by A Herdade (The Domain) isn’t new but a polished stylish look and an arresting performance by João Fernandes as the constantly tormented character of Albano Jerónimo does make it a worthy viewing. Watching Albano pour himself another drink, after another drink, brought to mind Mad Men’s Don Draper (Jon Hamm). However, Don was able to smile and enjoy himself a little bit given his character had seven seasons to get through plenty of highs and lows. On the other hand, Albano has just under three hours to navigate through decades of multigenerational issues and political deals. No wonder his character is constantly crushed and unable to bear the burden of promises and issues caused by others. Of course, he is to blame as well but like other similar cinematic men before him, he chooses the road that was destined for him by birth. 

The film is bookended by images which complete a circle that was meant for Albano. In the end, he returns to where he was meant to, to a location where his father and brother rolled the dice which would decide Albano’s fate. Albano has plenty of chances to take another path but that would be another movie.