Romantic Comedy

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For so many, no film genre defines their teenage years like the romantic comedy. With their aesthetic idealism, warmth, and promise of a fairy-tale ending, rom-coms often forge lifelong relationships with their viewers, to be watched over and over from adolescence and throughout adulthood. This is true for Elizabeth Sankey, who begins Romantic Comedy (2019) by confessing to her ‘obsession’ with the genre. She describes an infatuation ‘so powerful’ that it would become part of her identity, informing her experiences as a young woman and providing reference points for love, fulfilment and success. Sankey’s ‘uncomplicated’ relationship to romantic comedies would endure until her marriage, the point to which all rom-coms aspire but also end. Without the guidance of the films she loved, Sankey began to reflect on the imperfections of the genre that had so shaped her life. In response, she created Romantic Comedy, a comprehensive meditation on the genre’s history, problematic gender politics, and why it is that we just can’t stop watching. 

As a genre romantic comedies are incredibly formulaic. Even the casual viewer will recognise well-worn tropes like the declaration of love, the big white wedding, and the Hollywood kiss but to name a few. What Sankey is interested in are the equally present, but decidedly more subtle, themes of misogyny, heteronormativity and whiteness. Romantic Comedy’s structure, consisting of over 100 moments from romantic comedies aided only by voiceover is essential to the persuasiveness of her argument. At every turn Sankey supports her analysis with carefully selected moments from well-known and highly popular romantic comedies creating a strikingly didactic style. 

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Sankey begins her exploration of female representation in romantic comedies with the films of the late 90’s and early 2000’s, a moment which saw the genre explode in popularity thanks to the success of films like Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) and Pretty Woman (1990). As such, it is the female characters from this period that provide Sankey with her the most effective material. She argues that women in romantic comedies can largely be understood as belonging to one of the following categories; The Clumsy Career Woman (see Bridget Jones’ Diary, The Proposal etc), The Muse (see Garden State, Forgetting Sarah Marshall etc), and the most enduring of all The Cool Girl (see Miss Congeniality, How to Lose A Guy in 10 Days or any Cameron Diaz movie). Within these character tropes, which Sankey demonstrates are commonplace within the genre, she finds the troubling reinforcement of gender roles built upon misogynistic ideals. 

Sankey’s acknowledgment that romantic comedies are often written by men, produced by a patriarchal industry, and marketed almost exclusively to women and young girls, prompts a turn to the history of the genre. Is misogyny part of the DNA of romantic comedy? Her brief exploration of romantic comedy’s history forms perhaps the films most interesting segment. She traces the ebb and flow of liberalism and conservatism in gender roles from the Golden Age of Hollywood to the present day, armed with rich moments of archive. Her momentary discussion of the progressive impact of Marilyn Monroe on sexual politics and the effects of her comparatively chaste successor Doris Day is particularly thought provoking. 

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Sankey’s analysis of male characters, although less extensive, is also fruitful. Here she presents only ‘The Tenacious Man’, a character whose sexual aggression and relentless pursuit of women is rewarded and coded as a willingness to ‘do whatever it takes.’ What is common to both male and female characters however is their whiteness. Sankey exposes the overt absence of non-white characters in romantic comedies and suggests that their exclusion implicitly signals an incompatibility with the Hollywood ideal. The same can be said for LGBTQ+ characters through the lack of same sex love stories, and the presence of dangerous stereotyping. Romantic Comedy’s exploration of the issues of sexuality and race gain strength from Sankey’s acknowledgment of her own white, heteronormative perspective, as well as the film’s diverse set of contributors which include the likes of Cameron Cook, Simran Hans and Eleanor McDowall. Where Sankey’s analysis is self-consciously wanting is on the representation of Trans identities in romantic comedies. This makes the documentary Disclosure an important companion to Romantic Comedy through its comprehensive exploration of Trans representation on screen. 

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So why then do we continue to watch? The answer, for Sankey, is simple. Because it is pleasurable. Because beneath the genre’s flaws she finds an opportunity to watch characters fall in love, to escape the everyday and forge human connection. The coexistence of both critique and celebration within Romantic Comedy form perhaps Sankey’s most effective reflection on the genre. Despite the film’s lecturelike quality and sharp criticisms the magic of romantic comedies manage to endure. Romantic Comedy emerges, like its subject matter, as a warm and pleasurable watch. In more practical terms, Sankey also extends her analysis to the popularity of the genre. She argues for the powerful influence of romantic comedies upon some of the most commercially and critically successful films of recent years (citing La La Land and God’s Own Country) and looks to the growing diversity of contemporary rom-coms like The Big Sick for the promise of a more progressive future for the genre. Romantic Comedy is then not an instruction to stop watching, but a reminds us of the power of film to inform our reality.

Watch the trailer here:

Where can you find it?

You can watch Romantic Comedy for free by signing up to Mubi’s 7-day trial.

More like this?

Sam Feder’s Disclosure which is available on Netflix tackles a full history of transgender representation in Hollywood.

Midnight Family

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As governments around the world struggle to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, attentions turn to the healthcare systems on the front line. The effects of the virus on regions with weak public health services and endemic poverty rates have been inevitably catastrophic. The soaring death rates in countries like Brazil and Mexico have underlined the importance of universally accessible healthcare and further exposed the devastating impact of historically underfunded healthcare infrastructure. In Mexico City alone, 8,253 deaths have been reported, with the true figure likely to be much higher. In May, The New York Times found that the government had failed to report thousands of coronavirus related deaths in the city. Luke Lorentzen’s 2019 exploration of Mexico City’s private ambulances Midnight Family, serves as a timely reminder of the fragilities of the city’s health care system- fragilities that would come to characterise its response to the coronavirus.

Midnight Family opens with a sobering statistic, we learn that only 45 state ambulances service Mexico City’s 9 million citizens. In the absence of the state, private ambulances ferry the injured to hospitals for a fee. Director Luke Lorentzen follows one such team of paramedics, the Ochoa family, comprising; the patriarch Fer and his sons, Juan (16) and Josque (10). We follow the Ochoas across 85 nights spent racing to trauma led by tip offs from private insurance firms or police radio. In moments, Midnight Family appears as a heart pounding ride-along, whilst at others it seeks to interrogate the moral issues at play in the Ochoas work and the lives of a family struggling to overcome poverty.

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Midnight Family’s journey into the private ambulance system makes for a strikingly visceral and chaotic viewing experience. Lorentzen’s observational style crafts an adrenaline-fuelled ride filled with countless scenes to rival those of a Hollywood car chase, only here the stakes are much higher. The film adopts a captivating rhythm of stillness punctuated by lurches into chaos, mirroring the erratic nature of the Ochoa’s work. Rare moments of relative quiet found in hospital admissions or in deserted streets are routinely interrupted by news of trauma unfolding across the city, heralded by a cracking police radio. Deafening sirens, and flashes of blue and red light follow as the Ochoas screech through the city racing competing ambulances to sites of violence, accidents and traffic collisions. In some of the film’s most compelling scenes they attend a victim of a gunshot wound and resuscitate an unconscious baby. Lorentzen meets these moments of acute crisis with compassion, choosing to focus on the faces of the emergency team rather than the injured.

For much of Midnight Family we are encouraged to view Mexico City’s healthcare crisis through a distinctly personal lens. The film’s dual focus on the Ochoas as both an emergency response team and a family unit enable Lorentzen to contextualise the effects of privatisation on an economically unequal society. We are witness to their struggle to survive, to meals foregone and nightshifts worked without payment. It is this awareness of the family’s financial situation that informs our perception of the various ethical issues at play in their work. The transactional quality of the care the Ochoas provide weighs heavily on many of the scenes in Midnight Family. Most memorably in the film’s climax, the Ochoas attempt to transport a woman who has fallen from the sixth floor of a building to hospital. Accompanied by her mother, she passes away during the journey. In the following scene we hear audio of Fer asking for payment, which is met by the mother’s claim that the family had transported her daughter not to the best or nearest hospital, but to one where they could expect a higher fee. In moments like these, our relationship to the Ochoas is tested and uneasiness creeps into our perception of their work. And yet Lorentzen resists absolute moral judgement and instead presents the family as imperfect actors operating within a broken system, where their moral choices are coloured by their own struggle to survive. In one scene, Juan tells Lorentzen ‘this city would be a mess without private ambulances’ and in some respects Midnight Family reinforces this statement as state ambulances are noticeably absent from every single incident the Ochoas attend. But importantly Lorentzen’s film also exposes the real potential for private ambulance services to exploit those who are in need, and it’s the coexistence of these two truths which makes Midnight Family’s depiction of private ambulances so compelling.

Watch the trailer here: 

Where can you find it? 

Midnight Family is available to rent or buy on various streaming platforms. Rent it on Google Play for 2.99, with Amazon Video for 3.49 or on Dogwoof’s platform for 3.50.

Little Pyongyang

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Roxy Rezvany’s short film Little Pyongyang tells the story of Joong-wha Choi a North Korean defector now living in the South London suburb of New Malden. Joong-wha’s subtle and stylised portrait sheds light on a notoriously secretive refugee community, revealing a shared plight of North Koreans searching for new life. In its sensitive portrayal of refugee experience on our own doorstep Little Pyongyang emerges as the antidote for Western visions of North Korea that sensationalise the regime and dehumanise its citizens. Rezvany instead chooses to tell less familiar North Korean tale, one of childhood, family, loss, and home.

Rezvany’s desire to reinvent a North Korean narrative is matched by her innovative take on interview form. Through stylised set design Rezvany allows space in Little Pyongyang to act as an essential storytelling tool. Rezvany situates Joong-wha’s testimony within a curiously pink walled room. Its 1980’s furniture and rigid colour scheme combine to create a scene reminiscent of Wes Anderson’s distinct visual style. From the rooms centre, seated on a comfortable chair Joong-wha speaks directly to camera, his aqua marine shirt completing the colourful aesthetic.

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Joong-wha sighs, closes his eyes for a moment and murmurs ‘well, that’s a baffling question.’ The question that provokes Joong-wha’s contemplative answer is, perhaps, surprisingly commonplace-‘where is your home?’ But it is in this exchange that Little Pyongyang discloses its thematic heart. In Little Pyongyang Rezvany asks us to question the complex and myriad meanings of ‘home’, seeking to expose how they are formed and reformed as ‘home’ collides with the realities of life as a refugee.

It is fitting then, that we find Joong-wha in this strange quasi-domestic space. As we explore in interview Joong-wha’s complicated relationship to his homeland, Rezvany encourages the viewer to understand the pink room as its spatial manifestation. As a home now only accessible in memory, the pink room appears suitably frozen in time, recognisably domestic and yet abstract. As Joong-wha speaks the pink room’s furnishings are revealed as the relics of a life left behind. These objects anchor Joong-wha’s testimony and ensure their full emotional impact is felt without the need for dramatisation. Memorably, as Joong-wha describes the food shortages that caused his brother’s death the camera remains fixed on a single bowl of rice illuminated under a spotlight. Animated by Joong-wha’s memory this formerly familiar object is transformed into a haunting symbol of life and death. Rezvany’s creation of such visual language is testament to her deeply compassionate approach to storytelling. In Little Pyongyang Joong-wha appears in control of his own narrative as the meanings of his memories remain authentically ambiguous and are guided only by the symbols that accompany them.

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Little Pyongyang’s exploration of home is equally compelling when we venture beyond the pink room into New Malden. Through Joong-wha we glimpse life amongst the largest community of North Korean’s outside of South Korea in the world-a fact that has earned the suburb the nickname ‘Little Pyongyang.’ As a human rights activist and prominent member of the community, Joong-wha is well positioned to provide real insight into the practical challenges facing the community. But far more difficult to overcome than access to housing or language, we learn, are the profound psychological challenges that accompany forced dislocation from your homeland. In its articulation of these struggles Little Pyongyang is masterful. Joong-wha’s testimony captures the daily reckoning with trauma, guilt and fear that are so common to refugee experience without positioning the viewer as a voyeur to suffering. But Joong-wha’s is not a despairing tale. Whilst it is defined by a longing for connection with his homeland, it bares witness to a community actively forging a new legacy for their children.

Speaking on Little Pyongyang Rezvany recalls her desire to ‘make a film that would genuinely bring something new to the table, and that would also contribute to the North Korean community for future generations too.’ I find with this tender and deeply human film she has done just that.

Watch it now:

Fahrenheit 11/9

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The opening moments of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 11/9 (2018) provoke an uncomfortable sense of the Freudian uncanny- The recognition of the familiar in a strange new context which inspires an often difficult to define sense of dread.

It is the 9th of November 2016, the now infamous night of the American election and the date from which Moore takes his title, one that poetically calls back to his Palme d’Or winning Fahrenheit 9/11. Armed with the distance of years, Moore guides us through the circus of election night in his characteristic ‘all knowing’ narrative style. He transports us back to Washington DC, a journey accompanied by the soundtrack of countless news outlets decrying the possibility of a Trump victory and asserting with certainty Hilary’s accent to presidency. We return to Hilary’s ‘victory party’ an extravagant glass venue filled with her supporters anticipating the metaphorical smashing of its glass ceiling. Just down the road, we observe a comparatively sombre almost empty assembly for the Trump campaign. Looking back in this way there is a striking sense of unreality to the evening. Is it the slick corporate theatre of American politics? Or is it the cringe-inducing dramatic irony of watching Hilary’s supporters triumphantly sing the campaigns’ anthem ‘Fight Song’ full in the knowledge of their defeat? What kind of absurdity is Moore referring to when he asks ‘was it all a dream?’ Because of course it wasn’t a dream. The 9th of November 2016 saw the election of a president few, not least Donald J Trump, had expected. It is here that Moore lays out Fahrenheit 11/9’s central premise, an attempt to answer the question ‘HOW THE FUCK DID WE GET HERE?’

For a film dubbed ‘Moore’s Trump Movie’ Fahrenheit 11/9’s focus on the Trump administration and the man himself, is surprisingly fleeting. Moore skates quickly over depressingly familiar ground, citing Trump’s ties to Russia, his misogyny (with particular emphasis on his inappropriate behaviour toward Ivanka), and his blatant racism. Moore does however recast this information in his own distinct style, by boldly injecting humour and highlighting farce. It is our sense of familiarity that drives Moore’s pacing and motivates the political satirist to keep the figure of Trump at the film’s edge. Moore instead desires to probe the causes of our familiarity. Trump, Moore states, has ‘always played the media for suckers’ and Fahrenheit 11/9 aims to expose Trump’s tentacle-like control of American media. Moore most effectively points to the complicity of the press through the damning audio recording that sees the President of CBS say ‘It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS…the money’s rolling in it’s amazing.’

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Scenes from Flint Michigan

There are of course some less familiar themes, like for example Moore’s claim that no one ‘is more to blame’ for Trump’s Presidency than (you guessed it) Gwen Stefani. Most memorable is Moore’s comprehensive comparison of the Trump era to Nazi Germany. It is not however the lazy and worn Hitler/Trump comparison you might expect, although there is plenty of material for that avenue of thought (“there were very fine people on both sides”). Instead, Moore sketches a decidedly historical argument. He cites the status of 1940’s Germany as a cultured and educated democracy that too fell victim to a charismatic, autocratic leader promising jobs. He finds further similarities in the reaction of the media and Hitler’s use of ‘states of emergency’ to efface democracy. Moore’s argument is well researched, and even includes interview with the last surviving Nuremburg prosecutor. But, of course no Moore/Trump/Hitler comparison would be complete without footage of a Hitler rally clumsily dubbed over with a Trump speech- a moment that elicits Moore’s distinctive brand of laughter, that mixture of horror and humour.

Fahrenheit 11/9 then, isn’t really a ‘Trump movie’ at all, choosing instead to focus on what brought us here. The film takes a somewhat surprising turn for those expecting a liberal love song as Moore lays the blame primarily with the Democrats and not the Republicans. America, Moore argues is an essentially leftist country citing that 71% of Americans are prochoice, 75% think immigration is good for the US and 74% want stricter climate change actions among other powerful statistics. So if liberals make up the American majority Moore asks, why has conservative politics consistently dominated American government? Fahrenheit 11/9 persuasively makes a case for the historic failure of the Democratic Party, finding them guilty of bowing to profit, upholding established seats of power, and even rigging the 2016 democratic primary. His argument is most successful in its use of the 2014 Flint Michigan Water Crisis, which saw a city in the poorest state in the country knowingly poisoned with contaminated water in pursuit of private profit. Moore draws telling comparisons between Trump and Michigan’s Governor and demonstrates how democratic governments (even under Obama) where actively paving the way for the politics we see today. The testimony Moore collects from Flint’s residents is utterly heartbreaking, and as a Michigan native himself Moore can be forgiven for allowing the issue the largest portion of the film’s attention to ensure those affected gain a voice.

Despite the decidedly bleak picture Moore paints, Fahrenheit 11/9 is not without hope. Moore finds it in the various pockets of activism and grass-roots political movements across the country. We spend time with the West Virginia Teachers and The Parkland High School Students, who each provide an exciting prospect for change. Moore should also be given credit for highlighting several rising stars in the Democratic Party in his film. By including Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Rashida Tlaib prior to their election to congress, Moore anticipates their energising effect on the political landscape. But perhaps ‘hope’ is the wrong word. Hope in Fahrenheit 11/9 is not assured. In interview Moore confesses ‘I don’t know how much hope I have left’ and that is certainly felt in his film. What Moore does seem sure of however, is the urgency of the change needed and the necessity to understand just what is at stake if that change fails to come, American Democracy.

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Reading the critical response to Moore’s latest film I am struck by how much of a polarising figure he has become. Many take issue with Moore’s very particular style of storytelling, one that keeps himself as protagonist and guides the viewer with at times painful simplicity through his chosen anti-establishment topic. Particular venom is reserved for Moore’s ‘stunts’ that have become a regular feature of every film (In Fahrenheit 11/9 he attempts to put Flint’s governor under citizens arrest). But it is this style, which turns off so many, that makes Moore such an effective political filmmaker. He is able to condense vast swathes of information into only 2 hours. 2 hours that desire not only to inform but also to entertain. What you cannot question is Moore’s commitment to understanding the American politics, after all he was one of the few that saw Trump coming…

More like this?

As I mentioned, Moore’s films are all very distinctive in style, so if you enjoyed Fahrenheit 11/9 I would encourage you to take a look at the rest of his catalogue.

Some of my favourites are:

Fahrenheit 9/11 (Available on Netflix)

Where to Invade Next (Available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime)

Bowling for Columbine (Also available on Netflix)

Where can you find it?

It is available to rent on Amazon Prime and Sky On Demand

McQueen

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McQueen (2018) documents the extraordinary life and career of the fashion designer Lee Alexander McQueen. Born to a working-class family in 1970’s London, McQueen would go on to become one of the most influential and globally recognised fashion designers of modern times. McQueen, co-directed by Ian Bohôte and Peter Ettedgui, charts a meteoric rise to fashion stardom. From his start working as an apprentice tailor on Saville Row, we follow McQueen as he becomes the creative director of Haute Couture fashion house Givenchy, and establishes his own iconic company Alexander McQueen. McQueen is at once a celebration of genius and a study of the mind behind the clothes. We glimpse in McQueen a man of singular magnetism struggling with the darkness that would lead to his untimely death, when at the age of 40 McQueen took his own life. It is through Bohôte and Ettedgui’s holistic and supremely sensitive approach, that this documentary comes to act as a mode of reckoning with the profound loss of McQueen’s death, both to those who loved him most and to British cultural life.

McQueen’s co-director Peter Ettedgui describes Documentary as a process of collage, the purposeful collection of various materials to craft a larger picture. This is certainly true of McQueen as a comprehensive portrait of the designer is constructed through the skilful balance of never-been-seen archive footage, interview, and his own work. The centrality of archive footage in McQueen is particularly effective as it creates the impression that Lee’s story is being told in his own words, in conversation with the contributions of friends and family. The figure that emerges from these elements is fully formed -a man of striking light and dark.

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As the son of a cab driver from London’s east end, by simply being himself McQueen broke with fashion’s status quo. Straight talking, mischievous, funny and sensitive Lee’s character is felt in every inch of this film and yet it escapes final definition. In this preservation of the complexity in Lee’s character I locate one of McQueen’s real strengths. It avoids the temptation to define McQueen, preferring to allow definitions of the designer to remain as mutable as the unpredictable creative energy that seemed to swirl around him.

McQueen is most successful in its portrayal of Lee’s talent. The moments of archive that see McQueen at work in the studio are mesmerising. Wielding scissors fiercely whilst cutting and tearing fabric he appears to balance a raw instinctual talent with skill, seeming more like a sculptor than a fashion designer. But it is McQueen’s shows that are the film’s centrepiece. They were, and are, totally visionary. The highly concept driven collections and elaborate set design where models are transformed into actors allowed McQueen’s clothes to become stories and the catwalk the stage for revolutionary performance art.

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Bohôte and Ettedgui’s focus on McQueen’s creations not only showcase his skill but also become an essential part of the documentary’s exploration of McQueen’s identity. The autobiographical quality found in McQueen’s work is structurally signalled by the use of his catwalk shows as a means of separating the film, and thereby Lee’s life, into five acts. We are encouraged to understand McQueen’s work in this light by the designer himself as he states ‘if you want to get to know me look at my clothes.’

But to ‘get to know’ McQueen is to enter into dialogue with his demons. Famously troubled, McQueen drew heavily on a tortured psyche in his work, understanding his creations as ‘the horrors of his soul.’ For example, Lee’s experience of childhood trauma in the shape of violence against women finds expression in the language of fetish and violence in his ‘Highland Rape’ show. McQueen’s willingness to use his clothes to explore dark subject matter combined with an almost anarchistic desire to challenge fashion’s conventions would forge a seductive ‘bad boy’ persona in the press. Accordingly McQueen’s struggles with drug addiction, body image, depression and ill health have all been covered extensively in the headlines. Bohôte and Ettegui do not shy away from these difficult issues but what is so brilliant about McQueen is that it peels back the hard exterior of persona and reveals the romantic, flawed and sensitive soul beneath. And so encouraged as we are by Bohôte and Ettedgui to see McQueen’s clothes as an extension of self they become vested with real emotional power, an element that makes for a truly unique viewing experience.

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The late designer’s life has recently been described as ‘fashion’s dark fairytale’ and this sense is certainly present in McQueen. His life is in some ways a ‘rags to riches’ tale; a young man who once upon a time used unemployment benefit to buy his fabric is suddenly catapulted to the very top of the fashion world. Fitting for the designer that would come to adopt the emblem of a skull we find in this tale more than a shade of the sinister. McQueen is cast as the tragic Gothic protagonist haunted by an inescapable darkness while he creates at night when ‘his eyes turned black.’ With its decidedly unhappy ending however I begin to think that if McQueen’s life is to be a fairytale it is certainly one akin to those of The Brothers Grimm.

I don’t confess to be particularly engaged with the world of fashion and yet this film played on my mind for days. I was left thinking about the nature of talent and fashion’s relationship to art, but most of all I kept thinking about Lee.

An interest in fashion is by no means necessary to enjoy this documentary, an interest in people is more than enough.

Where can you find it?

You can rent it on Amazon.

 More like this?

Amy

Dior and I

Period. End of Sentence takes the Oscar for Best Documentary Short

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“I can’t believe a film about menstruation just won an Oscar!”

Last night Rayka Zehtabchi became the first Iranian woman to win an Oscar for her short documentary Period. End of Sentence. Her film, which is set in the rural Indian district of Hapur explores the effects of deep-rooted stigma surrounding menstruation, and the extraordinary impact that the arrival of a sanitary pad-making machine has on the community.

The social stigma attached to menstruation in India Zehtabchi proves to be both intensely powerful and dangerous. For the women of the Hapur District menstruation is a great source of shame. Each month women are deemed unclean and therefore are unable to enter temples to worship and due limited access to sanitary products resort to often unhygienic and ineffective alternatives. Menstruation can even act as a barrier to education, as young girls often remain at home each month, fall behind with their studies, or drop out altogether. Zehtabchi most strikingly illustrates the influence of this insidious social stigma through the word ‘period’s decided absence in speech. The word is banished to the realm of the unspeakable, its presence in conversation is instead signalled by the embarrassed giggles of young girls, feigned ignorance, and eyes that are inexplicably drawn to the floor.

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But a revolution is forming in the Hapur District. The arrival of a pad-making machine funded by the organisation The Pad Project also signals the arrival of profound change for this community of women. Through producing and distributing their own sanitary pads women redefine the meanings that are attached to their bodies. It is truly inspirational to witness these women gain financial independence, respect from the men in their community, and discover that there is power in being female. The beauty of this story is utterly matched by Zehtabchi’s cinematography as she expertly captures the vibrancy and colour of life in the district and the warmth and sensitivity with which she treats her subjects fills each frame.

The critical recognition Period. End of Sentence has received feels like an important step in combating the taboo that surrounds menstruation, but it is important to acknowledge that this issue is by no means exclusive to developing countries. Despite more than 800 million women worldwide having a period each month period stigma remains a persistent part of our vernacular. On receiving her award last night Rayka Zehtabchi reminds us of this fact, when through her tears she said ‘I’m not crying because I’m on my period or anything…’

If you haven’t already head over to Netflix and give Period. End of Sentence just 25 minutes of your time.

 

 

Fire At Sea

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Known as La Porta D’Europa (The Door of Europe), the small Italian island of Lampedusa marks Europe’s southernmost point, lying 120 miles from Sicily and only 70 from the Libyan coast of Africa. Situated on Europe’s edge Lampedusa has become a key point for migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean to seek asylum in Europe. In the last 20 years over 400,000 people have attempted the crossing despite the UN Migration Agency deeming it ‘the most deadly in the Mediterranean.’ Gianfranco Rosi’s 2016 film Fire at Sea is a portrayal of life on Lampedusa, both for its residents and the waves of people arriving on its shores.

Visions of Lampedusa might take form as an island where resident and migrant interact and integrate. Lampedusa’s residents, and particularly the island’s fisherman, have a long history of compassionate support and rescue. (The island has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times.) However, in 2013 in the midst of the migration crisis an invisible line is draw around Lampedusa. This new southern European border becomes militarised and patrolled by Frontex, the Italian Navy and the Coastguard. Overcrowded boats carrying hundreds of refugees are intercepted at this pre-emptive border, given medical attention, taken to Lampedusa’s Hostpot Centre for registration, and within 72 hours are transported onward to Sicily or Italy. Lampedusa is therefore an island of two worlds-the world of the migrant and that of the resident. Rosi’s portrait of the island captures this unique dynamic where two realities exist in extreme proximity but fail to touch.

Life on the island is seen mainly through the eyes of 12-year-old resident Samuele. Poised in a moment of boyhood that is both full of innocence and newly acquired knowledge Samuele makes for a deeply captivating protagonist. He is, as Rosi so affectionately calls him, ‘a young kid with the head of an old man.’ His identity seems to be forming in front of our eyes. We find Samuele wrestling with the expectation that he will become a fisherman like his grandfather as he struggles to learn how to row, and is made sea sick by a strong swell. Through tracing Samuele’s developing relationship to the water, and in turn to his future, Fire at Sea can be understood as ‘a coming of age’ film as well as one that is deeply concerned with migration.

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Samuele is diagnosed with a lazy eye and must wear a patch.

Juxtaposed with Samuele’s narrative are the scenes of chaos unfolding just out of sight along Lampedusa’s coastline. Fire at Sea brings us face to face with the humanitarian crisis at Europe’s border through its devastating account of the migrants’ journey. The distressed phone calls pleading for rescue, chemical burns caused by spilt fuel etched over bodies, and figures that are limp from dehydration pulled from the boats, all powerfully announce the suffering inherent in the Mediterranean crossing. Unlike Rosi’s depiction of life on land which uses a single voice, his portrayal of the migrant’s experience works to powerfully signal both the volume and pace of movement. Watching the registration process however, which sees those rescued by the border authorities have their picture taken holding a number, I began to wonder if Rosi’s collective focus meant something more. What if this journey requires a sacrifice of individual identity? Who you once where is lost somewhere at sea, you assume a new name-‘migrant.’

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The Doctor that Samuele and the Migrants share acts as the only bridge between worlds.

Seeing these two narratives side by side in Fire at Sea creates a strange sense of unreality. How can normality coexist with tragedy? There is something unreal in the institutionalisation of these rescues, the anticipation of suffering at this scale and the ability for the procedures of rescue to become routine. There is something alien in the Hazmat suits worn by the Coastguard making them appear like ‘phantoms’ policing an invisible border to another world. And yet this is reality. It is our reality, as Rosi finds in the uncomfortable duality of Lampedusa, a microcosm of Europe.

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Despite its undeniably political subject, Fire at Sea is not didactic in its message. It emerges as a film of great sensitivity, lyricism and beauty. It is poetic in its approach, fostering an interior mood that allows the language of cinema to sketch its argument.  Fire at Sea is a witness. It is a call to action.

Fire at Sea is the first non-fiction film to win the Golden Bear Award at Berlin Film Festival. In his acceptance speech Rosi recalls a particular conversation with a resident of Lampedusa. He asks ‘Why for 20 years has Lampedusa been alone in welcoming people? What makes this island so special?’ to which the man replies ‘you have to understand that this is an island of fisherman, and fisherman always welcome whatever comes from the sea.’ To this Rosi adds ‘maybe we should all have a little of the soul of the fisherman…’

Where can you find it?

It is available on Amazon prime.

The Confession

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The Confession documents the life of Moazzam Begg a British Muslim who has been detained without trial on terrorism charges in Britain, Pakistan and Cuba. Director Ashish Ghadiali shows his recognition of the power of Moazzam’s testimony though a strikingly simple extended interview form. The Confession sees Moazzam powerfully recount a life that has been so tragically affected by the War on Terror. Through Moazzam’s story, the personal provides a lens with which to comprehend the political. From the voice of a single victim of the Global War on Terror comes a plea for a more compassionate understanding of modern terrorism, one that demands an admission of the West’s instrumental role in its emergence.

For a documentary that is almost exclusively interview The Confession makes for unexpectedly gripping viewing. This is primarily owed to its focus on a life that is truly fascinating. Moazzam’s experiences stretch across the world and seem to touch every recognisable landmark of modern terrorism. Through his testimony we adopt a global perspective and are able to understand the galvanising effects of the conflicts in Kuwait and Bosnia, life under the Taliban in Afghanistan and the chaos of rebel fighting in Syria and Egypt. Moazzam’s persecution and detention is equally as global and takes us to places few have ever been, from Bagram (the famous American Detention Camp in Pakistan) to Guantanamo Bay. His accounts of imprisonment and torture at the hands of allied security forces here are devastating in their detail. And yet The Confession is a film that feels decidedly local, even essentially British. It is rooted in Moazzam’s home of Birmingham, and in an identity that was forged by his experiences of British society. It is this dynamic of the global and the local, the vast and the particular that underpins why I think The Confession is so powerful-it showcases the potential for an individual story to illuminate an entire conflict.

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But it is not just Moazzam’s extraordinary experiences that command our attention; it is how they are told. Moazzam is everything you could want in a storyteller. He is intelligent, sensitive and articulate. His memory appears unfailing as his descriptions brim with detail. He even seems to have a certain instinct for the cinematic. I felt I was with Moazzam at each knock at the door in the middle of the night, by his side on a three-day ‘odyssey’ as he trekked through the mountains to cross the border into Pakistan. His recollections also possess a striking emotional literacy. Moazzam is able to pinpoint formative moments from his past and recapture his frame of mind. This quality adds fullness to Moazzam’s memories and also causes The Confession to appear deeply concerned with questions of identity. At several key moments however, Ghadiali challenges Moazzam’s version of events. ‘You’re kind of withholding some critical details, so I’m interested in why you would spin it that way.’ With this one sentence the relationship between viewer and narrator is utterly changed. Our grasp on truth is suddenly more fragile, and our relationship to Moazzam and to the story he is telling becomes infinitely more interesting…

Through Moazzam’s retelling of a life so thoroughly entangled with the War on Terror, and aided by the inclusion of his appearances on countless political talk shows, he begins to craft an argument. Moazzam rejects the supposed innocence of the West in the formation of modern terrorism and instead exposes a broken system. He finds in the disastrous foreign and internal policy that sanctions violence and torture, a driving force for radicalisation. Memorably he cites the fact that 17/25 ISIS leaders were imprisoned at Bagram Detention Camp and ISIS hostages now appear in the same orange jumpsuits the American’s had forced them to wear. Moazzam’s argument is complex, compelling and full of nuance. I hesitate to reduce it to only a few sentences here. Instead I encourage you to watch for yourself a documentary that absolutely defies the popular and reductive view of modern terrorism. You may not agree with his politics but in Moazzam’s words ‘there must always be space for dialogue.’

Where can you find it?

It is available On Demand for a few $$ on all the normal platforms.

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Jihad: A Story of Others

Ten Meter Tower

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In 2017 Swedish filmmakers Maximilien Van Aertryke and Axel Danielson paid 67 people who had never jumped from a 10 meter diving board the equivalent of $30 to climb the tower and walk to the edge of the platform. But would they jump?

A psychological battle is set. One where the diving platform of Ten Meter Tower becomes the stage and two fears collide. Participants must weigh the intensely physical fear of leaping from a great height and plunging into the water below, with the distinctly social fear of humiliation if they descend the long ladder back down to the poolside. Through their mere presence the filmmakers heighten the social pressure acting upon each participant, but this is also consciously increased through the very visible microphones surrounding the platform and the waiting participants below.

On the platform, participants appear incredibly vulnerable, almost naked and often alone. Thoughts and emotions appear equally exposed. We glimpse startlingly honest portraits of psychological conflict, of mind and body in direct opposition. Many participants visibly wrestle with fear-as they prepare to jump and fail, peer over the edge and withdraw. There is however a real sense of triumph when someone does take the leap, we witness a moment of courage however fleeting. In several beautiful moments we too leave the platform as we watch participants falling in slow motion through the air.

Ten Meter Tower is an unexpectedly funny, and intensely compelling, psychological study that ultimately leaves you thinking could I jump?

Watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5QMlIjSnt_E

I Am Not Your Negro

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In a letter to his editor in 1979 James Baldwin wrote of his desire to begin ‘Remember This House’ a book that would revisit the American South in order to capture through personal recollections the lives of his three murdered friends Malcolm X, Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King. Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro provides the cinematic resolution to the book Baldwin was never able to finish. One that envelops the viewer into Baldwin’s consciousness in order to explore American society, race, identity and their fundamental interconnection.

I Am Not Your Negro can be understood as an extension of Baldwin’s work because the author’s presence is profoundly felt in its every moment. With the exception of archival footage, every word is Baldwin’s original prose. Peck’s removal of an interpretative framework speaks to his desire to act only as ‘the messenger’ of Baldwin’s work. I Am Not Your Negro establishes an uninterrupted relationship between Baldwin and the viewer, whilst Peck’s use of Baldwin’s prose (brought to life by Samuel L. Jackson) as the film’s only guiding force situates us inside the mind of the author.

From here we enjoy a singularly privileged perspective. Baldwin’s analysis of American society is both intellectually expansive and intensely personal. His relationships with Malcolm, Martin and Medgar illuminate these figures in a light rarely glimpsed. Peck sculpts holistic identities. Men who often loom over history as the orchestrators of radical change are shown as fathers, husbands and friends. We are able to see their very public deaths through an unusually private lens. This is most memorably achieved by the inclusion of Baldwin’s immediate responses to the deaths of each of his friends. For Medgar he writes; ‘The blue sky seemed to descend like a blanket. And I couldn’t say anything, I couldn’t cry. I just remembered his face, a bright, blunt, handsome face and his weariness that he wore like his skin.’

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Peck’s unique prose driven form creates a striking and meaningful relationship between image and word- a visual language. Baldwin’s work remains unaltered, but Peck’s careful layering of voice and image, which allows each medium to inform the meaning of the other, moulds our experience. The film gains an atmospheric poeticism as archival footage, photographs, and more abstracted visions of American landscape blend to ensure the full impact of Baldwin’s work is truly felt. I am reminded of a scene where we move with eerie stillness down the course of a southern river where the sky is obscured by trees with words that recall ‘how the tatters of clothes from a lynched body hung flapping in the trees for days.’

Although violence is an undeniable part of I Am Not Your Negro’s fabric it does not appear gratuitous. By framing moments of violence with Baldwin’s analysis Peck locates their catastrophic consequences. We are forced to confront devastating images of prejudice, racist violence and police brutality. Such viewing is disturbing but essential, as Baldwin famously wrote ‘nothing can be changed until it is faced.’ Violence in I Am Not Your Negro serves yet another essential purpose. Peck’s careful positioning of historic violence alongside distinctly modern and disturbingly familiar footage works to forcefully announce just how urgent Baldwin’s work remains to contemporary society.

To write only on the form of I Am Not Your Negro as I have done is to only scratch the surface of this film. I resist writing further to treat Peck’s 10 years in the making project with the same sensitivity he gave to Baldwin’s. I conclude then to preserve the generosity of this film, which appears like a work of art, allowing meaning to exist freely and belong to whoever stands before it.

Where can you find it?

It is available on Amazon Prime and American Netflix. You can rent it for a couple of $$ on the other platforms.

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