Notes from the LFF: Neds (Peter Mullan, UK/France/Italy, 2010)

Blogpost, British cinema, Film reviews, London Film Festival 2010

For those who do not know, NED stands for Non-Educated Delinquent, although it typically is a term bandied about north of Hadrian’s Wall by the bourgeoisie when it wishes to describe people whom those south of the border would call chavs (or Kevs, depending on your generation).

Despite the fact that the term refers to what one class calls another, however, Peter Mullan’s latest film, Neds, does not really deal too much with class difference. John McGill (Conor McCarron) is a bright young thing from a working class family who makes friends with a posh kid, Julian (Martin Bell), at one point, and after Julian’s mother tells John that she does not want him around her house anymore, John comes back and throws some fireworks through their window, shouting: “If you want a Ned, I’ll give you a Ned.”

Aside from this (and a brief moment in which John sees Julian on a bus some time later, before having to flee from the police), the issue of class difference does not surface too much. Instead, the film spends most of its time showing how John, like another John (Reece Dinsdale) from British cinema, becomes seduced by and ends up embracing more than any of his peers, the world of (in Neds, 1970s Glasgow) gang violence.

When John does tell Julian’s family that he’ll give them a Ned if that’s what they want, however, there is of course a sense of ‘Neddishness’ as a performance. Given that John has been rejected by the upper middle class, he decides fully, it seems, to become that which that self-same class loathes and fears: a violent Weegie who’ll chib ya for looking at him the wrong way.

It is not that the rejection of Julian’s mother is the sole factor that turns John from class swot destined for university to the Ned that he becomes. His family is a broken one, with his father (Peter Mullan) habitually beating/raping his mother, while his brother is also the hard man about town. What is more, when he makes friends with the rest of Car-D, the gang that he joins, he seems genuinely to make friends. Why not hang around with these guys if Julian is going to be so two-faced?

However, if Neddishness is something of a performance, then what lies beneath? Well, John the swot remains; even though by the end of the film John has been placed in a class for kids who cannot/will not perform academically, he continues to be a bookworm – and one gets a sense that he will ‘rehabilitate’ himself/that the clever and timid boy we saw at the beginning of the film is still there.

While this may be so, John remains someone who in the course of the film is responsible for holding up a bus at knife point (and the driver remembers him, hence John’s need to flee from the police when he encounters Julian on the bus later on in the film), for giving a kid permanent brain damage by dropping a gravestone on his head, and for knifing a rival from another local gang. It is not that we end up disliking John for these things (personally, I did, but many viewers may not); it is more that all of this must catch up with him one day – not least because the driver and rival gang members recognise him.

In other words, if being a Ned is a ‘performance,’ it is a performance that John takes so far that it becomes hard, if not impossible, for him to turn back to the ‘real’ John at the end of the film, even though to an extent this is what we are led to believe.

The film ends with John leading the boy whom he has given brain damage across a safari park. The moment is surreal, in that John and the boy (whose name escapes me – and IMDb has minimal information, so my apologies) hold hands and walk past a (digitally inserted) pride of lions. It is not clear what this moment ‘means,’ but it does suggest that John will be haunted forever by the crimes that he has committed, and also that the animal/lion in him is never going to go away. But it also suggests that somehow he has come to terms with himself after all of the experiences that he has had – and that, therefore, he is somewhat at peace (the lions do not attack the boys). This is fair enough, but how John will escape revenge from the other gang, or arrest when randomly the bus driver spots him again, or why indeed he does not hand himself in for all of the above, is unclear. Or rather: it is not unclear so much as troubling. We should bear in mind that Peter Mullan’s film does not have to avoid being troubling, but I did feel resistance to the forgiveness that it seemed to want me to give John.

Perhaps this means that Neds exposes my bourgeois values: I cannot get my head round someone who does not make real the ‘moral’ lesson that they have learned by facing up to what they have done. I feel this because I am a victim of luxury, a hypocritical sense of my own innocence, and, most likely, a lingering sense of morality bestowed upon me by my Christian upbringing (chapel every day at school, etc).

John, meanwhile, has been betrayed by Julian, the film’s bourgeois representative; he has experienced the thrill of gang violence that I am too cowardly to face (though I like the idea of it); and he has – in a dream/hallucination sequence that takes place when John is high from sniffing glue – literally been knifed by Jesus. So why would John care for my moral values and want to act in a way that I feel is appropriate to him? In some respects, he may ‘want’ to do this; but then again, he’s a Ned, so why not behave like a Ned and not do what I want him to do?

That John ends up in a safari park is perhaps significant. There is a scene in La Haine (Mathieu Kassovitz, France, 1995), in which the main characters (Vincent Cassel, Saïd Taghmaoui, Hubert Koundé) tell a news reporter investigating the banlieues to go forth and multiply, explaining that ‘this is not Thoiry.’ Thoiry is a safari park near Paris – the implication being that the media should not wander into housing estates with their cameras and look curiously at and record for amusement the lives of others that they thus in part consider to be animals put out for show. (Oh, the problems of shanty town and favela tourism – or poorism as sometimes I think of it.)

One wonders whether Peter Mullan is making a similar point with regard to Neds. We cannot make of the working classes (or the past, since Neds is set in the 1970s) a theme or safari park through which we wander, flirting with ‘danger’ and ‘excitement’ without ever experiencing either. Neds therefore self-consciously raises the issue of whether the film itself is not an exoticisation of working class Glasgow life. Whether the film itself is not something of a performance of Neddishness, beneath which is… a creative spirit as bourgeois as those with which the film otherwise denies kinship?

In some of the great British New Wave films, such as The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (Tony Richardson, UK, 1962) and Billy Liar (John Schlesinger, UK, 1963), there is a real sense in which the anti-hero, in these films respectively Colin and Billy, who are both played by Tom Courtenay, refuses at the last to take the opportunity to escape from his ‘depressing’ and working class life. Colin refuses to win the race that might help him to improve his lot in borstal, while Billy refuses to get on the train that might lead him to a different and supposedly ‘better’ life. The failure of performance becomes here a performance of failure, which in turn hides something of a success. Why should Colin run just to please other people? Why should Billy get on the train in order to find a ‘kind of living/loving‘ that is not necessarily his own? One may want more money, more freedom to move, and so on – but the Mephistophelian contract of class mobility demands that if you want wealth and, most of all, to be ‘accepted’ by those people that have brandished you as chavs or Neds, then you have to turn your back on and give up everything that you have ever known.

Where Cemetery Junction (Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, UK, 2010) sees Freddie (Christian Cooke) successfully run away by train in the end (albeit an hour late), the British New Wave films’ characters do not want to turn their back on everything they have known in order to have a ‘better’ life. Perhaps this is because, at the last, they are prey to the very ideological beliefs that imprison people – psychologically as much as physically – in economic penury. John in Neds cannot at the last kill his father, in spite of his father’s wish for him to do so, and in spite of the vicious beating that John gives to him with a saucepan or frying pan earlier in the film. While this shows that John finally loves his roots, no matter how ‘terrible,’ violent or traumatic they are both for him and for we audience members who judge it, as is expressed by his tearful embrace of his father, it might also be one set of beliefs that John cannot throw off – namely that you love your family through thick and thin.

Let us think about this: if we (or I, certainly) feel cold towards John at the end for not, say, handing himself in, it is because I am trying to impose upon him a set of moral values that are middle class but which present themselves as being natural and universal. I similarly feel saddened that John has not embraced/realised his academic potential and gotten out of Glasgow as he ‘should’ do. However, if getting out of Glasgow and the working class means turning one’s back on everything that one is or from which one comes, then in some respects, John would have figuratively if not literally to kill his father in order to achieve this/to do so. And yet, John does not kill his father when he has the opportunity to do so. My hypocrisy resides here: I in fact think John should have killed his father, or done the equivalent thereof by leaving Glasgow and never returning (something that John’s brother apparently does by moving to Spain, though this is also to avoid the heat that he has coming, too), but at the same time I frown upon John for all of the other acts of violence that he has perpetrated. I want John to believe in something, while at the same time asking him to believe in nothing. John may be a ‘fool’ of sorts at the end for not realising his potential, but in other respects, by keeping his potential as, precisely, unrealised potential, John may frustrate my expectations of him, but he also remains somehow pure potential, a member of a coming community or a people to come.

(In this sense, Neds does fit the model of cinema that has already been applied to Peter Mullan’s previous Orphans (UK, 1997) – as has been discussed here.)

John walking through the safari park, then, perhaps signals that John, unlike his brother, will not run away; instead of traveling to Spain or to Africa, the journeys he will make will be inner journeys, perhaps imaginary ones – and if he is caught for previous crimes committed, then he will face up to them, as opposed to going to Spain to escape them like his brother. In other words, John finally does show profound moral responsibility for what he has done – even if he is not in a hurry to hand himself in. Furthermore, he fails to perform/performs failure, and does not turn his back on his family life – which gives him a sense of integrity greater than that of the audience members/me who are egging John on to realise his academic potential, to go to university, and… what? Get a humdrum job like everyone else, watch TV every night over dinner, and congratulate himself on the fact that he feels nothing, believes in nothing, and has no trouble with anything…?

Upon first leaving the cinema after watching Neds at the London Film Festival, I felt somewhat disappointed in the film, as did my two Scottish companions who watched the film with me. Maybe the film felt like a bit of ‘poorism,’ without the overt community values that would have turned the film from Neds into This is Scotland. It was a performance of Neddishness, underneath which lies, as per Shane Meadows’ film, a sweet heart that wants the love of the middle classes that it so happily titillates throughout its duration.

Furthermore, the film was a performance of ‘shite Scotland’ that so pleases English and other communities: a ‘you’re only happy when you’ve escaped Glasgow’ kind of narrative that allows the English to feel safe in their condescending sense of superiority over their neighbours.

In these ways, Neds was disappointing – but that John chooses not to leave Glasgow also made the film interestingly troubling: we don’t like narratives that falsify how shite Glasgow/Scotland is, but we are perplexed that John does not want to escape it. We want to eat our cake and have it. But such reactions also perhaps do not give the film credit for what it is, since they try to judge it against an imaginary film that Neds is not – although if that film did exist, it might be a mix of Small Faces (Gillies Mackinnon, UK, 1996) and

Notes from the LFF: Orion (Zamani Esmati, Iran, 2010)

Blogpost, Film reviews, Iranian cinema

Orion sees established Iranian filmmaker and one-time Abbas Kiarostami protégé Jafar Panahi work as an editing consultant.

It is not that Panahi’s stamp is all over Zamani Esmati’s second film. But it is that Orion shares with one of Panahi’s best known works, Dayereh/The Circle (Iran/Italy/Switzerland, 2000), the name of one of its lead characters.

In Panahi’s film, Elham (Elham Saboktakin) is a nurse who is now married to a doctor, but who has a prison record that she tries to hide. She refuses to help Pari (Fereshteh Sadre Orafaiy), a woman who is pregnant with a husband who has since been executed, and who herself has just come out of prison and is in danger of being killed (it seems) by her family.

In Esmati’s film, Elham (Nasim Kiani) is either pregnant out of wedlock and in need of an abortion (the common assumption that one might make) or, as one of my students suggested followed an educational screening of Orion at the London Film Festival, she is a girl who has lost her virginity out of wedlock, and who is seeking surgery to have her hymen replaced.

Elham may be a relatively common name in Iran and the fact that each film features a major character called Elham may simply be a coincidence, but it does point to the similar features of both films, even if in Panahi’s Circle, Elham is the only woman to walk free (by refusing to help her fellow women), while in Esmati’s Orion, Elham ends up incarcerated.

Both films deal with the impossible plight of women in a society dominated by patriarchal Shi’ite values. Both films also deal with the quietly repressive police regime in Iran: although Orion is set in Yazd, as opposed to Tehran, both feature police forces that are in many respects ruthless, but also very human.

In Orion in particular, we see the police arrive at the house/studio of a would-be filmmaker (Hamed Baraghani), walk in, and arrest everyone, including Elham (eventually), her boyfriend Amir (Mehrdad Sheykhi), and his doctor friend who has come to perform the operation (Mohammad Reza Farzad). There is no shouting, no aggressive questioning, no busting down the doors. The police officers enter, talk calmly, and ensnare their suspects through persistent question that is reminiscent in part of Kafka or Arthur Koestler. The police then swap mobile phone gags with their suspects, provide water and pills for their inmates, and generally seem to let people come and go – but very few people do go, perhaps because they know that there is nowhere that they can go.

In other words, it is not that the police here (and in The Circle) is evil in any obvious or ostensible fashion, but it is banal in a way that does recall Hannah Arendt‘s most famous phrase. (If it is not banal to say that evil is banal.)

However, perhaps this banality in part relates to the fact that the men are not really in any danger of being imprisoned. Rather, it is only Elham who runs the risk of prison and shame. For, the supposed sins of the couple – sleeping together outside of wedlock – are transposed uniquely on to the woman, Elham: Amir will and does walk free for deflowering Elham, while Elham goes to prison, presumably having been branded a whore.

Men get away with everything and anything, complains Elham’s mother to Amir in front of the courtroom. And this seems to be the case: twice in the film, we see Elham trying to run away from the police – first when she sneaks out of the back door of the filmmaker’s house, and second when she runs from the courtroom where she will be arrested. Both times, we know that she is being pursued, but we have little or no access to the pursuer, be it from Elham’s or the pursuer’s point of view. That is, these are not depicted as chases. Instead, each is depicted more or less from Elham’s perspective, as we follow behind her. She tries to open doors, she tries to climb over walls, and so on. And each time, she finds only a dead end at which – eventually but with total inevitability – a police officer finally arrives. The second time, she hits the police officer and continues her would-be escape, only for the film to cut to her leaving prison, presumably several days/weeks/months later.

Rather than showing us a chase, then, both scenes are reminiscent of nightmares in which one runs away from an unseen force, only to suffer from one or a combination of the following: one’s legs suddenly becoming frictionless, meaning that one is running, but going nowhere; or one’s legs suddenly being only able to move as if through syrup; or, worse, running into a random house for protection, only to find that it is the house of the person pursuing you. For Elham, her efforts to escape are futile – as indicated by the lack of hurry in pursuing her. This sense of imprisonment makes the film powerfully unbearable (for me).

Akin to Bahman Ghobadi’s recent Kasi az gorbehaye irani khabar nadareh/No One Knows About Persian Cats (Iran, 2009), Esmati’s film was shot on a micro-budget with digital cameras and without a permit, meaning that the film is ‘underground’ in Iran but obviously something of interest to film festivals. Matthew Holtmeier has perceptively written about how that film is reminiscent of Gilles Deleuze’s (and Félix Guattari’s) notion of a ‘people to come.’ Since Deleuze and Guattari came up with the notion in relation to Kafka, and since this film is reminiscent (to me) of Kafka, then one feels tempted to say the same of Orion. But in some respects, the film is not as defiant as Ghobadi’s; it is singularly more pessimistic and as a result, one does not sense much in the way of ‘futurity’ or hope.

The film ends with Elham being dragged from the back seat of her father’s car and into the desert, where he may or may not stab her with a screwdriver. Elham’s mother pleads with him to stop, and as a gale blows up and a sandstorm blows from right to left across the screen, all three are framed from the open car door on their knees, howling to God and to each other. The shot of the desert is a powerful one, bringing to mind the hopelessness of Elham’s situation – one cannot fight these natural and, more pointedly, naturalised forces such as desire (which, sadly, got her in trouble in the first place) and the (here, Iranian Islamic) Law (which is not natural, but has become naturalised/made to be thought of as natural).

However, for all that Orion is pessimistic, we should be careful not to read it as a documentary that tells it like it is (in every case, even if stuff like this does happen). That is, we should not generalise from this film that everyone’s experiences in Iran are the same. The reasons for this are not to say that the film is inaccurate, or wrong. But just that non-Iranian viewers might feel compelled to ‘condemn’ all Iranians for being in some sense ‘bigots,’ the problem being that this is perchance a bigoted attitude to have in the first place (and provided that this is not a bigoted attitude to have against bigots and bigotry as a whole).

While I was inclined to argue that Brillante Mendoza’s Lola/Grandmother (France/Philippines, 2009) is more realistic than John Sayles’ Amigo (USA, 2010) on account of its budget in a recent post (my argument being that a lower budget means less control when shooting on the streets, which means more ‘reality’ creeps in), here I should make clear that no film is absolutely realistic (particularly when representing history, as Sayles’ film purports to). So – yes, Orion was shot ‘underground’ (i.e. without permission from the authorities), and it was funded by Esmati himself for a very small amount of money, and it is shot with handheld digital cameras that suggests realism, but this does not make what the film shows us as real or even wholly realistic.

In some respects, the film knows this: many of the film’s framings are arch, in the sense that they are knowingly ‘meaningful’: shots of the main characters from behind bars, or an inserted moment where a child’s kite gets stuck on the roof of the filmmaker’s house all attest to the lack of freedom that the characters endure not just from the authorities/the Law, but also from the story that the filmmaker imposes upon them. Furthermore, in that same house, posters for films and, in particular, film stock are seen hanging from the walls. An image of Al Pacino is on its side: Dog Day Afternoon (Sidney Lumet, USA, 1975) this is not. But that we see images that are framed by strips of celluloid also brings to mind that we are watching not reality itself, but a fabricated reality (even if one that takes in real locations).

Perhaps this is most noticeable in a long scene in the filmmaker’s editing ‘suite,’ in which Esmati/his editor/Panahi (as editing advisor) has inserted multiple ‘jump cuts’ in which perhaps (as few as) one, two or three frames have been removed from the image track, while the sound track seems to remain constant. The effect of this scene is to make the viewer not only aware that they are watching a film, but it is also to suggest that the male characters in this scene, who discuss the relative freedom of their lives, and who complain about women, somehow elude the camera. Or that they have a freedom of mobility that the camera cannot quite capture, while Elham struggles to run away (from the camera as much as from the police officers that we do not see chasing her), but never can. Perhaps this explains why we do not see Elham in prison at all; the camera does not need to imprison her there; its only function is to imprison her while not in prison, the camera serving as a panopticon machine.

If Orion is not necessarily to be considered as realistic, then, perhaps we can draw something out of its status as a festival film. If the lack of a permit means that the economic potential of this film in Iran is nil (even though, as a recent book on Iranian cinema makes clear, those who grant filmmaking permits in Iran can often spot and even turn a blind eye to/implicitly encourage subversive material), its aspirations for life lie in both the pirate market and its strange bedfellow, the film festival circuit.

The festival circuit and piracy are arguably two sides of the same coin regarding what they can offer a film in terms of life and audiences. By taking images without authorisation, Esmati is something of a pirate (he takes his camera into the street while other pirates take their cameras into the cinema), who is in turn supported by the festival circuit. Aside from making this parallel, it is important to note that Esmati might well have made this film knowing that it would get on to the festival circuit, not least because Iran is a hot topic now that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is threatening to go nuclear (how could a country so medieval in its treatment of women dare to become a power so modern as to have nuclear?).

That is to say: non-Iranian viewers of film festival films (i.e. the relatively wealthy and specialised audiences that get to and can afford film festival films, which, in London at least, typically cost more than a normal cinema ticket) arguably like seeing images of ‘backwardness’ in Iran, because it conforms to the media image of Iran/Ahmadinejad as a cruel tyrant keeping a desert-strewn country in the Dark Ages.

This is not to say that Iran is not unstable as a country, nor to say that Ahmadinejad is not an election-stealing tyrant. That is not my opinion to give. But it is to question the motives of festival goers and programmers for going to and putting into film festivals films that are critical of Iran, and by extension Islam (since the country is an Islamic Republic) – especially its/the religion’s treatment of women.

Given the overwhelming youth of Iran’s population, one wonders how taboo extra-marital sex really is (that is, on the – or under the – ground), even if sex is supposed not to be depicted in/on film (though I am sure that pornography proliferates in Iran, whether or not there is a specifically Iranian porn industry). Furthermore, when we compare this film to recent work by, say, Tahmineh Milani, one wonders to what extent this is a stylised portrayal of middle class life as much as her films are but in the opposite direction (if very different to her earlier films, Atash bas/Cease Fire, Iran, 2006, is a comedy about affluent middle class Iranians, featuring a very strong female lead).

No doubt there are problems in Iran and perhaps with Islam in general with regard to the imbalance between the sexes, even if prominent women like Shirin Ebadi might suggest otherwise. But for whatever Orion shows us that is troubling and problematic, we should not, as Western/festival audiences, trust that it is true without at least some questioning of the film. Indeed, given the self-conscious moments in the film (in particular the framing and the jump cuts in the editing suite), Orion itself seems to want us to know that it is presenting us not with reality itself, but with, as per the moments when Elham tries to run away but cannot, a nightmare version of reality.

Amir is an astrophysicist who is expecting to escape to the West – although this may not happen for him if he is forced to stay and marry Elham. The constellation Orion is mentioned in the film as the constellation of the hunter. This might make of Orion an interesting companion to Rafi Pitts’ new film, The Hunter (Iran/Germany, 2010), which is due out shortly in the UK. But for this film, it seems that Amir, as a man, hunts women/has freedom (to exert his power) over them. In one particularly cruel scene, he barefacedly lies to a judge that he has not had an affair with Elham – Amir not thus being found guilty of perjury, but instead Elham being convicted more forcefully for his crime. He perhaps aspires to a god-like status (not least because he will escape Iran), while Elham and presumably other women are treated as mere humans, perhaps even as less than human.

While we do not see Elham’s incarceration, we do see the overnight stay that Amir and his friends make in a cell. They drink alcohol (supposedly against the law) and banter: apparently being arrested does not particularly fluster them. Elham, meanwhile, is isolated, silent and barely gets to speak throughout the film. Because the film challenges the typical understanding of prison (guards telling men to shut up, rattling the prison bars, etc), it seems rather to suggest that the prison is as much a mental one as a physical one – not least because Amir’s physician friend gets his assistant to bring them food and ethanol (what poor security that prison has!).

As such, the film becomes not so much a realistic portrayal of life in Iran, as opposed to an allegory about freedom, perchance a more specific allegory about the freedom of women in the Islamic Republic. This might put us back in the territory of Fredric Jameson who relatively problematically has suggested that all ‘Third World’ texts (including films?) are necessarily read in the West as allegories of the nation. But in some respects, I wonder that the ‘allegorical’ reading is paradoxically more accurate than extrapolating from the film that Iran is a terrible society full of evil men and victimised women. I’ve no doubt that Iran has its share of these as do all corners of the planet, and perhaps Iran is unfortunate in having such people (the men, anyway) actually in positions of power.

But if nothing else, and as Hamid Dabashi has argued, Iran is a complex and multicultural society that has rich intellectual, artistic, cultural, social and scientific traditions. To look upon it in simplistic terms, not as Orion does, but as Orion‘s audience might feel tempted to do, is look upon it with veiled eyes.

Notes from the LFF: Amigo (John Sayles, USA, 2010)

American cinema, Blogpost, Film reviews

Filipino cinema has seemingly had a bit of a renaissance recently – although why I say this will need to be put in context.

From what I understand, the Philippines did have a thriving local film industry in the 1930s, with plenty of domestic stars that mitigated the unrelenting presence of Hollywood products. The country’s art house peak, meanwhile, is perhaps exemplified by the work of Lino Brocka, who was a prominent figure on the film festival circuit in the 1970s and 1980s.

But of late a ‘new wave’ (whatever this term means these days) has been spearheaded by Brillante Mendoza, by whom I have only seen Lola/Grandmother (France/Philippines, 2009), which was excellent and which makes me want to see more. In other words, it seems as though the Philippines has its own fair crop of talented filmmakers and that Filipinos are more than capable of telling their own stories – as perhaps has been clearly exemplified in the realm of literature by the work of José Rizal, whose novel Noli Me Tangere (1887) forms a core part of Benedict Anderson‘s analysis of nations as ‘imagined communities.’

Rizal perhaps inevitably gets a mention both in this blog (as the only Filipino some of whose work I have read) as well as in John Sayles’ latest film, Amigo, in which a character declares that the Philippines will be saved one day by Jesus Christ and José Rizal riding into town. The moment raised a laugh in the audience, perhaps by people who had heard of Rizal in a bid to vocalise the fact that they recognised the name, but more likely because a fair number of London’s Filipino community seemed to be in attendance at this London Film Festival screening.

And while the mention got something of an approbatory laugh – suggesting that the desire for Filipino economic independence may still make of the the Philippines something of a ‘people to come‘ – it also got me to thinking: why is this film being made by John Sayles?

Don’t get me wrong: I find John Sayles a most intriguing filmmaker. His stilted, even belaboured dialogue can be heard a mile away (not least because it is often spoken, as in this film, with the voice of Chris Cooper). And yet his films, didactic though they can be, are still committed in their righteousness concerning the effort to revivify/sustain America’s ever-dwindling left. That and the fact that Sayles started as a writer on films like Piranha (Joe Dante, USA, 1978), Alligator (Lewis Teague, USA, 1980), and The Howling (Joe Dante, USA, 1981).

Furthermore, Sayles has been a filmmaker committed to making films about issues that are not necessarily connected to him. By which I mean to say, that from his treatment of lesbianism in Lianna (USA, 1983), to his treatment of race in The Brother from Another Planet (USA, 1984), TexMex relations in Lone Star (USA, 1996 – and my favourite Sayles film to date), and Mexican life in Men With Guns (USA, 1997), we might argue that Sayles has taken up ’causes’ with which he may well share all levels of kinship, but which sometimes are the kinds of stories that those involved in these situations must tell for themselves. In other words, Sayles is neither a lesbian, nor black, nor Mexican.

Nor is he Filipino. And yet here is directing a film in part about Philippine independence. For Amigo tells the story of a village chief, Rafael (Joel Torre), who must deal with an invading US garrison at the turn of the last century, which has helped to relieve the Philippines of Spain’s colonial presence, only to decide to take the country for itself/as its own.

As in any Sayles film, we get a plethora of viewpoints on what is happening in the film, including that of many of the American soldiers posted in the baryo, a bunch of the locals, a Spanish priest (Yul Vazquez) who is lingering to retain control of his flock, and even some Chinese workers whom the Americans employ (and who soon into the film are slaughtered by Filipino rebels living out in the wilds).

In other words, Sayles is ‘fair’ as a filmmaker in at the very least trying to give as many of the myriad possible viewpoints there could have been and perhaps were of/at this particular moment in world history. Interestingly, the war depicted here has apparently been referred to by Sayles as a ‘forgotten war.’ But this does beg the question: forgotten by whom? I have no idea whether this was is a monumental war for Filipinos, but it seems most likely that this is a war ‘forgotten’ by Americans.

But if this is the case, then why have no Filipino filmmakers (whose work is at all available outside of the Philippines) addressed this moment in Philippine history? Perhaps because it is forgotten in the Philippines. But this still cannot prevent the film from seeming at times like a lesson in other people’s history. More ironic: the film implicitly is a critique of American imperialism (Rafael, who is perhaps an impossibly/infallibly good guy in the film, ends up being pointlessly executed after a ceasefire), and yet for an American to tell Filipino history is potentially to mirror on a cultural level the economic/political/military ‘imperialism’ carried out by the USA 100+ years ago.

As mentioned, the film is ‘fair’: there are good and bad American soldiers, those who make an effort to get on with the locals (including the obligatory young GI who falls in love with a girl with whom he cannot verbally communicate – the stuff of a true, loving relationship, for sure), and those who remain somewhat ignorant/racist. There is one particularly bad local (Nenong, played by John Arcilla) who is looking to find a way to depose Rafael, and some rebels who are not so much bad as constrained to carry out an attempted murder on Rafael because they recognise that he may be perceived as helping the Americans (when in fact he just trying to keep the peace). But on the whole, everyone is likeable(-ish). It is not that the film should have villains that are readily identifiable; but the film does have a couple of these, and it also has a couple of readily identifiable ‘hero’ types, not least Rafael himself. The problem arises, then, in that by idealising Rafael the versimilitude and the veracity of the film seem compromised…

Sayles should not and does not maintain mere gringo-bashing as his sole agenda, however. In fact, the baryo successfully takes on and uses their new access to democracy to vote in Rafael over Nenong at one point; the imposition of democracy might even be a laudable thing in several respects. But whatever problematising that the film makes of the various issues at play (maybe imposing democracy on people who do not have it is sometimes an okay thing to do), applies to the film itself (telling other people’s histories for them can sometimes be okay, but we should be wary that it is a complex and thorny issue, out of which Sayles wishes to take something of an easy way out, it seems, because, speaking frankly, the film is not particularly self-conscious about its role as a representation of history, even if the acting sometimes has a touch of the Brecht about it).

If we compare Amigo to Lola, then arguably we can see something of a difference to be highlighted. Bearing in mind that I may be prey to believing Lola as a ‘true’ portrayal of contemporary Manila, because its handheld, digital shooting style is of course designed to induce credulity in me/the audience, not least because that and associated techniques have historically been linked to movements involving the word ‘realism,’ Lola does at least have an ‘imperfect’ or ‘raw’ look to it. This suggests that Mendoza works with a very small budget and outside of even the Philippine mainstream (let alone outside of Hollywood), which probabilistically if not de facto means that Mendoza can make a film that must respect/allow to creep into its being reality itself – because the filmmakers do not have the budget to shoot the whole film in a perfectly controlled manner.

Sayles is well known as an independent filmmaker, who uses script editing as a means to finance his films – i.e. he has limited funds, too, and makes films his own way. His latest film is set over 100 years ago, and so shooting on location (which he did) becomes hard to achieve without some falsification, such as the construction of the baryo in which most of the film takes place. But as an American filmmaker who makes plenty of cash from script rewrites in Hollywood, his level of ‘independence’ – regardless of whether chosen or enforced – is far greater than that of Mendoza, in the sense that he does (likely) have greater control over what happens on set, which means that fewer extraneous or, as I am arguing here, ‘true’ elements can or will find their way into the film.

It is not really about the story that is told in either film, then (FYI: Lola sees two grandmothers enter into each other’s lives, one as she tries to raise money for her grandson’s funeral, the other trying to raise money for the bail of her grandson, the murderer of the first grandson). Rather, it is about where the films are made and how much reality is allowed into them.

To malign Sayles on this level is in some respects unfair to him, since little or no reality from the past will make its way into any film, let alone his (in spite of the detailed and I would expect accurate mise-en-scène that his film does offer). But it is to say that Filipinos can and perhaps should tell their own stories – even if, as already mentioned, Sayles’ film is relatively ‘fair’ – in all senses of the word.

But while a Filipino audience might watch a Filipino film about independence from Spain and, subsequently, from the USA, would an American, British, or any non-Filipino audience go to watch that film? Do subtitles really make that much of a difference (there are subtitles in Amigo, but we (anglophone viewers) also get guidance from the American characters)? Do subtitles put audiences off films so much that they could not care to watch them? Given that few relatively few people will see Amigo, can we surmise that most audiences want to ‘forget’ (i.e. would prefer never to know) about the Filipino independence movement and America’s war over there? Given that fewer still will watch Lola, can we surmise that most (Western?) audiences want to ‘forget’ (i.e. would prefer never to know) about Filipino life at all? Given that relatively few people in the Philippines watch Mendoza’s films (which therefore might be considered ‘festival films’), can we surmise that few Filipinos want to watch films about their own country (or at least would prefer escapist fare to neorealist-influenced, art house fare? Can we surmise that few people want to watch art house films full stop?

If, as seemed the case with the elements of the audience in London that I took to be Filipino/interested in the Philippines, Filipinos are grateful to Sayles for telling this story, is this because he is bringing to the attention of the non-Philippine/anglophone world a moment in history that should be remembered? In other words, does the film function as a way of bringing attention to the Philippines full stop? (Film as a tool for tourism?) Or are they grateful that the film has at least interested someone because neither Filipinos nor anyone else is/seems interested in making a film about Filipino independence? And if this is the case, why is this so? Because we have fatigue from information overload and few are those who are prepared to grit their cerebral teeth and keep on taking in information? Or because the globalising processes that have in part helped to bring about information overload are truly ‘eurocentric’ processes that privilege the global rich over the global poor – hence my own personal anger and attempts to swallow my frustration every time I hear a student tell me straight-faced that they don’t like art house (especially politically-minded art house) cinema because it is ‘boring’?

An interview with Sayles is to be found here for your consideration.

Notes from the LFF: Rizhao Chongqing/Chongqing Blues (Wang Xiaoshuai, China, 2010)

Blogpost, Chinese cinema, Film reviews, London Film Festival 2010, Uncategorized

Chongqing Blues tells the story of Lin (Wang Xueqi), a sea captain who returns home to Chongqing upon hearing the news that his son, Lin Bo (Zi Yi) has been killed by the police.

Rejected by his wife, Lin begins to spend his time following his son’s best friend, Xiao Hao (Qin Hao), in order to get to know his son better.

As per other films that I have been by Wang Xiaoshuai, the film is contemplative in style. That is to say, the films move at a ‘gentle’ pace, and slowly allow audiences to accrue information about the characters, who typically are haunted by a loss of some sort.

In Shiqi sui de dan che/Beijing Bicycle (China, 2001), the lost object is a bicycle. In Qing hong/Shanghai Dreams, the thing is lost is the family’s life in Shanghai, to which they want to return. And in Er di/Drifters (China/Hong Kong, 2003), that lost object functions in part as both a place (a return home from the USA) and a son whom the father (Duan Long) wishes to see. Here, however, the son is dead – having been gunned down by police while attacking people with a knife in a supermarket. But the same motif of loss and a return home are still there.

The plot is important and can read ‘allegorically’: Lin represents a Chinese patriarch who has lost contact with and finds it difficult to understand the younger generation, who in turn feel adrift and without clear guidance in the absence of a father figure. This suggests a China that, tentatively at best, is feeling a rift between generations – not least because of the breakdown of the family unit in the face of the need to travel to work (Lin at sea), and also because of the fast-changing face of contemporary China, shaped extensively as it is by new technologies.

For, Lin obsessively looks at a Chinese equivalent of YouTube at images of his son’s crime – captured on a CCTV camera in the supermarket and placed online. He even has a still image of his son from this video blown up (twice) on to large photographs – in order that better he can contemplate what his son had become before his death.

And yet, these images of Lin Bo are pixellated, such that he is a blur of colour squares, recognisable perhaps at a distance, but fragmented and unrecognisable up close. Technology – here, digital imagery – seems to have played a part in this breakdown of the family unit, such that it has rendered Lin Bo unrecognisable to his father.

The mobile phone also seems to play a key role in the changing face of Chinese youth, with Xiao Hao in particular being literally chained to his phone (which he carries in his pocket, but keeps on a chain). Father Lin has a chance to speak to Xiao Hao’s father; the latter knows that his son works as a dancer in a nightclub and he does not see it as being genuine work, one gets the impression, but at least Xiao Hao is paid to do this. In other words, the older generation does not understand the bright lights and loud noises in which the younger generation immerses itself (most arrestingly seen when we go with Lin Bo into the deafening and neon-lit club – which serves as a stark contrast to the other scenes set in and around Chongqing, particularly its pastel seaside palette and its ‘blues’).

Notably, it is the moment that Xiao Hao does not answer his phone that, in part, leads to Lin Bo’s death. In need of help in the supermarket, Lin Bo calls Xiao Hao, but the latter does not respond. But whether answering the phone would have ‘saved’ Lin Bo or not, one gets the impression that relationships are not direct in contemporary Chongqing among the urban youth, but are instead highly mediated and dependent on real time telephonic technologies.

It turns out that Lin Bo was more or less stalking a girl who did not necessarily love him as he felt that he loved her. And it is his desperation to have her that, seemingly, leads him to commit his futile crime.

Here, then, we have a sense in which the new generation follows the lure of images, particularly of woman as image, perhaps, such that their human relationships are dysfunctional and idealised, as opposed to tangible and real.

That said, it is not as if Lin’s relationship with his wife is any better. She violently rejects him for most of the film and in one important scene she throws at him the newspaper report about Lin Bo’s death: Lin Bo has become himself pure image (both in print and online) and this copy (without an original?) is the closest that either parent seems to be able to get to their son. Even Xiao Hao, Lin Bo’s closest friend, finds Lin Bo an odd fish and seems to let the latter hang out with him out of sympathy and a sense of needing to protect him, as opposed genuinely to liking him.

If Lin Bo is something of a mystery, then, perhaps the only thing that ‘explains’ him is his insistence that his father will one day return and that he will be able to go fishing with him. Hence Lin Bo’s continual returns (in flashback) to the sea, where he hangs out for seemingly interminable periods of time, looking out to sea.

If there has been a breakdown in family and more general human relations, then, the youth in particular feels that it is because of the absent father that this has taken place.

Do we read the film, then, as being an allegory of the capitalisation/globalisation of China, with the influx of telecommunication technologies that this entails, and in need of a strong but now absent father figure (one cannot help but think back to the Communist regime, e.g. under Mao) to ‘sort it out’?

If – and this is a strong if – there is a sense of this at all, it is only more ambiguous than the last paragraph lets on. By which I mean that the film does not pose any solutions to these conundrums, and it is all the better for it. What has been done cannot be undone, and while the film engages at length in the trauma of loss (with Lin even tracking down the police officer who killed his son, who professes that he might get some ‘peace’ out of the meeting for himself rather than simply helping the father to understand what happened), and is instilled with a sense of regret, at the same time, the film seems determined not to explain the past too much (we never fully understand why Lin left), but rather to deal with the present.

A melancholy film, for sure, Chongqing Blues is an excellent addition to the London Film Festival line-up, even if to some extent a ‘festival’ film through and through.

Brief comment on Made in Dagenham

Blogpost, British cinema, Film reviews, Uncategorized

There is quite a lot to say about Nigel Cole’s Made in Dagenham (UK, 2010), but I am going to stick to only a brief moment in the film.

As the actions of the striking Ford seamstresses bring the working males in Ford factories around the country to a halt, because they do not have enough car seats to continue fabricating the vehicles to completion, we see documentary footage of workers complaining. Men should be the chief bread winners, says one, while another says that the women should stop striking and let the men go back to work.

Not only did this moment remind me of how it was for the sake of men’s wounded egos, or so it is argued, that many women ended up losing jobs in the film industry back in the 1930s – because women post-Wall Street Crash were denied jobs that perhaps traditionally they had had (e.g. as editors), and instead they went to men in order to rebuild ‘national’ (i.e. male) morale.

But also, what was notable about this moment is that one of the men complaining about the striking women is black. The only black person in the whole film.

Surely the filmmakers could have shown footage of someone else (i.e. a white man) making a similar and sexist comment, had they wanted to. So why have a black man say this in the film? Well, perhaps it is to say that sexism cuts across races – and that the history of female emancipation has been as hard for black women as it has been for white women. In some senses, this would be a laudable point to make.

However, there are no black women in Made in Dagenham. Historically, it may be so that Ford did not employ black women in Dagenham in 1968 (when the film is set) – and this not through an articulated policy of exclusion, but simply because no black women happened to be within commuting distance of the factory (although this becomes hard to believe). In other words, it may be ‘accurate’ not to show black women working at the factory at the time.

But this lack of black women, which became noticeable through the inclusion of one black man, did remind me of the work of Jacqueline Bobo, who says in one of her essays that black women have been a structuring absence of American cinema. And so perhaps are they a structuring absence in British cinema (pace work by Lola Young).

The whiteness of mainstream British cinema is here brought to the fore. And, in particular, the fact that black women are rarely seen in British films (with Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Thandie Newton disappearing to the USA; perhaps only Naomie Harris and Sophie Okonedo are well known and working in the UK right now, and they only get supporting roles).

(And this is not to mention lingering sexiam in the film industry more generally, let across ‘real’ life in general. I have been sad to hear other people’s opinions, for example, about how little chance Diane Abbott had of becoming leader of the Labour Party – as if she is not qualified for the job/as if she is a numbers-making also-ran. Whatever you otherwise think of her, not to take her candidacy seriously is only condescending. Which leads me to think about the bum deal that Hilary Clinton [least so], Sarah Palin [perhaps deserved] and Ségolène Royal have had in recent elections: the common argument/perception being that they are too ‘stupid’ [Palin and Royal, especially] to do the job – as if George W Bush, John Major, Nicolas Sarkozy and any number of recent politicos have been/are geniuses…)

Made in Dagenham asks for sexual equality. It implies some sense of racial equality by including the talk of one (sexist) black man (who appears, notably, in documentary footage – i.e. to reinforce the notion that black men really are sexist?). But it does not include any black women. Given how attractive the actresses are (I hate to put it this way, but their appearances are definitely more suited to the cinema screen than those of the real protestors whom we see later on in the film, again in documentary inserts), we could say that the film is not strictly that bothered with realism. And if it is not that bothered with realism, in that the film aestheticises its women participants, then why not have black actresses figure in the film, since the message of equality is the film’s chief aim as opposed to its being a critique of Ford’s (now outdated) sexist wage structures and the history of this particular moment in the/appropriated by the Women’s Lib movement…?

The truth is, I don’t know why – although I have my suspicions. But I’d like to see more and more prominent roles for and films featuring black British actresses – and actresses of all sorts of races and ethnicities – whither Archie Panjabi, Parminder Nagra, and, of course, many more?

As for my suspicions regarding the ‘truth’ behind the film’s ‘agenda’ – a rather large clue comes in the title: Made in Dagenham. ‘Made in…’ suggests something ironic along the lines of: the product being made is ‘pure British,’ with British here seemingly being defined by whiteness.

That is, Made in Dagenham is something of a flagwaving film about British identity, but the values of which, as we shall see, cannot stand up in the contemporary age.

Firstly, ‘Made in Dagenham’ seems positively parochial in the face of ‘made in China,’ ‘made in Korea,’ and ‘made in Taiwan.’ My point is not that ‘made in’ is the sole remit of Asia; plenty of things are made in Britain – as Elton John, in one of his most embarrassing songs, has suggested.

‘Made in Dagenham,’ however, seems to suggest something wholly and paradoxically British. If the Essex man is thought of as the lynchpin of Margaret Thatcher’s political career, Thatcher herself being considered one of the masterminds behind the ongoing de-industrialisation of the UK, then the Essex girl is here posited as a pro-Labour force – as is recognised by the co-optation of the Dagenham seamstresses by Barbara Castle in the film (with Miranda Richardson playing Castle as if indeed some ‘inverted Thatcher’ of sorts – a creation that can seem only to have made in hindsight, as is the whole ‘Essex’ discourse that did not necessarily exist at the time of the history being recounted/embellished in this film).

Barbara Castle was herself a supporter of decolonisation and racial equality – although it is not one of her beefs in this particular film. But that we should stick to ‘British’ – as the ‘made in…’ title seems to want to boast – is problematic (for me) in the face of globalisation, wherein in ‘made in…’ all too often refers to distant elsewheres whose sweat shop status is occulted in favour of ‘well, at least they have this job’ parlance.

The film’s all-white cast attests to the vision of Britain being put forward here and which might not conform to Barbara Castle’s in any direct way. It is also a vision of Britain that is at odds with the country’s present labourforce, which, since the dissolution of boundaries for EU citizens, has become increasingly diverse – above and beyond immigration flows dating back to the early post-war period. In other words, ‘made in’ does not mean much these days if in that place whatever is being made is being ‘made by’ a workforce of diverse national and ethnic backgrounds. That is to say, Made in Dagenham is nostalgic about its past (1968 – a time of hope across Europe, after all) – which becomes a nostalgia difficult to maintain in the face of the film’s whitewashing of that past.

Perhaps the film already knows this – but tries to hide it. Ford is an American company, well known for its founder’s embracing of making profit over cars built to last. So while there is a sense of the Essex girl being ‘made in Dagenham,’ the film, for all of its equality rhetoric, is still very much about a burgeoning transnational economy in which industry controls politics. Or so it would appear. American Ford exec Tooley (Richard Schiff) threatens her with the closure of the Ford factories should she back their demand for equal pay, and Castle tells him more or less to shove off. In other words, not only is Castle defined here as distinctly feminist, but also distinctly British by being anti-American, which, while perhaps a popular move in the minds of many British viewers of the film, is similarly to whitewash Britain’s own colonial past. Exploitation is projected on to American economic policy, as if Ford were the sole perpetrators of wage inequalities. This is further brought to the fore by the ineptitude of the British Ford bosses, who do not have dossiers or files on their Union bosses, etc.

The message seems to be that American imperialism started in/also affects the UK – so Britain seems indirectly to be claiming kinship in this film with that which it has anything but: the Third World, which Britain itself continues systematically to exploit in all manner of ways.

Made in Dagenham is certainly charming and funny, featuring some delightful performances (although I shall only single out Rosamund Pike, not because she acts Sally Hawkins and/or the others off the screen, but because she seems to have grown in confidence and nuance across her last few films). But it seems as though the things that are missing from it are also some of the things that bring out its slightly twisted politics. Namely, using a progressive political moment (equal pay for women workers in the UK) to also posit a deeply conservative vision of the UK as a country defined by whiteness, as in denial of its colonial past/present by projecting exploitation on to America, and as a country proud of its labour force, despite the fact that, with hindsight, the Barbara Castle of this film can be seen as only a minor dam long since obliterated in the tide against the de-industrialisation of the UK (as signalled by the slow demise of many British car manufacturers since the end of World War 2).

Yo, también/Me Too (Antonio Naharro/Álvaro Pastor, Spain, 2009)

Blogpost, Film reviews, Spanish film, Uncategorized

I saw Yo también as part of the recent London Spanish Film Festival 2010.

The turnout was excellent and, judging from the laughter induced by the advert from the Spanish Tourist Office which culminates in a relatively wealthy British wife and mother declaring “I need Spain,” the audience was predominantly Spanish.

The laughter continued into Yo, también itself, which, admittedly, is often a funny film. It tells the story of Daniel (Pablo Pineda), the first person with Down’s Syndrome to graduate from university in Spain. Daniel starts to work with the Seville council team, where he spots and then meets Laura (Lola Dueñas). He falls in love with Laura, who has 46 chromosomes, and who, according to various characters in the film, is an unsuitable partner for him.

However, in spite of the supposed disadvantage that Daniel has, he develops a strong friendship with Laura, a Madrileña who is going through something of a personal crisis in Seville (escaping from a relationship with her father that may well have been abusive) – and eventually, though for one night only, they become lovers.

Daniel is articulate and witty – rebuffing all of the unthinkingly prejudiced things that people say against him as the film develops – in particular attitudes regarding his sexuality and, by extension, the sexuality of Down sufferers in general. “Have you ever thought about prostitution?” Laura asks him at one point, making reference to the fact that Daniel finds it hard to control his sexual urges. “Do you think women would pay to sleep with me?” replies Daniel.

There is even a scene in which Daniel mocks those who are mentally disabled by hitting himself repeatedly over the head as Laura explains in a lift and in front of two onlookers that she is not interested in him as a lover. As Laura tells him to stop acting “subnormal,” the female onlooker rebukes Laura for talking that way to someone who is obviously ‘afflicted,’ which prompts Daniel – and then Laura – to burst out laughing. It is the prejudices of the onlookers that have been exposed, not those of Laura – and Daniel is mischievously pleased with pointing this out.

As Sharon Willis, among many others, has noticed, difference is a core part of the study of film: how film portrays people who are of different colours, different creeds, different nationalities, and different sexualities. Some films even attempt to address how mainstream cinema stereotypes, say, old people, although the issue of age difference (whether between people in relationships or just the treatment of old age in general) is underexplored. Similarly, ‘disability’ is relatively unexplored in cinema, even though Oscar perenially hands over his greatest prizes to ‘abled’ actors performing semi-retarded people (although as we have learned from Tropic Thunder (Ben Stiller, USA, 2008), he rarely gives awards to actors who go “full ‘tard”).

And so in many respects, Yo, también is an important film to counter the prejudices of ‘abled’ audiences towards people suffering from Down’s Syndrome. Although that Daniel can mock – lovingly or otherwise – people who are mentally handicapped in other ways does beg the question about ‘hierarchies’ of disability.

Daniel is educated – something the film makes clear that he owes to his parents: his mother (Isabel García Lorca, a niece or great-niece of Federico García Lorca) treated him normally, insisted that he go to school, and regularly reads to him in English, while his father (Pedro Álvarez-Ossorio) is a university professor, who similarly, we presume, treats Daniel like a normal human being. And because Daniel is educated, he has gained access to a different world not normally open to people with Down’s – or people who suffer from other physical and/or mental disabilities: he can look down upon those who do not share his abilities.

This is manifested in the film by the way in which Daniel does not take part in the dance classes organised for Down’s people by his brother Santi (Antonio Naharro, one of the directors of the film) and his sister-in-law-to-be, Reyes (María Bravo). Daniel in fact says that he does not like to dance, and only does so in the film with Laura when he is drunk. Otherwise, repeatedly we see Daniel looking down at the dance classes from an elevated position behind a glass partition. That is, Daniel is physically separated from the ‘normal’ Down’s people in the film – suggesting that he has, through his education, reached a ‘higher’ position in life.

Daniel is laudible: the film opens with an impassioned speech that he gives at a conference, and in which he asks that Down’s people be treated as equals to abled humans – particularly by giving them work to do. Obviously, Daniel has work. While it is rare that we ever see anyone actually doing their mundane daily grind in great detail in movies, it is striking that we never really see Daniel doing any work at the council. Instead, he mucks around at the photocopier and he gazes longingly at the women in the office, including Laura. What is striking is my own prejudice that was revealed to me: for, if I never normally question a ‘normal’ person’s ability to carry out work when watching movies, here I found myself wondering whether Daniel was in fact doing any work – or whether he was being retained by the council as a gesture towards equality. I should have supposed that of course Daniel can do this work, but I do suffer from lingering suspicions. (This despite having many years ago worked with a capable man with Down’s in a bar while at university.)

What condescension I have, though, I wonder Daniel also has. His education has made him an exception and, as Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben has argued in a vastly different context, exceptions prove the rule; they are a product of the rule; they are inside that from which they are made outside when they become exceptional. The rule to which Daniel is an exception is the rule that Down’s sufferers are not allowed to work. But Daniel perhaps reinforces that rule as opposed to challenging it – not least because he is so insistently marked as different from the other Down’s sufferers, as suggested by the use of space in the dance hall.

In this respect, by telling us the story of Daniel, who is exceptional, we get little, or at the very least less, insight into the lives of others with Down’s, the lives of ‘normal’ Down sufferers. That is, Daniel through his education does not have to suffer so much from the prejudices of others – and can even mock the prejudiced (and, indirectly, those with ‘greater’ disabilities than himself). But how about showing us the hardships of those who do not have the advantages that Daniel has? If actors don’t get Oscars for going full ‘tard, so, too, have the makers of Yo, tamién told us a story about someone who is ‘normal’ enough – thanks to his education – so as not to be alienating to audiences.

But by paying such respect to audiences, the film’s ambitions are revealed as being somewhat slight. That is to say, yes, the film rightly raises awareness about the wants, needs and desires of people commonly thought of as disabled, but who want to and can in fact be contributing members of society. But it does not take us fully into the world of those with Down’s – using the educated Daniel instead as a mollification of an existence that people might not otherwise want to see but which, if they truly wanted to see or know the toughness and resilience that presumably are involved in the life of a Down’s sufferer, they perhaps should see.

Let’s not overlook the important love affair that takes place in the film between Luisa (Lourdes Naharro, presumably a relative of Antonio) and Pedro (Daniel Parejo), two Down sufferers whose relationship is seemingly outlawed by both the dance school at which they are partners, and by Luisa’s baker-mother. They run away and in a telling scene, they mock Daniel for his condescending manner towards them in explaining safe sex to them. As Daniel puts a condom on a banana, Luisa tells him that it is not an erect penis, but a banana. Daniel eats the banana – perhaps having seen something of his exclusion-through-education from his ‘own’ group.

Luisa, in perhaps the film’s most powerful scene, then tells her mother that she needs to live alone and be an independent woman. This is a key moment in the film, and there is much in these moments that contradicts aspects of the arguments I have so far been making in this blog. But on another level, one wonders why the film was not about Luisa and Pedro from the off…

Sex looms large in Yo, también. Daniel looks at porn on his computer at home and we have access to his fantasies about his co-workers dressed in bondage gear, bikinis, and the like. He lusts after Laura something silly. And sex between a Down sufferer and a ‘normal’ person seems to be the big taboo broken in this film. More heartbreaking, though, is the proscription of sex between Down sufferers that people try to place on Luisa and Pedro.

Furthermore, while the film has a liberal attitude towards sex in some respects (even Down sufferers want it and should be allowed to have it – with whomever they please), the film also rehashes stereotypical sexist points of view, in that Daniel lusts after women in quite a reactionary way. He has fallen in ‘love’ with Laura, it seems, before he has spoken to her – and so his conception of love and desire is as objectifying of women as it is ‘normalising’ of Down sufferers, in that we understand ‘them’ (as us) to have sexual desires and, perchance, needs. ‘I have a right to desire,’ the films seems to say; ‘but I also have a right to objectify women’ is the problematic point of view also put forward.

Finally, as the film was introduced, the speaker comented on the power of Dueñas’ performance as Laura. Surely Dueñas is excellent in this role. However, no mention was made of the Down actors. It seemed almost as if their performances were not registered as performances because they are, after all, full ‘tards already: the implication is that theirs are not performances.

And so while Daniel is self-consciously a performer within the film, Pineda, Naharro and Parejo, among others, receive no credit for their equally excellent performances.

When earlier I wondered that we perhaps need a film about ‘normal’ Down sufferers, unlike Daniel who has had a long and thorough education, a question is raised. Am I asking for a film made by a Down sufferer? Am I asking for a documentary about the condition? It is easy to imagine at times that Yo, también is a documentary/that this is not a performance. This is one of the chief tricks that the film pulls off in order to hide the elements within it that are retrograde (the singling out a single, ‘special’ hero whose specialness lies in being more like ‘us’ than ‘we’ thought others of his ‘kind’ to be – i.e. his specialiness lies in being not very special, in the sense of unique or different to us, at all – even if this marks him out as different to other Down sufferers; furthermore, the latent sexism in the film is also covered over in this way).

To give the Down actors their due as actors would be to make more prominent the at-times problematic (to me) politics of the film. This is not a fault with the film itself, which does credit the actors. But I wonder that the introduction which singled out Dueñas and not the Down performers reveals something odd – a hypocrisy of sorts, in that the film calls for Down’s people to be considered equals, and yet already they are removed from the system of judgment that is involved in rating a performance as good or bad. Furthermore, to do this (to assume that these are somehow not performances) means that we do not judge, say, Daniel’s sexism as precisely that, sexism, because we are instead induced into thinking ‘aw, Daniel/Pineda is being himself, we cannot judge him, the poor tot, because of his disability.’

Au contraire. Nobody’s perfect, as we know from Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, USA, 1959). But we live in a world where criticism and critiques are made and, painful though criticism often is for those receiving it, these are always ways for us to conceptualise and then perhaps to act upon ways of being ‘better’ people, perhaps even happier people. Treating Down’s sufferers with kid gloves will only perpetuate preconceptions of/prejudices against disability. Daniel’s a smart guy – he can come to understand that he should not treat women the way that he does. So let’s tell him what perhaps he already knows/learns in the film: don’t look down on others if you can help it. Then they will not perhaps look down on you (no pun intended).