Notes from the LFF: 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, USA/UK, 2013)

American cinema, Blogpost, British cinema, Film reviews, London Film Festival 2013, Transnational Cinema

If I linger on aspects of 12 Years a Slave that I feel do not work, it is because a very moving film might have been – in my humble opinion – an even better film.

I shall take it as read that overall I praise the movie in this blog (because it has things worthy of praise, things that will get mentioned), but the things that grated with this film are three in number: the casting, the use of music and, on a slightly different note, the film’s credits.

With regard to the casting, I can understand that any film can and will use big stars in order to become more commercially appealing. And I can also understand that, when there is a film in production about an historically important topic such as slavery, lots of actors will want to work on that project because it boosts the amount of prestige that they have as actors.

Nonetheless, having avoided reading much about the film before watching it (increasingly my preferred way to see films – as ‘blind’ to pre-hype as possible), to see a procession of fine anglophone acting talent work its way through the film in larger and smaller roles – Scoot McNairy, Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt – in fact detracts from the narrative.

For, my experience of the film was along these lines: I am enjoying this film, but now I am faced with Brad Pitt, giving a decent performance as usual (because I think him a good actor), but since he is Brad Pitt (and since his character gets to speechify about the iniquities of slavery) I cannot but think that the he and the film are pushing the ‘worthy’ button a little bit too much.

To be clear: slavery as an historical – and, it cannot be emphasised enough, a contemporary – evil are undoubtedly topics worthy of filmmaking, because filmmaking can and does do all manner of things to raise awareness of slavery, as this film festival in part testifies. As such, the film being ‘worthy’ is not the problem (though a film might want to avoid being too moralising or sentimental in its depiction of slavery – but that is a different issue).

The problem is that one keeps on thinking ‘isn’t Brad Pitt very worthy?’, such that one thinks less about 12 Years a Slave, and more about how morally righteous those people are who made it. Again, this does not make Brad Pitt or anyone a bad person (of course it does not; although the way in which white actors accrue prestige for playing ‘difficult’ and, specifically, racist roles is slightly problematic for me: the white actor’s difficulty in playing a racist potentially occults/keeps out of view both the victims of real slavery and the (again, potential) assumption that black actors playing slaves is somehow ‘easier’).

In conclusion, then, the film can be as worthy as it wants, but the more I am thinking about the making of the film and its actors, the less I am thinking about the film. And slavery should be a topic that is important enough that the film could have no stars in it, and I’d still want to watch it because it should, in effect, speak for itself. The stars stop the film, to my mind, from speaking for itself.

(Furthermore, if the white stars also function to sell the film, then this points to the ongoing issues of race in relation to Hollywood casting. Chiwetel Ejiofor – who gives a fine performance – is relatively famous, but obviously the filmmakers did not want to give this role to Will Smith or various other, more famous black actors because… because he may be too famous for the ‘issue’ of slavery with which the film deals. But it’s fine for Brad Pitt to crop up towards the film’s end, because… I am not sure why (aside from his involvement as a producer in the film). Are these not double standards? And is using white stars to ‘sell’ slavery in cinematic form not also problematic – as if the topic did not speak for itself as important, but instead is only worth thinking long and hard about because a bunch of white actors are involved in the project. In effect, if business comes ahead of morality – stars will bring in the audience, and this is more important than the ‘issue’ that the film portrays – then the film surely is open to criticism.)

My second beef with the film is its use of music. This is not just moments where Hans Zimmer’s score lays down industrial gong sounds to convey the fact that SOMETHING BAD IS HAPPENING. Rather, it is that Hans Zimmer recycles a piece of music in 12 Years a Slave that he used for the magnificent Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, USA, 1998) fifteen years ago.

Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does mar the film somewhat. The piece of music the (forgive my lack of knowledge regarding musical terminology) chord progression of which is largely repeated in 12 Years a Slave from The Thin Red Line is called ‘Journey to the Line’ – and it is a beautiful, epic piece of music. However, knowing that McQueen’s film is borrowing from Malick’s film in this way is also slightly jarring.

I could believe that McQueen, being a ‘clever’ artist and all, is pointing to the impossibility to depicting slavery without the use of cliché (with cliché here meaning saying things through terms that other people have used, i.e. repeating someone else’s words or, in this case, music).

Nonetheless, what the Zimmer score does is to give the impression that McQueen aspires to make a Malick film. To do for slavery what Malick does for war in The Thin Red Line, namely to offer a metaphysical treatise on the nature thereof.

But where Malick uses James Jones’ novel to discuss war on a relatively abstract level, McQueen is using a true story potentially to do the same. And true stories do not lend themselves to the abstract in quite the same way: what is slavery? How do some men seemingly desire to be masters and others slaves? (What is this war in the heart of nature? being Malick’s seeming guiding question with The Thin Red Line.) So, again for me, this does not quite work.

Don’t get me wrong; there are moments in 12 Years a Slave when we wonder that Solomon Northup (Ejiofor), a free man cast into slavery by a pair of scheming entertainers, could escape, especially early on when he and the other captives outnumber their captors (although they have all taken a significant beating by this time). And so the film treads that fine line in asking whether men in part desire the conditions that they face, but this is not the same as offering a piece of Malickiana.

The aspirations to Malick perhaps also explain the procession of stars that appear in the film. But, again, one ends up thinking: but Terrence Malick is Terrence Malick and Steve McQueen is Steve McQueen, so why does McQueen piggy-back on Malick? One cannot ‘do’ Terrence Malick (not without comic results). One can only be Terrence Malick. And the Malickiana here – signalled especially through Zimmer’s score – again seem slightly to undermine the film.

Again to be clear: McQueen’s film does have moments that McQueen is famous for, namely scenes that linger and are long in duration, including a powerful moment when Northup is left hanging by the neck from a tree branch, his toes touching the ground and keeping him alive. This protracted sequence – akin in part to the epic confrontation between Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) and a Priest (Rory Mullen) in Hunger (UK/Ireland, 2008) – is very powerful, as is a whipping administered on a slave in part by Northup and in part by Epps. But where McQueen and his desire to linger on certain moments is very strong, this strength is hindered at moments when it feels like the director wants to step into someone else’s shoes.

Finally, it is for me a mistake in the final credits of the film to put the name of Lupita Nyong’o a long way down the credit list – and after many of the white stars who have significantly smaller, and certainly less important, roles than she does.

For, Nyong’o plays Patsey, a slave on the estate of Edwin Epps (Fassbender), who is a legendary cotton picker and who also becomes the target of Epps’ amorous advances.

And Patsey is, to my mind, the beating heart of this film. It is she who is whipped by Northup and it is she who, importantly, makes clear that what for Northup is a temporary experience, for others is a lifelong experience.

Don’t get me wrong: 12 years as a slave is a massive amount of time and it is not that anyone should go through a single instant of slavery in their lives. But since we are watching a film called 12 Years a Slave, the clue is in the title that there will be a ‘happy ending’ (forgive the inadequacy of these film terms) for the main protagonist.

And while there is a ‘happy ending’ for American slavery – in that in principle it was abolished in 1865 – this does not make up for c250 years of slavery on what is now known as the North American continent. That is, and no disrespect to Northup, but 12 years pales in comparison to the enormity of North American slavery. And so it is important that the film conveys as best it can how Northup’s experiences are temporary in relation to those of innumerable others.

And this is done through Patsey, in particular the moment when Northup is rescued (*spoiler*?), for she must of course stay behind (the law does not allow her to leave). The moment is deeply moving, and Nyong’o’s performance here, as throughout the film, is remarkable. And so, given the centrality of her part, in that she stands in for that which it is impossible to depict (the size and scale of slavery in the USA in its entirety), it is disappointing that her name disappears at the end until after all of the white stars.

All this in mind, 12 Years a Slave is nonetheless a powerful film, with great performances, as mentioned, from Ejiofor and Nyong’o, and with some excellent McQueenian touches (scenes that linger for longer than most other directors would have them). It is no mean task to try to depict something that is perhaps beyond the bounds of cinema and which can only be suggested rather than shown. On the whole McQueen does an excellent job, but one wonders that a film with fewer stars, less Malickiana, and a desire to recognise upfront the performers involved, might have raised its bar even higher.

Notes from the LFF: Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen, USA/France, 2013)

American cinema, Blogpost, Film reviews, London Film Festival 2013

Inside Llewyn Davis feels like a meta-Coens film.

This needs some explaining, since the Coens have always made movies that are in part about movies – making their films a kind of meta-cinema that is about cinema and its influence on society (especially characters who go getting hair-brained scam ideas and who think it’ll work out as per the movies, but for whom things typically go amusingly wrong).

Inside Llewyn Davis, on the other hand, is not just meta-cinematic, but it feels meta-Coen-like. That is, it surveys and reviews Coen films from the past.

Small signs thereof: a cat that we discover latterly is called Ulysses, recalling O Brother, Where Art Thou? (UK/France/USA, 2000), a John Goodman performance that is straight out of The Big Lebowski (USA/UK, 1998), a long, silent car journey as per Fargo (USA/UK, 1996), and the general suffering of a central character that was crystallised by the Coens in their Job film, A Serious Man (USA/UK/France, 2009).

This does not make Inside Llewyn Davis a tired film. On the contrary, it is as ever a pleasant trip into Coenland, as we follow singer Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) from Greenwich Village to Chicago and back again for a week in 1961, surveying the folk music scene of the time (with a hilarious performance from Justin Timberlake as nice guy singer Jim).

Now, the Coens are not exactly without success, having won four Oscars between them, and having been nominated for various more. But Inside Llewyn Davis also seems like something of artistic statement from them.

By which I mean to say, the self-referentiality of the film leads the viewer to suspect that this is quite a personal project for them. Not personal in the sense that it is autobiographical (though I suppose elements of the film could be – not that I am interested/think it important to find out).

Rather, in the sense that the Coens may, like Llewyn, find themselves never quite seeming to make it, unwilling to sell out (except for Intolerable Cruelty, USA, 2003, and The Ladykillers, USA, 2004 – the equivalent of Llewyn’s singing with Jim?), and somewhat on the margins of the film industry in spite of some success (notably, even after the success of No Country for Old Men, USA, 2007, the Coens have had to return abroad – to France and the UK – in order to co-fund their projects).

It is striking that the film is really about Llewyn’s inability to move on from the death of his singing partner, Mike, whom we never see. Llewyn performs repeatedly in the film – and often very well. But his style, while appreciated, is not deemed commercially viable. And, indeed, he is told by those who do not know that Mike is dead that he should find a partner and/or team back up with him.

This is striking, because of course the Coens work as a pair, and yet neither has – and long may it be before such an event comes to pass – has passed away as of yet. And yet there is a sense that while the Coens, like Llewyn, put in some remarkable performances (including winning Oscars), they remain somewhat overlooked – perhaps like Llewyn they feel surrounded by mediocrity, and it is not that they are any better per se, but they are surprised about how everyone settles for mediocrity.

Except that Llewyn ends up playing the same old tracks the whole time – trapped as he is inside himself, as it were. For this reason, the film has a looping structure, which it is not too much of a spoiler to say.

Do the Coens also feel trapped in their own universe? Were it not for the self-referentiality, I would not feel at all inclined to read Inside Llewyn Davis in this way. But it does seem to be working there somewhere under the surface – like Llewyn himself, very honest, but deeply enigmatic for almost precisely the same reason.

It is a joyful journey through Coenland. But Inside Llewyn Davis also seems to be calling out, asking for something more. Maybe the Coens will go really crazy with their next project. Or maybe they are mourning the loss of something dear to them, and which keeps them stuck in Coenland, pleasant though it is to be there with them…

Notes from the LFF: Pardé/Closed Curtain (Jafar Panahi and Kambuzia Partovi, Iran, 2013)

Blogpost, Film reviews, Iranian cinema, London Film Festival 2013

A man (Kambuzia Partovi) arrives at a house with a holdall. He locks the door, closes the curtains, blacks out his windows and then pulls out of the holdall a dog. We discover that he is a writer and from the television that owning dogs is illegal – and that many dogs are being executed when found.

A knock on the door, a couple enters who claim to be fleeing the police. The man (Hadi Saeedi) leaves, the woman (Maryam Moqadam) seems to come and go – as if materialising and dematerialising within the house at different times.

The house is raided, the writer and his dog hide. Then, as the writer leaves frame during one shot, Jafar Panahi walks into frame – and begins to fix up his house, the window to which has been smashed.

The woman and the writer discuss the fact that Panahi is forgetting them – and that they must make themselves enter his thoughts in order to remain alive.

A second woman (Azadeh Torabi) comes looking for her sister, Melika, who is the woman who arrived during the night and who is talking to the writer. Panahi, however, tells the second woman that he has not seen Melika, nor her brother, the man who came with her.

Workers come and go – and we get the impression that we cannot tell who is imagined and who is real in this movie that seems to be a defiant treatise on the creative process.

Jafar Panahi’s second movie made since his ban on filmmaking for 20 years (after In Film Nist/This is Not a Film, Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, Iran, 2011), Closed Curtain similarly revels in interiors that are in fact an ‘externalisation’ of the imagination, and fictional characters that are the contents of Panahi’s head.

As the film progresses and as the seeming-fictional characters inside Panahi’s head decide that they do not wish to be forgotten, or die, as a result of Panahi not remembering them, we get the sense that filmmaking is almost an ethical duty.

That is, these people that the filmmaker – which we can expand anyone creative – has in head (and if we don’t like the idea of ‘people’ living ‘inside our head’, then we can simply call them ‘ideas’) have a life – and one owes it to them, as if they were real, to keep them alive. For, the life of the mind is as important as the physical realm in which our flesh circulates.

Indeed, Panahi’s film makes it clear that we cannot tell these apart: if Melika were simply imagined, why would her sister talk to Panahi? And if the writer were merely imagined, then why would he get into Panahi’s car at the film’s end and drive off with him with his dog (leaving Melika, sadly, in the house)?

Panahi contemplates suicide in the film – walking into the ocean and never coming back (shades of Darbereye Elly/About Elly, Asghar Farhadi, Iran/France, 2009). We see this happening, but then Panahi is back in the house. In a film, what is imagined and what is real are inseparable – and the power of film is to make us question precisely what is real, to encourage us to think.

And even though the Panahi character laments the fact that he cannot be as creative as he wants, ultimately, he must be defiant and carry on creating, since the life of the mind, those ideas that live in our mind, are as much us as our bodies – and we must realise these ideas by making films (the French verb for directing a film is réaliser).

The liminal setting of the seaside is important here: the ocean is our unconscious, with its unseen depths. And as much as Panahi (and Melika in her own way) are lured by the ocean towards death, one also gets the sense that all characters that we see, perhaps we ourselves, have come from the depths of the ocean, the unconscious, where ideas turn and flow in unseen fashion.

Images within images: Panahi filming on his iPhone, a camera crew walking into a shot – replaying a moment earlier when the writer lets in Melika and her brother. As Chuang Tzu says:

Once I, Chuang Tzu, dreamed I was a butterfly and was happy as a butterfly. I was conscious that I was quite pleased with myself, but I did not know that I was Tzu. Suddenly I awoke, and there was I, visibly Tzu. I do not know whether it was Tzu dreaming that he was a butterfly or the butterfly dreaming that he was Tzu. Between Tzu and the butterfly there must be some distinction. [But one may be the other.] This is called the transformation of things.

What is dream? What is reality? The time of the body and the time of the mind become indistinguishable. As, arguably, do Panahi’s films and those of his contemporaries.

I am thinking about oblique references in Closed Curtain to the work of Abbas Kiarostami, who recently has become a migrant filmmaker working in Italy and Japan.

In particular, Closed Curtain seems to speak to Five Dedicated to Ozu (Iran/Japan/France, 2003), a lyrical contemplation of the sea – driftwood on the waves, ducks walking along the beach, humans meeting by the seaside, with a brief lightning flash reminiscent of ABC Africa (Iran, 2001).

I do not think Panahi is offering an implicit critique of Kiarostami here, though potentially he could be. More, I get the impression that movies are memories, even those of/by other people, and that they constitute who we are. As is said in the film, in the end, life is memories.

Lyrical, melancholy but, as mentioned, ultimately defiant, Closed Curtain is another fascinating work by one of contemporary cinema’s finest filmmakers.

Notes from the LFF: Exhibition (Joanna Hogg, UK, 2013)

Blogpost, British cinema, Film reviews, London Film Festival 2013

The two most disappointing films that I saw at the London Film Festival were both British – namely Blackwood (Adam Wimpenny, UK, 2013) and Love Me Till Monday (Justin Hardy, UK, 2013).

(The former is a workaday, unremarkable horror – and sadly not, as one wag wittily put it upon leaving the film, a biopic of Richard Blackwood; the latter an extended episode of Hollyoaks. However, the former did make me want to see more of Sophia Myles, the latter more of Tim Plester, who played the only character with whom I might actually enjoy a conversation.)

It is fortunate, then, that there were The Selfish Giant (Clio Barnard, UK, 2013) and Exhibition to make things more interesting – even if, as per my earlier blog on it, I have some ‘philosophical’ reservations about The Selfish Giant.

(I am sad that I did not get to see films by the likes of Ben Rivers at this London Film Festival – but I hope to catch some interesting British cinema at a theatre like the ICA before long.)

To business: Exhibition is never going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but it continues Joanna Hogg’s unabashed efforts to lay bare the foibles of the British upper middle classes, as witnessed in both Unrelated (UK, 2007) – a major inspiration behind, ahem, my own latest film, Ur: The End of Civilisation in 90 Tableaux (UK/France, 2013) – and Archipelago (UK, 2010), the two films that gave to the world Tom Hiddelston, who returns here in a small role as a smarmy, unnamed estate agent.

Exhibition is about a couple, D (singer/songwriter Viv Albertine) and H (conceptual artist Liam Gillick), who live in a beautiful, somewhat art deco style house in an unidentified area of London. And the film is about property as much as anything else. D and H are planning on moving out of this house, because, one gets the sense, that while owning property is upheld as the very raison d’être/telos of working life, the property that we own (so the platitude goes) ends up owning us.

(Not that I am anywhere near getting on to the [London] property ladder, I should hasten to add. The rise in property prices since the late 1970s/early 1980s means that a generation of people have become – at least on paper – incredibly wealthy without effort, while those who have grown up since and who do not have property in their family face never owning property at all. One at times feels tempted to say that those pesky 1960s and 1970s lot, with all their free love nostalgia and ban the bomb bollocks ended up being the most greedy generation of them all.)

The house-owning-the-inhabitants motif is made most clear by the fact that H and D are grieving the loss of a child, or so it is obliquely suggested to us via fragments of dialogue, which means that neither, but D in particular, wants to or can leave the property.

Indeed, one wonders that the ‘lost child’ is a metaphor for a generation that will not have the property that these two have enjoyed – even if they are frustrated in their current digs and feel the need to sell up – hence the presence of the estate agents.

Not only are H and D trapped inside their own home, then, but they are also trapped inside their own rooms within that home. Their most common means of communication is via an intercom – and their exchanges are often terse, with D dreaming of sexual liaisons perhaps with H, but often on her own, and H calling down to chance his arm for the odd BJ and/or shag, should D be in the mood.

Their relationships become less with each other and more with their computers. In this way, Hogg works into her film the role that technology also plays in cordoning off films within their domestic space; first came the television to trap families in their home, then a television in every bedroom; now a computer in every room; an electronic device in every hand; and no one need ever speak directly to each other anymore; mediation is the only relationship that we have. It is a dysfunctional world at best.

The sense of self-willed enclosure is also class-based. In one hilarious scene, H tells a man who is awaiting a delivery and who has parked in their driveway that he ought to put a fence up in front of his parking spot, together with a big sign saying “Fuck Off”, to keep people like him out – the implication being that he is a ‘working class oik’ who does not belong on the hallowed ground of the upper middle classes.

And this is all reaffirmed by Hogg’s masterful use of the soundtrack, which uses echoes, alarms, rumbles and general sounds from the streets and from the rest of the house to convey a sense of claustrophobia and fear of the outside world.

This technique is reminiscent of Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, USA, 1968), and one gets the sense, somehow, that issues of diabolical insemination, lost children, hellish homes and the like are all equally at work here, in this observational piece about the British bourgeoisie as they are in Polanski’s critique of 1960s New Yorkers.

And yet, for all of the enclosure, this is a film that is, finally, about ‘exhibition’. Perhaps the exhibition of enclosure, of closed mindedness. But the dream to get out into the open – perhaps via art? D is an artist, after all – all that is otherwise contained in our repressive and repressed society.

(Perhaps this makes Hogg’s film somehow anti-cinematic – because maybe cinema itself is paradoxical in the fact that its predominant mode of exhibition is to have viewers hide away in a little dark cube.)

One final observation: I only gleaned this from the end credits, but the family that we see move into the D/H house at the end is, from the names of the actors, Asian in origin. A nod to the way in which much new housing in London is being bought up at great rates by Asian, specifically rich Chinese, buyers.

There is no xenophobia intended (nor, hopefully, taken) here. Simply perhaps that the castle that is the British home is now not sturdy enough, and those Britons that do fear contact with, and contamination from, others (with H and D among their number?) are going to have to hide elsewhere, further afield, in order to avoid this fate.

A restrained, elliptical film. Hogg remains one of the most distinctive voices in British cinema. (And, given the film’s 5.9 rating on IMDb, the most interesting work on that website continues to score between 5.5 and 6.8.)

Notes from the LFF: Grigris (Mahomet-Saleh Haroun, France/Chad, 2013)

African cinema, Blogpost, Film reviews, London Film Festival 2013

There are several points of interest regarding Grigris, Mahomet-Saleh Haroun’s latest film, which tells the story of a dancer-cum-photographer-cum-tailor, Souleymane, also known as Grigris (Souleymane Démé), who falls into a somewhat inept life of crime as a result of a need to raise money for his ill uncle.

Firstly, while this film does not quite hit the heights of Haroun’s explosive Un homme qui crie/A Screaming Man (France/Belgium/Chad, 2010), it is nonetheless a remarkable work from one of Francophone Africa’s most skilled and current practitioners (alongside Abderrahmane Sissako, if I were to name the most noteworthy two – of those whose work I have seen, of course).

Secondly, and much more importantly than any judgment of ‘quality’, the film is an important study of gender.

Grigris falls for local escort and would-be model, Mimi (Anaïs Monory), in particular when he photographs her for a shoot. We are in the classic territory of woman as spectacle; Grigris decides that he will love Mimi from this point on – and does not feel much the need actually to ‘know’ her.

However, Mimi has already spotted Grigris – and we have already seen him – earning (some of) his money as a dancer in a local nightclub. That is, Grigris is himself something of a spectacle for the clubbers of what I presume is N’Djamena (Chad’s capital, unspecified – at least to this viewer – during the film).

Importantly, Grigris is lame in one leg, walking permanently with a limp and being somewhat thin and wiry in frame as a whole. He is also ripped off at the film’s outset by a friend who collects money while he is dancing.

In other words, Grigris is himself a sort of entertaining escort, a (freak?) (black) body to behold – who is also pimped out and who does not receive full recognition for his labour.

Kind at heart, Grigris is also told on various occasions – at least implicitly – that he cannot hack it in the man’s world that is the illegal trade of petrol. This is particularly clear when he tries, with his new boss Moussa (Cyril Guei), to swim petrol barrels across the Chari river (I assume) into neighbouring Cameroon. In other words, ‘feminised’ in his job, Grigris is also marked out as ‘not masculine.’

Grigris and Mimi end up getting together – and when his relationship with Moussa is soured as a result of the latter (in fact – *spoiler* – rightly suspecting Grigris of ripping him off) – they flee together to her home village, somewhere out in the country.

Grigris’ ‘non-masculine’ status is reaffirmed during his theft and sale of Moussa’s petrol: he beats his head repeatedly against a wall to give the impression that he has been beaten and robbed. In other words, there is a masochism to Grigris that separates him from the more sadistic like of Moussa.

Back in Mimi’s home village, Grigris quickly becomes accepted as the only man in the village – and he teaches dancing to the local kids, as well as fixing village radios and the like (with one particular shot, of a stack of radios, recalling a similar image in the last film of the late, great Ousmane Sembène, Moolaadé (Senegal/France/Burkina Faso/Cameroon/Morocco/Tunisia, 2004), also a study of the role of women, this time in rural Burkina Faso).

Not only does Grigris’ presence in the village speak of the migration of all fit men to the city in order to make money, leaving the countryside inhabited uniquely by woman, children and, occasionally, old men, but it also suggests again that he has in certain senses ‘become woman’.

But this becoming woman is not a sign of weakness, even if others take it as such. During one of Grigris’ remarkable dances, he lifts up his lame leg, holds it like a gun, and pretends to fire with it – an image that recalls the sort of thing that the quietly (if not exactly subtly) subversive Robert Rodriguez does in a film like Planet Terror (USA, 2007).

I am thinking in particular of Rose McGowan turning a stump leg in that film into a literal gun. The metaphorical gun/leg that Grigris shows here also suggests a sort of ‘female revenge’ fantasy, in which his disability (being a ‘woman’) is in fact not a disability at all – it is simply a token of difference, even if society wants to make him a spectacle and not a fully functioning human being as a result of this.

When one of Moussa’s men finds Grigris in Mimi’s village, the entire female population gathers in what is both an amusing, rousing and moving scene – and they beat the intruder away (second *spoiler* – they in fact beat him to death).

Sure, this may be problematic from the moral standpoint – killing is not good. But it also suggests that in womanhood there is a solidarity that is nowhere to be found in the dog-eat-dog male world of the city, and that it is women who are the bearers of a more hopeful, communal future.

As per A Screaming Man, Haroun sets his films against a backdrop of globalisation, particularly the continued presence of Chinese settlers in Africa (Chad specifically) – rendered in Grigris as in A Screaming Man via the presence of a seemingly powerful, and notably female, businesswoman (here, a hard-drinking restaurant owner).

But really the film is about how there is beauty and community to be found in those typically outcast by society – the supposedly disabled Grigris (whose solo dance sequences in his studio are beautiful and far more artistic than his nightclub performances) and the community of women into which he ultimately inserts himself.

Perhaps this is a simplistic reading of Haroun’s film – but at first blush, Grigris nonetheless seems to suggest that the future of Chad/Cameroon (I think I recall that Mimi says she is from Cameroon at one point), and potentially by extension ‘Africa’ (if one can speak of it as a singular entity), is female and in the hands of those currently overlooked.

Without the seething anger of A Screaming ManGrigris is nonetheless a warming and hopeful tale. It only seems a pity that few were the films from Africa to have made it to this latest London Film Festival. Perhaps the upcoming Film Africa festival (the website of which is at time of writing down, but the link to which I include anyway).

Notes from the LFF: The Selfish Giant (Clio Barnard, UK, 2013)

Blogpost, British cinema, Film reviews, London Film Festival 2013

Clio Barnard’s new film, a loose adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s short story of the same name, tells the story of Arbor (Conner Chapman) and Swifty (Shaun Thomas), two kids from Bradford who, when Arbor finds himself excluded from school as a result of his poor behaviour for which he takes pills, decide to make money for themselves gathering up scrap for recycling, and in particular finding, even stealing, copper, a very valuable resource.

As has been mentioned, The Selfish Giant is a film strongly in the tradition of Ken Loach’s Kes (UK, 1969): young boys wandering the countryside that surrounds a northern town/city, from impoverished/broken homes. There are also some visual nods to Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank (UK/Netherlands, 2009), primarily as a result of the presence of horses in both films, with horses taking the place of the kestrel that Billy looks after in Loach’s film. Here, Swifty in particular is good with horses and hopes to take part in unofficial/illegal horse-and-cart races along the local A roads at some point.

(One might also mention Pawel Pawlikowski’s Twockers (UK, 1998) as a precursor to The Selfish Giant, not least because Pawlikowski won Best Film at this year’s London Film Festival with his film, Ida (Poland/Denmark, 2013).)

Overall, then, there is a sense that nature is good for children – a thesis that seems to be the moral of Wilde’s story as well. For, in Wilde’s story  a giant is deemed selfish for not letting children play in his otherwise walled garden.

In Wilde’s story, the giant finds redemption when he eventually opens up his garden to the children – although this is motivated by the fact that his garden is permanently in winter.

Wilde writes:

But the Spring never came, nor the Summer. The Autumn gave golden fruit to every garden, but to the Giant’s garden she gave none. ‘He is too selfish,’ she said. So it was always Winter there, and the North Wind, and the Hail, and the Frost, and the Snow danced about through the trees.

The giant of Barnard’s film is, presumably, Kitten (Sean Gilder), the owner of the local scrapyard, who employs Arbor and Swifty, but who also is constantly ripping them off.

In Wilde’s story, the giant eventually finds redemption, in particular for having spoken to and embraced a little boy who still is enshrouded in winter, even though spring has arrived elsewhere after the opening up of his garden.

This does transpose on to the film when Kitten, ultimately/*spoiler* (of sorts) takes the rap for a misdemeanour involving Arbor and Swifty. But Kitten’s ‘redemption’ is prison; and while Arbor may learn from this experience, Swifty will not.

In other words, while we can try to fit Wilde and Barnard neatly together, ultimately we cannot. And the main reason for this is that Barnard, in the tradition of British social realism, does not attribute the metaphorical winter (i.e. poverty) of her characters to the selfishness of Kitten, even though Kitten is a ‘selfish’ character (because struggling financially, it would seem; his is not the life of Beemers and Cristal).

Rather, Barnard wishes to address systemic failures that lead to poverty, the need for children to work in order to help their family makes ends meet, a failure for schools to look after children like Arbor, and how economic desperation will drive people to take desperate, ill-advised measures.

Perhaps one way in which Barnard’s film does not quite match Loach’s is the way in which Loach analyses the education system in some depth. Repeatedly we see Billy Casper (David Bradley) in classes, with teachers overlooking him and so on. In The Selfish Giant, moving as it is, it is hard to get a sense of where Arbor and Swifty’s exclusion from society comes – except the oblique reference to the fact that Arbor has psychological problems and is from a broken family. In other words, Barnard does seem to suggest that the family is at fault for Arbor’s behaviour, while Kes suggests that the education system as a whole lets down good kids, including Billy Casper.

This slight shift in emphasis perhaps reflects different times; but it also seems to suggest that responsibility lies perhaps more with individuals than with institutions in terms of people leading ‘better’ (i.e. more economically secure) lives. Perhaps this is also a result of using Wilde as the guiding text; Wilde squarely places the long-standing winter on the giant’s shoulders. The claim might be: who in the contemporary world of economic hardship cannot afford not to be selfish? But a) this potentially reaffirms the ideology of selfishness; and b) it does not get to grips with the causes of selfishness – which are only alluded to, almost namedropped here, rather than explored in detail.

Stepping away from Wilde, The Selfish Giant is also a treatise on electricity. We notice early on that the electricity in Swifty’s house has been cut off and that the family is eating cold beans on bread.

This is a family that is not hooked up to the grid, that is not connected to society. And as Arbor and Swifty seek copper – that most conductive element of electricity – we get a sense that they are also thereby seeking inclusion in society. And, ultimately, it is electricity that will be their downfall, that will cast out and permanently exclude Swifty and Arbor, be it not for Kitten’s decision to ‘save’ Arbor from his own fate.

There is a muted hope, then, in Barnard’s new film. But one that is tempered as a result of us never really knowing where the suffering of these characters comes from (is it a given that people are excluded for no reason?), meaning that we cannot know how to help this suffering (apart from via blythe sayings like ‘we need to redistribute wealth’ – against which I have no objections, but for which concrete plans need to be made). If Loach pointed to shortcomings in education in particular in Kes, I am not sure what we can take from The Selfish Giant – except a bleak vision of a bleak part of the UK.

We should be reminded that the UK is not a garden shrouded permanently in spring and sunshine and that there are many excluded people here about whom we should collectively be doing something. But  a film that points this out only achieves half of what film might achieve; the other, harder half of proactively addressing the issue of ongoing poverty and desperation in our society, seems to remain invisible here – as if Barnard herself had no hope. Muted hope, then, verging on hopelessness. A moving, but for me a ‘philosophically’ difficult film.

Notes from the LFF: Dast-Neveshtehaa Nemisoosand/Manuscripts Don’t Burn (Mohammad Rasoulof, Iran, 2013)

Blogpost, Film reviews, Iranian cinema, London Film Festival 2013, Uncategorized

I fell in love with the cinema of Mohammad Rasoulof when I saw Bé omid é didar/Good Bye (Iran, 2011) at the 2011 London Film Festival. For me this film was every bit as good, if not better, than the works by Jafar Panahi and Asghar Farhadi that caught most/more public attention in terms of films from Iran at around that time.

I was then fortunate enough to see the remarkable Jazireh ahani/Iron Island (Iran, 2005) and Keshtzar haye sepid/The White Meadows (Iran, 2009) during a retrospective of Rasoulof and Panahi’s work at the British Film Institute last year.

So it was with great expectation that I went to see Manuscripts Don’t Burn at this year’s London Film Festival. And in many respects the film does not disappoint.

The film is about a writer, Kasra, played by an anonymous actor – since all who took part in the film must remain anonymous, apart from the director, of course, as a result of the danger in which they will be for taking part in this film – who has written an exposé about the murder of various writers in Iran in the 1980s and 1990s.

His manuscript, entitled The Uneventful Life of a Retired Teacher, is to be published clandestinely, except for the fact that the authorities are on to him and are searching for the titular piece of work – in his house and in the houses of those who work with him (publishers, other writers, poets).

Interestingly, however, the film is told predominantly from the perspective of those who are carrying out the investigation into Kasra’s manuscript. To this end, we follow two hitmen, Morteza and Khosrow, as they carry out searches, abduct individuals, torture and murder suspects and the like.

Since Rasoulof is, like Jafar Panahi, serving a 20-year ban from filmmaking, Manuscripts Don’t Burn is by consequence an underground film, even if it predominantly eschews the handheld and improvised aesthetic of many ‘underground’ movies – such as Bahman Ghobadi’s Kasi az gorbehaye irani khabar nadareh/No One Knows About Persian Cats (Iran, 2009).

That said, while the film does often look controlled and elegant, rather than filmed in a rush, Manuscripts… opens with, and continues for quite a while to show, images shot with a high shutter speed, which lends to the action that we see a sort of ‘digital jitter’ that does in fact suggest a hurried, ‘guerrilla’ aesthetic.

There is a nod, then, to the clandestine manner in which the film was shot, but Manuscripts… is aesthetically interesting because it spans the two trends that seem to predominate concerning films coming out of Iran. These are namely underground films along the lines of Persian Cats and others – films shot without permits, often made on the fly and, in Ghobadi’s case, on the streets, and genre films, like Rafi Pitts’ The Hunter (Iran/Germany, 2010), more ‘official’/authorised films that seem to ‘hide’ subversive elements within more mainstream-seeming fare (suggestions in the muse-en-scène).

Manuscripts… is also politically interesting, because rarely will one have seen a film out of Iran that features such violence (even if still shot and carried out in a muted, unsensational tone), the drinking of alcohol, and, simply put, criticism of the authorities as they carry out their surveillance and torture in pursuit of the elusive manuscript.

The film is downbeat, pessimistic even, but also fearlessly defiant in this way. Even though, I have read, the film’s story is based on the real abduction of writers in 1995 (what unites many of the writers is their having all been on a bus to Armenia for a conference), Rasoulof nonetheless sets the film in the present: mobile phones seem ubiquitous and at one point a character, Kian, says that in the age of Facebook and Twitter no one is interested anymore in politics – a sentiment echoed when another writer, Forouzadeh, suggests that politics today means just living, the implication being that it does not mean protesting.

And yet, the deliberate digital jitter that we see so overtly for the opening section of the film (potentially it remains, but my eyes began not to see it anymore as the film progresses) suggests that this overtly political film is a result of the digital age, the age of Facebook and Twitter. And so Manuscripts… seems to be more upbeat than its characters about the possibility of and for change in the contemporary era.

Nonetheless, it is a guarded ‘upbeatness’ – for the film also ends in a loop, taking us back to the beginning of the film where the government hitmen run away from the scene of one of their murders.

The moment triggers several thoughts: is what I have seen real, or a hallucination? What takes place when? Have I utterly misunderstood the film? This hallucinatory quality suddenly instils a kind of fear or vertigo in the viewer, bringing out the feverish urgency, perhaps, of Rasoulof’s movie. It also unsettles our understanding of what is real and what is not, or of what happens when. This suggests the malleable nature of truth in societies that control all media outlets that help to form the consensual hallucination known as ‘the truth’. And it also suggests a sense of entrapment – for both the victims and the perpetrators of state crime.

What is more, the film ends with one of the hitmen walking away from the camera and into a crowd of people (before the credits tell us that no one is to be credited). This is the territory of Ladri di biciclette/Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio de Sica, Italy, 1948).

But where in that film we see Ricci merge with the crowd to suggest that life is tough for people on the streets in post-war Italy, here we have a sense of conspiracy: whom can we trust if anyone on the streets might be coerced, for financial if not for ideological reasons, to become a murderer for the state?

Rasoulof’s film sets us in a panic, then – and we are not even sure that we have watched a ‘film’ proper because no one is credited. Manuscripts may not burn, but Manuscripts Don’t Burn burns passionately – and yet it seems indestructible, even if its life is mainly a digital file mainly to be pirated. Unafraid of complexity, Rasoulof has delivered another excellent, relevant and profound film.

Notes from the LFF: Norte, hangganan ng kasaysayan/Norte, the End of History (Lav Diaz, Philippines, 2013)

Blogpost, Film reviews, London Film Festival 2013, Philippine cinema

At four and a quarter hours, Norte, the End of History is in fact a relatively short film for Filipino filmmaker Lav Diaz. But its extreme length in comparison to other films showing at the festival (average running time probably somewhere near one hour and forty minutes) makes it no inferior piece of work. On the contrary, this is a film that may well involve much of what we might call ‘dead time’ – but surprisingly little in fact, and the film is visually and thematically rich from start to finish.

We open with a prolonged philosophical discussion between a former law student Fabian (Sid Lucero) and his tutors concerning history and justice; this is not a film to show smart people talk smart about ideas, a move that many might find surprising outside of films by people like Richard Linklater, and which in turn might be all the more surprising for a film from the Philippines, whence we might typically expect exposés of the harshness of street life, as per the London Film Festival’s revival of the magnificent Maynila: Sa mga kuko ng liwanag/Manila, In the Claws of Neon (Lino Brocka, Philippines, 1975) or the recent Metro Manila (Sean Ellis, UK/Philippines, 2013), the latest of many films seemingly made by filmmaker-conquistadors heading out from the West and into the so-called Third World to make films of various shapes and sizes in a somewhat problematic fashion – to my mind (even though Metro Manila is actually quite good).

Not that Norte is without what we might term ‘street life’. On the contrary, half of the film tells the story of Joaquin (Archie Alemania), a labourer and loving family man who is framed for the death of money-lender Magda (Mae Paner), who in fact dies at the hands of Fabian. Nonetheless, Joaquin serves time, and much of the film is about his incarceration and Filipino prison life.

Joaquin proves himself to be a caring and kind man, who earns the respect of his peers in prison. Meanwhile, Fabian descends from bright young thing into recluse after the murder of Magda, and then into insanity as he goes home to visit his sister.

Indeed, Norte suggests itself as a critique of thinking too much about economic injustice, while at the same time refusing to offer easy solutions regarding what one should actually do about it. For Fabian fares appallingly, and one wonders that his ultimate refusal of family as a bourgeois construct means that to live a life too much guided by ideas and not enough by emotions and one’s sense of being in the world and with the world and other people, is the path towards insanity.

What, then, is the ‘end of history’? For Francis Fukuyama it is, broadly speaking, the time when capitalist ideology holds sway over the entire planet, such that it cannot be replaced by any other ideology. It is not that events don’t take place – natural disasters in particular – but basically nothing can change since there is no alternative way of thinking.

Diaz’s film is not necessarily an account of precisely this mono-ideological state of affairs. On the contrary, the film’s very slowness suggests an alternative rhythm, an alternative tempo at which one can lead one’s life, one that is not that of capitalism – with time here, the rhythm or pace at which one leads one’s life – being the key ideological battleground in the twenty first century.

But this ‘slowness’ is not for everyone; Fabian comes undone potentially by dropping out of the ratrace, while in some senses the slow time of prison is Joaquin’s (unfortunate) making.

I wonder, then, that history may have ended for the north, but in the ‘global south’, there is still plenty to fight for, plenty of alternative ways of life that can be saved.

If Fabian presents a corrupt and corrupting way of life, committing murder in the name of economic justice (getting rid of the evil moneylender), then Joaquin represents honesty and dignity.

Many have compared Diaz’s film to Dostoyevsky and the comparison is apt. But more than any particular novel, what is beautiful about Diaz’s film is simply how novelistic it is. This is hard to describe, but its slow rhythm, the way in which it spends time with characters, before changing tack and becoming for a great length of time a film about someone else, while remaining a unified work, makes of it a remarkable film that is well worth the effort of four hours plus in a cinema (this is still much quicker than reading a novel of any quality).

Finally, the film did also make me think of this passage by the Invisible Committee, which I shall leave readers with as the final words of this blog post:

It’s useless to wait – for a breakthrough, for the revolution, the nuclear apocalypse or a social movement. To go on waiting is madness. The catastrophe is not coming, it is here. We are already situated within the collapse of civilisation. It is within this reality that we must choose sides.

To no longer wait is, in one way or another, to enter into the logic of insurrection. It is once again to hear the slight but always present trembling of terror in the voices of our leaders. Because governing has never been anything other than postponing by a thousand subterfuges the moment when the crowd will string you up, and every act of government is nothing but a way of not losing control of the population.

We’re setting out from a point of extreme isolation, of extreme weakness. An insurrectional process must be built from the ground up. Nothing appears less likely than an insurrection, but nothing is more necessary.

Perhaps this can serve as the starting point for a more prolonged discussion if Norte and Diaz’s work more generally.

Notes from the LFF: Abus de faiblesse/Abuse of Weakness (Catherine Breillat, France/Germany/Belgium, 2013)

Blogpost, European cinema, Film reviews, French Cinema, London Film Festival 2013

Catherine Breillat’s latest, very personal film tells the story of a filmmaker, Maud (Isabelle Huppert – remarkable as ever), who suffers from a stroke and who, in her recovery period, starts to work on a new project that will star gangster and seeming millionaire Vilko Piran (Kool Shen, of French rap group NTM, and also remarkable in this film).

However, as the film goes on, it becomes clear that Vilko is milking Maud for all that she is worth – taking cheque after cheque from her for variously large sums of money, until Maud gets a visit from the bank and runs the risk of losing all that she has.

The dilemma at the heart of Abuse of Weakness, then, is who is abusing whom. Is Maud willingly being taken for a ride by Vilko, or is he really the heartless character who is prepared to take advantage of an inform stroke victim in order to line his own pockets?

As is perhaps to be expected from Breillat, there is no easy answer to this question, and this is particularly signalled by the way in which Vilko keeps on reappearing in Maud’s life. He could easily have taken Maud’s money and run – but instead seems as tied to her as she becomes to him.

As such, the film becomes an exploration into the seductive nature of power and, of course, the seductive nature of images – for one gets the sense that it is his chance to become a star that keeps Vilko hanging around as much as does any attraction to Maud. And similarly, one senses that Maud falls for an image of Vilko from the outset – spotting him on television for the first time during one sleepless night at home.

It is perhaps also about the way in which social change – the myth that persists in Western/capitalist societies that those who come from nothing can, with supreme will, make ‘something’ of themselves – is in fact a by-word for bourgeoisification. That is, Vilko becomes rich, but he does not become bourgeois, or ‘well mannered’ (from the bourgeois point of view) – and while we as viewers are hoping/expecting Vilko to suddenly develop more of a conscience, he seemingly does not, with Maud seemingly also aware that to expect the leopard to change its spots is futile. Instead, he is like the scorpion on the frog’s back; he’ll sting the frog that takes him across the water. And why? Because he is a scorpion, of course.

Except that Vilko is perhaps not really rich (we don’t know this – but we’d wonder otherwise why he needs to take Maud’s money). And thus he is in fact already bourgeois, in the sense that his wealth is really based upon the (criminal?) exploitation of others – Vilko perhaps exploiting Maud precisely because she feels bad about how her own wealth – and the wealth of those of her kind – is based upon a history of exploitation. This intricate film, then, is a kind of modern day Viridiana (Luis Buñuel, Spain/Mexico, 1961).

What is also of interest about Breillat’s film is the way in which it is about property – the film at times seems a paean to Maud’s amazing apartment and the fact that she perhaps does not want or deserve such a luxurious pad.

And also Abuse of Weakness is about sleeping, and in particular sleeping with – and having sleep being interrupted by – mobile phones. This is a repeated image throughout the film. And while – to the best of our knowledge – Maud and Vilko never have a sexual liaison, one gets the sense that the phone is the fetish that stands in for their desire for one another. It functions, however, as an illusory, unstable bridge between them – perhaps as unstable and as unreliable as any image.

In other words, Breillat suggests how technology seemingly plays a part in humans’ inability to connect – humans instead seeing each other as images and not as people. And outside of our relationship(s) with technology, it seems as though we are otherwise asleep, lost in our own thoughts and dreams.

Abuse of Weakness, then, is perhaps about our abuse of our own weaknesses, especially our propensity to hide from the world (in our beds, in our apartments, behind a mobile phone), and to avoid encounters with that world as much as possible. Indeed, we’d rather shell out all of our money rather than really to engage with that world. Perhaps it is wealth that makes us weak, then, and not a stroke. And Vilko is right to be profligate with his money – for after all, if it is a crutch for the weak, who really needs it?


Notes from the LFF: Vi är bäst!/We Are The Best! (Lukas Moodysson, Sweden, 2013)

Blogpost, European cinema, Film reviews, London Film Festival 2013, Swedish cinema

There seems to be something problematic about all movies that try to tell globe-spanning stories that demonstrate the interlinked nature of our lives in the contemporary, globalised era. Between Babel (Alejandro González Iñárritu, France/USA/Mexico, 2006), 360 (Fernando Meirelles, UK/Austria/France/Brazil, 2011), and Lukas Moodysson’s own Mammoth (Lukas Moodysson, Sweden/Denmark/Germany, 2009), each film ends up being slightly disappointing – as if trying to take on too much for a single film to depict (globalisation/the globe), while at the same ticking boxes concerning class difference/economic status, such that they seem disingenuous. That is, mobile and wealthy filmmakers trot the globe while at the same time asking us to think about what globe-trotting really means (regardless of a filmmaker’s no doubt ‘good’ intentions).

Prior to Mammoth, Moodysson’s directed two intriguing – if very difficult to watch – digital films in Ett hål i mitt hjärta/A Hole in My Heart (Sweden/Denmark, 2004) and Container (Sweden, 2006). These certainly polarised audiences, such that viewers might begin to wonder – with three arguably duff films on the bounce (personally I really like A Hole in My Heart, and I teach it every year and have written about it here) – whether Lukas Moodysson is really a decent filmmaker at all.

However, the two films with which he made his reputation – Fucking Åmål/Show Me Love (Sweden/Denmark, 1998) and Tillsammans/Together (Sweden/Denmark/Italy, 2000) – demonstrated such warmth and humanity that the pessimism that followed – inaugurated by his harrowing human traffic film, Lilja 4-Ever/Lilya 4-Ever (Sweden/Denmark, 2002) – seemed somewhat uncharacteristic.

Or rather, his pessimism became characteristic, meaning that the deep love that Moodysson showed for his characters in those early films seemed lost – even if my contention is that Moodysson in fact shows great love towards his most unlovely characters in A Hole in My Heart.

We Are The Best!, however, sees Moodysson back on top form. The film tells the story of two punk girls, Bobo (Mira Barkhammer) and Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne), who decide to form a punk group with the help of a local Christian girl, Klara (Mira Grosin).

The film is by turns cute and smart as the characters, Bobo in particular, say things that are wicked funny and intelligent, and way beyond the ken of many/all children of her age in the UK with regard to political astuteness, the role of punk in society and so on.

What is most pleasing about the film is its embracing of those who fail while performing – namely our girls in their punk trio. That is, Moodysson is not interested in fairy tales and happy endings, but more with what being in a band provides for young women growing up in Sweden in the aftermath of punk. Instead there is a kind of ‘creative chaos’ – that is characteristic of punk itself, and which gives us insight perhaps into Moodysson’s own work.

That is, while any or all of Moodysson’s films might be disappointing to some (many) audiences, what is great about his work is that he is prepared to try and thus also to fail. And he loves his characters, who themselves try and also fail, as if failure itself is what defines us as human. This most palpable here when Bobo, Hedvig and Klara perform their first concert.

Rather than the enormous success that we would expect of a mainstream film, their gig is in fact chaotic, half a success, half a failure. The same goes for the girls’ love lives, and more or less every other plan that they hatch and try to put into action. It is this ‘creative chaos’ that really brings We Are The Best! to life, and which demonstrates Moodysson’s love for his characters.

Imperfect though his films are, then, Moodysson himself is a cineaste who evidently loves filmmaking, who experiments, and who is prepared to fail, since in failure his films become learning experiences that allow him to grow and learn as a human being.

If Mammoth disappointed me, it was perhaps because – like the other ‘globalisation’ films mentioned above – its pretense to omniscience is, precisely, too knowing. Moodysson works best when approaching the world through the eyes of those who do not really know what they are doing. A return to his best form, We Are The Best! sees Moodysson embrace the way in which life may be performative, but it is also an improvisation – and even though characters ‘fail’, they also succeed, since it is in not knowing what we are supposed to do, or how we are supposed to lead our lives, but in going forward and leading them in our way as best as we can anyway that we truly become ourselves, become alive.