5 Centimetres per Second: an insubstantial trilogy on the fleeting nature of youthful love, hope and desire

Makoto Shinkai, “5 Centimetres per Second” (2007)

As with his “Your Name”, Makoto Shinkai’s earlier “5 Centimetres per Second” is a teenage romance based around desire, hope and loss. The film takes the form of a trilogy of short story pieces revolving around young hero Tataki as he progresses through childhood and adolescence and becomes a young adult taking on the burdens and pressures of adulthood. The first and longest short story riffs on his childhood friendship with the girl Araki, how they meet in primary school and bond together, and their separation when, on the verge of transitioning to junior high school, she and her family relocate away from Tokyo to a more distant rural part of Japan. The second story focuses on another girl, Kanae, who is in Tataki’s class at high school and who has a crush on him which he fails to notice and she fails to admit to him. In the third and shortest installment, Tataki has already graduated from high school and college and with a job and a girlfriend seems well on the way to middle class career and family contentment. However the young man still pines for Araki so he chucks in his job and breaks up with his current love to travel to that part of Japan where Araki lives in the hope of meeting her and reigniting their relationship.

In themselves the characters are not all that remarkable and seem very one-dimensional in their melancholy and constant preoccupation with their thoughts; likewise the threadbare plot proceeds to a conclusion many viewers may find unsatisfactory if predictable. Kanae’s unrequited crush on Tataki – and his attitude towards the girl – may come across as rather callous on Shinkai’s part, and point to an insensitive and immature self-absorption on Tataki’s part that explains his inability to hold down a job and maintain a relationship with any female other than Araki. Perhaps it’s just as well that the original relationship between him and Araki peters out from the pressure of distance and time because if they were ever to meet again, he would find her literally another person.

The use of first-person voice-over story-telling is an original touch and coaxes the thin narrative forward steadily. The fragmented and not altogether reliable monologues have to be pieced together by viewers to form a clear narrative that holds all three stories together. The film proceeds rather as a series of beautifully detailed tableaux reflecting on the passage of time through the changes of day into night and day again, and of the seasons. The emphasis on trains and train travel serves as much to heighten the sense of separation through time and space between Tataki and Araki.

The background animation is gorgeous as it always is in Shinkai’s films but the characters and story fall far short of the beautiful and rich settings. Tataki and the girls he is involved with seem far too stereotyped as lovey-dovey young teenagers and the plot is equally generic. The film’s unusual title is a reference to the speed at which cherry blossoms, symbolic of the fleeting and fragile nature of youth, giving way all too soon to age and ultimately death, fall to the ground from the tree. It would be most ironic if this film becomes as minor in Shinkai’s body of work in the years to come as cherry blossoms are transient.

The World: a slow and meandering narrative reveals a rich world of hope, pain and tragedy behind superficial capitalist glamour

Jia Zhangke, “The World” (2004)

In future years, this film, long and meandering though it is, may well be regarded as an early masterpiece in Jia Zhangke’s corpus of work. Set in the real-life Beijing World Park, a theme park which gives visitors a taste of the world’s most famous monuments (such as the Eiffel Tower and the Leaning Tower of Pisa) in miniature without ever having to leave Beijing, the film focuses on the lives of various fictional employees at the Park, most of whom have come from poor rural parts of China or elsewhere, and reveals them to be bleak and alienated, not only from the, uh, world outside the park but from one another as well. Superficially presenting as a snapshot documentary of the employees’ daily lives as they entertain visitors in dance shows or guide them around the park, the film comes to question the impact of capitalist ideology (with its emphasis on consumption of material items and experiences) and what that brings – the increase in wealth that enables people to travel overseas and have new experiences not possible in China, in turn enticing others to dream about travel and escape – and how new global economic, political and technological connections have paradoxically led to disconnection and alienation among young people in contemporary Chinese society.

The film appears to have no plot or at least nothing that resembles a conventional movie plot: it starts off with its heroine Tao (Zhao Tao), a talented dancer, charging through backstage rooms where fellow cast members are getting dressed or undressed or putting on or taking off make-up, and calling loudly for a band-aid. She never gets one and in this scene alone, one senses the film’s themes already falling into place: people apparently communicating over one another’s heads but the message never reaching anyone in particular and failing to be heard, much less responded to and acted upon; a continual search for connection that ends in failure; the frustration and anger that always seem to be simmering below the surface. The film follows Tao and her boyfriend Taisheng (Chen Taisheng), a security guard at the Park, and their tempestuous relationship. Tao is visited by an ex-boyfriend on his way to Mongolia and Taisheng seems rather jealous; from this moment on, the relationship increasingly frays, particularly after a friend of his asks him to drive a young woman called Qun to Taiyuan so she can deal with a brother with a gambling problem Taisheng becomes infatuated with Qun and after bringing her back to Beijing, starts paying her regular visits even though she tells him she has a husband in Paris and is trying to obtain a visa to visit the spouse.

There are various small sub-plots in the film, the most significant of which involve Tao striking up a friendship with a Russian woman Anna (Alla Shcherbakova) who works at the Park, though neither can speak the other’s language; and Taisheng’s childhood friend nicknamed Little Sister, who comes to Beijing looking for work and who is directed by Taisheng to a construction site. Anna eventually leaves the Park and takes up hostessing (and prostitution) to raise the money to visit her sister in Ulan Bator, leaving Tao in tears; and Little Sister dies in a work accident that devastates Taisheng. Not long afterwards, Tao discovers Taisheng’s affair with Qun and she flees the Park to go house-sitting for two fellow employees who have recently married.

Through the various soap-opera dramas, we come to see how trapped Tao and Taisheng are in their low-paid and uninspiring jobs in which pretence is paramount, with no hope of escape to see and experience the places whose monuments are miniaturised into kitsch packages for tourists. The film’s title comes to be seen as ironic: “The World” holds out a promise of endless possibilities and opportunities but the main characters and their fellow travellers find themselves constrained by their work, the expectations put upon them by others, the obligations they carry, their inability or unwillingness to communicate how and what they really feel directly to one another (instead communicating via mobile phones) and ultimately by the passage of time. Hope dies away and there is only the endless repetition of work and fakeness. How Tao and Taisheng deal with the loss of hope and the death of their dreams and their relationship turns out to be shocking if not totally unexpected.

Small animated interludes stress the lack of direct connections characters have with one another and with their physical environment. Travel and the restlessness implied are a constant motif in the film: minor characters are always on their way to another place, another job or another goal while major characters are stuck in ruts partly of their own making. Buildings and other structures where the film plays out always look incomplete or makeshift, or their inner frameworks are on display. We see less of the glitzy Beijing and more of its industrial, polluted environment where people live out their lives either hoping for something better or lacking in hope.

Slow though it is, the pace has a purpose: viewers become fully immersed in the lives of Tao, Taisheng and their friends, colleagues and relatives, and so the pain and sorrows these people experience become all the more raw. The no-plot plot has its purpose as well: it demonstrates how hollow real life has become, even when dedicated to creating and maintaining a simulacrum of an idealised and superficial dream. The meandering narrative unexpectedly and ironically reveals a real and actually rich world behind a fake World.

No Date, No Signature: a traffic collision leads to an investigation of class conflict and an unsympathetic bureaucracy in a gritty realist drama

Vahid Jalilvand, “No Date, No Signature” (2017)

A chance encounter between two characters who would never have met otherwise becomes an examination of class conflict in an impoverished society where, it seems, bureaucracy and legalism are more important than being true to one’s conscience in this painfully gritty, realist film, the second by upcoming Iranian art-house director Vahid Jalilvand. Forensic pathologist Dr Kaveh Nariman (Amir Agha’ee) is driving home at night when he is side-swiped by another car and collides with a working-class family travelling on a motorcycle. Stopping and checking to make sure everyone is all right, Nariman finds that the 8-year-old boy Amir seems to have suffered nothing more than a few scratches and a slightly wobbly head while dad Moosa (Navid Mohammadzadeh) pays more attention to fixing up the motorbike and mum Leila (Zakieh Behbahani) tries to console a crying baby. Nariman directs Moosa to take Amir to the nearest medical clinic and offers the family money. Moosa accepts the money but ends up taking the family past the clinic later on.

Some days later, Nariman is shocked to find that Amir’s body has been delivered to the city morgue where he works. Seeing that he is distressed, Nariman’s colleague (Hediyeh Tehrani) offers to perform the autopsy on the boy. She determines that the boy has died from botulism. The news leads to a rift between Moosa and Leila who accuses her husband of killing the boy because weeks ago he bought some chickens cheaply from a worker at a poultry plant. Moosa returns to the poultry plant to confront the worker Habib. The two fight and Habib ends up in a coma. Moosa is arrested and imprisoned for assault. Meanwhile Nariman becomes obsessed with the thought that his collision may have led to the boy’s death and this obsession fills his life to the extent that his working relationship with his colleague becomes strained and becomes unnecessarily involved with Amir’s parents and the court case against Amir when Habib dies.

The film is more notable for its lead performances, particularly from Mohammadzadeh in playing a working-class man trying to make ends meet, behaving impulsively in ways that lead to grave consequences for himself and his family, and ending up trapped in an unsympathetic bureaucratic system lacking in compassion for the poor. The privileged Nariman spends much of the film moping and putting off admitting the part he may have played in hastening the child’s death. His colleague and others question him as to why he didn’t report the collision to the police originally (though no-one thinks to ask him why he allowed his accident insurance policy lapse in the first place) or why he fails to admit that he offered money to Moosa. While Mohammadzadeh puts in a performance of a life-time in his showdown with Habib, and Agha’ee lends good support as the conscience-stricken doctor, the female actors stand out in rather more constrained and stereotyped roles: Behbahani’s Leila, initially subservient to Moosa, discovers her voice after his arrest and fights hard for him, and Tehrani’s coroner becomes as much inquisitor and devil’s advocate as friend and close associate to Nariman. Audiences are ultimately left uncertain as to what really did cause Amir’s death and it seems that Nariman might get off lightly compared to Moosa’s treatment for no reason other than that Nariman comes from a more privileged social layer and Moosa does not.

Moosa’s rage at Habib is as much a rage against the social system that puts him in a position where he can be exploited, as it is against the people (including himself) he believes responsible for poisoning his son. The fact that Habib could be as much a victim of the system – otherwise why would he be driven to sell suspect chicken meat at a low price to a poor customer? – as he is escapes Moosa, and this underlines how unjust the system is.

The cinematography with its emphasis on shades of grey and dull colour, and its relentless comparison of the morgue where Nariman works and the chicken-processing factory (and finding little difference, if any) is the other major feature that stands out in this bleak and often unflinching film.

While the plot is not always very clear and tends to jump ahead of what audiences might consider significant, audiences will get a good sense of how contemporary Iranian urban society, with all its faults, forces people into situations where they cannot be true to their values and principles, and instead have to ride roughshod over others simply to survive. The results of the decisions they have to make in order to make ends meet can be devastating.

Back to Burgundy: a family melodrama beset by cliches and stereotypes blessed by a celebration of viticulture

Cedric Klapisch, “Back to Burgundy / Ce qui nous lie” (2017)

An otherwise rather ho-hum family melodrama of sibling jealousies featuring some rather obvious narrative cliches – the black sheep / prodigal son returning home in response to a family emergency after many years away, his sister having difficulty accepting being her father’s true heir in a family tradition where women were all but invisible, their young brother burdened with overpowering in-laws, and all of them forced to make decisions about their family vineyard business and their own personal issues that will affect their individual and collective futures – is made more appealing (and a bit too long) by a celebration of wine-making and the culture and traditions associated with it in a part of France. The cast of actors do an excellent job in turning this film into a character study; even minor characters are very memorable. The cinematography and rural settings are gorgeous as well.

The film’s narrative framework revolves around eldest son Jean (Pio Marmai) coming back home from Australia (and a shaky relationship with his partner Alicia)  and several years of travel after hearing that his father is ailing. Voice-over narrative by Jean explains why he left home originally: he fell out with dear old dad who pressured him as the eldest son and presumed successor to take over the running of the vineyard, even though over the years Dad should have seen that Juliette was the natural successor. Indeed, on his return, Jean sees that Juliette is running the business, though she suffers from self-doubt. Youngest sibling Jeremie (Francois Civil) turns up early on to berate Jean for being out of the loop for many years and reveal that he’s already a married man with a child. After the father’s death, the siblings learn from the family lawyer that they have to pay a huge inheritance tax  on the estate and they may have to sell various vineyard properties to do so. Jean is grappling with his own tax burden back in Australia where he runs a vineyard with Alicia, his estranged partner and mother of his son. In the meantime, Jeremie’s father-in-law has his own plans for the siblings’ property which amount to buying them out and employing Juliette to run the vineyards his way.

The film keeps busy (and viewers busy also) with the various parallel sub-plots in which the siblings must confront their personal fears and demons, transcend them somehow, and also work out how best to maintain the family wine-making tradition without having to sell their properties but still be able to pay the inheritance tax. The changing seasons and the cycle of the vineyards in which grape seeds are planted, nourished and protected from pests, grow into grapes and are harvested, crushed, fermented and turned into wine (though we don’t actually see the wine being sold) provide the background against which the trio try to overcome their problems and differences, resolve their conflicts, reconcile with one another and other people, and with the legacy their parents have left behind, warts and all.

Marmai, Girardot and Civil turn in excellent performances as the siblings though perhaps Civil as the put-upon Jeremie trying to please his difficult in-laws stands out just a bit more than main character Marmai does. The support cast does well too, especially in very minor sub-plots that promise to develop in some very interesting directions – for a short while, it seems that Jean is a little too interested in a young harvester employee called Lina – but which end up fizzling out early.

The film perhaps suffers from trying to hold together too many sub-plots and not concentrating enough on the siblings’ fight to keep their family property and fend off the vultures. Resolution when it comes seems a bit too pat. The pace and tone are perhaps a bit too calm and even, and minor sub-plots could have been edited out. At the end of the film, there should have been a suggestion that the siblings’ problems have not been entirely resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, that Jean and Alicia still have much work cut out to save and strengthen their relationship, and that Juliette will continue to need support and reassurance that, yes, she’s the right person to take charge of the family’s wine-making business. Jeremie’s father-in-law may be thwarted but he’ll find another way of getting what he wants. This does not necessarily mean that a sequel to the film should be in the works.

At the very least viewers will come to appreciate the work, knowledge and experience necessary to run a wine-making business and the culture and traditions that have built up around wine-making in a particular part of France. The film makes the point that traditions and progress go hand in hand, that change is needed as much as stability if a family culture of wine-making is to remain dynamic. The individual battles that the siblings have to fight to prove themselves and not simply follow in others’ foot-steps reflect this theme.

Your Name: teenage romance comedy drama comes with an unexpected twist sending it into disaster sci-fi fantasy

Makoto Shinkai, “Your Name” (2016)

At first this teenage romance drama seems to be just as sappy and sentimental as any other such film – especially if it’s a Japanese anime film – but it turns out to be quite a moving fantasy in which the two young protagonists try to save a community (and its traditions and culture) from sudden catastrophic extinction. How the girl Mitsuha and the boy Taki meet is ingenious: they meet each other in dreams in which they flip out of their own bodies and end up in the other person’s body. This creates a fair amount of havoc for them, their families and their friends, at least until the two become aware of each other and what is happening so they leave notes for each other on their mobile phones, in their diaries and around their bedrooms for whenever they change places again.

The two youngsters then help each other gain confidence in their social circles: Taki works up the courage to ask a co-worker at the restaurant where he works part-time out on a date, and Mitsuha becomes more popular at school. At the same time, Mitsuha participates in old family and community traditions in her village, as instructed by her grandmother, and is taught to leave sake offerings at the shrine of the village guardian deity near a lake. Later on in the film, Taki tries to meet Mitsuha and travels to her village, only to be told on the way there that the village was destroyed by a comet shower three years previously. To make matters worse, Taki later looks up fatality records for the village and discovers Mitsuha’s name is among them.

Thanks to highly detailed background animation, the film is never less than beautiful to watch though most human characters still look typically cartoonish in the way Japanese anime films portray them, with huge shining eyes and tiny button noses and small mouths and ears. Aspects of local village traditions are well researched and depicted. The film tends to be quite slow in its first half – this part of the film is mostly exposition, showing where the main characters live, what they do, how they spend their time, and what they yearn for (Mitsuha yearning to escape the village with its set routines and ways, Taki wondering about the world beyond Tokyo) – but the main characters thus established end up rather one-dimensional and bland. The pace picks up once Taki figures he can warn Mitsuha in the past of the comet strike and save her and her village. Much of the rest of the film then becomes Mitsuha’s quest, along with some of her school-friends, to convince, then force the villagers to evacuate by staging a power strike at the local electricity station that erupts into a wildfire.

The romance between Mitsuha and Taki tends to be shallow and sappy, with the characters obsessed with talking about their feelings, and by the end of the film the strength of this romance is still as vague and half-hearted as it was earlier when the characters became aware of the body-swapping. As though to compensate for the wishy-washy characters, the film brings in the plot twist that throws everything coming afterwards onto a different trajectory, and the romance takes distant second place to the disaster movie that unfolds.

The film’s saving grace is the various themes that it tackles with grace more or less successfully: loss, and how individuals deal with loss, whether it is personal loss, the loss of a relationship, or the loss of culture, history and tradition due to a catastrophe; yearning for connection, to be part of a world greater than one’s own immediate surrounds; and exploring identity through gender, social connections, time and space, and family and cultural background. If it were not for the themes informing the plot and the characters, the film would be no more than a typical teenage romance comedy drama with the unexpected plot twist that sends it off into disaster movie / sci-fi fantasy.

Foxtrot: a meditation on loss, grief and the circularity of indifference, suffering and brutality

Samuel Maoz, “Foxtrot” (2017)

Divided into three parts, with the first and third parts dominated by the same actors and sharing the same setting (an apartment), “Foxtrot” is a meditation on loss and grief, and how the effects of loss can reverberate over generations, themselves leading to further consequences that might have the result of locking people into a never-ending cycle (as demonstrated in the basic steps of a foxtrot) of loss, grief, indifference – and violence. A decision made in haste sets in place a series of actions that end not only in loss but in friction, conflict, upheaval and maybe missed opportunities for reconciliation … such a decision can ruin people’s lives and turn a nation’s destiny down onto a dangerous spiral of brutality and violence begetting more brutality and violence.

Architect Michael Feldman (Lior Ashkenazi) and his wife Dafna (Sarah Adler) receive upsetting news from Israeli Defense Force soldiers that their son Jonathan has been killed in a fight. Acting on autopilot, the soldiers sedate a hysterical Dafna, advise Michael to keep drinking water on the hour to stay calm and collected, and tell the Feldmans that the IDF is taking care of all the funeral arrangements. Michael goes through a range of reactions from numbness to anger to grief and frustration as he demands answers about the circumstances of his son’s death from the soldiers. Later, they receive news from their superiors that a different Jonathan Feldman died and the architect’s son is still alive …

… and guarding an isolated outpost on Israel’s northern border along with three other young soldiers in the film’s second act. They eat tinned muck and sleep in cramped and wretched conditions in a shipping container – one that is slowly but surely sinking into muddy soil, as measured daily by how fast a tin of meat rolls from the upper end of the container to the lower sinking end – from one lo-o-ong day to the next. They lift the gate for wandering camels and check the IDs of Palestinians driving from one part of the country to the next. The Palestinians accept their humiliating treatment with passive resignation which, in the case of two wedding guests forced to stand in pouring rain while the soldiers run their information on a ramshackle computer, verges on tears as their hair-styles and make-up are ruined. The bored soldiers tell one another stories, listen to radio music and play video games to pass the time in their cramped and miserable outpost and shipping container, until they meet a group of party-goers in a car who accidentally drop what a soldier mistakes for a bomb and then all hell breaks loose …

Initially there seems to be not much plot for the film to hang on and it does pass by very slowly – all to emphasise the parents’ grief and agony, and how they deal with the shock of the news of their son’s death; and to detail the shabby treatment of young inexperienced soldiers by the IDF in putting them in situations where mistakes they make could have serious life-or-death consequences. The film starts to move when Michael, on hearing that his son might still be alive, demands the youngster’s return and contacts someone senior in the IDF. The IDF duly sets the wheels in motion to bring Jonathan home – but no-one can foresee what happens during the trip.

By mixing parts of the narrative so that the film’s climax comes at the end when it should come about two-thirds of the way through the film, director Maoz reinforces the circular nature of fate and how an apparently innocent decision intersecting with a random act can have devastating consequences. In the third act, Michael and Dafna have already split, their son really is dead but the parents appear not to know how he died: all the IDF will say is that he is one of “the fallen”. While Michael and Dafna make an effort to patch up their relationship, the IDF itself learns no lessons from the second Jonathan Feldman’s death and the circumstances in which it arose, and its soldiers continue to obey and carry out orders, robot-like, asking no questions and continuing to injure, wound and kill innocent people thoughtlessly.

The circularity of fate that traps the Feldmans may be a metaphor for the circularity of continuous trauma, brutality and unwillingness to face up to and learn from its decisions and actions that keeps Israel trapped and which has turned that nation into a global pariah. Ingeniously, Maoz’s film offers a path out of that trap: as the foxtrot needs to be danced properly with a partner, rather than solo, Israel needs to partner and reconcile with the Palestinian people to break it out of its descent into further dysfunction and to become a normal nation.

The cast of actors is very good and Ashkenazi turns in an incredible performance as the grieving Michael. Adler is a good foil though her role as a supportive wife is a little stereotypical. The cinematography is another asset: scenes shot from above, close-up or at unusual angles can stress helplessness, isolation or intense grief. The narrative’s minimal style throws emphasis on characters’ emotions and on the deterministic nature of the events that occur as they seem to lead inexorably to disaster and further tragedy.

NYC to Donetsk & back: an American visitor discovers a new nation in the making in eastern Ukraine

Alexander Korobko, “NYC to Donetsk & back” (Russian Hour, 2018)

Made in 2017 or 2018, or some time after the death of Mikhail Tolstykh aka Givi in February 2017 (his death in his office is mentioned early on in the film), this remarkable documentary follows the travels of Russian-American actor Peter von Berg in the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) to discover the truth ignored by Western mainstream news media (MSM) about the experiences of the people living in the region, as opposed to what is reported by the Western MSM. Before 2014, the DPR was an oblast or province of Ukraine, predominantly Russian in ethnicity and language, and one of the most industrialised and prosperous parts of that country. After the Maidan Revolution in February 2014, the overthrow of the Yanukovych government, and Crimea’s own escape from Ukraine and reunion with the Russian Federation, Donetsk Oblast held a referendum in May 2014, the result of which led to the establishment of the DPR. Ukraine then invaded the DPR and its fellow rebel republic the Lugansk People’s Republic (also a majority-Russian area in Ukraine) and the three fought a brief hot war from May to early September, 2014. At the time von Berg visited the DPR, it was recognised as a state only by South Ossetia and was still claimed by Ukraine along with the LPR as part of its territory.

With political scientist Alexander Kazakov as his guide, von Berg tours areas that were part of the front-line in the DPR’s fight for survival in the summer of 2014 and is introduced to various people including DPR head of state Alexander Zakharchenko and at least one of his ministers, Alexander Timofeyev, who takes von Berg on a trip to a greenhouse farm growing tomatoes. The actor visits a specialist surgical hospital and talks to the head administrator and medical staff there; he also visits a steel-making factory, an Orthodox church, and a theatre and its cast of actors.  He even meets a Texan, Russell Bentley, who decided in 2014 to throw in his lot with the DPR and help the republic fight the post-Maidan regime in Kiev. The discussions he has with Zakharchenko and others about the society they are building in the DPR are very revealing: the people intend to create a socialist society in which primary and secondary education and healthcare are provided for free by the government, and cultural pursuits and enrichment are taken for granted and are the right of the people to enjoy.

Von Berg is very moved by many of the sights – in particular, the bombed remains of houses and other buildings near the front-line, and a Soviet-era memorial on a hill outside Donetsk city that was deliberately targeted and ruined by Ukrainian tanks – and marvels at the resilience and determination of DPR residents. They are highly educated and cultured and are mindful of their long history and traditions. Zakharchenko reminds von Berg of the significance of the Boston Tea Party in American revolutionary history and Timofeyev quotes the Roman poet Virgil; theatre director Natalia Volkova tells von Berg that the first play her theatre performed after the cessation of war in 2014 or early 2015 was Nikolai Gogol’s “Marriage”, in which a civil servant tries to find a suitable bride through a match-maker. (The travails of the civil servant and the bride might well mirror the DPR’s attempt to urge a federal style of government to Kiev and then its later attempt to become an autonomous republic, then form a federal union with the LPR, and then finally become more or less independent.) The fact that von Berg finds such friendly and cultured people, irrespective of their vocations, will surprise many Western audiences accustomed to societies where everyone knows only enough from his / her own school and college education to perform his / her chosen vocation and little else apart from what s/he picks up from news media and social media. Strangely though, after visiting a medical centre, a factory, a cultural centre and a politician’s office, von Berg does not visit a school, a university or a technical college to find out how the DPR produces people with such a rich and varied education.

In many questions that von Berg asks of his gracious hosts, there is implied criticism of the neoliberal capitalist system as it operates in his home country. Von Berg is impressed with the DPR’s ability to provide medical care (including specialist surgery) for free and education for free up to a certain level as well. Zakharchenko explains to von Berg that the state will fund particular university students’ studies in full if the young people are studying in an area where the government has a shortage of qualified people, on the condition that upon graduation the students agree to work for the government for a given period, otherwise the students are expected to pay for part of their studies. No doubt, on hearing of what students in the US must pay for their studies, Zakharchenko and others must have fallen over backwards at the sheer insanity of a system that bankrupts young people just so they can gain qualifications for jobs that are unlikely ever to pay off their tuition loans over a lifetime of work. What von Berg discovers as he travels around the DPR is also an indictment of the Western MSM’s failure to report the reality of the war in eastern Ukraine and the support that the West gives to fascist, even neo-Nazi regimes to repress their own citizens and to use violence against them where such governments and such actions advance Western political and economic elite goals of seizing other people’s lands and natural resources.

Von Berg comes away with new respect and admiration for a people who, under conditions of war and political and economic uncertainty, have created a thriving society and a rich and layered culture where people have the opportunity not only to fulfill their potential in particular fields but blossom in other areas. At the same time, the threat of a renewed hot war against the DPR by Ukraine, rent by political corruption, economic decline and extreme neo-Nazi terror, and encouraged by the West to recover what it considers to be its territory in the DPR, the LPR and Crimea, is never far away.

Rams: a minimal but insubstantial film on the fragility of family and community ties and traditions against the outside world

Grimur Hakonarson, “Rams / Hrutar” (2015

Forty years ago, a family rift led to two brothers in an Icelandic sheep-farming family going their separate ways, splitting the family property in half so that each brother tends to his own flock of pedigreed heritage sheep. For forty years the two brothers Gummi (Sigurdur Sigurjonsson) and Kiddi (Theodor Juliusson) don’t speak to each other and Kiddi’s dog Somi takes handwritten messages from one to the other if they have to communicate. And forty years after the family conflict, now long forgotten, the two brothers do have to come together and communicate: in one of the brothers’ flocks, a ram comes down with a disease feared to be scrapie. The entire valley where the brothers live becomes a scrapie disaster zone and the government in Rejkjavik decrees that all sheep farmers in the area must slaughter their animals, clean and disinfect their properties and equipment, and remain sheep-free for two calendar years. Some sheep farmers are devastated by this news and decide to give up their farms; Gummi tries to comply with the regulations but can’t bring himself to kill his beloved ram; and Kiddi refuses point-blank to comply with the law. Faced with the extinction not only of their unique breed of sheep but also of their family legacy and way of life, the sensitive Gummi and stubborn, hard-drinking Kiddi need to come together if they’re to save Gummi’s prize ram and a small set of ewes from the veterinarians and the agricultural authorities.

The film starts as a quirky eccentric comedy centred around the brothers’ personality quirks and their feud, and gradually develops into a bleak tale in which the two are driven to desperate measures and risk their lives to maintain a family / cultural tradition. The isolation of these elderly sheep-farmers in a remote part of Iceland, and the self-reliant, taciturn nature such isolation engenders (even if its flip-side is eccentric and silent stubbornness) becomes apparent; even the government inspectors and the family lawyer from the south are puzzled by the brothers’ behaviour, and talk too much (and they’re Icelanders!) for the viewers’ comfort. Audiences become very aware of the attachment farmers like Gummi and Kiddi have for their animals and for the harsh physical environment where they have lived all their lives, and of the intrusive inspectors and veterinarians from Rejkjavik who look out of place in the windswept (and, in winter, snow-laden) open landscapes.

The plot is perhaps too simple and the characters of Gummi and Kiddi a little too stereotyped to carry the film’s themes of community and family ties, and how fragile these can be, successfully. The film spends more time with Gummi (whose daily routines are on the dull side) and not much at all on Kiddi so we know little about Kiddi other than that he drinks too much and is prone to anger and even violence. At times the film does drag with long silences – but that’s probably a problem for us city people with our short attention spans and dislike of long pauses in conversation – and the family conflict that split apart the brothers is never explained so viewers remain in the dark about how it came to have such a deep effect on the two men.

The film might have been more successful had the characters of the two men been more developed, and perhaps a sub-plot included as well. Something about how the outside world increasingly encroaches on the isolated sheep-farming community in a remote part of Iceland, and the changes it brings – changes that threaten a traditional way of life and the physical environment – would have added an extra layer of interest and conflict. The two brothers’ reaction to the threat that the authorities pose to their beloved ram and ewes may seem pathetic to some viewers and heroic (in a tragic sort of way) to others.

For a movie that is not long – it’s not quite 90 minutes – “Rams” does wear out its welcome quickly.

The Goddess: a social realist film with natural and minimal acting, and a young rising star

Wu Yonggang, “The Goddess / Shen nu” (1935)

A year after this film was made, its star Ruan Lingyu took her life by overdosing on barbiturates, apparently as a result of her entanglement in a love triangle involving her husband from whom she was estranged and another man with whom she was living, and the vicious gossip that surrounded them all, so in some ways this silent film occupies a special place in Chinese cinematic history. Ruan plays a single unnamed mother who resorts to prostitution to support herself and her young son. During a police vice sweep one evening in Shanghai, Ruan’s character takes shelter with a gangster (Zhang Zhizhi), known as Boss Zhang, who takes advantage of her vulnerability by claiming her as his property and her earnings as money he can use to pay off his gambling debts. The woman pins all her hopes on her son as he grows up and she saves up enough money (away from Boss Zhang’s eyes) to send him to school. However her reputation precedes his arrival at the school, the other children’s parents complain and the school, over the objections of the principal, expels the child. Boss Zhang eventually discovers where the woman has been keeping her savings and claims the money. This leads to a confrontation between him and the woman which ends in tragedy. The woman ends up facing 12 years in jail and her son is taken away from her.

The story is simply and minimally told, and its purpose is to reveal starkly how harsh and miserable the lives of marginal people like the single mother, driven by poverty to take up prostitution, could be, the dangers and corruption they could fall into, and the humiliation and bullying they faced from society at large in trying to improve their lives and their children’s lives. For the period, the acting is natural and not at all exaggerated for effect. Ruan lets her facial expressions do all the acting, and the range of moods and feelings that pass over her face is remarkable indeed. One sees the depths of despair and hopelessness in succeeding scenes, yet also the fury that overtakes her character when all seems utterly lost. The entire film revolves around Ruan’s performance and a very good performance it is when one considers the actress was in her mid-20s and her skill as an actor seems to have come mostly from learning on the job. The rest of the cast does a good job in supporting Ruan’s character; Zhang in particular conveys both comedy and malevolence as the manipulative and predatory Boss Zhang.

The cinematography is something to behold, in the way it makes collages of still life scenes to demonstrate the pathos of the life the woman must lead to survive, and in the way close-ups, unusual camera angles and soft blurring are used to portray the pain or anger she feels, even if fleetingly.

While the story and its message may verge on trite, and the stereotype of the prostitute with a heart of pure gold was probably old even in the 1930s, this film is quite remarkable in its willingness to portray, in a generic way, the plight of prostitutes in 1930s Shanghai and how their reality combined with social expectations of women to expose them to further danger and deny them any possibility of improving their lives. The irony is that Ruan’s character achieves freedom and peace by further breaking the law in committing murder, ending up in jail and losing her son.

 

A superficial survey of how far a society has recovered a decade after years of war and destruction in “Chechnya: Republic of Contrasts”

“Chechnya: Republic of Contrasts” (RT Channel, 2013)

Made in 2013, this RT documentary is probably due for an update but it remains an interesting introduction to the Chechen Republic under the leadership of Ramzan Akhmadovich Kadyrov. The focus of the documentary is on how far Chechnya has recovered since the two wars in the late 1990s and early 2000s that left most parts of this region devastated and its capital Groznyj all but destroyed. Since 2007 when Kadyrov became Head of the Chechen Republic, the region has stabilised and money has poured into its cities and towns to rebuild its infrastructure and major buildings, and to stimulate the economy. At the same time, Kadyrov has built Islamic schools, introduced aspects of Islamic shari’a law and tried to rebuild traditional Chechen society so as to draw young people away from Wahhabism. The result of stability, new prosperity and instilling a particular fundamentalist interpretation of Islam is a society looking both backwards and forwards in rather awkward ways that probably say much more about Kadyrov and his government’s interpretation of Islam than about Islam itself.

The documentary follows a number of individuals going about their daily work routines. A boy of primary school / junior high school age attends an Islamic school for several hours each day, learning to read and memorise the Qu’ran (in Arabic, not in his native Chechen) and, apart from some sport and general education, doing little else. A female newsreader visits the Firdaws fashion house to peruse suitable Islamic garb for her job. A taxi driver muses over how much his life has changed since the first Chechen war destroyed his apartment: he now has a new, and much better, apartment and his family makes an effort to observe what Chechen traditions and customs remain after decades of Soviet repression (which included deportation to Kazakhstan during World War II, in which many older people and children died). Young single women learn to be photographic fashion models showing off the latest Islamic fashion trends to the rest of the world.

The film’s coverage strikes this viewer as rather superficial for its length (26 minutes), not delving at all into how Kadyrov’s government has restored stability and security with the help of Moscow, and giving the impression that Russian money has been primarily responsible for Chechnya’s new wealth. Did most of that money come from Moscow’s coffers or from taxes paid by Chechen households, individuals and businesses? What industry might Chechnya have that could have produced some or most of that wealth? Are there Chechens who work in other parts of the Russian Federation who send remittances back to their families, and is their money actually propping up Chechnya’s wealth and development? What laws has Kadyrov’s government enacted that have eliminated violence and terrorism? Is Kadyrov’s interpretation of Islam and Chechen tradition accepted by most Chechens or do they think he is cherry-picking only those aspects of Islam that ensure his continued leadership of the small republic? These are questions that may well arise in viewers’ minds on watching this documentary.

Some people (including me) may well find the Islamic schools a potential long-term burden to the Chechen republic: if students at these schools learn little other than reading and memorising the Qu’ran, without understanding its deeper meaning and messages, and have no other education or skills to undertake work, they will end up on social welfare and their families or partners will have to support them. Male students in particular, ashamed that their women or families have to support them, may very well end up drifting into the kinds of Islamist extremism that Kadyrov wants to discourage. On the other hand, Kadyrov is to be commended for allowing women (including his daughters) to pursue careers, even if these are careers in women’s fashion design and modelling. There is nothing though on women training to be doctors, teachers, medical and hospital workers or sales representatives even though a strict literal interpretation of Islam and remaking Chechen society into an Islamic society would require considerable numbers of women to be educated in such vocations so that the separation of the sexes in daily life can be observed.

The documentary ends on a positive, upbeat note and I couldn’t help but feel a great opportunity to detail (even if briefly) how Chechnya functions, what industry it has and how Kadyrov’s government and leadership steer the republic, was lost.