Welcome to GFF Reviews!

This blog celebrates the wide range of excellent films shown at the Glasgow Film Festival, as well as other film festivals shown in Glasgow. Some reviews are long, some reviews are short. All are intended to give you an idea of what you might like to see, and take a chance on something a little different.

Chance

Really fascinating film. Taking place almost entirely inside the back of a truck, four migrants hope that the journey from Belgium to the UK will provide them with a chance at a better life.

The film exists somewhere between documentary and fiction, as the directors film from within a reconstructed space, but the four guys on screen are all real migrants living Belgium, and all the words are their own, as they improvise based on their own experience. It brings home what an achievement it is, to have this really compelling, full length feature film, with entirely improvised performances.

The film is claustrophobic. I mean, you probably could have guessed that when I said it takes place almost entirely inside the back of a truck, but it’s one thing to register it and another thing to feel it for 75 minutes. The bit where one of the guys goes round the seams of the doors looking for some crack to get fresh air is particularly upsetting to watch. Because this is a time game. They have to be patient and wait for the truck to reach its destination, at the same time, they have to judge how long they can survive in this airless box. There is a constant tension of trying to figure out where they are, whether the driver has gone off for a pee or a kip or the weekend, and if silence means impending danger or respite from it.

The whole thing is so tense. They have to judge from the mumbles and bangs from outside, has the driver heard them? If he has, is it better to run now before the cops show up? And where would they even run, coz where the fuck even are they? They try to sus their location and route by checking the GPS on their phones but that can only tell them so much. When the van parks, are they at a service station, a car park, a warehouse lot? The whole thing brings home how precarious their lives are, how the big wins and losses are entirely outwith their control. And all they can do is make the choice to take that risk, to see if this time it will be their chance.

If you like this…

Space is the Place

Right, so it’s a 70s Afrofuturist blaxploitation flick created by cosmic jazz artist and absolute legend Sun Ra. Knowing that going in, it still somehow managed not to be what I was expecting.

First things first, like most blaxploitation movies, it’s made on a budget of £2.50, so bear that in mind going in. Despite this, there’s a lot of ambitious stuff, Sun Ra kicking about an alien planet, then landing his spaceship in the Oakland-San Francisco area, then engaging in a war for the souls of African-Americans in an astral card game with the embodiment of the Overseer mentality, the co-operation and collaboration with the systems that oppress Black people. For that alone, it’s worth sticking your head round the door to have a look.

It does have that vanity project problem, where you make film about yourself as the saviour of your people because your mind is so opened and enlightened. Reminds me (as much as I liked it) of Slam, where Saul Williams stops a prisonyard fight with his slam poetry. It doesn’t help that Sun Ra delivers a lot of his lines while looking directly down the camera, or reading his lines held up just the right of it.

It does nonetheless draw you in, with an optimism and hope that manages to fight against its limitations at every step. There are plenty of funny bits, and the whole thing is a bit of a romp.

The liberation, equality and dignity that Sun Ra fights for doesn’t apply to women however, and the film’s only female characters, one white woman and one black woman, are stripped to provide full frontal nudity, the only characters in the film to do so. They are initially used as trophies and objects to confirm manhood and status, then laterally are subjected to misogynistic violence. So, yeah.

Space is the Place is an interesting snapshot of a time where rising optimism seemed pitted against longstanding cynicism, a place which seen from 2022 was a high point that peaked and receeded in the wake of a starker reality. The magic and kookiness Sun Ra brings tries to keep alive a childhood in the weary adults that populate his world and the world of the viewer. Despite its limitations, for such efforts, it still has merit.

Afronauts

Afronauts is an atmospheric short film about a girl preparing to go into space, as Zambia tries to beat the U.S. to be the first on the moon.

The film has this early sci-fi feel, filmed in black-and-white on the rocky gravel of a quarry. The homemade aluminium spacesuit made for the main character has that classic 50s look. That style has been so spoofed in the interceding decades that watching it from the 2020s, you are not sure if it’s meant to be comical. It inspires both a sincere nostalgia, and also a melancholy for imagined futures now past. That mixture of being almost laughably strange and humblingly sincere pervades the film, with the girl being rolled downhill in a barrel as weightlessness training.

As the hour of take-off approaches, I became apprehensive about how much of what we were seeing was real, in world. Within the world of the film, was a 4-foot metal tube enough to launch a person to the moon? Or would this come crashing down into insufficiently magical reality?

Using the language of sci-fi, Afronauts evokes a hopeful innocence, a harkening back to a childhood of possibilities. It is by turns comforting and unsettling, as this young girl places her life in the hands of those driven more by belief than experience. Interesting film.

Does Your House Have Lions

What I liked about Does Your House Have Lions is that it tries to be a documentary without being a documentary, it tries to be with its people rather than show its people. The people in the film, vqueeram, Dhiren, and Devangana, are living through extraordinary times, documentary-worthy times, but rather than pull back and explain a national narrative, the film resolutely remains on their lives, their friendships. These are conversations taking place in their livingrooms, their bedrooms, that we manage, through the camera, to be present for.

The rise of fascism across the globe has been rightly discussed at length, but one nation which has been underrepresented in discussions is India. I think because, from here, we recognise fascism from its use of white supremacist iconography, and can therefore link up different national movements that share Nazi swastikas or American Confederate flags or Nordic runes. But India’s Hindu nationalism falls outside this, so the emotional punch of recognising the repeated signature that signposts the route to fascism is largely absent for those observing from outside the nation. Modi has definitely been able to use this to his advantage, as the political violence he has incited has went unnamed abroad, and without being named as fascism it cannot be tackled as fascism.

vqueeram, Dhiren and their friends are queer university activists in Dehli. Vishal, the co-director with vqueeram, an American from the Indian diaspora, is present on screen, in discussions, is heard over the phone, or seen setting up shots. There is a definite intent to be as transparent as possible, of showing the artifice of trying to light a shot while at the same time capturing the naturalness of conversation taking place. Sometimes vqueeram will explain things to Vishal that he was not aware of, that happened while he was out the country or which didn’t get attention on the news. There is not a presumption of an omniscient documentary-maker, this is very much a space for listening.

What I liked was that it showed how political movements function mostly through social bonds. When people scoff at left-leaning or anti-authoritarian politics, there is usually the question asked rhetorically of how folk would get anything done, anything organised? I always find it funny when this gets asked because most relationships in our lives are not boss/subordinate or police/prisoner. Most relationships that we have with friends, neighbours, lovers, and co-workers strive, despite power structures, towards an equalitarian nature. Empathy is the currency of our interactions far more than dominance. Yet most documentaries like to show political conflict as two opposing structures, two hierarchical organisations vying for control. It is harder to capture what a lot of activism really is, which is checking in to see if someone’s doing alright, knowing who is struggling just now, phoning someone’s loved ones to give them information and support. What builds a movement and keeps it functioning is what is shown in Does Your House Have Lions, conversations in livingrooms, holding your friend’s hand while he tells you about something that happened to him, sitting on the porch and processing the fallouts of protests.

Both in what is shown and how it is shown, there is an attempt to make a film which eschews the norms and formats of a documentary film, and co-authors a recorded piece of people’s lives, lives which are inherently political, not just when on the streets or in a rally, but every day in their homes, their kitchens, their hearths.

Shall I Compare You To A Summer’s Day?

Queer experimental Arab film, a sort of 1001 Nights where two lovers discuss their relationship and those from their past, which spiral out into a web of a community.

Very kinda unique and playful format, utilising song, dance, poetry, animation, direct interviews with camera, and action on green screen. It keeps each narrative suspended in its own space, able to move backwards and forwards in time, but not necessarily linearly, the way a real world dramatisation would. It also feels very unflinching, as people discuss break-ups with those they lost their lovers to, or their exes who still don’t listen to their hurt.

The stories span the gamut of experiences from intensely loving to alienating and indifferent to violent and painful. People struggle with love, sex, commitment, monogamy, polyamory, addiction, recovery, loss and abuse. At times it’s not clear where one experience comes in time or how accurate it is when compared to another’s memory of the same event.

It is very non-judgemental, there’s an unspoken acknowledgement that these are all young men with growing to do, and their shit to sort out. Even when communication is emphasised, the ability to really listen and hear each other remains a struggle. That classic romantic theme of how to understand and be understood by those you love.

The film is neither entirely autobiographical nor fictional. It is an amalgam of the filmmaker’s experiences, and the writers, and the cast who improvised based on their own histories. While firmly Arab and queer, the conflicts and longings are universally recognisable.

Interesting film.

Our Memory Belongs To Us

The film opens with a quote from George Orwell’s 1984, “Who controls the past, controls the future: who controls the present, controls the past.” Three survivors of the Syrian Revolution, Odai, Rani and Yadan, meet to share their stories. They try to tell what happened in the beginning, when the protests were met with violence, suppression, and state propaganda. Before every world power or extremist group hijacked the narrative for their own ends.

A harddrive was smuggled out of Syria and into the hands of the director. On it were countless hours of film, tracing the very first protests against the Asad regime in the birthplace of the Revolution, the city of Daraa. The majority was shot by a handful of friends, who were just ordinary neighbourhood guys, but were forced by the brutality of the regime to become citizen journalists, documenting the atrocities being inflicted on the people of their community. After 10 years, the director gathers the surviving journalists together to view the footage and put in context the events they show.

It’s a hard watch. These films were not made by career journalists just trying to put together an interesting package for the nightly news. They were filming the arrest, torture, and massacre of their neighbours, their friends. They were filming as an act of survival. And the violence and trauma is something they endured directly. Which is why watching them review the footage is so difficult, watching them relive that trauma. You feel what a sacrifice it is for them to go back over what they shot, how emotionally exhausting. But from that, you understand how important it is for this story to be told right.

Propaganda is something they are keenly aware of. The Assad government held all the power, controlled all the media. Their grainy cameraphone footage floated like balloons up into the ether of the internet, hoping someone would see. The official story was that the army was simply protecting the people from terrorist groups who were killing indiscriminately. The film of unarmed peaceful protestors being fired upon tells otherwise. The images of children playing among the activists, with women dancing, tells of how unthreatening they were. It is only after the authorities begin murdering protestors, Odai, Rani and Yadan join an activist group, and try to hide their faces in their films. But even that can be used by the regime, so they can point to it and say to the West, “See! They are terrorists!”, knowing that brown-skinned men speaking Arabic in balaclavas will always be read as terrorist, no matter how much they are fighting for democracy non-violently, and hiding their identities out of necessity.

When the deaths of innocents start piling up, the handful of personal weapons in the city are donated to be used to protect the protestors when RPGs and tank shells start firing. They are used merely to cover the protestors’ retreat, to give people time to escape unharmed, but again, that’s not the story the regime gives to those images. As the journalists themselves say, they knew where we were firing from, they could have taken the building in minutes, but they let us stay, because we were worth more as images of armed terrorists firing on government forces. They were damned if they do and damned if they don’t, their choices were let the authorities massacre their people with impunity or become fodder for propaganda.

They couldn’t understand how the world would not come to their aid. In those days, before Daesh, before ISIS, before every world power had staked its claim in what Syria represented for their interests, it was ordinary citizens trying to overthrow a notorious, human rights-abusing tyranny. One guy remembers dumping the body of a murdered child on the front of a UN truck, while Kofi Annan, the envoy to Syria, was visiting. He demanded Annan come and speak to the family, and after he did, the military bombed the family home. They even opened fire on the delegation. And he tells Kofi Annan, they are showing you exactly what they are doing, and daring you to do something about it; they are not doing this for my benefit, I see it every day. And in the end, he is astonished to see them leave and no aid being given.

From all the documentaries about Syria I have seen, everyone seems to agree there was this moment, where if there had been the support, things could have gone another way. And instead everything falls to shit. And the remainder of the footage shows the Assad government determined to destroy everything on the face of Syria, and kill every Syrian citizen, if it means they still rule the rubble and bones.

Of particular difficulty is watching the fate of their friend, Abou Nasir, who was with them from the very start, and became a reporter for Al Jazeera under his full name Mohammed Hourani, and who was murdered by a sniper while making a report. He was 33. Many of the films in the movie were of his making. They stand, the three of them watching his face, and you feel the absence of him next to them, as tangible as the presence of a ghost.

A hard watch, but one you feel is owed to both the living and the dead.

If you like this…

Farha

Jesus fucking Christ.

In the absolute silence that followed the end of this film, an old woman sitting behind me said to her friend, “That is the most terrifying film I have ever seen”. She’s not wrong. Think Come And See vibes.

And the beginning of this film is so sunshiney and lovely, you’d never believe it was going to get so bad. Even knowing that it’s set during the time of Al Nakba, I didn’t expect it to go to the depths it did.

Farha is a 14-year-old girl who is desperate to go to school in the big city. Her father is mayor of a small Palestinian village, and he’s torn between his daughter’s obvious passion for learning, and the thought that keeping her close to home might be safer in these uncertain times. There is such a warmth between the two, a relationship of real love, you find yourself quickly invested in them. Farha’s cousin visits from the big city and they share their hopes of living together as sisters if Farha’s enrollment goes ahead. The film really takes time to establish Farha’s whole world; the green, leafy fig groves, the songs the girls sing, the boy who has a crush on her, her family, her friends, the possibility of marriage and the social life of the community.

The whole world is so fleshed out, that’s why I assumed that even when Al Nakba starts, we would see her travel with and try to keep safe this large cast of characters. But that’s not what happens. The film is based on the real experiences of a woman who survived the Catastrophe. And what happens is Farha refuses to flee and stays by her father’s side. He locks her in a storeroom in the courtyard, promising to return when the shooting stops. And she waits. And she waits. And she waits.

By following Farha’s story as one person living through these horrific events, we are seeing the Catastrophe through a keyhole, both metaphorically and literally. When she is first put inside, I assumed it would only be until nightfall or even a day or so. I thought to myself, “Ah, great way to save on budget! You don’t have to see the bombing and the tanks and the shootings, you can just hear them.” But this is because I underestimated the horror of the situation.

It actually reminded me of Slaughterhouse Five, when people go inside a building, and when they come out, the world has ended. Above the birds circle and say poo-tee-weet. From her place in this claustrophobic entombment, she bears witness to the massacre of innocents and the attempt to erase her people. And with no one she can safely call for help, how will she ever get out?

I’ve seen films telling the story of survivors before, movies like The Cut based on a survivor of the Armenian genocide, and all of them involve travel and movement, escape and getting way. And as horrifying as those stories are, there is some relief as a viewer to know you are leaving those things behind. With Farha, you just have to sit in it, and listen and look as the world ends.

Absolutely horrific.

Scales

Beautiful arthouse horror, like a Saudi Shadow Over Innsmouth. Shot in black and white, the story takes place on this stark rocky island surrounded by an expanse of deadly sea. There, the people survive by sacrificing their firstborn daughters to the sea, in return for favour for the fishermen’s hunt. Until Hayat breaks that tradition.

A dark flavour of magical realism, the film uses gorgeous cinematography rather than dialogue as its main story delivery. The black rippling waves have the same ominous and unnerving effect as the susurrations of the tall grass in the wind in Onibaba. Jumping into the sea is seen as test of manhood and bravery, as though it is jumping into death itself. In the first scene, where fathers take their baby daughters to be sacrificed, the camera sinks below the waves while still gazing up into their expressions of loss, the ripples of the surface seem like the veil of death behind which they are disappearing.

Hayat was meant to be sacrificed by her father, but he so loved her, her couldn’t let her drown, and pulled her from the clutches of whatever is beneath the waves. However, now 12 years later, the time of sacrifice is upon them again. He is expecting his second child, and Hayat’s only hope is that it is a girl, who can take her place.

It is a strange feminist fairytale, where Hayat must decide to takes the reins of her own life, and choose whether and how to survive. Raised as an outcast, she is seen as a curse, an ill-omened thing. The women see her as an affront to the order of things, that her survival is an insult to all they have sacrificed, for their suffering to have meaning it must have been necessary. Even Hayat’s own mother begs her to sacrifice herself, as she fears having to lose her new baby to the sea. Yet Hayat is cool and determined, insistent on her own right to life, as much as any son.

Yet it is a thoroughly ambiguous story, with Hayat longing to become a hunter, like the respected fishermen who bring home catches. But as the scales on her own feet tell, she is just like what they are hunting. The film asks how to escape from this power dynamic of predator and prey, where the only options are to submit to violence or inflict it.

And I can sympathise with those that might come away feeling like the whole thing is too unresolved, too vague. It is a film dealing with symbolism but very few answers. When I first saw the scales on Hayat’s feet, I wondered if it meant she was always destined to be below the waves, but as the film went on, you can see it as her having one foot in either world. Is affinity for the hunters a yearning for a respected position in society, or a survival tactic, or an envy of the ease and status of men, or a queer metaphor? Is Hayat’s effect on her society destructive, or redemptive, or simply anomalous? I liked that openness that is left for discussion and interpretation, but I can see how some might find it frustrating.

Has the gloomy, morphean quality of something like A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night.

Captains of Zaatari

Captains of Zaatari follows the highs and lows of two boys, Fawzi and Mahmoud, as they try to follow their dreams of becoming footballers. They are Syrian refugees in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, where there are few opportunities, but football provides a way out.

I’ll be honest, I saw the first few opening shots, with slow motion and plinky-plonky music and I worried the film might be sentimental. But it’s actually surprisingly empowering. It can be difficult showing the hardship of refugee life without it becoming one-note, and robbing refugees of the full roundness of their human existence. Captains of Zaatari shows the heartbreak of separation and exile, the frustration and poverty, but also the friendship, family, and community life of the camp. Fawzi and Mahmoud are still just teenage boys, with crushes on girls, and an obsession with football. And the film doesn’t show them as passive victims of this horrible war and displacement, but with agency in their own lives, having their own goals and pursuing them.

As someone with no interest in football, it is still a compelling film, as you follow the human drama of seeing these boys reach for their dreams, and try to make their families and their people proud. As the talent scouts come to see them play in the camp, and doors open to play in an international sports academy, it is weird to see these kids who play barefoot on gravel be transported to hotels full of jacuzzi baths.

All in all, a really encouraging film, great to see a film where the hope, talent and tenacity of refugees is put front and centre, not just their suffering.

Baba

Beautiful short film Baba is about a queer Libyan who has set their dreams on asylum in the UK, and a life in Manchester’s Canal Street. The night before his interview at the British embassy, he must sneak back into his family home to recover his passport. But events unfold that rock his certain plans.

Entranced by the comparative freedom for queer people in the UK, he bleaches his hair to be ‘like Boris’, paints Union Jacks on his nails, and goes by the name Britannia. He’s met with nothing but rejection by his family and his country in Libya. Living on streets of Tripoli, or more accurately the tunnels under the streets, in hiding beneath the city, nothing could seem more obvious that to apply for asylum in Britain.

However, he needs his passport for the interview at the embassy, and that is in his old family home, a place he has been banished from. With the assistance of his sisters, a couple of queer women he lives with in the tunnels, he makes his way in the dead of night to break in and retrieve the passport. But not everything goes to plan, and he comes face to face with the ghosts of his past.

Really heartrending wee film.