Dhalinyaro

Dhalinyaro is a lovely, sweet, coming-of-age film about three girls in Djibouti City, in the lead up to them taking their final exams and going off to university. The film follows their ups and downs as they deal with exam pressure, household obligations, parents, boys, love and sex.

Deka begins an on-again-off-again unconsummated affair with an older married man, and struggles to make a decision about where to go for university. Hibo knows she’s going to study abroad in Paris, as seems her destiny coming from a well-to-do family with a mansion and servants. Asma stresses about doing well in her exams, as she know how much her parents work and sacrifice for her, and how hard it is to support their family on their current income.

The other main character in the film is the city of Djibouti itself. In some ways, this is not just a film about growing up and saying goodbye to your friends. It’s about growing up in the city, and saying goodbye to it too. Deka loves her home, she feeds all the weans on the street, takes tea to her neighbour across the way and listens to his stories. She loves this city, its beach and its streets, and that comes across in the film. I just loved the way the city was shot, you can almost feel the heat, the air, the smell. When girls go swimming in the crystal clear sea, you can understand how you would never want to leave.

Just a lovely little slice of life.

The GFT is having to close again!

Fuck 2020 and Covid 19!

As Glasgow goes into Tier 3 lockdown, the GFT is closing from Monday 2nd November. Obviously we hope these restrictions can be lifted at the earliest opportunity, when things get reassessed in a fortnight, but we all thought we’d only be quarantined for a couple of weeks during the first lockdown, so fuck knows.

In the meantime, support Glasgow Film, which runs GFF and GFT, by donating here – https://glasgowfilm.org/iframe-donation

This Is Not A Movie

Documentary on Robert Fisk and his career as a British foreign correspondent, initially working in Northern Ireland during The Troubles, but most famously covering the Middle East for 40 years. The film is made up of historical footage as well as contemporary filming of him padding around his flat in Beirut and being interviewed.

It has a weirdly fractured quality, struggling to find a narrative through-line. It bounces around time periods, showing Fisk’s reporting on the subject seemingly as and when they come up in conversation. Had there been a linear or even thematic ordering, maybe it wouldn’t have felt so disconnected and jolty.

After Love

Aw man, what a great movie. Real emotional journey.

It stars Joanna Scanlan as Mary, a woman who loses her husband of 40 years, only to discover after his death that he led a double-life with another woman in France. Her husband Ahmed is a ferry captain at the Dover-Calais crossing, and his marriage to Mary is one of domestic bliss, and they are active in Dover’s Muslim community. It’s an image of family, faith and fulfilment, which is why his death is so devastating to Mary.

But it’s like a second death when she finds messages on his phone to another woman. She travels to Calais and finds he’s had this whole other life with this leggy, blonde French woman, and it was pretty different, very secular, with him drinking alcohol and carrying on. Mary goes on this journey trying to get to know her husband after his death, a man she has known since she was 14, who she thought she knew like the back of her hand.

But the movie’s also kind of about that, about how even those we think we know best can remain mysteries to us, including ourselves. Mary’s journey to rediscover her husband is also a journey about who she is to, what her life was about, after all this.

Joanna Scanlan’s portrayal is just so moving. Almost everything is communicated without dialogue, and even the dialogue is not about what is actually happening in the scene. Her depiction of the immediate grief she feels after Ahmed’s death is just shellshock, an absolute sense of otherworldliness, you almost feel like you are floating with her through scenes. And then when she discover Ahmed’s betrayal, there is just this dry, hot, breathless grief, something unspeakable, which she can barely come to terms with. And then there was this moment, she goes to boil a cup of tea, and realises as she goes to pour it, she’s set out two cups. And she stops suddenly, thinking, “Who the fuck am I pouring this for?” and there is bright stinging pain on her face, cutting through the fog, and tears just sprang into my eyes watching her, you just felt for her so.

This doesn’t get said enough, but Joanna Scanlan is an amazing actor. She does these amazing dramatic performances, and then stars in so many comedies with just perfect timing. She has such a range. She honestly doesn’t get the recognition she deserves.

At one point in the film, the cracks in Mary come together, and she breaks down in tears as she gets down to pray. It’s like the only person she can share this deep hurt with now is God, and she clutches at her rug, like she is trying desperately to hold onto her faith to get through this. Your heart just goes out to her.

The sound design of the film is also great, with these sounds of water boiling for tea, the crash of waves against the white cliffs of Dover, sounds that are at once so very English and yet so universal. They underscore the rising tumult inside Mary, this sense of being overwhelmed, drowning.

Just a lovely film, very human and very intimate.

If you like this …

The Other Lamb

The Other Lamb is about a religious cult, a society of women gathered around the worship of their Shepherd. It has the veneer of idyllic fulfillment until Shepherd, trying to keep their commune one step ahead of outside interference, takes them all to find a new settlement site. This is effectively a forced march, where all the sheen comes off the apple, and the main character, Selah, is forced to see Shepherd and her life for what it is.

Okay, so the first thing you gotta accept about this film if you are to enjoy it is the pacing. This is a slow nightmare. So there’s lots of shots staring intently into the woods, or gazing longingly at Shepherd. Once you get into its rhythm, the film is this slow burn of tension, as you wait for the other shoe to drop. Will Selah submit to a life she is increasingly aware masks dark truths because it is what she has always wanted up until this point? Or will she leave, turn towards the complete unknown?

The film deals heavily with Christian symbolism, the sheep, the sacrifice of the lamb, menstrual blood as the physical manifestation of Eve’s sin and the weakness of women towards corruption. You can see echoes of things like The Handmaid’s Tale, with the ‘wives’ all in red, and the ‘daughters’ all in blue. Shepherd tells them he has given them sisterhood, reminiscent of how Gilead is described as a society of women. Their status and power struggles take up most of the focus of their society, disguising the lie at the heart of things, that everything they do is for the attention, approval and comfort of a man.

Saleh has only ever known life in commune, being brought there as a young child, and now as she reaches sexual maturity, she aches with longing to become Shepherd’s wife. His gaze is seen as profoundly erotic, his touch seems to cause physical ecstasy. Saleh is devout, like a sunflower turned towards him as the sun. She sees being with him as complete religious, emotional and sexual fulfillment.

Then she gets her period on the same day a lamb is stillborn while she tends the flock. And the experience is so traumatic for her, she begins to question everything, herself and Shepherd included. And as the forced march to a new settlement site brings all of Shepherd’s worst character out into the open, the question of what will she do with this new-found knowledge and experience begins to burn.

Many films will try to make cult life weird enough that the actual religions they are based on get off scott free, so divergent are they from the ‘true’ religion. The Other Lamb is not life that. This is Christianity in microcosm. Shepherd might not be THE Jesus, but he certainly acts like it and desires the same worship. All the regnant hardships the women face are in the Bible, the shunning of menstruating women, the notion of their inferiority, their submission to their husbands, their lack of protection from marital rape and domestic abuse. Christianity is not let off the hook in this story.

Another thing I like about this movie was the use of visual themes. Obviously there is repeated use of the image of the sheep and the ram, the blood of sacrifice and menstruation. But also just stuff like the church being a cordoned-off section of the forest, shaped with string wrapped around the trees. From a distance it is almost transparent, and gives the illusion of freedom, but up close there is no possibility of going in any direction other than that established by Shepherd.

Kudos to Michiel Huisman (of Treme, Orphan Black, and Game of Thrones fame) on making a profoundly erotic and subtlety malevolent Shepherd. And Raffey Cassidy, who makes Selah’s inner journey vividly apparent with sparse dialogue.

Leitis In Waiting

So interesting.

Leitis in Waiting is a documentary about leitis, a gender minority in Tonga, and their changing status in Tongan society.

Tonga is one of the few Polynesian island nations that were able to successfully resist colonisation. They had an accord with Britain beginning at the start of the 20th century but always remained an independent country, and never faced the processes of deculturation that affected other countries in the colonial era. This preserved the place of leitis in Tongan society. But as American evangelical queerphobia is exported internationally, leitis face increasing levels of violence.

The other problematic element is leitis traditional place within Tongan society, which has been associated closely with domestic work, and hospitality work. This has been viewed positively by leitis, as it at least gives them a place in Tongan society, shelter from abuse and discrimination, and the work gives them a sense of self-respect. But it means that leitis are rarely in positions of power or decision-making roles. Another aspect of the export of American culture wars globally is that leitis are having to fight under the umbrella of LGBTQ, and although welcome as an ally, they don’t want to see their identity as Tongan leitis subsumed in this foreign concept.

Christianity arrived in Tonga in 1826 in the form of Catholicism. And of course, the attitude varies from church to church, but generally, there was no virulent anti-leiti movement. That might be partly because leitis did a lot of work for the church, organising and serving events, and facilitating churches as community hubs. There also was a general attitude in the church of tolerance, if not acceptance. “Crossdressing” may have been viewed as a sin, but we are all sinners, that’s what church is for. This attitude among the religious has changed in recent years, and queerphobic people in Tongan society have been financed and advanced wide-reaching platforms to espouse the American evangelical brand of Christianity, which is lobbying for the imprisonment of leitis, and even threatening violence against them.

Interestingly, leitis have chosen to handle this their own way, rather than model their approach on the combative fashion we see in Europe and America. They didn’t stand outside these evangelic churches with provocative or antagonist messages. They didn’t boycott businesses held by queerphobic owners. They instead invited the religious leaders to meetings, to speak their own truth and hear the leaders’ concerns. I think the character of island life lends itself well to reconciliation. These are their neighbours, and no matter how hurtful their actions, they are going to have to live with them. So there is more of an open-handed approach to finding a way to live peacefully, even if it is in disagreement.

Really interesting film.

If you like this …

Breaking Fast

Breaking Fast is about Mo, a gay Muslim doctor in West Hollywood as he has this sort of chaste romance with Kal, this white actor, across Ramadan.

Okay, so this is a mixed bag.

Points for positive representation of gay Muslims, when positive representation of Muslims at all is scarce in American media. And a lot of the acting is pretty good and the whole tone of the movie is sweet.

The dialogue is awful. Just a rolling stomach churn of cringe from one moment to the next. Like, haven’t you ever heard how people talk? A total show, don’t tell lesson unlearned. People are constantly saying “I’m kidding!” instead of looking like they’re kidding. To be fair, it was the writer/director’s first feature, so a lot of this can just be chalked up to it being his first go.

Also this one of those “problem” movies, where you can’t just be gay and Muslim, you have to explain being gay and Muslim. You can’t just introduce a gay Muslim character and then the story begins, it constantly comes up and needs to have discussion. Mo’s conversations with his white, non-Muslim love interest Kal feels like a proxy for the director’s conversation with the presumably white, non-Muslim audience. Which is not great. But you know, there are not exactly a plethora of movies about gay Muslim men, maybe the director felt his film needed to lay that groundwork for anything else to go after.

Kal, the love interest, is the cringiest white guy showing that he’s down. He tries to show he can cook Arab dishes better than Arab folk. He compares the prejudice against Muslims to his inability to be taken seriously while being a good-looking hunk. Ugh.

Special props go to Amin El Gamal, who manages to take the camp best friend stereotype and clunky dialogue, and really make it feel natural.

Time

I didn’t like this.

I expected I would. It’s a documentary about Fox Rich, a prison abolitionist and activist, mother of 6, who raised her kids on her own while her husband served a 20 year jail sentence. I expected it to be a take down of the racism and injustice of the prison system, and a portrait of how a family serves a sentence alongside the convicted, how the harm ripples out.

But it wasn’t. Maybe I was expecting the wrong thing or maybe the filmmaker didn’t achieve their goals, who knows. But it just rubbed me entirely the wrong way.

Firstly there’s the way the filmmaker chose to portray Fox. A lot of the footage is of her at speaking engagements, which makes her seem like you’re watching staged performances, not really getting to know a person intimately. Fox is shown practicing her spiel for selling used cars, and talking shit about people she’s on the phone to, making her seem two-faced. And because the way Fox speaks is very reminiscent of the emotive religious preaching that is part of her background, it just put me on the back foot and instantly sceptical, because you feel like you are be proselytised to, and manipulated, and talked at, not to. And maybe that impression could have been countered and balanced if the film had been cut together differently, but it actually lost me sympathy for the film’s subject, rather than gaining it.

Then there is the absolute lack of surrounding context. There’s a lot of context that could have been put into a story like this. You could talk about the disproportionately high rate of incarceration among African-Americans compared to white Americans convicted of similar crimes, of the disproportionately longer sentences, and less likelihood for parole. I’m not really sure why the filmmaker decided to leave that out, whether because they assumed you already knew that, or that it doesn’t matter, or that providing such information catered to an outside perspective looking in on Fox and her family, rather than portraying Fox’s truth without feeling the need to validate it with statistics.

But there’s even a lack of context in Fox’s specific situation. It’s quite aways into the film before you even find out why her husband is in jail, and that she was part of that crime. And then you find out she was sent to jail at the same time, but got out earlier, how long you’re not sure, someone mentions that the sentence was for 12 years, but she’s been around for almost all of her kids’ lives so that can’t be right. You are just left constantly wondering. And that’s not a good thing, because it causes the viewer to speculate, and wonder if you’re not being told something for a reason. The truth is her husband tried to rob a bank, no one was injured, and the police arrived almost immediately. But the fact that it feels hidden, makes you wonder, “Was someone hurt? Did they harm somebody?” Which again, damages the sympathy you would get from the audience if you’d just been up-front.

Not a great movie.

Queering The Script

So after watching Scream, Queen! about the really heartfelt queer fandom around the totally ridiculous Nightmare on Elm Street 2, I decided to watch another film showing as part of SQIFF, Queering The Script, all about queer fandom. This focuses on representation of gay and bisexual women and their relationships in tv.

For me, this is kinda a reminder, it really brought me back to what it was like to grow up in the 90s, knowing you were gay, and not knowing another out gay person, and not seeing yourself or any role models for future relationships anywhere. Back then, there was no internet, no social media. You couldn’t jump on the computer and see loads of women out there telling their story and living their truth. So if anyone showed up on tv that was even slightly gay, it was the only pinhole through which you could see yourself represented. I had kinda forgotten what that was like, because now I have queer friends, queer community, both online and offline. I’m also older and more settled in myself, so I don’t look for role models as much. Watching this really brought that back.

Love that a chunk of this is devoted to Xena: Warrior Princess because YES, and Willow gets a look-in on Buffy, but there were so many fandoms and shows I wasn’t aware of because I clearly stopped watching stuff around the time I went to uni, and was like, “I don’t have time for tv, I’m having a 4-year-long nervous breakdown!” I changed and drifted off into music, and comic books, and eventually films. But there were whole generations of queer women coming up who were looking to tv for those role models, and it was quite varied in terms of the quality of representation they got.

Kind of a central point of the documentary is the killing of Lexa in The 100, which sparked a massive fan-led backlash, which was not confined to The 100 but began a real movement to hold the industry as a whole to account for the way they represented queer women. The shocking statistic they quote is that between 2015 and 2017, queer women made up 2.5% of character on tv, but made up a third of character deaths. The ‘Bury Your Gays’ trope seemed to be a regressive echo of the Hays Code, where you could only represent queers if they were tragic or punished. Fans organised to see that this harmful message was not the standard going forward, and that shows respect queer stories and queer fans.

Today we see a push for more representation, but also diverse and responsible representation. Shows like Orange Is The New Black have a real range in body type, butchness, and race. A push for more representation can’t only be for thin, femme, white women.

Trans women get name checked in the last 5 minutes of the movie with Pose, but are largely absent from the story, as though there aren’t trans lesbians and bisexual women too? But to be fair to the documentary makers, there really hasn’t been almost any representation of gay and bisexual trans women on tv, so it’s hard to talk about something that isn’t there, except to say “Hey, Pose! Maybe this is the beginning of something, huh?”

All in all, a really interesting documentary. Shows how, no matter how silly your art may be to other people, to someone it might be a lifeline.

Mogul Mowgli

So. I’ll have to watch that again. It had so much in it and went by too fast.

On paper, the plot to Mogul Mowgli is about a rapper who is incapacitated by a neurological auto-immune disease, just as he’s about to get a big break in his career. In practice though, the majority of the meaning of this film is told in the visions the main character has while collapsing unconscious, or being sedated for surgery, or drugged up on treatment. In this liminal space, he has a dialogue with his history, from his father’s escape during Partition, to his childhood rejecting of his Pakistani identity.

The main character Zaheer, whose rap name is Zed, makes music that is culturally-conscious, exploring ideas of identity, colonialism, and internalised racism. On stage, he is so articulate about the myriad threads that weave together in him. But outside the gig, his ex-girlfriend calls bullshit on him. He lives in America, and rarely goes home to Britain and his family. She sees him as dislocated, not facing who he really is, and espousing a harmonious version of himself that is largely a myth he tells himself.

The physical condition that takes him down is a bodily manifestation of this, and in the fog of pain it causes him, he revisits the moments that have contributed to who he is. A repeated image and sound is that of his father as a child, escaping the violence of Partition by train, under a heap of coats, surrounded either physically or psychically by the dead, as he desperately prays under his breath. The rhythm of the prayer, the rhythm of the train, and the rhythm of Zaheer’s rap resound together, in a way that belies the truth – his relationship with his father is strained, and his father has never spoken about his experience except to describe this single image, that he travelled by train under coats. And this whole melodic and visual motif speaks to the notion of what has been inherited and what has been lost, that this unspoken part of Zaheer’s history has left him without an important understanding of who his father is, and by extension who he is. This generational trauma is being passed in silence, until it shuts down his nervous system so as to no longer be ignored.

The biological is cultural. This is a truth that goes ignored and unstated by those that don’t need to hear it, because the culture is based around them as central and default, and serves their needs and wants, while denying the rest of us our existence. The biological is cultural, the way your body is shaped, your clay, is a manifestation of your culture’s values, and how your culture values you. Where does culture exist but in the body? How you transmit knowledge, agency, and creation is a physical act.

And cultural violence is biological violence. Look to the blood pressure and hypertension levels among people who deal with systematic racism. Look at the rates of heart disease and diabetes. Hell, look at the survival rates in the current Covid pandemic.

This film reminds me of Billy-Ray Belcourt, the essayist and poet, who talks about the gaslighting that goes on around health issue rates among indigenous Canadians. It reminds me of In My Blood It Runs, where a denial of Aboriginal Australian traditional healing practices is simultaneously a denial of Aboriginal Australian pain. And it reminds me of the novel, Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss, which talks about how what was taken cannot be passed on, but its absence can.

In trying to heal, the main character has to look at who Zaheer is, rather than Zed. The alchemy he has used to fuse African-American rap to South Asian music traditions while he rhymes in his English accent has given him a future where he can see himself as an uncontradicted whole, but the past unacknowledged is turning it all to lead.

Mogul Mowgli is a work of sound and movement, a film that is a dance, or an absence of dance, in which stillness is the necessary accompaniment if you are to listen.