Comets

Comets is this beautiful, heartfelt movie about love set almost entirely in a garden in Georgia. It is almost like a play more than a film, with characters discussing the most intense and meaningful of emotions with relatively little action or plot. It almost feels like the film takes place in real time, bookended by the main character Nana’s daughter going to the shops, then returning home.

The film has a stillness to it, like the breathless heat of the summer day it takes place in. The camera moves very little, as we are introduced to the initial languid feeling of sunbathed leisure in this pastoral scene. But the camera remains still as this seemingly soporific domesticity peels back to reveal the tumultuous inner life of the characters. All of life is here, and in the deceptive tranquillity are the intensest tragedies and loves.

The film starts with Nana’s daughter reading a small book of poetry and having a morning coffee. Nana enters with blackberries she has picked, and begins sorting out the sweet and ripe ones. And in this contented tableau, Nana’s daughter confesses that she and her boyfriend may be breaking up, that he seems like a good man, but she doubts whether she even has the ability to love, that she is perhaps incapable of it. Her mother, older and having seen more of life, talks to her daughter about what it is like to love her, about her daughter’s character. And this theme emerges of the need for but rejection of love.

After Nana’s daughter goes to the shop, Nana is busy with the chores of the day when, like a comet hitting earth, the love of her life steps into her garden. Irina, the girl who was her first love 30 years ago, and who left never to return after their attempt to live their love openly was met with calamity. The rest of the film is just this incredibly rich two-hander, as these two character feel around the edges of each other to see who they are now, to understand who they were, and what their love meant for each of them.

It has such frank intimacy, and there are such screams in the silences. The performances feel so real, and there is this pressure of both the possibility and transience of this one meeting. Despite the lack of movement on screen, your attention is rapt.

A film that leaves you holding your breath.

Our People Will Be Healed

Our People Will Be Healed is about the Cree First Nation reservation school at Norway House, Manitoba, Canada. It begins its story there and then spirals out to encompass the entire community, showing how change ripples out. This film is so uplifting, full of hope.

So many stories told about indigenous peoples focuses on the violence perpetuated against them and intergenerational effects of that trauma. Our People Will Be Healed is a different kind of story, showing a community rebuilding, recovering, blossoming. It is hopeful in a sense that is not simply speculative about the future, but evidenced in the here and now, being made by many hands and tangible.

The Helen Betty Osborne Ininiw School is reversing the long-perpetuated practice of using education as a vehicle for violence against indigenous people, as a means to remove and acculturate children. And that is where the film starts, with all the successes. It has increased student retention, academic achievement, is decolonising their curriculum, ensuring Native Studies subjects are part of every student’s schedule, and teaching the Cree language. The pride and self-esteem of the students are self-evident. Even kids who have dropped out say they intend on returning, that they can see the worth of what is being taught. And the teachers are a really motivated bunch, determined that this generation will not be another generation lost to the failures of a racist education system which was never intended for Cree children to reach their full potential.

It really is moving. And I say this as someone who hated school, and has a deep cynicism of teachers tooting their own horn. But watching the music teacher teach huge classes on the fiddle old Cree hymns and traditional folk songs, it is really moving. The whole music department are just so enthusiastic, it had me wanting to learn the fiddle!

Gordon Walker is the school’s Cree language and culture adviser, and he takes students out on canoeing expeditions, showing them how to fish, hunt and trap. And you follow the thread from the school out into the community, as you see students not just learning something practical away from a classroom setting, but spend time with a male role model, someone knowledgeable and caring. Kids open up about the social problems of alcohol, drugs, gangs, criminality, early pregnancy, poverty, and challenging or absent family relationships. All of which are usually treated as ‘outside school’ problems, but which have a massive impact on their ability to stay in school and pursue their education. For some of them, Gordon is the only father figure they know, and the only one to take the time to teach them with kindness and patience. Even other community members who come along to help him on school trips speak to the influence Gordon has had on them, getting them out of gang life, taking their mind off substance abuse and putting them to work, focusing on making a better start for the kids. This film is about hope, but it’s the hope you make.

What I love about this film is it, start to finish, focuses on the successes. Rejecting centring the narrative on the violence of the oppressor, but on the celebration, love, and rekindling community who are solving their problems themselves. While some explanation is required of the previous school system, the widespread violence against indigenous women, and the outlawing of Cree traditional practices, in order to give context to the current achievements, it is always given second place to Cree action and agency in how they fought to overcome, and continue to fight, to ensure their people have what they need physically, ecologically, emotionally, spiritually, educationally and socially.

A feel-good movie that is really nourishing for the soul.

Maricarmen

Maricarmen is a look at the life of Maricarmen Graue. A professional cellist, she has congenital glaucoma, meaning from birth she has been visually impaired, and despite the ups and downs of various surgeries and treatments, has eventually went completely blind. Despite this, she lives independently on her own, and makes her living as a music teacher.

The focus of the film is Maricarmen’s zest for life. Running marathons, swimming beneath waterfalls, writing her autobiography, painting, sculpting, playing in a rock band and memorising symphonies to play in an orchestra. She celebrates life as an artist in so many different ways.

Yet because of her disability, both she and this film are caught on the horns of how she is perceived by others, as a blind woman in a sighted world. The film tries diligently to steer around the ‘inspirational’ trope all disabled people are expected to fulfil for an able-bodied audience. And in real life, Maricarmen herself says she struggles sometimes to know if she does things for her own joy and inner satisfaction, or because she feels she must, that she has to prove she can.

A multi-media artist who can memorise symphonies is a subject worthy of a documentary all on her own. And her spirit is uplifting as someone enthusiastically engaged with the world.

Nor does she or the film try to portray her as having ‘overcome’ her disability. Her disability is part of her and informs her art. It is as much part of her humanity as her creativity, and her determination to live independently is part of her character, neither a victory or defeat over this integral part of herself.

The central relationship in the film for me was that between Maricarmen and her mother. Her mother is fiercely independent, and she raised Maricarmen to be the same. Maricarmen’s father died when she was a teenager and her mother was determined to remain financially independent while she raised her kids alone. Their relationship has both a mutual admiration and tension because of this emphasis on independence and self-sufficiency.

Her mother raised her as though she were no different to other sighted children, and there is the dual result for Maricarmen that it taught her to always find a way to achieve what she wanted and to hold her expectations of herself as high as for anyone else, but conversely she didn’t always understand as a child why she was different, how visually impaired she in fact was, and why she found things so much more difficult than other children. That balance, between encouraging her daughter to realise all she was capable of, and providing comfort and support was a challenge to strike and was not always successfully found.

This continues into their relationship today, even as an adult Maricarmen craves an emotional comfort from her mother, and her mother seems almost afraid to give it to her, as though if she focuses on anything other than passing on her steely spine, it will have a detrimental effect on Maricarmen. Her mother wants to know that when she is gone, her daughter will be able to look after herself, that she won’t have to worry. And yet here and now, while they are together, she could maybe also do with reaching out and letting her know how much she loves her.

A thoroughly enjoyable documentary exploring the life and character of an extraordinary artist with her own experiences and challenges in the world.