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.

Stray

A wonderful documentary following three stray dogs through the streets of Istanbul.

On one level this is just a lovely documentary about the lives of dogs. Istanbul had tried for years to get rid of the city’s stray dogs, with culls and inhumane tactics, until mass protests made it the first city in the world where it is illegal to put down or hold captive stray dogs. Thus the city’s strays now just wander free, and Stray shows us their world. It is beautiful. There is no narration or ‘interpretation’ for the audience. You just go where they go, see what they see. And it is beautiful. A city of lights, smells of food, the lap of the ocean in the harbour, green grassy parks, architecture both ancient and modern, awe-striking and derelict, a world replete with treasures. Unlike the complicated human drama they might wander through, the dogs care only if in this moment they are warm, they are dry, they are fed, they are safe, they are among friends. And they have all they need.

The tone of the film is a meditation, in following the dogs you are asked to see the world as they see it, to think not on any big picture, but to experience the world all around us. To look, without searching for purpose, upon the world as it is.

On another level, this film has a philosophical nature. Accompanied by quotations from Diogenes, who is known to have espoused the virtues of dogs, the film asks why human life is so contentious when dogs live among us as though the world were an untroubled bounty. As you watch the dogs walk along the water of the harbour, their life is undarkened by past memories, undisturbed by worries for the future, and unfettered by want in the present. Why can we not all live like a dog?

This perspective gives the film a unique viewpoint. The dogs occasionally hang out with a group of homeless refugee street kids, and whereas in any other documentary they would be portrayed as victims without agency on the lowest wrung of society, Stray shows them as rich with everything they need, sheltering in abandoned buildings, sleeping surrounded by friends, wrapped up together in blankets with the dogs, finding and sharing food together, and always glad to see each other, a endless wealth of kindness.

Just a lovely film.

GFF21 is over!

A mere 4 days after it officially concluded. Well, that was some year. 63 features and 4 shorts, that’s a record total for me. And as a proportion of all the films shown at the festival, it’s probably the highest I will ever get at 91%.

I mostly stuck to my schedule, but I was running late every day, which is probably why I finished late. Turns out it wasn’t any help with more regular eating and sleeping. I still mostly existed on cold sandwiches, and my sleeping was even more all over the place because there was no fixed times for me to sleep and wake. Still, loved every minute of it.

I thought I might feel as bit, you know, disappointed because we weren’t all together at the cinema with the same atmosphere, but in fact it was surprisingly well done, and the movies so well curated, I feel like I got 90% of the experience of a normal festival. All the wee Q&As, the introductions, the daily rundown on what was being shown each day, it did make you feel like you still getting that connection with the festival folk.

Thoroughly enjoyed myself. Off now to sleep for a week.

Spring Blossom

Spring Blossom is a film about a 16-year-old schoolgirl’s first love. It’s written, directed and starred in by Suzanne Lindon, so this is obviously her vision of a youthful romantic fantasy. Trouble is, the object of her affection is a much older man.

I guess in France there are different sensibilities about these things. Young love and age gaps are maybe not inherently viewed with suspicion the way they are here. But her love interest, Raphael, is never mentioned to be a specific age, which kind of strikes a note of wariness. I mean, he looks like he’s in his mid-30s. I wondered if they were trying to pass him off as 25, just as Suzanne’s character is obviously younger than she is. He certainly isn’t 20 or something approaching excusable. Certainly Raphael seems to be going through some kind of mid-life crisis, or lull, so you would expect him to be in his 30s at least. Looking up the actor who plays him on IMDB, I see he’s 36. So, yeah, over twice the age of this love interest.

While Lindon is obviously writing a romantic fantasy from the perspective of a na├»ve girl who finds the experience mesmerising and positive, I can only write from my own perspective, and it gave me the ick. The idea a man this age would take an interest in a schoolgirl, the fact he would pursue her even after he finds out how young she is, the fact he’s an actor and she’s his teenage fan, just yuck yuck yuck yuck yuck. Also at one point she buys a 10-pence mix-up, and he says she looks cute eating sweeties. Boke. He at no point addresses the age difference or has any reservation or thoughts about entering a sexual relationship with a school-aged teenager. There is a scene where they dance together which is clearly meant to be a metaphor for her first time, and at one point she drops to her knees and he guides her head with his hands in visual metaphor for fellatio, and everything about the scene, the music, the way it’s filmed, the graceful, half-sleepy dance of the actors, is supposed to tell you this is beautiful, but it just made my skin crawl.

Spring Blossom is a film very much in the French tradition, it’s romantic, it’s carefree, it revels in discovery and coming-of-age, it’s more fantasy than reality. If that’s your thing, wire in.

If you like this…

Killing Escobar

Killing Escobar is a documentary about an operation by British mercenaries to kill Pablo Escobar in 1989. The film focuses on Peter McAleese, a Glasgow born ex-SAS soldier who took to mercenary work in various colonial and Cold War conflicts. His reputation was such that he was hired by Dave Tompkins, an arms dealer and soldier for hire, who had been commissioned by a rival cartel in Colombia to kill drug baron Pablo Escobar. There was a cartel war at the time, and so many innocent people were dying as a result of their bombings and attacks, that all authorities kinda turned a blind eye to the assassination mission, hoping that its success might bring about a cessation of hostilities.

Now, everyone in this is a bastard. There are no good guys in this. But it is nonetheless a remarkable story. There is a huge about of preparation, arms, and money poured into the operation. They go into detail about how it would work, with dramatic re-enactments. And they have interviews with a lot of surprising players, like the head of Escobar’s personal security.

A high-stakes tale of derring-do, fronted by a baw-heided Glaswegian and his massively shady mate.

Angelou on Burns

That was surreal. I love Maya Angelou, I read her poems and books. I used to sit in my wee part of the world and reach out through the pages to her world, and think on her extraordinary life and extraordinary spirit. So to watch Dr. Angelou step out of that world into mine, to visit my home town of Kilmarnock, and stand by the Burns statue at the cross, where I used to eat a poke of chips for lunch, feels deeply weird. From where she’s standing, she can turn and look up through the Burns Mall, towards Killie Academy, in whose library I first lifted a Maya Angelou book off the shelf. There’s a feeling to watching this like being brushed by a ghost.

How did no one ever tell me Maya Angelou visited the town? That would have been big news. And I wasn’t fully grown, but I was already a reader back in 1996, you’d have thought I’d be aware. Especially because she was here making a documentary about Burns, Kilmarnock’s only claim to fame and thus its favourite subject.

It is so weird to see THE Maya Angelou kick about Dundonald. And she visits the Burns cottage, boring school trip staple of every primary in Ayrshire. She sits reading the Kilmarnock edition of Burns poetry in the Burns room at the Mitchell Library, and I was like, I’ve been there!

I mean you have to understand, this woman worked with Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement and Malcolm X. She was part of history.

Yeah, so there’s almost an eerie element for me, watching this. Seeing her setting down in Glasgow airport, everyone in the background cutting about in their best 90s shellsuit. And listening to her resonant melodic voice, with its measured meter, wrap around Ayrshire Scots words. Rolling her Rs and roughening her vowels.

It’s great she finds such communion in the work of Burns. With this country’s teatowel obsession with him, you always wonder how he’s viewed from the outside, in the more global scheme of things. But Dr Angelou finds a universality to his work, and great sensitivity and brotherhood. She talks about him writing The Slave’s Lament, despite never being in either America or Africa, but just from being touched by the plight of those transported in the slave trade.

It’s unreal to me that this documentary doesn’t get shown and isn’t widely known. I’m so glad I got the chance to see it.