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 …

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.

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.

Herself

Right, I gret through almost all of that.

The film follows Sandra as she leaves an abusive marriage, only to end up living in a limbo of temporary accommodation, but determined to give her children the life they deserve, builds a house from scratch.

And you’d think in a film about domestic abuse and homelessness, I’d be crying because it was tragic. But it’s not. It reduced me to tears because it’s about surprising, unexpected kindness. The extraordinary ordinary, the miracle we’ve become so familiar with we fail to see it. That people will do for each other, sacrifice for each other, help and care for each other, with no expectation of their cut, or their angle.

The director introduced the film, and explained that, in this time when so many movies are being pulled from cinemas, this movie could not have a more timely release than now. Written years ago, it’s message has only become more potent in the time of Covid. As billionaires increase their wealth and multimillion pound companies lay off workers in their tens of thousands, neighbours and community volunteers have rallied together to provide the bare essentials of life to the people who need it most. Have given their time, their energy, without payment, without fanfare, to help their fellow man. Because it was the right thing to do. Because of decency. And it is an extraordinary miracle, in this world where all our life is counted in hourly pay, when there is a pound sign on every moment, and anything expended not on our own gain is seen as wasted or lost, that people will help one another, to no benefit of themselves, other than it reminds us of our common humanity. And it’s so everyday, we’ve gone blind from seeing it.

Herself reminds you just how extraordinary kindness is. From the kindness of those that help her build a new home for her family, to the kindness she shows to her girls by making every end meet, going above and beyond, to move heaven and earth, to give them a safe place to enjoy their childhood. The other everyday miracle is the strength and resilience of women. In a world where all the cards are against them, where patriarchal structures, and poverty, and violence continue to grind them down, they rise, they rise, they rise!

Just a quietly extraordinary film, incredibly moving, and full of the absurd optimism of survivors. Go see.