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.

To See You Again

That was a hard watch. I cried throughout.

To See You Again is a documentary about women searching for their missing loved ones in Mexico. In Morales, the families of the missing band together and win the right to have government mass graves opened, and to exhume the bodies for identification. Not trusting the authorities, they fight for and are granted the right to oversee the exhumation, to take their own notes, gather any evidence they can.

In Mexico, corruption is so endemic, government graves, which are supposed to be for the disposal of unclaimed bodies, are also used as dumping grounds by organised crime gangs and cartels. Also, if the police want to make someone disappear, they can be stuck there. Or if they don’t feel like doing their jobs, like investigating why a corpse has turned up, they can save themselves the work and just chuck them in with whatever else is going in the ground. The horror and the callousness and the cruelty of these people is almost beyond comprehension.

You hear of them pulling bodies out this pit, still with ligatures on their hands and wrists, women bound and tortured, children stuffed inside the body bags of other victims, and you can’t believe the evil that men do. What people are capable of.

These mothers are searching for their daughters, and someone just lifted and used them like they were nothing, ended them like they were nothing, and the government dumped them like they were nothing, and they were everything to these women. Single mothers raising their kids, tshirts saying “Bring her home”, this wee lady holding up a picture of her trans daughter, saying, “She was my son. I called her Honey”, all of them doing everything they can for those they loved more than anything. They were the centre of their world.

Watching these women climb into white forensic suits, head down into a body pit, to take notes and bear witness, and know with every turn of the sod, that they might see the decomposed remains of the person they love, it takes a strength that is unimaginable. I’m not a religious person, but it makes you want to pray, “God look after them and grant them peace.” No one should ever have to go through that.

And yet, with everything they face, in the midst of this tragedy, and horror, and injustice, they remain good people. They look after each other. They are vigilant, collecting details of clothing and appearance, knowing it might not be their loved one, but it is someone’s loved one, someone’s everything. They do their best to gather as much evidence that might identify this person’s remains. They support other women there, hugging them, covering them if they if gets too much and they need to leave, doing for each other. That you could go through all that, have such a burden, and still think of others, do your best for others . . . The goodness of some people is also beyond comprehension.

This film is very matter of fact, and feels understated for the subject it’s covering. It just shows them heading off in the morning, climbing into their suits, and heading back at night, their arms full of notes. Yet the emotion of it is tremendous. You are just in awe.

The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open

I really wanted to see this film at the Femspectives festival in February, but I missed it because I felt like shite. They actually intended to having other screenings of it later on, but those have now also been cancelled due to the coronavirus. So fuck it, I’m watching it on Netflix with Femspectives at Home, and including it here.

The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open is a story about two indigenous Canadian women from very different backgrounds, who collide when one helps rescue the other from a domestic abuse attack. It is shot in a oner and in real time. This gives it an immediacy and an intimacy that is very moving. It also gives it time and space for the drama to come from the quiet moments in the aftermath, rather than focus on the event. We never directly see the attack, all the drama is from watching the character absorb everything around them, process it, and wait for them to make a decision.

You know what it reminds me of, weirdly? It reminds me of the books of Willa Cather. Her writing is very plain and practical, but by the end you look back and see this heartbreakingly beautiful novel. Just like Willa Cather’s writing is absent of literary flourishes, I feel like there are very few flashy tactics and tricks in the way this film is shot, the story is just put in front of you, and it is the nakedness and ordinariness that punctures your heart.

I love Rosie, the young, broke, pregnant woman who is found barefoot in the street after escaping her boyfriend’s attack. She spits in the eye of the viewer and says to Aila, who comes to her rescue, you think you know me. You think you can take one look at me and know everything about me. Well, fuck you.

Aila is just someone with her own life and own problems, who just wants to help. Yet as a middle-class, light-skinned, thin, femme woman, who is the picture postcard of all the power and respect that Rosie doesn’t have, there is a constant bristle of conflict between them. Aila is the poster child for successful indigenous people. Not overweight, impoverished, and trailing a set of social problems a mile wide. And yet, although this is how Rosie sees her, we know Aila’s life is not perfect, that she is medicated for anxiety, and we have no idea what she herself might have gone through in the past.

Kinda like what I was saying about Willa Cather’s novels, which focuses on day-to-day practicalities, yet contains all of life in there, this film is so dense with substance. Through all these practical discussions about getting Rosie to a safe house for the night, all these chit-chats in taxi cabs, you see so much about class, colourism, the forging and breaking and reforging of solidarity in the face of multiple intersectional oppressions. And agency. Just because Rosie is being found in this moment needing help, doesn’t mean that defines who she is. She is keenly aware of how she is defined in the gaze of others, and bucks at it constantly.

And you don’t need to know the history here to feel it. For generations, indigenous kids have been taken off their parents to be stripped of their culture in Native schools, something which happened in Canada but has also been repeated around the world. Think of movies like Rabbit Proof Fence and Song Without A Name, where indigenous children are abducted and it is always assumed by those in power that they will be better off in environments of white ‘civilisation’. You don’t need to be familiar with the details to feel that weight of distrust that is a permanent factor in Rosie’s decision-making.

Also, as a working class person, it is immediately identifiable that she fears her child will be taken by the social work system. The politics of class and gender push mothers into poverty, then blame them as bad mothers for being there.

For Rosie, she has to balance the devil she knows, against the risks of the unknown in a society which is hostile to her survival, and always has been. While we are all routing for her to leave her abusive partner, one of this film’s achievements is to make clear how rational a choice it might be to not do that.

A great movie. An hour and 45 minute window in someone’s life that manages to somehow capture so much complexity with seemingly so little.

Little Miss Westie

An absolutely wonderful film that takes you inside the home of the McCarthy family. A warm, funny, heartfelt documentary about parents raising a teenage boy and little girl, in a slice-of-life sort of way. The fact both of the kids are trans adds an additional level of challenge in this Trump era, but it is constantly undercut by the ordinariness of their lives.

The loose thread which is pulled through the narrative is the decision for the little girl, Ren, to compete in the Little Miss Westie competition, a kids’ pageant. Ren’s older brother Luca competed in the pageant when he was living as female, and he has a lot to say about it. You’d think that he might have found the experience a difficult one, as he had to get up and perform dances in dresses on stage, but he looks back on the experience fondly, that expressing his talents had really helped his self-esteem. And now he is a total stage brother, coaching Ren to win the crown.

The whole thing is hilarious, as Ren is just her little weird self, and insists on wearing her Pusheen onesie in the dress-up round.

Also – and I can’t say this enough – I love Ren. Ren is a legend and I want to be Ren. She basically just wanders around dreamily in a long swishy skirt and cat ears, looking at pictures of llamas on her iPad. I heart her so much.

The constant anxiety of whether Ren will be accepted as female in the competition hangs in the background, but the unconditional love and support from her family means more anxiety seems to go into whether she will ever learn to pose or twirl well. Really just the loveliest warm hug of a film.

If you like this

In Search

An incredibly moving and intimate documentary about women who have survived FGM.

It is a film that allows women to speak about their experiences in their totality. The audience is not given the faces of black women flashed up in some statistics piece reporting on their perpetual victimhood. They are whole people, with whole lives, joys and challenges outside what was done to them. But all them want to speak out about their experience, to stop it happening to other girls, to break the taboo for other survivors, and just have their trauma acknowledged.

That is what is so pervasive and damaging across all their experiences – silence. The physical act of violence was bad enough, but there is a silence that is expected of survivors, that they never speak to other women, or warn other girls of the pain, the complications, the real mortal danger it puts you in. Never speak about the effect it has on periods, on sex, on childbirth. Like is so often the case, violence against women must not only be borne, but borne in silence, without complaint.

But as grim as the subject is, this film is a film of hope. And not in an abstract way, like the notion of hope. But real tangible progress that is being made, both in illegalising the practice, in normalising resistance to it among women, about breaking the taboo of talking about it, and in the advancements in reconstruction surgery which is literally giving women back what was taken from them. This film is both a product of, part of, and proponent of that change.

The hero of this piece is Mami, the documentary filmmaker herself, who makes the incredibly brave and intimate decision to include herself and her own experience at the centre of the narrative. This was not a decision she made lightly, as she said in the Q&A afterwards. The film was intended to be her interviewing other women about their experiences, and over the course of the interviews, their conversations brought up and touched on so many things she was dealing with. And she thought, “How can I ask these women to come here and talk about such intimate things, when I am not willing to talk about these things myself?”

So the film also becomes a memoir of recovery, as she goes back home to Kenya to talk to her mother about her circumcision, a topic which has never been discussed between them in 20 years.

And just a word about her mother – I bloody love her mother. Her mother adores her. Her mother would do anything for her. Her mother exudes love for her. She is not the image many cast the mothers of FGM survivors (in that way all blame for patriarchal violence somehow has to turned back into a woman’s fault), the idea of some unfeeling, unloving, brutally strict mother who we all look at askance asking, “How could you?!” She was a woman who loved her daughter fiercely, who came up against the limits of what she could protect her from.

Her mother has given her daughter the best of everything she could, has sent her to school, university, to study abroad in Germany. She is immensely proud of her, and has her graduation photo on the wall of her home, displayed in pride of place. Their relationship is one of such evidenced love, that is becomes unthinkable that they have never spoken about something so important in both their lives for 20 years. And in showing the impossibility of such a conversation even in the loving heart of their relationship, the power of the taboo is communicated to the audience in a very real way. These experiences around FGM may never have been yours as a viewer, but watching Mami struggle to speak to her mother, you feel the words being choked in your own throat, you understand how unsayable it all seems.

And for me, their mother-daughter relationship is the heart of the film. As the filmmaker travels the world, talking to different women about their experiences, as she speaks to doctors about advancements in reconstruction surgery – always waiting in the background is the conversation she is leaving undone with her mother.

One of my fears with a film on FGM is an anxiety about how graphic any descriptions of the actual physical procedure might get. Because the film is of FGM survivors telling their own stories, they are in control of how much they divulge, and because it is made by an FGM survivor, no attempt is made to dwell upon lurid detail instead of survivor empowerment. When survivors describe their experience, much of the focus is not on the physicality of it, but of the sense of betrayal, the anger, the trauma, of being held down and not allowed to escape when they realised exactly what was happening to them, of the silence afterwards holding them down and feeling inescapable.

But every now and then, someone will say a word that you don’t want to hear, like remembering the sound of scissors, and your blood will run cold. Because all the survivors describe their stories so matter-of fact, and because there is story heaped upon story, you begin to think you have become acclimatised. And then halfway through the film, Mami sits down with the German lassie who is helping her make the film, and she shows Mami her pussy. “Oh!” Mami exclaims, “It’s like a rose! You have so many petals!” and then in a voice that breaks your heart, she says, “Mine doesn’t have any petals”. And I burst into tears.

It’s hard in a film to balance relaying what a terrible loss and violation this was and continues to be for so many women, with empowering survivors with a narrative where they are not defined or encompassed by the violence done to them, but this film does so, communicating experiences you may not have had yourself effectively and powerfully, in a way that shows women speaking up is always a revolutionary act, and showing when it happens on mass, it can bring down centuries-old violent and sexist tradition, it can free and save girls from a future of similar violence. A deeply moving film.