Exile

What first made me want to come along to the Map of Mexican Dreams short film night was this last short film. Exile is a stop motion animation.

It depicts a woman, painting alone in her home, each one a self-portrait with her back to the viewer. Ignored in another room is a suitcase. It looms prominent, despite how it is studiously avoided, and it belches forth bursts of dust or sand or earth.

It reminds me of how in Ziyara, the guy who has created an exhibit display of the exodus of his Jewish neighbours, he says he put a suitcase there, because suitcases always mean sorrow, mean parting. In Exile, the suitcase seems to contains the soil of home, the sand and dust of miles travelled. In the memories that accompany the dirt, we see her with another figure, a father, there is a separation there, a grief.

Over and over she paints herself, but only with the back of her head towards the viewer. It is an inward-looking exercise, but without a confrontation, it speaks to her insular emotional state, which lacks the resolution of genuine insight. The journey she has made with the suitcase must always be going forward, to look back towards the viewer is to look back towards the past, and in doing, see herself. To do so would mean uniting who she is with who she was, to make a bridge to that place which has been ruptured in trauma. Whereas if she faces only forward, it remains forever behind her. Unhealed, but the fear is understandable.

Finally a storm comes, and blows open the window of her home. In facing the storm, in engaging with the intrusion of the outside world, in acknowledging the tempestuous state she finds herself in, the portraits all turn to face her.

Without dialogue, relying on imagery and score to tell an emotional journey, Exile conveys vulnerability and loss. Really liked it.

If you like this…

Suncatcher

I’ll be honest, I have no idea what this one’s about.

There’s a cyborg, and a young dancer in a pink Lolita wig, and skateboarders, and a bunch of stuff. Colour and sound evokes a sense of otherworldliness. But whatever it was driving at was lost on me.

The blurb says it’s about a cyborg warning a lassie about her past life. Cool.

Have a go at it and see what you think.

Lupita

Lupita is a short documentary profiling the work of indigenous rights activist and Acteal massacre survivor, Guadalupe Vazquez Luna, known as Lupita.

In 1997, just before Christmas, a community of peaceful, unarmed, indigenous activists in the village of Acteal, were at prayer in church, when government-supported right-wing paramilitary soldiers burst in and opened fire. 45 people were brutally massacred, including 3 pregnant women. Lupita, only a child at the time, saw her mother shot first, then was told to run by her father before he also died. She lost almost a dozen family members, including both her parents. Her life’s mission has been to get justice for the dead.

Lupita’s fearlessness is a thing to behold as she leads a protest march to a nearby military post. The official national military initially denied all involvement, despite the fact that they stayed in their outpost in the hills above the village and didn’t intervene to stop the massacre, which lasted hours, as the paramilitary soldiers in the church below dispatched wounded survivors, and stabbed the pregnant bellies of dying women. Lupita’s march comes right to the gates of the military post and demands that they take responsibility and admit their involvement. The soldiers’ response is pitiful, as they mumble that they personally weren’t there at the time, and it wasn’t them who pulled the trigger in the church that day. But Lupita drives at them – but you are camped on our land, as part of the same army there to enforce the power of the same people with the same interests. Where is your conscience? She tells them that if they continue to take the money and shrug, to remain blind to the bloody establishment they are a part of, they will continue to be slaves, and raise their children to be slaves. She says all this to them while they stand there with automatic rifles, and she stands there with nothing but braids and a shawl.

For decades the struggle continues, with Lupita having to balance her fight for justice with living her life, growing up, becoming a mother, and continuing her way of life in Acteal. She passes down to the next generation the values her parents taught her, the solidarity she shares in the legacy of the Zapatista movement, and the hunger for justice for their slain kin. All the while, this young woman in a tiny village tries to take down the former president of Mexico, Ernesto Zedillo, and numerous ex-government ministers.

Because of the efforts of Lupita and people like her, in 2020, 23 years after the massacre, the Mexican government admitted its involvement, and jailed over a dozen people for their crimes. The strength of this woman, to move such a mountain, to fight year after year for decades, is inspiring, and moving, and hopeful.

Time and the Seashell

Time and the Seashell is a short film in which an indigenous man meditates on time and the changes he has seen in his lifetime.

The film begins with a young boy picking up a seashell and listening to it to hear the sound of the ocean. As the young boy imagines his life to come, a man picks up and listens to the same seashell, remembering the boy he was. Time, and the patterns of life are eternal, yet we have such a brief and transient existence.

The man ruminates on the changes he has seen to the land, the ecological shifts as a result of climate change and exploitation. In places which were abundant and dense with life, there is now stone and dust. He asks, “How could the seas become mountains?”

In his childhood, he was taught how from just a seed grows corn, and from corn comes many seeds, and the plentiful, self-perpetuating cycle of life goes on as such, from seed to corn to seed to corn. As a man, he worries that as the land changes, and people change, the way of caring for the corn will be forgotten, and the ancient line of self-sustaining life will be broken.

An existential soliloquy.

Yollotl

This short film conveys a sense of Mayan life, through the stories of children, the bodies of trees, the canopy of the night sky. It tries to communicate a worldview in which all cosmology is connected, from the stars to the ceiba to the self.

The ceiba tree is at the centre of this film. Children play on it, lie on it, listen with their ears pressed to the bark. They say they can hear their ancestors through the tree. With roots that reach under the world and branches that stretch up to the heavens, the dead are connected to the living world and may still be heard through its skin.

In Mayan cosmology the ceiba is the central pillar holding up the sky, giving structure to creation. It is a world tree, growing through the plains of existence from the underworld, to living world, to the heavens. Yollotl means heart, and the ceiba is the heart of creation.

As the children play on the ceiba, they sing a traditional song, and the narrator tells a story of the love of the tule tree for the ceiba. The ceiba is also the heart of Mayan culture, sacred and beloved.

Through art, song, story and documentary, Yollotl tries to place us for a moment in a place of understanding, to see the Mayan world from the inside out, to understand its heart.

If you like this…

Arcangel

Went along to the CCA for a night of short films being put on by CinemaAttic, Map of Mexican Dreams. Absolutely stowed it was.

It kicked off with Arcangel. The title character is a man who travels to the city, carrying an old woman on his back, in an attempt to try to find a place where she will be taken care of, now that he is losing his sight. Amid the bustle and beeps of the strange and indifferent city, Arcangel wades through bureaucracy to try to get his charge Patro in a state-run old folk’s home.

Only elderly people with no family can be taken in by the state, and the tenderness with which Arcangel cares for Patro makes the administrators believe he is her son, which would give them grounds to dismiss their claim. Whether he is or not is kinda besides the point, the film shows a world where kindness and doing for others is not valued, even treated with suspicion, and pitiless and ruthless indifference to the suffering of others is the status quo of the state. Arcangel arrives in the city with the bonds of community literally tying Patro to him, yet as he becomes an anonymous indigent sleeping on the streets of the city, they seem like they will become hopelessly and inevitably undone.

Several times in the film we see the world through Arcangel’s eyes. His blurring eyesight settles on, then with effort brings into view, the sign on the building for the old folk’s home. His world is becoming full of shadows instead of people. His blindness is contrasted to the blindness of those in the city. Their blurred figures walk past him on the street, and they do not see him at all. The clerks at the old folk’s home accepts a fake ID paper, but refuses to accept the obvious need of an elderly and infirm woman. They have chosen to be blind to him, and yet, with his failing eyesight, Arcangel is the only one able to see Patro’s suffering.

Really good wee film.

If you like this…

Rebel Dykes

Fucking belter of a documentary about the 80s London S&M lesbian scene. Told by the legends that lived it, Rebel Dykes covers the founding of Chain Reaction, the publication of Quim, and the House of Lords abseil protest of Section 28. Yaldi!

It traces its roots to the Greenham Clapham peace camp, which was a women’s protest encampment around an army base. In an age before the internet, it had gained a reputation for being a lesbian cultural nexus. There were a lot earth mothers and hippies, ‘political lesbian’ feminist seperatists, and activists from across the board. These were marked into different zones, with the Green Zone being where the young and rowdy baby dykes went, as it was nearest the pub. There they bonded over hijinks including raiding the squaddies’ bar for booze and trashing the paint job on a stealth plane.

Many had faced family rejection and had travelled the length of the country to find other women like themselves. Many were effectively homeless, and after finding their tribe at the peace camp, took up residence in London as squatters. This whole new family formed, with an out and proud attitude. They formed a motorcycle gang, kicked about in their leathers, and celebrated butch identity unapologetically.

Club nights started, with them setting up Chain Reaction for lesbian S&M. This was pretty radical, because the queer scene was pretty divided between gay men’s culture, which had a lot of fuck-friendly establishments, bars, clubs, and cruising spots, and lesbian culture, which had gone heavy into feminist intellectual discourse to the point of dogma. The idea of women occupying a sex-positive, hedonistic and transgressive S&M space was pretty singular. As one critic from within the lesbian community put it to them, all clad in their leather and chains, “You don’t look like dykes, you look like poofs”.

The frenzy of affirmation and acceptance within the community just galvanised a whole lot of creative and expressive endeavours. You get musicians, DJs, drag kings, cabaret performers, artists, photographers, everything. You get the publication of Quim, a zine exploring lesbian sexuality, which featured photos by artist Della Grace.

And I’m looking at the photos feeling they look familiar, and it cuts to an interview with the artist themselves, and it’s Del LaGrace Volanco. And I’m like, I know them! I remember going to a thing on LGBT art, which in typical fashion was in actuality about GGGG art, and then Dr. Lucy Weir came on and talked about Del LaGrace Volcano’s stuff. So watching the documentary, I was like, that was their early work, no way!

Del’s book, Love Bites, featuring their photography of lesbian sexual expression, was banned as pornography. This was as the 80s started to edge into the 90s, and you have Del being attacked on two fronts. First by the unfortunately expected homophobia and misogyny of the mainstream culture, but also within the lesbian community, where self-appointed sex police and keepers of the feminist monolith commandments had decreed the sadomasochistic sex portrayed between women by women as anti-feminist. Queer bookshops refused to carry it.

The sex wars were raging in the late 80s and into the early 90s, where an understandable need to de-indoctrinate oneself from the internalised misogyny of heteropatriarchy got warped into gatekeeping of acceptable lesbian sex. Which I’d love to say is unbelievable, but alas, some of these relics still walk among us. The decision from on-high was that lesbians shouldn’t practice penetrative sex, because it ‘aped’ straight sex and the oppressive heteronormativity. Use of dildoes was a no-no, and S&M was beyond the pale. They were accused of re-enacting domestic abuse and rape, and of contributing to a culture of danger towards women.

I suspect these arbiters of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ sex were the aforementioned ‘political lesbians’, i.e. straight women who were telling queer women how to fuck in accordance with their own ideas and philosophies. The fact that Chain Reaction was trans-inclusive and sex worker-inclusive probably didn’t do them any favours with these community gatekeepers either. You will still see the legacy of this faction in the TERFs and SWERFs today, who, like then, team up with the conservative right in society to stamp down on boundary-smashing expression within the queer community.

The late 80s and 90s were a time of increasing repression, not just in print, but in schools with section 28 forbidding any teacher “promoting” homosexuality by saying it was valid. Something that stayed in place right through til I was in secondary school, and is why our sex education was so shit. Section 28 was itself a response to the AIDS crisis, as though, if we were all silent about sexuality, a sexually-transmitted disease would just vanish. To be honest, that’s too kind an interpretation, they wanted us to die off, and be quiet about doing so.

You have these increased attempts at erasure of the queer community, especially its less respectable elements, so activism became a necessity. Lisa Power founds Stonewall, and you get the UK chapter of Act-Up. The invasion of the BBC news, and the abseiling into the House of Lords to protest Section 28. Really great to see the overlooked contribution of lesbians to the queer rights and AIDS activism movements being highlighted, because it’s very much sidelined or forgotten.

Just such a kickass film, showing how a scene spirals out into the fabric of history, in every corner of culture and politics. A movie that just leaves you going, “Fuck yeah!”

Belle (The Dragon and the Freckled Princess)

When the credits rolled on Belle, it was a standing ovation. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house. Spectacular.

Belle is the story of a shy young girl whose avatar becomes the biggest singing sensation in the online world of U. When her concert is interrupted by the renegade user labelled The Beast, she is the only voice of understanding and patience in a firestorm of backlash. A retelling of Beauty and the Beast for the internet age, its message of not letting appearance blind you to someone’s character, emotions and value, is perfect for the era of trolls, doxxing, and global shaming.

Everything about this is just 100%. The rich and imaginative world, the gorgeous character design, the music which is going straight on my Spotify, everything is just brilliant. The emotional rawness of the characters, even when having comedy moments, is just done perfectly. Despite how small the challenges might seem from the outside, like singing in front of people or telling someone how you feel, the film manages to transport you into the character’s shoes, where that small step seems like a chasm leap. And however it might seem to others, it takes all one’s bravery to take it.

Just a brilliant film. I am so glad I got to see it in the cinema, because this really is one to see on the big screen. The huge vistas, the scale, the intricacy, it just blows you away.

The Rescue

Literally the two worst things I can imagine is being trapped underground and drowning. So for me, the trailer for this looked like a horror film. The Descent or something.

The Rescue is a documentary about the attempt to rescue 12 Thai schoolboys and their football coach from a flooded underground cave. The story made global news, but this film tells it from the mouths of the people involved. And it actually makes for an even more astonishing tale.

The news reports didn’t do it justice. Partly because they obviously weren’t on the inside of the rescue, but also because those who were were not about to publicly say just how dire the situation was.

The Tham Luang Nang Non cave system is over 6 miles long. It’s narrow and winding. When it suddenly flooded, no one knew where the boys were within the cave system. At first they thought they would be found in the first chamber beyond the flooded tunnel, but when they got there, there were 4 cave system workers who no one even realised were missing.

To rescue them, the divers had to give them an additional mouthpiece to their tank and just say, “Hold this in your mouth or you’re doing to drown. Hold on to me and swim.” When you are in the darkness, blind in water, encased on rock on all sides, and the only thing tethering you to life is a small rubber tube… it’s seems unimaginably terrifying. And the cavers found moving them extremely hard, because they thrashed, they panicked. And despite the relatively brief time they were underwater, the task of moving them was dangerously difficult.

In some ways, this movie is like 100 miles of bad road, each time you think you’re through the worst of it, some more bad news appears. The kids are not where they were expected to be, and even moving adults had been near impossible. Despite it only being a few days, the possibility the children were dead was beginning to look more and more likely. And the further and further into the cave system the divers looked, the more convinced they were that their mission would be body retrieval. Because they were diving for miles and miles, for over 2 hours underwater. There seemed no possibility anyone could have survived.

And then…

“Believe” says the diver to the crowd of boys huddled on a rock slope. “Believe.”

It’s the video watched around the world, but seeing it after knowing just how bad the odds were against them, it just brought me to tears. It honestly seems like a miracle.

And you sigh with relief. But now the hard part starts. Remember the cave workers who kicked and thrashed when they were underwater for 2 mins? Now imagine they were scared children and the journey was over 2 hours. This is an expedition even the Thai Navy Seals found arduous, and had to defer to the cave divers on. Swimming these kids out just seemed impossible. But this is a movie about the impossible.

It’s also a movie about what can be achieved when people come together for the common good. The Thai Navy Seals, the American army, the British cave divers, the volunteers from Australia, China, and all over the world. Different nations, different languages, different cultures. But everyone working together to help. That also seems like a miracle.

Honestly, this movie will leave you in tears, and in reverence for the best in human beings. The sacrifices people make for strangers, just because they are their fellow man. It gives you hope.

If you liked this…

The Beta Test

Mm.

I really loved Jim Cummings’s first two films, but this is just . . . fine. The trailer had me a bit skeptical but trailers are frequently deceptive.

Clearly inspired by the Ashley Madison leak and the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal, The Beta Test focuses on a guy at the centre of an attempt to harness our social media footprint for a sleazy hookup scam. But the film is largely about where this is going. There is a pervasive sense of dread, like what is this matching algorithm designed to do? Is it designed to give people satisfying hookups? Is it designed to provide opportunities for blackmail? Is it designed to break up couples? Or even target those likely to end in violence?

And that’s something I will say, right up top there is a piece of extraordinary, horrific domestic violence. A scene which seems to be there purely for the shock value and to grab the audience’s attention. Unpleasantly unnecessary and gratuitously explicit.

So I watched The Beta Test thinking what about it didn’t work the way Thunder Road and Wolf of Snow Hollow did. Firstly, the main character is not a good guy. The character humour in the other two stemmed from the fact the guy was essentially trying to fulfil all these good roles, father, son, lawman, and failing due to some flaw or vulnerability. They acted like an asshole, but their goal was not be an asshole. The main guy in The Beta Test, Jordan, is an asshole. He both is an asshole and his goal is to be a bigger asshole. He’s not really sympathetic in any way, and he lacks that raw vulnerability that made Cummings’s other roles so tragic.

Also, there’s no heart in the film to anchor anything to. In Thunder Road, it was his relationship with his daughter, and in Wolf, it was his father and his kid. There was this central relationship that was actually valued and which was vitally important to the main character. It gave stakes to the main character’s actions and a sense of their motivation and priorities. In Beta, you have no idea what Jordan actually wants. Does he actually love his fiance? Is he just looking for any way out of that relationship?

Also, the character starts way too manic, it gives them nowhere to go. It makes them seem like they’re just a loon, as opposed to showing them slowly loosing it as the tension of the film ramps up.

So you have a main character, who you don’t know what he wants, facing off against this shadowy sex ploy instigator, who you don’t know what they want, for stakes that are unclear.

Mm.