The Holy Girl
Here’s my latest batch of reviews for the Toronto International Film Festival. Stay tuned for another collection of commentary in the next day or two…
La Noire de… (1966)
81-year-old filmmaker and novelist Ousmane Sembene is known as the “father of African cinema” and is surely one of the most poorly-distributed world masters. New Yorker Films owns the rights to his films in the US, and they haven’t even seen fit to release them on VHS. Invariably, the Pan-African Film Festival here in Los Angeles screens a film of his every year or two, and completely by accident, I stumbled across his 2000 film, the vibrant and witty Faat Kine while driving past an art house on Wilshire Boulevard last year. MoolaadÈ, his latest film, has received such good word-of-mouth–particular by critic-celebrity Roger Ebert–that it may yet appear in a few US theatres at some point. And yet as happy as I am that the film is receiving North American attention, I have to wonder if its subject–female genital mutilation–doesn’t somehow play into Western stereotypes of the “brutal” African continent, its poverty and disease and social turmoil. Sembene has made many different types of movies over the years, but it’s only when he makes a movie about the sort of hot-button social issue that’s championed by Hollywood stars that he receives the attention he deserves. Or so the cynic in me argues.
All that to say that it was indeed a pleasure to see the rarely-screened Black Girl (La Noire de…) even though the MoolaadÈ screenings were sold-out; I felt I received the better end of the bargain given the difficulty of seeing Sembene’s early work.
La Noire de… was released in 1966, based on Sembene’s debut novel, and is often considered the first sub-Saharan film to receive international attention. It depicts the life of a young Senegalese woman who is employed as a maid for a chic French couple. Tensions abound when they move from Dakar to the south of France, and despite the romance of European culture (the only scenes filmed in color are those of their entry into the promising modern city), the young woman, who understands but doesn’t speak French, slowly recognizes the constraints of her position and the ways in which her employers take advantage of her, demanding that she extend herself above and beyond her duties to become, in her eyes, a modern slave. Sembene elevates the story of the young woman to a critique of the relationship between post-colonial Africa and its difficulty in transcending its European shackles.
Sembene chooses to manifest this theme most strongly in an African mask the young woman brings with her, an object the French couple immediately assumes they own and which they hang on their wall as a fetishistic memento of their ownership of African culture (and, by extension, the Senegalese woman). The European appropriation of African art as decorative artifacts rather than living culture reminded me of Chris Marker’s and Alain Resnais’ documentary, Statues Also Die, and the mask becomes a potent image of the way culture–and people–can be purchased and subsumed by others.
On a side note, this screening was followed by a Q&A that suffered terribly from audience members utilizing their fifteen seconds of mic time to promote their research, worldviews, and general soapbox platitudes rather than pose any specific questions to Sembene or his two moderators. Given Sembene’s forceful personality and penchant for interrupting his translator, who was speaking for both the audience and Sembene, and the moderators’ attempts to interject their own commentary, the Q&A was utter chaos. My friend Darren tells me the Sembene discussion after MoolaadÈ took place outside in a garden and it sounds much more ideal. Note to future festival goers: if you attend Q&A’ s, make sure to ask real questions and try to be as succinct as possible, leaving time for others to speak as well. You’ll be much appreciated.
The Holy Girl
One of the highlights of the festival for me was this Lucrecia Martel (La ciÈnaga) film from Argentina, a movie composed of extremely tight compositions and a heavy attention to the sound design, particularly the quiet, subjective nuances of a teenager’s perceptions, the ambient sounds of dripping water or uncertain breathing. At Cannes, a journalist told Martel her film resembled an aquarium, and she loved the analogy. (“I love aquariums. And referring to my films, I would like to add that I also adore the fish inside.”) This film’s evocation of everday intimacy surrounds the viewer in deeply provocative ways.
The Holy Girl focuses on the relationship of two 16-year-old Catholic girls and their budding sexuality and intellectual curiosity and cynicism–instead of listening to their earnest choir director talk about her spirituality, they whisper to one another about the woman’s romantic liaisons. When a sexuallly-repressed visiting doctor inappropriately presses up against one of the girls, she decides to save his soul, and Martel’s wonderfully ambiguous play with desire, shame, faith, intimacy, and transgression becomes a heady mix of interrelated themes expressed through hushed conversations, subtle performances, and a nearly palpable, enclosing atmosphere.
Martel’s film has apparently been picked up by Fine Line Pictures, so I’m looking forward to seeing it again. Of all the films I saw at TIFF, its feel for characters and place and their inner worlds remains in my mind the most vividly and its questions linger.
Yasujiro Ozu is one of my favorite filmmakers, and so is Hou Hsiao-hsien, the Taiwanese director who rose to international critical prominence during the 1980s and ’90s, but for different reasons. I like the calm warmth of Ozu, his ability to order life’s turmoil and shifting relationships through the specificity of his gaze. I like Hou for his beautiful, extended gaze, his attention to the effects of history and social change on the individual, and modern disconnection and alienation on the soul. CafÈ LumiËre, Hou’s tribute to Ozu, is definitely more Hou than Ozu–just as it should be–and working in Tokyo with Japanese dialogue only goes to show how universal Hou’s perspective really is. Using Ozu narrative fragments, such as a young woman whose romantic aspirations (a love affair with a man living in Taiwan) shock her more traditionally-minded parents, Hou extends them into his own terrain; rather than a bittersweet meditation on human behavior a la Ozu, Hou’s film is a study of the inevitability of modern alienation and the need to accept it while retaining and discovering that which is human and eternal. Hou’s long, extended takes of silent parents and resilient wanderers performing mundane tasks (laundry, cooking, riding public transit) simultaneously entices the viewer to appreciate the physical realities of modern Japan while searching for a deeper significance in the everyday.
In his interview in the 1993 documentary, Talking With Ozu, Hou explains: “I think Ozu is like a mathematician. He knew the lives of Japanese people very well and depicted them in his work. It’s as if he analyzed them in a detached way. . . . I used to think that my observations of the human condition were very objective, but I can’t compare with Ozu.”
It’s clear that this detached objectivity is a guiding force behind Hou’s film (and much of his oeuvre). Gone is Ozu’s piecemeal construction of space within a scene; Hou’s famed master shots take in everything at once. A primary visual motif throughout the film is the many trains traveling in Tokyo, which reinforce the image of restlessness and intertwined yet separate lives passing each other in close proximity while never quite fully meeting–one memorable shot actually links two friends passing each other in separate trains, unaware that a slightly redirected gaze could actually bring them together. (Ozu fans may also be tempted to guess at these characters’ fate, but Hou leaves the possibilities open.)
One of the most pleasing aspects of the film was the fact that a couple good friends of mine, intelligent moviegoers but admittedly not hardcore fans of Taiwanese cinema, both enjoyed the movie quite a bit. I was worried that Hou’s placid, contemplative style might have turned them off, but the film’s ultimate admiration for tranquility in a changing world entirely won them over. The movie ends with a classic Ozu setup, a dinner between people who have much more to say to one another than they dare, that is also full of the sort of nuanced character interaction and quiet humor that typifies some of Ozu’s most beloved films. (There’s even a direct reference to a scene in Tokyo Story that involves a neighborly, if culturally precarious, sharing of sake.) Hou’s film deftly addresses his usual contemporary themes graced with the charmed acceptance of Ozu, and the mixture provides one of the strongest films of the festival.
Land of Plenty
After a day of subtle, nuanced pictures, Wenders’ latest film, painting its drama in significantly broad strokes, struck me as didactic and quasi-naive–even though its story (dealing with a socially-committed daughter of Christian missionaries and her relationship with her militant, armed, and paranoid uncle) alludes to a post-9/11 critique of American culture I happen to agree with. Wenders firmly sides with the young woman, who attempts to contact the family of a murdered Pakistani homeless man in Los Angeles’ skid row and redeem her uncle’s racist, violent motives at the same time.
But Wenders is clearly hoping for wide exposure and the film wouldn’t find itself out-of-place, or unwelcome, as a TV movie of the week anytime between now and November 2; a conservative, middle class viewership would definitely be the film’s intended audience, who would likely be moved by the simple, earnest idealism of Michelle Williams’ protagonist.
What I personally found most intriguing about the film was its production method. Written in three weeks and shot on digital video in two, each crew member (from Wenders on down) earned $100 a day and a percentage of the film’s profits, keeping the entire budget for the feature at half a million dollars, an infinitesimal percentage of most mainstream filmmaking budgets. And the film looks very good, with vivid Los Angeles and desert locations and Wenders’ typically polished lighting effects and widescreen compositions.
It’s odd, I hope this unabashedly sentimental film finds its audience, but I have no desire to see it again.