Thursday, April 19, 2018

1945: Stirring Our Collective Memory

1945 is a Hungarian film that uses the personal to focus on the highly charged topic of the holocaust. Just after the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki and the Soviets declared war on Japan, two orthodox Jews arrive in a small Hungarian town. They bring two boxes with them, which supposedly contain fragrances. Their arrival sparks panic and confusion amongst many of the locals who fear that they have come to reclaim their property.

The Jewish father (Miklós B. Székely) and son (György Somhegyi) say almost nothing, yet their silence says everything as they honor their dead family members.

During a Q&A session Director Ferenc Török has described the film as “a powerful, basic story”. Its black and white format carries the audience into the brief time between the holocaust and the communist decades. Our collective memory is jabbed by haunting images evoking photos and film from the immediate post war period.

The impact of the visual imagery strongly reinforces the key themes.

Hermann Sámuel (Iván Angelus) and his son (Marcell Nagy) arrive via train to a small 
village in Hungary full of secrets - Photo courtesy  Lenke Szilagyi / Menemsha Films

Two brief images of a photo album touch on a history of friendship and betrayal. Moreover, the use of smoke during the film connects poignantly to the holocaust’s crematoria.

The local authorities, in particular the town clerk, the police officer and the priest, seem to have been the leading collaborators with the Nazis. However, many others were complicit and benefitted by the removal and extermination of the Jewish community.

However, the villagers are divided, with families torn apart by the events of 1944. Some sympathised with and even helped their neighbours. Others are wracked by guilt for their part in the final solution. There are also those determined not to give up what is, for some, newly acquired prosperity.

1945 has an exceptional cast. Péter Rudolf as the powerful town clerk István and Eszter Nagy-Kálózy as his tormented wife Anna are outstanding. Apparently the pair has been married in real life since 1990. Another veteran actor, József Szarvas, gives a faultless performance as the tortured alcoholic Kustár.

Neither the cathartic climax nor the departing steam train, with all its distressing symbolism, brings real resolution. The coming clouds of communism hang over the community, with the “new world” promised by local Soviet sympathizer Jancsi (Tamás Szabó Kimmel) not far over the horizon. But that’s another story.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

A Fantastic Woman (Una Mujer Fantástica): Validating Love

Francisco Reyes & Daniela Vega at the Berlinale 2017
Image courtesy Martin Kraft (Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0)

A Fantastic Woman (Una Mujer Fantástica) set two firsts at this year’s academy awards. The highly acclaimed winner of the 2018 Oscar for best foreign language film is the first such award for a Chilean film. In addition its star Daniela Vega was there as the first openly transgender presenter.

When I saw the film I was unaware of any of this, in fact only knew the title and that it's a Spanish language film. What a delightful surprise! The extravagant praise for its director/co-writer Sebastián Lelio and Daniela has been more than well deserved.

[Please excuse any spoilers.] When the partner of transgender woman Marina dies suddenly, her world implodes. She is brutally ostrichised by Orlando’s family as she struggles to cope with the loss.

It is difficult not to reach for the cliché kitbag. The confrontation is disturbing and painful. At the same time, her personal journey is also joyous and uplifting, love and life affirming.

Daniela’s powerful, passionate performance as Marina is one of the best of the academy year. Her talent as an aspiring opera singer brings added depth to her character. Co-star Francisco Reyes gives a strong, professional performance as Orlando.

Lelio displays the filmmaker's craft at its very best. The tight direction and script grip the viewer from the start. The backdrop of 21st Century Santiago underlines the complexity of this very modern drama. The Chilean Spanish is surprisingly easy to follow for novices. This official trailer should whet your appetite:

The film has certainly brought out not-unexpected arguments online. This exchange is just part of the reactions to distributor Curzon Artifical Eye’s preview post on their Facebook page:
Xabier Santesteban: Science says that this guy has still XY chromosomes.
Kaisa Mäenpää: Wow, another transphobe misgendering a trans woman, how original haha. Modern science literally says gender and sex are not the same thing (check it out yourself, because you clearly haven't), and that even though sex can be determined by looking at chromosomes, gender can't.
Daniela raised some of the issues in a recent interview for the Guardian:
“The film wants you to question where you stand in society. Are you with Orlando’s family or with Marina? Instead of answering questions, the film’s trying to ask questions about everything. What bodies can or can’t we inhabit? Which love stories are valid and which aren’t? Why is it that certain groups oppress other groups because they’re not within what they consider normal boundaries?”
Valeska Freire, founder of Magic Haus Films, has been one of many to promote this discussion:

It's a topic that is trending across the globe. Recent instances include:

Sport: Hannah Mouncey Becomes First Transgender Player in Australian Women’s State League Football

Journalism: Marvia Malik, Pakistan's First Transgender Newscaster, Wants to Change Societal Attitudes Toward Her Community

Thursday, April 5, 2018

The Other Side of Hope - Toivon tuolla puolen

The Other Side of Hope is another gem from Finnish writer/director Aki Kaurismäki. It picks up some of the themes concerning refugees of his 2011 French language film Le Havre.

Set in another port city, Finland’s capital Helsinki, it tells of the developing friendship between a Syrian asylum seeker, Khaled (Sherwan Haji) and a former shirt salesperson turned restaurateur, Waldemar Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen).

It has Kaurismäki’s signature mix of offbeat humour and serious social issues. He makes the audience uncomfortable as we laugh at a topic which should not be a joke.

The restaurant, and its staff in particular, seems to be have time-travelled from the 1950s. The Golden Pint’s no frills décor and menu match the expectations of its working-class customers. Waldemar’s stumbling attempts to embrace 21st century hospitality bring some comic relief from the grim obstacles facing the refugees.

Nevertheless they have a common thread in their battles with authority. Even the lacklustre restaurant staff shine in comparison with Finnish bureaucracy. However, immigration security is not the only foe, as neo-nazis are lurking with intent.

Khaled’s stay at the open-door but depressing detention centre has its upside. During his journey from his home in Aleppo, he has become separated from his sister. His Iraqi friend helps with his attempts to find her.

One of the bright sides of this movie is the music, led by singer/songwriter Tuomari Nurmio. He appears in musical vignettes as a busker and lead singer for a band. There are several videos of the soundtrack online, including this glorious performance:

The cast includes several other veterans of Finnish entertainment, who help to energise the oddball collection of local characters. If their world seems quite daft, it triumphs over the unhinged reality that the refugees have fled and what they now face in exile.

Anyway, you’d have to cry if you didn’t laugh. Perhaps, that’s the other side of hope.