Friday 19 March 2021

DEoL goes to Wales One World Film Festival!

The Wales One World Festival (WOW for short) is a small festival from Wales, now amazingly in its 20th year, and like many such events over the last twelve months has reorganised itself online, and free too. The programmers' mission is to "curate eye-opening world cinema so you can experience the weird, wild, wonderful world we live in." DEoL dug in a for a sample of their wares:

Arab Blues aka Un divan à Tunis (France/Tunisia 2019: Dir Manele Labidi)
By no means the subtlest film you'll see all year, French director Labidi's debut feature is the story of Selma (Golshifteh Farahani) who returns from Paris to her native Tunisia to set up a psychotherapy service in the rooms above her rather indifferent aunt and uncle's apartments. The locals, focused around larger than life hairdresser Baya (the brilliant Feryel Chammari), are suspicious of Selma's motives in returning and dismissive of the need for a therapist in their midst.

But, and with a portrait of her beloved Freud staring down from the wall, Selma gradually builds up a clientele of townsfolk keen to unload their stresses (including Baya who, surprise surprise, has 'mother' issues) and running the gamut of stereotypical 'subjects,' including the guy with a love of women's clothing and the paranoid conspiracy theorist. All's going well until local cop Naim (Majd Mastoura) asks to see her Tunisian license to practice.

Arab Blues finds its humour in the subverting of the country's taboos, not least the strong, defiantly single Selma, who wears what she likes and smokes when she likes, inviting first disdain and then adoration from the womenfolk. The character based humour is very broad but the array of Selma's subjects contrasts with, and slightly overshadows, a rather subdued performance from Farhani (so good in Jim Jarmusch's 2016 movie Paterson) as the therapist determined to ply her trade no matter what the setback.

The Long Walk aka Bor Mi Vanh Chark (Laos 2019: Dir Mattie Do)
Do was raised in Los Angeles but returned to Laos about ten years ago, and has since made three films there, that fuse legend, magic and mystery.

The Long Walk is part sci fi, part time travel and part ghost story, suffused with the rituals and beliefs of Laos culture. It's the story of an older man (Yannawoutthi Chanthalungs) living in a Laos of the near future (signified by supersonic jets flying overhead and payment systems that interact with a chip under the skin), who scavenges motorcycle parts to get by. He was the last person to see a missing woman alive, the latest in a string of absences that suggest the activities of a serial killer. But the old guy has a gift; supposedly he can speak to the dead, and is approached by the missing woman's daughter for this purpose. 

In a (n apparently) separate story, a young boy (Por Silatsa) lives with his ill mother and angry, drunken father on their farm, and has his first encounter with death when he finds the body of a woman in the undergrowth. At the same time he befriends a mysterious, silent girl (Noutnapha Soydara) and from her learns to navigate the myseries of life and death.

How these two stories interconnect is the intruiging heart of the movie; any precise explanation of events is denied (in a Q&A Do revealed that even she and her writer husband Christopher Larson disagreed on the interpretation) but although The Long Walk is an enigmatic piece it's far from an incoherent one, with some intense performances and a real sense of the country's recent history unfolding as the lives of the characters progress. Well worth a rewatch for the small details as well as the universality of the story.

Les Saignantes aka The Bloodettes (Cameroon 2005: Dir Jeanne-Pierre Bekolo)
Set in 2025, which would have seemed a lot more of a way off than its screening this year, Bekolo's work is best seen as an early example of Afrofuturism. Two friends, Majoulie (Adèle Ado) and Chouchou (Dorylia Calmel), are adventurists and sort of prostitutes on the mean streets of Cameroon. Trying as always to make a quick buck, Majoulie kills the Secretary General of the Civil Cabinet during (literally) acrobatic sex. In an attempt to hide the body the pair end up with the head only, and must try and secure a body to match before the state funeral.

Woefully cheap, and shot on video making it look even more threadbare, the 'futuristic' elements seem to be confined to a self driving car, but there's also a sense of magic in the ever present, but unexplained force of Mevoungou, which dictates the fates of all involved. Majoulie and Chochou come over like a Cameroon version of Celine and Julie from Jacques Rivette's 1974 film Celine and Julie Go Boating; they move in and around the corruption of the country, bribing police officers and laughing their way out of trouble. It's a pretty scrappy film which apparently fell foul of the authorities, and thus is still of some cultural interest.

Scales aka Sayyedat al-Bahr (Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Iraq 2019: Dir Shahad Ameen)
Ameen's debut feature, which builds on the themes of her 2013 short Eye & Mermaid, screened at the BFI London Film Festival back in 2019. It draws on folk tales and myth which Ameen uses as a jumping off point for a study of identity and gender.

On a barren island, villagers must, as a time honoured ritual, sacrifice one of their daughters to the sea and the creatures that live under the waves. But one of the babies, Hayat, is rescued by her father. 12 years later Hayat is a largely shunned girl, ostracised for being rescued when she should have been sacrificed. The men of the island regularly harvest mermaids from the sea, and as Hayat watches, she sees scales forming on her legs. She also hears cries emananting from the water; are they calling her?

When Hayat's mother falls pregnant again, she hopes for a respite, but the child is male. "This is no place for girls" she is told: her place is to give herself to the sea. At the next full moon Hayat is asked to sacrifice herself; the sea claims her but she makes her escape again, proving her increasing strength to the fishermen by dragging a mermaid up from the beach and killing it. While she's now free to move among the watchful males, literally learning the ropes, Hayat chooses her own path.

Scales has autobiographical elements but also mythical ones (in Arabic mythology the mermaid is seen as the goddess of fertility but also assocated with suicide and preserved beauty). Ameen wisely avoids a more traditional story of a girl recognising the power of her own female-ness by setting her film in an unspecified time and with nature and humanity sharing equal screen space. The lush black and white photography of João Ribeiro creates a harsh but lyrical backdop to the film, and as Hayat Basima Hajjar is quietly enigmatic. This is a slow, contemplative film with a quiet power.

Roh aka Soul (Malaysia 2019: Dir Emir Ezwan) Another debut feature, this time from Kuala Lumpur based Ezwan, which like the other films seen at this Festival digs deep into the country's Muslim beliefs for the source of its wonder and horror.

Mother Mak (Farah Ahmed) lives in the jungle with her two children, son Angah (Harith Haziq) and daughter Along (Mhia Farhana). While out checking traps for potential food, the children happen upon a dead deer, suspended from a tree. This is the first of a number of omens which befall the family. Elsewhere a bedraggled girl, tiny and silent, wanders the forest and turns up at the family's home. Mak takes pity on her but the girl is resistant to their care, and shockingly cuts her own throat after delivering her only speech, a warning about the impending doom facing mother and children.

A strange old lady called Tok (June Lojong) appears, collecting plants, and talking of bad omens. Elsewhere a man, similarly dishevelled, is looking for his daughter: it is the same girl who slit her throat. Along has an odd encounter in the forest and falls ill; Tok feels she can cast a spell to make her better, but Mak feels, quite rightly, that events are spiralling out of control. "Someting evil has entered this area," Tok says. 

While there's no denying that Ezwan's feature piles on the tension and is packed with atmosphere, I was perhaps looking for something a little more than a succession of scenes with harbingers of doom, worried faces and dense jungle scenery. Individual scenes hold great power: the opening sequence, showing the silent young girl, blood matted and holding a knife in front of a ferocious fire, packs a punch, and Along's 'possessed'' behaviour is occasionally terrifying. But taken as a whole there wasn't much for me beyond an overall mood. Haziq, Farhana and Ahmed are all excellent in their roles, and Saifuddin Musah's cinematography is frequently stunning. It's an impressive film, just not an overly satifying one.

The Toll (UK 2021: Dir Ryan Andrew Hooper) Hooper's debut feature is clearly inbebted, both in structure and tone, to the earlier films of Martin McDonagh. A namless isolated tollboth operator (Michael Smiley) becomes the fulcrum for a series of sub-plots involving a variety of quirky characters, including triplet female terrorists (all played by Gwyneth Keyworth) and a female Elvis impersonator called Dixie (Evelyn Mok), who may or may not be linked to Smiley's dark past. Law enforcement comes courtesy of Catrin (Annes Elwy), a young police officer who, when we first meet her, is pointing a speeding gun at passing motorists next to a sign that reads 'SLOWN DOWN - 1 casualty in 1 year on this road.' Catrin's job, like the audience's, is to piece together the fractured narrative delivered to her by Smiley and to us by director Hooper.

There's a lot of incidental humour via character mortivations, and some wry observations of small town Welsh life which, in a non Welsh director's hands, may have come across more dodgily than they do here. Ultimately this is Smiley's movie; he doesn't have to do much and, as in many of his movies, the action revolves aroung his rather taciturn but not unemotional performance. I can't help feeling that I've seen this sort of thing done better elsewhere; its pleasure is perhaps in its small cast and restricted locations, but it didn't really resonate with me either as a comedy or a narrative to be pieced together.

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