Tag Archive: Female Directors

“I Am Not A Witch”: Review!

“I Am Not A Witch” (2017) is a Zambian film that mixes magic realism with biting social commentary. For those interested in dipping their toes into African Cinema, I highly recommend!

With Love/ Maaretta

Today is National Sami Day! It´s a day that celebrates a small ingenious group of people who exist traditionally in the northern regions of Norway, Finland, Sweden and Russia (Sápmi or Lapland). The Sami, commonly known under the moniker Laps or Laplanders, are Caucasians and were previously nomads, before the involvement of others made this impossible. They have a language of their own, known as Sami, who consists of many different types: Northern sami, Inari sami and Southern Sami being the three biggest ones. As with any ingenious groups, centuries of oppression has made their own original faiths come under siege and their own way of life has been nearly forgotten, meaning many of the younger Sami people do not have access to the Sami language, or find the means to speak it fluently. Discrimination is a huge problem for today’s Samis, who face racism and aggressive nationalism from the non-ingenious Swedes, Finns and Norwegians. Simultaneously, with growing awareness of the culture and vibrancy of the Sami people, Finland and Norway have signed the Ilo-Convention, and Sami is protected under the Swedish law as a “Minority language”. In honor of the Scandinavian national day of the Sami, I will review a documentary that consists of both of a generalized cultural history of these people and moving personal view of living as a Sami in the modern age.

Norwegian Sami People in traditional clothing

Norwegian Sami People in traditional clothing

The title of the film, “Jouguan”, means “Jojk” in Sami, a traditional voice device of singing in the Sami culture. It consists of a mixture of humming and singing, where the words are slightly hummed out. The documentary, directed by Maj Lis Skaltje, contains interviews from Norwey, Sweden and Finland. The people being interviewed are all Sami, with the exception of the narrative contextualization of a few historians. The film samples a large and divergent range of different aged Sami people, the oldest being near 80 and 90, while the youngest reside in their teens. Some of the Samis being interviewed live in Sami areas (similar to Indian reservations that exist in the states) and some live in cities. The interviews consist of colorful, funny, insightful and heart-breaking stories.

The significance of what the jojk means to each Sami is touched upon and indicate the wide range of explanations, motivations and motives in which the jojk resides and resonates for the Sami culture. One of the mainstays of the jojk is the Sami use for the herding of reindeer, which is the traditional life style in Sami communities. The Samis were originally entirely dependent on the reindeer, and used them for clothing, food and traveling. The reindeer respond to the humming, especially when it´s their owner who is singing. In this way the jojk is tied with other traditions. Other Samis, both young and old, use the jojk as a way to pay tribute to their family members and different aspects of nature. For instance one of the first interviews Ms. Skaltje did was of two brothers living in Soppero (a Sami area nearby Kiruna, in Sweden) who sing their own jojks dedicated to each other with a heart-warming earnestness. She also interviews a middle-age man who jojks about his cat, with a hilariously accurate mimic. Ms. Sakltje interviews another middle aged man who uses the jojk to learn Sami language, since he grew up with parents who decided not to teach him Sami. The man explains that the Sami have many different ways of expressing their ethic identity; for some speaking the language is the most essential, for others reindeer herding take on the cultural task, and for others the making of the traditional clothing comes to implant them in their cultural identities. For him, personally, the jojking is the most important means to connect with the tone of the cultural roots of the Sami, since he feels like it is a way for him to get in touch with his historical ethnicity and to express his personal emotions regarding this, and his, distinctiveness freely.


“Jouguans” ample and various interviews give a multi-layered and effervescent depiction of the Scandinavian indigenous people. The Sami in this film have different ways of relating to their heritage and culture and the singing is as unique as every one of the personality we meet within the documentary. The singing is shown as not merely a decorative, exotic type of “folk” singing but a cultural reverberating strength and a resilient personal exploration for each member of this pressured group. The documentary masterfully shows how the songs are used for work, humor, expressions of love and lost, and also for speaking of difficult times that the Sami have gone through. And continue to do so.

Swedish poster of the movie

Swedish poster of the movie

Along with the strength of the diverse interviews, “Jouguans” also explores the historical trajectory of the many ways Samis have been persecuted throughout the ages and the many countries they have inhabited. The jojk, as well as the traditional drum the Sami used when singing, was seen by the Christians as heretical and devotedly antithetical to Christian teaching. Because of this, along with other cultural factors, Sami people were commonly accused of witchcraft during the middle ages and all the way to the 17th century many of them found themselves accused of heresy, or worse, and burned at the stake. This was quite common in Norway, where up to 20% of the people executed for witchcraft were found within the Sami population (both men and women).

One of the many types of drums used by the Sami

One of the many types of drums used by the Sami

The director Maj Lis Skaltje herself speaks openly in the film about her childhood, where she was, due to her Sami roots, marked as unclean by the eugenics policy and testing that dominated in Swedish politics in the 40 to 60´s. While the Sami people were spared from forced sterilization in the Swedish context (a fate that many poor and mentally/physically disabled and women accused of “promiscuousness” had to endure) they were still forcibly and geographically isolated from society and, being deemed a lower people, could therefore not be tolerated to mix with the purer, higher Swedish type. Ms. Skaltje describes how she grew up ashamed of herself, too frightened to even dare speak her own mother tongue. Jojking, along with the fear and avoidance of the Sami Tongue, was seen in this age as a dirty, devilish, and barbaric act.

Another type of traditional clothing (all are made out of reindeer fur)

Another type of traditional clothing (all are made out of reindeer fur)

The Narrative trace of “Jouguans” engulfs us in these facts and personal stories both shock and move us, but does not let us give ourselves forgiveness for these deeds. As with any ingenious group, the Sami´s history is, still and robustly, erased in common history lessons in Scandinavia. The hard and divisive struggles of the Sami are not often discussed in society nor seen as important in the national dialogues of the many states in which the Sami now find themselves. Because of this the mere reiteration of Ms. Skaltje own story becomes a courageous, radical political act of the voice of the forgotten, and brings forth the truth of the systematic oppression the Sami have faced.
“Jojk” is an extraordinary documentary, with a rich character gallery, great music and captivating history. It´s shots are gorgeous; everything just works in this film. So on this day, when we celebrate the Samis heritage and history, it is hugely recommended to go see this movie to learn a great deal about both!

International Sami Flag

International Sami Flag

I recently, and finally, saw one of DreamWorks’ newest blockbusters, “Kung Fu Panda 2”, which according to Imdb is, since September this year, the biggest box office success for a film with a female director, that director being Jennifer Yuh. Ms. Yuh is one of the few women who have directed major animated blockbusters films, which I have mentioned in my older post “Rise of the Damsel”. I didn’t like the first “Kung Fu Panda” film, as a mentioned as well in my previous post. However I didn’t really explain why. I will do so here before reviewing the sequel: I strongly disliked that the panda Po was cast as the quintessential and main hero in the narrative arc of the story. His attitude in the story seemed to be that everything should just be handed to him, without working for it (as the other characters have done exclusively). He dreams of becoming a master of Kung Fu, but when he is given the chance to learn martial arts he doesn’t show up to classes or at least try to do anything (Spoiler!: until his teacher withholds food from him). I also disliked how Tigress, a fierce warrior who had devoted her whole life to Kung Fu, was pushed aside and replaced by the distracted Po merely because the storyline posits him as “destined to be the great heroic warrior”. It felt like the writers of the screenplay were stating that even if women (or anybody else for that matter) can be great fighters, men (as the chosen of society) are just automatically better (even if all common sense would say otherwise) because, hey, they are males after all. Luckily, the sequel gives a much better treatment of Tigress’ character and even Po’s character development handled in a much better fashion this time around. The villain is deliciously enjoyable and the animation is ten times better, as well as the themes brought up being a lot more interesting.

The film starts with giving us a brief back-story to the villain Lord Shen, a peacock and son to two powerful monarchs who ruled over Gongmen City. After the invention of Fireworks, Lord Shen sees the potential in the explosives for powerful weapons and uses this in his attempt to take over the whole of China and subjugate it to his will. However, Lord Shen learns from a prophecy that he will be defeated by a warrior of “black-and-white”, which leads to him nearly exterminating all Pandas. His parents, horrified by this act, banish him from the kingdom. Lord Shen leaves, swearing revenge. The film then focuses on Po, who is now a celebrity hero in his hometown and good friends with his fellow Kung Fu masters. However, his relationship with his father becomes troublesome when he finds out he’s adopted – which is no surprise to anyone else, considering he’s father is a goose and he’s a panda (a reoccurring joke which is peppered throughout the film). Po is struck with identity crises, but gets little time to resolve it as Po and his warrior friends must travel to Gongmen City to stop Lord Shen, who threatens Kung Fu with his new weapon.

The film addresses adoption and parent-child relationships well. Po’s father is loving and supportive and proud of his son, while Po on the other hand is confused about his emotions, constantly seeking out answers to his past. This makes Po act quite cold and diffident towards his affectionate father. Usually, in children’s films, the parents are portrayed as unreasonable and/or unable to understand their children, however in this film it is the child, Po, who is in the wrong here, not being able to appreciate the love he has gotten and still receives. Naturally, Po wants to know where he comes from and what his roots are and he is constantly bedeviled with worries that he might not have been loved by his “natural” parents prompting them to abandon him in his infancy. Po’s identity crisis is pretty well portrayed; the viewer can sympathize with his situation, but he’s unable to express his problems to others, which causes major problems during his and his friend’s mission to stop Lord Shen. My only complaint of the portrayal of this conflict is that the way Po resolves his problem is a little simple, and he never seems to realize how his attitude towards his adoptive father did, well… kind of sucked. But kudos to James Hong who voiced Mr. Ping the goose father, he did an excellent job capturing a loving and kind parent’s voice. Especially the scene where Mr. Ping tells Po how he ended up raising him as a son, which no doubt was one of the most heart-warming scenes in the film.

One of the overriding and major themes played with in “Kung Fu Panda 2” is usage of advanced weapons. The film is highly critical of the usage of these weapons of “mass destruction”. The message of the film seems to be against using gunpowder, which holds the position of a trope of the indiscriminate killing device, as a form of fighting, which is good admittedly in regard to our age of drones and cluster-bombs. However, the main critique seems to come from the idea that usage of weaponry eliminates martial arts. And here’s where I’m a little conflicted; I don’t believe in fire arms or other advanced weaponry which distance ourselves from our killings and destroy without consequence, and think it’s nice to see a film with a anti-weapon message with this in mind. But is it truly better to say martial arts are much better? The “karate” technique (which is staple action used in the movie) is still positioned as a battle technique and a way to, frankly, beat the crap out of each other? I am not sure saying that technological weapons are bad , but combat in the sense of “hand to hand” resolves the question of violence which is meant to be raised here. Then again, perhaps the film just wants to highlight the fact that weapons of mass scale and indeterminate distance cause a lot more meaningless damage and therefore are used in more “dirty”, unfair and brutal ways in battles, while martial arts are more about clean fights where one has to experience the person on who the violent act is done to. I don’t necessarily agree, since I often hope people could come to agreements by discussions and compromise, but I guess there are situations where that is not perhaps possible. (Interestingly, this is almost always the case in children’s films. Huh…)

Lord Shen, the evil power-hungry pale white peacock villain, is an excellent bad guy. Gary Oldman provides the voice for the mad bird and I have to say he has a real talent in voice acting. Lord Shen is sinister, arrogant and commits crimes pretty vicious for a children’s film. He’s unsettling and a master of manipulation, but also pretty funny at times. Mr. Oldman’s way of delivering his character is perfect and was a perfect casting. Also the design for Lord Shen was brilliant: a pale white peacock with grim red eyes that uses his feathers like sharp knives. According to Ms. Yuh, the character of Shen was extraordinarily difficult to animate and became like animating six characters all at once. Great work was beyond a doubt, and with good effect, put into Lord Shen’s design, for he was by far also the most beautifully animated character and it was a wondrous thrill to see the character in his fight sequences.

Fun fact: there do indeed exist white peacocks, whose colors apparently make them look quite elegant. White, however, is the color of death in Chinese culture; this is why having white feathers marked Lord Shen as the antagonist.

Gary Oldman wasn’t the only one doing impressive voice acting. Michelle Yeoh, who was brilliant as a strong warrior in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000) and as one of the determined scientist in “Sunshine” (2007), did a great job on voicing Shen’s former nanny, Soothsayer, combining wise with comically caring. Angelina Jolie was, once again and much better utilized in this sequel, also an outstanding voice for Master Tigress, getting her character to seem both compassionate as well as in charge and sturdy. Kudos to both of these fine actors!

I will quickly give a thought to the films prevailing message regarding the quest and attainment of “Inner Peace”. I am usually quit skeptical of such philosophies, yet I found myself actually liking how inner peace was interpreted in this movie. Basically, what the writers seem to be elaborating in this concept was that a person should attempt to let go of anger and hostility and struggle and see things from a more positive angle in life. Without this one will end, on the perplexing road of existence, by being engulfed in a shallow and dysfunctional bitterness which wreaks havoc on oneself and others. This is what happens to Lord Shen, which ultimately results in a predetermined spiral to self-destruction. Po on the other hand is able to see that things from outside of resentment and, as a consequence, achieves inner peace making him able to function better as a person (meaning warrior in this case) and becoming more “human” in the journey.
Of course, it is sometimes good to be angry. But, who can argue, it is best not to let bitterness and anger control one’s person and life.

“Kung Fu Panda 2” was a pleasing movie experience. Worth a watch definitely.

When a tale is told to us, we often automatically choose one of the characters to sympathize with and see things strictly from their point of view. The nature of tales and legends come from norms and ideals that were and are smiled upon when they get written down. Yet such things like norms and ideals change in time. Therefore re-tellings and modernizations of old legends have become wildly popular in modern day culture. Another new way of telling a story is by mixing fact with fiction – a person may tell her or his personal tale while mixing old myth and sagas into the real life events, making a connection to experiences in real and fictional people. Nina Paley uses skillfully and stylishly these both story telling methods in her animated film, “Sita Sings the Blues”.

“Sita Sings the Blues” recounts the Indian legend of Sita, the Wife of Rama, which was written by Valmiki in his epic book “The Ramayana”. Nina Paley reboots the legend as told from Sita’s point of view and gives a fresh and humorous feminist slant to this famous tale. Sita is a devoted and loving wife who faces many hardships from her husband and Ms. Paley uses the subtle hints and hidden implications of the Ramayana to embed a simultaneously story of her own break up with her live-in and long term boyfriend Dave giving us (and her) unsullied insights to both of these folds of the world. The animation changes different styles during the film, ranking from highly detailed and elegant, to humorously cartoony, to chunkily amateurish looking.

The film portrays two relationships gone wrong in a richly funny and equally serious tone. Sita is a woman who gets the raw part of the deal. She is a love martyr, constantly putting her husband first and getting little in return. A typical example of the sacrificial behavior that for many years has been the ideal for women. Unconditional love was and is used to portray the most kind and good women in culture, like Andersson’s Mermaid in his fairy tale “The Little Mermaid” and Nancy from Charles Dickenson’s “Oliver Twist”. However, Sita does show some strength eventually (but not spoilers so I will end here, but note Spoilers below!!!!).

Nina, Ms. Paley as herself in the movie, shows similar characteristics to Sita. She wants to be supportive of her boyfriend, but he shows little concern for her feelings or needs. When he breaks up with her, she lingers on him and begs him to take her back. But like Sita, she finds inner strength to carry on and pursue her own ambitions.
“Sita Sings the Blues” depicts the importance of independence and respecting one’s self. Sita lets herself, like Nina, forget about herself to please another person. This does not end well. Even if the film focuses on “break ups” it also makes a point about any phases of relationships and situations in the world. Ms. Paley tones up how passiveness keeps people trapped. With the choice of the recurring upbeat jazz/pop (of the 20’s) songs to describe Sita’s life the film makes a powerful statement on Sita’s life and the dilemma of the feminine in history and contemporary life. Her tale is sad and tragic, full of unfairness. Sita is a tragic and badly-used heroine, and the sound of Annette Hanshaw’s Jazz style (in one of the animated “style sequences”) is the both playfully expressive and popularly depressing becoming a perfect counterpoint for telling of both tales.

The men in the film or often portrayed as the ones who abandon. The depiction of Rama is very unflattering; he thinks mainly of himself and constantly doubts for little reason. He is a victim of the masculine expectations shown in the film, such as a man must have a pure wife to keep his pride. Since he is also royalty, he is taught to view himself in a vastly elevated manner regardless of his actual actions. This is mirrored in Dave, the boyfriend of Nina, who, after getting a promotion becomes suddenly distant and aloof without course or reason. “Sita Sings the Blues” however isn’t about men being betrayers, but tries to portray men who become brainwashed by social expectations and unrealistic and overly contained notions of masculinity.

“Sita Sings the Blues” is a sophisticated, surprisingly positive film about not letting a bad relationship ruining one’s life. The film tutors and advices one to live life without hanging onto the events which constrain and limit. The simple message is – with life we can do so much good by ourselves.

Nina Paley is a strong believer that all form of culture belongs to all people, and because of this she has made it possible for anyone to watch the film for free on her site. Here is the link to the her homepage where you can watch the film, download I, or a number of options to many to recount: http://www.sitasingstheblues.com/

Ruthless realism and complex characters is the two main, strong points in the Scottish director Lynne Ramsay’s films, “Ratcatcher” (1999) and “Movern Callar” (2002). The everyday life and anguish of lower class people is her core theme. Both films are great, but it is “Ratcatcher” I will review.

Lynne Ramsay

In the recent decades, the subject of poverty has been dealt with masterfully in many films. Courtney Hunts “Frozen River” (2008), Andrea Arnolds “Fish Tank” (2009) and Debra Granik’s “Winter’s Bone” (2010) to mention the very best ones. Even if all of these films deal with people of lower classes, every film has told their story differently and adding different elements to their story. “Fish Tank” for example also deals with troublesome relations between minors and adults and “Frozen River” deals with illegal human smuggling. “Ratcatcher” also, like these other films, focuses on the plight and difficulties inherent in the devastations of poverty. It is also about death, guilt, dreams and desolation.

“Ratcatcher” has one of the bleakest openings found in modern cinema. It introduces Ryan, a young 12-year old boy, only to drown him moments later. The story then follows James, a boy of a like age, who accidentally kills Ryan in the midst of aggressive play. James refuses to tell anyone that he killed his playmate, which results in him developing a terrible and deep-seated fear of water. He lives with his alcoholic father (Tommy Flanagan), his mother and two sisters. He hangs out with his friend Kenny, who has a huge interest and love for animals but is slightly dim. He also starts a platonic relationship with an older teenage girl, who is the local sexual punch bag for the town bullies. James dreams of moving away from the slums, away from the small dirty apartment he currently lives in, and moving into a beautiful big house he sees in suburban neighborhoods. But dreams defer and old secrets come back to haunt James.

The film “Ratcatcher” gives the viewer a slice-of-life experience while watching James trying to find happiness despite his situation. He is in deep conflict with his father and has almost no relationship with his mother. The mother tries her best to keep her children happy and cheerful when the father is out at the pubs, which at times works and at times doesn’t. James is unimpressed by his mother’s efforts. He tries to be friends with Kenny, but finds him annoying. Anne Marie, his “girlfriend”, is the only person he loves. A major current theme in the film is James dreams of moving to bigger, cleaner house in the suburbs. His lust for a better life is similar to that of “Fish Tanks” major protagonist Mia, who lives in the dead end corner of a lower class suburb but dreams of taking off and finding something better. Both films capture the desire and hope of a better life masterfully. However, Andrea Arnold “Fish Tank” is more subtle in this regard, using Mia’s obsession with freeing a horse as compound allegory of her own will to escape from her current life and using the song “California Dreaming” as a constant symbol of dreaming of a “warmer” home. In “Ratcathcer”, James’ dreams are depicted by him straight out asking his father if they have any chances of getting the opportunity to move to a new house far from the squalor of urban projects and crushed spirits. The film also uses a beautifully shot scene where James wonders around the project of under-construction semi-rural houses in a far-off (end of the line bus trip) “richer” neighborhood, were he pretends his occupation of the unfinished houses. James, being younger than 15-year old Mia, has the narrative conceive of his character as open and playful about his wishes. He wants what he wants. When he realizes he probably never will get to live in the kind of houses he longs after, he loses all hope in life. Being so young and powerless, he has no chance for happiness.

James’ friend, Kenny, is portrayed as the young man with a huge love and fascination for animals. Unfortunately, Kenny is stuck in the slums and has no chances of doing anything with his interest. He tries to fish pets out of a lifeless river bordering the back of the projects but, just as the social gives the tenants of this area, he can catching nothing from its dead waters.. He’s naivety is constantly taken advantage of and when he finally acquires a live specimen to love The town bullies manipulate Kenny and make him believe strange things, with tragic results. Kenny’s narrative portrait encompasses, for Ramsay, the stock of children who due to their background have no chances to develop their interest into something productive for either themselves or the society in which they live. Kenny is stuck with unfilled ambition and becomes the harbinger of waste.

Anne Marie, who is the girlfriend of James in the “Ratcatcher” dreams of something better. She starts a relationship with James because he is the only male around who is gentle towards her and in many ways mirrors her own outsider status. The town bullies more or less bully her into sexual favors, which Anne Marie partly hates and partly just accepts as natural in the mechanisms of survival of her urban lower class milieu. James becomes her havoc in a hopeless storm.

“Ratcatcher” is a film about an accidental murder that doesn’t dwell in the theme of guilt, but recognizes the traps and containments of poverty from which the act springs. James does feel guilt for his friends death, but has already so many and varied (and unsolvable) problems in his life he forces himself to forget the incident. Instead, he creates a fear of the tepid and stagnant river where his friend met his death. This projection of fear and guilt is rather symbolic. James keeps his secret well kept, which is easily done since the adults in his world have little, to no actual contact with the youngsters. Ramsay cleverly gives us a believable portrayal of a case when a child has accidentally killed another child. James, being so young and full of despair already from being poor, can’t handle anymore misery. He’s young mind blames the water. The harsh environment has taught him to ignore troublesome feelings and detach himself from the things happening around him.

“Ratcatcher” is honest, giving a view into an unkind life that gives no happy endings. Ramsay is merciless to her characters and merciless to the audience. Her debut movie offers nothing but reality.

Update: Ms. Ramsey has won a major award at the London film festival! Read about it here.

Terrorism has become one of the most discussed of all social disasters in the recent years, and this is especially true of suicide bombing. Numerous films have been made on this subject, such as “Four Lions” (2009) and “Paradise Now” (2005). However the majority of these films have centered young men, and it usually made clear in the films narratives that the young men are killing themselves as a hideous gesture for others and misbegotten ideologies.  Julia Loktev’s intense drama film “Day Night Day Night” (2006), however, tells about suicide bombing from a 19-year old girl’s perspective, and the storyline never details what others, thoughts or broken ideas have propelled her to the terrible decision to become a suicide bomber.  A vacancy is left in explanation of causes and nationalities and the act and its trajectory is what is left open for a terrible contemplation.  The  only thing the viewers is given as a certainty is that this bemused young girl believes in something so strongly  that she is willing to kill herself and others for its sake.

When the film begins, we hear the girl praying. She mumbles, making it impossible to hear what she is saying. Later on, she meets up with an anonymous driver who takes her to a hotel. At the hotel, she begins her training for “the mission”. She, as well as the audience, will never see her trainer’s faces. Loktev, the director, uses the scenes of the training to give us a hint of what kind of person the girl is and how the “trainers” threaten the “volunteers for death” with a subtle but definitive intimidation. The girl is obviously compulsive: when she bathes and washes, she scrubs herself violently and brutally. She also brushes her teeth roughly and with a single-mindedness which speaks of a dreadful compulsion. Her neurotic washing, which she does directly before her mind numbing training begins, reminded me of a similar scene from one of Shirin Neshat’s films, “Zarin”, where a prostitute disgusted with herself, and the appalling acts her body has been witness too, washes herself till she bleeds. The girl in “Day Night Day Night” doesn’t quite bleed, but the way she washes herself is incredibly obsessive, hinting at a form of self-hatred.  The girls trainers, who make sure to not reveal their faces to the girl but freely go through her things, demand her to blindfold herself and forbid her from opening the curtains in her hotel room, portrays a clear and lopsided power-relationship between the one who’s going to blow themselves up and the ones that give the orders to do so. The trainers, in all conversations and the trainings, use the mind tricks of power relations to brainwash and devalue the young girl with the intention to make sure there can be no reflection or change of mind while executing the ghastly and misguided mission. Loktev, who also wrote the screenplay, made an excellent choice in making the suicide bomber female and the trainer’s male: it makes her message of the training being a harsh power-relationship clearer and exploring the dynamics of the hierarchy of power. (This could have been made quite clear with a male suicide bomber as well, of course. It’s just that men’s mistreatment of women is such a common, global and major issue that the brainwashed one being female while the brainwashers are male makes the point more obvious). After the girl has completed her training, she receives a bomb in a backpack and goes out to full and raucous Time Square to complete her mission.

The film takes it’s time telling the story. It gives us details after details, grasping the viewer into an uncomfortable world of fanatics and fundamentalist thinking. Some may experience the film to be slow paced, when in my opinion it is just a clever and realistic way to show the creeping violence that lingers in our society.

The leading actress, Luisa Williams, does an unbelievably fantastic job as the girl. She speaks clearly, but sometimes in a weak voice. There are scenes where the girl is supposedly frighten out of her mind; in these scenes, Williams is able to get her hands to shake intensely and breathe alarmingly. This is handled perfectly, never feeling over dramatic. The girl is also portrayed with a disturbed look in her eyes, given perfectly through Williams’s performance. The casting of the girl suits the film perfectly, and Williams carries the films ghastly atmosphere brilliantly. The girl has a personality which is hard to understand, but the characters actions keep the viewer glued to the screen, petrified and perplexed. Luisa Williams acting is nothing else than pure gold!

“Day Night Day Night” is Julia Loktevs first fictional work. She has previously made a documentary, “Moment of Impact” (1998) and is now working on a second film. Loktev is originally from Russia, but lives currently in the U.S.A.  Loktev really impresses as a director and writer in her debut film, and I am waiting for her next film with great eagerness.

“Day Night Day Night” is a much unknown film, but worth watching. It shows suicide bombers as well as any terrorism as a problem that emerges when people are convinced and believe too strongly in something. The films hints at things, but ultimately leaves the viewer to decide why the girl is doing what she’s doing. I, for instance, am pretty sure she has religious motives, but it is impossible to figure out if that truly is the real motive or not. Loktevs films gives you a rare, forceful experience that makes you think. “Day Night Day Night” is a cinematic gem.

Watch the trailer:

A Glimpse Of The Past

Ah yes, it’s 2011. A new year. Fresh new months, ready to be filled with new events, new movies, books and music. A whole new year to create new memories. So what to do? Look over what were the three best films of 2010 of course!
As in my post “Looking back last year…”, I will start with my “least” favorite movie of the three best films and finish with my favorite.

3. “Winters Bone” by Debra Granik – Ree, a girl of the tender age of sixteen, has to take care of her depressant mother and two younger siblings all by herself. Her father, a drug dealer, has recently abandoned the family. One day a policeman shows up at the family’s door, stating that Ree’s father hasn’t shown up to court when charged with felonies. Unless he shows up to court, the Bail bond Company who loaned him the money to make Bail (be out of jail until his court date) will take the house Ree’s family lives in. Ree sees no other choice but to go looking for her father, in hopes of saving her family.
“Winter’s Bone” is a film which truly tells the horrors of poverty. It shows people doing their best to get by, some taking destructive comfort in drugs, others shooting squirrels to be able to eat properly. The visuals are harsh. During the winter it is cold and dangerous. The viewer quickly understands that this is a world where if you take one wrong step, it could cost you dearly.

Even if this film was gripping, there was one major problem with this film: Ree is too perfect. Her role in the film is to be a hero, who is great, but Ree is written too much like a superhero than just an everyday hero. She never gets mad at the wrong people, never cries or shows sign of fears in dangerous situations or even complains about her situation to anyone. It is very hard to believe that anyone would be this noble, especially since everybody around her are somewhat, or completely, messed up. Compared to other recent female leads in movies about poverty or lower classes, I prefer “Frozen River” ‘s (2008) heroine Ray and “Fish Tank” ’s (2009) Mia much more. They have flaws, but still have a lot of good in them that comes through. This makes them more human and easier to believe in. Ree is more like a goddess you idolize. However Jennifer Lawrence, who portrays Ree, pulls off a good performance and is able to pull the viewer into the brutality of her world.
The story’s climax is chilling. Without giving away the conclusion, I will say that the scene where Ree’s quest has reached its “destination”, is followed by a gruesome scene which will be very hard, for some, to stomach. Ree is put through such psychological torture it physically hurts to watch. Granik handles the films story skillfully and delicately. No clear answers to why the things that happen have happened. In the environment of desperation life is never easy. My hat off to Debra Granik!

2. “Toy Story 3” by Lee Unkrich – Even if I do believe this film was a little hyped, it still was a clever and witty, with some pretty touching moments.
Andy has grown up and is going away to college. His toys, which come to life when no one is watching, fear what will become of them. Luckily, after being shipped accidently off to a daycare things start to look up. But not for long…
Many critics had analyzed this film as being a comment on unfair imprisonment, totalitarian societies and a smattering of other social issues. What is actually playing out, and what is actually enough to propel a film to an enlightening endeavor, is a well-built film formed from a coherent aesthetics and subtle narrative. And Toy Story 3 is just that. “Toy Story 3” is a strong film about the hopes of friendship and the anxious truths about finding a new home and life. Few movie sequels are this funny and original.

3. “In A Better World” by Susanne Bier – Wow. That’s all I had to say as the credits rolled at the movie theaters. This film blew me away; it’s as simple as that.
“In A Better World” is a Danish film, set in both Denmark and Sudan. It follows two parallel story lines.
The first is the story of Anton, a man who works intermittently with “Doctors without Borders” travelling at times to a refugee camp in Darfur. While Anton tends medical attention to the needy, another (anti)protagonist, with an antithetical nature, called “The Bandit”, wreaks havoc and violence upon the landscape and people on the nearby refugee camp. The bandit’s violence and malignance seem boundless and devolve into even the horrific slicing and opening of pregnant women’s stomachs, and sadistic killings of small children along with his band of like-minded thugs. The husbands of these accosted and ravaged women often run to the Medical Facility with their lethally injured wives and Anton is often called upon to operate in hope of saving their lives.
Back in Denmark Anton has recently separated from his wife and may end up getting a divorce. The reason is that Anton had an affair. The clincher comes when Anton, who already has enough on his plate as it is, gets caught up in a moral dilemma in Sudan when the Bandit shows up in the camp one day asking for medical attention.

The second narrative line in “In A Better World” involves Cristian, a ten year old boy, who has recently lost his mother to cancer. He moves from England to Denmark with his father and starts attending a new school. There he meets Elias (Anton’s son), who is being picked on for being half-Swedish and for having very odd looking braces on his teeth. As one of the bullies tries to assault Elias, Christian goes to Elias’ defense. The two boys strike up a powerful friendship. Unfortunately for Elias, Christian has a way of believing in “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” and convinces Elias to follow him in his growing plans of vengeance against a variety of targets.
Bier has created a number of critically acclaimed movies, and is now seen as one of the biggest directing stars from Scandinavia. Her work is known for its excellent means of portraying human relationships. In this film, not only does Bier give moving portrayals of friendship and family dynamics, but also asks difficult questions about revenge. Is it ever right? Is it fair? Does it really solve any problems, or does it instead add much more? Bier also shows how all societies have their bullies, whether they come dressed with guns in a war-torn nation, or with bare fists and horrid words in the school playground. How should societies deal with these bullies in a progressive way?
Definitely a must see movie. Astonishing acting, smart dialogue and complex themes, Bier’s film won’t leave anyone unmoved.

As a final note, I would like to mention that I was deeply saddened that I couldn’t put “White Material” by Claire Dennis on this list, since according to Imdb the film was made in 2009. It came quite late to Sweden, so I hadn’t seen it yet when I made my “Looking back at last year…” list of the best films in 2009. In any other case, it would have earned a spot on either one of these Lists.

"White Material" by Claire Denis (2009)

So that was the best of 2010. Let’s see what 2011 has to offer us!

Claire Denis’ newest film, “White Material”, takes place in an unnamed African country destroyed by civil war. Its main character, Marie Vial, is a white woman whose family has been living in Africa for generations. They own a coffee plantation, which is going into ruins since all the employees have fled the area. Marie refuses to leave the land she was born in since she rejects the idea of there being any real danger in the area and tries to desperately save the plantation. She denies the increasing danger and threats towards her family and denies that the violent fights between rebels and the country’s military are spinning out of control. This results in a series of tragic events which causes Marie to lose everything she has.

The film starts with a gang of militant black young men setting a house on fire and locking the doors, letting a white man inside burn to his death. It then cuts to Marie trying to get the employees at the plantation to stay. As the story unfolds, we find out who the man in the burning house was and why he was killed so brutally. We also get to see Marie doing the best she can to save her plantation, in which she has worked in all her life. This film, like many other great independent films, uses the dogma style of filming. The film also leaves out basic facts like the name of the country the plot takes place in and why the civil war has broken out. It also does not tell us much about the unnamed country’s past. Denis is fairly clever for doing this, for it feels more like her film is speaking to developing countries in general, instead of only talking about the experiences of one single land. It is shown, though, that the continent is Africa, where the rebels not only cause suffering and pain on their fellow man, but also cause a form of “reverse-racism” towards the few non-rich whites that have been living in the country. Denis states here that all forms of discrimination do take place in the world, sadly enough.

Even if the film has empathy for Marie and her family, it also condemns her. She is shown as naïve and righteous. Though she does treat blacks as equal and pays good money to work there, Marie is unable to sympathize with their growing fear of the rebels. Naïve and blinded, Marie finds the whole situation only a contemporary “uneasiness”, even if all the facts and signs point to the complete opposite. Marie is not a person you like, but you do feel sorry for her. For she is actually a hard worker, and has a strong passionate love for the country she lives in. You could say that her love for the country “blinds her”. A typical problem a privileged white person living in Africa might have…

The climax of the film leaves the viewer in a state of shock. I won’t tell you what happens, but I will say that the ending was heart-breaking yet perfect for this film.

Claire Denis

“Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame” (2007) is a film by the young Iranian born Hana Makhmalbah. Makhmalbah made her first break through with the documentary “Joy of Madness”, which was about her sister’s Samira Makhmalbah’s work with the film “Five in the afternoon” (S. Makhmalbah directed it). “Joy of Madness” premiered at Venice Film festival in 2003. “Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame” is her second film, for which she traveled to Afghanistan to make (she was living in Sweden at the time she made this film). The language spoken in the film is Persian.

Hana Makhmalbah
Hana Makhmalbah

“Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame” tells the story of a very young, ambitious girl who wants to go to school so she can learn how to read. She sells eggs cheaply to be able to afford a notebook. Since she can’t afford a pen, she takes her mother’s lipstick and heads out to find the school. While trying to find the school, she is unfortunate enough to meet some ruthless boys who are playing “Taliban”. They discover that she has make-up on her, leading to them labeling her as a “appalling woman” and sentence her to be stoned to death.

Nearly all of the actors in this movie are children. The little girl, played by Nikbakht Noruz, is wonderful as a curious child who won’t stop fighting till she’s reached her goal. Her innocent, raw ambition is crushed by fierce bullies. Her lines are simple, but honest, which makes it easy for the viewer to get to know her and feel for her. The boys playing the bullies are good as well. The boys portray children that are imitating adults, learning the horrible behavior from what they see their elders do. By showing how these boys pick on the little girl, Makhmalbah gives us a good idea of how women were treated under the Taliban regime without showing us any gore or extreme violence.

The title of the film is a reference to the Buddha statues the Taliban’s blew up. The film starts with showing a clip where they blow up the statues. During the film, the young boys mention that “we blew him up, this is where he was” while pointing at a pile of rocks. So it turns out that they are playing where the Buddha statues used to be. The clip shown in the beginning is re-shown at the end before the credits roll. The films focus on the Buddha statues can be seen as a symbol of beauty and knowledge that is crushed by the tyrants. The Buddha statues were a work of art, made by talented ambitious humans that were destroyed by the tyranny of the Taliban. The little girl seems to have the same kind of sad fate as the statues; she has talents and ambition, but is crushed and destroyed by the bullies.

This movie is perhaps the best ones dealing with Afghanistan’s situations. It is a heart-breaking story of child-like innocence lost in a dark, unfair world.

Looking back at last year…

I don’t know about anybody else, but this year’s upcoming movies don’t seem very exciting to me. None of the movies that come out 2010 have seemed very good to me, which is a pity since last year’s production was wonderful. 2009 was a good year for movies.

I’ll list the three best, in my opinion, movies of last year. I’ll start with my least favorite to my absolute favorite, with an explanation of why the movie was so good.

3)  — The Princess and the frog by Ron Clements and John Musler – this is Disney’s newest hand-drawn film. It is based very loosely on the Grimm’s fairy tale “The frog prince”. It tells the story of Tiana, a young ambitious woman living in New Orleans. She dreams of owning her own restaurant, but despite her hard work that dream is far from coming true. When she meets a frog who claims to be a prince under a spell, she agrees to give him a kiss to turn him back into a prince for a load of money. Things don’t go as planned; the kiss results in the prince staying a frog and Tiana turning into a frog.

This movie had a lot of things that were nice and fun. The first being the characters. The prince, Naveen, is one of the few Disney princes that actually have a personality – and a really strong, well-developed one at that. Naveen is your typical frat boy, who loves partying but hates having to work in any way. It is easy to laugh at Naveen, but you can’t help but to like him. He matures throughout the movie and even admits that he has been a hopeless case. Tiana, the main heroine, is also a great character. She is a modern, strong woman with a big heart. She is also the one who defeats the villain in the end!

Dr. Faculier, aka. “The Shadow man”, is this movies incredibly villain. He is a voodoo magician who wishes to take over all of New Orleans. This is one of the coolest, neatest and actually interesting villains Disney has had in years. Dr. Faculier is a smart, cunning villain who even gives hints of why he has become the way he has. He also does look a little scary in certain scenes. And he gets his own, awesome song!

Another thing that was great about the movie was the story of the movie is entertaining and fun. It is a real feel good movie. And it’s nice to see a kid’s movie that takes place in an area with overwhelming population of African-Americans.

The third thing I liked about the movie was the animation. It was elegant and beautiful. You could really tell the animators tried their best to please the viewer. I thank them for that.

2) — “District 9” by Neil Blomcamp, Peter Robert Gerber and Simon Hansen – this was by far the best science fiction movie to come out since 2000. It is a harsh, vicious portrayal of human cruelty. The story takes place in Johannesburg, where a spaceship has landed and its passengers have been forced into ghettos. The aliens are hated and feared, they are controlled and used. The movies protagonist, Wikus Van de Merwe, is a man who gets the opportunity to lead the removal of the aliens from the ghetto they live in to a much worse slum area where they are not expected to survive long in. During his mission he comes in contact with some mysterious liquid that starts to turn him into one of the aliens. Do to this transformation, he gets kidnapped by the military and witnesses the horrible experiments done on the aliens. He escapes, only to be forced to work with the alien Christopher and his son for a chance to be turned back into a human again.

Neil Blomkamp, who not only has done most of the directing but also done most of the writing, has said that he has based most of the films happenings on his childhood memories of the Apartheid. That comes of no surprise. “District 9” is a clear attack on xenophobia and prejudice, on the vicious treatment “different” kind of people get. It is a cleverly done film; it is half mockumentary, aka fake-documentary, half-action film and half- political commentary (which in this movie adds up to more than one movie – in this case). Everything is filmed with a gritty feeling and spares us no gross details. The film also is able to get the viewer to sympathize and cry for the aliens despite there at first frightening appearance. There were times I had to close my eyes due to the cruelty done by humans. Christopher, the main alien, is a brilliantly designed and developed character. He acts just like your typical every-man, yet looks like a sea-creature.  Wonderful!!

Also strangely and thoroughly enjoyable is the open ending of the movie. It allows the viewer to decide for him or herself what will happen next.

1) — “Fish Tank” by Andrea Arnold (directed as well as written) – I find this movie to be the best movie of 2009. It is one of the few movies that gives a fair voice to abused and/or neglected young adults. It is also a brilliant portrayal of an outcast of society. The main character is Mia, a fifteen year old girl who is neglected by her mother, thrown out of school and has fallen out of her friends cycles. Nobody seems to really care about Mia, who finds comfort only in dancing and listening to Hip Hop. When her mother brings home a new boyfriend, Mia seems to have found someone she can talk to. Mia becomes very attached to the man. Too attached.

“Fish Tanks” has a “dirty realism” feel to it. Nothing about life is idealized; people are complex creatures with plenty of faults, the living areas are messy and the major conflict’s in life isn’t always resolved. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t hope; Mia is a strong girl and is able to find a way to change her life. The filming style of the film is very “dogmatic”: shaking cameras bleach colors etc. This makes the film feel realistic.

Andrea Arnold is a promising new woman director. She’s made one film before “Fish Tank”, “Red Road”, which I haven’t seen yet. She’s also made three short films, which are nearly impossible to find, but which have been highly acclaimed. Judging from “Fish Tank”, I’ll say that Arnold has a perfect feel of harsh reality and human drama. If you haven’t seen this touching coming-of-age film, I recommend that you see it immediately!

See more pictures at the end of this page!