Movies Make the World Go Round

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Penelope Cruz in Pedro Almodóvar’s 21st film, Pain and Glory, described as his best in years.

Movies screened locally don’t seem to be what they used to be, but perhaps we’re just spoilt for choice with better television and streaming possibilities. DIANE DE BEER spotlights an exceptional European Film Festival:

For those who miss the Almodóvars, haven’t seen the latest Gavin Hood, Official Secret, and simply want to get a handle on some of the issues truly rocking the world today, a ten-day feast of award-winning films are up for grabs as the European Film Festival celebrates its 6th edition in South Africa.

The festival will be held simultaneously at Cinema Nouveau theatres in Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town from Friday November 29 to December 8.

Issues seem to be the driving force and it is fascinating to see how an overwhelming crisis like refugees is being dealt with by filmmakers, for example.

Representing Austria, Styx tells the story of the transformation of a woman sailor when she becomes the only person to come to the aid of a group of refugees shipwrecked on the high seas.

She is in fact on her way to fulfilling a longtime dream to sail alone to Ascension Island to experience a Darwinian experiment of natural plant and animal life.

Things don’t go as expected and she is  caught in a refugee crisis as she finds herself in the proximity of a boat with 100 people about to drown.

Naturally she would save them but the odds on a yacht made for one is certain death, for herself included. The next best thing is of course to alert the authorities or boats in the vicinity to the crisis.

It’s hair-raising stuff but beautifully crafted as it captures the crisis of one caring individual who hopes to make a difference – but on a larger scale, it also encapsulates the world we live in right now.

The carefully curated festival is packed with Oscar-nominated and multi-award-winning films from twelve countries including Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

System Crasher is Germany’s choice for next year’s Oscars. It is a debut film for the director and the title refers to a child who breaks all the rules. Benni (a fantastic performance by Helena Zengel) is an angelic-looking nine-year-old who swings wildly from an innocent waif to a violent wild child that has everyone around her perplexed and unable to reach her.

It is the story of one child so  severely traumatised by rejection that anything sets her off in a way that not only harms herself but also those around her. It’s tough to watch yet beautifully told and acted, not giving any easy solutions yet pointing to the dangers of neglect and how that can impact not only the life of one child but a whole community.

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Director’s muse Joanna Kulig (with Tomasz Koz blurred and to the side) in Cold War Picture: Zimna Wojna

Cold War, a passionate love story between a music director and a young singer, is perhaps an antidote  to some of the harsh yet compelling issues some of the other films represent. But as the title suggests, this is no walk in  the park – perhaps a doomed love affair (or not) exquisitely presented.

After all, Pawel Pawlikowski’s extraordinary black and white masterpiece (following the success of Ida, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 2015) grabbed the Best Director prize at Cannes before earning three Oscar nominations at the Academy Awards in 2019, and another five European Film Awards before that.

This is a couple who struggle to stay together but simply can’t leave one another alone. It is the director’s love letter to his parents, a love affair that was less enchanting to be a part of, and he has cast two astonishing actors, Joanna Kulig (also starring in Ida) and Tomasz Kot to star in this personal tale.

The highly awarded Girl, from Flanders in Belgium, tells the story of 15-year-old Lara who dreams of becoming a ballerina. More importantly, this is a transgender story with Lara who was born into the body of a boy, undergoing treatment in preparation for gender reassignment surgery. Her ambitions are heady taking into consideration everything she has to deal with.

Added to that, she is being raised by her father with a four-year-old brother who falls mostly under her care. The film illustrates some of the tough challenges she faces with a changing body and in addition, one that hasn’t been built for the challenges of being a ballerina.

There has been some controversy about the film because neither the director, writer or actor are transgender, which has been criticised. I think this is going to be a personal decision, but for me, the film took pains to be informative, to show the tough transition for Lara and usually, because of the people around her.

Her choices make it difficult because while her doctor advises her not to focus on her body during this part of the transition, more than anything that’s what dancers do and have to do. They are surrounded by mirrors and beautiful bodies all day long. Even though she is living in a time where transgender is more accepted, that doesn’t do diminish the deliberate daily cruelty by others.

This is not a world where the “other” is accepted. Why should transgender be different? As if it isn’t tough enough. But that’s who we are as a society and that won’t change soon.

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The Swedish documentary about housing with Lehani Farha.

Again stepping into a completely different world, Push is a Swedish-made documentary that is all about the world we live in today and harrowing is the best way to describe it. But I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

It follows Leilani Farha, the UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, as she travels the globe, trying to understand who’s being pushed out of cities and why. What she discovers is how global finance is fuelling the worldwide housing crisis while making cities unaffordable to live in: “There’s a huge difference between housing as a commodity and gold as a commodity. Gold is not a human right, housing is.”

And that truly says it all. But what she finds is that the largest real estate equity firm in the world, Blackstone, is behind many of the disastrous housing projects she is investigating. “It’s like a world where you are fishing for fools,” is how the dilemma of taking advantage of the powerless is described by a participant.

What has happened in this past decade is that housing, especially for the poor, has been viewed as a commodity rather than a home. Sweden, for example, which has always been viewed as having housing systems to be proud of, falls in the same trap because someone is making money. Sound familiar? It’s not that one wants to wallow in someone else’s misery, but it does help to understand what is happening in the rest of the world. We’re not the only citizens who found ourselves living in a fool’s paradise. Check it out, it’s compulsive viewing.

These five above are the only ones I have personally watched but there are quite a few I will be adding to my viewing list:

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Young and old women are the heroes, villains and victims in The Vice of Hope

*Les Misérables, which won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2019 and then picked up Best International Feature Film at the Durban International Film Festival in July, is inspired by the Paris riots of 2005. Witnessed first-hand by director Ladj Ly, the film revolves around three members of an anti-crime brigade who are overrun while trying to make an arrest.  It has been selected as the French entry for the Best Foreign Film for the 2020 Oscars.

*Set against a housing crisis in Dublin, the Irish film Rosie is a riveting account of a remarkable woman trying to protect her loved ones and maintain their dignity when they lose their home.

*Women are the heroes, villains and victims in The Vice of Hope, a social drama about poverty, African immigration, human trafficking and the surrogacy business in towns around Naples (Italy).

*One would be silly to miss Oscar-winner Pedro Almodóvar’s 21st film described as his best in years. Pain and Glory won two awards at Cannes 2019 and features two of his favourite stars -Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz – in this semi-autobiographical narrative that tells of a series of re-encounters experienced by a film director in physical decline, and his need to recover meaning and hope. Pain and Glory is Spain’s entry for next year’s Academy Awards.

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Keira Knightly in Official Secrets.  Picture: Nick Wall

*The UK’s participant in this year’s festival is Official Secrets, directed by South African Gavin Hood, who won an Oscar with Tsotsi  in 2005. Based on true events, Official Secrets tells the story of Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley), a British intelligence specialist who leaks a memo in which the US enlists Britain’s help in collecting compromising information on United Nations Security Council members in order to blackmail them into voting in favour of an invasion of Iraq.

See http://www.eurofilmfest.co.za/ for detailed synopses, trailers and links to the screening schedule and ticket bookings.

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