Tuesday 12th June 2018
The Distant Barking of Dogs, 2017, dir. Simon Lereng Wilmont (Denmark, Finland, Sweden)
This is another film in this year’s festival lineup that exposed me to something I didn’t really know anything about. It is a documentary about the lives on one small family, Alexandra and her grandson Oleg, living in East Ukraine near the border with Russia where armed conflict is raging. The film follows the family trying to live a normal life in this place that has been nearly abandoned because of the danger of missiles flying overhead and falling nearby.
Whilst I was aware of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, seeing it through the eyes of innocent bystanders, through children for whom this is both scary and just a part of their lives, and a grandmother fearing for the safety and the future of her grandson, was something else entirely. Every aspect of this family’s life is impacted by the conflict. What is normal for them are things that wouldn’t cross my mind as part of my daily life. The children are taught in school what to do and where to go if there is an invasion or a bomb hits the town, they play outside but are also keeping track of how close the gunfire is in case it becomes too close and they must run home. They bunk out in the basement when the bombing gets too close and too intense. Despite all this though, the heart of the film is the family. Oleg and his cousin Yarik maintain a close bond and get up to all the same shenanigans and hijinks that boys on the cusp of adolescence would normally. And then there is Alexandra, trying to maintain her family and raise Oleg after his mother is killed and then Yarik once his mother has also fled the warzone. Aesthetically it’s a little cold but its heart is so warm.
This film is a little bleak but it’s also moving in its depiction of how family remains even when there is little else. It was also an important showcase of what these people are going through in this part of the world. Would definitely recommend this one.
One Day, 2018, dir. Zsófia Szilágyi (Hungary)
This film would be a neat companion to Jason Reitman’s latest, Tully. One Day is, as it says on the tin, one day in the life of a middle-class Hungarian woman (Zsófia Szamosi) with three small children, two who have school and extracurriculars to attend, and a toddler that is ill, her sink is broken, she is about to lose significant shifts at her day job and on top of all of this, she has just discovered her husband has been cheating on her. There is no twists and turns in this plot, it is simply an invitation to try to understand just what it takes to be a working mother.
This film is, put simply, magnificent. If the set up for the plot sounded like a lot of shit piling on one woman, it is, but this is not unusual for any women I know (apart from hopefully the cheating partner) whether they have children or not. It’s really important I think to have a film showing that. It almost functions and flows like a thriller, something the director Zsófia Szilágyi discussed as developing through the process of making the film. It was not the intention, but seemed to reflect what this kind of woman’s life is actually like. It’s excellently shot, the framing constantly providing a sense of the stress and claustrophobia. Zsófia Szamosi is astonishing, conveying this constant sense of exhaustion and frustrating but also balancing that with the very evident love for her children.
I would highly recommend this film, with its somewhat bold depiction of motherhood that reminds us that it’s not sunshine and roses and adorable children. Sometimes it’s really hard and exhausting and I think it’s important to show that and remind women that they’re not alone if that’s how they’re feeling. It’s also just a real triumph of filmmaking. Keep your peepers peeled for this.
The Ancient Woods, 2017, Mindaugas Survila (Lithuania, Estonia, Germany)
Imagine a David Attenborough special but without David Attenborough. It’s blasphemy I know but imagine, rather than having someone explain what’s going on, you simply observe. That is what’s happening in this film. It’s the purest form of nature documentary, in which nature speaks for itself.
The director himself is a biologist and his care and respect for nature is clear in every frame and sound in this film, it’s palpable. Survila spent ten years gathering the footage for this film and it’s so detailed and delicate and well put together that it doesn’t matter how experimental the film is, it’s still just as interesting. The animals become like characters that are fascinating to watch, one particular that comes to mind is a pair of acorn collecting squirrels that were shot in such an interesting way and were almost playful and funny. It’s a very calming film, and almost becomes meditiative with nothing but the sounds of the forest and its inhabitants to guide you through the film. It’s a really beautiful experience.
Fair warning for anyone looking to watch this film to do it on enough sleep. I was a little exhausted this day and it was my third film that day so by a third of the way through it I was starting to feel myself becoming really tired. This is not a detriment to the film, it is just so calming to watch that it had lulled me into a really zen place, but given being already tired this was not necessarily helpful for me. I would definitely recommend seeing it if you can, it’s something completely different and absolutely beautiful but yes, get some sleep first. Or go if you just need to zone out and relax for a bit. Or if you really love animals. This is absolutely the film for you.
Matangi / Maya / M.I.A, 2018, Stephen Loveridge (UK, USA, Sri Lanka)
M.I.A was only vaguely familiar to me before I saw this, I remember one track of hers I think from when I was younger, Paper Planes, but I knew nothing about who she was, or what she had done. Thus this film was like a brand new story to me and a fascinating one at that.
The film, obviously, is about the rapper M.I.A or Matangi ‘Maya’ Arulpragasam, a Sri Lankan Tamil who immigrated with her family (minus her father who was a leader in the Tamil resistance back in Sri Lanka) to London when she was a small child. This could have easily become like any other pop star/musician documentary but M.I.A’s story required more that that. Loveridge supplements his documentary footage of Maya, living her more pop star life later on with footage that Maya herself took when she was younger and aspiring to be a documentary filmmaker. A significant part of this footage is from when she herself travelled back to Sri Lanka to document the war there and what living as a Tamil was like. We see footage of her family back home and her own testimonials about her experiences living there. This footage is woven throughout the film and serves as a strong context for her activism that we see later in her life as her platform grew. These segments are admittedly, far stronger than the documentary footage taken of her rather than by her. However in these we do see her passion as an artist and a human as well as an activist for her people’s struggles. We see her be dismissed because she is just a pop star, and more dangerously because she is a woman of colour, but she does not let this silence her. She is brazen and unapologetic. The film does not solely focus on her politics but also provides a picture of a woman out there living her life precisely as she wants to and it was admirable.
In the particular social and political context we are living in at the moment I think films like this are key. I know people get their knickers in a twist about pop stars and actors or whatever putting their two cents in about politics but lets not forget that art has always either reflected or challenged power. Artists have opinions and feelings same as everyone else but the difference is they have a platform to voice them in a constructive way. M.I.A shows us how this can be done, how to use a platform to speak openly about issues that everyone else is ignoring. It was admirable to watch.