Archive for March, 2013

‘One love’ – Jamaica’s foremost social mantra and a phrase populated around the world by Bob Marley. The phrase expresses with simplicity the values of universal love & respect for all people. However, as Selena Blake’s raw and direct documentary Taboo Yardies argues, the mantra doesn’t count in Jamaica if you are gay.

Homosexuality in Jamaica is an almost unbearable taboo for the general public. For those who are gay themselves, it is virtually imperative that they should hide their sexual orientation or risk social exclusion, beatings and even corrective rape. Blake highlights this bitter reality using first hand (and often harrowing) testimonials, video footage of beatings and interviews with experts and authorities including psychologists and Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding.

While the film’s construction is crude and basic (an awkward frame, or a Rode microphone placed in shot), Blake delves deep into the issue exploring the problems of homophobia at multiple levels. As well as presenting evidence of severe homophobia, she looks to possible causes of homophobia in Jamaican culture. Taboo Yardies explores how lack of education, dogmatic religious attitudes and the state contribute to fostering a culture of homophobia.

The vast range of footage that Blake assembles is almost overwhelming, but highly reveling. Blake interviews one woman (face blurred), who recounts having been ostracised by everyone including her own mother and sexually assaulted by men in her community. The interview is particularly harrowing, as the contributor can be seen flicking an elastic band against her fingers throughout: an easily accessible method of self-harm. Blake moves the camera towards her arms where we can see numerous slash marks from razor blades and she admits that she has attempted suicide several times.

In contrast the comments made by Prime Minister Bruce Golding are out of touch with the reality of suffering from homophobia. Golding talks extensively to Blake and considers the “philosophical argument” of personal freedom, but returns ultimately to rhetoric relating homophobia to pedophilia and bestiality. Golding’s outlook is unwaveringly conservative and this is an attitude that Blake also attributes to the government following his departure from office.

At its heart Taboo Yardies highlights the disconnect between human rights and the religious rooted institutional view of morality in Jamaica. If the government truly understood the impact of homophobia on the lives of people such as the woman with the elastic band, then perhaps they would think differently about how to deal with the issue. While Taboo Yardies is a rough and imperfect piece of filmmaking, it could be a real instrument for social change.

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When Mexican auteur Carlos Reygadas’ new film premiered at Cannes last year, it was apparently greeted with a chorus of boos. His previous films, Japon, Battle in Heaven and Silent Light had found favour with critics and he was often mentioned alongside film makers such as Andrei Tarkovsky and Terrence Malick. However, for many critics Reygadas had taken his distinctive brand of art cinema to new esoteric heights. He recently responded in a hostile and defensive manner, labelling critics (most likely the particular ones at Cannes) as hooligans. So with all the furore surrounding it, how does the actual film shape up?

Post Tenebras Lux has an unusual, somewhat sprawling narrative. While the central pull of the film revolves around a bourgeois Mexican family living in a rural community, the narrative flickers from one abstract setting to the next. In the opening scene we see the young daughter of the family wandering through a field of cows, full of apocalyptic threat. In the next scene a silent house is trespassed by a glowing, animated devil-like figure, observing the inhabitants in an eerie fashion. By this point the audience has realised they need to alter their perceptions of what they think is going to happen from scene to scene, and just follow where Reygadas takes us.

The family is made up of Juan (Adolfo Jiménez Castro) and Natalia (Nathalia Acevedo), a married couple, and their two young children. They have a strange relationship with their local community, an impoverished, mountainous place populated by misfits and those stricken of luck. As a wealthy and superficially prosperous unit, they are at odds with the earthy residents, yet make the odd visit into the shady local bar, or the crude support group shack they have set up. Domestically, things are not at all harmonious; Juan is brash and demanding, possessing a violent restlessness that manifests itself in internet pornography and lashing out at the family dogs. Natalia struggles to keep the family together, and has her own wants and desires to nurture. Their relationship is at breaking point.

The film is an aesthetic marvel. In his previous films Reygadas announced himself as a master of landscapes and faces, evoking the otherworldly images found in Tarkovsky’s work. This time Reygadas has chosen to shoot the film in a way that leaves the edges of the frame with a soft edge, as if the audience is looking through beer goggles. It’s a strange technique but it works, giving the visuals a woozy feeling. The sound design also plays a strong part, with both the crackle and boom of the frequent thunder storms and the rustle of the reeds in the nearby river. Nature has played a vital role in Reygadas’ work, mirroring the turmoil of the protagonists, and here it is no different.

Post Tenebras Lux is Reygadas’ most challenging film yet, but one I enjoyed for it’s distinct exoticism and unpredictability. His previous films had a strong moral foundation which has been clouded somewhat here in the abstract narrative, but there is still a strong hint of redemption as a possible theme. As well as the striking visuals, the film possesses an unusual boldness to experiment and  surprise the audience. Many will find the elliptical, wayward plotting infuriating, but I loved the way Reygadas changed tack from scene to scene, each new image a visual delight with a different tension. Reygadas remains one of the most exciting directors working today.

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Pier Paulo Pasolini was an Italian film maker and poet most famous for works such as The Gospel According to Matthew, Arabian Nights and the controversial Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom. These films were a strange mix of the earthy and naturalistic with splashes of the poetic and exotic. Working in the 60’s and 70’s, he was a controversial figure in Italy both for his open homosexuality and his political activity, with flirtations with the Communist party and constant condemnation of what he considered the ‘bourgeoisie’. In 1975 he was brutally murdered in Ostia, outside Rome. The circumstances surrounding his death are still debated to this day.

Director Cathy Lee Crane has created a filmic collage of the year leading up to Paolini’s death using a mixture of reconstructions, documentary footage, photographs and the auteur’s own words. The film details his fight against the political right in Italy and his observance of a breakdown in society, his sexuality and his work as a film maker. The focus on his films is mostly on his debut Accattone!, although there are references to his final film Salo. The documentary maker creates a vivid portrait of a complex artist with a strong moral foundation.

The film has a dreamy, poetic quality, which is mostly down to the elliptical editing and Pasolini’s graceful, thoughtful ruminations. The director chooses to reconstruct some of the scenes of Accattone! which seems like a slightly pointless exercise, and some of the other narrations come across as overly portentous, but most of Cathy Lee Crane’s experiments work well. The director has eschewed a typical documentary biopic in favour of a more experimental bent, which fits in with Pasolini’s body of work.

Although Pasolin’s Last Words is a compelling and hypnotic depiction of Pasolini’s last year, you get the feeling that there is much more to explore in Pasolini’s life. This documentary feels like a juicy taster for a more rounded and complete documentary of Pasolini’s life and career, stretching from his earlier days. Pasolin’s Last Words is an accomplished film for viewers already familiar with the late Italian’s work, and ready to explore the man in a more meditative manner.

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White Night is one part of a loose trilogy of films about male desire by South Korean director Hee-il Leesong. The director, who also wrote the film, is carving out a small reputation as a film maker with a focus on queer issues. This feature is loosely based around a real life hate crime that happened in Jong-No, where the film is set. Won Gyu (Won Tae Hee) is a gay airline steward back in his native South Korea for the day, and is keen to embark on old and new sexual experiences. We meet an ex-lover, evidently embittered by their break up, and sore from the mysterious circumstances surrounding Won Gyu’s departure.

Next up we see Won Gyu attempt to hook up with Tae-Jun (Yi Yi-kyung), a repressed courier eager to meet up with his online crush. It is a clear clash of personalities from the start; Tae-Jun is looking for a more meaningful interaction, while Won Gyu is only after a quick fuck in a public toilet. When their fumbling encounter ends up in farcical territory, Won Gyu attempts to blackmail Tae-Jun into seeing out the night with him – he doesn’t want to be alone in the few hours before his next flight. They sit down to tea at a local bar, and that is when Won Gyu sees an unwelcome face from the past. This is the encounter that stirs violent memories of Won Gyu’s time in Jong-No, and leads the two lovers into a dangerous night…

White Night is essentially a two hander between Won Gyu and Tae Jun, a distorted romance and a character study of two alienated souls. Both have had to deal with hostility to their sexuality, but each has chosen a different way of responding to it; Won Gyu fleeing from place to place, never stopping to think, while Tae Jun seeks to hide himself from harm. Although the film makes a left turn into revenge drama territory,  Hee-il Leesong keeps the focus on the two characters journeys.

Won Tae Hee and Yi Yi-kyung are both fine as the odd couple lovers, giving understated performances that quietly move the audience rather than shriek for their attention. The film is shot in a leisurely, unobtrusive fashion in the vein of fellow Korean Lee Chang Dong, although eschewing his touches of light surrealism. There are little dabs of folk and ambient music to soundtrack the city streets, although not much to make an impression. Although the idea of an odd couple seeking revenge for a hate crime is fresh and original one, the film is perhaps too sedate to make an impression. At only 75 minutes it is a relatively short feature, but even so Hee-il Leesong fluffs up the film with endless long takes of characters smoking and looking ruefully into the distance. This, as discerning viewers may note, is perhaps the last resort for art house film makers with a dearth of ideas.

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Originally banned in its native country, Jayan Cherian’s Papilio Buddha is a fierce attack on caste oppression, mainstream Gandhism and environmental degradation in the Western Ghats of India. Uncompromising in its critique of iconic Indian leaders and treatment of indigenous and landless Dalit peoples (known as ‘untouchables’ for their ostracised status), this is a radically anti-establishment piece of filmmaking, with a raw & accomplished naturalistic style.

In spite of its radical outlook, the film begins poetically with protagonist Shankaran (Sreekumar Sree) hunting for butterflies among the mountains; he is at one with nature. Soon after he meets gay American Jack (David Briggs) and it turns out the two men are romantically involved. While to the displeasure of Shankaran’s elderly father, homosexuality is of little consequence among this Dalit community.

Unhappy with the presence of an American among the Dalits though, the Indian authorities force Jack to leave the community (telling him the Dalits are terrorists and squatters), before stripping and torturing Shankaran in prison. Simultaneously Manjursee (Saritha), a female schoolteacher, Buddhist and auto rickshaw driver, runs into trouble with men outside of the Dalit community. The community is angered and dedicate themselves to Buddhism as a response.

Lensed with a pensive camera style, Cherian adorns the film with Buddhist emblems, which transition from having a spiritual significance to a political one. The image of Buddha returns in significant scenes, accompanying moments of peace, eroticism and violence. When Manjursee is sexually assaulted and her rickshaw set alight, the Buddha remains prominent among the flames; it represents a defiant hope for the struggling community.

Cherian uses the image of Gandhi (which the Dalits actively mock) to represent the way in which his legacy is used to justify wrongs in modern Indian society. In one scene a prominent group of Gandhists, accompanied by the army, try to persuade the Dalits to move from their land peacefully; they are followed by a media mob. The scene represents the inequitable voice of influence presented by the Indian media, as the Dalits are manipulated to look unholy and fundamentalist.

To a non-Indian viewer Papilio Buddha is a particularly challenging experience, for the rich detail of its cultural backdrop. It is a film that looks so radically upon this particular political, religious, social and cultural environment, that it cannot be judged fully by an outsider. However, it is a film made with such symbolic vigor that it cries to be seen. Cherian’s visual sensibility is also one unfamiliar in mainstream Indian cinema, making for a film of great visual worth.

Finally the film makes a strong statement about the livelihood of the Dalits and the very landscape of India. As a group of the dispossessed travel through the mountainous regions on foot, Cherian frames them in wide shots of the decaying landscape. Moving beyond the political and ideological symbolism of Papilio Buddha momentarily, the director suggests in powerful terms that oppression of the Dalit peoples and the destruction of the natural world is one and the same.

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Les Invisibles is an entertaining, alluringly scenic, but structurally loose documentary exploring the lives of a group of gay men and women born between World War I & II, by  filmmaker Sébastien Lifshitz (Come Undone, Wild Side).

The film unveils an extraordinary cast of characters. They are extraordinary not only for the role they played in transforming the world into one tolerant of homosexuality, but for the sheer strength of their personalities. The film opens with a humorously touching scene between Yann & Pierre, a couple of deeply contrasting personalities who have found harmony living in rural France. The scene sets the tone for the film, which develops its visual tableau of rural sights and sounds as each new interview emerges.

It is this setting for the series of interviews compiled by Lifshitz that solidifies the central consideration: that homosexuality is indeed a part of nature.  The best example of this is goat farmer Pierrot, an utterly remarkable man with an extraordinarily vivid sexual history. A similar younger man might be judged as promiscuous, but this seems an inappropriate term here; this is a man who has lived life to the full through and with his numerous partners.

But the film is not limited to the natural experience of sexuality. The politics of sex are, quite naturally, a prominent force. Represented largely by the women Therese and Monique we learn how these individuals helped push women’s rights on a wider level (including the pro-choice debate), regardless of sexual orientation.

At just under two hours Les Invisibles feels occasionally lacking in narrative drive, as it relies on the strength of the interviews to sustain the duration. However, the film’s loose construction never undermines the massive importance of the material and the utterly endearing cast of characters, making for a truly memorable and affecting work.

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Accenture Gala film Out In The Dark is a timely drama of race and sexuality set on the turbulent border between Palestine and Israel. Debut feature director Michael Mayer crafts an engaging but not entirely radical critique of the lacking ability to accept in both Israeli and Palestinian culture.

Nimr (Nicolas Jacob) is a young gay Palestinian man, who crosses the border to Tel Aviv to meet friends in Israeli gay bars, which prove more accepting towards Palestinians than wider Israeli society. One night Nimr meets Roy (Michael Aloni), a young and successful Israeli lawyer who works for his father and the two rapidly fall for each other.

Nimr’s homosexuality remains a secret in his native Palestine where he lives with his seemingly moderate Muslim family. Nimr’s family believe that his travels to Tel Aviv are exclusively for the purpose of his education (he is a budding psychologist), but when they discover his additional motive their caring outlook immediately transforms into one of stone cold conservatism. The family eject Nimr out of shame, according to the wishes of his radical brother Nabil (Jameel Khouri.)

Though the film crew was intentionally assembled from both Israelis and Palestinians, Out In The Dark feels limited in its portrayal of its characters on both sides of the border. Jacob and Aloni do excellent work carrying off the central emotional dynamic, yet the peripheral characters border on stereotype. Nimr’s brother Nabil, a radical anti-Israeli, is villainised without a meaningful emotional context for his burgeoning violent behaviour (apart from the apparent lack of a father, which can only serve as a red herring.)

The exploitative Israeli security forces are represented as a similarly brutish force, as are the Israeli gangsters that Roy encounters as regular clients. However, by constructing villainous scapegoats for the ills of the respective societies, Out In The Dark opts to forgo a nuanced or brave perspective. Reading between the lines we know that the problems between Israel and Palestine are not to do with tough guys and gangsters, but a deep-seated racial and religious apartheid instead.

Ultimately though the film’s theme of ‘acceptance’ keeps the drama on track and we realise with regret how Nimr’s fate is destined to conclude. As long as fear presides over acceptance in a society, minorities like Nimr will continue to become lost souls; for that reason Out In the Dark’s final image speaks a timeless (& borderless) truth.

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The BFI London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival kicked off its exciting programme of films and events yesterday with Jeffrey Schwarz’s documentary I am Devine as the opening film.

I am Divine tells the story of Harris Glenn Milstead the iconic star of John Waters’ films including Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble and Hairspray. I am Divine examines Divine’s fruitful and frequently surprising career and features interviews with John Waters himself, as well as Divine’s mother, Village Voice film critic Michael Musto and many of Divine’s associates and co-stars.

Over the course of the festival we at Reflections will also be looking further afield to films from Israel (Out In The Dark), France (Les Invisibles), South Korea (White Night), Jamaica (Taboo Yardies), India (Papilio Buddha) and Iran to examine the breadth and depth of LGBT filmmaking in 2013.

The LLGFF also delves into critical moments of film history, with a focus on the late Italian auteur Pier Paolo Pasolini. The festival includes screenings of his controversial masterpiece Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom as well as the new documentary Pasolini’s Last Words and the panel discussion Queer Pasolini.

The festival is also hosting timely events including We Love David Bowie, which looks at David Bowie’s status as a queer icon, talks on Queer Screen Activism for younger people and Global Queer Space, which looks at the role of LGBT film on an international scale. Check back for more on the festival’s vibrant programme.

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rsz_shellpct20scottpct20grahamShell is the feature debut by fledgling writer-director Scott Graham. The film is an offshoot of one of Graham’s earlier shorts Native Son. Set in rural Scotland, it tells the story of Shell (Chloe Pirrie) and her father Pete (Joseph Mawle), who both work and live in an isolated petrol station by a hilly landscape. We learn that Shell’s mother left long ago, and the remaining pair lead a lonely, frustrated existence in the stark landscape. Shell makes pains to shower her father with love, preparing the meals and tending to the rare customers who stop by. Pete spends much of his time festering in his garage, repairing any cars that come his way. The film rarely moves out of this claustrophobic orbit.

In the perennially wintery conditions, with little respite, Shelly seems to act as some sort of ray of light to the (mostly male) clientele. Devoid of any attention and oppressed by their environment, a variety of men find solace in Shell’s feminine charms. This is one of the conflicts that fuels the film; Shelly’s ability to warm the deadest of hearts, juxtaposed against the repressed father lingering amongst the oil and metal. While the film isn’t overly explicit, it is clear that Pete has a need to control Shelly. He is desperately scared to lose her, yet knows that in his own way he has created some kind of prison for her. She is too devoted to leave him.

There is little real action to speak of in Shell, as much of the real drama seems to happen between the lines. Customers come and go, a city couple ask for help after striking a deer – but not much else. Graham seems much more focused on the smaller details of their life, and in that way it is a very introspective film. The DOP Yoliswa Gartig and Sound Designer Douglas MacDougall create an authentically icy environment. Gartig’s muted cinematography capturing the stark beauty, while MacDougall emphasising the rustle of the wind and the ominous clang of the garage. Aesthetically the film has much in common with Andrea Arnold’s films, ratcheting up the smaller sounds and images until they become oppressive and uncomfortable.

Pirrie and Mawle are both fine as the angst ridden pair, making the most of a thin script. The film as a whole, however, is much too tasteful. There are no surprises or things that make you look at the world in a different light; in fact, you leave the cinema feeling a little uninspired. There is no real drive to the film, just a series of sombre vignettes meandering towards the 90 minute mark. Some film makers have the ability to elevate the small or mundane to a higher plane, but the same couldn’t be said of Graham’s film. We don’t need any more British films lacking in drama, and most importantly, real imagination or inspiration. It’ so much easier to observe and report, but not that worthwhile in the long run.

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I give Soderbergh three years. Three years for him to put down the paintbrush and get back to film making again. Anyone who has read an interview with Soderbergh recently can attest to the fact that he is undergoing some silver screen existential crisis. This, Side Effectswill be his last proper film before he folds up the director’s chair. Cinema has become too stale for him. Canvas is the way forward. We’ll see, Steven, we’ll see.

If Side Effects is really his last film, then the eclectic auteur has gone out with a bang rather than a whimper. The Hollywood veteran has worked at a furious rate since his 1989 breakthrough Sex, Lies and Videotape, melding an inimitable career of highbrow blockbusters and arthouse experiments. No one has blurred the line so successfully between art and commerce in Hollywood the past 20 years or so. Soderbergh is a one off, so for him to announce his surrender is disappointing. Side Effects is perhaps a perfect encapsulation of Soderbergh’s strengths as a film maker, a devastating mix of cinematic thrills and probing social satire.

Rooney Mara plays Emily Taylor, a moderately achieving urbanite whose husband Martin (Channing Tatum) has just been released from prison for insider trading. A fledgling married couple, Emily struggles to adapt to the return of her husband, and resorts to suicidal flirtations in a cry for help. A meeting with suave English doctor Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) alerts her to the availability of Ablixa, a new anti-depressant that will apparently cue her woes. Dr. Banks, however, has ulterior motives for supplying Ablixa; a lucrative contract with the pharmaceutical company behind the drug leaves him eager to press the drug on new clients. The drug begins to work its wonders and Emily and Dr Banks are ecstatic- that is until things start to go dreadfully, devastatingly wrong.

Side Effects is one of those few films where it works much better if you know little about it. Scott Z Burn’s sparky, live wire script is as twisty as a drive down a Scottish highlands road. If you think you have a handle on where Side Effects is going, think again. While the first third succeeds as a psychological thriller in the Polanski vein, the final two acts change tact and move into another genre entirely and then back again. It is testament to Soderbergh and Burn’s talent that the story never loses focus or sags as the plot veers from one direction to the next. It is gripping from start to finish.

The blank beauty of Mara is utilised perfectly by Soderbergh, perfectly conveying the sense of despair that depression brings, while also hinting at something bubbling under the surface. Law, a much maligned actor, proves how talented he can be with the right role. His Dr Banks is eminently likeable, personable yet flawed. You get the sense that this is someone with high moral aspirations, but always a few fingertips away from grasping this moral ground. The film takes Banks to murky places, but his character never feels emotionally adrift from the audience. Tatum and Catherine Zeta Jones, as the creepy Dr Siebert, both give strong performances in smaller roles. You wonder why Zeta Jones hasn’t played the queen bitch role more often, as she excels here.

Side Effects also features a disorientating array of visuals, led by Peter Andrews (Soderbergh’s DOP alias). Never complacent, Soderbergh moves from muted greys to flushed reds from scene to scene, mirroring the disorientating effects of the drugs. A mixture of high and low angle shots add to the confusion, keeping the audience on their toes all the time. Thomas Newman’s tingly ambient score is like a quietly sinister lullaby floating through the film, contributing to the sense of dread. Soderbergh’s films have often been interesting sensory exercises and this is no different.

While there are moments when the audience’s plausibility meter is stretched to breaking point, Soderbergh always pulls it back. Side Effects performs perfectly as an exercise in the paranoid thriller genre, but it is also a film keen to deliver a message and keep the audience thinking for a few days. It touches on the financial crisis and the effect that has had on society, the pharmaceutical industry and even the judiciary system. It is definitely not just a pretty face. While the cinematic thrills and spills are the ones that grab you by the wrists, the message of moral responsibility will inevitably linger in the mind.

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