Tuya's marriage is a simply told and poignant Mongolian movie. Tuya is a shephard in a remote area, married to Baotier, who was crippled while trying to build the family a well. Life is so tough for Tuya trying to support her two children and husband that when her back gives out her sister-in-law suggests that she divorce Baotier so Tuya can find another man to support her and her children. Tuya complies but insists that Baotier stays with her. Meanwhile Shuya, Tuya's drunken next-door neighbour, has problems of his own: his wife keeps running off with other men but he can't bring himself to divorce her.
The film was billed as a 'quirky desert romantic comedy'. As comedies go, it was on the tragic side, but certainly the stream of suitors that arrive to court Tuya (and her reactions to them) were very funny. Tuya herself was a compelling character--strong, stubborn but with a big heart. Her love for Baotier is expressed in silence, both of them accepting but suffering from the impossibility of the circumstances. Baotier doesn't want to stand in Tuya's way, Tuya will not abandon him. The exploration of these stresses within the family unit made it more poignant than funny (for me, at least), but there was a gentle humour to it as well.
The cinematography was simple but the stark Mongolian steppes and the vibrant coloured clothing and furnishings make for some beautiful imagery. The only thing I didn't really like about it was the framing mechanism: the opening scene is a flash-forward which we return to at the end of the movie. I've never been a big fan of that device. We have more context for it the second time, sure, but there's no other resolution. So the movie lacked a little in terms of its resolution, but it also avoided being overly sentimental. The little touches of daily life--chasing the cat off the stove, Baotier playing the flute, the little girl playing with her plaits or rocking on her horse made it an intimate portrayal of rural Mongolian life.
Behind the Veil / Eve and Marilyn
A special program this year at MIFF is the presentation of a retrospective of documentary films from Magnum Photos, as it's the 60th anniversary of this prestigious photographic agency this year. I decided to go to at least one of the sessions, though I wasn't that drawn by many of them.
Eve and Marilyn was the first half of a double documentary session on the famous Magnum photographer Eve Arnold. In this documentary Eve was interviewed about her work with Marilyn Monroe--Marilyn evidently trusted and admired her as a photographer and Eve repaid this by allowing Marilyn to see the work she shot of her and to ask for photos she didn't like to be destroyed. Not all photographers were so gracious, and Eve discusses intelligently the morality of invading someone's privacy that she sees as an inevitable part of the photographic process. She was offended, for example, by the use of the photo of Marilyn in the morgue in one photographer's retrospective. But Eve admits that she used Marilyn as much as other photographers did--just as Marilyn obviously used them to promote the character that Marilyn had created. Eve came across as a fascinating and intelligent woman and she had a very high opinion of Marilyn, while also being acutely aware that there was a very troubled woman beneath the image she constructed. Eve suggests that Marilyn was happier in the early days when obviously playing a role ('Marilyn Monroe, movie star') but when this became a reality it was harder for her to live with the demands placed on her. She discussed Marilyn's blend of naivety and awareness, and what came through, as always, was Marilyn's amazing awareness of how to manipulate her own image. Arnold said she had an instinctive understanding of what the camera liked. She discussed the way that Marilyn 'thought tall' and would draw herself up out of her short stature to appear longer than she was, she'd inflate her breasts, curve her spine, toss her hair, etc. And Arnold was sure that it was all deliberate, but it was also very clever. Arnold was invited by Monroe to shoot her when singing happy birthday to the president, but she turned this gig down and regrets missing this opportunity to have worked with her one more time before her death.
The documentary is interspersed with shots from Arnold's collection--some amazing photography, which is why I chose this session. And it definitely made me think even more highly of Eve Arnold as a photographer.
The second half was a documentary by Arnold herself, Behind the veil, which shows life in the harem of a sheikh in Dubai in the late 1960s. It was quite slow and the film quality was not great since it was a copy of an original reel. Many of the insights into life were things we're now quite familiar with about the Muslim world. However, it also contains rare footage--obviously this level of access into a harem was very rare. And it also captures a society poised on the verge of change. It described Dubai as evolving through the years from a pirating port, to making its money through pearling or slaving, and now finally oil. The young sheikha is taught English and visits London, and she returns determined to become a doctor. Western nurses are teaching the women about modern childcare and the pill, and the face veils are becoming shorter and shorter. The (physical) Dubai of today is unrecognisable in this movie (the sheikh's traditional meeting room was about to be torn down and be rebuilt as an office block, the first time he would sit behind a desk). And obviously the cultural traditions have evolved, but it certainly brought home how recent this evolution was.
This was my miscalculation of the day. I thought the subject was interesting--shedding light on illegal immigration, but the execution wasn't brilliant and the reconstruction felt rather stilted. The documentary filmmaker had decided to take the path of having one of the survivors, Ai Qin, recreate her journey from rural China to the mudflats in north England, where they were stranded and where 24 of her fellow workers drowned. Ironically, I think it would probably have been more powerful (and interesting) as a traditional documentary. As it was, I was left with lots of unanswered questions. Certainly it did show the way that people smuggling involved lots of individuals--a chain of bullies, basically, who chipped off small profits for themselves, while handing over the bulk of the profit to their overlords. It also successfully showed the way that once caught in the system, there was no way out for those being smuggled. They had no power, no one to run to, and they could only rely on cajoling their bosses to find better work for them. Ai Qin, a single mother who had left in order to raise money for her son's future, refused to work in the 'massage' industry in London, and so got shifted around the food industry. She shared a tiny house with twelve other people, and when bullied by local English cockle workers, they decide to go out at night in conditions that 'ghosts' (English workers) wouldn't go out in. This led to their deaths. Their families are still struggling to pay off their debts (to moneylenders) and the English government refuses to help. In some ways I understand why, even though it's horrific. More to the point, for me, was what happened to those who orchestrated the people smuggling? What's being done to stop them? They seem like the real exploiters, and I've no idea how active the UK government (or any other European government) is in stopping the illegal immigration. I guess that's why I would have rather this was a straight documentary rather than a dramatisation, no matter how vivid it was. Still, at the very least, it made Australian neuroses about 'boat people' seem farcical. There's no way we face anywhere near the sort of endemic problem that European countries face. As an island nation, we're far more protected--people can't be nailed into compartments in trucks and driven in.
From the worst of the day, to the best... Once was a festival highlight. It's a modern Irish musical, and one of the most unexpectedly romantic movies I've seen in a long time. There's no way I'm going to be able to capture its simple beauty in words--I was just totally transported. I didn't know the musicians going in: Glen Hansard from Irish band The Frames and Marketa Irglova, a Czech singer-songwriter. They play the lead characters, known in the credits only as 'guy' and 'girl'. The guy's a busker in Dublin, trying to scratch together enough money to record a demo. The girl's a Czech immigrant, selling flowers and cleaning houses to make a living. They meet and decide to play together. I won't give away too much of the plot from there, because I highly recommend seeing it. The music is fantastic and it's a very unusual romance. It made me laugh, and, yup, I cried too. Neither of the two leads are particularly attractive by screen standards (they look like normal people) but the moment they start playing and singing, they become so beautiful and their connection through music is just magic. It's not corny at all and there's no cheap moments. It's also one of the least sexual romances I've seen on screen--and all the more beautiful for that, since the emotional intensity is conveyed through music. I think I also liked the way that each character retained their own identity, and the way that they touched each other's lives in a way that pushed each of them forward in their own personal journeys. It was a beautiful exploration of what it feels like to meet someone who makes your soul take flight--and also the awkwardness of translating that into ordinary language and everyday relationships. There is very little dialogue--most of it is carried by the music. A couple of my friends commented on that as a drawback. It worked for me. It won't be a movie that everyone likes, I'm sure (I heard one cranky old man saying 'that was a no brainer' as I exited) but it hit all the right notes for me. The brevity of this review is only because it rendered me speechless. ;-)
Scott Walker: 30th century man
This is what it sounds like--a documentary about the acclaimed musician Scott Walker. For those of you who don't know, Scott Walker shot to fame in the 60s in the Walker Brothers and went on to have a strong solo career which included singing Bacharach and Brel. He then did a 'disappearing act' for many years and has produced one record a decade since. His life is shrouded in mystery but he is still much revered among fellow musicians.
The director Stephen Kijak is a self-confessed Walker fan from way back and his love for the subject matter definitely comes through. It's extremely well edited--everything a good documentary should be--and incorporates interviews with famous Walker fans (David Bowie, Brian Eno, Johnny Marr, Jarvis Cocker, Damon Albarn, etc) as well as producers, friends and ... *drumroll* ... Walker himself. Kijak was in the audience for this session and gave a Q&A after the session that was fantastic. He describes trying to interview Walker as something akin to wildlife photography. He basically had to hang out in London for seven months, having been told that Walker was going to go back into the studio 'sometime soon'. Eventually he was granted access to the studio recording sessions (a first) and able to interview Walker, who even removed the baseball cap that usually hides his face.
The resulting character study was a fascinating one. Kijak doesn't delve into the sordid details of Walker's alcoholism and disappearance. This isn't tabloid journalism. Instead, he opts to discuss the significance and originality of Walker's music and to take Walker on his word that his art is his life. As Kijak said in the Q&A, it's all there in the music--you can read between the lines--and one of the interviewees in the film joked that while brilliant, you don't want to spend too much time listening to Scott Walker as it's pretty depressing territory.
Some of the best parts of the doco for me were seeing people react to listening to Walker. Kijak brought old records along to his interviews and let his subjects choose their favourite tracks. He also tortured people like Lulu (a friend of Walker's from the 60s) by making them listen to the highly avant-garde/experimental 'Tilt'... huahahaha! Her facial reactions were priceless.
It was a very entertaining documentary, and visually I felt it captured Walker very well. I loved the editing. Did I mention that? *dorks*
Incidentally, any time I see the Greenwood brothers (from Radiohead) on screen now, I feel weirdly (inappropriately?) familiar with them. I blame radioreverie! ;-) Also, Jonny gets major points for cuteness (once again) by coda-ing mention of 'OK computer' with 'one of our albums' (as if anyone didn't know! toooo humble!).