When New York movie theaters closed down on March 15th, so did invitations to the press screenings needed for my reviews. Unlike other film critics, I don’t cover Hollywood films. My beat consists of documentaries, foreign-language and American independent films that get screened in places like the Film Forum and Cinema Village in New York, the Laemmle in Los Angeles, et al.
This month, while Hollywood lies dormant and the entertainment press troubles itself over its impending doom, there are a number of films that came my way that CounterPunch readers should find interesting. While I have referred to them in the past as VOD, the film distributors, who are connected to the art theaters, have come up with a new term to describe the films under consideration below. They are part of the Virtual Cinema world, a term I guess that is meant to evoke virtual reality.
Whatever you call it, it is an opportunity to see leading edge cinema unlike most of the escapist fare featured on Hulu, Netflix, Amazon, et al. Indeed, they are far more relevant to the current pandemic crisis insofar as they imagine that another world is possible.
Our Mothers (Nuestra Madres)
This Guatemalan film tells the story of a young forensic anthropologist named Ernesto (Armando Espitia) who works for a state agency charged with identifying the bones of those men and women who were killed by the military in its scorched earth attack on indigenous and peasant villagers. It didn’t matter if they supported the guerrilla movement in the 1980s or were only unfortunate enough to simply be living in villages that were visited by guerrillas.
Ernesto is haunted by the memory of a father he never met, a leftist guerrilla that became one of 200,000 victims. One day, an indigenous woman in her sixties shows up at his workplace to file a request for the excavation of her husband’s bones. As part of his professional routine, he asks if she can furnish a photo. She then hands him a snapshot that sends a shiver down his spine. Her campesino husband is seen amongst a group of guerrillas, one of whom bears a striking resemblance to Ernesto’s father. He is motivated to travel up to her village for her sake and for his own. Could he at last be able to provide a proper burial for his father’s bones?
When he informs his supervisor that he intends to go into the mountains for this project, he is told that it conflicts with his duties. Not only that, he is told that indigenous women are always on the lookout for a government payout and that their testimony has to be taken with a grain of salt. You are left with the feeling that with government employees like him standing on ceremony and so bereft of human feelings, the chances of redemption in Guatemala are guarded at best.
It is not only the supervisor who casts doubt on his search for his father’s bones. His own mother, who spent six months being tortured in a Guatemalan prison, is not keen on the idea as well. Like many Guatemalans, the trauma of the 1980s left such a scar on their consciousness that they succumb to denial. Even if she sings The International with other ex-communists in her social circle at her birthday party, the idea of revolution has little appeal.
“Our Mothers” is not an examination of the genocidal attack on indigenous peoples. Instead, it is about the psychological and spiritual costs of living in a country that has lost its soul. At one point, Ernesto tells a friend that he would love nothing better than to leave this shitty country but stays there because of family ties and a decent career.
César Diaz, the director of “Our Mothers”, was the child of guerrillas who were “disappeared” in the 1980s. In an interview with Deadline, he described his stake in making such a film:
“When someone is missing, you always have hope this person will come back. But when the science tells you these bones are your father or mother, you can mourn and start over and go forward. Until then, you’re still in an emotional loop.”
In real life, Diaz does not know what happened to his father but, “making the movie was a way to try and achieve this thing. I didn’t get the chance that Ernesto has, but I have the movie and that really helps me to move forward.”
Regarding his own mother, he says her generation “had the chance to transform the country… even if this was by military tools or violence, but if you want to transform this injustice you can do it. My generation doesn’t have this. We have the same feelings about injustice… but most of my generation is trying to write literature or make paintings or movies to try and transform society.”
Virtual Cinema information on seeing “Our Mothers” is here.
This 2017 film was the debut of director Kantemir Balagov, a 28-year old Russian who was widely acclaimed for last year’s “Beanpole”, a story about two women trying to cobble together a life in Russia just after the end of WWII. Ironically, they are dealing with circumstances not that much different from what we face today:
Among those who will have the hardest time living a normal life again are the veterans in a military hospital who have suffered either grievous wounds and/or post-traumatic stress disorder. The nurses caring for them have suffered as well, including Iya, who is nicknamed beanpole because of her towering height and willowy build. When we first meet her, she is standing as still as a statue in the nurses’ quarters. As a former anti-aircraft gunner, her PTSD is manifested by unpredictable freezes that last for a few minutes and that made her unfit for further duty.
“Closeness” is just as striking and accomplished as “Beanpole”. It draws upon the memories the director had of growing up in Nalchik (where the filming took place), a city in the Kabardino-Balkarian Republic in the North Caucasus. A Karbadian himself, Balagov chose to create a Jewish family as the primary subjects of his film even if they always felt like outsiders in Nalchik. Indeed, the film is about as penetrating a study of Jewish life in the USSR that I have ever seen.
A word or two about the Karbadians first. They are the largest branch of the Circassian people, who lived in Russia, Turkey, Egypt. My mother-in-law is Circassian even though she identifies as Turk. Many non-Russians living in the North Caucasus, who were victims of Great Russian chauvinism, found Turkey a more amenable place to live, especially if they were Muslims. Set during Yeltsin’s invasion of Chechnya, the Karbadians depicted in the film have a strong identification with the Chechen struggle.
The main character in “Closeness” is a 20-something woman named Ilana (Darya Zhovner) who works in her father Avi’s car repair shop. If it is not customary for a Jew to run a car repair shop in Russia or anywhere else for that matter, it is even less customary for a female to prefer working on cars than some job more “suited” for a female. Indeed, the narrative structure around which “Closeness” revolves has to do with her defiance of cultural norms, either as a Jew or a female.
When a party is held for her bother’s engagement, her mother Adina pressures her to wear a dress when she is far more comfortable in the bib overalls she wears mostly through the film. She is also not that interested in marrying a Jew in keeping with her mother’s desire to preserve the “tribe”. When her mother uses that term, Ilana proceeds to imitate an American Indian war hoop. Ilana far prefers the company of Zalim, a Karbadian Muslim who works in a gas station. Whether Balagov is developing Jewish or Karbadian characters, the emphasis is on situating them in their working-class milieu. His affinity with Italian neo-realism of the post-WWII period should be obvious to film buffs.
On the night that Ilana’s brother announced his engagement, he and his fiancé are kidnapped by local criminals and the family is forced to put together a ransom payment from their Jewish friends and neighbors. Suffice it to say that despite belonging to the same “tribe”, the Nalchik Jews tend to look after their own.
In an interview with Film Comment, Balagov names the Dardenne brothers as a primary influence. That a Russian director would look to leftist Belgians for inspiration shows that there is hope for Russian cinema. In the interview, he describes the influence of his homeland on this film:
I always wanted to make a film set in North Caucasus, because there’s no reflection of that region on the cinema map. The first time that I heard about a kidnapping was from my father, and I thought that hey, that could be interesting. But my father’s version was too criminal. It was about the kidnappers, how they killed each other… that didn’t interest me because my main target was relationships. Family relationships, relationships between tribes, and relationships between men and women from different nationalities. I had a relationship with a Jewish girl, which also inspired the film. I thought the kidnapping would be interesting if a member of the family disappeared, and the mother wanted to sacrifice another member of the family in return. That’s bullshit to me. You should love your daughter the same way you love your son.
“Closeness” can be rented here.
It isn’t every day that you get a chance to see an Ethiopian film. And even less frequently one that uses magical realism (a genre I generally avoid) to tell a deeply affecting story about social class. Set in Ethiopia in 1916, it describes a medieval-like society that is bound deeply in tradition. That year, Zewditu took the throne and served as Empress until 1930.
As one of the major characters in “Enchained”, the monarch is called upon to judge the case of Gebeze, a wandering mendicant student who excels at reciting qene in ge’ez. Qenes are Ethiopian poems that require great improvisational skills and deep immersion in Ethiopian philosophical and religious traditions. In its way, it is the counterpart of what Homer became famous for in ancient Greece. You also have to be a master of ge’ez, a language that roughly has the same relationship to colloquial Ethiopian that ancient Greek has to modern Greek.
Much of the film has Gebeze dazzling his friends and colleagues with his mastery of qene. As deep as his love for the poems is, his deepest affection is reserved for Aleme, the young and beautiful wife of an old and ugly farmer named Gonite. One day as Gonite returns from his fields, he discovers Aleme in the arms of the mendicant poet and chases after him with an antique but lethal rifle. Local authorities, in keeping with feudal laws, decide that Gebeze and Gonite must make their case for Aleme in Zewditu’s court. Days away from the royal capital, the two men must travel together with their robes tied together, a custom that is perhaps a thousand years old.
Much of “Enchained” is highly stylized, from the qene performances to the hortatory delivery of the characters in court. It takes a bit of getting used to, like Kabuki or Chinese opera, but once you settle into the style, it becomes mesmerizing. The film was directed by Moges Tafesse, who is also the CEO of Synergy Habesha films that is streaming “Enchained”. According to the press notes, he is preparing his next feature, the historical drama Yimut Beka (Born to Die), about an Ethiopian bishop who, during WW II, confronts the Italian fascists’ atrocities and fights to conduct his last liturgical prayer before his execution.
To see “Enchained”, go to www.habeshaview.com and click the link labelled “Enter Here to Watch Now”. You will then be prompted to register. Once you are registered, you can then start watching the film for 5.5 Euros. Don’t worry about using dollars, which are also acceptable. This is a remarkable film that stands out from the crowd. If it had been screened in Film Forum, it would set you back $15. By renting it, you are helping to keep art films alive in a period when mammon is trumping everything, including the working-class.
Capital in the 21st Century
I reviewed this documentary based on Thomas Piketty’s book of the same title in November, 2019, when it was featured in a documentary film festival in New York. The entire review can be read here, but will share an excerpt here to let you know what to expect. Despite my deep differences with Piketty, the film is both instructive and entertaining.
As capitalism matured in the 19th century, its growth slowed down because of rivalries between various empires, England and France the foremost. Eventually, the competition became so extreme that the solution took the form of intermittent warfare and, finally, the Great War that led to millions dying and capital going up in smoke. Piketty argues that one good thing came out of it: the dissolution of feudal privilege that had persisted under capitalism, particularly with the Junkers ruling class in Germany.
The Great Depression and WWII had the same contradictory effect. On one hand, it caused death and suffering. On the other, it led to social democratic reforms that allowed working people to be entitled to health, education and housing benefits that never would have existed in the 18th or 19th century. Once again, the film brackets out an important factor that would help make this understandable, namely the existence of the USSR as an alternative to the capitalist system. Would the New Deal, England under Labour, Sweden, et al have existed without the communist alternative putting pressure on the ruling classes? I would argue not. Suresh Naidu, the most impressive of the post-Keynesians heard from in the film, is also honest enough to say that the prosperity that made such programs possible owed a lot to WWII that put people back to work and fostered economic growth, a function of military Keynesianism, the only fruitful application of Keynes’s theories.
“Capital in the 21st Century” can be rented here.