Rita Di Santo

Rita Di Santo

Rita di Santo is a film critic and reviewer.

A powerful statement about poverty and class struggle: The Gravedigger's Wife
Thursday, 17 March 2022 19:53

A powerful statement about poverty and class struggle: The Gravedigger's Wife

Published in Films

Rita di Santo reviews a film at the Luxor Film Festival

In this revolutionary triumph of emotion and form, Khadar Ayderus Ahmed rises to the ranks of one of the most interesting filmmakers emerging from contemporary cinema.

A film of acute tenderness and eloquence, The Gravedigger's Wife grounds its critique of a third world country’s socio-political mores in an achingly eloquent meditation on the struggle of a family in a cruel society.

The story is set and shot on location in Djibouti, which is close to Somalia, but is not an identifiable location in the film. It could be any poor part of Africa, or other places in the global South where hunger and poverty reign.

The protagonist, Guled, is seen roaming his village with a spade on his shoulder, looking for corpses to bury in exchange of few coins, or waiting crow-like outside the hospital, for an ambulance to arrive, when he runs to check if the patient it carried is dead.

In the evening he returns to his hut to his wife Nasra, an elegant, slim figure with a turban on her head, lying in bed. We soon discover that she suffers from an abscess on her kidney. An easily treatable disease in our country – but here, Nasra’s life is at risk. The only salvation is an expensive surgical procedure, which the couple cannot afford.

All Guled's savings have already gone to pay for antibiotics. Against his wife’s will, Guled decides to go back to his native village, to ask the help of his mother and brother.  

The journey puts Guled’s life at risk, as well. On foot, without shoes, no food, no water and no shade, under a scorching sun. A painful and silent trip in the hands of destiny, against all odds. It is a universal story, a sad folktale from the past to the present.

The director, Ahmed, was born in Somalia, but also has lived in Ethiopia, and clearly knows his subject matter and how to make the best of it. He gives us a mesmerising immersion in Africa’s landscapes and colours in this sublime and poetic film, which provokes multiple reflections.

The Gravedigger’s Wife presents and judges the problem of our world, giving voice to those who are not heard. In its exploration of class struggle it recalls classics like Bicycle Thieves. Here, the tool for survival is not a bicycle anymore, but just a simple spade. Guled’s figure, searching for a job with a spade on his shoulder, is a powerful statement of class struggle.

'My movies are about class inequality': Rita Di Santo interviews Alejandra Márquez Abella
Thursday, 03 March 2022 17:50

'My movies are about class inequality': Rita Di Santo interviews Alejandra Márquez Abella

Published in Films

Rita di Santo interviews  Alejandra Marquez Abella about her recent film Northern Skies Over Empty Space

After directing an episode of Narcos for Netflix, and a future film, female Mexican director Alejandra Márquez Abella boldly confronts macho culture and the Western genre in her new film Northern Skies Over Empty Space. The story centers on Don Reynaldo’s ranch as it celebrates its anniversary, and a gang arrives to demand money to Don Reynaldo. Told from the point of view of characters usually sidelined, Márquez Abella portrays an epochal shift in rural Mexico.

I met Alejandra at the Berlin Film festival, an elegant young lady with lots to say. 

Is the movie based on real events?

It is inspired by a real story that happened 10 years ago in Mexico. It is a very common story in Mexican history, and it's a very common story in Westerns. I wanted to tell this story, because I feel it is fundamental for the building of the masculine identity, having to defend and be heroic and courageous. My movies are about class inequality. My last film was The Good Girls, which was a film about rich women in a very rich neighbourhood in Mexico, in the '80s. This is a very different film, but it is connected because it deals with class subjects as well gender inequality. And this was a different way to speak about those objects.

Are the hunting sequences at the beginning of the movie announcing the theme of masculinity?

Exactly, it is being powerful over some someone else, having power of life or death. The power is with the man and women are kept to one side. It is about men having power over women and women sort of holding it all together, but it is still about men and anthropocentrism, about men being over everything, everyone, every other living thing, not just the women, but the animals and yeah, being unable to see the other in their eyes.

The movie shows also a very clear class system, we can see that the movie is set in modern times because of the hand luggage and cars. The class system, where workers are stuck in their role and the owners want to raise more money is a very common story in Mexico. We have massive social inequality, but I think in the film what happens is that every relationship becomes horizontal at the end, because we're all the same. We're all together in the same planet and we're fighting for the same things. The animals, the workers – everyone becomes equal, because we're all dust.

You portray a no man's land. There is no law, no institutions present, like a Western. Can you please tell me something about this?

Mexico has a big justice problem. It's difficult to bring criminals to justice in Mexico. We're stuck in a violent cycle, and we just recognize the obvious and evident criminal violence, but we don't see the many layers of violence in our daily lives. We raise our kids in a very violent way, as you can see in the film, the way we bring food to our table is a very violent way as well. Everything is violent. So, if we can't just recognize that violence in Mexico, we're going to just keep perpetuating violence.

How do you feel as a female director to talk about macho culture?

It was interesting because my crew was full of women. A lot of heads of department were female. I used to say we were observing men as women and just put them in a different place. Just to try to portray in a different way from how they display their power.

The family is a microcosm of Mexican society. You have the woman that decides to have children, the intellectual woman with the computer, the woman worker that accepts her lower class position. The woman who is a mother, just making children. How is the awareness of gender equality in your country?

We are a very traditional society, strong Catholics. Women usually play a role – they nurture, they are therapists, they must deal with their emotions but also with nurturing everyone and maintaining things. But I would say that the biggest burden is the emotional burden. I think Mexican women carry that on their backs because a lot of men can't have a relationship with their feelings. That's a big thing, it changes throughout families, but I would say that the Mexican woman is a woman very dedicated to her family and her cooking and that's it.

And what about the institutions, because we don't see any police, anybody representing the government? Where is the power of the government? What is the power of the government?

We were shooting this film in the Maurepas, which is a very violent place in Mexico. It has been a very violent place for many, many years. And the experience of shooting there to me was very revealing because you didn't know who the good guy was, or who was the bad guy. You didn't know if the police were the bad guys or the good guys, so you can't trust anyone. There is no law – in the film they speak about help from the military, but it's not clear whether anyone can help them.

And what is your next project?

I have a couple of projects now. It's a series. And then I have a film as well, which is the trip that my grandparents had. They migrated to Chicago in the '70s and they had a whole new life there. I'm working on that.

Revolutionary changes to come? The Red Sea Film Festival
Thursday, 23 December 2021 11:07

Revolutionary changes to come? The Red Sea Film Festival

Published in Films

Rita di Santo reviews the Red Sea Film Festival 

In a country where cinema had been banned for 35 years, the staging of a new film festival is an occasion to be celebrated. The first edition of the Red Sea Film Festival took place on December 6 -15 in the UNESCO world heritage site of Jeddah Old Town.

The festival line-up offered a rich mix of arthouse films, exploring themes of politics, everyday life, relations between men and women, homosexuality, violence, films that sparked conversations and debate. There were 16 features from the Arab world and Africa in the inaugural competition.

Brighton 4th

Georgian director Levan Koguashvili scooped the best film for Brighton 4th, a story of parental devotion and sacrifice, unfolding in the former Soviet émigré community of Brighton Beach, N.Y. This movie is a great revelation, imaginative and beautifully detailed, clever without being smug, affectionate without being sentimental.

Iraqi-Italian director Khader Rashid won best director for Europa about a young Iraqi man travelling across Europe who is targeted by vigilantes in Bulgaria. For the same movie Best Actor prize went to its young protagonist British-Libyan Adam Ali. This movie is a true original and as such of considerable value both as film and as a sad yet hopeful summation of the inhumanity of the migrant’s fight for survival in Europe.

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The Best Actress award went to young Indonesian Arawinda Kirana for her role in Yuni, a compassionate and sympathetic coming of age story. Among other awards special mention prize went to Darin J. Sallam’s Farha, a strong debut portraying a Palestinian woman hiding from Israeli forces.

The festival also had twenty-seven titles from Saudi directors, among them a notably strong presence of female directors. Becoming is an omnibus of films by five female directors: Sara Mesfer, Jawaher Alamri, Noor Alameer, Hind Alfahhad and Fatima Al-Banawi. It tells five women’s stories: story of an infertility healer; an 11-year-old girl raised in a conservative household; a disappearing bride; a forty-year-old hairdresser contemplating an abortion, and a divorced mother. All five try very hard to get near to what things are like here and now, in Saudi, what anxieties people face and what they do about them. 

Also deserving of mention is Anas Ba-Tahaf’s Fay’s Palette, telling the story of Fay, a young lesbian confined to her apartment by her brother because of her sexuality. It is a courageous piece of work, approaching a taboo subject without veils, grabbing the audience attention in a tough and beautiful manner.

The festival celebrated new talents from the region and across the Arab world. It was an exuberant affirmation of cinema itself. While the rest of the world watches movies on streaming platforms like Netflix, Amazon and Apple, here people want to watch movies on the big screen together, excited to have the freedom to do it.

It has to be noted, however, that the shadow of accusation remains that the government is using culture to whitewash its poor human rights record. It is no secret the Saudis are investing in their future, as they look to diversify the economy and attract foreign investments by opening the doors to tourism industry that could bring millions of dollars to its beautiful emerald coast.

Yet the cultural change has started, like a domino effect, especially for women. Women are now allowed to drive; they can go out unaccompanied by men; they can work; they do not to have to wear the abaya. Mixed-gender concerts are permitted, and other steps are being taken to liberalize the country. But it is only a start. More things wait to be changed, of course.  It remains a deeply conservative society and there will be a lot of struggles. But it's a journey worth taking because changes will come: revolutionary changes, hopefully.

red sea FF Brighton 4th

Breaking the glass ceiling: Interview with Haifaa Al-Mansour, the first female Saudi director
Monday, 20 December 2021 16:58

Breaking the glass ceiling: Interview with Haifaa Al-Mansour, the first female Saudi director

Published in Films

Rita Di Santo interviews Haifaa Al-Mansour the first female Saudi director, at the Red Sea Film Festival

Haifaa Al-Mansour does not need much introduction. She is a woman who is making history: the first female filmmaker from Saudi Arabia. Her first feature Wadjda (2012), filmed while hiding in the back of a van on the streets of Riyadh, debuted in competition at the Venice Film Festival. Her latest, The Perfect Candidate, a political drama about a woman who runs for office and then finds her campaign gaining unexpected momentum, also showcased at the Venice festival.

Haifaa Al-Mansour now lives in the USA with her American husband, Brad and two children, but she was born in a little village in Saudi, and went to study cinema in Cairo, with the support of her father. I met Haifaa at the First Edition of The Red Sea Film Festival, in Jeddah, the first film festival ever held in Saudi Arabia.

How did you become the first filmmaker of Saudi Arabia?

I created my own luck. I come from a small town in Saudi Arabia. I grew up not speaking any English at all. I went to public schools, and I was in a small town that is almost not on the map. I was lucky that my parents, who did not speak English and just middle class, were liberal somehow at heart. They didn't force me to veil, and they brought music into the family, but I lived my childhood as the typical Saudi life.

When did you realise that you were becoming the first female filmmaker of Saudi Arabia?

I was a young woman. I didn’t have any connection with cinema people. I was making films for me, and my first film was an extremely amateur experience. My brother held the camera. My sister was the star, and I didn't know how edit it. I didn’t know what the concept of a short film was. I sent it to a film festival in Abu Dhabi and it got accepted and they sent me an invitation. I went there and I didn’t know what was happening. They told me “You are the first female filmmaker from Saudi Arabia.” And I said "Yes, I am!" I think if a woman has passion to tell a story, there will be a place for her. If you go online, you can apply and get funds. There is something for people who are willing to change their lives. You cannot force people who just don't want to do anything, right? But people who want to have an adventure in art, they will find a way. There's a young filmmaker in a small town like me away from anywhere and I think that there is a place for her to start.

Now you leave in the US. How do you feel coming back to Saudi Arabia?

It's amazing to go to the airport and see women in public working, at the passports control and everywhere. When I grew up, women weren't allowed at all to have contact with the public. We had to be shielded. I remember I interviewed a religious figure who was very conservative but now he has changed a lot and became liberal. One of his sayings was, "A woman has three places. Her father's house, her husband's house and her grave." So now to see women opening, being in public place, it is amazing.

It is very complicated to tell Saudi stories, because the change is very intrinsic. I have a sister who just recently got divorced and before the father would've taken the kids. She wouldn't be able to do any paperwork or go to the court by herself. She had to have a guardian. She couldn't drive. Now she can drive. She's taking her kids. She does all her paperwork. She's so empowered as a human being in her own little business, which is huge for her. I remember when I got married, I couldn’t do my medical exams, my American husband had to sign for me. Now a woman can do medical exams without the authorization of her husband.

Cinema was forbidden in Saudi, and you started by watching movies on VHS with your dad. When did you have the opportunity to watch movies on the big screen?

When I was a kid, I remember trying to rent from the VHS store in Saudi Arabia. I was 14, wearing my veil, and going completely covered. There was a sign outside the store 'Women are not allowed in'. I had to stay outside the store, looking at the catalogue, then my dad had to rent the movies I wanted to watch. We used to go to Egypt with my family, and I could watch movies on a big screen. I remember that very clearly. It's amazing now to see things have access to women.

What are your hopes with this festival? What type of conversation can we create and what needs to be done still? What do you see the next frontier will be?

I want to see more female filmmakers. I think Saudi's cinema now is very intimate because it is still at the beginning. But there is a huge room for women to tell their amazing stories. I'm excited to see a new wave of filmmakers, especially women. But I hope this festival becomes a place that launches the careers of filmmakers from the Middle East. We really need to see more voices from this world, and we need to see more liberal voices. It's a process. We need to open up, and we are opening. We need to hear more local stories that can create a cultural shift.

Can you tell something about The Perfect Candidate. I loved that film.

It shows how the patriarchal system oppresses women, but in a way that it seems like a fun movie as well. It is a story with a message, but it is also entertaining.

 How do you achieve that kind of balance?

People expect a sad film about someone who's being oppressed, but I always want to bring protagonists, who are not victims, who are maybe born in difficult circumstances, but they're not defeated by their circumstances. And I want the audience to love watching a movie. The power of cinema is in entertaining. I want them to go and have fun, even if I'm bringing a sad story from Saudi Arabia to some art house.

The 35 years where cinemas were forbidden, what did it do to you?

It made me appreciate the cinema more. Cinema is almost everywhere with Netflix and other platforms. Cinema is just a little bit in a shaky moment in the world, but not in Saudi Arabia. We love movies because we haven't had them for long time. There is this nostalgia of watching a movie with people in the room. It's an experience that we did not have, we are eager to go through that.

We can see a new generation of women filmmakers coming in this country. Is this strong presence of women happening only in cinema, or in all areas of society?

Women are just having a moment now. Before there was a glass ceiling for women getting promotion and all that. I don't think that glass ceiling is here anymore. Women can do things if they believe in themselves. Still, it's a conservative society and there will be a lot of struggles. It's not a dream. It's not a rosy picture, but it is a picture that is worth telling. And it's a journey that is worth taking because it will pay off.

It might be hard; people will not accept this change right away because we've been conservative for so long. We cannot imagine a female composer, because composing has a lot of control. It's not going to be easy. Women need to capitalize on the moment and just never take “no” for an answer and not be intimidated by the challenges.

Did you think that Chloe Zhao, winning the Oscar, made a big difference?

It's amazing to see women of colour just taking the front centre. It was really touching for me. I'm rooting for Jane Campion’s Power of the Dog. I'm really excited for her. It will be amazing to win the Oscars once again this year for a woman. That will make a splash and will pave the way for people to understand that we are just part of the mainstream. We are filmmakers and you must understand and assess us in that way.

How do you feel to be the first female filmmaker making history – the history of Saudi Arabia cinema?

I feel proud. I hope to inspire other girls to make films and stuff, but like, yeah. I just feel proud, but I'm in no way a role model. I hope people make better decisions.

'With art, you change people': Sara Shazli’s Back Home
Friday, 05 November 2021 12:36

'With art, you change people': Sara Shazli’s Back Home

Published in Films

Emerging filmmaker Sara Shazli’s Back Home had its world premiere at the El Gouna Film Festival. Twenty-eight years-old, she is the daughter of filmmaker and producer Marianne Khoury, who was the niece and long-time collaborator of Youssef Chahine.

Back Home was filmed during the pandemic and sees Sara going back to her family after a ten-year absence. It is touching to watch father and daughter living such a significant time together, but the film is not only about Sara’s family. It is also a look at the world outside the family’s apartment. With a sincere, curious, inventive eye, she observes the inequality and the madness of the world.

Structured like a road movie, it becomes a deep inner journey, reflecting on family relationships, loss and life. This is a praiseworthy breakthrough, which is both perceptive and determined to persuade us to look at things through different eyes.

Meeting Sara in El Gouna, she told me about her desire since young age to study cinema. “I wanted to prove to myself that I had talent. I was obsessed to enter in a good school with an exam, where I could not just pay to be accepted.”

The Cuban Film School was the right choice, she said:

It is a very good school in Latin America, very selective. I was the only Egyptian on board, and the only Arab. Cuba is far, but I've always been attracted to Latin America. Latinos are like us, Arabs, but more open minded.

 When did you decide to make this documentary?

In my third year in Cuba, I went back to Egypt to film my graduation project. I was waiting for my crew to come from Cuba. But it never happened. The pandemic started and I changed my project completely.

How did you start Back Home?

 When I arrived at the airport, I saw everybody wearing face masks. I thought what's going on in the world. I heard about the coronavirus. But from far. I went back to my family in Egypt, I had been away for 10 years. I went back to my family’s apartment. I've always struggled with this apartment because you see Cairo all the time, and it is very noisy. I started filming my dad, but not in the idea of making a film. I just wanted to capture my dad on my tape. I wanted him to live forever through my archives. I wanted to create him on the screen.

Back Home is about your family, but then you look outside the flat, almost searching for the world, to connect with it. And there are very brief but powerful fragments, for example when you look at the children playing during the lockdown.

Where I live in Cairo, it is not a poor neighbourhood, but a lot of people live on the roof. I don't know how people will receive this part. Maybe Egyptians won't like it so much because I'm showing the reality of the country, but for me, growing up in this apartment with all these windows, it wasn't a very nice view. Cairo is constantly in my face, and I used to stay at the window a lot. I feel like I'm high, they're low. It was the kind of thing I did not enjoy.

 In the documentary it is me looking outside the window, this is what I've been doing for the last 20 years. I look, I observe, I imagine other people's lives. How could they live on the roof with the sun? Who is the father living there? I wonder about how people live and how people manage to live in Egypt.

There is a moment when we see somebody, a man, lying on the pavement, in the middle of the Cairo traffic.

I was shocked when I saw that man. I was searching outside the windows in the street with my camera and suddenly I saw that man. I opened the window and I zoomed in. I asked myself, Is that man all right? What is he doing? But yeah, in Egypt you see stuff very shocking. The inequality between the rich and the poor is so strong. And you wonder, how do these people live?

 There is a sort of magic because they live in Egypt, they are safe. People in Egypt are nice. People are generous. Nobody dies of hunger. It's not like in Europe when you have somebody dying, nobody will help. But this also make me think if I have kids, could I provide for them? Would they be comfortable? I worry about that. In Egypt there are five kids in every family. This is the reality and that was important for me to show.

A dramatic moment is when during lockdown everything become silent at night, when the cars stop. Your dad says, "Oh, this is beautiful." And you reply, "It's scary."

Yes, it was scary, the silence. Terrifying. Because I've never, ever, ever, ever seen Cairo like this, ever, ever. Cairo, it's a dream. It's a dream, but also terrifying. I've been living in that apartment for many years. We never saw the streets empty. It was incredible. Cairo is always crowded. You wake up at 4:00 in the morning you will see people in the streets. People live at night, in the morning.

 The pandemic was not only for a region, but for all people, no matter if rich or poor. Egypt never really took it seriously. Egyptians don't care. Some people are obliged to go work.

In the last part of the documentary, you are finally out of the flat, but a feeling of “death” still there. In the cemetery your dad asks your mum do you want to be buried with me?

He was very obsessed with it. When people get old and start to be sick, they want to assure they will die in dignity. I was very touched because I understood my dad wants to be sure to have a place after his death. We bought the tomb for him. It wasn't for the film. He wants to assure that he will die in dignity in front of the desert. He always loved nature, water, deserts, open air. He's a free spirit person.

What is impressive in the documentary is your courage to say what you wanted, as a woman, and as an artist.

I was an introvert for a long time, and it used to make me suffer a lot. Sometimes you'll misunderstand a lot of people because things are not being said. I feel the need to express myself and I want people to be truthful to me too. So, when I don't have that, I go grab it. I look for it. It's important to let things out because we only live once. I really believe people should work on themselves and be honest with themselves and talk truth. I think this is the way to live. I don't carry burdens and strong emotions.

What can you say about gender equality?

In Egypt? It's so tough to be a woman in the world and it's also tough to be a woman in the Arab world. I also think women are powerful and they can make a difference. Honestly, I see so much more powerful women than powerful men. I admire women’s success. I never thought I could be representative of that. Now, I'm feeling I'm a woman. I'm also a strong woman and I must accept that. And with art it's even stronger because you leave a trace. You change people.

What's the use of cinema for you?

If you have something to say, make a film. If you don't have something to say and you just want to make it for fun, or to make money, that’s fine. But that's not true in my case.

Captains of Zaatari: An El Gouna Film festival documentary on refugees and their right to dream
Friday, 05 November 2021 10:26

Captains of Zaatari: An El Gouna Film festival documentary on refugees and their right to dream

Published in Films

El Gouna Film festival documentary on refuges and their right to dream.

El Gouna Film Festival with its selection of Arab Films provides a wide-ranging view of the Arab world, bringing to the screen issues, problems, struggles and dreams of the people of the region. Among those, the documentary Captains of Zaatari, the first film by young Egyptian director Ali El Arabi.

It tells the story of two friends, Mahmoud and Fawzi, who live in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. They love football and dream of becoming professional soccer players, an escape from the difficult reality of their current lives. Despite being confined under dire conditions, they remain hopeful and practise day in and day out.

When a world-renowned sports academy visits the camp, both have a chance to make this dream come true. But they identify only Mahmoud as a talent to nurture, while Fawzi is sadly left behind due to his date of birth, just one year older than his friend. When Mahmoud leaves the camp, we witness the overwhelming experience of going out in the world. He boards a plane for the first time, travels in smart cars, stays in a luxury hotel, in a comfortable room with a large bed.

Meanwhile Fawzi continues to face the difficult reality of life in the camp. Unexpectedly, the coach decides to review his decision and invite also Fawzi to join the team. Victory is assured, but the two friends do not forget their roots, and they use the press conferences to make statements in support of their people, stressing that the refugees need opportunity, not pity. The end is not so hopeful. Their dream ends, the bubble bursts, and they have to go back to the camp.

The documentary has received support from many different organizations, including UNHCR. Here in El Gouna it participates in a section called “Cinema for Humanity”. It focusses on cultural and artistic qualities but also foregrounds movies with strong social responsibility that can have impact in the community, movies that have at their core humanitarian themes.

Captains of Zaatari is a moving story that challenges preconceived notions about refugees, touches the hearts of the audience, and helps them look at refugees in a new way. It offers a different perspective on the Syria crisis and argues that it can’t be neglected, that the refugee camps are not just shabby wire-fenced enclosures, but there are people there who need respect and have the right to live a life of opportunities.

Natural Light’s Dénes Nagy at the El Gouna Film festival
Friday, 05 November 2021 09:58

Natural Light’s Dénes Nagy at the El Gouna Film festival

Published in Films

“Nagy recasts historical and political traumas, which resound into the strange realities and shifting narratives of today’s Europe”.

The 5th edition of El Gouna Film festival began with an open-air screening of the powerful Hungarian movie Natural Light’s Dénes Nagy, an absorbing, beautifully crafted addition to the new Hungarian cinema, along with Laszlo Nemes’ Son of Saul and Ildiko Enyedi’s Of Body and Soul. 

Basing his film on a novel of the same name by Pal Zavada but focusing on just three days of the 20-year tale recounted in the book, documentary director Nagy recasts historical and political traumas, which resound into the strange realities and shifting narratives of today’s world, today’s Europe, or the Hungary of Viktor Orban.

The film is set during World War II, in the Hungarian-occupied Soviet territory. A simple Hungarian farmer, István is part of a special unit tasked with travelling from village to village seeking out partisan groups in the icy marshland. When his company falls under enemy fire, and their commander is killed, he reluctantly has to take command. The unit makes camp in an occupied village, to interrogate suspected partisans, but the villagers do not take kindly to their guests, to say the least. There is something of a thaw, however, between the brass and the village elders, who share a banquet of plentiful rations, trading jovialities, and homemade booze. Their occupation is, nonetheless, fraught with a constant, sinister tension, intensified by moments of cruelty: a thief is made to crawl under a table like a pig, and women are displaced from their beds. Among the soldiers, István is a sensitive, thoughtful man, and reacts with natural human empathy to the villagers’ needs. He is the witness of the horrors, frozen with unhappiness and fear. 

Denes Nagy worked on this project, that is his first future movie, for 6 years, with the support of his school friends Tamas Dobos the cinematographer and Marcell Gero the producer. He spent two years casting for the film, searching for his actors on cow and pig farms in the Hungarian countryside. Eventually giving a first film role to Ference Szabo—with his expressive, melancholic face—as Istvan, the corporal who finds himself thrust into the foreground.

Nagy’s work has largely been solemn, painterly documentaries about rural Hungary and trauma, and it’s easy to appreciate how gracefully he’s adapted both the behavioural eye and the aesthetic accuracy of those films to a period setting here. In Natural Light’s obsession with faces and gestures, its patience, and in the delicacy and abundance of its close-ups, there is lot of authenticity in this movie.

As the title suggests, natural light plays an important role in the film and the work by DOP Tamas Dobos is impressive. Tamas was previously a stills photographer and here applies an incredible technique that recalls the Thirties and Forties. He's working with antiquated technology, using a glass negative, a very particular handmade process few modern DPs will ever encounter. Lamps were used only in the night scenes.

Natural Light had its world premiere in Berlin and has now chalked up 20 festivals appearances. Here in El Gouna it was very well received. This is a movie that goes beyond its time and place, an anti-war movie, describing a descent into darkness by men who face constant moral dilemmas of guilt and conscience, affirming the power of the individual as the fulcrum to break collective madness.

Back in Old New York
Wednesday, 03 June 2020 15:28

Back in Old New York

Published in Films

Rita di Santo reviews Woody Allen's new film, A Rainy Day in New York, with a good deal of scepticism

“Don't you see the rest of the country looks upon New York like we're left-wing, communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers? I think of us that way sometimes and I live here.”

This line from Allen’s Annie Hall (1977) summarising his recurrent self-obsessive topics - of politics, sex and religion - is the reason I am still intrigued by this filmmaker, despite his messy personal life.

With A Rainy Day In New York, the 84-year-old Allen is once again in his beloved hometown. Here we find a handsome young couple, Gatsby and Ashley, played by some of the best actors of their generation, Timothée Chalamet and Elle Fanning, naïve as ever, typical American beauty, round faces and pale white skin.

They are students at a little College not far from New York. Gatsby is a wealthy artist without a clear future, and his girlfriend Ashleigh is an aspiring journalist who has just received an amazing opportunity to interview famed director, Roland Pollard (Liev Schreiber).

Galvanised by this chance, Gatsby treats Ashleigh to a weekend in New York City, where he plans visits to his usual lairs, from MoMA to the Met to the coolest hotels and piano bars. But after getting separated, Gatsby and Ashleigh have respective adventures that test the stability of their relationship.

Ashleigh becomes entangled with the filmmaker, then his screenwriter Ted Davidoff (Jude Law), then star actor Francisco Vega (Diego Luna), leading to a wild trip through the city. While she constantly cancels their plans, Gatsby attempts to avoid his mother (Cherry Jones), ending up cameoing in a friend’s student film, one that puts him in a scene with Chan Tyrell (Selena Gomez), the sister of a former flame.

Iconic cinematographer Vittorio Storaro provides the visuals, making New York a beautiful place, from romantic love to miserable escapade. Allen’s gallery of eccentric characters is full of contradictions, ungainly, insecure and a bit stupid, making the film an enjoyable, funny, carefree romp. But we also can find some of Allen’s typically murky and neurotic keystones.

For example, the name Roland Pollard uncomfortably recalls Roman Polanski, who like Allen has become a Hollywood outcast. Also, Roland represents the way people have judge dAllen, an old popular director in crisis attracted by the younger Ashleigh, who resembles his old girlfriend.

In the Me-Too era, Allen is still quite comfortable with unkind gender inequalities, but Roland’s behaviour is unacceptable. He is not funny, he is nothing but a “dirty old man”, especially given Fanning’s wild vulnerability - it is the usual dull-witted male-oriented fantasy. On the other hand, we have Gatsby, who faces the usual Allen dilemma of choosing between the nice, polite, naïve girlfriend and other women who challenge him or satisfy his infamous carnality.

After 50 years making movies, Allen is still full of ideas, but the social satire has lost its relevance. A movie that will please his fans, which his enemies will hate, and most others will ignore. It is not particularly charming, or funny. Yet it sighs with a romantic, contemporary, artistically vibrant vision New York, while dodging the bitterness of his later work. 

'There Is No Evil' wins Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival 2020
Monday, 02 March 2020 15:24

'There Is No Evil' wins Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival 2020

Published in Films

Rita Di Santo presents brief film reviews from the Berlin Film Festival 2020

The 70th Berlin International Film Festival came to a close with There Is No Evil, Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof’s scorching denunciation of the death penalty in Iran taking the top prize, the Golden Bear. Rasoulof was not able to attend the ceremony due to a travel ban and possible prison sentence for his politically-charged film. Rasoulof's daughter, Baran, accepted the Golden Bear award on his behalf.

One of the audience favourites at the festival, Never Rarely Sometimes Always directed by Eliza Hittman won the Grand Jury Prize. The film follows two teenage girls in rural Pennsylvania who, faced with an unwanted pregnancy, embark on a journey across state lines to New York City. A slow-moving bit of magical realism, powered by a quiet, poignant performance by its young star, this is an authentic meditation on dismay, humiliation and sexual abuse.

The Best Director award went to Korean veteran Hong Sang-soo for The Woman Who Ran, about a young woman visiting three different friends in Seoul. Strange, witty, and intriguing, this is another great work of one of the world’s most fascinating and prolific filmmakers.

The acting awards went to German Paula Beer, for her role in Christian Petzold’s Undine, and Italian Elio Germano for his performance of an outsider artiste who struggles with abject poverty and severe mental health in Hidden Away.

Among other awards, the Silver Bear for Outstanding Artistic Contribution went to cinematographer Jurgen Jurges for DAU. Natasha. Probably the most controversial movie in the Berlinale, it was conceived as a biopic of Nobel prize-winning Soviet physicist Lev Landau, from the perspective of two waitresses working in a cafe in a secret Soviet research institute in 1952, who live under threat of arrest, torture, and murder by the secret police. It is a harsh, claustrophobic viewing experience. 

Delete History, a comedy by Benoit Delepine and Gustave Kervern, won the Silver Bear. Three down-and-out protagonists from a working-class suburb get tangled up in a social media network. After the laughter dies down, the bitterness of Delepine and Kervern's analysis of the sad-sack-sorry state of the world remains.

Best screenplay honours went to Damiano and Fabio D'Innocenzo, for their dark comedy Bad Tales, while the Berlinale Documentary Film Prize was awarded to Rithy Panh for Irradiated, a visual onslaught of footage of bombings, torture and massacre overlaid with readings of French poetry.

This year’s festival was overshadowed by the Coronavirus epidemic, the rapid spread of the disease leading to a mass cancellation of Chinese industry attendants. Between 100-120 attendees cancelled their trips, citing the virus as the reason, though the actual number of cancellations may have been higher.

This huge and now rather unwieldy festival showed a fair number of good films but rather a lot of moderate ones, including those in competition. When are film festivals going to realise that more isn't always better, and start to pare down their programmes?

Blow It to Bits
Wednesday, 27 November 2019 22:46

Blow It to Bits

Published in Films

Rita di Santo interviews the British director Lech Kowalski, director of of Blow It to Bits

Timely and urgent, but not in the daily papers, Blow It to Bits is the story of workers who threaten to blow up a factory. A dense, entertaining, informative, and thought-provoking documentary, which clearly exposes the enemy within.

The director is Lech Kowalski. Born in London to Polish refugees who survived Stalin's gulags, he now lives in France, making underground films that are a map of his personal journey. Meeting him at the Filmmaker Film Festival, in Milan, he told me about his movie:

“The strike in question involves GM&S Industry France, it is a rural manufacturer providing auto parts for industry giants Renault and PSA, which owns Peugeot and Citroen. Initially a booming business, the factory whittled down over the years as production shifted overseas, as most French cars are now composed of parts produced abroad and then only assembled in France. In 2017 GM&S threatened to close down entirely and lay off the 285 workers, but they fought back in the hope of salvaging their jobs. Blow It to Bits is about the workers’ struggles.”

Kowalski heard that the workers had taken over the factory and to defend their jobs were threatening to blow it up if their demand to continue production was not met. The film’s title comes from graffiti that the workers had scrawled on a giant gas tank triggered to explode: “On va tout peter” — “We’re going to blow it all up.”
France was closer to the election and there was a fear that the French would vote for Le Pen and a right wing government. Kowalski explained:

“I spent a month and a half with these workers. It was very depressing because there were suicides, it was just terrible, a lot of them moved away. But what was interesting is some of them were still in court, fighting to get some money for eight years. The story I wanted to tell was about workers that live away from the big cities. I decided I'm going to stay here, because these people are innocent. They had a place in society, they used to live lives in a way they wanted. They had their fishing or hunting passion. They're very intelligent people and they were fighting for something. They were fighting also for their lifestyle.”

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How did you develop your story? I liked how they stand up to power with an unusual confidence in confronting the new order.

I wanted to make a film about the people. I didn't tell them that I was making a film right away. They thought I was a journalist, filming and filming. I didn't really want to get too close to them, because I wanted to observe them from the point of view of how the society sees them. The idea was to make it a collective film, not a film about the leader. Because the collective action was what gave them the strength. It was not really a fight against Renault and Peugeot so much. It was a fight against the government. Because the government was not supporting them.

It's very hard to fight Renault and Peugeot, they have a lot of power. You can do a few things; you can have a blockade and this kind of thing. But what they were angry about was that there was no one to turn to for help, from across the political spectrum. Politicians were antagonistic towards them. For me this fight was a search for a new kind of democracy.

What was your main aim?

I really wanted to make a film that the workers would enjoy, from an aesthetic point of view. It's not an action film, like a Hollywood film. It's a film made for the class that I am part of. And the class that the film is about. My father and my mother both were workers. I wanted to make a film that's for the average person who normally would not go to see this kind of film.

Can you tell me more about the GM&S?

The GM&S story is a story that has been going on for many years. It started out as a toy factory and it got bigger, bigger and bigger. Different investors bought the company until it became GM&S. And at that point, there was a threat to close the factory down completely. The factory used to have 600 workers a long time ago. Over the years with different owners, it became smaller and smaller and smaller.

Most of the workers were in their 40s, 50s and even 60s. For them there was no future. How can you get a new job at that age? In some respects, they have won. Because the new owner bought the factory and although he fired half the people, he kept 120.

This whole problem with the factories, and this whole problem with the changing of our society, it's happening because multinational corporations are trying to find ways to make as much profit as possible. Not necessarily even for themselves, but for the stockholders. Because at the end of the day, the stockholders are the ones that empower.

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These companies relocate to places where the employment laws are less strong, but also where other laws are different. Because for instance, there are fewer laws for preserving the environment in these new places where these factories are being built, like Romania, Morocco, South America, Mexico, China, and Vietnam. The laws are very loose and people who work in these factories are very close to slaves.

At the same time, these companies are making more profit and squeezing more money out of every aspect of the manufacturing process.

I was very impressed about their mood. When they block the high speed lane on the motorway, they are not aggressive or violent. Is it solidarity that makes them so optimistic and strong?

This is an interesting question for me. It's kind of a mystery why they had this kind of optimism and this kind of deep commitment, emotional commitment, to keep going. I think when you are fighting for something, you transfer your emotions into a kind of anger and frustration with the system. Then you want to be together to fight and get as much as you can. Because there is this desire to fight for a moral kind of victory.

The fight becomes more important than winning or losing. These are like partisans. At one point you know that maybe you'll get killed, but you go out there because you believe in what you're doing. And that's why this film is important for me. The story is hopeful because we knew as we were filming, the workers, and myself, and Odil (his partner and producer), we knew what this was not going to end well. Because it never does. Because the corporate system and the government is just too against these people to make it work. But they did get 120 workers to keep their jobs, which is a victory. The glass is half full or half empty, I would like to say that the glass is very full – of hope.

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