By Ali Moosavi.
Gabrielle: I still get eaten up.
Vincent: Yes, but you get the shot!–from On the Pulse
The side sections of the major film festivals often offer works that are as interesting, or sometimes more interesting, than the films in the main section. Here are a few examples from the 80th Venice Film Festival, plus a discussion I had about one of the films with its director.
Playing out of competition at Venice was Cedrik Kahn’s comedy, Making Of, about behind the scenes going on in a troubled film production. The film opens with a scene straight out of an action movie. Security officers are suddenly attacked by a mob in an industrial environment and in the middle of this fight a young man, making a behind the scenes documentary, inadvertently steps into the frame, thus ruining the shot. This opening is similar to that of The Party (1968, Blake Edwards), but the similarities end there. Making Of is not a slapstick comedy, it hits much closer to the bone for that. The “making of” documentary takes a back seat while we see the hapless director Simon (Denis Podalydes), trying to finish his movie amid a flurry of slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. The film that Simon is making is a depiction of a real incident of workers in a factory rising against the owners and taking over the factory, asking for better wages and conditions. In real life this event ended tragically for the workers, who were evicted from the premises and lost their jobs. Simon wants to stick to the truth, making a film in the Ken Loach vein. The young producers however want a happy ending and when Simon refuses, they withdraw the funding. So Simon has to find money from somewhere or persuade the crew to work for nothing. The lead actor, Alain (Jonathan Cohen) is taking the Method too far by living with the family of the worker whom he is depicting in the film. He also tries Simon’s patience by continuously improvising to magnify his role. One of the extras dreams of being a film maker gets the job of the new behind the scenes documentary maker.
Having read a number of books about behind the scenes goings on of some of the well known movies, I found all the disasters that befell Simon and his crew quite realistic and, in anything, small fry compared to those. For those who want to know more about what often goes on behind the scenes in film making, Making Of is a very entertaining introduction.
Also playing out of competition at Venice, was the France-Belgium coproduction, On the Pulse (see top image), which is set in the offices of a TV news program. Gabrielle (Alice Isaaz) joins the program as a junior trainee and is given menial chores, such as changing camera batteries, carrying spare cameras, etc. She is very ambitious, hoping to be a full-fledged journalist. Gabrielle has a champion and mentor in the news offices, the chief editor Vincent (Roschdy Zem), who has more-than-friendly affections for her, which is transparent to Gabrielle, who seems to have similar feelings towards him. But, since he is old enough to be Gabrielle’s father, Vincent is keeping these feelings to himself. Alix Delaporte, who both directed and co-wrote the screenplay, depicts reporters as a group of people whose sole aim is to get the news and hopefully scoops. For them, other factors such as ethics, morals and even life threating danger, are secondary. This is particularly emphasized by the young head of the program who only cares about ratings. A conversation between Vincent and Gabrielle demonstrates this best. He notices that Gabrielle closes her right eye when looking through the camera and tells her to keep both eyes open:
Vincent: You will then see if a lion is popping up by.
Gabrielle: I still get eaten up.
Vincent: Yes, but you get the shot!
On the Pulse is fast paced and its 86 minutes whizz by. Alice Isaaz manages to perfectly display the emotions of a rookie thrown at the deep end and Roschdy Zem, whom I’ve been a fan of since watching him in Arnaud Desplechin’s Oh Mercy! (2019) has a magnetic presence.
Nehir Tuna’s film, Dormitory, is set in Istanbul in 1996, at the height of clashes between the secular and Islamic factions in Turkey. Ahmet (Doga Karakas) is the only son of a wealthy family. He goes to a select private school where his classmates are all from well-to-do secular families. He is just about to start becoming a teenager and has his first crush on a new girl in his class. Ahmet is happy with his lifestyle. That is until his father enlists him in a “dormitory”. These dormitories are run by Islamic institutions and boys go there after school for Islamic studies. Ahmet stays the nights there and rushes back home early mornings to be picked up by the school bus. He has this aspect of his life hidden from his classmates because if they found out, he would be subjected to ridicule and loathing. He would no longer be one of them. His friendship with the new girl may also come unstuck. These dormitories are under constant scrutiny by the authorities and regular inspections are carried out to ensure they are not spreading Islamic propaganda, critical of the secular government.
Writer-director Nehir Tuna presents these dormitories as hell on earth. The one that Ahmet attends is run by a sadistic pedophile. If it wasn’t because of his friendship with Hakan (Can Bartu Aslan), an orphaned boy at the Dormitory, he would have broken down. That friendship only acts to slow down the breakdown process. Ahmet’s main supporter is his mother but she cannot persuade her husband to take their son out of the dormitory. The father has ambitions to become a respected figure in the Islamic community and will let nothing stand in his way.
The bulk of the film is shot in black and white, but a section which starts with Ahmet and Hakan on a rare trip away from the dormitory into the open countryside is shot in colour to emphasize the differences between the bleakness of the dormitory and the beauty of outside world. The cheerful songs heard outside compared to the austere soundtrack music in the dormitory, further hammer home this point. It could also be interpreted as the difference in living under a strict Islamic regime and a secular governance.
Dormitory is undoubtedly a controversial film, bound to divide the audiences in the director’s homeland; some applauding it and some denouncing it. The performances all round are very convincing and the casting is particularly good.
We hear the scream of a woman and cry of a baby on a black screen at the opening scene of For Night Will Come, which premiered in the Horizons section of Venice Film Festival. Then we see that a new born baby is about to be breast fed by her mother. However, instead of sucking the milk from her mother’s breast, he starts to suck blood from it, resulting in blood pouring over her breasts. At this stage one is reminded of a couple of things that preceded this scene. One was the Disney logo at the start, so we know that the film will not be a feast of horror and violence. The second is the caption just before this scene stating that film is “inspired by true events”. Now there is a significant difference between “based on” and “inspired by”, the latter giving the filmmakers almost free rein to use their imagination where facts are very scant.
We flash forward 17 years and the now teenage boy, Philemon (Mathias Legout Hammond) is travelling in a car with his parents and little sister Lucie (Laly Mercier). Their destination is a house in the suburbs. The people in this suburban community are stereotype suburbanites: middle-class, very insular and suspicious of outsiders. We see the newly arrived family in the evening watching TV in their new suburban house, while a tube is transfusing blood from the mother’s arm to Philemon. They are invited to a BBQ by the neighbours and Philemon’s father (Jean-Charles Clichet) is eager for them to keep a low profile and mix with this crowd. He encourages his family to “appear normal and boring”!
Philemon’s mother (Elodie Bouchez) is a nurse. She uses her occupation to surreptitiously take some of the blood donations for her son. Philemon may not have vampire’s teeth and be afraid of the cross and garlic, but he possesses many other vampiric attributes. If he sees blood on someone, he cannot control himself not to suck it. He also cannot stay in strong sunlight and when he tells anyone that they lived near the ocean before, his very white untanned skin raises suspicions. Though he has strong feelings for a girl in the neighborhood, he is afraid of having a relationship in case his secret is revealed.
For Night Will Come shows that a modern-day vampire is condemned to a lonely and miserable life, deprived of even the small things in life which bring us joy. Director Celine Rouzet is very successful in obtaining our sympathy for Philemon’s plight. When Philemon asks his father: why did you let me live? We fully understand his feelings. Philemon is a freak of nature, like the Elephant Man, shunned by society and forced to live in solitude and darkness. He is also one of the most sympathetic vampires that I have come across.
I asked myself during the writing process, what does this man need in order to face up to what he did, and is the justice system helping?”–Delphine Girard
If you’ve seen Antoine Fuqua’s Netflix film, The Guilty (2021), the opening scene of Delphine Girard’s Through the Night, shown in the Author’s Days section at Venice, may seem familiar. Here again we have a police officer taking a distress call from a woman. She is pretending to be calling her sister and it appears that the male driver is taking her somewhere against her will. But as opposed to The Guilty, the situation here is quickly resolved with the police tracking the call and apprehending the man. Aly (Selma Alaoui), the woman in the car claims that Dary (Guillaume Duhesme) the driver, raped her and was taking her to some unknown place against her will. Anna (Veerle Baetens), the policewoman who took the call, becomes personally interested in this incident. From here on the film switches from a thriller to a drama. Dary denies the rape and Aly skips part of the medical testing. We therefore have a She Said, He Said situation.
Girard, who also wrote the screenplay, shows flashbacks of the incident and the events building up to it from viewpoint of both parties. It is clear that Aly was no angel and Dary was not the gentleman he claims to be. It is left to the judge and the jury to determine where the guilt lies. Girard’s characterization tells us that Aly liked to party and drink, had one-night stands, but was no slut. Her lifestyle is by no means unusual or uncivil. Dary has a stressful job as a fireman. We see him being very helpful to a young woman and shortly after starts a relationship with her. Girard shows the complexities of rape cases where solid evidence does not exist. A rather interesting aspect of this case is the woman police officer who took the call, who develops an unusual interest in the case and involves herself in Aly’s personal life. Through the Night is an engrossing film which leaves room for discussion long after the credits have rolled down.
I had the opportunity to discuss the film with Delphine Girard.
When Through the Night starts, I thought, I’ve seen many films like this; a genre thriller which will end with the police coming to the rescue. But very quickly it changes from thriller to drama. Can you tell me about the structure of your film?
I first made a short film. The first 15 minutes of the film is the short film that I made before, a 15-minute thriller about the phone call and that short film ends when the policeman rescuing her asks what is your name, and she doesn’t reply. The film was screened at many festivals and I felt there’s more to say about that story. Though a thriller is fine, I was more interested in the aftermath. After I made the short film, the characters stayed in my mind and I asked myself what would happen to them? I met some police officers, doctors, lawyers. I sat in a few trials and I was just asking myself how would society deal with my characters as I know them?
Rape cases can be quite complicated, especially if the man denies it. In the film neither character is perfect. Aly refuses to do the medical examination and she’s going out picking men in the night, which is not abnormal. But you are putting doubts in the mind of the viewer and Dary develops a nice relationship with another woman. Were you trying to make it more complex and show that rape cases are not black and white.
Yes, I think in real life every case is complex and what I witnessed was that with all the discussion about rape, about #MeToo, about everything, we try to simplify those cases and we want to believe that it’s going to be black and white and there’s this awful man and this poor woman. But it’s not like that. It doesn’t mean that what has been done is not awful, but I as I went to some trials, I was surprised because I could see the lawyers were telling the story in a way that it could not have happened because they know if they don’t do that, their client will not be heard. So I felt that for me she’s not less of a victim just because she picks up a man in the bar later in the story. That was also a way to address the fact that those violent cases can mess up with your limits, your mind. Aly’s not perfect, nobody is. But she deserves to be heard either way. It’s the same for him. It’s not realistic to think that Dary is a monster in every aspect of his life. It’s not like that. So we try to consider all of these elements and the different shades in those stories and find a way to deal with it.
The verdict comes right at the end of the movie, but it seems you want the audience to be the judge and the jury and come to their own conclusion.
I had this discussion with somebody watching the film who told me she felt being very judgmental toward Aly and asking why she doesn’t do the medical exam, but at the end of the film thought: why am I asking somebody else to do something that I’m not sure I would do? I think we have this tendency to put ourselves in the judge’s position and wanting to know what happened and wanting proof. But most of the time in these cases there’s no proof. For me, the point of the film is not to judge. For me, it’s clear what happened from the beginning. I imagine myself being in the car, like at the beginning of the film, and just my feeling of wanting to get out and that guy doesn’t let me out, I feel so bad that I don’t need anything else as a proof. For me the verdict at the end doesn’t change anything for them and that was something important for me. The justice system doesn’t really offer what the victims need.
The way Aly is treated by the police and the medical examiner seems very cold and uncaring, showing no sympathy.
When I met some police officers, what I grasped from the exchanges was that they are not mean. The problem is that the woman needs to feel protected, but the police officers I talked with were saying we cannot act that way because we need to be neutral. And the police officer will ask her this and that in an aggressive manner and there are a lot of women that have experienced that going to the police station just adds another trauma on top of the rape.
Anna, the policewoman becomes even more interested in the case than Aly herself. When did you have that idea?
It was more of an instinct at first, because when I started working on the script, I wasn’t sure that Anna would be part of the rest of the story, but I felt that she felt responsible because imagined she knows what the system is going to offer Aly and she was not sure it’s going to work for her. I wanted to tell a story where although the system is not very efficient, some comfort may come from one person in the system. The officer taking the distress call suddenly feels the need to be part of the story and I think it’s important for Aly at the end to have Anna to talk to because she’s not questioning her. Anna’s like, I know that happened, I heard your distressed call, and you can tell me the truth about how you feel now.
I got the feeling that Anna had had a similar experience.
Yes, and because of the #MeToo movement, I thought a lot about women that were in their forties, their fifties, and didn’t have a chance to share what had happened to them. And I felt that Anna might have to live with something like that for years. I felt that Anna recognized something from her own story in the phone call and though she felt not responsible, but somehow linked to the case and wanted to be part of that story.
It also seems that Dary is genuinely sorry for what had happened.
Later on, yes. But the question for me with Dary was more about how do those people tell themselves the story of that night? Do they know they did something really violent and cruel, or do they tell themselves something else? I talked with lawyers and they talked about the denial of guilt by the perpetrator and in the same way victim would establish something like amnesia about her trauma. An aggressor can block the truth and try to tell the story in a way that he feels good about himself. But I asked myself during the writing process, what does this man need in order to face up to what he did, and is the justice system helping?
You made Dary a fireman, who is seen as somebody is doing good work every day and he also lives with his mother and takes care of her.
Yes, because it’s a complex case. And I didn’t want it to be a man living alone in a dark alley. I really wanted the apparent complicity in the crime to be even and I love the fact that fiction can offer me the moment where he realizes, OK, I did something wrong. Because there are so many men that choose a posture of denying or just saying it wasn’t me. And I felt it’s interesting to create a scene where the man says I did it and I feel bad now and it’s going to follow my life.
Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).