By Gary M. Kramer.
At this year’s AFI Fest, a quartet of international narrative features depicted the realism of everyday life, as various characters struggled with drama big and small. However, one film reversed that logic. The naturalistic approach of the filmmakers to their subjects and the remarkable performances by mostly non-professional actors make these films highlights of the festival.
The Strange Little Cat (Directed by Ramon Zürcher) is a playful, offbeat little charmer, unfolding mostly in a Berlin apartment. The drama consists mainly of the preparations for a family dinner, and the action is engrossing. The everyday rhythms of the household are punctuated by such things as the youngest daughter Clara’s (Mia Kasalo) shrieking, the pet dog’s barking, and various pieces of machinery making noise. The dialogue between family members informs their characters, as when the mother (Jenny Schily) recounts being touched by a stranger’s foot in a movie theatre, or her daughter describes walking and peeling an orange, noticing that the rinds land white-side up every time. These kinds of small, observational details continue when a child is told he has a loose button, and something stuck to his shoe. However, sometimes the dialogue comes across as a quirky non-sequitur, as when Clara says, “I’m going to clean up the vomit, feed the rat, and dad is a monster,” or someone mentions a spinning bottle, or the caloric properties of fennel following up on a previous topic of conversation. The dinner also yields its odd pleasures—as the laughter that erupts when a sausage is sliced and squirts grease on a diner’s shirt. If The Strange Little Cat never quite builds to a big emotional crescendo, there are still some powerful scenes, most notably of the mother, in the kitchen, contemplating things such as her life and her family. These are things viewers will no doubt contemplate as well.
My Dog Killer (Directed by Mira Fornay) presents a day in the life of a Marek (Adam Mihál), a Slovakian teen who lives on a vineyard with his father (Marián Kuruc) and his dog, Killer. Marek’s father asks him to get his mother (Irena Bendová) to sign papers to sell a flat to save the vineyard, but his mother is reluctant and wants more money. She has been persona non grata since she ran off with a gypsy and had a son, Lukas (Libor Filo), a few years ago. Her unforgivable actions have also had the side effect of poisoning Marek’s status with his skinhead gang. Director Mira Fornay captures Marek’s quiet despair by following him in intimate close-up as he walks around the village, and rides his motorcycle, trying to complete his daily chores and resolve the issues and responsibilities he has been given. My Dog Killer is compelling as Marek finds unlikely solutions, which lead to a criminal act that will have serious repercussions. However, while Fornay’s camera is focused tightly on the characters, her perspective on their actions is detached and non-judgmental. The observational approach presents the region’s attitudes about racial difference—the story’s main conflict—in scenes set in a café, or when a fellow skinhead calls Marek a “crossover” in the gymnasium showers. This lean, mean drama certainly provides a glimpse into the attitudes and lives of its characters, which both scratches the surface and suggests the depths of the nature of the people My Dog Killer portrays, but it is oddly unsatisfying as much as it is unsettling.
Writer/director Kasia Rosłaniec, who made an auspicious feature debut with Mall Girls (2009), continues to impress with her episodic, observational drama Baby Blues about Natalia (Magdalena Berus), a teen mother in Warsaw. Her life is as messy as her apartment. First seen fighting with her child’s father, Kuba (Nikodem Rozbicki), Natalia is fiercely determined to care for her baby Antek. She relies on her mother’s assistance, but that relationship disintegrates when a spat escalates and mom abruptly leaves. Natalia is foolish but proud, and not especially keen to have support from Kuba’s parents, even if she needs it. Her struggle eases slightly when Kuba steps up to his responsibilities, but he would rather skateboard and smoke pot than change diapers—and he does. Natalia would like to finish school, go to college, and pursue a career in fashion, but she is saddled with Antek. In a moment of frustration, she throws a toy at her son, injuring him. How she handles this situation is indicative of her well meaning but dubious parenting skills. Natalie worries about whether she is a “good mother” and it is pretty clear that her own immaturity prohibits her from taking care of herself, much less her child. Rosłaniec emphasizes the “wasted youth” in Baby Blues, with Natalia making very bad choices as she tries to handle too much responsibility (parenting, partying, and a job) at a young age, never mind love. But the filmmaker also shows the youth’s casual drug use and overall ennui that impact their decisions. The film, cast with non-professional actors, is incredibly absorbing, and Berus is absolutely fantastic in the lead role. She deftly captures Natalia’s increasing despair with searing expressions that show exactly what she is thinking, even when Natalia’s fate is sealed in a stunning double whammy of an ending.
Another film that deals with a different kind of baby blues is B for Boy (Directed by Chika Anadu). This outstanding Nigerian drama concerns Amaka (Uche Nwadili), a 39 year-old wife and mother who is pregnant with her second child. There is pressure for Amaka to have a son, as her husband Nonso’s (Nonso Odogwu) family insists their name is carried on to the next generation. But Amaka, who is proud and stubborn, is initially reluctant to find out her baby’s gender so as not to succumb to her mother-in-law’s will. After she learns that Nonso is being encouraged to take a second wife, Amaka relents and learns she is going to have a boy. However, a complication with her pregnancy occurs, and she loses her child. Keeping this development to herself, Amaka discretely embarks on a precarious plan to adopt a baby boy and save her marriage. B Is for Boy builds its dramatic tension as Amaka keeps her secret and meets her expectations to “deliver” a son. This is no easy task. Her relationship with Nonso becomes strained; she is verbally berated and even physically attacked by her husband’s family; and she encounters unexpected difficulties in her private adoption process. Chika Anadu’s feature debut boasts a phenomenal performance by Nwadili. A scene in which Amaka asks the woman who might become her husband’s second wife what marriage is about cuts through the issues of patriarchal and cultural tradition. Wisely, Amaka is a flawed protagonist—she lies and manipulates her situation to save face—and this makes her more extreme actions of hiding her pregnancy, among other deeds, more fascinating. A scene where she confesses the truth to her husband is riveting. B Is for Boy builds to an inexorably tense and provocative conclusion, one that will linger long after the credits role.
In contrast, Congratulations! (Directed by Mike Brune) was a deadpan farce that pivoted on the investigation of a boy who disappears in his home. If the film sounds like a one-joke movie—and at times it is—there are several amusing scenes. One has Detective Skok (John Curran), interrogating the missing child’s brothers. Another highlight is when Rhoda Griffis, in a brilliant performance as the missing boy’s harried mother, pantomimes a re-enactment of the events before and after the disappearance. Eventually, the plot grows more serious, but no less absurd, as Skok forms an odd attachment to the family. Mike Brune, who wrote and directed Congratulations!, explained the precise tone of his film at the festival: “It was silly. We played the comedy straight and took different approaches. The funny parts are sad and the sad parts are funny,” adding that he found “playing it real is funnier.” Audiences who appreciate this low-key film’s absurdities will likely enjoy themselves here.
Additionally, three of the strongest entries at the AFI Festival this year were from Latin America.
Arguably the best film in the festival was Heli (Directed by Amat Escalante), an astonishing drama—Mexico’s Oscar entry—that grips viewers from its masterful opening sequence featuring a truck transporting two tied and beaten bodies. Escalante reveals what this scene means later, but he first introduces the title character (Armando Espitia) as he answers a census taker’s questions. Heli states that he lives with his wife, son, sister, and father in a two-bedroom house, and that he works in an auto factory. His younger sister Estella (Andrea Vergara) is secretly dating Beto (Juan Eduardo Palacias), an army cadet who foolishly steals packages of cocaine, and hides them in Heli’s family’s house. When Heli discovers and disposes of the drugs, he triggers a series of events that include an unflinching and horrific torture sequence. Escalante establishes such realism in his depiction of his characters’ lives that the abuses Heli, Beto, and Estella suffer—both seen and unseen—are unforgettable. But without this realism, the deeper messages of the dangerous control drug and gang life have in Mexico would be diluted. Heli shows the impact of powerful forces on ordinary people as well as the the ethical and moral boundaries they will cross to negotiate their lives in this volatile environment. Escalante’s film is difficult and depressing, but it is a startling and necessary wake-up call to a country’s national crisis.
Another Mexican film, We Are Mari Pepa (Directed by Samuel Kishi Leopo) chronicles the quotidian lives of four sullen teenagers in Mari Pepa, a punk band named half after marijuana and half after a word for genitalia. The film, marking the debut of co-writer/director Leopo, intercuts home movie footage with the characters rehearsing, hanging out, and ultimately being forced to grow up. Alex (Alejandro Gallardo) is the lead guitar in the band, and the central character in the film. He lives with his aunt (Petra Iñiguez), who cares for him but is less tolerant of this music and punk posters that adorn his bedroom walls. His friends include Rafa (Rafael Andrade Muñoz), the band’s drummer, whose mother is pressuring him to go to college or get a job; Bolter (Arnold Ramírez), the singer who forgets the words, and has close family ties; and Moy (Moisés Galindo), the bassist whose girlfriend distracts him from practicing. Much of what occurs in We Are Mari Pepa is inconsequential, but that is part of what makes the film so affecting. The teens try to hang on to their youth as long as possible, because the prospect of adulthood is almost too much to bear. A scene in which Alex considers a job selling a drink product emphasizes this point nicely. But the guys are also somewhat unmotivated when it comes to entering a Band Wars competition. They only have one song—a metaphor for their lives, perhaps? —and, as the film shows, their efforts to write and perform a second tune are difficult. We Are Mari Pepa focuses mainly on Alex, because his life undergoes the greatest change. He loses a number of things in the film—his sneakers among them—and his suffering is poignant and heartfelt. Leopo’s film may have a slight plot, and its style is as unpolished as its characters, but it boasts an energy and appreciation for its slacker characters.
In an interview at the festival, Leopo discussed We Are Mari Pepa (with the assistance of an interpreter):
Your characters are all teenagers coming of age. What were you like as a teenager?
I was very shy. I loved punk rock music. I tried to become a rebel. Like the characters in the film, I was in a punk rock band. It was a window to escape from my everyday life in Guadalajara.
Alex, your film’s protagonist, suffers various losses over the course of We Are Mari Pepa. Why did this theme appeal to you?
It’s a part of my life—winning and losing. Last year, I lost my grandmother. The world is a very dark place, but full of light, too. You lose stuff, but you turn around and find it. Life is comedy and drama. Alex grows up. He thinks he’s losing his friends, but they are always there. In family matters, he has a little brother, and he makes a new connection with him. Life goes on. I wanted to show how reality means he has to have his feet on the ground. This is what makes us continue with life.
There is an appreciation of the slacker lifestyle here. How did you feel these teens in Mexico are universal?
We are all scared of growing up and what will happen in our future, especially as teenagers. In every presentation of the film, young people are always coming up and telling us “That’s my life.” I feel that way. Grown ups also come to us and say, “I was like that when I was younger.” They also say “That’s my son!”
What inspired you—what punk music, or films—connected with you when you were Alex’s age?
Clerks, a lot of Kevin Smith movies. 25 Watts (2001). I love Kaurismäki films—I love his sense of humor, and he loves rock. I love Daddy Longlegs (aka Go Get Some Rosemary, 2009) by the Safdie Brothers. I love the energy of Cassavetes, which is very fresh and musical.
How did you work with the actors in the film?
We shot the movie with a lot of confidence. Every scene, we hit the dramatic points. It was a combination of improvisation and scripted. We gave the actors a camera and asked them to shoot a day in the life of the characters.
Another Mexican/Spanish co-production, La Jaula de Oro (Quemada-Diez, 2013) played at the AFI Fest. This incredible drama depicts the lives of a handful of Guatemalan teenagers who ride the rails to cross the border into America. Although it is a familiar/traditional immigrant saga—a cross between Sin Nombre (Fukunaga, 2009) and El Norte (Nava, 1983)—what distinguishes La Jaula de Oro is its absolute authenticity. The main characters include Sara (Karen Martinez), who disguises herself as a boy so as to protect herself from abuse; Juan (Brandon Lopez), and Chauk (Rodolfo Dominguez), an Indian who does not speak Spanish (and none of his dialogue is subtitled). What they experience on their journey is best left to be endured and discovered, but it goes without saying that viewers will want these teens to survive and thrive.
Director Diego Quemada-Díez, who wrote the story and co-wrote the screenplay, spoke at the fest about how he came to create La Jaula de Oro: “Ten years ago I met a taxi driver and he invited me to a train [station] where migrants ask for food. I started listening to them, and I listened to over 600 migrants. Their testimony created the narrative. I also felt a lot of indignation for the way they were treated within the United States and in Mexico, Guatemala, and Central America. There is a big hypocrisy about the issue of migration and the relationship between the north and the south. The focus is on the militarization of the border and on repression. Over half a million migrants are in jails in the United States. Their only crime is to cross a line that in a way is totally absurd. I wanted to question that. I wanted to question borders and all these artificial creations that separate us and talk about what it is that unites us as human beings. Through the conflict of a mixed-race Guatemalan, one who believes in the Western model, and an indigenous, I thought I’ll have them clash, and the characters transform through meeting.”
He continued, “All the details come from the research. I met a girl who told me she [posed as a boy] as Sara does. You incorporate that—it’s like playing Lego. You have all these pieces. You start choosing. ‘I’ll take this one, but not this one,’ and you start building this thing. All the pieces are from reality. It is a construction, but it has to serve what you want to communicate, which is that we need to start questioning. It was an external journey about the political situation between the north and the south, and it was also an internal journey of a character who was looking to realize his dream for a better life.”
Quemada-Díez also spoke about his methods for making the film: “The way we worked was shooting the film in chronological order, so the kids lived an experience. I saw over 6,000 kids before I chose the ones I did. They were all artists, so I told them it was an extension of their creative expression in a way. I encouraged each and every one of them to share their truths. As I shared my own truth. It’s a license to look within. We did a workshop to try to get their masks to fall off and for them to connect with their essence. Part of the concept of the film was for all the migrants in the film to be real. So the idea was to insert the protagonists in real situations—in the villages, in the trains, in the factories. And they had a real journey. We actually took the entire journey—3,000 kilometers from Guatemala all the way to the United States.”
Gary M. Kramer is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and co-editor of the forthcoming Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.