Bright Lights Film Journal

Dislocations: The 58th Thessaloniki International Film Festival (2-12 November 2017)

No Date, No Signature

Emblematic of the prevailing sober atmosphere was the festival’s Invisible Hands Tribute, a series of five films about the erosion of workers’ rights, unemployment, and collective action.

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If films are a chronicle of their times, then the lineup at the 58th Thessaloniki International Film Festival does not bode well for humanity. Bitter tales of dislocation, economic insecurity, and political extremism dominated, and excluding a few amusing or quirky works, little on screen offered any lightness.

Emblematic of the prevailing sober atmosphere was the festival’s Invisible Hands Tribute, a series of five films about the erosion of workers’ rights, unemployment, and collective action.

The most compelling of the series was Spanish director David Macián’s work The Invisible Hand (La mano invisible, 2016), an offbeat, and ultimately dark, view of labor as spectacle. In a bare, spot-lighted industrial warehouse that doubles as a stage, 11 workers carry out their jobs in front of an audience that is heard but not seen. The butcher cuts meat, a telemarketer conducts surveys, a bricklayer builds a wall, an IT worker stares into his computer, a seamstress sews, and so on. Once each task is completed, the workers destroy their finished product and begin again, as if locked in a private Sisyphean hell. Add to this an efficient manager with a clipboard periodically appearing half in shadow to convey a message from a boss who, like the audience, is a mystery.

The tension that runs throughout the film is whether the idea is to cast light on the “art” of skilled labor or that we are all merely “performers,” interchangeable and always a never-ending supply of actors to meet the production needs. In Macián’s Brechtian take, the audience is alienated from the laborers/performers on stage, but viscerally so rather than in a contemplative, critical-thought mode. Those on stage are booed and catcalled, garbage is thrown, and at one point several people charge the stage and wreak havoc. Yet the workers continue.

During the Q&A after the screening, Macián spoke to the workers’ inability to reject their oppressive conditions, stating, “Maybe because of unemployment in general we are afraid to react … we are not willing to say no …. We are angry, unsatisfied, but we have to work. Unfortunately, people under conditions of oppression and fear make mistakes.”

In The Invisible Hand, it’s hard to discern if art is imitating life, life is imitating art, or in this instance the two have simply fused. Whatever your viewpoint, one thing is abundantly clear: the workers do not benefit.

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Fizzy in design but serious in its wish to portray the hardships of the working class is the French musical Julie and the Shoe Factory (Sur quel pied danser, 2016), directed by Paul Calori and Kostia Testut. Julie (a lovely turn by Pauline Etienne) is an unemployed twentysomething desperately seeking a permanent work contract. We watch as she crisscrosses picturesque countryside towns on an old Vespa, fruitlessly interviewing for one awful job after another. She finally gets a break – a trial period preparing inventory in the Jacques Couture Luxury Shoes factory. Julie’s happiness is short-lived, however, as one day into her new gig management announces the company is downsizing. The workers, nearly all of whom are middle-aged women, decide to take a stand and call a strike in an effort to save their jobs. Julie now faces a new challenge: keep her head down or join the strike.

Julie and the Shoe Factory

In the twirl of pastels and sunshine and dance numbers amid shoeboxes is the grittier theme of women fighting for their survival in an inhospitable labor market. In the film’s biggest musical number, Julie and her colleague snoop around the factory’s old design studio, singing wistfully about the beauty of a bygone design era as a dizzying montage of shoe styles, the women who wore them, and the women who stitched them is splashed in vivid color across the screen. Although in the end the women’s strike action succeeds, there is a distinct aftertaste that this is only a temporary victory. For despite CEO Monsieur Laurent’s (Loïc Corbery) assurances to keep the factory open, his side comment that the women’s “Chinese counterparts are cheaper and quieter” portends that another necessary rebellion is just around the corner.

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When a middle-class man in his mid-fifties is abruptly sacked from his post as an engineer at a power plant, along with 40 percent of his colleagues, all manner of oddball events begin to happen in director György Kristóf’s picaresque Europudding production, Out (Slovak Republic, Hungary, Czech Republic, Latvia, 2017).

Ágoston (gamely played by Sándor Terhes) is at loose ends after being downsized, his life’s purpose and his identity thrown into disarray. An offer to work in the dockyards of Riga strikes him as a good idea. More Candide than Odysseus, Ágoston sets off from Slovakia on a bus journey across Eastern Europe only to land in Latvia and discover the job he applied for doesn’t exist; it was a scam. Stumbling in his high school Russian, he realizes he must offer a bribe to get work and so pays up. Yet soon his xenophobic boss fires him, and in his search for another job he meets a host of characters, including a Russian of questionable ethics and a woman who gives him a taxidermied rabbit that inexplicably has no ears. In the end, robbed of all his possessions and utterly alone, Ágoston finds himself on a fishing trawler throwing unsellable catch back into the sea for the gulls to eat.

Amid Out’s absurdist situations is the steady note of displacement and fear. Everyone Ágoston meets is self-serving in some way, outsiders striving to get ahead, if not become insiders, too. Images of rusting shipyards, fading Soviet-era power plants, and lots of stale 1970s decor emphasize that one’s survival depends on having an eye for the main chance. The opening and mirroring closing shot sums up Ágoston’s plight, and that of so many workers like him: thousands of beautiful silvery fish trapped in a net with no hope of escape.

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Although not part of the Invisible Hands Tribute, Araby (Brazil, 2017), written and directed by Affonso Uchôa and João Dumans, offers a compassionate portrait of an itinerant laborer in the Brazilian interior. Cristiano (nonprofessional actor Aristides de Sousa) roams from place to place taking on menial employment, often backbreaking, to keep body and soul together. Despite much privation, there is genuine if fleeting friendship and love with those whom he meets, including a tangerine farmer, a secretary in a textile mill, and a group of day laborers in a rock quarry. These encounters together with the beauty of the landscape give fuller shape to the dimensions of Cristiano’s life.

Dumans acknowledged that cinema cannot change in a “practical sense” the enormous inequities confronting societies today; however, he noted it is important to recognize that “all lives are rich, complex, and full of contradictions and not just made up of suffering and oppression.” And in this meditative nonfiction/fiction hybrid, Araby provides us with a deeper look into the circuitous path that fate bestows on all of us.

In keeping with the spirit of the Tribute tickets for these screenings were free.

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The competition films are similarly full of references to modern-day social crises, only these works tended to dwell on the internal, spiritual malaise brought about by external forces that have the power to upend lives and communities.

This angst is tangible in Ravens (Korparna, 2017), which took first prize, the Golden Alexander, in the competition. Directed by Jens Assur, a former prize-winning war photographer, Ravens is set in rural Sweden in the late 1970s. The harsh, endless labors of farm life are contrasted with starkly beautiful images of the countryside: pastures blanketed in snow, birds in flight, fields of wheat glinting in the summer sun. The land is both a balm and a curse for Agne (brilliantly played by Reine Brynolfsson), a tenant farmer struggling to maintain his farm and traditions in the face of oncoming modernization. He is suspicious of technology, viewing it as synonymous with encroaching displacement. Yet a lifetime of toil has left him exhausted. “Everything is going against me. I can’t take much more … forty years, what have I got to show for it,” he complains bitterly to his stoic wife Gard (Maria Heiskanen). Agne is anxious for his teenage son Klas (Jacob Nordström) to follow in his footsteps, but the boy has other dreams. Klas loves birdwatching and wants to leave the farm to study.

Nature is a double-edged sword, and in Ravens it is both the setting and the metaphor for this eternal father-son, tradition-modernity conflict: the beauty and the freedom of birds captivate Klas, and he spends his time looking upward at the heavens. He has no desire for the Spartan life his father has led, and the changing times point the way toward his liberation. Agne, on the other hand, is as heavily immersed in the soil as the obstinate stones he laboriously digs up to clear his fields. He is both pitiable and admirable for the sacrifices he has made, but it is hard not to applaud Klas and hope against the odds that he does not end up a prisoner of nature’s caprices like his father.

Iranian director Vahid Jalilvand’s No Date, No Signature (Bedoune Tarikh, Bedoune Emza 2017) won second prize, the Silver Alexander, for its nuanced portrayal of class, guilt, and grief. A seemingly innocuous traffic accident sets in motion the drama, whose protagonist is the exacting Dr. Nariman (Amir Agha’ee), a forensic pathologist. One night while driving home his car is sideswiped, causing him to swerve and hit a motorcycle carrying a family. The father, Musa (Navid Mohammadzadeh), his wife Leila (Zakiyeh Behbahani), and infant daughter are fine, but their eight-year-old son, Amir Ali, may have a slight concussion. Nariman offers to take the family to the hospital. Musa refuses, but accepts money from Nairman to fix the motorcycle’s broken headlight and promises to go to a medical clinic ER. As they all drive off, Nariman signals to Musa where to turn for the clinic, but Musa drives past and the family fades into the night.

A few days later, Amir Ali is brought into the morgue. Nariman’s colleague (or perhaps it is his wife; the relationship, although close, is never made clear) Dr. Sayeh Behbahani (Hediyeh Tehrani) performs the autopsy and determines the child died of botulism poisoning from tainted food. It turns out that Musa had bought cut-price chicken meat from a man who worked in a poultry factory. Yet Nariman believes it may have been the accident that caused the boy’s death and orders that the body be exhumed so he can perform a second autopsy. Nariman appears determined to find himself culpable and, in effect, ruin his life.

Beautifully shot, the film’s somber emotional tone is enhanced by the stylized imagery, which is drained of nearly all color so that it almost seems a black-and-white movie. The mournful visual accent is a match for the emotional intensity of Mohammadzadeh’s performance as the grief-stricken father. The ferocious scene where he returns to the factory to confront the man who sold him the poisoned chickens is heart-wrenching and arguably the best in the film. And it is here where the divide between the rich Nariman and the impoverished Musa is thrown into stark relief, for only the poor are forced to buy questionable foodstuffs under the table for cheap.

There are plot holes in the script, such as Nariman’s self-destruction and his relationship with Sayeh, that can leave the audience scratching its head, but the film’s emotional power saves the work from its inconsistencies.

The stage for Russian Kantemir Balagov’s bleak social-realist drama Closeness (Tesnota, 2017) is the North Caucasus, in the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic, where a poisonous mix of religious, political, and ethnic divisions wreaks havoc on the lives of its inhabitants. The story, based on a true event, unfolds in 1998 within the small Jewish community in the region’s capital of Nalchik – and a more wretched town would be hard to find.

Ilana (a riveting performance by newcomer Darya Zhovner) works in her father Avi’s (Artem Tsypin) auto repair shop and is something of a tomboy, sporting coveralls and grease-stained hands with pride. She is also engaged in a furtive, sexually fraught affair with Zalim (Nazir Zhukov), an ethnic Kabardian, which drives her pious and emotionally suffocating mother Adina (Olga Dragunova) to distraction. One evening, family and friends gather to celebrate the engagement of Ilana’s beloved brother, David (Venjamin Katz), to a local Jewish girl. Soon after, the family’s life is overturned when a Kabardian gang kidnaps the couple and demands a steep ransom. Desperate, Ilana’s parents sell the family business to a wealthy local Jewish family for less than its worth and agree to an arranged marriage for Ilana with the family’s bland son. When Ilana is told of the agreement she revolts, clinging ever tighter to her boorish boyfriend.

The grimness of this mud soaked post-Soviet region is magnified by the handheld and contained camera work (4:3 aspect format), which seems to follow only inches behind the characters and exacerbates the prevailing sense of claustrophobia and estrangement. These perceptions quickly fade, however, in comparison to the film’s most shocking component: Zalim and his friends watching an old VHS tape of actual footage of the 1999 Dagestan massacre of Russian soldiers. The inclusion of this snuff film caused angry walkouts in festivals where Closeness was screened, Thessaloniki included. Surely an ethical line is crossed when embedded in a narrative are people dying for real. Balagov easily could have implied what was happening off-screen or restaged the event, leaving out the most gruesome details. In press notes, Balagov stated that the tape is something he and his friends found when they were teens, and it was the first time he was “confronted with death.” That’s not enough of a reason, nor can there ever be enough of a reason, to this viewer’s mind, to add such horrific material. (I covered my eyes during the entire episode.)

If you can get past the inclusion of the video, Zhovner is a compelling actress to watch, and she paints a complex, realistic portrait of a woman seeking her place in a fractured world.

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In the non-competition Open Horizons section, Palestinian filmmaker Annemarie Jacir’s third feature, Wajib (2017), is a direct and moving commentary on the deleterious effects of being uprooted and disenfranchised.

The film’s title is translated as “duty,” and it is this duty that sets the film in motion. In the local tradition, Abu Shadi and his son Shadi (played by the real-life father-and-son team of Mohammad and Saleh Bakri) set out to hand-deliver the wedding invitations of Shadi’s sister Amal (Maria Zreik). Much of the action takes place in Abu Shadi’s well-worn car as the two drive from one relative’s or friend’s house to another, dropping off invitations, politely drinking coffee, and in general maintaining community bonds. Shadi, who returned from Rome to perform this duty, finds the whole affair an anachronism, and his hipster style of dress and man bun identify him as the outsider. His father, on the other hand, deeply believes in the need to keep the ritual alive.

Shadi’s righteous indignation throughout the trip – he complains about the trash, the suffocating manners and pretense, the destruction of historic buildings – and Abu Shadi’s attitude of realpolitik represent not only a generational divide, but also the more acute division between those who remain in Palestine and those who are part of the diaspora. Abu Shadi is the realist, the one who knows how to negotiate the fraught landscape of Nazareth, the film’s setting, and survive. Shadi, who refuses at every turn the indignities and injustice of life under occupation, expresses his anger with a freedom that only those living in exile can fully demonstrate. No matter that their differences seem unbridgeable because the sad truth remains the same for them both: Whether they live abroad or in Palestine, there is still no end to the calamity that has befallen their homeland.

In an effort to shed a bit of light at the end of this tunnel of pessimistic films, a special mention must go to the sensitive and ultimately hopeful film Menashe (USA, 2016), by Joshua Z. Weinstein. Shot in and around Borough Park, Brooklyn, in the notoriously closed Yiddish-speaking Hasidic community, the feature was inspired by true events in the life of the main character Menashe (nonprofessional actor Menashe Lustig playing himself). As a widower, Menashe is not allowed to raise his young son Rieven (Ruben Niborski) unless he remarries, as religious custom dictates a child must be brought up in a two-parent home. This causes Menashe great unhappiness. He loves the boy, but he is also skeptical of marriage as his first one was a miserable experience. A hapless grocery clerk who can’t seem to get out of his own way, Menashe has a hard time convincing his Rabbi and severe brother-in-law Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus), who has custody of Rieven, that he can be responsible enough to take care of his son. The film follows Menashe through his bumbling yet hdeartfelt attempts to prove he is up to the task.

Weinstein is a documentary filmmaker by training, and his images of daily life in Borough Park have a poetic yet edged quality that feels part John Cassavetes and part Dardenne Brothers. Scenes of prayer meetings, a New York City bus stop where all the signs are in Hebrew, groups of men in traditional outfits of long black coats, high black hats with their payot (side curls) swaying from side to side as they walk, and Menashe, sloppy in dress  – he refuses to wear the customary black coat – yet joyful when singing religious songs or drinking with his Spanish co-workers at the grocery after a night’s work or simply walking down the street with his son as twilight descends, all lend a sense of immediacy and poignancy, a stolen view from inside Menashe’s world.

Within this portrait of a very specific and largely hidden culture is the universal message of a father’s love for his son, which transcends all barriers. One can’t help but cheer Menashe on.

Despite the overcast outlook in these films, they’re a sobering reminder that the arts can be a critical weapon in the fight against oppression, providing a rare space in the public discourse for the marginalized to be seen and heard.