Bright Lights Film Journal

Floating Bridges: Caution: Children Crossing

Subtitles for the hard-of-believing

One of the strangest facts about film on DVD is that it is not — in the original sense of the word — cinema at all. “Home cinema” is a lovely idea, but compared to public screenings it’s a much more personal experience, no matter how big the screen or surround sound and no matter how crowded your house. By the way, have you been getting out to enough films lately?

The answer, of course, depends on who “you” are. People in many parts of the globe have no guilts about this, if only because they still have no choice in the matter. In Africa, for example, if there’s a cinema near you it’s likely to be a travelling show which, by definition, often leaves the village cinema-less. And even if you do have your own movie theatre, its offerings will tend to reflect anything but local circumstances.

Luckily this has never stopped the “universal” story from being a hit from Taipei to Timbuktu. On the other hand, among filmmakers and audiences, resistance to a “western” idea —or any one-eyed view from whatever part of the compass — is one of the themes of our time.

For its increased human perspectives the new pluralism must be welcomed, but it has come trailing some old problems. One of the most nightmarish of these is a belief that global culture is heading towards a Babel-like fragmentation. In this deeply paranoid scenario, the clearest voices are those we should most suspect. Yet if we do still manage to find examples of multilayered cinema, surely this represents — at best — the latest example of bourgeois propaganda, made for and enjoyed by those with no idea of life’s brutal simplicities. Forensically minded teenagers in England have already sussed that the peddlers and users of this “multilayered” stuff are “emos” — pronounced “eemoes”: “emotional” people who are only depressed because they haven’t got anything “real” to be depressed about.

Though it’s a while since he was a teenager, one famous emo-spotter is director Mike Leigh. I may be doing Leigh an injustice here, because it’s a while since I sat through one of his films. Come to think of it, I don’t honestly remember ever achieving the feat, so those who compare Lukas Moodysson with Leigh may have it right. Though I doubt it.

Admittedly, Moodysson’s Together (Tilsammans, Sweden, 2000, right) doesn’t exactly pity the poor bourgeois. For uncondescending sympathy of that kind, Le Gout des Autres (Agnes Jaoui, 2000) is an unexpected gesture from French cinema and a sign of interesting social change in France. This, after all, is the country which more than any other has sharpened its intellectual claws on the “uncultured” and “insensitive” gentilhomme; so perhaps it’s no coincidence that it’s taken a female director to widen the view that Frenchmen take of themselves.

Despite its Swedishness, Moodysson’s Together has at least one Gallic laugh at the expense of a literally middle-aged, middle-class wanker. Moliere would have been proud. Even so, judging by the film’s comparative lightness of touch, social divisions are not as nailed-on in Sweden as in Leigh’s Britain — if only because they are nowhere more rigid than in Leigh-land.

The positive upshot is that Together shows a believable mix of human traits without serving a ready-made philosophy based on class, money or gender. Some might say this is what artists do anyway, but for the moment, we’ll stick with the human portraits.

No subtitles are required to see that the adults in their 1970s collective are awash with inconsistencies — just like the adults who aren’t in it. The result is that their children — even pre-teenage — are driven into forensic postures of their own. But while we’re encouraged to side with the kids, we’re also able to keep on caring about their idiot parents, hoping desperately they’ll finally get a bit of sense and realise who and what they value.

The same kind of honest yet ultimately hopeful child’s-eye view leads us through Yoji Yamada’s Twilight Samurai (Tasogare Sabei, 2002, right). Counterpointing the emotional drift of Together, and with equal emotional power, Yamada’s film shows an already “sensible” father being forced reluctantly back into a world of extremes. That his daughter understands these circumstances and continues to see him as a hero is a point excellently made.

By comparison with this kind of honesty — one that isn’t stripped of all hope — the view from directors like Leigh seems preconceived and unfaithful. And, as Leigh appears to be using my mother tongue, I feel all the more the absence of truth — complex or otherwise. Subtitles for the hard-of-believing?

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Of course, hopelessness can still be presented credibly and powerfully, too. Among recent films I think immediately of Dogville (Lars von Trier, 2003). But my main concern here is with pluralism: what audience does a film seek to address? And then — even more interestingly — what audience does it actually reach?

“I didn’t really think that it was a film that would be shown outside Sweden.” (Lukas Moodysson to Danny Leigh, Nov 2002, Guardian Unlimited). This kind of directorial comment — adjusted for the appropriate country — could surely apply to many films. Apart from Together, a trawl from my own recent viewings would include Mooladé, (Senegal) Shower, (China) and Goodbye Lenin! (Germany).

The German film (Wolfgang Becker, 2003) concentrates its energies on the effects of Reunification from an entirely East German perspective. I don’t know what Becker has said about his intended audience, but it’s unlikely to have been self-consciously internationalist. Even in local terms, Becker sets himself a challenge: to evoke the nostalgic pangs felt by people moving peacefully from a much worse to a much better world. Finding serious “difficulty” here would seem only to make immediate sense to masochists or — more sinisterly — to people of an anti-democratic persuasion.

Becker’s answer to this problem looks equally implausible: a young man’s mother falls into a coma just before the very moment of reunification and doesn’t regain consciousness until a number of big changes have already occurred. The hospital warns that recovery is only temporary and any shock could bring about her death. The son, bringing in as many co-conspirators as he can, decides to create an illusion of an unchanged communist world around the bed-ridden mother.

Not just as surrealistic entertainment, for me this improbable story works extremely well. Unbelievers placed within the story — not least the hero’s girlfriend — help sustain credibility. But what really secures attention — and at the same time opens the film to appreciation by a wider audience — is its subtext about tender loving lies.

The mother in Goodbye Lenin! has brought up her family alone, concealing the many letters Dad wrote home. Then, when she herself is unwittingly at the centre of an elaborate lie, she reveals the truth about these letters, yellowing behind a kitchen wall cupboard. Of course, it’s very communist to lie and create false dreams for ourselves and others. And yet it’s very bourgeois, too, or so it seems. This is precisely where Goodbye Lenin! goes beyond its target audience to attain crossover potential.

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If “crossover potential” simply means trading on a common European heritage, Becker and Moodysson seem certain to become more internationally known than directors from, say, Africa or China. As inevitable as this kind of cultural bias might be, an over-manipulative idea of universality still mars many archetypal Hollywood productions and this continues to prick sensitive “western” consciences.

On the other hand, to counter what can become a rather pointless breast-beating exercise, one can sense a similar problem of cultural inertia when watching films far removed from the west coast of North America. I’m thinking of an element in Chinese cinema, where it’s possible to feel that yet another highly motivated giant is out to grab us in its world-circling, life-crushing embrace.

Back in reality, films — east and west — tend to display more variety than these critical paranoias would suggest. Having much more to offer than “cultural inertia,” Shower (Zhang Yang,1999) is a moving and funny account of the pangs of modernisation. In this context, it compares extremely well with Goodbye Lenin!. Aimed at local audiences, yet acting as a floating bridge to other dreamers, Shower is centred on the local bath-house — part all-male club, part hygiene facility. Traditional culture is here threatened by the fact that, simply because it is not modern, it must give way to something better. As the bulldozers finally move in, the intended audience will certainly muse on the more brutal outward effects of progress. But before that, via the manager of the bathhouse and his grown-up sons, they will have had a chance to witness and feel the intimate impact of change on people’s lives; and again this is where a wider audience is engaged.

Seeking to enlarge an important debate in modern China, Zhang bravely suggests that “tradition” is not always the same thing as “backwardness.” Largely because of mid-20th century Sino-Japanese history — suppressed until recently in both countries, by the way — this is a social nuance which still causes more of a frisson in Beijing than Baltimore. But insofar as progress is a double-edged sword everywhere,Shower is a well-told and brilliantly acted story with universal resonance.

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Well-made films from around the world therefore give us windows onto a shared humanity. But we’ve also been seeing that many of the best “windows” are not specifically made for that purpose. Ousmane Sembene “the Father of African Cinema” — is particularly clear about this: he’s making films for African audiences; more than that, now in his eighties he wants to help other filmmakers to develop their own African tradition.

Therefore, when we come to Mooladé (2004), those of us with limited awareness of African realities are, at times, going to struggle to keep up. The fact that the film is a dedicated attack on female circumcision also makes no compromises with “western” ideas about accessibility.

For me, however, these difficulties are worth facing — if only because of the increasing relevance of its theme. It so happens that — because of recent trends in human migration — “westerners” in general and medics in particular are seeing more and more of the results of “excision.” Sembene himself points out that the practice is widespread over much of sub-Saharan Africa; and so it’s clear that, however barbaric, the issue is not confined to a few scattered tribes. Even from a non-African point of view, then, the film has a bigger raison d’etre than might have been supposed. But it might still be asked what, if anything, can non-Africans take from it?

First, it should be stressed that — as a story — this film is not the unmitigatedly sombre spectacle one might have feared. Mooladé means “sanctuary”; and the dramatic tension of the film centres on the attempts of one woman, herself a victim of the “cut,” to save others from its life-threatening after-effects. With a length of thread tied below knee height, she literally creates a magic space around her hut and courtyard inside which the latest batch of intended victims are “safe.”

Sembene’s handling — especially his use of mostly untrained actors — may remind us of Rossellini (Francesco, Guillare di Dio, 1950) or Pasolini (Decameron, 1970). Like these European masters, Sembene turns what could so easily be a block to audience involvement and makes it the very key to feeling that we, too, are inhabiting the world he depicts. And this is all the more startling for those of us with no previous experience of life in a West African village, where modern education and technology are frequently set alongside much older cultural norms.

As for the main trajectory of the story, we see Progress again taking on Tradition, though this time, by comparison with Shower, a clear moral victory is there to be won. In an immediate sense, hope is offered by the fact that most of the girls remain unharmed, and civilisation, as seen by the proponents of excision, doesn’t come to an end. Meanwhile, however, the struggle has cost lives and is clearly far from over. Sembene is therefore another filmmaker prepared to deal with harsh realities and still speak believably of hope.

Whatever the intended audience, this is what makes Mooladé faithful to reality and, at the same time, psychologically endurable. It also allows us insights into an otherwise hopelessly cruel and alien-seeming idea. Why, indeed, does “excision” seem so vital to its supporters? Mooladé reveals not just the understandable terror of young girls facing imminent mutilation but the equally fear-driven motives of the would–be mutilators. This is because the film makes vividly apparent a deep-seated belief that — for girls — social success depends on marriage, which in turn depends on the “purification” of genital excision.

Clearly, no progress can come about here unless people see that it ain’t necessarily so — that their future survival, their self-esteem and the prospects for their children are not, in fact, dependent on this blind and brutal ritual. In terms of the film’s deepest structure, Colle, the heroine of Mooladé, is the living proof of this. Through her, though many questions remain, not only has a still small voice been heard, but one full of ferocious intelligence. With it Mooladé speaks to any society which abuses its young in the name of culture.

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If the new, more pluralist global society is to be any better than its predecessors, a proper care for the young — male and female — is fundamental to our hopes. In another recent Chinese film, Beijing Bicycle (Wang Xiaoshuai, 2001) “the tragedy of youth” is centred on a group of male teenagers. An innocent country boy comes to the big city to work as a courier; his bike is stolen and sold to a “middle-class” youth, who has, in turn, stolen the money for the bike from his parents. The links with de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves are obvious enough; but, for many of us, the modern film is saddled uncomfortably with — and finally punctured by — these older associations. That Beijing at the start of the 21st century is nothing like Rome immediately after World War II is only the first of several jarring disparities. For me, the most damaging to Wang’s film are those concerned with structure and pacing.

Where de Sica closely follows the brilliantly focussed script of Cesare Zavattini, driving on the story of one young father and son — Wang’s attention is somehow more straggling, perhaps affected by an over-ideological concern with “the re-emergence of class in China.” Because of this, though he finds credible dramatic tension between the isolated, uneducated country boy and the socially embedded, “middle-class” city youth, Wang’s film feels increasingly over-predictable: a “tragedy” is going to happen here, whether we’re convinced of its inevitability or not.

The twisted wreck that Beijing Bicycle becomes should, therefore, trouble us more than it does. There is, after all, a portrait on offer of all those loveless, testosterone-fuelled young males — an indirect and unwanted consequence of China’s birth-control policies. Looked at in the best possible light, Beijing Bicycle may help China as it struggles to get the right balance here. But political comment and art make a notoriously tricky combination — even when artists are not dealing with a one-party state. Here, I feel again the presence of that grab-happy giant mentioned earlier. In fact, however, Beijing Bicycle — as a China/France/Taiwan co-production — is a reminder that giants of any kind don’t fit well into little boxes.

Mooladé takes on a much more dreadful giant of its own and makes an excellent case that this one really has to be slain. For those who feel that abolishing the genital mutilation of women in Africa is a doomed ideal, I’ll just add this. Recently coming across a study of foot-binding practices in China, I found that, for a thousand years or more, people accepted that a woman’s entire prospects were tied to this other deeply rooted and crippling tradition. Then, in the ’20s and ’30s of the last century, within a single generation foot-binding was completely eliminated, once and for all. That this was accomplished in the name of revolutionary communism may bother some of us; but — if you happen to be female and living in China — such a detail probably seems less than totally perturbing.

Society’s attempts to become more humane — wherever they occur — should, perhaps, always carry a health warning. Nevertheless, Sembene is among those telling us not only that some changes are worth making for their own sake, but that the ensuing rewards can be achieved this side of paradise. Better still, on the road to more sustainable hopes, it seems that guns, bombs and class war aren’t always essential to the cause.