Bright Lights Film Journal

Sovereign Remedies: Queen of Hearts to President

A Progress

Boccaccio’s Decameron, written immediately after the Black Death, hints at the arrival of a more egalitarian post-pandemic world. This was especially evident in the new approach to gender relations; and within twenty years The Canterbury Tales had built on this to mark an even higher point in gender-blind discussions of human worth.

Despite subsequent dips in fortune, this was by any standards a huge cultural advance, enabling Chaucer to create — among other delights — that archetypal feminist, the Wife of Bath, whose notions of female soveraynetee turned the medieval worldview up-so-doun.

Six hundred years ago women’s soveraynetee was definitely on the up; and there’s still an edge to its non-supine views of male-dominated Church and State. In this context, soveraynetee has the force of something we might now call personal autonomy — not a concept that helps repress and infantilise women or any other group of “second-class” citizens. (Nor, by the way, does it over-romanticize the lives of uneducated peasants.)

No wonder, then, that one of the most passionate and clear-sighted of filmmakers, Pier Paolo Pasolini, was so often drawn to the spiritual achievements of the much-maligned Middle Ages. Indeed, his ’70s “Trilogy of Life” — The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales, and The Arabian Nights — still conveys a sense of liberation from ultra-conservative social and sexual mores.

Admittedly, such grown-up ideas may seem remote from modern values, particularly those trotted out for inspection in The Queen (Stephen Frears, 2006). The film’s desire to humanise a stiff-upper-lip approach to social duty may help those who thought all royals were androids; but for the rest of us it’s a sentimental Dianafest: a young woman looking for a social role dies and is still not taken seriously, least of all by this film. On that account it does no favours for sovereignty, however defined, and will surely struggle to be an inspiration in years — let alone decades or centuries — to come.

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Continuing to linger in less happy corners I can’t help feeling that, if mere calendars have minds of their own, 2007 is keen to provide yet more bloody confusion for the Middle East — as though it had been enjoying too much peace and quiet. According to one view, the people there actually deserve to be sent back to the Stone Age because, despite all the marvellous chances they’ve had, they cling stubbornly to medieval traditions. In the bleakest scenario — and without relying on anything as unpredictable as Nature — we could all be about to downsize from our present complement of six or seven billion to a more manageable group of six or seven hunter-gathering cannibals. With nothing left to gather and only ourselves to hunt, 2007, Definitely the Last Picture Show shouldn’t be a long drawn-out affair, even with music by Bob Dylan.

Having paused to picnic near this pretty pass, some gender-sensitive ears can hear the cry, “Over to You, Ladies,” from the Capitol to Kabul — especially the Kabul in At Five in the Afternoon (2003). This is from a young Iranian director, Samira Makhmalbaf, whose flair for poetic realism adds to a sub-genre which, from the start, has been one of cinema’s special gifts.

If we’re talking about women in leadership roles, At Five is most effective, I think, when it ignores male expectations — conservative or progressive. This is particularly true of scenes set in a newly re-opened girls’ school, where, as well as reading the Koran, students also voice aspirations to become president of the new Afghanistan — less a directorial irony, more a celebration of the fact that such things really are now conceivable.

But At Five also reminds us of an awful fear of womankind which, among older Afghan men, persists even if it no longer prevails. At one level this phenomenon is as much pre-historic as pre-Islamic and I had mixed feelings about its presentation here. It might be a while since I rushed to turn my face against the nearest wall when a woman passed by; but I wasn’t consoled to see less fearful attitudes only on show among the young.

Not that older guys deserve special affirmation, but in Salima’s first feature, The Apple(Iran/France 1998), age again seems — at first glance — an automatic barrier to progress. In the oddly quiet back lanes of one of Tehran’s poorest districts two young sisters are kept under lock and key by a blind housebound mother and an intellectually blinkered elderly father. The documentary style is more tightly maintained here than At Five; and, oddly enough, this helped me through moments of feeling hopelessly nonplussed by onscreen events. After all, real life can have exactly this effect. At the same time, and easier to explain, the slowly-revealed upbeat trajectory of The Apple Held my attention throughout.

By contrast, some of the personal imagery in At Five together with the deliberately downbeat ending — again implying that all older people are “unprogressive” — for me, at any rate, somehow reduced its impact. But, remembering the security risks for anyone living and working in Kabul, the sometimes irritating over-ambition of the film may reflect the sheer grit needed for its completion.

The necessity to tough things out is also visible, I think, in The Day I Became a Woman (Marzieh Meshkin, 2000). The work of another young Iranian director, here personal imagery and a far-from-upbeat ending are, I think, more convincingly deployed. In an increasingly surreal set of three tales moving through childhood, adulthood and old age, Meshkin’s view of the status of women in Iran is a witty, sometimes confusing, but always gripping account of change and its limitations.

As in Makhmalbaf’s At Five, what I liked best was the implicit marginalisation of male points of view. This is revealed most dramatically in the middle story: one woman, among a group of female cyclists, is determined to risk all by ignoring threats from the male members of her family. (Women who ride bikes must only do so in prescribed areas; and even then they risk almost as much humiliation as women who drive cars.)

Again I found this concentrated focus on the female point of view the very opposite of annoying. On the contrary, such steady determination only deepened my sympathies with women’s struggle against oppression, from whatever source.

As for the courage needed by both men and women to work inside Iran, the sheer volume of high-quality films emerging from that country argues against treating “axis-of-evil” rhetoric too literally. Still on a positive note, Iranian economic recovery from the Iran/Iraq war is shown by the number of exiles now going home. At the same time a steady stream of investigative journalism is also coming out of this complex new society.

Less positively, from the latter source (Rageh Omar, BBC 4 Feb 2007) I was left in no doubt about the “red lines” censorship which, on strict Shariah principles, continues to oversee media output and lifestyle choices. And despite economic progress, the present regime in Iran is still in an undeclared war with the West, carried on by proxy in Iraq. In one sense, this is part of a deadly tit-for-tat game; and it connects, among other things, with the era when Saddam Hussein was “our” Monster-U-Like, carrying on “our” proxy and equally bloody struggle for influence in the region. Tawdry or not, this doesn’t stop people talking about “the defence of Freedom” or “the defence of Islam.”

In the meantime, before feeling too superior about the continuing ban on love songs in Iran, we might remember “our” recent fear of Iraqi WMDs: if many of “us” below the level of chief executive were never convinced of the reality of that threat, I suspect even fewer Iranians are deeply concerned about fatal toxins hidden in Farsi boy-girl lyrics.

The healthy scepticism of non-ideologues the world over may yet get some purchase on the levers of power; and here I find myself remembering FDR’s famous first inaugural address — “We [extended to mean America and all other nations] have nothing to fear but fear itself.” I also remember Pasolini again, this time in the context of the entirely mullah-free homophobic conspiracy that led to his murder.

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Like her Iranian counterparts, and again without a national-debt-sized budget, in Monster (2003) American director Patty Jenkins also takes real events for her starting point; but this time the subject matter draws attention to an irredeemable loss of human potential.

Even so, when the volatile, lonely Aileen (Charlize Theron) and the more passive, family-bound Selby (Christina Ricci) hit the road together, the strength of their new bond encourages in Aileen a briefly joyous view of her own future. In that little moment — like Makhmalbaf’s newly-liberated students in Kabul — Aileen Wuornos allows herself a sky’s-the-limit dream of becoming president!

But even if we hadn’t seen either of Nick Broomfield’s TV documentaries — the first of which British viewers might remember from the early 1990s — we know that, unlike the young women of Afghanistan, Aileen hasn’t got a hope in hell of realising her dreams. Before meeting Selby and while working as a roadside prostitute, she has already shot and killed a “john”; and whereas Jenkins presents this as immediate revenge for a vicious assault, later testimonies from Aileen herself recant on this rather self-exculpating version of events.

Finding common ground, Broomfield’s “real” Aileen is as deeply disturbed as the character in Monster. However, in documentary reality we meet someone who’s less obviously conflicted about dealing out death. The fictive Aileen does have one startlingly believable scene in which she explains to an increasingly worried Selby that, even as the murders mount up, she remains “fine with the Lord.” But Aileen’s supposed emotional turmoil during her various killings left me at best confused and at worst unconvinced. This was particularly true of the final murder where the victim is an aging Good Samaritan, not even a slightly seedy or sadistic “john.” This is a scene which should definitely not be afraid to sicken audiences. But Aileen’s “anguish” before pulling the trigger looked to me more than ever like something tacked on for the sympathy vote.

This is not to ignore the achievements of Monster — particularly Theron’s extraordinary acting. The real-world relationship between Aileen and “Selby” is also an entirely legitimate point of departure for a strong screenplay. And so, if anything fails here it’s surely due to the ultimate impossibility of reaching into the soul of someone who is actually a kind of soul amputee. It’s also only fair to point out that Broomfield, too, makes little headway in his attempts to get closer to Aileen.

Because of such inherent difficulties, I think Jenkins was right not to dwell too much on Aileen’s childhood, terrible though it no doubt was. Overemphasis here would be seen as an excuse and serve only to distance audiences; and it’s illuminating to compare Monster with Fritz Lang’s M (1931) where, in the very first film about a serial killer, the director makes it plain that he’s not going to offer any excuses for his subject’s behaviour. In fact, he pointedly gives M (Peter Lorre) the weakest of moral arguments: the voice of Pure Unreason crying — “I can’t help it.

In a depressing parallel, this exactly echoes what Hitler’s Nazis were also saying at the time; and such bizarrely paranoid views resonate all too closely with the real Aileen who managed to blame the Florida Police Department for the last few murders — because they didn’t arrest her sooner! (At one point the script of The Last King of Scotland — Kevin Macdonald, 2006 — gives Idi Amin a similarly convincing sense of responsibility!)

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If global society is ever to become truly civilised, it must enable women to contribute in more positive and prominent ways across a whole range of social activities. But an old mistake, often repeated, is to expect too much immediate progress; and because of this, we continue to hear that women are no better than men at sorting things. Indeed, when you think of still-prevalent responses to women drivers, “no better than us” is a progressive male stance.

More to the point, “unprogressive” women can be as negative a force as “unprogressive” men, resulting in an all-too general don’t-rock-the-boat mentality.North Country (Niki Caro, 2005) is a modern feminist film that takes exactly this problem on board and — as part of its bigger achievement — brings its egalitarian cargo safely in.

Another reality-based tale, this time concerning women at work, North Country Records an extremely important legal victory for equal rights. But a reality that also hits me is that, as far as I know, Caro’s film has faced no banning orders, which is certainly a sign of progress since the era of the justly celebrated but infamously long-banned Salt of the Earth (Herbert J Biberman, 1953). At last available on DVD, some amazingly good (and mostly amateur) acting brings to life Biberman’s account of a much earlier industrial battle; and in Salt of the Earth women eventually prove decisive in a victory for men.

At the historical level, the men in Niki Caro’s film are seen — somewhat belatedly — repaying the favour. Incidentally, North Country also includes another earth-shaking performance from Charlize Theron as real-life heroine Josie Aimes.

Adult audiences will, of course, always decide for themselves whether the more seriously disturbing features of this or that movie have actually helped extend their moral awareness. In this context, although they sometimes made me squirm with their violent prejudices and lack of moral courage, the fully-rounded portrayals of men and women in North Country certainly expanded my universe. As in Salt of the Earth, the mix of professional and amateur actors is particularly successful. Meanwhile, even the heroine is allowed to appear insensitive, particularly with her parents. Yet this illustrates how far the attempt to change hearts and minds must sometimes go; and what I notice is that this is a more complex and confident feminism than the one generally available in, say, the 1970s and ’80s.

What makes the new feminism so effective is that North Country takes the time and trouble to show everyone caught up in blind fears for their economic survival. In these circumstances, only an immensely demanding act of faith in each other can set people free. But this is the victory eventually won by all.

As I mentioned, no such ultimate hope, however hard-won, is to be found in Monster; so I’m genuinely surprised that Patty Jenkins and crew — encouraged by the AFI no less — feel they’ve worked on a project which identifies “a greater truth.” Although there’s a case for seeing Monster as a stand against capital punishment, after twelve years on death row the real Aileen was, in fact, very determined to die, finally getting her wish in 2002.

For me, the only greater truth we can take from Monster is as clear as it’s coincidental: most of us are gripped by seeing the moral order upset; and any guilt on that account is removed when the bad guys pay in the end.

I was reminded of this while viewing literally the earliest cops-and-robbers films ever made: Daring Daylight Burglary, (The Sheffield Photographic Company) and A Desperate Poaching Affray, (Haggar and Sons). Appearing on a BFI-inspired DVD compilation, both these gems come from 1903 and — as Barry Salt’s commentary explains — are first to exploit the Chase motif.

In both, what immediately grabs our attention is the Law coming off a poor second best to the Crims; and this very basic plot device is what continues to hold us for most of the running time. Though this actually amounts to only a few minutes’ viewing, the capture and subjugation of the baddies can be measured in seconds!

By the end of 1903 The Edison Manufacturing Company’s Great Train Robbery has taken this template and added some intriguing twists of its own. Here it’s ordinary citizens — railway clerks and engineers, the travelling public — who take the initial hits, the Law having been outwitted by the robbers’ cunningly thought-out plans. Again, the eventual re-assertion of the moral order is a comparatively brief affair; but this time, even after the villains have lost a shoot-out with the authorities, The Great Train Robbery ends on a note of menace: one mean-looking cowboy sits close to the camera and fires his six-shooter right at us. (Just when you thought you were safe!)

Despite “primitive” technical values, then, these pioneering films are structured in a way that still feels compelling: desperados — at a safe distance — are always more exciting to watch than civic dignitaries; and, whether it’s edifying or not, such moral dark matter is at least easier to spot than its counterpart in nuclear physics.

By the way, if we’re considering the links between fictional and real-world violence, studies of the effect of pornography on sexual habits may still be our best — and so far our only — guide: briefly, people known to be seriously contemplating or already practising “X”-rated behaviour are also known to temporarily increase such activity after watching “X”-rated films. But don’t tell this to the anonymous heroes at the MPAA — they have enough on their plates identifying all those completely nonviolent but still somehow deeply corrupting sexy bits.

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Short of wiping out the entire world art project, grown-up men and women will always be exposed to material that Dame Edna Everidge would call “yucky.” Dame Edna’s agent, Barry Humphreys, would have it no other way. Nevertheless, huge issues about the presentation of violence in cinema remain. Narrowing this down a bit — and without entirely forgetting the feminist angle of this piece — I end here by looking primarily at two very different films: Turtles Can Fly (Bahman Ghobadi, Iraq/Iran, 2004) and Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron, UK/USA, 2006).

The latter began life in the early 1990s as an apocalyptic sci-fi novel by P. D. James. More famous for her crime fiction, here she imagines a world where no more children are being born; and while T. S. Eliot’s wasteland may spring to mind, Cuaron’s sets take us nearer modern Baghdad and Abhu Ghraib than post World War 1 Europe — also with many more bangs than whimpers.

Among earlier influences, Orwell must be foremost; and this helps elucidate both the film’s strengths and its weaknesses. A world in perpetual and ultimately sterile armed struggle is, unfortunately, no harder to imagine now than sixty years ago, when 1984 was first published; and in Action terms, Cuaron doesn’t fail to deliver any part of this still-important message. Equally unfortunately — as in Orwell’s case — it’s often hard to relate to any of the dramatis personae.

The actors have to play against a ceaseless barrage of noise and an equally monotone visual chaos, which — to their credit — they seem to manage very well. But the rare moments of calm — especially those involving Michael Caine’s Aged Hippy cameo — reveal just how unconvincing and unintentionally lost all these characters are. Solely to blame, I think, is the dead-horse nature of an over-flogged plot: one young black woman is, miraculously (or not) pregnant. Aided by the hero (Clive Owen), she has her baby (a girl). Thanks to the hero’s self-sacrifice, mother and child meet the Rescue Boat in the dawn mist and, we must believe, finally glimpse a Better World.

All the technical skill in the world can’t compensate for weaknesses in story or characterisation, and I wish more directors would remember this. But one thing I’m sure of is that P. D. James has searched honestly for positive female stereotypes: this is not a writer who feels honour-bound to be tough on other women; and so — thank heaven — there’s no snobbery here about “mere” motherhood. (Less divinely, we might thank the fact that P. D. James doesn’t appear to have had an especially abusive mother herself.)

The trouble is that, to appreciate such potentially redemptive ideas, I have to be convinced by Children of Men that this is how global conflict really looks and feels; and at this level, a film that is only pretending is bound to fail.

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While it’s undoubtedly unfair to compare dystopian fantasies like Children of Men With any kind of reality, Turtles Can Fly is an unforgettably convincing vision of what happens when all “security” is simply absent, presumed missing.

Ghobadi’s film is set in a hillside refugee camp on the Iran/Iraq border at the very moment when the “coalition” is about to arrive; and the first thing it shows is that, in a real war-torn world, young children are not so much the exception as the rule. There are, admittedly, a handful of older guys; and among these is a schoolteacher, forced to acknowledge that the kids are doing fine without him, especially with their mental arithmetic. This is because, at constant risk to life and limb, they have to deal every day with finding, stacking — and eventually bartering — land mines, shells and other tradeable goods.

The camp got its TV satellite that way, and everyone can now keep tabs on the (next) impending invasion. “Satellite,” the thirteen-year-old entrepreneur who’s organising practically everything in the camp, would, however, spend even more time in charge of business if some people didn’t keep expecting him to sort their TV reception. Irritatingly enough, this also interrupts his hopeful romance with Agrin, young sister of new arrival Henkov, a boy who — in reality as well as in the film — has already lost both arms in a land-mine incident. But, like all the other young land-mine victims, Henkov is far from completely disabled. Carrying him around by the teeth, he still manages to take care of his blind young “brother” — a toddler who turns out later to be his sister’s own child, born as a result of a rape incident.

Henkov also turns out to have “second sight”; and, in a context where literally nothing can be depended on, this is clearly an advantage.

More immediately, Henkov can also sort out cheeky types like Satellite with a well-honed head butt. Meanwhile, the sun is given full permission to shine whenever it wants; and claustrophobic, colour-drained scenes are not systematically required to alert our sense of imminent apocalypse. On the contrary, fresh air blows across these hills and none of this unpromising material is allowed to work as hand-me-down stereotypes of despair.

Nevertheless, in Agrin’s situation we see something truly terrible. Her own blank terror is repeatedly shown through facial expression and her tendency toward silence and immobility; and, as we discover more about her circumstances, we’re eventually forced to accept the “inevitability” of her suicide by drowning. When this does finally occur, her toddler is also yanked into the water with the pull on a rope tied between them; and this — for all its brevity — is as shocking a cinematic moment as I’ve seen. (We also lose Henkov at this late stage, in the forlorn bid to rescue his relatives.)

But, with the suicide of Agrin, Ghobadi is doing much more than indicate the despair of one individual. He is, in fact, faithfully reflecting a little-discussed and largely male-imposed “tradition” among all women of rural background in this part of the world, something I first became aware of through Sahiba Sumar’s film Silent Waters (2003).

Set in 1947, at the time of Partition in India, Silent Waters is an eye-opening account of events so embarrassing to all sides that they have remained covered up for decades. Nevertheless, in her visually beautiful film, Sumar leaves no doubt about the horrific reality for women in the Punjab, the region most caught up in the turmoil of forced mass migrations. Whether Sikh, Hindu or Muslim, in order to pre-empt rape and murder by gangs from the other side of the ethnic fence, women and girls who had not already been pre-emptively slain by their own men would, more often than not, choose to jump into the village well. Some choice, one might think; and we might even feel the need to find another word than “suicide” for such enforced self-slaughter.

Understood in this light, through Agrin’s story, Turtles Can Fly provides us with as deeply feminist a subtext as any on film; yet, by some, this nuance has simply been missed. Absurdly to my mind, the film has even been seen as just another example of unreconstructed gender bias: males brave and resourceful, females timid and hopeless, etc. But, like others who’ve seen and admired this remarkable film, I found in it something which left me, not angry, despairing or full of “western” guilt, but ready to believe in a gentler version than usual of the indomitable human spirit.

As the “coalition” finally enters the camp, director Ghobadi happens to portray this quality in Satellite and a surviving chum — both now on crutches, both of them continuing to live by their wits, neither of them resorting to weapons of mass destruction. But long before this, Turtles Can Fly has shown me that — like the other heroines we’ve been looking at — half a chance to choose life is, equally, all Agrin wanted.