Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Sydney Film Festival, Day 5: Dolan's Dud, An Afghan Rapper, and "Indian 'Bridesmaids'"

Managing expectations at film festivals can be tough. In some cases, the film is brand new, either celebrating its premiere or simply very obscure outside of the festival circuit (I would estimate at least half of the films showing at this festival will never see a US release). In other cases, the films arrive on a wave of hype from previous screenings, whether by winning prizes at other festivals or coming from high-profile filmmakers who typically inspire raves. Knowing what to expect from any film varies significantly from very high bars to practically no bar at all.

It's the former that greets It's Only the End of the World (grade: C), Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan's latest feature. The film, which won the 27-year-old the Grand Prix (essentially second place) at Cannes last month, tells the story of Louis (Gaspard Ulliel), a young man afflicted with a terminal disease. He travels home for the first time in years to tell his mother (Nathalie Baye), brother (Vincent Cassel), sister (Lea Seydoux), and sister-in-law (Marion Cotillard) about his diagnosis, but old resentments and arguments get in the way.

If the above grade is any indication, the film did not live up to its lofty expectations. Instead of a rich family drama, the film is 90 minutes of awful people yelling horrible things at one another.

More after the jump.

That's not to say that this type of film can't be worth watching: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? could be described in exactly the same way, for example. But where Edward Albee's play and Mike Nichol's film found the tortured humanity in its monstrous characters, Dolan fails to provide this family with shades other than varying degrees of hatred. Instead the film plays out like an empty exercise in music-video aesthetic and overwhelming close-ups, giving the impression that Dolan was more interested in the surface of the film than its substance.

That's not to say that there aren't positive elements to the film: even though Ulliel is an empty shell of a character, Seydoux does a remarkable job of creating a genuine, affecting relationship with him. Her Susanne's aching desire to reconnect with her older brother is heartbreaking and visceral; it's a pity that the rest of the film doesn't deserve her effort. The rest of the cast, including the typically reliable Cassel and Cotillard, depend too much on actorly tics to sell their characters as human beings. Dolan has called this his first film "as a man;" unfortunately, it seems he tried too hard to prove his maturity with this empty exercise in histrionics.

What do we expect from a documentary, however? Do we expect "the truth," something that film will never capture? Or do accept what the filmmakers present, no matter how questionable it can be at times? And what role does the filmmaker play in the presentation of the subject matter? These are all questions I found myself asking after seeing Sonita (grade: B+). The film is about Sonita Alizadeh, a teenage Afghan refugee living in Tehran who aspires to become a rapper, despite the nation's strict laws against women singing and her family's desire to sell her for marriage.

There's no question that this is an important documentary for its subject matter alone. Sonita is incredibly resilient despite her desperate situation, and she makes for a very engaging subject. Her music is also excellent: a music video interlude that she records in the middle of the film is remarkable for the dual power of her lyrics and the images she conjures. The film raises important light on the treatment of women under both Taliban rule in Afghanistan and Iranian society, as well as the struggles facing refugees everywhere.

Yet there's a moment about halfway through the film in which filmmaker Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami steps out from her position as an observer and gets directly involved in Sonita's life. On the one hand, her involvement is what helps Sonita get out of her situation in Tehran and find success as a musician, both of which matter greatly considering the dire consequences Sonita was facing. On the other hand, Ghaemmaghami's involvement directly raises questions of documentary ethics, since from then on she was personally manipulating the narrative of her film and the content that audiences would see. It was arguably the right thing to do, but it also can't help but feel disingenuous and even a bit self-serving. Sonita's story demands to be heard, but one can't help but wish she had got to tell it herself a bit more.

Telling your own story is also the theme of Angry Indian Goddesses (grade: B), a film that has been dubbed the "Indian Bridesmaids." This, however, is misleading, as the only similarity between the two films is the setup. Frieda (Sarah-Jane Dias) is getting married, and so she's summoned her friends - aspiring actress Joanna (Amrit Maghera), corporate bigshot Suranjana (Sandhya Mridul), singer Madhurita (Anushka Manchanda), trophy wife Pamela (Pavleen Gujral), activist Nargis (Tannishtha Chatterjee), and housekeeper Lakshmi (Rajshri Deshpande) - to join her for her wedding. Everyone comes with their personal problems, and as the festivities carry on the women discuss everything from street harassment to Bollywood to sex.

Make no mistake, the film does present itself as a comedy, and there are plenty of genuinely funny moments. The cast has an easy chemistry with one another that makes them believable as longtime friends, and director Pan Nilan keeps things fairly breezy for a good portion of the running time. In fact, for the film's first two acts it's a perfectly functional (perhaps overly so) feel-good movie where female friendship and compassion bring everyone together, and each character works out their personal problems and learns valuable life lessons.

But the film has more on its mind than that, and it's the third act that sets it apart. Without getting into too much detail, an unexpected act late in the film makes explicit the feminist issues that the women had discussed throughout the film. Though the transition is a bit abrupt, it is justified: the film is stealthy angry at the status and treatment of women, as well as the LGBT community, in modern India, and it culminates in a final image that feels entirely earned. If the film is tonally uneven, it's at least righteously angry and willing to make a bold statement about it.

Tomorrow: we start transitioning out of the busiest part of the festival for myself with a restoration of the Australian crime classic The Boys and an impressive debut from a Chinese filmmaker.

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