Sunday, January 29, 2017

201. Iranian director Reza Mirkarimi’s Farsi language film “Dokhtar” (Daughter) (2016) (Iran): Fallouts of a father-daughter protective relationship within a patriarchal, conservative Asian perspective

The year 2016 saw the release of two very interesting award-winning films from two countries from two continents.  Both films deal with the father-daughter protective relationship under different patriarchal scenarios.  Daughter is an Iranian film and presents an interesting tale set in a society where the male members of the family protect their wives and their daughters until they are married with a ferocity that might surprise many in Western developed countries. Graduation is a Romanian film with another interesting tale where the father travels the proverbial extra mile to ensure his daughter benefits from a prized graduate education outside his country that will help her in future life. 

The only basic difference between the two films is that the women in Romania enjoy a greater freedom of action compared to the male dominated Iran.  In both films, the women have the last word. How interesting it is to find parallel tales emerging from two different communities that grapple with the same concerns almost simultaneously!

The brave educated daughter (Merila Zare'i) who makes a trip to the country's
capital Teheran against her father's wishes

All over Asia male members of a family fiercely protect their wives, sisters and daughters to the extent that some women are killed to protect the family honour if they choose to have a relationship with a man who is not acceptable to the family.  In the film Daughter, the Iranian family is an educated upper middle-class one. The father is a respected technocrat in a large factory in Esfahan (Isfahan) with lots of workers under his supervision. His daughter goes to college and is popular with her female classmates. One of her classmates who is leaving Iran invites her and other classmates to Teheran for a final get together. The daughter wants to attend, confides her wish with her mother, who in turn informs the father. The father turns down the request having concerns for her safety in a strange city. Without the permission of the father, she buys a return air ticket with the intention of returning the same day before her father notices her absence. The young lady attends the get together but despite her best intentions her flight that she boards in cancelled before take-off. The scared young lady has an asthmatic event and has to be treated at the airport.  This is mainly the prelude to the film.

The daughter on her own

Though the film is titled Daughter, the film is essentially about the father. The busy well-meaning technocrat is worried and offended—and has a temper to boot. His only daughter is in medical trouble in a strange city. Beyond the storyline, the director is presenting the world of women in Iran. Women in Iran are increasingly educated and wish to move freely within the country and interact with friends of their own sex. The patriarchal system restricts such activity to “protect” the women. The viewer learns, as the film progresses, that the father has a sister in Teheran, whose marriage he did not approve and had consequently cut off communication with her in anger.

The daughter (center) with her college friends
contemplating choices to make in life

Director Mirkarimi’s scriptwriter is another male Iranian Mehran Kashani , who wrote the script of Majid Majidi’s The Song of Sparrows (2008) and Hamid Rahmanian’s Daybreak (2005). Mirkarimi and Kashani take pains to show the world of the daughter’s aunt with care. The aunt loves her brother and niece. When in trouble the daughter takes refuge with her aunt. Emancipation of the Iranian ladies permeates through the film, while men are shown as the emotionally weaker sex despite their outward bravado. Director Mirkarimi is credited with an earlier feature film Under the Moonlight (2000) which created a lot of interest at Cannes for its social and religious content. Three of Mirkarimi’s feature films were official Oscar submissions from Iran. In 2017, instead of Daughter, Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman was the official submission.  (And the Farhadi film has made the final nomination for the Best Foreign film Oscar, as I write this review.)

The father (Farhad Aslani) looking at his sister's life empathetically
for a change
The father begins to empathize with the
women family members he controlled

Mirkarimi seems to be a director good at asking interesting questions through his films. Mirkarimi’s Daughter not so innocently makes a case for the women of Iran as its closed society evolves in a male dominated nation.  Its case for the ability of educated women to make informed choices in a patriarchal world is placed before the viewer. It is not a religious cleric who realizes his past mistakes but an educated technocrat who can run a factory efficiently, who stumbles when it comes managing his family. Daughter makes an environmental comment on pollution in Isfahan as a flight landing is stated as the reason for the cancellation of domestic flight. Mirkarimi and Kashani do not rock the boat and leave the film's closing open ended. That’s clever Iranian cinema. The direct and indirect messages come through, both for the Iranian and foreign audiences. The control the father has over the family has parallels with the control the country has or tries to have over its citizens.

Daughter is not just important for carrying a social message, it shows the maturity of Iranian cinema's screenplay writing and direction capabilities under strict censorship laws. 

P.S. Daughter and Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman are two outstanding Iranian works included in the author’s top 10 films of 2016—the only two films from Asia. Graduation, a Romanian film, mentioned in the above review is also on this list.  Daughter deservedly won the Golden Peacock for the best film at the International Film Festival of India-Goa, as other films competing were not of consequence. Daughter also won the best actor award for Farhad Aslani who played the role of the father at the Moscow International Film Festival.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

200. British director Ken Loach’s film “I, Daniel Blake” (2016) (UK): Portrait of an aging, honest, well meaning, elderly citizen forced to retire by a health condition, “nothing more, nothing less”

Several directors in Europe have in recent years made outstanding award-winning films on the subject of working class bread-winners losing their jobs and trying their best to claw back to a life of normalcy by finding another.  The processes are devastating in each case. Foremost award-winning examples are Stephen Brize’s Measure of a Man (2015, France) and the Dardennes bothers’ Two Days, One Night (2014, Belgium). I, Daniel Blake continues to lead the viewer along the same paths of the  films but with a difference—the film underscores the inhuman apathy of government employment systems for those suddenly forced out of work. All three films have a common thread—when you are out of work and cannot find another—a sudden camaraderie develops between the unemployed and others who have faced similar situations.

I, Daniel Blake is an outstanding film of 2016.  It is a film that combines good direction (by the 80 year old veteran filmmaker Ken Loach who returned from retirement to make this film), a marvellous and credible screenplay by Paul Laverty (Loach’s colleague for the past dozen films), good editing,  and two very creditable performances by the main players.  It is not surprising that the film was bestowed the Golden Palm (Palme d'Or), the top honour at the year’s Cannes film festival, to Loach for the second time in 10 years.

There no room for a missed appointment for a single mother, with two kids
and little or no money, at the Department of Work and Pensions, because she
boarded the wrong bus to get there. The emotions on all the faces are so real!

What makes I, Daniel Blake stand out among the three films is Paul Laverty’s ability to infuse wry humour in the carefully chosen words spoken by its characters. Words matter in this film. The film opens with a dark screen.  Then you hear a telephone conversation –a conversation between Daniel Blake, a 59-year-old carpenter who had a recent heart attack or a cardiac event, resulting in a near fall while working on a scaffolding and medically advised not to resume work, and an anonymous employee from the British Department of Work and Pensions quizzing him about all his physical conditions except his ailing heart condition only to file a report on Blake that is obviously and quixotically incomplete and misleading.  This conversation sets the mood of what follows—the apathetic world of bureaucracy that does not believe in empathy for those suffering from a medical condition that prohibits working in their chosen trade.

The good carpenter is good with his hands and quite literate. But he is not computer literate. The British Department of Work and Pensions works on-line, on telephone, and very rarely face to face.  How does Laverty put it into words? Here is a fine example. The British Department staff tells Blake “We are digital by default.” Blake, who has had a rough time posting his applications on-line answers the bureaucrat sardonically, “I am a pencil by default.” Carpenters work considerably with pencils. This is not flowery writing—the script is socially loaded beyond the obvious repartee.

The audience can only agree with Laverty and Loach when Blake calls the Department a “monumental farce.” One is reminded of the Cuban masterpiece Death of a Bureaucrat (1966) directed by Tomas Gutierrez Alea, in which a widow of a dead bureaucrat cannot access her widow’s pension and benefits because a critical identity card was buried with her husband’s body in the coffin and the Communist bureaucrats refuse to process her benefits without it.

Both Laverty and Loach teams up film after film to present us individuals who struggle to survive in a social world that sweeps them away because of incidents that they cannot control or intended to face.  The Cannes’ Palme d’Or winner The Wind that Shakes the Barley (2006) where the main character joins the IRA after he clearly made up his mind not to do that after witnessing a life changing incident involving British troops or the comedy The Angels’ Share (2012) where a young Glaswegian narrowly escapes prison sentencing and subsequent troubles by a chance visit to a Scotch whisky distillery which ultimately leads to a well paid permanent job. In Tickets (2005), a group of well-meaning football-crazy Glaswegians on a train journey in Europe find one of them have lost their ticket, possibly stolen and suddenly have to grapple with future consequences of that situation that makes them more socially responsible.  The dozen films of Loach and Laverty build on Loach’s Kes (1969) written not by Laverty but by a book by Barry Hines, where a young middle class school kid, given little sympathy at home and in school takes interest in training a pet kestrel by reading a book that he steals from a bookstore.  Pre-Laverty and with Laverty, Loach has dealt with characters whose lives change by events that were not planned.

What Laverty brought on Loach’s table was spoken language that seemed to have a visual power beyond that of the camera.  “A pencil by default” is not something that you capture by the camera; the viewer has to figure out the connection between a pencil and the world of the carpenter. Apparently the film's script was prepared with help on inputs from real jobless urban poor who had to seek financial and food assistance in the UK and their experiences. The brilliance of Laverty’s screenplay writing comes towards the end of the film, when the curriculum vitae that he was forced to learn to write for getting a Job-Seekers’ Allowance is read out at his “pauper’s funeral.” What is read out, are words that we never could have guessed were written on the pieces of paper Blake was handing out to prospective employers. And at least one did respond positively.  What is written by Blake is Laverty’s magic that no camera could have captured. Daniel Blake is, as stated in his own words in his CV read out at his funeral “a citizen—nothing more, nothing less.

Daniel Blake (Dave Jones) and Katie (Hayley Squires) during one of the most
gut-wrenching scenes set in a food bank for the urban poor:
"You have nothing to be ashamed of. You are all alone with two kids. You are amazing."

I, Daniel Blake does not belong exclusively to director Loach and scriptwriter Laverty. It belongs to two other talented individuals chosen by Loach—actor Dave Johns who plays the character Daniel Blake and actress Hayley Squires who plays who plays Katie, who accidently crosses the path of Daniel at the British Department of Work and Pensions facilities. Now Katie is single mother of two kids. She has been uprooted from London to Daniel’s town and arrives at the office late because she boarded the wrong bus. Laverty’s magic allows both these two wonderful human beings to meet when there being knocked around by the unfeeling bureaucrats, by a "Laverty" accident. It is not surprising that Ms Squires has been nominated for a BAFTA award but it is surprising that Dave Jones has not been nominated for the restrained power of the performance, his first in a feature film. But then one needs to congratulate Loach for picking these two main actors.

Director Loach has a team that he works with on his recent films beyond the talented Laverty. A major team member is film editor Jonathan Morris who has worked with Loach longer than Laverty.  The editing in I, Daniel Blake, does not grab your attention until the ultimate “pauper’s funeral.”  Another member of the Loach team is the cinematographer Robbie Ryan who worked on the three last Loach films I, Daniel Blake, Jimmy’s Hall, and The Angels’ Share. It only shows that the Loach team has constantly evolved but the best of them tried and tested stay with Loach.

I, Daniel Blake is undoubtedly the best work of Loach and deserved the Cannes honor. 

P.S. I, Daniel Blake and Paradise are two outstanding works included in the author’s top 10 films of 2016. Loach’s The Angel’s Share (2012) and Tickets (2005) were reviewed earlier on this blog and the former is one of the author’s top 10 films of 2012. Two other films mentioned in this review The Measure of a Man (2015, France) and Two Days,One Night (2014, Belgium) were also reviewed earlier on this blog. Mr Loach is also one of the author's 15 favourite active filmmakers.