Tag Archives: female directors

Angelique’s Isle

Sault Saint Marie, 1845: a trading post. A beautiful young Ojibway woman named Angelique (Julia Jones) marries a French-Canadian voyageur named Charlie (Charlie Carrick). The newlyweds sign up to work at a camp during the copper rush and set sail for Lake Superior’s Isle Royale in search of a more prosperous future. Fortunately or unfortunately, they’re a little too successful. They find a whole boulder’s worth of copper, only it’s too big to take back on their little barge. The company men leave Angelique and Charlie behind to ‘guard’ their find. Two weeks, they’re told, though Angelique is reluctant – that boulder has sacred carvings on it, and she knows it shouldn’t be removed.

Alone on the island, Angelique is haunted by nightmares of residential school and her life before. She and Charlie tough it out with minimal food and dwindling hope, but as you might have guessed, those Detroit folk were not exactly honourable. Weeks turn into months. The no longer wait for a boat, they wait to die – of starvation or cold is the only question.

As she waits for death to claim her, surrounded by the undeniable beauty but also savagery of the land, she is visited by the spirits of her ancestors and her inner demons. Angelique isn’t the only one to be visited. It’s going to be a long winter for everyone involved.

Directors Marie-Hélène Cousineau and Michelle Derosier obviously have a feel for and a respect for the land. A Canadian winter can take your breath away both literally and figuratively. As this particular winter drags on (and all Canadian winters feel about 16 months too long), Angelique will have to rely on traditional ways to ensure her survival, and her spirituality to guide her. Cousineau and Derosier have chosen well with Jones as their heroine; Angelique is strong and fierce. She is worthy of our attention.

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Marks of Mana

According to Samoan legend, two goddesses intended to give tattoos, traditionally called “tatau”, to the Samoan women, but on their long swim to Samoa from Fiji the goddesses got confused and gave tattoos to men instead.  Marks of Mana offers a look at a number of women who are now reclaiming the art of tatau for themselves as well as for the memories of their ancestors, and reporting these tattooing ceremonies as being a life-changing experience.marks of mana

This documentary begins in Samoa, naturally, as we meet a female chief and her family of seven (grown) children.  One of her five daughters is about to get her malu, which is a thigh tattoo only for women that is both a coming-of-age moment and a ceremonial recognition and affirmation of a woman’s connection to her ancestry.  Meeting this family emphasizes the historical standing of women to Samoa’s indigenous people, as equals and leaders rather than as less than men.  Similar longstanding “progressive” attitudes are on display at other South Pacific locations as well, such as Papua New Guinea, as it’s a consistent theme that women’s tattoos signify their knowledge and power within their societies.

Of course, the power that women traditionally possessed in those societies was suppressed, stymied and rejected by the island’s colonizers, who saw no problem with imposing their backwards, misogynistic cultures on the Samoans.  The absurdity of that transaction and the colonizers’ arrogance in forcing their values on the Samoans and others is subtly displayed by this film in each of its segments, and nicely displaces the false narrative that colonizers were welcomed by the colonized because they improved the colonized societies with their intrusion.

The version of Marks of Mana shown to me was unfinished (the main omissions were subtitles and one segment out of five).  Having seen the work in progress, I am eager to see the finished product because what has been created so far is a valuable, enlightening and uplifting look at the ceremonial aspect of Polynesian tattoos and the healing power of reclaiming one’s cultural traditions.

Marks of Mana is screening as part of Toronto’s ImagineNATIVE Film & Media Arts Festival on October 19, 2018 at 11 a.m. at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

After The Apology

The stolen generations. That’s what they call the many, many Aboriginal children who were taken out of their homes and put into care outside their families and community. Ten years ago, the government issued an apology for its past transgressions and Aboriginal peoples were gratified for the acknowledgement of their pain and suffering but it didn’t take long to recognize the apology as a hollow one. ‘Sorry’ means you don’t do it again.  But they did. In fact, in the following years, the number of Aboriginal kids apprehended by the system nearly doubled. And even though their own policies in the care and protection act supposedly prevent this, Aboriginal children are 10 times more like than non-Aboriginals to be taken away from their parents, and 70% are removed entirely from their communities.

When I read the movie’s synopsis, I assumed this film was Canadian. It is not. It is Australian. But their story is our story. We have these issues here too.

MV5BM2YyY2EwNTgtNjg2YS00NDk1LWFhZDctYmQ5MWVlMTg0MzVhXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTAxNTY0MjI@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1509,1000_AL_Aboriginal people have been through a lot, historically, and still. Snatching children from out of their homes is among the most destructive of them. It breaks down their culture, their language, their family ties. It robs them of identity.

In most cases of family and children services, children are removed because of domestic violence, mental illness, and drug/alcohol abuse. It’s hard to argue against those judgments, though individual situations vary. In the case of Aboriginal children, the reason most often cited is ‘neglect’ and that’s a harder one to address. Often this label of neglect is assessed by middle-class white ladies who don’t understand the culture or can’t see beyond the poverty. The cupboards aren’t well stocked but the children are not hungry. There may not be a crib in the house, but the baby is loved and cared for according to the family’s values. The system  is racist. Plain and simple. Its many inadequacies are illustrated (sometimes literally) by the stories in this documentary.

Director Larissa Behrendt focuses on four grandmothers in particular who are taking on the system on behalf of their communities. It’s a brilliant approach that personalizes the cause and leaves us with a bit of hope. It’s a look toward the future, but one informed by the mistakes of the past, which we cannot afford to ignore. This documentary insures we do not.

 

 

 

Pariah

Pariah: 1. A person without status 2. A rejected member of society 3. An outcast

Alike is a Brooklyn teenager coming to terms with her identity. Or rather, she knows herself to be gay, but feels how deeply unacceptable that is to the world around her. Her mother is desperate to shape her in her own image: she buys her clothes that are worlds away from what she’d choose for herself, she chooses friends she deems appropriate and bans the ones that aren’t. Her father calls her a daddy’s girl, and she is, she’s much closer to him, but she still can’t share the side of herself she’s afraid he’ll reject.MV5BMTg1ODg0NTA1NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjY1ODg4Ng@@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,999_AL_Pariah is one of those unassuming movies that punch you in the gut. It’s written and directed by Dee Rees (Mudbound) and it’s got such a specific and unique angle that it’s unlike anything else in the genre. Alike exists on the periphery of her community; Rees situates her in a familiar black, urban neighbourhood, one that’s rarely if ever been seen in a queer movie. Rees grounds her character in authenticity; Alike is shy and often quiet, but she’s always thinking. She’s an exceptional student and a brilliant poet but she doesn’t need words to communicate her frustration and sorrow. Adepero Oduye may be a fresh face, but she was absolutely the right choice for the role. She is present, commanding, assured.

Rees has an eye for shooting city streets. Their grit seems to reflect the heaviness of Alike’s heart and the conflict she feels between who she is and who she’s expected to be. Rees doesn’t flinch away from the difficulties in coming out. She has us encounter conflict head-on. But even as things get worse at home, Alike finds the strength and courage to be the hero we all need, but most of all a hero to herself, claiming her identity no matter the consequences, honest about who she is and what she’s worth. It’s a tremendous movie, really, one that rises to its heroine’s occasion – when Alike chooses herself, it’s the most beautiful we’ve ever seen the city. Both are breath-taking.

Pariah established Dee Rees as a director of note – she’s got something to say and a visual style to back it up, a real feast for the eyes and a jolt to the heart.

 

 

Furlough

It’s a bad time for corrections officer Nicole Stevens (Tessa Thompson) to get away. It’s always a bad time. She lives with her mother (Whoopi Goldberg) and cares for her round the clock when she’s not at work. But go away she must. A prisoner’s mother is dying and Joan (Melissa Leo) has a 36 hour death bed visitation furlough coming – supervised by poor, beleaguered Officer Stevens.

C.O. Stevens is distracted, and Joan is a master manipulator, determined to squeeze every MV5BZmJhOGNiZWMtNmVhYi00YmJhLTkzMzEtZDEwNjRjMDg4NjcwXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTMxODk2OTU@._V1_SY1000_SX675_AL_last drop out of this respite. The trains and buses upon which they rely are predictably unpredictable, and Stevens is just a little too trusting, a little too good-hearted. Joan does not have this problem.

You watch this movie with dread, knowing something is going to happen, something bad, and you almost don’t want it to. Despite Joan’s self-centered assholeness, you kind of buy into this ultimate odd-couple road trip. It will be sad to see it end.

Tessa Thompson is all kinds of wonderful. She’s overwhelmed by the assignment but too dutiful to refuse. She’s a caretaker who wants to see the best in everyone. Joan has lived a hard life, the details of which are only hinted at. We don’t know how long she’s been locked up, but she sucks in fresh air like it’s in limited supply, so I believe it has been a while. She’s shifty and nervy and she pushes Stevens’ buttons. She pushes MY buttons. And yet Leo gives her just enough charm that we can’t quite write her off. Whoopi has a smallish role but it’s kind of great to see her on screen.

Director Laurie Collyer knows she’s got us hooked based on the cast alone, and the movie doesn’t quite live up to its promise. It feels slight. It does a gender flip and a race flip but still winds up feeling less than 48 Hrs. Leo isn’t really up for the over-the-top comedy, and the movie fails to shift gears to accommodate dramatic moments. It’s a good try that doesn’t quite pan out. For me, it’s totally worth it to bask in Thompson’s radiance for an hour and a half, and since it’s on Netflix, there’s not much to lose.

Seder-Masochism

When director Nina Paley’s father was on his deathbed, she and he had conversation about Passover that turned into a discussion about her long-ago decision to drop out of college to pursue her art, and how he wished she would have found a way to increase her savings.  It strikes me as a typical conversation between a father and daughter, particularly a Jewish father and daughter.  But it becomes much less typical when animated into a conversation between seder masochisma bearded dollar bill and a goat.  Those pieces form the heart of Seder-Masochism, a unique look at the story of Exodus from the perspective of a couple lapsed Jews.

In between, the story of Moses is told as a musical, with the Jews dancing their way through oppression in Egypt and then chaos in the desert to a collection of toe-tapping classics, one of which, naturally, is “Go Down Moses”.  Underlying the whole thing is the reality that in escaping from under the Pharaoh’s thumb, the Jewish patriarchy remained a source of oppression for women.  Paley admits that she had no idea how to seder masochism 2resolve the conflict between the Jewish God and the goddesses, but she does an excellent job of highlighting that conflict in the sunniest way possible.

The animation, all done by Paley, is unbelievably cheerful and bright, contrasting in every way with the subject matter.   That cheery art style, combined with the upbeat soundtrack, ends up making the film feel even darker as we see these awful events depicted as if in a Saturday morning cartoon, enhanced with the largely upbeat (and unlicensed) music.  Paley was up front about not having paid for the music in order to keep costs down while using the songs that best fit her vision.  The strongest scenes from the film, though, are those featuring the conversation between Paley and her father, as they are funny and starkly honest at the same time.

Whether or not you know anything about Judaism or Exodus, Seder Masochism is a well-made, charming, and surprisingly personal film.  And once Paley has completed the festival circuit this fall, she plans on making this movie available for free, so you’ll soon be able to see Seder Masochism yourself even if you aren’t able to catch it on the festival circuit.

Private Life

Rachel and Richard are a couple their niece Sadie looks up to – their tiny NYC apartment has cachet because of they live and work in the arts. When she drops out of college, it is natural for her to turn to them for support and a place to crash – much cooler than her parents’ place in the suburbs.

But as Sadie’s parents know, Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) and Richard (Paul Giamatti) aren’t exactly living a carefree life. They are deep in the throes of a fertility struggle. They’ve tried everything, and they’re still trying multiple strategies at once, which requires MV5BMTUyNTMyODc4Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMjk5ODg1NDM@._V1_SX1500_CR0,0,1500,999_AL_careful juggling and judicious lying (the adoption people want to hear that IVF is behind you). Like any couple wanting a baby they can’t have, they’ve suffered heartbreak. As the technologies and treatments proliferate, so too does the potential for loss. These people have suffered in ways my privileged uterus hasn’t even heard of – including a catfishing scam I can only wonder at. Still, Rachel and Richard persist, even in the face of their family’s disapproval and the strain on their bank account and the stress on their marriage. But they balk when the doctor suggests an egg donor – or Rachel does, feeling cut out of the deal. But then the young woman living in their home starts to feel like an option – it’s just a delicate matter of how to ask the vulnerable, tetherless niece to do something that will affect her profoundly for the rest of her life? Is that even fair?

This is a movie about fertility, but even more so, it’s a movie expressing rage against the lie that women can have it all. Rachel has delayed kids for career and the price is high. Her husband is sympathetic but ultimately this is her worth as a woman being questioned and her body betraying them, even as she ravages it with attempt after attempt. Private Life is about the ebb and flow of hope and what it does, long-term, to a marriage.