- David Parkinson
Parky At the Pictures (21/10/2022)
(Reviews of The Gravedigger's Wife; Confetti; and Big vs Small)
THE GRAVEDIGGER'S WIFE.
Born in Mogadishu, but long resident in Finland, writer-director Khadar Ayderus Ahmed has come a long way since collaborating on the screenplay for the 2008 short, Citizens, which was directed by Juho Kuosmanen, who was acclaimed earlier this year for Compartment No.6 (2021). Having produced the short, The Night Thief (2017), the 41 year-old Ahmed makes his feature bow with The Gravedigger's Wife, which has become the first Somalian title to submitted for the Academy Award for Best International Film.
Gravedigger Guled (Omar Abdi) lives on the outskirts of Djibouti with his wife, Nasra (Yasmin Warsame), and their adolescent son, Mahad (Khadar Abdoul-Aziz Ibrahim). Life is hard, but the couple make do and remain passionately in love. However, Nasra has a kidney abscess and her medication is no longer having much effect. But the couple simply can't afford the $5000 required for an operation in Ethiopia.
Ironically, Guled relies on death for his livelihood, as he and his pals spend their days sitting outside the local hospital waiting for fatalities. But, having seen how weak Nasra becomes after they gatecrash a wedding, Guled contemplates returning to the village where they are persona non grata having eloped when Nasra was promised to another man. However, he needs to stay with Nahad, who keeps bunking off school and getting into scrapes with his friends.
Unable to bear seeing his wife in such pain, Guled entrusts her to Nahad and sets off for the village. It's a long trek across parched land and he has to tie his shirt around a cut foot after a pair of borrowed women's shoes slow him down. Meanwhile, Nahad enterprisingly makes all the money he can playing bar football and helping passengers find their bus at the depot. He also cooks for Nasra and she tells him the story of how she met his father at the precise moment he relates it to the nomads offering him hospitality.
Limping into the village, Guled is informed by his mother that he forfeited his right to a share of the goat herd and the elders uphold her judgement. While Nasra is undergoing emergency surgery (thanks to a kindly female doctor), Guled is left beaten in the wilderness by his brother and he is returned home on the back of a pick-up truck. Nahad's football lands in it and he chases after the vehicle, as the screen cuts to black and we are left to wonder how Guled and Nasra will fare.
Having neatly set the scene by establishing the married couple's bond and their contentment with a hardscrabble existence, Ahmed allows the vein of subtle satire to seep out as he contrasts life in the town and the countryside. He's ably abetted in this regard by Finnish cinematographer Arttu Peltomaa, who dimly lights the Djibouti interiors that keep the characters close together and the scorching expanses that emphasise how far they are apart.
Somali-Canadian model Yasmin Warsame conveys gentle elegance, as the suffering Nasra, who reveals a cheeky side in using a goat to gain entrance to the wedding. She sparks well with Omar Abdi, whose distaste at having to chase ambulances to make a living prompts him to make a foolhardy barefoot pilgrimage home, where he has no idea of the kind of reception awaiting him.
Ahmed merely touches upon issues pertaining to tradition, family and Islam (we never see Guled pray, for example). But he capably captures the realities and injustices of life in the Horn of Africa, even though the cross-cutting between Guled and Nasra's plights lacks the same sophistication. Much more impressive is the way he uses elision to skirt melodrama and keep the viewer engaged, as the resolution to scenes is delayed and disclosed with finesse.
Writer-director Ann Hu has had a remarkable life. The daughter of an official at the Ministry of Propaganda who translated the words of `The Internationale' into Chinese, she had the rare privilege of seeing a handful of Western films during her childhood. She also became one of the first wave allowed to study abroad at the end of the Cultural Revolution and took a business degree at New York University.
In 1987, however, she met Chen Kaige, who was part of the Fifth Generation of film-makers who had transformed the look and luck of Chinese cinema with films like Yellow Earth (1983), The Big Parade (1986), and King of the Children (1987). His enthusiasm convinced Hu to quit her career and undertake a two-month intensive film course at NYU. Returning home, she produced the 16mm drama, Dream and Memory (1994), before spending five years raising the funding for her debut feature, Shadow Magic (2000).
This fact-based account of the coming of motion pictures to Beijing in 1902 won the prestigious Golden Rooster Award. Hu followed it with Beauty Remains (2005), which is set around the time of the Communist takeover and centres on two sisters united by a fear of their entrepreneurial father and a passion for an ex-boxer. Subsequently, Hu was away from features for some 15 years, but now returns with Confetti (2019), which has been partially on her own experiences.
Chen Lan (Zhu Zhu) is a janitor at the school where her seven year-old daughter, Meimei (Harmonie He), has just enrolled. It soon becomes clear that she has difficulty reading and writing, but visiting American teacher, Thomas (George Christopher Tronsrue), recognises that she has dyslexia. Lan tries to find a local school to help, but decides that Meimei will prosper in the United States because she has an affinity for English. Tailor husband Chen (Li Yanan) has misgivings, especially as Lan can't speak English. But mother and daughter fly to New York, where Thomas has arranged for Lan to become the housekeeper to wheelchair-bound author, Helen McClellan (Amy Irving).
Helen is trying to finish a book and isn't amused that Lan has fibbed that she was a teacher at Thomas's school, when she is actually illiterate. However, she warms to her visitors and opts not to turf them out, as Lan takes sewing, cleaning and massage jobs (without a visa) in her determination to help Meimei. She also finds Meimei lively company and, when she puts a confetti screensaver on her computer as a gesture of gratitude, she is reminded her of the son she had lost in an accident.
Therefore, when Helen discovers that the local public school has deposited Meimei in a remedial class, she pays $5000 to have her evaluated in the hope of securing a scholarship to a specialist school called Horizon. It has a two-year waiting list. But the principal, Dr Wurmer (Helen Slater), is won over by Lan's dedication and offers her a place when an international student drops out.
Lan is thrilled, but quickly becomes despondent, as she wants Meimei to learn quickly so that they can return home. Helen tries to reassure her, but it takes Wurmer doing her own research into Meimei's talent that convinces Lan her daughter is a genius who needs to stay to fulfil her potential. Her mind is made up when Meimei creates a digital animation telling their story and this inspires Lan to learn to read and write herself.
A closing caption lists some of those who suffer(ed) from dyslexia and went on to
achieve great things: Ludwig van Beethoven, Winston Churchill, Tom Cruise, Leonardo da Vinci, Walt Disney, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, John F. Kennedy, John Lennon, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Pablo Picasso, Steven Spielberg and George Washington. Muhammad Ali is also mentioned during the film itself and it's a shame there wasn't room on the list for such esteemed women as Agatha Christie, Eleanor Roosevelt, Marilyn Monroe and Whoopi Goldberg.
However, this affecting drama makes its contribution to alerting people to the help that can be accessed to give children with dyslexia the education they deserve. Young Harmonie He is splendid as the seven year-old small-town girl who simply wants to be `normal' and she is well supported by Zhu Zhu, as the mother who doesn't want her child to go to waste, as she feels she has done.
Although her narrative pacing is a little unsteady, Hu ensures that the focus remains on Lan and Meimei, even though they are helped along the way by concerned Americans. But Amy Irving and Helen Slater are canny enough to avoid any messianic mannerisms, despite neither having particularly fully-fleshed characters to work with. Christopher Tin's score is slightly less successful at keeping sentiment at bay, but it does the job capably, as does Eric Glovon's cinematography, as Hu contrasts the cramped tailor's workshop and Helen's spacious apartment and links the two worlds with plenty of rain.
BIG VS SMALL.
It's odd how films about certain topics seem to come in clusters. Not since the heyday of Bruce Brown have there been so many surfing movies on the schedule. Following Martyn Robertson's Ride the Wave and Christopher Nelius's Girls Can't Surf, comes Minna Dufton's Big vs Small, which follows the efforts to which Portugal's first female big wave surfer, Joana Andrade, is prepared to go in order to conquer her fear of drowning.
Andrade has always had anxiety issues, but the giant breakers off the fishing village of
Nazaré bring serenity. Thanks to its subterranean canyon, however, this is a dangerous spot, as big wave surfer Maya Gabeira, surf cinematographer Tim Bonython, rescue pilot Glyn Ovens testify. But she made headlines around the world, when she became the first woman to tame Nazaré, as rescue pilot Sérgio Cosme and sports journalist Miguel Pedreira recall. Yet, she insists she surfs to help her cope with life rather than because (as just 5ft 1in), she's a natural athlete.
In Ericeira in June 2018, Andrade shows us around her home, as she plans future ventures. Fellow surfer João de Macedo muses on what drives people to take risks to achieve their goals and how they need to learn their limits in order to stay safe. She returns to the family home at Caxias, where she learned to swim by mother Isabel Inhares de Andrade throwing coins into the swimming pool. As an energetic child, she did a lot of activities, but was most passionate about the one her mother forbade. Even now, Andrade regards the moment she first stood up on a board after a year of trying as the most significant in her life.
While surfing gave her freedom and a sense of achievement as she started winning competitions, it also brought Andrade into contact with those keen to exploit her, including one trusted person, who got her into drugs and abused her at the age of 12. As we see her praying in a chapel, she explains that it took a long time for her to stop blaming herself for what happened.
Andrade admits to having had dark thoughts in the water, only to have them swept away by the thrill of riding a big wave. But she remains afraid of drowning and heads to Finland to learn how to free dive under ice with Johanna Nordblad.
After a session in an open-air pool in Helsinki, the pair relocate to a woodland cabin near Heinola, where Nordblad cuts a diving square in the frozen lake. They do a nocturnal submersion exercise wearing swimsuits and Andrade is excited by how alive she feels after initially feeling the pain of the cold. Next comes a dive between ice holes linked by a rope and Andrade feels such peace in the darkness that she declares she has forgiven her past self to the extent that her trauma is no longer a burden.
Back at Nazaré for the first time in two years after a foot injury, Andrade soars with new confidence, as she releases from Cosme's jet ski and rides huge breakers with gliding ease. Brazilian Rodrigo Koxa claims she has the talent to take his place in the record books, after he took on an 80ft wave in 2017. Fellow surfer Aleksi Koskelin also commends her for having blazed a trail for women surfers and ensured they are competing for equal prize money.
Now feeling more at ease around her family (hence her `Don't forget where home is' tattoo) and proud of her status in her sport and in Portugal, Andrade invites Nordblad to Ericeira. She teaches her the surfing basics. They have fun and their mutual trust is touching to see. Such is their rapport, it wouldn't surprise you to learn that had teamed up for a series on an adventure or natural world channel.
Confirming the opening caption that bravery is less to do with the absence of fear than with conquering it, this is less a documentary than a candid statement of intent. Having recognised that her childhood experiences are having a negative impact, Andrade takes a positive step towards dealing with them that also have a beneficial impact on her surfing. Thus, while the action sequences are exhilarating and brilliantly photographed by Tim Bonython, it's the more reflective segment in the Finnish wilds that leaves the deeper impression, as Andrade acquires the psychological tools to reinforce her coping strategy.
Nordblad is a fascinating figure, who seems entirely deserving of a feature profile of her own to go with Ian Derry's inspirational shorts, Johanna (2016) and Hold Your Breath (2022). The latter is available on Netflix and is well worth seeking out. As is Dufton's astute comparison between the crashing adrenaline rush of the coastal rollers and silently enveloping soothing of the icy depths photographed with an evocative grace by Sakke Kantosalo that is ever so slightly spoilt by the Riversound Music score that has that surging and swooping over-emphasis that one associates with the music that accompanies son et lumière presentations at visitor centres.