Parky At the Pictures (25/2/2022)
(Reviews of La Mif; Echoes of the Past; and F@ck This Job)
Cinema-going may not be the most straightforward pastime at the moment. But it's possible to see the latest releases on the big screen, providing you meet the venue's admission criteria and have your mask and vaccination status at the ready.
If you prefer to avoid this rigmarole, the UK's various streaming platforms are still doing sterling work. In addition to subscription sites like Curzon Home Cinema. MUBI, Netflix and the BFI Player, the likes of iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Microsoft, Vimeo, Google Play, Rakuten, BT and Playstation are all ready to keep you entertained. Whatever choice you make, think of others to make sure everyone stays safe. Oh, and happy birthday George Harrison.
Born in Geneva in 1973, Frédéric Baillif played basketball, worked as a social worker and did a spot DJing before turning to film. Having started out making documentaries, he turned to fiction with Tapis Rouge (2014) and La Preuve scientifique de l'existence de Dieu (2019). However, he has revisited his social-working past and his actuality style with La Mif, a study of a residential home for at-risk teenagers that has much in common with Céline Sciamma's Girlhood (2014), Sarah Gavron's Rocks and Sébastien Lifshitz's Adolescentes (both 2019).
Lora (Claudia Grob) is the director of a home in Geneva that is returning to being a single-sex centre after 17 year-old Audrey (Anaïs Uldry) initiated a sexual relationship with a younger boy. Having been hauled over the coals by the review board, Lora has to break the news to staff members, including Suzana (Isabel De Abreu Cannavo), Asma (Sara Leone), Kenza (Melody Despont Marin), Malik (Nadim Ahmed), François (Blaise Granget), Seb (Frédéric Landenberg) and newcomer, Oumar (Amadou Sylla), who gets tossed into the water when he supervises his first trip swimming pool.
Novinha (Kassia Da Costa) was furious with intern Kenza for calling the cops before Lora after finding Audrey in bed with Charles (Merlin Landenberg). She has just started a new job in a kitchen and Suzana drives her to spend a weekend with her mother. However, she leaves for a night out as soon as her daughter arrives and she is a left alone with the television.
Arriving on an emergency care order after she is abused by her father, Précieuse (Joyce Esther Ndayisenga) is quietly spoken in confiding her story to Justine (Charlie Areddy). She also listens in silence as Audrey defends her actions and accuses the staff of over-reacting and forcing her to have a pelvic examination. However, Précieuse has to be led away when her mother (Nancy Kabika) makes an unscheduled visit and Lora has to escort her off the premises.
During a truth or dare session around a campfire, Justine tells her dorm mates that they are the first people she has ever felt close to. She is from a wealthy family, but enjoys larking around with the other girls, such as when François tries to entertain them with a ventriloquist doll. However, when her parents come to claim her and Suzana agrees that it might do her good to go home and work through her issues, Justine becomes scared and withdrawn.
On her 18th birthday, Tamra (Sara Tulu) learns from Lora that her third application for asylum in Switzerland has been rejected. She doesn't know where her parents are and dreads the thought of returning to a country she barely knows. When she suggests she'd be better off walking into Lake Geneva, Lora reminds her of the progress she has made to become a strong, beautiful woman.
As yet another argument breaks out about whether Audrey was at fault for seducing Charles, the inseparable Alison (Amélie Tonsi) and Caroline (Amandine Golay) tease Novinha for being so judgemental. On the day they bunk off school and get drunk with the booze they find in an old man's shopping trolley, Caroline's father dies. She takes the news badly and Oumar has to talk her out of self-harming with a knife.
The girls are not the only ones with problems, however. Lora has only just returned to work after a period of illness and she tries to throw herself into supporting her charges to cope with her grief. It's sometimes tough, but she has created a family atmosphere, so that Alison can entrust recollections of being raped by her father to Caroline; Justine can tell Tamra about accidentally drowning her baby sister in the bath; and that Lora herself can admit to Novinha (who has been fired from her job for being late) that she feels guilty for her thirtysomething daughter's suicide.
Over supper, the girls ask where Caroline has gone and Lora has to break the news that she has gone into psychiatric care after trying to kill herself. Alison asks why she thinks she can protect them when she couldn't care for her own child and Lora leaves the room in silence.
When Précieuse's mother makes her unscheduled call and insults Lora, she lashes out and is fired by the local judge. Suzana and Malik take over and order Lora to leave when she comes into the staffroom. Seb and François try to defend her, as it has come to light that Précieuse had lied about her father touching her and that she had accused him in order to get away from her emotionally fragile mother.
Suzana and Malik prevail, but Lora trashes hr office before she goes. She also picks up the remaining girls and they sit around a bonfire. They play the truth game and Lora reveals that she hadn't believed her daughter when she claimed that her grandfather had molested her. Moreover, she had sent her back to his house the following summer and it was this shame that prompted her to become a social worker.
As the film ends, Zoë arrives at the home. She is much younger than Novinha, Alison, Justine and Audrey and they sit in knowing sympathy on the step. Their silence speaks volumes for their attitude towards what Bailiff and Claudia Grob believe is an outdated Swiss care home system.
Developed over two years and performed by care home residents and staff, the picture is the product of a unique creative process. It began with Bailiff interviewing the cast members and using their testimony in workshop sessions that provided the basis for the outline script that was written in conjunction with Stéphanie Mitchell. The actors then improvised during the two-week shoot to give the action its immediacy, rawness and authenticity.
All of the performances ring true, but Kassia Da Costa stands out for her mood shifts between boisterous stroppiness and giddy happiness, as she kisses a female workmate. Claudia Grob also impresses as the den mother nursing her own pain and guilt, while also dealing with simmering resentment from within her team (although the Kane-like room trashing doesn't ring true).
Bailiff describes La Mif (a slang term for `family') as a `social work project' and uses the term `hyperlink' to discuss the Rashomonesque editorial gambit of replaying certain scenes from multiple perspectives to show that truth is often elusive and imprecise. Joseph Areddy's restless camera contributes to this sense of unpredictability, as does the subtle mixing of the voices by Maxence Ciekawy and Rémi Mencucci and the snippets of Bach and Mozart on the soundtrack, which deftly highlight the aspirations of the social care network, while also exposing its inadequacies and failings.
ECHOES OF THE PAST.
Controversy shrouds the Kalavryta massacre of 13 December 1943. Consequently, by opting to insert the most disputed detail, Nicholas Dimitropoulos's Echoes of the Past has caused something of a furore in his native Greece, where the preferred version of events was outlined in Elias Yannakakis's documentary, Kalavryta: People and Shadows (2014). Presumably 90 year-old Swedish icon Max von Sydow knew about the discredited `good Nazi' theory when he signed on for what would be his final film.
Von Sydow plays Nikolas Andreou, a survivor of the massacre who is approaching death. He wants the German state to take responsibility for a crime against humanity and Berlin lawyer Caroline Martin (Astrid Roos) is dispatched by a minister desperate to avoid a reparations claim to see if there is a case to be answered. Her investigation is interwoven into flashbacks showing why Nikolas is so adamant in his accusations.
Back in 1943, Nikolas (Maximos Livieratos) and his older brother Anestis (Tasos Karlis are living with their parents, Alexis (Nikolas Papagiannis) and Maria (Danae Skiadi), when the 117th Jäger Division replaces an Italian unit in occupying the north Peloponnesian town of Kalavryta. Commandant Tenner (Martin Laer) billets himself on the family with his secretary, but Alexis insists on taking the risk of sneaking out in the middle of the night to report to his partisan unit in the hills.
He just about prevents Tenner from seeing the gash in his arm incurred during a skirmish with 78 German prisoners. However, the news that the hostages had been executed prompts General von Le Suire (Tomas Arana) to order reprisals in the town. All the residents are told to report to the school with food and blankets. But Maria sends Nikolas back to the house to fetch her jewellery, while Alexis disposes of his gun.
Having hidden under the bed from looting troops, Nikolas is bundled into a classroom with his mother, who watches from the window as Alexis and Anestis are marched away. The older Nikolas tells Caroline that 500 males were machine-gunned down, with 64 being children.
Back at the school, the doors are barred and the walls doused with petrol. The Austrian soldier who had given Nikolas some sweets is so appalled by the flames lapping the roof that he breaks the padlock with his rifle butt and many of the women and smaller children escape. However, their homes have been torched and they quickly discover that their menfolk have been slain.
Caroline is moved by Nikolas's calm recollection and pays her respects at the Museum of the Kalavrytan Holocaust before flying to Austria. She calls on Andrea Weiss (Alice Krige), the widow of Friedrich Braun (Prometheus Aleifer), and tells her that Nikolas would not be alive without the courage for which he paid with his own life. Unable to pursue a case she thinks Germany deserves to lose, Caroline tosses her Braun findings in a dumpster to prevent them from being used in mitigating circumstances and resigns, unaware that Nikolas has left her a copy of his memoir at the Kalavryta memorial on Kapi Hill.
A closing caption reveals that around 750 people from 28 communities were killed during the Nazi backlash. Yet Dimitropoulos undermines such sobering statistics with an opening admission that the film is only `inspired by true events'. Of course, the reservation may refer to the Caroline Martin aspect of the story. But it leaves doubt about the crucial intervention of the conscience-stricken liberator, who was mentioned in a number of eyewitness testimonies, but who has seemingly never been identified.
His very existence has been questioned by numerous Greek scholars and the release of this film led to threats of legal action against the makers for perpetuating a damaging myth. Wherever the truth lies about the Austrian, the atrocity at Kalavryta remains unspeakable and Dimitropoulos commendably recreates the sense of dread that permeates the town following the German arrival and still lingers in the scarred mind of the ever-dignified Max von Sydow.
Cinematographer Yorgos Rahmatoulin and editor Giannis Halkiadakis also make a telling contrast between the steady images of the relentless march into the mountains and the frantic cutting of the handheld footage inside the burning school. Rania Gerogianni's production design and Alexandros Sidiropoulos's score are effective enough. But Marco Kreuzpainter made a much better job of a similar flashbacking narrative in The Collini Case (2019).
F@CK THIS JOB.
There's a grim irony in the fact that Vera Krichevskaya's documentary about an independent TV channel opposed to Vladimir Putin should reach UK screens in the week that Russia invades Ukraine. Typically, the response of Boris Johnson's government has been entirely inadequate. But those seeking to express their dismay at the turn of events in Eastern Europe can do so by watching and recommending F@ck This Job.
In 2008, as Vladimir Putin was handing presidential power to his chosen successor, Dmitry Medvedev, Moscow radio personality and style guru Natalya `Natasha' Sindeeva was marrying wealthy banker Alexander `Sasha' Vinokurov at the magnificent Peterhof Palace in St Petersburg. He had done well during the `fat years' of a booming economy and, in July, agreed to help his wife realise her ambition to own a television station, as well as a bright pink Porsche Cayenne.
This is where Vera Krichevskaya comes into the story, as she was hired as a producer for the nascent Dozhd TV, the `optimistic channel' whose name translates as `rain'. The credit crunch forced them to switch locations from a swish uptown high-rise to Red October, a chocolate factory in a cheap area of town. Executive director Anna `Forsh' Forshtreter and journalist Anna 'Anya' Mongayt remember being impressed by her energy and determination to change the world.
Launching in April 2010, with Natalya on the roof dancing barefoot in the rain, Dozhd got off to an amateurish start, as the new presenters found their feet. As a party girl who knew and cared little about current affairs, Natalya was the laughing stock of the industry. But, as deputy editor-in-chief Renat Davletgildeev recalls, it proved pioneering in recruiting LGBTQ+ personnel. Everything changed when Mikhail 'Misha' Zygar became Editor-in-Chief.
Suddenly, Dozhd was covering stories that the state-controlled media was ignoring. It even ran a weekly sketch show in which classic Russian poems were used to satirise the Putin-Medvedev alliance. When Natalya decided not to air a skit mocking Putin's decision not to give Medvedev a second term, Krichevskaya began to worry that Dozhd was knuckling under. When Medvedev agreed to tour the studio, she felt Natalya had sold out and resigned.
At a hipster party to celebrate Dozhd's first anniversary, Natalya regretted that Medvedev's visit had had such a negative impact on staff and viewers. But she vowed to bash on and her stance became all the more crucial when Putin returned to the presidency and a steady clamping down on free expression and protest started. Refusing to be cowed, Dozhd got journalists jobs at polling stations to expose the amount of voter fraud and Sasha even bumped into Krichevskaya at a demonstration in Moscow in December 2011.
Natalya admits to having known nothing about the levels of corruption. But she was ready for a fight and broadcast details of the Pussy Riot rendition of `Mother of God, Drive Putin Away' on the altar at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. In May 2012, they invited opposition politician Boris Nemtsov to encourage people to attend anti-Putin rallies, which war correspondent Timur Olevsky remembers covering as his first Dozhd assignment. He saw Nemstov being arrested before he was also attacked by the police and digital director Polina Kozlovskaya recalls being appalled that the state could act in such a heavy-handed manner, especially when it launched cyber attacks to block reporting from the demonstrations.
This was the day Krichevskaya rediscovered her belief in Dozhd and its ability to connect those seeking the truth. She was also impressed by the coverage of the passage of the June 2013 laws making second-class citizens of members of the LGBTQ+ community. At this point, Dozhd was attracting large audiences, maintaining its advertising revenue and holding the government to account. Even opposition leader Aleksei Navalny appeared to inquire why so many of Putin's retinue were able to afford luxurious houses on their modest salaries.
Dozhd also had the courage to report on the protests in Kiev's Independence Square in January 2014, when Timur shouted the film's title while he was getting into position to report on the pitched battles between the people and the troops dispatched by the pro-Moscow regime. In retaliation, the Kremlin had Dozhd taken off the major cable platform for debating writer Viktor Astafyev's contention that Leningrad should have surrendered to the Nazis to save lives. In the following days, as Sochii hosted the Winter Olympics, Dozhd lost 80% of its audience and most of its advertisers. But Krichevskaya recognised that the government had silenced an important voice and offered to help Natalya fight back.
When interviewed about Dozhd, Putin claimed that it had made a mistake in offending the memory of the war dead. He also insisted that he had no power to persuade the service providers to reinstate the channel. Despite finding himself blackballed in several places, Sasha sold property to keep the news bulletins on air and Anya recalls the staff taking a 30% pay cut.
Then, in July 2014, Dozhd installed a paywall and subscription numbers jumped from 15,000 to 50,000 when reporters discovered Russian graves and captured soldiers in the Donbass after Putin had vehemently denied any military intervention on Ukrainian soil following the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. Once again, however, the Kremlin struck back and Dozhd was evicted from Red October.
For once, Natalya seemed defeated. But Forsh hit upon the idea of using the couple's Moscow apartment and putting the studio in the lounge and the control suite in the bedroom. The building seemed an ideal choice, as it also housed an illegal brothel. Moreover, it was owned by the Ministry of Defence!
Navalny visited the new venue for an interview, but Natalya became concerned for the safety of her staff after the location was rumbled and attempts were made to sabotage the station. However, a well-wisher offered them space in the Flacon building in 2015 and Forsh, Misha and reporter Evgenia `Zhenya' Voskoboynikova reflect on the family atmosphere as everyone mucked in to build the new sets and the sense that they were not just supporting Natalya, but also ensuring that Russians had free source of reliable information.
In a speech around this time, Putin claimed that dissenting voices were vital in any country. However, Nemtsov was murdered on the Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge on 27 February 2015 and Dozhd was alone in broadcasting the story. Yet only 60,000 were able to hear the news and there was a growing sense among even Natalya's loyalest staff that they were fighting a losing battle and that nobody took them seriously as a hard news outlet.
Natalya's dream to change the world was failing behind a paywall, where she posed no threat and struggled to break even. Music producer/host Mikhail `Misha' Kozyrev recalls her giving staff an ultimatum to make a difference within a year or she will close Dozhd down. But she admits on camera to having been scared that she was also on a hit list.
Then, in July 2019, during the summer election riots, Natalya decided to take down the paywall so that people could watch for free, as Dozhd's reporter continued to broadcast from the back of a police van. Viewing figures skyrocketed, but the studios were raided the following day and not only were transmissions blocked, but Natalya was also led away. She had to appear twice before an investigating committee and was forced to hand over Dozhd's footage.
But the channel remained on air, albeit as a subscription service once more. In December 2019, staff were beginning to wonder whether they would be better of ending the adventure on their own terms, as they became increasingly unsure how to reach a new audience. Natalya (who had been raised by her grandparents) was determined to carry on, in spite of being diagnosed with breast cancer. While in the German city of Freiburg in February 2020, she heard that Putin had called a referendum on the constitution (he had promised on several occasions to honour) so that he could remain in power until 2036. So, vowing to both master the tango and remain true to her sense of human decency, she returned to Moscow that April with renewed enthusiasm for Dozhd and her goal.
Another of her famous parties saw the old gang reunite. But, on the eve of the June referendum, pressure was being placed on the station to stop its accusations of double standards and voter fraud. Moscow was also in the throes of the Covid-19 pandemic and Natalya had to wear a mask to cast her `no' vote. Moreover, she had to conduct Dozhd meetings via Zoom. But she kept going and a closing caption reveals that she was finally able to pay off her debts after the channel started broadcasting for free on YouTube in the summer of 2020 and reached tens of millions of viewers. It was excluded from the Kremlin press corps in May 2021 for covering pro-Navalny protests, while it was branded `a foreign agent' by the Ministry of Justice in August. Yet, even though Natalya and Sasha have separated, Dozhd TV remains a going concern and it is currently reporting on the violation of Ukraine.
Long may it continue to defy the odds and the threats in order to hold power to account in Russia. Hopefully a forthcoming screening on the BBC's Storyville strand will boost its profile and win it a few new subscribers on YouTube.
Krichevskaya tells the Dozhd story with care, as she intercuts talking-head clips with archive footage and her own material. She's ably abetted by co-editor Adam Finch and consultant George Cragg in piecing things together, but the narration she co-wrote with Paulina Ukrainets might have been more explicit at certain points, most notably at the end of the film, where the captions prove frustratingly deficient. It also lacks some of Dozhd's subversive spirit.
Nevertheless, Krichevskaya's sincerity in profiling the remarkable Natalya Sindeeva cannot be doubted. No wonder the estimable Vitaly Mansky (whose 2018 documentary, Putin's Witnesses, is unmissable) selected this bold and important picture for Moscow's Artdocfest. The women are scheduled to show the feature across Russia in March. One can only wish them well and be awed by their indomitable courage.