Jus Lyk Dat (Guyana, 2014); Bal Kan (Kosovo, 2016)

I’m back! Sadly, in the intervening time since my last post, the Uzbek short film The Dog has been taken down from YouTube, and I cannot find another way to access it. Because of that, this post will only be discussing two short films: Jus Lyk Dat and Bal Kan. Both of these films deal with the theme of betrayal.

Jus Lyk Dat

Directed by Errol Chan, Jus Lyk Dat is a relatively rare example of a locally-produced Guyanese film. (One person on YouTube left the comment: “Keep it coming we need more Guyanese production instead of those played out Nollywood and Bollywood movies,” which provoked the ire of at least one diehard Nollywood fan.) At the beginning of the movie, we’re introduced to Tyrone (Terrence Giddings), who is something of a card shark and a jackass. He steals money from his friend Asher (Stephon Wills), who in turn tells his partner Esther (Joyann Crandon): “This is the third time he thieve from me!” He recounts: “The other day, I left me money ‘pon the table and gone outside. Two thousand dollar missing.” However, “I refused to believe that he would do a thing like that. But I set a trap fi him. Two thousand dollar gone again. Now, just now, he thieve two thousand dollar.” Esther merely chuckles, unimpressed: “I guess only two thousand dollars he done fo thieve” (which, of course, isn’t strictly true, but nevertheless…).

Jemma (Marita Weatherspoon), Esther’s sister and Tyrone’s partner, owes Esther money. “Babes,” Esther pleads to Asher, “you know it’s two months now Jemma owe me money, and she won’t pay me back.” Instead, “all she does do, is give Tyrone fi gamble or she ga lets him dance.” As a result, Esther refuses to lend Jemma any more money. This sends Tyrone into a rage: “Hey Esther! Don’t come in here with your flapping mouth, girl!” Again, Esther is unmoved: “Or else what? You can’t do me nothing.”

Upon this, Asher enters, accusing Tyrone of thievery. “Is who you calling thief?” Tyrone replies incredulously. The argument comes to fisticuffs, before being broken up by Andy (Andy Henry), one of Tyrone’s gambling buddies. But this does not end the feud. Later, Tyrone chases Asher down the street, until—jus lyk dat—the argument takes a fatal turn. I’m not sure if the scene is supposed to be comic or not. It reads that way to me—the melodramatic orchestral stings, the “uh-oh Spaghettios” look on the killer’s face. And yet, the brief aftermath plays out in a serious tone. There are some apparent issues with continuity. At one point, Asher seems to refer to Esther as his sister, and Esther calls Jemma “Jenna” at least once. By most definitions, it’s not a “good” movie, but I think in some ways it is, not least of all because of its cultural significance: like the YouTube commenter said, it’s a locally-produced (albeit ultra-low budget) Guyanese alternative to foreign films.

Bal Kan

The title says it all—this is a film about the fractured and factious political climate of the Balkans. Directed by Kriks Dumo, it begins in Kosovo in 1988. Ilir and Emil, Albanian and Serbian respectively, are two boys who, despite their ethnic differences, are close friends.

Fast forward to 1999. Things have changed. Emil, now grown, spraypaints a Serbian cross on a building. The former friends are now on opposing sides of a bitter and violent ethnic conflict. When the Serbs murder several Albanian children, it seems they’ve finally taken things too far, prompting a bloody shootout between the town’s Serbian and Albanian factions, including Ilir and Emil. Soon, Ilir and Emil are the only two combatants left. Only when Ilir recognizes the marble that Emil is wearing on a necklace do they realize who each other is. They tearfully embrace, before reaching for their knives, bringing the film to its ending, which is somehow both foreseeable and shocking.

The video has approximately 40% thumbs-down reactions on YouTube—not because of the quality of the film, which is impressive, but presumably because of the content. Comments include: “KOSOVO IS SERBIA!!!”; “KOSOVO IS ALBANIA        MACEDONIA IS ALBANIA BIG ALBANIA IS COOMING [sic]”; what a lie and propaganda, everything in this movie is lie”; “Albania us [sic] the one that started conflict at at Kosovo Wikipedia”; “fuck analbania”; “will they show albanians selling organs?”; and “Kosovo? You mean that not independent province of Serbia?” However, some of the comments offer a more positive response: “im albanian and i love serbs”; “Why cant you Shqiptars and Cetniks just shut the fuck up about the ‘Propaganda’ and take e leason [sic] from this. They where [sic] playing togheter [sic] and then they killed each other. Seriously look at them in the end. Fuck politics and fuck religion. We are the same. And yes im Yugoslavian! Not Serb, Bosniak, Kroat, Sloven, Makedon, or Alb. Fuck religion and nationalism. B A L K A N / J U G O S L A V I J A”; “Kosovo is Kosovo! Serbia is Serbia! Albania is Albania!”; and “Oh Kosovo… A land where brotherhood died and was replaced by hatred. Kosovo isn’t Serbia, Kosovo isn’t Albania, Kosovo is Kosovo and it can only exist as such. Tito invited Albania to join Yugoslavia, if it did it wouldn’t be like this. We are all to blame, we killed brotherhood. Albanians and Serbs are brothers, not enemies. Long Live Yugoslavia!” Other comments are more ambiguous, including: “Guys i was looking koments……this is sad how people stupid are P.S. Russia please bomb whole balkan with 5 tsar bombas please…..” Admittedly, it’s probably a bit unusual when the content of a film is overshadowed by the comments section of YouTube, but nevertheless, the movie itself is pretty good.

Up Next…

In the next post, I’ll be discussing two short films that address sexual education, as well as a third educational film that promotes financial literacy:

The Story of Mariama (The Gambia, 2013)

Yu No Save Ronwei Lo Lav (Vanuatu, 2016)

Maudabak (East Timor, 2016)

Cage (Malta, 1971)

Filmed by Mario Azzopardi in 1971 while he was still a film student, Cage was not commercially released until 2007. It tells the story of a young Maltese man living at the cusp of independence, both his own and that of Malta from the United Kingdom.

Family Matters

In the opening scene, a pair of lovers (Fred and Roza) are cavorting in the meadow before being interrupted by the arrival of Fred’s boss, the parish priest. When he returns home, his mother demands of him: “Who were you with? With that slut? Don’t be a fool my son. Don’t have anything to do with her. Leave her.” Fred looks toward her as thunder booms and lightning flashes through the window (comical, but probably unintentionally so). According to Fred’s mother, Rosa is from an infamously bad family, and since Malta is such a small country, everyone knows it. But for our benefit, she explains their sins anyway: “Are you aware of their political beliefs? They are all enemies of the Church! They have rebelled against God!” Not to mention, they have nothing to offer for a dowry.

The townsfolk are debating whether the parish priest should be allowed to run for office and meddle in politics; this is a major issue in the turbulent and contentious climate of Malta in the late 1960s. Fred’s parents are staunch supporters of the parish priest’s political endeavors. When the election comes, the Nationalists achieve a plurality of the votes. Independence is on the horizon. And yet Fred is still imprisoned in his parents’ (and the church’s) “cage.” (Get it?) At night, a ghostly voice calls out to him: “Beware of death! You will be eternally damned. Death will come and you’ll burn in Hell!” The priest stands outside the window, clad in a hooded black cloak, Seventh Seal-style.

Generational Conflict

At the humorless family dinner the next day, Fred’s sister Filumen is dressed much too immodestly for their mother’s liking. But, Mom says, shouldn’t Filumen’s husband Karmenu be the one correcting her? So why doesn’t he? Doesn’t he know he’s only inviting scandal by allowing his wife to dress in such a manner? Fred’s father is perhaps not as unabashedly hard-nosed as his mother, but he does give Fred the ultimatum: Do as his mother says, or leave. So, Fred goes to see Roza. She gives him the lavender sweater that she knit for him. But Fred, tortured soul that he is, tells her they cannot meet anymore. Roza is shocked that he is treating her “as if I were a slut.” So they split up. But he takes the sweater. He’s really sending mixed signals…

Shortly thereafter, Fred’s mother is taken ill with angina. Veffa, a maid, is tasked with looking after her. Fred starts getting really handsy with Veffa; by this point, I’m realizing that he has this mildly creepy Anthony Quinn vibe to him. “It’s better if we control our own future,” Veffa opines to Fred as they … discuss the election results in the backseat of his car. Later, Fred’s father tells him “I know that you had fancied that girl [Roza]. I hope you now realize why we were against your relationship. She comes from a low class family.” But Veffa, on the other hand—she’s a real catch, his father says. Little does he know that Fred is already way ahead of him; Veffa is currently pregnant with Fred’s child.

Moving On

When both of Fred’s parents die, his sister and brother-in-law invite him to stay with them in Sliema. (Fred packs the lavender sweater.) As he prepares to leave, religious and political processions have him surrounded. Seems like pretty standard film student symbolism. Nothing out of the ordinary here. In Sliema, Fred gets a job as a typist. Sliema is very different from Fred’s hometown; his coworkers speak English peppered with Maltese, true to form for Sliema residents. When Veffa marries his boss, she leaves him a note: “If you have some decency in you, just leave and find another job. If you stay I’ll make your life hell, the same hell you made me go through. You have two weeks.” This ultimatum inspires in Fred a paroxysm of regret at leaving Roza, just as the Union Jack descends and the Flag of Malta replaces it.

All things considered, Cage is pretty impressive for a film school thesis. But something weird happens in the final scene, and I’m not sure whether or not it was intentional. We see the crew, lights, camera, etc., as the actor playing Fred (Ray Camilleri) stands, out of character, receiving last minute instructions for the upcoming scene. The guy with the clapperboard comes forward and says “171 take 4,” then the scene commences. Is this a narrative tactic, functioning as some kind of forceful reminder that we’re watching a film? Is it film student symbolism? Sloppy editing? Who knows.

Up Next…

The Wind (Mali, 1982)

The Parade (Serbia, 2011)

In this film, director Srđan Dragojević tackles the contentious issue of gay rights in the Balkans. The opening sequence lists several ethnic slurs as well as who uses each. For instance: “ustasha,” a slur against Croats, used by Serbs, Bosniaks, and Kosovars. But the list ends with “peder”—faggot—”used by everybody.” This suggests that even the ethnically fractured Balkans are united by their extreme disdain for gay people.

Finding Common Ground

The Parade describes the unlikely union between a group of Yugoslav war vets and a group of Serbian gay rights activists. The paths of these two groups first cross in 2009, when Lemon, a Serbian veteran and crime boss, brings his critically injured bulldog Sugar to the (gay) veterinarian Radmilo. “If he don’t make it,” Lemon tells Radmilo, “you don’t make it.” Fortunately (for all three of them), Sugar pulls through.

Meanwhile, Lemon’s fiancée Pearl wants a fabulous wedding, and she trusts that a gay man like Mirko (Radmilo’s much more militant partner) can deliver. Mirko is happy to oblige, until he learns that Lemon is the one who threatened Radmilo. To make matters worse, Vuk, Lemon’s son from a previous marriage, was among the skinheads who broke into a press conference about the upcoming Pride parade chanting “Kill the faggot!” Lemon isn’t thrilled about the prospect of having Mirko plan his wedding, either, but Pearl will have none of it: “You already had one redneck wedding,” she exclaims, “now another one? Not with me! There’s lots of trash out there, take one!” Lemon throws a hissy fit, and Pearl is gone.

Anti-gay graffiti in Belgrade, 2010. (Image: Mihajlo Anđelković, distributed by CC BY-SA 3.0 license)

All of the threats of violence that Mirko and his fellow activists have received frightens Radmilo, but Mirko is adamant: “I started to hate my own country,” he says, “just because I can’t walk my streets proudly for a single day.” Seeing the depth of his partner’s commitment, Radmilo approaches Lemon with “a business proposal”: for Lemon to protect Mirko and his fellow activists in exchange for providing Lemon with a perfect wedding (and getting him back together with Pearl). “When it comes to love,” Radmilo remarks, “there’s no difference between a criminal and a faggot.” Pearl is thrilled to learn that Lemon has accepted Radmilo’s offer, but some of Mirko’s fellow activists are not having it. “I want police protection!” exclaims the middle-aged fashion designer Djordje. “Everything else is humiliating!”

Lemon’s associates are similarly resistant, prompting him to embark on a roadtrip with Radmilo to recruit fellow Yugoslav War vets. Much to Lemon’s chagrin, he and Radmilo have to share a room at the hotel. After keeping vigil until Radmilo falls asleep, Lemon finally (and hesitantly) gets in bed with him, but only after protecting his ass with a pillow, of course. But the twists of irony do not stop! Lemon recruits a Croat, a Bosnian, and an Albanian Kosovar to join his entourage!!! When Lemon is reunited with his “utasha pussy” friend Rocco, Radmilo whispers “Ben Hur,” suggesting a bromoerotic element to their friendship like that of Ben Hur and Messala.

“You Call This a Success?”

The next few scenes unravel with a great deal of touchingly comic moments. Mirko suspects that Radmilo and Lemon did more than just bond on their trip, and Pearl is thrilled to learn that Lenka, a lesbian activist, finds it hard to believe that Pearl is straight. Then, when Lemon trains the activists in judo, he pairs off the activists and war vets. But Rocco is left without a partner, prompting him to whine “Lemon, where’s my faggot?” The merry band of misfits is really coming together. (A warning to those who watch the film, though: it contains a lot of gay slurs and ethnic slurs, yes. That’s to be expected and hardly needs mentioning. But be warned that it also contains a brutal dogfighting scene.)

Finally, the day of the parade comes. Within moments, an enormous crowd of skinheads arrive, again chanting “Kill the faggot!” This is Rocco’s dream come true: “To beat the shit out of Serbs in the heart of Belgrade.” But some of the paradegoers leave when they see the opposition. Mirko manages to raise morale: “I know that we’re in for the worst beating in our lives! But even this beating is better than the humiliation we go through all our fucking lives!” The activists were prepared to die for their rights; a tearful funeral for one of their own, attended by Lemon and his gang, strengthens their resolve. The film ends with a portrayal of the pride parade the following year (2010), including actual footage from the event, a solemn procession guarded by the police but overlaid with the same angry shouts and slurs as before. Lemon turns to Radmilo: “Finally a success.” Radmilo replies: “You call this a success?”

Belgrade Pride 2010. (Image: Aleksandar Maćašev, distributed by CC BY-SA 3.0 license)

I think ending the film on that rather pessimistic note was a strong choice. In 2011, it would’ve been hard to call the efforts of LGBT rights activists in Serbia “successful.” Even so, in a review of the film published in the Boston Review, Paul Hokenos opined: “In addition to gay rights, the film affirms the future of the region’s states as mutually respecting, tolerant societies, united not by class consciousness or ethnic blood rivalries but by liberal values.” Considering the fact that Serbia’s current prime minister Ana Brnabić is a lesbian, maybe there’s something to that.

Up Next…

Cage (Malta, 1971)

Kolya (Czech Republic, 1996)

Directed by Jan Svěrák, Kolya is, I believe, the first film on the list to have won an Academy Award, in this case for Best Foreign Language Film. The film also won the Golden Globe in the same category.

Making Ends Meet

Louka (played by the director’s father) is a cellist and inveterate womanizer living in Prague in 1988. He never plans on marriage, claiming it isn’t compatible with the life of a musician. Instead, he calls up each of his lovers one by one, telling them: “I suddenly felt lonely, so guess who I thought of? You, of course!”

Louka’s clearly struggling financially; he has holes in his socks, asks his fellow musicians to lend him money, and moonlights as a headstone restorer. So when his friend Broz tells him of a moneymaking venture to the tune of 40,000 crowns, you’d think he’d snatch it up right away. However, the plan would involve entering into a sham marriage with a Russian family friend named Nadezhda, and Louka is “against marriage in any shape or form”—not to mention the fact that he is staunchly opposed to anything Russian (which, incidentally, makes him vulnerable to political persecution—more on that later).

Nadezhda doesn’t speak a word of Czech, and to make matters worse, she has a young son named Kolya. Tamara, Kolya’s grandmother, tells Louka and Broz: “Do you have any idea what bribes cost in Russia?” indicating that she had to find some poor Czech rube to marry Nadezhda. Besides, Nadezhda is primarily trying to get to West Germany to stay with her boyfriend, which requires becoming a Czech citizen. (Russians couldn’t enter West Germany, but Czechs could.) So, shortly after their fictive marriage, Nadezhda absconds, leaving Kolya behind with Tamara.

Naturally, Broz is terrified that the cops will be suspicious of Nadezhda leaving so soon. But Louka has more pressing concerns: when Tamara has a stroke, he has to look after Kolya, much to his displeasure. Like his mother, Kolya speaks nary a word of Czech, making communication difficult between him and Louka. Kolya is understandably frightened and upset to be away from  his mother and grandmother, and no doubt confused as well. But Broz is thrilled: “Looking after your wife’s child makes your marriage look genuine,” he gleefully tells Louka.

Two Revolutions

Slowly, Louka settles into life as a surrogate parent. Unfortunately, Tamara dies, meaning Kolya is stuck with Louka for the foreseeable future. We watch Louka and Kolya grow closer—the latter even calls Louka “dad.” But much to Louka’s mother’s horror, Kolya is Russian. “First you show no interest in children and then it’s a Russian,” she sighs. Uncharacteristically, given his political leanings, Louka defends his decision to look after the child. But a woman from social services tells him that the Soviets will probably take Kolya back to the USSR and put him in a home, so Louka and Kolya leave their Prague flat to stay with a friend of Louka’s named Houdek.

The end of the film witnesses the beginnings of the Velvet Revolution. Perhaps unwisely, Louka brings Kolya to the protests, inciting a chain reaction that quietly unravels over the final minutes of the film. Thanks to his time with Kolya, Louka is changed (presumably) indelibly. Kolya is an immensely enjoyable film, as its many accolades can attest to. While watching the film, the thought struck me: “Finally, a comedy!” (albeit one that essentially ends with the word “goodbye”). In reality the film straddles the line between comedy and drama, dealing with heavy topics in a witty and often touchingly lighthearted manner.

Up Next…

Things are going to be a little different in the next post. Instead of writing about one film, I’ll be discussing three short films—very short, actually, each under fifteen minutes—that deal with similar topics and follow similar storylines.

Wea Nao Mi? (Solomon Islands, 2012)

Looking for Nelao (Namibia, 2015)

Icimonwa (Zambia, 2016)

Trollhunter (Norway, 2010)

This isn’t my first time seeing this André Øvredal film, and anyone who’s seen it can understand why I had to watch it again: it’s just that good.

You’ll Believe It When You See It

Set up as a found-footage mockumentary in the spirit of The Blair Witch Project, the film follows a group of three intrepid film students from Volda College shooting a documentary on bear poaching. They focus on an elusive and enigmatic man named Hans who is rumored to be hunting bears illegally. We meet Kalle the cameraman, Johanna on sound, and the lead filmmaker Thomas.

As they travel from Volda to Sogn og Fjordane County in pursuit of Hans, he repeatedly tells them to back off: “It isn’t very smart to follow me.” When he reveals that he’s a trollhunter, the crew understandably doesn’t believe him, but he allows them to keep filming as long as they promise to do exactly as he says. “No one here believes in God or Jesus?” he asks them. They all affirm that they do not. (Of course, it wouldn’t be much fun if they were all telling the truth, would it?) Only when Thomas, Johanna, and Kalle see the trolls for themselves do they begin to grasp what they’ve gotten themselves into. However, once they make it through the first night, their fear turns to excitement as they realize that the bizarre world they’ve stumbled upon is a documentarian’s dream.

Government Secrets

It turns out that Hans works for the TSS—Troll Security Service—a division of the Wildlife Board, who put him in charge of troll control. He’s the only trollhunter in Norway. He explains: “My job is to kill any troll that breaks out of its territory and comes near people.” This bureaucracy aspect lends a touch of humor to the film. Indeed, Trollhunter is a masterful blend of fantasy, comedy, and horror. (Otto Jespersen, the actor who plays Hans, is a noted—and controversial—Norwegian comedian.)  “Fairy tales don’t usually match reality,” Hans tells the filmmakers, to which Thomas cheekily replies: “They seem to in this case.”

Glenn Erland Tosterud, who plays Thomas in Trollhunter. (Image: Simon Guirlinger, distributed by CC BY-SA 3.0 license)

Science works alongside bureaucracy to cast a disenchanting mundaneness on the troll-laden fantasy in which Thomas, Johanna, and Kalle find themselves. A veterinarian named Hilde (who is hinted to be Hans’s love interest) informs us that “the trolls’ main problem is that they can’t convert Vitamin D, from the sunlight, into calcium. So when they are exposed to bright sunlight, their bodies overreact. Their stomachs expand. Gases are forced into their intestines and veins. This becomes unbearable.” Older ones, however, suffer a different fate: “Their veins are too constricted, so the expansion occurs in their bones. In a matter of seconds, everything calcifies and they turn to stone.”

We learn that there are an unusual amount of trolls moving around at this time. But why is Hans letting them watch what he does? “Because I’m tired of the shitty job. I have no rights whatsoever. I get no night bonus. No overtime. No nuisance compensation. Maybe it’s time for change in troll management. So if you could get this on TV…” We learn that there are an unusual amount of trolls moving around at this time. Conflict between mountain trolls and woodland trolls, as well as a rabies epidemic, have led to increasingly erratic troll behavior, possibly compounded by effects of global warming. Bigger trolls are breaking out of their territory and coming closer and closer to human settlements, making more work for Hans. The film’s ending is brilliant; the group’s final showdown with the enormous 200-foot-tall Jotnar troll is a nail-biter, even when you’ve seen the film before, but in the end, it turns out that it might not be the trolls that they have to worry about…

Up Next…

The Rose Seller (Colombia, 1998)

Black Bread (Spain, 2010)

Based on a novel by Catalan novelist Emili Teixidor, Black Bread is a dark and unsettling film from the get-go. Although its director, Agustí Villaronga, is from Majorca, the film is set in the contentious political climate of rural Catalonia following the Spanish Civil War.

Unresolved Conflict

Even though the war is over, it still haunts the landscape and rages in the minds of survivors. When the main character, a young boy named Andreu, discovers the bodies of the republican Dionís and his son in the woods, Andreu’s mother Florència tells him: “The woods are cursed since the war.” Andreu’s father Farriol, himself a communist and republican, is a prime suspect in the deaths; the mayor, a staunch falangist, tells Farriol that “There are still a lot of reds to purge. You don’t want to end up like Dionís.”

Florència, outraged by the mayor’s bullishness, excoriates him: “Black bread and red sugar, with the ration book and waiting hours in line! That’s all you’ve given us. Bread with no soul or virtue; dead, like all of you, because of this goddamn war that killed us all.” To escape the target on his back, Farriol goes into hiding, and Florència sends Andreu to his grandmother’s farm, owned by a wealthy family, the Manubens. Andreu’s grandmother, Àvia, inhabits a world full of ghosts and monsters, just as Andreu himself does. Also living in the farmhouse are two of Andreu’s aunts, as well as his cousins Núria and Quirze.

The film highlights the corruption of postwar Spain, but also the widespread support of nationalist and falangist ideology among influential sectors of the population. Andreu’s teacher, Mr. Madern, in addition to being both an alcoholic and a pedophile, openly espouses extreme nationalist ideas to his students: “The defeated have no right to even a small footnote in the great book of history, because history is always written by winners. But I am always in favor of victors because they’re more worthy,” he explains to the class, “because they’ve known how to win. And only those who know how to win can win. Like the rich are more worthy than the poor.”

“Portrait of a Bird-Killer”

Although the motif of bread, unsurprisingly, figures prominently in the film, birds occupy an even more central thematic role. Beyond their shared politics, Farriol and Dionís shared an obsession with birds. Prior to going into hiding, Farriol tends to the birds in his aviary with intense devotion. To Andreu, he compares himself to a restless chaffinch, and says that “birds are meant to be free and fly. Like angels, they have no borders. We can cage them, but can’t change the way they are.” Núria, strange as always, remarks to Andreu: “I’d like to set a bird on fire one day. A ball of fire flying in the air, squawking, until it falls to the ground. A shower of ashes is all that would be left of it.”

A male chaffinch, Farriol’s favorite bird. (ImageCharles J. Sharp, distributed by CC BY-SA 3.0 license)

Shortly after going to live with his grandmother, Andreu befriends a strange, consumptive boy who runs naked through the woods and believes he has wings. The boy remarks: “You fly too low, Andreu. So low it seems like you’re just walking. Fly high and don’t let anyone catch you.” Quirze tells Andreu that consumptives are “infected by vice. They look like angels but I bet take up bed-hopping at night.”

Much of the film’s plot revolves around a mysterious figure named Pitorliua, whose monstrous, half-bird/half-man ghost is said to haunt the Baumes caves outside of town. As Andreu learns more about the circumstances surrounding Pitorliua’s death, and concurrently learns the truth about his parents, he takes out his rage in the only way he can: on his father’s birds.

The film is terrifying, it is gloomy (to say the least), but above all, it is spellbinding. It’s one of those rare films for which the ending is truly unforeseen. If you don’t want to take my word for it, just check out its accolades: it basically swept the Goya and the Gaudí Awards in 2011.

Up Next…

Good Morning, Luang Prabang (Laos, 2008)

Beyond Silence (Germany, 1996)

Directed by Caroline Link, Beyond Silence is the story of a hearing girl named Lara Bischoff, whose parents, Martin and Kai, are both deaf. Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, the film lives up to its hype, presenting a picturesque narrative brimming with understated beauty interrupted by uproars of turmoil percolating beneath the surface. The opening scenes show Lara alerting her parents to sounds, like the sound of her father slurping his coffee. “Lightning is silent, like the moon,” she tells her father during a storm. “It’s thunder that’s loud.” The family’s life is almost picture-perfect—until Lara receives a clarinet from Martin’s sister Clarissa.

Two Worlds

Like Anita, Lara’s conflict with her stubborn father threatens to rend her family apart. As Lara shouts at her father, “You don’t know what’s important! You’re deaf! You don’t even know what music is!” we see the enormity of the strain that Lara’s clarinet playing places on the family. Unlike Anita, however, Lara has her equally headstrong aunt Clarissa to help support Lara’s musical endeavors that her father cannot understand. Martin tells Kai: “I’m going to lose her,” to which Kai responds: “Only if you make the same mistake your parents did.” “What do you mean?” Martin asks. Kai clarifies: “Accept her for what she is. She can hear, and we are deaf.” “She is my child,” Martin protests, and Kai responds: “But she doesn’t belong to you.”

We learn that Martin’s upbringing was not as happy as Lara’s. “I really envy you,” Lara’s grandmother tells her after watching her sign. “You speak that magic tongue as if it were a game. If I hadn’t listened to that pighead, my hands might be able to fly too.” Clarissa later explains to Lara that, during her childhood, she and Martin “made up our own sign language. But the doctors said it was a mistake—that sign language apparently kept him from learning how to speak,” thus driving a wedge between Clarissa and her deaf brother. Their relationship further deteriorated when, at Clarissa’s first clarinet performance in front of a large group of people, Martin begins laughing uncontrollably, disrupting the performance.

After hearing Clarissa say that “sounds are very important for babies,” Lara leans in close to her mother’s stomach, whispering to her unborn sibling: “Hey, you in there, don’t be afraid. Out here, life isn’t completely quiet. When you come, I’ll be here, and I’ll play a song for you on my new clarinet.” In fact, it does turn out that Lara’s new baby sister Marie is also hearing, and Lara is very excited to learn this. She spends as much time talking to Marie as she can.

The Music Inside

Fast-forward to nine years later. Lara is eighteen, a gifted clarinetist, and contemplating a move to Berlin to attend a prestigious music school. Martin is adamantly opposed to the idea, but Clarissa—with characteristic lack of tact—exclaims that “Lara shouldn’t be handicapped just because her parents are.” The ensuing tension drives Lara’s relationship with her father to its stormy nadir. She shouts at him at breakfast one morning: “The silence here, the noise you make when you read the paper—when you eat, when you brush your teeth. This house is like a cage.”

Kai is more understanding of her daughter’s infatuation with music. She gets two tickets to a clarinet concert for her and Lara, and tells her: “When I was little I believed all grown-ups could sing. I also thought I’d be able to when I was a grown-up. I’d stand in front of a mirror and move my mouth and pretend that wonderful sounds were coming out—sounds that made people look so ecstatic, so happy—music!”

At the concert, Lara stands before a giant projection of a Chagall painting. The clarinetist approaches her and tells her, in English: “Listen, the sound of the picture. Can you hear it? He’s a great artist, Chagall. He knows that el mundo is music. You want to know the truth of music?” he asks her. “You don’t need it, you have it inside. Listen to the song inside.” She takes his advice, and at her audition for admission to the music school, she explains to the judges why she prefers klezmer music: “Inside it’s joyful and wild, and at the same time it’s sad and not free. It’s a feeling I understand well.” Her explanation, like the film as a whole, is simple yet moving. Music carries Lara to a world beyond silence, a world that her father might never be fully able to inhabit.

Up Next…

Makibefo (Madagascar, 1999)

Conversations on Serious Topics (Lithuania, 2012)

This brief but powerful documentary consists of snippets of filmmaker Giedrė Beinoriūtė’s interviews with twelve Lithuanian children. The film begins with a deaf girl, Ruta, telling a story in sign language about a flower turning to face the sun. (Although the children’s first names are listed during the credits, few of the children are referred to by name during the interviews.) One of the other exceptions is fidgety Jonas, who tells Beinoriūtė: “I don’t have to be in TV or movies or something else. I just have to be seen by somebody, even it it’s just an old man in the street.”

Like Jonas, most of the children provided remarkably candid and complex responses during their interview. Beinoriūtė stands off screen as she conducts the interviews; her simultaneous presence and absence places the entire focus on the children, while also reminding the viewer of the discursive, interview-based style of the documentary, with its minimalist presentation.

Some Background

The social context within which the documentary was produced bears discussion. Lithuania, like its Baltic neighbors, is a country marked by relatively high suicide and divorce rates, as well as negative population growth. Having grown up against this troubled backdrop, the children provide their thoughts on, as the title suggests, topics like love, death, religion, and human nature.

In addition, many of the children in the documentary had been, or were currently, in foster care. According to the Children’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, of the estimated 408,425 U.S. children in foster care in 2010, about 15% of them were living in either institutions or group homes. By contrast, based on data from Statistics Lithuania, there were approximately 10,716 Lithuanian children living in foster care in 2012, of whom—if my calculations are correct—43% lived in institutional settings. Beinoriūtė talks to a few boys who live in such an institution. One of them describes running away from home because he didn’t like his foster father. Beinoriūtė asks him: “What’s so exciting about running?” He replies: “If you escape, then you’re free.” These boys describe their bleak childhoods in heartrending detail; one older boy describes being beaten with firewood by his parents, and when asked if they’re still alive, he responds: “How should I know?” Beinoriūtė then asks him if he loves anybody. He replies, simply, “Who’s there to love?”

Finding Happiness

A few of the children present more positive outlooks. Ruta, for instance, generally seems like a genuinely happy and enthusiastic child, telling Beinoriūtė that “My world is beautiful,” though she does admit that “Sometimes people do bad things.” An older blind girl, fond of writing poetry, says “of course” she believes in God: “I believe he exists and he exists. At least for me he exists.” One of the other children disagrees with the idea that forming attachments with people inevitably ends in disappointment: “If you don’t get attached to anybody, you spend your whole life as a loner.”

While they watch the film, viewers who grew up in a U.S. setting might find themselves strangely reminded of the American TV show Kids Say the Darnedest Things. (At least, that was the connection I drew.) Obviously, Conversations is much more, well, serious. But like that rather less poignant TV show, this documentary’s appeal comes from the precocious responses of its stars, ordinary children who are somehow also extraordinary.

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Hollow City (Angola, 2004)