Tuesday, 12 March 2013
This time last year, the Kony 2012 campaign took off like wildfire; calling the West's attention to African cult and militia leader, Joseph Kony, and his use of child soldiers. Like most online-generated fads, the Kony 2012 campaign has lost public attention if not traction in the 12 months since, but Kim Nguyen's Rebelle, although fictional, provides an intimate and unsparing look inside the life of one such soldier.
Komona (Rachel Mwanza) is just 12-years-old when rebel soldiers fighting for the Great Tiger arrive in her village, rounding up the children big enough to carry a gun and killing most of the adults. Komona, as a sadistic form of initiation rite, is forced to shoot her parents and their ghosts will haunt her over the two-year period in which the story unfolds (she is actually telling her story to her unborn child).
As "luck" would have it, Komona seems to be blessed with certain mystic powers (such as seeing the dead) which earns her a protected place in the ranks of the Great Tiger (Mizinga Mwinga) as his 'war witch' (the film's North American title). It also earns her the attentions of Magician (Serge Kanyinda), an albino boy a few years older than Komona who has also been afforded protected status because of his so-called powers.
The friendship and then romance between Komona and Magician provides some much needed, albeit brief, respite from the everyday life of a child soldier, where it's kill for the Great Tiger or be killed. But when the two decide to abandon their leader and make a normal life for themselves, they soon realise that like with most cults, you're not out until they say you're out.
Kim Nguyen's film draws easy comparison, well, at least for me, with Cate Shortland's Lore: a young woman forced to come of age in a harsh and political environment, discovering both her inner strength and her sexuality along the way. Even the cinematography by Nicholas Bolduc is reminiscent of Adam Arkapaw's lensing of Lore, capturing, almost dream-like, the beauty amid the terror.
Sadly, as was the case with Lore, I was intrigued by the young heroine's journey if not necessarily moved by it. Rachel Mwanza has a stillness about her that makes her eminently watchable, and when she dares to smile, she lights up the screen. I wasn't as conflicted in my empathy for Komona as I was for Saskia Rosendahl's Nazi daughter in Shortland's film, but I still felt at a remove from it all.
The violence is powerful, even shocking at times, but Nguyen, a Canadian director (Rebelle was that country's successful submission for the 2012 Best Foreign Language Oscar), is never gratuitous or frivolous with it, and the film, shot on location in the Democratic Repubic of the Congo -- and as if to counter the harsh realities of Komona's predicament -- always looks beautiful.
Innocence may be the first thing to die during war but hope springs eternal, and Nguyen's film ends on a hopeful note albeit a bittersweet one. You get the sense that Komona -- soldier, survivor, mother, child -- is going to be all right but in the real world, Kony 2012 campaign or not, the plight of child soldiers continues.
Wednesday, 6 March 2013
Banished by the powers-that-be to an East German village following an undisclosed crime, Berlin doctor, Barbara (Nina Hoss), has decided to keep herself to herself in her new town. "That's Berlin," says one of her colleagues at the hospital where she works, by way of explaining Barbara's cold, stand-offish behaviour.
But when you know Big Brother is watching -- Barbara's tiny bedsit is subjected to random searches by the local Stasi officer; her body subjected to the same by a female officer -- and don't know who to trust, the doctor's cautious behaviour is understandable.
Barbara, we soon learn, is actually biding her time until her West German lover, with whom she has secret rendezvous' -- one in a hotel, another in the forest on the outskirts of town -- can arrange to secret her out of the East. It's perhaps best not to make friends, or at least not have colleagues become accustomed to your habits.
Until then, Barbara upholds the Hippocratic Oath to the best of her considerable abilities and forms a tentative friendship with fellow doctor, Andre (Ronald Zehrfeld), a teddy bear of a man who proves to be as enigmatic to Barbara as she is to him. Is he a friend or an informant? Are his advances professional, platonic or possibly romantic?
Writer-director Christian Petzold's film unfolds over the summer of 1980 but you wouldn't know it to look at. There's very little sun captured in Hans Fromm's cinematography and there's a constant wind and an air of chill in the village where Barbara has been relocated. (Petzold's decision to use only incidental music adds to that sense of isolation and cold.) Barbara is also close to the sea but we never see it; a promise, like her lover's, of a freedom that is teasingly close by yet just out of reach.
And that's how you may feel about Christian Petzold's slow-burn of a film, and his heroine. While Nina Hoss, a regular collaborator with Petzold, gives a captivating central performance she does so without giving very little away. While her nerves are often on display, Hoss's Barbara keeps her emotions in-check and below the surface, an insularity which makes Barbara an intriguing drama if not an affecting one.
Tuesday, 5 March 2013
There have been umpteen screen adaptations, both big and small, of Charles Dickens' classic novel, Great Expectations, that you would think it impossible that the story of orphan boy Pip who, through a secret benefactor, becomes a London gentleman only to squander it all through hubris and for love, would be unknown to anyone.
Yet some people, like the friend who accompanied me to the screening of this latest iteration (penned by David Nicholls and directed by Mike Newell), are unfamiliar with this story, and one can only assume it is for them that this film has been made. Not that Great Expectations 2012 is bad Dickens or even literary-period-film-by-numbers.
For even if Newell doesn't reinvent the wheel -- unlike, say, Alfonso Cuaron, whose 1998 film version was set in modern-day Miami -- his handsomely produced version manages to provide enough points of difference to negate the inevitable deja vu for Dickens fans, whilst entertaining the G.E. newbies.
That first point of difference is in the casting. Initially I thought Helena Bonham Carter as the tragic and eccentric Miss Havisham, jilted on her wedding day and living in a bio-dome of self pity -- stopping the clocks, leaving the wedding cake out to rot, never removing her bridal gown -- in the years since, was obvious to the point of cliche. But to her credit, Bonham Carter manages to keep her crazy lady tics in-check.
Ralph Fiennes as Magwitch, the escaped convict whose life becomes inextricably linked with Pip's (played as a child by Toby Irvine, and as an adult by big brother Jeremy Irvine, star of 2011's War Horse) following a meeting on the moors, could also have been predictably one-note. But he manages to invest the character with a sensitive soul and becomes, along with Jason Flemying's Joe Gargery (Pip's blacksmith brother-in-law), the emotional heart of the story.
Pip, however, whether Nicholls' and Newell's intent, or whether it had always been the case with Dickens' novel, comes off as an ungrateful, selfish jerk once he comes into money; interested only in winning the heart of the icy Estella (Holliday Grainger), Miss Havisham's ward and protege, raised to wreak revenge on the male sex, and whom Pip has loved since childhood.
The two make for disinteresting romantic leads (pretty, yes, but dull), with Pip's roommate, Herbert Pocket (Olly Alexander), one of London's many hipster-ish young gentlemen, proving much more likeable.
This was also the first time while watching any version of Great Expectations that I was aware how much the story is about Karma: Pip's childhood kindness is rewarded by his secret benefactor; Magwitch's unwitting involvement in Miss Havisham's broken heart is balanced out by her raising of Estella, [Spoiler Alert] Magwitch's daughter; Pip's selfish bevahiour leads to his downfall; Joe Gargery is nothing but good and is rewarded in kind.
I don't know if Dickens believed in Karma, or if this is something which Nicholls and Newell brought to this film (or perhaps I'm one of the few to only notice it now) but again, it gives this version a point of difference. And if fans of the author and the book keep their expectations in-check, they, along with the first timers, will find this Great Expectations rewards them in kind.