Welcome to Day 2, where we get to the first pair of the Main Competition titles. It’s always my interest to pair the two features that air on the same day as some sort of a companion piece, and here in the Day-by-Day Journal, I’ll discuss about it in details. The two films this time (First They Killed My Father and I Am Not a Witch) share many things in common. They’re stories about young girls who find themselves dragged around in a cruel world that beyond their comprehension. One works as an autobiography drama, the other one works as a bleak comedy. One happens in the specific dark chapter of a country, the other set in a modern day that could very well be decades ago. Both have passive, almost non-expressive child protagonists. This is not a criticism, though, since they’re designed as windows to invite us to their worlds. We follow their every step, and see their worlds through their points of views. Overall, we have two solid films and it’s a great start for this Film Festival. As usual, click on the titles for more formal reviews, or you can just read them down below
Angelina Jolie: SHE WHO NEEDS NO INTRODUCTION
“We had a lot of crew members walking around on their knees trying to figure out what she would actually see, what could she actually reach, what could she do. But what was interesting, for me, is it was very clear early that the POV wasn’t just going to be the technical of where she’s at — it was the emotional. Because she’s 5, she’s very distracted. She doesn’t understand what’s happening. She doesn’t want to understand what’s happening.”
It’s interesting to see how Angelina Jolie has shifted from THE superstar actress into commanding behind the camera. The two films she directed so far – the first was written by her, this one was based on a book she read when she was in her 20s on her first time in Cambodia – are her passion projects, in a sense that without her, they’d never see the day of light. First They Killed My Father furthers cements Jolie as a director to be taken seriously. Based on the real story of a young girl when she and her family are forced to leave the home and live at a labor camp during the Khmer Rouge period right just after the Fall of Saigon, the material alone already has powerful statements. It’s a matter of how to tell this story the most effective. Lots of movies about war can’t help but being heavy-handed and preachy with “war is hell” message, and heaps of others can’t stray from the sentimental path. It’s remarkable, as a result, that Jolie finds the right tone for the film.
By focusing entirely on Loung’s, a 5 year-old girl, perspective, who has very little idea what’s going on around her, the film feels emotional distant at times, with sparse dialogue BY DESIGN. It’s a brave choice, for example, that this film doesn’t have any narration, voice-over or details about the location. Instead, the film is told in a matter-of-fact manner, and the camera follows her every step, we see what she herself witnesses on screen. You see, because our child protagonist can’t make sense in any of this mad world, the film spends extra efforts to the details in the backgrounds. At times, we would see her sits on her father’s lap while he’s talking about the war, then gets distracted and plays with her siblings. At other times, we see her walking pass a group of monks who working on field and get harassed by the Khmer Rogue soldiers, or at times we hear the radio announcement about their propaganda messages, and we see her eating the bugs, spider or snake like it’s the most natural thing in the world. The cinematography, likewise, mostly follow her every step. On occasions, it pans out to give us a bird-eye shot, both creating a personal distance, and give us a large-scale impression that her story is just merely one tiny voice in this cruel chapter of Cambodia’s history.
In fact, because Loung is assigned merely as our witness, it’s her mother who undergoes many emotional gripping scenes. From the death of her oldest daughter, to the final moments her husband, to the decision to let her children escape at the cost of her life, she’s on the verge of nervous breakdown all the times and carries the emotional weight Loung’s perspective is sorely lacking. Loung’s older sister, likewise, has many powerful scenes in which her eyes hide the sadness from this brutal condition. Although mostly static, Loung bursts out several times towards the end. It’s those instances where it hits her about the true tragedy of war and the impact it brings. The film struggles, however, whenever it shows multiple Loung’s dream sequences that meant to be contrasted with her current life; but ends up feeling out of place or exposition-heavy (like she dreams about the death of her father. It’s unnecessary), and the film loses its direction a bit at the end with too many little stirring sequences (I can think of four said scenes at the top of my head) that I fail to see which one is supposed to be the film’s emotional climax.
As a whole, however, this film more than holds up. It never forgets that at its core it’s a story told from the point of view of a young girl who managed to survive this dark stage of Cambodia against all odds. Many of the scenes personally hit too close for me, as I’m sure many of those same events happened in Vietnam during the same period. For such a grim story with death can come in every corner, this story is ultimately about hope, about confronting, acknowledging this dark past in order to live on.
Rungano Nyoni: Born in Zambia, she emigrated to Wales at the age of nine. A graduate of the University of Arts in London, she directed several short films (The List , Mwansa the Great , Listen), which won her awards and welcome criticism.
“With Dr Strangelove, people laugh because they know that it’s absurd. In my case, even though everything is fictionalised, I wanted to show Zambian humour and how we deal with tragic events, which from the outside may seem very inappropriate. But it’s the humour that I wanted to put across without apologising.”
I am Not a Witch is a bold and confident debut from Zambian/Welsh Rungano Nyoni, whose singular voice makes this film a tragicomedy in a same sense of humor of The Lobster, and that is the best compliment I could muster. The very first sequence of the film indicates us about the absurdist tone that film embraces: a group of tourists visits the witch camp, which consist of twenty, thirty old women with long white ribbon attached to their backs (the long white ribbon is Nyoni’s creation). It comes to the points where these “witches” become nothing more than tourist attraction. The unnamed girl who is accused of being a witch (later people name her as Shula), is helpless and can’t even defend herself. She is dragged through the absurdist investigation where a villager accuses her for ripping his arm off (despite that said arm remains intacted), then to the witch camp and finds herself as a golden goose made by the local government man, whom uses her to identify local thieves and even goes so far to advertising her in a TV program. The absurdist, sometimes downright farce humor about a serious issue in a culture full of misogyny hits the message far better than any straight, conventional approach.
There’s a fairy-tale like quality in this tale, as we learn early on about the fates that Shula will has to choose – cut the ribbon and becomes a goat, or keep the ribbon to live as a witch. It’s the overarching plot thread that Shula will have to choose throughout the course of the film. Although pitch-black undertones where Shula is shopped around helplessly beyond her comprehension, there’s still some moments of hope. At one time she listens to the voice of school teaching nearby, the only time that she’s truly happy in the movie. The film also takes the opportunity to show the lives of the witch camp, where the women doing their labor work, become a public display, and live in a harsh condition all around.
Apart from the absurdist tone, Nyoni also makes this tale stick out with some impressive cinematic visual. The giant reels that contain long, white ribbon attached to the witches so that they can’t fly off come to mind, and it metaphorically represents the social bind that ties them down, restricts them from moving around freely. Shula is often placed at the centre of the shot, to further underline her awkward, almost out-of-place position. The use of classical music, likewise, is bold and compliments its bleak humor very well. The strong color of the white ribbons and some costumes, in contrast with its muted world is also strikingly displayed. This is a confident showcase of a talented filmmaker, both from her fierce idea as well as her sure-handed direction.
It’s through these laughs that we can sense the angry voice underneath, the discontent about the misconception and mistreatment towards the lives those witches, whose often took a sharp turn just out of some accusers’ whims. “In the end I can’t help what people get from it, or take from it, I just hope that they laugh and that they feel the tragedy.” Nyoni said that in one of her interview, and she succeed on doing just that, and then some. Sometimes it’s best to let out your anger by the absurdist humor, be its humor as pitch black as the night sky.
See ya all in Day 3, which will feature the debut I’m most looking forward to, Summer 1993 and another debut that premiered at 2017 Sundance, Novitiate. Bye for now.