Day 5 in this 2017 Women’s Cinema edition, we delve into other cinema mediums that often get overlooked, a documentary and an animated feature. Just a bit of fact but women filmmakers have enjoyed a higher percentage rates in terms of gender ratio then traditional movies. That’s not an encouraging fact, since it furthers suggests that male directors go on the main highroad, while women have to take the side roads. But hopefully they have more freedom to do what they wanna do. We have a documentary from a director who made her first feature about 50 plus years ago and if this film is any indicator, she’s as fresh and inventive as ever. In addition, we have an up and coming indie animation studio who still prefers to tell their stories in traditional hand-drawn style in the world dominant by everything CGI-ed. The young and the old. The past and the present. Sometimes we can’t tell apart. 2 entries of Day 5: Faces Places and The Breadwinner.
Agnès Varda: Varda is a significant figure in modern French cinema and her work is often considered feminist because of her use of female protagonists and creating a female cinematic voice . Her films, photographs, and art installations focus on documentary realism, feminist issues, and social commentary with a distinctive experimental style. In 2017, Varda received an Academy Honorary Award for her contributions to cinema, making her the first female director to receive such an award.
“But we want to go to the north, the south, and the middle somehow, because it’s another kind of documentary if you go to just one village. And we wanted to have the feeling that it is a trip. We had that magical truck and we could use it and we could propose to people to go to the truck to get their picture. They could take it home, or they could paste it with other pictures. We did all those proposals all the time. And for free and for no reason.”
In theory, a movie like this should not work. It’s literally about the duo figuring out the plot for their film as they go around places, it’s full of random moments and it seemingly lacks the central message. Yet it works. And it works magnificently on many levels. Agnes Varda, a 89-year-old living legend and the only woman director who associated with the French New Wave, teams up with JR, 34-year-old street artist who paste up pictures about people in the large public wall. On one level, Faces Places is about the creativity itself. Both JR and Varda are established artists in their own medium with a clear set of artistic vision, but at heart they’re both fascinated about the idea of experimenting something new, of creating fresh ideas and letting the ideas run wild. That willing to be inspired by the people and their stories, and that freedom to create whatever crossed their minds are the creative collaboration force behind their film project.
On second level, Faces Places is also about the duo’s fascinated about the lives of people in the rural area across France. Each people they meet has their own stories, their own history. Or in Varda’s own words: “To meet new faces so I don’t fall down the holes in my memory.” From a woman in an abandoned mine town who refuses to leave her home, to the late photographer who was once photographed by Varda, to the often -unmentioned wives who stand beside (not behind) their husband dockers, to the farmers and to even Goddard himself. Each time the duo learn more about their lives, we feel like we understand them a bit better, and that curiosity about people in general, and the working class in specific, make Faces Places an universal appeal. It adds up that JR’s photographic art is mainly about people, about their faces right in their home. JR and Varda strengthen each other style greatly.
On the most surface level, Faces Places is a breezy road trip film about a mismatched duo who carry a surprisingly strong chemistry (for a documentary) and overall a pleasure to watch. It’s clear that they respect each other and enjoy the company of the other. Most often the times they comment on each other’s quirk (like how JR always wears his sunglasses on), but this film also serves as a road back to memory and life reflection to Varda. Sometimes, she would visit the old place, meet up with old friend (Goddard) and reflect on how the time has changed. “Every person I speak feel like the last”. Varda mentions at one point, but her energy sparks brightly. They always joke about her bad eyesight, which in turns make it a visually payoff that both intimate and sweet. With just a mere 90 minutes, Faces Places address the art itself, the love for people as Varda’s trademark, and a warm emotional reflection on Varda, who is in her 90 but we can still a lively fire within her and she still has a lot to give. It often feels like JR and Varda going places, meeting random people and leaving their marks behind for the mass to see without any tangible gain. In a way, that’s what art should be.
Nora Twomey: an Irish animator, director, screenwriter, producer and voice actress. She is a partner in Cartoon Saloon. Twomey’s films are often coming-of-age films with pre-teen protagonists dealing with mythic worlds, the importance of stories and finishing them, acceptance, family, and communities. Her films combine traditional and digital art but are often hand-drawn and in a visual style inspired by the worlds of her stories
“The Breadwinner is Deborah Ellis’ book, but it’s also the testimony of all of the women she spoke to in refugee camps in Pakistan, as well as the Afghan caste members who told their stories to inform me and the rest of our cast and crew about the complexity of the story we were trying to tell. It’s people from different cultures; it’s more than the sum of its parts, and way more than I could ever have made as a solo project.”
We should make more movie like this. A family-oriented film that have mature message and inspiring story that not only kids, but adults can enjoy and appreciate. Adapted from a popular young adult novel by Deborah Ellis, The Breadwinner is a gorgeous but uneven tale about Parvana, an 11-year-old girl who disguise herself as a boy to help her family after he father was taken without charges. Set in the early 90s when Afghanistan was still under the control of Taliban, the Afghan women suffer from oppressive misogynist system where they aren’t allowed to show their face in public and where the stores would refuse to let them purchase anything, let alone greeting them. Having her father taken away means that the main source for income, or even for daily social interaction is close to zero. In such a harsh and repressed society, all that Parvana (and the women in general) want is the same opportunity as male’s counterpart. Parvana enjoys her little freedom in the disguise of boy, working all day to get her paycheck, somethings she couldn’t do if she were in girl’s clothes.
But while The Breadwinner’s central message is all fine and dandy, it’s the narrative aspect that it suffers the most. Even ironic how the film itself tries to sell an importance of storytelling as the powerful tool for these characters to cope with the harsh reality of life, and how it provides a glimmer of hope, as well as the power of imaginative in an otherwise dull, wash-out and bleak world. The story development as a whole is filled with many contrived plots, most notably the appearance of one of the relative who just wants to take them away without caring much for them or how it’s the same day as Parvana decides to meet her father and the war broke out and her siblings have to move. One can have a sense of the clunky in plot development when one realizes that many supporting characters have to sacrifice their own benefits (in an unbelievably manner) to help support the girl’s quest. Not only the plot, but the character’s writing is too one-sided in many cases. The authority men are presented as overly aggressive as if they’re one big ruthless character and most of them, Parvana aside, haven’t been developed to their full potential.
The Breadwinner saves its shortage in storytelling department by the sheer power in animation production. They nail it with the visual: the backgrounds get you right into the heart of this Afghan conflicts, the characters are always expressive, especially in their big eyes. The story within a story part particular stands out as it uses vividly cut-out animation art style that contrast very well with its more traditional style. While in term of flat-out gorgeous visuality and wild visual experimentation The Breadwinner can’t compare with its earlier works, it’s the comparison I happily to put aside since it aims for a much more difficult subject matter. While I have complaints with the male cast, the female cast does a wonderful job to show us what it feels like to be victims of their time, and somehow enforce the girls’ strong will to stand up for themselves and do what they like in the name of Parvana and her friend Shauzia. In the end, though the story itself can be inconsistent and heavy-handed at times, the fact that it’s willing to tackle a difficult and dark subject matter for a family-friendly audience, plus its pleasing animating visual make it better a better recommendation than your regular animated fare.
That’s about it for Day 5. Sorry it takes me a while to post it up. For the next batch, we’ll have 2 very different films, so different that I don’t even have any neat thing to group them up. We’ll have a tense based-on-true-event Detroit by the fantastic Kathryn Bigelow about racial tension in the titular state, and over half the world we’ll have a whimsical road trip about a man who tries to take his long-lost elephant back to their rural hometown, Pop Aye. Will catch up with you by then.