2017 Women's Cinema Festival, Women's Cinema

2017 Women’s Cinema Festival – Day 12: The Rider & Zama


Finally, it comes to the final day of the Competition films, with the reviews of the last two entries: The Rider by Chloe Zhao, and Zama by Lucrecia Martel. Both films put their man into focus and again deal with the theme of masculinity, although that theme isn’t the central part of those films. Both films feature characters in a specific location. Whether it’s badland in South Dakota, or the colonial coastal town, the sense of place is another character to both features. In contrast, they approach their films differently: one builds her film around real events and let the story progress naturally; the other builds her rhythm in the post-production process, namely the sound mixing. One benefits from its realism, the other on surrealism. Both are wonderful to look at. Day 12 of the festival, here it comes:

The Rider

Chloé Zhao: Born and raised in Beijing in 1985, educated in London & the US, shifting gears from studying Political Science at Mount Holyoke to Film Production at NYU. Her films have focused on characters contemplating their lives in specific rural settings. Her 2015 feature debut ‘Songs My Brothers Taught Me’ premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and Directors’ Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival.

“So I know that I want to make a film with [Brady]. I started to write all these stories he can act in. Which were partially inspired by something he can do in real life, horses and stuff. None of those stories were very good. Until he got hurt a year and a half later. And then I talked to him about it, and he started to describe his recovery process. So I thought, oh, that could be.”

Since its success at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival where it won the Director’s Fortnight prize, people has compared The Rider with The Wrestler (2008), another film about a man who is in his career-crisis. Although both are humanistic and powerful, it’s not a fair assessment at all. What Chloe Zhao achieved here is different than Darren Aronofsky did with the Wrestler. The Rider soars because it feels real. After all, this is a story from non-professional actors who play version of themselves, in a story that happened to them in real life. It’s not a documentary either because everything happened in the film is constructed in the way it can bring maximum drame. Yet looking it Brady on screen (Brady Jandreau), you can’t help but feel the weight that the accident did to him. Most stories about a gloried hero (in the case, gloried rodeo) focus on the career. This story starts afterwards, when the glory is far gone and our hero remains a shackle of his past, questioning his own identity and values.

With the metal plate on his head and his hand sometimes freezes as if it can’t let go, the doctor and everyone makes it very clear that Brady won’t be able to do Rodeo again. A clip from his (real life) accident, his rodeo friend who gets caught into an accident further inform us how thrilling and dangerous the job is. But with Brady, like fireflies attracted to the light, it’s the only life he knows (and is proud of), naturally it causes him to rethink about himself, about whether or not he keeps doing what he loves to do, even at the cost of his life. As the plot organically moves forward, we see Brady slowly coming to terms with his new life. Not only Brady the actor has so much charisma that he held our attention throughout, the supporting cast including his real life father and sister, all play off really well in their scenes. There’s the naturalism and honesty that are so hard to capture onscreen, but Zhao achieves these near flawlessly.

One of her trick for its level of “truth” is that she allows her characters to do what they always do onscreen. There’s a extended improv sequence where Brady tries to tame one of the reluctant horse. As it folds out on screen, almost in real life, we see how Brady gains the horse’s trust, and more powerfully how much the man is around the horses. It’s rare to see those really authentic scenes fold out right in front of us. It reaches the point where there doesn’t feel like acting anymore. It’s just, the man and his horse. The same can be said when Brad visits his best friend Lane, who is now incapable to communicate. As Brad talks to him and they look at each other, there’s the genuine mutual feeling between them that you immediately know these guys have known each other for most of their lives. You know, regular actors just can’t beat that. As the film comes to its end, it becomes unclear whether he will go back to rodeo, which for this film is an appropriate closure. Reportedly Zhao was nervous on how the audience would receive the film back when it first screened in Cannes. She didn’t need to worry, with a film that rings this authentic, people would have to pay attention.


Lucrecia Martel: Born in 1966 in Salta, Argentina, Lucrecia Martel studied at Avellaneda Experimental (AVEX) and attended the National Experimentation Filmmaking School (ENERC) in Buenos Aires. She is a member of Argentina New Wave that began in 1998.  From 1995 to 1998, she made a series of documentaries for TV as well as a children’s TV programme, hailed by the Argentinian press for its unusual dark humor. Prior to Zama, Lucrecia Martel has managed to make three very personal feature films, in which she explores her favorite theme, troubled minds.

“In Argentina, identity is something that gets talked about a lot. It’s an absurd, nationalistic identity. It’s not a healthy identity. To many Argentines, the problems of indigenous people seem like anachronisms, like something that doesn’t accord with what it is to be Argentine. In Argentina there still exist very serious problems concerning ownership of the land that even after 200 years of independence have yet to be resolved.”

“Zama” is a hard film to give a clear opinion on. It’s a film that I’m consistently impressed, but it also consistently keeps viewers at arm’s reach. This quality, after all, is one of “Zama”’s main theme: alienation. This colonial world is wholly foreign, our main character Zama is adrift with his thought to escape the place, and the events that unfold is surreal as well; sometimes it functions like a dream logic, other times the disorienting sound, dialogues and saturated color allure the sense that all of this is in Zama’s head (Daniel Giménez Cacho). Martel’s films always tackle the state of Argentina’s class, race, and gender in some ways: its collapsing bourgeoisie in La Cienaga (2001) and Headless Woman (2008) as an example. In “Zama”, she presses the issue more than any of her other films. The indigenous people, seen through our protagonist Zama’s eyes, is just a part of the landscape. It’s the image of a white man who is at odds of his surrounding, of the absurdity of white colonosiam. It’s like how the native always have a deep spiritual connection to land, something that Zama completely lacks.

The prologue before the title rolls informs you perfectly about the tone and theme of the film. As Zama stands by the shore looking out to the sea, he looks the part according to his position – a local magistrate. Things quickly go absurd however, as we witness him peering at naked indigenous women. After getting caught, he slaps the poor woman who chased him. Throughout the course of the movie, irony and humiliation play a huge part in Zama’s life. He hates this forsaken land and asks to reassign to Lerma, just so that with three Governors passing, he still can’t leave, worse his inferior is “punished” to Lerma before him. He flirts with a noblewoman Luciana (Lola Dueñas) just so that one night he realizes she has slept with his rival. He says he hates black women but then it’s revealed that he has a son with one of the indigenous girl, who doesn’t give him a damn. It’s intentional, as a result, that these characters he meet during his stay as a local magistrate are interchangeable. The dialogues make less sense as the film goes, and these characters behave the same towards Zama: affectionless.

Then it comes to a completely different narrative in the last part (some might say it’s a different film altogether) as Zama joins the group to the wilderness to find an urban legend that might or might not exist. The part goes surreal, although “Zama constantly changes its protagonist roles with irony and humiliation, many times over. The sound editing further shapes the film’s tone and narrative. Anything… insect sounds, animal howling, environmental chatter, sounds that impossibly exists in the context of the film… they all building up to signify the restless, confused mind of Zama. In one of the interview, Martel said that she frames the dialogues overlapping to Zama’s face so that it becomes blurred who delivers which lines, as if they’re all merged into one. Which is fitting. As Zama struggles to look for his own existence in this faraway land, so does the deep unsettling of colonialism, the continent’s identity itself.

Whoops. So that brings us to the end of Day 12, which all the films in competition all reviewed. If you think this is the end of this project, well, it’s not. We still have 2 more days so that I can have more time to consider the award winners. Day 13 will be about sidebar titles, in which I will watch films that either just missed out the Main Competition, intriguing debut features, minor films for acclaimed directors, genre films or basically anything in between. Those films for Day 13, 2017-version will be: Tower. A Bright Day. by Jagoda Szelc (Poland); Revenge by Coralie Fargeat (France, USA), and Marlina Murderer in Four Arcs by Mouly Surya (Indonesia). So basically, two rape-revenge flicks. Hopefully I can find the subtitle for the last one. I intend to have the winners announced by the weekend so see ya real soon.

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