This month, because our blood pressure wasn’t already suitably distressingly high, we have chosen to look at films that reflect, recount, and/or comment upon, stories of social importance and themes of injustice, iniquity, intolerance, and the perilous power of ideas.
We’ll be looking at films from three different continents, and in three different languages (four, if you count Geordie as a separate language, which would be understandable), with topics that cover, or touch upon, transgenderism, intellectual freedom, moral persecution, dangerous ideologies, income inequality, the failure of the welfare state, the lingering effects of colonialism, capitalism and the banality of evil.
Coincidentally, at least three of our films also feature, to a greater or lesser extent, the deleterious influence of religion. Not surprising, though, as, while I am sure that a great many people have found succour or comfort in their faith over the millennia, organised religion is probably the single greatest ill that has ever afflicted our species, and its effects are widespread.
Expect our soon to be issued death certificates to read “Cause of death: apoplexy-induced aneurysm”.
También la lluvia (Even the Rain in English), sees a Spanish film crew arrive in Bolivia to shoot a film about Christopher Columbus and his maltreatment of the indigenous inhabitants of Santo Domingo (now the Dominican Republic). They wish to tell the story of the persecution of the Taíno people by Columbus and his conquistadores, their indifference to their suffering, their lust for money, and the way that these Europeans looked down upon dark-skinned natives as lesser peoples.
To make this film, they travel to Bolivia, where the Europeans look down upon the dark-skinned natives, and where the costs of filming are much cheaper (Bolivia is one of the world’s poorest countries) and where they intend to use the native Andean Quechua people, (who are short in stature and speak Quechua) to play the Taíno (tall, well-proportioned people who spoke Taíno) because the language and ethnicity will all seem the same to their audience.
Key to the film is the casting of Hatüey, the Taíno chief who led resistance against the Spanish and earned himself legendary status, as well as a fiery death, as a result. Director Sebastián (Gael García Bernal) finds his ideal man in local Cochabamba native Daniel (Juan Carlos Aduviri), a firebrand and political activist whose revolutionary, communist ideals include the crazy notion that it’s wrong to tax, restrict and own all of the water, even the rain (it truly boggles the mind to think that there are people who genuinely believe that access to water isn’t a universal human right).
Daniel’s political activities, which see him take a central role in the Cochabamba water protests (a real event that happened in 2000, when the local population rose up against the privatisation of the city water supply and a 300% increase in prices), threaten to disrupt filming when he finds himself beaten by police during a protest, and then beaten again and arrested when he refuses to stop protesting.
The cast and crew find themselves trapped in a city by police, the military and protesters, and their own strengths of conviction are challenged. In particular, the actors who had so evangelised their characters of Antonio de Montesinos and Bartolomé de las Casas, and their critical, principled, role in denouncing the exploitation of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, are found very much wanting. Sebastián, who at first had seemed invested in and sympathetic to the locals’ plight, begins to care only about finishing his film and the Indians’ role in that, so he, too has turned the native Americans into nothing more than a resource, just as the subjects of his film did half a millennium ago.
Luis Tosar’s Costa, the calculating producer of the film, and the most concerned with finances, goes the other way, and finds something more important than finishing the film with which to get involved.
Along with all of the films we’ll talk about today, this comes highly recommended. Good as Bernal is, it’s the excellent turns from Luis Tosar and Juan Carlos Aduviri that are at the heart of this, and make this an affecting character piece about reactions to danger that complements the shock of social upheaval well.
Felicity Huffman’s Bree is looking forward to the gender reassignment surgery that will, physically at least, make a woman out of him, however her life gets flipped, turned upside down, when a phone call comes through telling her that she had fathered a son after a college indiscretion.
Said kid, Toby (Kevin Zegers) is currently languishing in a New York police jail, and Bree is told in no uncertain terms that she must deal with this before her surgery, so off she goes from Los Angeles to bail him out.
She doesn’t reveal this relationship to Toby, instead posing as a church outreach worker. Wanting shot of any such complications, Bree sets about finding the quickest way to discharge any guardianship. With the birth mother having died many years back, it seems like a trip to a long estranged stepfather may be the best option. So, a plan for a road trip is hatched, although Toby has very different reasons for agreeing to go.
He thinks he’ll end up in Los Angeles, where he hopes to beak into the porn industry, which would be a welcome change from his career as a small time drug dealer and male prostitute. I suppose. So, off they go in a beaten up old Jalopy, and, like most road movies, they start learning about each other. However, there’s a lot of high stakes secrets to learn on this trip, and that’s before their car gets nicked by a peyote shaman.
With solid characterisation throughout and a clutch of believable, very human performances, there’s a great deal to like in the film. It’s frequently very funny, and certainly in this company it’s perhaps the most enjoyable and easiest watch.
The striking thing, again in this company, about this film is that the issues of transgenderism aren’t at the forefront of the film, really, the character relationships are. Which might seem a little strange, but there’s a solid argument for such normalisation being the best way to deal with it.
Social commentator extraordinaire Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake, which won the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, tells the story of Daniel Blake (Dave Johns), a working-class man from Newcastle who has recently had to stop working due to suffering a severe heart attack. He has worked all of his life, never claimed for any sort of benefit, and is eager to return to work but, sensibly, is following his doctor’s orders.
He still needs money to live, of course, but finds himself in a nightmare scenario where, despite testimony from his GP and his surgeon, he is deemed fit to work by the government’s dehumanising points system and, while he waits for an opportunity to appeal the decision (which sees him languishing in a frustrating, infuriating, bureaucratic purgatory) he must spend at least 35 hours per week actively looking for work, despite being unable to take any job he might be offered, what with it having a good chance of making him dead if he did so.
During all of this he befriends Katie (Hayley Squires), a young mum of two, who was forced to move several hundred miles to Newcastle from her home in London in order to get a house for herself and her children. Daniel puts his practical skills to use helping Katie fix some things around her house, and teaching some simple tricks to help the family keep warm, and he becomes something of a surrogate grandfather to Katie’s kids. The companionship seems to do them both good, but for both Daniel and Katie life is getting worse – Daniel is forced to sell his possessions, and Katie is hiding the fact that she isn’t eating anything to ensure that there is enough food for her children.
For Daniel, these pressures result in an ill-judged, if understandable, act of defiance, and, for Katie, in desperate measures in order to obtain female sanitary products, and a scene in a foodbank that is truly one of the most heartbreaking moments that I have ever seen in cinema.
What is most affecting about I, Daniel Blake is just how authentic it is. Aside from one turn of events that feels far too “drama bomb”, there is nothing in this film that doesn’t ring (horrifically, depressingly) true. It’s a damning indictment of the failure of one of the world’s richest countries to take proper care of its own citizens, and of the almost cartoonishly evil attitude the current Tory government in particular has towards the poorest in society.
Daniel’s stubbornness and refusal to play ball may be foolish, but it’s understandable given the ridiculous and unfair situation in which he finds himself, and the lack of support he is being offered. He’s constantly coming up against a system that, employing Hanlon’s Razor, could well be attributed to stupidity, in the way of bureaucracies, but feels inarguably like calculated malice. It’s a system that reduces people to numbers and statistics in order to dehumanise them, and allows no flexibility for human error. It seems to actively punish those members of it who act like decent human beings, and who treat their clients in the same way, and, though to a considerably lesser extent than the film we will conclude this episode with, it’s an embodiment of the idea of the banality of evil.
Jürgen Vogel’s high school teacher Rainer Wenger hoped to teach a project class about Anarchy, but is instead lumbered with Autocracy. Thinking of a way to spice things up rather than a series of dry lectures, he launches a movement with his class to show that dictatorships are still possible, even in as advanced a society as Germany.
Starting simply with uniforms and discipline, for a lot of the class members it’s having only a positive effect, fostering community and respect. Soon, it starts spiralling out of control, beginning with excluding non-members, and becoming increasingly worrying from there.
It’s based on a real-life experiment carried out in California, and while transplanting it to the Germany makes the comparison with the rise of fascist National Socialism a little cheap, it’s certainly effective.
It’s also the most dynamically edited movie of today’s clutch, propelling along at such a clip that the somewhat thinly drawn nature of many of the students is not as noticeable as it could be. However, the main characters the drama centres on, Jürgen Vogel and Tim, the kid who takes it all too seriously with tragic consequences, are well examined enough to let us know where they’re coming from.
It’s hampered a little by ramping up the drama towards the finale, giving a slightly unbelievable sheen to the rest of the events which are more or less true to the experiment that inspired it, but it’s not enough to dull a very enjoyable film.
Inherit the Wind is an adaptation of Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee’s 1955 play of the same name, a dramatisation of the Scopes Monkey Trial, which in 1925 saw a teacher prosecuted for teaching Darwinism in his classroom, in contravention of Tennessee state law. Spencer Tracy stars as defence attorney Henry Drummond, opposite prosecutor Matthew Harrison Brady (Fredric March), analogues of the real-life lawyers Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan.
While ostensibly a dramatic retelling of that infamous creationism vs evolution court case (and certainly, historical inaccuracies aside, it stands up as that), this was a play written deep in the era of McCarthyism (one of the screenwriters, Nedrick Young, was even blacklisted at the time), and the issue of teaching evolution was “a parable, a metaphor for any kind of mind control”, according to Lawrence. In essence, it’s about intellectual freedom and the right to think (two things that some seek to suppress, and others, distressingly, surrender willingly).
The film begins in a manner almost like a Western, with lawmen meeting in the town square, and then marching into a building with intent. Their mission is to arrest Bertram Cates (Dick York, the film’s John Scopes analogue) because he has had the temerity to teach science in a school. The despicable monster. Not long after he is carted off to jail, the local bigwigs begin to have second thoughts about the whole business, as the national media is making their backward little town a laughing stock. But before they can reverse their actions, nationally-renowned lawyer and bible scholar Matthew Brady arrives to prosecute the case. He is soon followed by Gene Kelly’s H.L. Mencken stand-in E.K. Hornbeck of the Baltimore Herald, and then Drummond, a long-time friend, and adversary, of Brady, to act for the defence.
The case itself should take about 3 minutes, because it is open and shut – Cates unequivocally broke the law. But, like the real case (which was in fact a stunt in order for the ACLU to challenge the law, and eventually take it to the Supreme Court and challenge the constitutionality of this, and similar laws) the trial becomes not about the fact that the law was broken, but about the merit of the law and its associated anti-intellectualism, and the right of an individual to think.
Cue scintillating dialogue and thunderous, compelling exchanges between Drummond and Brady, with superb performances from Tracy and March.
This film certainly has a knack for both getting my blood up, and making me think, and think about what I’m thinking. Seeing the imbecilic, unthinking mob crying for the death of a schoolteacher makes me wish every single member of that mob dead, and then it occurs to me that I want people to die because they want people to die, and that doesn’t seem like an intelligent response. But at least I know that my thoughts are my own, and that is very much the point.
“We don’t need no outsiders to tell us how or what to think” says a local to Drummond. Well, no, you don’t, because you already have an insider to do that for you, and his name is Rev. Brown, with his 17th century book of fairy tales.
An infuriating, if far from unbiased film, leavened by Kelly’s stream of quips that somehow still hold relevance today.
Pete Mullen, for most audiences I would wager, may not be a household name, but the Scots actor perhaps will be best known for his appearance as Swanney in Trainspotting, or as the lead in Ken Loach’s My Name Is Joe, or perhaps simply as “Hey, it’s that guy!”in a wide variety of films stretching back decades. He’s also directed three films, the second of which we are gathered here to talk about, The Magdalene Sisters. It would, however, be remiss of us not to point out that his other films, Neds, and particularly his debut Orphans, come highly recommended, particularly if you’ve an interest in contemporary Scottish filmmaking and culture.
However, we’re over in Ireland for the events of The Magdalene Sisters, as three teenage girls are forcibly taken, with the agreement of their family, to the Magdalene Laundries for perceived crimes such as having a kid out of wedlock, being raped by a family member and looking pretty and talking to boys. Catholics are weird.
The tenet of these laundries appears to be that, as men are incapable of resisting their base desires, it’s the duty of women to be locked away from men. And while you’re there, you might as well work tirelessly for a combination of salvation of your soul and money for the Church. Oh, and ritual humiliation, too.
This is an altogether infuriating thing that actually happened, and until very recently as well, that’s no less than slavery. It’s almost unbelievable, but it seems that if anything the horrendous abuse show here is, if anything, understated compared to reality. As baffling as that may be.
This is a bleak, uncompromising look at the Laundries, and is by turns depressing and infuriating. It’s hard to recommend it as an enjoyable experience, well, because it’s obviously not, but it’s a powerful, well produced, well acted film that’s shining a light on an under-examined, ignominious chapter of the Church’s chequered history.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
If you’ve been affected by any of the issues discussed today, please hit us up on Twitter (@fudsonfilm), on Facebook (facebook.com/fudsonfilm), or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you want to receive our podcast on a regular basis, please add our feed to your podcasting software of choice, or subscribe on iTunes. If you could see your way clear to leaving a review on iTunes, we’d be eternally grateful, but we won’t blame you if you don’t. We’ll be back with you on the 10th with the duelling Birth of a Nation films, but until then, take care of yourself, and each other.