The Breadwinner, Big Fish & Begonia, The Final Year, and Saturday Church.
Life, as they say, comes at you fast. Just yesterday, in the opening pre-amble to the content you actually care about, I was whining of how it had been 3 days since the Festival started and I had yet to be blown away by any of the films I’d seen. I’d really enjoyed quite a few – this was not to take away from Equilibrium, The Light of the Moon, or Golden Exits – but I’d yet to fall in love with anything, and that was just unacceptable, dammit! By this time last year, I had loved The Handmaiden, and Elle, and My Life as a Courgette, and so on and so forth, so how dare all the excellent films be hiding themselves from me, or (based on comments I’d heard from online friends currently at other festivals) failing to do a better job at convincing me to not make bad decisions that I knew I wasn’t going to love anyway! And then, today, presumably to force me to quit my moaning, the Festival unleashed The Breadwinner (A) upon me, as if the everything so far was all about building my anticipation and appreciation levels up fully enough so that, when an excellent film came along, I’d recognise its excellency instantly.
In fact, and at the risk of indulging in exactly the kind of festival-bubble hyperbole that can unfairly overhype great films once viewed outside of the festival, I will honestly be amazed if I see a film better than The Breadwinner throughout the rest of this fortnight. Once the credits started rolling, I had the exact same reaction I did when I first saw Persepolis; this gut feeling that I had just experienced one of the best animated features I had ever laid eyes on, but not quite yet wanting to attach that label to it in the off-chance that said feeling faded in the days following that viewing. With Persepolis, that feeling did not subside, and I trust my gut enough to believe that it won’t go away for The Breadwinner, either. What Cartoon Saloon – the Irish animation studio responsible for Song of the Sea and The Secret of Kells – and director Nora Twomey have created here, an adaptation of Deborah Ellis’ acclaimed 2000 Children’s novel, is nothing short of a masterpiece. A raw, emotional, beautiful film in every possible sense of the word.
Much like Persepolis, The Breadwinner confronts us with the oppressive, misogynistic life of a young girl living in constantly vulnerable war-torn region that chose to run into the arms of a force that would conflate the powers of a hateful interpretation of religion, and those of the state as one and the same. This is Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, a place where religion is not preached as a source of comforting hope and inspiration, but abused as a weapon of fear and control. Where the warped misreadings of its teachings are absolute law, fuelled by anger and deliberately sowing division between those at risk of punishments for sins – which are numerous and harmless, yet have retributions of extensive violence and abuse visited upon anyone who would engage in them – and those for whom this dynamic has been a source of a power, however scrappy it may be, that they refuse to let go of. Everybody is suffering, but the ruthless masculine control of the Taliban, which almost literally spits in the face of people some used to consider friends due to their weakened physical and economic state, is perfectly happy to leave those suffering to die in pits that are not of their own making.
Death is all around the family of Parvana (Saara Chaudry), who is the middle child of her parents, former writer Fattema (Laara Sadiq) and former teacher Nurullah (Ali Badshah), the latter of whom lost his leg fighting in one of the many wars that Afghanistan has played host to over its turbulent existence. Yet her family keep on fighting to survive anyway, to make enough money that they can dream of a better life, that they might be able to bicker like a normal family, that Parvana can become a woman rather than a girl. But when Nurullah is arrested by the Taliban for harbouring unauthorised books, Parvana’s family is forced to confront the prospect of death head-on, since not only is their means of income gone, they are also unable to leave the house or buy food and water full stop (since Taliban law strictly forbids women to be in public without their husband or father). This is when Parvana gets the idea to cut off most of her hair and try to pass as a boy in order to keep providing for her family whilst they wait for news on her father and a possible way out of the country.
And it’s that central act of selfless compassion that forms the beating heart of The Breadwinner. The idea that, even in the middle of this crushing and soulless oppression, there are still those who are willing to look around and try to alleviate the suffering of others, however much they can. That there are those who can form connections and friendships, crafting a support system that allows one to dream and hope again. Parvana finds hers in Razaq (Kawa Ada), whom she first meets when he taps her services to read a letter informing him that somebody he knew was the casualty of a roadside bomb, and in old school friend Shauzia (Soma Bhatia), who took the same initiative as Parvana but with the end goal of making enough money to run away from her abusive father to a beach somewhere. Plus, there’s still the rest of Parvana’s family, who try to help shoulder her burden of being the family’s sole provider despite still only being a child.
So they tell stories. Throughout the film, we catch more and more brief passages of a story being told by Parvana about a boy questing to rescue his village’s harvest seeds from an evil elephant god who lives on the mountain with his fearsome jackals. She’s primarily telling this story to the family’s infant son, but she also later relates part of it to Shauzia as they hide out from a Taliban patrol, who keeps trying to change bleaker parts of the story to happier outcomes. Her mother takes over for a stretch after Parvana has a particularly hard day, whilst the arrival of war over the horizon leads to Parvana reciting the story to herself with no-one else around. It is stories like these that give those like Parvana the strength to go on, the hope that things can get better, that this evil can be overcome, and that one need not sacrifice their love and compassion in order to do do; all, as it is eventually revealed, by reconciling with the ugly and tragic past instead of using it as fuel for further hatred and anger.
I worry that I may run out of superlatives to describe The Breadwinner with. This is just an utterly astonishing achievement of storytelling. The characters are all wonderful, the voice performances are across the board excellent, the visual design that Cartoon Saloon have been refining since Kells is almost perfected here – including a brilliant digression into paper-puppetry for the story segments, which also manage to serve as an outlet for the kinds of fantasy visuals that the film otherwise refrains from engaging in – and the boarding! Oh, the boarding! I haven’t seen an animated feature that looks this indescribably beautiful since I first saw The Prince of Egypt back in 2014 (even though that film was released in 1999 hush) and, just like that example, you could hang any random frame of this film in an art gallery anywhere on the planet and you would hear no objections from any sane person with taste. Every time I’ve thought about this film today since I saw it, I’ve started welling up uncontrollably all over again, just like I did with Arrival last year. I sincerely do not know what a film playing at this festival could do to top The Breadwinner, it’s just so much better than almost any film I’ve seen all year, cinema or no. I am going to remember where I was when I first saw this, and if Studio Canal has any sense they will push this thing to the moon and back into every cinema they possibly can.
So, after all that, it’s fair to say that Big Fish & Begonia (C+) had the deck rather stacked against it by the unfortunate virtue of having to follow The Breadwinner, and, unsurprisingly, it wasn’t a film that was up to the task. Then again, that is through no fault of its own, and Big Fish & Begonia is a perfectly fine slice of Chinese animated fantasy. Set in a magical world slightly below our own, young girl Chun (Ji Guanlin) takes part in a coming of age ritual where she spends a week experiencing the human world as a red dolphin. On her return trip, however, she gets caught in a net, from which she is rescued by a young human boy (Weizhou Xu) whom, in the chaos, she accidentally kills. Wracked with guilt over this, she bargains with a soul keeper to bring the boy back to life in exchange for half of her own, which he does but, thanks to the way that souls in this universe work, the boy is brought back as a tiny red dolphin and must grow back to full-size before he can return to the human world.
Naturally, tampering with life and death has its unforeseen consequences, which in this case involves the gradual destruction of Chun’s home world, leading to her fellow villagers revolting against the dolphin without knowing that, because Chun and the boy’s lives are now intertwined, killing the dolphin will also kill Chun. Big Fish & Begonia (and it is a pain in the arse that I can’t just shorten that title to Big Fish) is therefore a quintessentially Chinese look at the nature of life, the soul, and noble karmic redemption, lacking full-on villains (although there are a couple of unintentional antagonists), and preaching ideals of nobility and self-sacrifice. However, the film also suffers from a few of the same problems that crop up in lesser-Western animated fare, in that the pacing is very awkward with too many side characters, and the whole thing is just too narratively generic to allow for the kind of investment and emotional wallop that the film is aiming for, which is what stops it from being anything more than just “fine.”
It is, though, a visually gorgeous piece of fine fantasy. The animation was worked on by Studio Mir, of Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra fame, and their art style and aesthetics are evident from the word go. Boarding is strong, character designs for the more colourful characters that populate the spirit world are arresting and make up for most of the film otherwise following a plain girl and boy, Chun’s friend Qiu (Shangkqing Su), you’ve seen hundreds of times before, and the interplay of colours and shades is often sublime. The studio’s attempts to integrate CGI into their traditional-animation techniques are still very awkward and slightly off-putting, but other than that, and as veterans of both Avatar and Korra might have expected to happen when you give Studio Mir a feature-film budget, the results are a feast for the eyes. I just wish the brain and the heart had something more to chew on.
Mind you, there’s at least more in Big Fish & Begonia than there was in documentary The Final Year (D+). A fly-on-the-wall documentary chronicling the final year of Former President Barack Obama’s time in office as seen through his senior foreign policy staff – including John Kerry, Samantha Powers, Ben Rhodes, and the occasional swoop-through visit by Obama himself, whose camera confessionals are about as substantial and revealing as a DJ Khaled quote – The Final Year seems to falsely believe that its intimate access to Obama’s team is enough of a point on its own to carry a full 90 minute documentary. Or maybe the problem is actually the fact that it’s only 90 minutes long? A lot happened in Obama’s final year whilst domestic politics was going to complete shit – the Paris Accords, the Iran nuclear deal, ending trade sanctions on Cuba, the attempted Syria ceasefire, Presidential trips to Vietnam and Hiroshima, among others – but the structure and length of The Final Year means that we’re on nothing more than a whistle-stop tour of these issues. 5 minutes here at the UN, and then we’re off to meet the mothers of the daughters kidnapped by Boko-Haram, and then we’re off to Laos, and so on.
All the while, Trump continues to rise in the background. Whilst in Vietnam, Ben speaks to both the President of the nation and a random ex-pat who are concerned about the possibility of President Trump, having paid attention to the Brexit vote earlier that month, and he laughs off the entire notion. One could maybe infer a larger point being made here – about how these people who are flying everywhere, earnestly trying to change the world, and really do believe in what they are doing, are actually totally oblivious to that world around them, so shrink-wrapped in their own bubble – but The Final Year is in reality just preaching to the choir. Everybody is far too guarded and “on” to provide any read on them that doesn’t make them come off as saintly (which is what makes it such a relief when Ben’s New York Times profile where he claims that journalists “know nothing” comes out), it’s incredibly fawning of Obama and unquestioning in his role as a beacon of great change, and its finale again pivots to that old falsehood that the current generation will save us all and all the old racists will die off. It’s nothing less than watchable, but I should note that it ends with a montage of people clearing out their stuff to a gospel choir rendition of “The Times They Are A-Changing.” It should be a bitterly ironic kiss-off, but it means nothing, much like the rest of the film.
Finally: it took me until Day 4 of the Festival to get an approved public screening ticket (something I may moan more about should next weekend be this bloody difficult), but at long last I got to sit down in a non-Picturehouse cinema, surrounded by people not affiliated with the press and/or industry, and watch a goddamn film. I got lucky, too, since Saturday Church (B-) was initially a victim of clashing with the Golden Exits screening from the previous day despite my desire to see it. Starring relative newcomer Luka Kain, the film follows Ulysses, a Black teenager in New York City struggling to keep his homosexuality and affinity for women’s clothing a secret from his strictly conservative Aunt (Regina Taylor), and overworked unawares mother (Margot Bingham) after his father dies. Eventually, he’s drawn to a group of drag queens by the pier who invite him to Saturday Church, a group of queer, trans teens who have no support system back home, where he slowly starts to find acceptance and understanding of an identity he’s been forced to hide for his entire life.
It’s a largely hopeful movie, although it doesn’t shy away from the difficult realities of what happens when a support system you can only see once a week can’t be there when one needs it most. In the post-screening Q&A, first-time writer-director Damon Cardasis spoke about how he deliberately sent the script around to members of the real-life church group that the film was based on, as well as GLAAD and others, in order to ensure that the results were as respectful as possible. One could argue that the film is maybe too respectful, particularly with regards to its ending – although that’s just a difficult tightrope for these stories to walk regardless – but the film’s understated nature and refusal to sensationalise or tip into melodrama is what keeps it from being condescending. Cardasis pulls off the neat trick of starting off with his camera somewhat at a distance from almost everything, before bringing the viewer closer and closer into the underground queer and trans scene of New York the more comfortable that Ulysses becomes both there and in his own skin. Kain is also a real find of an actor; there were multiple times throughout the film where I just wanted to reach through the screen and give him a big old hug, the pained conflict and awkward uncertainty cutting right through me.
Saturday Church suffers from two problems, however. The first can largely be put down to debut filmmaking jitters. Church runs 82 minutes, but Cardasis paces the film like it’s 102, and so the moment that the film lurches into the Third Act, it starts to tangibly feel like the budget was nearly gone, with anything that doesn’t immediately advance us to the next major sequence being left unfilmed. Which is fine, it doesn’t hurt the film too much. Far more of an issue comes from the film’s main conceit: it’s kind of a lousy musical. Yes, Saturday Church is also a musical, although you’d be forgiven for forgetting that for long stretches. I counted 5 songs overall, 6 if you also count the customary Dark Reprise, one of which is about 4 lines long, all of which straddle the awkward line between fantasy and super-realist in a way that makes it seem like they’re just unsure of which they’re primarily going for, and none of which are honestly very good. I’d find myself getting invested in the drama on screen, completely forgetting the musical aspect, and then a song would turn up semi-out-of-nowhere and I’d just roll my eyes waiting for it to be over so we could get back to this realist heartfelt drama.
Still, it’s not a bad debut, and the drama is strong enough to mostly overcome the underwhelming musical aspects, especially thanks to Kain’s lead turn. Maybe don’t have the best musical sequence in your musical be a non-sung montage set to a non-original song next time, though.
Tomorrow: Michael Haneke returns with Happy End, and the world’s first entirely-painted animated feature previews at the Festival in the form of Loving Vincent.
Callum Petch is gonna buy him a brand new shade of man.