Six films by new and emerging female filmmakers at Cannes 2017

The competition may have been lacklustre overall but that wasn’t the case elsewhere at Cannes, where the sidebars were brimming with great films by first- and second-time female directors. Distributors take note!

The Rider, I Am not a Witch, Ava, Jeune Femme and The Prince of Nothingwood all screen in the BFI London Film Festival, 4-14 October 2017.

Isabel Stevens
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Léa Mysius’ feature debut Ava, featuring Noee Abita as a 13-year-old loner losing her eyesight

Léa Mysius’ feature debut Ava, featuring Noee Abita as a 13-year-old loner losing her eyesight

The word from the critics on the Croisette is that it hasn’t been a stellar Cannes. But they’ve been looking in the wrong places. Where many of the best films have been hiding away, from Agnès Varda’s Visages Villages to Claire Denis’s Bright Sunshine In, is outside the competition: Cannes’ myriad sidebars and strands have been home to some of the best films of the festival.

A few days ago, one red carpet ensemble photograph, taken for the festival’s 70th celebration, loomed large on social media: 13 former Palme d’Or winners standing on the steps of the Palais. All of them are white. And apart from Jane Campion at the edge, they’re all men. It was a visual reminder of how urgent change is needed. This year there were no directors of colour competing for the Palme d’Or. But there were three female directors in the competition, Thierry Fremaux almost boasted when he announced the line-up. That’s one more than in 1974, when two films by female directors were admitted to the comp for the first time – Liliana Cavani’s Milarepa and Binka Zhelyazkova’s The Last Word.

It’s now an old saw that directors in the competition typically have prior Cannes pedigree and often are comp veterans. Yet even the balance of new recruits still seems to swing male: the three female directors in competition (Sofia Coppola, Naomi Kawase and Lynne Ramsay) all had previous at the festival, while the new faces – Robin Campillo and the Sadfie brothers among them – were all men.

While the bad news is that Cannes’ selectors seem to have few female directors on speed dial, the good news is that their contacts book hopefully got a lot bigger this year. Many of the best and most vibrant films I saw were by first- or second-time female directors outside of the competition. Look out for these films when they hit festivals and, let’s hope, cinemas around the UK in the coming months. Hopefully, when Cannes celebrates its 80th anniversary, they’ll be on the Palais’ steps alongside Campion, Michael Haneke, Ken Loach et al.

 

The Rider

Chloé Zhao, USA

The Rider (2017)

The Rider (2017)

For her second feature, which won the Directors’ Fortnight prize, Chinese-born American filmmaker Chloé Zhao drops us off in Trump heartland, in the craggy plains of South Dakota, where there is little for young men to dream of apart from being a rodeo hero. The rodeo-phile in focus here is young cowboy Brady, a successful bronco rider recovering from a serious head injury and advised to stay away from horses. But that’s a life he can’t countenance. And yet his broken body, viscerally captured by Zhao, also scares him.

What emerges is a very nuanced portrait of the hopelessness and lack of opportunity abounding in America’s hinterlands. The film also surveys masculinity in crisis. Zhao balances the testosterone-filled adrenaline highs of the rodeo world with Brady’s tender relationship with his younger sister, who has learning disabilities.

Working with non-professionals whose lives blur with their characters, Zhao’s film scores high on realism. The bonds between human and animals are remarkably captured by her and cinematographer Joshua James Richards, especially in the mesmerising scenes of Brady wrangling wild horses. The only elements letting the film down are an overly explanatory script that makes Brady’s central dilemma (to cowboy up and ride through the pain or give up on his dreams) too bald, and the occasional lyrical music that over-pounds the film’s mournful tone. Nevertheless, it’s a remarkable achievement from both Zhao and all her actors.

 

I Am not a Witch

Rungano Nyoni, UK/France

I Am not a Witch (2017)

I Am not a Witch (2017)

Welsh/Zambian filmmaker Rungano Nyoni’s debut I Am Not a Witch makes inspired use of nonprofessionals actors she found on the streets to craft a striking fairy-tale-cum-satire about witchcraft in rural Zambian society. Taking aim too at government corruption and misogyny, it brings to mind both Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

A young, anonymous girl is accused of being a witch by a mob of villagers and is banished to a witch camp. Under the watchful gaze of a predatory government official, she and the elderly ladies there are readily exploited for their labour, their supposed magical powers, but also for their tourist dollar. The film has a bleak sense of humour that is particularly effective in the court scenes where the nine-year-old ‘witch’ (newcomer Maggie Mulubwa, with a sad, haunted stare) has to identify the guilty party.

Witch camps do actually exist, Nyoni explained in the Q&A afterwards (she spent a month researching one in Ghana). But it’s unlikely they resemble the surreal metaphorical dystopias that she boldly conjures, where the witches are shackled by long ribbons mounted on giant reels to ensure they can’t escape. The spectacle of their white ribbons against the dusty, muted landscape is one of the film’s chilling visual punches. There are some bombastic aural stylistic choices too, with Vivaldi and Estelle rubbing shoulders on the surprising soundtrack. While the satire occasionally feels too blunt, overall the film offers a rush of originality, energy and ambition so often lacking at Cannes.

 

Ava

Léa Mysius, France

Ava (2017)

Ava (2017)

A teenage coming-of-age tale full of twists and in possession of a weird rebellious spirit much like its idiosyncratic 13-year-old loner protagonist. On holiday with her mum and baby sister, Ava (newcomer Noee Abita, contemptuous one moment, vulnerable the next) is gradually losing her eyesight. It feels like French first-time director Léa Mysius burrows into her fears – by day Ava practises being blind; by night she paints inky circles on her walls in pained frustration at her increasingly limited field of vision.

Mysius, shooting with cinematographer Paul Guilhaume on 35mm, makes full use of its texture and saturated colours. Indeed, blackness is a frequent motif, including the black dog that Ava steals to be her companion. The first half, centred on her failing vision and the affectionate but snipey relationship between Ava and her lively young mother Maud, is the strongest. The second act, post-sexual awakening, where she goes on the run with beach-dwelling bad boy Juan, is far looser – but even so it involves such kernels of joy as an impromptu comic crime spree on a nudist beach and a moment where Ava breaks into song.

 

Jeune Femme (Montparnasse Bienvenue)

Léonor Serraille, France

Jeune femme (Montparnasse Bienvenue, 2017)

Jeune femme (Montparnasse Bienvenue, 2017)

If there was one perfectly-formed, free-wheeling, surprise-laden killer-scripted, shot and acted debut, it was Léonor Serraille’s Jeune Femme. A woman post-breakup and mid-break-down is not an uncommon movie sight but Serraille and actress Laetitia Dosch make flame-haired Paula, with one brown and one blue eye, anything but your average quirky, madcap thirtysomething in freefall.

Like Ava, Paula too kidnaps a pet – her ex Joachim’s fluffball of a Persian – in revenge for cheating on her and ejecting her from their apartment. With no job, let alone a career, nowhere to live and no safety net, her lonely Parisian life feels truly precarious at times. But despite this, the unusual situations she wanders into as well as her fiery comebacks (“Go touch yourself” she hisses at an over-friendly man) and spiky observations (“ties are passports for thickos”) light up the film with a wicked and oddball sense of humour.

Snappily edited, and shot with intimacy and imaginative framing, the energetic Jeune Femme also skips along to a suitably spirited but melancholic electro soundtrack from composer Julie Roué. Jeune Femme immediately got tagged as the french Frances Ha. While it shares that film’s embrace of quirky filmmaking language, it also offers a far darker look at a woman’s life in freefall.

 

The Desert Bride

Cecilia Atán and Valeria Pivato, Argentina/Chile

The Desert Bride (La Novia del Desierto, 2017)

The Desert Bride (La Novia del Desierto, 2017)

Argentinian cinema has been a fertile hunting ground for new talent in recent years, but rarely do films by these emerging filmmakers get much big screen time in the UK beyond festival screenings.

Chilean actress Paulina Garcia, who played the titular divorcee in Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria with such gusto and resilience, is the calling card for Atán and Pivato’s remarkably assured debut. Garcia plays a 54-year-old woman named Theresa stranded in a pilgrimage town in the middle of nowhere, when her bus breaks down and her bag goes missing.

Gradually her backstory is revealed: she has worked as a live-in maid in Buenos Aires for her whole adult life, but the family have fallen upon hard times and now she is travelling to a remote town to work for their relatives. Flashbacks to her former life are not used to gratuitous plot effect but show imaginatively observed snatches of Theresa’s everyday life: her employer telling her the news while she is painting Theresa’s nails (not the other way round). Meanwhile her quasi-mother status to the family’s now grown-up son is revealed subtly during the preparation of a meal. The catalyst that leads the withdrawn, monosyllabic Theresa to question her life, which has been dedicated to others rather than herself, comes from Claudio Rissi’s gregarious, ramshackle Gringo – a clothes seller who accidentally whisks Theresa’s suitacse away and then misplaces it.

In a sense then, the film is a very simple and familiar tale: it’s a road trip of self-discovery, as Gringo drives Theresa around to try and find her bag, and a fledgling romance between two opposites. But the way the narrative delicately unfolds and the patient attention with which characters are subtly sketched by Atán and Pivato (who also wrote the film together), not to mention the growing sparks between Garcia and Rissi, make it anything but. Sergio Armstrong’s widescreen and often symmetrical cinematography frames the two in arresting and vivid ways, taking full advantage of the lonely streets of the town and the bleak, epic expanse of the surrounding desert.

 

The Prince of Nothingwood

Sonia Kronlund, France/Germany

The Prince of Nothingwood (2017)

The Prince of Nothingwood (2017)

“You have Hollywood. You have Bollywood. And in Afghanistan you have Nothingwood” booms the larger-than-life filmmaker Salim Shaheen in Sonia Kronlund’s documentary about Afghanistan’s one-man film industry.

Shaheen is a chubby, vivacious raconteur and a prolific director (and star of his movies, natch) who has made 110 no-budget, all-singing and dancing Bollywood knock-offs. Kronlund is a French radio journalist who has spent 15 years reporting on the violence and turmoil in the war-torn country; this film is her attempt to find a more jovial story amidst the destruction, but her reporter’s instinct means that atrocities are also recorded, sometimes dangerously close to where they are filming.

This is not just a crowd-tickling portrait of a fascinating, charismatic individual who cares more about cinema than safety. Shaheen and his small crew and cast don’t just film in war zones, they also use real guns and bullets – and in one hilarious scene, ask to borrow Kronlund’s own camera.

The Prince of Nothingwood also provides an unusual and probing study of Afghanistan relative to what we normally see. Kronlund and Shaheen tour villages and towns where Shaheen is a beloved figure mobbed by ordinary folk, the army and the Taliban alike. Meanwhile Kronlund’s voiceover critiques her surroundings and the wider society, highlighting scenes it is not possible for her to film, such as women watching Shaheen’s films. We see his romances and revenge stories play to packed town halls full of men instead.

Shaheen himself isn’t let off the hook either, particularly in regard to his reticence to allow his wives and daughters to be filmed. At the screening, however, it was only appropriate that the man laughing the loudest, sat in the front row, was Shaheen himself.

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