An A+ on the Bechdel Test. Movies Reviewed: The Sapphires, Ich Bin Eine Terroristin, Nitrate Kisses PLUS Cinefranco
Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.
It’s official: festival season is on now. Cinefranco, is showing contemporary French-language movies from around the world each night at the Royal (with English subtitles, so everyone can enjoy it.) And Tiff Cinematheque is running a retrospective of the well-known radical-feminist filmmaker Barbara Hammer’s oeuvre. They’re screening through Sunday on the Free Screen (free to view).
This week I’m looking at three movies (in order of complexity), all told from the perspective of girls and women. There’s an 11-year-old revolutionary from France, a group of four aboriginal pop singers in Australia in the 1960s, and there’s an explicit look at the once-hidden lesbian sexuality, history and culture.
Dir: Wayne Blair
It’s the 1960’s in Cummergunja, a small town in North Australia. There sisters living on a reserve — tough Gail, pretty-voiced Julie and feisty, young Kay (Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Stebbens) – are known for their harmonized church songs and country and western tunes.
When they try their hand at a local talent show they meet up with a drunken ne’erdowell, Dave (Chris O’Dowd) who sleeps in the back seat of his car. Dave offers to make them rich and famous as a girl group with him as their manager. The catch? They’ll be performing in Vietnam war zones for the American troops there. He switches their style from country to Motown, and tells them how to dress and change their hair. They accept a fourth singer, Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) who was pulled off their reserve as a child and adopted because, her skin was light enough to “pass” for white. Ironically, the four aboriginal Australians have been heavily discriminated against and pressured to assimilate, but now are told they’re “not black enough” for American audiences!
The movie follows the five of them through the bars and battlefields of Vietnam, as they find love with GIs, danger, success and setbacks. About a third of the film consists of their songs and performances, so if you don’t like 60s Motown pop, you won’t like the the Sapphires. I found it fairly corny and cheesy, your typical romantic musical drama, with conventional music. But I enjoyed it. It’s an indigenous cast, with good singers and capable actors, with Deborah Mailman and Chris O’Dowd giving the best performances. And it’s loosely based on a true story, written by the son of one of the singers.
Dir: Valerie Gaudissart
Violette (Matthilde Besse) is an endearing 11-year-old girl in France. Her grandmother, a leftist revolutionary, has instilled in her a love of politics that her parents seem to have given up. So when her grandmother dies, she decides to spread revolution across Europe. Carrying her ashes and a book of Rosa Luxemburg’s prison letters, she makes her way alone to a train station and buys a ticket to train heading east. (Rosa Luxemburg was the revolutionary socialist murdered in 1919 by the German government.) Violette vows to take her grandma’s ashes to the places Rosa wrote about in her letters.
First she meets up with a Karl Marx lookalike in the dining car. They recite her verses to each other. In Berlin she visits her grave, and tries to get the tourists there to understand Rosa’s writings. She recites the poems and sings her own songs to anyone who will listen
On the way she meets border guards in Poland, refugees from Kosovo, and the proletariat women everywhere she goes. She wants to experience what Rosa did, even if it means a jail term.
This cute travelogue is part fantasy, part documentary. It’s full of non-scripted scenes, with real people playing themselves. And Matthilde Besse as Violette carries the film, enchanting us with her songs and writing.
Dir: Barbara Hammer
Lesbians and gays were silenced for generations in the 20th century in their stories covered up, their letters and diaries burned, and their history left unrecorded. Homosexuality was illegal, and socially so it was kept hidden. In popular culture, gay and lesbian themes had to be disguised, encoded. Old movies would use scenes of ancient Greece or stories from the bible to present homoerotic images in an acceptable manner. Sapphic love was mired within chaste romance and usually ended with lesbian characters going insane, being murdered or committing suicide. So entire historical chapters about a large part of the population remains blank, empty, nonexistent,
In an attempt to address this gap in the historical record, Hammer constructs an aural record. She includes spoken accounts of the early twentieth century. These oral histories are played back throughout the film along with music – everything from blues to Kurt Weill — from the periods discussed. Cultural evidence of a queer existence.
Visually, though, the film takes a totally different path. Hammer uses B&W explicit footage of various same-sex couples (three of women, one of men) having sex. Even though we’re inundated with nudity in contemporary cinema and porn is ubiquitous nowadays, you rarely see couples quite like this. Especially the case of two elderly women — a long-time couple — joyfully making love for the camera. (Correction: I’ve been informed that the couples having sex on camera were, in fact, total strangers, hired specifically to perform for the film, and had nothing to do with the recorded voices.)
Aside from the sex, there are also lots of clips from period films, music, and lesbian pulp fiction. And every so often it’s topped off with an agit-prop quote plastered across the screen from literary theorists like Michel Foucault.
Nitrate Kisses is vigorously resistant to conventions like narrative, linear storylines, or synchronized sound and picture.
Doesn’t matter. It’s not disjointed at all. The film is an engrossing and engaging historical record.
Ich bin eine Terroristin is playing on april 14th, one of many films at Cinefranco.com – the festival is running all week; you can see Barbara Hammer’s retrospective running through the weekend with Nitrate Kisses screening on Saturday. Go to tiff.net for more information. And The Sapphires opens today – check your local listings.
This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com .