They brought a woman from the street
And made her sit in the stalls
Obliging her to share a little of her life with actors
But I don’t understand art
Sit still, they said
But I don’t want to see sad things
Sit still, they said.
And she listened to everything
Understanding some things
But not others
Laughing rarely and always without knowing why.
Sometimes suffering disgust
Sometimes thoroughly amazed.
And in the light again, said
If that’s art I think it is hard work
It was beyond me
So much beyond my actual life.
But something troubled her
Something gnawed her peace
And she came a second time, armoured with friends
Sit still, she said
And again, she listened to everything
This time understanding different things
This time untroubled that some things
Could not be understood
Laughing rarely but now without shame
Sometimes suffering disgust
Sometimes thoroughly amazed
And in the light again said
This is art, it is hard work
And one friend said, too hard for me
And the other said, if you will
I will come again
Because I found it hard I felt honoured.
– Howard Barker
Back in 2013 a friend who works in the film industry gave me a folder of more than seventy films. About a week ago (five years later) I watched the last one. I opened this collection, over the years, in fits and starts; sometimes watching a film every night, sometimes ignoring the folder entirely for months at a time. Watching these films wasn’t always easy (some were slow, many were subtitled, most were completely different to anything I’d ever seen before), but it was also often addictive. I came to love the surprise – not having read anything about any of the films before I watched them – of pressing play. The experience of being drawn into so many different worlds – countries, times, perspectives – was magic.
Not knowing what each film was going to be like – I had only the title and the year to judge them by – was exciting, but it was also challenging. It could also turn me off starting if I was in the mood for a particular type of movie. There’s a chance, I would often think, that this will be boring, that I won’t like it. In fact, what happened was that I found something to like in almost all of these films. Not one of them felt like time wasted. Even if it was just an image, a line of dialogue, or the whole plot. Just the simple act of sitting down and watching so many different films has taught me more about the world (and the film world) than any course ever could. This collection has pushed me to see and think about things I wouldn’t have otherwise. The experience reminds me of Howard Barker’s prologue to The Bite of the Night (quoted in full above):
‘But I don’t understand art
Sit still, they said …
And in the light again said
This is art, it is hard work …
I will come again
Because I found it hard I felt honoured.’
I watched films in Canada over Christmas, tucked up under blankets while it snowed outside. I watched as we prepared to leave Cambodia, under the ceiling fan, surrounded by half-packed suitcases. I watched as a respite from uni assignments, separating myself from pedagogy by diving into rural China and jungle Thailand. And, most recently, I watched while I was sick, curled up on cold nights with my computer and a sleepy puppy. It’s been a journey, and an education; I’ve found it frustrating and fantastic. And it has changed me, in a multitude of subtle ways. To come to the end of the folder feels like an achievement, but is also a little sad. I don’t have that work anymore, that challenge. But I will come again; I will be on the lookout for more.
It was difficult to pick favourites – so many of these films affected me in so many different ways. But I have put together a rough top ten list. Here, in no particular order, are the films that have landed and settled themselves somewhere deep in my mind.
1) Kynodontas/Dogtooth (2009) – Greece – Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
From the director of The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, this film focuses on a family separated from society. The three adult children are told by their parents that cats are deadly, that the word ‘zombie’ means ‘flower’, and that they will be allowed to leave home when their dog teeth fall out. Very dark, at times uncomfortably funny, littered with weird moments and startling images that will stay with you. Dogtooth is my favourite of Lanthimos’s films.
2) Innocence (2004) – France – Director: Lucile Hadzihalilovic
Like Dogtooth, this is another ‘isolated-from-the-outside-world’ film. Set in a boarding school for young girls, where new students arrive through secret underground tunnels in coffins. The school is surrounded by forest, and every scene looks beautiful – green and slightly dark and mysterious. Innocence is somehow both hopeful and sinister, like a fairy tale.
3) Kill List (2011) – UK – Director: Ben Wheatley
A truly unsettling horror film about an ex-soldier turned hit-man. Jay takes on a new assignment – a ‘kill list’ – and the line between reality and disturbing fantasy quickly begins to blur. What’s really going on here is ambiguous, but it is also terrifying, violent and thought-provoking. I loved the performances in this, the music, the way the tension was built. The kind of film that leaves you wishing you had someone to discuss it with.
4) Margaret (2011) – US – Director: Kenneth Lonergan
I had the extended version of this film, and – at almost three hours long – it felt like watching a novel. I don’t want to give away the event at the beginning (I think its impact is so much more powerful if you don’t know what’s coming), but the film is essentially teenage Lisa’s response to this experience. In essence, this is a coming of age film, but putting it into that category doesn’t do justice to its scope and complexity. Lisa is manipulative, emotional, dramatic, immature, selfish; she is a teenager, only able to relate to the world in terms of its effect on herself. The film’s title comes from a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem: Margaret, are you grieving … it is Margaret you mourn for. I loved this film; I watched it in its entirety in one sitting, and was captivated the whole time.
5) Miryang/Secret Sunshine (2007) – South Korea – Director: Lee Chang-dong
For some reason – perhaps because of the title – I had it in my head that this film was a romantic comedy. It most certainly isn’t. After losing her husband in a car accident, Shin-ae moves to his home town with her son, Jun. It seems like this will be a new start, that Shin-ae may find love, happiness. But then her son is kidnapped, and the tone of the film shifts dramatically. A film about grief, love, chaos – Secret Sunshine is beautiful, sad, and very memorable.
6) Mang shan/Blind Mountain (2007) – China – Director: Yang Li
Set in China in the early 1990’s, Blind Mountain tells the story of a woman sold for marriage to a rural family. The simple setting, dialogue and music – the only soundtrack throughout the entire film is a man’s unaccompanied, guttural singing – highlight the complexity of the injustice this woman suffers. The majority of the film is a series of escape attempts that had me gritting my teeth. The ending is inevitable, and yet still surprising. I was an emotional wreck after watching this, but also aware of the futility of simply assigning blame. Not an easy film to watch, but highly recommended.
7) Cria Cuervos/Raise Ravens (1976) – Spain – Director: Carlos Saura
I love this title. A film about three young girls who have lost their mother and father and are being raised by an aunt. The middle child, Ana, is the protagonist. She is the most traumatised by the loss of her mother. Ana saw her on her death bed, heard her say ‘Nothing exists … I don’t want to die’. Cria Cuervos is at once chilling, funny, warm, and very sad. And a warning: it features a song that will get stuck in your head.
8) Khaneh syah ast/The House is Black (1963) – Iran – Director: Forough Farrokhzad
I think this is the first time I’ve ever seen a film in the Persian language. The House is Black is a short documentary film (26 minutes) about a leper colony. Not much dialogue, but lots of images and voice-overs from different texts, including the Koran. Black and white, short, largely uneventful. But I found this film so striking, particularly the school room scene at the end.
9) Banshu/Late Spring (1949) – Japan – Director: Yasujiro Ozu
In post-WWII Japan, Noriko doesn’t want to leave her widower father. He, however, insists that she must marry – even though he loves her and doesn’t want to be parted from her. This is the way of human life, this is how human history has always gone, he seems to be saying. I was really moved by this slow, quiet film; it has such a peaceful, beautiful sadness about it. There is a scene where Noriko’s father comes home, alone, and peels an apple. Such a simple moment, but somehow so full of everything that has happened to this character.
10) Onna ga kaidan o agaru toki/When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960) – Japan – Director: Mikio Naruse
This was one of the last films I watched – right down at the bottom of the folder in the ‘W’s. Another beautiful, calm but loaded film from Japan, about a woman (Keiko) working as a hostess in Tokyo’s Ginza district. She is a widow, and doesn’t want to dishonour her dead husband by sleeping with her customers. She is a strong woman, but the (male-dominated) odds are stacked against her. She ascends the stairs to the bar in which she works.