Freedom Fighters: A Story of Past and Present Themes

in 63rd Berlinale - Berlin International Film Festival

by Mohammed Rouda

Life is nothing but a big prison. So goes the saying. Moreover, it seems that a number of films shown in the competition of this year’s Berlin Film Festival want to agree. Many other films outside the competition share what looks to be an increasing trend of looking at a life with barriers all around.

It’s, basically, a well-known fact that there are numerous forms of prison and director Guillaume Nicloux presents one in his French-German-Belgian drama The Nun (La Religieuse) a film about one of these oppressive forms, and, indeed, one of its most cruel forms.

Adapted from a novel written in by French art critic and thinker Denis Diderot (1713-1784) and published after his death under the English title “Memoirs of a Nun” (which was made, in 1966, into a film directed by Jacques Rivette), Nicloux’s picture takes us from scene two inside a convent in the French countryside. Suzanne Simonin (a very good Pauline Etuenne performance) is a young woman who believes in God and the church, but declares that a nun’s life is not what she has in mind. Instead, she wants to be given the freedom to choose and to live a normal life and, practically, be left alone. The administrators refuse her request and, before she is able to cope with that rejection, she is slammed with a severe punishment when her background, as a child of a “sinful” relationship between her mother and a man she never knew, is declared. Suzanne is accordingly imprisoned and badly treated. She suffers the bigotry and the humiliation of her captives: The people who practice, in theory at least, the fear of God.

Not very far off this concept, though taken from real events, we find another French made picture Camille Claudel 1915. Directed by Bruno Dumont, this picture is based on real events. The life story of this artist is not the subject matter here. The film revolves around the prolonged suffering Camille Claudel bore after being admitted to a psychiatric hospital (run by the church) a few years earlier and left to rot. The film starts with her realising that she does not want to stay in this place. She rightfully observes how different she is from the other patients around her. Indeed, the film shows her as a sane person, many times allowing her some understandable reaction of despair and frustration. The film also admits that she has suffered breakdowns before. Actually, she still believes that someone might poison her food, not a healthy dose of sanity, but for the most part she is a victim of circumstances. Her brother, Paul, whom upon his wishes she was confined, still doesn’t want to see her free, believing she is possessed. Camille will die (years later) in the same old fortress-like hospital she loathed.

Mothers and Sons

Both films deal with the church and religion as factors of pressure and manipulation against human needs for freedom. In this light, one can’t help but think of today’s situation as many religious/political groups still practice the same concept, seeking domination over all those who don’t approve their dim and rigid view of the world. It’s that invaluable sense of freedom that keeps giving world cinema the impetus for discussing, critiquing and revealing topics of inhumanity around the world. The same topics that fanatic(al) groups want to prevent from spreading.

La Religieuse and Camille Claudel 1915 don’t deal with the political side of this concept and, actually, both don’t go out of their way to do so, leaving it to the viewer to link the religious aspect with right-wing conservative politics everywhere.

On a different level altogether, we find two other films sharing a situation where mothers want to prevent themselves or their sons from going to an actual prison.

Layla Fourie by Pia Marais is about a black single mother (Rayna Campbell) living in the South Africa of today. She passes a test on a lie detector and, accordingly, is offered a job in a casino situated in a small town somewhere in the country.

It’s late at night. She has been driving for the whole day with her eight or nine-year-old son and she is worried that a car is following her. This is when she hits a man (and an ape) standing in the darkness of a stretch of road just outside her town destination. At first, she hurries to help the man, who is still breathing, but the man dies during her short-lived attempt to find him a hospital (No one answers the call in one scene). Having now a dead man in her own car, Layla decides to dump the corpse and goes on with her life, except the son of the man she killed, whom she meets when he is interviewed for a job in the same working place, is searching for the truth. Though the film from this point on has a sense of a fabricated texture and story lines, the most effective elements in Layla Fourie is the relationship between the mother and her son. At the beginning he is about to reveal their secret, but then he realizes his mother’s situation and becomes careful and fearing for his mother’s freedom. Nevertheless, the mother realizes later that she can’t go along without confessing what she feels guilty of.

A kind of a contrary situation is found in the Golden Bear Award winner Child’s Pose (Pozitia Copliului), directed by Calin Peter Netzer. In this Romanian picture, the heroine (played by Luminita Gheroghiu), who is over forty years old, is seen in the beginning happy and comfortable in her life. One day, while attending an opera rehearsal, she is summoned to the police station. Her grown up son Barbu (Bogdan Dumitrache) has hit a boy just outside the city and killed him. She can’t just accept the idea that her only son would go to prison for any length of time. Though the circumstances are not totally his fault (he was speeding but the boy was crossing a highway) he is nevertheless guilty and could spend a minimum of three years in prison. The only way to prevent a harsh sentence is to meet with the child’s parent and ask for forgiveness.

While the film ends something close to a happy denouement, it shares with Layla Fourie a similar plot and the fear of losing freedom. Both films could potentially suit the category of socially driven semi-thrilling dramas, but the full concept of imprisonment vs. freedom in a social-political subtext is witnessed in Jafar Panahi’s Closed Curtains (Parde).

Having been put under a sort of house arrest, and banned from working on any film for twenty long years, Jafar Panahi is a recent example of system/regime vs. arts and artists. While his fellow citizens Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf made their ways to Europe, where they live and work in a safe atmosphere, Jafar had decided to stay afoot and make the kind of films that disturb — The White Balloon, The Mirror, The Circle, Offside (all about women’s limited freedom) and Crimson Gold — and what lead him into trouble.

With his new film, a mix of reality and surrealism dominates the effort. The first half of the film is about a man (with a dog) who is being followed (we don’t see by whom but we hear the police conversation and calls later). He rushes home and hangs up black curtains to camouflage his presence inside. He doesn’t want to be seen or met. Yet two strangers (a man and a woman) force their presence on him. The other man leaves (as he’s also being followed, or at least this is what he pretends) and she stays. From that point on, the film slides into a situation where so many questions are thrown up in the enclosed air without answers.

In one scene, the girl pulls off the curtains and the light of the day, virtually, invades the house but the man is completely freaked-out, fearing his days of freedom are over. At this exact point Jafar Panahi himself appears. The previous segment of the film we were watching is the film in his mind; a film that he lives in and will possibly execute one day. The surrealistic part of this work is clever, though a better film would have harmonised a bit more the connection between the reality and the absurd. But the main achievement here is that Panahi has managed, while talking about his own experience as a confined to his house man, to flip the circle so it looks (and with him able to both make and then show the film internationally) as if it’s besieging the regime in return.

One could also see the theme of freedom in other films: freedom to live happily and sexually active after the sixth decade of a woman’s life (in Gloria), freedom of running away from the hectic routine and mounting emotional and financial problems of the work place (On My Way), freedom to explore the other side of the present life (Gold) and so on. This, undoubtedly, would take us into more complex areas as the subject and the pursuit of freedom will never end.

Edited by Steven Yates