Poverty, Violence, Loneliness and the Search for a New Beginning

in 61st Locarno International Film Festival

by Michael Ranze

Shirley AdamsA woman in her mid-forties is followed by an restless, very unsteady camera while she is hurrying nervously through a supermarket. The camera comes very close to her face. It reveals every drop of sweat, every shaking of the corner of her mouth, every flicker of her eyes. Irresolute and discouraged Shirley Adams, the title figure in Oliver Hermanus’ film debut, puts the food into her basket, puts it back onto the shelf, then hides it under her coat. Shirley is the mother of a son who has been severely wounded in a shootout in Cape Town. Since then he is paralyzed and stays in his room all day. High medical costs, no work, the husband gone – the mother keeps herself and her son alive by shoplifting. Shirley Adams was one of the most intense films of the competition in Locarno this year. The 25-year-old South African Hermanus draws very strong characters and believable conflicts. His film is an intelligent and conclusive essay about the interaction between poverty and violence, but mainly it is about the consequences of violence. He rejects showing “the action” itself like a Hollywood movie would have done. He stays very close to his characters and connects a political theme with personal perplexity. In doing so the director hit a nerve in the competition of the 18 films, of which seven were directing debuts.                  

The Japanese Wakaranai (Where Are You?), directed by Masahiro Kobayashi, is about somebody who stands aside socially. A 16-year-old schoolboy whose mother lies in hospital cannot pay neither the medical costs nor the costs of living for himself although he is earning some money in a grocery shop. He  adds his own food to the bills of the customers. But he is caught and loses his job. So he has to live without electricity or running water. Being poor drives the boy into isolation. His restlessness and lack of orientation finds its expression in a constant, maybe tiresome repetition of the same activities: running through the streets with his head to one side, buying or stealing food, eating noodle soup, sleeping. Very pale images and, so to speak, ugly exterior shoots show a Japan in which the social structure does not work anymore for the individual.              

Loneliness, helplessness, flight from oneself, the search for luck or, very concrete, for a film actor (as in The Search, a film from Tibet) – created a kind of melancholy which lay over the competition. Wrecked, hurt and lonely figures, reserved and unwilling to communicate (as in the winner of the FIPRESCI-Prize Nothing Personal) but in the search for a new beginning – as the young girl in She, a Chinese, written and directed by Xialu Guo. A Chinese girl escapes from the provinces to the big city, even managing to get to London with the money of a fatally wounded contract killer. In London she agrees to a fake marriage with an old man. She gets exploited and even violated by men but also uses them for her purposes. Only very late in the film does she find some happiness with a young Indian man. But very elliptic editing, comical chapter headings and a loud rock-soundtrack from John Parish diminishes the achievement of the plot of credibly directed self-reliance. The Grand Jury saw it differently: She, a Chinese won the Golden Leopard for the Best Film.  

Edited by Ronald Bergan