Sorry Not Sorry: Three Days in November

in 17th International Film Festival Bratislava

by Michael Pattison

It was perhaps unfortunate timing that, on the afternoon of Saturday, November 14, I had to sit through a three-part film in which one protagonist assembles a Kalashnikov assault rifle and, with deadpan obedience, follows orders from an unknown authority to fire indiscriminately into a line of hapless employees before him. In the proceeding carnage, which plays out in merry slow motion, everyone — obliviously gathered to give our gunman the office party of his life — is mowed down in a volley of flesh-cutting, life-ending steel. The scene in question appears about a third of the way through Island City, a Mumbai-set triptych by Indian filmmaker Ruchika Oberoi. Though its intentions are comical, however — with the slo-mo offset by an ironically upbeat soundtrack — there’s something unwittingly crass about the scene.

Otherwise known as the AK-47, the Kalashnikov is a dreadfully common element in news reports of terrorist attacks these days. A quick search for such terms in tandem will fetch up an array of stories about everyday scenes turned into instant hellholes by the sight and sound of an AK-carrying killer calmly surveying a slaughter site for one more victim. It had happened the night before. Settling down to my laptop after a day of screenings in Bratislava’s endearingly poky Kino Mladošt, I caught digital wind of the horrors unfolding in Paris: a restaurant shot up, a stadium bombed, a concert hall held hostage. I got dragged in, as I often do, and stayed awake following events till the early hours. Myriad murders. Atrocious acts. Familiar faces standing suited behind lecterns to confront the unthinkable with their platitudinous pouts and cries of condemnation.

In the numbingly broad daylight that followed, life went unavoidably on. But with a rawness, a fragility. Prejudice. While there’s nothing to be done about its timing, Island City deflates its otherwise promising, occasionally amusing allegory on the alienating economic violence upon which the modern-day workplace is founded, and it does so with a frighteningly prolonged feeling of inevitability — and with too facile a dependence upon that politically charged, emotionally loaded avatar of death: a soviet-invented, globally-familiar, semi-automatic assault rifle. Although Oberoi’s film reboots its narrative soon enough, hurtling onward into the second of its three stories, it took me a while to readjust. I’d been unsettled. I felt discomfited. It seemed somehow wrong, misjudged, inappropriate. If you’re to use such a baggage-bringing image in prop form, do it right. Bake it full. The whole shebang.

In both of Island City’s other segments — which are so thematically linked that the work might have been better as a diptych — we see the fearsome hold that a male autocracy has upon two different households: a family that finally gets to enjoy the easy escapes of TV when its tyrannical, telly-banning patriarch is hospitalised and placed on life-support, and a young woman who finds hope in anonymous love letters away from her pending marriage to a viciously, perhaps cartoonishly indifferent misogynist. In each story, Oberoi paints a picture of male supremacy that’s so suffocatingly taken for granted that it’s hard not to come away thoroughly infuriated. This, of course, is entirely the point.

Later, that same afternoon, I watched Wednesday, May 9, the first feature by Iranian documentarian and TV director Vahid Jalilvand. This too is a kind of triptych, a film whose three otherwise distinct, Tehran-set stories are all interconnected. One such story centres upon Setareh (Sahar Ahmadpour, in her first role), a young woman who secretly marries the love of her life after her aunt has rejected the man’s proposal due to his lowly social class. When Setareh’s jealous, self-absorbed cousin finds out about the marriage, he flies into a rage, concerned about the disrepute that the union may bring upon the family. An altercation results, for which Setareh’s husband is wrongfully imprisoned. In order for her husband to be released from jail, Setareh must pay a debt of 30 million tomans to her family in ‘blood money.’ It takes one man’s (perhaps implausibly) chivalrous deed to solve Setareh’s predicament, so stubborn are her family concerning the arbitrarily exorbitant debt.

As Jalilvand’s film ended, I remarked to one colleague how sated I felt when it came to depictions of religio-cultural backwardness. For the day before had also proffered its fair share of male dominance. Nahid, by Jalilvand’s countrywoman Ida Panahandeh, and Mustang, by Turkish director Deniz Gamze Ergüven, both focus on women struggling against patriarchal orders — orders that are legally and morally underpinned by the basic tenets of institutionalised religion. In the former film, the eponymous heroine (Sareh Bayat) faces a difficult custody battle over her teenage son, thanks to a caveat in her divorce settlement from a debt-ridden, good-for-little hothead who granted her chief guardianship of the child so long as she doesn’t remarry. Which is all fine and well, of course, till another proposal of marriage comes along.

In Mustang — which takes place in a Turkish town on the Black Sea — five orphaned sisters on the cusp of, or in the throes of, adolescence are detained indoors with increasingly brutal measures by their uncle and grandmother, after an innocent end-of-term gambol with some male classmates is interpreted as a loss of sexual purity. One by one, the girls are married off in arranged proposals that play out like meat markets. As they dwindle in numbers, the girls’ collective power in resisting their despot uncle diminishes, and their solutions become more extreme, with fatal consequences.

To repeat, both films place an emphasis on the culturally specific scaffold that have helped such property relations survive into our enlightened age: here, the banal priggishness of organised religion continues to be the elephant in the room. Reviewing it from Cannes this year, former Variety critic Scott Foundas referred to Nahid as “another valuable voice to the cinematic chorus concerning the generally deplorable position of women in Islamic society.” Exiting a capacity cinema, I commended Mustang on social media, without naming the film, “for its trust and faith in youth and femininity against savage patriarchal backwardness.” Few things are more galling to sit through than a depiction of female characters stifled and throttled by an intransigent, obstinate misogyny. Both films are in this regard successfully exasperating cries against the strangulating binds of gender disparity.

Within an hour of Mustang ending, news from Paris had bled through. This is how it begins, I thought, still reeling from the film’s manipulative case for sedition. The reason, so I felt prompted to ponder, that we tend to refer to extremists as such is because they’re found at the more zealous end of a fluid belief system — the same belief system that might, in its more moderate scriptures, still encourage the loathsome view that a woman is a temptress, an extension of a man’s property, the key to a family’s honour and place in society. It’s the same paranoid, embarrassingly outmoded system that might, say, prevent a man from shaking hands with any woman “not permissible to him” — that in fact treats such contact as sinful, as worse than being stabbed in the head with an iron needle.

To what extent are the lunacies by which a mujahid justifies killing someone (in Paris, in Beirut, in any city or village anywhere in the world) connected to the supposedly more tolerable bigotries that devalue a human life based on gender? Because make no mistake: to deny women any of the freedoms that society has no problem granting to men is to irredeemably devalue them as humans. Is asking such a question also to blunderingly imply its answer? Sorry not sorry, if so. And should I at any point commit to an answer, I reserve the right to later disagree with it.

Still, neither Nahid nor Mustang is particularly nuanced in its depiction of men. Of the former film, Foundas remarks: “Nahid is the most vivid character in a piece where both male protagonists are scripted a bit more predictably — the one patient and virtuous, the other a self-destructive addict spiralling ever further into the void.” Of Mustang, meanwhile, James Lattimer writes, in his evenly tempered review for Slant Magazine: “Even a fairy tale requires some degree of shading. If the grandmother and the uncle are so conservatively minded, why have the sisters been seemingly able to enjoy total liberty until now, as their headstrong attitude, relationships with the local boys, and entirely secular clothing seem to suggest?”

If each film opts to sledgehammer its points home, though, it’s still more nuanced in its gender politics than this year’s FIPRESCI Grand Prix winner, Mad Max: Fury Road, whose apparent feminism amounts to a number of uniformly photogenic women fighting a grotesque, impossibly open misogynistic system — as opposed to a more believably insidious entanglement of institutional interests. After any apocalypse, that film seemed to argue, women would naturally be enslaved first — and all men are heartless bastards.

Even if their male characters are frequently lacking in the kind of attention and detail required of rousing fiction, however, Mustang and Nahid still have nothing on the cynical opportunism of Sparrows, the second feature by Rúnar Rúnarsson. Set in the Icelandic Westfjords, this coming-of-age drama might be read as an appropriately listless, apparently aimless study of 16-year-old Ari (Atli Oskar Fjarlarsson), who reluctantly arrives in his quiet childhood town to live with his dad, Gunnar (Ingvar E. Sigurosson), during the summer holidays. So singular is Rúnarsson’s attention to masculinity and manhood, however, that if he isn’t killing off female characters of significance, as he also did in his first feature Volcano (2011), he’s fetching on thanklessly written equivalents only when he needs to advance his plot.

The first of these thanklessly scripted women is a middle-aged friend of Gunnar, about whom we’re told very little before she shows up to inexplicably jerk Ari off, then have sex with the boy, in the aftermath of a family funeral. Second is Lara (Rakel Bjork Bjornsdottir), Ari’s childhood pal and current love interest, who accompanies our protagonist to a house party, where the pair of them take ketamine and subsequently pass out. Cut to a notably down-tempo scene of Ari waking up early the next morning, in a state too subdued and delirious to do anything about what he sees in the room next door — and what he sees in the room next door is one naked man raping a naked, unconscious Lara as another naked man looks on, tugging on his own visible erection.

It’s a deeply unpleasant moment, and one that audibly shocked the otherwise pin-droppingly captive audience in Bratislava. Rúnarsson presumably approaches such reactions as a badge of honour, but the scene is also the film’s moment of derailment, at which my suspicions of its bogus artistry were confirmed. Having given us very little warning regarding this kind of indelibly repulsive image — which somehow maximises its engineered malice by having both men thrust in such an artificially synchronised, somnambulant Euro arthouse-horror way — Rúnarsson punches his audience in the sternum and gives timid Ari some belated purpose: namely, to hide from Lara the real context in which she has lost her virginity.

Bratislava is more than 1000 km away from Paris, and more than twice that distance from Beirut, while Sparrows couldn’t be further removed from the religious or even geographical milieus of medieval fanaticism. But its screening on Sunday, November 15 cut through my unusually sore soul. Rúnarsson’s imagery doesn’t fly at us with the please-don’t-I’d-rather-you-didn’t agony groan like that aforementioned moment in Island City, but with all the ferocity of a hard rock pelted through thin air. Cutting from Ari’s placid, half-comatose face to the image of an ongoing gang rape strikes me as opportunistic precisely because we’ve been given very little indication up to that point that this is the kind of horrible environment we’re dealing with. It takes that current arthouse tactic, of beginning a scene close in on a subject before undercutting its meaning by opening out to a wider shot, to its most disingenuous conclusion.

Indeed, like the sudden appearance of the Kalashnikov in Island City, the rape scene in Sparrows feels like some cheap anomaly, borrowed from another film altogether in order to allow its own narrative to finally press forward. In fact, the scene does borrow from another film: Rúnarsson’s own 15-minute short Two Birds, a self-enclosed and therefore more conceptually justified slice of sleaze that he made to much acclaim in 2008, and which he self-plagiarises here so that we might be traumatised by his unmemorably drab drama after all.

Michael Pattison