"Unrelated" and Other First Features: Debuts and Stereotypes By Ingeborg Bratoeva

in 50th London BFI London Film Festival

by Ingeborg Bratoeva-Daraktchieva

Today, every prestigious film festival has a distinct debut section, or at least presents an award for best first feature — to say nothing of the numerous events and programs around the globe established with the sole purpose of promoting the work of newcomers to feature filmmaking. It is generally anticipated that a debuting director, screenwriter or producer will bring imagination and fresh ideas to the art of cinema; will speak with a novel voice; and will break new ground for revolutionary pictures. In truth, these expectations are hardly ever met. Ground-breaking debuts like Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (Il Conformista), Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies and Videotape and Samira Makhmalbaf’s The Apple (Sib), which happened to lead the way into inexperienced artistic orbs, are a few exceptions, insufficient to prove that first features frequently strike the viewer with originality and uniqueness.

The dozen contenders for the International Critics’ Award in London — with eight debuts among them — made this point all over again. With entries from nations as diverse as the USA (Shotgun Stories) and Sri Lanka (Sankara), or Rwanda (Munyurangabo) and Great Britain (Brick Lane, Unrelated), this selection provided an insight into the trend in debut filmmaking all over the world. To begin with, nearly all of the feature newcomers are actually well-experienced professionals in other film forms — short films, documentaries, television dramas, video clips, commercials, etc. For instance, Sarah Gavron made her 2007 feature debut Brick Lane, after being named one of the “Ten Directors to Watch” by “Variety” in 2004, for her full-length BBC documentary This Little Life. The director and scriptwriter Cesar Charlone (El Baño del Papa — The Pope’s Toilet)has a rich resume as a cinematographer for documentaries, commercials and feature films, and a director of commercials, video clips and episodes of TV series. Before he started directing his first feature, he had already won the Cinema Brazil Grand Prize for Best Cinematography, and had been nominated for an Oscar for shooting Fernando Meirelles’ City of God (Cidade de Deus). Charlone had also been nominated for a BAFTA for Best Photography in 2006, for shooting Meirelles’ follow-up The Constant Gardener.

As a rule, most of today’s feature-film debutants come to their first features with substantial experience in filmmaking and an extensive knowledge of production planning, screenwriting, rehearsing actors, directing, camerawork, etc. All that competence is enough to shoot a well-designed feature, certainly, but can be too little to advance the art of cinema. To achieve that, one must develop a unique idea and introduce it on screen with imagination and artistry. As Simón Bross, the director of the Mexican entry Bad Habits (Malos hábitos),said, “When I was shooting commercials, it was like washing other people’s clothes. Now, making a movie, I’m washing my own clothes.” Undeniably, associating filmmaking with laundry is an unusual angle on the art of cinema. Bad Habits, for its part, illustrates similarly uncommon attitudes to eating disorders, social models and faith. Illuminating these important topics with wit and hilarity, Bross has created memorable episodes in the film’s parallel story lines. Even so, the sketchy characters and the flat interaction between them serve to dull the edge of the movie, stirring up a sense of failed artistic endeavors.

The other Latin American debut — The Pope’s Toilet (El Baño del Papa) a co-production between Uruguay, Brazil and France, written and directed by Cesar Charlone and Enrique Fernandez — was made with the ambition to promote “social and moral codes, quite different from the ones we normally see”, according to Charlone’s statement. Regrettably, the movie does not offer much originality, aside from Charlone’s perfect cinematography. Its dramatic structure is clearly related to the archetypes of the backyard melodrama, and its style resembles artistic patterns from the other day revolutionary filmmaking, like Italian neo-realism and Eastern European social realism.

Even Brick Lane, Sarah Gavron’s much-anticipated adaptation of Monica Ali’s renowned book, does not succeed in overcoming the stereotypes of the ethnic movie. The main heroine, Nazneen, played by Tannishtha Chatterjee with intensity and verve, interacts with every cliché of the postcolonial melodrama — from her fat, tyrannical husband to the ownership of a sewing machine as a symbol emblem of her emancipation and liberation. If I had to characterize the movie with a single word, it would be: predictable. The conflict between Nazneen and her one-dimensional opponents unfolds on screen in a clichéd style, and gets the most banal resolution of our time: In order to find her own place in the world a woman must separate from her husband. This stereotype, already worn out in Western feminist culture, has the specific taste of social-realistic déjà vu for everyone who has seen similar films from the former Soviet Union and the Balkans, where dozens of Muslim women gained their freedom in the same way.

Thus, Unrelated, the feature debut of the photographer and prolific TV drama director Joanna Hogg, seemed all the more surprising, fresh and innovative. Starting from an autobiographical script, Hogg has succeeded in building vital characters, creating lifelike dialogue and setting the course of her narrative beyond her own story, addressing a whole generation of apparently self-confident women. This generation, having grown up with the values of feminism and discarded traditional family values, now has to cope with a specific sense of emptiness in their mid-forties. The story of Unrelated’s Anna looks like a mirror reflection of the tale of Kate Brown, the heroine of Doris Lessing’s novel The Summer before the Dark (1973). More than thirty years ago, Lessing — winner of this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature — had also depicted a 45-year-old woman, a wife and mother, who experiences her own summer of crisis and rejects the era’s stereotypes of femininity.

A generation later, Hogg’s film tries to reflect on the emotional gulf which opens now before Anna (an accomplished performance by Kathryn Worth), a woman of the same age who, in marked contrast from Lessing’s heroine, has never taken responsibility for her own future. Remaining demonstrably apart from conventional values has become a new stereotype for Anna’s contemporaries, and she has to cope with the consequences onscreen. Unrelated reveals Hogg’s brave and honest attitude towards the situation of present-day women, and demonstrates the director’s very subtle approach to current social and artistic stereotypes. It seems the secret of crafting an outstanding debut from a low-budget feature lies in Hogg’s stated attitude of just “being open to what is going on around me.”