Women Are Hot at the Miami International Film Festival By Peter Keough
by Peter Keough
Women — sultry, voluptuous and barely clad — dominate the beaches, pool sides and night spots of Miami. They also dominated the screens of the Miami International Film Festival, though in a different way. Of the 13 films in the World Cinema Competition, five are by women. And nearly all of the films explore the image, roles and circumstances of women in various societies around the world.
Motherhood, for example, emerges as a major theme. Oddly, this theme unfolds in several films in an unusually specific scenario: a twelve-year-old boy coping with a dysfunctional mother in a repressive society. Martial Fougeron’s My Son (Mon fils à moi) takes a rather unsympathetic, if not downright misogynistic attitude towards the subject. It opens with a shot of an ambulance parked outside a house as a woman’s voiceover is saying that nobody knew things would turn out this way and if they did they certainly would have done something about it.
So much for irony. What follows is the inevitable flashback and 80 minutes of a bourgeois, Gallic Mommie Dearest as the great Nathalie Baye puts in a one note performance as a shrewish, bored and sadistic mother who psychologically and physically torments her son, Julien. Her wimpy husband looks on and Julien’s older sister futilely protests. Things just get worse and worse and you know this is going to continue until the kid either tries to kill himself or kill his mother or she tries to kill him. Will the ambulance never show up? At one point the father slaps Baye and the audience at the screening I attended broke out cheering. I haven’t seen a reaction like that since Fatal Attraction. One would hope in the twenty years since that film was released the world might have become more enlightened.
More enlightened, indeed, is Dror Shaul’s Sweet Mud (Adama Meshuga’at), winner of the Festival’s audience award, though burdened with one of the most awkward titles (at least in its English translation). Here, the 12-year-old must bear the burden of a depressive, drug addicted and alcoholic mother in a sinister, repressive kibbutz that rejects her. Based on real events largely taken from the director’s own experience, Sweet Mud palpably recreates the grit, irony and absurdity of its setting, avoiding didacticism in its advocacy of tolerance and its condemnation of injustice and small-mindedness.
As grim as is the fate of the mother in Sweet Mud, it’s a walk in the park compared to that of her counterpart in Indian director Chitra Palekar’s ambitious, if uneven, A Grave-keeper’s Tale (Maati Maay), an adaptation of a story by Mahasweta Devi. Set partly in an isolated, backward village in post-Independence India, partly in a magical realistic world of legend and dream, its 12-year-old boy is shocked to discover that the local “ghoul,” a wild-eyed witch ostracized and feared by the villagers, is in fact his real mother.
It seems at one time she was an outspoken, empowered woman whose choice of both raising a family and having a career — in this case taking care of the local children’s cemetery — didn’t sit well with the rest of the patriarchal community. Fed up with her independent ways, her neighbors overcame the resistance of her husband and condemned her as an evil spirit. Palekar has some success in managing her flashback narrative structure and her excursions into more chimerical story-telling, but the film ends on a melodramatic note that is somewhat implausible and unsatisfying.
Palekar joins four other women directors in the program who have turned out ambitious, accomplished and provocative films espousing a feminist point of view. By far the best is Andrea Arnold’s first feature Red Road, winner not only of the FIPRESCI prize for best film but also that of the Festival’s Dramatic Competition Jury. But also worth a look is Danish/German director Kirsi Marie Liimatainen’s modest Sonja, a simple coming of age story about a teenager in a dull suburb whose crush on another girl turns into a case study of sexual identity and social non-conformity. Rewarding, too, is Australian director Cate Shortland’s second film The Silence, in which a troubled homicide detective develops a Laura-like obsession when he comes across the photographs of a woman murdered four decades ago. The past also figures darkly in Andrea Staka’s Fräulein, a funny, troubling look at two émigrés from the former Yugoslavia in Switzerland — one a fiftyish, repressed business woman who left the country 25 years earlier, the other a 22-year-old free spirit who survived the horrors of Sarajevo. Each of these films demonstrate promise, talent and a commitment to cinema and the empowerment of women, an ironic contrast to the sex objects flaunting their assets in the city outside.