FROM SILENT TO STREAMING: EPISODE 5 – “MIDDLE OF NOWHERE” BY AVA DUVERNAY

Middle Of Nowhere | Official DVD Movie Trailer (HD) - YouTube
photo courtesy of youtube.com

https://anchor.fm/brendan–lee/embed/episodes/MIDDLE-OF-NOWHERE-evqgbh

Ava Duvernay is right now the best female director in the world. In a year that just saw Chloe Zhao become only the second woman ever to win the Academy Award for Best Director, beating out Emerald Fennell for the prize, it is still Duvernay who stands on top of the mountain. Chloe Zhao’s win for Best Director only underscores the struggle for women and people of color to gain recognition in films. In 2014, Ava Duvernay’s outstanding and powerful film SELMA was nominated for Best Picture while Duvernay was shockingly left off of the list of nominees in the category for Best DIrector. Fortunately, the film MIDDLE OF NOWHERE did give Duvernay the well deserved “Best DIrector” prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012.

MIDDLE OF NOWHERE is an intense character study of Ruby, a young African-American medical student, played marvelously by Emayatzy Corinealdi, and how she deals with the difficulties of trying to support her incarcerated husband, Derrick. The situation jeopordizes the couple’s future together and without offering any spoilers, Ruby eventually begins a relationship with a new man, Brian, a bus driver played by David Oyelowo. Although the scenes between Ruby and Brian are sweet and tender, Duvernay never lets the movie turn into a sappy romantic story. She keeps the focus more on Ruby and the relationships she has with her sister Rosie and her mother Ruth.

This film is not only directed by a woman but it is about women. Two of the most effective scenes involve on screen, save fo the dinner scene where Ruby’s young nephew is present. Early in the film, Ruby finds out that Derrick is eligible for early parole. Ecstatic, she gets dressed up and takes the 2 hour bus ride to the prison to visit him. On the bus, we see Ruby joking chatting and laughing with a familiar woman. The women share a moment of “girl talk” about their husbands who are both in prison. During the conversation the women are framed in Medium Shots but a few Wide Shots of the bus sprinkled in between shows us that the all of the passengers are women, the same as Ruby, making the long journey to visit the man in their life who is in prison. The scene’s cheerful tone is the perfect set up for the bad news that is waiting for Ruby when she arrives at the prison and sees Derrick.

Towards the end of Act Two, Ruby attends a dinner with her Mother and Sister that quickly spirals into a major family quarrel. Ruby’s Mother, played by an always brilliant Lorraine Touissant, begins lashing out at her daughters. Ruth accuses them of throwing away all of their potential with the mistakes they’ve made and at the same time demanding that they show her more love and affection. For Ruby, this is too much to take, and while she refuses to take the bait and enter into a shouting match with Ruth, Ruby storms out of the room with the realization that it is not too late to take back her own life and follow a path toward happiness, not bitterness.

MIDDLE OF NOWHERE is an excellent reminder of why Ava Duvernay is the best female director and one of the best directors working in film today. Her virtuosic skill as a writer and director were on full display in this film, which was only her second feature.

FROM SILENT TO STREAMING: EPISODE 4 – “THE FAREWELL” BY LULU WANG

Awkwafina Proves She's More Than a Comedian in The Farewell ...
photo courtesy of Vanity Fair

https://anchor.fm/brendan–lee/embed/episodes/THE-FAREWELL-eupum5

“It’s something I’ve had to navigate my whole life – am I American or Chinese?  I think I was quite lost a while in terms of what my voice is.”

Lulu Wang, Writer/Director of The Farewell

“The Farewell:  Lulu Wang Made The Year’s Most Exciting Hit By Refusing To Whitewash It” – INDIEWIRE, Eric Kohn 7/18/19

          In a short period of time, Lulu Wang has distinguished herself as one of the best young female directors in the film industry.  Born in Bejing, China, Wang emigrated to the United States when she was 6 years old.  Her family settled in Miami, FL.  As a child, Wang was trained as a classical pianist and her parents encouraged her to pursue a career in Music.  In 2005, Wang graduated from Boston College with a double major in Music and Literature.  It was during her university years, however, when she decided to pursue a career in film.

          In her final year at Boston College, Wang decided to take a few film production courses.  She then went on to make a few award winning student short films with her Boston College classmates.   After a few more short films, Wang directed her first feature film, “Posthumous” in 2014.  Shot in Berlin, the film debuted at the Zurich Film Festival and played at the Miami International Film Festival.  Wang was beginning to be recognized by a wider audience and critics alike.  It was also in 2014 that Wang was awarded a Directing Fellowship from the Film Independent Spirit awards.  The following year, with more confidence and exposure, Wang would write and direct the first of two very personal films that would bring her more recognition and acclaim.

          In 2015, “Touch”, a short film written and directed by Wang, premiered at the Palm Springs International ShortsFest.  The film is a powerful and controversial examination of culture clashes.  Based on a true story, the film follows a Chinese family living in the United States and how their world is turned upside down when the Father of the family is accused of sexual assault of a child.[ii]  Wang does an amazing job of putting the viewer in the middle of the scene when the old Chinese man innocently crosses the line with a young boy while the two are in a public bathroom.  The Chinese couple’s son helps his father through the legal process all while feeling shame and confusion as to why his father would make such a mistake.  It is clear that this struggle between old/young generations and immigrants and their “Americanized” children hits close to home for Wang.  Having emigrated from China to the United States herself at a young age she can relate to the struggle to adapt from East to West culture.  Her next film, “The Farewell” would go even deeper into her own personal experience of being from two very different cultures.

          “The Farewell” is Lulu Wang’s most successful film to date.  Wang originally had a difficult time getting the film made.  She said that she almost gave up on the film after getting rejected by Hollywood and a Chinese producer telling her “You need a white guy in your movie.”[iii]  This suggestion was especially disheartening to Wang because as she told IndieWire that even the Chinese producers are “so influenced by Hollywood.”[iv]  A deeply personal story based on how her family hid her grandmother’s cancer diagnosis from her was nominated for both a Golden Globe and British Film Academy Award.  Filmed in China and New York, the story follows Billie, a young Chinese immigrant in the United States and how she copes with her family’s decision to follow a Chinese custom and not tell her grandmother that she is dying of lung cancer.  Through Billie, Wang gives the audience a glimpse of her own experiences being torn between two worlds: her home country of China and her adopted home in the United States.  The scenes in China are very strong because we get to see the main character view the country that her parents took her away from.  It is clear that as Billie finds herself at a crossroads in the United States, she begins to feel what her life would’ve been like had her parents kept the family in China.

          One scene in particular is a very powerful moment of realization for Billie.  While in China, she attends a dinner with her extended family.  During the dinner a contentious debate breaks out between two sides of the family over the desire to leave China and live in America.  Billie’s mother believes that children have more opportunity in the United States than in China.  After the argument ends the families retreat back to their hotel.  What follows is textbook filmmaking by Wang.  As the family members exit the elevator and walk to their hotel rooms, Billie trails behind the group.  She stops at a room and looks inside the open door.  We then see her point of view.  A group of men sit at a table in the room drinking, smoking, and playing majong.  Flanking the men at the table are two young women, dressed provocatively.  One of the women turns slowly and looks at Billie.  She stares blankly at Billie and Billie stares back.  Without using any dialogue, Wang gets the point across very effectively.  It is clear what Billie is looking at.  This girl who appears to be the same age as Billie, is a prostitute.  After the dinner conversation we just heard in the previous scene, Wang makes it clear that Billie is realizing that this could have been her fate had her family stayed in China.

          I was very impressed with “The Farewell.”  It is a film that deserves high praise for showing the movie audience a different perspective.  I am so happy to have discovered Lulu Wang as well through this film.  I admire any filmmaker who steps out on the ledge and tells a deeply personal story and does it so artistically.  I hope this not only gives Wang more exposure and opportunities but also more women and Asian-women filmmakers the same exposure and opportunity.


WINGS (1966)

Wings (1966) | MUBI
photo courtesy of MUBI

FROM SILENT TO STREAMING

EPISODE 3: WINGS

WINGS (1966)

Larisa Shepitko is quite possibly the greatest filmmaker that no one knows about. Born in 1938 in the Soviet Union, Shepitko and her family were deeply affected by World War Two having to face hunger, poverty, and constantly moving to avoid the danger and violence. The War would certainly shape her films, especially her most popular film, The Ascent, which in 1977 won the “Golden Bear” at the Berlin International Film Festival. Shepitko had a reputation for pushing herself and her crew very hard, enduring very difficult conditions like the freezing Russian winter in The Ascent, or the sweltering heat that actually melted film stocks on her award winning student film, Heat. Shepitko was a student in Moscow of the legendary Soviet director Alexander Dovzhenko, even adopting his motto: “Make every film as if it’s your last.” Sadly, this would be prophetic of The Ascent as two years later in 1979, while scouting locations for her next film, Shepitko was killed in a car accident at the age of 41.

Wings, from 1966, is an outstanding, emotional character study of a former Soviet fighter pilot. Nadya, a decorated fighter pilot, now 41 years old and the principal of a vocational college, finds herself struggling to connect with the changing society around her. From the opening scene we see that she is a very well respected, even powerful woman as she commands the men around her at the college. Her appearance is a brilliant move by Shepitko as Nadya is seen in a stiff business suit with very short, cropped hair. She almost appears to be a man even though we do see her having a relationship with a man who works at a museum and we find out that she has a daughter. The film uses classic Russian editing as Shepitko shot several point of view shots of Nadya’s face in close-up with reverse shots of her surroundings. Nadya wanders through the movie almost ghostlike as she really only gets noticed as her former self, “The ace female fighter pilot”, which only adds to the strain that she is facing: how does she move on from the War when it seems to be the only thing that defines her? It also seems to hold back her feminine qualities, as she seems very indifferent to the affections of her museum worker boyfriend, Pavel, as well as her clumsy and awkward interactions with her estranged daughter Tanya. When visiting Tanya and her new husband, Nadya comes off more like the stern “father of the bride” than the doting mother.

The film’s title is exploited with great precision by Shepitko. Breaks in the film come with aerial shots from planes ascending high into the sky and breaking through the clouds. The accompanying opera music adds another level of beauty to these already magnificent black and white shots. It certainly puts the viewer in a position of being not only inside the cockpit but also inside Nadya’s head and feeling, perhaps, the same freedom she felt in the skies as compared to her life as a stern principal.

For me, the most telling scene came when Nadya returns to the air field and visits her old squadron. Towards the end of the film, this is not her first visit to the air field but it will be different than all of the others. Nadya finds an old fighter plane unattended and climbs into the cockpit. Now in the cockpit, Nadya, shot in closeup, the emotions and the memory from the War consumes Nadya. She begins to weep before a group of airmen notice her and give her a ceremonial push around the field. The scene is surprisingly almost identical to the one with Dana Andrews in William Wyler’s, The Best Years of Our Lives, where Fred, a former bomber pilot from World War Two, also facing his own struggle in adapting to post war life back home, finds a graveyard of old Bombers. He climbs into the cockpit and in a brilliant shot by Wyler, is shot from outside the glass bubble. This gives him an the appearance of being captive as he is frozen with emotion, hearing the sounds of War blaring in his head. One cannot miss the irony of how two respected filmmakers from the United States and the Soviet Union chose identical ways to express the pain and sorrow of soldiers returning to normal life after the Second World War.

Wings from 1966 is an outstanding debut from Larisa Shepitko, one of Soviet cinema’s and World cinema’s greatest filmmakers.

FROM SILENT TO STREAMING

EPISODE 1: THE WOMAN’S FILM (1971): A ‘Consciousness Raising Group” on Film

https://anchor.fm/brendan–lee/embed/episodes/THE-WOMANS-FILM-ete2dj

The 1960’s was a watershed moment in the world of filmmaking. The emergence

of “cinema-verite” style documentary coupled with the advancement in filmmaking

technology gave filmmakers more independence when it came to making films. Richard

Leacock and D.A. Pennebaker have become synonymous with this period but what most

people overlook is how this era and movement inspired and produced exceptional women filmmakers.

Due to widespread revolution against the Vietnam war many women in the United

States began turning to film as a way of voicing their anti-war message. With the advent

of new equipment it was much easier for any filmmaker to get their hands on Hollywood

level filmmaking tools. After having success making these anti-war films, women,

mostly feminists, then turned their cameras toward the Feminist movement and its

struggle for gender equality. The Woman’s Film, directed by Louise Alaimo and Judy

Smith and produced by San Francisco Newsreel was one of the first feminist

documentaries that was made by an all female production crew. The film uses interviews

and conversations from an extremely diverse group of all women describing their

struggle and dissatisfaction with living in a patriarchal society.

Shot in black and white, the film opens with an Agnes Varda type montage of

women doing domestic tasks. We see several close up shots of women’s hands washing

dishes, cleaning sinks, and pushing a vacuum cleaner. The rest of the film is a collection

of different groups of women telling stories about their own problems. Shot mostly in the

“talking head” style, the women rarely address the camera. Mostly they address each

other as all scenes are shot in a room with a group of women gathered together. The

women talk about their dissatisfaction with being marginalized at home or at work. One

woman opens the film with a tragic story about how she was made to believe as a young

girl that marriage was her only way of being successful, or as she put is it “I was gonna

have it made when I got married.” The film however, does not just focus on middle-aged

married women. Another strong scene is that of a young girl who appears to be in her

20’s. She talks to her fellow women about the struggle she had as a woman in her

professional career. After dreaming of becoming a professional writer she got a job as a

typist at a publishing agency. Instead of climbing the ladder she eventually realized that

she was spending her time typing manuscripts written by men. She also explains how

because of her attractiveness her boss was using her to attract male writers to the agency.

One of the most powerful aspects of the film is the way the women are shown

talking to each other in groups. The idea of a “Consciousness-Raising Group” became

widespread among women in the late 1960’s. Through these groups women were finally

getting together and sharing their thoughts and opinions about how their lives could be

better. It acted as a support group for the Feminist movement to grow out of. Watching

the film, it almost appears it is one long meeting of a consciousness-raising group.

Throughout the film the audience eventually notices the different groups of women but

one can get the feeling that these women could all be in the same place. The woman who

opens the film talking in a close up shot with her children wandering around the room is

eventually joined at the end of the film by a group of women. It is in this scene where

she describes her own consciousness-raising group. I also that the most effective shots

pertaining to the group settings were not the close ups of women telling their stories but

the close ups of the women listening to those stories. Several times throughout the film

while a woman is talking there is a cut to a shot of another woman, maybe two women

just listening. The directors even went a step further with shots of women talking with

other women listening in the background or other women chiming in with words of

support for the woman speaking.

One of the most important consciousness-raising films ever made came after The

Woman’s Film in 1974. Where The Woman’s Film began as a collection of women

talking about their problems the film Self Health went a step further down the

consciousness-raising road. The film is a documentary about a group of women who get

together and explore their bodies. Tired of being told that their bodies belonged to male

doctors, women were educating themselves and each other about everything from minor

health issues to childbirth. The film was accused of being “pornographic” because it

showed women giving each other breast exams. This is the ultimate irony considering

the way women were and still are being objectified in popular culture.

The Woman’s Film not only paved the way for a new style of feminist documentary

but it also gave women the courage and inspiration to pick up a camera and point it at

what they felt was wrong with the world around them.