Locarno 2018. The Three Heroines

On three of the best films at Locarno: Abbas Fahdel's "Yara," Eva Trobisch's "Alles ist gut," and Sofia Bohdanowicz's "Veslemøy’s Song".
Daniel Kasman



Good films have a feel about them—not a feeling of “good” or “bad,” but rather exude a tactile sensation, almost as if the film world was a physical presence in the room with you, one you can touch, smell or taste. Abbas Fahdel’s Yara has this quality, and its feel is that of a fresh breeze.

Yara is the French-Iraqi director’s follow-up to his widely praised Homeland: Iraq Year Zero (2015), and seems to have been made in response to or even recuperation from that harrowing and expansive ground-level documentary. For Yara’s story is basic, its form primal: It tells of the daily life of teenaged beauty Yara (Michelle Wehbe), who lives alone with her aging grandmother in an old house clinging the mountainside of Lebanon’s Kadisha Valley. She sleeps, does laundry, and chats with her grandmother, as well as with the few men who stop by, one who helps out around the property, another, older man who delivers food and supplies, and a handsome young hiker (Elias Freifer) who passes by. The young man immediately flirts with Yara, a lithe beauty with a wry, patient and open demeanor. He returns some days later, and the two start-up a quiet courtship. And that’s pretty much it. Shooting this depopulated landscape of craggy, dry verdancy with a directness that feels spontaneous and with a documentary impulse, Fahdel’s beautiful film is naive in the best of ways, with almost no conflict or dramatic drive, but replacing this need with the sensation that each thing photographed, whether real or fictive, is being filmed for the first time, simply, expediently, honestly.

This is what creates the feel of the breeze and an invigorating lightness, a cinematic grace that does much to make one ignore the odd absences and qualities of Fahdel’s spartan vision. How, for example, we never really see the quotidian work Yara does, and her chic poise and several pairs of new shoes hardly suggest a mountain girl who has tended the family home of her deceased parents for years. Perhaps we’re supposed to interpret this information—maybe Yara has returned from a town or city to live with her grandmother—and perhaps the absence of such practical context takes away some of the film’s possible observational power. But most likely we should let this all go as irrelevant to the pure vision of this pastoral and its romance of tradition, isolation, composure, natural beauty, and the pull of love, a vision in which everything is simplified to such a degree that even understanding Yara as a fable might be over-complicating its modesty. More scenes than can be counted end with the camera panning away to peer at the valley, at once gorgeous and confining, a gesture of magnetism and awe, and of placing people and their small stories in a grander, older world than the transience of daily life may suggest. This is cinema stripped to its basics, and it is a refreshing delight to find qualities of early silent pictures found in a film shot in Lebanon in the 21st century. It’s a film that lets the wind blow, and you can feel it in the cinema.

Yara makes its characters inseparable from the land in which they live. But in Eva Trobisch’s forceful debut Alles ist gut (All Good), the heroine cannot be extricated from the men in her life. Played with captivating thoughtfulness by Anne Schwartz, that heroine is Janne, a young woman in Munich who is navigating job troubles that she shares with the boyfriend, when, during a school reunion at which she gets drunk, the attentions of a classmate go from congenial to pressing and escalate to rape. Afterwards, Janne takes a job with an old family friend, a position that unexpectedly brings her in regular contact with the rapist. If this all sounds both torrid and contrived, Trobisch avoids the former with a style of loose, uncomplicated naturalism, but fully embraces the latter: with her boyfriend, whose relationship with Janne initially seems sweet, turning increasingly boorish and unsympathetic, with her new boss vocally struggling with his new marriage to a younger woman, and with the rapist (In My Room’s Hans Löw playing the perfect kind of repressed slimeball yuppie, too-tight button ups, frameless glasses and all) showing up here and there, Alles ist gut conceives a story world where Jannes cannot escape the suggestion of poor choices and weak men.

It is most assuredly a subjective view, for Trobisch’s well-observed technique—which lends great incidental detail to Janne’s movement and lifestyle—suggests a low-key expressionism, with this woman’s self-questioning of her age and place in life reflected everywhere she looks, from the more successful women at her reunion to the sense that her relationship to her boyfriend, like his publishing business, is bankrupt. The rape is not an inciting event, in this sense, and more a radical exasperation and culmination of unsettled feelings. The way Trobisch and Schwartz dramatize this scene, in a combination of extreme discomfort and shame but only half-hearted denial and resistance, underscores the feeling for the woman that perhaps, horribly, something like this was bound to happen. Such nuances might be lost with most actresses, but the admirable Alles ist gut is above all a calling a card for Anne Schwartz, whose presence dominates and defines the drama with an intelligence and sensitivity that prompts as many questions about what this woman is going through inside and out as those that it answers. It is that rare performance in the cinema that feels inexhaustible, each moment, whether tying up her hair after a doctor’s appointment or the curl of her lips and hooding of her eyes when group conversations take a certain turn, suggests a fierce reservoir of psychology and character history. She fully inhabits and animates this character such that a film set before or after the story here might be just as interesting. Both director and actress are ones to follow.

A pair we’re already following but who have yet to been showcased as much as they deserve is Canadian director Sofia Bohdanowicz and actress Deragh Campbell. Bohdanowicz has been quietly making some of the most interesting work of a new generation of Canadian filmmakers, much of it documentaries that pull from her family history. Her excellent first feature, Never Eat Alone (2016), uses Campbell as a stand-in for a fictional version of herself in a story about tracing an old romance between a Canadian actor and her own grandmother, who is also played by an actress. For those keeping an eye out, Campbell keeps popping up in some of the best of today’s independent art cinema, both in Canada (Antoine Bourges’s Fail to Appear) and abroad (Julian Radlmaier’s Self-Criticism of a Bourgeois Dog). She has a discreet and strongly interiorized acting style that holds her characters tightly within, a technique which suggests resolve and reserve and prompts the desire for the audience to step closer and approach her to find an opening and understand more.

These two have a wonderful short film in Locarno, Veslemøy’s Song, another hybrid between documentary and fiction from Bohdanowicz based on her family. In this case, the subject is her discovery that her grandfather, a violinist who played in Toronto’s orchestra, was tutored by an important musical figure in Canadian music history that has been since forgotten, Kathleen Parlow. Upon finding a book about Parlow among her grandfather's things, as well as an adolescent poem of homage and humor written by him about Parlow, Bohdanowicz, played by Campbell, heads to New York, whose public library holds the only original recordings of Parlow playing. Being a very rare wax cylinder, Bohdanowicz cannot see or touch it, and instead must request the library archive find and play her an extract through a humorous and vaguely dystopian computer interface where she chats with an archivist in increasing desperation to hear more. Upon finally listening, she cries, eats a brief lunch, and the film ends.

Its tone playful, despite its melancholic subject of a woman personally important to Bohdanowicz’s family and culturally important to her country, but lost (for now) to history, the form of the film delightfully and adroitly mixes things up. We hear Bohdanowicz in voice-over narrate her discovery, and see objects like the book, the poem, and a concerto dedicated to Parlow, that form the director’s research. Yet we also see casual reenactments where Campbell walks through the hallways of the library, the at-once amusing and horrifying futurist conversations with the unseen basement librarian, keeper of missing history, and her listening to and quietly weeping over the music. Not everything here is exactly factual, as Deragh Campbell’s presence clues us to—underlying the likelihood that Bohdanowicz’s quest to learn about this woman has its own mysterious and elusive qualities, lost to history. Shot in 16mm black and white, Veslemøy’s Song is a very handsome film that, because it has been hand-processed, has an archival, imperfect, battle-scarred texture that furthers the sense that we’re discovering part, but not all, of a larger picture. Its own little story of finding this woman and tracking down a recorded trace of her talent is satisfying and touching in its own right. But with the cleverness that is common to all of Bohdanowicz’s movies, the form her film takes suggests there is more work to be done, more history and more stories to tell, more cinema to make.

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Festival CoverageLocarnoLocarno 2018Abbas FahdelEva TrobischSofia Bohdanowicz
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