How many times over the last couple of decades of juggling the seemingly impossible-to-balance demands on my time have I wished for enough time to read all the books that remain unread or watch all the films that I have kept adding to that to-watch list. And yet, since the cover-19 necessitated lockdown began, I’ve found it difficult to watch a film with the kind of concentration it deserves. I’m getting better though, and sometimes I actually achieve a couple of hours of not stressing over the lockdown or the virus. Sometimes I can smile, even laugh out loud, be engaged and moved… Cinema is such a wonderful creation, and I’m so glad to be a part of this magical world. Here are some films I’d recommend for invigorating viewing.
One Child Nation (2019)
I’d missed this film during the 2019 MAMI festival and I’m glad to have finally watched this documentary, directed by Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang, about the fallout of China’s one-child policy that lasted from 1979 to 2015. The filmmaker, who now lives in the US, talks to parents who had to abandon their newborns, health workers, who aborted foetuses that were sometimes in the 9th month inside their mothers’ wombs, and sterilized countless women. It also traces the child trafficking that happened as abandoned babies were put up for adoption and picked up by prospective parents from the West. Yes, it was a racket, where children who were not really orphans were put up for adoption, but at least these children survived, unlike many others who were also put in a basket and abandoned. The girl child was more likely to be forsaken, of course, as the male progeny got preference in the single child universe. Ironically, China now encourages couples to have two children as they don’t have enough young people. At the end, the filmmaker talks about how a totalitarian state decided about a woman’s rights over her body in much the same fashion that much of her adoptive country decides about a woman’s right to abort. The documentary is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020)
Directed by Eliza Hittman, this film is deeply moving in its depiction of the quiet helplessness and vulnerability of a young, teenage girl dealing with an unwanted pregnancy. Autumn (Sideney Flanigan) travels to New York with her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) in quest of an abortion that the conservative community she lives in will not allow her to have. It’s not easy – they do not have much money, no place to stay, can’t tell their parents – but what has to be done has to be done. In New York, there’s a scene where Autumn has to fill out a form with a social service worker. The responses she has to give are never/rarely/sometimes/always. This one scene says so much about the kind of life that this teenager must be living, and perhaps hints at much unacknowledged pain. The film is further lifted by incredible performances by Flanigan and Ryder. The film is available for renting on Amazon Prime.
To Be Or Not to Be (1942)
An actor playing Hamlet notices a young member of the audience leave the auditorium as he embarks on the high point of his performance – the ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy. What can cause greater heartbreak for an actor? The discovery that the young man is using this time to go and romance the actor’s beautiful wife. To make a film laughing at Hitler and the Nazis in 1942 must have been quite something. Ernst Lubitsch’s film with its preposterous scenes, dark humour and a morally ambiguous heroine is an outrageously funny tale of a bunch of losers taking on the might of the Führer and his men. The film never fails to make me laugh. And laugh. The film is available on DVD from The Criterion Collection.
The Cave (2019)
The film looks at an underground hospital fighting a war of a different kind in the face of impossible odds – a small band of fighters with limited resources trying to take on a deluge of victims of the Syrian civil war. Feras Fayyad’s profiling of Dr Amani Ballour and her colleagues is a tough but rewarding watch about the heartbreaking realities of the life of the civilians trapped in the hellish war zone, and the group of doctors trying to offer succor to the dying. The film takes us through what the doctors go through – air strikes, use of chemical weapons, dwindling rations, lack of medicines, encounters with patriarchy, yet managing to celebrate a birthday or cook a bad meal that people are grateful to eat. The Cave is about hope existing in a place where there can be none. As the tagline says, “Hope shines in the darkest places.” The film is streaming on Amazon Prime.
Le Trou (The Hole, 1960)
Gaspard is moved into a prison cell where the four inmates are already planning a jailbreak. After some initial hesitation, the four decide to include him in their plan. The escape route is dug through bit by bit and just when everything is set, Gaspard is called for a meeting with the jail governor. Apparently, the charges against him have been dropped. As he comes back to the cell, the other inmates are suspicious about whether Gaspard has betrayed them. Jacques Becker’s film is based on a novel about an actual 1947 jailbreak. Taut and engaging with amazing detailing and great performances (by non-professional actors) make this one of the best jailbreak films ever. Sadly, Becker died soon after the filming ended. Le Trou is currently streaming on MUBI>