Tuesday, March 10, 2020

True/False 2020: Lingering Traumas

Sunless Shadows (2019)

This year's True/False Film Festival brings a couple of films about the lingering effects of trauma. This is a constant well of subject matter for documentary filmmakers which doesn't speak well to the world we live in, but it makes for compelling drama.

Sunless Shadows (2019, directed by Mehrdad Oskouei) is about the inmates in a particular communal cell block in a women's prison in Iran. Most of the women are there because they killed intimate partners or family members who were abusing them. This is a sequel of sorts to director Mehrdad Oskouei's previous film, Starless Dreams, which was about delinquent girls in a detention facility in Tehran. This one narrows its gaze to murder, and from there extrapolates a quietly damning manifesto about the nature of patriarchy in Iran and beyond. The picture of the lot of these women under the thumb of men is bleak.

Oskouei's main stylistic trick is a confessional booth where each of his subjects talks about her crime and addresses the victim or their families more generally. One woman killed the man she was sold to in an arranged marriage. Another conspired with her mother to kill her father, with her mother taking the lion's share of the blame (the movie is cagey about whether she shoulders it because she's guilty or because she's a protective mother). Their reactions vary from abject repentance to defiance, but all of the speak to their own trauma directly. This runs the risk of exploiting the confidence of these women, but Oskouei holds enough of their trust that they open up to him in a shockingly naked manner. In truth, the confessional booth isn't strictly really necessary--Oskouei has enough footage of the world the women have made for themselves that you can get a feeling for their personalities and experiences just from watching them--but it provides a direct conduit to the trauma that motivates each woman and their world in general.

Sunless Shadows (2019)

The prison block is a refuge for these women, and they make a home of it. They go through the quotidian tasks of their lives, including child-rearing, cooking, laundry, caring for ducks. etc. In the company of women, they are safer than they would be on the outside, given the brutal patriarchy that cornered each of them into no exit but their specific crimes. Their reactions to each other speak to how deeply ingrained patriarchy has colonized them: some are defiant and want to tear it down, some are compliant and resigned, some are even kapos that lay the blame for murder at the feet of their cellmates' refusal to submit. Some of the women are barely out of childhood, and the film watches them play and interact with the older women as if they are aunts or mothers. It's a striking microcosm of the struggles of women generally distilled to this one shared experience. And while they're all aware of the safety of their circumstances relative to what their lives were before, some long to return to life a life where abuse is a trade off for access to children and family. One particular inmate is released during the film; it doesn't go well for her.

There's liberation in being walled off from the patriarchy of Iran, which is a perverse irony that Sunless Shadows takes as one of its primary themes. The very idea that murder is a ticket to a kind of freedom that's denied to women in the broader society makes one wonder why more women aren't killing their husbands or fathers, though that's perhaps unkind to men. "Not all men," I'm told, even in places like Iran. But enough men. Too many.

Seven Years in May (2019)

Seven Years in May (2019, directed by Affonso Uchoa) plumbs a different kind of trauma and processes it through performance rather than directly. The film opens with a man walking along a darkened street, his figure a shadow, which is a summary of what happens to its central character, a man named Rafael dos Santos Roch. The second part of the film recreates the crime committed against Rocha, in which a gang of men pretending to be police (or possibly actual police) abduct Rocha and beat him within an inch of his life while demanding that he own up to having a stash of drugs and money in his house. Rocha, a worker who at that time was not involved in such things, is released with the demand that he come up with an amount of drugs and money in a week's time or he'll be killed. Rocha flees instead to Sao Paulo, where a combination of circumstances finds him both heavily using drugs and selling them to support his habit. This, the audience learns, in a long fire-lit monologue after the film has recreated its initial crime. The confessional nature of the monologue is such that it's a shock to discover that he's talking to someone else within the film space, and that the someone else has a similar story. The film intimates that the listener may be an archetype rather than a real person, a personification of Rafael's suffering. The last part of the film is a game of "Dead or Alive" in which Rafael is one of many directed to stand when "alive" and kneel when "dead". The man who conducts the game is dressed in a police uniform. Eventually, Rafael is the last man standing, refusing the command to die.

Seven Years in May (2019)

This is more a theater piece than a documentary, but that doesn't preclude the film from channeling the trauma at its core, particularly during Rafael's long monologue. By setting the film entirely at night, often lit by fires in the background or by industrial spaces illuminated by orange arc-lights, the film places its story in an existential night world, perhaps after the apocalypse or after death, though the film's last image argues against this last. It almost feels like film noir, in which Fate puts its finger on Rafael and sends him wandering in the wilderness. As with film noir, the dark heart of the story is corruption, both from outside Rafael and imposed upon him as a badge of his trauma. As with many recent non-fiction films, Seven Years in May points an accusing finger at the police for abusing the trust of their office.

Seven Year in May was paired at True/False with "Up At Night" (2019, directed by Nelson Makengo), which provides a visual counterpoint. Set in night-time Kinshasa and shot in wide with the screen divided into three, this chronicles a neighborhood struggling to keep its lights on due to power lines being continually cut by street gangs looking for extortion. The film shows the lengths to which the neighborhood goes to string lights from generators, from battery-powered LEDS, whatever works. Humans are adaptable, the film suggests, and you can't keep them in the dark for long.

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