Saturday, March 19, 2022

True/False 2022: Wayward Daughters and Hot Volcanoes

Sirens (2021)

All of the films I saw on my second day at True/False were directed by women and were by and large about women and relationships. I didn't plan this. Hell, I rarely plan anything when I'm at the festival because nothing ever lines up the way I expect. In recent years, I've picked my films based on what venues have the most comfortable seats. I'm getting old and my back and my ass appreciate this. I would recommend this approach at any film festival, not just True/False. You have to trust the festival programmers for this, and they mostly know what they're doing. Mostly.

In any event, seeing a slate of movies by women was pure coincidence, and not an unhappy one.

Sirens (2021, directed by Rita Baghdadi) follows Slave to Sirens, an all-female thrash metal band from Beirut. Lebanon is not exactly a hotbed of metalheads, but they develop enough of a local following to attract some international attention. Early in the film, they're invited to play a festival in Glastonbury, which is a bit of a fiasco. Subsequently, the stress of the global pandemic and the interpersonal friction between the two women who founded the band put its survival into question. On top of this is the disapprobation of Lebanese authorities, who view their music as both Satanic and amoral. The two central characters in the film are Lilas and Shery, childhood friends who are growing apart as Lilas explores her queer identity and Shery attempts to assert a stronger musical voice in their songwriting. This friction manifests itself in both musical differences and a general lack of amity between them of the kind that only develop between long-time friends and between ex-lovers (which, it so happens, Lilas and Shery are). This is all set against a backdrop of war and disaster (the Beirut port explosion figures prominently in the film). It's a lot to take in, but the film maintains a relatively narrow observational focus on Lilas and Shery (and, to a lesser extent on the relationship between Lilas and her mother, who doesn't know she's gay). This is a double-edged sword.

The main downside of Sirens is that, for reasons beyond the control of the filmmakers, there's relatively little music in the film. Given that this is the story of a band, this is a grievous fault. The little music we get suggests a much broader film. The interpersonal drama is great, but even that gives three of the other band members short shrift. The combination is what you might get if The Beatles had broken up in Hamburg in front of a camera crew: potential left merely as potential. The footage in Glastonbury, where the band plays to a largely empty space, is maybe the best part of the film, with echoes of This is Spinal Tap if Spinal Tap were sincere and talented.

At its core, Sirens is about identity rather than music--music seems like a sideline even if it's the reason the movie exists. As a whole, it's about puncturing the image of Arab women in media and demonstrating that they are more than wives, mothers, and daughters who are victims of oppressive patriarchy. That element is certainly there, especially as the band loses opportunities because of accusations that they make "Satanic" music, but this aligns the band with transgressive music worldwide. Transgression from the cultural norms is a stronger theme in Lilas's story of queer awakening, particularly in the part of the film where she spends time with her girlfriend from Syria. She is  unsure if she'll ever see her again as they part. Given that this film outs her, one wonders what will happen with her day job as a middle-school music teacher. It's a huge risk for her to take part in this film given the way she allows herself to be depicted.

Transgression from cultural norms is the heart of Lilas's relationship with her mother, too, who is waiting in vain for her daughter to settle into marriage and motherhood. The depiction of Lilas and Shery as petty and pigheaded is also core to its sense of transgression, its sense of disaster. It's more the rarity of female metal musicians in Lebanon that eventually puts them back together than a rapprochement, though the rapprochement eventually comes. The film finds a small triumph in the end, as both Lilas and Shery end up playing on a national stage with an orchestra as the electric instruments necessary to perform Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir." Even so, the ending seems ambiguous to me. Lilas, too, is an ambiguous figure. It often seems like her queerness is the driving force of the band's dysfunction, but to be queer in a place like Beirut demonstrates a sense of self-determination that is cast in iron. You could say the same thing about playing in a thrash metal band in the same place.

Children of the Mist (2021)

Self-determination is also at the heart of Children of the Mist (2021, directed by Ha La Diem), set among the Hmong people of northern Vietnam, where modernity has only dented lives rather than overwhelming them. This is also a film about a daughter defying both her mother and cultural expectations. It follows Di, a 13 year old girl who goes to school, does the chores that her parents are sometimes too drunk to do, and is the love object of Vang, a boy only a little bit older than she is, who intends to kidnap her in order to marry her. Bride kidnapping is still customary among the Hmong, even though Vietnam itself has outlawed the practice. Di, for her part, would rather stay in school. She doesn't like Vang, but she's led him on as a game as teen age girls sometimes do. Unfortunately for Di, Vang and his family are dead serious about him marrying her.

This film has a dim view of men, given that the men depicted here are either drunken louts whose main interest in marriage is for someone to do the chores when they're blackout drunk or they are paragons of unearned entitlement to whom women are a right if you want to just take one. That Vang is only 15 and Di is only 13 demonstrates that this attitude is embedded in this culture young. Both Vang and Di come from families of alcoholics--Di's mother is a two-fisted drinker who looks moderate only in comparison to both her own husband and to Vang's dad (she tells her husband that he's an even worse drunk). Di's mother at least does some chores--she complains that she makes indigo dye from their indigo plants because her kids refuse to learn how to do it--but even she views children as the help. Many documentaries view the intervention of social services with a gimlet eye, but in this one, they're practically the cavalry riding over the hill at the last minute. Certainly, Di's parents are ambivalent about Di's fate: they know she's too young, but the bride price that they could get from Vang's family and the subtraction of a mouth to feed from their own family is awfully tempting for them. There's also the suggestion that they blame Di for putting herself in the predicament of her abduction in the first place, and while victim blaming is a dodge, there's certainly an element of fault given how Di approaches boys and what she knows about her own culture's attitudes toward bride kidnapping. Her own sister was abducted and married at her age, after all. The family seems okay with that, too.

This is a strictly observational film that pays close attention to quotidian details. The strict adherence to documentary ethics, in which the filmmakers are purely neutral bystanders to the events they witness certainly helps this--one gets the feeling from the way Di and her friends interact that they've gotten used to the camera and can ignore it. Same with Di's family, who may have "performed" a bit at some point, but have their guard down inside the frame of the footage that the filmmakers have chosen. The downside of this approach and the central ethical problem on screen is at what point does the filmmaker's neutrality become neglect or actively complicit? When Di is first abducted, it happens at enough of a distance that the filmmakers likely didn't know what was happening. When Vang and his family and friends show up after Di has escaped them and she categorically refuses to go along, that detachment is a thornier problem. The camera watches and does nothing as Vang's people physically carry Di out of her home in spite of her screams of protest. Di eventually breaks free, so there is no actual harm done, but it suggests that either the filmmakers are indifferent to what Vang is doing, which is an actual on-the-books crime, or perhaps the filmmakers have staged the whole thing. Either option is ethically dubious, however else it might serve the film. It's an upsetting sequence for an audience who might already be appalled. I think it's a miscalculation.

Fire of Love (2022)

Fire of Love (2022, directed by Sara Dosa) assembles the story of vulcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft from the archive of material created by the Kraffts themselves. In their time, they were the preeminent scientists in their field, getting closer to the caldera of active volcanoes than any of their predecessors and consequently learning more from them. They investigated some of the most famous and destructive eruptions of the 20th Century and formulated plans for authorities to deal with the disasters that went with them. They also courted each other on volcanoes worldwide. In the case of the Kraffts, the personal and the professional were inseparable from each other.

Maurice Krafft once dreamed of riding down a magma floe in a canoe. Some of the footage in this film depicts him riding a rubber dinghy out onto a lake made of acid. He was that kind of daredevil. Katia, on the other hand, is a sphinx. We can infer that she was as mad for volcanoes as her husband, but also more sensible about it. It was she who put the kibosh on the canoe plan and refused to even watch Maurice on the acid lake. And yet both of them are seen walking across volcanic landscapes right up to the very edge of their beloved "red" volcanoes, often in science fiction-y suits of armor to protect themselves from the ejecta. They described red volcanoes as friendly and "safe." After the eruption of Mount St. Helens, and after the disastrous civil response to the eruption of Nevado del Ruiz in Colombia in 1985, they devoted their remaining career to the far more dangerous "gray" volcanoes.

The form of the movie reminds me of certain climbing movies--Meru, say, or Free Solo--insofar as it suggests through the testimony of its subjects that they have some kind of death wish. Neither of the Kraffts expected to live long, so they chose not to worry overmuch about their own deaths. They viewed themselves as insignificant next to the power of the Earth. Also like climbing movies, the footage shot by the film's subjects is spectacular. Footage of volcanoes is the documentary equivalent of a special effects blockbuster. The Kraffts dismissed the idea that they were artists as well as scientists, but the filmmakers who have assembled their footage disagree and explicitly make the case otherwise. Maybe they had internalized the effective communication of their science so much that they didn't understand how artful it is. But I find that hard to believe. Certainly, the filmmakers understand it. They put an exclamation point on it by having Miranda July as a narrator, even though she delivers what is essentially a standard documentary narrator deadpan throughout. Maybe that's wise, given how the story here could be spun as deliriously romantic. I suspect that the Kraffts would be horrified at that prospect. They hardly seemed the type. Their own footage and Maurice's occasional media appearances certainly resist the romantic even if their underlying story is the stuff of melodrama or even an epic. The scale is certainly there.

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