Here’s looking at you, kids

  • Fifa MonsThere’s nothing more enjoyable for a film critic than to be forced to look at debut films: no record to consult, no previous knowledge of a director’s style, themes or inspirations. They sharpen your vision and there’s no leaning back on your comfortable cushion of preconceptions of things to come.

    FIFA 2011– which incidentally has nothing to do with football – in Mons, the cultural capital of Europe in four years time, proved to be an excellent test case for this somewhat prejudiced critic. Surprisingly often first films tend to deal with what’s presumed to be closest to young filmmakers in their twenties. Family and classroom relations, the eventual breaking away from parents and teachers, above all, discovering or testing a maturing sexuality. It’s as if many of today’s young filmmakers, facing possible producers in order to get their debut films made at all, inevitably have to restrict the adventures, dreams, conflicts and age of their protagonists to their own memory of times barely passed and present it in a didactic form.
    Most ordinary film adolescents are not supposed to do anything or even think of anything in particular except to stay out of gangs, to avoid being victimized by school bullies and inapt parents – and as it’s candidly put: the when, if and how to get laid. They are rarely supposed to be conscious of the society or world around them, least of all act upon their knowledge.  Ages, gender, ethnicity and class rarely come together in one film. In the end, innocence is lost and a sense of security shattered, these days to music most likely by Joy Division – if dark – or Robyn – if light.
    Contrary to the classic coming-of-age stories in literature and film, there seems to be a continuous infantilization of both young people and grown-ups.

    This is, of course, a dangerous generalization which is contradicted by FIFA in Mons. These coming-of-age stories actually contain numerous variations. In particular, if they leave the strict genre rules applied by American filmmakers.

    However, not The Myth of the American Sleepover, already presented at the Critic’s Week in Cannes. The international competition showed this independent (if there’s still such a thing) film, which has all the necessary ingredients: summer vacations in all-white Detroit suburbia, drinking and taking drugs. A beautiful blonde young girl, followed by a not-so-attractive bespectacled, dark-haired doglike best friend, falling in love with a pool attendant. A young man, followed by a small prepubertal faithful best friend, being obsessed by an older woman. The special American custom of sleepovers, single-sex overnight parties, and wet pool-parties were all bound to be the source of conflicts. The clichés moved feather-lightly and apart from earning first-time Claire Sloma the actress prize for a highly memorable dance scene and some surprising moves in this well-known landscape, it was easily forgotten.

    Not so the young ones in the European film debut competition. Swedish Iranian director Babak Najafi’s Sebbe has already been awarded the debut prize at 2010 Berlinale, the Swedish Critic’s Film of the Year 2010 as well as the Guldbagge, Sweden’s equivalent to France’s Cesar, British BAFTA and other national awards. Watching it for the third time, I was again struck by this remarkably flawless first feature. 
    Sebbe is 15 and lives with his single mother who works at night and often drinks too much. The only reminder of that there was once a father is an old photo. They are living under poor economic circumstances, modern-day poverty which in no way is unknown in Sweden.
    Sebbe takes refuge from school bullies – not an unknown film feature – and an absent mother, in his great interest in mechanics, using a chain-saw motor to turn his bike into a moped  – which the little family cannot afford. But most of all Sebbe is an original story of the unavoidable and never-ending love and unbreakable ties between a son and his mother, still a child herself. Babak Najafi’s film is a sure-footed and honest depiction of class, with the finger on the belly of contemporary Sweden, with an eye for milieus, relations and people, realistic and, at the same time, poetic and without clichés.  In particular it takes off through the touching and honest interaction between the two main actors, Sebbe moves in a chilling landscape, but in a landscape with space and ways out – possibilities and not just misery.

    That can’t be said about Géraldine Bajard’s La Lisière (The Edge) about a kind of well-off gated society somewhere in the French countryside. From the very first shot there lies a strong sense of discomfort. In a peculiar mixture of let’s say Dumont and Haneke, Bajard uses the edge of the forest as a metaphor for the thin line between young innocence and full-fledged sexual maturity.
    The dark brooding leader of the young village pack is setting the rules: one after the other the girls are chosen to dress up as prostitutes and walk the deserted forest road at night time. It’s a dangerous game, and as the youngest girl gets run-over, he decides that the newly-arrived doctor should take the blame.  It’s intended as a psychogram of a suffocating closed society, where the adolescents are left to themselves by the parents, who in turn care more about what to drink before their own sexual games.
    Bajard is trying for the difficult theme of power not being exerted by violence, but through a quiet acceptance from the ones being observed – and thus observe themselves – as inferior. She doesn’t succeed, as La Lisière moves along just one single, dark misogynist note, if you can use that term when the director seems to apply it to young boys, girls and grown-ups alike.

    Ahmad Abdalla’s Microphone does the complete opposite.  His film – actually his second – moves right out into the turmoil of Alexandria street life, among graffiti painters, publicity makers, hip hop artists and concert arrangers who skilfully avoid the police to deliver their politically intended messages.  It’s a vital – sometimes confusing – piece of film-making about adolescents who really do something, and on the way enrol a middle-aged supporter who up until then has done nothing except wavered between staying or leaving Egypt, looking deep into the eyes of his old lost love. Of course Microphone gains an extra lustre from the recent Tahrir Square revolution – but also delivers an energetic part explanation to how it was possible. 

    Energetic and entertaining are the best words for Jitka Rudolfova’s group portrait Dreamers. As I understand it was primarily made as a TV series, and then cut together as one film.  Usually it works at a disadvantage for the single film, but in this case the somewhat fragmented form is very suitable. 
    Dreamers tells the adolescent stories of its people by doing some backtracking as their post-hippie dreams take shape: moving from Prague to a derelict farm, from failed careers, studies and relationships to a communal life with goats, tomato growing, guitar playing and all – but finally finding that escaping your past is not all that easy. (Being Swedish, I especially enjoyed it as a contemporary Czech parallel to Lukas Moodyson’s Together, 2000, about a Swedish commune in the ‘70s.)

    If you by any chance have read this far: excuse me for taking up your time at such length! Just like the festival in Mons I felt that first time directors deserve the attention and in some cases actually the very first written views of what they’ve accomplished. And we wouldn’t escape our past, would we?

    Eva Af Geijerstam,, 7 March 2011