Lucy Popescu

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Film Review – Trash

Posted by lucypopescu on February 21, 2015

TrashStephen Daldry’s latest feature film, set among the trash heaps of Rio de Janeiro, belongs to its youthful, non-professional cast. Trash opens with Jose Angelo (Wagner Moura) hurriedly packing. As he attempts to flee his apartment he is cornered by cops. Before his arrest, he throws a large wallet into a passing rubbish truck. The next day, fourteen-year-old Rafael (Rickson Tevez) finds the wallet while foraging in his local dump. He has no idea that it will change his destiny and that of his two friends, fellow rubbish-pickers Gardo (Luis Eduardo) and Rato (Gabriel Weinstein). But as the police start sniffing around their favela, offering an award for the wallet’s safe return, Rafael realises that he’s found something worth hanging on to.

Jose Angelo’s wallet contains money, a key and a miniature flip book displaying the photograph of a young girl. With the help of Gardo and Rato, Rafael sets out on a journey to discover what it all means and whether more money might be involved. Rato recognises that the key belongs to a set of lockers in a train station. Inside one, the boys find a letter addressed to a man detained in prison. They enlist the help of two Americans living in the favela, Father Julliard (Martin Sheen) and Olivia (Rooney Mara) a volunteer English teacher in order to gain access to the prison. Here they meet Clemente (Nelson Xavier), Jose Angelo’s uncle who, on hearing their story, realises that his nephew must be dead.

Meanwhile, it’s apparent that a substantial amount of money is involved. Rafael’s refusal to cooperate, incurs the wrath of local cop Frederico (Selton Mello), who is working on the orders of a ruthless politician, mayoral candidate Antonio Santos (Stepan Nercessian). Narrowly escaping death at the hands of Frederico’s thugs, Rafael hears Santos’s name and realises that he may be connected to the wallet.

Further clues are hidden in passages from the Bible and this quickly becomes a race between the young trio and Frederico as to who will solve the mystery first. Adriano Goldman’s cinematography does an excellent job of conveying the frenetic pace of the various chase scenes.

An upbeat denouement, the dropping of numerous clues and Richard Curtis’s busy script, based on Andy Mulligan’s novel, occasionally feels a little formulaic, but this is tempered by the luminous performances of the three boys; all making their film debuts. Daldry has a rare talent, evident in his feature film directorial debut, Billy Elliot (2000), for drawing out the very best from young actors. The sheer joy and energy of the boys propels Trash and keeps us rooting for good over evil despite the contrived ending.

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Berlinale- Film Review: As We Were Dreaming

Posted by lucypopescu on February 19, 2015

As we were dreamingAs We Were Dreaming (Als wir träumten), a coming of age story about a group of friends growing up in Leipzig, is German director Andreas Dresen’s competition entry for the Bear adapted by Wolfgang Kohlhaase from Clemens Meyer’s award-winning novel of the same name. As the film opens, Dani (Merlin Rose) is looking for his friend Mark (Joel Basman) in an abandoned cinema. We then travel back in time to their recent past. The wall has fallen and East and West have recently reunited. Dani, Mark,  Paul (Frederic Haselon), Pitbull (Marcel Heuperman) and Rico (Julius Nitschkoff) run riot every night, drinking, stealing, hotwiring cars and smashing them up. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn of their school days as young Pioneers, drilled to be loyal to Socialist ideals.

As a child Dani had hoped to be a journalist, he won his school’s poetry competition, while Rico dreamed of becoming a champion boxer. As teenagers, the friends open an underground club in a dilapidated building, but a rival gang of neo-Nazi skinheads decide it’s on their patch and start kicking up a storm. Matters are further complicated because Dani is obsessed with Starlet (Ruby O. Fee) the girlfriend of the rival gang’s leader. Refusing to bow to pressure, Rico, Mark and Dani are badly beaten-up. As they grow older, things only get worse. Paul considers working in pornography and Pitbull starts dealing drugs. Dani spends time in a youth correctional facility, Mark becomes hooked on heroin.

The characters’ lives are evidently meant to reflect reality for poorer, disadvantaged East Germans after reunification. For many, newfound freedom inevitably led to excess. Unremittingly high octane and sometimes graphically violent, As We Were Dreaming, won’t appeal to all tastes. Some audience members left during Dani’s brutal beating. As they are all proudly delinquent, it’s hard to feel sorry for any of them. Dani is the most sympathetic but he betrays his two friends when they are being chased by the gang. The zeal with which they steal and smash things up becomes depressing after a while. The narrative is punctuated with snappy chapter headings such as “Gutter Hound”, “Rivalry” and “Thunderstorm in the Brain,” but there is little else to dispel the overriding atmosphere of alienation and despair.

Meyer, born in former East Germany, has described himself as a “child of the street”. Like Dani he spent time in a youth detention facility but put his experiences to good use by penning acclaimed novels. One can’t help yearning for similar redemption for his characters, for there to have been some emotional journey worth taking, but the film’s bleak ending offers little in the way of hope. Superb performances from the young cast and Michael Hammon’s evocative camerawork are the main compensations for a relentlessly bleak story of lost youth.

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Berlinale – Film review: The Second Mother

Posted by lucypopescu on February 19, 2015

The Second MotherAnna Muylaert’s heart-warming comedy, The Second Mother (Que horas ela volta?), starring Regina Casé is sure to prove a crowd pleaser and festival favourite (it premiered at Sundance where Case and Camila Mardila won the Special Jury Award for Acting). Val (Case), a live-in housekeeper for a wealthy, middle-class in São Paulo, has helped bring up their seventeen-year-old son Fabinho (Michel Joelsas). She loves him as her own and he adores her. But Val’s work comes at a terrible price. She was forced to leave behind her young daughter Jessica with her estranged husband in order to be able to afford the money for her upkeep. Now seventeen, Jessica (Márdila) contacts Val as she is coming to São Paulo to sit her university entrance exam. They’ve not seen each other for ten years.

Val welcomes her daughter with love and trepidation but is mortified when Jessica refuses to conform to or accept the hierarchies in the family’s home. Instead of sleeping on a mattress in her mother’s tiny back room, Jessica asks if she can sleep in the opulent guest bedroom complete with en suite bathroom. She’s quick-witted, smart, intends to study architecture and is keen to prepare for the entrance exam. She’s also curious about her surroundings, hungry for knowledge and quickly beguiles both Fabinho and his father. Carlos (Lourenço Mutarelli) has no need to work and is consequently bored and something of a loner. In contrast, his ambitious wife, Dona Bárbara (Karine Teles), has a keen sense of her status and is deeply suspicious of Jessica and her refusal to fit in.

There is refreshing political edge to Muylaert’s well-structured script. With Jessica’s arrival, class barriers are broken down, petty snobberies are revealed and weaknesses uncovered. These are some wonderful telling moments such as when Dona Bárbara is forced to make Jessica breakfast because she is sitting at their kitchen table. Later, Jessica sits down to eat lunch with Carlos and develops a liking for Fabino’s special chocolate ice cream. Val is scandalised by her daughter’s presumptuousness, pointing out that the family only offer her things because they expect her to say no. In another dining room scene, the family sit in silence, incapable of communication because they are all separately attached to their smart phones.

This brilliant, beautifully observed comedy is a joy to watch throughout. The narrative works on many levels, reflected in the film’s ambiguous title, and the characterisation is flawless. It’s also skilfully executed with Case leading a terrific ensemble cast. The Second Mother looks set to garner further plaudits.

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Berlinale: Film review – Ben Zaken

Posted by lucypopescu on February 19, 2015

Ben ZakenIsraeli director Efrat Corem’s debut feature, Ben Zaken (2014) is set in a cramped apartment in a poor suburb of Ashkelon, a coastal city in the Southern District of Israel. Two adult brothers Leon (Mekikes Amar) and Shlomi (Eliraz Sade) live with their mother Dina (Chani Elemich) and Shlomi’s troubled daughter eleven-year-old Ruhi (Rom Shoshan). God-fearing Leon works in construction and employs his younger brother as a night watchman, but Shlomi hates the job and resents having Leon as his boss. He’s constantly tired, barely eats, chain smokes and is worried about Ruhi who’s a loner and being bullied at school.

Ben Zaken opens with a blank canvas and Corem’s characters always step into frame as if to suggest that their various misfortunes are not of their own making. Corem swiftly builds up a claustrophobic environment. It’s hard to believe the city is on the Mediterranean. Both interior and exterior shots are deliberately drab and while Dina spends all her time cooking and cleaning for the family, Ruhi and Shlomi give off a general air of dishevelment. Motherless and rudderless, Ruhi becomes more and more unruly. She spits out her food and screams at her grandmother when she doesn’t get what she wants. The only person she remains calm with is Shlomi who she sleeps beside most nights. Child welfare officers are keeping an eye on the family and believe Ruhi would be better off in a children’s home. Leon and his mother are inclined to agree. Shlomi worries that this would be a betrayal of his young daughter.

And so it goes on; an endless cycle of misery. Little breaks the tedium of their home life. Even though local beauty, twenty-year old Riki (Batel Mashian), is in love with Leon he ends up snubbing her in brutal fashion. The brothers bicker but are united when Leon decides to teach a neighbour a lesson, convinced that he has been trying to lure Ruhi into his flat.

Corem takes social realism to its limits and elicits great performances from her non-professional cast. Shoshan’s huge dark eyes, long tangled hair, grave face and small, taut mouth make her a particularly memorable presence. However it is unclear what makes this sad tale unique to Israel. This could have been any working class family, struggling to get by in a rundown estate, crushed and brutalised by poverty. Ben Zaken is relentlessly bleak and would have benefitted from some lightness and humour to leaven the mood.

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Book review – Nothing is True and Everything is Possible

Posted by lucypopescu on February 14, 2015

Nothing is truePeter Pomerantsev, Kiev-born and raised in England, lived and worked in Moscow for almost a decade. As a television producer, whose parents left the Soviet Union in the 1970s, Pomerantsev is uniquely placed to offer a bold, penetrating insight into Russia today and Vladimir Putin’s “post-modern dictatorship”.

After joining Russia’s burgeoning television industry in the Noughties, Pomerantsev found himself in demand as the networks were keen to exploit popular Western entertainment and reality shows. His first commission was How to Marry a Millionaire: (A Gold-digger’s Guide). Entry into this world meant Pomerantsev met many modern Russians attempting to survive or exploit the new order, among them was Oliona, an attractive young woman who has perfected the art of ensnaring a “sponsor”, also known as “Forbeses” (as in the Forbes World’s Billionaires list), and Vitaly, a former gangster who makes films and writes books about his life. As Pomerantsev wryly notes “when the President ascended to the Kremlin … [the] secret service took over organised crime themselves; there was no way hoodlums could compete.”

Pomerantsev swiftly recognised that “TV is the only force that can unify and rule and bind the country”. Putin seized control of the medium as soon as he came to power and has since used it to project Kremlin propaganda and destroy opposition. It is the corruption, cultural and political oppression, orchestrated by the Kremlin, that increasingly occupies Pomerantsev.

He follows the case of Yana Yakovleva who found herself in a Kafkaesque nightmare when she was arrested and held for seven months for “trading in diethyl ether”. She bought and sold industrial cleaning fluids including diethyl ether but was accused of distributing illegal drugs. She was eventually released after refusing to pay a bribe.

In 2009, Sergey Magnitsky, a lawyer probing financial corruption, died after being beaten in prison. Back in London, Pomerantsev met William Browder, the former investment banker who had hired Magnitsky to pursue officials who obtained huge tax rebates on illegally obtained companies; a scam known as the “black till of the Kremlin”. It is fitting that this book ends in London, “the perfect home for money launderers”. Unwittingly or not, we still accept tainted Russian money.

Pomerantsev is particularly entertaining when observing the changing fads of the television industry, but for the most part he focuses on the sad, sometimes surreal, form corruption takes today. Most political intrigues lead back to the Kremlin and, as Pomerantsev amply demonstrates, Putin’s authoritarianism has many guises.

Originally published by the Independent on Sunday

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Berlinale – film review: Tell Spring Not to Come This Year

Posted by lucypopescu on February 14, 2015

tell springSaeed Taji Farouky has carved out something of reputation for directing and producing documentaries that are visually arresting and pack a punch. Tunnel Trade (2007) about Gaza’s illegal underground smuggling economy, was nominated for a Rory Peck Award, while The Runner (2013), about an activist and athlete from Western Sahara, garnered high praise and was a finalist in the Social Impact Media Awards. Tell Spring Not to Come This Year is a co-production with Michael McEvoy. When NATO troops withdrew from Afghanistan in 2013 the Afghan National Army (ANA) took over control of Helmand Province, where they endure frequent attacks from Taliban fighters. The previous year McEvoy had worked with the British Army in the region and he wanted to document what it was like for the ANA after the foreign forces left. Farouky and McEvoy were embedded with an ANA unit over the course of a year and their film follow the fortunes of the soldiers and, in particular, unit commander Jalaluddin and Private Sunnatullah.

The soldiers have mixed feelings about the withdrawal of NATO troops. Some are relieved and are keen to defend their own land. Others feel abandoned and are concerned that they don’t have the right equipment and that they have been deserted at a particularly difficult time. Most feel a bit of both.

Farouky captures the soldiers’ daily existence on the army base. The cramped dormitories, the table tennis and card games, the phone calls home, the camaraderie, shared laughter and the regular meals. For many ordinary Afghans living in poverty, joining the army offers them the opportunity to better themselves, to earn a regular income and support their families back home. So it is all the more shocking when we learn that they have not been paid their salary for nine months. Over-burdened administration, complex bureaucracy, wilful mismanagement or embezzled funds? It’s never made clear.

What is evident is the men’s courage as they attempt to keep the peace and come under fire. Their fear is often palpably caught on Farouky’s camera. The bravery of Farouky and McEvoy is also evident when they are filming dangerous operations or when they are shot at as they follow the soldiers in retreat. In one telling scene, we hear the ragged breath of the cameraman as he runs after the soldiers under fire. When he reaches the safety of the vehicle sent to pick them up, the men’s adrenalin is palpable. The camera is immediately trained on one of the soldiers — the look of fear and relief on his face is a frank projection of the cameraman’s own.

It is this humanity that keeps us engaged throughout. Farouky captures the beauty of the landscape, despite the ravages of war, and he recognises the importance of the small moments that linger with you – the soldiers’ care for the Mynah bird that makes the barracks its home, for instance, or Jalaluddin’s love of literature. The film’s title comes from a poem by Khaliullah Khalili, which Jalaluddin recites.

As well as giving  ordinary Afghan soldiers a voice, Tell Spring Not to Come This Year offers a valuable window on the reality of the ground today, amply illustrated by the distrust of villagers caught between the Taliban and the army, and the desire of the soldiers to rebuild their country and earn a decent living.

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Berlinale – Diary of a Chambermaid

Posted by lucypopescu on February 14, 2015

Diary of a chambermaidBenoit Jacquot’s adaptation of Diary of a Chambermaid, based on Octave Mirbeau’s 1900 novel, is engaging and visually stylish but loses momentum at the end. Lea Seydoux (Farewell, My Queen) plays the eponymous heroine who is desperate to escape domestic servitude and carve out a new life for herself. Celestine has had plenty of positions as a maid but for various reasons they haven’t worked out. Against her better judgment she reluctantly accepts a job in the country.

As she arrives at the Lanlaire’s provincial home in Normandy, Celestine reflects on her previous jobs – those she left of her own accord and those she was forced to vacate. Since she was twelve, Celestine has had to fight off the advances of men. The only offers of other work she’s received have generally involved some form of prostitution. Celestine’s lot is little different from other servants at the time. Rose, the Lanlaire’s cook, had to leave her previous employment when she fell pregnant, but Celestine has a particularly hard time because she is young and attractive.

Benoit’s camera lingers on Seydoux’s sensual beauty. Madame Lenlaire (Clotilde Mollet) hates Celestine with a passion, envies her youth and beauty, and delights in tormenting her with endless trivial errands. Her husband has roving hands and pursues Celestine whenever he can. Celestine conveys a sullen disdain for her employers and frequently mutters insults about them under her breath. She is constantly biting her tongue and repressing her own passions. The flashbacks provide vivid self-contained portraits of Celestine’s past adventures and help to flesh out her character. Only a few times does she lose her composure – when a Parisian Madam offers her work in her brothel, during the death of her young charge and after news of her mother’s death.

This is perhaps why Celestine’s growing obsession with Joseph (Vincent Lindon), the Lenlaire’s taciturn coachman and gardener, seems to come out of nowhere. Joseph is a virulent anti-Semite who Celestine suspects of murdering a young local girl. Consequently, his demonic hold over Celestine lacks credibility and the denouement feels rushed.

There is still much to admire. Diary of a Chambermaid is beautifully shot and Benoit’s adaptation, co-scripted with Helene Zimmer, effectively conveys the casual violence of country life as well as the petty obsessions and miserliness of the bourgeoisie and the harsh treatment of their servants. The performances are also superb and Seydoux’s stillness and quiet hauteur are particularly memorable.

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Berlinale: Film Review – Breathe Umphefumlo

Posted by lucypopescu on February 14, 2015

BreatheMark Dornford-May won Berlin’s Golden Bear in 2005 for U-Carmen, his adaptation of Bizet’s opera. He obviously hopes for similar success with his latest venture, Breathe Umphefumlo, which transports Puccini’s opera La Boheme from 19th century Paris to a modern-day township in South Africa. Lungelo (Mhlekazi Mosiea) meets Mimi (Busisiwe Ngejane) at university. She is a botany student while he’s an aspiring poet and studying to be a journalist. They meet on campus in mid-summer. The students are engaged in feverish preparations for the public holiday commemorating the 16 June massacre of Soweto schoolchildren in 1976. A party and concert are planned and renowned jazz singer Zoleka (Pauline Malefane) is due to appear. But after Lungelo and his friends are involved in a brawl during the celebrations they are thrown out of university and find themselves back on the streets; jobless, penniless and with no career prospects.

Although Mimi is suffering from TB (a common illness in many areas of Cape Town), her love for Lungelo blossoms. There is no work and they live in poverty but they still find time to go for walks together and pick flowers to sell. Hardship takes its toll, however, and gradually Mimi’s condition worsens until the couple are forced to face the inevitable. Admittedly, there is a lack of emotional and psychological complexity in Lungela and Mimi’s passion for one another – they meet in their university halls of residence and are immediately smitten – but then that is true of Puccini’s original story. Any flaws in the script are more than compensated for by Malefane and Mandisi Dyantis’s assured musical direction. Mosiea and Ngejane have exceptional voices and the musical standards are superb. Dornford-May uses the acclaimed company Isango Ensemble, who sing in the Xhosa language, and a background of marimbas and steel pans is interwoven into the opera. The end result is simply stunning.

It’s an inspired choice to reimagine Puccini’s opera in Khayelitsha, a poor South-African township where living standards today are probably on a par with those of the poor in 19th century Paris. South Africa currently has the highest TB incidence in the world and more than 50,000 people die from tuberculosis every year. Breathe Umphefumlo is also beautifully shot. Matthys Mocke’s camerawork perfectly contrasts the austere, clinical beauty of the university with the chaos of life outside in the township. Breathe Umphefumlo is a courageous and imaginative retelling of a classic tale that is both poignant and entertaining.

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Berlinale: Film review – 45 Years

Posted by lucypopescu on February 14, 2015

45 Years

British director Andrew Haigh’s poignant drama, 45 Years, based on a short story by David Constantine, is led by two terrific central performances from Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling. Kate and Geoff are preparing for their 45th wedding anniversary. They have no children and live in a small rural village near the Norfolk Broads. They seem content with their lot and are happy together. They still talk about serious matters, laugh and attempt to have sex. Then Geoff receives a letter informing him that the body of his first girlfriend, Katya, missing for fifty years after a hiking accident, has been found frozen in the Swiss Alps.

Understandably, Geoff is thrown by the news and starts reminiscing about the past and his first love. He finds old photographs of Katya and contemplates returning to Switzerland to identify her body.  Kate tries to remain calm, is initially sympathetic, continues to walk their dog Max and prepare for their anniversary party. Despite having had a heart bypass five years earlier, Geoff starts to smoke again and becomes increasingly obsessed and irascible. Kate finds her patience tested to the limits. After digging into Geoff’s past herself, she finally delivers an ultimatum. Geoff, it transpires, has not told her everything about his relationship with Katya.

Although 45 Years focuses on a robust relationship tested in old age, Haigh describes it as the natural companion piece to his acclaimed debut feature Weekend (2011) about first love. The emotional power of 45 Years depends to a large extent on the credibility of the performances and Courtenay and Rampling do not disappoint. In numerous closeups, Rampling conveys the conflicting emotions of a woman by turns hurt, uncomprehending and angry. Courtenay is just as superb playing a man who is used to feeling but is unable to express his emotions. Instead he relies on various arm gestures and other physical tics to articulate his thoughts.

45 Years may not have the epic sweep of some of the films premiering at the Berlinale but it’s no less moving. Haigh’s latest is an impressive study of a couple haunted by their past. It can take years to form a bond and just minutes for it all to unravel. 45 Years is a potent reminder of the fragility of love and the need to keep communication open at all times.

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Book Review – Guantanamo Diary

Posted by lucypopescu on February 3, 2015

Guantánamo DiaryThe journal of a Guantánamo detainee who remains incarcerated despite being cleared for release in 2010 makes a sobering, often chilling, read. Mohamedou Ould Slahi has been imprisoned without charge for over 13 years. Arrested in his native Mauritania, Slahi was rendered by the United States to Jordan and Afghanistan, before being sent to Cuba in August 2002. There he was reduced to a number – “prisoner 760”.

Slahi’s “crime” was to travel to Afghanistan as a student in 1991 and 1992 to join al-Qaida’s fight against the communist-led government. As he points out, at the time the US supported the cause.

The fact that the Bush administration sanctioned the use of torture at Guantánamo Bay is already well known. was published in 2010 – Slahi’s editor Larry Siems is one of its lead writers. Slahi’s searing account of his ritual humiliation and mistreatment offers further compelling evidence of illegal rendition and interrogation under President Bush.

It is the detail that convinces. Slahi describes being shackled, blindfolded, made to stand for long periods, stripped naked, denied water and subjected to sleep deprivation, loud noise and threats of violence. In one passage he describes being sexually abused by female interrogators. Another time, he is transported out to sea, forced to drink salt water until he vomits and then is beaten in the face and ribs while immersed in ice to hide the bruising. In 2004, at the end of his tether, Slahi resorted to making false confessions to keep his interrogators happy.

In 2005, finally allowed pen and paper, Slahi wrote his prison diary in English, his fourth language. His turn of phrase, obviously picked up from his jailers, “for Pete’s sake”, “dead right”, “that’s very convenient” and “if you’re buying, I’m selling”, are strangely endearing. They remind us of Slahi’s humanity and his sense of kinship with his abusers. Despite the cruelty of solitary confinement, Slahi finds solace in unexpected places. Deprived of any sensory material, he reads again and again the tag on his pillow. Slahi’s humour also shines through. When the guards decide Slahi is to be nicknamed “Pillow” and he has to give them names of characters from Star Wars, Slahi comments wryly, “I was forced to represent the forces of Evil, and the guards the Good Guys.”

Guantánamo Diary was published last week in 13 countries simultaneously, accompanied by a high profile campaign. Slahi’s story deserves to be widely read. It took over six years for the manuscript to be cleared for public release and, even then, the US government added over 2500 black bar redactions. One can only hope that after light is shed on the horrors he has endured Slahi will be released and finally see justice done.

 Originally published by the Independent on Sunday

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