Three more films from the First Feature Award.
Wedding Doll (dir. Nitzan Giladi)
Wedding Doll is about a mentally handicapped young woman, Hagit (Moran Rosenblatt), who works in a toilet paper factory, unwittingly becoming more of a burden on her single mother Sarah (Assi Levy) as she strives for independence. In her spare time Hagit makes wedding dolls out of toilet paper and cardboard, and pines for Omri (Roy Assaf) the son of the owner of the factory. Wedding Doll aims to walk a fine line between sentimentality and drama but can't always balance the two in a satisfying way. The pacing is strange, the sparseness of dialogue and music at a mismatch with Hagit's cheerfulness and chattiness, and broadening the story from Hagit and her mother to explore Omri's home life as well adds little apart from distancing us further from the characters. To some extent this is deliberate: the empty landscapes, used to transition between scenes, highlight the isolation and lack of options that come from living in a remote rural town, especially as Hagit relies on her mother for transport; Hagit's colourfulness and vibrancy sets her apart from the brown monotony around her (she wears red lipstick and red clothes and has extensively decorated her room with posters and aforementioned wedding dolls). Omri's relationship with Hagit however is not very clearly defined or believable, which wouldn't have been a problem had it been told more from Hagit's perspective. Still, the central performance given by Moran Rosenblatt is undeniably nuanced, weathering all the pathos, drama, threatened violence and even cringe comedy of the film, and her relationship with her mother builds to a surprisingly moving coda.
3000 Nights (dir. Mai Masri)
Was the proximity of a Palestinian film to an Israeli film in our viewing schedule deliberate? Perhaps. (In the programme they're listed alphabetically, putting them a couple of pages apart.) While on paper 3000 Nights seems to embody every single prison film cliché, in execution it's a harrowing and intense experience. Layal (Maisa Abd Elhadi), a Palestinian woman arrested in connection with a bombing of which she has no knowledge, discovers in prison that she's pregnant and eventually gives birth to a son. This film benefits tremendously, both dramatically and politically, from limiting its perspective to this single women's prison and for the most part one cell within that prison. Like the characters, we're severed from the outside world, the only glimpses of news coming through smuggled newspapers and occasional TV reports. Along with the rough hand-held camerawork (the director previously made a documentary on the same subject), this builds a sense of claustrophobia. You can't predict if or when any of the outside characters – including Layal's husband, her mother, the lawyer her mother employs – will recur, and you can never rely on them for help. Other characters, particularly the main prison guard, are far more broadly drawn; this is partly redeemed by the presence of few other Israeli characters that have some depth and are also allowed to change over time, the way human beings do. It works as an exhausting, intense drama as well as a polemic in the way many political thrillers have – The Battle of Algiers for example, or Costa-Gavras's films.
There's a strong sense of time passing, shown through the child's age and some emotionally charged time-lapses of shadows moving across prison grounds. Layal's character arc is so gradual over this long period of time that it doesn't feel like it's happening until it already has, when you realise at the end there's been a structure and story all along. Her isolation starts off as traumatic and horrifying but, simultaneous with the arrival of the child, she embraces the forced intimacy and solidarity of her cell; together Layal, her child and her inmates become a source of strength, support and even hope for each other. This sort of juxtaposition – innocent child in squalid prison! – is handled carefully, producing some genuinely touching moments and never undermining the dynamic between the women. In this case, motherhood becomes empowering rather than a weakness.
Lamb (dir. Yared Zeleke)
It's a little obnoxious that the buzz surrounding Lamb is that it's the first Ethiopian film to show at Cannes. Cannes is a European film festival that rewards European films, most recently handing the Palme d'Or to Dheepan, a film about Sri Lanka by an established French director. Has the festival ever shown a film actually from Sri Lanka? Maybe in another several decades we'll hear about the first film from Sri Lanka to show at Cannes. It's frustrating for the conversation about certain cinemas to be limited this way, as if African cinema isn't legitimate until it's recognised in Europe. (Senegalese director Sembene Ousmane, the subject of the documentary Sembene! which is also showing at LFF along with his film Black Girl, has some interesting choice words on this subject.)
All that aside, Lamb is a deceptively simple coming-of-age story. When Ephraim's (Rediat Amare) mother dies, his father leaves him and his pet sheep with his family in order to look for work in the city. This film is all about the tensions between tradition represented by Ephraim's older extended family and, for lack of a better term, the forces of modernisation. Ephraim's cousin Tsion (Kidist Siyum) reads newspapers and is called lazy; she wants to use family urine to water a vegetable patch and her father says it's disgusting; instead of marrying locally she wants to go into the city, and is accused of wanting to abandon her family. She reads to Ephraim from the newspaper about a doctor of the land who has created drought-resistant crops. This is the future of the country and she doesn't expect her parents to understand (although, in one emotional scene, she manages to persuade her mother to take her sick sister to a clinic rather than a local priest, despite the added expense).
Ephraim's sense of being out of place is subtler: while he strives to keep his sheep as a pet rather than for food, this is out of a perceived connection between the animal and his late mother. As an emotionally sensitive boy who wants to cook samosas rather than work the land, he's called a “sissy for a son” by his uncle. His rebellion points to why hers is so controversial. Both are challenging the established gender norms of their society. Lamb has a deliberate, gentle style and with its simple piano score and empty green mountainous landscapes strikes a melancholic, poignant tone. It's worth seeing.