Festivals, Reviews

Submissions to the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film in QCinema2019: ‘System Crasher,’ ‘And Then We Danced,’ ‘Homeward,’ and ‘Buoyancy’

QCinema is perhaps the only legitimate international film festival in the country, an obvious standout for having exceptional and extensive curation. Not only does it bring award-winning films that would have never screened in local theaters under normal circumstances, it also gives Filipino audiences a glimpse into cinemas rarely discussed in our film community.

This year, committed to its aim of becoming the premier film festival in Southeast Asia, QCinema has brought to local screens films submitted by other countries to the Oscars for consideration in the Best International Feature Film category. Each deserves their own merit and offers cultural specificities as well as resemblances to our own milieu, rounding up the festival’s cinematic diversity and representation. Here are insights on what I think of the films I watched under this category.

System Crasher (Germany)

Rarely do films effectively capture a child’s psyche. Brimming with authenticity, System Crasher is an electrifying portrait of Benni, a young girl rejected by her mother and foster homes for having immense anger management issues, struggling to find a family that would accept her. The film doesn’t fall into the weaknesses of similarly themed films, allowing Benni to exhibit innocent youthfulness without also trivializing her circumstances. It is as insightful a look at Germany’s foster care services as it is an inspiring journey towards our collective search for a place where we truly belong to.

The film borrows a lot of elements from Xavier Dolan’s Mommy but doesn’t quite find its own identity and in effect meanders a lot in its navigation of the narrative, often getting repetitive and seemingly aimless. Fortunately, Helena Zengel who plays the lead role is magnetic in her portrayal of a troubled child, and it is her presence that ultimately holds the film’s shaky parts together. Equally commendable is her chemistry with the rest of the cast, especially with her father figure Michael (Albrecht Schuch), Child Protective Services head Bafané (Gabriela Maria), and her insufferably incompetent mother (Lisa Hagmeister). The character interactions let us see Benni beyond her bursts of anger, finding tenderness and developing sympathy for the misunderstood girl.

And Then We Danced (Sweden)

Right from the start, we are immediately told that Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani) doesn’t perform Georgian dance well. His movements are too soft for a dance traditionally founded on masculinity, yet he insists that dancing is the profession he wants to pursue. As the film goes on, this is exactly where all of Merab’s troubles come from: he desperately tries, albeit often to tragic results, to be accepted in a society that is not inclusive of him, one that is too confined in traditions and unwelcoming of change.

And Then We Danced is an unflinching statement on identity politics as explored through dance and sexuality. It is a tenderly sensual introspection on the self amid cultural taboos, with the director Levan Akin using the romantic relationship between Merab and Armenian dancer Irakli (Bachi Valishvili) as commentary on Georgia’s treatment of its minorities. The film makes intelligent use of cinematography albeit lacking in its showcase of micro-choreographies, finding Merab in a period of confusion and adulthood. It basks us in his familial, sexual, and economic problems and at times opts for a more tragic route in its almost in-your-face attempt at showing how miserable it is to be a minority in Georgia.

But therein also lies the beauty of the film’s ending. After an entire film of rejection and tragedy, Merab finds solace in his self, his coming-of-age tale finally coming into full bloom. He finally understands that his movements are neither bad or unpolished, just different, and in one final dance he shows that he is determined to forge a new path for himself where he will neither conform nor change his self.

Homeward (Ukraine)

A few years back, I’ve learned one unspoken rule: no parent should ever have to bury their own child. Raising a child ideally entails seeing them grow up to be a fine person, making sure that they could live a happy life even when the parent has already passed away. But alas, life doesn’t always work that way. Its cruelty and unpredictability permeate every fabric of our being, and some parents are not fortunate enough to be parents until their last breath.

In Nariman Aliev’s heart-breaking full-length debut, a father and son duo embark on a journey to fulfill the wish of a deceased relative to be buried in his native land. It is set against the backdrop of Ukraine and Russia’s territorial dispute over Crimea and uses the filmic road narrative as a rallying point towards Ukraine’s claim of the land, further punctuated by the ghostly middle-of-nowhere setting of the final scene. In the film, Crimea is as good as an imagined place for Ukrainians, a fantasy homeland that cannot be reached because of Russia’s continued domination over its former constituent republic. Hence, Homeward is as much a story of a Ukrainian family as it is that of the nation, an important piece of cinema that asserts their independence and territorial boundaries.

Buoyancy (Australia)

One important question immediately arises at the start of the film: what makes Rodd Rathjen, a white Australian director, think that the story of human trafficking in Cambodia is his to tell? Yes, this is an important story that needs to be told with utmost immediacy, but equally important is finding the right voice to translate this story into film. In many ways, Buoyancy is reminiscent of 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire and 2013’s Metro Manila, both in its Global South setting as well as the Western gaze-fueled presentation of it.

The only way this film could have worked is if it exhibited even just an ounce of self-reflexivity on the Global North’s role in maintaining the prevailing world order, that its development entails exploitation of labor power in the Global South. There is nothing wrong with showing social issues in film, especially one as relevant as modern slavery in fishing vessels, but Rathjen remains oblivious to the historical and economic roots of the problem. Buoyancy is yet another example of a film that is satisfied with merely exposing social realities, using shock value to mask its surface-level analysis of the problem at hand.

Fortunately, the film finds anchor on the heartfelt performance of its lead actor, Sarm Heng, as the trafficked boy who was forced to come of age in a corrupted manner. His portrayal was reminiscent of Jansen Magpusao’s in John Denver Trending both in rawness and intensity, his eyes speaking volumes of suppressed hatred, anguish, and longing.

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