I have never cried so much watching a film as I did with Capernaum (Fri 22 Feb - Tue 5 March). There are some things that just pull and pull on your heartstrings until they have you, a blubbering mess, not just engaged but fully invested in their world. Nadine Labaki doesn't just invite us into her world with Capernaum, she introduces us to Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) and his humanity seizes us, demanding our attention.
The film is incredible. It's also incredibly intense, and raises so many questions about how film as an art form can elicit extreme feelings from us as viewers. Sometimes, the feelings can be so strong that we need a moment or two after the film to catch our breath. Or, as I frequently find, to catch breath and share those feelings with others around us.
When a film is as impacting as Capernaum, it feels urgent and necessary to make space for a conversation to follow it. As we prepare for our next Conversations about Cinema event (Tue 5 March, 17:50), in partnership with UWE's Philosophy and Politics department, I can't help but cast my mind back over the last three incredible and incredibly intense conversations that took place.
Erik Poppe's Utøya is not easily forgotten. Peace activist Bjørn Ilher, who is also a survivor, spoke to us in October about both how startling and accurate the depiction was to the events that took place. Joining him for a unique and refreshingly frank discussion of the film's major themes and approach was political theorist Henrique Tavares Furtado and philosopher Dagmar Wilhelm. Ilher first thanked the audience for caring enough to give such a film and conversation their time. He also remarked, "It is hard to come here and talk, but we have to."
The film's greatest challenge was, in a way, that its visceral and embodied depiction of the events was so accurate and so realistic that it offered the audience experience over context. Not that the panelists were judging the Poppe's filmmaking choices exactly, just that in giving us experience instead of context, how we understand and interpret these kinds of political events becomes complicated. Do we consider the context from which they are born if it is visually and viscerally absent?
The conversation also led to a debate around mental illness and trauma; perhaps if both of these issues were less of a taboo in our societies it would be easier to identify extremism before it yields to terrorism, and easier, too, to bring society into the conversation around what individuals bear witness to. But, what the panel certainly agreed on is that the film illustrated how, "Ideology doesn't matter to you while the attack is going on."
Sebastian Lelio's powerful drama about love, grief and religion, Disobedience, brought politics and international relations lecturer, Emma Brännlund, and professor of feminist theory, Alison Assiter to our cinema to talk about the intersection of transgression and religion, contemplating if one necessarily implied a refusal of the other. Both Assiter and Brännlund asked questions about how freedom is gained - found, fought for or granted - and how grief might manifest or be a manifestation of some kind of oppressive constraint.
Most poignantly, for this film and each of the others, as Assiter remarked, "We can’t choose the culture or set of values into which we are born."
Just last week we took these lessons to their next most natural progression to contemplate American politics in Adam McKay's Vice. More interested in power dynamics than an accurate or detailed history of recent political events in the US, Vice still found a way to make a point even as it entertained. And here, entertainment was the film's major goal.
But that doesn't mean it wasn't also inherently or even fiercely political. Political theorist Elspeth van Veeren talked about how the film invites public judgement where justice has failed. Most significantly, she highlighted how the power of humour in the film does the work of politics for an audience. Which, as Stephen McGlincley noted, is where it hopes to be a success as, “The personal angle they took completely left out the political angle.”
From the embodiment of Utøya to the manifest emotions of Disobedience and even through the power of humour in Vice, politics and philosophy permeate the very form of film, as well as its contents. With this in mind, and with a box of tissues at the ready, I cannot wait to bring the conversation to Nadine Labaki's Capernaum, where I hope to understand a little more about the politics of crying in the cinema, bearing witness to someone else's humanity and how the ethics of storytelling intersect with how that story is told.
Written by Cinema Producer Tara Judah.