Day three of the Cannes Film Festival brought the opportunity to discover two very different and powerful films, one set in Chad,the other in London.Both feature women in the lead roles, and both explore the importance of being part of a family on and off the screen.
The Souvenir Part II by British director Joanna Hogg demonstrates how making a film can have a cathartic effect.
Screened as part of the Directors’ Fortnight selection, it follows Jane, a student in filmschool played by Honor Swinton Byrne.
Inspired by the director’s own experience, it is a story of a young woman who is overwhelmed by the recent suicide of her boyfriend Anthony, an older man who it turns out was a manipulative character with dark secrets.
While she is grieving, we learn the fragments of the tragedy. There are of course references to the beginning of the relationship (The Souvenir Part I, which the Grand Jury prize at the Sundance Festival), but the director has insisted that she deliberately made the film to stand alone.
Beautifully filmed, with unexpected moments of humour, the film invites us to share moments with Jane and her parents, scenes of everyday life and the challenges of trying to make her graduation film.
Interestingly, Tilda Swinton (Honor’s mother in real life) plays Jane’s onscreen mother, a role she slips into with ease for obvious reasons, but there’s more to it. We sense a real affinity between the three women which is reflected in the film.
It turns out Swinton appeared in Joanna Hogg’s very own graduation film back in the 1980s.
With the support of her parents, and her classmates, Jane gradually emerges from her grief and experiences a renaissance thanks to the creative process that is filmmaking. The creation of her own work ends up releasing her from the spell of the past, allowing her to move on.
It is a film within a film, because we follow the lead character as she takes us behind the scenes, from the script to casting, to the film shoot and the difficulties the process entails. Hogg succeeds in telling us her story while at the same time showing us the mechanics of filmmaking, the very nuts and bolts which are celebrated in Cannes, invisible to the general public most of the time.
Many people here at Cannes have referred to their film crew as a ‘family’, having spend months and sometimes years in close contact, with all the challenges making a film can bring.
“The family of a film is real”, actress Tilda Swinton assured us at the Q&A session after the screening, echoing Hogg’s sentiment that much of the success of a film depends on the cohesion and vision of the group as a whole, from the casting through to the sound editing at the end.
Sacred bonds of Women
Later in the day, it was time for the Premiere of Lingui, the Sacred Bonds by Chadian director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, who appeared on the red carpet with the four main actresses in the film, beautifully dressed in flamboyant colourful dresses.
However, the glamour disappears quickly when we enter the darkness of the theatre where the women are unrecongisably transformed on screen.
In competition for the Palme d’Or, it is a heartfelt story depicting a mother-daughter relationship and deals with the taboo topic of unwanted pregnancy in a conservative society.
A courageous single mother, Amina (played by Achouackh Abakar Souleymane) is bringing up her 15-year-old daughter Maria (Rihane Khalilalio), earning her money by weaving baskets from recycled metal.
When she discovers that her daughter has been kicked out of school for being pregnant, at first Amina is angry, especially when Maria says she wants an abortion. Amina knows that an abortion is illegal and forbidden by the Islamic faith.
We see Amina struggle to make a decision which she knows is dangerous but necessary. Having been shamed and excluded from her own family because she was a teenage mother, she wants to save her daughter from the same fate.
As the story unfolds, the missing parts of the puzzle fall into place, and we understand that the situation is much graver than we intially thought and that Maria has been the victim of abuse by one of her mother’s aquaintances.
Ironically, Amina’s younger sister arrives and begs her for help to protect her young daughter from being circumcised. She doesn’t believe in it but her husband does. Amina tells her about a woman who can do a fake circumcision and provide a certificate. In exchange, the sister gives Amina jewellery to sell to pay for Maria’s abortion. Their sacred bonds are restored.
Although the doctor will not take any risks, he does put Amina in contact with a woman who will secretly carry out the operation. The nurse refuses payment saying “I never make my sisters pay”.
It is thanks to the relationships with other women that there is strength, hope and healing in the film.
What about the men?
The filmmaker does not paint a pretty picture of the male characters in his film. They take the form of a rapist, a badgering Iman and an absent father. The film seems to be asking the viewer to consider what has happened to sacred bonds between women and men. It seems this is a dilemma not so easily fixed.
Haroun and his cast received at least ten minutes standing ovation in the Grand Theatre Lumière on Thursday afternoon, with the director hugging the actresses with tears in his eyes. When he took the microphone, his message was one to future film makers.
“When I first came to Cannes, I was sitting up the very back, dreaming about being down the front. Today I’m down the front and I’m thinking about those up the back, and I encourage them to keep that dream alive. This is what keeps me going year after year.”
In short, just like the women in the film, the message is about never giving up and taking action to make a change.