To describe a work of art as laborious may not conjure up positive sympathy towards such work, yet that may be the greatest strength of Remi Chaye's Long Way North, a recent animated film coming out of France. Laborious in the sense that it shows a lot of hard work and it shows the bristled obstacles that chip away at the protagonist and the rest of the characters. And through the film's sense of pragmatism, detailing a late 19th century sea voyage towards the north pole as one girl, Sasha, searches for her grandfather and lost ship, the film belittles itself when the narrative alters direction by offering a disservice to its otherwise wonderful heroine.
I will explain the shortcomings first as a preface to the aforementioned 'laborious' traits that I found so impressive. A general theme wraps around the flaws which can be categorized as convenient and it may have something to do with a directionless intoxication of endowing the female character with too much strength. Now, this is not to say I advocate a more passive Sasha. Her motives are clear and honorable and her independence is gratifying. Sasha has a fiery spirit surrounded by a world so cold and lifeless. Yet, breaking social tradition is not mutually conducive to an excellent character arc. Sasha seems to prove her strength multiple times. While one time does it justice, where she shows a crew of men she can work just as well as them, the film seems to default to this scenario in subsequent pivotal scenes.
If the crew is in a life-threatening situation...Sasha steps in an isolated moment detached from any sort of mental or physical cost and saves the day. She is said to fifteen and none of her actions regard her youth or her lack of judgement due to inexperience, she's almost allowed to do anything with know consequences. Even when the male crew rightfully questions her motives and information on the whereabouts of her grandfather's ship, the story resorts to this deux ex machina that elevates Sasha's struggle immediately to a trouncing victory. Basically, once the voyage initiates (probably twenty to twenty five minutes into the film) things become too easy for her. It doesn't help that this 'deus ex machina' moment arrives in a way that confused me as I wasn't sure what I was looking at was a dream or the real reality of the diegetic world. It slightly perturbed me in that the otherwise shaky logic was totally ignored for an otherwise beautiful moment so that the conflict's challenge can be rendered easier...a visionary cheat code, if you will.
And it is a shame because between these pivotal moments there is this naturalistic and almost gritty approach to observing a voyage in the scathing icy seas north of Russia and the brisk, suffocating void of deathly whiteness in the Arctic. Chaye is very thorough with his presentation of seafaring, of traversing a large boat through a world of icebergs, as well as the mental cost of exerting precious energy to save what can be deemed expendable. That is emphasized with a crew, led by the prideful and honest Lund and his first mate, Larson. There is a nice chemistry developing between the band of men where we easily recognize not just the faces of these individuals, but their personalities and convictions to their mission and to Sasha. So when things become wretched and morose, tension gradually defines its dramatic contours and character arcs are appropriately mapped to survival. Of course, that shatters, but it is great while it lasts. Though I must point out that the ending is satisfying, only the stain of those foci in the journey bleed out.
And while the narrative runs into potholes (or, yea, plot holes...kind of intended) the visuals soar to fascinating heights. It is simplistic, painterly, and leaves many opportunities for interesting lighting techniques. Chaye dunks half of his film in golden hour sunlight and those moments, usually still moments, are obnoxiously beautiful. And it may be the visuals, along with the infectious heroine, that will ultimately draw audiences into Long Way North. Simplicity and naturalness dominate the film in a world where many people expect fantastical events to unfold because it is animation. I deeply admire Chaye for creating a story such as this, especially for his debut feature. Tinkering with narrative structure and critically thinking about those big, pivotal moments are keys for his films to mature and dazzle with strength. Maybe he can rival the complexity of Sylvain Chomet and Tomm Moore. For now, though, Long Way North is more than a decent experience.
So the mere existence of a film such as Ceyda Torun's Kedi is extremely interesting in the sense that cats, in our over-wrought and overloaded information age, with the internet as the fortified haven, seem to be the vanguard of such a realm. Maybe they are the puppet masters, easily controlling the masses by emoting infinite cuteness with just one look towards a camera.
Kedi moves beyond that, sidestepping the mimetic pigeonhole that cats seem to have been placed, restricted within the aspect ration of videos taken from iPhones. If anything, one layer of the film explores our infatuation with cats. It is maybe a reason for you, personally, as to why you find cats so damn adorable that your knees become weak. But, through this exploration, Ceyda applies more layers into her study of cats, and exploration becomes rumination and rumination becomes revelation. A simple premise such as this film is expansive in opportunity. And although one could feel a certain repetition due to its length, the filmmaker makes something very clear by the end: that this cat film is really about people and what they long for, what they seek, and what they find to make them happy. In short, it is unobtrusively a human story.
And you cannot film cats anywhere. No, the place must be Istanbul, where apparently thousands of stray cats live and survive, an urban wildlife of sorts. Although we see hundreds of cats over the course of the film, Torun closely follows the lives of six cats and the humans who associate with them. Each is said to have a distinct personality and, as the camera both observes and even participates in each cats' activities, it becomes surprisingly convincing that these cats are individual and are a product of their own experiences.
Take Psikopat (yes, the name means exactly how it almost sounds), the no bullshit feminine feline who lets no one touch her husband and who gets what she wants. Or Duman, penned as the 'aristocratic,' cat, and the only one with a collar, sits passively under chairs, not wanting to be pet and not snatching customers' food, eventually banging on the glass of his chosen delicatessen when hungry, not even taking on step into the establishment.
This reminds me of one of my cats growing up, named Tigger (a girl). One of the humans interviewed says she has conversations with the cat who always runs around her shop. I have personal experience with this. Written in some imperceptible code of law, Tigger was never allowed on the kitchen counters. Nevertheless, the cat's stubbornness persevered and she always loved jumping up there even when I was sitting right there staring straight into her soul. When she did jump up, I would shout in a signature raspy voice, "Hey!" and she would respond with a brisk, "Meow." A battle of vocal wit commences as we volley our heys and meows back and forth and for quite a while. My initial annoyance of Tigger's defiance whisked away into this proud appreciation with my cat, as if a serenity formed between us through this strange figment of mutual comprehension. Goodness, I miss my cat.
Personal tangent aside, watching Kedi is not just observing the rituals of these cats and their immediate environment, but the people who care for them and confide in them. Of course, we cannot really say how emotional or humanized these cats really are. Some of it are the projections of our fears and desires. I recall the profundity expressed in the naturalistic and slightly sardonic portrayal of people in Errol Morris's Gates of Heaven (one of the greatest films, I might add). The Turkish residents in Kedi find solace, peace, and companionship with the cats even though they are not their pets. In fact, maybe that is what strikes them the most, that, despite their independence, that cats also find some sort of solace with these humans and, like the bizarre mutuality I established with Tigger, an indivisible bond is created between a two species.
Just as enlightening is the romantic portraiture of the city itself. Ceyda grew up in Istanbul and grew up in admiration of the stray cats so Kedi is a pompous love letter to a city that could use some love (every city could use more). Among the incredible architecture, the winding and slanting streets, the busy markets, and the lush Bosphorus Strait, there are the cats that roam, finding a way to live just like every human that roams the cement dominion.
Structurally, although I found the slow pacing peaceful and aligned with its sense of quiet observation, there was a sense of repetitive aimlessness that obscured how or when the film was going to end. It is one of the feelings you get where you sense some sort of finality only to be rejected multiple times as we then focus on another particular cat. If something like this makes you anxious, then it may derail you from contemplation. If you can manage, you might have more fun at this movie than many others currently. It is like a nature documentary, set in a city, that ultimately exposes a human fragility we must acknowledge and appreciate. One of the (human) subjects makes quite possibly the most profound statement of an animal since the aforementioned Morris film: Cats believe in the existence of God. Dogs think humans are God but cats see us as the middleman, they see through us. They know better.
I stand accused of doing harm/Cause I'm Louder than a Bomb
The rat-tat-tat of each verse jabs away at not just a glass ceiling but a glass floor and glass walls. Soon, with each vocal punch thrown, Sonita Alizadeh hip hops her way out of a cage she lyrically and ferociously annihilates. Every line recited, every series of words rhythmically spoken, Sonita's voice carries both a bludgeoning desperation and an unapologetic aura of triumph; a combination spawning a vulnerable but muscular performance. Music is her ammunition, and as it pierces through the weak glass it ricochets across Iran, Afghanistan, and all around the world. And any girl able to listen to her syllabic suppresive fire will understand, no matter what sort of culture they were brought up in. Sonita's humanity mobilizes through her art.
And thank goodness for that because for the majority of the time in Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami's Sonita, every bit of the society she lives in wants to suppress such explosive behavior. Ghaemmaghami is not afraid to divert from Sonita's musical talent and focus on how she lives because the longer we are inhabiting the space this woman lives and breathes the more clearly we see that she cannot sit idle, that if unkempt and if ignored, we could lose such a prodigious storyteller. Sonita is a very intimate film, we see the titular subject live as an Afghan refugee in Tehran with her sister, go to school in a specialized institution, and slowly develop more of the courage and bombast to create and deliver her meteoric verses. We see Sonita talk with her friends, one of them is being married off to a thirty-five year old. Another one was beaten. It is certainly not that they find these things right but know it to be normal, constructed by powers beyond their realm of control. Sonita raps to one of her friends in consolation, deeply moving her; Sonita realizes the direct and intimate power her songs hold.
Yet, her situation is even more complicated than that, one that grows from a conflict of identity. Sonita is Afghani and must proscribe to different traditions than her Irani brethren. Her mother and father still live in Herat, Afghanistan, absent in familial love as well as enforcement of cultural rules. In a class exercise, Sonita was asked to create a fantasy passport that would include where she liked to have been born. Choosing the US, Sonita flanked her first name with Jackson, wanting Michael to be her father. Although we cannot quite tell how much she really despises her parents, even in the toughest of times, there are moments where she would have the right to snap. When Sonita figures out the real reason why her mother, after eight years, journeys to Tehran to see her daughter it is then that we see a cultural and economic blindness that propels Sonita into the unnecessary world of marital profiteering.
To be forced to wed so that the family can have enough money for someone else to wed is unfathomable for me to comprehend. To be pressured into submitting, "for the good of the family," creates an insurmountable tension for this young girl who just wants to exist without the expected orbit of a masculine figure. Such pressure heats up tension between Sonita and her family. We watch this. Ghammaghami watches this...but not for long.
One of the most interesting aspects of this film is the complexity of the filmmaker-subject relationship. Traditionally, authenticity is retained when the filmmaker does not intrude into the reality of their subject. Like Steve James paying for the Agees' electric bill so their lights can turn back on in Hoop Dreams, Ghaemmaghami actually pays Sonita's family to allow their daughter more time in Iran (it is a scene both raw and exciting where, if I might say, I have never seen a boom operator speak with such conviction...no offense to boom operators). But then she goes a step further. Not only do they produce a now famous music video, Ghaemmaghami connected Sonita with a music academy in the United States. The director, herself, becomes a primary subject. What started out as a casually intimate filmmaker-subject relationship, where Sonita regards the camera as an opening to vent, becomes a blurring of traditional roles in which the filmmaker influences the subject. In fact, this whole movie has the audience witness the dynamics of closeness and trust between filmmaker and subject materialize and reinforce.
As they bond, there is a sense that the intrusion of the filmmaker creates a palpable motivation for our protagonist. One female artist begins to vehemently support another female artist. Ghaemmaghami knows what Sonita wants and knows how she can fail. Lensed through comprehension, a fondness is imbued in the concentration the director places on the artistic process, how art is created in a restricting context that eventually begins to crumble (after releasing the music video, a superior at Sonita's school exclaimed that, by law, they can no longer support her). Sonita was born to express. At the beginning of the film she is asked to theatrically recreate a memory from her youth. In revisiting her trauma escaping Afghanistan, Sonita confidently directs the scene without words though folds under her still fragile and youthful mind. Later, she is shown directing the music video. The same confidence is there but a dormant anger seems to have possessed her; a possession that amplifies her performance, creating a beacon signaling through cyberspace, captivating global audiences.
It's silly when girls be selling their souls because it's in
It must be noted, though, that all the glass-breaking and societal destruction Sonita is reeking is not without the filmmaker participating in such an act. As the camera is the weapon of choice, I witness the rise of a woman waxing poetic from the struggles she was thrown into. I am allowed a brief glimpse of her world, of Iran, whose citizens are so excruciatingly normal I hate that our the US government and Iranian government keep us so far a part. I am granted the opportunity to see Afghanistan through eyes not affiliated with American news or military personnel, realizing that Kabul, though certainly not a safe city...is a city, with buildings and people and life. Though I gasp at the security one needs just for a hotel, I long to see more of this country because my image thus far is an obscure melding of explosions and terrorists and soldiers and debris.
As you can tell, there is a lot to take away from this film. In general, it is a a feel-good documentary, one that would certainly grant investment from most people watching. The truth is, there are still many things I wished to see in the film or at least see more of. In a more ambitious direction, I can only wonder what sort of film could be created if Ghaemmaghami followed in the footsteps of Steve James and created a Hoop Dreams equivalent for Sonita. There are many similarities between the narratives. Yet, the blemishes are greatly overshadowed by an incredible heroine of rhythm and rhyme, by the clarity of conflict she must overcome, and by the intricate bond she makes with the filmmaker. It makes sense that Ghaemmaghami breaks tradition to help a younger woman break tradition. Be damned, authenticity...at least for this instance.
I know this review has turned into an extension of my own obsession with detailing every nook and cranny of a film I enjoyed, so I will end by saying what Sonita endorses and represents is important. Although I am not the targeted demographic to her music and message (I think), I'd like to say she inspires me. As a man who continually re-evaluates what he has learned and witnessed in the past, I use this opportunity to, at the very least, build hope from where my previous mistakes lay. I hope her rat-tat-tat, verse jabbing, lyric popping, and world-building grabs a hold of more and more people and never, ever lets go. And, by extension, I hope Ghaemmaghami, whose Sonita is her first feature-length film, gets to document her stories, feelings, and desires with far more frequency.
Just a day in the life of narrating the scene