San Francisco’s 2021 German and German-language film showcase, Berlin and Beyond, features highlights Exile and Veins of the World. The festival wraps tonight.
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Marie Amachoukeli-Barsacq’s Àma Gloria, her first feature as a solo filmmaker (she co-directed 2014’s Party Girl) is a touching, sentimental film about the bond between a young French girl, Cléo (Louise Mauroy-Panzani), and her nanny from Cape Verde, Gloria (Ilça Morena). Cléo’s mother died years before, and Gloria moved to France to earn a living to support her two children back home, whom she now hardly knows. Told mostly from Cléo’s perspective, Amachoukeli-Barsacq keeps the camera low at her sightline, often with shallow focus, as she’s someone still discovering the world.
When Gloria’s mother dies unexpectedly, Gloria must return home to her family in Cape Verde, severing the mother-daughter-like bond she has with Cléo. But before they say goodbye forever, Cléo spends a summer with Gloria in Cape Verde.
Dropping into an unknown world
Cléo’s naivety about her surroundings means that Amachoukeli-Barsacq can shoot the customs and daily life in Cape Verde as something that still feels foreign — she herself is not from Cape Verde — but never veers into exoticization.
Dropped into a world she doesn’t know or understand, Cléo must come to terms with how she doesn’t belong here or with Gloria anymore, even though they share a bed during their stay. In Cape Verde, Cléo finds a beautiful community, which faces a level of poverty that is outside her experience. She doesn’t like sharing Gloria with her children, and Gloria’s children resent Cléo for taking their mother from them, even now. Still, her visit is a mostly positive one, and Amachoukeli-Barsacq lets us bask in the blue skies and sea, and the rich colours of the land.
Àma Gloria is a tactile film
Marie Amachoukeli-Barsacq’s aesthetic is very tactile. She is very attuned to the physical language of touch between Gloria and Cléo. We often see Cléo sitting or standing wedged between Gloria’s thighs, resting her head on Gloria’s chest, or simply holding hands. They’re affectionate in a way that may no longer be helpful to them. Cléo tries to comfort Gloria about the lost of her mother by explaining that she lost her, too, but she’s OK now.
We wonder how much Cléo has simply replaced her mother with Gloria. Cléo is always discovering the world with her hands and feet touching new things and ground, and her eyes always taking in her surroundings; the film begins, after all, with her getting tested for a pair of glasses to see the world afresh. Short and colourful animated sequences spliced throughout the film offer a sort of subconscious read of Cléo, who hasn’t quite understood her emotions yet.
Cléo’s perspective limits the film’s explorations in Àma Gloria
If the film feels a little slight, it’s perhaps because it is so immersed in Cléo’s perspective. Films like Second Mother and The Maid, which also deal with the complex relationship (and in those films, power dynamic) between a nanny and her charge, go deeper into the psychology of the carer and are richer for it. Ama Gloria, meanwhile, never fully acknowledges how colonialism has ripped Gloria from her family and turned Cléo into her temporary surrogate child.
The film doesn’t quite dig into how Gloria’s absence has strained her relationship with her children and what the job in France meant for her and their futures. Her son lashes out at Cléo, and her daughter has doubts about her pregnancy, perhaps because of the position her mother was forced into by having children. But we rarely see how Gloria feels about this and whether this affects her feelings about Cléo.
Instead, Amachoukeli-Barsacq focuses on the emotional connection between Gloria and Cléo and how they slowly and painfully come to terms with its end. The final shots will destroy you, and the film cuts to black with an indelible, heartbreaking image.
Related reading/listening to Marie Amachoukeli-Barasq’s Àma Gloria
More stories of childcare workers and their charges: Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Silva’s The Maid (which we briefly discuss on the podcast) and Brazilian filmmaker Anna Muylaert’s The Second Mother explore some similar terrain as Ama Gloria.
More recent French Cinema: Four French films directed by women made our list of the Best Films of 2023. Alice Winocour’s Revoir Paris and Rebeca Zlotowski’s Other People’s Children both screened at last year’s Rendez-Vous. We also loved Claire Simon’s documentary Our Body and Sandrine Kiberlain’s A Radiant Girl. Éric Gravel’s thriller about a single mother, Full Time, also made the list.
More past highlights from Rendez-Vous with French cinema: Our #3 film of 2020, Mikhaël Hers’s Amanda, has yet to secure US distribution. (It is available on VOD in Canada and the UK.) We also love Philippe Faucon’s Fatima, which screened in 2016. His most recent film, Les Harkis, is excellent and screened last year, but has yet to receive distribution.
San Francisco’s annual showcase of German and German-language films, Berlin and Beyond, moved out of the Castro this year and into the drive-in and online because of the pandemic. This is one of my favourite San Francisco film festivals; I’ve seen wonderful films there that never screened in a cinema otherwise or may have even completely disappeared. A couple of years ago, I adored the opening film, 25 km/h, a comedic road movie in which Lars Eidinger tap dances and Sandra Hüller is the quiet, aspirational love interest. Though the film was a hit in Germany, it’s still not available to watch in North America. Last year’s fest featured Caroline Link’s new film, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, which was just released in cinemas in the US; Link received a special tribute this year, looking back at her film Nowhere in Africa.
This year’s fest features some still-to-be released festival gems, like Visar Morina’s Exile, some films already in virtual cinemas (e.g. Berlin Alexanderplatz), and some that have still yet to secure US distribution (Veins of the World). Ironically, two of my favourite films were both Oscar submissions for Best International Film for countries other than Germany: the German-set Exile was Kosovo’s entry, and the Mongolia-submitted German-funded Veins of the World.
In Visar Morina’s Exile, experiencing xenophobic microagressions is akin to slowly losing your mind. Kosovo’s Oscar submission for Best International Feature is set in suburban Germany, where Xhafer (Misel Maticevic), an immigrant from Kosovo, lives with his wife, Nora (the great Sandra Hüller) and their two children. At the beginning of the film, he finds a dead rat on his doorstep, and soon becomes convinced that the prejudiced people at his office are out to get him.
Everywhere he goes, conversations happen with people’s backs turned to him. The hallways at work are labyrinthine, the camera following him through their twists and turns and unwelcoming yellow light. When he raises his concerns with his wife, she suggests that maybe people just don’t like him, and she has a point: his paranoia is making him awful, and he’s cheating on her, to boot. He thinks he’s the particular victim of colleague Urs (Rainer Bock) who seems to openly exclude Xhafer from office social events, as well as important work emails. The quiet suburban setting of beautiful identical homes in a row adds to the film’s tension as a reminder that cruelty happens even in the most beautiful environs.
Slowly, Xhafer starts to lose his grip on reality, but is it because of the xenophobia he experiences or is it just that both can have similar effects? Morina keeps this deliberately ambiguous, showing us the microaggressions without them ever tipping into open hostility in the way Xhafer’s own actions do after he gets fed up with the treatment he’s experiencing. Morina keeps us in Xhafter’s skewed perspective, the camera almost always following him so we, too, feel excluded from conversations between people with their backs turned to us. The film thus works as a thriller and a portrait of the trauma of the immigration experience, even for someone as privileged as Xhafer — white, wealthy, documented — and of a marriage on the brink because of the effects of this trauma.
Veins of the World
Byambasuren Davas’s gorgeous Veins of the World, Mongolia’s submission for the Best International Film Oscar, is the sort of film that, under any other circumstances but a global pandemic of an airborne virus, I’d encourage everyone to see on the biggest screen possible. The sweeping landscapes of the Gobi desert and the film’s ability to transport you to this faraway place are its biggest draw, but fortunately, you can still get much of this experience on a big TV at home.
The plot of Veins of the World is a bit facile, but the storytelling is sensitive enough to leave a deep emotional mark. It’s the story of a young Mongolian boy, Amra (Bat-Reedui Batmunkh), who lives with his parents in a traditional Nomadic lifestyle. Their way of life is in danger, however, because of a mining company that is taking root in the area. His father leads the fight to stop the mining company from displacing them and ensure the company does the “renaturing” of the land that they promised. His mother is more pessimistic, feeling they can’t really fight the company and would be better off taking the payout offered to move rather than wait and still be displaced and get nothing.
Amra, meanwhile straddles two worlds: he goes to school in town, where he and his friends play on smart phones and watch television, but he lives at home in a yurt without electricity. He’s close with his father, and his life is upturned when his father suddenly dies, putting the family in particularly dire financial straits. Amra’s solution is to help with a small illegal mining operation, the very thing his father was fighting against, though the plan is short lived.
The film’s biggest emotional punch comes at the end when Amra sings a song about the destruction of the land at a national “Who’s got talent?” competition. Davas juxtaposes his voice with aerial shots of the beautiful landscape of his home, which move backward to slowly reveal how existing mining activities are already destroying the land. Knowing what the land means to Amra makes this particularly impactful, allowing the film to be a quiet call-to-action to stop this destruction, even if its child’s perspective keeps it from dealing with the complexities of the situation.
You could be missing out on opportunities to watch great films like Exile and Veins of the World at virtual cinemas, VOD, and festivals.
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