Jason James’s feature Exile (starring Adam Beach) and Bruce Miller’s short Conviction both tell stories of a previously incarcerated Indigenous man struggling to set himself free.
Exile had its world premiere at the Whistler Film Festival. Conviction previously screened at the ImagineNative Film Festival.
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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.
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Any film that casts the great and still under-used Anishnaabe actor Adam Beach in a leading role is doing something right. Canadian filmmaker Jason James (Entanglement, 2017) had the good sense to do so for his latest feature, Exile, which premiered at the Whistler Film Festival. His recent supporting work in Monkey Beach (2020) was so charismatic and impactful that it felt like he had more screen time than he did; it was one of the best performances of 2020. Last year, he appeared for a disappointingly short bout of about two minutes in Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog.
So it’s a delight to get to see Beach in pretty much every scene of Exile, a thriller about Ted (Beach), an ex-con with PTSD who has isolated himself from his wife and family, out of what he thinks is a protective instinct. Beach is a compelling screen presence, and here, he goes through the emotional ringer — part action hero (or villain?), family man, and broken human. He’s never sure who he can trust or if anyone will ever believe him, and nobody is sure whether he is a reliable narrator of his own experience.
Set in the gorgeous BC countryside, director Jason James makes a film that is basically about two people in a room — Ted and his wife Sara (Camille Sullivan) — feel like it has a larger scale. After a few wide shots of the beautiful land, the film already feels more epic than its minimal locations and cast would suggest. Like so many Canadian films this year, from Viking to Coyote to The Swearing Jar, it feels designed for small Canadian budgets, which is also ideal for the required COVID safety protocols for film productions.
Though Exile is mostly an effective nail-biting thriller, that’s pretty much entirely because of Beach’s and Sullivan’s performances and screen chemistry. The script is weak, the characters aren’t particularly fleshed out on the page, and the plot is predictable. For better and worse, it feels like Beach was recruited to play a role written and designed for a settler. On the one hand, it’s so great to see Beach given so much to work with. As much as things are getting better in Canada, there still aren’t many Indigenous films getting made, and those that do get made are produced on a shoestring budget. There should be opportunities for Indigenous actors beyond that. On the other hand, it’s hard not to be disappointed that the screenplay didn’t adapt at all to the fact that Beach, and thus Ted, is Indigenous.
It’s almost unfortunate for Exile that Bruce Miller’s short Conviction, a much more thoughtful fiction film about the experience of an Indigenous man after incarceration, also screened at the Whistler Film Festival. Told often through voiceover and distorted images to get us inside the head of its protagonist, Conviction reminds the audience that it’s not uncommon for previously incarcerated people — especially Indigenous people — to continue to live in a prison of their own making after being released. Conviction also notes in its title card that Indigenous people are much, much more likely to be incarcerated in Canada than settlers.
By contrast, Exile feels lacking for failing to ignore the Indigenous context of Ted’s experiences. Here is a man who has literally made a physical prison for himself, and has barred his family from visiting him with restraining orders. And yet the film entirely attributes that to a possible external threat or Ted’s PTSD from the violent experience of prison itself. Exile never engages with the toll that colonialism would have had both on Ted’s prison experience, and how he has behaved since getting out. It would not be unreasonable for him to have a heightened fear of the police and the justice system — but everything gets attributed to just general PTSD as opposed to, say, intergenerational trauma. Ted’s self-isolation may also be a coping mechanism, rather than simply paranoia run mad.
It’s unfortunate that Exile never probes these potential psychological depths because Beach would be up to the challenge, and it would have made for a more thoughtful film. Instead, the characters in Exile feel constantly under-written, if elevated by great performers. Exile feels mostly like a good excuse to watch Beach give it his all, and that’s a worthy end, though the film never lives up to his work.
You may also like our reviews of other films like Exile starring Adam Beach and other Indigenous actors…
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