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13 December 2015

LIFF29 - the year of womanhood

Last month saw two weeks of cinematic glory come to our city: the 29th annual Leeds International Film Festival. I was lucky enough to see a great variety of wonderful films across the 15 days and 16 venues. Within the flicks I picked though, a theme began to arise...

So, Many. Badass. Women. I mean like wicked funny women, intelligent women, women with flaws and imperfections, women with stories to tell, women leading - complex, REAL women. I can't explain how refreshing it was. Moreover, these plots were explored through the intersectional lens of women of colour, trans women, queer women, etc. These films were so unlike so many of the plain old, same old DRAB movies that flood our picturehouses - films written by men, directed by men, and half-featuring cis women with perfect bodiez who don't say much and well, fight over men. In my opinion, this LIFF was the year of womanhood.
Saying this, I did also see some great male-centric cinema. To the Centre of the Earth  was an aesthetically beautiful documentary about an Argentian man with a devout faith in UFOs. The mountains in his back garden become Martian landscapes. We're then grounded in the earthly, through static shots of his children. The film was at times a little unbearably slow, but visually it was very enjoyable. I also loved the Everyman Cinema sofas.  
Another slightly mad film I watched was Noel Marshall's 1981 film Roar. Right, imagine this: a condo in Africa surrounded by water, housing one kooky animal researcher and over three hundred big cats. There is no specific plot to this frenzied picture, only a long series of run-ins and close encounters between real-life untrained actors and real-life lions, tigers and pumas. It's ALL real-life. Marshall plays the protagonist and his family are played by Marshall's actual family, including a young Melanie Griffiths (his IRL stepdaughter). I spent most of the movie with my hand over my gasping mouth. The whole premise is just plain nuts
Speaking of big cats - swathed in a fur coat, with lips of matte red, Carol (Cate Blanchett) saunters into the Manhattan department store with the prowess of a lioness. Lamb-like Therese (Rooney Mara) notices her at once. From behind her counter, she shoots meek glances at this vibrant vision lighting up the grey. How could she not be instantly enamoured? The title character of Todd Haynes' Carol is glamour. 

Based on Patricia Highsmith's famous novel The Price of Salt, written under a pseudonym, this film is as aesthetically, historically meticulous as Mad Men. Carol, the immaculate blonde beauty is deliberating over what to get her very young daughter for Christmas. Therese, a shop girl and fledgling photographer, recommends their new, state-of-the-art train set. Thus, their relationship is set in motion, a chain of events negotiated by movement - forwards, and also back - that propel the two together.  
In cheap motels and in the seats of cars, Carol and Therese steal away from the persistent and clueless men in their lives, and find warmth and comfort in each other's bodies. Freedom, it seems, can come from being on the move; it's finding one's own space, whether that's intertwined in a tiny bed in a dark room, or in a darkroom. 
Therese's short fringed hairstyle is undeniably similar to Carol's four-year-old daughter's, a connection further implemented through two dual scenes which feature close-ups of near-identical photos of Therese as a young child, and Carol's daughter Rindy. This makes sense. In many ways Carol acts as a maternal figure to Therese. She instructs her how to put on make-up, encouraging her to embrace her womanhood and to not deny her own identity and desires.

Though empowered in their moments together, the film also navigates the fragility of the 1950's queer space. Outside forces consistently attempt to quell the growing bond of the two closeted protagonists. Rindy is frequently used as a pawn by Carol's husband Harge (Kyle Chandler of Friday Night Lights fame) in his attempts to block her relationships and friendships with other women. Her custody rights will be revoked unless she continue the charade of their marriage, and seek 'help' from a psychotherapist for her 'affliction'. If anyone, he and the other males are the real villains of the film - not the central women.

Carol is a story of mutuality. In her relationship with Therese, Carol's different identities can merge; she can be a woman, a mother-figure and a lover. Therese is also her safe space. In Carol, Therese finds a muse and a way out of the humdrum of her previous life of numbness - an unleashing of her inner lioness. Though their onscreen love may not quite echo some of the famous aching couples of Hollywood's history, theirs is a symbiotic, nurturing relationship, in weakness and in strength.

It is interesting to compare this film to John Crowley's Brooklyn, the opening film of LIFF29, for which Nick Hornby wrote the script. Both provide an insight into life in consumerism and conformism driven 1950's New York. Saoirse Ronan plays Eilis, the image of adorable innocence, as she leaves behind her native Ireland for a 'better life' across the pond. Ronan is a revelation. We see the world as she sees it - exciting, fresh and doused in colour. We also (intensified by her talent) acutely feel the excruciating pain of her homesickness, as she struggles to adjust to the change. 

In these scenes, one can't help but hark back to one's own experiences. The universal feeling of a feverish, gut-wrenching longing for a person or a place. Now, though, with our generation so swamped in social media and a constant state of connected-ness, it's almost impossible to imagine what it must have been like to have your only contact with your family and friends be through the occasional phone-call, or letters which take weeks to reach you. To be so completely isolated from what you've left behind. Yet, through Ronan's Oscar-worthy performance, we can all empathise with Eilis.

  Just as she acclimatises to the 'New World,' she is thrust backwards when, by tragedy, she is forced to return home. Back in Ireland, she must truly decide between the old and the new. She must also choose between the two men in her life,  the innately charming, Italian-American Tony (played by Emory Cohen) and the handsome, simple living Jim Farrell (played by the ever-lovable Domnhall Gleeson). What will she decide? Though two men bat for her heart, Brooklyn ultimately is a female coming-of-age story, of a girl becoming a woman - finding herself within the caving walls of dislocation. 

In Paul Weitz's Grandma, Lily Tomlin stars as Elle, a lesbian poet and grandmother approached by her young granddaughter Sage (Electrick Children's Julia Garner) to help her obtain an abortion. The film explores the relationship between the three generations of women in their family. Elle has become estranged from her daughter, Sage's mother Judy; Sage is too scared to ask her Mum for the money (despite the fact Judy is a highly successful CEO) because of her uptight and snobbish personality. Thus, Sage and Elle begin a journey across Los Angeles to holla for the dollar. I really liked this film - I like how female-focused it is, and I liked the idea of Elle. However, I felt the flick could've REALLY done with being a lot more fleshed out. There were a lot of allusions to, and cameos of characters (Laverne Cox, whut) that didn't receive enough screen time to be interesting. Elle even starts to become a little caricature-esque towards the end. Equally, Sage is frankly pretty bland. This film is brimming with amazing women- I just wish we'd have had enough time to meet them properly.

Tangerine was one of my favourite films of the festival. Filmed on a micro-budget, and on iPhones (right?), this piece of cinema made me think of Harmony Korine's work, with its frenetic portrayal of the reality of an urban area. Written and directed by Sean S. Baker and Chris Bergoch, it feels like it's been aptly edited with an Instagram filter, and at times juxtaposes this modern aesthetic with orchestral music. It shouldn't work, but it does.

The main plot of the movie revolves around Alexandra and her best mate Sin-Dee Rella, sex workers who are both trans women of colour. It's Christmas Eve and Sin-Dee has just been released from a short stint in prison. She's also just been informed that her boy toy/ fiancĂ© Chester, a Kevin Federline/ James Franco in Spring Breakers type fella, has cheated on her with a 'fish' - a cisgender woman. Thus begins her rampage to find Dinah, the 'fish' in question, and get justice. 

Tangerine predominantly stars real people from the community - it's almost like a docudrama, except it's funny. Among the darker elements of life portrayed in this dingy, neon part of L.A, the film is knowingly humorous, and even a little bit ridiculous. I thought it was a lot of fun. It's great in the fact, by casting actual trans women of colour in the roles of trans women of colour, we are seeing a side of womanhood we never get to see in mainstream cinema. Usually, any trans roles are filled by white Hollywood actors that almost always meet a gnarly end... Tangerine, on the other hand, finishes on an uplifting note. The conclusive scene, where Alexandra gives Sin-Dee her wig after a transphobic passerby ruins hers, is straight up beautiful. There's such a sense of camaraderie, of love, of womanhood.

What does it mean then to be a woman? It's such a wide question with an expansive, intricate set of answers. Each female, of course, contends with different levels of privilege - with different barriers. We look different, we think differently (politically, logically), we all are different. Yet, under the umbrella of womanhood, we are united.

Through independent film, stereotypes can be broken down, previously unheard stories can be told, and the business, that has been for so many years so exclusive, can include. In the terrain of cinema, the future is female

All in all, I had an amazing time at Leeds International Film Festival. To me, it was progressive, exciting and just a really great thing to have happen in Leeds. I got to see a whole host of other features too, which maybe I'll come back to in a future post. There were also a ton of films I'd have loved to see but sadly didn't get a chance to - namely audience favourite Liza and the Fox Fairy

For more information on all films shown in the festival, head to I genuinely can't wait to see what next year's 30th installment has in store.

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