I've seen a couple of extraordinary films this week, both of them made by Canadians. I am so impressed by the high quality of Canadian film-making these days, and these films are terrific examples.
The first film was Incendies, I saw it last Sunday afternoon. What can I say: shocking and powerful, the mix of emotions this film evoked was so complex it left me speechless.
Basically the plotline is that a Middle Eastern woman living in Canada dies suddenly, leaving her adult twin children with a mysterious legacy, two letters that they are asked to deliver to their brother and their father, respectively.
Until the reading of the will the twins did not know who their father was and did not know that they had a brother.
Delivering these letters required the twins to return to the land of their birth, which they had not seen since they were infants. The film bounces back and forth between scenes from their mother's life in that nameless Middle Eastern country and the twins' efforts to find out what really happened and how to deliver those fateful letters.
The details are vague as to what country this story actually takes place in, but I read on Wikipedia afterward that it is most likely modelled on events in Lebanon in the 1970s. Place names are not real and the specific historical events are probably not real either. But they could be.
The story is so well told that it is spellbinding. The bouncing around in time actually works, although I had a bit of difficulty telling the daughter and the mother apart at times, so at first it was a little confusing for me when and where a scene was taking place. However I quickly figured out that the key feature (for me) for telling them apart was their mouths, the mother has a distinctive mouth, so I always checked that to be sure.
How the personal story of the central characters unfolds is both shocking and satisfying. This is another one of those films with a wrenching twist at the end, but it works. Although one does suspect that the mother was just a tad manipulative.
I guess this film brings home how horrible the political mess and violence of the Middle East is for the ordinary people living in the midst of it. I've also been reading a little of the history of the Middle East, in particular about how modern Middle Eastern political boundaries were created in the early 1900s by the European empires of the time (destroying the Ottoman empire and divvying up the pieces amongst themselves). Their motives were a mixed bag but the results were a mess. Just a mess. Incendies brings home the human cost of that mess.
The second film I saw was Last Train Home, on Wednesday night. This film is a documentary about the largest human migration ever, occurring annually on the Chinese New Year. More than 130 million Chinese workers in major Chinese industrial cities return home for the New Year's celebrations in thousands of small rural villages.
The film focuses on one particular family and the stresses in their lives that come up in this annual event. While the grandmother remains in the small rural village raising their two children, the parents work at a garment factory in a large industrial city. They only return "home" once a year. They are estranged from their children but deeply committed to their welfare and futures.
In this film you see the grim realities of Chinese sweatshops in huge grey polluted cities, and then the stunning scenery of the rural areas. The grandmother's home seems positively idyllic to someone like myself, yet the teenage daughter chafes at the restrictions of living so far from the excitement of city life. In the garment factory you see small children napping on tables or chasing each other through narrow aisles between the rows of whirring sewing machines. Their parents and other adults are bent over the machines guiding endless reams of fabric through them, fabric that is turned into jeans that are baled, boxed and shipped overseas to unseen customers far away.
One particular scene that I liked was a view of a train travelling through snow-covered mountains. At first it reminded me of the Canadian Rockies in winter, then I realized that those mountains were covered not in trees but in thousands of tiny farmed terraces.
Another humourous scene (to me) was the grandmother and two children having supper and the daughter complains about the mosquitoes, asking why they never bite the grandmother. Ah the ubiquitous mosquito! The grandmother says they never bite her because she is an old hardworking woman. You bet, grandma!
The crowd scenes around train stations immediately before the Chinese New Year are mind blowing. The long crowded train trip home---a trip of several days---is exhausting just to watch. What should be a happy family reunion at the end degenerates quickly as the parents attempt to deal with fairly ordinary family conflict in a tense 2-3 day visit that magnifies and intensifies what most people deal with over much longer periods of time. And then the parents go back to the city to deal with long work hours and a tiny primitive living space (not much more than a small bed, table, bucket, bare lightbulb and a curtain). It's quite horrendous.
What is most heartbreaking about this film is that the parents make major sacrifices, living most of their lives away from their children in awful circumstances in order to support them through school so that they can have better lives, only to have their eldest quit school amid accusations that her parents didn't care about her as evidenced by the fact that they are never around. The pain of the daughter who is intensely angry at her parents for their absence, and the pain of the mother and father who cannot be there and cannot defend themselves against her accusations, comes to a peak in one terrible scene in which the daughter screams at the camera, "You want to see the real me? This is the real me!"
The film strongly implies that this is by no means an isolated situation, this is what happens to millions of Chinese every year. This is the huge human cost of the "miracle" of Chinese economic development.
I guess my own reaction to this last film might appear a little strange, but I identified very personally with the parents. I felt like my own life as a single parent of twenty years was being played out on the screen, albeit in a kind of over-the-top way. Trying to simultaneously be the sole parent and sole support of two children, who as teenagers are intensely angry at you for being so restrictive of their freedoms and apparently so uncaring of them. Under these circumstances one does not act or feel anything like what one would like, one is so far off from the ideal parent image promoted in our society that it is cringe-making.
In the name of The Economy we sacrifice our lives and our children.
This film filled me with despair and compassion.
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