I Am Samuel – BFI London Film Festival

Written by Ricardo Acosta & Peter Murimi

Directed by Peter Murimi

Rating: 3 out of 5.

While identifying as gay isn’t strictly illegal in Kenya, the act of engaging in a relationship with someone of the same gender or sex is. An openly honest account of a young gay man’s struggles with receiving the equality he deserves, I Am Samuel documents five years of Samuel’s life as he moves to steadily introduce his parents, his friends and hopefully, one day, his country into accepting who he is.

I Am Samuel’s unobtrusive verité-style maintains authenticity in how it delivers the truth across the film, refusing to pander to ideas of a manipulated narrative for dramatic effect. As director Peter Murimi gradually introduces the audience to Samuel, his partner Alex, and their subsequent friends and family, time is given to develop them as people, rather than encouraging snap judgements. This verité comes at a cost though, as the film’s flow stifles, and any seeking a form of closure will be pressed to find one given Kenya’s continued attitudes towards the love between two members of the same gender.

The longevity to create pays off for Murimi’s debut piece, filming over five years allows for a definitive picture and flow of narration. The established relationship guarantees an openness from Samuel, concerning his relationship with Alex, as a level of trust is paramount given the nature of their relationship in a country violently opposed to love in a form which some are regrettably still unfamiliar with.

Depictions of violence only make up a minuscule, but impactful, anchor point for the film. Those who mindlessly preach on how things are different or that homophobia isn’t as prevalent need only watch the film’s opening moments. Censored, but still visceral, a young man is between and assaulted as the perpetrators hurl abuse and, breath-snatchingly declare to ‘teach him a lesson’, instructing one another to get a knife.

I Am Samuel doesn’t garb itself in shocking imagery, though one distressing scene shows the scars a man bares after being mistaken for Samuel. The dedication to their visibility is extraordinarily respected by Murimi, who strives to allow everyone the chance to tell their story and experiences – obviously, chiefly that of Samuel and his partner Alex. Nothing is treated as inconsequential, as it all goes to building the image of who Samuel is as a person and his ambitions, despite the conformation and expectations men in his culture face.

A level of established trust is evident as the camera works its way into Samuel’s parent’s homes to unfold their thoughts on the revelations of their son’s ‘friend’ Alex. Redon and Rebecca consistently harp on at their son to find a wife to both help with the family farm work, and to continue a legacy. His father Redon, a pastor, in particular raises eyebrows to this ‘friendship’ with Alex, discussing with the camera his concerns, as equally does his mother but for wholly individual reasons and worries for his safety.

Clean, capitalising on the beauty of the region, the film’s visual direction of light and aerial shots capture the stage for Samuel’s story. Backdrops are never parts of the narrative, outside of location changes to and from his parents or grandmothers residence. What aesthetical shots used enrapture, but stick within the verité guidelines to reinforce the film’s authenticity, rather than bathe in spectacle.

Leaning into the rights of humanity to be recognised through the players in this film, as opposed to a direct political allegiance, Murimi succeeds in building I Am Samuel’s legitimacy as a short documentary feature which manages to divulge five years of a young gay man’s life into seventy minutes. Will the film essentially change the fundamental rights to care and love across Kenya? Not likely, but in putting across Samuel’s story – Murimi’s documentary protects the autonomy and determination a young man has to love, hopefully improving his future. 

Pain & Glory – Pride Month Retrospective

Written & Directed by Pedro Almodóvar

Rating: 4 out of 5.

There’s growth all around “Pain & Glory” (2019), personal, universal, and out with the film itself, and while there is an overarching narrative, Pedro Almodóvar’s film is as equally about his self journey as it is Salvador Mallo’s back and forth throughout life. A story of pleasure, it is Almodóvar after all, this film accounts for the lost opportunities, the rekindled friendships and plunges back into life, rebutting the dark stupors of depression, isolation and a rejection of the self – all in favour to produce a methodical, grim film which seeks as much enjoyment it can from the struggles of life.  

A movie director who has, for one cause of another, refrained from making a film for years, Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas) balances his chronic back pain, regrets, and stifles of creativity with a growing need to re-connect and fix estranged relationships. Seeking out a previous actor from his hit film, which is due for a re-release and Q&A, Salvador locates Alberto (Asier Etxeandia), and the two rekindle their “friendships”. Salvador is encouraged to take up heroin as a means to dull his pain, both mentally and physically. The drug abuse, visions of the past and regrets drive him to return to a theatrical play he has written but wishes to claim no credit for, as its subject material lacerates too deep on his mind, triggering thoughts of the lost love who has since moved on, choosing addiction over companionship.

As the ‘true’ narrative unfolds, ripples of memories stir in Salvador’s life, as the ties he attempted to cut return. Echoes of his mother, marvellously captured by Penélope Cruz, and in her later life by Julieta Serrano as a fiery woman, family-focused and proud, there’s a fragility to Cruz’s gorgeous performance which ripples throughout the film, and despite never sharing the screen with Banderas, influences the impact of his performance exponentially.

These interactions, often ending grimly, never pleasantly, through death, rejection or addiction are what forge this connection between Salvador and the audience’s experiences. None more so than with Eduardo, or Frederic, the man whom ‘Addiction’, Salvador’s play was written about, and is now happily married to a woman. The microcosm of suffering, betraying Banderas’ face as he steals these briefs glimpses of happiness, set against all the wealth his career has promised, but delivered none of the gratifications, ties together the split-second clues and shots of Salvador as a young boy, with a lingering eye towards the older painter Eduardo. Sexuality is an undercurrent in ‘Pain & Glory’, but masterfully handled by Almodóvar is no cheap tactic, but a personal infusion.

And while Almodóvar is the evident maestro of the film, it wouldn’t be quite so effective without Antonio Banderas. We see the world, as brutal and gut-wrenchingly awful as it can be, through his eyes, and what a sight to behold, like the dawning realisation of beauty, beneath all of the anguish, flourishes.

It cannot be stated enough, those unaware of Almodóvar’s work will potentially be put off by the artistic integrity of the experience – to be blunt, “Pain & Glory” is structurally a piece of artistic expression, wrapped in a cinematographic garb. It’s an astonishingly touching, poignant piece which lends itself to a staggeringly slow pace. This isn’t a film for everyone, but it is cinema made for and about everyone. We have perhaps come closer to Almodóvar than ever before, stripped of the emotional facades while sacrificing none of the visual or cinematic aesthetics.  

It is scenes set in the past, the carved home of Salvador and his mother which demonstrate José Luis Alcaine’s utterly exquisite manipulation of the light. The white-washed walls gradually cleansing the moods of his family, as they grow together, concealing the ‘ugliness’ beneath. His direction of cinematography completes the trifecta of the Almodóvar triangle with Banderas, revitalising a multiple of steady, or lengthy shots, offering a visual splendour to soften the scene, or starkly, cast the mood in shadows as ill-fated decisions and feelings surface.

And here is where ‘Pain & Glory’ suffers, in its valiant attempts to remain a film, to deconstruct much of the narrative to offer accessibility – in doing so, rips a little of the power behind the premise. A personal preference for some, but understandably lacking, is the conceptual ‘pay-off’ of the flood of emotion as the tears cannot be held back. ‘Pain & Glory’, instead, feels robustly human in this sense. Denying the audience this melodramatic moment, and instead harkening back to reality, to bleakness and necessity.

Naked, raw, and bare as possible, “Pain & Glory” refrains from pander and weaves itself into the fabric of reality. It’s difficult not to immediately become engrossed into the profoundly vivid colours, like a memory on steroids. Often harrowing, frequently humorous, there is little doubt to the bleakness of Almodóvar’s most ‘honest’ film to date, but quite often in this endless darkness of self-loathing, abuse and hate, there is the smallest glimmer of hope, and this light is what the focus of “Pain & Glory” magnifies.

Review originally published for In Their Own League: https://intheirownleague.com/2020/06/28/pride-month-retrospective-review-pain-glory-dolor-y-gloria/

TRANSFINITE – Scottish Queer International Film Festival

“As infinite as nature itself”

Neelu Bhuman’s omnibus of short films TRANSFINITE defies the expectations of a societal construct and achieves a place as a force of nature. The sixth annual Scottish Queer International Film Festival will run October 14th to 18th 2020, with the full programme available in August, but for now, these accessible digital productions should be engaged with. 

Screening alongside a selection of Black queer short films beginning June 25th until June 28th, SQIFFLIX will host Neelu Bhuman’s sci-fi collection of series of seven short stories. Collectively, they spread across various cultures and backgrounds, as various trans and queer people use their supernatural gifts to educate, share, love, fight and thrive. Following the premiere, there will be a live discussion with Black queer UK artists taking place on Saturday, June 27th at 7 pm.

From the subversive narrative of Nova or Shayla to the blunt rally cry and empowerment of Viva, the seven films range in their capability to communicate, but each screams of the capable talents of their producers and echoes the necessity of diverse and accomplished film-makers and promotion of their voices. 

Whether a message of preserving our ecosystems, tying into the film’s value of nature or a playful piece depicting the often untalked about the parental environment of polygamy – TRANSFINITE encompasses all, while highlighting the necessity to endorse queer and black film-makers. Perhaps best demonstrated in Davina Spain’s piece Viva, and though as blunt as a hammer, it categorically addresses the issues that, in 2020, shouldn’t be issues. Shouldn’t need to be shocking revelations or be confronted with confusion and hatred, but addressed.

And even as the quality of pieces varies, none are without merit or substance. With this, the three pieces NajmeAsura and Maya stand-out for similar, yet also strikingly different reasons. Plunging deeper into myth, rather than the general sci-fi premise exudes, Najme and Asura concentrate their storytelling into an archaic form of a fable, particularly with Najme’s depiction of the Naga – a half-woman, half-serpent creature. Tempting, beautiful and cunning, the ignorant mindset of a scaley, phallic creature lurking beneath an outward aesthetic is something many cannot overcome, and more harrowingly an inward projection of aggression for the lead themselves. It’s the complex thought-process, the everyday existence for these producers, which offers insight for many and makes SQIFFLIX an important festival. 

Projecting mythos in a more positive light, Asura and Maya utilise a nature of understanding, and love, one from a familial and the other a romantic/physical dynamic. Ryka Aoki’s writing for Asura is the most accomplished as a complete narrative, tying together humour with the physicality of the role and storytelling, combining the artistry of dance with the intensity of martial arts. Dance, if anything, is the singular theme throughout the series of films, with a sense of movement, a fluidity if you will, evident in all. These freeing routines, often open with the elements, exposing bodies to the world, offers a frank connection and resistance to the bitterness of those who misunderstand.

Seeking unity through core parallels, the seven short films differ in design, capability, and premise, but throughout they share a common ideal and goal which stretches beyond movement and aesthetics. The collective speaks that, like anything, our bodies are akin to nature itself, uncontrollable by any who seek to impose a doctrine, belief, or policy onto it, despite how brutally they attempt to.

Alongside Vision Portraits, which launched earlier in June, access to both films can be located from www.sqiff.org, where online tickets can be purchased on a pay-what-you-can basis from £0-£8. Ticket holders will be able to access the films at any point during the online run. Live Q&A sessions will stream on www.facebook.com/sqiff June 27th.