Norwegian filmmaker Jorunn Myklebust Syversen’s latest film Disco is a heady exploration of the danger of Christian cults and what it means to lose yourself. Teenage Mirjam (Josefine Frida Pettersen) is a champion dancer, a singer and one of the faces of her stepfather Per’s congregation Freedom. All is not right in her household. Per is controlling, her mother harbors a dark secret about the abuse Mirjam suffered years ago by her biological father and Mirjam is now collapsing during her competitions. There’s a lot of pressure on Mirjam to be perfect from her performances, competitions, church life and as a model young woman. After attempting suicide, she looks for answers by way of other Christian outlets. First she spends time with her uncle, a televangelist who feigns curing cancer and homosexuality through elaborate prayers. Then she seeks an even more radical alternative by attending a youth camp run by a family friend (Andrea Bræin Hovig). In searching for answers Mirjam loses her personal freedom and becomes a shell of her former self. Will she find her voice again?
Disco offers an interesting conceit but the story never quite gels. It felt aimless and without purpose. There are many tightly framed shots which at first I found off-putting but they really transport the audience into Mirjam’s world. We’re up, close and personal with her and this creates a sort of bond between viewer and protagonist. Josefine Frida Pettersen is an internet celebrity and the star of the hit TV show Skam. She’s absolutely stunning and its clear that the camera loves her. Petterson’s performance is reserved and while we don’t necessarily tap into her character’s personal pain we do feel empathy for her situation.
While I didn’t grow up in a Christian cult I was raised in a very religious and oppressive environment and much of what was shown I found highly triggering. It’s important to show Mirjam’s trauma and the lengths these groups will go to strip their followers of their identities in order to gain their obedience. Some of the final scenes are quite shocking. The ending will frustrate many viewers. It’s a risky move on the filmmakers part but realistic within the scope of the story.
Jorunn Myklebust Syversen’s Disco had its world premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival as part of their Discovery series.
Writer/director Martin Rodríguez Redondo’s feature film debut Marilyn tells the story of a young man struggling with his sexual identity in a society that refuses to understand or accept. It’s based on the true story of Marcelo Bernasconi, now Marilyn Bernasconi, a transgender woman whose crime became a media sensation over a decade ago. To reveal that crime is to spoil the ending of the film so implore you, if you don’t know the story do not Google before you watch the film.
Set in rural Argentina, Marilyn stars Walter Rodriguez as Marcos, the son of a lower class family who runs a farm on land they rented from a wealthy landowner. When his father dies suddenly, Marcos, his mother and his brother are left in charge and struggle to keep the farm going. Marcos steals women’s clothes and jewelry and on the night of the carnival transforms himself into Marilyn. This is where he is truly free to be himself. He has the support of his best friend Laura (Josefina Paredes), but others, including the son of a landowner, Facundo (Rodolfo Garcia Werner), who rapes him after Carnival, and his mother tries to deny him his freedom of expression and his sexuality. Marcos is facing immense pressure to live life according to gender norms. What will it take for Marcos to be free to be Marilyn?
Marilyn is a raw, spare and harrowing film. It lingers, allowing the viewer to really appreciate Marcos/Marilyn’s struggle. Rodriguez brings a sensitivity to the role that makes it feel genuine. Redondo shows great promise as a feature film director. The film ends abruptly at the aforementioned crime and it was Redondo’s intention not to make this a true crime film and he says “there’s no rational way to understand a crime, it was necessary to respect that mystery…”
Ultimately the we understand what led Marcos/Marilyn to the point of no return. However, the film holds the viewer at arm’s length. We’re with Marcos/Marilyn the whole time but we don’t really get to know this character all too well.
Overall the film felt unique in that it wasn’t a coming-of-age story, a coming out story or a story about transition. It focused solely on the struggle. We know after the movie fades to black that there lies a much bigger story to tell on the horizon.
Marilyn opens in L.A. at Laemmle Music Hall today. It will be available through Breaking Glass Pictures on DVD/VOD on April 30th.
Dana (Noëlle Schönwald) is a prostitute living in Quito, Ecuador. She’s beautiful and smart and a favorite of her clients. But Dana harbors dark secrets. She sells her body to make enough money to support her terminally ill daughter and her own addiction to pharmaceutical drugs. And most of her funds go to her pimp, mob boss and human trafficker Nelson (Jaime Tamariz). On one visit to Nelson’s secret compound, Dana witnesses a child being transported from room to room. The young girl was kidnapped and about to be sold into sexual slavery. With the help of Dana’s client Julian (Cristian Mercado), a handsome young doctor who is in love with Dana, they concoct a plan to save the child.
“She is the perfect woman until she decides to be free.”
La Mala Noche is Ecuadorian director Gabriela Calvache’s narrative feature-length debut. Calvache is known for her narrative shorts and her documentaries. She and her producer Geminiano Pineda decided to make this as a fictional film to have the freedom to explore the subject without inciting the potential retaliation of the mob and to protect the survivors.
Calvache’s film is a heart-pounding thriller that will leave you on the edge of your seat. It’s brilliantly directed with some terrific cinematography and excellent story telling. Lead actress Noëlle Schönwald delivers a powerful performance. The child trafficking scenes are difficult to watch but also mercifully brief. While sexual slavery is grim topic to cover in a feature film, Calvache delivers the story in a way that is captivating but doesn’t diminish the gravity of the situations depicted.
Beyond having a female director and producer and focusing on a female character, 80% of the filmmaking crew were also women. I appreciate the fact that they didn’t translate the Spanish title for the English-language market.
La Mala Noche had its world premiere at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival as part of their Global series. Stay tuned as I’ll have a follow-up piece on La Mala Noche on Cine Suffragette.
The 2019 SXSW Film Festival starts next week and I’m thrilled to be attending this year for the very first time. Many thanks to SXSW and Rotten Tomatoes for this amazing opportunity. I’m furiously building my itinerary with plenty of great films, panels, interviews and new experiences. Follow me here and on my social media for all the details.
I would have to clone myself a dozen times to experience a significant chunk of SXSW has to offer. But alas there is only one of me. I did my best to curate a list of films that piqued my interest. I’m focusing primarily on documentaries, movies directed by women, Spanish-language cinema and indie films in general. 60 % of the films screening at SXSW are directed by women which is a fantastic feat. Here is how my current slate of films breaks down:
Films Directed by Women: 9 (out of 15)
Now on to my SXSW picks!
Sunset Over Mulholland Drive
Directed by Uli Gaulke
SXSW Documentary Spotlight
If you know me it’ll come to no surprise that this new documentary about residents of the Motion Picture & Television Fund home is my #1 pick. I’m a big champion for elderly and the residents of MPTF all have amazing stories to share about their contributions to the entertainment industry. I had the honor of visiting my friend Lillian Michelson at MPTF last year. Gaulke’s documentary follows a group of MPTF residents as they collaborate on new projects. I’ll be reviewing this one over at my classic film blog Out of the Past.
Directed by Amy C. Elliott
SXSW Documentary Spotlight
Elliott’s new documentary explores the open landfill of Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada and the group of townspeople who salvage items from it. Yellowknife dump is one of the only open dumps in North America and regulations to control it pose a threat to the local community. I’m very curious to see what this film has to offer in terms of insights into what the objects we throw away have to say about us as a society. As they say, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Stay tuned as I’ll have an interview with the director as well as a review!
What drives someone to the breaking point? Paul Solet’s new documentary Tread takes a look at Marvin Heemeyer, the Colorado man who in 2004 ran a fortified bulldozer through his hometown, systematically destroying homes and businesses. This bizarre case has always intrigued me and Solet’s film offers various perspectives in an attempt to answer the biggest question: why?
The Beach Bum
Directed by Harmony Korine
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Snoop Dogg, Isla Fisher, Stefania Lavie Owen, Jimmy Buffett, Zac Efron, Martin Lawrence
There will be big competition for the Headliners at the festival and while I’m happy to watch those at a later date, I can’t pass up the opportunity to see a Harmony Korine film at SXSW! I love Korine’s Spring Breakers and Mister Lonely and am excited for his latest movie. The Beach Bum stars Matthew McConaughey as Moondog, a free spirit who marches to the beat of his own drum. It features a stellar cast! I’m ready for another quirky yet subversive story, Korine-style.
Docs about 20th Century entertainers are my jam and I’m hoping to get a chance to see this one about legendary comedian Richard Pryor. I’m especially curious to see how this film explores his life and career in the context of the era.
Starring Anna Margaret Hollyman, Michael Mosley, Andrea Suarez Paz, Julie White, Amy Hargreaves, Macon Blair, Lee Eddy, Blake Delong, John Merriman, Nathan Zellner
SXSW Festival Favorites
Inspired by the story of 1920s evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, Sister Aimee looks like a fun twist on a bit of obscure 20th century history. I reviewed The Miracle Woman (1931) over on my site Out of the Past which stars Barbara Stanwyck and is also inspired by McPherson. Would love to examine how these two films compare with each other and what Sister Aimee has to offer to a contemporary audience.
Directed by Patricia Ortega
Starring Lucia Bedoya, Belkis Avilladares, María Elena Duque
Director Patricia Ortega’s drama explores the intersection between religion and gender. The story centers around a young religious dressmaker who discovers she was born intersex. Her parents kept her corrective surgery a secret and raised her as a girl. I love South American films and the exploration of identity and gender definitely piqued my interest. Would love to see how this compares with Lucia Puenzo’s film XXY (2007).
La Mala Noche
Directed by Gabriele Calvache
Starring Nöelle Schönwald, Cristian Mercado, Jaime Tamariz, Ariana Freire, Diego Mignone, Gonzalo Gonzalo, Christian Cabrera, Javier Ordóñez
SXSW Global – World Premiere
This Ecuadorian/Mexican thriller is about a prostitute trying to escape the seedy underworld run by her mob boss. La Mala Noche is perhaps the darkest film in my line-up and I’m excited to see what director Calvache has to offer!
Principal Cast: Laura Tobón, David Escallón, Carlos Fonnegra, Christian Tappan, Julián Giraldo, Natalia Castaño, Margarita Restrepo
Another South-American film directed by a woman! My fingers crossed that I can fit this one into my schedule. The story follows two friends, graffiti artists, who plan to paint a mural of a whale to cover up a threatening message. I’ve been hungry for more Colombian cinema ever since I watched Karen Cries on the Bus (2011) last year.
Nothing Fancy: Diana Kennedy
Directed by Elizabeth Carroll
SXSW Documentary Feature Competition
Nonagenarian Diana Kennedy has spent the better part of her life researching and documenting the history of food and cuisine in Mexico. This new documentary explores her life’s work which includes nine Mexican cookbooks and her unique lifestyle (she’s lived off the grid since the 1970s!).
Directed by Ben Asamoah
I’m fascinated by internet scams and those spam e-mails we all get in our inboxes trying to extort us out of our life savings. This new documentary follows the story of three Ghanaians who are turning to the internet fraud as a source of livelihood. I’m hoping this film touches upon the ramifications of this sort of “career” and how it’s judged, or not judged, in another culture.
Directed by Jenna Ricker
SXSW Documentary Spotlight
I love sports documentaries especially when the subject is a woman! Director Jenna Ricker’s new film for ESPN explores the career of Janet Guthrie, the first female race car driver to qualify for the Daytona 500 and Indy 500.
Directed by Hilary Brougher
Starring Talia Balsam, Scott Cohen, Andrus Nichols, Michael Oberholtzer, Naian González Norvind , Midori Francis, Macaulee Rusnak Cassaday, Isis Masoud, Violet Rea, Guthrie Mass
SXSW Narrative Feature Competition
Set in the Catskills, this drama tells the story of a family coming apart at the seams. The film’s star Talia Balsam is a big draw for me but I also love that this film is written and directed by a female filmmaker.
Show Me the Picture: The Story of Jim Marshall
Directed by Alfred George Bailey
SXSW 24 Beats Per Second/Documentaries
Jim Marshall photographed some of the biggest names in the history of music: Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, etc. This new documentary offers a look at the man behind the camera. I love stories about people behind-the-scenes. Pair that with some pop culture history and I’m sold!
Directed by Brandon Vedder
SXSW 24 Beats Per Second/Documentaries
As someone who walked away from a strict, conservative Christian upbringing, I’m fascinated by stories of others who have done the same. Vedder’s new documentary paints a portrait of David Bazan, a former evangelical Christian and member of the band Pedro the Lion.
“Women are the base of any society. And women are more powerful. But they don’t recognize themselves. They don’t know how much power they have and what they can do.”
Menstruation. It’s not a subject people like to talk about but it’s one that shouldn’t be ignored. Director Rayka Zehtabchi new documentary Period. End of Sentence., follows a group of women from a small town outside of Dehli, India. We learn that menstruation in this patriarchal culture comes with a deeply rooted stigma. It’s embarrassing to talk about and the women use dirty cloths or whatever they can get their hands on during their time of the month. They’re not allowed to pray when menstruating and are essentially isolated from their community until their cycle is over. Many young women even leave school shortly after they get their first period.
Alarmed by these findings, a group of students from Oakwood High School in Los Angeles, California, with the help of The Feminist Majority Foundation’s Girls Learn International program, banded together to start The Pad Project. They raised funds for the equipment that would help these women create their own sanitary pads. The inventor of the machine, Arunachalam Muruganatham, trained the women in the art of making sanitary pads. With this knowledge, these women were empowered to not only overcome their shame but to start a new phase in their lives as enterprising career women making and selling sanitary pads in their community. For some of them, this was their first job and a chance to learn a trade and become successful at it and to earn money for their household and for themselves.
Out of all the Academy Award nominated documentaries (short subject) this is by far my favorite. Period. End of Sentence. is a feminist manifesto that demonstrates how empowering women can make a huge difference. It’s moving, endearing and full of hope. This film touched my heart and I hope it’ll do the same for you.
“The strongest creature on Earth is not the elephant, not the tiger, but the girl.”
Period. End of Sentence. is nominated for a 2019 Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject). The film premieres on Netflix February 12th.