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Mixed media: film

film review
Mixed Media
Film

Woman at War

directed and co-written by Benedikt Erlingsson

What a wonderful film! In a lovely, loopy, Icelandic fashion, it manages to be at once serious and funny, action-packed and human, political and down-to-earth. A surprise and a delight. It’s the story of Halla, a friendly choir leader who has a big poster of Mahatma Gandhi on her wall, and, alongside the cycle in her spare room, a snap-together longbow that she carries in a backpack on to the moorland and hills of southern Iceland. Her quarry: electricity trans­mission cables, at which she fires arrows, hauling up a metal line in order to short the power lines. It’s risky, but effective. The outages get media attention, and threaten Chinese investment.

When the government steps up action to catch the criminals, Halla wants to step it up on her side too. But she’s torn – she hears that her long-standing application to adopt a child has succeeded. She’s going to be a mum. What’s a girl to do? She breaks into an explosives store, and knocks out a pylon.

It’s a tale of derring-do. Of a wet, wind-blown primeval landscape of glaciers, icy streams and geysers. It’s about sheep, both living and dead, and bullshitting politicians. It’s also about people and their trust and loyalty. Not least, Woman at War is a tale well – and uniquely – told. At key moments, a small chorus of musicians and singers appear. The story, they tell Halla, isn’t set: it’s down to her, and it’s down to us.

100 minutes
★★★★★

The Third Wife

directed and written by Ash Mayfair

She sits, silent, 14 years old, looking at steep cliffs she doesn’t know, rowed in stately procession to become the third wife of a pre-colonial Vietnamese landowner. At the wedding feast May sits alone, on view, in a red tunic. Next day, she stands alone in the courtyard, beside an elegantly arranged vase in which, from a slender shoot, hangs a white sheet stained with her blood.

She’s careful, guarded, silent, and only when a servant tells her that the food she’s preparing will make her strong, and helped the first wife produce a son, does she speak: ‘I want to have a boy’. Like the servant, she has a place in a wider scheme of things, and she wants to do well, better than the second wife, who she’s in awe of, but who has only produced a girl. Transgressions are punished: a pregnant servant girl is banished; a teenage bride, rejected by the first wife’s son, hangs herself.

Ash Mayfair (also known as Nguyen Phuong Anh) has loosely based this debut feature (part-funded by Spike Lee’s Production Fund) on her great-grandmother’s life and stories, and its great strength is her luminous empathy for May. To May, her husband is little more than an inseminator, and through May’s eyes we see the loneliness and cruelties of a hierarchy. But it’s a quietly spectacular film of looks and smiles, of sharing and caring, that celebrates moments between the women, and children, that become understandings, and, perhaps, solidarity.

96 minutes
★★★★✩

New Internationalist issue 519 magazine cover This article is from the May-June 2019 issue of New Internationalist.
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