Thursday Afternoons on the Sticky Seats (Or: I Miss Being a Film Reviewer But Not Really)

When you spend a large chunk of your adult life going to the cinema during weird lonely hours as part of your job routine, something alters about the way in which you view that space. Working as a film critic for a national newspaper since I was 18 years old – albeit the nation being the micro-island state of Malta – while being blacklisted from the local distributor critics’ screenings for… reasons, meant that I got to watch films for review with a general audience, though rarely a full house.

A Friday deadline meant that I would need to get my films in by Thursday latest – leaving me little wiggle room as new films tended to make their way into cinemas on Wednesdays.

So aside from those rare occassions in which I could convince partners and/or friends to accompany me to watch a film that’s not entirely baker-fresh but which still remains reviewable after a weekend viewing, I got to spend a lot of lonely, torpid midweek afternoons in a darkened room with only a creepy trickle of strangers for company.

Looking back, it’s kind of jarring to think just how uninterrupted an activity film reviewing was for me.

There *was* a brief respite at the peak of my university years – during which I still maintained a nominal relationship with the newspaper, slotting in bits and pieces for the cultural supplement while one of Malta’s more veteran film critics took over – but I was soon back at it, penning a review for the then much-hyped Kate Winslet-starring middlebrow Oscar-courter, The Reader while starting my MA.

(How I would have loved to delve into Winslet’s richly devastating and utterly enthralling turn as the titular Mare of Easttown in HBO’s deservedly beloved recent mini-series. Or maybe that’s not true. Maybe I’m finding a new appreciation for just leaving things be).

The only thing that could stop me, it turns out, was a murderous global pandemic. Between mandated cinema closures, the paper shortening its culture pages, and me opting for a return to full-time employment to stem the resultant economic haemorrage, reviewing films made for one unfeasible activity too many.

Last one for a while: The Invisible Man (2020). Dir: Leigh Whannel


It would be romantic to say that I miss the darkened rooms, the creak and pull of the seats, the crunch of popcorn (crushed by both tooth and boot) and the promise of the possibility of total, immersive storytelling, with the auditorium as a dark womb keeping the world at bay while beautiful lies are spun across a screen as large as six or so people and accompanied by deafening sound.

The reality is of course far more prosaic – even if you’re after that level of immersion, your fellow punters are unlikely to be as committed, and the advent of the smartphone, coupled with the tendency to view the cinema as an extension of one’s living room, are just additional punctures. I don’t think I miss anything about being a regular film reviewer.

If anything, I honestly appreciate the unwitting benefits of this covid-induced break. A treadmill implies thoughtless forward motion. Now, I can finally think about what I was doing all these years. Or rather, what the process has done to me and for me.

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When all is said and done (though it never, of course, truly is) what film criticism gave to me was an opportunity to work on my craft as a writer. This was hardly a pre-planned process borne out of specific ambitions and career goals (I was not too young to dream, but I was certainly too young to do so in anything resembling a structured fashion).

Yes, I did love movies as far back as I could remember. Yes, I did make a habit of leafing through Empire Magazine whenever I saw it on the shelves, sometimes even buying my own copies with pocket money. Yes, I can sheepishly confess to Marilyn Manson’s autobiography being a trigger for me here, a particularly embarrassing confession given the has-been shock-rocker has now joined the ranks of the justifiably ‘cancelled’.

But at the time, he was a gateway drug into a more flamboyant universe which openly flouted the shit-steamed sauna of the boys-only secondary school I attended. I saw something in his early forays into zine culture and freelance journalism which clicked with me. That possibly taking his path could serve as a stepping stone to more fully-fledged creative work.

So sexy it hurts: The Handmaiden (2017). Dir: Park Chan-wook

Reviewing films on a weekly basis also gave me a glimpse at the inner workings behind a key truism that’s often bandied about in the general direction of so-called ’emerging’ writers: That it ‘never gets easier’, and that every subsequent project will be just as tough to think through and execute as its predecessor. But I found this truism to be both true, and not.

Certainly, it’s shocking – and hilarious – to me to think back on those early all-nighters as I desperately battled with my inner demons to churn out 800 words before deadline day. Social media as we now know it did not exist back then, so I would take to the then still-extant IMDB forums to temper my own critical insecurities by parsing through the smogasbord of public opinion: deluding myself into thinking that this is how I will get a feel for the consensus opinion so that my own review will be more far-reaching in scope… but really, I was just shit-scared to committing to my own ideas and opinions because I felt they were lackluster and inadequate.

Appreciating urban fantasy: John Wick 3 (2019). Dir: Chad Stahelski

So while the amount of required concentration and effort to execute an effective review did not diminish with time – much as I fantasised about it as some sort of romantic possibility, I never got to a stage where I could thoughtlessly churn out a review and submit it in under an hour – I did learn to quieten at least some of those demons to a whisper.

Coupled with the fact that my career path subsequently forced me to learn to juggle far more than just that one 800-word review a week – between writing other articles, curating a culture section, copy-editing commerical press releases and proofreading the entire paper, I was left with little room to be precious about *anything* – submitting one review a week over a long stretch of time meant that I learned to predict how my thoughts pan out across the process while also picking up on new tricks that would help me save time and effort.

The first of these was learning to relax into the viewing experience and doing all that I can to take it in as an audience member, not through some sort of strained ‘critical’ eye that favours a rarefied perspective.

One step at a time: first comes the viewing, then the retrospective critique. This was a crucial lesson in respecting the stages of the writing process and giving them their due. When writing a script, it’s wiser to consider the outline and treatment before jumping into the scene… in the same way, I picked up on how it’s best to just let the film unspool over you before the critical demons start puncturing through to cloud the experience. This also had to do with knowing your audience and understanding the parameters of the job.

After all, I was writing for a national newspaper, not an academic journal or a magazine that specialises in cinema, so the core purpose of my review was to give readers a full picture of what the given film is about – not just in terms of plot (and I always endeavoured to keep spoilers at a minimum) but the overall feel and tone of what they’d be experiencing if they choose to watch it.

Once I twigged to this function of my reviews, it became easier to focus on the task at hand at sentence-level, instead of worrying about how my piece will fare in some imaginary hall of fame of cuttingly perceptive analytical studies of contemporary mainstream cinema. The advent of Rotten Tomatoes and aggregator-culture in general would have plunged the knife even deeper anyway: who the hell is going to actively seek out my review when a three-second Google search will likely resolve the question of whether or not they should waste their time with any given new release? Had I let this get to me, I would be toast.

Instead, I learned to appreciate the more immediate pleasures at hand: the possibility to reverse-engineer my experience of watching a film and to assess its entrails for what’s worth cooking, what should be discarded… and what could be used to map out my own future as a writer.

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I’m sure there’s tons more of my kindred spirits scattered around which I could find if I deigned to look hard enough, but so far the only prose works to make me feel a frisson of recognition when it comes to all this are Caitlin R. Kiernan’s short story ‘The Prayer of Ninety Cats‘, and Gemma Files’ haunting novel Experimental Film. Though Kiernan and Files can broadly be said to form part of the upper tiers of the international genre fiction community – with those works in particular mining a vein of elegantly disturbing horror – their approaches differ even in the works in question.

But there is something in both ‘Cats’ and Experimental Film that speaks to me: the idea of criticism as a starting point for keener existential immersion that goes beyond meta-ficitonal games. The idea that regularly putting films under the microscope means abandoning yourself to a labyrinth that could, by definition, go either way.

From Dafoe to Dafriend: The Florida Project (2017). Dir: Sean Baker

Looking back on it now that I am no longer in the grind and can finally afford to take a broader perspective on things… the greatest value of literary criticism for me lay in having to fully visualise and reverse-engineer an entire film while writing about it. It sounds like the kind of phenomenological minutae that can dovetail all-too-easily into banality. But it’s something that I think, in the end, gave me the tools I needed to help picture plot outlines and arcs for myself in a more solid and grounded manner when it came to writing my own stuff.

In many ways – and to risk banality once again – the clue is in the name: review. You are forced to run through the film once again in your head – because no, I could never spare the time or expense for an *actual* rewatch – and that does train your visualisation muscles. You begin to create a mind palace of story – reflecting somebody else’s, sure, but also adaptable to your own, eventually. It’s a retracing and remapping process, where you skim back over your memory of the film to rediscover what was notable, or to confirm or disprove and assumptions that you hold. In this way, the process is also useful to assess your own knee-jerk reactions and inbuilt prejudices.

Was that bit of dialogue really that bad? Could it have simply been functional to the story, or a reflection of the character’s state of mind at the time? Was that bravura mix of swelling soundtrack and magic-hour cinematography really great filmmaking, or does it fall apart upon reflection? But is the reflection a moot point anyway? Could it be that the reviewing process is not always the right approach to these things – that the ephemeral should be valorised as such, that its immediate experiential result is what should be placed under the microscope, and nothing else?

My favourite star war: The Last Jedi (2017). Dir: Rian Johnson

These are things I learned only gradually, and in small steps. ‘Learned’ is also too definitive – it implies a completed process: signed, sealed, delivered. It would be more accurate to say that I learned to internalise certain lessons by glancing at them and making a note of them for next time. But when the next time rolled around, I may or may not have forgotten what I was supposed to have learned. And the process starts again without the luxury of reflection, because the tickets have been bought, the voluminous Thursday afternoon seats are beckoning, and the Friday deadline is looming.

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Film reviewing taught me to write. It could have been film reviewing, it could have been something else, but that’s what I was handed and it was a privilege in its own way. I entered in medias res – I did not start reviewing after a stint in film school (there was no such thing at the time in Malta, and there still barely is), and I only learned to pick up on film history further along the line, and in my own time. So there was no chronological development here for me – my training trenches were the early noughties releases from mainstream Hollywood, for the most part.

Truth be told, I don’t miss it terribly. Being a semi-professional opinion-haver is a thoroughly unsexy thing to be in this day and age, when social media has democratised such chatter to oblivion. (Actually, oblivion is too kind as it once again implies finality – a feverish vortex would probably make for a better fit).

But I am glad to the Hollywood behemoth for giving me a training mat on which I could jump, fall, and make a fool of myself before getting up again to fight another day. Its steely chassis will barely have registered the clinking and plinking punches from tiny Malta, so my necessary mistakes were allowed wide berth and shame was ever a stranger.

Film Reviews | Local Respite and Arthouse Oxygen After These Bloody Blockbusters

I’ve waited for the reviews to form a satisfyingly diverse cluster before putting this together, as it’s been an interesting couple of months at the movies. But here they are; some of my recent pieces of film criticism for MaltaToday, liberally cherry-picked and in no particular order.

Which is, of course, a total lie. Cherry-picking implies selection, and selection implies intention, which implies order of some kind.

In this case, we’ve see a few glittering diamonds in the rough just about rising up for air in an atmosphere suffused by entertaining, but equally suffocating, blockbuster fare.

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The Inevitable Epic: Avengers – Endgame 

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“Though an epic send-off may have felt like a foregone conclusion Marvel Studio’s unprecedentedly long-running superhero saga, the mammoth achievement that’s ensued is certainly no casual fluke. Carefully calibrated to give each character and sub-plot their due while never short-changing its emotional content, Avengers: Endgame gives itself the licence of sizeable running time to tell a story that is part dirge, part mind-bending time travelling heist and part meditation on friendship and power. The cinematic landscape may have been changed by these colourfully-clad supermen and women in debatable ways, but the byzantine byways of its interconnected stories clicking so satisfyingly together is certainly no mean feat.”

Click here to read the full review

Note: Check out a more ambitious, expansive and crazier foray into superhero-media criticism in this article, which I was graciously invited to pen for Isles of the Left

The Vicious Familiar: Us 

Us

“More ambitious and tighter than his barnstorming Get Out in equal measure, Jordan Peele’s second stab at film-making may have some rips at its seams, but in the long run makes for a thrilling feature with something to say. Satisfyingly structured and laced with nuggets of ambiguity that will burrow through the brain, it’s offers a full-bodied experience of genre cinema that feels sorely needed in a landscape oversaturated with superheroes and remakes.”

Click here to read the full review

Third Time Bloody: John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum

Keanu Reeves stars as 'John Wick' in JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 - PARABELLUM.

“Expanding on its world with a tightly-focused and clever simplicity that allows more than ample room for its trademark bloodbath-balletics to shine through, the third installment of the little action franchise that could continues to plough its way through the competition with violent, witty elan. A satisfying ride from start to finish, Reeves and Stahelski’s baby has grown up and taken the world by storm, while betraying zero signs of franchise fatigue so far.”

Click here to read the full review

Local Flavour: Limestone Cowboy

Limestone Cowboy

“Though lacking polish in certain areas and never quite managing to resist the temptation to stuff every frame with ‘local colour’, Limestone Cowboy remains an engaging and effective dramedy that successfully alchemises quirky Maltese mores into a feature of universal appeal.”

Click here to read the full review

Too Good For This World: Happy As Lazzaro

Happy As Lazzaro

“While offering an unflinching and deeply upsetting gaze into the unequal power structures of capitalism both past and present, Happy as Lazzaro also manages to be a rich and rewarding fable, limned with a magical glow that keeps cynicism and hopelessness at bay. Mixing in a team of first-time actors and non-professionals with established names, Alice Rohrwacher creates something of a minor miracle, which is likely to remain resonant for years to come.”

Click here to read the full review

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Coming up: Reviews of Vox Lux (dir. Brady Corbet) and Beats (dir. Brian Welsh). Check out my Facebook, Twitter and Instagram avatars for updates on reviews and other projects

 

Easter Gothic | BILA, Camilla, Inheritance

Easter is approaching on this once-aggressively Catholic island, which is only marginally less so nowadays, as this snap I took a couple of days back gloriously, dramatically illustrates:

gudja

Easter of course also means spring in full swing, and the twisty turny weather that it brings with it has left me feeling a bit ‘off’ on a few days here and there, where drowsiness becomes the order of the day and where you feel abandoned to the mercy of the uncontrollable climate-gods and their whims — they are in you, controlling your moods and there’s not much you can do about it. Both humbling and annoying in equal measure, but I also know it’s nowhere near the deluge that is the summer-swelter juggernaut, for which I am subconsciously preparing with no small amount of trepidation.

But come rain on shine, my penchant for the cooling moods of Gothic melodrama will remain unquelled, and it’s not just the above photo that stands as proof of this. Recently, the punk-metal band BILA (no, they’re not all that sure about their genre-configuration either — I asked) got me on board to participate in the music video for their song ‘Belliegha’, in which I was tasked to play a folk monster by the video’s director, Franco Rizzo.

The no-budget, three-day shoot ended up blossoming into a glorious display of pulpy goodness, and it was about as fun to shoot as it is to look at, I reckon. You can check out the whole thing here. For those of you on the island and keen to hear more, BILA will be performing at Rock the South on April 14.

The Belliegha’s aesthetic certainly lies on the (deliberately) crummier side of what I’ve just been talking about, but we also had a chance to once again showcase our more elegant attempt at the Mediterranean Gothic during past couple of weeks, as the National Book Council invited co-writer/director, producer Martin Bonnici and myself to speak about our short film ‘Camilla’ at the Campus Book Festival.

camilla campus book fest

Flanked by Martin Bonnici (left) and Stephanie Sant (right) at the Campus Book Festival, University of Malta, March 29, 2019. Photo by Virginia Monteforte

The event was focused on adaptation, translation and subtitling, and to this end we were thankfully joined by Dr Giselle Spiteri Miggiani from the translation department, and someone with tangible experience of subtitling for television and cinema.

Despite having premiered back in November, it feels as though ‘Camilla’s journey into the world is only just beginning. Some encouraging feedback and an overall sense of enduring satisfaction with the work as a whole — bolstered by the memory of just how smooth a project it was to put together — leaves me with a decidedly un-Gothy optimism about its future.

But true to the spirit of fertility, resurrection and renewal that also characterises this season and its many associated festivals, there’s another bun in the oven that appears to be just about ready for consumption.

inheritance

After some five-odd years of rumination, regurgitation and tinkering, the fifth draft of a horror feature I’ve been working on under the auspices of the aforementioned Martin Bonnici appears to be production-ready.

Of course any number of things can happen in the run up to finally getting this thing filmed, but I can’t help but let out an extended sigh of relief at finally finishing a draft of ‘Inheritance’ that’s about as smooth as I’d like it to be — with the required suspension of disbelief being dialed down to a minimum, the dialogue as lived-in as it’s ever been, and the narrative beats aligned to both character motivation and the story’s thematic underbelly.

I’ll have to keep mum on details for the time being, not least because a jinx at this stage of the film’s evolution would be particularly heartbreaking. Suffice it to say that the project marks the fulfilment of a vow made back in 2014, on national media. A vow to make the Maltese cinematic space just that little bit punkier and weirder.

This all feels like good juju, since summer is approaching. And carving out a pretty alcove of darkness feels like just the thing. Take it away, Banshees…

banshees

The politics of fantasy and the radical power of love | Antonio Piazza on Sicilian Ghost Story

One of the best things to emerge out of my admittedly truncated run with an MA in Film Studies at my alma mater was being introduced to filmmakers Antonio Piazza and Fabio Grassadonia. Not just introduced, but being put under a filmmaking wringer they helped crank up with inspiration and relish.

With the help of other equally acclaimed European masters in the field, the award-winning duo — of Salvo and latterly and spectacularly, Sicilian Ghost Story fame — helped us beat a script for a short film into shape, and eventually shepherded us through its production phase.

dramaturgy

Fabio Grassadonia (front) and Antonio Piazza (back) teaching ‘Screenwriting and the Art of Dramaturgy’ at the University of Malta (October 2015). Photo by Kenneth Scicluna

If nothing else, it made for a revealing look into the process of filmmaking. It certainly helped my writing from then onwards — their thorough, no-compromise understanding of the dynamics of story created helpful subconscious voices in my head that hammer through whenever I’m faced with a knotted plot problem or unclear character motivation.

So it was with great pleasure that I caught up with one half of that duo via Skype to talk about their compelling, harrowing and gorgeous sophomore feature, Sicilian Ghost Story, on the occasion of it finally reaching our shores on general release. Though I’d actually seen it just over a year ago when it made a ‘soft’ premiere in Malta as part of the third edition of the Valletta Film Festival, and I did not hesitate to subsequently name it the best film of that year.

TW FRONT PIX 1

Star-crossed, never lost: Julia Jedlikowska and Gaetano Fernandez in Sicilian Ghost Story

We spoke about the film’s enthusiastic perception in the “Anglo-Saxon world” and how this denotes something of a cultural divide between that region and their native European south, about how ethical responsibility plays a big part in the duo’s representation of the mafia. But most importantly and urgently — at least, as far as I’m concerned — we discussed how misunderstood and misrepresented the fantastical mode often is in contemporary cinema and perhaps Western culture in general.

“Our films are more closely connected to the world of dreams, nightmares… hidden desires and visions. They beg for a more metaphysical contemplation.”

Check out the interview on MaltaToday by clicking here

Savouring the Action | Mission Impossible: Fallout

It’s been a while since a summer blockbuster has impressed me as much as Christopher McQuarrie’s Mission Impossible: Fallout has, and this speaks to both my own fatigue with the Hollywood mainstream as well as the very evident mechanics which foment that fatigue.

I’m writing this literally minutes after having also enjoyed Ant Man & The Wasp, but that enjoyment was tellingly less pronounced when compared to the exhilaration I felt during particularly the latter act of the Tom Cruise-starring superspy epic, the poster for which I was left to gaze on longingly during our intermission for the latest Marvel Studios installment — yes, intermissions are still a thing here — and wishing that I was back in there with Ethan Hunt.

mission impossible tom cruise

I’m tempted to assume that a heady confluence of factors led to the Mission Impossible franchise being the primary rallying point for action cinema this season. One of them is Tom Cruise’s sheer determination to cement his status as a still-viable action hero, as he sets out on a warpath to run, climb, punch and kick his way out of an uncomfortable whirlwind of tabloid-friendly personal eccentricity.

The other is the simple existence of the John Wick franchise, which reminded all and sundry — but most significantly, studio heads — that shaky cam should no longer be the way to make action movies, and that if you do it properly, all the money you spend on thorough choreography and lucid camerawork will be recouped by an appreciative audience.

rebecca-mission-impossible-fallout

It’s also a reminder that action is a balletic feature of any narrative, that should be taken in slowly and savoured. Unlike the Michael Bays of this world, McQuarrie seems to understand that action is not a condiment to be assaulted with. It should be an integral part of the meal — a showcase piece, to be sure, but not a murderously spicy dish that brings tears to your eyes before coming to life to punch you in the face, leaving you black-eyed and confused.

Another thing that also made Fallout so endearing is that it tapped into the vein of espionage-pulp that the Bond franchise has gone weird on, and that Bourne has reduced to a gritty sludge that nobody is biting on anymore. It comes down to a pact with the audience – an understanding that these are superhero stories where the heroes have no powers but do superheroics regardless, and where technology is effectively magic.

So yeah. Mission Impossible: Fallout. I liked it a bunch. Read my ‘official’ review of it on MaltaToday by clicking here

 

Organised Chaos and Disinfectant Tang| Apocalesque

Burlesque, where you’re often left wondering just what you’ve gotten yourself into (again).

Burlesque, where (yes, it’s a place)… where a 3am Messenger missive calling for “unicorns and ceremonial knives” is entirely in line with established procedure.

Jacob Sammut Burlesque MAY 2018_1

Kevin Canter. Photo by Jacob Sammut

Burlesque, where the same established procedures established themselves c. 2009, and, barring an odd hiatus here and there that’s also in line with the shambolic nature of this beast anyway, remain very much in force.

Burlesque, where ‘organised chaos’ is not the perfect method, but it’s the only one we know.

 

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Run-through wind-down, 14.05.18

Burlesque, which in our case isn’t even technically burlesque but kind of is and the vibe is there so we just go with it.

Burlesque, which is more of a fringe theatre event set up to provide some breathing room and colour in an island stifled by so many things, so often.

Burlesque, which we’ve run through yesterday against the antiseptic tang of a freshly-washed “alternative” cinema — whose slippery cleanliness a high-heeled centaur was very much apprehensive about.

Burlesque, which starts up again in three days (And runs for three days.)

Apocalesque, our latest iteration, needs you.

Book your tickets

Find out more here and here

Berlinale 68 | Dreaming of a kinder world

The mercifully long-form article I got to write about my inspiring trip to the 68th edition of the Berlin International Film Festival is now online over at the newly-revamped MaltaToday news portal.

Photography was generously provided by my fellow “visitor” from Laos, the filmmaker Xaisongkham Induangchanthy.

TR FEATURE Berlinale PIX 2

But for all these hints of mystery, it’s deliberate and clear-eyed human impositions which engulf the city, in ways that are often inspiring and beautiful but which leave little room for the imagination. And if we are to speak of dreams from the lens of one of their most famous and enduring philosophers – Sigmund Freud – contemporary Berlin stands as precisely a rigid, assertive bulwark against the kind of subconscious demons Freud wrote about.

Click here to read the full article

The education of animals | Okja and Spoor

In the Polish-Czech co-production Spoor (Pokot), released earlier this year and directed by the acclaimed Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland (who also serves as co-writer), Janina (Agnieszka Mandat-Grabka) an animal-loving former engineer living on the Czech-Polish border starts to see her dreadful poacher neighbours disappear one by one, soon after she loses her beloved dogs.

In Okja, directed by Bong Joon-ho and released by Netflix earlier this year, a young girl from the Korean wilderness, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun), has her GMO-enhanced ‘superpig’ Okja taken away from her by the corporation that made it in the first place (the ‘Mirando Corporation’, fronted by the creepily upbeat and aching-to-be-hip Lucy Mirando, played with typical aplomb by Tilda Swinton). Being the biggest and most beautiful of its lot, Okja will be paraded around in New York before being sliced up into sausages and other treats.

VIDA FILMS AUG 2017 Okja 2

A girl and her pig: Ahn Seo-hyun in Okja (2017)

Both films are inspired genre mashups operating to varying degrees of success — with Okja’s maddened but heartfelt modern fable coming up tops by a wide margin — and both have female protagonists on the opposite side of the age spectrum who are made to struggle with the brittle fault-line between the ‘animal’ and the ‘human’.

In Mija’s case, the girl forces herself out of her comfort zone in a foolhardy mission to America — where she is helped along by the Animal Liberation Front, a group of rag-tag animal rights activists who make Okja’s cause their mission… only to later reveal their true mission is to use Mija’s best friend as a mole to help them reveal the extent of the Mirando Corporation’s callous exploitation of the natural world.

Agnieszka Mandat-Grabka and Miroslav Krobot in Spoor (2017)

Agnieszka Mandat-Grabka and Miroslav Krobot in Spoor (2017)

Janina, on the other hand, is the village eccentric — the loony or idiot, if you want to be less generous, and the poachers who ring her existence and make her life a living hell — all the more because they’re aided and abetted by the legal, commercial and clerical strands of her community — are certainly happy to view her as a pitiable nuisance, at best.

Holland’s film — co-written by the source novel’s writer Olga Tokarczuk — muddles some of its narrative and thematic targets along the way, but its most interesting strand is the positioning of Janina herself. Hiding the main secret of the film in plain sight for a long stretch of its running time — it is finally revealed that Janina herself is the mysterious hunter-killer — she is presented as the ultimate unhinged ‘do-gooder’. Lacking perspective and a convincing way to make her case — her unquestioning belief in astrology is likely to alienate her from the bulk of the audience’s sympathies — her questionable mission only gains a truly humane backbone when she lets in some ‘allies’ into it.

Indeed, both Mija and Janina gain their small environmental victories by finally leveraging their ambitions with the realities of the world. There are crucial differences between the two, however. While Mija starts off as naive, learning that Okja is only one small part of a wider ‘family’ of superpigs, and whose very origin — and, sadly, fate — is a deeply disturbing matter, Janina’s starting point — and main psychological obstacle throughout — is a generally ‘cracked’ view of the world.

Cruel pens: Spoor (2017)

Cruel pens: Spoor (2017)

In some ways, it’s easy to imagine that Mija could easily have become Janina in a future iteration. Somebody whose love of a seemingly innocent natural creature — a love that, crucially, blossoms in an idyllic rural environment — is eventually corrupted into a resentment that gives way to a form of insanity. But it’s also worth noting that both films end on similar beats: with both ‘families’ — Mija, Okja and her grandfather; Janina and her allies in a secluded farmhouse commune — finding some form of solace after having accomplished their respective ‘missions’, to varying degrees of success.

Once again, Okja proves itself the more elegant film. The ending is not a pat reward for both the audience and Mija herself. While an inner peace may just radiate from the scene — the oblique benefits of Mija gaining wisdom from the experience, her slowly-curling smile as Okja conspiratorially whispers into her ear — it is also unquestionably dripping with melancholy. She is “sadder and wiser” for having undergone the ordeal of getting Okja back, and of learning that it was all just a tip of a very nasty iceberg. It is a fitting end for a true hero’s journey: a coming-of-age story where the sudden onset of ‘age’ is actually felt in Mija’s muted enthusiasm in those final scenes.

VIDA FILMS AUG 2017 Okja 3

Okja (2017)

Spoor is, true to form, clumsier in this regard; rewarding Janina with a commune for her vigilante efforts (and it’s a full-blown commune indeed, as Dyzio and Dobra are shown to have had kids so as to ensure the little society’s propagation). But in both films, what shines through is the necessity of searching for communal solutions to problems caused by individualism. The do-gooders of both films — Janina, and the Animal Liberation Front — are both shown as deeply flawed. But their efforts yield results precisely because they veer away from the individualistic approach to life we’re all encouraged to participate in.

We are trained to believe that the inherent problems of a set up like the Animal Liberation Front are enough to nip such an effort in the bud. And while it’s impossible to condone Janina’s murderous rampage — save for the emotional catharsis it provides to the viewer in the immediate term — it is the oppressive and fully sanctioned logic of murder for sport that the poachers engage in which have in fact pusher her over the edge. It is then up to her cluster of support — similarly sidelined kindred spirits — to rehabilitate her into a society that offers a better alternative.

A society — a commune — whose presentation may come off as being a tad contrived, but which remains a testament to how fiction can be useful in helping us lay down a blueprint for something better.

***

Human hypocrisy and short-sightedness should never be the last word on any phenomenon that exists on this world — be it natural or social. We will always make mistakes and blunders along the way; and we’ll tend to either forget some of the more vaunted commitments we may make in our quest to create the conditions for a better, more equal and overall ‘healthier’ world.

But while this does not mean letting the most egregious offenders of the hook, as both of these films show, the ambiguities of the situation should not be ignored, or brushed off as weaknesses or irredeemable shortcomings.

Success is a totem often built of smaller, chipped and cracking versions of the same, and we can only really achieve true progress by not giving these smaller bits a hard time along the way.