This 2015 film from Brazil tells the story of a young man entering the world of a 70s alternative theatre group. The regime is repressive and hostile to groups that mock it in whatever medium. Our young man, Fininha, is in the army/police and is introduced to the actors through his girlfriend’s brother who is the group’s most flamboyant member. Having never seen a show like it, 18 year old Fininha is intrigued and then immersed in the world of gay activists. Clecio is the leader who takes the young soldier under his wing and a sexual relationship develops.
Back at barracks, Fininha is mocked for being an outsider and at home his relationship is fallign apart, not helped by the expectations on all young men in the society of the time. When he decides to throw in his lot with the anarchist group, he gets a tattoo to show his love for Clecio.
The regime hits back at a group that mocks it by sending in the soldiers and the sense of an inevitable collision builds.
Irandhir Santos plays Clecio and Jesuita Barbosa plays the young Fininha in a film that is provocative as well as evocative of an era when to be gay was to be political.
One of the signs that a book has gone deep is the subsequent research or reading I do. This novel by Philip Hensher made me look into the 1971 War of Independence in Bangladesh. It is an event I knew little about even though I did know that the country emerged from what was East Pakistan and I had a vague memory of reading about the dominance of Pakistan, or West Pakistan, over the eastern part of the split country.
The novel tells the early life story of Hensher’s husband who is from Bangladesh. I was not struck by the early part of the book and felt as I often do when reading autobiographies that early chapters have to be waded through to get to the interesting parts. Yet, once into the book I was captivated. There is a large cast of characters since our hero Saadi was born into a large family of aunts and uncles.
It is the determination of a people to keep alive their culture and language that is the most effective aspect of the book. Bengali speakers are subject to humiliations and fear for their lives when Urdu speaking rulers try to force their culture on the east in an attempt to unify a country.
The family is upper middle class with plenty of servants but fear is distributed evenly in this era. Saadi’s grandfather hides his Bengali books and music in a room behind a door that is plastered over, such is the fear of discovery. As a baby, Saadi is passed from aunt to aunt and fed whatever he needs to ensure he does not cry out during the hours of curfew; who needs attention from soldiers patrolling the street?
The book passes back and forth in time. It starts when the war is over with a young Saadi playing in the street. When a neighbourhood boy tries to play with him it is the adults who step in. They know which family he comes from and what they did in the war. So, when we step back to a younger Saadi and a time of greater fear we see why the scars still exist years later.
The book works well as fiction even if it edges up against biography of the author’s husband. It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I have been exploring the excellent BFI archive recently and came across two documentaries about race relations in Britain. The first, from the 60s, was part of the ITV current affairs series ‘This Week’ and the second from the ITV current affairs series, ‘World in Action’. I may well have seen the second of these programmes, called ‘Black to Front’ since I was a keen watcher of ‘World in Action’ in the 70s as well as an awakening political activist.
‘Black to Front’ covered the by-election in Lambeth Central in 1978 when the threat of the racist National Front was all too real. The far right party had gone through a period of rising support, especially in parliamentary by-elections, often defeating the, then, third-party the Liberals into fourth place. This particular by-election was important as Brixton, with its increasing black population, was part of the constituency.
In Leeds in 1965, the late great Desmond Wilcox interviewed families for a documentary called ‘The Negro Next Door’. The attitudes of the white residents seem somewhat shocking today but Wilcox was a brilliant journalist and his questions kept gently probing the preconceptions.
Despite being a decade apart, both documentaries took one street to act as a microcosm of the whole nation. In both programmes, neighbours were brought together to discuss the issues. This was more awkward and revealing in the 1965 documentary since the attitudes had yet to soften or get hidden behind a veneer of politeness.
The BFI archive is fascinating with many programmes available free of charge. It acts as a fascinating resource for seeing how the country has changed (or not) and how social attitudes build national character. I like going through programmes from my younger years even if I missed them at the time. Watching the world as it once was, from traffic to fashion, is a way of revisiting my childhood and teenage years.
These documentaries from the BFI archive are in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
The BFI player is a wonderful resource and I was able to watch a programme I first saw in the late 70s. London Weekend Television used to produce some impressive dramas and this one, about a children’s home, was broadcast on a Friday night. Called ‘Kids’ the series had linked dramas with each story apparently based on real life stories. The central cast of actors who played the professionals stayed the same each week but the children and teenagers changed from story to story.
James Hazeldine played the benevolent manager of the centre who did his best in an uncaring system. The episode here was remarkable for me because it portrayed a gay character. This was still a rarity in the 70s and even in this episode, written by William Corlett, the gay character is viewed with suspicion.
Liam is the camp, gay boy who has no friends and who refuses to tone down his behaviour to suit other people. Advice given to him is that if he changed his mannerisms and ‘hid’ his gayness, he might get on better with other people. Such were the times that the problems were all seen as his. When Michael arrives at the home after a suicide attempt he becomes the only one who befriends Liam. They get on but there is a switch in their friendship towards the end of the episode that shows the prevailing attitudes of the time.
It is an interesting period piece now and the production values of television were, then, behind those of cinema but as a reminder of how gay people were portrayed, if they were seen at all, it is worth watching.
In Winchester for the first time in years, so off to see the Elizabeth Frink sculpture of ‘Horse and Rider’ erected in 1975 at the top of the High Street. It is a companion piece to the one of the same title in Mayfair, London installed a year earlier. The man is naked and sits on the horse with no saddle or bridle.
This 2016 film from Thomas Vinterberg, while not his best work, is interesting. The cast includes actors well-known internationally from other Danish films in an exploration of the conflicts of communal living and personal desires.
Ulrich Thomsen and Trine Dyrholm play a married couple who inherit a large family house and decide to invite others to live there with them. The disparate group they put together form a sort of extended family in the best spirit of communal living. Their relationship fractures, though, when he has an affair with a student at the University where he lectures and, rather than keep it quiet, he confesses to his wife and they split… sort of, since neither moves out.
The spirit of inclusion engendered by the commune is now called upon to include his new partner and the communal members decide to invite her to live with them all. The effect on wife, husband and daughter may be obvious but the film shows the individuals dealing with the reality as it touches on their principles. Set in the 70s, the film is an interesting exploration of themes of peace and conflict.
The work of Joe Sacco inspired me to find more graphic novels and graphic reportage so, after years of never going near the shelf with all the ‘comic books’, I now look out for new titles that are worth reading. This memoir by Marcelino Truong is brilliant. It follows an earlier work that I have yet to read but this volume covering the years 1963- 1975 is an excellent evocation of an interesting era. It makes it more interesting that the author/artist has dual heritage: his mother was French and his father Vietnamese. His father’s job in the Embassy in London brought the family to Britain and, although he changed jobs, this where they stayed.
Truong combines information about the Vietnam War with a personal family story. Where the two overlap, the most insights are to be found. In some senses, this is the story of every family. ‘Marco’ grew up in London at the same time I did so the references, both pictorial and written, to the changing times are of particular interest. So, too, is the invitation to consider the Vietnam War from a different angle. It isn’t the American angle but neither is it the contrary North Vietnamese view of things. Instead, Marco sees the radical students around him supporting the anti- colonial forces of the north and cannot understand why the communists are seen as benign. His position is one of concern for the family and friends in South Vietnam.
As his hair grew longer in the 70s so did his understanding of what was actually going on in Vietnam. When he moves to France as a teenager, he continues to find himself in the middle of the conflict between North Vietnamese supporting students and those who support the ‘western values’.
This memoir has a parallel story, though. It is one of being of mixed heritage and of living with a mother who has bipolar disorder. The effect of these two factors in his growing up and the directions taken by each of his siblings make for a poignant reminder of what family life can be.
‘Saigon Calling’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?