One of the many pleasures of film festivals is in the connections created between films when viewed in proximity to one another. This year, as I previewed films in one of my favorite programs at the Haifa Film Festival, the Golden Anchor Competition for Debut Films, I was struck by three films whose themes resonate at the intersection of body, dance, and women’s experiences in different ways. The films are: Animal, written and directed by Sofia Exarchou; Double Life, written and directed by Enen Yo; Girl, written and directed by Adura Onashile.
Dimitra Vlagopoulou delivers an intense performance in Exarchou’s Animal, as Kalia, who works along with her fellow animateurs – entertainers whose job is to sing, dance, host games, flirt, and generally make sure that the guests at the Hotel Mirage, a Greek island resort, are having a good time. Now in her mid-thirties, the vivacious Kalia is considered the star of the show, when the summer season newbies arrive, she’s the one who teaches them all the moves. The crew of animateurs live in a barracks-like housing in what seems to be the bleak part of the island, where a chain-link fence separates one stretch of barren land from another. There’s a warm camaraderie between them, a family-of-circumstance, as they swarm into the hotel kitchen to get leftovers, hang out drinking and telling stories, practice their moves, or give each other costume tips and haircuts. This is Kalia’s seventh season at the Mirage, and she shares a casual, affectionate, sexual relationship with Simos (Ahilleas Hariskos), who is also a veteran entertainer – the others refer to them jokingly as Grandma and Grandpa.
The line between life and performance becomes blurred, and the body a useful tool, as long as it remains lovely and limber. When Eva, a 17-year-old from Poland, joins the troupe, Kalia befriends her and takes her under her wing, and as Eva moves from an awkward stiffness into feeling the beat as she dances, one can imagine the young Kalia of years gone by. Performing day and night, always smiling, it becomes hard to distinguish between feeling pleasure and performing pleasure. Taking on a gig at a local nightclub along with some of the other dancers to earn some extra, much-needed cash, Kalia slips and falls, hurting her knee. Suddenly, her body, her money-maker, has betrayed her, let her down. But what can she do except keep on dancing? The film conveys a vivid image of how the other half live, the people who work hard to make sure that others are having fun. Dimitra Vlagopoulou won Best Performance at the 76th Locarno Film Festival and she imbues the character of Kalia with a fierce vitality and warmth, engaging the viewer’s empathy as she depicts a woman driven to the edge of physical and emotional exhaustion, so depleted, she tells Eva, “I don’t even dream. Nothing. Blank.”
If for Kalia, dance is a sequence of prescribed steps calculated to be performed in a certain way, in specific sexy costumes to elicit the desired response in the audience, then for Shiori (Atsuko Kikuchi), the protagonist of Enen Yo’s Double Life, it is something utterly different, something deep within, that moves and compels her. Yet in some ways the two women have much in common, both have been betrayed by their bodies. For Kalia, it is due to the inevitable, inexorable, wear and tear of the passing years, while Shiori, a contemporary dancer, suffered an injury during a performance that ended her professional career. She works as the assistant to Kumiko, who runs a dance studio, remaining close to the art that still burns within her. When the session ends, and the dancers leave, she takes off her shoes, and dances in the empty studio, trying to recreate the movement and the feeling, only to fall. When Kumiko offers a workshop for couples on Communicating Love, Shiori is eager to attend, hoping perhaps that it will revive the relationship with her husband Ryo.
There is a graceful, quiet acceptance to Shiori, yet beneath the serene surface there is the desire for love, joy, and art, as well as the courage to seek them out. When Ryo tells her he cannot attend the workshop, she dares to try an unconventional option, that exists in Japan – she acquires the services of a rental husband for the event. There are companies in Japan where actors can be hired, either on a one-time basis or even long-term, to play the role of a boyfriend, husband, or relative. In Shiori’s case she hires Junnosuke Kino to fill in for Ryo and participate in the couple’s workshop. He is gentle, kind, and amazingly insightful. Shiori decides to continue the relationship, signing a long-term contract, and renting an inexpensive apartment where they meet, share meals and conversation, pretending to be married. With Junnosuke Kino, Shiori has the relationship she has dreamed of, with a partner who listens, cares, and encourages her. Yet is it real, or is it all a performance? And if it is a performance, is that enough for her?
Atsuko Kikuchi reflects Shiori’s inner journey as she explores the different relationships in her life – with Ryo, with her mentor Kumiko, with Junnosuke Kino, with dance, and with herself. Although the focus is on Shiori, there are glimpses into the lives of the others around her, most movingly, Kumiko. The aesthetic of the film is very precise, black and white dominate, and when colors appear their presence is significant. The dance scenes are sparing, yet powerful and moving. As Kumiko tells Shiori, “dancing is connecting with others with the body, and also about knowing yourself.”
The body is a place of vulnerability and danger in Adura Onashile’s Girl. Only 24, Grace (Déborah Lukumuena) already has a daughter Ama (Le’Shantey Bonsu), who will soon turn 11. Living in subsidized housing on the edge of poverty, Grace works nights as a cleaner to support their small family. She has created a safe haven for Ama through the stories she tells her and their fantasies of someday living in a beautiful home whose walls are pink and gold. But as Ama matures, she becomes more and more curious about the world around them, the world Grace always warns against, even to the extent of keeping her home from school. At night, when Grace goes to work, Ama slips out of bed, looking out at the colorful lights of Glasgow, wondering about the life beyond their small apartment.
Grace has experienced trauma in her life, and Onashile has found an effective cinematic language to convey the trauma and its presence in Grace’s life. Brief sojourns into Grace’s memories reveal the source of her pain and fear while retaining her privacy and dignity. The emphasis is on Grace and how she copes, rather than exploiting or sensationalizing the trauma she has endured. Yet as Ama approaches puberty, Grace’s fears grow and dominate their relationship. For Grace, there is danger in the passage from childhood to maturity, and in her desire to protect Ama, she limits the girl’s world to a very narrow existence, telling her “We keep to ourselves, we trust no one.”
But where Grace is fearful, Ama – in a wonderful, nuanced, performance by L’Shantey Bonsu, is curious. She wants to explore her body, and she wants to explore the world. Serendipity brings Ama to the attention of neighbor and classmate Fiona (Liana Turner), and although it is difficult to get through the wall of Grace’s warnings that surrounds her, Fiona persists. Dance has its place here too, as the universal language of pre-teen girls, in which learning the popular dance steps is a rite of passage, and I refer once more to Double Life’s dance teacher Kumiko, ““dancing is connecting with others with the body, and also about knowing yourself.”
Onashile’s film is saturated with color, from the walls of Grace and Ama’s apartment to Fiona’s ubiquitous pink puffer jacket. The bright palette communicates a message of hope, within the constraints of their lives. Déborah Lukumuena delivers a powerful performance as Grace, a very young woman who has already been through the fire and emerged determined to make a good life for herself and her daughter. Grace has survived by establishing rigid boundaries, and as Ama grows beyond those boundaries, both mother and daughter will have to make difficult choices. Girl is the story of a fierce love, connection, and mutual dependence between mother and daughter, that in the precise telling and individuality of character and narrative, generates a universal resonance.
The Haifa International Film Festival will take place from September 28 – October 7, 2023. The full program is available on the festival website.
Greece/Austria/Romania/Cyprus/Bulgaria/2023/116 min/Greek, English, German/subtitles Hebrew and English
Written and Directed by Sofia Exarchou; Cinematography: Monika Lenczewska; Editor: Dragos Apetri; Music: Wolfgang Frisch; Cast: Dimitra Vlagopoulou, Flomaria Papadaki, Ahilleas Hariskos, Voodoo Jürgens
Japan/China/2022/103 min/Japanese with English and Hebrew subtitles
Written and directed by Enen Yo; Cinematography: Takumi Kohama; Editor: Enen Yo; Music: Haru Kawashima; Cast: Atsuko Kikuchi, Shingo Matsuoka, Hiromi Furukawa, Hiromi Wakasa, Mai Asada
UK/2023/87 min/English with Hebrew subtitles
Written and Directed by Adura Onashile; Cinematography: Tasha Bac; Editor: Stella Heath Keir; Music: Ré Olunuga; Cast: Déborah Lukumuena, Le’Shantey Bonsu, Danny Sapani, Liana Turner