When we watch a film, how deeply do we think about the issues it presents? Those issues don’t affect us, after all; and surely the filmmaker has an agenda, an angle. Even those of us who like to think we are intelligent and aware of how the world works might watch a moving documentary, perhaps, and respond to it in a guarded way: how do we know what to believe, after all? And we surely can’t be expected to do anything about it.
This is where Screening Rights Film Festival comes in. According to the 2019 programme, “the power of film to move us to think or feel differently should not be underestimated. The festival explores and exploits this power by bringing some of the most compelling recent films to our region, and by opening them up fully for discussion.”
The region in question is the West Midlands of the United Kingdom. Screening Rights was set up in 2015 as a film event series led by Michele Aaron and John Horne at the University of Birmingham, and the first annual Screening Rights Film Festival took place at the Midlands Arts Centre in Birmingham that year. Dr Aaron is now part of the University of Warwick’s Department of Film and Television Studies; and as her work and influence spread, the festival expanded into Coventry. This was the second year that the screenings and discussions took place in both cities (and I like to imagine there could be a national tour in the future).
I was privileged to attend the three films screened in Coventry, and – as film festivals go – I found it both fascinating and unusual. Granted my experience of festivals is largely limited to quirky genre events so far, but this one felt different in two key respects. Firstly, the audience wasn’t there simply to lap up some terrific films but, essentially, to understand more about what goes on in the world, via those films. Secondly, I’m used to Q&A sessions after film screenings when the filmmakers face questions about where their ideas came from, or how easy it was to work with certain people, or – you know – stuff about the film-making process, and geeky fan topics. At Screening Rights, all the discussion was about the social justice topics; about how they are viewed here, how they affect us, how they were presented (rightly or wrongly) in the film. The audience gained a great deal from each film and then digested what they saw with the help of panelists who had experience and education in the topics concerned.
Screening Rights Film Festival opened with Obey (directed by Jamie Jones, UK, 2018) at the Old Grammar School, Coventry. I’d not heard of the film before, which was a shame; especially as I remember the turbulent period it focuses on pretty well. Obey is the story of Leon (Marcus Rutherford) a young man developing his identity and independence. He lives in a deprived part of London with an alcoholic mother and is torn between making his own direction and several conflicting social influences. In the background, getting closer, are the 2011 riots that followed protests in response to a man shot dead by police.
The film was engaging in its own right but became more interesting when the panel (including Professor Rajinder Dudrah of Birmingham City University and writer/director Liane Moonraven) and audience revealed their different perspectives. For example, some appreciated how Obey showed one person’s experience of those events in London as an “everyman”; while others considered the film to be too full of tropes and clichés relating to young black people to add much value.
My personal view of Obey was that although it was an engaging story, it didn’t achieve what (I think) it set out to do: that is, by the end of the film, I was none the wiser as to why the London riots spread and lasted as they did; and the film only showed glimpses of how they spread. Consequently, it gave more insight into an individual’s disenchantment with his lot than into the riots, and Leon’s story could have been set therefore in any modern British city. I agree with the issues of racial tropes: there seemed to be similar stereotypes to those one would find in British soap operas. In addition, no depth at all was given to the female characters. The acting was better than the writing by far, though; not just on Rutherford’s part, but across the board.
The second film screened in Coventry, this time at Coventry University’s Square One venue, was Capernaum (directed by Nadine Labaki, Lebanon/USA, 2018); the film I’d heard most about, and also the one which impressed me the most. Capernaum is about Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), a Lebanese boy making his own way in life after a schism in his family. He is cynical, he is angry, pragmatic and grown-up way too soon. The story shows Zain’s bond with his sister, whose only value to her family is in a “good” marriage; shows him making friends with an Ethiopian worker, looking after her son in exchange for lodging; it shows how people can lose their sense of belonging, and how some people take care of their needs when they see no alternative.
That might not sound like much of a story, but trust me, there is a plot. It is presented in a slight, subtle form though, as befits the story of a person’s life (you can almost forget you are watching fiction at times); though it is given structure by the bookends of Zain’s arrest for a violent crime and then the suit he brings against his parents for giving him life. Capernaum may sound heavy going, but it was fascinating, bright and truly eye-opening: this is a world I am unlikely to ever see in real life, and not only have I now seen a part of it, but I have been given some insight and understanding too… which is what the Screening Rights festival is all about, of course. I should also mention the absolutely remarkable child actors, who reminded me of those from Tigers are Not Afraid.
Professor Stephanie Hemelryk Donald from the University of Lincoln and writer Riham Sheble fielded an equally eye-opening discussion afterward; though having been so moved by the film, I felt my emotional bubble burst a little by some of the negative remarks. Some complained about the simplistic aspect to parts of the story; especially in relation to people trafficking and Zain’s access to the legal process. Some mentioned that there was no sign of military conflict, or religious discrimination; all of which would be facts of life in that setting. I saw it as a simple fable (though no less beautifully produced) from a boy’s point of view, which would explain some of the blinkers. Because of it being a fable, there is a moral aspect of course, but one also accepts that the hope it presents may be more optimistic than real life.
And then there was For Sama (directed by Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts, Syria/UK, 2019), and damn this was a tough way to end a Saturday evening out! But the news alone does not give safe and privileged viewers like me any real understanding of what war can be like; For Sama achieves that, and watching it with a group who clearly want to dig deep into what the film offered was an experience that enriched the film, giving it various perspectives of people outside of the film to supplement those within it.
For Sama is Waad al-Kateab’s record of the uprising in Aleppo, Syria, developing over a five year period into war and utter destruction. Initially, she is an amateur filmmaker, inspired into activism and helping out at the city hospital when things started to get difficult. She kept on recording as the conflict worsened, and as she fell for one of the doctors. By the end of the five years, she and her now-husband Hamza Al-Kateab are parents to Sama; and according to the voiceover, the decisions they make to survive the war and maintain their little family are all for her. For Sama is a rare presentation of a woman’s experience of war, but interestingly, I found very little gender-specific in what she had to say; but perhaps some of the intimate, domestic scenes might have been glossed over by a male counterpart (though I hope not).
Dr Nicola Pratt (University of Warwick) and Razan Ghazzawi, Syrian scholar and activist (University of Sussex) took questions and comments this time. For the most part, the audience was shocked and moved by the film, though some pointed out the inherent bias in one person’s perspective. The main issue that sparked debate though was not related to the war as such but consent: an infant girl, Sama, was the focal point for a daring and harrowing film, and she will be known around the world long before she is old enough to understand it. It was interesting to discover that an issue like this can have a range of angles that I wouldn’t have considered previously.
Screening Rights Film festival took place from 21 to 24 November 2019.