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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Nicolas Philibert's famous documentary 'Etre et Avoir' made us feel an enormous admiration for the competence, care and patience of it's hero, school teacher Mr. Lopez. Now we have 'La Consultation' to make us feel likewise that doctor Luc Perino is a hero in his own unspectacular way. He is generally and genuinely compassionate and he's always interested in the person behind the patient, but he's firm if he thinks the patient is on the wrong track. Hélène de Crecy's quietly paced film (nearly Raymond Depardon-style)suggests a slice out of an ordinary day of patients: a baby with an eating problem; a young woman whose bronchitis ought to make her stop smoking; a young man from North-African descent who feels nervous and can't get a job; a young Asian woman with an unwanted pregnancy but a very tender French boyfriend; another young Asian woman who suffers from chronic fatigue and work stress; a woman with anxiety attacks and a non-talkative unemployed husband; a middle aged woman on a medication shopping spree (with no opposition from doc Perino, whereas he turned away another woman with an apparent drug habit); the mother of the young North-African man (which conversation sheds a whole new light on his condition); an older woman whose main complaint appears to be that she does not feel at home among the other elderly people in her service flat; a very old and dehydrated woman with a bulb on her stomach; a very old man who can communicate only through nodding and is in for morphine. Doctor Perino does what's in his reach and he does it in a way you would wish from every doctor. But during many a conversation you sense a certain despair, which is confirmed by a number of direct addresses tot the camera after a consultation. What can a doctor do in a world with children who never receive breast feeding, high work pressure, unemployment, bad marriages and very fragile older people? Every medical student in the western world ought to see this film, to reflect on what it presents and to discuss what it can teach us. Doctor Luc Perino may not be perfect, but he's the best guide we can wish for through the territory of humanity in medicine.
This film pulls a very difficult trick.It's fiction about recognizable people with believable worries, without ever sliding off into Serious Problem Film territory. At the end of it, I realized I had been watching a story about a problem family with some seriously troubled members. But while watching, I didn't bother about that and was just curious about the successes and failures of the sexual exploits of the children of this family. The light-hearted, matter-of-fact tone of the movie never allowed me to judge the characters or see them merely as comic objects. Their troubles were my troubles, as far as it went. What more would a film have to offer?
The recent Nobel prize for J.M. Coetzee ought to direct new attention to this gem: Marion Hänsel's uncompromising adaptation of his novel Dust.The relentless landscape, the stains of racial and social differences, the longings and misgivings of believable characters capable of self-righteously wronging each other: this film depicts the bleak human universe of Coetzee's novels in a way I had not held possible. Good and bad, rape and revenge are committed for equally murky motives. You get the feel of naked human life and it's not a pleasant sight. But the phenomenal accomplishment of Hänsel's work is that it preserves Coetzee's empathy with the characters. When we're sensitive, we can no longer get away with easy condemnation of the foolish or brutal acts they commit. Anyone who smugly believes he or she could not sink as low as the characters, ought to reflect some more on what these South African circumstances will do unto a man or woman, white or black, property owner or wage slave. The redeeming quality of this film is the flawless execution of the tricky combination of an explosive subject matter with a quiet pace and reflective view. Thus it is not merely human drama, morality play or aesthetic exercise, but an intensely atmospheric study of passions and the failure of constraints. At the heart of this unsettling experience is Jane Birkin, playing the role of a lifetime as the white farmer's spinster who is absolutely clueless regarding the realities of her world, her company and kin and herself. When circumstances force her to stop denying her perceptions and emotions and she is propelled to living them out, this only heightens the tragedy. Life is sad, if you look at it as Coetzee did and Hänsel does.
The English documentary film maker Kim Longinotto displays a unique talent
to draw us into a seemingly exotic aspect of women's experiences somewhere
on the globe and then make us recognise, sympathise, wonder, abhor and
doubt, often at the same time and about the same characters. More
particularly, she succeeds in activating our empathy with the plight of
'oppressed' women without simply denouncing the 'oppressors'. Although
'Divorce Iranian Style' portrayed the male judge of an Iranian divorce
in a very patriarchic system, it never failed to make us see all
participants in the process as people striving to make the best out of a
situation. In 'Gaea Girls' she showed us Japanese girls training their
off to get a shot at becoming a pro wrestler: it inspired admiration for
their intense dedication and pity for the endless litany of failure and
humiliation that most of them had to endure. In 'Runaway', about the only
place in Iran offering shelter to girls and young women who have run away
from home, you empathise totally with the desparation of the girls. But
also gradually develop an understanding that some of them would have given
their family a hard time under any circumstances.
Now in 'The Day I will never forget' Longinotto depicts what is
by many as the ultimate crime against women: genital mutilation of girls
order to prevent them from taking an interest in sexual intercourse with
other men than their own(er). In several forms, this is a habit among
millions of people in (North) East Africa, mainly but not exclusively
Muslims. By diligent field work in Kenya, building up contacts among women
of several ethnic and religious groups, Longinotto has managed to take us
into the heart of this practice. This does not refer primarily to seeing
circumcision on screen (we very nearly do), but to the way that both
circumcision and the protests against it are shown to be interwoven with
local culture. As in all Longinotto's work, we really feel we intimately
to know both the persons involved and their motives. The girls appear to
ambivalent: they want to become 'real' and 'clean' women as truly as their
mothers, older sisters and (tribal and religious) girl friends, but they
don't really understand why this should involve such a frightful
Parents may often be doubtful themselves, opting for milder forms than in
earlier generations. Only the practitioners we get to know (older
some of the parents, women as good as men, do not display any doubt.
But there's a good chance, of course, that Longinotto and her camera were not invited into the hard core world of circumcision, only in families and groups who are aware of the controversial nature of the procedure. An indication for this latter fact is that all defenders explicitly use concepts such as 'tradition' and 'culture'. I guess that where tradition and culture still go unchallenged, there is no need to use such abstract concepts. The 'oppressors' are aware that their actions are not self-evident or even highly controversial and more or less helplessly declare that one ought to preserve some anchor in a rapidly changing world. A brilliant Longinotto touch is the hesitant, ambivalent and/or negotiating key character. The first part of the film follows a nurse who confronts parents, husbands and practitioners with arguments concerning the risks and harm of the procedure and against the religious foundation of the practice. But she is also a practical woman, realising that in order to remain on speaking terms with the families and to do some good for the girls involved, she had better not state her case too vehemently. She's always smiling and understanding and offers advice on performing circumcision and undoing the stitching in the most moderate and safe ways. This kind of stuff reminds us of the good willing judge in the divorce film, the female trainer with a heart in Japan and the staff in the Teheran shelter for girls. Through these characters, Longinotto makes it impossible for us to feel ourselves the superior spectators. 'The Day I will never forget' is not about being against female circumcision (it is), but about making a difference for real people in difficult circumstances. It's great art that inspires great compassion.