A watchlist compiled by Ernesto Hernández-López
(Jafar Panahi, 2006)
The oppressed scream louder and from further, even when the national team plays. Filmed in a stadium during an actual football game between Iran and Bahrain, a nail-biting qualifier for the 2006 World Cup, Offside shows the struggle of six young women who sneak into the match. Between 1981 and 2019 women were banned from attending matches. Here, the six are proud patriot soccer fans but prohibited, “offsides,” from being there. A cinematic genius, a true “10” with the camera and script, Panahi demonstrates how the rules don’t make sense and can’t be defended, especially by those enforcing them. He uses short close dialogue and double entendre images to dribble between crackdown defenses and goal celebrations. All this, with the background noise of actual stadium crowd cheers, cries, and elation of a needed home win. Iran made it to the World Cup in Germany the next year and thirteen years later women could attend matches.
This is my favorite film on this list. Panahi has made a career of realism’s honest beauty. His movies are approachable yet vividly intense, showing the complexities of injustice, understandable to non-Iranian audiences. They also meet domestic censor standards. Sadly, he has been subjected by Iranian authorities to imprisonment, house arrest and ongoing travel ban. His other films include The White Balloon, a seven year-old girl’s one day journey on Nowruz (New Year), as a comment on ingenuity and post-war and revolutionary Iran; The Circle, about how Iranian society treats women, presented as interconnected stories to emphasize how oppression and persistent resistance encircle all women, not just a heroine or victim; and Taxi with Panahi as the incognito cab driver conversing with passengers including human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh.
Steaming links to watch Offside here.
(Claire Denis, 1988)
Empire oozes like social osmosis. Set in Cameroon, Chocolat refers to the slang term of being cheated and alludes to being fetishized. Denis tells the story of an adult white French woman who returns to Africa, sparking childhood memories from 1950s colonialism. The screen shows a countryside French estate, its European visitors, and the omnipresent social and gendered boundaries. There are sexual tensions and affections between characters. Boundaries force contestation amongst them. Denis’s genius is in showing how the routine is framed by larger tensions that Africans have to address while Europeans expect to privilege from. As an example, the cook is continually confused as to what the family wants from French or British meal recipes, since the estate’s masters rotate as colonial occupiers change.
For three decades, Denis has excelled in showing how the post-colonial afflicts, far after occupation and decolonization, with films like: 35 rhums and No Fear, No Die about migrant families in France; Beau travail regarding masculinity and the military overseas; and White Material on war.
Steaming links to watch Chocolat here.
(Lila Avilés, 2018)
Labor, race, class, and gender roles: which came first? It all appears too mezclado (mixed) as we follow Eve, who cleans rooms in a luxury Mexico City hotel. With gripping camerawork and natural dialogue, Avilés shows the dedication, humiliation, humor, and skill of Eve’s daily challenges. Her boss calls all cleaners niña (‘girl’), despite their age. It is demeaning, but common in much of Latin America. Eve is twenty-four and has a four-year old son. She leaves home too early and returns too late to see him. An Argentine guest asks if she can take care of her baby every day “just for a little bit.” Given the power dynamics Eve agrees, despite barely meeting mounting cleaning duties. Eve is determined, if also quiet and respectful. She takes on more work to be promoted in charge of floor 42, where VIP suites promise more tips. Eve comes in early for lessons for a high school equivalency diploma, needed for the promotion. The union ends the classes. Following the rules, she kindly and repeatedly asks about a fancy red dress that a guest left behind, just in case the boss wants to be nice and let her have it. Eve’s strength shines with toques, a popular game in México when you hold an electrical transmitter to see how long and how many volts you can hold on for. A co-worker jokes that Eve is “tan chiquita y tan aguantona” – so small but strong.
The entire movie is shot inside the confines of a hotel, but its story never stifles or stales. We see high rise city views, but they seem a world away. Avilés captures monotonous long hallways, intentionally exclusionary spaces, and mercurial demands of each new guest room. This is compounded by the cramped closets and staff rooms that Eve escapes to so she can phone family. In cinematic terms, this is all the more impressive since Avilés chose no musical score or soundtrack. The sounds of a sterile hotel beg for our attention. In The Chambermaid, it is clear that the hotel’s commercial drive fuels the barriers that Eve and other workers navigate each day, all day.
Steaming links to watch The Chambermaid here.
O Pagador de Promessas
The Given Word
(Anselmo Duarte, 1962)
Faith and laughter collide, but we are unsure who wins. Zé do Burro, meaning Zé of the Donkey, is a rural peasant who has made a religious promise to carry a large wooden cross to a church in the city of Salvador de Bahia, Brazil. Cue the Christ invocations. The movie begins with rolling credits over his arduous journey while epic symphonic music announces a struggle, like big CinemaScope films did in the 1960s. He reaches the church at daybreak and respectfully waits after travelling for days. Zé tells the priest that he has made a promise, to bring the cross inside, because his donkey is ill. The priest refuses to let him in. Catholic doctrine does not recognize this kind of promise. Zé is determined to enter with the cross or die. He remains devoted, unmoving, and obvious to onlookers. Soon, the whole city is caught up in Zé’s plight, comunistas for land reform, capoeiristas conjuring physical resistance, cadomblistas asking the gods, sensationalist journalists, and churchgoers. The promise-maker fits into their mid-century struggle. This was filmed just steps from the Pelourinho square in Salvador – the “whipping post” where slaves were sold for centuries. Duarte paints the desperation of a struggling farmer along with Brazilian society’s fatalism and its equally-needed humor. The black and white imagery captures decaying Baroque buildings, in what is now a colorful touristy area, still standing and announcing slavery’s long memory.
(Haifaa al-Mansour, 2012)
As we learn about rules, we begin resisting. Wadjda is a 10-year old girl from the suburbs of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. She is independent. Makes mixtapes of western music. Sells bracelets that she knits with football team logos. Sings with mother while cooking (father is rarely home). Plays with Abdullah, a boy on her block. Wadjda is continually told about new rules that she circumvents: speak in a low voice (“a women’s voice is her nakedness”) and change your purple laced Converse (use muted slippers instead). She now needs to wear an abbayah, covering more of her while in public. Her mother jokes: we can now marry you off. At home, Wadjda’s t-shirt says “I Am A Catch.”
This coincides with larger realizations. First, she wants a bicycle. In genius filmmaking, al-Mansour shows a green bike transported on a truck. It freely floats on a busy street and Wadjda looks elated. Her mission is to get it and race Abdullah and the boys. Her mother tells her she can’t. On a bike she could lose her virginity. Wadjda gets the bike, but only with her wit and perseverance. Second, Wadjda learns how rules impact her mother. She has to be driven to a far-away job with an abusive driver. She can’t work closer because her husband doesn’t want her to work with men, like in the nearby hospital. She won’t complain. She is tormented by a threat that her husband will seek a second wife, since she cannot have more children – more precisely she cannot provide the desired son.
Al-Mansour directs an amazing movie in every aspect. Each scene conveys subtle resistance and accommodation to rules that custom, religion, status, and law try to compel. Eye rolls, stares, and body language say so much. It reminds me of the common Spanish saying “obedezco pero no cumplo” (I obey but I don’t comply), taken from colonial times but still current. Wadjda is not about loud cries for freedom and fighting, but instead focuses on routine choices. Given Saudi rules, Al-Mansour directed much of this from in a van, separated from male actors and crew. This was the first feature-length film made by a female Saudi director – and the first movie filmed entirely in Saudi Arabia, by a man or woman. It shows what a bike means for a pre-teen girl in a Saudi Arabia that is poised to change, evoking the Bicycle Thief in post-World War II Italy and Beijing Bicycle in a China whose economy appears to open up in the late-1990s. Wadjda is complete mastery from the opening shot of stiflingly uniformed girl shoes to an unknown future with a bike at a ubiquitous crossroads.
Steaming links to watch Wadjda here.
La Faute à Fidel!
Blame it on Fidel!
(Julie Gavras, 2006)
Consciousness is a process, made and changed. Anna de la Mesa is nine-year old French girl, born into an affluent family early in the 1970s. Her life changes dramatically when her parents become involved in left-wing politics, inspired by Salvador Allende and opposition to Franco. The changes are things that impact a child: a smaller home, new friends, different foods, and contrasting values. Some adults tell her “blame it on Fidel [Castro].” Poignantly, Gavras shows this from the perspective that the child experiences it – confused, angry, low-to-the-ground when forced to join protest marches, camera shots looking up at scary-looking adults, unable to go-with-the-flow like her little brother. Despite reacting against her father’s talk of progressive ideals, by observing, Anna internalizes the lessons of sharing, fighting injustice, and “solidarité”.
Steaming links to watch Blame it on Fidel! here.
Diarios de motocicleta
The Motorcycle Diaries
(Walter Salles, 2004)
Consciousness trumps borders created by race and sovereignty. Based on the early part of Ernesto Che Guevara’s diary, published under the same name, this film shows his departure from Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1952 as a twenty-three year old medical student. He travels with his cousin, planning to go down through Patagonia, across the Andes, and up the Pacific Coast. Salles presents a diverse picture of South America. On the journey, Guevara begins to see how poverty, repression, and political voicelessness characterize the region, while traveling through the intense beauty of the Atacama desert, Machu Pichu, the snowy Andes, and the Amazon. Gael García Bernal plays the role of Guevara and powerfully shows the beginning of his transformations from niño bien (rich kid) to revolutionary. His birthday toast in Peru conjures the mighty ideals of América Unida, a united America surpassing national and racial borders. Guevara’s real life second-cousin Rodrigo de la Serna plays the cousin Alberto Granado. My favorite scene is when Guevara swims across the river to celebrate with the leper patients and they yell “Ernesto! Ernesto! Ernesto!” as he makes the long swim. Despite the imagery of a sickly young man crossing the mighty river for justice, I [Ernesto] could be reading too much into the yells.
Steaming links to watch The Motorcycle Diaries here.
色 , 戒
(Ang Lee, 2007)
Empires occupy overseas places, and fight wars to obtain territory and defend their gains. Lee shows this in the context of China and the foreign concessions of Hong Kong and Shanghai as World War II approaches. Wong Chia is a young woman who starts out as a nationalist student and then becomes a Juntong (resistance) spy. She has a sexual relationship with Mr. Yee, a security agent for the puppet government set up by Japan. At first an undercover agent in Hong Kong and then the head of secret police in Shanghai, Mr. Yee is cold and unemotional, except when engaging intimately with Wong. She knows this. Lee’s attention to screen details, all-encompassing art direction, and physical but silent movements grips the viewer, like Wong’s drive is to resist the foreign occupiers. The sexually violent scenes evoke the historical drama of China in this war and the conflicts thereafter. Lust, Cautionillustrates how the global and the intimate occupy simultaneous spaces and how they influence each other.
Streaming links to watch Lust, Caution here.
La battaglia di Algeri
The Battle of Algiers
(Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966)
Cameras in the colony strike back with vengeance. Former Front de libération nationale (FLN) leader Saadi Yacef acted in Pontecorvo’s masterpiece about Algerian resistance (1954-1957) before the escalation of the war which forced France’s eventual departure in 1962. This may be the classic go-to film that belongs on this list. Rightly so. It confidently screens between documentary and emotional history. A narrator provides dry chronology, like a newsreel, while the camera focuses on the committed efforts of the French state and the Algerians. Resistance and security appear in life-like detail, still current more than half a century later. The Battle of Algiers has been a film buff and Global South fixation since its release. France initially banned it despite its international acclaim. It gained renewed interest when American military leaders screened it at the Pentagon in 2003, early in the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. These were lessons on insurgency, even if decades old.
In cinematic terms it excels. I expect it will for five decades more. Pontecorvo’s lens focuses on kasbah alleys, confused children, exhausting check points, and city life trying to continue. The desperation of French residents, French agents, and Algerians creeps and touches everything – a café outing, market shopping, dinner party, wedding. Both sides suffer from destruction. Tensions default to assuming all Arabs are suspects, as the French feel their privileges are threatened. The soundtrack could not be better, maybe Ennio Morricone’s best work with brass horns for security and quick-cadence drums for resistance. The movie ends with the latter melanged with zaghārīts (high pitch celebratory yells) over images of thousands of Algerians (all ages and genders) in smoky plazas, foretelling what the camera has predicted for two hours:national liberation.
Streaming links to watch The Battle of Algiers here.
Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes
Aguirre, the Wrath of God
(Werner Herzog, 1972)
Status and capital are desperately sought. A Spanish expedition in the 16th century into the Amazon looks for the fabled city of El Dorado (the gold one). Herzog shows slow, steady, and mounting group pressure exploding into unrelenting desperation. This starts with the opening shot of hundreds of soldiers and enslaved Indigenous people descending down the Andes in heavy armor and velvet outfits with litters on their back carrying noblemen and mistresses. Herzog captures it all as absurd but very intentional in a sweltering jungle. Eventually, the group turns on each other as their size, munitions, and rafts dwindle while the scope of the river and lush vegetation expands. Years later, Herzog went on to make Fitzcarraldo also in the Amazon, and recently acted as “The Client” in the Star Wars: Mandalorian Season 1.
Legal notes: there is makeshift treason trial in the jungle; while racial and noble status determine the treatment that expedition members receive.
Streaming links to watch Aguirre, the Wrath of God here.
(Gillo Pontecorvo, 1969)
National independence replaces the overseas buyers, increases production demands, and ignites racial tensions. Who benefits? The American poster for Burn! reads: “The Man Who Sells War.” It’s a story of a fictional island, named Queimada, ruled by the Portuguese, where British interests eye its sugar. Working for an East India Company equivalent, William Walker provokes rebellion against colonial powers by mobilizing slaves. This mid-nineteenth century setting is too familiar to Latin American independence stories. Liberalism’s ideals had to combat material interests protected by empire and monarch. Still-colonial Cuba and Brazil were the source of economic envy, while new republics struggled for decades, including Haiti which in 1804 had become the region’s second independent state, when slaves revolted then kicked out the French. Filmed in Cartagena, Colombia, Pontecorvo’s script does not appear as purely “fictional events or characters”, and “unintended similarities” with real histories do arise – from Walker’s name taken from an American filibuster, to the chain of events and global players, to ever influential racial and economic dynamics.
Streaming links to watch Burn! here.
(Naji Abu Nowar, 2014)
Global conflicts penetrate local settings, and survival may be the only objective, goal, and value. This movie may appear like a simple story about a Bedouin boy in 1916. Named Theeb, he follows his brother and a British officer into the desert and is scrappy and pragmatic enough to outlast them and their attackers. On visual terms alone, Theeb is a gem, shot in 16mm to capture the vast spaces and menacing vistas of Jordan’s Wadi Arabeh and Wadi Rum. The action takes place the same year as Lawrence of Arabia, which was filmed nearby. While Sharif Ali appears out of nowhere on the bright horizon – one of cinema’s most famous shots – Theeb’s family sees the British officer in the dark unbeknownst to others. Nowar’s instant play on sight and perspective sets the narrative tone.
A lot is going on, but is easily digestible. In material terms, Theeb’s family are Bedouin guides for hajj pilgrims, providing this service for centuries. A planned Ottoman train to Mecca, the “Iron Donkey”, will end their way of life. Hence, they support Britain’s plan to bomb the train. In terms of story, Theeb quickly moves from pesky curious brother to gun-toting stand-offs, hiding from bandits, and working with his attackers to survive. In geopolitical terms, history tells us what was at stake between European militaries and Arab nationalists during World War I. Theeb is confused as to why the British officer desperately protects a wooden box on a seemingly ordinary desert trip. Alliances, motives, and goals may be confusing, but as the proverb from Theeb’s father suggests: survival is key.
Streaming links to watch Theeb here.
(Alfonso Cuarón, 2018)
Inequality and global influences are there, even if we are too distracted to notice. Cuarón brilliantly shows a larger story through one family in 1970, at the end of the Mexican Miracle, when one-party rule provided the veneer of stability. Cuarón dedicates Roma to Libo, the muchacha (nanny, cleaner, shopper, confidant, but most importantly, loyal home worker) who raised him in real life. Roma centers on Cleo. From Oaxaca, she works for a family in Mexico City. Cleo has the same occupation as Libo, who had a cameo in Cuarón’s earlier Y tu mamá también. The camera presents all things as if we were a book in the story’s self-important bookshelves. The immediate tensions speak to the mother and family since the father is obviously cheating. More subtle and pervasive is the theme of inequality told through Cleo. With great emotional care, she puts the kids to sleep, prays with them, and consoles them, but has stark boundaries as an employee. As the reality of family separation sinks in, Cleo’s true influence appears.
Cuarón stands out by letting us see the bigger context along with the family drama and working conditions. The wide lens captures it all – Cleo and the family, street scenes of innocence and conflict, Mexico City after the Tlatelolco 1968 massacre. Cleo’s boyfriend’s comedic role builds to the Corpus Christi massacre. American influences appear as consumer brand names and training for irregular government security. The mother, Señora Sofia as the employees call her, takes the brave step to celebrate Christmas in the countryside without the father, making the separation public. In a flash, holiday celebrations share the screen with violent land conflicts. As in real life, our attention on pressing tensions mercurially shifts to larger conflicts. All of this while race and gender quietly scream, if you look.
Streaming links to watch Roma here.
La graine et le mulet
The Secret of the Grain
(Abdellatif Kechiche, 2007)
Unemployment and disenfranchised migrants are commonplace, but suspense creeps while waiting for the couscous. A Maghrebi family in Mediterranean France is forced to confront economic realities, while more deftly dancing around personal drama. Port work has dried up, along with the need for labor. Three generations are at risk. The plan is for the mother’s widely praised couscous, and general cooking, to be sold in their own restaurant. Kechiche shows us how banks and bureaucrats rely on cultural distance to exclude in the name of risk.
The real tension is that mother (the cook) and father (the operator) are separated. She will not be there if his girlfriend is. Father and mother don’t talk about this, but everyone around knows what is going on. Kechiche’s camera work and dialogue are spectacular. Shots naturally cut from speaker to discussant or from angle to perspective, amplifying the economic/emotional tension. Much of this is tchatche, high speed slang. Casual conversation briskly changes to intense positions, as mother wants to keep the peace, sons avoid responsibility, and daughters act as someone’s messenger. It is emotionally precise when one-on-one, or louder and physically animated when in groups. For the restaurant’s opening night, the soundtrack’s darbuka drums convey our suspense in this drama-scape, as if percussion was the play’s chorus.
Streaming links to watch The Secret of the Grain here.
Chico y Rita
Chico & Rita
(Tono Errando, Javier Mariscal & Fernando Trueba, 2010)
Sadness and joy create music and follow the musician. Chico & Rita is an animated film about the love between two Cuban musicians, before and after the 1959 Revolution. The imagery captures Gringo hedonism, commercialism of foreign investment, and nightlife revelry all in Habana. Chico is a piano player and Rita is a singer, neither is white and they experience prejudice at home, in the United States and Europe. With comic book clarity, Chico & Rita is a captivating picture of the joy of travel, romance, and music. Its soundtrack could be a primer on Jazz and Cuban music, with Chano Pozo, Bebo Valdés, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk. Chico & Rita reminds us that music’s cross-border influences have long histories. They are not on a track separate from racism, exploitation, and commodification.
Streaming links to watch Chico & Rita here.