The alternative film review
directed and written by Zeina Durra
Hana knows Luxor and some Arabic. She has called a taxi, and the driver knows her. She asks him about his croaking voice and we soon learn that she is a doctor who has been working as a trauma surgeon in Syria. She takes trips, visits the Valley of the Kings. She is self-possessed, but preoccupied, even wistful. In the bar of her imperial-era hotel, she meets a brash American, goes to bed with him, then slinks away in the middle of the night.
Next day, she stops her taxi when she spots a new archaeological dig in the valley below. From the road, she looks it over carefully, as if looking for something. Later, on a river boat, she meets someone who is thrilled and delighted to see her. Sultan, who is her age, and an archaeologist. Had she been looking for him at the dig earlier? Though she seems pleased too, when she’s alone, she’s deeply unsettled.
Hana is tired, overwhelmed by her experiences in Syria. She is trying to reconnect, to the world, to her past, but is due to move on to another post, in Yemen. Next day, when she meets Sultan, she talks about how, in her early twenties, she believed in a better world. They laugh because they don’t know who said it, but she quotes Gramsci: ‘The old world is dying and the new struggles to be born. Now is the time of monsters.’
Durra’s quiet drama lovingly portrays a woman standing up to those monsters, and gently and cleverly gets the weight of history and circumstance.
directed by Josephine Decker; screenplay by Sarah Gubbins
Shirley and Stanley share a large rambling house in forested Vermont. He’s a literature professor at the all-female Bennington College, and a critic. Her short story, ‘The Lottery’, about the good people of a small American town who stone to death one of their fellow citizens, has provoked The New Yorker’s biggest ever mailbag – and Bennington’s hostility.
Shirley doesn’t leave her house, stays in bed and drinks heavily, but doesn’t lose her caustic wit, or her ambition – she’s pondering a novel, based on a female student at Stanley’s college who has disappeared. Into their house and lives step Fred, lured by Stanley’s offer of a junior teaching post, and Rose, his pregnant wife – who’s quickly detached from attending classes and lumbered by Stanley with running the household.
Shirley is the now-celebrated writer Shirley Jackson and the novel became Hangsaman (published in 1951, available in Penguin Modern Classics). The film is the imagined story of the novel’s gestation, and Shirley’s relationship with Stanley and Rose. But like Jackson’s writing, it finds, in the everyday, wider social resonance. Its focus is on mind and behaviour, on Shirley and Rose, and through them on the missing student, and on Stanley.
It’s ambitious and dazzling, though a far cry from Jackson’s own plain observational prose style. Scenes cut from the imagined to the real; camera, focus and soundtrack shift to convey states of mind – excitement, loss of control, uncertainty – and social fragmentation. We enter an unquiet world with too little congress, a world of aspiration, manipulation and seduction – yet one that offers redemption in understanding.