Edinburgh International Film Festival – Raging Grace

Edinburgh International Film Festival – Raging Grace,
Directed by Paris Zarcilla,
Starring Max Eigenmann, Jaden Paige Boadilla, Leanne Best, David Hayman

Joy (Max Eigenmann), is an undocumented Filipino immigrant in the UK, part of the all-but-invisible army of people who often do the most laborious, low-paying, manual work that is so necessary to keep everything in our society running, but with none of the legal safeguards others workers have the right to, ripe for easy exploitation, unable to ask anyone in authority for help. With her young daughter, the eponymous Grace (Jaden Paige Boadilla), she goes from one gig to the next, usually cleaning homes, cooking and tidying for wealthy families.

The pair appear to be living in a storage room in an apartment block, secretly, their domestic life as hidden as their work life, although when some of her rich clients are away on nice trips abroad, they sleep over in their homes, carefully tidying everything before the family returns (leading to some tense “will they get caught” moments early on), while Grace amuses herself by playing practical jokes, like swapping gravy granules for the coffee powder, one of the child’s few outlets for fun.

Behind on her payments to the fixer who arranges for the immigrants to get into the UK for a large fee, she is feeling desperate, when she is offered what seems like the perfect opportunity – housekeeping duties at a large, isolated mansion, while also looking after its terminally ill owner, an elderly gentleman, Mister Garret (the always-excellent David Hayman). Garrett is dying of cancer and is largely comatose – his niece, Katherine (Leanne Best) is taking care of his affairs meantime, and offers Joy not only a large wage, but paid in cash, no questions asked, and free lodgings in the large country house.

Best does an amazing job of showcasing the casual condescension of the very wealthy, upper parts of society towards immigrants like Joy, giving her Katherine that arrogance that clearly thinks “I am a nice, inclusive person” while being anything but (yes, phrases like “you people” will be deployed). Joy, of course, simply has to nod, smile and say “yes, miss” to all of this because Katherine has all the power. Joy is also dismayed to see how Katherine treats her comatose uncle, forcing his daily pills prescription into his mouth, holding his nose to make him swallow while still asleep. This is all further complicated by Katherine not knowing about Grace, who has to hide her presence.

What starts as an interesting drama about vulnerability, exploitation, race, class and privilege starts to morph into more of a thriller and horror, drawing on the Gothic tradition and also the classic Old Dark House, very effectively using both the grand house location, and the small but excellent group of actors. Snooping around secretly, young Grace finds some disturbing, hidden facts about the house and those who have lived in it, and there are hints that perhaps the medicine Katherine is giving to her uncle may not be what she claims. Hayman, when he does waken from his coma, essays an especially fine performance, managing to take us from twinkling-eyed, gentle, loving older uncle figure to radiating menace (a simple scene where he tells Joy not to call him “mister” but “master” is powerful and chilling).

Edinburgh International Film Festival - Raging Grace 04
(Director Paris Zircalla with some of his cast, on stage after the EIFF screening, pic from my Flickr)

This was one of the EIFF screenings I really wanted to catch, and it did not disappoint, with some amazing performances from the small cast (young Jaden stealing many scenes as Grace), and beautifully shot, making the best use of that large, creaking old country home location, mixing horror and drama. The subtexts about past colonialism and echoes in modern day exploitation of immigrants is well done and powerful, and as the director remarked at a Q&A after the screening, much of what was seen on screen is drawn from what many experience in their day to day lives, and it is something that applies not just to the immigrant experience but across society, where those in the poorer-paid jobs are often badly treated and seen as disposable. A brilliant, Gothic-tinged horror-drama with some serious social commentary woven into its structure.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Escaping Wars and Waves: Encounters with Syrian Refugees

Escaping Wars and Waves: Encounters with Syrian Refugees,
Olivier Kugler,
Myriad Editions / New Internationalist


The children are nervous… When they hear any noise, even if you only knock at the door, they can get very afraid.”

The world is currently experiencing its one of its worst refugee problems since the Second World War, with masses of people being displaced through war, famine, economic poverty and more. You’d hope by this point, in the 21st century, humankind would have learned and moved on from this sort of wretchedness, but no. And apart from the physical and practical problems of countries coping with a mass influx of often desperate refugees, there are those who shamelessly use such an awful situation to whip up xenophobic hatred, turned to their own cynical purposes to garner political and popular support. German creator Kugler does something which is desperately needed, puts a very human, very personal face onto some of those refugees.

We see in the news regular statistics – this many drowned in a ricket boat crossing to Europea, this many in camps, this many asking for asyulm in countries that are worried about the impact of so many so quickly, even in nations who have traditionally been open and inviting. Kugler does not pretend to have answers to these enormous practical and ethical problems, what he does here is give us people, not statistics, not some politician’s ideologically driven rhetoric. People. Men, women, kids, families. People just like us, like our friends, our families, our neighbours, our communities.

The images we see from the news, even by the most well-intentioned journalists, often gives a distorted view. We see people grubbing in the mud of a camp like the infamous Jungle in Calais, or an overflowing city of tents in Kurdistan, and those images can give us the wrong impression, make us judgemental in the same we it is too easy to be when seeing someone begging or sleeping rough on our own city streets. We don’t know the stories behind those images, behind those people, what they have endured, are still enduring. Kugler gives us that, and does his level best to do so without interjecting himself – there is a very clear desire by the author to make sure that as much as possible he presents these people in their own words.

Many of these refugees are well-educated folk from a decent background, college-educated with degrees, a nice family, pretty home (one speaks movingly of missing their little vegetable garden by their home, where they grew oranges and lemons right by the house, home now gone, even the trees that grew for years ripped up by the uncaring war). There are teachers here, lawyers, computer specialists, nurse, doctors, even psychologists like Suzan who helps MSF (Medecins Sans Frontiers, the same charitable organisation many of you will remember Guy Delisle’s wife working for in his comics travelogues).

Kugler goes to various locations to talk first hand to people who have had to flee Syria, some because the war came literally to their doorstep (if they were lucky they all escaped with little more than the clothes on their backs, if they were unlucky they escaped after shells had killed some of their family in front of them), taking us from Kurdistan to the Greek island of Kos, to the “Jungle” camp in Calais, to Britain and Germany where some of the refugees have been allowed to settle, the most fortunate reunited with other family members already there, he takes us from those struggling in overflowing tented camps where charities and local authorities are overwhelmed by the sheer numbers, to those trying to make a new life for themselves in Europe.

It’s often heartbreaking, especially hearing from the children. Not for the first time I was reminded of the late, great Spike Milligan’s war memoirs, from the WWII Italian campaign when they came across a village where a child had become a casualty of the fighting; “the adult world should forver hang its head in shame at what is has done to children” commented Spike, and he wasn’t wrong. But while much of this is, as you might imagine, very upsetting, this is balanced with that quality we all need, especially these days: hope. We see the fortunate make new homes for themselves; they miss their old hometown, their country, but they are relieved to be in a place that is safe, where their children can go to school and thrive.

Several times the kids briefly forget the traumas their young eyes have seen and grow excited like any other child, telling Kugler what they want to be when they grow up and leave school (“a nurse!” “an engineer!!”). The fact they can overcome those traumas and think about a future again, to play and dream of being a doctor or an engineer when they are older, is a wonderful thing to see in those children. In an especially touching scene Kugler visits some in Germany – the kids of the family now go to his old school.

Rather than a series of sequential panels, Kugler opts more for (mostly) coloured sketches taking up an entire page, or sometimes running across two pages, with text telling the person’s own story, rather than speech bubbles. Thoughtfully these chunks of text running around the art are numbered to make it easier to follow around the art layout. The sketches themselves tend to focus on characters central in the image, they are depicted with the most detail, the colouring, and most importantly, the expressions, coming through clearly, while around the periphery details and people there are sketchier, not as detailed, perhaps not even coloured in.

It felt as if the artist was using this approach to hint that for every couple of people he talked to, centre on the stage of the page, there were so many others around the edge; he can’t talk to them all but he can infer to the reader that they are there and the too matter. There are small details added in like a little arrow pointing to something small in the background and text explaining “chocoalt bar”, “plastic flowers”. It all serves to normalise these unusual scenes, the bric-a-brac of everyday life scattered around just like it would be anywhere.

There is also a remarkable amount of hospitality and welcome shown here by many refugees. As Kugler explains not everyone wants to be drawn or photographed, understandably given their circumstances (many still have family back in war-torn Syria and fear anything they say could cause trouble for family still there). But many, even those in the regugee camps with so little to their name, still do their best to offer warm hospitality when he visits. One man who had managed to make himself a wee business while stuck in the camps, running a small stall selling coffee, drinks and other snacks sees him standing in the cold and mud waiting on his interpreter to arrive, and offers him hot, sweet coffee, refusing payment. Others, in tents or in homes in Birmingham or Simmozheim, Kugler’s home village in Germany welcome him into their homes, be they tents in a camp or actual homes in the country managed to get asylum in.

Even for those settled in Europe the scars are horribly visible, both physical (one man shows his bullet wounds), others mental (children still scared when they hear a helicopter passing overhead, or the sudden roar of a train going over a bridge as they walk under it. Again I was reminded of Milligan, how his nerves shattered by the war, he would find himself in tears of sudden fear just from the sudden sound of a car exhaust backfiring). God knows what some of them have been through – despite many opening up to Kugler, it’s obvious this is barely scratching the tip of the iceberg. We all know how bad a place we can be in when dealing with emotional upsets – illness, losing a loved one – and how emotionally hard it is to cope, and that is us with our home, rest of our family and friends around us. Imagine having those kinds of traumas and losing your home, the town you lived in destroyed, having to flee your own land and throw yourself out hoping desperately for help.

That’s what Kugler does so well here, he enables us to see these people not as a news story, not as statistics, not as demonised figures, but to show us people, people we can see ourselves in, we can empathise with. And from empathy comes compassion and more understanding, and god knows our world desperately needs those right now. This is not an easy read, it’s emotionally hard-going, but very worth making that effort; it’s a much-needed riposte to the demonising and hatred we see poured at some refugees, and a reminder of that old saying, there but for the grace of God go I. How swiftly could everything we think is normal be destroyed just as it was for these people? Home, work, school, going to a restaurant, the movies, day out with the kids? Suddenly all gone. And how desperate would we be, how much would we rely on our fellow humans to show kindness if it were us in such a situation? No, this is not an easy read, but it is, I would say, a very important read.

Mother of Exiles

Retronaut has a a great set of historic photographs of all sorts of immigrants from around the world – men, women, children, young, old, black, white, Asian – photographed by Augustus Francis Sherman, chief registry clerk at the old Ellis Island facility, which was the main port for something like twelve million emmigrants to the United States between 1892 and its closure in 1954 (here are just a few). What a change between then and now – to the xenophobic “no more immigrants” (I bet the Native Americans thought that when the White Man first turned up centuries ago) and a land where nazi scumbags openly walk the street knowing a bright-orange excuse for a president will let them.

I wonder how many of these immigrants helped shape and change the growing America of the 20th century – the America which stood up for democracy and which joined in the fight against fascism. The ones who embraced the ideals enscribed on Lady Liberty and the opportunities offered by their new home, probably far more than most of those who today demand border walls and would cheerfully deny the rights and liberties of fellow citizens, ignore the rule of law and even the venerable constitution and bill of rights.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
‘Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!‘”

New Colossus, Emma Lazarus, enscribed on the tablet in the Statue of Liberty

Immigration

Pornography and illegal migrant workers in the farming industry are also covered in Reefer Madness. While right wing scumbags like Pat Buchanan rave on about illegal migration destroying American culture (excuse me, Pat, but wasn’t migration what created America?) the truth is that a massive part of the US workforce is made up of illegal immigrants. People who are prepared to work for low, low wages in appalling conditions, wide open to all sorts of abuses. Without them much of the US economy would grind to a halt. It is in effect a system very similar to the indentured servants system which was used to bring many poor folk to America in the 1700s and 1800s (amazing how many people don’t know their own history). This also has the knock-on effect of driving down the wages for many industries, meaning US citizens also lose out.