Tag Archives: Malgorzata Szumowska

Shame, Resistance, and the Abusive Messiah — “The Other Lamb”

Content Warning: the film depicts grooming, sexual assault

Selah is born into a cult. There are several wives and daughters, and the only man is their messiah. They work and feed and clothe their “Shepherd”. As daughters are groomed into wives, they are raped by him as a religious act. He tells them it’s an act of cleansing, earned after their first period.

Told it’s evidence of her impurity, Selah hides hers just as the cult is forced off their land. They search for a new home, the binds of belief she’s been sold cracking piece by piece.

“The Other Lamb” is a film at odds with how we watch film. It’s a horror film, but not in the way we understand horror films. Horror often defines a certain joy at being afraid. There’s a participatory thrill at subjecting ourselves to fear within a safe space. There’s none of that here. “The Other Lamb” can often have the look of a modern horror film, but it isn’t scary or frightening in its moments. Instead, it’s coldly and patiently horrifying in its concepts.

The film often feels obvious. Malgorzata Szumowska’s direction is full of obvious metaphors, obvious zoom-ins on intense characters, and shot after shot where those characters stare directly into the camera. It’s heavy-handed, but that’s not always a bad thing.

All those obvious pieces begin to swirl in a way I’ve rarely seen in film before. There’s so many of them that you lose track of which ones are literal. When everything’s hyperreal, what’s a metaphor and what’s an event we’re seeing? How much of an event that is taking place shifts into metaphor? The plot is never hard to track – it’s very straightforward. Whether a precise moment happens or even if it happens the way we see it is difficult to say.

Selah has an aimless anger and no direct mother to confide in. Her own mother died when she was a baby. She’s part of the cult and is deeply adherent to it. At the same time, she experiences it through just enough of a different angle that she doesn’t fit in as expected. She can’t see all of it at once, indoctrinated as she is, but she has a seed of doubt that may or may not be lurking in the others.

“The Other Lamb” takes a unique tack in providing us just a few too many metaphors, visions, meaningful stares, moments that might be literal or might not be – but it’s all presented so matter-of-factly, with such a deliberate pace, that it never feels overwhelming or badly assembled. It just feels contradictory.

As a viewer, it’s hard to take in everything at once. It’s a style that isn’t always natural. Most films try to hide their seams so that the experience of watching seems fluid. Here, those seams are a feature. The cracks of the movie’s moment-to-moment cogency are the cracks where Selah increasingly sees other versions of herself, other experiences, other possibilities.

It doesn’t matter what you’re able to assign literal value to, because you have a sense of seeing through enough of it. The metaphors and their meaning might be obvious, but when they’re taking place and what parts are real isn’t. In this way, the film echoes one experience of being gaslit. What’s happening is obvious, what’s real within it is blurred and fractured. The direction of things is clear. What to do about them in any given moment is an incapacitating thought. As a viewer, it reflects exactly the journey Selah is taking.

Raffey Cassidy’s performance as Selah isn’t showy. She’s mostly quiet, with moments of misdirected shame or rage. She takes everything in. She emulates what she should be, but there’s a semi-conscious recognition of the act that separates her. She tries being the follower, the bully, the dutiful acolyte, the problem child. She tests out different roles in a way the others wouldn’t try. It’s a performance that’s equal parts denial and processing what’s new to her.

The filmmaking is self-conscious and shoves too much at you in such an incredibly precise way. It’s a fine balance of pushing the viewer just far enough away from it to have you want to find your way back in. It feels just disjointed enough while being so deliberately paced that those moments of fragmentation become a part of the film’s visual language.

That might sound like excusing the film’s weaknesses, and some viewers will absolutely reject its storytelling sensibilities. It’s also a film that can trigger, not just by its subject matter but also through a presentation that reflects a cult member’s disjointed grappling with reality. When you have a main character who exists in a constant state of being gaslit, and an art film presentation that blends the real and unreal, the effect is experiential instead of academic.

In most films, we’re trying to plumb for meaning. The metaphors are complex and layered. We seek them out like archaeologists, dusting off bits and pieces and discussing whether this is a metaphor and what it means. “The Other Lamb” is obvious. The metaphors are in your face. They are clear and insistent. They are so numerous and alarming that it’s difficult to tell where illusion stops and reality begins. That is the life of Selah and all the women in the cult. The deliberate pace of her story is synonymous with a quiet rage, if only she learns it. The film’s tension is built on whether she legitimizes it, whether she recognizes it in herself before her “Shepherd” does.

Does it Pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

This section uses the Bechdel-Wallace Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women in film.

1. Does “The Other Lamb” have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Raffey Cassidy plays Selah. Denise Gough plays Sarah. Ailbhe Cowley plays Tamar in what’s probably one of the most overlooked performances last year. Eve Connolly plays Adriel, Isabelle Connolly plays Eloise, Jane Herbert plays Evelyn, and Aislin McGuckin plays Maria. Kelly Campbell, Eva Mullen, Esosa Ighodaro, Mallory Adams, Irene Kelleher, Grainne Good, Juliette Crosbie, Zara Devlin, and Phoebe Sheppard all play other named members of the cult.

2. Do they talk to each other?

Yes.

3. About something other than a man?

Yes. They talk about their pasts, daily events, and their chores. However, given that all of this is in service to a cult built around one man – their “Shepherd” – it’s difficult to separate what really isn’t about him. For older members to talk about their pasts is a way of talking about what he took away. Their chores are all to sustain the “normalcy” of the cult he’s built, and they’re all ultimately in service to him. Their religion is him, so to talk about their spiritual life is to talk about him.

It makes this question extremely difficult to answer. Technically, the answer is yes. In the spirit of the question, the answer is rarely. That is part of the point, though. Their reality is artificially built around a need for him.

The film’s both written (C.S. McMullen) and directed (Malgorzata Szumowska) by women, and it never takes his side, equivocates, or makes an icon of the “Shepherd”. This avoidance might seem like the apparent thing to do, but it’s often a risk in the hands of male filmmakers, who tend to take a figure like this and mix in elements of power fantasy, admiration, or empathy.

It’s especially notable here because the story isn’t being told by an outsider who brings perspective into it; it centers on women who believe this man is their messiah. To craft a film that utterly denies him this iconography even for a second, while still telling their story from their perspective is…well, maybe it’s difficult, maybe it’s not, but it is an opportunity that’s been blown by male filmmakers time and again.

It’s also worth noting that Szumowska is a Polish director. Poland has been struggling with becoming a radicalized Catholic theocracy for years, and it’s been particularly notable in its erasure of women’s rights and LGBTQ rights. Szumowska has previously engaged aspects of this in films like “In the Name Of”, which tells the story of a gay priest. There’s a lot being said in “The Other Lamb” about the nature of theocracy, savior narratives, and how both demand women serve men in the first place.

You can watch “The Other Lamb” on Hulu with a subscription, or see where to rent it.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, consider subscribing to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to continue writing articles like this one.

New Movies + Shows by Women — April 3, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has redirected some of what this feature covers. Originally, it was meant to highlight new movies by women in the theater and on streaming. As theaters are nearly entirely closed, I started covering new series as well.

The original scope was more limited, and it made sense to list recent titles that were a few weeks old as well. Since that scope has opened up, the list is ballooning. That’s good; it provides a great chance to cover more work by women. At the same time, it also means I’ve got to keep articles more concise.

I’ll focus on covering what’s new this week, of course. Unlike past weeks, I won’t be listing what’s been out for 2-3 weeks in a “recent releases” category. There’s a ton of great work that’s recent, and if you want to see what else is out there from past weeks, click on “New Films by Women” just above the title of this article, or click on “new movies and shows by women” at the end of the article. You can get to every single week’s new movies and shows by women from there.

Financial accessibility is also important. Is a new movie on streaming best featured when it’s $20 to rent, or when it’s $5? My approach is I’ll feature it both times as “new”, at least as long as the pandemic is collapsing those different release phases into each other.

I also want the list to be as practical as possible. The goal isn’t to just list work by women, it’s to get you to watch it. It’s easy enough to list what service a new show is on, but if it’s a movie you can rent in different places, I’ll make sure at the end of each film or show’s write-up that you know where you can rent it, and what the best rental price is.

Thanks for bearing with some notes. As a new feature, this will go through some evolution. That’s enough of that; let’s get to new movies and shows by women.

The Other Lamb (digital rental)
directed by Malgorzata Szumowska

IFC Midnight doesn’t have the cachet of an A24 or Bleecker Street. It has done solid work platforming horror and drama films by women lately. 2019 saw them acquire a range of independent films by women, including Jennifer Kent’s period revenge tale “The Nightingale”, Emma Tammi’s supernatural western “The Wind”, Claire McCarthy’s Hamlet-by-any-other-name “Ophelia”, Mary Harron’s examination of Charles Manson victims “Charlie Says”, and Jennifer Reeder’s surreal vaporwave thriller “Knives and Skin”, just to name a few.

There’s still ample room to improve (I look forward to the day when one of these indie darlings distributes more films by women than men), but it is one of the better places to look right now for horror films by women.

Director Malgorzata Szumowska has mostly worked in the Polish film industry, and often tackled issues of identity, the culturally taboo, and the viral spread of religious cults.

Writer C.S. McMullen has been widely regarded as an up-and-coming screenwriter, with placement on Hollywood’s “Black List” of best unproduced screenplays. “The Other Lamb” is her first full-length screenplay that’s been produced.

Currently, “The Other Lamb” can be rented through Amazon Prime for $6.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always (digital rental)
directed by Eliza Hittman

When social distancing started, this was the film I was most disappointed I’d have to wait to see. The trailer doesn’t over-communicate and tell you the whole story. It just paints the premise: a teen gets pregnant and leaves her hometown with her cousin in order to get an abortion.

I don’t know that much about writer-director Eliza Hittman. This is the first time a film of hers has broken big. There are a few musical artists I enjoy involved – Sharon Van Etten has a role and Julia Holter composed the score. I can’t quite tell you what it is about this film that sits there as a landmark on the calendar for me. The trailer alone already stands as a poignant and overwhelming two minutes. It utterly strikes me as something I haven’t seen told this way before, and need to.

Films that would otherwise be in theaters right now are getting at least several weeks at a $20 rental (to watch within 48 hours) before going to a more reasonable price that’s closer to what you’d expect after a theatrical run. “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” is no exception to this, and I’ll share it again here when it hits an individual rental price point. You can currently rent it through Amazon or iTunes.

How to Fix a Drug Scandal (Netflix docuseries)
directed by Erin Lee Carr

34,000. That’s the number of criminal cases that were affected when chemist Annie Dookhan was found to have falsified drug lab results. She had tested just a fraction of the samples she said she did, a fraction of the samples about which she testified in court. Those cases impacted as many as 40,000 people. The state of Massachusetts ended up dropping more than 21,000 pending criminal charges, not to mention facing the innocent people who had already been convicted on Dookhan’s falsified evidence. It was a disturbing view into how innocent lives could be ruined by one person in a flawed justice system that’s more interested in filling jail cells than it is in fair justice.

Sonja Farak was arrested six months after Dookhan. She was another chemist serving the Massachusetts legal system, and she was getting high on the drugs she was supposed to be testing. The docuseries tells the story of both chemists, as well as the impact on the tens of thousands who faced wrongful arrests and convictions. It also investigates the possible cover-up by former state AG Martha Coakley’s office.

Director Erin Lee Carr digs into subjects of crime with a reporter’s tenacity, and has averaged a documentary a year over the last six years. Perhaps her most famous was last year’s “At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal” for HBO.

Vagrant Queen (SyFy)
showrunner Jem Garrard

I reviewed the premiere of “Vagrant Queen” earlier in the week. It’s a colorful, irreverent sci-fi romp that’s erratic on quality, but still fun. Based on the comic series by Magdalene Visaggio, it features a queer will-they/won’t-they relationship and Tim Rozon of “Wynonna Earp” fame. You can read my full review, and my takeaway is this:

“For those who enjoy cult movies, consciously B-grade sci-fi, cheese-fests, YouTube or community production sci-fi, it’s a messy refuge that’s at times bad, but that also celebrates and enjoys a lot of what we love.

“For those who are looking for something to scratch their ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’, ‘The Fifth Element’, or perhaps even their ‘Jupiter Ascending’ itch, it gets the job done – but perhaps not satisfactorily.

“For others, I just don’t know. Part of watching something like this is the glee you get from it existing in the first place. That makes up for a lot of shortcomings. If you don’t have that starting interest and investment, the show might just be really, really bad.”

You can watch the full first episode for free on YouTube right here. You can also watch it on SyFy, after episodes air on cable and satellite services, with a YouTube TV or FuboTV subscription, or purchase it (at $2 an episode) to watch on Amazon, GooglePlay, or Vudu.

Home Before Dark (Apple TV+ series)
showrunners Dana Fox, Dara Resnik

The show about a child reporter who investigates a cold case is “inspired by” reality. The reality is that Hilde Kate Lysiak started a newspaper in Selinsgrove, PA in 2014. Its first story was about the birth of her sister, but soon she was covering stories about vandalism. In 2016, she broke a news story about a murder.

By 2019, her family had moved to Arizona. In stories investigating the Border Patrol, she was threatened with arrest for videoing a town marshal. She posted the story online anyway. I wouldn’t mind seeing a series about this kind of reporter handling stories that make an impact that way.

“Home Before Dark” looks like it follows very little of this, but that’s why it’s “inspired by” instead of “based on”. (I worked as a reporter, so I get a bit tense over those delineations and what they suggest.) Lysiak never investigated the disappearance of her father’s friend and wasn’t wrapped up in the kind of conspiratorial intrigue “Home Before Dark” suggests.

My grain of salt spoken, it’s fair to take “Home Before Dark” on its own merits. It seems like good family fare that can speak to and inspire a future generation of women reporters, as well as normalize the idea of women as reporters among young men. It looks interesting, and maybe it will inspire young women and men to support Lysiak and other women reporters as they speak truth to power.

Kabukichou Sherlock (Hulu series)
directed by Ai Yoshimura

It’s hard to dig up a ton of information on this, but I’m already hooked on the idea of an anime Sherlock Holmes digging into crime in a wild, neon-strewn Shinjuku, Japan. Also called “Case File no.221: Kabukicho”, the show finds Sherlock competing with other detectives over cases, including the pursuit of Jack the Ripper. It’s somewhere between a comedy and mystery series.

Ai Yoshimura has been directing anime episodes since 2010.

Violet Evergarden: Eternity and the Auto Memory Doll (Netflix movie)
co-directed by Haruka Fujita

“Violet Evergarden” is an exceptionally well-reviewed anime series that follows an ex-child soldier who becomes a letter writer. The job is to assist and even ghostwrite for those who can’t write on their own, whether through disability or other circumstance. It’s been on my list to watch for a while, as it looks like a rare blend of atmospheric animation and philosophical storytelling. In particular, I keep an eye out for series and movies that suggest the melancholic patience and peacefulness that anime can at times accomplish better than any other art form.

“Violet Evergarden: Eternity and the Auto Memory Doll” is the first movie in the franchise, and acts as a side story to the series. It finds Violet becoming a tutor at an all-women’s school. (A separate movie that continues the series will be coming later in the year.)

Haruka Fujita directs alongside Taichi Ishidate. The pair directed every episode of the first season of the series, often alongside other directors.

“Violet Evergarden: Eternity and the Auto Memory Doll” is also the first production from Kyoto Animation since an arson attack in July 2019. The attack resulted in the deaths of 36 people, of the 71 who were in the building at that time.

Elephant (Disney+)
co-directed by Vanessa Berlowitz

Disney+ added a host of documentaries on April 1 to celebrate Earth Month. “Elephant” and “Dolphin Reef” are the new debuts. Their past Disney Nature documentaries will be joining them on the streaming service. This includes “African Cats”, “Chimpanzee”, “Born in China”, “The Crimson Wing: Mystery of the Flamingos”, “Monkey Kingdom”, “Wings of Life”, and “Penguins”. Most are fairly self-descriptive.

A range of National Geographic documentaries will join these, so keep your eyes out. Don’t forget the calm and peace that nature documentaries can bring you. They can be a balm as you and your loved ones weather the anxiety and stress that social distancing can introduce. Disney’s tend to join remarkable documentary cinematography with stories that interest adults and children alike.

The Iliza Shlesinger Sketch Show (Netflix series)
directed by Laura Murphy

Iliza Shlesinger is a stand-up comedian who’s done five specials with Netflix. Considering the popularity of some of her shows, “The Iliza Shlesinger Sketch Show” seems to be coming in somewhat under the radar.

Director Laura Murphy has a long history on these kinds of shows, first as a segment director on “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” and more recently as a director on “Adam Ruins Everything”.

Take a look at new movies and shows by women from past weeks.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, consider subscribing to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to continue writing articles like this one.