Mark Cousins is that rare film critic and scholar who knows that the truest way to critique films is to make films. His fifteen-part documentary on the history of cinema, The Story of Film: An Odyssey, is one of the most cinematically articulate survey of all cinema has been and can be I’ve ever encountered. The series is also profoundly ethical. Cousins focuses more on world cinema and cinema from the margins than he does on the Hollywood products that dominate our collective consciousness. The series is on Netflix Instant. If you watch it, it will dramatically alter your perspective on movies. I return to it often in my explorations of the cinematic medium.
Mania Akbari is an exiled Iranian filmmaker whose previous films have blended aspects of her life with narrative constructs. I do not have direct experience of her work, but from what I’ve read, her films consider the place and power of the human body in society. Akbari comes from a culture where the public display of the body is explicitly forbidden and where the ownership of female bodies in particular is a point of current contention. Compound those cultural factors with her own breast cancer and subsequent mastectomy, and her preoccupation with bodies makes perfect sense. Cousins contends that she is also one of Iran’s most talented filmmakers. I’ll have to watch some of her films to see.
Akbari and Cousins sparked a friendship a few years back when Cousins wrote an essay to accompany the British release of one of Akbari’s films. He framed the essay as a letter to Akbari. She read the essay/letter and replied. This correspondence developed into a series of cinematic letters passed back and forth between the two. Life May Be is an editing together of those letters into a feature-length, epistolary (Look, Ma! I learned a new word!) film.
Life May Be is non-narrative. It is simply Akbari and Cousins’ replies to each other as narration over filmed images. Sometime those images are static. Sometimes they’re not. Sometimes they reach for profundity. Sometimes they fall back on dry wit. The film is equal parts engaging and boring depending on how tied the images are to what Akbari and Cousins are saying.
What they say deals mostly with their thoughts on the impermanence of place—Akbari is in exile; Cousins travels the world to sustain his film scholarship—and the politics of the artistic representation of the body. You’ll likely be as interested in this film as you are in those subjects.
Life May Be is the kind of film best watched early in the morning with a cup of coffee in hand. Context matters, to the subjects of the film, the filmmakers themselves, and the film’s audience. I saw Life May Be at the Movies and Meaning Festival in Albuquerque, New Mexico, as the fourth and final film of its day, which, because of the film’s staid rhythms and my aesthetic exhaustion, made it a difficult film to give my full attention to throughout. In the context of the festival, the film stood as a reminder of the unjust demands placed upon us by the societies in which we live and the potential for art to transcend that injustice. You’ll likely take something different from it if and when you see it. I’d love to hear what you take from it if and when you do.