Sheut [Teo Belton, Peru, 2017] /// Nest [Alan Robinson, Romania/UK, 2018]
Sheut is a 2017 high-concept, experimental art film from Mexican director Teo Belton. Belton explains the idea of “the Sheut” in terms of Egyptian mythology, referring to every human being’s personal shadow. According to the mythology, the shadow (or sheut) is a physical manifestation of a person’s cumulative traumas, with both human and sheut unable to exist without the other.
Belton’s film follows the character of Luis, as he attempts to reconcile with his past, thus regaining balance with his sheut. Through Luis’ introspection, explores the great difficulty inherent in facing up to the darker sides of one’s nature and past. Whilst following Luis’ journey, the viewer is able to relate his sheut to their own, recognising in it the troubling likeness to one’s self and, with this realisation, being offered the possibility of personal redemption and co-existence that Luis so sorely craves.
Having lived away at sea, Luis decides to return home in an effort to reconnect with his past, thus overcoming the childhood traumas that have so shaped him and, by extension, his sheut. As we flit through memories of his past, Luis communicates with his former self, reconnects with his mother, and is forced to confront his sheut, who follows him throughout his journey.
Right from the off, the production value is staggering. Sheut is a picture that goes well beyond the reasonable expectations of its $8,000 production budget. The cinematography is sharp and polished, with Luis’ personal journey presented with steadfast intimacy. In the viewer’s ability to empathize with Luis, it is Belton’s hope that they will have the chance to accept the nature of their own sheut, and thus be liberated from the formative events of their past. This intention is always at the forefront, and constantly informs the tone and pacing of the film.
Luis’ sheut has an appearance that is clearly alien, yet at the same time, disturbingly humanoid. The character design evokes strong memories of Scarlett Johansson’s predatory invader in Under the Skin [Jonathan Glazer, UK, 2013], and whilst its presence is never implied as a threat, its lurking cameos on the edge of screen are hugely imposing, with the effect of its presence on Luis enormous.
Both the shooting locations and set designs are beautiful, immersing the viewer in a fictional world that feels real, even whilst the surrealist nature of the events on screen remind us that it’s not. Despite an experimental approach that features images including universes swirling at the centre of a beached jellyfish and dismembered shadow hands reaching into frame to take hold of children, Belton does well to make sure narrative clarity is never sacrificed.
Luis’ connection to the sea is prominent throughout, with sequences shot on location on Peruvian beaches, and painted portraits of ships littering the set design of his childhood home. Luis himself works away at sea, and his voyage into the immense weight of his past brings with it a deeper understanding of self. Luis’ confrontation with his sheut presents him with the opportunity to control it, moving beyond the shackles of his past and into a deeper acceptance of his present emotional state.
For a director still some years off his thirties to have masterminded such an accomplished picture is an enviable achievement. Sheut is a carefully constructed film, both narratively and visually, with no clearly discernible weak points. Sheut is both moving and thought-provoking, and is certain to prove greatly affecting to those fortunate enough to see it.
“In the beginning there was blood. The land demands it. Every new land demands blood, and we relent”. So opens Nest, the story of Florin, a Romanian immigrant who must leave behind his family in Teleorman, Romania in order to find work in London. Director, Alan Robinson’s brutally realistic depiction of life in poverty stricken, rural Romania, is both devastating and profound. Even though the film declares, “This is Florin’s story”, at times, the rural Romanian earth itself becomes just as important a character.
The process of toiling with little reward on the land is presented as a driving motif that would be just as at home in any Steinbeck novel. Nest is many things: it is a coming of age story, a story of the processes of immigration, a story of desolation, and a story of family ties. It is also a story that is striking in its visual simplicity and masterful in its careful crafting.
Shot in black and white, Nest honours rural Romanian tradition, presenting with great truth, the role the country has played in shaping Florin, and the great difficulty it takes for anyone to leave the land of their birth, even if the transition holds the promise of a better life. The sound design and collection of diverse accompanying music is one of the great strengths of the film, working seamlessly to drive the images on screen. Whilst Robinson himself is not Romanian, his wife is and the characters we see are played by members of Robinson’s own extended family. Their character depictions are both powerful and natural, with Robinson attesting that, “I didn’t get those performances from them, they gave them to me.”
Possibly the film’s greatest achievement is its flawless editing. Each and every moment we view on screen is given equal importance and time to flourish. The establishing shots and scene settings used indicate an extremely talented director at work. One particular sequence featuring startled chickens running from a farmer, only to then straight away cut to a shot of a chicken’s plucked carcass being washed, throws up notable allusions to the beginning of City of God [Fernando Meirelles & Kátia Lund, Brazil, 2002].
Comparisons to Steinbeck and City of God put this piece in some impressive company, but such comparisons are well deserved. Robinson says that the film was shot over three years in Romania with he and his wife (who served as translator), flying out when they could find time. One of the reasons for the length of the shoot is that the first winter of shooting didn’t yield any snowfall. Nest is set over the course of a year, and the thick snow that Robinson was eventually able to capture goes a great way to communicating some of the extreme challenges and hardships present in Florin’s rural community.
When asked about the political motivations of the film, Robinson says that, “I’m not interested in making political films…I’m interested in making relevant films”. Anyone watching Nest would be hard pressed to say that Florin’s immigrant’s tale is not highly relevant in our current European climate. There are moments of incredible tenderness, including Florin trying to explain his reasons for leaving home to his young son.
As a self confessed amateur, Robinson is supremely talented. His cinematography is haunting, with shots of abandoned railway tracks and crippled old men powerful yet somewhat restrained. Nest is affecting, poignant and incredibly relevant as an account of the emotional hardships surrounding the process of emigrating.
'Sheut' and 'Nest' were both films in consideration for Short Focus Film Festival 2018.