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// At Stanford University

10 Must-Watch Films About Identity & Survival

"Film as dream, film as music. No art passes our conscience in the way film does." ― Ingmar Bergman

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A film, in its most simple form, is a story. And stories are not only a powerful mode of witness, but most importantly they are a means of showing viewers everywhere that they are not alone. Some of our most intimate and personal self-discoveries are lying in the depths of a film. As a young person who is attempting to navigate this world, themes of identity are constantly taking up space in my own life. Who am I? Who am I becoming? What is in my way and how am I to respond to these obstacles? Identity is almost becoming synonymous with survival. How are we to fight for our sense of self each day? The 10 films I have listed below respond to various intersections of identity and survival. Through watching these pieces, I hope we can all look into our own lives as a means of self-reflection… I hope we can look into our own worlds and love each other a little more.


1. Saint Laurent (2014)

Director: Jalil Lespert

Available on Netflix: Yes

A 2014 French biopic co-written and directed by Jalil Lespert, this film invites us into the world of the fabulous designer, Yves Saint Laurent. The film focusses on the designer’s life between 1967 to 1976, which coincides with the height of his illustrious fashion career. But, do not be fooled. All that glitters is not gold. The story depicted is both glamorous and tragic all at once. Told in a non-linear sequence from the point of view of Saint Laurent’s life-partner, we, as viewers, are asked to consider all of the forces, good and bad, that contributed to Saint Laurent’s life. From his identity and struggle as a gay man, his tense and complicated relationship with a mother who rejected his sexuality, the burdens of being a successful artist, to volatile romantic relationships, the world of Saint Laurent is certainly dark and hopeless at times.

But, the cinematography will give you life for days! The colors are incredible. Also, each fashion collection serves as an extension of narrative content, as each seems to contribute to specific emotional moments in Saint Laurent’s life and career, blurring the lines between fashion, vulnerability, identity, and loneliness. A. O. Scott of The New York Times put it perfectly: by the end of the film “you’re not sure if you’ve witnessed a tragedy in the guise of a fashion show, or the reverse.”


2. Belle ( 2013)

Director: Amma Asante

A 2013 British period drama directed by Amma Asante, and written by Misan Sagay, this film was inspired by a 1979 painting of Dido Elizabeth Belle beside her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray(see painting below).

Little is known about the historical Belle, with the exception that she was born in the West Indies, she was the great-niece of William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield(then Lord Chief Justice of England), and finally she was the illegitimate mixed-race daughter of Mansfield’s nephew. This fictional film aims to unfold her story: In the movie, Belle is found living in poverty by her father and entrusted to the care of Mansfield and his wife. The family welcomes her with open arms, but much of the film is about Belle’s struggle to embrace and understand her Black heritage. She lives her life as a white woman, but is often confused and frustrated when she is not received or seen as white in white spaces. This very tension becomes the heart of the film, and asks us to consider the power of presentation, the dangers and freedoms that come with re-imaging ourselves, and the political consequences of loving ourselves.


3. Pariah (2011)

Director: Dee Rees

Available on Netflix: Yes

A 2011 American art drama written and directed by Dee Rees, Pariah tells the story of Alike, a Black teenager coming to terms with her identity as a lesbian. The film was premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, and was awarded the Excellence in Cinematography Award. But most importantly, this film is a celebration of sexuality, of gender, and of freedom. Though we see Alike struggle at being honest with herself, her family, and those around her, this film does offer us some light. It shows us that we can be the catalysts for our own freedom. Believe me when I say that this story will change your life, and you’ll be listening to the soundtrack for days on end!


4. Youtube Series: Strolling/Flaner/Wandelen

Director: Cecile Emeke

Cecile Emeke is a director, writer, & artist based in London, England. Born to Caribbean parents, she is very interested in the many stories of Blacks across the African diaspora. She is most known for her global online documentary series entitled "Strolling", "Flaner"(French for strolling), and "Wandelen", in which she interviews men and women of color throughout England, France, and the Netherlands. She focuses on themes of race, diaspora, identity, feminism, love, loneliness, and joy in the context of Black and brown bodies. The series is beyond amazing, and truly lets you into the daily lives of Black people around the world. Emeke’s series is a testament to the fact that the stories of Black people everywhere are not a monolith, and they need to be heard!

Emeke's work has been featured everywhere from the New York Times, The Washington Post, Ebony Magazine, Fader, Nylon, Dazed, Afropunk, Okay Africa to The Tribeca Film Festival.


5. Violette (2013)

Director: Martin Provost

Available on Netflix: Yes


A 2013 biographical film written and directed by Martin Provost, this film sheds light on the story of the French novelist, Violette Leduc. A contemporary of French writers like Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Genet, and Albert Camus, the story unfolds Leduc’s relationships with many of these writers, as well as her own struggles as a writer and a human being. Born an illegitimate child, fictional Violette certainly is made to feel the brunt of a mother’s scorn and disappointment, and her future relationships with men and women continue to cause her much sorrow, as she feels she will never be loved. As her own writing grows in popularity and influence, Violette continues to discover that her art, her success, will not bring her the love that she searches for. Both devastating and lovely to watch, this film will have you laughing and crying all at once.


6. About Elly (2009)

Director: Asghar Farhadi

I literally have no words. Your heart will race throughout the duration of the film. You will think about family, and love, and loss, and breaking points. Just watch it. If I say anything I may just ruin the urgency of the story.



7. Born into Brothels: Calcutta's Red Light Kids (2004)

Director: Zana Briski & Ross Kaufmann

Born into Brothels: Calcutta's Red Light Kids is a 2004 Indian-American documentary film about the children of prostitutes in Sonagachi, Kolkata's red light district. The widely acclaimed film, written and directed by Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman, won a string of accolades including the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2004. Both heartbreaking and full of light, the film will open up, for viewers, new notions of survival and childhood.



8.Tsotsi (2005)

Director: Gavin Hood

Available on Netflix: Yes

A 2005 film directed by Gavin Hood and produced by Peter Fudakowski, it is an adaptation of the novel Tsotsi, by Athol Fugardand. Set in an Alexandra slum, in Johannesburg, South Africa, the film tells the story of Tsotsi, a young street thug who steals a car only to discover a baby in the back seat. The film highlights South Africa’s violent and complicated history with race, class, and colonialism, and as we see Tsotsi struggle to hide and care for a child who is not his, we begin to ask ourselves what kinds of transformations are waiting to be realized within our own lives and the world around us?



9. Everything Must Go (2010)

Director: Dan Rush

A 2010 American comedy-drama film directed by Dan Rush and starring Will Ferrell, this film is inspired by Raymond Carver's short story "Why Don't You Dance?" A great majority of the narrative takes place on the protagonist, Nick Halsey’s, small front-yard. Nick has been suffering from alcoholism for a long time, and has just been fired from his job of 16 years because of a drinking incident. His wife has had enough so she leaves him, changes the locks on the doors of their home, and blocks him from their joint checking account. Nick, at his wit’s end, survives for weeks on his lawn, and begins to develop deep relationships with a young neighborhood boy who tries to help him, as well as an unhappy neighbor who is pregnant and dealing with a disengaged husband. For weeks, Nick has to face himself and those around him with honest and frightening clarity. Some may call this a mid-life crisis, and others, a reawakening.



10. Raise The Red Lantern (1991)

Director: Zhang Yimou


Adapted from Su Tong’s 1990 novel, Wives and Concubines, this film tells the story of a young woman, Songlian, who becomes one of the concubines of a wealthy man during the Warlord Era in 1920s-China. Songlian, whose father has recently died and left the family bankrupt, marries into the wealthy Chen family, becoming the third concubine or, as she is referred to, the Fourth Mistress. This is a story about what it means to be a woman in a man’s world. As Songlian navigates her new “home”, and forms relationships with the other women-mistresses, she discovers themes of self-worth, she discovers what her body means in this world, and she learns that life as she knew it will never be the same. She must create a new-self if she is to survive in this strange and lonely place.





"We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry." - W. B. Yeats

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