Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Film Atlas (Mauritania): Timbuktu

Country: Mauritania
Title: Timbuktu (2014)
The film is set during the 8-month occupation of Timbuktu, Mali by Ansar Dine, a militant Islamic movement associated with ISIL. They impose sharia, an extremely strict set of laws that includes the banning of music, singing and sports, forcing women to completely cover their bodies, and levying heavy punishments like lashings and stonings for violations. 

The local population, unassuming shepherds, fishers, farmers and shopkeepers, who’ve never needed a standing army and practice Islam as a private, inward-directed faith, are at first merely bemused and annoyed by the newly-arrived outsiders. But their policies, pitilessly, disproportionately and often hypocritically applied, soon turn the once-vibrant region into a fearful and despotic hellhole. The main character, Kidane, is a leisurely but very loving husband and father, who grazes eight cows in the grass-patched dunes outside the city. When “GPS,” the pride of his herd, is killed by an angry neighbor, Kidane gets caught up in the senseless ‘justice’ of Ansar Dine’s reign.

Veteran helmer Abderrahmane Sissako has shown a welcome inclination to tackle contemporary political topics, but what makes Timbuktu work is that it has a great deal more grace and moderation than we’re used to from political pieces and social commentaries. It functions on a much smaller and more intimate scale. The “heroes” of the story are members of a quiet unambitious family so inconsequential that the occupiers are barely aware of their existence until circumstances make them just conspicuous enough to merit a quick, callous, informal trial. The soldiers of ISIL, on the other hand, aren’t depicted here as an army or terrorist organization so much as a small-time gang; self-interested men who thrive on seeing their own will imposed on those around them, something only possible because they happen to have guns. They shroud themselves with a religion they little understand, warping it to their short-term, petty desires while disregarding the articulate common sense of the local imam.

Sissako’s style has intermittently flirted with European slow cinema and he’s developed an eye for breathtaking telephoto scenes that increasingly merit being held for a minute or more as we fully digest. Perhaps the best is a long shot of two men separating after a struggle in the middle of a shallow lake, lurching to land, their expressions far too remote to read, but in the full awareness that their lives are ending. Another hauntingly beautiful scene weaves around a soccer match taking place with an imagined ball, the real one having been confiscated as un-Islamic. 

Timbuktu also has Sissako’s best script to date, balancing the slacker ennui and mute acceptance of his Waiting for Happiness and the in-your-face polemics and foregrounded debate of his last feature, Bamako, in which an African village literally puts the IMF on trial.

Major Directors:
Abderrahmane Sissako

Monday, April 20, 2015

Film Atlas (Kuwait): The Cruel Sea

Country: Kuwait
Title: The Cruel Sea / Bas ya Bahar (1972)
For the men and women who eke out a living on the coast of Kuwait, the sea is both friend and enemy, generous giver and ruthless taker, and at various times a meal ticket, a home and a grave. Moussaed, your typical handsome-but-poor young man is in love with Nora, your garden variety beautiful-rich-out-of-reach woman, who reciprocates his feeling despite her father’s objections. Moussaed is more successful at vetoing his dad, determining to make his fortunes as a pearl diver even though his father’s arm was paralyzed by a shark pursuing the same career. 

Once underway on a four month tour of duty, Moussaed partners with Badr, his only friend on the conspicuously solidarity-starved ship, and the two are reasonably successful at first. However, it soon becomes clear that they are playing a dangerous lottery rigged against them by both man and nature. The prolonged time spent submerged and the constant pressure changes saddle Moussaed with an excruciating earache while other illnesses plague the crew. Forced to push on anyway, his arm is caught in an underwater cleft and, after a terrifying struggle, he dies. 

Late that night Badr cuts open the clams from his ex-buddy’s basket and discovers several shimmering pearls. The ship returns from the season late. In the meantime Nora has been married against her will to a wealthy merchant. Badr gives the pearls to Moussaed’s parents, but, overcome by grief, his mother throws them back to the cruel sea.

The Cruel Sea was the first feature film from Kuwait and major landmark in Arabic cinema. The production is technically rather rough, marred by injudicious zoom shots and ambitious but frequently confusing editing and lighting that confuse several scenes, but the sweaty, sickly claustrophobia of the diving boat and the misleading serenity of the underwater photography elevate the film’s latter half. Similarly, the narrative begins rather conventionally with a pair of thwarted lovers who’ve got very little spark and at one point loses momentum during Nora’s extended wedding scene, but the story has a timeless wisdom and sadness, not to mention a great deal of thematic interest, that build towards the final acts.

Family, tradition, masculinity and life at sea, while shown as essential to community life and as cornerstones of their value system, are undermined by self-interest, parochialism and unjustifiable risk. Even dreams, the thing that movies are made of, are revealed as siren songs. In an extended flashback Moussaed’s father pursues a phantom pearl to his own disaster, and later fails to avert his son, who refuses to obey him, from an even worse fate. Conversely, Nora’s father should have been disobeyed, but can’t be, and result is also tragedy. This false choice, where respecting parental authority versus paving one’s own way both lead to misfortune, echoes the movie’s more explicit theme of an ocean on which lives both depend and end.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Film Atlas (Honduras): Garifuna in Peril

Country: Honduras
Title: Garifuna in Peril (2012)
Garifuna in Peril, despite its grassroots production, has a great deal of ambition, not only attempting to rescue an ethnic community and their fading language by telling their story of survival in both the historical past and the economically-shaky present, but also presenting a warm-hearted family saga with all the breadth and intimacy that entails. Ricardo is the foundation of an extended family that spans two countries. He lives in the US with his wife Becky, where he manages the business end of a Honduran company with his brother, Miguel, who conducts tours of their traditional Garifuna village. Together they are building an English-Spanish-Garifuna-language schoolhouse with the proceeds. 

But Miguel befriends Pedro, a bus driver for a nearby luxury hotel, and falls in love with Pedro’s sister Vera, who makes him a more lucrative offer. Ricardo has to travel back to his homeland and clear up the mess. Meanwhile Ricardo’s daughter, Helena, deals with a much older boyfriend, Gabriel, who is dragging his feet about getting tested for HIV, and his oldest son Elijah, initially indifferent to his cultural heritage, stars in a play about the Garifuna people’s 17th century resistance to British colonialism and slavery on the island of St. Vincent.

One of the keys to low-budget filmmaking is to play to your strengths. Car chases and CG are expensive, but good writing, though difficult to achieve, is cheap. Garifuna understands this, and succeeds by focusing on a strong script that captures the everyday realism of a unique pocket of Honduras and never cuts corners in terms of what it wants to tackle and how. Of course, not every subplot gets an in depth treatment, but even the ones brushed over (like Helena’s relationship or everything having to do with the youngest son, Jimmy) give us a greater sense of a living, breathing family.

There are a lot of scenes that may look like soap opera, but don’t feel like it, largely because the writing is both fair and honest. For example, Miguel’s passion for Vera is understandable even as it leads him to make an obviously poor decision and I was impressed that the film resisted giving him a tearful reunion back into the family fold after realizing his mistake. Instead he gets tipsy, wrestles inarticulately with guilt and self-disgust and finally takes off never to be seen again; pretty harsh, but also pretty true to life. Another great example of naturalistic writing, painfully reminiscent of my own experiences, is a sort of town hall meeting in which miscommunication, blame apportioning, anger venting, lingering resentments and cross-cultural mistrust make it hard to get anything meaningful done, though that doesn’t stop a few optimists from trying.  I was also keen on the hotel owner’s climactic “villain speech,” which is actually reasonable, persuasive and open to some compromises, an almost unheard of rarity in stories about communities squaring off against large corporations.

The acting and directing don’t quite live up to the same level as the writing. Ruban Reyes, who stars as Ricardo and co-directed, raises the level of every scene he’s in (and thankfully he’s onscreen a lot), but the rest of the cast feel like first-time actors, which isn’t surprising, because they are. Garifuna in Peril isn’t likely to generate a lot of buzz, but for those among the Garifuna diaspora or who take an interest in Central American cultures, they’ll be well satisfied by this film.

This was the first Film Atlas title submitted by a reader (and it beat out the Honduran films I was able to track down on my own). If you know of or represent a great film from a country not yet on the Film Atlas, please let  know! I'd be happy to hear from you.

Monday, December 8, 2014

SLIFF 2014: Zero Motivation

Title: Zero Motivation
Country: Israel
Rating: 8.5
                Comedy is pretty hard to judge. I hardly ever see comedies in theaters because what the big US studios consider funny these days just doesn’t get a laugh out of me. I don’t think of myself as a grumpy person, though, just a picky one. That said, Zero Motivation cracked me up!
                A group of young women serving their mandatory military service in the IDF, kill time in admin positions at an obscure and strategically minor dessert outpost during peacetime. They compete for ‘world records’ in MS minesweeper, intermittently shred miscellaneous documents and jealously guard their most valuable possession: twin staple guns. The film is divided into several acts following Daffi, who is so desperate to transfer to Tel Aviv that she may even endure officer’s training, Zohar, a natural rebel and unhappy virgin who manages to destroy everything in her wake without ever feeling at fault, and their commanding officer Rama, a highly-driven authoritative workaholic with plenty of conviction and almost no charisma.
                This is smart, character-driven comedy with excellent timing, a brisk cycle of realism and absurdity and the boredom-born wisdom to recognize that drudgery and whimsicality are very near neighbors. It’s also a movie that genuinely cares for its characters, even the ones who it uses as the butt of jokes, while never giving them a free pass or excusing their bad behavior and poor judgment. Anyone who has every worked in an office environment, especially one cutoff from common sense by layers of calcified bureaucracy, will find moments of recognition and laughter.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

SLIFF 2014: Winter Sleep

Title: Winter Sleep
Country: Turkey
Rating: 9
                In the ancient and dazzlingly scenic cave city of Cappadocia, Mr. Aydin runs a hotel, writes a smalltime column called 'Voices of the Steppe,' and serves as landlord for pretty much the entire nearby population though he is so hands-off that even he admits he wouldn't necessarily recognize their faces if he passed them on the street. A former actor, he's also intermittently researching a history of Turkish theater.
                But mostly he talks... and talks... and talks. He talks with his groundskeeper/chauffeur, his dissatisfied and much-younger wife, his bitter stifled sister, his few and far between guests (offseason is descending) and, when he can't self-servingly avoid them, his hard-pressed poverty-mired locals. One of these latter is Ismail, a hot-tempered heavy-drinking man who served time for a fight that got out of hand and has had trouble finding employment since. After failing to make rent, his TV and refrigerator are repossessed in front of his family, shaming him. The incident takes place offscreen before the movie opens. Our story begins when his son, Ilyas, throws a rock at Mr. Aydin's car.
                Over the past decade the internet has been having some really great discussions on privilege, discourse and authority; the contemporary first-world expressions of power hierarchies and class structures which are perhaps more subtle than in the past but no less pervasive and powerful. These discussions rarely ever make it to the big screen and rarer still in forms that capture the incredible complexity and breadth of perspectives that make them meaningful. But if any of those topics are of interest to you, then Winter Sleep is a movie you will want to see. And if they aren't of interest to you, then Winter Sleep is probably a film you should see.

                But I hate it when critics tell me I 'should' see a film, so instead I'll talk about why I'm glad I did see it. It woke me up a little. At times I was Mr. Aydin, or recognized him, loathed him or sympathized with him, found him impenetrable or saw right through him and through myself. Mr. Aydin is a fantastic character, and his every interaction with the people around him are mini-masterpieces of mutual, conflicting and self deceptions. It's almost worse when he hits upon truth. His erudition has brought him little personal insight and less redemption, but it has brought him eloquence and armed him to the teeth with rationalizations for his ideas and his way of life. He's not quite unaware, and certainly not blissfully unaware, of his pettiness, vanity, cowardice and mediocrity, but he has largely accepted these faults, excused them and taught himself not to dwell on them. Instead he dwells on the faults of others (when he isn't completely consumed with his incredibly niche hobbies) and seems to think that if there are things wrong with the people he is arguing with, then he himself must be right.
                This film is 196-minutes and slow. But it is by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, which for me has come to mean that it is worth the time and effort no questions asked. I won't even go into the cinematography except to say that it is every bit as good as the writing. I'd rank this ever so slightly below Ceylan's Three Monkeys, but it is surely his most penetrating and ambitious in a brilliant oeuvre that continues to mature and impress.

SLIFF 2014: Uzumasa Limelight

Title: Uzumasa Limelight
Country: Japan
Rating: 4
                Seiichi Kamiyama is one of those highly trained and yet borderline uncredited extras in Japanese sword-fighting films that gets bloodily dispatched, sometimes dramatically and sometimes offhandedly, by the top-billed actor. After the last great chanbara TV series is canceled, Seiichi's rather specialized skills are no longer needed, and he loses part of his pride and most of his purpose. Disliked by the company's new producer, he rarely gets roles even after the genre is revived with a younger, handsomer and trendier cast. Eventually Seiichi finds a calling teaching Satsuki, an ambitious and heartfelt young lady, how to stage-fight. She will have her day in the limelight.
                The concept looks great on paper. Casting Seizo Fukumoto, a real-life oft-killed 'Thug #2' and 'Samurai guard #4' in many films from the 1970s, is also inspired. But everything else isn't. The direction is flat and over-earnest. The look is bland and overlit. The story beats are predictable to the point of mechanic, making it easy to get bored since you know where a scene is heading before it’s halfway through. The young actors are not very good, just like the young actors they are portraying. This is a film that is supposed to be feel-good, but it too often it doesn't earn it.  

Saturday, December 6, 2014

SLIFF 2014: The Tribe

Title: The Tribe
Country: Ukraine
Score: 8
                Sergey is a new student at a boarding school that looks like it gets about as much government funding as an empty lot with a city park sign. Paint peels off the walls. Kids are packed 2-4 to a dorm room. The wood shop looks like a factory floor for exploiting child labor. And exploiting is definitely the right word, given what goes on at this place. The alpha males of this student ‘tribe’ bully whoever they please, sell drugs, mug locals and prostitute female classmates at a seedy truck stop nearby. It gradually and rather matter-of-factly becomes clear that the staff are in on, if not all of this, then at least the worst of it.
                Sergey initially takes his lumps, but earns a measure of respect from the upperclassmen and is entrusted by them with various gang tasks. After one of the pimps is killed, in a scene of expertly choreographed anticipation that is excruciatingly hard to watch (although far from the hardest), Sergey is promoted. He soon falls in love – although I use this word in the broadest possible sense – with Yana, one of the girls. She doesn’t exactly reciprocate his emotional attachment, but she’s seems grateful for sex she can actually enjoy. But since this isn’t the fantasy land of most onscreen romances, the relationship just brings down trouble on everyone’s heads. Appealing to a higher authority for justice is clearly not even a thought that would cross Sergey’s mind, since corruption extends in every conceivable direction that he could take. He has no other option then to take matters into his own hands.

                I’m giving you the plot first, but the plot isn’t what has the festival circuit abuzz over this film. Most reviews lead with this: all the characters are deaf. They speak exclusively in sign language. There is no dialog. There are no subtitles. There is no translation.
                One possible theory as to why is that most deaf audience members have to watch movies in this state all the time: lacking complete information; trying to piece together what is happening from body language and context. You will quickly figure out how, or you better leave the theater. And if you are squeamish, you probably might want to leave the theater anyway, because this is a very grim, unpleasant movie. But it is saying a lot about marginalized vulnerable communities, about youths coming of age in neglected corners, about living in a cutthroat society and an unstable country. And even the deaf, especially the deaf, will want to hear what The Tribe is saying.
                The intimidatingly hard to pronounce Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy is also a master of his craft, employing long-take mobile camerawork well-suited to his strutting, ruthless material. As I hinted at above, the locations are also spot-on: wretched cubbyholes of post-Soviet pitted concrete and tarnished metal.
                This is easily the most disturbing fiction film I’ve seen this year, but the fact that I can’t get it out of my head isn’t because it bombarded me with senseless shocks and grotesquery. It has gotten into my head and under my skin in the way that provocative cinema should. This may be a film I’m able to like more as I get a little distance from it.