Politics. Movies reviewed: He Named Me Malala, This Changes Everything, 99 Homes
Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.
A movie can be political as much for what it includes as for what it leaves out. Take Zero Dark Thirty, which said that torture is what helped catch Osama bin Laden. What it left out (according to Vice media) was that their source of these “facts” was the CIA. This week I’m looking at three movies with overt political themes. Two are documentaries: one about how a girl’s education affected her life; another about how climate change affects economics and politics; and a drama about how real estate speculation affects the “99 percent”.
He Named Me Malala
Dir: Davis Guggenheim
Malala Yousefzai grew up in the Swat valley of Pakistan, in an idyllic but isolated village near the Afghan border. This is also when a local Taliban begins preaching on the radio. At first they are welcomed — Mullah Fazlullah speaks their language. But the Taliban begins to restrict, and eventually to ban all girls from schools. Malala is a devout Muslim but opposes anything that might hold back women’s rights. She is unequivocal on this: men and women must have equal rights and opportunities.
A precocious student and the daughter of a teacher, she decides to do someone thing about it. First, at age 11, she shares her experiences with the world anonymously via a BBC blog. Then she comes out publicly as the face of all the girls their being denied an education. But the Taliban is not just a radio show. Their rhetoric escalates to bombing schools and physical attacking girls who disobey. And one night Malala and two friends are shot by a would-be assassin.
She falls into a coma, her family flees to England and the Taliban says if she ever comes back they’ll kill her. But she survives and becomes an international activist.
This movie shows three things. It illustrates her history in a series of lovely animated sequences using colourful paintings. It follows her travels as an activist in Kenya and among Syrian refugees. In Nigeria she appeals to Boko Haram to release the 100 schoolgirls they kidnapped. And in the US she explains to Obama that drones attacks are inspiring, not stopping, would-be terrorists. Finally, the movie shows the life of an ordinary girl who does her homework, fights with her brothers and ogles pics of star cricketeers online. It lets us know that she’s not a victim, nor a saint, but a committed activist who deserves to be listened to.
This Changes Everything
Dir: Avi Lewis
Wri: Naomi Klein, based on her book
Climate change is a huge problem, maybe our biggest. But Naomi Klein says polar bears just don’t do it for her. And turning off light bulbs is not the answer. So what can we do? To address this, the film takes it to the people, the ones immediately affected by environmental disasters. It follows their plight and how they fight back. A first nations activist living right beside the oil patch in Northern Alberta, protests the effects of tailings on their water supply. Farmers in Montana suffer from an oil leak. Then there’s the mining industry moving into northern Greece… right at the moment the country faces economic austerity. The economy desperately needs investment, they’re told, stop worrying about little things like the environment! It’s the “shock doctrine” at work, using a crisis as an excuse for economic exploitation. And in India where tens of thousands could lose their livelihood if they build a coal plant.
The movie is beautiful shot, with vast Burtynsky-like vistas of massive oil fields. It’s not just about people you already agree with – it includes many of the fiercest opponents to environmentalism. And it’s narrated by Naomi Klein herself, who pulls it all together. This highly watchable film is a good guide on how to think globally while acting locally.
Dir: Ramin Bahrani
Dennis (Andrew Garfield) is a single dad who lives with his Mom Lynn (Laura Dern) and his son Conner (Noah Lomax). Times are tough, but Dennis works, Conner goes to school, and they live in Lynn’s house where two generations were born and brought up. They miss some mortgage payments, but it doesn’t seem that important. Then comes the big shock. Seemingly out of nowhere there’s a knock on the door – a real estate broker flanked by police. His homes is being repossessed, and he and his family are given a couple of minutes to grab their valuables and vacate the premises. They kick him out and padlock the front door shut.
Dennis is desperate, so he takes on odd jobs. He needs to earn enough money to get his family home back. His new boss Rick (Michael Shannon) flips homes for a living and offers him a cash income doing minor repairs. The catch? This is the guy who stole his house! But if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Rick is an odd character, a mini Donald Trump. He doesn’t have time for losers – he’s a winner, and he got there by stomping on the little people the way. You can’t be sentimental or nostalgic if you want to succeed. And he’s determined to make it to the top of the heap.
Rick lives in a spacious (repossessed) mansion complete with swimming pool, swank car and beautiful girlfriend. But he has high hopes for Dennis, and soon enough Dennis is kicking families out of their homes. He wants to get hold of a big block of land – the 99 homes of the title – so he can become a big player in the game. Dennis finds himself turning into his own enemy… even while his family is still camping out in a cheap motel room. Which direction will he choose: wealth or happiness?
This is a movie about a very real problem: homelessness and the US housing bubble, which turned family homes into a negotiable commodity. The title – 99 Homes – is meant to evoke how regular people, the 99%, fare under the rule of the super-rich. I like Bahrani’s earlier movies (like Chop Shop) for their improvisational, documentary feel. 99 Homes has its realistic elements, but it also has big name stars (all excellent) and a strict plot and script. It may harken back to the age of silent movies with its old-fashioned heroes and villains twisting their mustaches, (you must pay the rent – but I can’t pay the rent!) but it’s still worth watching.
This Changes Everything, He Named Me Malala, and 99 Homes all open today in Toronto; check your local listings. Also opening is Labyrinth of Lies, a German historical drama set in the 1960s about a courageous lawyer who dares to prosecute Nazi war criminals; and Guy Maddin’s wonderful The Forbidden Room.
This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.