Serious. Films reviewed: Beirut, Abu, Indian Horse

Posted in Canada, Canadian Literature, documentary, Dreams, Espionage, Indigenous, Islam, Lebanon, LGBT, Ojibway, Racism, Residential Schools by CulturalMining.com on April 13, 2018

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Spring film festival season is on now. Look out for Cinefranco featuring films from Québec; Human Rights Watch Film Fest with films from around the world, and here’s a new one: The Toronto International Porn Film Festival! This week, though, I’m looking at some serious movies. There’s a spy thriller set in Lebanon, a family memoir in Pakistan and Canada, and a drama about Canada’s residential schools.

Beirut

Dir: Brad Anderson

It’s 1972 at the US Embassy in Beirut. Mason (Jon Hamm) and his wife are hosting a party for bigwigs from Washington. Helping out is Karim, an earnest 12-year-old Palestinian kid who they treat like a son. But all is not well. His best friend, Cal, a CIA agent tells him something’s up with that cute little boy so they’re just going to take him away to a dark cell somewhere for awhile.

What–? Mason objects, but just then, gunmen enter the embassy, kill his wife, and drive off with the boy. Mason’s life is ruined. Ten years later he’s back in the States, staying just sober enough to keep his job as a labour negotiator… when out of the blue comes an urgent call: top government officials wants him back in Beirut, but they won’t say why.

He is met by Sandy (Rosamund Pike) in the now wartorn city, who fills him in. Militants have kidnapped an American and have asked Mason to negotiate. Turns out the kidnappee is his old friend Cal, and the kidnapper? Little Karim, now all grown up. Can Mason defuse the tensions, negotatiate a trade between the CIA, the Mossad, the PLO, the Lebanese government, splinter groups and corrupt officials? Or will the intrigue and subterfuge prove too much for him to handle?

Beirut is a neat and taut action thriller with lots of suspense amidst the twists and turns. (The script is by Tony Gilroy who did the Bourne trilogy.) Poltically, though, it’s a total mess. The film is loaded with visual “shorthand”, so 1982 Lebanon is represented by a woman in a niqab beside a camel on the beach! Really??  This isn’t Saudi Arabia in 2018, it’s Lebanon in 1982.  The movie also implies that every Arab child is a potential terrorist in the making.

Still the acting is good, the pace brisk and the game-theory-fuelled plot is fascinating to watch.

Abu

Wri/Dir: Arshad Khan

Arshad is a little kid growing up in Pakistan to an Army engineer dad and an upper-class mom. He likes dancing to disco music and being flamboyant. And by his teenaged years he’s secretly dating another boy. The parents find out and he is deeply humiliated.

Later, the family moves to Canada, where he stands out for a different reason. Suddenly, he’s Pakistani, he’s an immigrant, he’s a person of colour – with all the racism that comes with his new identity. Arshad gradually feels his way through an unfamiliar, racialized setting, as a South Asian, as a Canadian, as a gay man, and as a political activist. His parents veer in the opposite direction. They gradually turn to fundamentalist Islam, which they learn about in their new home. Can this family stay together?

Abu is deeply personal film, that serves as both a tribute to Arshad’s parents (Abu means father) and a look at his own life. It’s filled with family photos, videos, and interviews – his parents were movie enthusiasts who recorded everything. These random vignettes are strung together with an unusual plot device – an animated version of a dream he has that proves prophetic. Though the story is routine, much like what countless other new immigrants to Canada experience,  I love the way the film puts everything – history, pop culture, music – into a larger context.

Indian Horse

Dir: Stephen S. Campanelli

Based on the novel by Richard Wagamese

It’s the 1950s in Northern Ontario. Saul Indian Horse (Sladen Peltier as young Saul; Forrest Goodluck as teen Saul; Ajuawak Kapashesit as adult Saul) is a young boy  raised by his grandmother (Edna Manitowabi) who teaches him the Ojibway ways. Until the day government officials arrive in a fancy car who literally pull him out of his grandmother’s arms. They leave him at St Jerome’s a Catholic residential school where they can “kill the Indian in him”. Right away they cut off his hair, forbid him from speaking his language. The school is run by cruel priests and nuns, who abuse the kids physically and psychologically. Some are tortured, even locked up in a cage in the basement. Saul is a survivor and stays out of trouble, unlike his best friend who can’t hack it… and suffers terribly.

Saul comes up with a way to get out of the place: hockey. He’s seen it on B&W TV at school and it speaks to him. He’s sure if he learns to skate and practices on his own every morning, hockey will save him. He’s helped by way of a deal he makes with Father Gaston (Michiel Huisman), a friendly priest who takes a liking to him. It turns out Saul’s right – he is a fantastic player. He joins a native hockey team up north and slowly climbs his way up the ladder. He faces racism and discrimination at every step but he keeps his identity and sense of self. Eventually he gets drafted to the NHL and sent to Toronto – their first indigenous player. But deep inside, something from his past is eating away at him. What will become of Saul? Will he succeed in his dreams? Or will his experiences at the residential school drag him down?

Indian Horse is a deeply moving story, starring indigenous actors playing Saul at each stage of his life. It exposes a recent, shameful part of Canadian history, and one that’s still being felt today. The movie is not perfect or without flaws — it was made with a limited budget, and isn’t a Hollywood-style pic with a feel-good ending. But I think it’s a really good drama about an important topic, and one that should be required viewing across this country.

Beirut, Abu and Indian Horse all open today in Toronto; check your local listings. Also opening is the fantastic, realistic drama Lean on Pete which I reviewed here last September and is also on my New Year’s list of best movies of the year.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

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