Daniel Garber talks with Jawad Rhalib about When Arabs Danced at #TIFF18

Posted in Belgium, Dance, documentary, Egypt, Iran, Islam, Religion, Women by CulturalMining.com on September 21, 2018

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

In the 1950s Egypt was known for its dancers.

From belly dancing to ballet dancing to ballroom dancing, dance was an acceptable, even revered part of Arab culture. But with the rise of fundamentalism, dancing has become frowned upon, or even banned in some countries. When will we see Arabs dancing again?

When Arabs Danced is a new documentary that looks at creativity and performance arts within the Arab community in the Middle East, North Africa and in Europe. It also celebrates dance and performance art that continues to thrive… when not being suppressed.

And it treads the fine line between community censorship and religion.  This documentary had its North American premier at Toronto International Film Festival and is directed by the Belgian writer, novelist, director and journalist Jawad Rhalib.

I spoke with Jawad Rhalib in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM during TIFF.

When Arabs Danced is coming soon…

Seeking his Fortune. Films Reviewed: Lean on Pete, Sheikh Jackson, Valley of Shadows

Posted in Coming of Age, Drama, Egypt, Fairytales, Islam, Kids, Movies, Music, Norway by CulturalMining.com on September 15, 2017

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

Whether it’s Jack or Hans or Esben or Ivan, many fairytales start with a young man leaving home to seek his fortune. This week I’m looking at three new movies premiering at TIFF17 about young men heading off into the unknown. There’s Khaled, a young man in Egypt, Charley, a 15-year-old in Oregon, and Aslak a six-year-old boy in northern Norway.

Sheikh Jackson

Dir: Amr Salama

Khaled (Ahmad Alfishawy) is an imam at a mosque in Cairo who is having strange dreams and hallucination. He cries during prayers and keeps seeing a strange man dressed in black with pale skin and a glittering glove. Is family is very religious — his wife wears a niqab scolds their daughter for watching Beyoncé videos on youtube. And his uncle is his mentor and spiritual advisor. And everyone notices something is not right. He sees a psychiatrist and after many false starts he finally opens up and tells his story.

In his youth, Khaled (Ahmed Malek) lived with a loving family in Alexandria. His father is a body-builder entrepreneur, his mother stays at home.And he is entranced by a strange figure he sees on TV — it’s michael Jackson. His mother approves, but his father says “don’t watch that transvestite”. When his mother dies, he becomes obsessed with Michael Jackson, changing his hairstyle, buying new clothes, and going to nightclubs to hear his music. He also wants to impress another fan, a beautiful girl in his music class. But things with his father get worse and worse, until everything explodes. He runs to his uncle for help, who says he can,ove inwith his family as long as he gives up his current life and studies the Koran. But, back in the present, Michael Jacksons death turns his life upside down. Can he reconcile his moonwalking past with his religious present?

Sheikh Jackson is a delightfully cute look at the conflicts of contemporary Egypt. Religious vs secular, western pop culture vs more traditional ways. It’s also a bittersweet coming of age story about a non-conformist looking fir his place in the world. And — no spoiler – it includes a dance number to the tune of Thriller!

Valley of Shadows

Dir: Jonas Matzow Gulbrandsen

Aslak (Adam Akeli) is a 6 year old boy who lives his mom on a farm in remote northern Norway. His older brother is in some kidn of trouble, so he theres no one to play with. And when an older kid tells him there are monsters in the woods and werewolves killing sheep, his imagination goes wild. And when his dog runs away, he realizes he is the only one who can save him. So he packs some sandwiches in a bag and heads out up the mountain and into the forest. This starts a long journey, through trees, down slopes, across rivers, encountering, huge beasts, wild animals and a magical hermit as he travels all around. Will he find his dog, survive alone in the forest, avoid the werewolves and somehow make his way home again?

Valley of Shadows is a beautiful look at a journey through the eyes of a little boy. Fantastic scenery and wildlife seen in a dark and mystical light. With very little dialogue, it shows instead what Aslak sees in his journey. It feels like Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are… but real.

Lean on Pete

Wri/Dir: Andrew Haigh

Charley (Charlie Plummer) is a fifteen year old kid who moved with his dad to Portland Oregon. His dad is a heavy drinker who picks up women and takes them home. Charley’s mom left when he was just a kid. Back home he would go running in the mornig and played on the Varsity football team. But he doesn’t know anyone here. One day on a monring run he meets a grizzly old man named Del (Steve Buschemi) who handles race horses. Charley knows nothing about horses, but Del needs someone willing to work hard and shovel manure. He hires charley on the spot. That’s where he meets a female jockey named Bonnie (Chloe Sevigny) and a 5 year old quarter horse named Lean On Pete. Bonnie warns him it’s a business, and never treat racehorses like pets, but Charley loves Pete and tells him all his secrets. And when something happens to his dad, and Pete’s life is threatened, he takes the only path he can think of. He sets off across the sagebrush and deserts to save the horse and maybe find a relative who can help him.

Lean on Pete is a wonderful and very moving story of a kid on his own crossing Oregon and Wyoming. It’s not an idealized version, it’s a realistic look at someone trying to eat, drink and stay alive while broke and homeless, and with no one to turn to. It’s a bit of a tearjerker but never maudlin, and kept me riveted to the screen all the way through. And Charley Plummer is great in the title role, telling his story aloud as he travels across country.

Valley of Shadows and Lean on Pete are both playing now at TIFF with Sheikh Jackson having its world prenier tonight as the closing film of Special Presentations. And on Sunday you can see the People’s Choice award winner for free at Roy Thomson Hall; tickets are handed out at 4 pm. Go to tiff.net for details.

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

 

 

Intensity. Films reviewed: River of Fundament, Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, All Cheerleaders Die

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.

What makes a movie “intense”? Do you squirm in your seat, look away from the screen, maybe shout cries of indignation. Or is it the depth and breadth, the intensity of the images, sounds and story? This week I’m looking at intense movies. There’s an epic art film about rival Egyptian gods in modern day America; a crime action/ comedy/musical about rival Yakuza gangs; and a comedy/horror about football players vs bloodsucking cheerleaders.

Luminato2014_River of Fundament_Photo by Hugo Glendinning_001River of Fundament
Dir: Matthew Barney; Music: Jonathan Bepler

In a house, floating down the Hudson river near Manhattan is a wake for the late author Norman Mailer, attended by various literati. Also attending are a series of people – seemingly invisible to the crowd – dripping with human feces. They are the reincarnation of various ancient Egyptian gods, like Osiris, Hathferiti, Horus, and Set – who come back to life after swimming across the river of excrement. Mailer, who wrote the potboiler set in Ancient Egypt the movie is based on, also shows up as a ghost (played by his son, John Buffalo Mailer). Simultaneously, a marching band in LA is sanctifying a holy Chrysler car dealership. And in Detroit, a golden Trans-Am (with a phoenix tattooed across its hood) is being destroyed with a man in a golden straitjacket inside. And a CSI-team riding motorboats examines the wreckage. And an army of spectators descends into an empty reservoir for the showdown between two Egyptian deities as two women caress their pregnant bellies. Death, destruction, reincarnation and rebirth; gold leaf and brown feces; opulent banquets crawling with worms and maggots, all existing together as the rivers flow slowly downstream.

OK, that’s the condensed version. The actual movie is six bloody hours long (including two River of Fundament Photo Chris Wingetintermissions.) Six hours! And a lot of it seems to involve vomit, feces, urine, diarrhea, and bodily organs being pulled out of animal carcasses. Perhaps I exaggerate – maybe only, say, two of the six hours was disgusting, and four hours were astonishingly beautiful. It is an overwhelming experience, a movie done in English in the style of a classic opera, including libretto. And it’s filmed in enormous and spectacular locations, with aerial views of flames shooting from industrial towers; musicians playing and choirs singing simultaneously on motorboats speeding down rivers. Or shirtless trumpet players marching among parked cars; or a nude, Amazonian pornstar, her arms stretched over head, holding her sex partner (a tiny bearded man) lying horizontally above her.

I hated and loved this movie swearing I’d walk out a dozen times, but always drawn back to see what happens next. Unbelievable.

地獄でなぜ悪い2Why Don’t You Play in Hell?
Dir: Shion Sono

A team of aspiring college film geeks form a club inside a decaying old movie theatre. They call themselves the “F*ck Bombers”. And when they find a potential star – a brawling Bruce Lee lookalike high school student – they are consumed by a desire to make a real movie. But 10 years pass and still no luck. Meanwhile, two rival yakuza gangs are in a permanent state of war. The Muto gang dress in Godfather suits and carry guns, while the Ikegami gang wear classic kimono, armed with Samurai swords. Teenaged Mitsuko – the daughter of the Muto gang boss — is still famous for the jingle she sang as a child on a toothpaste TV ad. And the Ikegami boss still has a deeply-buried crush on the girl whom he met a decade earlier in a brief, blood-drenched encounter. Now, her gangster dad is turning to the movie business and bankrolls a film, that, he says, must star his reluctant daughter. But when a famous director quits, he pulls a random guy off the street to direct it instead. This while a gang war is about to erupt with many innocents caught in the 地獄でなぜ悪い 1middle.

Confusion, violence mayhem… But what about that amateur movie club – could they somehow take over the movie? To do so they’d have to convince the rival gangs to let them record – on 35 mm film – a bloody and violent showdown involving the two sides.

My bare-bones description does not do justice to this fantastic musical comedy – including an unbelievably bloody, 30-minute-long climactic battle scene. It has to be seen to be believed. Shion Sono is one of my favourite Japanese directors. His movies are outrageous and shockingly violent but also amazingly sentimental, earnest and goofy at the same time: an odd, but oddly pleasing combination.

Reanin Johannink in All Cheerleaders DieAll Cheerleaders Die
Wri/Dir: Lucky McKee, Chris Sivertson

Maddy (Caitlin Stasey) is suspicious of the cock-of-the-walk football captain at Blackfoot High. For Terry (Tom Williamson) his boys are dogs and the cheerleaders are bitches who he uses and abuses. So to get back at him – for what he’s done – she joins the cheerleaders squad. But she leaves her shy and goth-y BFF Leena behind. Leena (Aussie actress Sianoa Smit-McPhee) is an active wiccan, who practices necromancy using glowing crystals she Brooke Butler in All Cheerleaders Diecarries in a leather pouch. Well, at a beach party things go wrong. A mighty rift develops between the football players and the cheerleaders, which ends up with the girls’ car spinning off the highway into a ravine, killing all on board. Luckily, it’s Leena to the rescue. She mixes their blood with the crystals, and they all come back to life. They’re just like they used to be – Caitlin Stasey in All Cheerleaders Diewell sort of. Now they’re the living dead, functioning like an interconnected hive of bees. And, periodically, they have to suck blood to survive. When they’re not cutting class, making out in the handicapped washroom, or smoking up in the pot van.

Who will survive the longest? The vampiric cheerleaders or the abusive football jocks? This movie is not so intense, though quite bloody and violent. It’s your typical comedy horror with a good dose of Buffy the Vampire Slayer-style supernatural fun thrown in. I thought it was lots of fun – and a good date movie.

All Cheerleaders Die opens in Toronto today, check your local listings, The River Fundament played at Toronto’s Luminato – go to Luminato.com for more of Matthew Barney’s films; and Why Don’t You Play in Hell is showing next week at the Toronto Japanese Film Festival: go to jccc.on.ca for tickets. And look out for the Niagara Integrated & Italian Contemporary Film Festivals: coming soon!

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

Lebanon and Egypt. Movies Reviewed: Incendies, These Girls, Scheherezade: Tell Me a Story. Plus Cairo: A Graphic Novel

It’s on TV and in the newspapers – in targeted protests across North Africa and the Middle East the people are putting dictators on the defensive and turfing them out of office. A man in Tunisia set himself on fire – sort of like what the Buddhist monks in Saigon did during the Vietnam war – to protest the corrupt government’s interference with his vegetable stand. It spread from there, with president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and his family quickly fleeing the country.

There have been similar protests and demonstrations in Yemen, Jordan, and now Egypt, potentially with more to follow in Syria, Libya, Algeria, Morocco, or Saudi Arabia. (Last year’s protests in Iran were brutally crushed, so it could go both ways…)

I don’t know about you, but when something this big, this important, this exciting, and this world-changing is going on, even if it’s somewhere else far away, I get the urge to find out more about that area, experience more of its culture, understand more about its history, hear more of its language. TV, newspapers, or online news are great for up-to-the minute coverage, but it’s all surface, no depth. That’s why, this week, I’m talking about movies set in the Middle East, that give a glimpse into different people’s everyday lives, their problems, their loves. (I’m forced to dig through my past notes since there are very few movies shown in North America from Egypt.)

First, a Canadian movie, in French and Arabic, that mainly takes place in Lebanon.

Incendies

Dir: Denis Villeneuve

Based on the play by Wajdi Mouawad

A Montreal twin sister and brother, Jeanne and Simon, are called in to a Notary’s office to hear their mother’s will. She wrote: she doesn’t want a coffin or funeral, and no tombstone until her son and daughter deliver two sealed letters, one to a father they’ve never met and know nothing about, and one to a brother they never even knew existed. Simon (Maxim Gaudet) dismisses the whole thing, and walks away, but Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin), a mathematics grad student, decides to search for her lost relatives. This takes her on a trip to Lebanon.

Meanwhile, decades earlier, during their Civil War, the mother (Lubna Azabal), a Lebanese Christian, has fallen for a Muslim Palestinian, who is murdered by the men in her village. And her baby is given up for adoption.

At this point the movie splits up into two storylines: The mother traveling through southern Lebanon searching for her lost child in the midst of a violent war of sectarian reprisals; and the daughter, decades later trying to find the same boy – who would now be an adult if he is still alive – and her own father, about which she knows nothing. As the mother’s history gets more and more violent and shocking, the daughter (later joined by her twin brother) gradually uncovers her own hidden history and a whole lot of skeletons from her family closet.

This is a good, interesting and gripping story – though quite grim for large parts of it – with lots of surprises and twists. The characters of the twins is mainly as passive observers – we don’t get to know much about them. The main story is about the dead mother, as she lives through the horrors of sectarian, civil war.

There were parts of the movie that were false-seeming or forced or slow, especially near the beginning, but once the story starts going, it had me hooked, all the way. The acting, especially Lubna Azabal as the mother, was excellent. I had mixed feelings about Villeneuve’s Polytechnique, but I think with Incendies, he shows himself as a very good director, improving exponentially with each film.

Incendies is nominated for ten 2011 Genie awards, including Best Motion Picture, Best Achievement in Direction, plus editing, adapted screenplay, art direction, cinematography, sound, sound editing, make-up, and Best Actress (Lubna Azabal).  It is also in the running for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

We’re seeing a lot on TV about the street protesters with lots of massive shots of huge crowds, but not much about unusual, intimate lives in Cairo. For that, you should look to film.

These Girls (2006)

Dir: Tahani Rached

The director, Tahani Rached, did a number of NFB documentaries set in Egypt, but this one is my favourite.

These Girls is a rare look at the teenaged street girls living in downtown Cairo, runaways who cut their hair short, and form a sort of a gang to protect one another from marauding predatory men, kidnappers, rapists and cops – all equally dangerous. They’re armed with knives so they can handle one or two attackers at a time, but if they’re outnumbered, they just give in. Their ultimate fear of harm and injury goes even beyond attacks, it’s the possibility of facial scarring, that would make them pariahs, forever, long after the attack.

But, surprisingly, this is not a depressing or a downer of a movie; these girls are brash, open, funny, inspiring and full of life. Riding a white horse through the streets, singing, telling stories, dancing on car roofs, and loudly talking back to the middle-aged taxi drivers who condemn their wild ways. Of course It’s not about typical lives in Cairo, but it’s so life-affirming and revealing that it feels like I know Cairo after seeing it.

I saw this documentary at Hot Docs last year, but it’s a bit hard to see. If you can find a copy of it, or hear about a screening, it’s well worth watching. These Girls is a fantastic record of unvarnished Cairo streetlife.

For a more balanced, cross-section of Cairo life you should check out

Scheherazade: Tell Me a Story

Dir: Yousry Nasrallah

This is a wonderful melodrama about women’s lives in urban Cairo. Hebba (Mona Zaki) is a TV talk show host who is married to Karim, an ambitious journalist. They live a western-style life in a luxury condo replete with expensive gadgets, and dine in exclusive restaurants. But one day Hebba’s eyes are opened by a viewer she meets outside of work who questions her superficial interviews. She decides to change her outlook by addressing politically controversial women’s issues, problems never mentioned on TV before. Like Scheherazade, the storyteller in One Thousand and One Nights, Hebba brings new tales to her show each day, with stories of lust, greed, love and betrayal.

Hebba invites a series of ordinary women, both rich and poor, with unusual lives to tell about their strange situations: an ex-con taking care of her former jailer, a beautiful woman living in an asylum, and an educated professional launching a one-woman protest. Each guest tells an even deeper and more fascinating tale about how she ended up where she is now. The audience follows each story as it shifts from the bland TV stage to the rich dramas of the guest’s recollections. And in between her interviews, Hebba’s home life is gradually revealed.

The movie deals with issues like poverty, religious differences, social classes, government corruption, favouritism, and, most of all, censorship. Scheherazade: Tell Me a Story is a great movie with an excellent script (by Wahid Hamid), good acting and fascinating characters, showing women’s lives in today’s Egypt.

Finally there’s a graphic novel:

Cairo (2007)

Writer: G. Willow Wilson

Art: M.K. Perker

A group of people (a would-be suicide bomber, a Cairo columnist for an opposition newspaper, a feminist American grad student, a female Israeli soldier, and a drug smuggler) find their lives intertwined when a gangster pursues them all in order to get back his hookah. Why? Because it’s a hookah… that holds a djinn.

Written by an American journalist who converted to Islam, Cairo shows a different side of Egypt than you’d find in most American comics.

Incendies is now playing (check your listings), These Girls,  played at last year’s Hot Docs, and Scheherezade: Tell Me a Story  played at TIFF in 2009.

Also opening this weekend is a new film that was featured at the recent Toronto Palestinian Film Festival. Elia Seleiman’s, The Time that Remains, is described as a Jacques Tati-like pseudo-autobiographical story that traces the lives of a Palestinian family, from 1948 to the present, who stayed on after the formation of the new state, Israel. It opens today at the Light Box in Toronto.

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