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…

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.

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

 

 

Daniel Garber talks to director Mahmoud Sabbagh and stars Hisham Fageeh and Fatima Al Banawi about Barakah meets Barakah at #TIFF16

Posted in Class, comedy, Cultural Mining, Islam, Movies, Music, Romantic Comedy, Satire, Shakespeare, Social Networks by CulturalMining.com on September 16, 2016


Hi, This is Daniel Garber at the movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Barakah is a municipal civil servant in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He drives a tiny white truck and gives tickets to people defying city bylaws. He lives in a rundown flat with his shrieking aunt (a midwife), and his complaining uncle (a down-and-out former musician).

Bibi is a hugely popular culture critic and fashion plate with a unnamed-1million followers on Instagram. She shares her opinions and photos…but only from the lips down (to keep her identity a secret). She’s rich, famous and single.

After a series of chance meetings, Bibi and Barakah realize destiny is at play, and the two of them just might belong together. Problem is: how do you date in a country where unmarried men and women can’t kiss, hold hands… or even appear together in public without an escort? Will Bibi and Barakah ever get to know each other? And how can two people of different backgrounds bridge the gap between them?

Mahmoud Sabbagh at TIFF16, photo © Jeff Harris for Cultural MiningBarakah meets Barakah is a cute romantic comedy having its world premier at the Toronto International Film Festival. It’s a humorous look at the troubles of dating inside restrictive Saudi Arabia. But it’s also a lament for the loss of the once vibrant Saudi culture. It’s directed by Mahmoud Sabbagh, and stars Hisham Fageeh and Fatima Al Banawi, as the star-crossed lovers.

Barakah meets Barakah is only the second contemporary Saudi film to screen in Canada. I spoke with Mahmoud, Hisham and Fatima on location at TIFF16.

Photos by Jeff Harris.

Daniel Garber talks with actors Kerwin Johnson, Jr and Curtiss Cook, Jr and director Jay Dockendorf about their new film Naz & Maalik

Posted in African-Americans, Brooklyn, Cultural Mining, Drama, Family, Gay, Islam, Morality, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on January 28, 2016

naz and maalik-4Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Naz and Maalik are African-American teenagers living in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. They sell lottery tickets and Catholic Saint cards on the street to earn extra cash. Normal kids, they chat about religion, morality and what it’s like to be young, gifted and black. They’re both Muslim, but Naz is more devout. And they have a secret they keep on the down low. They’re lovers. But when an FBI agent begins to follow them, thinking they’re radicalized, they don’t know which is the biggestJay Dockendorf threat: Arrested as a Muslim? Shot by the police as a black man? Or coming out as gay to their families?

Naz & Maalik is also the name of a new film, just released on DVD and VOD. It stars two charismatic young actors in their first feature roles: Kerwin Johnson Jr. as Naz, and Curtiss Cook Jr., as Maalik. It’s written and directed by filmmaker Jay Dockendorf. They’re winning prizes for this touching and realistic story of triply-marginalized youth. I spoke with Kerwin, Curtiss and Jay in Brooklyn by telephone from CIUT 89.5 FM.

Daniel Garber speaks with Sameer Farooq about his new documentary The Silk Road of Pop

Posted in China, Clash of Cultures, Cultural Mining, documentary, Islam, Music, Uncategorized, Xinjiang by CulturalMining.com on November 1, 2013

Sameer Farooq The Silk Road of Pop

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

Most Chinese live in the eastern half of the country. Western China — places like Tibet, Gansu, Xinjiang — are sparsely populated, and traditionally the home of minority populations, people who are different from the Han Chinese.
One of these groups, the Uyghur — a central Asian, Muslim Turkic people — were once a dominant culture in vast Xinjiang.
But very recently, an influx of Han Chinese migrants have shifted the population balance away from this indigenous group. A fascinating new documentary called The Silk Road of Pop, premiering at Toronto’s Reel Asian Film Festival looks at how the Uyghur people and their music have fared in contemporary China.
The director is Nova Scotia native Sameer Farooq from Smoke Signal Projects. Sameer has a background in Cultural Anthropology and a deep familiarity with China and its peoples. He’s currently completing his MFA at RISD in Rhode Island.
In this interview Sameer explains more about the origins of Uyghur music, his own identification with that group, outside influences, hip hop, their future as a minority within China, the role of women in Uyghur music… and more!
silk road of pop

Arab Women Directors. Movies Reviewed: The Square, Wadjda, When I Saw You PLUS TIFF13, TPFF

Posted in Arab Spring, Coming of Age, Cultural Mining, documentary, Drama, Islam, John Greyson, Movies, Refugees, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on September 27, 2013

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.

carpetCloaked in mystery and sensuality, western views of an oil-rich but treacherous “orient” dominated our image of the middle east for decades. Orientalism ruled. More recently, the narrative has shifted to that of an aggressive, terrorist super-villain poised to take over Europe and North America.

We hear news, daily, about Arab countries, but rarely do we hear voices from them. Arab voices are muffled or silenced in Western media. And Arab women are said to be stifled within these cultures. But is this the case? This week I’m talking about three movies, all in Arabic, and all from female filmmakers who prove to be anything but silent.

There’s an up-to-the-minute documentary about the protests at Cairo’s Tahrir Square; a sweet drama about a contemporary Saudi girl; and a historical drama about a Palestinian boy and his mom, refugees in Jordan immediately after the 1967 war.

thesquare_00The Square

Dir: Jehane Noujaim

What you’re hearing (on the podcast version) are the voices of protesters in Tahrir Square in 2011. They’re calling for Mubarek – a dictator for three decades – to step down. What’s unique about these protesters is how inclusive they were. Muslims and Copts, religious and secular, artists, academic and revolutionaries, young and old. They all come together around a small patch of Cairo green. With sound of fireworks bursting overhead, they force Mubarek to step down, the military to bring in a new constitution, and hold Egypt’s first national democratic election.

The Muslim Brotherhood — a fundamentalist political party that had been jailed and persecuted for decades by the military — arises as the only large-scale organized group. They distribute oil and food to potential voters and win the election by  close margin. But soon enough, Morsi begins to act much in the same way as Mubarek had done, gathering power for his own faction not for the country as a whole.

This exciting documentary combines brand-new footage taking us from thethesquare_01 first demos to Morsi’s fall this summer. What’s really special about it, though, is how the doc follows a half-dozen of the protesters – from all of the groups involved – who personify the demonstrations. An actor, a student, an activist, a graffiti artist, a member of the Brotherhood, they represent all Egyptians. This is raw, frontline footage: some of the protesters get brutally beaten or imprisoned, others run for their lives during a chaotic government crackdown.

Most chilling of all are the one-on-one interviews (in a chauffeured limousine) with an all-powerful military officer. He dismisses the demonstrators, the constitution and democracy itself as trivial events in his machiavellian view of Egypt.  Sadly, it is the military running that country again.

Waad Mohammed (Wadjda) Courtesy of Sony Pictures ClassicsWadjda

Dir: Haifaa Al Mansour

Wadjda (Waad Mohamed) is a rebellious girl who lives with her mom. She’s into black Converse running shoes, blue jeans, mixed cassette tapes and soccer… and she’s intrigued by the concept of blue nail polish. She’s not much interested in religion, school or traditional women’s roles. And she lets people know when they’re pissing her off. So when she meets a kid named Abdullah who beats her in a race (her on foot, him on a bike) she decides to get a bike of her own so she can beat him. The thing is, Wadjda lives in Saudi Arabia and her school is a madrassa! And, she is told,  girls shouldn’t ride bikes in Saudi Arabia.

She decides to enter and win a Koran recital contest so she can buy the Waad Mohammed as Wadjda Photo Tobias Kownatzki  Razor Film, Courtesy Sony Pictures Classicsbike with the prize money. Has she suddenly become religious, and changed her attitude? (That’s what the school principal wants to happen.) Are they wearing her down? Or will she stick to her principles? And will she and her mother be relegated to side roles if her dad marries a second wife?

Wadjda is a fascinating look at the lives of girls and women in Saudi Arabia. This filmmaker is no softie; she shows a realistic view of both the oppression of women, as well as their everyday lives. Girls are taught never to laugh out loud, lest it distract nearby men; to cover their faces if a man comes into view; and they need a male driver to get anywhere (driving a car is still illegal for women in Saudi Arabia). It’s a country of religious rules and special permits, with South Asian workers doing the less desirable service roles.

But it’s also a country full of ordinary people doing ordinary things – yes, just like anywhere else. As a movie, Wadjda is a real delight. A simple story, but one that rings true.

When I Saw You

Dir: Annemarie Jacir

wisy32Tarek is Palestinian boy who likes math and hates slimy food. But immediately after the 1967 war, he and his mom suddenly find themselves in a refugee camp in Jordan. He doesn’t like it there. Where’s his teacher? Where’s his dad? Where’s his home, his bed, his indoor toilet? And how come they don’t let him go to school?

He knows he’ll be going home soon, he’s not that far away. But he grows disheartened when he meets an old woman who says she’s been in the camp… since 1948! Refugees are treated terribly by urban Jordanians, but the newest refugees are treated worst of all. One day, he sees Yassir Arafat on TV saying the world is about to see a new kind of Palestinian — helpless Saw-Yourefugees no more.

So Tarek runs away from the camp, away from his mother. He’s found in the desert by a bearded guy who had recently left the camp to become a fedayeen – a revolutionary fighter.

He finds himself in a secret war camp: it’s 1967. No prayers, just long hair and hippy beards, and women with ponytails. They all sing wistful songs around a campfire. No Koran in sight, just a copy wisy18of Mao’s Little Red Book. From each according to his means, to each according to his needs…

The boot camp is led by a older man with the war nickname Abu Akram. He wants Tarek to go back to the refugee camp – but the kid is stubborn, and eventually wins him over. And when his mother catches up with them, she sets up camp there too.

Will Tarek and his mom make it back to their village, just across the newly-fenced border?

When I Saw You is a revelatory film; the roots of the post-1967 situation of Palestinian refugees as seen through one determined boy’s eyes. It gives a completely different view — I’d say a completely opposite view — of the fedayeen. Known for decades in North America as the “Palestinian terrorists”, they are portrayed here as freedom fighters who just want their homes back. When I Saw You provides a singularly different historical narrative from the one you’re used to.

A good, fascinating film.

screen-shot-2013-09-05-at-10-42-11-amThe Square premiered at TIFF13, Wadjda opens next week in Toronto, check your local listings, and When I Saw You opens the Toronto Palestine Film Festival on Sept 28 at 6:30 (go to tpff.ca for details). And Toronto filmmaker John Greyson and Dr Tarek Loubani are still being held in an Egyptian prison. They are now on a hunger strike — go to tarekandjohn.com to find out more.

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

June 2, 2011. Inside-Out Festival: The “L” Word. Films Reviewed: Circumstance, The Evening Dress, PLUS L’Amour Fou

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

Toronto Inside-Out festival, which just finished last weekend, is one of the world’s biggest LGBT film festivals, that shows movies and documentaries from around the world by and about Lesbians Gays, Bisexuals, and Transsexuals. Like every year, it attracted large, enthusiastic crowds, but with the added glamour this year of the films being shown at the epicentre of Toronto film festivals, the Light Box on King St W. This week, I’m going to look at a couple great movies that touch upon the L-Word in LGBT; and a documentary about Yves St Laurent. Two of the movies are directed, written by, and about women. The third is about a man who made things for women.

Also on right now and through the weekend, is the CFC Short Film Festival which is showing a whopping 275 short films this week, at places like the National Film Board on Richmond Street, and at the CN Tower. – to find out more, go to worldwideshortfilmfest.com .

Circumstance

Dir: Maryam Keshavarz

Audience Award Winner, Sundance 2011

This is a movie about two best friends in Teheran, the beautiful Shireen (Sarah Kazemy), who lives with her traditional, conservative relatives after her parents were killed; and sophisticated Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri), who comes from a very rich, western-style, permissive family. As expected, they fall in love, in and out of bed – they’re friends, adventurers in the big city, and lovers. Iran has an ultra- conservative, religious government that forbids certain types of music, flashy clothes, and western films.

So they meet behind closed doors to wear shiny sequined dresses, do classical dancing, or just to watch TV.

Their dream? To go on American Idol and sing Total Eclipse of the Heart. When things get bad, they fantasize about a lesbian paradise with bars where women can dance on tables wearing flashy clothes, or sit in a beach house and gaze in one anothers’ eyes. If things get bad, they say, they can always go to Dubai.

They spend their days at school, but nights in a vibrant, underground Iran, filled with secret discos, drug parties, and clandestine studios hidden behind innocuous barber shops.

But their way of life is threatened when Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai), Atafeh’s musician brother, returns from detox, and finds God. He gradually becomes a more and more devout Musilim, and falls in with the thuggish morality cops, who harass and arrest people, especially women, for crimes like playing loud music in their car, smoking, or not wearing hijab. Will the two young women find happiness together? Or will Mehran, and the conservativism he represents, ruin their lives and loves, and crush their creativity?

Circumstance is an excellent drama that gives a view of the parallel lives of contemporary Iran — sort of a live-action version of cartoonist Marjane Satrapi’s great animated film Persepolis (2007), only newer… and darker.

The Evening Dress (La Robe du Soir)

Dir: Myriam Aziza

Juliette, is a smart and confident tiny French 12 year old girl who lives with her mom. Her older brother picks on her, but she gets to wear his old clothes. She, like the rest of her class, idolize their very beautiful and free-thinking teacher Madame Solenska.

Madame Solenska (Lio) doesn’t shy away from adult words, and sends them right back to the bratty kids who are trying to shock her. She wears beautiful dresses and distinctive perfume. She plays special attention to kids in the class who need it, especially Juliette (Alba Gaïa Kraghede Bellugi) and

When the teacher gives her a paperback book to read that she says was very important to her, Juliette starts to think she has a special connection to the teacher. She saves a hair between to pages, and inhales the teachers scent. She decides to remake herself into something like her teacher – she starts to wear women’s hairstyles, clothes, makeup, and follows her around secretly at night. But she’s shocked to see that some of her teacher’s attention is being “stolen” by Antoine (Leo Legrand), a smart, but rebellious boy who is failing his courses. Is Juliette’s life over? Can she be loved by, or be, like her teacher?

The Evening Dress is more than just a coming-of-age story about a pre-pubsecent school girl – it’s a really moving adult drama about obsession, bullying, conformity, and ostracism. And the acting – especially by the little girl and the teacher – is fantastic.

L’Amour Fou

Dir: Pierre Thoroton

A documentary about an auction that’s selling off all the possessions — paintings, sculptures, and objects d’arts — of a designer after he dies? Isn’t that cruel and incredibly commercial amd superficial?

Oscar Wilde once said it’s only superficial people don’t judge by appearances. So to say that this is a movie about surfaces is not meant to be a negative review. Actually, it’s about both the outward appearances and some of the things that happened behind the scenes in the lives and careers of French Haut Couture fashion designer Yves St Laurent, and his lover and business partner Pierre Berge.

Yves St Laurent when still a very young man, was fired by Christian Dior partly because of a conservative journalist’s criticism of his sexuality. With the help of his new lover Berge, he established his own fashion house where he hand drew every one of the hundreds of the new designs, twice a year. His intense life — filled with drugs, alcohol, and debauchery — shares the screen with his contributions to mode, design and popular culture.

The movie uses photos, fashion show clips — including the wedding march which he used to end all his collections — and perfectly composed new looks at his homes and villas in Morocco and rural France. Every shot In this movie is planned, framed and mounted like a painting on the wall.  And all of the interviews and narration — by Berge, their entourage, and YSL himself — is unusually eloquent — no airheads here. This is not fashion TV chatter; it’s a testament to innovation and a life spent only on the here and now, removed from guilt and worries about the hereafter.

The eloquent documentary about Yves St Laurent, L’Amour Fou, is playing now: check your local listings. Circumstance and The Evening Gown are two great movies that also played at Inside Out — keep an eye out for these movies. To become a member of Inside Out contact here.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies for CIUT 89.5 FM, and on my web site, CulturalMining.com.

More Underdogs at Hotdocs! Weibo’s War, Guantanamo Trap, Draquila: Italy Trembles, Hot Coffee, Bury the Hatchet, Melissa-Mom and Me

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

CulturalMiningmay6

Toronto’s Hotdocs, which continues through the weekend, is one of the best documentary festivals in the world. Today I’m going to talk about some more movies about the largely unknown underdogs, in their struggles with huge governments, big business, or with themselves.

Weibo’s War

Dir: David York

Weibo Ludwig is a devout Christian who lives in a remote, isolated colony with his fellow religious settlers in BC, near Alberta. Their lives are food and energy self-sufficient, but, in the 90’s, things began to go wrong. Goats started having frequent stillbirths, and, when a woman also miscarried, they realized their watershed had been contaminated by natural gas wells built right at the edge of their property.

He was later arrested, tried, and jailed for bombs he had set off at wells and pipelines in that energy-rich Alberta area. This movie follows filmmaker David York who was allowed to film inside their compound.

Is Weibo a religious nut or a devoted social activist? Well, he’s certainly religious, but he’s crazy like a fox. The movie shows some of Weibo’s (and those of his fellow settlers’) frequent brushes with the law and the big energy companies

including run-ins with outwardly conciliatory execs from Encana; the seemingly pointless, intimidating, and relentless police raids of their homes to test things like how many ball point there are on one floor, and how many cassette tapes are on another; and their increasingly fractious relationship with the nearby town, where they have found themselves local pariahs following the unexplained shooting death of young woman on their property.

Folk hero, or deranged terrorist?

Maybe both. I left the movie even less certain than before as to who’s to blame and what actually happened. While a bit slow-moving, Weibo’s war did give a first hand look at a legendary Canadian figure, his family and co-religionists, and the unusual junction between Christian fundamentalism and environmental extremism.

Guantanamo Trap

Dir: Thomas Selim Wallner

With the recent killing of Osama Bin Laden, some people are saying that the awful decade between 9/11 until now is finally over. The “War on Terror” has been “won” by the west, and we can turn the page on the whole tragedy and its devastating effect on the American public, and the subsequent hundreds of thousands of Afghanis and Iraqis killed by the US and their allies.

But, inspite of bin Laden’s death, in spite of Obama’s election promises, the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba is still open, with many untried captives still inside. What really happened at Guantanamo, who’s to blame and who got punished?

This film traces four people involved in this awful period: a military lawyer, Diane Beaver, who helped write the notorious memo that declared waterboarding was not torture; Muniz, a religious Turkish-German Muslim man, who was whisked away from Pakistan due to some miscommunication and tortured in Guantanamo; Matthew, a military judge-advocate, also working at Guantanamo (alongside Diane), who leaked a memo with a list of prisoners’ names and countries; and Gonzalo, an activist- lawyer in Spain who wants to prosecute the people really responsible for miscarriages of justice.

This is a very moving and shocking film with previously unseen footage — not just still photos — and first- hand testimony of what went on in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. In an awful Catch 22, it seems the people at the top got away scott-free, the whistleblowers were jailed, the low-level torture advocates were scapegoated but allowed to retire to happy, new careers, and the unwitting victims left without apology or explanation. This Canadian film is an excellent, human look at a difficult and controversial topic.

Draquila – Italy Trembles

Dir: Sabina Guzzanti

In 2009, the small Italian city of Aquilla was struck by a dangerous earthquake which damaged the rennaisance buildings in the town centre, killed hundreds of people and left thousands homeless. The diorector, a comedian and filmmaker uses this disaster to expose the tangled web of corruption, oppression, and scandal at the root of Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi’s empire and its ties to big business, the construction industry Milan, his media empire, the military, police and government, and the Mafia.

Something familiar only to Italians known as “Civil Protection” — a recent government law that allows forcible confinement, exclusive contracts, and strange pay-offs in the name of protection in the case of disasters or threats — has ballooned into a strange and twisted entity that releases unfettered access to government funds, while it gags local government, blocks media coverage, and puts the police in charge. Far from being a temporary measure, it’s occuring daily across Italy, for anything considered to be a “big event” including church parades, housing relocation, and swimming contests.

Comic and political filmmaker Sabina Guzzanti spends most of the movie trying to get into the relocation camps of the earthquake victims, but getting stymied at almost every stop by police and contractors who are loathe to allow public access to anything that might expose corruption or wrongdoing.

And through it all the stoic victims are pushed around like pawns in some international PR game.

Draquila (a reference to all the blood suckers who, laughing immediately after the disaster, gleefully pounced on the disaster as a chance to earn big government contracts) is an enlightening, entertaining and humorous look at the uniquely shady world of Italian politics under Berlusconi.

Hot Coffee

Dir: Susan Saladoff

When a woman who was awarded millions in a lawsuit after she was burnt by hot coffee at a McDonald’s drive through, her story hit the headlines. It became a staple joke for comedians and talk shows, an episode of Seinfeld, and the focus of citizens’ groups objecting to “Frivolous Lawsuits”. But this movie takes a closer look at these seemingly ridiculous awards.

It turns out — and she shows unbelievably brutal photos to prove it — that the elderly woman was horribly injured by the coffee spill; that she initially asked only asked McDonald’s for reimbursement for her medical expenses (McDonald’s offered only a token $800); and that far from being frivolous, it was an incident that followed repeated corporate indifference to similar incidents that had occurred hundreds of times before and kept secret by the companies.

This movie poses that the whole concept of of the term frivolous lawsuits was coined by PR firms working for huge corporations like McDonald’s in order to cut their own losses and limit future pay-offs. She shows similar cases in the US — including malpractice suits, “forced mediation” and the fact no criminal charges were laid after an employee of a US security firm in Iraq was gang raped; and the case of a judge who was in favour of punitive awards in lawsuits, but was forced to fend off accusations and trials brought down on him by right-wing groups, when he should have been on the bench.

The way this movie handles concepts such as “tort reform” (i.e. opposition to lawsuits), and the parties actually pushing for it, reveals the necessity in the US for lawsuits. The filmmaker says corporate donations target liberal judges, lawsuits are being quashed by large corporations, that lawsuits are the only way for individuals to pay for medical damages, and that forced mediation always takes the side of the big companies not individuals.

But for Canadians and others outside of the US, Hot Coffee is as baffling and arcane as the Italian politics in Draquilla. We don’t have elections for judges, no corporate donations to political campaigns, no US-style extended elections beyond a few weeks, no TV ads for local politicians. In Canada trials are generally by judges not by juries; mediation usually refers to their successfully use in union/ management disputes, in lieu of strikes; and our largely public, one-payer health system, that provides lifetime medical care, cuts out many malpractice lawsuits.

Most of all, there are just far fewer lawyers, per capita, in Canada, and Canadians just aren’t as litigious as Americans. I can see the value now of lawsuits, but I’d be bothered if Canadians ever reached the level of US litigation and courtroom interference in the average person’s lives. And it might have been more believable if it hadn’t been so one sided in its relentlessly positive view lawsuits as a purely progressive force, without any look at the abuse that lawyers themselves may play in this phenomenon.

Finally, two more Hotdocs films that deal with issues on a smaller, individual level.

Bury the Hatchet

Dir: Aaron Walker

The annual Mardi Gras in New Orleans has a public, tourist side to it, but also has a deeply ingrained local side full of traditions and customs. This movie takes a look at the “tribes” — competitive teams of Black New Orleans residents — who, with beads and feathers, music and dance, dress in native costumes they design and wear in the parade.

The custom, said to have started with the shelter natives gave escaped slaves, is performed in their honour, with colourful homages to the Indians using mock chants, names and headdresses.

This intensely beautiful, brightly coloured film interviews the elderly men in their various competing clubs, as they recount, using period foootage and pictures, the sometimes violent history of this largely unknown practice. The soundtrack, composed of jazz, blues, R&B and reggae, are as entrancing as the images, in this slow moving, but very visual and aural slice of New Orleans cultural life from the 60’s, through Katrina, until the present.

Melissa-Mom and Me

Dir: Limor Pinhasov

Yael — then known as Jenny — and Melissa, lead a drug-filled, light hearted life as two friends who worked as strippers in a Tokyo nightclub. Yael became a professional photographer in Tel Aviv, while Melissa eventually made her was back to Carolina, to start a very different life. Yael decides to join her here to rekindle their friendship (she still has many videos and photos she had taken of them in Tokyo) and to get her advice on having kids.

This is quite a moving story.

Melissa-mom of the title is indeed a mother — she had left her kids when she went to work as a stripper in Tokyo — and they are now much older and grown up without their own mother. In a dramatically filmed series of revelations, meetings, confrontations, and reconciliations, Melissa’s hidden family secrets are gradually revealed both to her friend Yael, and to the audience. It deals with sin, reponsibility, duty, guilt, friendship, love and family, in an entirely understandable way.

All of these movies are worth watching (depending on your interests). Most of the movies get replayed this weekend, so be sure to come out to see some more great documentaries.

The Hotdocs festival runs from Thursday April 28th to May 8th, and is free – no charge! – for rush seats during the day for anyone with a Student or Senior ID. Check online at hotdocs.ca

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies for CIUT 89.5 FM, and on my web site, CulturalMining.com.

War and Filmic Vocabulary. Movies Reviewed: The Christening, Essential Killing. PLUS Cold Fish, Images Festival

It’s funny how current events can change our whole filmic vocabulary, adding new concepts and words to make images that would have made no sense a decade ago instantly recognizable on today’s movie screens.

Most people immediately think of technology — ipods, digital pics, texting, on-line dates — as the biggest recognizable changes. But,  unfortunately, some of the biggest stretches of our visual vocabulary is in images of war, violence and death.

During one of the darkest periods in American history, that started less than a decade ago following 9/11 (and doesn’t seem to have finished), the Bush/Cheney administration started a “war on terror”. Countries were invaded, bombs dropped, and a huge number of suspects were arrested, jailed, tortured or killed. In general, these horrific events were kept away from American soil, but done by Americans under direct orders from the government. They also introduced new words and concepts into our vocabulary, that previously might only have been used in horror novels.

Clandestine prison camps, known as “Black Sites”, were set up across Europe and the Middle East. Undocumented suspects, who were sent there to be tortured or interrogated, were called “Ghost Detainees”. One of the torture techniques, in which detainees were made to repeatedly suffer the sensation of death by drowning, is now widely known as “Water Boarding”. And the black hoods put over prisoners (used in Abu Ghraib) are also instantly recognizable.

Canada has also morphed into a nation at war, without consciously deciding to make the change from peacekeeper to bomber. We’re fighting on two fronts now. So today I’m looking at some new movies from Poland (a country that has certainly seen more than its fair share of wars) that examine how war and violence has infiltrated daily lives.

The Christening
Dir: Marcin Wrona

The movie opens with a soldier, face covered, being chased down by cops who beat him up, and arrest him for unknown reasons. Then flash forward – Janek (Tomasz Schuchardt) is visiting his army buddy and best fishing friend, Michal (Wojciech Zielinski). They’re together again to guzzle vodka and do Maori war chants. When they go fishing, they use their old military experience – throwing grenades into a lake — to blow up as many fish as they can. Nice guys!

Everything seems great for Michal: he has a good job, a beautiful wife, Magda (Natalia Rybicka) – he says they met in a hospital when she stitched up a cut on his brow — and a little baby. He’s gone straight: he even offers to help his friend out. But Janek, he’s happy just getting drunk, carousing with his buddies. He doesn’t want an office job – he makes good cash stealing cars and stripping them down for parts.

But there’s a problem — Michal seems to be hiding something. Someone’s putting pressure on him, and he’s showing up with a black eye, or beaten-up body. Janek doesn’t understand what’s happening — if there’s a problem he should tell him – he’ll just beat the guy up. Janek still likes a good brawl. Meanwhile, Magda is sure everything is Janek’s fault. He’s dragging her husband into the gutter. Maybe Michal owed something to his army buddies, but she doesn’t owe Janek anything. But her husband’s dark secret – one of betrayal and duplicity – makes Michal feel both guilty and trapped.

So he sets up a scheme to exit from his problems after the baby’s christening. He thinks he’s doomed there, but maybe his best friend can replace him in his home.

Will Janek stick by him? Who’s the criminal here? The cops or the thugs? Where does a person’s loyalty really lie? And how far will you let it go?

The Christening is an extremely – I’d say excessively — violent movie. I get the feeling the director was influenced by directors like Quentin Tarantino, but in all the wrong ways. Characters, like the gangsters’ boss, Fatman, who behaves like a sadistic killer, seem to be there just for titillation. So lots of horrible, gory, senseless, over-the-top fighting, but almost no humour (only melodrama) to lighten the mood.

Essential Killing
Dir: Jerzy Skolimowski

Mohamed (Vincent Gallo), a militant hiding out in the smooth caves of a lunar landscape (Afghanistan?), is startled to hear two American marines approaching in desert storm camouflage and beige burnooses. He pulls out his weapon and Boom! Ratatatatat! He ambushes the soldiers. Mohamed runs out into the sun to escape, but is taken down by helicopters and more special ops soldiers.

So now he’s taken away to some unidentified place (a black site) where he’s placed on his back, screamed at in English (he can’t hear after the explosions) and then waterboarded. Next, he’s off with other prisoners on some snowy forest road – looks like Canada – and there’s an accident. He gets out of the truck, grabs a gun and starts a long, painful, and violent trek trough the woods of rural Poland, pursued by US Special Ops and helicopters.

It becomes almost like a fairy tale or a picaresque novel, but with a violent streak running through it. He encounters a stream of characters — like a huge-breasted woman on a bike with a baby, a friendly black and white dog, some drunken wood cutters,  a deaf-mute woman who lives in a cottage in the forest who tends to his wounds, and a pale white, broken horse — as he tries to escape, survive, and get away. He climbs snow covered banks, slides off cliffs into rivers, hallucinates after eating poison berries, and conceals himself using the changing costumes he finds or steals on his journey.

Essential Killing was directed by Skolimowski, who was one of the dialogue writers on Polanski’s Knife in the Water, but this movie has almost lines at all. It’s not silent, but with both Mohammed and the US soldiers far from their own homes, they can’t understand each other. The locals around the Dark Site talk a bit but about nothing in particular. This is an aesthetically beautiful, though bloody, art movie – one of very few “action/art” films. I’m not a big fan of Vincent Gallo, but he is fantastic in this as a silent pilgrim, alternately Christ-like and psychotic.

This is an unexpectedly amazing movie — just be aware it’s not a conventional, Hollywood-style film.

And, just in case this isn’t enough violence for one weekend, the Japanese horror film Cold Fish also opens today. You can read my whole review but just let me say, it is the most hellaciously bloody, gory, horrifyingly abusrdist exploitation movie I’ve ever seen. And it left me physically shaking by the time I walked out of the theatre, after its orgyistic tsunami of sex, blood, serial killing and cannibalistic outrages that In a few days transform the life of a mild-mannered tropical fish salesman, to a victim and potential participant in this ultimate sex blood flic.

The Christening played last year’s TIFF, Essential Killing and Cold Fish are opening today, April 1, 2011 in Toronto. Check your local listings. And keep your eyes open for Toronto’s Images Festival, which is on right now. Toronto’s Images Festival — an exhibition of film and art, experimental and independent — is the largest one in North America to feature moving images and media art both on the big screen and in gallery installations.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies for CIUT 89.5 FM and CulturalMining.com.

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