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

High Concept movies v Conceptual Art. Movies Reviewed: No Images, How to Train Your Dragon, The Lightning Thief, Clash of Titans

It seems to me that commercial movies try to be as accessible as possible — often to the point of excess. Whereas art tries to be as inaccessible as it can, while still conveying its ideas, designs, or aesthetics.

The current 3D fad is sometimes described as making movies feel like “real thing”. Hollywood wants to artificially give the illusion of reality, to make you feel like you’re part of the movie experience, to make them easy to like. The movie itself, on the other hand, often slips into “high concept”: an extremely simple idea churned into a film the producers believe will make money.

The art side, though, seems to take the opposite approach, often equating complexity, difficulty, opaqueness, or inaccessibility, with artistic “success”. Anything considered overly simplistic, or too easy to “get”, is bad. Ambiguity, confusion, and occasionally randomness is good. Taken to itrs extreme we sometimes encounter conceptual art, where the idea, the concept, takes precedent over the art itself.

I used to picture a continuum, a line, or a piece of string, where easy to understand and simplistic, Hollywood, was on one end, harder to understand, and more complicated, (independent, artistic, foreign movies), were toward the other end, and way beyond that was actual “art” on film, at the extreme end. But somewhere on the way, someone picked up the extreme art end of the line, and pulled it all the way back around into a loop, where it met the simplistic easy-to-get Hollywood side again. Conceptual art meets high-concept movies. I think they both tend to suck, but conceptual art usually sucks more: it’s as bad as Hollywood but not as entertaining.

The Images festival had a lot of films where, while not conceptual, they did experiment with altering the usual expectations of a movie by eliminating one aspect. So Luo Li’s movie "I Went to the Zoo the Other Day", left out the expected language of a Canadian film, and instead had the script translated into Serbian, with English subtitles. A movie by Ross McLaren, "Summer Camp", eliminated actually making a film, instead putting together found TV audition footage. John Greyson’s short film "Covered", about the closing down of a Queer Film Festival in Sarajevo by right-wing protesters, replaced the usual narrative structure in favour of telling most of his story via non-stop subtitles and extensive text on the screen (super imposed upon beautiful images of dead birds, and found music from Youtube).

Finally, I saw one show, called “No Images” at the Images Festival, where they tried to experiment by eliminating the ultimate factor in art films – the visual part. Unfortunately, it was all sizzle, no steak.

They called it “No Images” – sort of like Naomi Klein’s No Logo, I guess. At “No Images”, there was an audience, there was a theatre, there was a screen, but there would be nothing visible at all – a movie experience without images. This sounded really interesting, so I made sure to go to this.

They put a lot of work into this, creating a mystique for the audience. We had to stand in a line, close together where we’d be led into the theatre in absolute pitch black. The person in front of you would be sitting right beside you. Be sure to use the toilet before – there would be no coming and going during the performance. And nothing glowing, no cel phones, not even anything shiny would be allowed into the theatre. It would be pitch darkness. If you succumbed to absolute terror, or claustrophobia, or fear of the dark, the safe word was “help”! just say it and an usher would guide you back to safety. Wow. Looking good…

I pictured exotic smells, rumbling seats, avante garde music, maybe itching powder on the seats – who knows what they would do? They had an hour and the world was their oyster.

But what did we get? First a woman talked about tapes she found that gave the recorded silence found in different spaces. Then there were 15 minutes of strange cello-like sounds playing just one creaky note in the aisles, like the sound effects of a Japanese horror movie. Then 15 recorded minutes of two women (Alexis O’Hara & Mary Margaret O’Hara) joking around, saying to the audience, “it’s pitch black in there — are you using the darkness to feel each others boobies?” And the fourth quarter hour: That’s where things got really scary. Here’s what the last 15 unbearably long minutes sounded like. And cover your ears. “THIS IS MY VOICE. I AM SPEAK-ING TO YOU. I AM A SPEAK-ER YOU ARE LIST-EN-ING TO MY VOICE THROUGH A SPEAK-ER. I AM IN A ROOM…”

While listening to this amplified drone, these thoughts started going through my head: "Noooooo… please make this guy stop. Shut up. Shut up! You’re an asshole. Please shut up. SHUT UP! I hate art. I HATE ART! shut the f*ck up…!" It was like being trapped at a wedding table by the worst drunken bore who somehow got hold of a microphone and really liked the sound of his own voice. It was an unintentionally kindergarten-ish, obnoxiously awful, no,excruciatingly awful recording that no one should have listened to. It didn’t stretch the margins of art and film, it abused it.

Sound images without pictures may be experimental for some people, but it’s not so new to me – it’s called radio.

At the other end of the spectrum, here are three current movies for general audiences, "Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief"; "Clash of Titans" (in 3D); and “How to Train your Dragon” (in 3D).

"The Lightning Thief", based on the book by Rick Riordan, is a kids’ movie about a dyslexic high schooler, Percy, who lives with his mother and evil stepfather in a small town, and who discovers things are not what they seem. His best friend’s a satyr, his favourite teacher’s a centaur, he’s being chased by evil monsters, and he may even be a demi-god himself. So he goes to a secret training camp in the woods with other people who have mythical connections. But his mother is kidnapped and Percy has to find out who stole lightning… and rescue her from Hades.

In “Clash of the Titans”, the Greek gods think humans have forgotten them, so they agree to follow Hades’ advice to make the humans suffer so they’ll respect them again. Perseus (Sam Worthington), Zeus’s son, hear’s Hades’ ultimatum –sacrifice princess Andromeda or all hell will break loose. Perseus joins with his confreres, and his watcher Io, on a quest to consult the witches, fight the desert scorpions, find Medusa, save Andromeda, and defeat Hades in order to bring goodness and order back to the world.

Finally, in the kids animated movie, "How to Train Your Dragon", Vikings with Scottish brogues live on an island where they are tormented by dragons who steal their sheep and wreak havoc. The Vikings live mainly to capture and kill the various fire breathing creatures. But young Hiccup (voice of Jay Baruchel), an inventive non-conformist, doesn’t want to kill dragons. When he discovers a disabled Night Fury dragon that he names Toothless, Hiccup fashions a prosthesis and learns the secrets of all the dragons as he trains him like a pet. But his dad enrolls him in a gladiator-like training camp to teach him to kill the dragons. Are dragons the dreaded enemies of the Vikings, or are they just like puppy dogs?

Of these three movies, I liked "How to Train your Dragon" the best. The 3-D effects were great, the characters likeable, and it was a funny, interesting story with a lot of breathtaking scenes and battles, and a good amount of suspense. At times it felt like being in a good video game – weaving between rock formations, through the clouds, under the northern lights – and I mean that as a compliment.

"The Lightning Thief" was fun, with some clever scenes (like the lotus eaters trapped in a Las Vegas casino), but also some glitches — like excessive product placement where Percy uses a shiny i-pod, not a shield, to stop himself from looking directly at the Gorgon.

"Clash of Titans" was bad, but was sort of a guilty pleasure – cheezy, with so-so 3-D effects, ridiculously stupid story, and an awful, dated aesthetic: the gods have a 70’s sort of glow to them, like they’re wearing disco-era sequins shot through a Vaseline-covered camera lens– the sort of scenes you can giggle at with friends late at night, as the actors chew up the scenery. Ironically, “Clash of the Titans” is meant for an older audience than the other two, but it was definitely the dumbest of the three. See the kids’ movie instead.

History! Films Reviewed: Max Manus, Summer Camp, Crash and Burn Karaoke, Covered, I Went to the Zoo the Other Day, Women Without Men

There are a whole lot of history-related movies opening in Toronto this weekend, both mainstream releases and films at the Images Festival. First, a new Norwegian movie, an historical spy drama called “Max Manus”, directed by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg.

Max Manus and his buddies all live in Nazi occupied Norway after the country fell to a Blitzkrieg invasion. The Quisling puppet government is in power, but Max and his friends’ biggest worry seems to be that they’ll soon ban Django Reinhart’s European jazz as ideologically incorrect.

So they form an amateur resistance group, coming up with cool nicknames, distributing propaganda flyers, and having fun time of it… until Max gets caught by the Gestapo when they find some explosives hidden in his apartment. This is where his legendary reputation begins. He escapes (in a beautifully shot sequence) by diving out the second story window onto the street below. He soon becomes known as the “window jumper”. And this is also where the movie becomes more interesting, with Max and his friend Greygers eventually walking across the Swedish border and from there onward to Scotland, (where the King and army live in exile) to become… saboteurs!

Max Manus (the movie) is a real throw-back to old-school war resistance stories, the sort of things you used to find in old british boys’ comics. So you get lots of shootouts, Max hiding in doorways wearing a black toque, or paddling past giant war ships in a wooden rowboat to plant these little underwater magnetic explosives. Cool!

Max’s nemesis is the diabolical Siegfried, the young Nazi head guy who keeps capturing and torturing the resistance fighters, but whom Max has always managed to evade. The movie itself is a very earnest — not camp, not melodramatic — look at a national hero, who I have to admit, I’d never heard of before the movie. For a historical drama, it’s a bit to historical, with not quite enough drama. I think because he’s a national hero, it would have been almost sacrilege to have him hopping out of beds with femme fatales; but I would have liked it pouring on a little more

intrigue, double-crossing, and steamy romance, to fight off the occasional boring factor. Anyway, I had fun, so go see Max Manus — if you like earnest, wartime Norwegian espionage historical dramas.

Images is an annual film festival in Toronto that “showcases moving image culture”, or as I would say, shows art movies. Beware: these are not conventional narrative movies – they’re works of art shown on a screen. I have to keep reminding myself that they’re not movies, they’re art—but I still end up gravitating toward the stories. Also beware, that the pace is slower, I mean much, much slower than a commercial movie you might go to.

Toronto’s Ross McLaren’s works are featured this year. “Summer Camp” is a fun one – it’s a strange piece made up of found footage – black and white glowing rotoscopes of old CBC Toronto audition tapes from the late 60’s. This piece has teenage kids sitting on a stool reciting hokey monologue scripts about the fat cook at a mythical summer camp. Eventually you start anticipating each line you hear over and over: “She was so fat she could hardly get up the basement stairs.” “She’s always saying, Do this! Do that!” “She made me eat porridge!” Then there’s an improv part where they talk to their “brother” (a CBC actor) who says he’s dying of cancer and has three weeks left to live– they’re supposed to cheer him up. So you get to see the auditioning teenagers looking really uncomfortable to be talking about – or denying – death. Toward the end it starts to get really funny when one of the auditioners challenges the whole premise. I don’t know what it is about watching found footage for an hour, but I just ate it up.

Crash and Burn Karaoke, another movie by McLaren, is a real must-see. I’ve seen it lots of times but I love this one. It’s grainy black and white footage he took at a seminal punk concert in a Toronto club in 1977, by the Diodes, The Dead Boys, Boyfriends, and Teenage Head. The movie — with music not synched — has the guitarists (and audience) writhing on the stage, pogoing around, twisting their arms, snarling, drooling. There’s actually a very long shot of — I believe it’s Steven Leckie — with non-stop spittle and drool hanging out of his mouth. At Images, it will be presented in the form of Crash and Burn Karaoke, with lyrics appearing on the screen.

John Greyson has made a short film called Covered: It’s a report on a Gay/Lesbian film festival in Sarajevo that got closed down by right wing protestors. I wavered back and forth between loving and hating this movie. Loving the extremely wide bias and vivid images of stuffed birds, wooden birds, bird bones, alternating with pissed off filmmakers, and assorted musicians simultaneously playing off-key guitar on separate youtube clips… but not at all liking the long, written-out mock quotes by “Susan Sontag” that appear on the screen, or the voice of someone – is it Greyson himself — laboriously repeating the – is it Bosnian? — narration, on the soundtrack, in the manner of an elocution lesson. This is a movie, not a magazine article: I found the written and spoken words interrupted the flow, and distracted from the film’s visual beauty and its message of the danger and indifference of established politicians in the face of threats to marginalized groups. Too much of the film’s meaning relies on a steady stream of written narration in the form of subtitles and constant, superimposed texts.

Hamilton director Luo Li’s hour long film, called “I Went to the Zoo the Other Day”, is a beautifully-shot, black and white film filled with pictures of the Toronto Zoo. A couple are at the zoo. The camera follows them around the fish tanks, the elephants, tigers. We listen to their conversations – all in Serbian with subtitles!

They make comments and tell stories. Like a story of the guy who leaps in to save a drowning animal; or the middle-aged woman who considers some of the zoo animals as her own children, and carries their pictures in her purse. These stories are talked about, not shown. All the animals in this movie look really old – maybe Director Luo Li purposely found extra wrinkly elephants, middle-aged looking gorillas, lazy boa constrictors, surly-looking camels.

Half the time you’re watching the animals through bars or glass walls with the viewers reflected on them… then it’ll switch perspective, and you’re suddenly watching people from inside the glass — what the animals must see looking out. Who’s in the zoo, us or them?

Sometimes I wish the couple in the movie would speak English, so I could forget about reading the subtitles and concentrate on the amazing images – is Li deliberately using a language to increase dissociation or alienation between the viewers and the actors? It works, but why do it? I think the unnecessary putting up of walls between film and viewer is a mistake. Since neither the filmmaker, nor the intended audience, nor the topic, is related to Serbian, why use it? It seems gimmicky.

In any case, the acting is excellent, the stories are good, and the visual side of the movie is amazing – really nice images, from a mosaic of fish through an aquarium window, to the relaxing apes, the milling people. Every shot is perfectly composed and constructed, and pleasing to watch, edited together at the pace of a leisurely stroll through a park. It ends with scene filmed through the windshield as they drive down the highway, with just a recording of whale music providing the soundtrack.

Another event at the festival which I definitely want to go to is the One Take Super Eight, put together by Alex Rogalski of Regina, Saskatchewan, in its first Toronto version. It’s a grab bag of three minute, unedited, super eight movies shown one after another for the first time. From the camera, to the lab, directly to the screen – unseen by anyone. Could be good, could be awful, could be god-awful… might be awful good.

Women Without Men, is directed by video artist Shirin Neshat, based on the novel by Shahrnoush Parsipour. I saw it at the Toronto Film Festival last year, and it’s being featured at Images and being released commercially as well.

Women without Men is a Farsi-language film (shot in Morocco) adapted from the popular novel of the same name. It tells a story about a handful of women in Tehran who manage — during that brief period of nationalist Prime Minister Mossadegh’s government (in the fifties) — to escape a life dominated by men.

An upper-class woman, married to a general, leaves her husband to live in a house in a fruit orchard she has bought. A prostitute who is driven crazy by her work and a young woman who is supposed to become the second wife of a man she doesn’t want to marry, both find there way to her Eden-like orchard. Another woman leaves her home to join the street politics she hears outside, and eventually joins the Communist Party. Through a series of complex, circular scenes the epic gradually unrolls its magic-realism style plot. Certain scenes remain in your mind long after the movie ends, such as party-goers quoting Camus and reciting classical Persian poetry, and women exchanging remarks in a harrowing, foggy bathhouse.

I enjoyed this film but, never having read the novel, it was tough. I found it difficult to keep track of all the characters and plot turns. It also surprised me that the movie was not always successful visually (since the director is a photographer and video artist). I found the excessive use of CGI’s, faded tints and almost sepia tones throughout the movie distracts from, not adds to the drama. Still, the film provides a glimpse at Iranian women’s history and the richly cosmopolitan, intellectual culture seldom seen on a screen.

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