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.

Middle Class, Middle East. Films reviewed: Ava, The Insult

Posted in Canada, Coming of Age, High School, Iran, Lebanon, Movies, Palestine, Refugees, War, Women by CulturalMining.com on February 2, 2018

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

Looking for new things to watch other than big studio crap? Here’s what to look out for in February. It’s Black History Month, and Toronto’s Black Film Festival is coming up this month. The Goethe Foundation is showing movies set in Asia by Ulrike Ottinger. At TIFF Cinematheque they’ve got a retrospective of French New Wave director Philippe Garrel. To name just a few…

This week, though, I’m looking at two dramas about the Middle Class in the Middle East. There’s a teen drama set in Iran about a dare, and a courtroom drama in Lebanon about an insult.

Ava

Wri/Dir: Sadaf Foroughi

Ava (Mahour Jabbari) is a high school girl in Iran. An only child, she’s pretty but determined and self-confident. She lives with her mom, a psychiatrist, and her dad when he’s not out of town. She brightens up her obligatory, all-back uniform with some red Converse running shoes and a backpack. Her prized possession is her metronome. Her life consists of violin lessons, studying for exams, and hanging with her best friend Melody. Another friend Shirin, is a know-it-all always putting her down so she bets she can get a guy, Nima, to go out with her. She knows him from music lessons where he accompanies her on the piano… and she thinks he’s cute.

So she arranges an elaborate plot where she says she’s going to study with Melody (Shayesteh Sajadi), but actually plans to meet up with Nima, and drop by Shirin’s place to show him off so she can win the bet. Easy as pie. Except Shirin isn’t home – so no bet – and worse, when she sneaks back to Melody’s place her suspicious mom is there going ballistic and taking it out on Melody and her mom. And when Ava arrives her mom’s all Where were you? what did you do? Why did you lie? Then she drags Ava to a doctor to check that her virginity is intact!

In school the next day it gets even worse, with teachers searching through her backpack for forbidden things (whatever that may be). Even the school principal lectures all the girls about the dangers of doing the unspeakable with their unmentionables! She lost the bet, is humiliated in front of everyone, forbidden to see her best friend, and forced to quit her music lessons. All this, even though she didn’t do anything. Her stress and frustration rises to a boiling point and she has a meltdown in class.

Why is her mom so worried about her daughter having premarital sex? Can Ava pull her life back together, pass her exams, play violin at the recital, make up with her friends and family and maybe get back together with her non-boyfriend Nima? Or is her life ruined?

Ava might sound like a YA soap opera, but it’s actually a realistic coming-of-age drama about life in contemporary Iran. This is a good movie, surprisingly mature for a first feature. It has the look of an arthouse flick, with experimental camera work — like characters shot from behind, from above, from far away, with parts of them obscured, or even out of the frame entirely. And Jabari is excellent as Ava.

The Insult

Dir: Ziad Doueiri

Yasser Salameh (Kamel El Basha) is an engineer working on contract for the city. He supervises dozens of workers who repair potholes, drainage and infrastructure. He’s at the height of his career, known for his skill, diligence and bringing projects in under budget, while still looking out for the little guy.

Tony Hanna (Adel Karam) runs his own business, an auto repair shop, fixing BMWs. He lives in a second floor apartment with his pregnant wife. The young couple are saving up to buy their first home. Everything’s peachy until one day Tony spills dirty water through a faulty drainage pipe all over Yasser on the street below. Yasser calls Tony a rude name, but later fixes the pipe at the city’s expense. Tony smashes it to pieces. Words escalate with neither side apologizing for their insults. Until Tony voices the ultimate insult, and Yasser responds by beating him up.

Seems like a small problem, easily solved, right? Wrong. It turns into a lawsuit and the ensuing trial captures the attention of the whole country, leading to riots, molotov cocktails, even a meeting with the President of Lebanon. What is so important about this dispute? Yasser is Palestinian and Tony is Maronite Christian, and their disputes go back for generations, including the bloody, 15-year-long Lebanese civil war.

Their two lawyers, both working pro bono, are the famous Wajda Webb on Tony’s side and rising legal eagle Nadine working for Yasser. Both sides discover hidden histories from their two clients’ pasts, as victims and perpetrators of some of the massacres that tore the region apart: Black September in Jordan, Damour, Sabra and Shatilla.

The Insult has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film and I understand why. It manages to handle controversial topics in a sometimes humorous, sometimes serious manner. The movie is told from Tony’s point of view, and therefore that of Maronite Christians as a group – including his political influences, their role in the civil war and Tony’s personal memories. That said, it is respectful and sympathetic to Yasser’s side and takes pains to portray him in a positive way. And Kamal El Basha gives a great performance as Yasser, both subtle and explosive at appropriate places.

The Insult is a good crash course in Lebanese modern history.

Ava and The Insult are both playing now in Toronto; check your local listings.  This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

September 30, 2011. Palestine. Films Reviewed: (No) Laughing Matter, Children of the Revolution, Pomegranates and Myrrh PLUS TPFF, We Were Here, Resurrect Dead

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, genre and mainstream movies, helping you see movies with good taste, and movies that taste good, and what the difference is.

It’s fall now — the days are getting shorter and nights are getting colder, and the leaves are starting to turn yellow and red. And the governments might be changing soon, too. There are provincial elections happening across the country, with the Ontario elections happening on October 6th – that’s next Thursday. On a larger scale, there’s another vote coming up in the United Nations’ General Assembly – whether to admit Palestine as a full member state. Well, if you’re curious about the issue and want to know what is being discussed, there’s a film festival on, starting tonight, called the Toronto Palestine Film Festival. The TPFF presents a largely secular, political look at the Israel/Palestine conflict from the Palestinian point of view in a series of movies.

So this week I’m going to look at three movies from that festival – two documentaries and one drama – about terrorism, humour and love; and also talk briefly about two more docs opening in Toronto.

(No) Laughing Matter

Dir: Vanessa Rousselot

Rousselot, a French-Palestinian filmmaker, wants to know if the people in Palestine ever smile, laugh or tell jokes. So she sets out in a car with a camera to try to capture some of the humour — mainly dark humour — that Palestinians (in the West Bank in Jenin, Hebron, Bethlehem, and in Israel In Haifa) use. Is there a particularly style of joke that could be called distinctly Palestinian?

She discovers a few interesting things. First, that the people of Hebron seems to serve as their Newfies or Belgians — the naïve, butt-ends of local jokes. Second, she discovers an elderly man who, at the time of the First Intifada, set about recording and categorizing thousands of local jokes on index cards, which he produces and reads for the camera. The hour-long TV documentary gives a glimpse of everyday people — laughing school girls, a stand-up comic, a shop keeper, a Catholic priest, some angry young men in a coffee house — and how they express themselves, and sometimes use humour as a survival tactic.

Here’s a typical joke from the movie:

A world leader dies and goes to heaven. He is matched up with an old and plain woman. Then he sees Yassir Arafat cuddling a beautiful Marilyn Monroe. He tells God, “Hey that’s not fair! How come you rewarded Arafat over me?” God says, “I’m not rewarding Arafat… I’m punishing Marilyn Monroe.”

Children of the Revolution

Dir: Shane O’Sullivan

This documentary traces the lives of two hugely important radical terrorists/ activists/ revolutionaries – whichever way you choose to label them – who grew up in the two defeated nations from WWII: Japan and Germany. These two notorious figures – Ulrike Meinhof, of the German “Red Army Faction”, and Shigenobu Fusako of the “Japan Red Army” – were even more remarkable in that they were both women. This movie tells their history, as seen through the eyes of their young daughters. The kids were pulled into this turbulent world by their mothers, giving an immediacy rarely seen in movies about such highly-charged controversial figures.

In the late 60’s, their conservative, middle-class societies were suddenly turned upside down. With the convergence of the US Vietnam war and the anti-war movement, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and unrest in Latin American countries, the new heroes became Mao, Marx and Che. Meinhof worked for a communist-funded tabloid called Konkret and became a part of the radical society that was shaking up Europe. Shigenobu, the granddaughter of a radical right-wing activist, joined the leftist student uprisings that totally changed the power-dynamic in Japanese society (at least temporarily).

Both of these figures fled to Beirut and from there to Syria after meeting with a Palestinian revolutionary. From there, these two women and their contemporaries, on behalf of the Peoples’ Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), committed a series of hijackings, kidnappings, shootings, bank robberies and bombings, that held the world rapt in the late sixties and seventies. They hijacked planes to North Korea, bombed a jet in Cairo, and led a horrific attack shooting dozens of civilians at Lod Airport in Tel Aviv. It also brought the causes they were advocating to the front page. Markedly different from today’s terrorists, they said they committed their acts for a worldwide revolution, not for their own nation’s or group’s interests.

Through a kid’s eyes their situation was both fascinating and scary. Meinhof’s daughter talks of seeing kids playing on the street when she was little — their game wasn’t Cops and Robbers, but Bader and Meinhof.

Shigenobu’s daughter remembers that kids she knew in the Palestinian refugee camps all wanted to grow up as either doctors, nurses, or fedayeen (guerrillas).

This is a fascinating story, illustrated with countless, vivid B&W snapshots, TV and news clips. Although portrayed in dramatic form in two recent movies (The Bader-Meinhof Complex — about the RAF and United Japan Army about the JRA), this is the first documentary I’ve seen that combines the two. Equally surprising is that it takes a largely sympathetic stance toward the hijackers.

And opening the festival with a screening tonight is:

Pomegranates and Myrrh

Dir: Najwar Najjar

A good-looking, young Christian couple, Kamar and Zaid (Yasmine Elmasri and Ashraf Farah), travel from the West Bank to Jerusalem for a happy wedding party. Zaid’s family are farmers who have an olive grove, and it’s time for the harvest and olive oil press. Meanwhile, Kamar is a modern dancer, whose group is preparing to meet a Palestinian choreographer, Kais (Ali Suliman), who is visiting from Lebanon. They’re preparing a performance of traditional (stomp, stomp, clap, clap) folk dances called Pomegranates and Myrrh.

But things start to go wrong when a happy nighttime picnic in the olive grove is interrupted by Israeli helicopters carrying young soldiers. Zaid is put into a detention center, ostensibly for hitting a soldier, and his family’s olive farm is in danger of being confiscated for “security reasons”.

Now it’s up to the new bride to try to free her husband and at the same time, to stand up to the authorities and hold onto the family land. They hire a sympathetic Israeli lawyer to help them keep the army and encroaching settlers away. But for how long? Will Zaid admit to a lesser charge so he can save his land? Will they manage to get the olive harvest in and pressed on time? And what is Kamar up to with that scarf-wearing choreographer and his trust exercises – does he have designs on her while her husband is in jail?

Pommegranites and Myrrh is a bittersweet drama about love in a time of conflict, beautifully shot, with (sometimes) poetic dialogue. With warm and loving families resisting shadowy settler-terrorists, and faceless, shouting Israeli soldiers chasing after playful children, I thought the movie comes across as somewhat heavy-handed, but it does give a largely unseen look at life — with its very real crises and dangers — through Palestinian eyes.

Also playing this weekend are the great documentaries We Were Here, and Resurrect Dead. We Were Here is a very moving oral history of the AIDS outbreak in the 80’s remembered by some of the people in San Francisco who lived through it. That opens today.

Ressurect Dead is a really unusual documentary about the strange unidentified man who has been leaving tiled messages in the tarmac of city streets across the continent, with a crypto-religious message about the planet Jupiter, historian Toynbee, and Stanley Kubrick. What makes the movie so unique, is that it was made on zero budget by a group of marginal detectives and conspiracy theorists who use things like ham radio to try to find out the messages’ origins, but who are as fascinating as the man they’re trying to find. That’s called Resurrect Dead.

Check local listings for We Were Here and Resurrect Dead, and for more information about the Toronto Palestine Film Festival go to tpff.ca.

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

September 23, 2011. TIFF aftermath. Films reviewed: Where Do We Go Now?, Drive, Limelight

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, genre and mainstream movies, helping you see movies
with good taste, and movies that taste good, and what the difference
is.

With the closing of this year’s TIFF — with all of its orgiastic
excess of filmic stimulation, eye candy, and brain prods — you may be
suffering from withdrawal. But have no fear — there’s no need to go
cold turkey, because Toronto’s Fall festival season is positively
brimming with good smaller film festival to keep your addiction alive.

Coming soon are: Toronto After Dark, the Toronto Palestinian Film
Festival, Planet in Focus, the Real Asian Film Festival, and the
European Union Film Festival, among others. And TIFF itself continues
on all year, showing their programmed films at the Lightbox. So if you
missed a good movie at TIFF, even if it doesn’t get a wide release,
you may be able to catch it later on in the year.

But first, the awards. Phillipe Felardeau won the Toronto Best
Canadian feature prize for Monsieur Falardeau — and it’s already gone
on to become Canada’s entry for a Best Foreign language Film Oscar.

The People’s Choice Award at TIFF is often used as an indicator of
who’s going to win a Golden Globe and later get nominated for an
Oscar. Past years’ winners include Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s
Speech, and Precious. It’s voted on not by a panel of judges, but by
the moviegoers at the festival themselves. What this also means is
that sometimes a completely unknown movie — one with no “buzz” at all– can come out of left field, and take this award.

This year’s surprise is a film out of Lebanon, called:

Where Do Go Now? (Et maintenant, on va où?)
Dir: Nadine Labaki

The movie takes place in a small village, a town divided equally
between Muslims and Catholics. It’s surrounded by landmines, and all
too often, people get shot or blown up. Up at the top of a hill is the
graveyard where women dressed in black from both sides meet to bury
the dead. The town itself is peaceful, and after some brave kids
weather the landmines to set up an antenna, the mayor declares it’s TV
night in the town square, and everyone gathers to watch the blurry
movie.

The danger, though, is that the fragile peace will break, and the men
will start killing each other again in reprisals. So the women of the
village formulate a plan: anytime news about violence reaches the
village, they will hide it or distract the men. Gradually — with the
cooperation of the Priest and the Imam — their plans escalate and
their schemes get more and more elaborate. They stage religious
miracles, and even secretly bring in Eastern European strippers –
anything to hide the fact that someone in the village was killed in an
incident.

Will it work? Can they create an island of piece in turbulent Lebanon?
And will their final, shocking surprise serve to jolt the men away
from their never-ending violence?

I thought the movie had an extremely slow beginning, with a handmade
feel to it – sort of like an even-lower-budget Big Fat Greek Wedding
meets Little Mosque on the Prairie. It’s a comedy, but a lot of the
jokes fell flat. And it’s a musical, but some of the songs just don’t
translate well. The ensemble plot, with dozens of characters, leaves
you confused until you can figure out who everyone is.

That said, in the second half, when the pace picks up and the story
gets interesting, it becomes good. And the ending is just great –
clever and imaginative, and leaves you with a much better feeling
than you came with. Nadine Labaki – who is also a member of the cast – is
the first female director to win the TIFF People’s Choice award, and
it’s nice to see her touching story about an important topic given a
boost. I’m curious as to where the movie will go now.

Another movie that opened at the festival is

Drive
Dir: Nicolas Winding Refn

Ryan Gosling plays this guy in a satin jacket who drives cars around,
plain-looking cars but with souped-up engines that can outgun any
police car. He can tumble a car, flip it over on a highway, and
still remain absolutely calm, a Japanese toothpick still in his mouth. He’s the
strong silent type, good at heart. By day, he works in a garage, and
is sent out by his shady boss Shannon (Brian Cranston) to do movie
stunts. (This is LA, so, of course,  it’s always about the movies.) And by night, he
serves as the driver for bank heists and robberies.

He falls into almost a family relationship with pretty waitress Irene
(Carey Mulligan), and her son, little Benicio, and takes them for
drives around the city. But when her husband, Standard, is released
from prison, his good life starts to fall apart and the violence
builds. He becomes embroiled in a scheme involving sinister gangsters
Rose and Nino (Albert Brooks and the great, neanderthalic Ron
Perlman). He ends up holding a dufflebag with a million dollars in
stolen money. What should he do with it? Will he settle down as a
champion stock car racer? Or will violence rule the day?

This is a fantastic — though sometimes horrifically violent, and
weird – movie. (Every once in a while you think – what is this? Is
this for real? Who are they trying to kid? You lose the connection for a moment, but then you slip right back into it.) It looks like a rejig of an 80’s movie like Thief,
with the driving bass (bubbadubba dubbadubba bubbadubba…) background music, and the
night scenes with glowing lights all around. The movie titles are
scribbled, Andy Warhol-style, in hot pink, and strange Eurodisco
dominates the soundtrack. The violence is almost comical, though
bloody. This is NOT your usual action thriller, but a clever, Danish
take on LA film noir. Great movie.

Next, another look at the louche underculture, this time in Manhattan
in the 90’s. A documentary

Limelight
Dir: Billy Corben

Peter Gatien, a Canadian nightclub promoter who lost an eye in a
hockey game as a kid, was known for his black eye patch, his canny
business practices, and how he had his hand on the pulse of all of New
York clublife in the 80’s and 90’s. He was a behind-the-scenes guy,
but he brought in demimonde celebs – the club kids – to bring in the
cool crowd. He opened famous places like Tunnel, the Palladium and
Limelight (not so affectionately known as slimelight by clubgoers) a
club opened inside of a church.

So everything’s going good, until Giuliani, the law and order supreme,
was elected mayor of New York. But when the drug of choice changed

from coke to MDMA to crack cocaine, so did the mood in the clubs, from

selfish and driven, to touchy-feelie, to insane. Giuliani vowed to
“clean up” the city. And he despised nightclubs, sex and dancing as
musch as drugs. Used to be the people in the burrows and New Jersey
would travel into the city on weekends for fun. By the end of his
reign, the term bridge and tunnel crowd seemed to be a better
description of the people in Manhattan who were so desperate they’d
migrate out of the city just to dance all night.

Well, Giuliani chose Peter Gatien, as his nemesis, and launched a
full-scale attack, an elaborate scheme to paint him as a drug dealer
and criminal. This movie traces, in minute detail, all the players
involved in his trial – the rats, the dealers, the feds, the femme
fatale, and the legendary club kids like murderer Michael Alig.

It’s an interesting movie, about a fascinating topic, with a great
segment giving a history of the evolution of music, nightclubs, and
drugs, worth seeing, but it’s just too long. It gets bogged down with way too many
talking heads against acid-green lighting.

Drive is playing now, Limelife opens today, and  Where Do We Go Now?
won the 2011 People’s Choice Award at TIFF.

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