Daniel Garber talks with director Sameh Zoabi about Tel Aviv on Fire

Posted in Clash of Cultures, comedy, Israel, Movies, Mystery, Palestine, Satire, Secrets, TV, War by CulturalMining.com on July 26, 2019

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

Salem is an ordinary Palestinian from Jerusalem who is down on his luck. No job, no money, no girlfriend. So he jumps at the chance to work on a popular TV soap shooting in Ramallah. It’s about a beautiful Palestinian spy seducing an Israeli officer in the days leading up to the 1967 war.

The problem is Salem has to pass through Israeli checkpoints between Jerusalem and Ramallah each day to get to work and back. And after a mixup with an Israeli guard at the checkpoint, the officer starts using his position to pressure Salem to change the soap opera’s plot. Will the TV series end with a happy wedding… or with Tel Aviv on fire?

Tel Aviv on Fire is a new comedy about relations between Israelis and Palestinians under occupation. It’s directed and co-written by Sameh Zoabi, the award-winning Palestinian filmmaker. Tel Aviv on Fire played at Venice and TIFF and many other festivals.

I spoke with Sameh in May, 2019 in studio at CIUT 89.5 FM.

Tel Aviv on Fire opens today in Toronto.

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.

Surfaces. Films Reviewed: Ghost Hunting, Battle of the Sexes, Beach Rats

Posted in 1970s, drugs, Feminism, LGBT, Movies, Palestine, Sex, Sports, Tennis, Torture by CulturalMining.com on September 22, 2017

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

Toronto’s fall film festival season has begun. This week I’m looking at three movies that played at festivals: Sundance, TIFF and the Toronto Palestine Film Festival — two of which are directed by women. There’s a drama on the boardwalk, a biopic on the tennis court, and a documentary on a cold prison floor.

Ghost Hunting

Dir: Raed Andoni

Raed is Palestinian movie director who sends out a strange request. He’s looking for steelworkers, set builders, carpenters and painters to recreate a notorious Israeli prison inside an abandoned warehouse. The strange part is these builders and architects will also play the prisoners and their interrogators in the film he’s making. And stranger still, all the cast — including the director — were once prisoners at this very prison.

The interrogation centre is in the Russian Compound in Jerusalem known to prisoners as Al-Moskobiya (Moscow). They recount what happened to them. Many endured days or even weeks of nonstop interrogation in small cells. They were chained to walls, hung on their tiptoes suspended by pulleys or forced to kneel on the ground. Some were shaken, choked, hit, and denied sleep, water, or toilet access.

Hunting Ghosts has a complex artistic structure. Its partly a verite documentary, showing the construction of the set while the former prisoners candidly tell their stories. It’s partly a drama, the scripted re-enactment of the interrogations themselves. It’s partly meta – where the people working on the set become caricatures of themselves (i.e. the cruel director, the angry set-builder). Explicitly scripted scenes – often moving and disturbing – are always presented in a way you know it’s just a film. We see the actors putting on their makeup before they’re locked into the cells. The real drama often begins after the director yells cut, when the actors start talking.

The movie is also part fantasy, with animated scenes reflecting the thoughts running through their heads during long interrogations, their heads covered in cloth bags. One man thinks he sees his dead mother walk through a concrete wall to bring him water to drink.

Hunting Ghosts is a powerful look at the treatment of Palestinian prisoners and a tribute to the reported 750,000 arrested since 1967.

Battle of the Sexes

Dir: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

It’s the early 1970s in California. Billy Jean King (Emma Stone) is the top women’s tennis player in America. She’s happily married to her husband Larry (Larry King, but not the CNN journalist) but her real devotion is to the game. She’s shocked to discover prize money on an upcoming tour will be one eighth what the men get. The women threaten a walkout, but Jack Kramer — President of the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) — tells them that men deserve more money because they have to support families, because they sell more tickets, and because women are “too emotional” to be thought of as real athletes. So the women start a League of Their Own.

Bobbie Riggs (Steve Carell) is a former national tennis champ twenty years earlier. Now he works at a desk job for his very rich wife’s dad. He’s a compulsive gambler who wins big bucks – including a golden Rolls Royce — by challenging rich country clubbers to heavily handicapped tennis games.

But Bobby wants to be really famous again. So he dubs himself a Male Chauvinist Pig and says women should stay in the kitchen and the bedroom, not on a tennis court. And he challenges Billie Jean King to a Battle of the Sexes, man vs woman. King smells a media circus, but finally agrees when she thinks it will advance pay equality between the sexes. Who will win?

Meanwhile,  unbenownst to the outside world, Billie Jean is having a clandestine affair with a woman named Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough) her hairdresser. A chance meeting sparks new feelings in Billie Jean King… but will her love affair interfere with her game?

I’m not a tennis buff, but I found Battle of the Sexes a thoroughly enjoyable, feel-good movie. I was even interested in watching the the game itself, which uses actual sports footage and historical commentary (by Howard Cossell) worked into the film. The side roles are also well-cast, from Bill Pullman as the condescending Jack Kramer, to Sarah Silverman as the feminist manager. Steve Carell is funny as the dog-and-pony showman, and Emma Stone is just great as the pretty and determined Billie Jean King.

Beach Rats

Wri/Dir: Eliza Hittman

It’s a hot summer in a hipster-free section of Brooklyn. Frankie (Harris Dickinson) is a white, working class guy who lives with his parents and his little sister. He likes handball, vaping and posting weight-lifting selfies online. He spends most of his time at the Coney Island boardwalk, hanging with three local yahoos who like to make trouble.

One night, he meets Simone (Madeline Weinstein) a pretty girl who tells him he’s sexy. She thinks the fireworks are romantic. Frankie is not so sure. His own parents met on the boardwalk too.  But his dad is dying of cancer and his mom is on edge. He’s unhappy about it too, but at least his dad’s cancer keeps him well supplied with prescription opiates he shares with his beach rat buddies. Aside from his home and the beach there’s a third universe Frankie visits, but only after dark. It’s an online date site called Brooklyn Boys where he posts his selfies. There he meets older men for anonymous sex. He considers himself straight but enjoys having sex with men.

But when his father dies, everything falls apart. Simone dumps him — he’s too much of a “fixer upper”. His Oxy supply is cut off, so he’s reduced to pawning his mom’s jewelry to buy drugs. And he’s worried his pals — the Beach Rats — might find out about his sex life. Can Frankie come clean with his mom, cut down on his drug use, and reconcile his self image with his sexuality? Or will his whole life crash and burn?

Beach Rats is a terrific coming-of-age drama set against the carnival lights and phosphorescent waves of nighttime Coney Island. Dickinson is a new face but is perfect as the enigmatic Frankie, a young man simultaneously self-obsessed and self-doubting. Beautifully photographed, Beach Rats blends an up-to-the minute topic with a classical indie feel.

Battle of the Sexes launched at TIFF and Beach Rats at Sundance; both open today in Toronto — check your local listings. Ghost Hunting is one of many films and cultural events on now at the Toronto Palestine Film Fest. Go to tpff.ca for details.

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

More movies by women. Films reviewed: Moments of Clarity, A Magical Substance Flows Into Me

Posted in Canada, comedy, Cultural Mining, documentary, Israel, Music, Palestine, Religion, Road Movie, US, Women by CulturalMining.com on September 23, 2016

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

TIFF is over but fall film festival season is just starting. Over the next year you’ll hear many of the interviews I recorded at TIFF, from Paul Verhoeven to Kore-eda Hirokazu and Alanis Obomsawin. There’s a multionational and multilingual selection of films. Still, by the end I realized that only one of the directors I interviewed was a woman. So to start to balance that out, this week I’m only looking at movies directed by women. There’s a home-schooled Christian in search of people to meet; and a Palestinian filmmaker in search of music to listen to.

mocstill6Moments of Clarity

Wri/Dir: Kristin Wallace

Claire (Kristin Wallace) is an eccentric woman in her twenties who lives with her obsessive-compulsive mom (Saxon Trainor). She has no fashion sense or social skills to speak of, but is always good natured and optimistic. She acts like a 12 year old girl. She was home-schooled by her mom and kept sheltered from the rest of the world. She only ventures out to distribute to her neighbours the muffins she bakes, and gets nervous when she enters unknown territory. On the mocstill5-2outside she’s a good Christian girl, but inside she’s a seething cauldron of unrealized sexual fantasies.

Danielle (Lyndsy Fonseca) is the local pastor’s daughter with just the opposite personality. She’s pretty and “normal”, cynical and jaded, but finds joy behind an old camera. Claire wants to be friends wth her. But when her camera is ruined she blames it on Claire. So Claire borrows her mothers wood-panelled station wagon and mocstill4they set out for a used camera store the next town over. But who will they meet on the way? On the run from their respective parents and the police, Claire is exposed to sex, drugs, and the outside world for the first time, and discovers a secret about her past. Can she and Danielle stay friends? And can they both reconcile with their out-of-touch parents?

This is low-budget, buddy/road movie. It’s also a coming of age drama but with a twist… The budding adolescent is actually a fully grown adult, whose life has been stunted by an over protective mother. It’s a fun and simple comedy. I found it hard to believe that a woman in her twenties living in a town surrounded by other people could be that naïve and isolated… but once you accept the premise, the rest falls into place. And Moments of Clarity is written, directed by and starring a Toronto filmmaker.

13923874_1050454381656875_4136600126401296685_oA Magical Substance Flows Into Me

Wri/Dir: Jumana Manna

Robert Lachmann was a German orientalist and ethnomusicologist who fled Nazi persecution to British Mandate Palestine in the 1930s. Once there, he set about collecting the so-called “Oriental” music of that area, while spurning any music with European or North American influences. He recorded traditional and liturgical music on metal disks, as performed by musicians from indigenous and migrant cultures, all carefully documented and recorded. And he broadcasted them on the Palestine Radio Service. This included Bedouins, Palestinian Arabs in the Galilee, Coptic Christians, 13975251_1050454704990176_2875683675079136567_oKurds, Jewish Yemenites, and others.

Eighty years later, using Lachmann’s original notes and recordings, Palestinian filmmaker Jumana Manna sets out to find modern performers of the same songs. She play the original recordings, talks with members of those communities, and invites them to replay the same songs today.

The film is shot in carefully composed tableaux, with an unmoving camera, often in the musician’s kitchen or garden. She talks about their life and background, and then records an actual performance. This is punctuated with the director reading aloud Lachmann’s handwritten notes.

13914070_1050455511656762_431118580071783850_oThis is a fascinating movie. There’s an elderly member of the Samaratins — an ancient religion with fewer than a thousand followers split between Israel and Palestine — today shows off his 600 year old prayer scrolls. Then he listens to his father-in-law’s recording and sings along. You can’t find a voice like that anymore, he laments. A Kurdish man discusses pickles and olives. A Coptic Christian who leads tourists around holy sites says business is bad. People are afraid to come out here anymore. They hear about Isis beheadings in Iraq and think it’s all the same. And a Moroccan-Israeli woman celebrates her grandmother’s Arab roots.

This is a quiet film but subtly political. Musical performances are juxtaposed with silent shots of 1470789934802Israeli government maps of the occupied territories; shots of graffiti on both sides of the wall separating Israel from Palestine; and the director’s own father, a scholar of Palestinian history. Lachmann’s notes range from priceless records to weirdly dated, orientalist views of “primitive cultures.” Fascinating documentary.

Moments of Clarity opens today at the Carlton in Toronto. A Magical Substance Flows Into Me is queen-of-katweplaying as part of the Toronto Palestine Film Festival this weekend. Go to tpff.ca for details. And there’s Queen of Katwe, (which I talked about last week) the heart-warming story of an impoverished and illiterate teenaged girl in Uganda who wants to become a chess champion. It’s directed by the great Indian filmmaker Mira Nair, and starts today 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

Daniel Garber talks with filmmaker Amber Fares about Speed Sisters

Posted in Cars, Cultural Mining, documentary, Palestine, Sports, Women by CulturalMining.com on March 3, 2016

8e91efce474853815c9f65e90dbd08f9_400x400Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Try googling the term Palestine or Palestinian — you’ll find lots of history, geography, and politics.

But what about race car drivers? Or female, Palestinian race car drivers?
Pretty sure it will not show up. But it is the subject of a new documentary,1532078_10153145050924610_5465236953600719301_n
called Speed Sisters.

Speed Sisters is a personal, in-depth look at five Palestinian women and their newfound fame as competitive car racers. It follows them toward their goal of competing in the championships in Jordan… and beyond. It’s directed by the award-winning Canadian filmmaker Amber Fares and it opens in Toronto next Friday.

I spoke with Amber by telephone.

Bittersweet love. Films Reviewed: Spring, Wet Bum, Dancing Arabs

Posted in Clash of Cultures, Coming of Age, Horror, Israel, Italy, Palestine, Uncategorized by CulturalMining.com on May 15, 2015

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

Love brings happiness but also complications. This week I’m looking at three dramas with bittersweet love stories. There’s love and identity in Jerusalem, coming of age in small-town Ontario, and sex with a tinge of horror on the Italian coast.

Spring afficheSpring
Dir: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead

For Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci) life’s a bitch. Right after his Dad and Mom die, a bag of dirt picks a fight with him at the dive bar where he works as a cook. He pummels the guy. Now he’s jobless, the guy he punched says he’s gonna kill him, and the cops are after him. So he stuffs some clothes in a knapsack, jumps on a plane and ends up in Italy, in an ancient, picturesque town. He gets a job taking care of an old man’s olive trees in exchange for a bed.

And then one day he meets a beautiful, aggressive and sexually charged woman named Louise (Nadia Hilker). She’s not like the women he knows back home. She’s brilliant, is fluent in half a dozen languages. She has eyes of two different colours and smouldering good looks — flowers seem to bloom all around her. More to the point, she seems to like Evan. In fact, she wants to sleep with him, ASAP. He 10848793_1016148661747544_5693812469889098714_oholds back; he’s not looking for a one-night stand. She might be his one true love. But he doesn’t realize she’s more than she pretends to be. As in someone or something who eats flesh, drinks blood, and grows sharp fangs as hideous appendages shoot out of her body. But that’s only once in a while, when he’s not looking. Will he discover her true nature. What is she anyway? A werewolf? A vampire? A demon? …or something entirely different?

Spring is a strange genre mashup. It’s a combination supernatural romantic drama, mixed with a good dose of mystery/horror. Lou Taylor Pucci is good as a tough but naïve guy in his twenties, and Nadia Hilker, with an unidentifiable European accent, is credible as a cosmopolitan world-weary woman… with something extra. I thought the movie should have stuck closer to horror than romance, but it‘s a fun romp, nevertheless.

Z4p3w5_wetbum_01_o3_8596277_1425487944Wet Bum
Dir: Lindsay Mackay

Sam (Julia Sarah Stone) is a shy and skinny 14-year-old girl living in small-town Ontario. It’s some point in the past, before people have cellphones and back when everyone is white. Her life is very fixed. Afterschool, she takes lifeguard classes at the indoor pool with her best friend Molly. She loves swimming underwater.

Afterwards she has a part-time job cleaning rooms at an old-age home where her mean Mom (Leah Pinsent) is the manager. She is mystifiedNxpNWp_wetbum_04_o3_8596468_1425487970 by the elderly residents, especially two of them. Ed (Kenneth Welsh) is an angry and bitter old man who misses his wife. He can be found wandering the highway late at night, trying to hitch a ride. Judith (Diana Leblanc) is quiet and never speaks, just stares out the window… but she seems to like Sam. NxpN16_wetbum_05_o3_8596524_1425487976But this world is all new to her.

She’s at that point in her life where everything is changing really fast, and it disturbs her. So she tries to keep things just as they are. She avoids the locker room altogether going to her job with her swimsuit still under her clothes (hence the name of the movie: Wet Bum). But she’s mercilessly bullied by the other girls at the pool, including Molly (who has her eyes on pg7E7N_wetbum_03_o3_8596407_1425487964Sam’s big brother). The lifeguard Luke (Craig Arnold) is a nice guy, a few years older and goes to her highschool. She has a crush on him, and fantasizes about kissing him. He starts to give her rides to work… but can he be trusted?

Wet Bum is a funny and gentle coming-of-age story about a girl encountering sex and death, as she learns to look out for herself in a cruel and confusing world.  Julia Sarah Stone is especially noteworthy for her realistic performance as the awkward adolescent girl trying to fit in.

526d4379-3e57-403b-bbab-134065ecd76bDancing Arabs
Dir: Eran Riklis,Wri: Sayed Kashua

It’s Israel in the 1980s. Eyad (Tawfeek Barhom) is a child prodigy from a small village in the Galilee. He can calculate numbers in his head and answer impossible-to-solve riddles. His Dad was also a genius, but got kicked out of school in the 60s accused of being a terrorist because he was a communist and a member of the outlawed 74dba53b-c4fc-4a28-8d7c-1eacee5b8989PLO. Now he picks fruit. Eyad’s family wants a better world for him, so they do the unthinkable – he applies to an elite academic private school, the best in the country. And he gets in! But Eyad is a Palestinian Arab and the students there are all Jews. The only other Arab is the school janitor.

b8c16e54-db98-4d8b-a6ec-e247d3ee62c4At school, Eyad meets a nice girl named Naomi (Danielle Kitzis), and they hit it off immediately. She helps him navigate the baffling cultural differences. He loses his Arabic accent, the B’s and the P’s, and gradually blends in. The two of them fall in love. Eyad is also a volunteer tutor for a local highchool kid in a wheelchair named Yonathan (Michael Moshonov). He has an incurable, debilitating disease, which helps explain his ironic humour and musical tastes. At first Eyad is baffled and offended by his insults and jokes, but he gradually understands him and learns about Rock, punk and Joy Division. They form a close friendship as two outcastes, 5cf7281f-569d-4750-baee-4d4995c63736under the loving hand of Jonathan’s mom (Yael Abekassis).

Outside the school Eyad is constantly reminded he is the Other, bullied by rough teenagers, or asked for ID by border police if he is heard speaking Arabic. At the school he is accepted and lauded, but sometimes feels like a circus clown. He and Naomi are in love, but her mother forbids her crossing this cultural divide, so he begins to hide his identity to smooth things out. Eyad slowly assimilates, erasing his culture, religion, language and history, until he only has his name and his sense of self to keep him grounded. And even that may be at risk.

Dancing Arabs is a very good, funny and sad movie about love, friendship, identity and politics. It’s told from the point of view of a Palestinian-Israeli, a largely invisible group.

Spring, Wet Bum, and Dancing Arabs all open today 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.

Daniel Garber talks to director Majdi El-Omari about his new film STANDSTILL

Majdi El-Omari STandstillHi, This is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Karhiio is a Mohawk science student in Toronto who steals some offensive nicknacks he sees in a souvenir shop and goes to jail. His Dad, John, a war photographer, drives out from Montreal to meet him there. He owes his son a debt for breaking up with his ex-wife, an artist. But he also has a responsibility to his neighbour in Montreal: Widad, a Palestinian woman who is hiding in plain sight after a crime. Until he addresses his obligations, his life is at a stand still.

Standstill is also the name of a new Canadian movie. It’s a film where English is rarely standstillspoken — not so unusual for a film from Montreal. What is unusual is that most of the characters speak Kanien’kehà:ka, the language of the Mohawk First Nations, and possibly the first such film ever made. Shot in beautiful black and white, it’s a pensive character study of three alienated and misplaced souls.

It’s directed by award-winning filmmaker Majdi El-Omari, and Standstill is his first feature. It opens in Toronto at the Royal Cinema on March 13th, 2015.

I spoke to Majdi by telephone from Montreal. The Palestinian-Canadian director talks about the Oka crisis, Quebec, indigenous people, the film’s genesis, existentialism, media stereotypes, resistance, the role of police, internal violence, cultural representations, the Mohawk language, and more!

Where have I seen this? Movies reviewed: Angelique, Bethlehem

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.

Do you ever see a new movie that rings a bell in the back of your mind? And wonder why?

This week I’m investigating two such movies. One’s a political thriller from Israel, the other’s a swashbuckler from France.

Angelique - afficheAngelique
Dir: Ariel Zeitoun

It’s the 1600s in France. Louis XIV – the future Sun King – is heir to the throne. In a remote convent, beautiful Angelique (Nora Arnezeder: Safe House) is busy being educated by nuns. But just when she thinks she’s off to marry a minor noble she’s pushed into an arranged marriage. Le comte de Peyrac is a rich powerful noble but is much older and has a badly scarred and disfigured face.

His rival, the archbishop of Toulouse, says the count is into witchcraft and alchemy. He holds perverse orgies in his dungeon, worships the devil and turns sand into gold! So Angelique decides to make a run for it with her best friend Nicolas (Matthieu Kassovitz: Amelie, La Haine). But she is discoveredAngelique - horizontal and sent to marry him. But before she leaves, she confesses to a priest about a letter she’s held since childhood. The letter reveals who was responsible for a plot to murder the crown prince.

Angelique is fiery and tempestuous with a mind of her own. She refuses to sleep with him. To her surprise he doesn’t force her. Instead, he defends her honour. Will he change her mind? Or will she leave him? Hmmm…

So Angelique goes to live with the Count and gradually discovers the truth. Peyrac (Gerard Lanvin: Mesrine) is actually a modern man. His witchcraft? angeliqueUnderstanding that the earth goes around the sun. His alchemy? It’s just a gold refinery. And his sex orgies? (Well, that part seems to be true.)

So the local archbishop wants Peyrac burned at the stake; this is still the era of the inquisition. The future king Louis XIV (German actor David Kross: Krabat, The Reader) is interested in the count’s gold mine. And Angelique still holds that secret letter.

The movie follows their plight. When Peyrac is thrown into the Bastille, she is forced to darken her hair, disguise herself as a poor woman, and go undercover in the streets of Paris to rescue her husband. There are sword angelique-nora-arnezeder-gerard-lanvinfights, a huge trial, a lawyer with a mastiff, a lusty cousin (hints of incest?), assassinations, secret identities, Church corruption and palace intrigue. And in movies with castles you always get torch-lit chase scenes down hidden staircases and through underground tunnels.

angelique-3At first I thought it was a new version of the Three Musketeers, told from a woman’s perspective. But I was totally wrong. Apparently it’s based on a French movie from Angelique in Barbary1964, which in turn was based on the Angelique series of French novels, bestselling potboilers in the 1950s. Anyway, Angelique is a fun and fascinating film that breathes new life into a genre I thought was long dead and buried. Swashbucklers – what the hell’s a swash? …And how do you buckle it? No idea, but I liked this movie. (Can’t wait for Part 2.)

Shadi Mar`i (Sanfur) BethlehemBethlehem
Dir: Yuval Adler, Wri: Yuval Adler, Ali Wakad

Young Sanfur (Shadi Mar’i) lives in Bethlehem in the West Bank. His older brother Ibrahim is a member of Al Aqsa, the militant wing of Fatah. Al Aqsa and their rival Hamas – based in Gaza – are battling for influence in Bethlehem.

Sanfur hangs with his friends, daring each other to prove who is the toughest. Like putting on a bullet proof vest and shooting each other at close range… what are they thinking?! Sanfur’s tough, but he also has a secret: he’s an informant for the Israeli secret service. They want to keep track of his secretive brother because something big is about to happen.

Then a bomb goes off at the King George Hotel in Jerusalem, killing many. Tsahi Halevy  Razi in BethlehemWho did it – Hamas or Al Aqsa? And was Ibrahim involved?

Razi (Tsahi Halevi), Sanfur’s Arabic-speaking Israeli “handler”, wants to find out. His superiors expect him to catch Sanfur who regularly passes money to his brother. But Razi pulls a fast one: he gets him to disappear for a few days. That way they can catch who they want without Sanfur being killed. But that means Razi has to lie, both to the secret service and to Sanfur.

This is a good spy thriller about the dual allegiances of the numerous Palestinian informants in the West Bank and their Israeli handlers. Tsahi Halevi (Razi) and Shadi Mar`i (Sanfur) BethlehemApparently, it was written by a Palestinian and an Israeli, to tell the two sides of the story.

But it may ring a bell: I talked a few weeks ago about another, very similar movie called Omar. Omar is also about a young Palestinian man who is an informant for the Israeli Secret Service. The plot is amazingly similar, but subtly different in crucial ways.

In Omar, the young men shoot an Israeli soldier. In Bethlehem, someone bombs a Jerusalem hotel killing dozens of civilians.

In Omar, the Arabic-speaking Israeli handler is devious and not to be Waleed Zuaiter and Adam Bakri in Omar (2013). Courtesy of Adopt Filmstrusted. In Bethlehem, he’s kind and sympathetic, and lies only to save lives.

In Omar, Israeli police cruelly harass an innocent man. In Bethlehem, The police bulldoze a hole into a killer’s house.

In Omar, Palestinian militants are driven by feelings of anger, vengeance, and loyalty. In Bethlehem, they seem more concerned with money — getting paid what they’re owed.

25Omar (the character) is a handsome and noble hero in love with a beautiful woman. Sanfur (which means Smurf) is a troubled and confused teenager, driven to tears and easily influenced. His only “love affair” is the father/son relationship he has with his Israeli handler.

Omar is a straightforward romantic thriller, while Bethlehem is more ambiguous and troubling, less black and white. Which one’s better? They areBethlehem Hitham Omari (Badawi) both good movies.

Angelique played at CineFranco, Toronto’s French language film festival, which continues to show great movies all weekend. And Bethlehem opens in Toronto today: check your local listings. And, coming soon: imagesfestival.com with great art films and moving images, and TIFF Kids film festival, at tiff.net .

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

Oscar Time! Movies reviewed: Omar, The Great Beauty

Posted in Action, Cultural Mining, Drama, Espionage, Italy, Morality, Movies, Palestine, Romance, Suspicion, Torture by CulturalMining.com on February 28, 2014

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.

Oscars 2014It’s time for my Oscar picks. Warning – I’m almost always wrong.

Best Actor. Should win: Matt McConoughey. Will win: Chiwetel Ejiofor.

WINNER: Matt McConoughey X

Best Actress. Should win: Judy Dench. Will win: Cate Blanchett.

WINNER: Cate Blanchett

Best Supporting Actor. (No idea… Jared Leto?)

WINNER: Jared Leto

Best Supporting Actress. Should win: Lupita Lyongo. Will win: Jennifer Lawrence.

WINNER: Lupita Lyongo X

Best Documentary. Should win: Act of Killing. Will win: 20 Feet from Stardom.

WINNER: 20 Feet from Stardom

Best Director. Should win — Steve McQueen. Will win:  Russell or Cuaron

WINNER: Alfonso Cuaron

Best Picture. 12 Years a Slave (Should win and will win.)

WINNER: 12 Years a Slave

Best Movie in a Foreign Language. Should win: The Hunt. Will win: The Great Beauty.

WINNER: The Great Beauty

Sunday, March 2, 2014 ,  midnight. Oscars Results: My predictions weren’t bad this year — I got 6 or 7 out of 9 correct. The two I got wrong were winners I labeled “should win” not “will win”: Lupita Lyongo, and Matthew McConoughey.  And I gave myself two “will win” options for best director (Russell or Cuaron).

So, in keeping with this theme, this week I’m looking at two movies nominated for best foreign language picture. One’s a dramatic thriller from the Palestinian Territories about a young man caught between a rock and a hard place; the other is a nostalgic look at contemporary Rome.

Omar_ Adam BakriOmar

Dir: Hany Abu-Assad

Omar (Adam Bakri) is a young Palestinian who works in a one-man pita bakery. He’s a clean-scrubbed guy with an indefatigable spirit. Nimble on his feet, Omar can climb a three-storey wall — and back again — in a few seconds. And climb he does, over the Separation Wall that runs along the long border between Israel and the Occupied Territories. Because walls mean nothing to Omar — the border is porous, an arbitrary line.

Why does he cross the wall? Ostensibly to visit Tarek – serious, stern (Iyad Hoorani) and Amjad, a teller of jokes (Samar Bisharat).

But his real motivation is Nadia (Leem Lubany) Tarek’s younger sister, who lives on the other side of the wall. Omar is as tall dark and handsome as Nadia is kind, witty and beautiful with tousled black hair. Omar, Bakri, Lubany

One day he’s stopped by a particularly cruel unit of the border patrol. The Israelis are about his age, but they beat him up and publically humiliate him. A shift in Omar’s thinking?

So he joins Tarek and Amjad for a planned action. They are all prospective members of the militant Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade. Their initiation? A shooting. Omar doesn’t personally kill anyone but he’s the one arrested.

Omar, Zuaiter, BakriIn prison, he’s tortured and interrogated. Finally he’s approached by a member of Al Aqsa. He warns Omar that spies are everywhere – they’ll pretend to make friends with him to get him to confess. The only way out is to collaborate with the Israelis – and any collaboration will last forever. His words are prophetic.

Soon enough, he’s out again, working to marry his love, trying to find the traitor who gave up his name, and, meanwhile, regularly speaking from a phone booth with his Israeli contact Rami (Waleed F. Zuaiter) an Arabic-speaking agent.

Whose side is he on? Which side does he really support? Can he even trust his friends, his love, his fellow militants?

Omar is a dramatic thriller about the Israel/Palestine conflict told decidedly from the Palestinian point of view. As a drama, it shows the psychologically draining toll non-stop surveillance takes on the lives of Omar BakriPalestinians. The movie’s done like a chess game: each side makes a move, countered by his opponent. But you soon see there are multiple chessboards, operating simultaneously, with countless players, alliances and betrayals until it’s hard to figure out who is black and who is white.

The acting is great, especially Adam Bakri and Leem Lubany as the young lovers, and Waleed F. Zuaiter as Omar’s handler. While not perfect, this is a thoughtful, informative and disturbing film, one that makes you think… and then rethink.

01_Toni_Servillo_La_grande_bellezza_foto_di_Gianni_FioritoA Great Beauty

Wri/Dir: Paolo Sorrentino

Jep (Toni Servillo) is a bon vivant living in the floating world of contemporary Rome. It’s still the Dolce Vita. Ostensibly, he’s a novelist, but hasn’t done anything great in decades. He coasts along, living off his reputation, and partying with faded royalty, vapid models and the ultra-rich. He is a camera, experiencing and recording all of this in mind.

His Rome is one filled with gilded palaces, rococo night clubs and 13_Giovanna_Vignola_foto_di_Gianni_Fiorito_01893velveteen Vatican chambers. His editor at a popular magazine, Dadina (Giovanna Vignola), is a little person, given to wearing electric-blue dresses. As his 65th birthday approaches he confides in her: he needs to find something or someone important, genuine – the “great beauty” of the movie’s title.

Slowly, the movie chugs along, heading toward his dinner party, with an elusive guest. Will he be touched by God? Or will it all prove as superficial as the rest of his life?

06_Sabrina_Ferilli_Toni_Servillo_Giorgio_Pasotti_La_grande_bellezza_foto_di_Gianni_FioritoThe Great Beauty is a nostalgic look at Rome’s faded glory, the cool elegance of old Fellini movies. Wonderfully acted, carefully shot. But does it add up to anything new?

I found this movie hollow at the core.

And, aside from a few minutes of genuine beauty, it’s not attractive at all. It’s drenched in a 1970s aesthetic of awful opulence, far from the coolness of 50s and 60s Italian cinema. And both its story and its look exists more as a tribute (or a rehash) of older Italian movies than as a new one all its own.

The Great Beauty is now playing and Omar opens today 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.

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