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

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

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