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A carousel going round and round, 15 October 2017

"You're right from your side and I'm right from mine. We're both just one too many mornings and a thousand miles behind" - Bob Dylan In the Israeli-French co-production West of the Jordan River, Israeli director Amos Gitai returns to the West Bank to interview journalists, politicians, non-profit groups, and ordinary citizens attempting to resolve the seemingly never-ending dispute between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Mainly shot in Hebron, the largest Palestinian city in the West Bank, the film's subheading "Field Diary Revisited" recalls the 1982 documentary "Field Diary" in which Gitai visited the occupied territories immediately prior to and after the Israeli army's invasion of Lebanon. Reaction to the film's criticism of Israel settlers, however, led to Gitai's self-imposed 10-year-exile in France.

West of the Jordan River opens in 1994 when the then 35-year-old Gitai interviews Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin about the peace process. According to Gitai, Rabin was "a man with a certain simplicity. Even if you disagreed with him, he was the only Israeli political figure who told the truth. He was rare… the only leader who sought dialogue, who sought agreement." Now twenty two years after Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish extremist who opposed the Oslo accords, Gitai says "And now…we are feeling the lack of a real political figure who wants to move forward, a lack that puts the whole Israeli project in danger." He asks "What can we do? We can make a film. It's a beginning. You have to be optimistic, and you mustn't be bitter about your own country because your country is the source of your inspiration." Though the film is heavily weighted toward an anti-government point of view, Gitai gives space to both sides including the young Israeli foreign affairs minister, Tzipi Hotovely who strongly defends the government's policy in the occupied areas. An editor from the newspaper Haaretz, however, offers a deeply pessimistic comment that if Israel continues to support Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, it is likely to cross the point of no return and disappear within ten years.

As the film progresses, however, a strong desire for peace and reconciliation emerges through the quiet, thoughtful questions posed by the director. In one scene, "The Parents Circle," a support group for both Israeli and Palestinian mothers who have lost sons in the conflict, come together to share the personal impact of their loss. Also featured are discussions with the non-profit group "Breaking the Silence" which encourages Israeli military veterans to talk about the harsh reality they have personally encountered in the West Bank. Though many work for reconciliation including those in the non-profit group "B'Tselem," also known as "The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories," the culture of revenge and martyrdom runs deep.

In a heartbreaking moment, a 10-year-old boy tells Gitai that his dream is to blow himself up and become a martyr for Allah so that Allah will tell him about the good work he did during his life. In a more positive scene, Gitai talks with an Israeli settler who was shot in the hip by a would-be terrorist but who shows sympathy and understanding for the problems of the Palestinians. For those familiar with the issues, West of the Jordan River is a timely reminder of the human cost of the conflict. For those unfamiliar with the circumstances or the political players involved, however, the film does not clarify the issues or offer any background or context.

While Gitai acknowledges that there is intransigence on both sides, dramatized by the circular motion of a carousel going round and round, he neglects to mention that the Palestinians have consistently refused a two-state solution and, even to this day, do not recognize Israel's right to exist. In the Oscar-nominated 2001 film Promises by B.Z. Goldberg, a documentary that looks at the Arab-Israeli conflict from the point of view of seven Israeli and Palestinian children, one Jewish boy asks, "In war both sides suffer, maybe there's a winner, but what is a winner?" That question is still being asked sixteen years later.

Western (2017)
Builds suspense through silences, 15 October 2017

Like a lonely, mysterious gunslinger from the Old West, a tall, slender rugged-looking man with a thick mustache comes to a small Bulgarian village near the Grecian border as part of a German work crew in Valeska Grisebach's ("Longing") Western. The man is Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann), in Bulgaria to work on a hydroelectric power station close to the village. He could be Alan Ladd or John Wayne, transported across miles and years to Eastern Europe to conquer the natives, except here the natives are family-oriented local residents who do not carry tomahawks. Alienated by their unfamiliar surroundings, the workers hang the German flag in their camp and mock the local residents whose language they do not understand.

One says, "Everything's messed up here. It's just like traveling through time, going back to the past." Grisebach says that, "It's very interesting when you have the chance to have empathy, but you instead have contempt, or a conflict, instead of identifying yourself with the other one." We can sense that a clash of cultures is inevitable, but we do not know in what direction it will go. Remembering the German occupation of their country during the war, the townspeople themselves are not eager to offer any welcome. Grisebach contrasts the uber-masculine posturing of the construction workers at the camp with the warm family gatherings in the town. With no musical score, the film builds suspense through silences and facial expressions that tell us what words cannot.

Meinhard is treated with disdain by the work crew boss Vincent (Reinhardt Wetrek), who exacerbates tension with the locals by flirting with a young woman out for a swim, an incident that borders on harassment. Though he claims that he is only there for the money, Meinhard is the only worker who makes an effort to bridge the divide with the locals. Finding himself alone on a country road, he hitches a ride with some villagers and begins a friendship with Adrian (Syuleyman Alilov Letifov), one of the locals. In conversation, Meinhard claims to be a member of the Foreign Legion with service in Afghanistan and Africa which they accept without question. While on a drive in the countryside with Adrian, Meinhard tells him that this is "Paradise," to which Adrian replies in Bulgarian, "We understand each other." It is never clear, however, what is really understood and what is not. Despite the growing closeness of the relationship between Meinhard and the locals, the difficulty in communicating adds to the tension which threatens on several occasions to spill over into violence. There is a dispute about water rights which the crew needs to mix the gravel, a confrontation after a poker game in which Meinhard wins too much money, and an incident when he gets in the middle of a dispute with mafia-like authorities. At one point, after being knocked to the ground, Meinhard asserts that "Violence is not my thing," though, when asked about the planet, he offers his opinion that it is only the strong who survive.

Grisebach keeps our attention by drawing on anecdotal threads that complement the narrative. A white horse, whose custody is a matter of dispute, is injured when Vincent leads him to a mountain he cannot navigate; Wanko (Kevin Bashev), a young boy whose parents are in Greece to find work, is temporarily knocked unconscious when he hits Meinhard falling from a truck. Grisebach expresses her reliance on narrative spinoffs this way, "It's really to find how you have this little plot point or a little suspenseful moment," she says, "and then you create space, more space for atmosphere." There is plenty of atmosphere in Western, but where it is headed and indeed what it is about is a guessing game throughout. The film's well-drawn characters and naturalistic look and feel keep us engaged, however, until it erupts in a dance of humanity and one man's dream of a life filled with the simplicity of friendship and brotherhood.

Loveless (2017)
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Reflects the growing emptiness of human relationships, 15 October 2017

Whether or not it is designed as an allegory of modern Russia, no film in recent memory has examined the growing emptiness of human relationships with such expressive force as Andrei Zvyagintsev's ("Leviathan") Loveless, a heart wrenching drama about a couple on the brink of divorce whose emotional neglect of their son leads to devastating consequences. Though the film has been characterized as "bleak," the feeling tone is more like sadness and regret that many today have lost the capacity for compassion and empathy. Accompanied by Evgeny Galperin's rich cascading piano score, the film opens as cinematographer Mikhail Krichman surrounds us with the quiet beauty of a Russian winter.

Almost immediately, we are staring at an cold-looking stone building that could easily be a prison in Siberia. There is no sound or movement. Suddenly a door opens and children, released from school, swarm through its exits. Though some are laughing, it is not a happy scene. 12-year-old Aloysha (Matvey Novikov) makes his way home through a barren forest but there are no warm greetings awaiting him. The marriage between his mother, beauty-salon owner Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and his father Boris (Alexey Rozin, "Leviathan"), a desk-ridden management functionary, is over. Seeking status, money, and freedom, both are immersed in new relationships. Boris is with the pregnant Masha (Marina Vasilyeva, "Name Me") and Zhenya with the well-to-do business executive Anton (Andris Keishs, "What Nobody Can See").

Though their apartment has been advertised for sale and their divorce is in its final stages, custody of Alyosha has not yet been agreed upon. It is clear that he is an unwanted child, the result of an unexpected pregnancy and a marriage of convenience. Like emotionless machines, the warring couple continue their repetitive spiral of mutual recrimination as Alyosha crouches behind the bathroom door. Fearful and alone he absorbs every last ounce of malice, his face becoming contorted into a mass of silent tears that well up from deep within his being. It is a shocking scene that mirrors every despair the world has ever known.

Since the film takes place in the year 2012, talk radio focuses on the Mayan calendar and its apocalyptic date in December. News reports tell us about the bloody war in the Ukraine. Amidst the barely-controlled paranoia in the air, Boris tells a co-worker that he is afraid to lose his job if his boss, a fundamentalist Christian, finds out about his impending divorce. Fear of losing his job becomes secondary, however, when Zhenya tells him that Alyosha has not shown up for school for two days and is now missing. Far from coming together to patch up their differences, however, the estranged couple only double-down on their mutual acrimony.

The inefficient police offer little expectation that they can find the boy and try to reassure the parents that, in most cases, a missing child is with a friend or relative or out on an adventure and will soon return home. Not satisfied with officialdom's inertia, they turn to a volunteer group who put up posters, talk to teachers and neighbors. An interview with Alyosha's only friend points them to an abandoned apartment in the middle of a forest. In a scene of eerie darkness where there is a palpable feeling of hopelessness and loss, the rescuers, wearing bright orange jackets, comb every space in the decrepit building but Alyosha is not found.

A boy matching Alyosha's description is found at a nearby hospital but it is not him, and a subsequent visit to the morgue only offers more tears. Taking a risk, the two visit Alyosha's mother but the visit only succeeds in bringing hatred up to a level of ecstasy. With no explanation in sight, Zvyagintsev teases us with the sight of an unknown man walking alone into the forest, a man hidden from the camera in a fancy restaurant asking a call girl for her phone number which she provides while looking directly into the camera, a man pausing at a bus stop to read the flier about the missing boy, then turning and walking away, and a teacher cleaning her blackboard after students have left.

These tantalizing scenes, however, do not bring us any closer to a solution to the mystery of Alyosha's disappearance. Loveless is a deeply disturbing film that explores the dark places of human behavior, upending our most cherished beliefs about the bond between parents and children. Making it clear about what can happen when an unwanted child is brought into the world, Anton tells Zhenya that no one can survive a life without love. If Loveless serves as any kind of warning, it may be to help us discover that the world cannot survive either unless we begin to re-envision it as sacred.

A life-affirming meditation on friendship, art, and mortality, 6 October 2017

89-year-old filmmaker Agnès Varda ("The Beaches of Agnès") said, "I have a nice relationship with time, because the past is here, you know? I've spent time, if I have something of my past, I'll just make it, nowadays, I make it now and here." Varda makes both past and present come alive in Faces Places (Visages Villages), 89-year-old filmmaker Agnès Varda ("The Beaches of Agnès") said, "I have a nice relationship with time, because the past is here, you know? I've spent time, if I have something of my past, I'll just make it, nowadays, I make it now and here." Varda makes both past and present come alive in Faces Places (Visages Villages), a life-affirming meditation on friendship, art, and mortality. Co-directed by JR ("Women are Heroes"), a 33-year-old hip French graffiti artist and photographer whom the director met in 2015, Varda and her companion make an unlikely couple. She stands out with her two-toned hair and diminutive stature and JR does a convincing Jean-Luc Godard ("Goodbye to Language") impersonation with his black fedora hat and dark sunglasses which Varda teases him about the entire film.

Both live life on the edges and do not live by the rules. "Chance has always been my best assistant," she says. Driving without any particular destination, they crisscross the French countryside in JR's van decorated to resemble a camera with a large lens on one of its sides. The travelers meet and take pictures of villagers, workers, and townspeople whom they immortalize with gigantic black and white portraits plastered on the sides of walls, old houses, container cargo, trains, and other objects. Playfully, Varda describes it like this, "We ended up with huge images of them after I made them express themselves. So it's a real documentary because we are careful about what they are, what they want to say. But also, we play our game, as being artists, making strange images or enjoying that people we meet becomes actors of our dreams."

The people they meet are former miners, waitresses, plant safety workers, truck drivers, and dockworkers and their wives in Le Havre. By himself on his 2,000 acre farm, a man laments the passing of the social aspects of farming, recalling how it was when three or four workers were always there for companionship. In other vignettes, a man and his son are responsible for ringing the church bell in a small village and farmers enjoy hand-milking horned goats, regretting that others cut off the goats' horns and do their milking with machines.Varda and JR also travel to an abandoned village which is suddenly filled with arriving well-wishers. They go to the Brittany seaside where she remembers the photographs she took of a young friend and fellow photographer during the mid-1950s, pasting an image of him reclining against a beach hut on a German bunker and telling JR how peaceful he looks resting there.

The slow pace of travel allows Agnès to confront other memories from her past, including a visit to a small cemetery where photographers Henri Cartier-Bresson and Martine Franck are buried. After visiting JRs 100-year-old grandmother, JR asks her if she is afraid of dying. Varda answers in the negative. "That'll be that," she says." Reflecting on her relationship with the great director Jean-Luc-Godard, she recalls the time she spent with him, his then wife Anna Karina, and Varda's late husband, director Jacques Demy ("The Umbrellas of Cherbourg"). Agnès and her friend then travel to Switzerland to meet with Godard, bringing the director a gift of his favorite pastry but he is not home. Unfortunately, their only communication is an enigmatic message left on his window pane. In her only sense of irritation in the film, Varda uncharacteristically expresses deep feelings of hurt.

Faces Places is a quiet celebration of what is most important in life, simple pleasures of companionship and collaboration, of art made real and accessible, and of the divine in the commonplace. Varda said it best, "I know that the seaside represents the whole world", she remarked, "the sky, the ocean, and the earth, the sand. And it's like expressing where is the world. It's about a calm sea, a calm ocean, just a very, very discreet wave ending on the sand. And that's a landscape that touches me a lot. But I know that also people feel that, too." It is hard not to be touched by her presence.

Hondros (2017)
A legacy of compassion, 6 October 2017

When writing about the death of Abraham Lincoln, poet Carl Sandburg said, "A tree is best measured when it's down." These words more than apply to the life of photojournalist Chris Hondros, a Getty war photographer and two-time Pulitzer finalist, who left a gaping hole in the world of journalism when he was killed by mortar fire in Libya in 2011. Directed by fellow journalist and long-time friend Greg Campbell with Jake Gyllenhaal and Jamie Lee Curtis listed as Executive Producers, the documentary simply called Hondros is a moving tribute to a man who inspired people not only by his iconic war photographs that captured the humanity of people caught in the middle of conflict, but by the humanity and compassion he displayed in his life.

Winner of the Audience Award at the Tribeca Film Festival, Hondros takes us behind the scenes and sheds light on one of the most risk-taking professions in the world where journalists, who used to have a safe haven while covering conflicts, have become targets of kidnapping and torture over the past decade. Adding to the immediacy of the experience, the film contains footage of Hondros in different periods of his career. Backed by the original score of Jeff Russo and the cinematography of Mike Shum, it is footage that produces in us a visceral reaction to the chaos and insanity that he was part of day after day. While Chris was passionately involved in his work, however, he did not let it run his life.

A lover of classical music and an avid reader, he had a sense of humor that allowed him to keep events in perspective. Beginning in Kosovo in 1999, and continuing in almost every theater of war for the next ten years including Iraq, Afghanistan, Liberia and others, friends and colleagues speak about his unswerving devotion to his craft and his ability to touch people with his sensitivity and humanity. He was there at ground zero on 9/11, the Arab spring in Egypt, and at the brutal civil war in Libya, where an assault by pro-Gaddafi forces ended his life, only a short time before he was to be married. His mother comments in the film that Chris lived a fuller life at age forty one than many who live until one hundred.

The film shows Hondros' heartbreaking photographs of five Iraqi children left bleeding, their bodies and spirits broken in Tal Afar, Iraq in 2005 when their car was attacked and their parents killed by U.S. soldiers who feared they were suicide bombers. Sadly however, Chris reported the cavalier attitude of many American soldiers, "Almost every soldier in Iraq," he said, "has been involved in some sort of incident like that or another, I would say. Their attitude about it was grim, but it wasn't the end of their world. It was, "Well, kind of wished they'd stopped. We fired warning shots. Damn, I don't know why the hell they didn't stop. What're you doing later, you want to play Nintendo? Okay." Just a day's work for them. That stuff happens in Iraq a lot." The Iraqi photos, however, which received widespread publicity in the U.S., defined the inhumanity of the war and may have helped change public opinion about it. The Army soldier who took part in that bloody massacre is interviewed and cannot hide his deep sense of guilt and regret. One of the most iconic shots of Hondros' career is that of a young man in Liberia jumping for joy after launching a grenade from a war-ravaged bridge. It was a famous photo that appeared on the cover of Newsweek and the front page of The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times. It was the catalyst that propelled peace negotiations in Liberia and led to an end of the civil war.

Years later, Chris went back to Liberia and looked up the man he filmed on the bridge, discovering that his name was Joseph Duo. The two became friends and when Chris found out how directionless his life had become, paid for him to attend high school, college and law school, studies which led to his present job as a police director in his area. Filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky asked "What is art?", and then answered, "A declaration of love - the consciousness of our dependence on each other. A confession. An unconscious act that nonetheless reflects the true meaning of life-love and sacrifice." In that respect, the life of Chris Hondros and what he left behind - a legacy of compassion and mutual understanding that transcended all the suffering he encountered was a true work of art.

Freedom's a thing that has no ending, 4 October 2017

In 1968, the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, Alexander Dubcek, ushered in a program of reforms that he called "Socialism with a human face." The new "Action Programme" allowed greater freedom of speech, press, and travel, limited the power of the secret police, and raised the possibility of democratic elections. The achievement of these goals, however, was thwarted by the invasion of half a million Soviet troops and tanks and an occupation that lasted eight months. It was a revolution that never happened. Based on her family history in Romania and Germany, director Anca Miruna Lazarescu's ("The Secret of Deva") That Trip We Took with Dad puts us right into the center of the dramatic events unfolding in Europe and does so with suspense and engaging humor.

Caught in the middle are Mihai Reinholtz (Alexandru Margineanu, "California Dreamin") and his brother Emil portrayed by Razvan Enciu in a breakout performance. The family is traveling from Arad, Romania to bring their sick father William (Ovidiu Schumacher, "The Beheaded Rooster") to Dresden for an operation that is unavailable in Romania. The film begins in Arad where Mihai is a doctor who seems to have accepted life in Ceausescu's Romania and acts as a reluctant informant for the Securitate, Romania's repressive secret police. When his young brother Emil, an anti-Stalinist activist, becomes involved in an anti-Communist protest, however, Mihai provides a name to the authorities, but spares Emil whom he vigorously calls out and warns of the danger into which he is putting his family.

Lazarescu depicts the family's journey to the GDR in their yellow Skoda with mordant wit. Emil plays the guitar and sings anti-Soviet songs, William yells at him never to sing the song again and berates Mihai for trying to prolong his life which he'd rather not. In Hungary Emil is surprised and happy that he is able to purchase Beatles and Rolling Stones albums, but sadly they are confiscated by East German border guards, though Emil tries to convince them that "Strawberry Fields Forever" is a hymn to collective agricultural production cooperatives. The humor does not last very long, however. Traveling in Germany, they meet up with Soviet tanks on the road heading towards Prague and are detained by the GDR authorities.

Forced to stay in an East German holding camp where Russian, Czech, German, and Hungarian detainees are at each other's throats, Mihai tries to keep order until the groups are separated into different rooms. The Romanian detainees are thrilled to watch on TV as President Nicolai Ceausescu denounces the Soviet invasion, though they are unaware that his government would later become even more authoritarian and repressive than other Communist regimes. When Mihai meets Ulrike (Susanne Bormann, "Barbara") a German countess who pretends to be pregnant, Mihai is offered the opportunity to come to Munich with her where his father can get the operation he needs.

With the Czech-German border closed, the only safe way to return is through West Germany, Austria, and Yugoslavia, bypassing the Russian-controlled countries and with the help of the Romanian Ambassador and some smuggled cognac, Mihai leaves with Ulrike. What Mihai finds in Munich is not what he expected, however. He moves into a commune with Ulrike that is filled with students vigorously vocalizing positions favorable to both East and West, some supporting Marx and Lenin and criticizing the West for the Vietnam War and the disparity between rich and poor, others blasting the Russians for their oppression of freedom in Prague. An idealist, Ulrike envisions a world where people can live together in peace and harmony, but her vision seems far away.

When Emil and his dad finally show up, ideology takes a back seat to practical realities as William's condition takes a turn for the worse and Mihai and Emil are forced to weigh contradictory options to live in freedom or return home in spite of the obstacles. That Trip We Took with Dad is a thought-provoking film that brings us back to the days when freedom and human rights was still a dream for thousands of people living under Communism in Eastern Europe. It also brings into focus the fact that the fight against repression did not end with the dismantling of the Soviet Union. As blacklisted author Millard Lampell's Cantata "The Lonesome Train" tells us, "Freedom's a thing that has no ending. It needs to be cared for; it needs defending. A great long job for many hands, carrying freedom 'cross the land."

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That little voice in the back of your head, 4 October 2017

Have you noticed that little voice in the back of your head that keeps chattering all the time? You know, the one that just asked, "What voice?" Only a short time ago, my own voice was telling me about all the people in my life that I had let down and how I had failed to live up to my own expectations. When I was able to quiet that voice, however, I could look and see how the love with which I was surrounded was more meaningful than any perceived failures. In Mike White's ("Enlightened" TV series) comedy/drama Brad's Status, 47-year-old Brad Sloan, played to perfection by Ben Stiller ("While We're Young"), is in the midst of a mid-life crisis, constantly listening to his inner monologue telling him he is a failure because he has fallen short of the material success of his old friends from college.

Brad is not a classic whiner or complainer but a decent and thoughtful person who is more than willing to look at his life and see what has not worked, though his telling us that "the world hated me, and the feeling was mutual" comes close to self pity. Novelist Yann Martel said, "Gloom is but the passing shadow of a cloud," but the cloud does not pass over Brad. Even his wife Melanie (Jenna Fischer, "The Mysteries of Laura" TV series) becomes frustrated with his neurotic insecurity when he questions her about his possible inheritance when her parents die. On the surface Brad has everything going for him - a comfortable life in Sacramento with a loving wife, a brilliant and talented musician in his son Troy (Austin Abrams, "Paper Towns"), and a satisfying job managing a non-profit company which provides services to others.

To Brad, however, the thought that his accomplishments in life do not measure up to his exaggerated picture of his college friends success haunts him as he and Troy take off to New England to visit elite colleges in the Northeast where his son has a good chance of being accepted. Cluttering Brad's thoughts and dreams are friends like Billy Wearsiter (Jemaine Clement, "The Lego Batman Movie") who retired at age forty after selling his hi-tech company and moved to Hawaii where he is living a life of leisure with women around day and night. He also thinks about film director Nick Pascale (Mike White, "The D Train") whose luxury home received a spread in Architecture Digest magazine.

There is also hedge fund manager Jason Hatifeld (Luke Wilson, "The Girl who Invented Kissing") who married into wealth and who Brad believes owns a private jet, and of course Craig Wilson (Michael Sheen, "Passengers"), a Harvard lecturer, best-selling author and TV personality for whom Brad saves his most venomous feelings. Although Brad's emotional distress is the centerpiece of the film, the film also scores in its depiction of the tense but touching father/son relationship, handled with naturalness and sensitivity. In contrast to Brad's hyper self-critical persona, Troy is easy going and unusually self confident for a teenager, though, like many teens, he expresses his feelings in monosyllables.

When Brad becomes upset with Troy when he forgets the day of his admissions interview at Harvard, the boy seems to take it all in stride. Of course, he is very grateful when dad pulls strings with his "friend" Craig who secures an appointment for Troy with both a prominent music professor at the school, and the Dean of Admissions. With Brad continuing to beat himself up for real or perceived failures, however, Troy asks his dad if he is having a nervous breakdown which seems like a reasonable assumption given Brad's mental contortions which even extend to imagining being jealous of Troy's future fame.

Brad's Status is an honest film that captures White's incisive deadpan humor and his ability to create characters who talk and act like real human beings, not cardboard caricatures. One of the high points of the film is Brad's meeting with Troy's musician friend Ananya (Shazi Raja) during a sleepless night. Without pulling punches, she confronts him about his attitude of white male privilege, asking him directly, "Do you actually know anybody who is poor?" It is a question that never receives an answer. With her admonitions ringing in his ears, he is moved to tears during Ananya's concert performance of Dvorak's "Humoresque." Brad's epiphany at the concert may reflect the dawning realization that being alive itself is cause for celebration and that who you are as a person is more important than what you have or what you do. Ultimately, White will leave it up to Brad to discover that, in the phrase of author Charles Eisenstein, "Abundance is all around us…The sky starts where the ground ends; we need only look with different eyes to realize we are already there."

Sami Blood (2016)
A human document that transcends the limitations of its environment, 26 September 2017

Guatemalan Indigenous Leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu Tum said, "We are not myths of the past, ruins in the jungle, or zoos. We are people and we want to be respected." Unfortunately, however, Indigenous people have been the subject of racism and discrimination throughout history. Massacres, forced-march relocation, the "Indian wars", death by starvation and disease form a depressing legacy of man's inhumanity to man. Inspired by the personal experience of director Amanda Kernell's grandmother, the deeply moving Sami Blood is about what Kernell has called an "untold" story and a "dark chapter" in Swedish history. She is referring to the oppression of the indigenous Samis, also known as Lapps, an indigenous people who live in the far northern areas of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia.

Shot by cinematographers Sophia Olsson and Petrus Sjövik, the film is set in Sweden in the 1930s when the rising tide of nationalist fervor dominated Europe and led to the Nazi's embrace of Eugenics and the theory of the master race. Sami Blood opens in the present day, however, as ninety-year-old Christina (Maj Doris Rimpi) returns to Lapland with her son and granddaughter to attend the funeral of her estranged sister. Traditional yoik-singing does not prevent Christina from becoming morose and withdrawn, retreating to a hotel by herself. The film then flashes back eighty years to the time when Christina (Lene Cecilia Sparrok), then known as Elle-Marja, was a precocious 14-year-old girl living with her sister Njenna (Sparrok's own sister Mia Erika) and her recently widowed mother (Katarina Blind), engaged in reindeer herding.

As in the US and Canada where Native children were sent to residential schools where their language, religion and cultural beliefs were often the object of ridicule, the sisters are sent to a special boarding school where they learn the hard lesson that the world regards them as lesser human beings. The Sami girls are dismissed by local Swedish teens as "circus animals" and "filthy Lapps," and are subject at school to being measured and photographed to prove a physical basis for their inferiority. While singled out for her learning ability by her deceptively supportive teacher, Christina (Hanna Alstrom, "Kingsman: The Secret Service"), Elle-Marja's inquiries about becoming a teacher meets with the reply that Sami's have small brains and are not capable of functioning outside of their own community. "Studies have shown that your people can't get by in town… you have to stay here or you'll die out," she says.

In spite of her humiliation, Elle-Marja is able to dream of a more productive future. It is a future, however, that will cause her to turn her back on her family and her heritage, a betrayal that will mark her entire life. In one scene, Elle Marja, who is trying to pass herself off as a "normal Swede," blurts out to her sister, "Get away, you filthy Lapp." When she meets Niklas (Julius Fleischlanderl, "Young Sophie Bell") a good-looking Swedish boy from Uppsala who does not know that she is Sami, her dreams of escaping from the school begin to become real. After her mother refuses to sell a reindeer in order to pay for the education Elle-Marja requires to become a teacher, she changes her name to Christina and pursues her relationship with Niklas.

Showing up at his upscale home, Christina untruthfully tells his mother that Niklas said that she could stay with them. In spite of their growing connection which includes staying overnight in his room, he does not defend her when his mother discovers her to be a Sami and she is asked to leave. She remains determined, however, to start a new life regardless of the barriers she faces. Though Sami Blood covers familiar ground, the pain caused by discrimination can never be routine. What elevates the film to a different level, however, is the quiet but fiercely determined performance of Lena Cecilia Sparrok as Elle-Marja/Christina. While the film is about oppression, it is not a polemic but a human document that transcends the limitations of its environment and makes a universal statement about the longing to fit in, the fear of isolation, and the conflict between the life we are born into and the one we choose for ourselves.

About the universal bonds of devotion and sacrifice, 26 September 2017

In 2016, the Freedom in the World report named Tibet as one of the most repressed countries in the world. Since China occupied Tibet over sixty years ago, hundreds of thousands of people have been tortured and imprisoned. Although the political conflict between China and Tibet plays a part, Moon Chang-Yong and Jin Jeon's documentary Becoming Who I Was is not a film about the oppression of a minority but about the universal bonds of devotion and sacrifice, a connection that transcends country and religion. Winner of the Grand Prix for Best Feature Film (Generation Kplus) at the Berlin Film Festival and shot over a period of eight years, Becoming Who I Was is the story of a young Buddhist, Padma Angdu, who at age six is discovered by high-ranking lamas to be the reincarnation of a revered Tibetan monk.

Unlike the documentary "Unmistaken Child" by Nati Baratz, or Martin Scorsese's film "Kundun," we do not witness the process in which Angdu is designated by the lamas to be a Rinpoche, but accept the truth of the discovery. The film opens as eight-year-old Angdu is being brought up in a monastery in the isolated mountainous region of Ladakh in northern India. Though he is under the direction of a head tutor and must study hard and adhere to a strict regimen, Padma is an ordinary boy with an engaging smile, full of joy and playfulness who always stops to give his blessings to others. Sadly, however, because he has not been claimed by his former disciples in Kham, Tibet, Angdu is expelled from the monastery in Ladakh and must live with his godfather, the elderly Urgyan Rickzan, a lama and the only doctor in the village.

Urgyan sacrifices his practice in order to provide food and shelter for Padma, to make sure that he works hard on his studies, and to offer the dedicated concern of a teacher and substitute parent. Even though Padma has a higher rank than his guardian, the distinction never gets in the way of their relationship. When the boy becomes twelve, he and Urgyan decide to undertake the treacherous journey to Tibet to reconnect with his disciples at his old monastery. The journey, on foot, bus and train (and hitchhiking), becomes an odyssey of transformation. Though they encounter extreme weather conditions of cold and snow with frostbite on their faces, there is an atmosphere of serenity and their connection becomes deeper.

During a stop in a small village close to the border, the travelers are invited by a shopkeeper to come into her shop to warm up and Urgyan buys some colorful gloves for Padma. When the woman learns of their goal, however, she advises them not to continue because they will be turned back at the border and may be risking their life. Becoming Who I Was is about a pilgrimage but it is more than that. It is a story about a quest to discover our true identity, a longing for intimate connection, and the search for unconditional love. A film of understated beauty, the experience can best be described by the vision of Lakota Black Elk when he said, "And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being."

Get Low (2009)
Letting go is much preferable to beating yourself up, 4 September 2017

An outstanding cast that includes Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, and Bill Murray carries director Aaron Schneider's first feature film Get Low, but only up to a point. The rest is inspiration but it is sorely lacking. Loosely or "somewhat" (or not much) based on a true story, the film examines the life of Felix "Bush" Breazeale of Tennessee who, in 1938, arranged a "living funeral" for himself in which 12,000 people are reported to have attended. Breazeale wanted to hear what stories people would tell about him while he was still alive, ignoring the fact that people will rarely say to your face what they will say when you are no longer around.

Set in the 1930s, Duvall is Bush, a hermit who cut himself off from the world and lived alone in the woods for forty years. There are a lot of rumors about him being a killer, kids are scared to death of him, and the sign posted on his property "No Damn Trespassing" does not exactly endear himself to his neighbors, such as they were. When Bush gets an inkling that his days may be numbered, he goes to town to arrange for his funeral with Frank Quinn (Bill Murray), the snarky owner of a struggling funeral parlor. Quinn sees a chance for a fast buck and enlists his "boy scout" young assistant Buddy (Lucas Black) to help Bush realize his plan.

While Quinn is a cynic, Bill Murray's brand of comedy is so endearing that he never comes off as a true villain. When Buddy says they cannot hold a funeral for someone who is still alive, the deadpan Quinn corrects him quickly, saying, "It's a detail we can look at." It soon becomes evident that Bush really could care less about what people might say about him and just wants the chance to reveal the secret that made him turn his back on the world forty years ago. We have to wait for the end to find out what it is, but the film suggests that it involved the sister of an ex-flame Mattie Darrow (Sissy Spacek), who describes Felix as having been the most beautiful man she had ever seen.

Persuaded to speak at Felix's "funeral," one of his old friends Reverend Charlie Jackson (Bill Cobbs) says "We like to imagine good and bad, right and wrong are miles apart. The truth is, very often they are all tangled up with each other." To his credit Bush acknowledges, "I built my own jail and I put myself in it and I stayed there for 40 goddamn years."While Bush's great reveal is certainly interesting and very well done, it does not have the impact that it should, maybe because it was a bit too late or too tepid or maybe we just don't care. In any event, Get Low only underscores the point that acknowledging your misdeeds, taking responsibility for them, and letting go is much preferable to beating yourself up and hiding from your own feelings and the world.

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