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An Important Story, but Wanting
In '4242', Cristi leaves her native country to start a new life. We don't know where she's from or why she has to leave. But in this new land, her life is very different. At first she's happy about her move, but then like a ton of bricks, the depression hits. In this new country where her own language has become meaningless to everyone she meets, she feels completely alone. Being uprooted feels liberating at first, but then the reality sinks in. She's unsure of herself in a foreign country. She misses her family.
The film opens with Cristi calling for a ride from the airport and then dives right into her emotional roller-coaster. We see images of her new home -- somewhere in Europe, shot on location in Portugal but with the anonymous effect of seeming to be any city -- followed by scenes of Cristi, her emotions on full display. She doesn't do anything particularly related to her story, which she recounts as the movie's narrator. Instead, her actions are symbolic of her inner emotional state. When she's happy, she smiles brightly at the camera, when she's sad, she looks into the lens sullenly -- and when it gets really bad, she shouts or tears at her hair. Things go downhill very quickly.
These emotional scenes compose the whole film, but they don't follow from each other naturally without the aid of the voice-over which ties everything together. Cristi expresses her emotions on-camera and describes them in the narration, but in neither does she present the unfolding of a coherent story. She's very expressive about her feelings visually and verbally, but these isolated scenes spliced together occasionally border the absurd without intending to, both by their fragmentary content and incoherent juxtaposition. In one moment Cristi waves angrily at red fog in the countryside; in the next, she stands on a cliff overlooking the sea, her green dress flowing in the wind.
We glean everything about her story from the voice-over accompanying the amalgamation of scenes, but learn little. The writing is repetitive in an effort to get across the emotion, but the film suffers by its circularity. Spoken, it pretends to be ad-libbed, and fails to be convincing. It tries to be profound on a profound topic, but doesn't quite get there. At face value though, some of the writing is pretty good: 'I was losing my mind in a delirium', she says, 'and my heart was yearning for warmth'. Cristi expresses herself with lyricism. It's the delivery and integration into an incoherent string of images which is unconvincing.
The editing propels the film forward sometimes, but these moments attempt to foreshadow something more interesting than that which actually occurs, promising more than the film delivers. Things get symbolic when Cristi, who misses her family, surrounds herself in a dark, red room with televisions playing home videos. Themes of drowning plague Cristi, who says she is 'stuck in the deep, drowning' -- a parallel, perhaps, to the horrors experienced by refugees whose perilous journeys to seek refuge in Europe can end in tragedy. But the metaphors don't save the film as a whole.
The story is personal and important: that of a young woman emigrating from her home and integrating into a new and foreign society, finding herself as she negotiates her relationship with cultures old and new, familiar and foreign. It's not a very emotionally deep story though, and the film precludes that. A girl is happy, then she's sad. There's no growth or trajectory to follow; just the sudden shift for reasons unknown. The lack of particular context means the story might be anyone's, but it also detracts from the cinematic experience when an absence of detail makes relating to Cristi difficult. She cannot but be two-dimensional without her own story. And when knowing her becomes difficult, she becomes a concept rather than a person. She never quite comes alive. We're not there with her, experiencing the waves of emotion. We're just observers to her inner drama, heavy on teenage angst but light on substance.
A Subtle War Drama
The remarkable 'Angels Die in the Soil' explores the dynamics of a society in the midst and in the aftermath of war. On the Iranian border with Iraq, people remember the Iran- Iraq War of the eighties and face an American war waging just across the border. Here, in Iraqi Kurdistan, a young woman (played by Donya Ghobadi) makes an austere living digging up the bones of fallen Iranian soldiers. Their remains from the Iran-Iraq War have completely disintegrated except for the bones and the soldiers' tags to identify to whom they belong. Knees deep in the soil of unmarked graves in Kurdistan's algid landscape, digging with a pickax and her bare hands, she works alone. From her rural, makeshift home which houses her younger sister and sickly father, she makes her living searching for bones in order to deliver them to the families of the deceased, letting them finally know the fate of their sons: casualties of a war that ended decades ago. They can finally bury them and move on.
The film features stunning visuals of a near-deserted countryside in Kurdistan, where once there was war and now there is just the solitary work of a child cleaning up after the carnage, digging up bones so that families can bury them again. She works in inhuman conditions, as evidenced by her unceasing cough in the parched and freezing landscape. Her father speaks only with his eyes, lying immobile in their small home and attached to an oxygen tank which keeps him breathing despite the lasting effects of chemical warfare. (A soldier provided him a gas mask during an attack to save him from the worst of the gasses, only to be killed himself.) Her mother, also affected by the chemicals, became a casualty too when she died after giving birth to her second daughter. In her father's recollections we see flashbacks of the war, urgent and traumatic even decades later.
One day, her work is interrupted by terrorists. They pull up in a car on the single-lane highway that cuts through the grave-ridden countryside, but she darts behind a lone tree just in time. The terrorists have guns and a camera. They also have an American soldier.
At home, George W. Bush shows up on the television. When she changes the channel, a journalist reports on a terrorist incident on the Kurdistan border the same one which she saw with her own eyes just hours before. The terrorists filmed their threats to the American government and their murder of the American soldier. She watches the familiar incident, now televised around the world, but she remains silent. The next time she goes out there, she will discover something she never expected.
Her story is about cleaning up after the mess of war, healing wounds ancient and new. The help she offers is indiscriminate and thankless, done entirely in secret to mend what is broken. She heals wounds wherever she goes. War envelopes her story, affecting her and her family decades removed from the immediate violence. Chemical weapons have made her father, her mother, and the very land in which she lives all casualties of war: injured, killed, and polluted with poison. She heals for herself as much as for the people she helps directly, having experienced the effects of violence inflicted long before she was aware of it. After the fact, all she can do is fix the wrongs she sees before her. Healing the wounds of war becomes her profession.
The weight of war is palpable, and so is the effort to unburden.
Parables of War (2014)
A Compelling Documentary of Theatre and War
'Healing Wars' is a theatrical dance piece by Liz Lerman, a MacArthur 'Genius' Grant-winning choreographer famous for creating choreography in substantial collaboration with her dancers. 'Parables of War' is a documentary film by Nina Gilden Seavey, an Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker and the director of the Documentary Center at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. The film's original aim was to document Lerman's creative process choreographing one of her award-winning dance pieces, but through the documentary process Seavey observed something she didn't expect: The collaborative process she set out to document brought out emotional connections between the collaborators and their work, deeply involving everyone in the theatrical story and its message. 'Initially, we set out to document her highly collaborative process of creation', says the film. 'What emerged was an unexpected connection between the artists and their art'.
'Healing Wars' presents difficult stories. And we discover, too, that the artists who represent their characters have themselves all been touched by war. Joshua Bleill, who plays himself in Healing Wars, was a Marine in the American military until his vehicle hit a roadside bomb which killed his colleagues and badly injured him. He required leg amputations above both knees and needed to have his broken jaw, pelvis, and fingers put back together by surgeons. He landed in a coma, and when he awoke he began work on healing his psyche after the psychological trauma. Bill Pullman, an award-winning actor ('Independence Day'; the forthcoming 'LBJ') and another of Lerman's dancers, has also been touched by war, having grown up with a father haunted by the Second World War. Ordered to shoot from a Navy ship at defenseless Japanese soldiers treading water after they had abandoned their own ship, his father a Navy doctor struggled to reconcile the disturbing dichotomy between his call to heal and his order to kill. Echoing the vocation and dilemma of his own father as a doctor at war, in Healing Wars Pullman plays an American army surgeon in Iraq with his own share of grief and loss. The other participants, too, each have their own personal parables of war paralleling the ones they create onstage.
The documenting of a collaborative theatre project through the medium of film makes 'Parables of War' particularly interesting because it presents the dance piece but does so from a perspective that transcends the final product of the theatrical production. Whereas the theatre-goer would see the final product, the movie-goer would see its process of creation, rediscovering the work as a collaboration between artists, professional and nonprofessional. The film documents everything that goes on behind the scenes, even to details which appear at first to be banal in comparison to the work itself. In rehearsals for the piece and even in conversations outside rehearsals, the creative impulse, purpose, and emotive connection drive the narrative. The film even presents the final product the theatrical production in a way that subverts its cohesive presentation. Seavey never gives us the whole thing. She shows glimmers of the rehearsals without actually showing the final product. The glimpses that we do get, organised together, form an intriguing portrait of a seasoned and experienced theatre professional working with nonprofessional dancers to create something meaningful.
The cinematography (by Gary Grieg and Doug Gritzmacher; editing by Ian Rummer) creates virtual portraits of the people participating in the project. The camera moves with the characters and follows the trajectories of their conversations, and a harp-led chamber orchestra from Prague (music composed by John Califra) accompanies their movements onstage. The shifts between scenes are compelling, telling a story by their edited sequence and smooth transitions. Different takes of the same theatrical scene combine to show the development of the characters onstage and an evolution from rehearsal to performance. Theatrical scenes at different points during the rehearsal process coalesce within a single cinematic scene. With the editing, Seavey conducts her own choreography.
The film makes such good use of the distinction of mediums that the film's methodology of documenting the theatre contributes to the original subject being documented, enriching the experience of the actual theatrical production. Yet the film also emerges as a work in itself, an intelligent commentary on its subject worth watching even without seeing the actual dance piece. It enriches the theatrical experience but is not secondary to it. Like all documentaries, it depends on the subject for inspiration, but the shape and tenour of the documentary are entirely Seavey's own.
An Excellent, Symbolic Drama
The man who feeds his shadow is a magician who, at the invitation of dinner party hosts, puts his tricks on display for their amusement. At one such well-attended dinner party, well-dressed socialites fill the seats of a long table in an opulent Greek dining room. Flames from candelabra illuminate a feast of delicacies, including a whole roasted pig. When the magician (played by Dimitris Imellos) appears at the head of the table, they are skeptical. His performance is no trick, he insists, but rather 'a phenomenon that science has not yet explained', the cumulation of 'all my studies to achieve the independence of my shadow'. Some of the guests are frightened at the prospect that there might be real magic afoot. One guest confides to her neighbour at the dinner table, 'I don't like magic'.
'Are you afraid?' he asks.
'I just don't like it!'
The men express their skepticism, claiming to be unimpressed. Still, everyone jumps with fright at the magician's sudden movements.
The magician raises a curtain behind him. With his hands, he casts shadows onto it, mimicking the movement and behaviour animals: first an eagle, then a swan. But the guests are not amused. One of the men stands up and makes his own shadow puppet -- putting his hands together to make a dog. What makes the magician's shadows so special if anyone can make them? But unlike the shadow animals, the shadow of the magician himself 'has its own human needs'.
At the snap of the magician's fingers, she appears on the curtain: a shadow of a beautiful woman, twirling in circles. She moves of her own accord, unattached to any form in the room. This, apparently, is the magician's shadow, which through study he claims to have freed from his own body. She twirls independent of his movements, and she has her own human needs -- even her own appetite. To prove it, he encourages the guests to present delicacies from their plates for her to eat. First, someone offers his chicken leg -- 'it's delicious', he says jokingly. The magician extends his arm to the curtain, chicken leg in hand, and behold: his shadow takes it. She eats it. The guests present more offerings, a sampling of everything on display at the table. One woman even offers her smouldering cigarette, which the shadow accepts, contentedly puffing shadows of smoke. The magician's audience is amazed by his insatiable, autonomous shadow. She devours the feast before their eyes.
Before long, though, the host (played by the late Mihalis Giannatos, of 'Midnight Express' and 'Munich') gets upset by how out of hand his party is getting. His food is disappearing, and as if that weren't enough, this shadow trickster is getting a little too close to his wife. From the staircase of his enormous townhouse, he kicks him out to the street: 'Get the hell out of here!'
As he takes his leave, the magician delivers a serious message. 'I know that such a mysterious task breeds suspicion and doubt. The time will come when all my studies to achieve the independence of my shadow will be recognised and rewarded'. He folds up his white magician's glove and disappears into the night.
From the party he visits his wife (played by Maria Kitsou) at a small, sleepy pub where she performs happy songs to a sparse crowd. She looks beautiful onstage, but out of the audience's view she is deeply unhappy. There are parts of the magician's life that he keeps hidden away from almost everyone. The film is adapted from a work of the same name by the Argentine writer Leónidas Barletta, and it frequently surprises. Each detail is symbolic, though the film's deeper meaning is elusive at first. Distinctions between shadows and reality, darkness and light, symbolise the magician's own life. In more than one way, feeding his shadow becomes a subversive act. The effect is subtle but powerful, and excellently executed.
The sometimes experimental, always professional camera-work (by Thodoros Mihopoulos, of 'Before Midnight' and 'El Greco') matches the ambiance of the story, merging with the energy of the party and leaving just enough mystery outside the frame. The sound and music (sound editing by Kenan Akkawi; music by Christos Serenes) evoke a mid-century aura of scratchy, textured phonorecords. The production design (by Assi Dimitroulopoulou, of 'No Sympathy for the Devil') is stunning, from the magnificent aristocratic interior of the Greek townhouse to the sad pub where the magician visits his wife, and even to the grungy underground world beside the harbour where the magician does secretive work after the sun goes down. The abundance of subtle details against the backdrop of such professional production will make you want to watch this short film again and again.
An Artful, Slow Short
'Node' tells the story of a small Turkish fishing village losing its footing in a new world. The film reveals a society that, while perhaps once vital and vibrant, now struggles to survive. The remote village is on an island in the centre of a lake which the fishermen depend on for their livelihoods. In an unprecedented drought evocative of climate change, their lake is running dry. They wait, praying for rain, but the longer the lake goes without it the worse the situation gets for the villagers, who are driven to fish for younger and younger fish, depleting the population and virtually ensuring the demise of their village as they know it.
The natural environment that envelops this story decides the characters' fates, and this is the film's point of departure. 'Node' frames nature's vast spaces with human beings. Just as the villagers survive on the periphery of the lake's bounty, the camera captures wide views of the water framed by the very people that fish from it. But in the wake of drought, their boats float unmanned in the water, rocked by the lake and boarded only by sun-drenched birds.
Three characters personify the history and future of the village: a boy, a young man, and an older man, all fishermen (or future fishermen). They want things to get better, but they also dream of leaving this place. They wait idly for the rain. Summoned by the call to prayer, the boy runs from his game of throwing stones into the lake. The older man prostrates himself on his prayer rug. At a nearby café, the young man smokes a cigarette. All three spend most of their time dawdling. The boy sits perfectly still in an unmoving boat leaning on the shore, facing the water, staring away from us and into the lake, seemingly deep in thought. When the older man appears, he also stares silently and pensively into the water. The young man does plenty of reflecting as well, the only difference being that he always has a cigarette in his hand.
Occasionally a narrator interjects, giving voice to the characters' thoughts:
'We knew the spring which we didn't meet would not return. Truth was different, and the days when we rise from this green flora. Yet, our souls would open their eyes all at once. Ice crystals would be splattered on the eyelashes of every newborn. Winter would come and we'd migrate with it.'
Even in this warm Mediterranean climate, winter is coming.
There is not much of a story, though. Its details must be gleaned from subtle hints and obscure symbolism, leaving too much to the imagination and much of the meaning inaccessible. The film takes its time, luxuriating in beautiful images of the Turkish countryside but also plodding along without any forward motion. The story does not flow but rather stumbles with fits and starts and jarring interventions by the narrator. The characters do little, and the meaning of their actions is cryptic. Most of the film consists of the three protagonists (who never speak) gazing silently into the distance, accompanied by a melancholy flute or cello. The boy occasionally does something interesting, but he's the exception. The young man travels hither and thither, even boarding a boat to traverse the lake, fighting his way through thick water plants -- but when he gets to his destination, all he does is smoke another cigarette. The climate may preclude the productivity of the fishermen, and there may be nothing to do, but must the cinematic presentation be so dull? Sometimes even the flutist sounds tired.
Filmed entirely in black and white with uniformly static cinematography, 'Node' feels dated and frozen, purposefully eliciting a sense of societal decay. It presents a picture of village life and the countryside, and offers moments of beauty and symbolism. A fish struggling for oxygen on dry land and a boat tied tightly to the shore serve as images for the people themselves, who depend on the environment to sustain them but also want to escape. The boy, the young man, and the older man personify the passage of time in a place where time seems to stand still. The story's slow movement is part of this effect, but its symbolism doesn't quite make up for its dullness.
Where are you my love? (2014)
A Timely, Important Film
'Where Are You My Love?' follows the lives of transgender sex workers in Istanbul, Turkey, where they struggle to survive in a society that rejects their gender identity. Ece is about to celebrate her 'second birthday' -- the anniversary of her surgical transition -- but first she and her best friend Özge must go out with their colleagues to find customers in the dark streets of Istanbul. In a society where it is legal to discriminate against them in employment and housing because of their gender identities, Ece (Didem Soylu) and Özge (Seyhan Arman) have resorted to prostitution in order to survive. Their underground profession, however, puts them in great danger. On a routine night out looking for customers, Ece gets lucky before the others and accompanies a client into the night. But things go bad when she doesn't come home the next morning.
Before going out, Özge and Ece lightheartedly discuss the discriminations that they face from government officials and an unwelcoming society. They joke about peoples' prejudices in what becomes a lighthearted introduction to the social themes that govern their lives. From telephone conversations with their parents, it becomes evident that they either keep their identities secret from them or have not spoken to them in a long time. When her mother calls Ece about her military service papers, Ece disguises her voice by muffling the phone receiver with her hand. Her parents still don't know that she is not the son they think she is. Ece has finally received her female ID card, which she has fought hard to get in a society that does not willingly recognise her identity, but she still faces the problem of mandatory military service in Turkey. Her parents have received the military service papers applicable to all Turkish men of age, and Ece will once again have to take on the government to fight for her rights as a woman. Özge's family has rejected her identity, and she no longer speaks with her mother. When Özge's sister addresses Özge by her given male name -- Ali -- it provokes a fit of rage.
Through casual dialogue between friends, the details of this way of life become clearer. Their conversations are natural, unforced, unstructured, and even funny, revealing important information about their views and experiences, their hopes and their struggles for acceptance and survival. The film employs subtle, effective storytelling of a world that few experience or have even considered. It provides a snapshot of the struggles and tragedies of a life lived alongside discrimination and violence.
Death is a constant companion for Ece and Özge, a symbol of the violence, humiliation, and daily fear that they and their colleagues undergo every day to survive in a transphobic world where assault and murder of transgender people is too common and safety too elusive. Newspaper clippings with pictures of young women cover a wall in Özge's home -- all murdered transgender sex workers. By film's end, the wall will hold yet another newspaper clipping. The shocking abruptness of each death in the film emphasises the narrow boundary between life and death for people like Özge and Ece. Özge's sister begs her not to go out at night to work because she fears that Ozge will not return, like so many before her. 'Death! What death?' says Özge. 'Death is very close to me -- like eating and drinking. It is like my next door neighbour'. The film begins and ends with scenes of burial, mourning, funeral rites, and prayers from the Qur'an, framing Ece's and Özge's story with the threat of death that pervades their world.
But the film also provides hopeful and loving messages as examples of the kinds of attitudes that might replace the prejudices and the oppression. In one of the film's most beautiful moments, Özge, tired from a night of working, submits to her own rejection by society when she asks her friend Mori a series of questions. They point to her sense of being indefinable in a transphobic society that does not recognise her. She begins not to recognise herself.
'Mori, who am I?'
'You are Özge my child'.
Then, after a pause, another question: 'Mori, what am I?'
'You are a human my child'.
In a society where transgender people resort to sex work to survive, where their bodies are stigmatised beyond recognition, and where they live with the daily threat of violence, this film returns humanity to their stories.
The Jungle of Jules Levine (2015)
An Excellent Historical and Scientific Drama
'The Jungle of Jules Levine' is a short film decades in the making directed by the prolific British-American filmmaker Michael Mileham and starring renowned actors Peter Cook (Bedazzled, The Princess Bride), Elliott Gould (Ocean's Eleven, MASH), and John Denos (General Hospital, The Young and the Restless). Shot on location in Panama on the San Blas Islands and inside the dangerous Darien Jungle, filming was interrupted and delayed by decades because of the United States invasion of Panama in 1989. Finally completed in 2015, 'The Jungle of Jules Levine' tells the story of an American scientist (an entomologist -- an insect specialist) who travels on behalf of the Smithsonian to study phasmids (otherwise known as stick bugs) at the exact historical moment when shooting of the film was interrupted more than two decades ago: just before the American invasion of Panama in 1989.
Despite the repeated warnings of Jules Levine (played by the acclaimed Elliott Gould), an American in Panama, the Smithsonian scientist -- at one point referred to as 'Arthur' by the drunk pilot who flies him to the San Blas Islands (but when Jules Levine recounts the story he says he doesn't remember his name) -- is adamant about continuing his research mission in the rainforest. The subtly humorous pilot (played brilliantly by the late Peter Cook) flies Arthur into Panama with beer bottle in hand, assuring him of his safety in the tiny rocking aircraft. ('I've never had a fatal crash as far as I'm concerned', he says). But he also gives an ominous piece of advice that the locals will echo once Arthur arrives on dry land. 'Stay here for a while and you'll be a changed person'.
Arthur (played by John Denos) is fully supplied by the Smithsonian and filled with advice from colleagues, but when he arrives in Panama he needs drinking water to take with him into the jungle. He stops at a beach bar where locals are gathered, including Jules Levine, who is wary of the scientist. He warns him not to go into the rainforest. But with the help of his friends and the man working the bar, he sells Arthur the five-gallon tank of water that he needs for an exorbitant $20. Jules Levine will become the narrator of Arthur's story, an observer of his fate. He has seen people like Arthur venture into the jungle -- and it seems they seldom return.
Guided by a small group of natives, Arthur ventures into the rainforest with his gear, sets up camp in a musty cabin, and explores the mysterious environs of his new base of scientific observation. He's looking for stick bugs as part of his research project at the Smithsonian, but in his search he discovers all sorts of other marvels in the forest: large crawling insects, flapping butterflies, a family of white-faced monkeys, and a solitary poison dart frog. The latter will prove to be fateful for the young scientist.
Jules Levine tells Arthur's story from his perspective as a local observer. He knows all about the dangers of the rainforest, and he has seen other naive Americans disappear into the foliage and never return. In Arthur, he sees the shadow of those who have come before him, with the same good intentions but woefully unaware of what is to come. Levine's narration accompanies Arthur in the rainforest, and the story reflects Levine's local knowledge and his low regard for anyone who goes into the rainforest without respecting it as he does. And although he narrates the story as it unfolds, in the end he tells the story after the fact, with the effect that everything that happens to Arthur, while sometimes shocking and unexpected, also happens as if decreed by fate. Jules Levine's story of Arthur in the jungle is complete, told from the perspective of the one person who knows exactly how it ends.
His story consistently pits science against nature. Arthur enters the Panamanian rainforest with the mentality of a scientist, documenting every one of his observations, transforming the mystery of the forest and its strange creatures into the scientifically comprehensible: sound bytes in his tape recorder and data jotted down in his notebooks. He approaches the rainforest in precisely the way that Levine detests.
The film's production value is stunning, and so are the visual effects. Shot on Super 35 film on location in Panama from the air and from within the rainforest, the film persuasively constructs 1989 rural Central America just before the American invasion. The Super 35 film adds a dated quality of another era. And the visual effects create on- screen the reality of someone who has lost all sense of normal perception after coming into contact with a poison dart frog. The story is creative and the writing is apt, and with top-notch actors in every role, it is also convincing. In the narrative aspects, though, the film falters when the voiceovers and the sound editing reflects the same dated feel as the cinematography, but not in a flattering way. Jules Levine's narration and Arthur's field notes, which together tell the story through two competing narratives -- one scientific and one disdainful of science -- are well-written and well-articulated, but they sometimes cut into the fabric of the film in a way that is more jarring than integrated.
Arthur's story parallels the historical American invasion of Panama over the same period, and Jules Levine makes the necessary connection, asking accusingly whether the scientist is actually an agent of the CIA. He bemoans at once the invasion of nature and the invasion of Central America by the American hegemon, personified by 'one more ignorant middle class city dweller trying to own a piece of what can never be his or anyone's -- trying to change our lives'. In the end, Jules Levine is right about a lot of things, especially about the power of nature.
Understated and Professional
Omid washes cars next to the American Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan. His father died in the war when Omid was seven. 'I have been working ever since', he says. 'If I didn't work, my family would go hungry. I didn't want my mother or sister begging for a piece of bread from others'. Now a teenager, he would be in 11th or 12th grade if it were not for the death of his father, but because he works washing cars to provide for his family he is years behind in school. There are other children like him, their lives altered by the war raging around them. 'I grew up during the war. I have already seen so much of it. But the hopes and dreams of our people can make this country better', Omid says over the sound of children playing football in the sand and an American helicopter whirring overhead.
Views of Kabul, of children playing, families walking beside the road, and cars driving through the city centre paint a rare picture of modern Kabul. Even simple views of the city serve as reminders of the rarity of these images for a western audience, and Omid shows an Afghanistan not represented in corporate media outlets that otherwise report on the American war there. Kabul is sandy and chilly, and full of life. The American Embassy sits stoic on a main thoroughfare. 'In a sense, I grew up next to the embassy', Omid says. Cars drive by honking their horns. The ones that are covered in dust stop to get washed. (When drivers aren't interested in having their cars washed, Omid is a good salesman.) But the struggle to support his family continues. 'I used to make six to eight dollars a day but now even making four dollars is really difficult', Omid says. 'Now the embassy guards don't allow us to wash cars there'. With a chuckle, he adds: 'The embassy probably thinks we are suicide bombers'.
Omid washes cars next to the embassy, but he also studies English in school, plays football with his friends, and spends time with his family at home. Omid's voice guides the film, describing his life in Kabul and his views on the war unfolding around him. He tells his own story, uninterrupted by any narrative about the history or politics of the war. He speaks for himself, and in conversations with family and friends, we find empathy and perseverance in the harshest of circumstances.
'Are you mad at the Americans?' his mother asks Omid.
'No, I benefit from them', he chuckles, 'I wash their cars and make money'.
'If they benefit you then Americans are good people', says his mother. 'American people have compassion. Their sons are on the front line. Our sons are not on the front line like theirs. When I see them on TV, I start crying. Your brother and sisters ask why I'm crying for them. They have mothers and sisters, too'.
According to Omid, 'no one knows what will happen in Afghanistan' when the Americans leave. But while they stay, 'they shouldn't be cruel towards Afghans. They shouldn't raid our homes'. Still, he has hope for his country's future. 'I hope that future generations in Afghanistan can live and study in a more secure environment. And live in a peaceful and free country so they can rebuild Afghanistan'.
Kabul tells its own story too, of people going about their daily lives in a place that most people never see, washing cars and sharing conversation in the midst of war. Omid's true story is the guiding force of this documentary, but it is accompanied constantly by the city moving around him. The cinematography is static but relaxed, and the editing (by Jon Bougher) is professional and clean -- the level of quality that one would expect of such a documentary shown on television. Individual shots of the city and of Omid's life remain still throughout, but together the varied angles and cuts create a dynamic picture of life in Kabul. The film's presentation has an understated simplicity that allows the documentary's content to speak for itself. Put together, Omid's story and the film's views of Kabul subtly and powerfully communicate the daily reality of people under a foreign occupying force carrying on with their lives. When Omid practices his English in class in front of the other students, he uses the same language spoken by the Americans that have invaded his country to articulate a basic fact that accounts for many of his current challenges: 'We are from Kabul', he says.
Omid is a child whose life has been profoundly affected by violent conflict. To provide for his family, he washes cars next to the embassy of the very occupying power that has dramatically altered his life. 'Every second of our lives here is spent in danger' in a country ravaged by unending war. Omid tells one boy's story, but it also tells the larger story of a people living in an unstable country in the shadow of the American military. It is a war documentary without the bloodshed, showing the silent sufferings of people not in combat but affected by violence nonetheless. And they carry on.
The Nothing Man (2010)
An Historical Drama About Economic Injustice
The Great Depression is just beginning, and the jobs of the men who work on Mr. Johnson's dock are in peril. John (played by Lawrence Grotts), one of the dock's longshoremen, is a third-generation Irish-American determined to provide for his wife and daughter. As it is, John cannot afford to heat his home, and his family has to ration the food he can afford. But things are about to get much worse when Johnson, by way of an advertisement out west for farmers hard-hit by the start of the Depression, attracts out- of-towners willing to work longer hours for less pay. Despite the ill intentioned assurances of one of their colleagues that the plans to replace them are just rumours, when the dockworkers catch wind of Johnson's attempt to replace them, they organise a strike. 'I'm tired of letting things happen to me', says John. Fed up by unfulfilled promises about fairness and opportunity in America, he fights back. 'Rumours or not, I say we hit them before they hit us. I say we strike!'
The fight is long and grueling. The rations become ever smaller for John's family. Their dinner portions shrink, and instead of heating their home they huddle together under blankets. John and his colleagues refuse to work until they get a living wage, and eventually the strike cuts into Johnson's profit enough to pressure him to invite John in for a meeting. Aided by Mr. Barleycorn, a labour organiser from Boston who sits with Johnson as mediator of the negotiation, Johnson explains his rationale for refusing to increase wages. Johnson demeans John when he asks him, 'When are you ever going to learn that you and your men are replaceable parts in a machine? You're nothing'. (Hence John's persistent heroism contrasts with his label as a nothing man.) Johnson's insulting rationalisations are not enough for John, and when Johnson threatens him with workers from out west who will arrive the following morning to take the jobs of the current dockworkers, John resolves to continue to fight. This time, though, it will be with his fists.
The style of the film is emblematic of another era. Nostalgic music and a darkened cinematic canvas evoke a dated-ness to the film, a sense that the story is far removed from the present day. Montages introduce the story without dialogue the way a 70s television series might. There is a palpable lovingness in John's family, for example, such that their modest home and their silent interactions radiate a warmth directly from the screen: John and his family huddle for warmth in their small, dark home; Mary, John's wife, comforts him after a day of striking with his colleagues; John cuts in half a tiny portion of food to share with his daughter for dinner. The film also owes this effect to professional production and costume designs, which evoke the early decades of the 20th century -- a great accomplishment for any short film on a budget.
The actors contribute to this effect with their emotive, dramatic, and passionate performances. The story feels viscerally unfair for the protagonists -- working hard yet starving and freezing in their own homes -- and in John one can sense the strong emotions of a man deeply frustrated by a society that has promised him everything and then deprives his family of the basic necessities of life. He fights for his rights, for the rights of his colleagues, and for the well-being of his family even when the powers that be knock him down. The accented English of the Irish-American workers also creates a distinct separation between the hardworking longshoremen and the evil (American- accented) boss who cares more about profit than the people who work for him.
The combination of these elements can sometimes be too much, though, and the believability of the story suffers. Although the acting is uncommonly well-done, it is not always convincing, either because the performances are too choreographed or the characters' words don't quite match what one would expect. More problematic are the scenes which rely on imagery too perfect to be real in a story that's too perfect to be real: John's family is perfectly good, and the antagonists are perfectly evil. It makes for a good story, and one sympathises with John in his struggle against a powerful, corrupt force in society. We feel for his starving family and for his sense of powerlessness at being unable to save them from the consequences of an economy going to hell and the greed of those at the top. There is a point, however, when this kind of dichotomy goes too far. John's family becomes too perfect, beautiful, and pure in an environment ridden with economic abuse and oppression. The juxtaposition of their purity with the nastiness of the economic environment is powerful, but it goes too far when the montages counterposing these two distinct worlds -- one masculine and violent, the other feminine and pure -- makes both seem a little ridiculous. In these moments of contrast, the drama approaches the realm of melodrama.
Despite occasional overzealousness, the film is impressive. Producing historical drama with a wide cast of characters (and a violent fight scene) is a great accomplishment for a short film and a small budget. The story echoes the challenges of a contemporary American context of economic disenfranchisement, reflecting a sense that the economy is rigged for those at the top. The contrast between John's 'idea of America' as a country of opportunity and his experience fighting for his most basic rights resonates today.
Polished, Symbolic, and Mysterious
In a town in England, a young homeless man struggles to come to terms with a secret loss. He lives alone amongst the garbage of an otherwise empty alleyway between brick walls, dreaming of ominous dark tunnels of light and fire. He awakens at sunrise, the start of a transformative day. He walks through the countryside and through the town, stopping at the gate of a cemetery, where he curses something, but it's not clear exactly what he's upset about. Like his dreams, his actions whilst awake can be disquieting, but also mysterious.
Through the cemetery gates, he sees a young woman paying tribute at a gravesite. She looks at the engraving, leans down, places a bouquet at the foot of the gravestone. And after a moment of contemplation, she disappears. Our protagonist briefly silences his cursing, interrupted by this scene. He watches her closely until she disappears, and then he steps to the gravesite himself. His eyes travel back and forth from flowers to gravestone, examining a ritual that he seems not to understand himself. But it will become of great importance to him.
The actions of our unnamed protagonist (played by Harry Quinn) become more mysterious as he steadily acquires various implements required for some unknown task. First, he steals a shovel from a local gardening shop. With a fistful of pennies, he buys a book of matches at a convenience store. He digs through some garbage until he finds a hand saw. He makes a wordless exchange with another young man, who hands him a large object wrapped in a black trash bag. Finally, he returns to the cemetery, and onto a piece of cardboard he copies some text from the same gravestone that he visited before.
Until we find out what he's up to, the story is so mysterious as to be frustrating. If you have the patience to make it to the end though, it's worth the wait. Things become a little clearer, and the drama comes full circle. At no point is there any dialogue between characters. The protagonist is an outsider to his society, and most of the interactions with other people consist of staring. (His shabby clothing and abnormal behaviour attract attention.) And when he accepts a large, mysterious package wrapped in a trash bag from someone, neither of them says anything. They part in silence.
The film offers a polished presentation of the story. Cuts between scenes and the camera's perspective, especially in the absence of dialogue between characters, tell the story in their own right. Static shots and cuts from various angles move the story forward even when there is little action. Scenes bring our protagonist back in time when he recalls his memories, and invites us into the realm of his subjective fears when he dreams strange images of darkness and fire. The camera brings our focus to the natural elements of the story that accompany his journey when clouds travel with him in the countryside, sometimes light and sometimes darkening ominously. And the sun rises and sets just as he does. The music and sound that accompany the drama are subtle but effective, paralleling the actions of homeless man and enhancing the emotional effect of his mysterious mission. The film communicates sadness and foreboding anxiety, and his story is the story of grief. But by the end it is also a story of transcendence and celebration.