WHILE AT WAR – TIFF Film Reviews 2019

Film Reviews
November 15, 2019

Spain/Argentina production

Director: Alejandro Amenabar

Fall 1936 – The focus of the film is on Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo (Karra Elejaide), essayist, novelist, poet, playwright, philosopher, professor of Greek and Classics, rector at the University of Salamanca. We learn that Unamuno had opposed the Spanish monarchy and was instrumental in influencing the overthrow of the Spanish monarchy, and a supporter of its replacement Spanish Republic.  However, he also was opposed to the excesses of the socialist government in its violent treatment of traditional and conservative elements of the society.  As conservative forces regrouped under military men such as General Franco (Santi Prego), Unamuno supported what he thought would be a corrective to the direction Communism was taking in Spain.  Although cognizant of the rise of fascism in Italy and Germany, Unamuno did not immediately recognize the fascist tendencies of the generals leading the rebellion in opposition to the Republic.

Unamuno, an intellectual, was elderly and ill at the time, living with his daughters and grandson, dreaming about the days when he was newly in love, thinking about his beloved wife who had died in the recent past.  Everyday Unamuno went out, no matter what was happening on the streets of Salamanca.  He knocked on the doors of two friends with whom he went to a local bar where the three of them would engage in argument about the political situation.  Atilano (Luis Zahera), an Anglican priest, a member of the Masons, held a conservative perspective, while Salvator (Carlos Serrano-Clark), a socialist, professor and former student of Unamuno’s, argued on the behalf of the socialists and the benefits they had brought to Spain.  Unamuno’s views were generally in the middle, although he was accused of changing his views over time; he had run for office in the early days of the Republic.

It took some drastic events for Unamuno to realize how dangerous the generals including Franco and a mad General, Milan Astray (Edward Fernandez) were.  Events, including murder of the mayor of Salamanca, the capture and imprisonment of his friend Atilano for being a Mason, and the capture of his socialist friend Salvator, clarified the dangers the country was facing.  The military came for Salvator while Unamuno and Salvator were walking together.  He was told to look away as they took his friend away. In an effort to free his friends who had committed no crime, he went to see Franco to plead their cases and was sent away.

He was forced to decide whether to keep silent or stand up to racist rants and hatred spewing out of the mouth of the general Milan Astray at a rally to which Unmuno had been invited to sit on the podium with the fascist generals. 

The director, a young man, explained that what inspired him to make this film, was his daily meeting with older men who spend their time discussing politics in a local park where he walks his dog.  It was difficult, he said, not to have an opinion in that group.  While doing research on the film, he uncovered the role played during the civil war by Unamuno whose writings are studied by students in Spain.

Needless to say, Amenabar, the director, spoke to the relevance of the film to today in Spain and elsewhere.

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INCITEMENT – TIFF Film Reviews 2019

Film Reviews
November 14, 2019

Israeli Production

Director: Yaron Zilberman

Co-writers: Yaron Zilberman and Daniella Kertesz

This film with its focus on the conditions underlying the murder of Yitzhak Rabin, also directs our attention to the current environment in Israel, a situation not unlike the one in 1995, according to the director, Yaron Zilberman.  Rabin’s daughter, who was in the audience when I saw the film, reinforced the concerns raised by the film of the on-going polarization within Israeli society.

We are introduced to Yigal Amir(Yehuda Nahari Halevi), a young right-wing, law student at Bar Ilan University, and to his family, his friends, his love interests.  The film highlights the forces and conditions of the society that enveloped Amir and others during those heady days when Rabin, along with Yasser Arafat, signed the Oslo Peace Accord at Camp David under the eye of President Bill Clinton.  While large numbers of Israeli and Palestinians supported the signing, other Israelis saw Rabin as a traitor, signing away parts of Israel that he had no right to give away.

When we meet Amir he is courting Nava (Daniella Kertesz), a young woman from a religious Ashkenazi settler family living in occupied West Bank.  Amir is presented as an earnest young man, not particularly interested in his legal studies, engulfed in a politically charged environment, who has been told by his mother (Anat Ravnitski) that he is destined to do something to save the nation one day.  His father (Amitai Yaish), a Torah scholar is a much more moderate influence, who endeavours to save Amir from being drawn into the vitriol that was being spewed out over Rabin’s signing of the Accord. 

Amir, and most of the people surrounding him, considered Rabin to be a traitor. Their anger and vitriol spill out on TV, from religious groups such as the National Religious Party and from elements of the Likud party including Benjamin Netanyahu, then running for political office.  At a political rally for Netanya, a photograph shows Rabin dressed as a Nazi officer while shouts of “traitor” and “kill him” rings out.  Netanyahu did nothing to stop the furor.

Amir attended events where rabbis drew upon obscure Jewish texts that justified the murder of a traitor.  Amir’s Torah scholar father tells Amir that only God can make this decision, not humans but Amir pays no heed.  Amir is shown attending the funeral of Baruch Goldstein who had slaughtered Muslim worshipers in 1994 at the Cave of the Patriarchs.  In these circles, Goldstein was depicted as a saint, a person Amir looked up to as someone to emulate.

Feeling the need to act, he endeavours to build a movement of young people to engage in violence, such as bombing mosques, and killing released prisoners who had been jailed for terrorism. This doesn’t go anywhere. The people he brings together, including Nava, his love interest, reject his efforts to further radicalize them. 

He then decides to act alone in order to kill Rabin.  We watch as he puts his plan in place, gathers munitions, and attends events where Rabin will be.  Ultimately, he outwits the security surrounding Rabin, pulling the trigger on November 4, 1995.  A couple of months later, Netanyahu becomes Prime Minister and all hope for the Oslo Peace Accord dies.

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MADE IN BANGLADESH – TIFF Film Reviews 2019

Film Reviews
November 13, 2019

France/Bangladesh/Denmark/Portugal Production

Director: Rubaiyat Hossain

Co-writers – Rubaiyat Hossain and Philippe Barriere

We are aware of the dreadful working conditions of the women who make our clothes earning low wages often under dangerous conditions.  Fires are not unusual, killing numerous women, and yet, we continue to benefit from the low prices we pay for their labour.  The film Made in Bangladesh, takes us into one factory where women work long hours under trying conditions, often being cheated out of their overtime wages under the eyes of male overseers, while the western companies under whose labels the work is done, profit from their work.  The women’s situation can certainly be seen as slave labour with little they can do to improve their conditions.

A fire starts in the factory and the women panic; while most get out, one young woman dies and others are burned as well as traumatized.  The factory starts up again and the women return to work.  One of the young women, Shimu (Rikita Nandini Shimu) is approached by a woman who is trying to organize the garment workers into unions.  She interviews Shimu in her office and then approaches her with the idea of organizing a union, making promises that things will greatly improve if they are able to get the signatures of 30% of the workers.  Shimu, whose husband, Sohel (Mostofa Monwar) is unemployed agrees to take photographs of the working conditions in her factory which she must do without getting caught.  At one point, Shimu tapes a conversation between a western client of the shop touring the factory being assured by the manager that the working conditions are safe.  When the conversation is translated, the westerner is asking for even cheaper rates.  Shimu learns how much of a mark-up the clothes she sews, for so little, sell in the west. 

The difficulties women encounter in the factory are depicted, including sexual exploitation. It is the woman who is fired when the supervisor and the young woman are found out. Another woman is fired for having union literature when the manager goes through the women’s purses.  Another time the women work all night long to meet a deadline.  When they are told to sleep in the factory until the morning, the overhead fan is shut off.  The women demand that the fan be turned on, furious that while they give their all, they are treated so badly.  The women’s language is very colourful, they swear freely and express their anger and frustration. 

When Shimu’s husband starts up his own business he wants her to quit her job.  She has been voted the president of the union and feels obligated to continue to get the signatures in order to get certified.  He is not happy with her growing independence and harasses her, demanding that she dress more modestly.  The women dress in colourful outfits, looking like flowers as they walk in the street, wearing brilliant scarves to cover their hair.  Shimu dons a black hijab to please her husband but keeps on working.

When they have the number of signatures required to be certified as a union, she is told by the women organizers that she must go to the government office on her own.  No one from their organization can accompany her.  Even though Shimu has all the necessary documents, she is further stymied by the bureaucracy where she is given the run around.  She goes back many times to no avail.  She meets one nameless bureaucrat, “Madam”, who says the paperwork is with “Sir”, who is, of course, not available to her.  She brings her friends with her on another occasion but only one person can go up to the offices, blocked by security.  In this film we watch as Shimu becomes stronger, determined to make a difference for herself and the other women she works with.

When the director was asked the inevitable question, what do we in the West do about this exploitation, the answer is not to stop buying clothing from Bangladesh since, of course, the women need their jobs.  We must become more knowledgeable consumers, pressing exploitative companies to ensure that the working conditions are safe.

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THE PERFECT CANDIDATE – TIFF Film Reviews 2019

Film Reviews
November 12, 2019

Saudi Arabia/Germany production

Director:  Haifaa al-Mansour

Maryam ( Mila Alzhrani) is a doctor in a small town in Saudi Arabia who is not respected.  We see this when a seriously injured older man who has been injured in a truck accident refuses to be touched by a woman doctor, by Maryam. Instead, to his great detriment, male nurses treat him.

Frustrated about her situation in a small-town hospital, she takes time off to go to a medical conference in Dubai but never gets there, prevented from flying because her travel document hasn’t been renewed by a male guardian.  She cannot do it for herself as a woman.  She tries to reach her father who is on the road with his band for the first time in some years, as the conservative leadership in Saudi Arabia opposed the playing of music. 

Both of her parents were musicians.  Her mother was a singer and earlier in their marriage they had travelled together.  The mother is dead and Maryam and her two sisters live with their father.  We follow Abdulaziz (Khalid Abdulraheem), the father and his band as well as Maryam. 

Maryam is called back to the hospital after failing to get a cousin to help her get her visa.  In order to get into his office, she accepted an application form to run for municipal office only so she can ask him to help her out.  Application form in hand, she makes the decision to actually complete it and run for office.  She is furious with the municipality for its failure to pave the road leading to the hospital which becomes a quagmire whenever it rains, making it almost impossible to get patients in wheelchairs and ambulance drivers to carry stretchers into the hospital without getting stuck in the mud. 

Her father away, her two sisters, Sara (Nora al Awaah) and Selma (Dae al Hilali), while at first not keen on her decision to run for political office, come around, especially her sister who is a photographer.  The unfolding of the campaign is beautifully handled as they learn how to run a campaign step by step from youtube.  Her sister makes a video of Maryam presenting her reasons for running for office in order to get the word out. They hold a candidate’s event for women only at which they hold an abaya fashion show.   The abaya is the covering the women wear outdoors.  The women wear western dress indoors, covering their heads, bodies and faces when they go outdoors or when strange men are around. Maryam is interviewed on TV by a condescending interviewer who keeps asking her about “women’s concerns”.  There’s even an event for men with Maryam in one place and the men in another watching her on a monitor.

Meanwhile, we follow the band as they travel from town to town.  Although in some cases there are negative reactions to them, mostly they are well received and the concerts are well attended.  The songs they sing are romantic, syrupy love songs.  I found the contrast between how women are treated in the film, the infantilization of women, and these love songs contradictory.  I was able to ask the director about this.  Her answer was in my mind, odd.  The director lives outside the country which undoubtedly facilitates her ability to make films.  When she made her first film in Saudi Arabia she had to sit in the vehicle while directing the film.  This time she could get out of the vehicle although she did admit that there were times she took a back-seat to her male assistant.  Yet her answer was that they, Saudi Arabians, are very romantic people when it comes to their love interests.  She seemed quite sincere in her response, and did not pick up on how strange it might appear, at least from a non-Saudi perspective.

Overall this was a delightful and uplifting film, as we watch Maryam grow in strength and determination as she confronts the obstacles placed in front of her as a woman in such a patriarchal society.

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THE BODY REMEMBERS WHEN THE WORLD BROKE OPEN – TIFF Film Reviews 2019.

Film Reviews
November 11, 2019

Canada/Norway Production

Directors:  Elle-Maija Tailfeathers and Kathleen Hepburn

Aila (Elle-Maija Tailfeathers), a middle-class indigenous woman leaves the doctor’s office and encounters a young indigenous, Rosie (Violet Nelson), barefoot, pregnant and bruised, standing in the rain.  Rosie is afraid to return to the apartment where she lives with an abusive boyfriend and his mother.  Aila brings Rosie home with her.

We learn that Rosie, is a “graduate” of the child welfare system she has aged out of. Rosie doesn’t believe that Aila is also indigenous.  The two women’s lives are so different. We get a glimpse of their contrasting lives when Aila brings Rosie to her apartment. While in Aila’s apartment Rosie steals some pills from the medicine cabinet.  She slips Aila’s wallet out of her purse into her backpack. 

She refuses to call the police on her boyfriend who is on probation, not wanting to send him back to prison.  Aila looks for a safe place for Rosie to stay in spite of Rosie’s apparent unwillingness to go along with Aila’s plans. Rosie comes to life in the taxi they take to a women’s shelter.  She puts Aila in an awkward situation, telling the driver that the two of them are sisters and that Aila’s going into rehab.  She tells him that their father died in Afghanistan and their mother is also dead.

When they first get into the taxi, Rosie directs the taxi-driver to stop at an address where she sells the pills.  Aila, picking up on Rosie’s deviousness, follows her into the building and watches the transaction occur. 

The taxi lets them off at the safe house where Rosie pays the driver once Aila discovers her wallet isn’t in her purse.  Rosie opens up somewhat more at the safe house telling the workers that her boyfriend has kicked her in the stomach and he rubs his knuckles hard into her head.  She assures the workers that she can keep her baby safe.  She is determined to keep her baby out of the child welfare system. Recognizing this helps us to understand much of Rosie’s behaviour, her wish to stay out of the hands of social workers, police, courts that would judge her and possibly determine the baby to be at risk.

The film is told from the perspective of the director, Elle-Maija Tailfeathers, who also plays Aila, a middle-class urban indigenous woman. The film is based on an actual experience that Tailfeather’s had that shook her to the core and was life-altering for her.  She wanted to show the world the lives of these vulnerable young women.

 

Rosie is shown as a feisty, devious, yet vulnerable young woman, a product of a system which places the foster children it is responsible for in an impossible situation, pushing them out of the system once they come of age.  Rosie’s story could be the story of any young woman in her situation. With nowhere to go and no one to care about her, she falls into an abusive relationship and becomes pregnant with the next generation’s child welfare candidate.

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COMETS – TIFF Film Reviews 2019

Film Reviews
November 10, 2019

Georgian production

Director – Tamar Shavgulidze

A film about unconditional love according to the director, Tamar Shavgulidze

Two women meet 30 or more years after they separated as young women.  Nana (Ketevan van Gegeshilze) remained in a small community near Tiblisi while Irina (Nino Kasradze) left. Irina moved to Poland, Krakow, Berlin, among other places.  Her father had 2 restaurants in Krakow and she now has 4. 

The film starts with Nana sending her daughter, Irina, to town to do some shopping.  While she’s gone, Irina who is visiting in the area, suddenly appears.  She is the comet exploding on the scene.  The two women catch up on their lives.

Nana has two children and two grandchildren.  Her husband was killed in a car accident which she believes may have been suicide.  She explains that he had a recurring dream of Irina returning and Nana leaving, a fear which she believes drove him to take his life.

The two women reminisce, remembering/visualizing themselves as young women, adolescents in love with one another.  Irina left some time after they kissed openly, believing the relationship could not go anywhere. She felt empty after her loss of Nana. 

It is clear that the feelings are still there.  When young Irina (Ekaterine Kalatozishvili), Nana’s daughter returns, she recognizes that when her mother had heart surgery after her father died, she had called out for Irina.  Now, it is clear who she was calling for.

The Director stated that the film was about two people in love, but definitely not a lesbian film!

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