28 March, 2009

Snijeg (Snow) 2008

White magic

Snow.poster Snow does not fall to cover the hill, but for every beast to leave its trail

Director Aida Begic chose the proverb (Bosnian?) to introduce her film at Cannes, where Snow won the 2008 Critics' Week Grand Prize. This film, just released in Belgium, treats a subject too seldom covered in movies about war: its aftereffects, especially on the survivors.

The setting is the peaceful mountain village of Slavno in Bosnia, 1997 - barely two years since the end of the war between Bosnian Muslims, Bosnian Serbs, and sometimes Bosnian Croats. There is still danger in unmapped minefields, and there is still hope that at least some of the missing men might turn up - alive.

Hope, would say protagonist Alma, may not be a plan, but it sure beats resignation and flight. She's battling to make a go of a little business making and marketing fruit preserves. "Slavno will feed half of Bosnia," she says, though nothing is easy. There are - with the exception of an elderly man and a mute, traumatized boy - only women and children in Slavno.

Director Begic says that "this is not a 'woman's film,' though men are marked by their absence" (interview in Le Soir by Didier Stiers). And though it's not a "war film" either, the psychic wounds are visible on the faces of the survivors.

I highly recommend Michael Guillen's film blog, The Evening Class, and his transcription of a Cannes Q & ASnow with the director (who looks uncannily like Alma). We learn that Begic (33) and Zana Marjanovic (Alma) are both from Sarajevo (the latter grew up in New York City), and had to "do a lot of serious research to make this film" that depicts village life in loving, and knowing, detail.

The opening scene - pre-dawn prayers in the ruins of what was once the village mosque - has to be one of the most effective depictions of Muslim piety and peacefulness yet put on film. The women - led in prayer by "Grandpa" - overlook the valleys filled with morning mists. The serenity belies the horrors that have been perpetrated there in the recent past.

We hear references to "Chetniks" - the term used to describe the feared Serb militias - a throwback to the partisan fighting against German invaders in World War II. So we are surprised when a Serb shows up in the village. What does he know about the missing men of the village, and can his word be trusted?

Snow provides a rare glimpse into Bosnia, without burdening us with the complications of the post-Dayton balkanization (hey, that's where they invented it!) of the Muslim/Croat Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Serbian Republika Srpska - officially one country.

You don't need to know any of that. And you only have to watch Snow to appreciate that "collateral damage" in war requires more to repair it than just band aids and bricks. The critics at Cannes have shown their discernment: Snow is a wonderful film.

Awards: Click here for details.

Gerald Loftus
100 mins. In English and Bosnian

18 March, 2009

The Constant Gardener (2005)

Raking up trouble

This is one I re-watched by accident the other night (and by ‘accident’ I mean that I was too lazy even to change the channel so saw it through to the end). A horrifying movie - in the truest sense of the word - it’s nonetheless a compelling and enlightening view.

With a cast that includes Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz, Pete Postlethwaite and Bill Nighy to name but four, this could have so easily been a complete luvvie-fest, devoid of any sentiment or narrative. Not so, luckily. Bolstered by some very accomplished direction by Brazilian Fernando Meirelles (Cidada de Deus (City of God) (2002)), and written for the screen in collaboration with the original author (John le Carré), this is a fully rounded story with a lot to say, and it’s very well played by all concerned.

Something else that sets the film apart is the very tight and well-paced score by Alberto Iglesias. Kind of low-fi electro music, which, to be honest, I would have thought incongruous if I hadn’t seen for myself how well it sat in the frame of the movie. It’s fair to say that it’s a testament to how important the music is when you don’t actually hear it most of the time. It’s set so well that it becomes a part of the film, rather than an ‘add-on’.

The story is told in a non-linear format, but that really isn’t anything to worry about. I am well-known for my limited attention span, and I kept up - so I reckon you’ll be OK. The quiet and patient Justin Quayle (Fiennes) is a diplomat working for the British Embassy in Kenya. His pregnant wife Tessa (Weisz) is about as far removed from the ‘trailing wife’ as it’s possible to be. Tessa has her work to do as well - only hers just happens to involve investigating global phamaceutical companies and their crimes against the Kenyan people. Justin knows something is going on, and when Tessa starts spending a lot of time with a colleague, Arnold Bluhm (Hubert Koundé), fears the worst. The thing he fears would turn out to be a blessing in his case - if only things were that simple.

Tess loses her baby and throws herself into her work. She spends one night in a hotel with Dr Bluhm, and then he disappears, then she is found brutally murdered. Once the truth about Tess’s life comes out, Justin is shocked and outraged. He vows to continue her investigations, even though he is warned off by his diplomatic collagues. He knows there is a very real danger he could end up in the same situation as her very quickly, messing as he is with power, corruption and greed.

Over the years, I have come to appreciate Fiennes a lot more. His ability to play a variety of roles has impressed me greatly - it only took me about two minutes to forget that he wasn’t Harry Waters from In Bruges (2008) any more.

Weisz, in turn, is also very good and richly deserved the Oscar she won for her ’supporting’ role.

The film is a slow burn, in that you’re not force-fed all the details straight off the bat, they are left to slowly drip in. It’s a spy thriller of sorts, but you already know who the bad guy is (well, probably). Although the events are based on truth and “any resemblance to persons living or dead…blah blah blah” you can tell that the sort of thing being discussed in the movie is really going on every day in Africa.

If you’re a fan of a good car chase or a punch-up, I really wouldn’t bother with this. If, however, you like a carefully constructed script, some fine camera work and top-notch performances - and a hard-hitting story line to boot, you should probably consider giving this a go, if you haven’t already.

Awards: Click here for details.

129 mins. In English, Italian, Swahili and German.

13 March, 2009

Tulpan (2008)

Fond of life

As I write this, Alexander Borodin's In The Steppes of Central Asia is playing in the background. This is not quite the soundtrack of Tulpan, Sergei Dvortsevoy's latest film from his native Kazakhstan (though he now lives in Moscow). He is an ethnic Russian, a minority that represents 30% of the Kazakh population and whose language is still the most widely spoken. No, Borodin's majestic orchestral portrait might be a touch out of place in this film where the most memorable tunes are some Kazakh pastoral folk songs and Boney M.'s By The Rivers of Babylon. I defy you to leave the cinema without that great reggae beat reverberating in your brain. When you see Tulpan, you'll appreciate just how incongruous and yet strangely appropriate that track is in the trackless Steppes.

Maybe that's the best frame of mind in which to approach this film: there is understated humor, little dialogue, and vistas that are more desolate than majestic. Other recent films that portray nomadic life (Tuya's Marriage (2006) and Cave of the Yellow Dog (2005) come to mind) show a rather more romantic and richly pastoral view of the Steppes. Here, it's mainly dust, and the sheep need to get to greener pastures - or else.

But the main preoccupation is getting the lead character Asa hooked up with Tulpan, the mysterious maid in the neighboring yurt. 'Cherchez la femme,' as they might say in Kazakhstan - and they do (I have that on highest authority from the family Kazakh expert, my son, who spent several months there and was intrigued to hear a stream of Russian or Kazakh interspersed with French expressions such as 'cherchez la femme').

The original sense of 'chercher femme' is to get married, and Asa's Kazakh dream - wife, yurt, camel, sheep - is sketched out on the collar flap of his Russian naval uniform. Though we're ostensibly in post-Soviet Kazakhstan, the ties between the new republic and Mother Russia obviously go beyond use of the lingua franca. Asa has just been demobbed, and try as he might, his stories of maritime adventure don't seem to impress Tulpan and her parents.

Director Sergei Dvortsevoy has a solid record of achievement in the world of documentary film making, though this is his first feature film. His documentarian experience shows in the detail of nomadic life, and there are little inside jokes on his past as a radio/aviation engineer - the nomad kid who is always glued to his transistor radio, and relays the news that he has memorized to his family.

Dvortsevoy was interviewed in a Russian journal a few years ago on his philosophy of film making, before his breakout from documentary films, here translated for the Institute of Documentary Film (IDF): "I always try to find some poetry in everyday life, something metaphysical. When I observe some social phenomenon and contemplate it, I find a deeper thought, an image... All you have to do is find a way of rendering it. You need to observe it carefully. I like to watch, to observe life. And that is the essential root. If you love life, you will see a lot, you just need to care for it. The trouble is that most people simply don’t like reality. They find it sordid, uninteresting, and so they run away from it. They’re afraid of it. On the contrary, I like reality, I love it. I’m just fond of life."

If you too are fond of life, check out Tulpan. And be ready for Boney M. in the Steppes of Central Asia.

Awards: Click here for details.

Gerald Loftus
100 mins. In Kazakh and Russian.

07 March, 2009

Etz Limon (Lemon Tree) (2008)

Lemon tree, 'green line'?

Once, when we lived in Oman on the Arabian Peninsula, writes Gerald Loftus, we visited a village perched in the rocky hills of the interior. We were there to see a falaj, one of the ancient irrigation canals cut into the stony hillsides, carrying precious water to small gardens and orchards. An Omani farmer took a liking to our small children, and offered us lemons plucked from one of his dozen or so trees. In hot, arid climates, these bright beautiful yellow fruit, standing out against the dark green leaves, are things of beauty.

And so it is in the West Bank – or more precisely, on the 'Green Line' that on paper separates Israel from the Occupied Territories – where Eran Riklis’s Lemon Tree (2008) is filmed. Never has a glass of fresh lemonade looked so inviting. That’s what visitors to the home of lead character Salma are offered, from her father’s orchard that she has inherited. From trees that she must protect when politics intrude into her simple life.

Riklis has visited this human terrain before, notably in his 2004 masterpiece, The Syrian Bride. Watching Lemon Tree, you have to remind yourself that this is an Israeli film, or rather, a film made by an Israeli director. But, as Riklis said in a Tikkun interview apropos of The Syrian Bride, when asked if it was a 'political film'.

First and foremost, this is a humane film. It deals with people who are caught inside politics, inside a political world. It’s a pro-people film. On the other hand, of course it contains political elements. In the Middle East in particular, almost everything that you do and refer to is political. Everything has consequences.

The same could be said of Lemon Tree, though it is political to a much greater degree. When you have the 'Separation Barrier', the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, and an Israeli cabinet minister as backdrops or characters in a film, it is political. Everything is political in Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Just as Riklis is sensitive to the nuances of the complex relationship between occupier and occupied, he is a particularly talented observer of the relationships between men and women, in both Israeli and Arab cultures. Nazareth-born Hiam Abbass, who has already appeared in Riklis’ films, plays Salma with innate grace and intelligence. Not only does she have to confront Israeli neighbors bent on separating her from her lemon trees, but also has to navigate a male-dominated Palestinian society. Palestinian officialdom is shown as more troubled over matters of propriety than demonstrating any concern for this defiant widow’s attempts to protect her property.

On the Israeli side of the fence (literally), there is tension in the Minister’s household, where wife Mira (played by revelation Rona Lipaz-Michael) begins to see for herself the human costs of occupation. Eventually they must face the question: is it better to look out onto a luscious orchard (owned, admittedly by Palestinians of unknown security credentials) or to enjoy' the security offered by watchtowers and the Separation Barrier?

At the time, my viewing of Lemon Tree was sponsored by the women of Brussels film club Cinefemme (whose website has an insightful interview with Riklis), and whose members have been invited by the film’s distributor to provide commentary for a DVD 'bonus' segment. They will have much to discuss.

Awards: Click here for details.

Gerald Loftus

106 mins. In Arabic, Hebrew, French and English.