Monday, March 25, 2019

Zama, directed by Lucretia Martel

5 Women Filmmakers
March 3–March 20, 2019
In celebration of Women’s History Month, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Boston Women’s Film Festival co-present five new films by contemporary women. Visit for information.
In a blend of fable, parable, legend, and magical realism, Lucretia Martel’s Zama tantalizes the literary, art-loving filmgoer with unending sensory and intellectual stimulation. Do you love Kafka, Beckett, South American literature, surreal moments of the mind, and stunningly creative use of music, sound, location, and cinematography? Zama may have no competitor in recent film art.
The story jumps right in with both structure and moral truth, but takes a few minutes to grasp its richly nuanced sequence. Humor periodically strikes through the “voice” and leitmotif of Latin guitar music in a soundtrack that mainly employs the language of natural sound: silence, cicadas, birds, eerie whistles and rattles, barking, neighing, a lazily sweeping fan, children’s laughter or squawks, and women’s intimate chatter. Then, there are the blasts of surreal electronic dissonance that represent the human mind when it hears bad news. The music mirrors the emotion, and sound carries the story along more than the characters’ dialogue.
South American-born Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho), in his late-thirties and dressed in a red-velvet jacket and three-cornered hat, holds the prestigious position of magistrate under Spain’s colonial governor, in a backwater Paraguayan community in the 1700s. Don Diego does his job as “the crown’s functionary,” but he longs for—and persistently requests—a transfer to Lerma, a city near his wife and children. But years keep passing, along with new governors and foiled efforts for a transfer. Don Diego exists in a slow-growing, living nightmare, which can’t even end in death. It’s a simple storyline but an endlessly rich brew, perhaps because it’s based on a highly regarded novel by Antonio di Benedetto (1922–1986) and reimagined by a brilliant director.
The stage is set in one of the movie’s first scenes for an immersion in absurdity and magical realism. An indigenous prisoner is set free by Don Diego, but instead of leaving the rough-hewn office, the prisoner bends his head like a torpedo and races straight into a wall in inexplicable self-destruction. Such scenes occur throughout the film, eliciting astonishment on the faces of the witnesses, but that’s all. They say and do nothing about such occurrences. In the case of the prisoner, the witnesses are Don Diego, his Spanish deputy Ventura Prieto (Juan Minujín), and their young scribe Fernández (Nahuel Cano). We then hear a voice telling us a proverb that foreshadows Don Diego’s fate:
 "There’s a fish that spends its life swimming to and fro, fighting water that seeks to cast it upon dry land. Because the water rejects it. The water doesn’t want it. These long-suffering fish . . . devote all their energies to remaining in place. You’ll never find them in the central part of the river but always near the banks."
The camera then shifts from a scene of swarming fish in water to Don Diego standing alone on his outpost’s desolate river embankment—“the long-suffering fish.”

Ambiance and mood define this movie—the tropical heat, languor, and ennui of an isolated, primitive settlement. Time barely moves, torpor settles over everything, which nature’s sounds magnify—the cicadas’ buzz, a horse’s shudder, a gull’s caw, the river’s eternal lapping, and the sun’s relentless pulse. It’s barely tolerable for a non-native and shares the oppressive quality of Herzog’s Aguirre on the Amazon. No wonder Diego and others look for amusement in the “Oriental’s” cargo of brandy that arrives, or in sensuous afternoons in bedrooms. (In a nice touch, the rough-and-ready brandy shipment lands on “Getaway Beach.”)
The film moves through dreamlike, often hallucinatory settings and scenes. In one, Diego wanders through disparate rooms that feed through stalls to the object of his desire, Luciana Piñares de Luenga (Lola Dueñas), the elaborately wigged wife of the absent Minister of the Treasury. In this real but unreal realm, animals and humans coexist—goats, dogs, horses, lamas—and move around each other, touching impersonally but familiarly. Diego’s mission in seeking out Doña Luciana is twofold: to inform her of the Oriental’s brandy shipment and to advance his flirtation with her. Doña Luciana is a notorious paramour, but in mounting scenes she consistently rejects Diego—“Let’s not be reckless,” she murmurs like a lover, leading him on.
In another hallucinatory scene, Diego searches for Dr. Palos because the Oriental and his young son have succumbed to a tropical fever. Diego moves through a hazy room where a cigar-smoking hag performs a spiritual rite with a ragtag following. A naked baby crawls around the floor. Diego finally finds the doctor sitting under a table in a dead stupor.
In another episode, the governor gallops on horseback into the municipal courtyard, loses his temper when his horse doesn’t obey a command, and takes instant revenge on the animal by shooting it. Bystanders, including Diego, stare at the scene, but as usual say and do nothing, for it’s just another everyday occurrence in their distorted cosmos.
Much later in the film, a tribe of blind people wander through the mysterious night woods where Diego and his fellow bounty hunters (of the legendary Vicuña) sleep. We hear strange, haunting music. The campers lie still, watching these ghostly, humming figures as they untie and steal the campers’ horses in their seamless glide through the trees. Soon after, a warrior tribe with red-stained bodies upend the posse in a series of surreal, violent scenes—mirroring the increased surrealness of Diego’s mind. At this point, he simply accepts what comes, too beleaguered and demoralized to care, or to try to rationalize human life. Everything we see through his eyes is skewed, bizarre, corrupt, or inhumane, such as, early on, the Oriental’s son being carried in a crude chair on the back of a slave. The distance from shore to settlement isn’t far, but “class” has to be distinguished in this cruel way. At Doña Luciana’s house, a slave sits utterly still like a bronze statue, pulling the rope of a sweeping fan for the duration of his life. Its languid, perpetual rhythm with a monotonous squeak emphasizes the human torture.
The film has a subplot of Vicuña Porto, a violent outlaw no one has ever seen. He’s either alive or dead, real or mythical, and he’s a force to be reckoned with in the colony’s life and adds a neat twist to Diego’s denouement. As the movie winds up with the bounty hunters now starved and tattered after years of fruitless search, one of them, “Gaspar Toledo,” who might actually be Vicuña, spits at Diego, “It’s just a name, that’s all!” He means Vicuña’s a name that embodies all the evil perpetrated by man.
Like Odysseus’s impediments to reaching Ithaca, Diego meets obstacle after obstacle in his effort to transfer home to his wife and children. The first governor, who has put him off for years, punishes Diego for getting into a brawl with his deputy Ventura, a real Spaniard working for the crown, not an American Spaniard like Diego, or as the governor hurls at him: “an American passing for Spaniard.” A lama brushes against Diego as he gets this news, absurdly, but also grouping Diego in the animal’s lower status. The next governor spends his time gambling and playing games. When forced, he pays sadistic lip service to helping Diego. Meanwhile Diego’s psychic and physical states continue to decline. He’s demoted to filthy, decrepit housing near the indigenous people, including Emilia, mother of his illegitimate toddler. In his new room, one of his wooden crates of belongings suddenly moves across the floor. He’s told by his scribe Fernández that there’s a boy inside. Oh, that explains it—a boy inside. Nothing unusual. At this juncture, Diego’s official jacket has become ragged, his hat tattered, and his face worn. By the time the next governor arrives, which is years later, Diego is gray-bearded with dead eyes. He has lost faith but still retains a drop of hope that he might yet escape by joining the richly clad governor’s “posse” heading out to capture the mythical villain Vicuña.
The last scene is apocalyptic. A dazzling sight beholds us—a river covered in ultra-verdant aquatic moss and studded with fantastical trees. It’s unnatural. It could be paradise or purgatory. Diego, an ashen corpse but not quite dead, floats in the river’s viscous green in a rudimentary basin. An indigenous boy hovers above him, staring in awe at Diego’s horrid, maimed condition. Finally the boy asks harshly, “Do you want to live?” It’s the movie’s essential question to us all. We have just journeyed through a true rendition of life, of the human condition and its inherent, incorrigible vileness—“Do we want to live?”
The floating boat reminds us of both Ophelia drifting down the river and of Charon crossing the River Styx with his latest passenger bound for Hades. Diego may be caught between two worlds—the sticky unreality of the green “non-paradise” that symbolizes “reaching home,” and the black depth of human souls desiccated and decayed from their class hubris, their greed, power, and inhumanity. As a last touch, the folksy, ironic Latin guitar music pipes in, laughing at all of us.

Ophelia (1851–1852), Sir John Everett Millais, Tate

Charon on River Styx, Soumyajit Dey, India

Sibel, Boston Turkish Film Festival

March 21–April 7, 2019
At the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston,

Filmed in Turkey’s beautiful, fresh-air mountains high above the Black Sea, the film Sibel uses the whistled language of Kuşköy, also known as “Village of the Birds.” The protagonist Sibel (Damla Sönmez) is a mute young woman and the elder daughter of the town’s leader Emin (Emin Gürsoy). She communicates with family and community through the ancient whistling language of the region. Even though everyone else in the village also whistles this language (it’s especially useful when working in the tea fields), they treat Sibel as an outcast because of her muteness that renders her unmarriageable. Her peers, including her younger sister Fatma (Elit Işcan), ridicule her and refuse to allow her to participate in their schoolmate Çiçek’s engagement celebration.
Besides capturing Kuşköy’s breathtaking scenery and cultural history, Sibel tells both a fairy tale and a contemporary story. Sibel, a veritable “Diana of the woods,” hunts a never-seen wolf that plagues the village, apparently for generations. Sibel looks and acts like the mythical heroes who pursue evil dragons. During her forest forages, her eyes are wild and her ears fine-tuned for prey. Sometimes she checks in on old and crazy Narin, who lives in a mountain hut. During each visit, Narin laments the loss of her teenage sweetheart, Fuat, who disappeared half-a-century before, “but is sure to be back soon.” Narin represents Sibel’s fate as an unmarriageable pariah.
Sibel collects bones, believing they belong to the wolf. She hopes that one day she can prove the wolf is dead by presenting its complete skeleton to the villagers, thereby gaining their respect. We later learn that the bones are probably Fuat’s, and that he was killed in front of Narin for their illicit relationship with her. This information explains her insanity.
One day, Sibel’s deep pit to trap the wolf captures a handsome young fugitive. His name is Ali (Erkan Kolçak Köstendil) and he’s badly wounded. Sibel drags him to her hunting shack, and in the days that follow she heals his wounds with medicinal plants. Ultimately, they form a close relationship. In the movie’s “contemporary story,” the government and media frame Ali as a terrorist on the loose, but in reality, as he whistles to Sibel, he’s a conscientious objector being hunted down by the authorities. Eventually the pair is discovered, and Ali vanishes to a fate we never learn, a possible shortcoming of the film.
The contemporary side of the movie also involves village traditions, in particular the ones that relate to women being ruled by men. Because of Sibel’s unauthorized relationship with Ali in the mountain hideout, her sister Fatma’s engagement is called off. The groom-to-be’s family refuses to be associated with such disgrace. Sibel then demonstrates her courage by walking through the village with her sister. Her head is held high and her huntress eyes are defiant. She sees Çiçek standing in the tea fields watching the despised sisters pass by. Their eyes meet in a moment of woman-to-woman recognition. Çiçek, now the wife of a man she never chose and probably abhors, makes a movement with her mouth that sends a message of approval and envy to Sibel: It’s better to be independent and a pariah than an enslaved woman.
Some years ago, Sibel’s directors visited Kuşköy, and their fascination for the local whistling language led to creating the movie. This “bird language” uses Turkish syllables expressed as piercing tones. The directors’ sought out Damla Sönmez for Sibel’s role, and inspired by the story, the actress devoted herself to learning the whistling language. She spent time with the villagers and later with a trainer. What she whistles in the film is exactly what the subtitles say. Her vivid performance fulfills perfectly Sibel’s folkloric persona. As a contemporary story, the film captures a place in the world that’s caught between an obsolete and unjust social order and the more advanced democracies of today, however flawed.


Mind/Game (2015, documentary)

Featured at the ReelAbilities Film Festival
Screening Wednesday March 27, 6:30 pm, at the O’Keefe Auditorium, Massachusetts General Hospital, with a prescreening reception at 6 pm. A discussion with Chamique Holdsclaw follows. 
Free admission,

Copresented with the Massachusetts General Hospital Department of Psychiatry, Center for Diversity


The story of basketball superstar Chamique Holdsclaw goes a long way toward helping to destigmatize mental illness. This riveting documentary about her life—Mind/Game (directed by Rick Goldsmith)—also examines how athletes, in particular, avoid getting help when they feel depressed, because part of being an athlete is not showing weakness or vulnerability.
From age eleven, Chamique loved the movement and art of playing basketball. Though she didn’t realize it at the time, the game also vented her pain, anger, and frustration caused mainly by her difficult family life—an alcoholic mother, a father with mental illness, and her own care for mother and younger siblings. At ten she went to live with her grandmother, who put love, encouragement, self-discipline, and stability into her life. “Take out your aggression on the court,” her grandmother told her.
Years later, after suffering the ups and downs of clinically diagnosed depression, Chamique realized that it was actually mania that partly fueled her college and WNBA stardom. The drive, the aggression, the feeling of omnipotence came from a mood high. Unfortunately, her bipolar diagnosis didn’t come until a manic episode in 2012 resulted in violence and Chamique’s arrest. In the end, the injured party—her former teammate and girlfriend—dropped the charges, spurring Chamique to make a lifetime commitment to both her well-being and her advocacy for greater and global mental health awareness. As she tells the camera honestly, with a touch of wistfulness in her eyes, mania’s edge has powerful allure. It makes her and others “want to feel life!” The meds that keep her stable, healthy, and productive take that thrilling high down a peg or two. But that’s okay, for as a psychiatrist in the film tells us, the majority of people with mental illness who get help return to work and lead highly productive lives.
In her advocacy work, Chamique points out important truths, such as in minority communities like hers—African American—mental health isn’t an accepted topic and thus not helped enough. Chamique now works with kids from minority enclaves, teaching them life skills and the acceptability, the value healthwise, in opening up, speaking out about personal issues.
Chamique has journeyed from her magazine-cover celebrity of the early 2000s—often compared to Michael Jordan’s—to her mental health advocacy work of today. Her honesty and openness to talk to the world about her experience, coupled with her appealing sincerity, make us listen and learn. Her story is one of the keys to transforming social attitudes.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Boston Festival of Films from Iran

Janurary 17–27, 2019
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The Charmer
Directed by Milad Alami
January 24 & 27

Poignant, often heart-wrenching immigration movies come to theaters every year, and this year, The Charmer, by Swedish-Iranian director Milad Alami, offers a new slant—the mental impact on a young Iranian man hustling in Copenhagen for a Danish wife, a “paper marriage,” in order to escape his dead-end life at home. What Esmail (Ardalan Esmaili) experiences in the city’s glamorous singles bars slowly builds to detritus in his mind. The audience never knows him fully—not his background or his innermost thoughts—but his face shows constant digesting of the moments that happen to him, as well as his deeper, secret preoccupations. The script by the director and Ingeborg Topsoe appears to move slowly along, but actually works quickly and masterfully with a surprising plot. Shortly into the film, we’re able to gauge that Esmail is basically a decent person, although currently helpless, hapless, dealing in deception, and approaching desperation. He skypes his family now and then, sends money home from his work as a moving hand, and shows respectful behavior to all. But his dark side also shows in his face—the mounting confusion of living a double life. Even as “a charmer” on the outside, he can’t completely conceal his inner turmoil. It’s a feat on the actor’s part to show innocence and darkness at once in the character’s face—Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Each day Esmail takes meticulous care of his only dress suit and shirt, which he wears to the high-end bars (far from his own immigrant housing), where he hopes to attract women. We witness a chain of his romantic efforts that lead nowhere, with his visa limit ticking down. It’s painful to watch his flirtation and sex devolve into mere robotic programming, ultimately revolting even to himself. His basic moral compass has become too compromised, and we feel the increasing tangle of his mind and emotions. Perfectly rendered music, camera imagery, and the protagonist’s facial acting convey these deep emotional states.
A Persian-Danish family draws Esmail into their circle through lovely Sara (Soho Rezanejad), whom he meets at the bar one night, and who challenges him with his true motives for being there. Their relationship naturally grows with each encounter, bringing a sunnier, more authentic side to Esmail’s character—he’s not only with “his people,”  his homeland’s culture and food, but also with a woman who truly allures him. They fall in love, and sadly the presence of true love becomes the breaking point for Esmail’s psyche. In his half-maddened state, he says to Sara but really to himself: “This wasn’t the plan.”
We never know what Esmail’s “plan” was—was it to marry only in order to remain working in Denmark to support family back home? After some months or a year, would he divorce? How could he escape the inevitable mental turmoil of juggling two families unknown to each other? Where would his identity and self-worth be in such a scenario? It all crashes in on him and creates a powerful message about the individual’s experience as an immigrant looking for a lucky break, especially about a young person with an entire future ahead, who faces the monolithic “make-it or crumble” reality of a foreign, stratified world.
The great beauty in this story is its cinematically evoked depiction of Esmail’s mental state—its erosion caused by venturing out in hopes of a better future (the stunning cinematography is by Sophia Olsson). Esmail’s meltdown and failure aren’t ultimately failures, for when his internal eruption settles down, he is given the opportunity to recover his basic values, and he has gained wisdom. Rather than failing, he has lost at a gambling game, and one that comes with a heavy emotional toll.
The movie ends with Esmail selling his upper-class suit to a young, excited Iranian man, and we the audience probably share the same thoughts as Esmail, as he watches the young man’s masculine pride showing off the new goods: He’s setting off with the same dream of opportunity abroad; he has the same hope for his looks, his charm, but soon he’ll discover the reality of his chances, the reality of the world. Or, maybe he’ll be the one in a million to luck out, while I’m back here to grow old.

For Dystopian Lovers
Invasion, directed by Shakram Mokri
January 20 & 23

If you liked last year’s Simulation by Abed Abest at the MFA’s Iranian film festival, then be sure to catch this year’s Invasion, by Shakram Mokri. It’s another dystopian film with the added dimension of futuristic vampires. The foggy, metallic, dungeon-like cinematography, complementary music, and mind-bending plot sustain attention, and for many, wonder.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

The Boston Jewish Film Festival

November 7–19, 2018
Full program and schedule at

The Interpreter, dir. Martin Šulík, Massachusetts premiere

In this film, two older men go on a road trip to learn about their mutual but polar-opposite past. They are Slovak Holocaust survivor Ali Ungár (Jirí Menzel) and Georg Graubner (Peter Simonischek), son of the Austrian Nazi who murdered Ali’s family. Besides war atrocities, character barriers separate the men—Georg’s blasé, irresponsible lifestyle and Ali’s hatred for the enemy. But over the course of the trip’s painful discoveries, the men find unexpected openings for compassion, personal growth, and resolution. The film shows how hands-on education about human barbarity has the power to transform a person’s inherited attitudes. Two universals overarch the movie: the psychic pain of boys without fathers and the question Georg asks: Is it easier to be the son of a murderer or the son of a victim?

Chasing Portraits, documentary
Directed by Elizabeth Rynecki
Massachusetts premiere, The Museum of Fine Arts, followed by a conversation with the director

Tears accompany nearly every heartfelt moment in Elizabeth Rynecki’s documentary about her family, Chasing Portraits. She grew up in California, deeply affected by her father Alex Rynecki’s Holocaust experience and her great-grandfather Moshe Rynecki’s murder by the Nazis, as well as Moshe’s legacy as a painter of Poland’s lost Jewish culture—scenes of working people, weddings, rabbis, and other community traditions. These paintings hung on the walls of her Bay Area home and her grandparents’ home in Northern California.
In 1939, Elizabeth’s father was three when his parents and grandmother (Moshe’s wife) obtained Catholic identities in order to live outside the Warsaw ghetto, which allowed them to survive the Holocaust. But Moshe chose to remain with his fellow Jews locked in the ghetto and died at the Majdanek concentration camp.
Out of Moshe’s oeuvre of some 800 paintings bundled and hidden for safety as the war approached, only 120 were recovered by Moshe’s wife after the war. Haunted by these paintings that surrounded her, and the family history embedded in them that her father was unable to talk about, Elizabeth grew up wanting to find out more about Moshe, his art, and the fate of his lost paintings.
When Elizabeth’s grandfather George Rynecki died, she read his typed memoir, which encouraged her to actively seek answers about her great-grandfather Moshe. Chasing Portraits follows Elizabeth’s quest in Poland, Israel, Canada, and the United States. She gives talks that soon spread the word about her mission to find Moshe’s lost art; she meets museum curators and private collectors; and she wrestles with the moral issue of rightful ownership of stolen art. With pain, she talks about her choices: whether to accept the situation as it is, with meaningful, personal, and valuable family property now in the hands of strangers and institutions, or suing for restitution. Her film involves us in the emotions inherent in the situation of lost family art (stolen art) that has resulted from war and mass murder. An Israeli lawyer advises her: Some of those people purchased the artwork having no idea about its provenance, so unless you have evidence, they bought the art in good faith.
We know, though, and the expert also knows, that in reality those local people, however rural or ignorant, knew about Jewish property and possessions being sold from hand to hand. The art wasn’t purchased or traded innocently; farmers, flea markets, collectors, and museums could easily see that the images focused on Jewish life that had just been annihilated.
Elizabeth’s journey involves this painful acceptance of loss and powerlessness to reclaim, but she also experiences moments of redemption when beautiful encounters occur, such as her visit to collector Edward Napiorkowski who willingly gives her his painting by Moshe. The museums, though, are not letting go of their treasures. Moshe’s work is steeped in Jewish heritage and history. In the end, Elizabeth focuses on the greatest legacy her great-grandfather’s work has brought her: a closer and cherished relationship with her father. Chasing Portraits is a model for anyone seeking permanence of a relative’s legacy.

The Hero (de Held), written and directed by Menno Meyjes
Based on the novel De Held by Jessica Durlacher

Subtitles move swiftly at the beginning of this contemporary film set in Holland with Dutch-speaking characters. Sara Silverstein, her husband Jacob, and their teenage children Mich and Tess leave their lives in L.A. to return to Sara’s parents’ home in Holland for a long-term stay. They rent a house near Sara’s parents, for living under the same roof as her difficult father Herman—who survived Auschwitz as a child—would be impossible. As a young woman, Sara had to get away from him, but now, in mid-life, homesickness has brought her back.
The Hero is a thriller with a step-by-step plot and a few moments of Hitchcockian suspense. Juxtaposed to Sara is Anton Raaymakers, whose grandfather was the Nazi sergeant who sent the Silversteins to Auschwitz. As a boy, Anton suffered unforgivable humiliation when Herman rejected his father’s apology for his own Nazi father’s cruelty. Sara witnessed the rejection in the background and several times met Anton’s eyes—a social and ethical barrier forever separating them. As a result of this traumatic scene for Anton, he grew up to become a psychopath seeking revenge on the Silversteins.
In addition to the thriller component, the film offers an in-depth portrait of a woman—Sara—whose behavior is at times realistic and at other times unbelievable. Her educated, well-to-do background, as well as her twenty years in L.A.’s trendy, cosmopolitan milieu, makes it hard to believe that she would hide Anton’s terrifying assaults. But her voice-over tells us: “If you don’t tell, it didn’t happen.”
There are other moments in the film when the viewer’s “willing suspension of disbelief” also wavers—No, Sara would not go to a proven psychopath’s house all alone at night to attempt vigilante justice. However, the serpentine plot, which overall is a good one, needs such scenes to arrive at its denouement. While Hitchcock succeeds at carrying us along with full, terrified belief, The Hero has several iffy moments: How did Herman regain his family’s upper-class home after WWII—the home Sara grew up in as early as the 1960s—when World War II property restitution happened decades later? How did the family pistol Herman tried to use on Sergeant Raaymakers back in 1942 manage to survive in Herman’s hands? Why would Herman hire his enemy Anton to build his enclosed porch that then intentionally leaks? And what was that upsetting business call Herman had at the beginning of the movie that never connected afterward to the plot?
The movie explores several interesting themes, including Herman’s way of dealing with his horrific war experience as a twelve year old. He imagines a different story for his family from what really happened, and we see this story, and later the truth, in intercut, black-and-white flashbacks that work well. Then, the age-old story of feuding families and generational vendettas gives the film depth. Herman takes revenge on the Raaymakers for murdering his family; Anton must pay back Herman for humiliating the Raaymakers and for contributing to his father’s subsequent suicide; Sara attempts to take revenge on Anton for his crimes; another member of her family has no reservations about taking that action. The revenge and vendettas lead to final thinking points in the movie: how Sara’s extreme adoration of her son Mich has to be reconciled with who he decides to be, rather than who she wants him to be; and how killing always leads to more killing. This is a great tangle of a movie.

Cast: Sara Silverstein–Monic Hendrickx; Anton Raaymakers–Daan Schuurmans; Herman Silverstein–Hans Croiset; Jacob Edelman–Fedja van Huêt; Mich Edelman–Thijs Boermans

Monday, October 15, 2018

The Boston Palestine Film Festival (BPFF)

Co-presented with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
October 19–28, 2018

Beginning with opening night’s Reports on Sarah and Saleem (dir. Muayad Alayan), which includes an after party with filmgoers, directors, organizers, music, and dancing, this year’s Boston Palestine Film Festival offers an amazing range of award-winning films on the pressing subject of human rights. For the full program visit

The overriding message that comes through the documentaries, shorts, and features in this year’s Palestine Film Festival is the power of “nationality.” The films delve into the psychology of nationhood and the nearly insurmountable plight of displaced people who essentially don’t “exist” if they aren’t citizens of an extant nation. Many live for generations in refugee camps devoid of average employment opportunities and basic social services.
Another nugget in this program is the film art of the shorts in particular. It’s mind-boggling to experience a complete statement, a perfect story, in five to twenty-five minutes through a visual medium. The shorts don’t rely on dialogue but on interior emotions conveyed by the protagonists’ faces, enhanced by the creative film techniques and sound.
The “Shorts II” series screens October 28 and focuses on the immigrant experience. Again, it’s the emotions of the central characters in these six films that tell a gripping, usually unfathomable story for American audiences, or those who aren’t recent immigrants themselves. In only 14 tension-filled minutes, we absorb the young woman Salam (Hana Chamoun), a Syrian immigrant in New York, earning a living as a Lyft driver. With only a few lines of dialogue, we understand that she lives with her brother Rashad’s family but her fiancé Musel is stuck in Syria and is now in the hospital with serious head wounds as a result of the war. Much of the movie involves a Lyft ride with Salam’s opposite: a young, blond American woman named Audrey who has little worry about money but serious problems in her relationship. During the course of the women’s entire night’s drive—Upstate and back—they bond, but only as sympathetic women, for their deeper feelings are “too complicated,” they say, to share. They mean “too painful” for words. Audrey returns to her dreary love life while Salam overflows with joy when she receives a call from Musel—alive! We understand like never before the value of a human life. (Actress Hana Chamoun attends the MFA screening of Salam on October 28.)
All of the festival’s shorts drive home the meaning of families and of missing or losing a loved one. In Rupture (dir. Yassmina Karajah), we spend a few hours (18-minutes film time) with teenage siblings, Salim and Leila, newly arrived Syrians to a peaceful, middle-class Vancouver suburb. Wearing a headset, Salim listens to an English pronunciation lesson. In another room, his younger sister’s headset plays music, their faces showing their different personalities: he’s ultra-serious and she’s lively. Salim overhears his mother on the phone in the kitchen. She’s hysterical over the news that her eldest child Hany has been shot and is in the hospital: “We should never have left him there! He’s my son! Send us a photo of him! I want my boy!” The trauma rocks through the house, through Salim’s stunned face, and through us, the audience.
The rest of the day goes on with Salim in a distracted state that tells all when he looks at Hany’s photo on his phone. What is it like to get the news that your older brother has been shot because of a senseless war and may be dying too far away to reach, to see, to hold the hand of? Or your son? Salim and Leila’s faces show us what it’s like. We don’t need, and don’t receive, much dialogue—it’s not necessary. Watching these children, we experience how the most painful emotions are always wordless. The only consolation, which barely touches the grief, is the physical and psychological presence of another family member, in this case brother and sister.
Catherine Prowse and Hannah Quinn’s Laymun tells an entire world in five animated minutes. Colors in this war-torn village are muted, life sucked out of them. Surviving townsfolk huddle together while a soundtrack drops bombs. A woman delivers the only living green thing to a neighbor’s doorstep—a lemon tree seedling. It feels as if the home has just experienced a death and the plant pays community respect. Lemon trees also symbolize healing: the cleansing and restoring of the mind, body, and spirit.
With a shift to guitar music we are in the woman’s greenhouse where she cultivates lots of lemon seedlings as if to propagate life and goodness to serve as a counterforce to the violence and destruction. She looks at a picture of herself with a man, presumably lost to her in the war. A bomb shatters the greenhouse. The next day, the villagers are on a bus being evacuated. The woman takes a last surviving lemon from her bag and gives it to a young girl. It glows like the girl’s smile and symbolizes hope for the girl’s future. In a mostly brown movie, the bright yellow lemon is a seedling for the life that inhumanity has nearly obliterated.
These are just a few of the visually and intellectually outstanding short films screening at the festival. The longer documentary Soufra (dir. Thomas Morgan) is a triumphal story about enterprising women in Beirut’s Bourj el-Barjneh refugee camp. Johny Karam’s photography of fresh food preparation, laughing cooks’ faces, and abundant, sizzling and succulent Middle Eastern cuisine brings color, vivacity, and the good things in life to a movie about families devoid of hope for viable employment and a future for their kids.
Palestinian Mariam Shaar was born in the camp, which began in 1948. Her childhood dreams for a good education and fulfilling career ended when she had to drop out of school to support the family. In the film, she wants to do something about the camp’s dire situation. She tells us that in Lebanon, doors to refugees have always remained open, but once settled in a camp, there’s almost no chance of upward mobility. Laws prevent renting housing outside the camp, and generally those without a “nationality,” such as Palestinians, face employment and social restrictions. Their situation feels synonymous with nonexistence.
Mariam starts Soufra, a high-quality catering business run by women that ultimately succeeds outside the camp’s boundaries, promising hope for some families for the future, and also setting a precedent for more entrepreneurial initiatives that contribute to Lebanon’s economy and ethnic integration. The legal road to Mariam’s goal is arduous, and the film travels with each of her steps to achievement—registering a business, getting licenses and work permits, and buying a food truck. Throughout the movie, Alexander Seaver’s music is light, gentle, and hopeful, and embodies the unwavering strength of the working women. Over the months, the project offers them more than financial stability; it changes their lives and how they feel about themselves: “You realize your worth,” one of the cooks says. “What we’re doing benefits ourselves, not just our families. We learn something new every day. We get out, meet people, see different places. Women can do anything, especially in these times.” The women’s men are glad for the help that contributes to a better home life. “And she’s happy, she likes her crew,” one husband says. The women come from different backgrounds—Palestinian, Syrian, Lebanese—and learn about each other’s food, traditions, and personal lives. It’s a warm and supportive “women-for-women” enclave. One cook informs us: “I tell my daughters not to rely on anyone.”
Soufra means a big fancy table with a variety of delicious foods.

Mariam concludes the film with her persevering and positive energy: “We hope for a better life in the future. I hope refugees stop being associated with security threats. Terrorism has no nationality. There is the good and the bad everywhere. I hope that the children, who are the pillars of the future, live a healthy life, to be beneficial to others.”
May Mariam’s initiative and success speak to the whole world.

Friday, September 28, 2018

I Am Not a Witch

Directed by Rungana Nyoni
Featured at the First Annual Boston Womens Film Festival
at the Museum of Fine Arts
September 29 and October 3–31, 2018

Zambian-born director Rungano Nyoni has made an unusual film that combines a real-life tragedy for some women on the planet—enslavement as purported “witches”—with a fantastical fairy tale about a nine-year-old orphan who’s declared a witch for staring catatonically at villagers. The worn-out, field-working women of the witch encampment welcome their new member and name her Shula (Margaret Mulubwa). Shula quickly becomes the mascot witch of Tembo (John Tembo), the village’s highest official under a nasty “royal highness,” who looks and acts like the story’s true witch. The well-fed Tembo, whose luxurious, gated kingdom is surrounded by everyone else’s poverty, has a sexy wife, or concubine, who was once a witch-slave but gained a modicum of freedom through her attachment to the “worldly wise” Tembo. Thus, we have the perfect set-up and characters for a children’s tale: wicked queen, greedy henchman, enslaved women doing back-breaking work for the lords, and a little girl caught in the nightmare and needing a way out.
The fairy tale is full of scenery, costumes, and imagination. The witches wear harnesses with long billowing ribbons that attach to giant spools on the truck that delivers them to the fields. They can roam only as far as their ribbons unwind, and when it’s time to return to their encampment, exhausted, they’re spooled in.
The spool of thread symbol obviously relates to women’s sphere, which is the second, serious layer of the movie. Real witch encampments exist in Ghana, and Nyoni researched them for her movie. Innocent women accused of witchcraft are housed in primitive camps, in part to protect them from superstitious villagers who would otherwise harm or kill them. In the movie, with its satirical Disney-like story, the witches wearing face paint are trucked to a tourist location, parked behind a fence, and forced to leer and act crazy for Western tourists with cameras, who marvel at these human specimen as if they’re exotic animals in a zoo.
As Shula’s brief odyssey with the witches unfolds, episodes of random accusation and justice take place. Shula, Tembo’s pet-witch, dresses in ceremonial witch regalia in order to identify the man in a row of suspects who has stolen someone’s valuables. With a few comic twists on Tembo’s part, Shula points to the criminal. Justice is thus laughable, based on superstition and a witch’s special nose. In this fairy tale, and in some real-life communities, witches are believed, and though they are kept separately and in cruel conditions because they aren’t “human,” their magical powers are vital to the community’s safety.
For imagination, cinematography, and a taste of African folklore, I Am Not a Witch sustains attention. The incorporation of piercing classical music clashes with the primitive setting and style of story, although it’s likely intentional for this very reason. However, another choice of soundtrack might have had stronger impact. Much praise goes to Nyoni’s creative approach to the theme of women’s treatment. Shula, captured and condemned, begins her village life with the choice of becoming a witch or a goat (a goat that will be eaten), and her story ends with the same bad choices. Nice statement and luckily mostly a fairy tale.  #

On Her Shoulders, directed by Sundance award-winner Alexandria Bombach, plays in the Women’s Festival on September 30. It is a must-see documentary for feeling the emotional devastation of genocide. Twenty-three-year-old Nadia Murad’s story of surviving ISIL’s murder and exile of her Yazidi people of the Sinjar region in northern Iraq in 2014, and the abduction of Yazidi women to sell in slave markets, turns this mostly neglected “foreign news story” into a first-hand, personally experienced tragedy. Nadia, traumatized by terror, torture, rape, and family grief, still finds inner strength to speak publicly and continuously for international action to stop ISIL and to help restore a future for the hundreds of thousands of Yazidis now living in refugee camps.