Monthly Archives: October 2015

VIFF 2015 Review: Umrika

Suraj Sharma, left and Tony Revolori, right, go on a mission in Mumbai of truth and lies in Umrika.lies

Suraj Sharma, left and Tony Revolori, right, go on a mission in Mumbai of truth and lies in Umrika.

After the VIFF ended on October 9th, I managed to take in a few film festival repeats immediately after. The day after, I saw Umrika and I thought it was an amusing story.

The film begins with Udai, a young adult from India in the 1970’s, leaving his family and younger brother Ramakant for a better life in the USA. The whole village says their goodbyes to him. The family wait a long agonizing time for his first letter. When it comes, the whole village is excited. It’s a letter with pictures of how life is in ‘Umrika.’ The letters with pictures keep coming for years and they’re filled with more exciting stories and pictures. It gets the whole village dreaming. Then suddenly in 1985, Ramakant’s father is electrocuted to death. Shortly after, Rama learns that the letters are all forgeries created by his father and uncle to keep his mother from agonizing. The truth is Udai vanished without a trace in the port city of Mumbai. Ramakant is determined to find him, even if it means his own trip to Umrika.

Rama learns the best person who would have knowledge of the whereabouts of his brother is the man in charge of illegal immigration. However to reach him, one would have to be like a delivery driver or messenger. Rama is opportunistic enough to steal a bike belonging to a delivery driver of a sweets bakery. Rama is the new driver. He’s able to deliver as well as win the favoritism of the man with each delivery he makes. Rama also learns of the dark secret of him, that he’s involved in a crime ring. One deliver Rama made was of a gun used by one of his men to shoot wrongdoers.

Soon Rama finds himself living in an area owned by a restaurateur and his family. The youngest daughter who’s a waitress takes a big liking to Rama. Soon Rama’s friend Lalu comes to visit Mumbai to catch up with him. Lalu has been concerned with Rama since he left. Lalu agrees to help despite film making ambitions of his own. Soon Udai is discovered. He’s a barber working in Mumbai and married to the Himalayan girl of the village, something his mother never would have approved of. Udai revealed he never would have left because of how much it would break his mother’s heart. But the truth cannot be revealed to their mother as it would cause disgrace to the whole family and the village. In the end, Rama, Udai and Lalu devise a scheme to ‘make things right.’ It gives the impression the story ends on the right note.

The film is an impressive comedy-drama. It captures a lot of moments in the right sense. In the first half, it captures the essence of the excitement upon reading the ‘letters’ and it giving American dreams to the village children. It even captures some light humor as they insist on believing the wieners in the hot dogs are actually barbecued carrots. The film switches to drama at the right moment starting with the father’s death and then the truth revealed. I feel the film made good choices in setting the stage for the pursuit when the mother says: “It hurts me to know your brother wasn’t here to light the flame. It should be the oldest.” Despite switching to drama, it does keep the viewer intrigued with Rama’s each move from taking on a delivery job to trying to find his brother. At the same time, it highlights what it is to be young and full of dreams even when it’s faced with stiff opposition and challenges.

I don’t think the film was trying to make too huge of social commentary. However I do feel it did a good job of displaying the corruption and the shadiness happening in the big cities of India like Mumbai. I also found the time setting for the story interesting. Writer/director Prashant Nair starts the story in the 1970’s and then moves to 1985-1986. I thought that was intriguing and wondered why he chose that time period. One thing I especially noticed was the scene inside the restaurant where Rama and all the others saw images of the Space Shuttle Explosion as it happened. Looking back I think Nair was trying to say even devastating moments for the US like this doesn’t stop people from India from having their American dreams.

I feel this is an excellent comedy-drama from Prashant Nair. This is only his second feature-length film and it was very entertaining. It kept your hopes up but ended not how one would expect but on the right note. It’s unique as it becomes a story where Rama doesn’t just search for his brother but chart a path of his own. Suraj Sharma was excellent as the protagonist Ramakant. I will admit it’s not as good as his performance in the Life Of Pi but he played his part well and very believable. Tony Revolori was also good as Lalu and made a great supporting player.

Umrika has had impressive results since it debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. At that Festival, it won the Audience Award for dramas and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize in the world Cinema categories. Shortly after its premiere, the film was sold by Beta Cinema to a wide variety of countries and became the most widely distributed Indian movie ever.

Umrika is a delightful Indian film that mixes both comedy and drama well. It captures a positive essence and even keeps it alive during its negative moments.

VIFF 2015 Review – Painted Land: In Search Of The Group Of Seven

The artwork of the Group Of Seven, like the Sketch Of The Lovely North as seen above, is looked at and tracked over a trip through a group of people in Painted Land.

The artwork of the Group Of Seven, like the Sketch Of The Lovely North as seen above, is looked at and tracked over a trip through a group of people in Painted Land.

Seeing the documentary Painted Land reminded me just how much we Canadians lack the knowledge of our artistic history.

The film is more than a documentary of art. It’s also a documentary of three adventurers retracing the trips taken by the seven Canadian artists known as the Group of Seven. For those who don’t know, the Group Of Seven were a group of seven Canadian artists from Ontario whom in the 20’s and 30’s visited landscapes of Ontario and painted images of what they saw in their own way. Many can say they were the first artists to define Canadian art. The Seven still rank among Canada’s most renowned artists.

In this documentary are three adventurers: author Joanie McGuffin, photographer Gary McGuffin and art historian Michael Burtch. They go on a journey along the various trails, coastlines and waterlines to retrace the route taken by the Seven and even see for themselves the natural places of Canada depicted in their paintings. The trip would involve many years of research, canoeing, portaging, mountain climbing and bushwhacking to retrace their steps and learn of their inspiration. At times, they’d even bring people along like the McGuffin’s daughter or other teens interested in art.

Group-of-Seven

The Group Of Seven artists were the first artists to define Canada artistically although their art was not completely accepted at the time.

The documentary is a documentation of their trip as well as a history lesson of the Group of Seven. We’re introduced to Tom Thomson who influenced the Seven shortly before he died mysteriously in 1919. We’re taken on the same journey the Seven took as they took their art from place to place and painted what they saw in their own unique way. Frequently we see images of the landscapes and how they match the paintings they painted. We learn of how each of the Seven dealt with each part of the journey and each town or camp area they took up. We occasionally see some moments of the Seven re-enacted by actors. We’re even taken to a cabin they once held during their journey. It’s an interesting tale as we learn from each story, each trail, each visit and each assimilation of the landscape with the painting that would become the ‘painted land.’

We even learn about the negative reception they received as their art premiered. Some people were unhappy with what they saw. Oddly some thought Canada was not ready to have what defined Canadian Art. Keep in mind Canada was just slightly over 50 years old at the time. The most fascinating comment I heard from one art pundit was she hated the paintings so much, she was afraid if she looked any longer, she might love them! Odd.

I found this documentary very valuable. I feel this is a great lesson for anyone who’s into art, Canadian or not. I especially feel that Canadian artists should see this as this will give them a good sense of their artistic history, even if the painting style of the Group Of Seven is not their style at all. I feel we as Canadians lack the knowledge of our renowned artists. I myself only learned of the Group Of Seven just as I was watching this documentary. Here in B.C., we’re mostly familiar with Emily Carr, who is one of Canada’s best artists in her own right. Nevertheless I found learning of the Group Of Seven very valuable and informative. I give the documentary big kudos for that.

For the most part, I feel this is not really a big screen documentary. Even seeing TVO, which is for the educational channel TV Ontario, at the end credits makes it obvious this is a documentary meant for television airing. I think if it were to be aired on the big screen, it would have to be in an art gallery that has a theatre screen or a performance stage, like the Winnipeg Art Gallery. It’s possible to show it on an art gallery theatre screen whether or not there’s a Group Of Seven exhibit.

Painted Land: In Search Of The Group Of Seven may be more of a television documentary than a big screen documentary. Nevertheless it’s a good educational documentary for both art and history.

VIFF 2015 Review: The Classified File (극비수사)

 

The Classified File is a Korean drama that will keep you intrigued.

The Classified File is a Korean drama that will keep you intrigued.

I’ll admit the Vancouver Film Festival ended on October 9th and the VIFF repeats ended October 15th. I was hoping to get most of my reviews done soon but many things happened, like an illness and other tasks of my own I was preoccupied. So you will be getting the last five of my VIFF reviews soon. In the meantime, here’s the latest: for the Korean film The Classified File.

In 1978 in Busan, a young girl to a wealthy family named Eun-Joo is kidnapped. Her abductor demands ransom money. The law enforcement team becomes frustrated as time goes on as there’s no further contact from the kidnapper over two weeks nor any more additional clues. Police assume she’s dead but the family refuse to believe so.

Eun-Joo’s mother turns to renowned fortune teller Kim Joong-San for reassurance. He tells her she’s fine but they will need the help of detective Gong Gil-Yong. Gong is reluctant to take on the case and even more reluctant to consult with the fortune teller but he agrees to take it on. Days go by as he has to wire conversations between Eun-Joo’s family and the abductor. There are even times they have to team up with the police force in Seoul but they face a reluctance from them feeling that this too is a hopeless case.

After four weeks Gong starts developing a sense that maybe Kim’s predictions are helping and could actually help to find Eun-Joo. However time is still moving on and they still don’t have Eun-Joo as the abductor continues to taunt them. Then they get a break. It leads to an exciting end of the story and an ending to the movie that wasn’t expected.

This is another example of foreign movie making. Here it’s a story of a crime drama based from evens almost four decades ago. It keeps one intrigued: a story about an abduction and it continues over a long period of time with consistent taunts from the abductor and wrong leads. The story does have an interesting element where a spiritual guide is ‘hired’ to help solve the crime. I’m sure there have been movies before about spiritual people who try to predict or sense where the victim is or where the criminal is. However very rarely is it a case when a real-life situation is depicted. I’m normally one who doesn’t believe in psychic powers but when I see all this on screen, and I know this is based on true events, I’m tempted to believe in it.

I will say that most films about using sorcery or psychic powers to solve a crime often come off as corny. This one didn’t. It did things right in showing the fortune teller’s purpose without the story becoming idiotic. It also kept the family of Eun-Joo in the story as it added to the drama and gave it a human sense. However the biggest glitch in the movie was the ending. I felt for a crime story full of drama, it ended too soft and mushy. I know it was to show the friendship between the fortune teller and the detective that occurs at the end but still I felt it became mush in the end.

Kwak Kyung-Taek did a good job as a director and co-writer. He’s one director with a big reputation in South Korea creating a lot of popular films. This should add to his resume. However I don’t see it getting too much release elsewhere. Kim Yoon-Seok did a good job as Gong despite not having a spectacular role. Yoo hae-Jin was also good as Kim and even stole a few scenes. The actors playing the family of Eun-Joo were also good. The role of the villain however was underdeveloped.

I will admit that I had expectations on this film. I read in the VIFF guide about how the politics of the time were included in the film. I was anticipated it would represent the politics of the time the same way Nameless Gangster did. It wasn’t to representative. Maybe I shouldn’t have placed that expectation on it.

There are many foreign films that made their international debut at the VIFF. The South Korean crime thriller The Classified File was one of them. It was a good, albeit imperfect, drama.

VIFF 2015 Review: 100 Yen Love (百円の恋)

Ando sakura plays Ichiko: a slacker who suddenly has a desire to succeed at something in 100 Yen Love.

Ando Sakura plays Ichiko: a slacker who suddenly has a desire to succeed at something in 100 Yen Love.

Every VIFF I hope to see at least one film that’s a country’s official entry in the Best Foreign Language Film category for the Oscars. I had my first chance when I went to see 100 Yen Love: Japan’s official entry. It was not what I expected for a Japanese film. Nevertheless I was very impressed.

The story starts with Ichiko, a 32 year-old slacker. She became a downer with an I-don’t-care attitude since she dropped out of university. She lives at home with her mother who owns a restaurant and her yet-to-be-divorced sister and young son. For the heck of it, she applies for a job at the 100 Yen Store. During her nightshifts, she deals with her boss, a talkative creepy co-worker named Noma and a homeless woman who comes frequently in the back area to take food past the best before date.

Ichiko doesn’t expect much to happen but walking to work, she passes a boxing gym and there’s a man training there that catches her eye. His name is Yuji and he also visits the store frequently to buy bananas to which Noma calls him ‘Banana Boy.’ Yuji can sense Ichiko’s interest in him. One night Yuji buys the bananas but instead of paying, he gives Ichiko and Noma tickets to the fight. They go with Noma being a creepy partner and Yuji loses. At the dinner after the fight, Noma lies to Yuji claiming he’s her boyfriend. Then Noma goes all berserk overnight on as he rapes Ichiko and takes money from the 100 Yen Store till.

Ichiko changes after the rape. Still an employee at the 100 Yen store, she’s now Yuji’s girlfriend and she takes an interest in the boxing gym Yuji is no longer a part of as he had passed the maximum age of fighting at 37. At first she just goes there for the exercises. However things change after Yuji gets a job with a tofu delivery company and has an affair with a female carter. That infuriates Ichiko to move back with her mother and take her boxing lessons seriously. It even gives her a desire to want to be a fighter herself and even a hunger to win.

She’s given her first and possibly only fight as the maximum age for females is 33. She uses this as an opportunity for Yuji to prove his love to her. At the fight, family gather and Ichiko is hungry to win. However her opponent is one who’s already won four fights with a KO. This sets up for an ending that’s unexpected, bittersweet but positive and humorous.

I know I’ve talked a lot about foreign ‘movies’ being shown at this VIFF and other VIFFs. This goes to show that other countries are in the stage where they want to move away from strictly making films and move onto making movies that delight crowds. And not just movies of anything or something too simple, movies with something. I’m sure I was like a lot of people that think that when they go to see a film from Japan, we expect it to come from a director that wants to be the next Akira Kurosawa. I didn’t see anything in the film that made me think Masaharu Take wanted to follow in Kurosawa’s foot steeps. Guess I should adjust my expectations.

One thing that makes this film succeed as a movie is that there a lot of themes that are universal. There’s people that are slackers. There are slackers that ‘gave up’ because they slipped below expectations, including their own. There are jobs in which they hate doing and are ‘dead ends.’ There’s love and the complicated love triangles that come with it. And there’s the desire to want to move out of the shell of being a misfit and want to succeed. There’s even the 100 Yen Store which would be Japan’s equivalent to our Dollar Stores. I can see people in many countries, including here in North America, identifying with many of the themes in the film despite it taking place in Japan and in Japanese.

However the thing that grabs me most about the movie is that it consists of a lot of underachieve characters and underachiever scenarios but it’s taking place in Japan. I admit it I’m guilty like a lot of other people who have believed in the stereotype of the Japanese as people of high standards, people determined to succeed, people who go through strict competitive education programs to achieve great things. Here we have a slacker who appears done with life, a single-mother sister who returned to living at home, a convenience store owner, a loser who’s a fail at just about everything including making friends, a homeless woman, a person who sells food on a bike-cart and a person who wants to achieve in sports. These are people contrary to what we expect to see in Japan. It’s a reminder there are people like that in every country, even Japan. Sometimes I think that was the point that Take and scriptwriter Shin Adachi was to show the rest of the world. This is a story consisting of Japanese people we all forgot about.

Take and Adachi did a great job with a script that’s relatable and universal. However it was chancy too as including a rape scene in a comedy is very risky. Nevertheless they pulled it off well. Top nods however go to Sakura Ando for playing Ichiko. The whole story rested on her shoulders. She had to make it work. She even had to transform Ichiko from this 32 year-old slacker who couldn’t care less about the world to a woman with ambition and make it work. It paid off even to the point the sudden transition of Ichiko from the walking dead to a woman with a hunger worked. Sudden transitions like that don’t always work out well but Ichiko made it work. Additional kudos go to Hirofumi Arai as the boyfriend who is in the same boat as Ichiko but is romantically confused, Tadashi Sakata as the creepy Noma and Toshie Negishi as the entertaining homeless woman. The addition of a bluesy-sounding score adds to the story and even the humor.

100 Yen Love is an enjoyable Japanese movie. I didn’t know what to expect at first but I ended up enjoying it.

 

Election 2015: Canada Votes

ElectionsCanadaToday on October 19th, all of Canada will vote for who will lead the country over the next four years. For over ten years and three terms, Conservative leader Stephen Harper has led Canada. He seeks a fourth term but faces tough opposition from Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and NDP Leader Tom Mulcair. Possible challenges come from the Bloc Quebecois and Gilles Duceppe and the Green Party under Elizabeth May. One thing about this election is that it has proved that anything can happen and no one is guaranteed the label of ‘winner.’ It’s been that close and full of yo-yo statistics. Here’s my rundown:

-Conservative Party: Stephen Harper – You can’t go anywhere without people talking about Stephen Harper. He ran for Prime Minister for the first time in 2004 and was seen as the one to help put conservative muscle back into Canadian politics. Even though he didn’t win, he did succeed in bringing the conservative side back into politics. The Conservative party had 99 seats, up from 72 in 2000, and the victorious Liberals under Paul Martin were left with a minority government after three terms as a majority under Jean Chretien.

Then in January 2006, a new election was held at the sudden revelation of the corruption of Liberal leader Paul Martin and after Governor General Michaelle Jean dissolved parliament. This worked for the benefit of Stephen Harper as the Liberal Party lost enough seats to give Harper’s Conservatives victory. Sure it was a minority with 124 seats but it was enough to give the Liberal party their first loss on the national level since 1988. This meant new changes for Canada with a Conservative government having most of the power albeit only with a minority.

There were many varied opinions about the first term of Stephen Harper. There were many on the left who felt he was too right-wing or making a lot of decisions they felt were wrong. There were others who admired him simply because ‘he says he’s gonna do some thing and he does it.’ I think that’s what wins people: a politician that actually delivers on their claims. This was enough for Harper to be able to win the next election in 2008. He increased the number of seats from 127 to 143 but it was still a minority.

Over time, people across Canada, especially in BC, were expressing their disappointment with his policies. I especially remember the arts community unhappy about the cuts in funding they were dealt in 2008. Then in March of 2011, the Conservative Party was found to be in contempt of parliament. The Government General, like in 2005, again dissolved parliament. This time things went the reverse. Harper’s Conservatives won a third term, this time with a majority of 166 seats.

The time since has been loaded with corruption and complains to Harper and the Conservatives. They run the gamut from political overspending on advertising to reducing door-to-door delivery of mail to the point there will only be mail boxes by 2019, to denying funding for science to promoting the controversial Keystone pipeline for boosting the export of crude oil to the controversial bill C-51 which appears to threaten Canadian’s privacy freedoms the same way the Patriot Act threatened Americans’ privacy rights. A lot of his misdoings appear to make good things he did like provide tax breaks to families and transit users.

-Liberal Party: Justin Trudeau – The Liberal party is one party that has had its biggest struggles ever these past ten years. It started with the Paul Martin fiasco leading the Liberals to their first ever election loss after winning the previous four. It continued with Stephan Dion in 2008 as their seat total declined from 95 to 77. However it was at the 2011 election under Michael Ignatieff where the Liberal party hit what appeared to be rock bottom by winning only 34 seats. They weren’t even the official opposition. After Ignatieff’s resignation just days later, they looked for a leader who could fill the spot. They found it in Justin Trudeau, the 43 year-old son of Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau. In fact, Justin was born while his father was Prime Minister.

The buzz around him grew but it hasn’t been without controversy. Justin has been faced with accusation that he’s riding off the coattails of his father’s legend. His only jobs before have either been a raft guide or a school teacher. This was especially noteworthy in Stephen Harper’s ads attacking Trudeau with the claim he’s “Just not ready.” It included the comment, ‘Nice hair, though.’ I myself even felt he didn’t deserve my vote because “He hasn’t proven himself politically. He’s all image and no real cred.” Even some of his campaign claims like his promise to legalize marijuana or prostitution have caught the disgust of many. Last poll had him in the lead. Whatever the situation if he wins, he will have to prove he deserves it.

-New Democratic Party: Tom Mulcair – The 2011 election was a landmark for the NDP. Actually it started months after the 2008 election when the NDP led by Jack Layton teamed up with the Liberals for a coalition takeover of parliament in order to reduce Harper. It didn’t work but it did catch the eye of the nation and it caused Canadians to look more favorably to the NDP party: a national party who were often lucky enough to just finish third in national elections.

The 2011 was a landmark for the party as they won 103 seats, up from 36 and the most they’ve ever won. Leader Jack Layton became the head of the official opposition. He only had months to enjoy his victory as he would die of cancer later that year. It would take time to find a new leader of the party and they found it in Tom Mulcair. Since he assumed power, he has been seen as Harper’s toughest political rival most able to put pressure on the Conservatives. He has hoped to take that with him to the election. It worked in August when the campaign trail began. However the NDP have been in a struggle since to win back the approval ratings they had back then and sit third. Only tonight’s election will tell the tale.

-Bloc Quebecois: Gilles Duceppe – If any party has had it harder than the Liberals since 2011, it’s the Bloc Quebecois. It’s not even just because of slipping to two seats. It’s of going through three different leaders after Duceppe resigned from incumbents to leaders voted in. After all the frustration, Duceppe is back in. He’s hoping to bring the Bloc’s power back into Canadian parliament and push for Quebec independence.

-Green Party: Elizabeth May – One party on the grow is the Green Party. They’ve been around for decades but it’s only in this century that they’ve been able to see their political power grow. I know. I’m from BC where the Green Party appears to have possibly its biggest support. Elizabeth May has done a lot to boost this party which holds left-wing policies and ideas noticeably different from the other two leading liberal parties: Liberal and NDP. In fact the Greens won their first ever seat in Parliament back in 2011 but it was not May.

The Green Party may have a candidate in almost every riding and their policies may appear to be the best for the country but they still have to develop more political muscle before they can be considered a serious contender. However May has done nothing wrong as a leader and should keep doing what she’s doing and take it further.

Since the start, the election has been called anyone’s game and hard to predict. The NDP had a lead at the start but it appeared to deteriorate over time and they hang at third in the polls. Harper and the Conservatives only had a brief lead in September for a week or two but found themselves soon slipping and now find themselves at second. Right now the Liberals lead at 37% at the last polls. Anything can happen on Election Day. In fact in BC, Christy Clark’s Liberals were expected to lose according to the polls but they won. The biggest shocker is the advance polls held during the long weekend of October 9-12. Voter turnout was way higher than expected. An increase of 16%. The increase resulted in a lot of long line ups. I myself had to wait almost a full hour to vote. nevertheless this is an optimistic sign as it shows more Canadians are willing to vote in this year’s election as compared to 2011.

Whatever the situation, it will be decided by 8pm Pacific Time who will be the Prime Minister of Canada. It could be decided earlier upon final results in Ontario but you never know. Anyways history will be decided tonight.

Funny thing but if the US presidential election can best be described as “two five year-olds fighting over the same toy,” what should the Canadian national election be described as?

VIFF 2015 Review: A Syrian Love Story

A Syrian Love Story focuses on a Syrian couple from the start of 2011's Arab Spring to the present.

A Syrian Love Story focuses on a Syrian couple from the start of 2011’s Arab Spring to the present.

I saw quite a few documentaries at this year’s VIFF. A Syrian Love Story was one documentary that gets one thinking.

This is a documentary filmed year by year over five years. It starts in 2010 while Syria is going through its start of political turmoil. It had been under turmoil since the 1970’s when Hafez Al-Assad took power and any reforms promised by his son Bashar, who succeeded Hafez in presidency after his death almost ten years earlier, doesn’t deliver in the reforms he promised. Images of protest met with a violent response from government forces are too common. Caught in the middle is a married couple of Amer Daoud and Raghda Hasan. They have four sons from 6 to 22. Amer is living in Damascus being a father to the children. Raghda is in a prison for publishing a book about their relationship of all things. Amer and Raghda are no strangers to political oppression in their home country. Raghda has face imprisonment because she’s a communist revolutionary and Amer was once imprisoned with his ties to the PLO. In face they both first met in prison and fell in love through communicating through a prison wall.

Sean McAllister is in Syria looking for something about Syria’s crisis to film but something out of the ordinary. He finds it in Amer and Raghda. McAllister also shows us their four sons. The first year he films Amer’s phone conversations with Raghda while she’s in prison. He gets her sons to talk with her as well. McAllister was even imprisoned for a few days for a journalism crime and was able to listen first-hand to the torture in Syria’s prisons. He even meets the older son who broke up with his girlfriend because she was pro-Assad. Despite all this, McAllister does show a case of hope for the future, for all.

In 2012, Raghda is finally free. She is reunited with her husband, sons and the rest of her family. But they can’t stay in Syria, not while there’s civil war that started once Syrian people revolted against Assad during 2011’s Arab Spring. The family move to a refugee area in Lebanon. They do it not simply for the sake of themselves but their sons too. McAllister is nervous for the couple’s future since he knows behaviors of prisoners after they’ve been freed. He hopes Raghda doesn’t exhibit behavior that will hurt their marriage.

In 2013, they find themselves in Paris, France. Things are definitely better for the two youngest children Kaka and Bob. Bob is in a good school and Kaka is able to become a disc jockey at his high school. Things appear to go well for Amer and Raghda as they’re able to make a living for themselves but there’s a sense that something’s wrong. The children sense it.

In 2014, we get a good sense of what’s wrong. Amer and Raghda’s marriage is crumbling. Amer feels distant from Raghda and has a French girlfriend of his own. It upsets Raghda to the point she changes the password on his laptop. She even attempts suicide by cutting her wrists. No doubt it upsets everyone. She them admits she never had the chance to find herself and she feels that despite her  political freedom in France, she still feels she can do more for Syria or for others hurt by war.

The film ends in 2015. They two youngest sons have a promising future in France. Their older son reveals his pro-Assad former girlfriend was killed. Asad runs a chicken farm in France and is without Raghda. He wishes her well in whatever she does. Raghda is now in Turkey in a city 20 miles from the Syrian border. She works with refugees and is happier with her life now.

This is a unique story of love that starts with one hoping for a happy ending. We know Syria won’t turn out for the better but we hope that Raghda will be free and will return to her family and they’ll live happily ever after. We all want that storybook ending. Unfortunately it doesn’t end up that way. McAllister knows the problems prisoners exhibit after they’re free and he lets Amer and all of us know it. Over time, it shows after the moves, after Syria’s continued strife and after one senses the love between the two fading over time. It was unfortunate. The moment of hope doesn’t end up being when Raghda is free but rather when Amer is still in France and Raghda is in Turkey. That’s where the true scene of hope for the better is present.

The story is not just about the couple. It’s also about the surrounding family. This is especially noteworthy of the two youngest sons, Kaka and Bob. Bob is six at the beginning and the youngest. He tried to be a carefree child but the hurt of knowing his mother’s in prison is evident. Kaka is ten at the start and familiar with the realities in Syria. He’s able to tell Sean in good enough English his feeling of the situation, and of how he’d either like to fight or kill Assad. As they grow, the changes are present. Bob is getting bigger but has difficulties fitting into his school in Paris because his long hair causes other boys to call him a girl. Kaka is getting a better education but can’t ignore what’s happening to his parents. He can sense what’s happening and has his own opinions on what he feels should happen. Although the two are not the main protagonists, their presence in this story is vital.

One thing about this documentary is that the story focuses more on the fading marriage than it does in the strife in Syria from civil oppression to public outcry to a civil war to the eventual crisis with ISIS. However it does focus on the couple as they were fighting their own war with each other. They go from loving each other and having a closeness while Raghda’s in prison to the love fading over time after Raghda is free and they’re together again. It’s sad that they were closer together when Raghda was in prison. It’s even hard to pinpoint who’s the bad guy. Is it Amer for his fading commitment? Or is it Raghda for her inner strife? Amer appears like a jerk not even willing to try when he says things like “Syrians love prisoners,” but Raghda’s suicide attempt gets you wondering was she thinking of her family at the time?

Watching this documentary, I believe that this isn’t the type of documentary meant for the big screen. With the camera quality, editing and McAllister’s voice over, it fares much better as something for television broadcast. I’m sure that’s what it intends to be. I have to give McAllister credit for having the ability to do all this filming over time and to present a unique story. I also give Amer and Raghda credit for McAllister willing to film them while their marriage was hitting rock bottom and they were showing terrible behavior such as Amer threatening to smash his laptop and Raghda slitting her wrists. It surprises me that they were willing to show things that personal on camera.

A Syrian Love Story may not be a documentary meant for the big screen but it’s a very revealing story that reminds us not all love story has the fairytale ending. despite the hardships they show, it does end on a hopeful, if not happy, note.

VIFF 2015 Review: In Your Arms (I Dine Hænder)

In Your Arms is a Danish film that's about more than granting someone their wish to die.

In Your Arms is a Danish film that’s about more than granting someone their wish to die.

Let’s face it, films about euthanasia are rarely watchable. However Danish film In Your Arms (I Dine Hænder) succeeds in making a film that’s watchable and even entertaining and touching.

Niels is  a man with a debilitating illness. First it left his legs useless, then its making his arms more useless day by day, and Niels wants to die. Maria is a nurse at Niels’ hospital who longs for freedom, especially after the end of a troubling romance. Maria finds it very hard to be a nurse to Niels, one of her many patients. She finds him very stubborn and selfish, especially after he recently tried to slit his wrists.

Niels has a wish to die. He wants to be taken to a euthanasia clinic in Switzerland. His mother and brother don’t want it, feeling it’s just Niels being selfish again. Maria is reluctant at first but agrees to comply. She has decided to be the one to accompany Niels on his trip from Copenhagen to Switzerland which also consists of a stop in Hamburg, Germany.

After his family bids Niels good-bye, Niels and Maria board the train and it’s there that the two get to know more about each other, such as their likes and their personal lives. In Hamburg, Niels wants to be taken to places where he spent his younger years, especially the restaurants and bars.

During the time, he’s able to meet again with people from the past. Maria meets two key people. One is Niels ex-girlfriend from his ‘Hamburg Days.’ She learns he has a four year-old son. The other is the pub manager. He invites Maria to visit during the night. Maria agrees and it’s over at the pub that night it appears that Maria is able to live again. Unfortunately it comes at a price to Niels as she’s not there to help him first thing in the morning. Niels does not want his son to see him dying so she is able to make Niels watch his ex-girlfriend pick up his son so he can see him for the first and only time in his life.

During the trip, it appears as though the relation of Maria and Niels is growing. Often making one question it’s a friendship or even more. As Maria drives down the wide roads of Germany to the Swiss border, the two decide to take in the nature that they view. Maria even swims in the lake despite how snowy cold the day is. Then they finally reach Switzerland and visit the clinic where Niels wants to end his life. After receiving details of what the following day will entail, Maria spends one last night with Niels. The ending is somewhat predictable and melodramatic but done right.

I don’t think this film is trying to peddle the message of euthanasia, although it’s obvious the film maker has no qualms about it. As for me, I’ll save my view. However it appears the film is not about euthanasia. This looks like many film before it of a dying person spending their last days. Even still I believe it is to do about the relation between the two. At first, both Maria and Niels were polar opposites. He was an ailing patient in the care facility. She was a nurse who just happened to take care of him along with the others. The chances of the two being friends were slim to none but it was that trip that changed it. The film does question whether Niels did love Maria all along or if Maria did love Niels in any which way. The bond of friendship was obvious but was it more than that? I think the film maker wants to keep us guessing. Even despite whatever friendship occurred, Maria knew she still had to honor Niels’ wish even though it would hurt her dearly.

It’s not just about the two together but the two as individuals. Niels has had it with life. The disease has taken away all that he has to live for. Maria longs to live but her job and failures at relationships prevent her. It’s when the two join together on the trip that things become better for them. Niels is able to die content and Maria is able to discover her freedom within herself.

I will admit that this is a rather short film. Nevertheless this is a good melodrama that presents itself well. Samanou Acheche Sahlstrom has written and directed a good drama that centres on the characters both as individuals and as a pair. It’s the bond that occurs during the time of the trip that helps make the story. The acting from both Lisa Carlehed and Peter Palugborg made the story work as well as develop the necessary chemistry for the film. In Your Arms has won two awards at the Gothenburg Film Festival and was nominated for a producers award at the Hamburg Film Festival. Here at the VIFF, it made its North American debut.

In Your Arms may be short and may lack the qualities to make it a film of renown. What it achieves is honest sensitivity and a connection to the story and its main characters.

VIFF 2015 Review: Reel Youth Film Festival

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I’ve been to the Reel Youth Film Festivals of 2013 and 2014. I went to this Year’s Reel Youth Film Festival to see what they had to offer. I was impressed.

2013 was a focus more on young film makers. 2014 was still a majority of young filmmakers but did more focus on film directed to young people rather than focus on the age of the directors. Films made for young people by directors 20+ in age were more welcome that year than the previous one. This year was return to more focus on filmmakers up to age 19 and less focus on films by directors 20 or older.

This year there were 19 films. Seven were from Canada with four from BC. Six were from the United States with entries from Latvia, Kosovo, Iran, Georgia, India and Australia. Films focused on issues but they also had some fun too. The fun films included an animated short of a man and his dog on a stranded island, a boy asking another boy out and redoing it until he gets it right, a dating situation that can best be described as ‘a gas,’ human life from a dog’s eye view, life that starts in a smalltown and takes you back there, an animated film of a mantis’ first date and a simple task of getting a selfie with a 20 foot pink elephant that’s not so simple.

Issues however was the top focus of the festival and the shorts did speak about their issues. Issues included homelessness, bullying, missing indigenous women in Canada that often go overlooked, harassment at work, youth poverty in Canada and young disabled people.

Some of the films included dramatic settings such as a friendship between a man and a dog in tough times, emotional states relating to colors, a young person’s journey through life and the unfriendliness of our modern times, especially in urban India. There were some films that were biographical or focal like the homeless shelter cook from San Antonio, teenage musicians from BC with dreams that seem ignored by the school system and an 85 year-old woman with the self-confidence of a movie star.

Despite a lot of issues, there were films with messages of hope. Messages focused on homelessness in San Antonio, finding joy in pain the way Charlie Chaplin did, being comfortable in your own skin and making a disabled child feel like they’re not a misfit. Even a plotless short from Iran of a young grandson in a house with a leaky roof trying to keep the rain off his sleeping grandmother seemed like it had a message to say.

I think that was the point of this year’s selected shorts. These were films that focused on life, on emotions, on issues of concern, on problems and on hope. They all had something to say whether it be humorous or whether it be serious. Some had top-notch cameras or animation quality. Some were amateurish in writing, acting or even conveying their issue. Nevertheless all had their qualities that made it worth showing to the audience.

Once again, we were given our ballots to select our three favorite films and our favorite local film. Here were my picks:

  1. Love On Wheels – A Georgian film of a wheelchair-bound boy who’s accompanied by his father (actually played by his brother) who’s also in a wheelchair so that he doesn’t feel cut off from the world.
  2. Priorities – An animated short from Latvia of a man and his dog stranded on a deserted island during a rainstorm. Excellent animation quality.
  3. The Second Right Off Main Street – An Ontario short of an adolescent growing up in a small town, moving away to pursue bigger and better things and finding himself back in his town.
  • Local1 in 5 – About a bully a teen girl can’t seem to stand up for herself against: poverty. Title reflects the statistic of youth poverty in BC. Filmed in New Westminster.

And there you go. That’s my look at this year’s selection of shorts at the Reel Youth Film Festival. If you know a young filmmaker, I recommend you let them know of the Reel Youth film society.

VIFF 2015 Review: Hadwin’s Judgement

Hadwin's Judgement is about Grant Hadwin and why he committed his act of what some would call 'ecoterrorism.'

Hadwin’s Judgement is about Grant Hadwin and why he committed his act of what some would call ‘ecoterrorism.’

British Columbia, especially Greater Vancouver, is known for people using radical and even destructive methods to make their statement heard on an issue. One such person who’s lesser known in Grant Hadwin who cut down a beloved tree on the Queen Charlotte Islands in 1997. The documentary Hadwin’s Judgement traces Hadwin’s path from logger to radical to his mysterious disappearance.

The film is almost like a biography of Grant Hadwin and the moments in his life that changed him forever. Grant Hadwin was born in West Vancouver. He came from a logging family and eventually found himself working on the Queen Charlotte Islands. However he soon developed an anger when he saw how much forest was being cut down from the island and how fast with the modern cutting methods. He writes letters of complaints to businesses. He even tries to start his own business which makes products out of decayed wood or wood long cut down but it doesn’t succeed.

Doug Chjapman plays Grant Hadwin in re-enactments with no dialogue but says it all with his mind.

Doug Chapman plays Grant Hadwin in re-enactments with no dialogue but says it all with his mind.

The deforestation of the area along with his mental instability takes his toll on him and he cuts down the sacred tree of the island– the 1000 year-old Kiidk’yaas (The Golden Spruce)— to send his message. He awaited trial with many a person angry at him. However Grant pursues a kayaking trip up the Boeing Strait. He is never seen again although his broken kayak, letter in lamination and tools have been found intact. He has still never been found dead or alive.

The film is mostly a documentary featuring people who mostly knew Grant during his lifetime. It features co-workers to friends to a local photographer who photographed him swimming just before his disappearance to John Vaillant who wrote an award-winning book on him. It also interviews people of the Haida Gwaii who knew the tree. The Haida Gwaii consider trees to be sacred so it’s no wonder the chopping of that tree would hurt them deeply.

However the film doesn’t just present people interviewed. It also provides people first-hand knowledge of the Haida Gwaii people, their legends and their beliefs. It provides insight to Grant’s feelings around the time and includes narration of the letters he wrote in his protests. It even includes moments in Grant’s life re-enacted by actor Doug Chapman playing Grant. Doug never utters a word of dialogue in his acting but it’s like you’re reading Grant’s mind just with the looks on his face. You could see why Grant would lose his patience with what was happening and do what he did. It still remains a question. Was it Grant’s attitude to the deforestation of the area? Or was it a mental imbalance? Or both? Even I myself wondered if he valued trees so much why would he cut the sacred Golden Spruce down? I later assumed Grant did it possibly to say to all those logging companies: “You want wood so bad? Here’s your wood, bastards!” That’s my belief to why he did it. People snap.

Despite the storytelling, narration and re-enacting of Grant’s moments, the best attribute of the documentary has to be the cinematography. Right from the start, you see images of the rain forest, an aerial view of Queen Charlotte Island and a panoramic shot of the forest. Already images of beauty that tell what this island is all about and why the island’s natural features are important. It’s not just beautiful images like those that make the film but the uglier images too. The film includes footage of the tree cutting mechanisms through all angles. You can see just how they can cut down a whole tree in seconds. You can see why through such mechanisms looms the threat of deforestation. So much cutting in so little time. The film also shows the ugly aftermaths of all the trees cut down. There’s one panoramic view that not only shows a wide forest but of a cut-down area. That’s one of the many eyesores. Other eyesores include closer shots of land that used to be forests, images of piles of dry dead wood and the biggest of all: the Golden Spruce down on the ground with its leaves soaking in the river. Even single images like that of a freighter full of logs tells the story of the land and why Grant Hadwin was compelled to make such a judgement. Shots that included Grant also provided for the storytelling including the site of his broken kayak.

Sasha Snow did a great job in creating a documentary that gives people’s opinions of Grant through all angles and even re-enacts some of his key moments. Sasha not only includes those that know him but the local Haida Gwaii and author Vaillant. Sasha made a lot of smart choices in telling the story such as having an actor act out Grant’s moments instead of showing photographs. In fact we only see one photograph of Grant in the film right at the very end.

Hadwin’s Judgement is more than a documentary. It takes you inside the person, the land, the people of the land and the economic pressures of the times. I don’t know if the film completely supports Hadwin’s decision but it provides the reasons why he did it.

 

VIFF 2015 Review: Tough Love (Härte)

Tough Love is a docudrama of the rough past of World karate champion Andreas Marquardt (right) who is played by Hanno Koffler (left) in his younger days.

Tough Love is a docudrama of the rough past of Andreas Marquardt (right) who is played by Hanno Koffler (left) in his younger days.

Tough Love is a film that tells a story of a life no one would want to have but turns out shining in the end.

The film begins with 59 year-old Andreas Marquardt heading a karate school in Berlin. He’s a former World champion and he enjoys teaching young children.  Parents are very trustworthy of him despite his past. It’s after this introduction that we learn of his shady past.

Andreas was born in Berlin in 1956. His father was abusive to the point he poured a bucket of cold water on him on a winter’s day when he was an infant. His mother divorced his father but that didn’t prevent his father from abusing him again. One time his father taught him how to handshake and squeezed his hand so hard he broke three of Andreas’ bones. Abuse wasn’t just with his father. He lived with his mother and grandparents. His mother would ask him to do sexual favors that were, in a word, unspeakable.

It’s not to say, Andreas was devoid of a proper parent figure. His grandparents played that role. At sixteen, Andreas finally moved out on his own. He pursued a job of pimping as a way to provide a living and pay for his karate training. He also took a job at a funeral home as a way to hide his pimp money from the taxman. One day in the late 70’s, there was a 16 year-old girl who would change his life. Her name was Marion. At first Andreas asked her to do sexual favors and even be one of his hookers under his wing. She agreed however had the feeling she would win his love one day.

This would go on for many years. Marion would continue to work for Andreas but also try to win his love. There were two instances like a Christmas and a breakfast in bed that Marion tried to send him the message of her love but Andreas reacts violently to it and insists she works the business. Later on, Marion takes the witness stand against her father for sexual abuse. Andreas is in the stands and he is surprised to see how her abuse story almost mirrors his own. He’s even given a wake-up call when he sees Marion lying on the streets one night after nearly being beaten to death.

However Andreas’ problems don’t end there. Eventually the police do catch up with his antics and he is arrested in 1994 and put into prison for four years. Marion is able to run a gym that he owns and even sends him a message outside the prison walls that she’s on his mind. Another incident leads Andreas to an additional four years in prison. During that time, he sees his mother for the last time and tells her off just weeks before she dies. Once released from prison, Andreas begins a change of heart and leaves the prostitution business behind. The one thing of it that wasn’t left behind was Marion. It became clear to him she was his soul mate. To this day Andreas doesn’t miss his pimping business.

The thing with this film is that it appears like it’s trying to be both a documentary and a live-action drama. It flashes from Andreas talking of his shady past, in which he also wrote a book on in which this film is based, to the past being acted out by actors. It may have been done before but it’s a question on whether it was done right. I know the director Rosa von Praunheim also included some other creative choices like images of furniture painted on the walls of the setting rather than actual furniture props. I feel that was presented well. I don’t know if the images of furniture worked with this film.

Another choice that had me wondering was if it was a smart choice not to have the actors playing Andy and Marion–Hanno Koffler and Luise Heyer– age. As you probably saw, the actors don’t age chronologically as the timeline passed over the 25 year span. I just wonder in von Praunheim had that as a point to the film.

One choice of von Praunheim’s in which I give her credit for is making the audience Andy during the childhood drama scenes instead of hiring an actor to play Andy. Like how we see Andy’s father looking at us as he gives Andy his bone braking handshake or how his mother looks at us as she’s molesting him or eve oralizing him. Yes, I’m sure people don’t like seeing those kinds of images of children abused whether in fiction or real life. I think it was decided to have the audience be Andy instead for the sake of the sensitive nature. It had to be told but it had to be made watchable.

One thing I think von Praunheim is trying to do in the film is not just tell Andy’s story but also to show how this story is all too common. We hear the story all the time of children who are sexually abused by their parents or other people and they grow up to make the bad choice of going into jobs of ill repute. It’s a story we see all too often. Even seeing what his mother did to him makes you think that where he got his misogyny from. I myself believe that a lot of misogynist men probably adopted that attitude or a hatred toward women from an unhealthy home life. Including Andy’s feelings into the film adds to the theme. You can see in his face why he can’t forgive his parents for what they did to him. Hard feelings run deep. You could easily see in the drama why Andy has feelings to his grandfather when he dies but none to his mother.

However there are times I think of this film to be as much about Marion as it is about Andreas. Andreas became a shady person but it was Marion who felt love for him from the start and knew she would be his one day. It was surprising she was willing to make a prostitute for him of herself during that time. It’s also very unfortunate she had to deal with the verbal and physical abuse from Andreas all those years. Most people would say it would be foolish for a woman to stay with such an abusive man. Even I would want Marion to leave him. However she saw something in him that she knew he was worth loving and worth staying with. The film left me convinced Marion was a godsend to Andreas. The film even left me thinking as well this may be Andreas’ love letter to Marion.

The film does an ambitious job of trying to mesh drama pieces and interview pieces to both make the story come alive and tell the facts. Even taking Andreas back to key places in his life like the prison or the street corner of his arrest or even the cemetery grass area where he scattered his mother’s ashes is another ambitions technique too. I will admit I did question the choices and even the frequency as it goes from drama to documentary. However I would find it hard for me to make better choices. Hanno Koffler and Luise Hayer were good choices to play Andy and Marion. They did well in their roles but they could have aged physically as the time line progressed. Katy Karrenbauer was good as Andy’s mother. She made you want to hate her.

Tough Love tells a story of a life damaged, of a life causing hurt and of a life redeemed, and of the woman that saw the beauty inside the beast. It’s a story that mixes documentary-style interviewing with drama to deliver a story that’s dark and ugly but ends on a beautiful note.