Monthly Archives: October 2021

VIFF 2021 Review: Drunken Birds (Les oiseaux ivres)

A Mexican migrant worker in search of the woman he loves (played by Jorge Antonio Guerrero) is the centerpiece of the Canadian film Drunken Birds.

Drunken Birds is Canada’s official entry in the 2021 Academy Awards category of Best International Feature Film. It’s a film that meshes French with Spanish and Chinese to create a film that stands out.

The story begins with a Mexican family inside an apartment in Montreal. We learn of a man who’s searching for a woman named Marlena. Flash back many years ago. Workers for an arrested drug lord in Mexico chase down a car with a burning top. They then chase a worker for the cartel by the name of Willy down. They know what he’s been doing behind the drug lord’s back the whole time and they warn him at gunpoint.

Flask forward to the present to the Becotte farm near Montreal. The boss, Richard Becotte, is the latest to run a vegetable farm of his family going back many generations. He’s fair to the Mexican migrant workers who agree to work, but strict. Show up at 5:30am or no pay for the day. There are many who are returning, but there are some new men, including Willy. Willy does his work along with the other men, but he doesn’t really care about the pay. All that matters is he finds Marlena. In fact while the men communicate on Skype or Zoom with their wives, children and other family, Willy uses his time to search for Marlena, who has gone by a pseudonym. He has a feeling Marena lives in Montreal.

Flash back to many years ago. A Chinese art studio is given orders to either make replicas of legendary paintings of painting versions of photos. One of the photos is the picture of the Mexican mob boss. Flash to months later but still in the past, police visit the house of the drug lord some time after it was raided and the boss arrested. They talk of admiration of how they brought this tyrant with many riches down. They also notice a letter from his young wife Marlena that appears to be a suicide note. Instead it was a letter Marlena concocted with the help of Willy to plan her escape. Turns out before the raid, Willy was the ‘other man’ of Marlena. Marlena’s true love. A love that had to be kept complete secret. Four years ago, the two decided to escape together, but go their separate ways after that. Willy has been searching for Marlena for four years. He’s tried places in Mexico, knowing her pseudonym. Now hes here in Montreal hoping he’ll be able to find her here once and for all.

However the Becotte family have friction of their own. Last year in their cornfield, Julie had an affair with one of the workers. Daughter Lea knows about this and she confronts her mother about this, even mentioning Richard knows about it. This is hard to deal with as now Julie is starting to take a liking to Willy as she drives him off to a place. Meanwhile Lea is becoming an adult and she rebels against her parents. She’s trying to fit in with her friends and even try her way into the Montreal night club scene. She’s willing to try anything, including drugs and prostitution. Actually racers for the Montreal Grand Prix are in town from around the world. Lea is hoping to hook up with one of the racers and make some money. Her pimp gives her a pager and puts a drug in her mouth. She does win a driver and gets taken into his hotel room, but she leaves him, and the pimp’s phone, behind. She’s on the streets and dreams of being met up with the racer in his car, but awakens to find herself beaten up by the pimp.

Willy notices a beaten Lea in tears. He takes her in his arms and tends to her. However Richard comes in and mistakes Willy as the man who beat Lea up. Willy is in pursuit and tries to run off. However in a rainy night as he is chased in by a truck back to the Becotte farm, Richard has his men and he’s ready to square off with Willy. Richard shouts spiteful things to Willy and the Mexicans, blaming them for what happens to Lea. As the men try to beat Willy up, the Mexicans defend Willy and start charging at Richard’s men. Willy is able to find his way out and hide in a cornfield. Richard tries to search, expecting Willy to come out, but to no avail. Richard soon learns he has to make peace with his family. In the end, willy didn’t stop running. He made it to Montreal for his main goal: to find Marlena. The film ends in an expected but unexpected way.

This is a unique story. It’s a story of two worlds. The world of the past in Mexico and the world of the present as part of a farm. It’s a story of a man in search of the woman he loves and the story of a family that appears falling apart. It’s a story that deals with the issue of migrant workers and how they’re treated by their bosses in Canada. At the same time, it’s a story that blends in a colorful romance. It’s like two films in one in many ways. It’s not easy to mix the two, but it’s done successfully here.

In a lot of ways, this film shows a lot of similarities between both scenarios. Here we have Willy who’s the object of the kingpin wife’s desire. It’s a desire they have to keep well-hidden or else Willy will be killed. Both have to move on after the kingpin is arrested and his mansion raided. In Canada, we have the farm-leader’s wife who falls for the migrant workers. Willy becomes one of the men she falls for. It’s a case for Willy that both world’s collide with him. He has to cope with the aftermath of the raid and the immense possibility of never seeing Marlena again. He also comes across the possible danger of Richard crossing his path if he knows that he’s one of the workers Julie falls for.

Even though Willy is the centrepiece of the story, it’s not just about Willy. It’s about the Becotte family. Julie has her affairs with some of the migrant workers. Lea is upset with what she sees and claims Richard knows. Meanwhile Lea appears she wants to establish herself as an adult and she feels that means choosing her own direction, even if it is dangerous. When you see Richard and his men attempt to square off against Willy, blaming him for what happened to Lea, you can easily get the feeling Richard knows of Julie’s affairs and feels he has to take it out on at least one Mexican worker. Before he takes it out, you could notice by the look on his face he most likely blames himself for his family’s failures.

This is an impressive work from Serbian-born Canadian director Ivan Grbovic. His films like La Chute and Romeo Onze have won acclaim at past film festivals. This film hasn’t won as much acclaim outside of it’s Oscar entry. It did however earn a Platform Prize at the TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival). This is an impressive film that blends in modern storytelling with imagery of classic films and common Mexican dramas. What we have here is an excellent film that’s as much a joy to watch as it being a story that will keep you intrigued.

Jorge Antonio Guerrero is excellent as Willy. His performance as a man caught between his passion and always having to be on the run keeps you on the edge of your seat and hoping he succeeds in finding Marlena. Claude Legault is also very good as Richard. He does a good job of playing a man that’s supposed to be tough on the outside, but is hurting on the inside. Helene Florent is also good as the flirtatious Julie who later has to confront her wrongs. Also excellent is Marine Johnson as Lea. She does a great job of playing a teenager angry with her home life and wanting to break free, only to find herself more entrapped by her choices.

Drunken Birds is more than just a film with a story. It mixes modern drama with a social message and traditional Mexican drama to give the viewer a story that’s a delight to experience.

VIFF 2021 Review – Handle With Care : The Legend Of The Notic Streetball Crew

The Vancouver streetball team ‘The Notic’ are the centre of Handle With Care: The Legend Of The Notic Streetball Crew.

If you’re a fan of streetball, you should know who the Notic are. The documentary Handle With Care: The Legend Of The Notic Streetball Crew tells the story of their formation, rise, fall, afternath and reunification. There more than meets the eye in this film.

The story begins with two Canadian-born brothers from Uganda: Jonathan and David Mubanda. Growing up in a country like Canada, they feel like outsiders. Feelings also shared by Joel ‘Joey’ Haywood, son of Jamaican immigrants. They discover they have a love for basketball and they’re dazzled by watching NBA games and the tricks of the players. They succeed in making their high school’s basketball team and they recreate some of the moves. However even if they play well, it gets on the nerves of their white coaches. One of them tells one of the boys to stop playing ‘jungleball.’

Streetball and 3-on-3 tournaments was something new at the time. That caught the attention of Jeremy Schaulin-Rioux and Kirk Thomas. They were a couple of teenagers graduated from high school and undecided what to do with their lives. Their first dream was to start a punk rock band. However when they saw streetball and the play from these boys, it changed their attention and they saw a new use for their video cameras. Within time, their group of boys who gave themselves the name ‘The Notic’ would grow and include Mohammed Wenn, Jamal Parker, Dauphin Ngongo: also immigrants of first generation Canadians. In 2000, their first video of their play, entitled ‘The Notic Mix Tape’ was released.

The video was intended to just be a video strictly for them and their friends. Over time, they would sell copies of the video on the street. Little did any of them know at the time the sales would skyrocket. But while the popularity of the Notic was growing, so was the size of the group. One was discovered at a 3-by-3 tournament. His name was Andrew Liew: a Bruneian immigrant who went by the name ‘6 Fingaz’ because he had a sixth finger on his left hand! They were also joined by Rory Grace: a white boy with delayed puberty who came from a troubled family background, but delivered some mad skills on court. Rory was nicknamed ‘Disaster.’ Actually all the boys had unique nicknames: Johnny Blaze, Where U At?, David Dazzle, Delight, Kinghandles and Goosebumps.

Next tournament was a streetball tournament in Vancouver in May 2001. That’s where the Notic really got their breakthrough and wowed the crowd. All of them were strutting the stuff and sure enough, Schaulin-Rioux and Thomas had their cameras in hand. They were catching their every move. They also caught their moves as they were ‘chillin’ out by the Surrey Skytrain Station or in the gymnasiums or in their houses. Then they caught a big break as they were invited to a tournament in Seattle. There they stole the show and it was Disaster that blew everyone away with his trickery.

Soon the Notic phenomenon was born. As Schaulin-Rioux and Thomas were busy making their next video, the Notic caught the attention of ESPN and Slam magazine. They were given interviews and Slam! magazine dedicated a seven-page article that included the players and the filmmakers. A website in the UK that promoted streetball had the Notic video on and it got over 100,000 hits a month during its heydays in 2001-2002, kids were coming up to members of the Notic and getting their autographs, even EA Sports recuited them to be the models for their streetball video game where they were paid $5000 each.

Then the Notic 2 was released in 2002, but that’s when the friction was starting. Jermaine was unhappy he was not included as part of the Slam! article. Many of the players were unhappy that their videos were getting a ton of views but they weren’t seeing a single cent for themselves. On top of it, all eight boys were teenagers growing into adults. Soon they were learning that streetball was no way to make a living as an adult. They all had to find their own direction.

Only Joey Haywood took basketball into the colleges. When he didn’t make it into the NBA, he was signed to a Danish basketball league. Joey now holds coaching sessions. The other boys, they found careers or paths of their own. One found work at a mosque in Edmonton, one is a contractor for interiors, another found work in promoting a charity. Rory is the one who had the most trouble since as he felt lost after the split-up of the Notic. He first dabbled in drug dealing and became in addict himself. He spent time in jails and in rehab, but lost custody of his sons. We see as he’s being reunited with his second son. One thing that hasn’t changed with the Notic is they still dazzle and inspire young players from around the world. The spirit of the Notic lives as Schaulin-Rioux and Thomas screen for all members Notic 3 made from kept videotape of Joey.

This is quite a story. It’s the story of a group of boys who were able to dazzle the world with their play of ball. It’s commonly called ‘streetball’ but I’ve often called it ‘freestyle basketball.’ You can look at this story many ways. You could even see the Notic as a group of ‘Next Generation Globetrotters’ straight out of Vancouver. This is a story of young boys who were either immigrants or first generation Canadians trying to find themselves where they felt like a misfit elsewhere. They either felt like they were substandard in school or they were dealt with racism around them. Basketball was their escape. Basketball made them feel like they belonged. Streetball was where they stood out. Their experience as part of the Notic proved to most that yes, they do have what it takes to make it. Eventually they would have to learn they were able to succeed without streetball as adults. However it was being part of the Notic that gave self-confidence to most when they needed it.

The story reminds you that not everything is grand. Schaulin-Rioux and Thomas did acknowledge they were young filmmakers who did not know how far their grainy videos would go. They didn’t know bootleg copies would find themselves around town. They didn’t know uploaded versions of their video would make itself worldwide on the internet. They were young filmmakers who didn’t know about the obstacles and pitfalls of the business. And the eight boys that made up the Notic, you can understand why they would become angered and feel like they were done wrong. Jeremy and Kirk do acknowledge the wrongs they did and that they weren’t as transparent. I guess that exlains why the main title of the documentary is Handle With Care. Also it shows that as Rory saw the Notic as a way out of his troubling family life, it was his everything. When the Notic split up, he was lost and that’s what led to his downward spiral. It’s a story you hear over again of young starts who hit the big time, see it as their everything, and then are lost when the big time disowns them. That was Rory’s case.

This is an excellent documentary from directors Jeremy Schaulin-Rioux and Kirk Thomas. In a lot of ways, it’s a case of a documentary as they are preparing to make the Notic 3. It stars as a case where the two meet with Haywood and come across old videotapes not shown in any previous Notic videos. We shouldn’t forget Notic 3 was never made; the Notic split up before it could be made. At the same time, making Notic 3 was not easy. They had to confront former members who felt they were ripped off in their fame. Jermaine is especially angry. However he makes peace with the two as they acknowledge their past mistakes. In the end, all eight of the former Notic players meet on a basketball court in 2019 to see the screening of Notic 3 and they celebrate reminisce of the old times. When you watch the documentary, you can see it as one of three things. You can see it as the Notic members telling their stories, you can see it as the documenting of the making of Notic 3, or you can see it as Jeremy and Kirk trying to make amends for past business mistakes and trying to make it up to the boys. Either which way, it’s inciteful to watch.

Handle With Care: The Legend Of The Notic Streetball Crew is a documentary worth watching. It will remind you of the heydays of basketball in the 1990’s and early-noughts. However it’s much more. It’s about a group of lost boys who opened doors for themselves by doing something they loved to do. Also it’s two filmmakers set up to make right past wrongs.