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.

Movie Review: A Separation

A Separation is an Iranian film with a lot of huge buzz. It won the Golden Bear Award at the Berlin Film Festival. It won the Rogers People’s Choice Award at the Vancouver Film Festival. It has already won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film. For this year’s Oscars, it was not only nominated in that category but Best Original Screenplay as well.

The film begins with Nader and Simin: a couple married for 14 years with an 11 year-old daughter filing for divorce. Simin wasn’t to pursue her career goals in another country and take her daughter with her. Nader wants to stay as he has a father with Alzheimer’s to deal with. The judge first rejects the grounds.

In the meantime, Simin moves in with her father and recommends Nader to employ Razieh; a young, pregnant and deeply religious woman from a poor area to look after his father. Nader can’t handle the father on his own as he has a buy job at a bank and he has to look after Termeh, his daughter. Meanwhile Razieh’s hot-tempered husband Houjat is unemployed for months and owes creditors a huge amount. Nader even has the opportunity to hire Houjat at the bank but is jailed the next day for what he owes. During the time nursing, Razieh learns that looking after Nader’s father is a big challenge, both physically and religiously. She can only do so much because of her pregnancy. She also has to consult a Muslim cleric if it’s a sin to do certain duties like change the father’s soiled pants.

One day Razieh finds the father out on the streets. She has to cross a dangerous intersection to get him back. We only see her take the father back. The next day, Nader returns home to find his father lying on the opposite side of the bed with his arm tied to the bed post. He’s alive but Nader is furious. He’s even angrier to learn that there’s missing money and accuses Razieh of stealing. He fires her despite her please. She comes back to plead again but Nader pushes her out of the door. We later hear some loud thumping outside and Razieh walking away.

The next day, Simin learns that Razieh is in the hospital. She and Nader go there to find out she suffered a miscarriage. A court is assigned to decide if Nader knew of her pregnancy and caused the miscarriage. If convicted, he could face from one to three years in prison. Accusations fly. Nader accuses Razieh of neglecting his father. Houjat is angry and threatens Nader and his family. We learn that Houjat is deeply depressed, self-destructive and on antidepressants. Razieh left the house that day because she had to see a doctor. This leaves Nader to think Houjat is abusive and may be the one to cause the miscarriage.

Termeh lies to protect Nader and Simin tries to arrange for a financial deal between the couple. Nader refutes because he feels it will be like admitting guilt. Nader later tells Termeh personally that he did in fact know of Razieh pregnancy. Razieh later reveals she was hit by a car the day before she was fired, questioning what really caused the miscarriage. Finally everyone meets at the home of Razieh and Houjat including the creditors. Nader is willing to make the cheque out to Houjat on one condition, that she swears by the Koran that his actions that day were the cause of the miscarriage. Razieh can’t do it because she believes it’s a sin and that causes Houjat to break down physically and emotionally.

The film’s last scene takes place in the courtroom as Nader and Simin’s separation is to be finalized. Termeh is given the option to decide which parent to live with. She says she made up her mind but wants her parents outside. The film ends with Nader and Simin waiting outside while families are shown out in the halls waiting.

I don’t have first-hand knowledge of the marriage situation in Iran but I believe that this film is trying to make a statement about the modern day difficulties of marriage and divorce in Iran. Divorce has been a common theme in a lot of films like Kramer vs. Kramer but it’s over here where we see an angle on divorce in Iran. We see one couple separating while another couple staying together but struggling with their issues. There’s a lot of things causing friction in both couples. One has a career pursuit in another country, another has a sick father to look after. One has to work as a nurse. Another has been unemployed for months. You see the friction happening throughout the movie. It starts with the scene of Nader and Simin in court getting the divorce started and it ends as the divorce is finalized. That ending scene with the credits rolling as Nader and Simin wait for their daughter’s decision while other families are out in the halls waiting and we could even hear shouts of another couple in court is probably a statement about the modern difficulties of marriage in Iran. Mind you it’s not completely about law and divorce. There are other examples where the law provides difficulties and not strictly in the area of divorce, like providing bail upon guilt to prove innocence and avoid a lengthy prison term. Even the scenes where Houjat has creditors to deal with paints a picture.

Another key element in the movie is the use of the Koran. As most of you know, I ran is a country with a strong Muslim ethic that’s even included in its own constitution. The Koran plays a huge role in the everyday lives of people in Iran. The influence of the Koran is very present in the movie. We see how the maid couldn’t clean the soiled clothes of the father because it was against her religion. We hear mention of the Koran and God in court. We see that Termeh has to attend and all-girls school. We see how Nader uses the Koran to get the whole truth out about the miscarriage. One thing we don’t see is the Koran solving the marriages. We see the couples either continue to be split apart or going through heavier friction.

Without a doubt, the standout qualities of the film were the direction and writing of Asghar Farhadi. He did an excellent job of creating a good story out of a hot topic. The acting of Peyman Maadi and Leila Hatami was excellent too. Very genuine without any showiness. Excellent supporting performances played by Sareh Beyat and Shahab Hosseini who played the other couple in the middle. There was also excellent acting from Sarina Farhadi, Asghar’s daughter, who played Termeh, the daughter caught in the middle. The use of no score until the very end worked as a benefit for the movie because it allowed the audience feel the intensity of the story.

A Separation shows how far Iranian cinema has come. Iran’s first breakthrough came back in 1998 when Children Of Heaven was a modest hit. It was Iran’s first nomination in the Best Foreign Language Film category and established director Majid Majidi as a top international director. Now A Separation is a huge favorite to win the Best Foreign Language Film category and Asghar Farhadi is the new name in Iranian cinema. It’s also surprising to see such subject matter portrayed in Iranian cinema. You think with Iran having law and order in such a strict fashion according to Muslim law, this film would’ve been banned or censored by the Ahmadinejad government. I’m not too familiar with free speech laws in Iran but I’m sure there’s a lot of censorship.

If you see A Separation, you can easily see why it’s a huge favorite to win the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. It has a excellently-written, excellently-acted story of a hot topic in its own country. Very deserving of the win indeed.

Elizabeth Taylor 1932-2011

I’ll start by asking a series of questions. When you think of the term movie star, who comes to mind? Or what comes to mind? Is it their captivating looks? is it their ability to epitomize fame and fortune? Is it their ability to win crowds to the big screen time after time? Is it a presence that captivates the audience in their seats? Or is it their ability to do great acting time and time again? Do the standards of those that deserve the term movie star change over time? Or are the standards of a movie star timeless? When you think of the term movie star, how many from the past deserve that title? How many current actors deserve to have such a title bestowed upon them?

On Wednesday morning, we lost one who deserved to fit the term movie star in any or possibly every definition of the term. Her name was Elizabeth Taylor. She’s possibly one of the last of a breed that fit the term movie star as we know it to a tee. She had the looks, she lived large in more ways than one, she was able to attract crowds to the theatres and grab hold of their attention, and she knew how to give wonderful acting performances time after time.

Her acting career started early. She was discovered and signed on by both MGM and Universal at the age of ten. She had a great career as a child actor in gems like Lassie Come Home and Jane Eyre but it was her performance in 1944’s National Velvet that was her signature turn as a child actor. She was also successful in making a transition to adult actor almost immediately when she starred in 1950’s Father Of The Bride. Her career as an adult actress would accelerate starting with her role in 1956’s Giant opposite Rock Husdon and James Dean. She would then be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress four years in a row starting with 1957’s Raintree County opposite Montgomery Clift, 1958’s Cat On A Hot Tin Roof opposite Paul Newman, 1959’s Suddenly, Last Summer opposite Montgomery Clift and finally a Winner for 1960’s Butterfield 8 which she acted opposite then-husband Eddie Fisher. In 1960, she became the highest paid actress in Hollywood and more starring roles continued, including for 1963’s Cleopatra, 1967’s The Taming Of The Shrew and her second Best Actress Oscar winning role in 1966’s Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? Soon after, the movies she starred were flopping and her bankability faded. It wouldn’t stop her from acting in movies, television and stage. Her last movie role was in 1994’s live-action version of The Flintstones. Immediately after, she announced her retirement from films.

She also had one-of-a-kind winning looks. Her looks were definitely that of a movie star. Even at a young age, you knew she had a face for the screen. The smooth face and glowing violet eyes. You could tell in her earlier moviesthat she had the looks. Even in adolescence, she matured with grace and beauty and would have the looks perfect for Hollywood’s Golden Age. She also knew how to live the glamorous life. She was always seen with the most glamorous dresses and was renowned for her huge collection of jewelry including huge diamond rings and diamond necklaces. She even launched two fragrances in the 1990’s.

She also had the ability to be the subject of much publicity, both while active in her acting career and after. She was known for her eight marriages to seven husbands: starting with hotel mogul Conrad Hilton and ending with Larry Fortensky. Her relationship and eventual marriage to Eddie Fisher made headlines because it interfered with his marriage to Eddie Fisher. She married Richard Burton twice over a period of twelve years. Only her marriage to Michael Todd lasted until his death. She was known for her weight gain battles, frequently lampooned in Joan Rivers’ standup comedy material. She had well-publicized substance abuse battles that included a stay at the Betty Ford Clinic where she met her final husband Larry Fortensky. Her friendship with Michael Jackson also made tabloid headlines. Fact: she is the godmother of Michael’s two oldest children. She also battled constant health problems and they would always make for good tabloid copy. She broke her back five times and had two hip replacements. She also battled life-threatening illnesses like a brain tumor, two bouts of pneumonia and numerous heart problems. 

Despite her life of luxury and her questionable relationships, she was also one who knew how to use her celebrity to attract a cause. She supported AIDS causes starting in 1984 when they were not popular but became more active after her friend actor Rock Hudson died of the disease in 1985. She founded or co-founded two major AIDS charities and promoted major AIDS fundraising events. He also devoted herself to many causes relating to Israel and Zionism. She herself converted to Judaism in 1959. She would use her celebrity for many fundraising events and for awareness for the causes she believed in. In turn, she has been awarded humanitarian awards during her life. She was even named a Dame in 2000.

When she died on Wednesday, many believe we lost the last great movie star of Hollywood’s Golden Era. Although that’s disputable, we did lose a one-of-a-kind. She had the picture perfect looks for Hollywood but she delivered solid acting every time. What mistakes she made in her personal life, she made up for in her charm and grace. She lived every inch of the definition ‘fame and fortune’ but was still in touch with what was happening in the world. Many leading ladies came before her and many have come since but she will never be equaled. Elizabeth, we’ll miss you.