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VIFF 2020 Review: Jumbo

A carnival ride is the object of desire of Jeanne (played by Noemie Merlant) in Jumbo.

I ended my VIFF with the French film Jumbo. It was part of the Altered States slate. I agree the film was something else!

The film begins in an amusement park in a French city. Jeanne Tantois is the park custodian. Her job over there is just her labor. She has a fascination with many of the rides there, but she doesn’t get along well with too many of the men that she works with. She’s a young girl who lives with her parents. Her mother Margarette wonders when she will find the right boy. At home, she creates things like celestial ceiling images or mobiles consisting of a lot of LED lights. There in her room, she lets her imagination run free. She even has a belief that objects have souls, even moving motorized objects.

One day, a new ride comes to the amusement park. It’s a 25-foot tall ride set to accommodate 32 at a time. Jeanne cleans the light bulbs, but soon notices the ride, named ‘Jumbo,’ is communicating with her. She’s surprised by it all. Jumbo offers her a ride. She accepts with her riding alone, and she appears to enjoy it in an erotic sense. Over time, she has gotten to have a closer liking to Jumbo. Jumbo communicates with her: green lights for yes, red for no. Soon her liking for Jumbo isn’t just simple. It’s intimate.

Not everybody is accepting upon hearing Jeanne’s love for this carnival ride. The other teens from her school including a group of boys poke fun at her. Her boss and the head custodian look at her with huge suspicion or something’s wrong with her. Margarette meets Jumbo, rides him, and is shocked that she could be attracted to an object. However it takes a lot of convincing to her mother that her attraction to Jumbo is real and is her everything.

The relationship between her and Jumbo grows. One night she lays down on Jumbo and his oils enter into her almost as if a sexual pleasure. Then the workers at the amusement park are given awards for the best services. Jeanne is given an award for her services with the bullying boys watching from the back. Then the shocking news. Jumbo will no longer be at the amusement park. Jeanne is devastated. Even more so when she learns Jumbo will be transported to an amusement park in Belgium. Her boss makes it clear it’s her attraction to Jumbo that caused their decision. That leaves Jeanne no other choice. She must marry Jumbo before he’s taken away. Margarette and her stepfather are willing to assist her in the marriage. The two perform the rites as both Jumbo and Jeanne accept. All three go for one last ride and get off in time before the bullying boys from her school can get them.

Now there have been films about people having feelings of love to objects in the past. However this is something unique as it’s of a young female with an attraction to a carnival ride. This could have come across as a dumb story. However there is such a thing as objectophilia. Writer Zoe Wittock learned of a story of a Florida woman who was in so love with a carnival ride, she tried to marry it. Even then, to make it believable, it required that from a believable character. Jeanne is that character. She herself is a dreamer who likes to draw and is fascinated by lights and stars. She even mentions at the beginning of her belief that objects have souls of their own. It was necessary for her to say something like that for her objectophilia to be believable.

Even with the imagination, the film had to make Jumbo come alive as well. If Jeanne sees the soul inside Jumbo, we the audience have to see it too. It works as we see Jumbo come to life whenever Jeanne is around and when Jeanne conveys her emotions and feelings. Plus right at the end, Jeanne’s mother and stepfather have to see Jumbo’s soul for themselves in order for Jeanne to marry it. As bizarrely erotic this story is, it needs to have the scenes to make us believe it and the characters to make it work. And it does.

Top credit goes to writer/director Zoe Wittock. Before Jumbo, she wrote and directed four short films. Jumbo is her first feature-length film. It’s also marks her return to film work after a five-year hiatus. A woman sexually attracted to a carnival ride looks like the premise for a bad movie or something completely freakish. Zoe, however, is able to make it work with the story and making the story of Jeanne’s love believable and also giving character to the ride. Additional credit should go to Noemie Merlant. It’s also the believability of Noemie’s performance that keeps Jumbo from being dismissed as a stupid movie. She made the objectophilia believable and not look as freaky as one would anticipate. It’s very surprising to see her play a completely different character than Marianne from Portrait Of A Lady On Fire as well as a different time period. There’s also excellent acting from Emmanuelle Bercot as the mother who has to struggle to accept her daughter’s objectophilia and in the end be encouraging to Jeanne in marrying Jumbo.

Jumbo appears like a film that would not win too many awards on the film festival circuit, but it has won one and has received nominations. It won Best Feature Film at the Chattanooga Film Festival, nominated for a New Direction award at the Cleveland Film Festival, nominated for a Best First Feature Award at the Philadelphia Film Festival, a New Visions Award nominee at the Sitges – Catalonian Film Festival and Best International Film at the Jeongju Film Festival.

Jumbo has what would first be dismissed as a ridiculous story. What made it work was the actors making the story and the bizarreness believable as we watch.

And there you have it! That’s the last of my film reviews of this year’s VIFF! my wrap-up of this year’s Festival is coming soon!

VIFF 2020 Review: Black Bear

What starts as film work leads into what becomes a bizarre love triangle in the film Black Bear.

It’s funny I didn’t see my first American live-action film at the VIFF until the second-last day of the Festival. Black Bear was that film. It was quite a story.

The film begins with a woman in a swimsuit out by the dock near a lake in the Adirondacks region and just meditates by the water instead of swimming. We later see that woman walking down a road in what appears to be a remote area of the woods. She has a lot of baggage. A man stops to ask if she’s lost. She says she’s an actress-turned-director names Allison. He introduces himself as Gabe. He is actually the director who will be working with Allison on an upcoming production. Allison is willing to accept Gabe’s offer to bring her luggage to the place. During the walk she reveals she chose directing because she’s hard to work with. She’s known for emotional outbursts. She hopes to spend some time at the cottage in hopes that the natural greenness with help her unblock her creativity and help her to produce her next project. They arrive at their cottage near the lake with his pregnant wife Blair waiting. Gabe tries to introduce Blair to Allison, but you can sense the jealousy in Blair’s body language, even though she tries to hide it.

During the dinner, things really get heated. Blair talks of how they moved from Brooklyn to the Adirondacks; because Brooklyn was too expensive and they were getting nowhere in the film business. Blair soon gets all confrontational with Gabe. She even gives him a hard time in front of Allison about a comment she perceives as his male chauvinisms. Allison sides with Gabe, adding more suspicious feeling from Blair. The dinner leads to more friction from Blair about Gabe and how she can’t stand the world he creates. Late at night, Gabe finds Allison alone. The two develop a good conversation. Then it leads to a lot more. It turns out Gabe has had a thing for Allison since they first met and she has a thing for Gabe too. Right while they are about to have sex, Blair physically attacks both of them. She knew it all along and she’s infuriated. She even chases Allison out, but it leads to an area in the woods where Allison is confronted by a black bear. The bear doesn’t attack Allison at all.

The film then progresses forward weeks or months later to the wrapping up of the film. The shooting is taking place around the cottage and the dock. The crew is setting up. The directors are having confrontations of how to have the next scenes shot. Gabe and Blair are cooperating well for this project. It’s possible they’ve decided mostly for the sake of the film to put all personal feelings aside. But for the last scene, Allison appears to be out of it. The calm, cool Allison from that time before is not there. She appears angered or hurting inside. However the final scenes still need to be shot.

As Allison becomes more uncooperative with the actors and crew on the set, she finds a place to withdraw herself. Problems arise all over the place. The crew have their issues of setting up and one has a severe stomach problem. The directors have an ego clash over what is to be done. Gabe and Blair have talks about the film that appear to be more about their relationship, or fading relationship. The actors squabble with each other. However it’s Allison who’s the biggest of the problems. She’s just become an emotional time-bomb. It’s unclear why she’s that way but any attempt from anyone to get her to work properly on the scene, especially from Gabe, only succeeds in making her even more confrontational. Eventually she does agree to the scene, but it appears things could go better. After the shootings done, she leaves the cottage where she comes across the bear again. Again the bear doesn’t attack and Allison smiles for the first time today.

This is an interesting story about a bizarre love triangle and how it intermingles with film. An actress who wants to venture into film decides to meet with the director of her next film. She makes the way into the house and the wife suspects something. Everything falls apart from that point on. Blair starts friction with Gabe while Allison appears to coax him. It results in an affair that drives Blair angry. Three weeks later, work on the film happens and Allison can’t take it anymore. She becomes an emotional timebomb. You’re left wondering why? She said at the beginning of the film she was confrontational on the set. Is that the reason why Allison is acting like a time bomb? Or could it be she still has feelings for Gabe? Or is something deeper than that? Even of a natural sense? You’re left to wonder.

Despite how interesting the story is, it does get confusing. The first story appears to set up for the second story. I can understand how films don’t try to reveal everything mainly so the audience can make their own decisions, but there’s still too much that’s unclear. One of the things that’s unclear is whether the marriage between Gabe and Blair ended. They get along better while shooting. You’re left to wonder did they patch things up or did they split and are now getting along better? Another is Allison. I know I mentioned how Allison’s behavior on the final day of shooting get you wondering. If you saw the scene yourself, you yourself would find it hard to decide the biggest reason why she’s acting that way. Also confusing is the role of the bear in the film. The film’s two scenes are titled Part One: The Bear On The Road and the second scene is Part Two: The Bear By The Boat House, but you don’t see the black bear until the very end. The bear doesn’t attack Allison in either scene and the appearance of the bear causes Allison to smile at the end. You’re left to wonder what’s the symbolism of the bear? Allison coming to grips with her mentality? Her tranquility with nature finally reached? You’re left wondering.

Despite the confusing story, this is an ambitious film from writer-director Lawrence Michael Levine. This is the sixth film and third feature-length film he writes and directs and the first of his films he doesn’t act in. The film is impressive that it is a psychological film about human nature and how personal problems, especially among people in the arts, cause the friction, but its imperfections are noticeable. The best work from the film comes from the actress Aubrey Plaza. She goes from an actress who doesn’t appear to be the type to call a time-bomb at first to one who fits the description of ‘time-bomb’ perfectly. Her transformation was excellent because she was portraying two different Allisons and it worked excellently. Christopher Abbott was also good as Gabe: the director left confused in all of this. Sarah Gadon was excellent with portraying Blair as one who does not shy away from letting her personal feelings show. Additional technical efforts that highlight the film are the cinematography of Robert Leitzell, the cinematic score of Giulio Carmassi and Bryan Scary, and the images of pencil and paper of going from scene to scene and the end credits.

Black Bear hasn’t won too many awards on the film festival circuit. It was a nominee for a NEXT Innovator Award at the Sundance Film Festival and a New Vision Award at the Sitges – Catalonian Film Festival. Nevertheless those who saw it have talked a lot about it and its story and it has become a major attraction at film festivals.

Black Bear does make for a drama about a bizarre love triangle. It’s a story of the affair and the aftermath. The problem is there’s too much in the film that is unclear, including the inclusion of the bear.

VIFF 2020 Review: There Is No Evil (شیطان وجود ندارد)

There Is No Evil is four films in one about the topic of the death penalty and how Iran carries it out.Definitely a film that will make people think.

I was eager to watch There Is No Evil because of a lot of the pre-festival buzz surrounding it. it’s a very thought-provoking film.

The first quarter of the film is a simple setting. It’s a man named Hashmet and his wife. They’re coming home in the same car doing daily tasks before they arrive home and picking up the daughter from school. The wife is actually arriving home from work. They talk about plans of going to a wedding and of caring for his wife’s mother. The husband actually works his job in the early morning. After the wife and daughter arrive in their well-to-do home, have their dinner and go to bed, the husband then goes off to work. He wears a uniform of a guardian. He makes his way to a private room with some food. With his job, he has to wait until all lights in a section turn green. There are a few red ones. Then the lights are all green. He presses a button. The button involves a platform men who are about to be hanged stand on. The button he presses drops the platform from underneath their feet and they hang until their deaths: whether it’s immediate or by strangulation of the noose.

The second quarter of the story shows a bunker room for soldiers. It is Iranian law that a young soldier is to assist with the execution process. It can be any one in the bunker area. Pouya is the one chosen. He is completely against committing this act. He will have to perform this act or else he will not receive a completion certificate, which will mean no chances for a good career. He talks of doing mutiny and escaping with his girlfriend. All of the other soldiers think this is too risky of a move. Some even think he’s a sissy. Then the moment for his service comes. Pouya is all prepared and dressed. As they’re walking their way to the gallows, Pouya suddenly revolts against the guard. He then makes his way into another room where he also revolts against the security guards. Pouya then breaks free. He meets his girlfriend in a remote locate. The two drive off where they talk of their future plans for outside Iran.

The third quarter of the film belongs to a young soldier named Javad. Javad is on a three-day leave from his military service. First thing he does on his leave is bathe in the river before seeing his girlfriend Nana, whom he hopes to marry one day. Nana’s family is setting up a memorial service in the house. Javad willingly attends the private service until he sees the picture of who the memorial service is for. It’s for a man Javad helped execute. Javad is brought to guilt over what he did. He tells Nana and she is heartbroken. He tries to convince her of what he did. He said “If we say no, they will destroy our lives.” He can be seen trying to wash his face in the river. To some, it may look like he’s trying to drown himself.

The fourth and final quarter is the story of a couple and their niece. Their niece Darya arrives at the airport after arriving from Germany and they’re excited to see her. The trip is supposed to be a nice get-together, as he takes Darya in the rural countryside. Darya is uncomfortable with the hunting trips as she refuses to kill a living thing. However the get-together is to turn solemn as the uncle has some heartbreaking news to tell. He is dying and has less than a year to live. Darya is heartbroken. However the uncle has two other pieces of news to confess to her. The first is that he used to participate in the process of capital punishment as a soldier. The second is that he is Darya’s father. Darya is upset with all this news. She can’t even begin to look at him in the face. The story ends asking more questions than answers.

The main topic of the film is the death penalty in Iran. It’s good that a film about this topic is made. Iran is second only to the People’s Republic of China as the country that carries out the most executions. Many believe Iran carries out the most per capita. The crimes for execution range anywhere from murder to rape to even crimes considered non-capital in other countries like armed robbery, arson, burglary, counterfeiting and even non-crimes like fornication, blasphemy, homosexuality and adultery. Often when there are hangings, their bodies are out on display in the public streets of the cities. The film shows that those people who do the escorting of prisoners to be executed are soldiers of the Iranian army. Such is a military duty. There may be some soldiers that think it’s the right thing, some that think nothing of it, and some that are dead-set against it. Whatever the situation, military service is mandatory in Iran if you want to have a future of any kind. If you reject your military duty and don’t receive a completion certificate, you won’t be able to apply for a passport or a job. Although the part involving Hashmet has nothing to do with the military, it shows that he can have a well-do-to life through this system. Executioners are well-paid in Iran.

This film presents four different stories of capital punishment. The people are not linked in any way whether it be the people they execute or any family relation so it almost looks like four short films stringed together. The first is of a man who carries out his daily life with a good standard of living by Iranian standards and does his job normally. The second is of a young soldier who is dead-set against it and plans to commit mutiny. The third story is of a soldier who realizes who he led to execution when he’s over at a house for the memorial. The fourth is a man who’s the biological father of the girl and has to confess his past before he dies. These films can stand alone, but they’re all interconnected in this feature film that has something to say about the death penalty, and the systemic regime of Iran that supports this system of rewarding those who carry out the duties.

The film is well-constructed as it sets up for the main topic of the film and the second and third stories are more a case of the rebel and the conformist who regrets what he does. The fourth story is a bit unique as it’s of a man who is nearing his death and he regrets what he did. The fourth story didn’t make the most sense. Often you wonder why the daughter is angry. Is it his past of participating in executions? Or is it his truth he had to tell? It’s hard to understand at that point.

This film is a remarkable achievement for director/writer Mohammad Rasoulof. Just right after the 2017 Cannes Film Festival where his film A Man of Integrity premiered and won the Un Certain Regard Award, he was arrested for ‘endangering national security’ and ‘spreading propaganda’ against the government. He was eventually sentenced to a year in prison and banned for life from filmmaking. Rasoulof is not the first Iranian director to be criminally sentenced. Jafar Panahi who directed 3 Faces was also given a prison sentence and a ban on filmmaking. We should admire these Iranian directors. They’re risking their freedom to tell the truth that the government wants hidden. With Rasoulof, he’s defying his lifetime ban to tell his feelings about the death penalty in Iran. His assembly of four short films into a feature-length film of a common theme is his brave attempt at sending the message to the world. Although it’s a strong assembly until the last film doesn’t seem so clear in its message, it is worthy of admiration and being labeled an accomplishment. I don’t think there was a single standout performance among the acting. There was no single lead performance. All the actors who performed in their vignettes embodied the character and the story well. Also world noting, Rasoulof’s daughter Baran plays Darya in the film.

There Is No Evil has had an impressive tally on the film festival circuit. It started to year off by winning three awards at the Berlin Film Festival including the Golden Bear for Best Film. Since then, it has also won Best Narrative awards at the Heartland Film Festival, Montclair Film Festival and the Philadelphia Film Festival. It’s also won the Audience Award at the Sao Paulo Film Festival and Rasoulof won the Best Director Award at the Valladolid Film Festival where it was a nominee for the Golden Spike Award for Best Film.

There Is No Evil is a powerful film with something to say about capital punishment and the regime that promotes it. The four stories are not related by story but by the common theme. All four have something to say about the subject. A proud accomplishment from a director who could be criminally punished again for making such a film.

VIFF 2020 Review: Summer of 85 (Été 85)

Summer of 85 is the summer of love for two young men, played by Felix Lefebvre (left) and Benjamin Voisin (right).

Summer of 85 is a film that will first attract people to watch for differing reasons. Some who are fans of French films, some for the LGBT-themes story, some who are fans of retro-80’s stuff, or some who are fans of teen love stories. Those who see it should be pleased.

The film begins with a young male, only 16. His name is Alexis and he’s under arrest by authorities. He’s frustrated over what he did. The authorities are wondering why he did what he did. Recklessness? Anti-semitism?

Alexis is willing to let us know how it all started. It all started one hot summer day along the Normand coast. One day he decides to go boating. However it’s on the day of a thunderstorm and Alexis is not all that good at sailing to begin with. His boat capsizes and it throws Alexis in the water. Alexis is almost drowning in the water until he’s rescued by a young male his age. His name is David Gorman. He is 18 years-old, Jewish, and works with his mother’s tourism business along the coast. Alexis is awestruck by David. David takes Alexis to his house where his mother offers him a bath to warm up.

Alexis and David are too completely different individuals. Alexis is the shy one just trying to find his way in the world. David is the daredevil rebel who isn’t afraid to drive like a crazy on his motorcycle and believes in living life unpredictably. Over time, Alexis and David are a lot more than simple friends. They do many a thing together like go to parties, go to carnivals, go to amusement parks and go to the beach. David’s mother even takes a liking to Alexis. Alexis’ mother notices that he’s become less shy since he met David. One night, the two rescue a drunken man who almost drowns in the beach. Another time after a fun night, the two make a promise to each other. If one dies before the other, they dance on their grave.

One day, a woman enters the picture. Her name is Kate and she’s a young student from the UK who speaks excellent French. David is welcoming to having Kate with the two of them, as a friend, but Alexis is uncomfortable with it. The two take Kate out sailing. Even though Alexis goes along with it, you can tell as David keeps Kate company, Alexis is sensing something. Eventually Alexis is justified. At a party, Alexis catches David making love to Kate. Alexis confronts David in his mother’s store. David acts like he couldn’t care less about Alexis’ feelings and just throws in his face how boring he is. Alexis starts a fight with him and trashes the store before leaving. David goes out to look for him and even gets violent at a party with others.

The next day, Alexis goes to visit the store, but David’s mother is infuriated with him. David died in a motorcycle accident trying to search for Alexis and she completely blames him for his death. She even threatens to call the police when Alexis comes to the house. Alexis is heartbroken and distraught. His mother doesn’t know how to deal with him. The only person he feels he can see about this is Kate. Kate says he’s over at the morgue. The only way Alexis can see David’s body is if he poses as his girlfriend. Alexis agrees to do so. As he sees the deceased David, Alexis can’t help but make love to him one last time, which gets them both booted out of the morgue. Kate is upset with how Alexis has been acting and has a falling out with him. Alexis feels he has one last mission. He goes to the town cemetery. He goes to the Jewish section to search for the newest grave. He finds David’s grave. He dances on top of it with Rod Stewart’s ‘Sailing’ playing from his Walkman. That’s when the police arrest him.

Alexis’ mother tries to reach out to him before his trial. Kate meets with Alexis one last time before she returns to the UK. She just lets Alexis know both of them weren’t in love with David. They were in love with their own image of David. At the trial, Alexis is given a lenient sentence. The Summer of 1985 appears on the verge of ending as Alexis notices a man at the beach. He’s the drunkard whom he and David saved from drowning. Alexis learns that he’s gay. The two get to know each other better.

I’m sure that when you first start to watch this film, many of you will impulsively thin kat the beginning you will get another case of Call Me By Your Name. I mean it has all the makings: Mediterranean Coast, a boy-meets-boy story, adaptation from a novel. However there are a lot of differences you’ll notice as time goes on. First of all this boy-meets-boy story is of a 16 year-old and an 18 year-old. One’s the more orderly, more sensitive type. One’s the rebel who likes to let loose. The inclusion of the young woman in the middle also adds for some twists and turns. Also like, CMBYN, this film is an adaptation of a book. The book is actually a 1982 British book by Aidan Chambers titled Dance On My Grave.

The film is as much of a tragedy as it is a comedy. David breaks up with Alexis in the most heartless way. David then dies young. Alexis doesn’t know how to deal with David, especially with seducing his corpse (and disguised as a female). He does the dance he promised, which is what leads him to be arrested in the first place. There are moments of heartbreak, but there are moments that will have you laughing. I’m sure you won’t have a hard time finding the humor in there.

At the same time, the story is a funny reminder to many of us of our young-and-stupid days. About days when we become adults for the first time and just let it all out in having fun as limitless as it gets. The film is also a reminder of our own immaturities as young adults. It’s noticeable in Alexis as he doesn’t know how to deal with his emotions. It’s evident in David how he drops Alexis cold because he sees him as a bore. Yeah, cases when we were that insensitive to those that ‘loved’ us are an uncomfortable reminder of our own immaturities we had when we were becoming adults. However the biggest surprise for me is that it’s set in 1985 and the public treat the gay couple like it’s no big deal. I remember 1985 very well. People were not that accepting of gay couples back then. Plus with the AIDS epidemic getting a lot of attention, the gay lifestyle was seen with a lot of contempt. Anyways, if the story included the realities of the time, it wouldn’t have made for the delight it is.

This is an excellent film from French director Francois Ozon. Ozon has had over twenty years of an illustrious filmmaking career including 8 Women, Swimming Pool, Potiche, Frantz and By The Grace Of God that won the Silver Bear at the 2019 Berlin Film Festival. This film doesn’t have the same awards-caliber as some of his past films, but it’s still a remarkable film as it shows a side of teen love most films don’t show. Some could even say this film looks a lot like a queer version of a John Hughes teen comedy. Also remarkable are the acting performances of the main protagonist Felix Lefebvre and his love interest Benjamin Voisin. Felix was excellent in depicting Alexis as the sensitive one who falls in love for the first time. Felix was great in depicting Alexis with his sensitivities, insecurities and immaturities. Voisin was excellent in playing the rebel whose bad-boy sex-appeal knows how to win Alexis and Kate, but is too selfish and stupid to relate to others. Philippine Velge was also excellent as Kate: the British girl in between the two. Valeria Bruni Tedeschi was also very good as David’s mother and did an excellent job in going from a loving mother to one grieving and hurting badly. Isabelle Nanty is also good as Alexis’ caring and concerned mother.

Summer of 85 hasn’t been a big darling at too many film festivals. Comedies like these normally aren’t. It hasn’t even won awards for LGBT-themed films. However it has been a nominee for the Gold Q-Hugo Award at the Chicago Film Festival and was nominated for two awards at the San Sebastian Film Festival. I’m sure when the awards season comes up later than usual in 2021, it will win or be nominated for many LGBT-themed awards.

That’s the unique thing about Summer of 85. It’s part-tragedy, part-comedy. Part teen romance, part coming-of-age story. Those who see it will be delighted.

VIFF 2020 Review: Violation

Violation is a revenge fantasy co-written, co-directed and starring Madeleine Sims-Fewer.

DISCLAIMER: I know we’re well into December and the VIFF ended almost three months ago, but I have been too busy with work and my part-time courses. They all left me with no time for me to finish my blogging. Now I have the time and I aim to finish my last five VIFF blogs over this next week.

Violation is another Canadian-made feature I took an interest in. Especially since it’s part of the Altered States slate of the VIFF. That film is definitely something else!

The film begins with a woman and a man alone in a cabin. They appear to be ready to engage in something sexual. Even something kinky and involving bondage. The woman ties the man’s hands up and he is excited for what he thinks he’s going to get. He’s waiting for it, but instead she hits him hard across the head and he’s unconscious.

The film then flashes back to the beginning. Miriam is a woman on the edge of a divorce and with a new boyfriend, Caleb. She goes on a getaway with her younger sister, Greta, whom she hasn’t seen in years. The getaway is in a cabin by the lake just outside the woods and joining Greta is her fiance Dylan. The getaway looks to be a good time to relax and reunite with family members.

However all that changes one day. Miriam decides to sleep for awhile during the daytime, but Dylan enters in for more than just a visit. You can tell that Dylan violates her by the mere image of her eye and her look of horrific shock.

Returning back to after Miriam hit Dylan, Miriam has a lot of cleaning detergents and tarps. It’s clear she wants todo more than just kill Dylan. She assumes Dylan is already dead after she first hit him across the head, but even with Dylan’s face covered, Dylan regains consciousness. She has to kill him, and she strikes his head again and continues until he’s sure he’s dead.

It doesn’t end there. Miriam now has to dispose of Dylan’s body. Trying to do that is very hard as she will have to decapitate him and saw off his body… and clean everything up so it’s all unnoticeable. She even has to have his body drain of blood above the bathtub. She does that with immense difficulty. She then saws off his head and legs and wraps his whole body in a tarp. After all that, she takes his bagged body and burns it to the point it’s nothing but ashes blowing in the wind by the lake. It may be over but Miriam is not the same. You can tell as a Russian couple are arguing nearby a shore and she interferes to tell the man to leave his wife alone. The look on her face at the end says it all.

The film then flashes back to before the whole murder and disposal happened. Miriam and Greta are out for a carefree swim on the beach. They get into good conversation about memories, but Miriam has to tell Greta the truth about Dylan. Miriam tell her but Greta does not believe her. In fact, Greta gives her a reaction of betrayal. The film ends with the look on Miriam’s face just before she’s about to commit the murder.

Right before the film was about to begin, one of the VIFF emcees said that the directors are known for making films of uncomfortable viewing. This film has a lot of uncomfortable things about it. First off being a rape, then a murder during a sex act, then a dismemberment. It does give you the impression that these filmmakers want to do some unwatchable elements Lars von Trier may have not tapped into. The rape wasn’t graphic, but we get a sense of what’s happening by the sex sounds of Dylan and the wide-eye of Miriam. The dismemberment was very graphic. I wondered how on earth they were able to get a realistic-looking fake body to do the scene. The first attempt at murder was graphic as well as the successful second attempt.

Actually the scene where Dylan thinks he’s about to have sex with Miriam was quite graphic. When I saw the erection, I wondered if it was real or not? I’m no prude, but I’ve always considered an erection on film to be the stuff of porn. So when I saw that scene, I was thinking “I hope that’s a dildo!”

The film attempts to tell a story of a woman who’s a victim of misogyny and plots her revenge. The film shows how the whole incident changed her. You can tell as she reacts when she comes across a Russian couple arguing after she finished with the murder. I’m sure misogyny and men who act as sex predators is a major message of the film. However I think the film mixes things up in the storytelling. You’ll notice it’s not chronological from start to finish. It’s a lot like Pulp Fiction where it goes from one time period of a story to the next and mixes it up in various scene. This film does the same thing too. However the arrangement of the story seems like it didn’t make sense to have one scene one place and another scene one place and to have the image of Miriam before she commits the murder at the very end. I don’t think the placements were well-placed. I get the ending, where they show the look on Miriam’s face and it showed a person irreversibly changed, but I think placement of sequences could have been better.

Despite its flaws, one of the film’s best storytelling qualities are the various filmshots. The rape scene is only scene through the eye of Miriam. That image and the sounds accompanying are all you need to know to get the message. The overhead shots of the lake area aren’t just picturesque scene shots. They’re also shots sending the message that anything can happen in the remote outdoors. The scene of Dylan’s ashes all in the air and around the lake area send the message that Miriam is leaving it all behind. And by leaving it all behind, it’s everything: Dylan, sister Greta, Caleb, and especially the life Miriam once led.

This film is a very good work for directors Dusty Mancinelli and Madeleine Sims-Fewer. They have written and directed many short films before and some shorts together. This is the first feature length film for both as writers and as directors. It’s flaws are noticeable, but it definitely succeeds as an ambitious work. I strongly believe I will see better from both of them in the near future. Madeleine also does an excellent job in embodying the character with both the emotional and psychological transitions throughout the story. This is a story she co-wrote so it makes sense that she knows the character inside out. Outside of the role of Miriam, there weren’t too many other roles that were well-developed. Anna Maguire’s role as Greta was the only supporting role that showed any depth. Jesse LaVercombe’s role as Dylan was too two-dimensional as the predator who appears charming at first. The additions of the music of Andrea Boccadoro and the cinematography of Adam Crosby add to the film.

Violation has won awards and earned nominations at many Canadian film festivals. Directors Sims-Fewer and Mancinelli have received the most acclaim with the Emerging Canadian Artists award at the Calgary Film Festival, a Rising Stars award at the Toronto Film Festival, a Best Canadian Film nomination at Toronto, a Best Canadian Feature Nomination at the Montreal Film Festival and a Discovery Award nominee at the Directors Guild of Canada Awards.

Violation is a story about being violated by a predator and getting revenge. However it’s a story that’s not put together the best and ends on a confusing note. Hard to make sense what the film was trying to be.

VIFF 2020 Review: Undine

Paula Beer plays a Modern-day undine in Christian Petzold’s latest film Undine.

Undine was the first live-action foreign-language film I saw at the VIFF. It’s a very unique story.

The film begins with a man names Johannes breaking up with his girlfriend. She is distraught and even says she’ll have to kill him. Her name is Undine Wibeau. Undine tries to go about her daily life as she works as a historian at the Berlin City Museum. There she shows people a model of the city and tells of the history of Berlin. Undine has a unique ability to focus in on places and areas. She has an area of the Spree River in focus.

At a remote area of the Spree River, a man named Christoph works in the water to weld or to search out treasures found in the ocean floor. That is his profession. Undine returns to the cafe where she and Johannes used to drink at. That’s where she meets Christoph for the first time. The conversation gets friendly, but an accident happens. The accident causes them to bump into the cafe’s fish tank, causing it to break and spill all over. Both Undine and Christoph fall to the floor in love. However the owner is furious and bans the two from the cafe forever.

Over time the relationship between Christoph and Undine grows. They even move in together. One time during his job, Christoph offers to show Undine what he’s seen. Undine goes down, but without the scuba gear and she later floats off. He senses something peculiar about her. His sense of peculiarity grows right during his job he comes across a sunken ship with the name Undine on it.

Even though the relationship between Undine and Christoph grows, Undine still can’t help but think of Johannes. It strikes her as she goes about her job but when she looks at a part in the module that resembles the location of the cafe, she gets the sense that Johannes is there. Even while she’s walking romantically with Christoph in a park, she noticed Johannes with his new girlfriend. She turns her head, but returns back to Christoph. However Christoph sensed something. It wasn’t just the turn of the head but the the change of her heartbeat. It infuriates him, but Undine confesses the truth. That it was her ex.

Heartbroken, Undine goes to the cafe where Johannes is. Despite the owner being infuriated by Undine’s presence, she meets with Johannes and says he wants her back. The next day, an emergency happens at Christoph’s job site. The oxygen has been cut from his scuba outfit and he’s removed from the river unconscious. Undine is distraught to learn the news. She goes over to the hospital to see Christoph, but there’s a woman by his bedside. Christoph is unconscious and comatose. The woman tells Undine he’s brain-dead and she unleashes her anger on her. Undine leaves, going to Johannes’ place later that night. Johannes is in the pool while his girlfriend goes in the house to get a drink. Undine enters the pool. While Johannes is happy to see her, Undine drowns him. The then leaves and walks into the Spree River naked.

Two years pass. Christoph is alive and well. He recovered from his coma. The woman from the hospital, Monika, is his girlfriend and they are expecting their first child together. However Christoph is sensing something back to the Spree River. He returns one night alone, and there he sees her: Undine. She is alive and well and she belongs in the water. It becomes clear who is truly in Christoph’s heart.

One thing about this film is that it gets into the myth of the undine. For those who don’t know, the undine is a lot like the mermaid most us are familiar with. However the mermaid is just one of the images of the undine. The mythical undine is a lot darker than the mermaid who wants to please the man she meets. In fact one aspect of the undine is if the man is unfaithful to her, he is doomed to die.

What this film does is try to get to the common image of the undine in both its positive qualities and its negative qualities too. In a sense, the film is more of a reminder of the undine myth. The film also tries to set the myth of the undine in the modern world. In modern-day Berlin to be exact. Undine Wibeau is the undine in the modern world who lives along the humans, but gets to the true sense of who she is when she’s in the water.

One unique thing about the film is how they use Berlin as part of the telling of the story. Undine works as a historian with an urban development team. She knows a lot of Berlin’s history form centuries back to the days of division with the Berlin was to the present and its developments. The history also provides clues to Undine’s own past and own identity. One would be surprised how a story of an undine in modern Berlin would come to be.

This is another good film by Christian Petzold. Petzold has become one of Germany’s most heralded directors in recent years with films like Barbara, Jerichow and Phoenix. Here he delivers another good film. It’s very well-done, but it does have its flaws. The energy level does seem to get lost somewhere near the end. Nevertheless it is mostly well-written and well-acted. Paula Beer is also excellent as the mythical Undine. Her role may have lacked dimension, but she was very good in capturing the mythical figure of the undine well. The two leading men, Franz Rogowski and Jacob Matschenz, were good in their roles, but I felt their roles were underdeveloped. Hans Fromm did an excellent job with delivering the cinematography for the film.

Undine has done quite well on the film festival circuit. At the Berlin Film Festival in won the FIPRESI Prize and was nominated for the Golden Bear for Best Film. Beer herself won the Silver Bear Prize at that Festival for Best Actress. It’s also been a nominee for Best Film at the Denver Film Festival, Beijing Film Festival, Seville European Film Festival and a Best Narrative nominee at the Montclair Film Festival.

Undine is a good attempt at telling a modern-day story of the undine myth. It doesn’t keep the energy or the vibe consistent throughout the film, but it is picturesque and has a good sense of the characters.

VIFF 2020 Review: Cured

Cured is a documentary that retraces what is arguably the first hurdle cleared by LGBT activists and would pave the way to rights gays and lesbians have today.

The VIFF presents a lot of documentaries and a lot of LGBT-themed films. Cured is an LGBT-themed documentary that focuses on what one arguably considers the first hurdle they had to overcome.

The documentary begins with an introduction of the American Psychiatric Association. In 1952, they published their first edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. They included a chapter on sexual disorders. At the top of the list was ‘homosexuality.’ No doubt it was controversial. Psychiatrists bought it up, had ‘treatments’ and ‘therapy methods’ invented to ‘cure gay men and women, and really created a stigma. Most outraged were the gays and lesbians. They would hate how something like this would demonize them and how they lived and loved.

Once it was declared a form of mental illness, and had treatments listed, people were sent to hospitals like Utica, NY for painful treatments like electroshock therapy or in extreme cases, a lobotomy. However there was a slow but sure number of LGBT people that would start things to get this overturned. The first was a lesbian group led by couple Barbara Gittings and Kay Lahusen. They were joined by Frank Kameny. During the 1960’s they worked to start support groups and organize rallies to spread awareness and end the negative stigma the public had towards gay people. Besides fames sexologist Alfred Kinsey published shocking studies in 1948 of a good percentage of men engaging in same-sex behavior.

After gaining a lot of support, the next step was to influence the APA to remove homosexuality form the list of mental illnesses. They would soon find support among doctors. There was one psychiatrist, Dr. John Fryer, who not only supported them but was gay himself. There were times they had to go to meetings and rallies involving the APA and ‘crash’ them. During the meeting they ‘crashed’ in San Francisco, they encouraged doctors to come sit with a homosexual and listen to what they have to say. For two hours, many doctors were willing to do so.

Over time, there were a growing number of doctors with the APA who soon adopted a gay-friendly attitude and were supportive of the group’s pleas. However there were still stubborn naysayers like Drs. Irving Bieber and Charles Socarides who were determined to have it kept listed as a mental illness. Gay and lesbian groups would hold information booths at APA rallies with titles like ‘Gay, Proud And Healthy.’ Then would come a meeting in 1972 to have gay activists openly speak to the APA. Dr. Fryer would be one of the speakers, but with a clown mask and under the name Dr. H. Homosexual to keep him from losing his job. In 1973, the APA soon removed homosexuality in its list of neurological disorders. However it would still be subject to a vote at a 1974 APA meeting. The majority voted in favor of the removal.

You think of all the milestones LGBTs have made over the past fifty or so years. There was Stonewall, decriminalization of homosexuality, allowing gays to teach and own houses, lobbying for funding for AIDS research, allowing gays in the military, and the legalization of gay marriage. It’s easy to forget this is one of the most important moments in LGBT history, and arguably their first victory in the US. We shouldn’t forget LGBTs have been through worse. There was a time centuries ago gays and lesbians were executed worldwide. In fact Thomas Jefferson’s recommendation that gays be castrated was a ‘liberal’ recommendation during a time when they were hanged. It was a universal norm throughout most of history that a man should love a woman and a woman should love a man and that’s that. Anything else was deviant and criminal. So it should be no surprise a national psychiatric association would label same-sex attraction a mental illness. I’m sure the US wasn’t the only nation that did so.

This is a documentary that’s an important lesson for LGBT people to know. I’m sure there are a lot of young LGBT people who still don’t understand why many in the heterosexual majority consider them inferior. But like Bill Maher once said: “If you think you have it tough, go read history books!” Today’s LGBT young people have it better than any generation of LGBT young people before them. In the past, such young people would be subject to disowning from family, criminal prosecution, and way back having next-to-nobody to turn to. Since the history of humanity on the planet until just after World War II, the gay or lesbian lifestyle or attraction was universally condemned and even criminalized and you could easily lose your job if your ‘secret’ was unraveled. The moments in this documentary are a good indication of the feeling and the attitudes of the times. It’s also important for young LGBT people know how pride movements started out or came to be. They’ll learn of people who started pride at a time when there was no one to turn to and a time when fierce opposition was eventual. The LGBT activists of that era were especially important in paving the way to the liberties, freedoms and social acceptances today’s LGBT people have today.

This documentary is also beneficial today for two main reasons. The first is that there are still people, mostly religious leaders and their followers, who still insist that homosexuality is a mental illness and conversion therapy is the answer. Many will remember advertisements starting in the late-90’s about faith-based conversion therapy programs. If the failure rates of programs from psychiatrists were high, what do you think that says about these unproven faith-based programs? It’s all a political game. The second is that it shows how something that starts off as a grass-roots movement can grow into something nationwide and have a big impact. Even paving way to the civil liberties and rights LGBTs have today.

Top marks go to directors Patrick Sammon and Bennett Singer. This documentary may not be too original in terms of style, but it’s excellent with interviews, both original and archived, and rare footage. They have the facts together in stringing this story together about what is an important part of LGBT history and celebrates a lot of lesser-known or forgotten founders of the LGBT movement. It’s also important that they show the shocking footage of the electroshock therapy and other ‘conversion’ methods used in the time. Because the LGBT of today need to know what the past had to fight,

Cured is a documentary about history being made by those who made the history. It’s important history for today’s young LGBT’s to know what those of the past have overcome. It’s especially relevant today since there are many opponents who harbor those similar thoughts today.

VIFF 2020 Review: Time

Time is a documentary of how Sibil Fox Richardson (left) fights for the freedom of her husband Robert (right).

Normally I don’t like to see documentaries. I’ve seen enough one-sided documentaries in the previous decade to turn me off them. However I took an interest in Time. Injustice to African-Americans has been a heated topic this year and I felt Time was worth seeing.

The documentary consists mostly of filmed footage from court appearances, church appearances and camera phone videos of various moments and shown in black and white. The film begins with Sibil Fox Richardson trying to get a result back from the legal system for the freedom of her husband Robert. Robert was sentenced to prison for 60 years for an armed robbery he committed. It was his first offence. It’s a sentence many, including Sybil, feel is unjust and she’s working to get him freed.

The story is a long process as Sibil is trying to get a result or even a simple answer from the Louisiana Justice Department. It’s been a long wait over years. Each time she’s been calling, she gets a message that they don’t have a result or even an answer for her. Even when they give Sibil a due date when they’ll have it ready, it’s the same response: no answer.

You may ask how did this all start? It was in the 1990’s when Robert and Sibil had plans to start a business of their own. They planned on starting a sportswear store of their own in Lafayette. It seemed destined for promise as sportswear was all the rage in the 1990’s and Lafayette is a big football town. However business didn’t go as well as they hoped. The two decided to rob a bank in 1997; Robert did the robbery and Sibil drove the getaway car. They were eventually caught and convicted. Robert’s sentence was 60 years in prison and Sibil’s was 2 1/2 years.

Since Sibil’s release, she’s been able to get her life together. She’s been able to maintain a successful career, become a responsible member of the community, and has had six children — all boys including two twins — through Robert. She’s also done a very good job of raising her sons. Her oldest son graduated from a medical college. Her twins are also very good academically. One son is on the school debating team and plans to pursue a career in justice.

One thing is still missing. Robert is not free from prison. His prison sentence was excessive. Sibil has stayed loyally married to Robert during the time and it has been her goal to get him out of prison. It’s a goal in which she’s been struggling with for years involving lawyers, court appearances, legal department negotiations, and even media interviews. She even has a life-sized picture of Robert in his prison uniform glued to a cardboard cutout in the kitchen. It’s a reminder to her and her sons what she’s fighting for.

The battle is undoubtedly a personal one. She loves Robert unconditionally, but it’s hard seeing him imprisoned. It’s hard for her to see it both as a wife and as a mother. She knows how hard it is for her sons to see their father imprisoned. It’s hard when the Justice Department promises something by a certain date, and even has a time limit by law, but they don’t have the answers and it is delayed. She’s polite about it over the phone to whoever she calls about it, but her angry feelings become obvious once she hangs up. It’s also a personal burden for her with her being the getaway driver of the robbery. She served her time, raised her family well, received forgiveness from others, but something’s missing. She may have been forgiven by others, but she never asked her own mother for forgiveness. She’s even seen at her local church during a service asking for forgiveness from her community.

SPOILER WARNING: Do not read this paragraph if you don’t want to know the ending. However at long last, Robert is free. We see the video of the day Robert is released and driven home by Sibil. The trip ends with a kiss: the first kiss during Robert’s freedom! The family celebrates with a backyard barbecue. The final act of the celebration is the family can take the cardboard picture of Robert and burn it on the barbecue.

This is a case of the right documentary at the right time. Systemic racism has been a very heated topic of 2020. George Floyd isn’t the first African-American to be killed at the hands of police. Police brutality has caused the deaths of many African Americans for decades. However when the news and video hit the public eye, the outrage grew. It was like the outrage over a common injustice had been hidden for so long and just exploded at that moment. Like a bubble bursting. It’s especially frustrating when they live in a country with a president who denies the wrongdoing and wants to label protesters ‘thugs’ and ‘extremists’ all for the sake of winning the upcoming Presidential Election. And talk from right-wing media pundits who remind the public of crime statistics involving African Americans aren’t helping to put out the fire either. The outrage was not restricted to the United States. Protests were worldwide as people were united in solidarity not only of what happened in the US but of racism in their own countries.

This documentary is about another failure of the system towards African-Americans: the justice system. In the 1980’s, a lot of Tough On Crime acts were enforced into law. This has especially hurt African Americans as prison populations escalated and African Americans make up more of the percentage of prisoners that white prisoners. Much of the problem is predominantly black neighborhoods being overpoliced and black convicts receiving harsher prison sentences. While crime by whites have gone either overlooked or underpunished.

The documentary gives a very good example of this injustice. It puts a human face on what it’s like to be the wife of a husband of a harsh prison sentence. Times like these make you wonder what they’d give a white man who committed the same crime. Sibil comes across as a strong woman who’s determined to beat the odds on the outside, but her inner frailty soon becomes obvious. She ends a phone call with the justice board politely despite the disappointing news, but speaks her anger about how she feels about it. She isn’t afraid to speak her mind about the racism she senses once the call ends. She’s proud of how her sons have grown up but she is still upset that they’ve all only known their father behind bars. She talks of how difficult, but necessary, it is to keep her family intact. She even wrestles with the personal demon of being part of the crime. She served her full sentence long ago and appears to have more than made up for it, but personal things like repentance to those she hasn’t repented to still bother her. The use of personal camera work is best at showing the human side of the matter because it gets the honesty of what’s happening.

The film focuses on the injustice, but it also focuses on rays of hope. Getting Robert freed from prison isn’t the only ray of hope in the film. The first ray of hope is seen in Sibil’s own life and parenting. Sibil is an oddsbeater. She refuses to make a repeat offender of herself. She’s become a responsible person in her community and church. She acknowledges the past wrongs she and her husband did and wants to move forward. As for parenting, statistics state children of parents in prison most likely grow up to become criminals themselves. That’s not the case for her sons. Their oldest graduates from a medical college. Both of her twins do well in high school and one is active on the school debating team. He plans on pursuing a career in justice. I’m sure seeing the unfairness his father endured is probably what fuels his ambition. The husband’s freedom is also a symbol of why it’s important never to quit on doing the right thing. There are a lot of injustices to overcome, but it’s worth it no matter how hard it gets.

The biggest praise should go to director Garrett Bradley. This film won the Best Director award in the US Documentary competition at the Sundance Film Festival (the first African American director to win this award), the Charles Guggenheim Emerging Artist Award and the Filmmaker Award at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.

Bradley does an excellent job in showing the images that tell the story. With straight film footage that doesn’t have a voiceover and allows the main subject do most of the talking, we get a no-nonsense undistorted story and a proper unmanipulated point of view. Filming takes places from multiple angles and we get the truth exposed. It presents the solution, but also with the huge problems it overcomes. Showing the images in black and white is appropriate because while justice shouldn’t be black and white, the system has turned it into a black and white issue. Even titling the film Time adds to the film’s quality. It’s about time served, time to rebuild your life, time to make a family happen, time to raise your children, more-that-necessary time behind bars and the seemingly-endless time to make justice for your husband happen. Above all, the time to tell the whole story and time to expose the problems in achieving the solution.

Time is more than just an excellent non-nonsense documentary that does an honest portrayal of its theme. It’s the exact documentary we need at a time like this. Also it’s a reminder that ‘Liberty and Justice for all,’ should mean all! No exceptions!

VIFF 2019 Review: It Must Be Heaven

Elia Suleiman

Director/writer/actor Elia Suleiman plays himself trying to get his film of Palestine made in It Must Be Heaven.

Saying It Must Be Heaven is a Palestinian film can give a lot of people the wrong impression at first. It’s a film that is enjoyable and worth seeing.

The film begins with a Christian religious ceremony in Nazareth, Palestine. They’re to enter the church, but it’s locked. It’s locked by the custodians who want to be alone drinking up. The priest and those part of the mass are angry. They barge in and get violent with him.

Life in Nazareth is not a pleasant experience for filmmaker Elia Suleiman. Elia has been experienced some downtime since a close friend of his died. Elia still has their wheelchair, walker and other personal items.  Wherever he goes, it appears people have a surly attitude. He goes to a restaurant and there’s an argument over the wine. He lives on the opposite end of an apartment where a father and son live in opposite suites and exchange insults. The few times when the Palestinians are nice to each other are when they know they’re being observed. Once outsiders leave, they go back to being their grumbling selves. The one Palestinian in Nazareth who looks to have a pleasant attitude is a young gardener who tends to Suleiman’s lemon tree, against Suleiman’s will. Suleiman tells him he doesn’t want him to trim it, but he comes back.

Elia seeks inspiration for his script. However he has to seek financial support from outside of Palestine. He goes on a flight to Paris and the flight gets turbulent as is goes over the Dinaric Alps. When he arrives in Paris, the Paris of people’s fantasies is alive. He sees it as a city of romance, a city of nice fashionably dressed women at a cafe having a good time together.

Then the realities of Paris start. His hotel suite is right next to a fashion house and their LED ad shines out a lot of lights that make it hard for Elia to sleep. He sits outside his window and looks out onto the street. He’s on the subway and sees a tattooed punk try to look menacing to him. He sees someone put a plastic bag underneath a car parked just outside. A bomb? The police come on Segways to check, but notice nothing and move away. He sees a homeless man lying around nearby and the police arriving to give him food. Suleiman is there during Bastille Day. He finds himself lost in a crowd during a military parade.

Elia knows he has business to deal with in Paris. He meets with a film producer, but the producer tells him that his film isn’t Palestinian enough. Elia tries to work more on his script. He notices that a bird has flown into his hotel suite. He welcomes the bird at first. However problems arise when Elia is typing on his script and the birds wants Elia’s attention. The bird hops onto his laptop and Elia gently pushes him aside. The bird repeats, but Elia’s had enough. He decides the bird need to fly back out in the open.

Elia then sets his sights on New York. Before he does, he has a day where he just wants to relax. He goes over to a park area, but notices a woman dressed in an angel costume with the Palestinian flag on her torso. A group of police try to pursue her, but she makes it a case of ‘catch me if you can.’ When they do catch her, she mysteriously disappears. Returning to his hotel that evening, he sees the car that had the bag placed underneath it is towed away. The bag is still visible.

When Elia arrives in New York, he is taken to a hotel by a cab driver who tries to develop conversation. The cab driver asks where he’s from, and Elia responds “Palestine.” The cab driver slams on his brakes and talks about how surprised he is to see a Palestinian. He’s never seen one before! He meets with a pretentious film professor. The professor wants his story to embody the Palestinian cause in the best way it can. He goes to a meeting held by a Palestinian-American group. The crowd is too enthusiastic for the leader to handle so she demands they all give one clap for each speaker she announces.

Then the meeting with the producer happens. Before he does, he is met in the waiting room with Gael Garcia Bernal who is his friend. Bernal has read over his script and he is very happy with what Suleiman has written. The exec however is uninterested in funding a ‘Palestinian story.’ Before Suleiman is about to return back home, he walks around New York and notices how Americans everywhere, even in the supermarkets, carry guns over their shoulders. He arrives back in Nazareth and notices that the gardener is back pruning his trees. The film ends with Suleiman in a discotheque with young people dancing to a song celebrating Palestine.

The film has a message to say, but instead of it speaking its message, it allows the message to be told in the images it shows. The film says its messages in what Suleiman sees. We see the world through his eyes. Nazareth looks to be this unhappy place in the middle of nowhere. Suleiman thinks that he will have a better time in the cities he will visit: Paris and New York. He can escape the unpleasant attitudes, the violent actions of others and fear of terrorism. He’s in for a surprise. In Paris, he notices what could be a car bomb placed underneath a car. The bomb never goes off, but it does remind you it has its own threats. Even in New York where there are still memories of 9/11, the threat of terrorism is there too. Bad manners? Suleiman witnesses as a stranger on a Paris subway tries to look menacing to him. Over in the part, an elderly lady tries to get a seat, but a young man on a bike beats her to it with no regrets. He’s reminded there’s rudeness there too. He’s also reminded of military preparedness and vigilance too as the Bastille Day parade has a military march and Americans in New York show their weapons openly. what he thought he’d leave behind in Palestine is still there in Paris and New York.

The film also feels about the difficulty of being a Palestinian in the outside world. Elia may be Christian but he defines himself as a Palestinian. He finds it hard enough living in Palestine, but finds it challenging to define himself to others. The meeting with the producer in Paris shows the French are interested in showing an image of Palestine, but one common or friendly with French audiences. The meeting with the taxi driver also adds to the feelings of confusion with his identity. He goes to a Palestinian-American rally that supports the cause, but doesn’t get too much out of it. How can a Palestinian relate to a Palestinian-American? Even if they share the same cause, they don’t have too much in common.

The film is less about the words spoken that it is about what one sees happening. This is pretty much a film of what Elia Suleiman sees through his eyes and he lets the images and moments do the talking instead of him. There are very few instances when you see Elia talking. It’s very rare in a film where the protagonist doesn’t even utter ten words.  Almost all moments of the film, including moments when he appears to be in a conversation, show him being a silent observer or a silent responder. That adds to the humor of the film, and Elia wants the film to blend humor with the theme and message of his story. Yep, even moments where you see Elia being dead silent get us laughing. It’s part of the film’s ironic dry humor. Some could say Elia’s wit is a lot like Woody Allen’s. You be the judge.

This is the first film in seven years for Elia Suleiman. His last one was 7 Days In Havana. This is a film he directs, writes, and plays lead. He does a good job in letting the images tell the story. Even during his mute moments, he adds to the humor of the story. It’s a silent humor that you have to get and understand while you watch this film. The inclusion of music in the various scenes adds to the story and fits it well.

It Must Be Heaven is Palestine’s official entry in the Academy Awards category of Best International Feature Film; a retitling of the Best Foreign Language Film category. The film has won a lot of acclaim. Acclaim includes a win for Special Mention at this year’s Cannes Film Fest as well as a nomination for the Palme d’Or, a nomination for Best Film at the Seville Film Festival, and a nomination for Best Canadian Feature Film at the Toronto Film Festival (film had production in Canada).

It Must Be Heaven is a film with a lot of wit and dry humor. Its silence of much of the story and of its main protagonist actually speaks volumes and is the film’s best quality.

VIFF 2016 Review: Under The Shadow (زیر سایه‎‎)

under-the-shadow

Under The Shadow is a film of a woman and her daughter who should leave their war-threatened apartment in Tehran but can’t for some mysterious reason.

One of the objectives of the VIFF is to show films each year that take us to another dimension or the supernatural. That’s shown in their Altered States film category/ The first Altered States film I saw was Under The Shadow which showcases a supernatural occurrence during a moment in world history.

This takes place in Tehran during the later 1980’s during the Iran/Iraq war. The war has been going on since 1980 with lots of lives lost, everyone in Iran threatened, and no end in sight. Shideh, just recently expelled from her law school for participating in a protest, has returned to her apartment as a housewife. Only she learns her husband has been drafted in the War. She’s left to tend to her daughter Dorsa alone. Her workout tape to Jane Fonda– forbidden under her country’s religious law along with the VCR hidden in a locked box– becomes her one escape from the stresses in her life.

One night, an Iraqi missile hits the apartment but doesn’t explode. There’s only one fatality but he dies of a heart attack. Mysteriously Dorsa won’t stop crying for her doll until she has it despite the wreckage to the apartment building.

Shideh decides to stay with Dorsa despite other tenant leaving the building for a safer place to live one by one. Dorsa mentions of a mysterious man, or djinn, and that’s what keeps her there. It’s not easy for Shideh to deal with this as she’s constantly being left behind by the tenants, worrying about her husband constantly, looking after Dorsa all alone and dealing with authorities in a country under strict religious law. Things take a turn for the worse as this djinn causes things to move out of place. It even rips up her Jane Fonda tape.

Soon the last of the other tenants– the daughter of the man who died in the missile hit– leaves the apartment with Shideh and Dorsa on their own. Nevertheless Shideh is determined to face the djinn before she leaves and despite the threat of a collapsing roof. Shideh does have her moment to finally confront the djinn and deal with it.

There are a lot of stories about the supernatural in the past. The unique thing about this film is that it features a supernatural character traditional to Arabic literature: the Djinn. The djinn are common in ancient Arabic mythology and are even mentioned in the Qu’ran. The most common form of the djinn in entertainment is the ‘genie in a bottle’ or the ‘genie in a lamp’ that’s common in the most popular Arabic stories. Yes, the genie we all commonly know originates from the djinn myth. However the djinn goes beyond the genie most of us commonly know. The djinn can be either good, evil or neutrally benevolent possessing the same free will of humans. In fact the word djinn comes from the primary meaning ‘to hide.’ It’s the ‘shaytan djinn’ that are the most demonic.

Here the djinn Shideh is dealing with is far from a genie that will grant you three wishes. It’s obvious that this djinn has something to do with Shideh’s personal issues. And she has a lot of them as seen in her life. Her education was cut short because she participated in something that’s a right in most other countries. Her husband has to fight in the war. She’s now on her own looking after her daughter. The only place she appears to find relief in is in her Jane Fonda workout tape which is banned by the government along with her VCR. However this is a djinn that goes beyond just appearing to Shideh. It also carries a sense that it’s present in Dorsa’s doll, too. It’s apparent Shideh has to deal with this djinn to the point she refuses to vacate the apartment with her daughter like all the others until she’s finished.

It’s interesting how this story intertwines with both the supernatural and both a moment in world history. You can notice how there are so many things mixed in with this story that tells of the times in Iran during the war. There’s the forbidden Jane Fonda tape, there’s Shideh punished for being in a demonstration, there’s the police threatening to arrest Shideh for not being in a hijab. You even hear it echoed by the police there: “This is not the same country. We now have our values back. We have men fighting for those values.” Sometimes you wonder if the times of Iran have a lot of influence in the djinn Shideh has to deal with. I often feel that’s what the filmmaker is trying to do here.

I will say one of the top things of the film is that it often succeeds at adding horror elements to the film. The djinn is a mysterious spirit but it does a good job at scaring Shideh in her dreams. It also does a good job in scaring the crowds. I know the film succeeded in scaring me a few times.

It may seem odd for the United Kingdom to submit a film in the Best Foreign Language Film category for this year’s Oscars but it can be done since Iranian-born director Babak Anvari lives in London. Anvari was actually born during the Iran/Iraq war so this is an incident in history that really touches upon him and has a lot to do with why he prefers to live in the UK. This is his first feature-length film and it’s an impressive work as it does a good job in capturing a moment in history and incorporating the supernatural into it. It was also successful in scaring me too at times. Narges Rashidi did a very good job of playing Shideh: a woman who’s both scared and angry. Rashidi herself was born in Iran and is familiar with the Iran/ Iraq war she had to endure with before escaping to Turkey. Young actress Avin Manshadi was also very good as Dorsa.

Under The Shadow is an intriguing story of a mysterious spirit that comes to a woman during wartime. It also makes for a fitting scary movie too.

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