Tag Archives: New York

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 2019 Review: When We Walk

jason-dasilva

When We Walk mostly continues off from When I Walk ended. It starts with the creation of a family, but an eventual end to a marriage, and a life whose years appear numbered.

Many of you remember that I saw When I Walk. When We Walk appears to be the sequel, but it’s a lot more.

The first images we see are images of 1988 when a ten year-old Jason Da Silva is operating a videocamera for the first time and you hear his father instructing him how to use it. Then you hear Jason’s voiceover, but it’s not to us. It’s to his son Jase. You notice Jason’s voice is getting weaker.

The film then goes on to what has happened since When I Walk ended. When I Walk made its debut during Sundance 2013. On February 7, 2013, Jason Da Silva Jr. (nicknamed ‘Jase’) was born. It seemed like Jason’s dream is coming true and Jason, Alice and Jase were ready to be their own all-American family in their home in New York City.

Throughout the film, we see time is always the deciding factor and sometimes time cannot be kind. First off Jason’s MS has worsened to the point he needs 24-hour assistance. When he goes places with Jase, he can’t always follow up because there are many places and park paths people in wheelchairs can’t go. On top of it, Alice is feeling the burnout. 50% of marriages to a person with a disability fail because the fully-able partner gets burnout. Alice is obviously feeling it and the strain in their marriage can be noticed. In addition, Alice has more of a desire to live in Austin, Texas.

Jason tries to make it work by seeing if he can move to Texas. However New York is one of the best states in helping people with disabilities while Texas is one of the worst. Jason can live a normal life in his apartment in NYC with nurses coming to visit him and even do filmwork. In Texas, the most that Jason could get is being confined to a nursing home. Surrounding states are not much better, if any better at all. It becomes clear Jase is better off living with Alice in Texas and Jason in NYC.

Jason tries talking to Jase through Skype. Jase welcomes it at first, but Jase becomes unhappy to the point where he throws the camera. Jason is determined to see Jase more and flies out to Texas once every two weeks. However all the flights are proving to take a physical toll on him.

Jason tries to get the legal system to work for him by having Jase fly out from Texas more to see him. In the meantime, his physical condition worsens so much, he can no longer use his hands. He’s now a quadriplegic. Anytime, the next move will be he will lose his voice and then the next move is Jason will die. Jason tries to adjust to his quadriplegia by getting a new wheelchair and his assistants learning how to handle him. Jason tries to learn new ways of making his films. Then a court ruling happens. The New York family courts decide Jase can make visits once every two weeks to New York. Jason’s at the airport to greet him and Alice each time and their able to spend their quality time together. The film ends with Jason wrapping up the film as if he was wrapping up a letter to Jase. Also leaving the hint that the next film coming is When They Walk.

For those that saw When I Walk, they would have gotten a sense that there would be a continuation. First Alice was asked about being married to a person with a disability. As she answered, she talked of the fear of his worsening condition and breaks down. The film ended with the ultrasound of the successful pregnancy. When We Walk is a continuation. It’s not a sequel, but a new chapter. When I Walk gets released to a lot of acclaim and even an Emmy win. Jase is born. The dream of having his own family is true for only a few years. We see a marriage fall apart. We see Jason’s physical condition get worse. We she Jason try to make the efforts to see Jase as often as they can, even though they live halfway across the U.S. We see Jason reassess his own life and also what kind of husband he was to Alice. We see Jason reach out to his family and to his parents who both live in different cities. We see how others with disabilities struggle in different states. The film is a very telling story about a man with a disability, a family struggling to be together, and a race against time.

The film is also an eye-opener. The film shows the audience what it’s like not just to have a disability but a disability that is taking more and more of a toll on a person. We see as Jason is becoming more and more helpless. Jason even fills in the details of the physical declines that are yet to come. Nevertheless, he’s making the effort to keep his filmmaking skills going. He’s also making the effort to live a better more respectful quality of life by living in NYC. We are made aware just how being a person with a disability state by state can be worlds apart, especially for someone like Jason. We hear from those in Texas of how people with disabilities that are even more able than Jason are denied the type of quality of life Jason is getting. Hearing what the disabled in Texas have to say about what they’re denied adds to the film.

The film is not just a voice of one with a disability, or of many with disabilities. It’s also an intimate letter to his son Jase. Jason knows of his condition and how it will slowly degenerate his body over time. We even see how Jason goes from a paraplegic around the time of Jase’s birth to a quadriplegic around Jase’s fifth birthday. Jason makes clear his voice will be the next to go and then he will die. His condition of MS is a case of him dying slowly and slowly. Jason wants to make it like a letter to Jase if he dies before Jase is ever able to know him. You can understand why Jason narrates the film like a letter to Jase instead of narrated it in basic fashion. We the viewer also grow in knowledge to this letter. We understand Jason’s plight. Also we learn of his secret heartache. It makes pure sense Jason did this film this way.

Also we’re made aware that his next film will be When They Walk. It leaves those of us who know the story eager to see it when it comes out. Also it makes us nervous because we anticipate that this will be Jason da Silva’s last work ever.

When We Walk can be seen as one of many things. It can be seen as a glimpse of life played out, Jason’s personal message to his son, a sequel to When I Walk, a message of advocacy, or even a story about one finding the will to live despite all that is happening. One thing I see it as is a film that gives a voice to those that rarely get heard. I’m glad he does this.

BONUS: Many of you saw the website where Jason contributes. That being the site letting people with disabilities input to places, restaurants and buildings informing if they’re disability-friendly or not. The site is AXSMap. If you have a disability and you would like to contribute to the site, click here.

VIFF 2018 Review: Studio 54

studio 54

The documentary Studio 54 is where co-founder Ian Schrager (right) finally tells the story of how he and Steve Rubell (left) did illegal dealings in the night club iconic with the disco era.

There are some things iconic with disco from the 1970’s. There’s the film Saturday Night Fever, the music of Donna Summer, and the night club Studio 54. Co-founder Ian Schrager has mostly been quiet about his years of Studio 54 and how he and Steve Rubell ran it. In the documentary Studio 54, he finally breaks his silence.

The film begins as Ian Schrager is about to have the book of Studio 54 published. Ian starts talking about his upbringing. He grew up in Brooklyn. He came from a neighborhood mostly of working class Jewish families who worked in hopes that their children would have a better life. Ian met Steve Rubell in college. He attended Syracuse University where he earned a BA and later earned a JD from St. John’s Law School. It was through a fraternity at Syracuse that he met Steve Rubell.

It was the mid-1970’s. Two important things were happening. Firstly, Manhattan had lost its charm. It became dumpy and seedy with the times. Instead of being this place of charm and pizzazz, it had fallen on hard times where it was full of crime and X-rated lewdness and trashiness. Secondly was the emergence of disco music and its style of partying. Already in areas of Brooklyn and Queens, there were night clubs or discotheques that were very popular with their free-spirited dancing and flamboyant styling. The feel of disco came at the right time as it was right after the end of the brutal Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal left many Americans disheartened. It’s like Ian said, “People were tired of being serious.”

Ian and Steve took it into a chance for opportunity. The first thing they did was rent out a theatre that was originally an opera house and was last used as a CBS Studio. Steve and Ian hired workers, most gay men, for months to do all sorts of construction and all sorts of decorations. They also hired Jack Dushey as their financial backer. It was their vision to create a night club no one on earth had ever seen before. Even before opening day, they went around advertising to celebrities that this was the place to go to.

Opening day, Studio 54 is a big hit.Celebrities do show and lots of people from the public were let in too. From that period on, you had what could be an oasis from the real world as you had all sorts of people of race, gender, sexual orientation and class status getting in and having a good time. While people mostly shunned others out in their day-to-day lives, people came together in Studio 54 and had a good time. The place was seen as a must-visit for celebrities and they had a blast with the dancing atmosphere and the special one-of-a-kind effects and decorations in the place. News had come about that Studio 54 was the place to be.

However there were some realities that would come about. First of all Studio 54 was known for Ian and Steve to go out into the crowd of people outside and pick-and-choose who got in. They let in a lot of people, especially gay men, but they left others out. At first people were understanding, but a backlash would soon brew. Also there was the hidden secret that there were people using drugs in Studio 54. The club had a reputation for freeness and drugs were part of it. Then there was the fact that Studio 54 couldn’t wait for their liquor license at first and relied on catering permits during their waiting period to serve liquor. The authorities didn’t overlook that and soon they had Studio 54 closed temporarily. It put a damper in a lot of attendee’s lives. It was within time that Ian and Steve finally did get the liquor license.

However the success of that would only be temporary. Soon Steve gave an interview to Playboy that was ‘Only the mafia does it better.’ He also said ‘don’t tell the IRS about our practices.’ That’s all it took for the club to get raided. What was found was cocaine with the intent to traffic and $2 million in unrecorded under-the-table money. The arrests of Schrager and Rubell made headlines. Soon Studio 54 was no longer the place to be. The club reopened, but for a life of only a few months. The two hired Roy Cohn and had recruited an army of lawyers to defend their case. In the end, the two plead guilty and were sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison. They were let out after serving one year each.

After Studio 54, both Rubell and Schrager looked for other ways to succeed after their release. They tried their hand at opening new night clubs that fit with the 80’s times. Constantly before the opening, Rubell would be interviewed about Studio 54’s infamy. Rubell would confess that they did a lot of wrong things and that they both changed and smartened up. Rubell’s time to redeem himself after Studio 54 was short-lives. Rubell had AIDS and he died of it in 1989. Schrager was luckier as he would later open the night club Palladium and manage the Morgans Hotel Group. Ian married twice and has fathered three children. He even received an unconditional pardon from Barack Obama in January 2017; three days before Obama stepped down from his presidency.

The documentary is a film that allows Schrager to tell his whole story and break the silence of what he was holding back for a long time. Over the 35 years since his release from prison, Schrager has worked to make Studio 54 a thing of the past and establish himself as a responsible successful businessman. He has succeeded in doing so and even gives lectures for people involved in business.

However the film also reminds us of what we knew of Studio 54 and what we didn’t know. For a long time, it was seen as a place for celebrities, disco dancing and culture of freeness. It was a place where hundreds of celebrities came to visit or eventually became regulars. It was also a place which gave many gay men a sense of belonging. We should not forget that the 1970’s was a time when a lot of laws criminalizing same-sex activity were being struck down and declared unconstitutional. Gay men who were long seen as outsiders or scums of the earth were now given a sense of belonging and a sense of freedom and Studio 54 was the place in New York to do it. Even Steve Rubell who kept his homosexuality hidden from his own family found Studio 54 as a place where he could freely love.

One thing is that the image of Studio 54 as a place for celebrities and dancing would make it too iconic to the disco era. Many claim that it was the closure of Studio 54 that led to the end of the disco era and the slow fading of the freeness that came with it. We should remember that the 1980’s would come about heavy stock trading and Wall Street becoming the place to do intense business. There was also the AIDS epidemic as it not only took the life of Steve but the lives of many construction men and dancers. The documentary does give the sense that when Studio 54 died, that’s when these ugly realities came to be. The documentary even shows of Ian and Steve’s friendship and how it was something that still lived on after Studio 54’s demise. Upon Steve’s death, Ian felt it was like losing a brother.

Studio 54 is unique for that it tells all from those survivors who had a big impact in the business. There’s Ian and there’s Jack. There were also some men who did a lot of the construction and renovating. There was also Steve Rubell’s brother who told his side from what he witnessed of Steve. The film includes a lot of imagery through photos and footage. The film also includes a lot of disco music that was part of Studio 54’s heyday. Seeing Studio 54 almost takes you back to that time and you can feel the freeness of that era.

Studio 54 is the ideal documentary for those who still fondly remember the disco era of the 1970’s. It brings back a lot of memories and tells you things you never knew about the place to your surprise.

VIFF 2013 Review: When I Walk

Filmmaker Jason DaSilva won't let MS stop him from living his life or even making films in When I Walk.

Filmmaker Jason DaSilva makes his MS and his life the focus in When I Walk.

When I Walk is a unique documentary where the documentarian is the complete subject of the film. It’s a very personal documentary. Possibly because this may be the last film he ever makes.

We meet Jason da Silva, a promising young documentarian of Indian heritage living in Vancouver. He lived the life of a budding 25 year-old filmmaker and had a promising future ahead. That all changed in 2006 during a family vacation in St. Maartens. His legs weakened and he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. His condition wasn’t fatal but it would lead to weakening of his body and other deteriorations. Jason was encouraged by his mother not to allow his disease to limit what he can do. So Jason decided to make his battle with MS his subject of his next film.

Jason is determined to fight it or deal with it the best way he can. He tries his hands as many different types of medicines and healings. He first travels to his parents’ hometown of Goa, India where he agrees to Ayurveda medicine. He then goes to Lourdes, France on the advice of his very religious Catholic grandmother and receives healing water. He also arranges an appointment for a wonder-surgery that’s a breakthrough in fighting MS and is highly advertised on Youtube by people cured through this surgery. The Ayurveda medicine procedures didn’t work. Lourdes didn’t heal. And this ‘wonder surgery’ only gave limited improvements that didn’t last.

Family unity is another theme in the film as Jason comes from a close family with relatives in Canada, New York and back home in India. His mother is the one who’s trying to encourage him to stay positive and hold his head up high. Though she cries near the end of the film and admits she didn’t know how bad it was and how limiting it would be. There’s another time when he visits a relative in India and tries to find out if his MS is inherited.

Despite his illness and its dehabilitation over time, Jason continues to be strong. He talks of difficulties going to restaurants and various other places in New York. He meet up with another person in a wheelchair and they decide to organize a blog of wheelchair accessible locations in New York. It’s not just simply taking restaurants that advertise themselves as ‘wheelchair accessible’ at face value. Both Jason and his colleague go to the various locations and test out how ‘wheelchair accessible’ the places are in both the facilities and the washrooms. Jason also purchases various filmmaking software and various computer accessories to assist him with his filmmaking as his body functioning lessens over time. They show one gadget which assists in functions as Jason makes commands in a microphone. Some days it’s so hard to talk, Alice–who I will talk about shortly– has to learn filmmaking and its functions in order to complete certain jobs for Jason.

Possibly the biggest plot of the documentary is not just simply overcoming his condition of MS in daily life but his relationship with Alice Cook. Before Alice, Jason was a frequent dater in the film making scene. He first thought MS would be the end of the dating road. Then he went to a support group for people with MS offered by his mother. He met a woman named Alice who was around the same age as him. Alice is a fully able person who attended the sessions in support of her stepfather who has MS. Alice took an interest in Jason. They started dating. Alice started helping and assisting Jason in his daily life. Then in 2009 they married. They even show Jason using his scooter with Alice on the back and a Just Married sign on the seat.

However right after the marriage came some new hurdles. First was the stress of being married to a physically limited person. Alice is a very cooperative and a very supportive wife but the stress does take its toll and Alice needs a vacation for a week to give herself relief. One of the things she sacrificed in her relationship with Jason was her love of hiking. She would have the chance to hike again after so many years. There’s also the effort of the two to have children. The film takes us to the doctor’s office where Jason learns he’s fertile and conception is possible. The first conception works but Alice miscarries.  SPOILER ALERT: However the film ends with Alice showing Jason the result of her home pregnancy test: a positive. The film’s last scene shows the two in the ultrasound lab and the screen showing a healthy fetus.

One thing about this documentary that stands out is how personal this is for the filmmaker. Before MS, Jason was no simple documentarian. He was already showing promise at a young age with short documentaries like Olivia’s Puzzle, Twins Of Mankala and a Song For Daniel. He also had two feature-length documentaries to his credit: Lest We Forget and From The Mouthpiece On Back. One would figure MS would be an end to a filmmaking career at such a young age but Jason’s determined not to let it stop him. The film is very personal as it not only hides nothing of Jason but also of Alice. We see an image of blood in the bathtub when Alice miscarries. We also hear Alice tell her side of the story at times and she holds nothing back. In fact there are times when she’s in tears when she talks of the stress of managing a physically challenged husband and her fears for the future as his condition deteriorates over time. This film is as much about the struggle of the two as it is the triumph. Even Jason admits there are times when he can’t handle it or wants to give up.

Another addition to the documentary is the animation. Often the documentary will go to animated images of Jason in his life, MS eating away at him showing the MS as ‘bugs,’ and various other images. That is another added bonus to the documentary that keeps it from getting mundane. Although the animation is not the most professional, it still adds to the documentary.

As a documentary, it’s questionable whether this is worthy of box office release. It has already made appearances at the Sundance Film Fest and the Hot Docs Film Festival where it even won an award. It’s still possible. One thing I know is that it is definitely eligible for broadcast on a documentary television channel.

When I Walk is a film worth seeing. It’s as truthful about the struggles and the setbacks as it is about the triumphs. Definitely worth seeing for all types of people.

BONUS: If you want to learn more about Jason and When I Walk just go to: http://wheniwalk.com/ There’s even a mailing list to subscribe to.