VIFF 2021 Review: Flee

Flee is an animated documentary of Amin: an Afghani refugee living in Denmark who always felt he had to hide his true past from everyone. Including the man he loves.

Flee was the first time I was able to see an animated film at the VIFF this year. It isn’t just an animated film. It’s part-story, part-documentary that tells a lot about a remarkable story.

The story begins with a man named Amin. He tells the story of his life and his ordeal. He tells it in fluent Danish. He first tells of his story of how he had to flee as his whole family had been killed off. This is a story he also tells his boyfriend Kasper. This is on the verge of Kasper about to buy a house for him and Amin. Meanwhile Amin is undecided whether to accept living with Kasper or accept a teaching job at a university.

The interviewer then takes Amin to a private place. There, Amin can tell the true story. It starts when he reflects of his childhood in Kabul. His biggest memories are of being four in the mid-1980’s and running down the streets with a Walkman with pink earphones in his hand and wearing a dress! However the harsh realities hit Amin and his family in 1989 when Amin turns eight. The Mujahideen have taken over Afghanistan, just two years after the Soviets withdrew from the nation. Their father has been captured and they don’t know what happened to them. Fearing they’ll be next, Amin, his mother, two sisters and brother seek refuge on a plane. The plane takes them in Moscow as the USSR is one of few countries willing to take the family in because of their status.

Life is not very good for the family in Moscow. Even after the fall of communism, they can only do limited work, live in a cramped flat and constantly be harassed by corrupt policeman who heckle them for being different. They know they will have to flee to another country if they are ever able to be free for once. However their only hope depends on human traffickers. They all want to flee to Sweden. The eldest brother is the only one who can work. It is he who will have to provide the money for these trips.

The first trip, which involved being in a car failed and they found themselves back in Moscow. The second trip involved the whole family travelling at once. This involved a long walk through the woods with others right in the coldness of winter. It then led them all to a fishing vessel where they had to hide themselves in the fish trap. The feel of the boat trip was nerve-wracking with the water splashing. Then water started coming in, which involved the passengers coming out of the trap to get the water out. Fortunately a cruise ship discovers the boat. Unfortunately, the cruise ship calls Estonian police to rescue the passengers. That meant back to Moscow.

The long wait is frustrating. The mother is getting older, the siblings including Amin himself are growing and missing out a lot on their future, and the oldest brother is having the frustration of his future being squandered to saving up for these illegal immigration stings. It’s frustrating, but they can’t go on watching Mexican soap operas and being harassed by Moscow police forever. Finally the brother finds a new illegal immigration operation. It’s way more expensive than the ones in the past, but this has excellent chances of working. However this involves each of the family members to go alone.

Amin is to go with one other teen male. The agent gives both boys strict instructions to obey. The trip starts with both of them being inside a van and lying down. During the trip, Amin senses a feeling he has toward the other male. The male gives him his gold chain. Before they board the plane, the agent gives the two plane tickets and passports: Amin for Denmark and the other boy for Switzerland. They all go on a flight to Istanbul. As the flight lands, the agent advises the two to do everything he instructs them to do and once they arrive in their country of destination to tear up the passport and tell officials their story. After the agent leaves, the two depart but not without one final goodbye.

Hours later, Amin arrives in Copenhagen, tears up the passport, and tells his story of being a completely orphaned Afghani refugee. As he’s transported to safety, he looks out the window of the car and sees freedom, but can’t feel it or sense it. He spent years living in a shelter living with various families and pursuing excellent grades in school. Then one day, he receives a phone call. It’s his brother in Sweden. Amin learns his brother found refuge in Sweden from his own trip from the trafficker.

Time would improve for Amin. Soon he’d learn all of his family including his mother had found refuge in various places in Europe with his two sisters also living in Sweden. His life has improved as he has been able to become a strong academic and even had lecturing jobs at American colleges. However he’s still had to keep his true life a secret from his boyfriend and his homosexuality a secret from his family as Afghani culture considers homosexuality to bring shame to the family. One day, when the brother and sisters get into conversation about Amin not being married, he then outs himself to the shock of all. The brother then tells Amin to get into the car. Amin is uncertain and fearful about what will happen next during the car ride. The brother takes him to a gay bar and hands him some money. They knew all along! Inside the gay bar, Amin discovers a freedom he never thought possible. The film then flashes forward two years later showing how Amin’s life has improved.

This is definitely a story about a current hot topic: refugees and illegal immigrants. It’s constantly an issue. As long as there’s political oppression and corruption, there are going to be people fleeing. Refugees and illegal immigrants probably feel they have something to hide about themselves. Even if they become legit citizens of their country, they feel they still have something to hide and they have to lie for their freedom. Roughly they’re still mentally ‘on the run.’ Even the fact that the subject has to tell his whole truth under the pseudonym Amin Nawabi adds to this factor. It becomes evident when Amin first tells the interviewer of his story of his family deceased. Then when he’s in a private room, he tells the truth. It’s also evident how he’s unsure whether to commit to marrying his boyfriend Kasper and instead accept an offer at an American university.

Amin’s story is definitely a story of intrigue. This is a story of a man who pretty much feels he has his ‘life on the run.’ He had to flee his home of Afghanistan with his family and first settle in Russia, only for all to find another nation to live in. This is a case of three attempts and the frustration of wondering if you’ll ever be free. This is about feeling that you have to hide the truth of yourself even though you’re now living in a free country. This is about even hiding a truth about yourself that is forbidden and seen as shame in your home country. I think that’s the point of the story. About hiding things. It starts off as a case that Amin has a lot to hide. However over time, he opens up. Hidden truths about himself no longer become a taboo. It’s a case as we see the story unravel over time just as we get to the part where he outs himself to his siblings.

This is a story of from a life of refuge to a newly discovered freedom. When you look at it, Amin’s freedom in Denmark is the best thing to happen to him. We all see he had to deal with life in Russia along with his siblings. Even without attempts to immigrate, Russia was no place for them. Not as they were constantly being harassed. Afghanistan was no place for them either as their father may had been killed and they would be in pursuit. It’s especially no place for Amin as his sexuality was obvious at a young age. If he had not fled from Afghanistan in his lifetime, he could have been executed for his homosexuality. That really gets you thinking. Especially when we recently heard about the return of the Taliban to power. It’s something how Amin is born in a country with the harshest attitude towards homosexuality and finds himself in one of the first countries to legalize same-sex marriage!

I give top accolades to writer/director Jonas Poher Rasmussen. He’s done films about people’s struggle with homosexuality before. The story does a very good job as it goes from the interview to the re-enactments of Amin’s past. From running down the streets listening to Take On Me to the family forgetting their problems as they watch Mexican soap operas, it does a good job of telling the story while mixing other elements in the background. The images do a great job in capturing the drama of the time. The voice acting was also very good. The animation from Sun Creature Studio did an excellent job of depicting the story in both the present and the past. The addition of the music of the times and of the Mexican soap operas also add to the story.

Flee is a great animated film about a man who feels like he has always had to be on the run. On the run from danger, on the run from authorities, on the run to achieve freedom, and on the run from how he was meant to live and who to love. It’s an eye-opener and a delight to see at the same time.

VIFF 2016 Review: Tales Of Two Who Dreamt

tales-website
Tales Of Two Who Dreamt document the dreams of a Romani refugee family who dream of immigrating to Canada and hopefully doing a small film.

One thing about the VIFF is that it will show films done by Canadian directors or people close to home. In fact the VIFF credits itself as the film festival that shows the most Canadian films: shorts and feature-length. One example this year of a feature-length Canadian film shown at the VIFF was Tales Of Two Who Dreamt which was a unique documentary.

The film begins with a man, Sandor Laska, telling a story of a boy who turned into bird after a dream. Over time, we the director is planning to make a small film of this story. Even a makeup artists is seen putting a beak on the son Alexander.

What we get is something else. We hear the story of the father and the Laska family. They are refugees living in a tall apartment in Toronto specifically for refugees. They are Romani people from Hungary. They seek refuge in Canada because they are of an oppressed minority and often face discrimination.

As they live in the apartment awaiting approval of their status in Canada, we learn there are many Romani families also seeking refuge. Often they meet together and party together. The children play soccer on the apartment’s field together often with refugee kids from other countries.

Time passes as the family continues to pursue both dreams: the dream of doing the film and the dream of immigrating to Canada. In the end, neither happen. Their immigration case wasn’t approved and they have to return back to Hungary where they really have nothing to return to. The film that was to be made couldn’t be done. The family were deported back before it could be completed.

This film is a good eye opener to the Romani people that seek refuge. They are a people who number in the tens of millions spread across various countries of Europe. They are people whose lifestyle are considered questionable. They are a people who value their cultural roots in music and dance often to the point they neglect working a real job. They live their lives their own way; many of which are illiterate.

The Romanis are seen by the other people in the country as lazy, irresponsible or even the ‘scum of the earth.’ They are often referred to as ‘Bohemians’ or ‘gypsies’: the latter of which they consider to be a slur. They’ve had their discrimination over the decades and centuries. They were even one of the groups of people executed during the holocaust. Discrimination against them still continues today in various European countries. Some countries like Italy have passed anti-Romani laws. Some countries like Hungary let discrimination go freely. You can easily see why a family like the Laskas would try to seek refuge in Canada.

Sometimes when you see the struggle of the Laskas and other Romanis in the apartment as they seek their residency status, you sometimes think this film is about the refugee situation as a whole. What you see the Romanis struggling with is often what you see most refugees struggling with. That tall apartment with nets on the outside put on after the death of a six year-old boy who fell off his 19th floor balcony tells a lot about the place where refugees wait to hear their fates in Canada. At the end, you get thinking that the Laskas didn’t succeed in escaping what they attempted to escape. Sandor talks about how the interpreter didn’t state his case right to the judge and that had to be why his residency status was revoked. Sometimes it makes you sense could the interpreter have an anti-Romani attitude? Did he misinterpret purposefully so that the Laska did fail and then get sent back to Hungary to return to their discrimination? It does get you thinking.

Directors Nicolas Pareda and Andrea Bussmann turn the film into a docudrama. There are times when the film gets ready to film the ‘birdboy’ story, times when they focus on another family who are to be part of the skit, times when they focus on the apartment building as a whole, and times when they focus on the Laskas and their reality. It’s a mix of various shots from family struggles to kids playing to young adults holding a party. The two directors try to piece together the many stories. There are times when scenes are shown with a score of a Romani song sung a capella. There are even times when they include Timea’s scratchy violin-playing as score to a scene in the film. Sometimes it hits, sometimes it misses. There are times when the mixed organization appears to work and then there are times when the film feels disjointed. I think the film aimed to be creative in its documentation during times when it wasn’t supposed to be.

Despite the film’s noticeable imperfections, I would have to say the best thing about this film is that it gave a voice to a people. This was a chance for Romani refugees to tell their story of what they faced and why they came to Canada along with the hopes for their children. The adding in of the ‘birdboy’ story adds color to the film as it is a Romani tale. You can see why the film is called Tales Of Two Who Dreamt. The first dreamer was the ‘birdboy’ and the second dreamer was Sandor Laska. I’ll admit I was disappointed at the end to learn the ‘birdboy’ film was never finished. But it’s something that just happens and you saw why.

Tales Of Two Who Dreamt is a documentary that’s noticeably disjointed in a lot of areas. It is still very valuable as it gives an image of the refugee situation Canada is trying to deal with.

Rio 2016: Fourteen To Watch

London Flame

The Rio Olympics is coming our way. Of course the media being what it is, it chooses to focus on all the bad news with the bad construction problems and the Zika virus and the slow ticket sales. The story of the Russian track team being systematically doped added to the fire and has led to scrutiny of the whole Russian team in recent weeks. However there have been tales of woe before past Olympic Games and they’ve gone off excellently so it would be fair to give Rio a chance. So without further ado, here’s my focus on thirteen to watch–eight individual athletes, a duo, and four teams:

Rio 2016
The Rio 2016 logo features three characters in the Brazilian colors in a triple embrace resembling Sugarloaf mountain.

-Katie Ledecky/USA – Swimming: You all thought Michael Phelps would be the top swimmer of focus in my blog, right? Wrong. He will be looked into in a focus on another swimmer later in my blog but now the swimmer of top focus here is the US’s next big swimming sensation: Katie Ledecky. As a 15 year-old, she competed in London as the youngest member of the US Olympic team. She won gold in the 800m freestyle and broke the American record along the way. Since then, she has become a distance freestyle ace with world records in the 400, 800 and 1500m freestyles along with World Championship golds in those events as well as the 200 free. She is poised to win gold in the 200, 400 and 800 freestyles in Rio: a feat only achieved once before by American swimmer Debbie Meyer in 1968. Katie can even add a bonus gold with the 4*200m free relay. Her chances are good as her best time in the 800 this year is 12 seconds faster than the second-best and her top 2016 time in the 400 is 1.5 seconds faster than that of American teammate Leah Smith. However the 200 will be her toughest event to win as Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom’s 2016 best is less than .1 faster than Katie and just .12 behind her is Italy’s Federica Pellegrini: 2008 Olympic champion who finished fifth in London. Nevertheless it will be a brave attempt from the 19 year-old.

-Simone Biles/USA – Gymnastics: Women’s gymnastics has become a complicated sport ever since it was revolutionized by ‘pixies’ like Olga Korbut and Nadia Comaneci. It seems a gymnast’s career at the top is very short. It’s very hard to develop consistency especially with time encroaching. However one gymnast who can beg to differ is 19 year-old Simone Biles. She has shown a consistency in World gymnastics not demonstrated since Ludmilla Tourischeva back in the 70’s. In the past three World Championships starting in 2013, Biles has won fourteen medals including ten gold. She has also won the last three World all-around titles. Biles appears invincible but she does face rivalry from her own teammates Gabby Douglas (defending champ from London) and Laurie Hernandez as well as Russia’s Angelina Melnikova. Rio could just be the arena to crown her greatness in the sport.

-Ashton Eaton/USA – Athletics: There have only been two decathletes who have won back-to-back Olympic gold medals: The US’s Bob Mathias and the UK’s Daley Thompson. Ashton Eaton looks poised to become the third. He first burst onto the scene at the 2011 Worlds as a 23 year-old when he finished second behind his American teammate Trey Hardee. Hey, the US is known for their decathletes as they have won a total of 28 medals including thirteen gold. The following year, Eaton beat Hardee at the US Olympic Trials with a world record points total. Eaton went on to win gold in London as well as the last two World Championships. Eaton appears invincible having the year’s best result at the US trials but he does have rivals in Germany’s Arthur Abele and Canada’s Damian Warner who finished behind Eaton in second at the Worlds. Rio could just be the arena for a great to deliver.

-Usain Bolt/Jamaica – Athletics: What can I say? The ‘Lightning Bolt’ has proven himself to be the biggest thing in athletics since Carl Lewis. He has an unmatched streak at dominating sprinting in major events. It all started when he won the 100, the 200 and the 4*100 relay in Beijing in 2008 all in world record time. Since then every Olympics or Worlds he entered, he’d leave with golds in all those events each time with the exception of the 100 in 2011 where he received a false-start disqualification. Already people are ruling Bolt to achieve the triple-triple here in Rio. However it’s not 100% guaranteed. Bolt had to pull out of the Jamaican Olympic trials because of a pulled hamstring injury. He has since recovered well and even won a major 200 in London a few weeks ago. However the 100m has three runners that have a faster year’s best than Usain. Topping the list is 2004 Olympic champion Justin Gatlin. The 200m features four runners who ran a faster time this year than Usain’s 2016 best. Topping that list is American LaShawn Merritt: 2008 Olympic 400m champion. Win or lose, chasing Olympic history will make for an exciting show from a legend.

-Mo Farah/Great Britain – Athletics: Seven male distance runners have won both the 5000m and 10000m runs in the same Olympics. However one–Finland’s Lasse Viren– has done it twice back in 1972 and 1976. Mo Farah, A Somali who moved to the UK when he was eight, appears poised to duplicate Viren’s feat. Farah’s last loss of a major 5000 or a 10000 came at the 2011 World Championships. Since then he has taken gold at the 2012 Olympics and both the 2013 and 2015 World Championships in both events. There will be rivals trying to block his path like Ethiopian Muktar Edris, American Galen Rupp, his Portland training partner, and Kenyans like Caleb Ndiku, Paul Tanui and Geoffrey Kanworor. Whatever the situation, Farah’s pursuit will be one to watch.

-Cate and Bronte Campbell/Australia – Swimming: Admit it. You get intrigued when you see a pair of sibling athletes either competing together or against each other. Enter the Campbell sisters from Australia who are at the top of the world in sprint freestyle. 24 year-old Cate is the one with Olympic medals–two bronze in 2008 and a relay gold in 2012–along with 100 free gold at the 2013 Worlds. 22 year-old Bronte won the 2015 World Championship in the 50 and 100 free with Cate winning silver in the 50 and bronze in the 100. However Cate that this year’s fastest times in the world in the 50 and 100. Bronte has the second-fastest in the 100 and fifth-fastest in the 50. Ah, don’t you wish sibling rivalry was this civil? However the Malawi-born Campbell sisters are not alone at the top. They will face challenges from Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom who also made the 2015 Worlds podiums in both events and 2012 Olympic champion from both events Ranomi Kromowidjojo of the Netherlands. The Rio stage should provide for some fun drama. And after all that rivalry, the two could just team up for a gold in the 4*100 free relay!

-Laszlo Cseh/Hungary – Swimming: All eyes will be on Michael Phelps. He may have won it all with 22 medals over three Games including 18 gold but he’s making a comeback after a troubling time since London which included his second DUI arrest. Who’s also worth looking at is 30 year-old Hungarian Laszlo Cseh. When Phelps won six golds and two bronze in Athens, Cseh won 400 individual medley bronze. While Phelps won eight golds in Beijing, Cseh won three silvers. While Phelps won four golds and two silvers in London, Cseh won 200 IM bronze. In all cases, Phelps was the Olympic champion. Here in Rio, we have a different scenario. We have Phelps trying to get back his old form while Cseh appears to be in the best form of his life. Cseh has the world fastest times this year in both the 100 and 200 butterflies. Cseh is a heavy favorite for the 200 but he does face rivalry from Phelps, American Tom Shields and Poland’s Konrad Czerniak in the 100. Cseh has never been called ‘Phelps’ Shadow’ in his career but Rio could become the first Olympic arena to finally beat Phelps and win Olympic gold.

-Majlinda Kelmendi/Kosovo – Judo: 75 nations competing in Rio have never won an Olympic medal. Two nations–Kosovo and South Sudan– will be making their Olympic debut. Kosovo’s team will consist of eight athletes in five sports. Leading the team is 25 year-old judoka Majlinda Kelmendi. Back in 2012, Kosovo was not officially recognized by the IOC and Kelmendi opted to compete for Albania. Since then Kelmendi has won gold at the World Championships in the lightweight category in 2013 and 2014. She missed out on the 2015 season because of an injury but is poised for a comeback in time for Rio. She has already won this years’ European championship. She faces rivalry from Japan’s Misato Nakamura and Brazil’s Erica Miranda. Whatever the outcome, be sure she’ll do her country proud. She will also be the flagbearer during the opening ceremonies.

FROM THE HOST NATION:

Rio 2016
Vinicius, seen left with Rio Paralympic mascot Tom, is the 2016 Olympic mascot. Vinicius is a mix of Brazil’s mammals. Both mascots are to represent Brazil’s diverse people and culture.

Of course there is to be some focus on athletes of the host nation. I make it a priority as it makes some of my favorite Olympic moments with athletes winning gold or a medal in front of their home crowd. And in Rio, Sports Illustrated predicts Brazil to win 20 medals including six gold. The most medals Brazil has won in a single Olympics is 17 back in London. The most golds, five in Athens in 2004.

Focus on the two teams later. Here are the duo and individual of focus:

Isaquias Queiroz and Erlon Silva – Canoeing: Brazil has won Olympic medals in thirteen sports but canoeing isn’t one of them. In recent years, Brazil has fielded a canoeing duo who have emerged at the top of the world in the 1000m event. Isaquias won the Worlds in 2013 and 2014 in the individual 500m. Erlon was part of the bronze medal-winning 200m pair in 2014. However both were competing in events that won’t be contested in Rio. Leading to last year’s Worlds, the two were paired together and trained for the 1000m pairs event. They entered that event at the Worlds and won. They will face challenges from the duos of Hungary and Poland. They could just make Brazilian Olympic history here in Rio.

Fabiana Murer – Athletics: Brazil is not expected to win any medals in athletics, according to Sports Illustrated. Overlooked must be pole vaulter Fabiana Murer. She’s a 2011 world champion and she finished second at last year’s World but is known for Olympic choking. In 2008, she finished 10th. In 2012 she failed to qualify for the finals. 2016 looks to be a good year for Murer as she set a new South American record back in July. However she faces challenges from London Olympic champion Jennifer Suhr of the US, last year’s World champ Yarisley Silva of Cuba, last year’s World bronze medalist Nikoleta Kyriakopolou of Greece and American Sandi Morris who’s the only vaulter to have a higher 2016’s best than Murer as of now. Whatever the situation, the home country has her back.

TEAMS:

Refugee Olympic Athletes Team: In the past, you had to have some citizenship ties in order to compete at the Olympic Games. Refugees in the past have been overlooked as they were believed to have bigger problems than sports to deal with. Some would have to wait many years to represent the nation they’ve been adopted into. At the last Olympics in London, some refugees participated as Individual Olympic Athletes. IOC president Thomas Bach has taken note of the current worldwide refugee crisis by trying to break barrier for refugee athletes who want to compete at the Olympics. In March of this year, Bach announced his intention to create a team of refugees to compete in Rio taking into account the athletes’ sporting ability, personal circumstances and United Nations-verified refugee status. A $2 million fund created by the IOC was used to help train the athletes for Rio. At these Olympics, there will be ten athletes competing as Refugee Olympic Athletes. Five are runners from South Sudan who reside in Kenya. One is an Ethiopian marathoner who sought refuge in Luxembourg. Two are Congolese judokas living in Brazil and two are Syrian swimmers who have sought refuge in Belgium and Germany. They may not have much of a medal chance but they will already achieve victory by just competing at the Olympics.

United States Women’s Football Team: If there’s one team that one can call the class of the field, it’s the American women’s football (soccer) team. The US Women have won three of seven Women’s World Cups and four of the five Olympic gold medals. Those who saw last year’s Women’s World Cup know about how well the American women continue to play brilliantly. Here in Rio, fourteen women from last year’s WWC squad are part of the Olympic squad including stars Megan Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd and Hope Solo. There are also four newcomers including Mallory Pugh and Crystal Dunn. Since their WWC win, the team has won all but three of their matches since, losing only once to China 1-0 in a friendly back in December. WWC finalists Japan may not have qualified but it’s not to say the US won’t face some tough rivalry from China, France and even hosts Brazil. Nevertheless if they’re as brilliant together in Rio as they were in Canada last year, magic can happen again.

TRIVIA: Being WWC-holder is actually bad luck for the Olympics. In the previous five Olympics, no team that was the WWC-holder at the time has won Olympic gold. They’d make the Olympic podium, yes, but never the top step. Can the US break this bad-luck spell?

FROM THE HOST NATION:

Brazil’s Olympic Volleyball Teams: Football may be Brazil’s #1 sport. It’s safe to say volleyball is Brazil’s #2 sport. Ever since the men’s team won Brazil’s first ever court volleyball medal, Brazil has been on a roll winning a total of nine Olympic medals including four gold. They’ve also won 11 of the 30 Olympic medals awarded in Beach Volleyball including two gold medal-winning duos. Brazil is expected to dominate here. In beach volleyball, Brazil’s pairs won five of the six medals with only the men’s silver conceded to a Dutch pair. Brazil is not as dominant in court volleyball at the Worlds but the teams have what it takes to deliver as the women have won Olympic gold back in 2008 and 2012. Here in Rio, the women will face tough competition from the US and China who finished ahead of them at the 2014 Worlds. The men appear heavy favorites to win but they will face challenges from 2012 Olympic champs Russia and 2014 Worlds champs Poland. It could be possible the home crowd’s cheering could propel them both to win gold.

Brazil’s Olympic Football Teams: You’d figure Brazil, a country that has won a total of five World Cups, would have at least one Olympic gold in football, right? Wrong! It’s all because of eligibility rules in football over the years. Before 1984, footballers couldn’t even make a penny off their sport if they wanted to compete. That would allow the Eastern Bloc countries to field their best for the Olympics and propel them to the podium while World Cup-winning countries like Brazil, Argentina, Germany and Italy could only field ‘diluted’ teams to the Olympics which would finish in a shabby ranking or not make the Olympics at all. Brazil was able to qualify for six Olympics in that period but failed to win a medal.

In 1984, the Olympic door was open to professionals despite some restrictions or two. In 1992, professionals as long as they were 23 or under could compete. Since 1996, each squad had to have all but a maximum of three footballers under 23 with the other three being anyone they wanted. The opening of the floodgates to pros has boosted Brazil’s men’s team as they’ve qualified for six of the eight previous Olympic competitions and have stood on the podium five times. What they want here in Rio is to stand on the top step for the first time. In London, Brazil fielded a kit featuring a 20 year-old Neymar Jr. and won silver with Mexico taking the gold. Here in Rio, Neymar is back and the other 17 members of the Olympic squad are part of pro teams from Brazil, Spain, France and Italy. The Olympic squad may have finished third at the 2015 Pan Ams but the team has been consistent in friendly play over the last two years losing only to Nigeria back in March. Most of all, the team wants to return the football spirit to the country that left the nation broken-hearted at the 2014 World Cup and achieving shabby results at the last two Copa Americas. Whatever the situation, Brazil may just lift the spirits of their country.

Oh, did you think I’d forget the women’s football team? I didn’t. Women’s football isn’t as restrictive as the men’s competition. Every woman that competed at last year’s WWC is eligible to compete in the Olympics. As for Brazil’s women’s team, they have two Olympic silvers from 2004 and 2008. However they have had difficulties in the last major tournaments with losing in the quarterfinals at the 2012 Olympics and losing to Australia in the Round of 16 at the 2015 WWC. The team has since had their ups and downs with losses to the US, France, Canada and New Zealand they’ve trained hard under coach Vadao and have had mostly wins. Stars Marta, Formiga and Cristiane will be there. Hopefully the Brazilian women will be as victorious as their men and these Olympics here could be the arena for it.

And there you have it. Some of the athletes who to look out for at the Rio Games. Remember the gold medal does not go to the hardest worker, the most deserving, the most talented, the one with the most pre-Olympic accolades or even the best athlete. The gold goes to the one that’s the most there. And Rio will be the arena to decide the Olympic champions. These seventeen days will allow the athletes to “live their passion.” My review of Canadians to watch was printed the following day. Just click here.

VIFF 2015 Review: A Syrian Love Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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