6th 06 - 2014 | 7 comments »

The Immigrant (2014)

Director/Coscreenwriter: James Gray

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

James Gray is a director who is slowly finding his voice. After creating three family-centered crime films (Little Odessa [1994], The Yards [2000], and We Own the Night [2007]), Gray has moved on to more emotion-laden, personal films that may include crime, but only as one of several strategies to which their damaged and desperate characters cling to maintain their precarious existence. The Immigrant is simultaneously operatic in its grand canvas detailing the dislocation of large masses of humanity during World War I, and a chamber piece that looks at the dysfunctional dance of need between two desperate people. In the final analysis, the film has a metaphysical agenda that lifts it out of the tedium of survival and into a contemplation of the soul.

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The year is 1917. An expansive, grainy, unusual view of the backside of the Statue of Liberty and the water leading into the open ocean—the view from Ellis Island—opens the film, followed by a look inside this gateway for immigrants hoping to make a new start to their lives in the United States. Polish refugee Ewa Cybulska (Marion Cotillard) moves through the line of new arrivals, admonishing her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan) to suppress her coughing and providing hopeful encouragement that they are almost at the end of their ordeal. Not quite. Magda is shunted off for a six-month hospital quarantine, with tuberculosis the likely diagnosis ahead of her, and Ewa is declared liable to become a state charge when she tells the immigration official that she has no money and gives him a letter from her sponsors—her Aunt Edyta (Maja Wampuszyc) and Uncle Wojtek (Ilia Volok)—with an address he says doesn’t exist. Further, he says there were reports from the ship that Ewa is a woman of low morals. Her immediate deportation seems likely.

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Enter Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), an immigrant himself some 25 years before, who sees her among the other rejects and decides to help her. He bribes a guard to let her through to the ferry that will take them to Manhattan and gives her a place to stay in his apartment and a promise of work as a seamstress in his theatre. Ewa distrusts him, and grabs something that looks like an ice pick to put under her pillow as she sleeps. Thirteen hours later, she awakens, and Bruno takes her to the theatre where he and his “doves” put on a topless act for the rowdy, mostly male patrons, a prelude to selling their bodies. Rosie (Elena Solovey), the theatre owner, sees a gold mine in Ewa’s beauty, but Bruno says he has bigger plans for her. Nonetheless, in short order, Ewa’s first appearance on stage—ironically, as Lady Liberty—leads to her first night as a sex worker, deflowering a young man whose father has paid Bruno a large sum to make his son more manly.

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Ewa is a survivor. She has seen her parents beheaded before her eyes, been raped on the ship to America, been rejected by her uncle because her shipboard “reputation” will damage his community standing and business, and fallen prey to a manipulative pimp who throws her concern for her sister and her need for his connections on Ellis Island at her every time he wants her to degrade herself. It takes money to free Magda and live in a country that prizes individual initiative above all else—her uncle’s concern for his reputation shows he’s well suited to the American Way, though he looks more like he plans to molest her the night she shows up on his doorstep after escaping from Bruno. Ewa does what she feels she has to do, but through her trapped suffering, she stirs an existential crisis in her hated benefactor, Bruno.

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It would be easy to see this film primarily as a well-crafted melodrama, as well as a time machine that takes us back quite believably to the era to which many Americans, including myself, can trace our New World origins, filmed as it was at the Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens and all around the town, including on Ellis Island. Great care was taken to try to burrow into the daily lives of the characters in this film. For example, when Bruno first brings Ewa to his apartment, a young girl is sitting at the kitchen table, while her prostitute mother lies on the bed asleep. I don’t know what they were doing there, but the sequence shows that even whores have home lives. In addition, Bruno’s doves, displaced from the theatre after a brawl, do their parade under a viaduct in the park for men of even lesser means than the ones in the theatre, a poignant moment of practicality that rang true.

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The street scenes and interiors had a lived in, authentic look, and the Ellis Island scenes were pitch-perfect in every regard. I especially enjoyed an opera reference that worked perfectly with the story: Ewa, caught by the police and returned to Ellis Island, goes to a performance put on for the detainees in hopes of seeing her sister in the audience. Enrico Caruso (Joseph Calleja), who actually did sing at Ellis Island, performs an aria from Puccini’s La Rondine, whose main female character is named Magda.

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The Immigrant has its problems. Bruno’s cousin Emil (Jeremy Renner) is really rather superfluous as anything other than a plot motivator. While Renner gives a fine performance, full of the kind of charisma and social ease Bruno envies, the triangle he sets in place wasn’t really needed. In addition, making Emil a magician is a little too on the nose about his success with women, nor did I buy that he was a bigger attraction for the low-rent theatre crowd than Bruno’s topless chippies. The latter explanation for his return to the theatre was simply to get him in the same room with Ewa and Bruno. The sepia tone of the cinematography was a little annoying, as I didn’t really need it to know that we were looking at a faded time, and it distorted colors in some unfortunate ways: blood coming from Bruno’s nose looked like the chocolate syrup it probably was, and in close-up, it was very distracting.

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A more serious flaw is Gray’s inspiration to shoot Ewa like Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). He concentrates a great deal on Cotillard’s face and expects her to put across Ewa’s complicated emotions, but he doesn’t seem to have the right touch to draw this performance out with any consistency. She comes nowhere near to suggesting the transcendence of Falconetti or Joan—she’s a pretty girl who remains a bit of a cipher except in her desire for money through at least half of the film, though her apparent mastery of Polish and ability to act in that language was brilliant. Happily, Gray eventually hits the right notes and takes us on a tour of the inner dimensions of the immigrant journey.

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“Is it a sin to want to survive when I have done so many bad things?” This remark of Ewa’s is at the heart of what this film seems to want to say. It’s a somewhat controversial line in this age of discrimination, because, indeed Bruno, Ewa, and the other immigrants engage in pandering, prostitution, theft, and bribery—all actions that born Americans, particularly in 1917, would not welcome in the newly arrived. Yet, the film clearly illustrates that for many of the people we meet, these crimes are necessary because there is no other way to get by.

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For all his seeming gallantry toward Ewa, Bruno has been hollowed out during his own life as an outcast, called a kike by the police who rob him and beat him to a pulp and unable to rise beyond the level of a pimp and fixer in part because of the psychological crippling of his lowly status. It makes sense that when Emil, the “pretty boy” who manages to get all the girls despite his lies and drinking, starts putting the moves on Ewa, Bruno goes crazy. The characters say that Bruno is madly in love with Ewa, but I think that’s a little too simple. She hasn’t escaped becoming his prostitute, after all, but she has something he desperately wants—love—something he has no power to give and no talent to inspire the way Emil does. Ewa clings to her quest to be reunited with her beloved sister, the person who has kept her going in their darkest hours, and eventually returns to the Catholic Church after what I imagine is a period of anger at God for the trials in her life. It is only after Bruno follows her to church and eavesdrops on her confession that he understands how much he has damaged her and makes a start at a redemption that Ewa herself is seeking from the priest (Patrick Husted). In their final scene together, Ewa finds her way to forgiving Bruno and giving him the affirmation he killed for, though it is more absolution for a dying man than a guiding light into the future, as Bruno is determined to pay for his crimes.

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Phoenix, a Gray regular, offered up an interpretation of Bruno as a manipulator that Gray did not see when crafting the script, leading me to believe that Gray relies too heavily on his actors to bring their characters to life. Regardless, Phoenix’s choices are dead-on, offering a complicated view of a man who, perhaps, is the true title character of The Immigrant.


11th 05 - 2013 | 6 comments »

Delicious (1931)

Director: David Butler

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Think hiring bankable actors to star in musicals and teaching them to sing and dance started with Baz Luhrmann and Rob Marshall? Think again. At the beginning of the 1930s, when motion pictures started to talk, dance, and sing with a vengeance, Hollywood studios scrambled to hire Broadway singers and dancers to meet popular demand for musicals like the ground-breaking The Jazz Singer (1927). The Fox Film Corporation, however, made the decidedly modern move of taking their most popular team, Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, and training them to be musical comedy stars. Their maiden voyage as a musical duo was 1929’s Sunny Side Up, and the great success of that picture almost guaranteed a repeat performance.

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Delicious reteamed Gaynor and Farrell with David Butler, a director who has not been rediscovered by the cinephile community despite having a solid career that included helming several Shirley Temple pictures in the 1930s, the stellar Hope/Crosby/Lamour vehicle Road to Morocco in 1942, and a number of Doris Day films in the 1950s. Butler’s way with musicals offered audiences diversion, but he also brought an edge to Delicious that makes it of a piece with light entertainment of that decade that offered slices of reality from the Great Depression along with crowd-pleasing spectacle. Interestingly, Delicious is a film that must have had a direct influence on the ballet sequence in the classic Vincente Minnelli musical An American in Paris (1951) 20 years later. And why not—both films offer a magnificent suite by George Gershwin; indeed, Delicious boasts an entire score by George and his brother Ira, their first done especially for the movies.

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The social issue discussed in Delicious is immigration. As economies collapsed around the world, hopeful immigrants set sail for the rumored gold-paved streets of the United States of America. Of course, with Americans falling out of work and into poverty in record numbers, too, immigrants had to prove they would not be a drain on the economy before they would be allowed through the gates of Ellis Island. Our heroine, Heather Gordon (Gaynor), is a Scottish lass who expects to live with her uncle in Idaho, which she imagines is close enough to visit her newfound friends in steerage, a musical troupe from Russia set to work at a nightclub in New York City. The composer of the troupe, Sascha (Raul Roulien), is in love with Heather, but once she meets Larry Beaumont (Farrell) in the onboard stable that holds his horse Poncho, there’s no doubt about who will be in the final clinch.

The film’s comedy is a little flaccid, relying heavily on the dubious skills of Swedish impersonator El Brendel as Beaumont’s servant Chris Jansen to bridge the complex plot. A little of El Brendel’s mugging goes a long way, and it is a small crime that he was allowed to introduce the wonderful Gershwin tune “Blah Blah Blah” to the world. He even gets an encore. The direction and editing are often sluggish. A scene of Detective O’Flynn (Lawrence O’Sullivan), an Irish immigration officer, chasing an escaped Heather around the ship after she is denied entry into the country is interminable, neither funny nor suspenseful. O’Flynn pops up more often than Inspector Javert in Les Misérables to dog poor little Heather as she tries to prove she can pull her own weight in America as a member of the Russian troupe. Fortunately, as a consequence, we get treated to the delightful “Katinkitsha” at the Russian nightclub, which plays on the Gershwins’ own heritage as the children of Russian Jews and gives Gaynor a chance to show off her dancing skills while made up to look like a Russian nesting doll.

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It’s interesting to see Virginia Cherrill, the sweet, blind girl in Charlie Chaplin’s miraculous City Lights (1931), as insincere socialite Diana Van Bergh. She toys with Larry’s affections, schemes with her granite-minded mother (Olive Tell) to keep Heather away from him, and even calls the cops on the lassie while pretending to help her, making her one of the more hissworthy villains I’ve seen in recent times. Hollywood always tended to side with virginal innocents, and despite the fact that Diana looks more Larry’s type and Gaynor plays Heather like a 12-year-old Kewpie doll with the worst Scottish accent I’ve ever heard (that is, when she even tries to put the accent on), there is no denying how magnetic Gaynor and Farrell are together.

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The immigrant experience is treated both realistically and somewhat offensively. On the boat, each ethnic group gets a short vignette singing and dancing in their native garb, a caricature that telegraphs the setting to the audience with ease, but also one that reinforces stereotypes. The humorous, hopeful dream Heather has early in the film, “Welcome to the Melting Pot,” offers an equally unrealistic image held of America, as a cohort of Uncle Sams shake her hand, an imagined Mr. Ellis steps into the ocean from Ellis Island and emerges dripping wet to welcome her, and the Statue of Liberty boogies on her pedestal and rains money on her.

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However, the chain blocking the stairs between steerage and the higher classes brings it home that the divisions in American society are not easily breached, and that guardians of the ruling order like O’Flynn, though they be immigrants themselves, are always available. The spacious, luxurious Beaumont estate and the one-room flat that houses the Russians contrast realistically, and the furtiveness of being an illegal immigrant is more than well documented. The best scene in the film, which clearly presages Gene Kelly’s dance through Paris, comes near the end, when Heather is on the run in the streets of New York facing the rush of the crowds from the subway and seeing the skyscrapers loom and turn into the long-nailed hands of ghouls swallowing her up while Gershwin’s “New York Rhapsody” scores her journey. The special effects may be a little old-fashioned even for 1931, but the expressionistic horror remains shocking nonetheless.

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Delicious isn’t the greatest musical to come out of the 1930s, but it’s a fascinating look at how marketing mechanisms Hollywood still employs today meshed with the social consciousness of the time. Further, it shows how the Gershwins told their own story on the silver screen through song. Although it is not any more fleshed than the Gershwin film biographies that came later, it does offer their unfiltered wit and vision in a vehicle that was truly a part of their own time.


19th 10 - 2008 | 3 comments »

2008 CIFF: Heaven on Earth

Director: Deepa Mehta

2008 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

On my way to the screening of Heaven on Earth, I drove past a church at which a wedding celebration was underway. I stopped to let a grandmother pull her grandson across the road, his tiny shoes barely touching the ground, his munchkin-size suitcoat hiking up as he gripped his grandmother’s hand. A large van obscured my view of what was going on in front of the church, but I could clearly hear music with a Middle Eastern flavor. As I passed beyond the van, I took a quick look at people in a circle dancing and clapping with their arms held high. I watched this scene as long as I could in my sideview mirror, reflecting on how this neighborhood, once Swedish Lutheran, had given way to a new immigrant community that no longer worshipped Jesus Christ in the church at which they celebrated.

As Heaven on Earth began, I found myself wrapped in another celebration—this one a prewedding party of a large group of Indian women dressed beautifully in vibrant, gold-threaded saris, armfuls of bangle bracelets, and many-tiered chandelier earrings. They danced with the joyous freedom I had seen only an hour or so ago in my hometown, preparing a beautiful bride named Chand (Bollywood star Preity Zinta) for her journey to Canada to meet her bethrothed for the first time and accustom herself to life in a new country, with a new family. I felt as though I were getting a chance to see inside the experience of a family like the one I had glimpsed only briefly, and savored the possibilities that would soon unfold in the dark theatre. I expected Chand to experience many feelings that go along with being in a strange environment among strange people. But I did not expect this radiant bride to become the extremely unhappy, isolated victim of spousal abuse.

How can any bride expect their spouse to despise and abuse them? Perhaps it is more to be expected in arranged marriages that happen long distance, but Chand didn’t seem worried. The morning before her departure, Chand’s much wiser mother, awakens her to repeat a story about a cobra. Chand sasses that she’s heard the story a hundred times. “Do you remember the moral of the story?” her mother says. “Don’t mess with a cobra!” is Chand’s response. The lesson her mother really wants her to remember is to learn to yield to difficult circumstances. It sounds like Chand’s mother has seen a good many arranged marriages and observed—perhaps lived herself—the difficulties.

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When Chand’s new family meets her at the airport, they remark glowingly that she is even more beautiful than her picture. Her husband-to-be, Rocky (Vanch Bardwaj), is teased by his family for being as “as shy as a girl” upon meeting Chand. When the family arrives home, Chand learns that she is to share a small, single-story house with Rocky’s parents, his sister and brother-in-law, and their two children. Chand says little and keeps her eyes downcast in shyness and obedience.

The marriage takes place almost immediately. As Chand waits for the ceremony to start, she looks out the window. “Dear God. It’s snowing!” Instead of wonder at this new experience, one of the bridal guests just says, “Oh shit.” The splendor and solemnity of the wedding ceremony made me feel this marriage was truly blessed. When the newlyweds return to their home, Chand lays expectantly on her side, still fully dressed in her wedding regalia, awaiting her husband. When he lays down, he says, “We’re not going to do anything tonight. I’m tired.” Chand, still a virgin, might be expected to be a tad bit relieved, but the look of disappointment, of worrying that she does not please Rocky, makes the scene particularly cruel.

The couple drives to Niagara Falls for a honeymoon. When Chand asks if they can take a picture of this physical wonder, Rocky says, “Only tourists take pictures.” Their first sexual embrace never happens because Rocky’s domineering mother (Balinder Johal) arrives at their room with the excuse that she had a premonition that he was in an accident. Rocky decides that he and his brother-in-law will sleep in the car, and Chand and Maji will take the room. When Chand suggests they get another room, Rocky slaps her hard across the face. Chand begins to use her imagination to retell the cobra story in her mind as a way to soothe her, take her back to India, and find a place of her own.

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Life for Chand now involves the endless drudgery of working in a laundry, even though she complains to her sister-in-law and coworker Aman (Ramanjit Kaur) that she has a degree. A Jamaican coworker (Yanna McIntosh) advises her to grate a root she gives Chand into Rocky’s drink; once he drinks it, he will fall instantly in love with her. Unfortunately, the root makes Rocky pass out. When Chand tells her friend about this, she says “You have to use the whole root.” When Chand does this and pours it into some milk, a chemical reaction occurs that causes the liquid to boil. Chand runs outside and dumps it on the ground and shakes her burned hand. In silhouette, we see a cobra rise in the foreground.

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The cobra will become a nuisance to Rocky’s family, but a source of solace for Chand, as it assumes the image of her husband and comes to her as the man she would like Rocky to be. One day she stays home from work, and the cobra Rocky enters her room, where they make love. When the real Rocky learns that she has been with another man—although Chand insists she was with him—he beats her savagely. A thoroughly confused Chand speaks to the cobra Rocky once more. The cobra provides her with a means to prove she is not an adulteress and gain her freedom—one, of course, that requires her to find great courage within herself.

Indians are taught that cobras are very powerful and can assume the shape of anything they wish. Chand did not make the connection between her imagination and the miraculous appearance of a cobra in Brampton, Ontario. Indeed, Rocky refused to allow her to call her mother and denied her the calling of marriage to which she had given herself willingly. Cut off from her roots, abused and reviled by her witchy mother-in-law and the men in the family, she suffered the usual fate of domestic abuse victims. The folklore of the cobra connects directly with the first scene—the celebration of the women. It is in the suppressed feminine power that Chand finds strength and a way to defeat her abusers.

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Deepa Mehta, an acclaimed director, is herself is an immigrant to Canada, and the film captures the flavor of an Indian colony in a new world. Her grasp of the dynamics of domestic violence is accurate and heartfelt—every blow Rocky lands can be felt. She uses a device of shooting Rocky and Chand as a couple in monochrome, reflecting the joylessness of their marriage and the otherworldliness of Chand’s imagination. It’s hard to understand Rocky’s attitude. Is he gay? Is he angry about being forced into an arranged marriage? Does he truly not like Chand? Or women in general? He beats Chand savagely when she pushes Maji to the floor, but when he tells his parents that they will always be his first priority, we can sense his own entrapment and resentment.

The film feels a bit long and goes slack in a couple of places, because it’s hard to know exactly how much time passes between Chand’s arrival in Canada and the end of the film. And despite Chand’s assertions that she had been with no man but Rocky, the complete lack of even discreet or suggested sex scenes made it difficult for me to believe the couple had ever consummated their marriage. Mehta, however, uses extreme close-ups to great effect, practically putting the audience into the scene and Chand’s imagination. The cast, with the exception of newcomer Bardwaj, are very affecting and individual, even Geetika Sharma, who plays Aman’s daughter Loveleen with enthusiasm for her new role model, and later, with dread.

Heaven on Earth regards patriarchy with a cold, clear gaze and asserts the salvation for women—and perhaps men—through belief in feminine power. This is a tough, but ultimately uplifting film. l

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10th 10 - 2007 | no comment »

Lucky Miles (2007)

Director: Michael James Rowland

2007 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

The United States isn’t the only country with its panties in a bunch about immigrants, legal or otherwise. Over the last 10–15 years, Australia’s policies with regard to immigrants have slipped from relatively open to fairly hostile. While the politics of the country today seem to be favoring a return to a more liberal approach to immigration, there is still much resistance.

Lucky Miles was made as a kind of wake-up call to Australia. Rowland deliberately sets most of the action in the year 1990 to help Australians recall that it wasn’t so long ago when asylum seekers and boat people were dealt with in a more balanced way. Far from being a liberal polemic, however, Lucky Miles is a rich and entertaining film that tellingly won the Audience Choice Award at the 2007 Sydney Film Festival.

The film is based on real-life accounts of illegal immigrants who survived their journey to Australia in barely seaworthy boats, only to be dumped in the empty deserts on the northwest coast of the continent in the state of Western Australia. The film begins, however, in Cambodia in 1972, as an Australian soldier bids farewell to his Khmer lover. He gives her a business card and tells her to call the number if her family gives her a hard time. He also promises to return in a few weeks.

Flash-forward to 1990 and a jerrybuilt putt-putt filled with Iraqi and Cambodian refugees and their Indonesian mules. The boat pulls up to shore. Large sand dunes stretch as far as the eye can see. When one of passengers questions the location of the drop-off, lead mule Muluk (Sawung Jabo) assures them that just over the top of the dunes is a road where they can catch a bus into town. Khmer refugee Arun (Kenneth Moraleda) asks if the bus goes to Perth, where his father lives. He pulls out a business card to show the address. Muluk assures him it does. While the Iraqis and Khmer celebrate their arrival in a democracy where they can claim asylum, Muluk and his crew slip away.

Lucky%202.jpgNaturally, there is no road, no bus, nothing at all but endless desert. The Iraqis and Khmer head in opposite directions down the beach, hoping to walk to the nearest town. The Khmer manage to find a road. They see a sign, shot through with bullet holes, that puzzles them. They also see empty beverage cans along the road. One throws a rock at a can, and all of the Khmer crouch and cover their heads as it hits the can. This is comical to watch, but reflects the reality of unexploded bombs these Khmer faced in their own country. The Khmer follow the road and find a roadhouse. As they sit drinking free refreshments at the roadhouse, the owner slips off to call the police. All the Khmer are rounded up except for Arun, who was outside filling his water jugs and who runs for his life. He’s used to police who shoot first and ask questions later.

Meanwhile, the Iraqis are having troubles of their own. Yousif (Rodney Afif) bristles at the orders given by the self-appointed leader Hussam (Majed Abbas). When the pair go to collect fire wood, Hussam pulls a knife out. Realizing that Hussam was one of Saddam Hussein’s death dealers, the people who killed his entire family, Yousif runs and falls over a cliff. Yousif brings the “sad” news back to the camp of Youif’s demise, claiming to have called out and made a thorough search. The men, convinced by his story, continue on without thinking more about it.

Yousif, scraped and stunned, survives and starts walking. He collides squarely with Arun, who is running at full speed away from the “bad town.” Arun, who has water, spares a few precious gulps for Yousif, and the men decide to join forces. Yousif wants to go back to the town, but Arun insists this would be a mistake and since he holds all the cards—the water—the men set off for Perth.

Meanwhile, back at the boat, Ramelan (Sri Sacdpraseuth), Muluk’s nephew, is playing with a cigarette lighter. He accidentally loses his grip on it and sets the boat on fire. The trio of smugglers must swim to shore. Muluk refuses to let Ramelan come with him and Abdu (Arif Hidayat), punishment for sinking the boat. Now we have several groups of illegal aliens wandering around Western Australia.

Add to the mix a trio of Army reservists who are sent to track the refugees’ whereabouts. A city mouse Aboriginal named O’Shane (Glen Shea), a country mouse Aboriginal named Tom Collins (Sean Mununggurr), and country mouse white Australian Greg Plank (Don Hany) are in pursuit after reports of the smugglers’ boat are made. The film makes droll comedy out of the fact that O’Shane is an Aboriginal who cannot track; he constantly asks Tom where the refugess have gone. The trio are a less physically abusive version of the Three Stooges whose misadventures, including dropping their Land Rover in a water hole, keep them one step behind Yousif, Arun, and forlorn and abandoned Ramelan, who joined the duo with promises to lead them to civilization.

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This is a film that makes certain light of the dumb luck and misfortunes of its characters without caricaturizing them or diminishing the plight they are in. Although Arun wishes to avoid the police at all costs, they are his best hope for survival in the harsh outback. Yousif, “a fully qualified structural engineer” who was reduced to driving a cab in Iran for five years (a job Ramelan covets), seeks control at all costs. When, after splitting up in anger, the trio accidentally reunites in an abandoned shack, Yousif spends all his time trying to get a rusted, broken truck to run again. It seems hopeless, but he has a Westerner’s sense of individual responsibility and determination.

Eventually, the reservists catch up with Yousif and Ramelan in a hilarious, realistic chase sequence that has to be seen to be believed. When news of their ordeal hits Australia’s airwaves, pub dwellers near the site of their capture hand it to the little buggers for surviving so long. Arun, who was separated from Ramelan and Yousif, remains at large. He brings the picture to its inevitable denouemount through the kindness of one of those pub dwellers. The gentleness and humor sounded at the end strike the perfect note for reconciliation Rowland said he hoped to achieve with this film. This is the rare movie that will make you laugh while it makes you think. I was privileged to see its North American premiere and meet its talented director and producer.


14th 05 - 2007 | no comment »

Conversations on a Sunday Afternoon (2005)

Director: Khalo Matabane

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

I was having lunch with my 80-something Greek neighbor, who told me her story of coming to America. She was asked during her citizenship class if she was loyal to the United States or to Greece. Her answer was, “Greece is my mother. America is my mother-in-law. How can I choose?” I was reminded of this snippet of conversation after viewing Conversations on a Sunday Afternoon.

It was indeed a Sunday afternoon when Facets Cinematheque, again host to the Human Rights Watch Traveling Film Festival in Chicago, screened this compelling and unique movie. Conversations, which has a fictional main character whose search for a woman results in documentary interviews with real people, manages to communicate the scope of the refugee experience beyond the numbing frame most of us are used to seeing and probably have learned to tune out—a refugee camp overrun with bloated-bellied children swarmed with flies and worried women with bony hands and faces. In doing so, it is possible for audiences to reconsider just what a refugee is and find a new, more engaged response.

Keniloe (Tony Kgoroge), a black South African poet living in Johannesburg, carries his favorite bench to a city park, reads the novel Links by Somali writer Nuruddin Farah, and tries to overcome his writer’s block to “make sense of the world.” Over several Sundays, Keniloe struggles, rain or shine, to unlock the door of perception. Before Keniloe takes notice, we are made aware of a black Muslim woman dressed in blue satin sitting in the same park, writing letters of inquiry to the Somali government about her missing mother. It is only after several Sundays that Keniloe goes over to her to ask who she is and why she comes to the conv%20fatima.jpgpark each week. The woman, Fatima (Fatima Hersi), relates her harrowing story of watching her young brother and father being shot dead before her eyes during the civil war in Somalia, being shot herself and left for dead, and waking up in a hospital in Nairobi, Kenya. She repeats this story three times, tears running down her face, her hand pushing at her nose to clear it. How she ended up in South Africa is anyone’s guess. Keniloe is next seen sitting in a tree composing a poem about Fatima into his tape recorder. He wants the whole story, but Fatima does not return to the park.

He sets out to try to find her, feeling that the coincidence of reading a Somali writer and encountering a Somali woman who has experienced tragedy has great significance for him. However, as tracking Fatima down proves difficult (using the ineffectual approach of asking random people in the streets where Somalis live if they know her doesn’t help), the film shifts to a general exploration of the refugee experience. Keniloe decides he wants to understand the experience of seeing people killed or killing people. His wanderings through Johannesburg turn up some surprising stories.

We meet a Ugandan who fled his country 10 years before. He says he’d like to go back, but he has no family left—they’ve all been killed. We meet another Ugandan, a young woman who left when she was a child and has been living in South Africa for 20 years. Keniloe asks her if she considers herself South African. She hesitates to answer. Eventually she says that she does, but that she also feels Ugandan, moreso every year. It’s interesting to see this identity crisis play out much like an adopted child who wants to find his or her birth parents.

In a decayed underground garage, Keniloe meets with an entire family who relocated to Johannesburg from a Palestinian refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. Several children silently flank the father, who does all the talking, while the mother keeps their toddler occupied in the background. When asked if living in a war zone their entire lives—including 30 years for the parents—has changed them, the father says, incredulous, how could it not.

A young white woman from Yugoslavia—or as she says, now the Union of Serbia and Montenegro—living in a Jo’burg slum is another refugee. She fled Sarajevo. When she walks the streets of Jo’burg at 2 in the morning, her friends are horrified. Her reply is that it is safe because there are no bombs falling and bodies in the streets. A refugee from the dictatorship of South Korean Conv-on-a-Sunday-Afternoon.gif president Park Chung-hee, whose English is immaculate after several years in New Jersey, says she doesn’t miss Korea at all and doesn’t intend to go back. Her bitterness over the oppression of women and university students, a dissident group to which she belonged, will keep her an exile for the foreseeable future.
Keniloe also encounters a former soldier from the Congo (formerly Zaire) who received a machete blow to the head before ordering his troops to gun down his assailants. He doesn’t even remember being shipped to South Africa, but he had refugee status forced upon him by the South African government for his own protection. He shows us the scar on his head beneath his red military beret.

Finally, through twin sisters, one of whom is named Fatima, Keniloe finally finds his Fatima. She lives with her husband and children like many residents of Jo’burg—in a house fortified with a barbed-wire-topped gate and burglar bars on every window. She won’t answer Keniloe’s knocks on the door, but comes to the window and talks through the glass. He tells her he has been looking for her to finish her story. She says she’s not interested in talking about it anymore and disappears behind the drapes. A nonplussed Keniloe stands outside as the film fades to black.

Conversations%201.jpgThis film has a street theatre quality to it. The lively byways of Johannesburg’s black district of Hillbrow, with their hair-weave, notions, and produce stands, are the scene of most of the interviews. The undoubtedly cheap, handheld equipment produces serviceable pictures enlivened by the surroundings as well as plenty of suspicious stares from people on the street. It doesn’t surprise anyone to learn that raids on illegal immigrants may be producing those stares; indeed, director Matabane takes us into a deportation center where defiant deportees sing that they’ll be back. Occasionally, as with the Palestinian family and the Congolese soldier, decaying surroundings are deliberately chosen as backdrops. Are we to suppose that all refugees live in substandard areas, or are these settings a reflection of the experiences these people have faced and still deal with, in reality or in memory, every day?

Conversations on a Sunday Afternoon is a timely film for Americans and Europeans alike who are clashing over the status of illegal immigrants. It concentrates mainly on political refugees, but does not go so far as to entirely separate economic refugees who illegally reside in a country from foreign victims of war and civil rights abuses. It illustrates in very vivid terms that displacement is a universal problem that many Americans and Europeans view in racial terms. The fight over territory and legitimacy is often caused by war. When the people who are caught in the middle must flee for their lives, they find they must fight the same battle again. If they are lucky, like my Greek neighbor, they will find easy acceptance. If they are unlucky, they may be wanderers, in fact and in spirit, the rest of their lives. l


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