26th 03 - 2015 | no comment »

Open Up to Me (Kerron sinulle kaiken, 2013)

Director/Screenwriter: Simo Halinen

18th Annual European Union Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Among the more difficult challenges to empathy I have personally faced is trying to understand the mindset and choices of transgender individuals. I know and consider one transgender woman a friend and colleague, and I accept unconditionally that she is a woman. Yet it’s hard for me to understand how a mind and body can be so at odds that one would literally undergo the pain of surgery and hormone injections required for gender reassignment. That is why I very much looked forward to seeing Open Up to Me, a new Finnish film that puts a transgender woman at the center of its story.

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The film opens during a therapy session, the last one Maarit (Leea Klemola) will have with her therapist. Maarit, a former school counselor, puts her underemployment as a cleaner with a janitorial service down to her honesty. She fears she will never have a relationship with her daughter Pinja (Emmi Nivala) because of her ex’s hostility, and she admits she would like to have a relationship with a man but worries that the exceptional individual who would accept her may be too hard to find. Her therapist leaves her with the final thought that it’s no longer necessary to hide away from other people and that Maarit must try to get the things she wants out of life.

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On one cleaning job at the home office of a psychotherapist who is leaving town for two weeks, Maarit is given the keys to lock up. She explores the woman’s bedroom, trying on her lipstick and putting on one of her outfits. The doorbell rings, and not sure what else to do, she opens it. Sami (Peter Franzén), an attractive high school teacher and soccer coach about the same age as Maarit, asks if the therapist is in and learns she has just left town. Sami assumes Maarit is her work colleague and asks if she can talk to him. His marriage is in crisis, and he fears it will fall apart imminently if he doesn’t do something. Maarit, a trained social worker, agrees, and learns and is touched by Sami’s innermost feelings about sex and love. Just as he leaves, his wife Julia (Ria Kataja) arrives looking for the therapist, whom she has begged Sami to see to no avail. Again, Maarit agrees to speak with Julia, and gives her some advice that makes the couple’s evening at home the best they’ve had in ages. Unfortunately, Maarit has developed a crush on Sami and pursues him to the affair that was almost inevitable from the moment they met. Maarit, it seems, will now learn what it’s like to be the other woman.

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The script for Open Up to Me is a mass of ’80s tropes and techniques, like an abundance of annoying lens flares, the dress-up/mistaken identity set-up from the Melanie Griffith-Harrison Ford vehicle Working Girl (1988), and a horny high school student with a lot of screen time, Teo (Alex Anton), who only seemed to be in the film to channel Tom Hanks’ manchild from Big (1988). Nonetheless, I had no trouble overlooking these recycled plot devices and some pretty schematic coincidences. This film gets my full endorsement for the riveting central performance by Leea Klemola.

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Klemola makes Maarit’s sometimes self-sabotaging honesty the hallmark of her character, and suggests some of the masculine habits she has retained post-transition, like pursuing Sami and coming on strong, that make her performance as a transgender female so believable. (A review of the film by one transgender woman confirms that her performance was very convincing.) When she tells Sami what it was like to go on her journey, one that started at the age of five, I felt I got a bit of insight into the flash of awareness many of us have at that age about who we are as a discrete person, separate from our parents and surroundings. Maarit’s attempts to deny her gender identity by becoming an athlete, husband, and father and keeping her secret self well hidden make perfect sense. As with any soul-denying lie, however, the truth will out eventually, and the collateral damage to her daughter and wife a lasting regret she will have to learn to live with.

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The women in this film are more courageous than its men. Pinja is harassed at school when a suicide inquiry brings Maarit back to town under suspicion of child abuse. Pinja, however, stands up to the ridicule and fights back to restore her father’s good name. Julia, though she hasn’t much screen time, comes off first as a bigot when she learns what kind of person her husband chose to cheat on her with and then as someone relieved not to have to pretend to be happy anymore. Sami is kind of a mess of a character, seemingly not concerned with Maarit’s physical change, but eventually uncomfortable in her world. I pegged him as a curious man who never intended for the affair to be more than a dalliance and who becomes furious with Maarit for her characteristic honesty when she unexpectedly runs into Julia. He’s a weak, entitled man who doesn’t deserve Maarit, as she learns rather quickly.

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Although this is a film that will draw attention because of its unique central character, the real takeaway is that honesty, no matter what its cost, is the most rewarding approach to life and that eventually those we love can learn to live with the truth. In the film’s best moment, Pinja and an emotionally overcome Maarit are reunited. Pinja’s matter-of-fact last line is, “Dad, your make-up is running.”

Open Up to Me is showing Friday, March 27 at 8:00 p.m. and Tuesday, March 31 at 6:00 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., Chicago.


30th 09 - 2011 | 8 comments »

CIFF 2011: Inshallah, Football (2010)

Producer/Director: Ashvin Kumar

2011 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

If my life depended on my knowledge of the Asian subcontinent, I’d be playing a very off-key harp somewhere out there in the universe. That’s why the CIFF’s “Spotlight South Asia” is such a welcome addition to this year’s festival, providing emerging voices from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka a much-needed showcase and giving people like me a chance to better understand this ancient and volatile region. My first foray into the “Spotlight” offerings, Inshallah, Football, was massively eye-opening, even as it told a story that’s all too familiar throughout the world today.

Basharat Baba is a very talented soccer player from the Srinagar district of Kashmir who has been recruited to live the dream of all aspiring soccer players—to train for and compete on a professional team in Brazil. But the Indian government won’t grant his request for a passport. Why? Herein lies the sad reality that has plagued Kashmir. This predominantly Muslim state has been trying to exercise its legal sovereignty since its forced occupation by Indian troops beating back Pakistani forces trying to control Kashmir following the 1947 Indian Independence Act that created the two independent countries. In Basharat’s case, his father’s past as a Pakistani-trained militant in the 1980s and 90s has put him on a government blacklist—the sins of the father, so to speak, preventing Basharat from realizing his dream.

Inshallah, Football provides helpful title cards that familiarize viewers with the facts and issues of the region, but there are some universal truths about the human condition that get a thorough airing as well. The dismantling of the British Empire left traditional political structures that existed before the British arrived in shambles in many parts of the world besides India and made land grabs in the name of security rather commonplace, for example, the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine. The paradox of structurally democratic nations heavily oppressing a minority population is also easily recognizable as the paranoia of power desperate to keep it. That such oppression breeds militants who are denied their rights is no surprise, nor is blacklisting of future generations of perceived enemies of the state.

Ironically, the film shows Basharat to be a young man very much like any in the world. He asks a pretty girl for her phone number even as he maintains a steady relationship with another girl, he hangs out with his friends and engages in some playful rough-housing, he becomes childishly stubborn when faced with the need for compromise, and he doesn’t understand why he is being punished for something he didn’t do. Basharat is lucky; he was given the chance to join a soccer academy run by Juan Marcos Troia and his wife Priscilla, who moved from Argentina to start a feeder system for talented Kashmiri youth to soccer clubs throughout the world. If he hadn’t gotten that chance, it is likely that he might have been one of the angry youths, their faces hidden, who throw stones at the Indian troops who dog their every move with random arrests, harassment, and “defensive” volleys of tear gas, and rubber and live bullets.

That possibility was his father Bashi’s worst nightmare. Bashi’s life as a militant had been filled torture, imprisonment, and separation from his loved ones. It was also an adventure and one in which Bashi committed his share of crime and violence. He talks movingly of the night he thought he would die—the warden of the dreaded Papa 2 prison, Kashmir’s Abu Ghraib, told him, “You know the policy now is capture and kill for militants. You were lucky you were captured at home.” Bashi is quite unemotional about his militant days; he has moved on, and is now a successful real estate developer.

The Indians show no such signs of moving on, and the cause for which Bashi fought and so many others died is a long way from won. I was absolutely floored to learn that Kashmir is the world’s most heavily militarized occupied zone, with 500,000 Indian troops holding back a perceived threat from Pakistan. It’s hard to understand why the Marcos Troias want to live in Kashmir, but they are a pair of do-gooders the Indian government should welcome for reducing militancy and sending Kashmiris out of the country. Unaccountably, this affable, loving couple had their visas revoked at the end of the film; while they won a one-year extension at the last minute, I have to think that director Kumar’s own run-ins with the occupying Indians caused them this unwarranted trouble. Inshallah, Football lost three appeals with the censor board, and finally won an A (Adult) rating, normally reserved for films depicting extreme violence or graphic sex, thus limiting its exhibition potential in India. Fight the power by seeing this important documentary and sharing your thoughts widely.

Inshallah, Football will screen Thursday, October 13, 5:00 p.m., and Saturday, October 15, 12:00 p.m. at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St. It will show Sunday, October 16, 8:00 p.m. at the University of Chicago’s DOC Films, 1212 E. 59th St.

Previous coverage

George the Hedgehog: Irreverent and adult, this comic-book-based animated film pits George, a pleasure-loving hedgehog, against his clone, a stupid, vulgar internet superstar. (Poland)

The Kid with a Bike: What makes some people give unselfishly of themselves is the question examined in this intense tale by the Dardenne brothers of a boy abandoned by his father and the single woman who takes him in. (Belgium)

Without: A suspenseful story of guilt and loss slowly unfurls as a young woman acts as a temporary caregiver to a helpless elderly man in an isolated island home. (USA)

Madame X: A riotous satire on spy/superhero films that has a drag queen hairdresser transform into a crusader for freedom and equality against the forces of repressive morality. (Indonesia)

Southwest: A haunting, beautifully photographed journey of discovery, as a young woman who dies in childbirth gets a second chance to live to old age, but only one day in which to live it. (Brazil)

On the Bridge: Moving documentary about the torments of posttraumatic stress disorder suffered by Iraq veterans and the failure of the VA medical establishment to help them. (France/USA)


23rd 01 - 2011 | 5 comments »

Eleven Men Out (Strákarnir okkar, 2005)

Director: Róbert I. Douglas

By Marilyn Ferdinand

My local library, the Skokie Public Library, is, I’m convinced, the most wonderful community library in the country, and it’s got the credentials to prove it—the 2008 National Medal for Museum and Library Service, the nation’s highest honor for libraries. The huge catalog of foreign-language films the library carries or has available for download to accommodate village residents who speak one or more of 97 languages likely cannot be found through even the best video rental sources. And while I would never guess that Icelandic was one of those languages, the Skokie library has a few titles to accommodate those from that small country as well. The hubby picked up one of them yesterday for our evening entertainment, an irresistible-sounding film about a gay soccer club based in Reykjavík.

Eleven Men Out wastes no time in getting to the point. The powerful pro team, KR, moves into the locker room after a game, where they are pursued by photographers and reporters. One of the reporters is talking to Ottar Thor (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson), who is concerned where a photo of him will be placed in the magazine. She says that it will be on the last page, the last thing people read. He complains. She says that if he gives her something good, he could get a cover. He decides on the spot to come out as gay to her, the photographers, and his unsuspecting and flabbergasted teammates. Ottar gets his magazine cover—and gets booted off the team by the homophobic team owner.

Ottar’s father (Sigurður Skúlason) tells him to give up this nonsense or, barring that, to get psychiatric help to “cure” his “illness.” Ottar’s brother Orri (Jón Atli Jónason, who cowrote the screenplay), a completely contemptible person who treats his girlfriend of two months like trash, merely insults his brother at every opportunity and shows more concern for the money owed him for rentals from his video store than the tumult Ottar has caused his parents. Gugga (Lilja Nótt Þórarinsdóttir), Ottar’s ex-wife and a former Miss Iceland, is sloppy drunk for most of the movie; neither she nor Ottar understand how Ottar has made their son Maggi’s (Arnmundur Ernst Björnsson) life hell at school.

Ottar’s friend Pétur (Helgi Björnsson), a former pro who had his moment of glory scoring a goal off the mighty Arsenal team in London, coaches an amateur soccer team. He offers Ottar a position, mentioning that his team has a few gay members so Ottar won’t get the same treatment as he did on KR. Alas, Ottar is now a very high-profile homosexual, and the few straight men on the team resign. The discussion Pétur has with them is hilarious in its circularity (“But I’m not gay.” “Exactly. That’s why this isn’t a gay team.”). Of course, it doesn’t matter that the team is mixed; perception is everything, and these men fear guilt by association.

Eventually, the team is composed entirely of gay players. They change the name of the team to Pride United and adopt a uniform that has a rainbow stripe on the sleeve. After winning their first game through the homophobic forfeit of the other team, they finally get a chance to prove their worth by winning enough games to reach first in their league. A random drawing of teams for the playoffs has them bussing to northern Iceland to play a team in an isolated hamlet and partying in a pathetic disco called Club Cambodia, run by the Cambodian wife of the other team’s coach. Maggi meets their lovely half-Cambodian daughter Rosá (Pattra Sriyanonge), who asks the 13-year-old boy if he wants to fuck. He’s taken aback and nervous, but she says matter-of-factly that there’s not much else to do in her town.

The film climaxes when KR, worried about fallout from their homophobia, agrees to play Pride United. The date of the match falls, coincidentally, on the same day as Reykjavík’s gay pride parade. As a multicolored balloon ribbon follows the floats filled with drag queens down the streets of Reykjavík, Pride United and KR face off. If you want to know the outcome, stay with the closing credits; this film does not traffick in the traditional underdog payoff of most sports movies by filming the big game.

To many Americans, this film may seem thoroughly contemptible and behind the times. After all, have we not seen openly gay politicians rise to national prominence, openly gay entertainers like Ellen DeGeneres win lucrative modeling contracts and continue on with their successful careers, gay writers land on best-seller lists? Have we not also seen gay bashing continue, gay marriage rights come—and go—in various states, strong coalitions of religious leaders forming organized offensives against gay rights of every stripe? Have we not seen a 2010 film by a gay director present two lesbians in the most straight-friendly manner imaginable? If you listen carefully to the Icelandic, you’ll notice that the language has only one word for homosexual, whereas the subtitles change it up frequently. This one difference represents what I like so much about Eleven Men Out—its direct approach to its subject.

The film doesn’t sugarcoat the homophobia that exists in Iceland; it also doesn’t have its gay characters back down into stereotypes or defensiveness. Ottar says he is what he is, and by the way, that includes a narcissistic soccer star whose vanity brought him out of the closet without considering the consequences of an abrupt public outing on his teammates, friends, and family. Continuing with his tunnel vision, he takes up with a young soccer player on Pride United, offering up movie theme nights for entertainment; he’s caught completely off guard when his lover walks out on him, preferring to spend his time in more youthful, active pursuits. He is also careless about having Maggi walking in on him having sex with his lover. The film is utterly casual about nudity, mixing women and naked men in locker rooms without comment; a group hug in the showers is handled unself-consciously by the actors.

The film also doesn’t whitewash the very serious drinking problem the country has, as evidenced by Icelandic singer Björk’s admission to drinking a liter of vodka every Friday, a “custom” she picked up from her grandparents. Gugga is drunk all the time, but so is everyone else in the film, and there are virtually no scenes in which a character doesn’t have a drink in his or her hand. It also doesn’t present picture-postcard images of Iceland; in fact, I’m surprised the populace hasn’t drowned in all the rain, which isn’t the gentle mist one finds in more image-conscious Irish films, but comes down in torrents on the umbrella-free characters.

While Eleven Men Out strives for some kind of upbeat ending, with the Pride/KR match, Gugga’s entry into rehab, a real talk between Maggi and his parents, and Ottar’s mother (Lilja Guðrún Jónsdóttir) forcing her husband to sit in the stands with the fans of Pride United, the film doesn’t forsake the reality of Iceland’s attitude. “You didn’t expect us to win,” Ottar says to Pétur, a wonderfully comic line that sums up a realistic, sardonic attitude not only to the difference in skill between Pride United and KR, but also the uphill battle facing homosexuals in a society whose language has barely changed since it landed on the island in the 9th century.

I like how unsympathetic a part Atli Jónason was willing to write for himself, making him the perfect comic man you love to hate. This is a funny movie, but it’s not blind to the seriousness of its subjects and isn’t willing to turn its characters into caricatures for the sake of a few yucks. Unlike a film I didn’t much like, Up in the Air (2009), it doesn’t use its serious subjects as mere background. The film is too packed to get a deep character study, but we do get a good feel for the nasty situation Icelandic homosexuals find themselves in and their real strength to overcome it.


23rd 05 - 2010 | 9 comments »

Offside (2006)

Director: Jafar Panahi

By Marilyn Ferdinand

As many people in cinematic and Iranian circles know, noted Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi has been incarcerated by the Iranian government for nearly three months, where he has been tortured and, until a couple of days ago, denied an appearance before a judge and visits from his lawyer and family. The jury of the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, on which he was to sit, left a chair empty in symbolic protest and was one of the first bodies in the film community to protest his imprisonment. There can be no doubt that he was jailed to prevent a repeat of his highly visible protest of the repressions of the Iranian government at the 2009 Montreal Film Festival. The government started to bow to pressure when the world reacted to Panahi beginning a hunger strike to the death last week; he said in his letter announcing the hunger strike: “I will not tolerate turning into a lab rat, where every minute I am accused of the most insane crimes and where I am under constant mental and physical torture.” Another Iranian filmmaker, Mohammad Nourizad, has undergone similar treatment for an even longer period, and his sight has been damaged from the severe beatings he has endured.

These two men and every other Iranian filmmaker who wishes to make films in their own country must endure censorship and restrictions. None of Panahi’s films can be shown in Iran because he has filmed around the restrictions, and his defiance of government repression is what has placed him in his current predicament. Besides joining groups calling for his release, I decided to write about Panahi’s work that by posing questions by example, illuminates what sorts of “insane crimes” ordinary Iranians are being accused of these days and allows us to reflect on the customs and religious dogma that harm and oppress women not only in Iran, but also throughout the world.

The plan to make Offside came to Panahi when his daughter was refused admission to a soccer match. With Iran in contention to make the finals of the 2006 World Cup, Panahi took his chance and filmed clandestinely at Tehran’s Azadi stadium during the match between Bahrain and Iran to determine which national team would go to Germany to play for the championship. He chose nonprofessionals to portray the soccer-crazy girls who try to sneak into the stadium, the soldiers providing security, and the male fans.

We find ourselves inside a car in which an older man (Mohammed Moktar Azad) tells an unseen driver to catch up with a bus and block it from continuing. He gets out of the car, saying he won’t be long, and looks up and down the bus for his daughter, who has taken off to see the big game. The car he started out in takes off, and the bus driver lets him ride to the stadium so he can search for his daughter. “You know what they’ll do to her if they catch her.” That sounds ominous and makes us worry about a girl (Sima Mobarak-Shahi) on another bus whose disguise fools no one. A young man on the bus is sympathetic, as is the vendor who takes the risk of selling her a ticket, but overcharges her for it and forces her to buy one of his posters as well as a cover for their conversation. She watches another girl get in using her elderly father as a cover, and attempts to attach herself to some others going through the gate, but balks when a soldier goes to frisk her. She runs, but is apprehended and taken to a holding area, already occupied by several other girls and guarded by one soldier from a rural area near Tabriz (Mohammad Kheir-Habadi) who barks orders at them and another, a city boy from Tehran (Masoud Kheymeh-kabood), who can see the game and narrates it for them.

Between the play-by-play coverage, the arrival of another disguised girl, personal histories, and the screams of an angry father, a very interesting conversation takes place between the rural soldier and one of the more defiant and masculine girls (Shayesteh Irani). Clearly intimidated by his city setting and concerned about threats to his father’s farm, we see how the government works in the outreaches of Iran. The Tehrani girl openly smokes and has cut her hair. She learns that foreign women are allowed into the stadium, even though they will also be exposed to the coarse language and naked arms and legs of the men attending the game that are the excuses the soldiers give for the exclusion of Iranian women. They also will be sitting with strange men around them. “But they will be with their brothers and husbands,” the soldier shoots back, not considering that this could also be the case for the detained girls. “So, the only reason I can’t go in is because I’m Iranian,” the girl says, hitting the nail on the head. It’s all about government control, of course. As Panahi has said in an interview, there is no law saying women can’t attend soccer matches. It has become an unwritten law that through intimidation is becoming custom. As long as Iran remains under religious rule, laws will not matter and interpretation of religious law will be at the discretion of the few men who hold power.

Offside explores these deep issues the way reasonable people might, through conversations that could be taking place in coffee houses, dorm rooms, or dinner parties anywhere in the world. The film also takes some very well-aimed pokes at the absurdity of the situation at hand. One of the girls (Ayda Sadequi), a soccer player herself, has to use the rest room. Of course, there are no rest rooms for females, so the Tehrani soldier disguises her by taking the first girl’s poster of a soccer star and turning it into a mask—one the girl can’t see out of because the holes he cuts in it don’t line up with her eyes. The scene in the bathroom is hilarious, as the soldier tells the girl not to read the graffiti-speckled walls, pushes an ever-growing crowd of men wanting to relieve themselves away while she’s in the rest room, and overhears a strange conversation in one of the stalls that sends the soldier from door to door, listening and finally bursting into one stall, only to find an old man having his wheelchair adjusted by his grandson. The girl takes her chance to run away while the soldier is surrounded by men wanting to use the facilities, and as he looks through the stands for her, we get a glimpse of the soccer match. At this moment, it dawned on me that I felt as deprived as the girls at not being able to see the action on the field—an interesting bit of empathy Panahi slyly put in motion from the moment we reached the stadium.

Because the game was real, Panahi and his cast had two possible endings, for victory or defeat. Either, I’m sure, would have been great, but victory allows us to see the street demonstrations of a proud nation and the jubilant yells of the girls—all real soccer fans—as they are being hauled off to the Vice Squad along with a boy who was detained for his repeated use of fireworks at soccer matches. Beautifully, he lights a firecracker in the paddy wagon that the soldier missed during his search, and produces sparklers. When the soldiers are compelled to join the revelers in the street, the prisoners file off the bus holding the lit sparklers. This moving last scene offers Panahi’s hope that the Iranian people will eventually emerge victorious into the light. I’ll be lighting a candle of hope for him as well. l

JAFAR PANAHI is the group on Facebook that is providing information and updates on him and Mohammad Nourizad. BREAKING! Panahi is being released on bail!


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