Cries from Syria


The White Helmets rescue more Syrian children from the rubble of Aleppo.

(2017) Documentary (HBO) Helen Mirren (narrator), Abdullah Kurdi, Kholoud Halmi, Hadi Al-Abdullah Abdul Baset Al-Saroot, Riad Al-Asaad, Suzan Malar, President Bashar Al-Asad, Jamil Afesee, Dr. Khalid Alazar, Zaher Al-Saket, Raed El-Saleh, Abu Mohammad Al-Julani, Ghiath Matar, Hamza Ali Al-Khateeb. Directed by Evgeny Afineevsky

 

What is happening in Syria is absolutely unconscionable. Ruled by President Bashar Al-Asad with an iron fist (ironically he trained as a doctor before stepping in as successor to his brutal father), Syria is a country which has fallen into a morass of death and destruction.

Afineevsky, who helmed the excellent Oscar-nominated documentary Winter on Fire about the Ukraine’s fight for freedom from a tyrant allied with Vladimir Putin, has delivered a very orderly and precise account of the events that have led to the situation as it is. There are a lot – a lot – of talking head interviews in the film which is normally a turn-off for me but their stories are all so varied and effective it’s hard to fault the director.

Afineevsky divides the movie into four chapters; the first details the events leading up to the Syrian revolution; how the Arab Spring gave people hope that they would be able to overthrow their own despot. When some schoolboys in the city of Daraa write some graffiti on their schoolyard reading “It’s Your Turn, Doctor” apparently this puts the fear of God into the authorities for the boys are arrested, tortured and many of them are killed.

This leads to outrage on the part of the people of Syria who feel that torturing children is a step too far. They take to the streets in massive demonstrations but Al-Asad orders his army to fire on the peaceful, unarmed demonstrators who carry flowers and bottled water to give to the soldiers. Some of the soldiers, disgusted by these orders, defect from the Syrian army and form the Free Syrian Army. The Syrian Civil War begins.

You get a sense that the Syrian people, confronted by one atrocity, believe that they’ve hit rock bottom and then another one begins. Al-Asad starts by laying siege to towns where anti-government demonstrations had taken place. He forbids any goods and services to come in, and starts bombarding the towns, labeling the inhabitants as terrorists when in reality most of the dead and dying are women and children. His bombers target hospitals and schools.

Then he starts dropping Sarin nerve gas on his own people, following that lovely gesture up with Chlorine gas. Both of these mainly affect the children, already weakened by hunger. When the UN gets wind of this, they send troops to confiscate any biological weapons but there is evidence that Al-Asad still has plenty in his possession.

After that, ISIS starts taking over villages in Eastern Syria which are more rural and imposing their own peculiar brand of Islam on the inhabitants. They seem to be saviors at first but their true colors show as they begin executing and beating the villagers for infractions that are almost nonsensical. However, the presence of ISIS brings in Putin and his air force and the bombing under Al-Asad suddenly goes on steroids. Aleppo, one of the larger cities in Syria, is essentially being obliterated.

We get scenes of the White Helmets, volunteer first responders who go into bombed out buildings and rescue those buried inside. They inject a little humanity into the unending horrors we witness – one can only wonder how the Syrian people can bear it. There are so many tears, so many screams of loss – it all blends together somewhat by movie’s end.

As a primer for what’s happening in Syria, this film succeeds triumphantly although there are those – an admitted minority of trolls – who mark it as propaganda. There’s no doubt that the filmmakers are on the side of the Syrian people and some think that the Syrian people are terrorists. Those that do tend to be ignorant of the facts but then that’s never stopped anyone from trolling, right?

This is not easy to watch – you may need to step away from time to time and give yourself a break, but it is important viewing. In watching it you’ll run the gamut of emotions – heartbreak, outrage, horror, disbelief, admiration, sympathy, sadness and hopefully, a desire to help. There are ways to assist the Syrian people without having to fly to Damascus. Look into them if you can.

Even though the fourth chapter on the Syrian refugee issue doesn’t measure up to the first three chapters, it is incumbent on us to understand what the refugees are fleeing from and why we need to take them in and give them shelter. It’s only the Christian thing to do, or have we forgotten two travelers to Bethlehem who were denied shelter?

REASONS TO GO: A detailed account of how the civil war began and the events afterwards. An absolutely heartbreaking account of what the Syrian people have had to endure. Excellent graphics make the names of the speakers easier to identify.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the footage is gruesome and might be too disturbing for the sensitive.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brutal wartime violence; definitely not for the squeamish.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cher recorded an original song for the film, “Prayers for This World” which plays over the end credits. The song was written by Diane Warren who also penned her big hit “If I Could Turn Back Time.”
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/13/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The White Helmets
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Afterimage

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Ella Brennan: Commanding the Table


Ella Brennan, the grande dame of New Orleans cuisine.

(2016) Documentary (Iwerks & Co) Ella Brennan, Patricia Clarkson (narrator), Emeril Lagasse, Tory McPhail, Ti Martin, Daniel Boulud, Tim Zagat, Jeremiah Tower, Leah Chase, Frank Brigtsen, Dickie Brennan, Paul Prudhomme, Ralph Brennan, Drew Nieporent, John Pope, Alex Brennan-Martin, Gene Bourg, Lally Brennan, Julia Reed, Marcelle Bienvenu, Meg Bickford. Directed by Leslie Iwerks

In no other American city save for maybe San Francisco is a city’s culture so tied up in its cuisine as New Orleans. In the Big Easy there is one family who have dominated the city’s gastronomic landscape like no other.

The Brennan family has been a household name in Louisiana since the 1940s when Owen Brennan bought a struggling French Quarter restaurant called the Vieux Carré and made it a rousing success. In an era when the classic French restaurants like Antoine’s ruled the New Orleans roost Brennan – who was told that an Irish man had no business cooking authentic New Orleans cuisine – put his whole family to work in the restaurant. As it became more and more successful, it was clear a larger space was needed and they found it over on Royal Street. The move took place during lunch service with employees and diners carrying pots, pans, chairs and whatever else they could carry to the new digs. A jazz band followed them down the street; only in New Orleans, no?

The new space was renamed Brennan’s and it became famous for its signature creation – Bananas Foster, which happens to be Da Queen’s favorite dish of any sort. Ella showed a knack for running the business and was soon the restaurant’s manager and after Owen passed away, she was essentially the family business’ chief executive. But a schism developed; Owen’s widow Maude wanted more control over their namesake restaurant and Ella was forced out after having built the restaurant into a thriving business.

Undaunted, she bought a property in the Garden District called Commander’s Palace which had been a less popular drinking and dining establishment for decades after being an important eatery at the turn of the 20th century. She painted the property a bright blue to make it distinctive among the genteel mansions of the district and installed an executive chef by the name of Paul Prudhomme who would himself go on to be one of the true members of the New Orleans culinary pantheon.

Under Prudhomme’s kitchen leadership, Commander’s Palace grew to be one of the best restaurants not only in New Orleans but in the country. Prudhomme was taking Cajun cooking and elevating it, ushering an age where Cajun cooking was ascendant in American cuisine. After some years went by, Ella urged Prudhomme to open his own restaurant and he did: K-Paul’s, which remains a New Orleans institution to this day. Prudhomme also put out his own line of spices which helped make him a multi-millionaire.

Replacing Prudhomme as executive chef was a young man named Emeril Lagasse. His natural charisma made him a natural on-camera personality and he frequently appeared on local TV shows cooking various dishes from the Palace’s menu. Emeril took the focus off of Cajun dishes and while many of Prudhomme’s recipes are still on the menu, Emeril added his own stamp to the Palace. As with his predecessor, Ella urged Emeril to strike out on his own and as one of the Food Network’s earliest celebrity chefs, Emeril has since gone on to found a restaurant empire that rivals that of the Brennan family.

The documentary is certainly a love letter to Ella and her accomplishments which are considerable considering that she faced extra resistance because of her gender. Not only did Ella break through the glass ceiling, she shattered it and paved the way for many women to become successful restaurateurs. Ella is an absolute icon in New Orleans and her influence on New Orleans cuisine cannot be overstated. Commander’s Palace has been a fertile breeding ground for great chefs who have gone on to open incredible restaurants of their own.

The stories that are told about the Brennan family are classic and one gets a sense that the closeness of the family – the schism between Maude and the rest of the family notwithstanding – is one of the reasons that their restaurants are so successful; those who go there are made to feel like family. I can attest to that personally; we had travelled from Orlando to New Orleans to celebrate Da Queen’s birthday some years back and we went to a trendy eatery in the Quarter for the actual day. It was an utter disaster; the restaurant was badly designed with sound bouncing all over the place and it was so loud that we had to shout across a table for two to be heard. The food was good but overpriced and not one mention of my wife’s birthday was made until a manager chased after us as we left to shout out a very tardy and not well-received happy birthday.

The next night we had reservations for Commander’s Palace and when we arrived there were balloons and decorations. Throughout the evening Da Queen was made to feel like an actual queen and we ordered the prix fixe tasting menu. When my wife asked if she could substitute the Turtle soup for the one on the menu, she was told they would add the turtle soup and so they did, at no charge. She was given a chef’s hat at the conclusion of one of the most amazing meals we have ever had (second only to the one we had at L’Atalier du Joel Robuchon in Paris) and given a menu autographed by Toby McPhail, the current executive chef. We have been back since and we make a point of going every time we visit New Orleans. Something tells me that’s exactly what Miss Ella intended from the get-go.

One of the things I really like about this documentary is that Iwerks doesn’t just make it about Ella Brennan, although she would be forgiven if she had – Ella is an engaging personality who thinks nothing at 90 years young of dancing in the aisles of her restaurant during her famous jazz brunch. But Ella is tied in very much to New Orleans and the city is a presence throughout the film. The devastation of Hurricane Katrina also plays a role – Commander’s Palace was severely damaged by the storm and was closed for almost a year. The citizens of New Orleans are a particularly amazing bunch and the film acknowledges it not only through how they got through Katrina but how they celebrate life and Ella Brennan helps with that in a very significant way.

So perhaps yes, my judgment is impaired by the good memories I experienced at Commander’s Palace but I think I am being fair in saying that Ella Brennan’s story is inspiring and Iwerks, an Oscar-nominated documentarian, presents it in an entertaining way. Certainly viewers will be more likely to visit both Brennan’s and Commander’s Palace (the Brennan family owns something like 15 different restaurants as of this writing) and well they should; both are well-known for serving unforgettable meals that are in fact unforgettable experiences. This isn’t just an ad though; it is a story that represents the best of America, how someone can overcome odds and obstacles to create a business that is not only successful but iconic. Ella Brennan did that and it deserves to be celebrated – preferably with a great meal at her restaurant.

REASONS TO GO: Some wonderful stories are told. Iwerks wisely makes New Orleans an integral part of the film. You can almost taste the gumbo.
REASONS TO STAY: This might not mean as much to anyone who hasn’t visited the Crescent City
FAMILY VALUES: Perfectly acceptable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In 2013, the Brennan family re-acquired Brennan’s restaurant; Ella, who hadn’t set foot in it for forty years, returned and ordered Bananas Foster.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/13/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: King Georges
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Cries From Syria