It Will Be Chaos


Some journeys are more desperate than others.

(2018) Documentary (HBO) William L. Ewing, Manuel Barosa, Aregai Mehari, Giusi Nicolini, Cecilia Malmstrom, Enrico Letta, Cecile Kyenge, Wael Orfali, Bensalem Khaled, Domenico Lucano, Domenica Colapinto, Rafaelle Colapinto, Doha Orfali, Ribal Orfali, Leen Tayem, Baoul Tayem, Othman Tayem, Giovanni Costanzo, Biniam Bereked. Directed by Lorena Luciano and Filippo Piscopo

 

The movie opens up with the grim image of coffins being offloaded onto the Italian island of Lamperdusa. A ship carrying immigrants from Libya to Italy had capsized, and 360 refugees mostly from the Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia had drowned. One of the survivors, an ex-soldier from Eritrea named Aregai Mehari, lost two cousins in the tragedy. He shows their pictures on his cell phone, and at the trial of the inept captain calmly discusses the chaos of that night.

The mayor of Lamperdusa, Giusi Nicolini, is in a horrible position. The town is suffering from a stagnant economy and simply can’t handle the influx of people coming from Africa and the Middle East. She still manages to retain her compassion, correcting reporters “They are not illegal immigrants. They are refugees. Words matter.” She wants to help but is essentially powerless to do much more than providing limited assistance and sympathy.

We follow Aregai as he makes his way into Greece where the situation isn’t much better and might be, frankly, worse as he flees from drought and intense poverty in his native country. We also follow Wael Orfali and his young family as they flee the Syrian genocide, whose home was bombed into rubble just two weeks after they fled. He is stuck in Istanbul trying to get to family in Germany where he and his family might begin again. He is impatient almost to the point of hysteria, purchasing life jackets for his family  for a trip with a smuggler that may or may not happen and when relatives urge him to delay his departure because of rough weather in the Mediterranean bellows “I don’t care if we die. I just need to leave!”

The movie is one in a long line of documentaries about the current refugee crisis which is buffeting Europe and to an extent the United States as well. Most of these movies follow the travails of a specific refugee as they navigate an often frustrating and dehumanizing system that essentially passes them from one place to another with limited resources, no way to get work and left to dangle in the wind. Often the refugees, fleeing forces beyond their control, I can understand the anti-immigrant side to a certain extent; a nation can only support so many people with resources, jobs and property. There is a finite amount of money, goods and infrastructure to go around. However, the answer is not to demonize refugees and suspect that every refugee is a potential terrorist, rapist or criminal; most refugees simply want a better life and safety for their children. We can’t assume every refugee is legitimate; we also can’t assume that every refugee is not.

The problem I have with this movie is that it really doesn’t add anything to the conversation that I haven’t seen in several other documentaries. The points that they make that the bureaucracy handling the staggering influx of people is ill-equipped to handle it, that politicians are often unsympathetic and that refugees often face outright racism and are painted as scapegoats by an increasingly hostile European (and American) population.

Political bloviating on my part aside, the refugee crisis isn’t going away anytime soon and the situation isn’t as uncomplicated as it is sometimes made out to be. The movie exposes some of that if in a somewhat choppy manner. From a purely technical aspect, the editing between the two stories often is jarring and feels somewhat arbitrary. The filmmakers have their heart in the right place but in all honesty what we need more than a film that follows the refugees is one that shows us why it is so difficult for this situation to be managed. This movie shows some of that (and it’s generally the best moments in the film) but not enough to really make it a must-see.

REASONS TO GO: The story is heartbreaking.
REASONS TO STAY: The film doesn’t really add anything to the examination of the refugee crisis.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film made its world premiere at the 2018 Seattle International Film Festival before debuting on HBO.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/5/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fire at Sea
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Before I Wake

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Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry


America the beautiful as we imagine it is.

(2016) Documentary (Two Birds) Wendell Berry (voice), Earl Butz, Steve Smith, Tanya Berry, Curtis Combs, Andy Zaring, John Berry Jr., Michael Douglas, Dale Roberts, Juan Javier Reyes, John Logan Brent, Mary Berry, Mark Roberts, Phoebe Wagoner, Arwen Donahue. Directed by Laura Dunn and Jef Sewell

 

Farming is a necessary profession; after all, we all need to eat. The work of farming isn’t easy; it requires a lot of elbow grease and a lot of dedication. The economics of farming are almost as daunting as the physical labor involved.

Wendell Berry is a poet and essayist who comes from a long line of farmers in Henry County, Virginia. He left home to pursue a career as a writer in New York. After finding some success, he turned back around and went home to his family farm both to grow tobacco but also to continue his writing career on his farm, where he built himself an office with a 40-pane glass window with a view of the Kentucky River and whatever else he chose to look out at.

He is also an activist, working tirelessly to support family farmers in an era where they are slowly being pushed out into extinction. Most family farmers are caught up in a Catch-22 situation in which in order to compete they have to increasingly mechanize their farms but in order to afford to do that they have to buy more land and cultivate it. They get caught in this endless cycle in which they need to expand but the more they expand the deeper in debt they go.

If you’re expecting a bio doc on Wendell Berry as I was, you will be sorely disappointed. This really doesn’t give a lot of background information other than stuff you can essentially find on Wikipedia. We hear Berry reading from his essays, Berry in vintage interviews from the 60s and 70s, from a debate he had from agribusiness advocate and former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz who in many ways is the architect for the factory farming that brings most of the food to our table in 2017.

The beginning is very much like Koyaanisquatsi with the visuals and also the Philip Glass-like music. Over this we hear Berry reading prose in his stentorian voice that reminds me a bit of Johnny Cash from Berry’s magnum opus The Unsettling of America.

Afterwards, we are treated to interviews of fellow farmers in Henry County, telling about their economic difficulties and how Berry was an inspiration to them. One, Steve Smith, talks about how he went from tobacco farming to organic vegetables and how it seems to be saving his farm.

In some ways this feels like a WPA film from the 30s even though much of the archival footage is 30-40 years after that era. Berry is very much against factory farming but he doesn’t seem to address some of the other reasons that family farming is failing; for one thing, the younger generation don’t WANT to be farmers. There are plenty of farmers whose kids, seeing the hard work for diminishing economic returns want no part of the family business. That’s not to say that all younger generation farmers would rather do something else with their lives – there are still plenty who feel that almost mystical bond with the land – but there are fewer of them now than there have ever been.

And while Berry seems to advocate a more Luddite version of farming that is more labor intensive, it doesn’t address the issue of feeding an increasing population worldwide. America hasn’t always just fed its own; we export enormous amounts of grain and other agricultural products. Many family farmers rely on that demand. As the population increases, more efficient methods are required.

Yes, there is a bucolic and rustic feel to the film that I liked but the conclusions don’t seem to address all of the real-world issues that farmers worldwide face. It’s nice to want to preserve a way of life but sometimes that way of life has to submit to progress.

The images here are beautiful and the filmmakers do a good job of presenting their case but the movie seemed to be more of a screed than a portrait of Berry as advertised. It seems to be more of a hagiography as the filmmakers fail to address issues that are essentially ignored in Berry’s writings. He’s a great writing but lyrical poems and prose do not an argument make.

REASONS TO GO: The cinematography of rural Kentucky is occasionally breathtaking.
REASONS TO STAY: This is not so much a biography so much as a snapshot.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the sequence in which a three-legged stool is being carved by hand, the carpenter is actually producer Nick Offerman although his face isn’t used on-camera.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/3/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: To Make a Farm
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Bad Genius

Imperial Dreams


The face of urban stress.

The face of urban stress.

(2014) Drama (Super Crispy) John Boyega, Rotimi Akinosho, Glenn Plummer, De’aundre Bonds, Keke Palmer, Fat Dog, Nora Zehetner, Todd Louiso, Sufe Bradshaw, Maximiliano Hernandez, Anika Noni Rose, Ethan Coach, Justin Coach, Jernard Burks, Wilfred Lopez, Nik Petcov, Kelita Smith, Zilah Mendoza, Kandiss Edmundson. Directed by Malik Vitthal

Florida Film Festival 2015

In the years since John Singleton’s groundbreaking Boys N the Hood illustrated the agonies and the ecstasies of South Central Los Angeles, little has changed. The choices are few for those restricted by poverty and apathy; selling drugs and using drugs. Getting out of the cycle of violence and poverty has become nearly impossible.

Bambi (Boyega) is boyishly handsome and just home after serving a 28 month stretch for armed robbery. His son Day (the Coach twins) has been staying with his Uncle Shrimp (Plummer) while Bambi’s girlfriend and baby mama Samaara (Palmer) is also in jail for a non-violent crime.

Bambi wants to be a good role model for his son and stay on the straight and narrow. Shrimp has other ideas. He wants Bambi to resume his place in Shrimp’s gang. Bambi would much rather get a job. However, the system is stacked against him; the state has filed for child support on behalf of Samaara, cranking a debt that Bambi can’t pay without a job. He can’t, however, get a job without a driver’s license and he can’t get a driver’s license with that child support debt on his record. It’s beyond Catch-22; it’s Catch-23.

As hard as it is for Bambi to stay straight, the thug life continues to intrude. His cousin Gideon (Bonds) is on the run from a rival gang who mean to murder him and Bambi’s proximity to Gideon is putting both him and Day in danger but Gideon is one of the few who are out to help Bambi make it on the level. Bambi’s mom (Zehetner) is a raging alcoholic and his half-brother Wayne (Akinosho) who has a partial scholarship to Howard’s business school but needs money to make up the difference so he can actually go to college is thinking of taking a short cut that may lead him down the same path that Bambi is trying to get off of. An act of violence puts everything in flux and puts Bambi even more at risk than he has been, leaving him and Day as vulnerable as can be, living out of a car that doesn’t run with a pair of skeptical detectives (Hernandez, Bradshaw) and a social worker (Rose) on Bambi’s back.

This is one of those movies that I really wanted to like a lot more than I ended up doing. Clearly Vitthal has a good eye and ear for inner city drama, and knows how to tell a good story. The trouble is, this is the kind of story that doesn’t really tell us anything new. Particularly in the light of recent events in Baltimore, Ferguson and other places around the country, we’re particularly sensitive to the plight of young black men in predominantly African-American communities that are riddled with poverty, crime and drugs. While this story is sadly not one far from the stories of many young African-American men, I get the sense that it has been told more than once and more than once in this very Film Festival.

That said, Boyega (who was tremendous in Attack the Block) has the chops and the looks to be the next Hollywood superstar. In my review of that movie, I compared him to Denzel Washington and certainly he has that kind of charisma and screen presence. Here, in a much more subdued and less obviously heroic role, he struggles with his conscience and his frustration, knowing that the easy way out is to revert back to the old life, but that it would lead him to exactly the same place – if not a cold, steel slab in the morgue.

The rest of the cast are fairly solid, with the Coach twins doing particularly well as Day; the father-son dynamic between the two is genuine and affecting. Very often actors this young have a difficult time bonding with their screen parents but in this case that’s not the case. The heart of this movie is Bambi’s devotion to Day and if we don’t believe that, we don’t believe the movie. That the movie is convincing on that end is admirable.

I take it that the slang being used here is genuine to the time and place; at times I had difficulty figuring out what some of the characters were saying and subtitles would have been genuinely appreciated. While some might write this off as a feature-length rap video (and with some justification), that would be a bit presumptive. This is a solid film by a filmmaker with potential that is dominated by an actor who may well be a great one in the very near future.

REASONS TO GO: Star-making performance by Boyega. Loved the father-son dynamic. Captures the Catch-22 of the modern inner city.
REASONS TO STAY: Doesn’t really break any new ground. At times needs subtitles to follow the inner city slang dialogue. A few too many cliches.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence and foul language throughout; some drug use and lots of adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filmed at the actual Imperial Courts Housing Project in Watts.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/29/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fruitvale Station
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Homeless