Exodus (2016)


A refugee child shows his resiliency.

(2016) Documentary (108 Media) Elias Matar, Ethan Bochicchio, Mixail Vorrias, Dr. Khalil Kermani, Ali Güray Yalvaçli, Hacer Hariklar Vlici, Lee Wlmsn, Dr. Bita Kermani. Directed by Elias Matar

 

The recent chemical attacks in Syria and the President’s retaliation for the same have brought back Syria into the spotlight. While President Trump moans about Syrian babies, one may note that he still wants to ban all Syrian refugees from our shores, the majority of whom are women and children.

Elias Matar, who although was born in America was raised in Damascus, feels a particular connection for the refugee crisis and for those crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey into the outer islands of Greece. In addition to documenting their journeys, he volunteers for a humanitarian agency that helps land the boats making the often perilous crossing, makes sure that the refugees are given dry clothes and food, and helps them to get to refugee registration centers.

The movie documents what the volunteers encounter; overloaded boats and dinghies landing often in the dead of night with cold, wet and desperate refugees fleeing unspeakable horrors not only in Syria but in Afghanistan and Iraq as well. Many of the refugees are children who are most at risk for hypothermia which is a real danger particularly during winter crossings (when this was filmed).

We also get a look at the Greek refugee camps which are fairly ordered, and the illegal Turkish ones which are often run by the smugglers who charge 1800 Euros for the crossing. The conditions in the camps are deplorable and often the refugees go days without food or drinkable water. Thus they are often in weakened conditions when making the dangerous crossing and are more often than not abandoned by the smugglers who leave the refugees alone to make their way to islands like Chios and Lesbos without any sort of navigational equipment or even experience in steering or running a boat.

The numbers can be staggering; in one atypical night, the volunteers were swamped by 37 boats arriving on the island carrying more than 1,900 refugees, overwhelming their resources which are mostly donated to begin with. That particular night had been the first night after several days of rough seas that boats could be safely launched or landed.

The movie, narrated by Matar who has an upbeat tone despite some of the grim things he has to say, puts a human face on a crisis that Americans largely turn their backs on, particularly those who are in the conservative movement. It is popular to defend that attitude of turning away refugees by saying that they could be terrorists but to date no refugee has committed a terrorist act in this country and one look at the faces of the children, who continue to hold out hope for a better life despite indications to the contrary, is convincing enough to make that attitude what it is; a self-serving lie, a means to assuage guilty consciences. Simply put, watching this film will document just how reprehensible that policy is.

We don’t really get much information about the refugees themselves or their stories; mostly they are just a flood of people who cross the point of view of the camera. We do see much of what the volunteers do on a daily/nightly basis and while again we don’t get the stories of what prompted these people to volunteer for this job (other than Matar and Ethan Bochicchio, a high school student who saw Matar’s first film and was moved to travel to Greece to volunteer himself) but the movie runs a compact 72 minutes so there’s not a lot of room for fluff or talking heads.

The footage is raw and sometimes moves from one scene to another without much flow; I suspect this is much like how Matar’s life as a volunteer was. While it’s not particularly hard to follow, it comes off a bit jarring at times. Also there’s a sequence in which a dinghy is loaded (or I should say overloaded) with refuges from one of the more deplorable Turkish camps; that sequence inexplicably goes on and on unnecessarily. A bit more judicious editing would have been nice.

This should be must-viewing for anyone who thinks this country should refuse entry to refugees as well as to all members of government who are connected with immigration in any sense. That our nation once opened our doors and extended our hands to those leaving situations of war, famine and terror makes our present stance all the more disgusting. This is a movie which can potentially change hearts and minds and I urge anyone with any interest in the refugee crisis, whether pro or anti refugee, to see it.

REASONS TO GO: The movie hits some powerful emotions as we see the human faces of the refugee crisis. Some of the footage of the boats landing on Chios is absolutely stunning. Matar is a lively narrator. The compassion of the volunteers is palpable.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a bit raw and rough.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief mild profanity, children in peril and a few disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second in a series of films documenting the plight of refugees moving from the Middle East to Western Europe by Matar; the first was last year’s Flight of the Refugees which covered the trek from Macedonia to Germany (a third, Children of Beqaa is in post-production).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/18/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fire at Sea
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: The Sense of an Ending

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The White Helmets


A profile in courage.

A profile in courage.

(2016) Documentary (Netflix) Khaled Farah, Mohammed Farah, Abu Omar, Khaled Omar. Directed by Orlando von Einsiedel

 

The civil war that rages in Syria has become a political mess as the citizens of that country have to endure military bombings, the depredations inflicted upon them by their own government as well as the harsh occupation in some places by ISIS. It’s no wonder that refugees are pouring out of that country, trying to find safety and sanity.

But not everyone is leaving. Even in cities like Aleppo there are people still trying to cling to their homes in the hope that things will get better, but even so there are regular bombings and with bombings come people buried in rubble. That’s where the Syrian Civil Defense comes in. Nicknamed “the White Helmets” for their distinctive protective headgear, they go into terribly dangerous situations, into buildings that have been bombed and are structurally unsafe in order to pull out people who are injured or trapped.

We follow three members of that group in Aleppo (the SCD operates throughout Syria wherever they’re needed)  none of whom were trained professionals prior; one was a construction worker who built homes; another a tailor and the third a blacksmith. In fact, they are sent to Turkey to receive the training they desperately need to be more effective. They go unarmed and they fire no shots in anger at anyone – “I think it’s more important to rescue a soul than to take a soul,” says one laconically.

All three are family men who go to work desperately worried about their homes and loved ones, who are at risk every single day simply by virtue of the fact they live in Aleppo. While they are in Turkey they joke with one another, even occasionally playing practical jokes. They talk about their children and their hopes for them. To a man, they all believe that things will eventually get better.

But as the conflict approaches its seventh year with no end in sight, it’s hard not to admire these men who took it upon themselves to put themselves in harm’s way for the sake of others. The group’s motto is a quote from the Koran; “save one life and you save humanity.” They are certainly putting that to good use.

In another era, these men would have qualified for John F. Kennedy’s book Profiles in Courage. However, the organization has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. In three years they have saved (as of the release of the film) more than 58,000 lives while 130 of their number have paid the ultimate price.

Do be warned that some of the footage is pretty intense. Most of it was filmed by the White Helmets themselves; the situations were far too dangerous to send camera crews in. Director von Einsiedel didn’t even come to Syria, although he did spend time with the subjects in Turkey. He had more than 70 hours of footage to go through, much of it unusable because it was too graphic. However even of what is shown some of it may be disturbing to the sensitive although when they pull the “Miracle Baby” out of the rubble of an apartment building (a one-week old baby who survived a direct hit to her home) one can’t help but cry along with the rescuers who are also crying.

The documentary is only 40 minutes long but it packs a powerful punch. The downside is that it shows mankind at its worst – you can’t help but feel infuriated when you watch bombs hitting civilian targets with the knowledge that they were likely specifically targeted. The upside is that you also see mankind at its best – which makes you think that maybe this species might have a future after all.

REASONS TO GO: The message is uplifting and powerful. The three subjects are engaging and appealing in their ordinariness.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the footage is not suitable for the sensitive.
FAMILY VALUES:  There are many disturbing images and some war violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Khaled Omar, the White Helmet who is depicted here pulling the “Miracle Baby” out of the rubble, died in an airstrike in August 2016.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/18/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Restrepo
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Miss Sharon Jones!

Home of the Brave (2006)


A sadly far-too-common sight during the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.

A sadly far-too-common sight during the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.

(2006) War Drama (MGM) Samuel L. Jackson, Jessica Biel, Christina Ricci, Brian Presley, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Chad Michael Murray, Victoria Rowell, Jeff Nordling, Vyto Ruginis, Sam Jones III, James MacDonald, Sandra Nelson, Ginger Ewing, Jack Serino, Brendan Wayne, Mohamed Zinathiah, Richard De Mayo, Kiara Johnson, Joyce M. Cameron. Directed by Irwin Winkler

For three soldiers serving in Iraq, the word has come down; they’re shipping back home in two weeks. When in Hollywood, that’s a sure sign that something Bad is about to happen.

And so it does. Dr. Will Marsh (Jackson), Vanessa Price (Biel), Tommy Yates (Presley) and Jamal Aiken (50 Cent) are part of an Army National Guard humanitarian convoy bringing medical supplies and personnel to a small Iraqi village when they are ambushed by insurgents. The firefight is sudden and brutal, with the soldiers taking on well-armed adversaries. None of them get out without some kind of wound; Vanessa loses her hand in a roadside bomb explosion, Jamal accidentally shoots an unarmed civilian, Tommy takes a minor wound to his leg and as a result is unable to help when his best friend is killed. As for Marsh, he’s supposed to stitch them all together.

Once they recover from their physical wounds, they’re all shipped home and essentially left to fend for themselves. The VA bureaucracy is bewildering for some, while others fail to take advantage of the programs that are available to help them cope. Vanessa is having problems dealing with her mutilation; not only is she having physical problems adjusting to the prosthetic, her emotional issues are threatening to overwhelm her and alienate her from her family. Jamal is angry and frustrated; his former girlfriend Keisha (Ewing) refuses to have anything to do with him and he can’t seem to navigate the paperwork that will help him get the treatment he needs for his injured back. Tommy is aimless and drifting, unable to handle the guilt of failing his friend; on top of that, he finds himself attracted to his dead buddy’s girlfriend (Ricci), but neither of them seem able to help the other cope with their grief.

Dr. Marsh seems to have the most complex issues. His teenage son (Jones) is angry (what teenage son isn’t?) and takes it out on his father, who struggles to understand him. His wife (Rowell) in turn wants to help him with his pain, but can’t find any sort of common ground to begin with, even if he was willing to let her in which he isn’t. Instead, he turns to the bottle to ease his suffering, with predictable results.

The turmoil of soldiers placed into extremely stressful situations returning into a normal life is daunting. Not many go through the process unscathed but which of these returning vets will break and which, if any, will overcome?

Outside of Jackson, Biel and Ricci, few of the cast were really name actors at the time this was made. Jackson is, as always, terrific as the tormented medic while Ricci has only a couple of scenes in which to display her grief, which to her credit doesn’t seem to be a product of Acting Out Grief 101. Most of the rest of the cast is solid, although 50 Cent at times has difficulty enunciating in one of his first screen roles – his third, to be exact. As for the rest of the cast, most resist the urge to denigrate drama into melodrama but some succumb to the temptation.

The battle sequences are pulse-pounding and realistic, although it reminded me a little bit of the ambush sequence in Clear and Present Danger. Winkler is a veteran director and does a solid job of moving the story along. While the script is extremely flawed in terms of its characterization of the emotional state of the majority of our veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, the elements that work do so extremely well.

I’ll pretty much see Samuel L. Jackson in just about anything. Yeah, he can be over-the-top but he’s never boring. Winkler manages to make each soldier’s story gripping and you wind up caring about the characters and being interested in their individual journeys but the movie doesn’t really add anything to the overall conversation. In a lot of ways, the topic is and has been better explored in documentaries about the subject. I was disappointed that the script portrayed all of the returning veterans as psychotic, which is not true of the majority of returning war veterans. Yes, there are plenty of Iraq War vets who have problems returning to normal life, but there are plenty who are able to adjust without falling apart.  I’m not saying that they all come through unscathed and adjust easily to civilian life, but most don’t have the extreme reactions these vets did. I would have hoped for more realistic portrayals of vets adjusting to their return to normal life. In short, this is no Best Days of Our Lives.

While this seems to be a modern take on The Best Years of Our Lives, there is at least enough about it that give it some resonance. However, the 1946 movie about returning WWII vets is still the best movie ever produced on the subject and let’s face it, Jessica Biel is no Harold Russell. There is some resonance here however, particularly given the recent VA scandal and the difficulties veterans are encountering getting the assistance they need. Overall I have to say that I found myself interested in the lives of these soldiers and if you get me to that point, that’s half the battle.

WHY RENT THIS: Jackson is always interesting. Opening ambush sequence very powerful.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Heavy-handed. Doesn’t really cover any new ground.
FAMILY MATTERS: The subject matter is difficult for less mature audience members to latch onto, and the ambush sequence is fairly realistic, particularly when the roadside bomb does its work. The language is salty throughout; definitely not for younger and more sensitive types.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The closing credits song, “Try Not to Remember” performed by Sheryl Crow was nominated for a Golden Globe.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There is a trivia track on the Blu-Ray edition; the DVD edition has the usual audio commentary and deleted scene.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $499,620 on a $12M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental only), Amazon (buy/rent), Vudu (buy/rent),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (unavailable), Target Ticket (unavailable)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Stop-Loss
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Deli Man