A Stray


A day in the park with your dog,

(2016) Drama (Self-Released) Barkhad Abdirahman, Fathia Absie, Faysal Ahmed, Ayla, Christina Baldwin, Jamaal Farah, Ifrah Mansour, George McCauley, Ben Phelps, Andrew Stecker, Rhiana Yazzle. Directed by Musa Syeed

With our President and his followers at the forefront of an anti-immigration movement that has swept through the West, it is a difficult time to be an immigrant, particularly for those who are Muslims and especially from those regions that are hotbeds of terrorist activity. We rarely get the point of view from the immigrant side of things, but the obstacles they face in this country were already hard to begin with.

Adan (Abdirahman) is a Somali refugee living in Minneapolis with his mom and sister, but he is having a particularly hard time with it. Although when employed he is a hard worker, he also has a temper and a willingness to bend rules, turning him to a life of petty crime. When his mother discovers that he has pawned some of her jewelry, she throws him out onto the street.

A kindly Imam gives him shelter and a menial job, and arranges for the restaurant next door to hire him. The owner befriends Adan and gives him the responsibility of delivering food. On his way to his first delivery, he accidentally hits a dog crossing the street. A passing bicyclist guilts him into taking the dog to the vet, where Adan is relieved to discover the dog is uninjured.

Adan doesn’t particularly like dogs; his religion portrays them as disloyal and filthy. He is eager to give the dog away but nobody seems to want the dog. In the meantime Adan scrounges for food and finds places to sleep wherever he can. He gets money working as an FBI informant mainly translating phone calls that the FBI agent (Baldwin) in charge of him thinks might be national security threats but to Adan’s amusement is mainly about much more mundane things.

As time goes by Adan’s attitude towards the dog begins to change. He sees in him a kindred spirit, and even though he refuses to give the mutt a name, he finds himself identifying with a fellow unwanted creature who doesn’t really fit in anywhere.

I love the duality of the title; on the surface it might seem to refer to the dog but in fact it is the man who is the title subject. Adan is the stray here; it is the dog that gives him a sense of worth. It also must be said that the dog is damn adorable.  W.C. Fields famously advised that you should never work with animals or children and he has a point; none of the mainly non-professional cast stands a chance with the dog.

Abdirahman had a supporting part as one of the Somali pirates in Captain Phillips but I suspect he’s in over his head here. His delivery is wooden and although there are times when he uses body language to get his points across (and there he’s very successful), he really has issues delivering dialogue with any sort of emotion. It might be he still doesn’t feel confident in his English, which is heavily accented and some of the fellow viewers at the screening I attended complained that he was difficult to understand in places.

Minneapolis has one of the largest concentrations of Somalis outside of Somalia and we get an insider’s look at their daily lives. Most of the immigrants are, like Adan himself, hard-working when given the chance and want nothing more than to live their lives in peace the way they were unable to in war-torn Somalia. They worship in their mosques, educate their children and hope for a better life for them down the road. The one issue I have is that the pacing of the film is extremely slow and even at a scant 80 minutes feels like it would have done better as a 40 minute short.

The anti-immigration movement that was referred to at the beginning of this review plays only on the fringes of the film as snippets of television broadcasts. We don’t see any active bullying of the Somalis by American thugs and I get the sense that even in today’s environment that kind of thing is rare. It certainly doesn’t seem to be much of a part of the life of Adan and his circle of…well, not really friends so much as acquaintances. Still, I found myself thinking about violence against immigrants throughout the film in the back of my mind.

Given what has happened in American politics since this was filmed it is an incredibly timely arrival. This is a movie that I would like to give a much more enthusiastic recommendation to but the flaws are deep enough I can only give it a mild recommendation. This is a movie that embodies a filmmaker with a story that is absolutely worth telling but who is unfortunately still learning how to streamline his storytelling at this moment.

REASONS TO GO: A personalized look at the Muslim refugee issue. The dog is absolutely adorable.
REASONS TO STAY: The pace of the film is excruciatingly slow. Abdirahman is less than scintillating in the lead role.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some language, some violence and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Shaw got his start doing online comic books and discovered he could animate the films using Photoshop and the same tools he used to create his online comics; in fact, this film was originally intended to be an online comic.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/18/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Imperial Dreams
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Lowriders

Mustang


"Break out up the middle on three. Ready? Break!"

“Break out up the middle on three. Ready? Break!”

(2015) Drama (Cohen) Gűnes Sensoy, Doga Zeynep Doguslu, Elit Iscan, Tugba Sunguroglu, Ilayda Akdogan, Nihal G. Koldas, Ayberk Pekcan, Bahar Kerimoglu, Burak Yigit, Erol Afsin, Suzanne Marrot, Serife Kara, Aynur Komecoglu, Serpil Reis, Rukiye Sariahmet, Kadir Celebi, Muzeyyen Celebi. Directed by Deniz Gamze Ergűven

In a patriarchal society, women are often seen as little more than brood mares and chattel, auctioned off to the highest bidder and made as marriageable as possible in order to take them off the hands of their poor parents who must pay for their care and feeding, the sooner the better. While the world is evolving in general from such beliefs, in more rural areas of certain parts of the world, these attitudes persist.

Lale (Sensoy) is the youngest of five orphaned sisters living with their grandmother (Koldas) in a compound-like home in a small seaside town in Northern Turkey. Walking home from school, they encounter some boys who are friends (not boyfriends) by the beach and decide to go swimming, still in their school clothes. Their innocent childish games catch the attention of an elderly woman who reports their behavior as obscene and libidinous to their grandmother, who proceeds to initiate beatings for all five sisters.

Their brute of an Uncle Erol (Pekcan) proceeds to put the house on lockdown, turning a beautiful home into a virtual prison – a wife-making factory in fact in which the five sisters are removed from school, taught classes in sewing, tea-making and essentially home economics. Uncle Erol and grandmother move quickly to arrange marriages for the eldest, then the others in turn.

In the meantime the high-spirited girls have trouble adjusting to their newfound confinement, growing bold and concerned about the future they have in store that is being made for them without any input from the girls themselves. In heartbreaking fashion, they slowly break as their world shrinks to the confines of their barred and gated home and their purpose in life to please husbands they haven’t even met. Only Lale, the youngest and the most outspoken of the bunch, seems to have any spirit left.

This is an impressive film that was France’s official submission for the Foreign Language Film category, making the Oscar shortlist (as of this writing the Awards haven’t been presented yet) and being nominated for the same award in the Golden Globes as well. The nomination is well-deserved. Ergűven weaves a spell-binding tale that not only exposes the archaic attitudes towards women that exists in certain Muslim-dominated countries but also our own, lest we forget the attitudes of the Christian right having to do with abortion and female sexuality.

Ergűven cast the film wisely, particularly with Sensoy whose jaw-jutting petulance mark her Lale as an utter handful. She’s demanding and opinionated, something not tolerated well in traditional Muslim households when regarding women. In fact, that’s where the film title comes from; Lale is untamed and unbroken, although the same doesn’t remain true for all of her sisters as the marriage train comes to pluck them one-by-one, Ten Little Indians-fashion.

The five actresses with their long flowing brunette locks look like sisters and act like them too. Few films I’ve seen really capture the dynamic of sisters as well, from the bawdy teasing to the occasional rivalry and bitter fights. All five of the sisters are beautiful and not just physically; they have an inner beauty that radiates from them like an angelic glow.

Frequent Nick Cave collaborator Warren Ellis contributes the synth-heavy score, and it is very effective, never intruding on the viewer but always beautiful and haunting. Cinematographers David Chizallet and Ersin Gok take advantage of the bucolic Turkish village, making it seem almost idyllic until we see the ugliness beneath.

If I have one criticism of the movie, it’s that the editing is a bit choppy, going from scene to scene in abrupt cuts that wrench the viewer from one scene to the next. It makes the film a little bit like an old car with a bad engine and a flat tire, lurching from scene to scene. A little defter hand on the editing  bay might have made for a smoother viewing experience but at the same time, that does feel a little bit like the kind of vehicle you’d find in a town like this; well past its prime, beaten up but getting you where you need to go despite the problems.

I won’t say this is a beautiful movie, even though it looks beautiful; some of the scenes are very ugly indeed, with young girls being examined for their virginity, an indignity that American girls don’t have to tolerate. However, this is an incredibly moving and thought-provoking movie that will stay with you long after the movie is over. All five of the sisters – yes, albeit that not all of them are as well-drawn as Lale – are still with me even though I saw the movie days ago. And I’m not in a terrible hurry to ask them to leave, either.

REASONS TO GO: A look at a rarely-glimpsed culture. Forces you to examine attitudes towards women in general. Breaks your heart as the movie goes on.
REASONS TO STAY: The editing is a little choppy.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes are quite adult; there’s also some mild sexuality and a rude gesture.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the feature film debut of director Deniz Gamze Ergűven.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/15/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fiddler on the Roof
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: The Forest

Kinyarwanda


Kinyarwanda

A Lieutenant Rose by any other name doth smelleth sweet.

(2011) Drama (Visigoth) Edouard Bamporiki, Cassandra Freeman, Marc Gwamaka, Zaninka Hadidja, Mursari Jean, Cleophas Kabasita, Hassan Kabera, Mazimpaka Kennedy, Assumpta Micho, Kena Onyenjekwe, Edouard B. Uwayo. Directed by Alrick Brown

In 1994, the nation of Rwanda underwent 100 days of madness in which one ethnic group tried to wipe another off the face of the earth, and did it largely without any notice from the Western governments or media. It’s a crying rotten shame they don’t have any oil there or chances are we’d have been in there guns blazing.

There have been other motion pictures based on the events of that horrible summer, but unlike the Oscar-nominated Hotel Rwanda this movie aims not to tell you a single story, but to share several stories of those who lived through the genocide.

The Grand Mosque in Kigali became a refuge for Tutsi and Hutu, Christian and Muslim alike. The Mufti of Rwanda (Jean) argues that the Koran requires that they offer shelter to those who require it. There is some dissension among his Imams, not all of whom agree with his interpretation but at last consensus is reached.

Jeanne (Hadidja) sneaks out of her house to attend a party where she meets up with her erstwhile boyfriend Patrique (Gwamaka). While Jeanne is too proper to allow even a good night kiss, it is clear she has strong feelings for him and him for her. He walks her home, past what appears to be a Hutu militia about to murder a group of Tutsis. Their leader Emmanuel (Bamporiki) waves at Patrique who waves back, and then quickly ushers Jeanne, a half-Tutsi, down a back alley so that she can sneak back into her house, which is ominously quiet and dark. When she switches on the lights, she discovers that her parents have both been murdered.

The Hutu Militia are hot on the trail of the priest Father Pierre (Kennedy) whom they refer to on the radio as Father Cockroach (the Tutsis were referred to as cockroaches by the Hutus on the radio, which blared anti-Tutsi propaganda non-stop for the entire length of the Genocide and urged listeners to chop up any Tutsi they encountered – machetes were the most common form of execution during the Genocide). He has taken refuge in a church but is betrayed by the Hutu priest, along with the dozens of Tutsi refugees inside. He flees along with several other refugees but they are ultimately captured. However, they are fortunately rescued by a woman reputed to be a witch and quickly shepherded to the nearest Mosque whose Imam is sympathetic. However, his mosque doesn’t have the facilities or the supplies to shelter everyone there, so the decision is made that they must go to the Grand Mosque, which they do but not without cost.

Lt. Rose (Freeman) trained in the Rwandan army in Uganda where they were exiled, but was leading her troops back into her native land to try and put an end to the Genocide and save as many people as she can. She develops a camaraderie with Sgt. Fred (Onyenjekwe), who is married with a baby on the way. They discuss their reasons for fighting and he has some very compelling reasons on his mind.

Little Ishmael (Kabera) is sent by his father to the corner grocery. On the way home he encounters a group of militiamen who are upset and irate that they can’t find guns or Tutsi. Ishmael informs them that he knows exactly where these can be found and leads them to his own home.

Years afterwards, those who committed the atrocities were sent to camps where they were made to confess their crimes and come to repent their awful deeds. For some, they could only manage silence. Others were so traumatized that rather than live with their shame they took their own lives. Finally, some found the grace of forgiveness.

This is a powerful, moving experience. I was astonished to discover that this was director Alrick Brown’s first feature-length film; he shows the deft hand of someone who’s been at it for decades. The movie is presented in a non-linear fashion, weaving the stories together in much the same way as Crash or Babel, so it required a firm hand in the editing bay – or bedroom, as Brown revealed during a Q&A following the screening, which is where he and NYU student Tovah Leibowitz edited the film.

Many of the cast members were Rwandans, who lived through the events of those 100 days, and it couldn’t have been easy for them to relive them; it takes a director with a great sense for his actor’s emotional state to make it work. The script was essentially written from true stories collected by the producers and the director from Rwandans and eventually combined; as Brown explained it, he didn’t have enough time to write a feature film so he wrote several short films instead and wove them into a whole.

This isn’t a movie you merely watch; it’s something you experience and it will undoubtedly stay with you for the rest of your life. That human beings can do such things to one another is entirely incomprehensible but despite what you might think, this isn’t a movie about genocide and depravity. It’s a movie about forgiveness and reconciliation; that Rwanda is moving as quickly as it has to reuniting the two ethnic groups who share a common language (which is the title of the movie) – albeit that the ethnic groups were essentially created by the Belgians who colonized the country – is nothing short of a miracle.

I don’t hand out perfect ratings lightly and it often requires a great deal of soul searching for me to finally decide a movie worthy of that rating. Not so here – it was an immediate and necessary response to the movie. I honestly hope and pray this movie finds a major distributor because it so deserves to be seen by a wide audience. If a major studio had this, you can bet there would be Oscar buzz aplenty for the film, and for actress Zaninka Hadidja who turns in a riveting performance as Jeanne.

The movie is playing again on Tuesday, April 12 at the Regal Winter Park Village in Winter Park, Florida at 6:30pm and I urge anyone in the Orlando area to make an effort to go see this remarkable film. And if anyone reading this works for a theatrical distributor, I would urge you highly to look into acquiring this film for distribution. It may not necessarily pull in a box office bonanza, but considering how low the production costs were it could be profitable with little or no effort – and could conceivably be a huge blockbuster if people take to it the way I did.

It was a bit of a somber occasion upon viewing the movie at the Florida Film Festival; Assistant director Steve Ntosi had unexpectedly and tragically passed away just the day before, to which we here at Cinema365 extend our deepest sympathies. It also is appropriate that the screening took place during a week when Rwanda was in mourning in remembrance of the 17th anniversary of the Genocide.

This is a movie that could never have been made by a studio. It is clearly a project of passion, made by people committed to sharing not only the stories of survival, but the overall hope for reconciliation that permeates Rwanda to this day. One cannot help be moved by it but also be inspired by it as well. While the subject matter may sound like a downer, I left the theater feeling uplifted. Man has an endless capacity for cruelty but also an amazing capacity for forgiveness – that is what makes our future worth fighting for.

REASONS TO GO: An amazing motion picture event that deserves a wider audience than it’s likely to get.

REASONS TO STAY: If the genocide hits too close to home.

FAMILY VALUES: The subject matter is perhaps too intense for the youngest sorts, and there is a bit of violence and implied rape.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was shot on location in Rwanda in just 16 days using mostly local cast and crew.

HOME OR THEATER: This is a movie that deserves to be seen with a crowd – a big crowd.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: 13 Assassins