City of Ghosts (2017)


ISIS: The sunset of decency.

(2017) Documentary (IFC) Aziz, Hamoud, Mohamad, Hassan, Hussam, Naji Jerf, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. Directed by Matthew Heineman

 

Courage comes in all sorts of forms. There are those who go out and put their lives in harm’s way, whether they be soldiers or police officers or firemen; we think of these brave men and women first most of the time when we think of courage. There are other ways of putting one’s life on the line  however; there are those who attempt to tell the world the truth despite danger to life and limb.

Raqqa is a Syrian city on the Euphrates river. Once upon a time it was a beautiful city, idyllic in many ways. Life there was good; it was a great place to raise a family. However during the Arab spring the citizens of Raqqa were unhappy with the regime of dictator Bashar al-Assad and demonstrated against the strongman. He responded by putting the city under fire and the citizens fought back.

It was the perfect storm for ISIS to move in and capture the city. At first, they were welcomed as liberators. After all, they had to be better than what was previously in power, right? As it turned out, things were far from right. ISIS instituted a despotic rule in which citizens were routinely beheaded, thrown from buildings, crucified, shot or otherwise executed for violations of Sharia law, real or perceived. Those in opposition to the rule of ISIS were also given the same treatment.

Various citizens of Raqqa began to fight back in a different way. Knowing that guns and violence would not dislodge the battle-hardened ISIS warriors, they chose to use truth and facts as their weapons. Taking video on cell phones, they uploaded images that contradicted the official ISIS lie that Raqqa had become an Eden with happy citizens and smiling children. It had become a place where starvation was common, even basic medical services non-existent and where citizens live in constant fear of their lives. Their children are being indoctrinated and their wives sexually assaulted.

Three men – Aziz, a former hard-partying college student; Mohamad, a math teacher moved to action when one of his young students was arrested, and Hussam, a former lawyer – became along with camera operator Hamoud the backbone of Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered. With Raqqa being virtually cut off from the rest of the world, cell phone video is being smuggled out by these men who have been forced to leave their home city and take refuge in places like Turkey and Germany.

Some of the images here are graphic; people are beheaded, people are shot in the back of the head, people are thrown off of buildings. The aftermath of these grisly demises are also shown. It is most definitely not a film for those sensitive to such things who should probably not see this unless they feel strongly that they can handle those images.

There is also the matter of the soundtrack which at times is distracting from the images that are being shown. It is not good when you notice the score; something subtle should have been used because these images deserve to exercise their full power on the viewer. They don’t need any musical assistance.

What is compelling is the eyes of those living in Raqqa; the pain is clear and obvious. In the men struggling to save their city it is just as obvious; one of the movie’s most memorable moments is of Aziz quietly smoking. As he smokes, he begins to shake violently as if all the horror and stress is catching up with him. It catches up with all of us, too. These are men who have given up everything and most of them have had family members and friends executed in retaliation for their efforts. Nobody can question their commitment or their courage.

This is a powerful movie that is moving and inspiring but also infuriating. Such inhumanity and casual evil makes you want to lash out and somebody, anybody. The caution here is to not to think that all Muslims are ISIS and there are certainly those in our country who will think so. The heroes in this movie are also Muslim and they fight for their homes and their family with decency and passion. It is ironic that in Germany where some of those whose lives are in imminent danger (some of their number have been assassinated outside of Syria) are the targets of German anti-immigration militants who want them sent back to wherever they came from. This movie is a means of seeing exactly where they came from and why they can’t return. We should be standing alongside these men and supporting them, not calling for them to be sent home. In this case, it is the refugees who are heroes and the anti-immigrant protesters who are the cowards and isn’t that ironic indeed.

This is an essential documentary in 2017 and is likely to get another Oscar nomination for Heineman which if it happens will be richly deserved. It couldn’t have been easy to get these men, who are under threat of death by people who are serious about killing them, to open up on camera but he did. Even as Heineman shows us peaceful images of the timeless Euphrates, he reminds us that there are things worth fighting for – one’s home is worth defending no matter what the odds.

Those wanting to see the video firsthand as well as what’s going on currently in Raqqa can check out their website here.

REASONS TO GO: The courage on display here is overwhelming. There are some intensely powerful moments. The Euphrates is a beautiful and ancient river. You get a real sense of the pressure these men are under.
REASONS TO STAY: The soundtrack is occasionally intrusive. Some of the images are extremely unsuitable for the impressionable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and a whole lot of violence and some disturbing images of death and the dead.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Heineman’s last film, Cartel Land played the Florida Film Festival in 2015 and would go on to be nominated for a Best Documentary Feature Oscar as well as winning three Emmy awards.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/12/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Last Men in Aleppo
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Snatched

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They Will Have to Kill Us First


Songhoy Blues has the blues.

Songhoy Blues has the blues.

(2015) Documentary (BBC Films) Fadimata “Disco” Walett Oumar, Moussa Agbidi, Khaira Arby, Songhoy Blues, Jimmy Oumar, Nick Zinner, Brian Eno, Damon Albarn, Marc-Antoine Moreau. Directed by Johanna Schwartz

Mali is a West African nation that most Americans probably have never heard of, let alone pick it out from a map. It has been beset by a civil war initiated in 2012 by the MNLA, or the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, a group ostensibly fighting for the ethnic Tuareg minority to create their own state in the Saharan northern portion of the country. In order to further their own ends, they made a deal with the devil – fighting along with jihadist separatists who were determined to institute Sharia law and a religious totalitarian government. You can guess which group got their way.

The broadcast of music was thus forbidden in the territories that the jihadists, some of whom were linked to ISIS, controlled. For the people of Mali, who had developed their unique style of music that included hip-hop, rock and roll, folk styles and to a very large extent the blues, this was tantamount to surgically removing their souls. Music was part of the national identity of the country.

All of this was told in a clever rap song at the beginning of the film which immediately links the importance of music and the story of this country’s misery. Harsh punishments were instituted in the jihadist territories, with a graphic video depicting a man’s hand being amputated. Rape became common in the area and infractions such as not praying loud enough triggered brutal reprisals.

Two of Mali’s biggest musical stars are women; both of whom are best known by a single name. Disco (a nickname bestowed on the Madonna-loving artist as a youth) is a more modern artist and Khaira more traditional but both have huge audiences. Both, like millions of Malians, have been displaced from their homes – one to a refugee camp in Burkina Faso, one to the capital city of Bamako in the South, away from her beloved home of Timbuktu. Guitarist Moussa Agbidi from Gao is also in a refugee camp in Burkina Faso, but his wife remained in the city of Gao where she was arrested. He was trying to eke by playing at what venues he could find work at or whatever occasions (weddings, parties) that required musicians.

Also in Bamako, a group of young musicians calling themselves Songhoy Blues were writing some wonderful songs, one of which plaintively called the displaced back to Mali to help rebuild the country. Ironically, they themselves would end up leaving after being discovered by a French producer and English musicians Damon Albarn of Blur and noted minimalist Brian Eno as well as American guitarist Nick Zimmer of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. They moved to London to record a critically acclaimed album and went on tour to support it.

The stories here are raw and wrenching. The ability of man to be completely and utterly inhumane to his fellow man is going to make you shake your head in sorrow at the very least. There are moments that are hard to watch as we’re shown news footage of bodies and body parts strewn about the rubble of a small town that has felt the brunt of the war between the government, the insurgents of the MNLA and the jihadists.

But then there’s the music and oh my goodness, it’s incredible. I expected African music that was more rural and rhythmic with chanting and gorgeous harmonies but this is very close to what I would consider Indie Rock. The musicianship is incomparable and the songs plaintive and longing. The lyrics are thoughtfully translated through subtitles – much of the dialogue is in French which is what the Malians mostly speak. It’s not often I urge readers to buy a soundtrack to a documentary, but this one is worth it; it’s on Atlantic Records and should be available through most vendors who sell music either digitally or in the rarest of the rare, CD stores.

The film ends with a concert in Timbuktu organized by Keira and Disco. We don’t really get a sense of being there, although it IS beautifully photographed. The ending should be uplifting, cathartic or depressing but here it’s only kinda meh. It left me feeling that I was missing a few minutes of ending. The narrative does tend to meander a little bit as we bounce from subject to subject but then again that is true of most documentaries.

Still, the movie is plenty powerful throughout, the ending notwithstanding. Most of us here in the west know little or nothing about Mali’s suffering. We get an inside glimpse at it, the frustration of those caught in between warring factions who just want to live their lives in peace. Most of these people are Muslim and they despise the jihadists who have so disrupted their lives. One of the best sequences in the film shows a group of men and women in full dress dancing enthusiastically. One look at that and that might change some minds about the people who follow that religion. This is a movie full of vitality and joy – and also frustration and despair. The human condition in 90 minutes.

REASONS TO GO: The music is amazing. The stories are heartbreaking.
REASONS TO STAY: The narrative is disjointed and meandering occasionally.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some gruesome images of civil war, a little bit of profanity and some of the themes here are pretty adult.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Schwartz’s first cinematic feature film (she previously directed a made-for-TV documentary Mysterious Science: Rebuilding Stonehenge).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/3/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Timbuktu
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: 45 Years

A Separation (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin)


A Separation

Leila Hatami and Peyman Moaadi react to questions from the press as to whether she's a natural redhead or not.

(2011) Drama (Sony Classics) Leila Hatami, Peyman Moaadi, Shahab Hosseini, Sareh Bayat, Sarina Farhadi, Marila Zare’i, Ali-Asghar Shahbazi, Babak Karimi, Kimia Hosseini, Shirin Yazdanbakhsh, Sahabanu Zolghadr, Mohammadhassan Asghari. Directed by Asghar Farhadi

 

Human relationships are very complex and fragile things. They are constantly changing and often confusing. We are all alike in that regard – whether we live in the United States or China or Iran. We are all slaves to our emotions.

Nader (Moaadi) and Simin (Hatami) are in an adjudicator’s office in Teheran. Simin wants a divorce. It’s not that Nader is mistreating her or that they don’t care for each other. It’s just that Nader’s father (Shahbazi) has Alzheimer’s and he’s not willing to leave him to the tender mercies of the Iranian public health system. She wants to move abroad where their daughter Termeh (S. Farhadi)  has a better opportunity to make something of her life. However, since Nader won’t agree to letting Termeh go Simin moves in with her mother (Yazdanbakhsh) instead.

Nader has to work and even if Termeh didn’t have school she is only 11 and far too young to watch over an Alzheimer’s patient so Nader hires Razieh (Bayat) to keep an eye on dad and do a little light housecleaning. Razieh is an extra-devout Muslim whose chador hides a secret. She lives in a dicey part of the city so the commute is nearly two hours long each way.

Her family desperately needs the money. Her husband Hodjat (S. Hosseini) is a cobbler who has been out of work for six months and his creditors are threatening to take him to jail. She brings her young daughter with her but the strain of caring for the old man and the house proves to be too much for her.

One day Nader comes home early from work and finds things in chaos. This leads to a confrontation with Razieh that has unforeseen consequences for both Nader and Razieh as well as both their families. Consequences that might not be entirely predictable.

This was the most recent recipient of the Best Foreign Film Oscar and deservedly so. This is an incredible piece of filmmaking. It isn’t just the story or the setting that grabs your attention, it’s also the way the story is told. Asghar Farhadi is a legitimate talent, one who understands his craft well and is a master at it. He knows which facts to let you know and which to hide so that when the final denouement comes, you are not so much surprised as you are thrilled.

In the hands of a Hollywood studio this would probably have been a by-the-numbers thriller as Nader races to discover the truth about Razieh and he would have ended up with the girl at the end. Instead, this is a slice of life about deeply flawed people interpreting events in their own way with their own self-interest front and center. In other words, they act the way people all over the world would act – including here in the good ol’ U.S. of A.

There are going to be some who will be tempted to turn this into an indictment of Iran and Sharia law (I’m looking at you, Bill O’Reilly…Rick Santorum…etc. etc.) but this isn’t really that. Certainly the justice system in Iran is imperfect – but then again, so is our own. Any legal system that has jurisdiction over other human beings is going to be flawed by definition – people are flawed. Whenever you have laws that are inflexible being interpreted inflexibly justice is going to suffer. It isn’t like every case that goes before an American judge winds up exacting justice.

The movie is well-acted with particular kudos going to Hatami who not only resembles a young Susan Sarandon facially but also in her inner strength and conviction. Simin is a formidable woman who wants only the best for her daughter and her family; she understands Nader’s stubborn stance but doesn’t share it. She places more importance on her daughter than on her father-in-law which is at the crux of the divide between Simin and Nader.

Nader doesn’t look at his stance as a choice between two people; the fact that he is taking care of his father who has nobody else to care for him is the right thing to do. His daughter not only understands but supports this – she is given the opportunity on several occasions to leave and go with her mother but never takes it.

On the other side of the fence Razieh is completely devout whose actions are for the most part charted by the Quran until desperation forces her to do something of which she knows her husband will not approve. She is intimidated by Hodjat but when it comes to her faith nothing can dislodge her leading to a crucial scene near the end of the movie. Hodjat is a hothead who believes strongly that his wife has been wronged and is tired of being stepped on by those in positions of power and authority. He is like the man the world over who has been kicked once too often – at some point you have to stand up and say enough, which is exactly what Hodjat does.

All of the characters withhold information from one another, choose to interpret things in their own way and are mulish about what they believe. This isn’t a film about compromise – that never enters the equation here. This is about people caught up in a situation that spirals out of control largely due to their unwillingness to face the reality of their circumstances (and yes I’m being deliberately vague as to not spoil some of the more intense plot points). These particular humans live in Teheran but they could as easily exist in Atlanta, or Rome, or Kyoto. But that is not the heart of the message director Farhadi is trying to deliver; that’s merely a corollary that comes with it.

I was mesmerized from beginning to end. This is one of those movies that simply takes you down a path that looks everyday and familiar and gives it a gentle tug until things start to unravel. That’s pretty much the way real life works as well. There are those who are going to avoid this movie just because it comes from Iran. People like that should remember that our grievances are with their government, not the Iranian people – and this movie is very much an insight into those people. We turn away and refuse to learn from it to our discredit.

REASONS TO GO: A powerful film that depicts Iranian life warts and all. Well-directed and well-written, hitting all the right notes.

REASONS TO STAY: Mostly shot with hand-held cameras, creating some dizzy-making shaky cam effects.

FAMILY VALUES: The themes and situations might be a bit too much for all but mature children and teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Termeh is played by the directors daughter. She was one of the recipients of Best Actress (ensemble) at the 2011 Berlin International Film Festival, one of three Bears won by the film, the first movie ever to accomplish that feat.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/15/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 99% positive reviews. Metacritic: 95/100. The reviews are sensational.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Syrian Bride

LAW LOVERS: A fairly intense and dispassionate look at how Sharia law actually operates.

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT:Hotel Rwanda