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

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

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!

The Syrian Bride


The Syrian Bride

A beautiful bride in a war zone makes for a compelling image.

(Koch-Lorber) Hiyam Abbass, Makram J. Khoury, Clara Khoury, Ashraf Barhom, Eyad Sheety, Evelyne Kaplun, Julie-Anne Roth, Adnan Trabshi. Directed by Eran Ricklis.

The Druze are an ethnic group living in the Golan Heights, an area occupied by Israel but claimed by Syria. Their passports list their country of origin as “unaffiliated” although many think of themselves as Syrian. Their lives are a kind of grey area where they live in one world in which they are more or less at peace but their hearts yearn for another world entirely.

Mona (Clara Khoury) is a beautiful young Druze woman who is about to get married. This should be a happy occasion, but there are many reasons why the young woman appears sad and depressed. She is in an arranged marriage with a Syrian actor whom she has never met. In order to marry, she must immigrate to Syria with her new husband. Once she does that, she will not be allowed to return to Israel to see her family, potentially for the rest of her life.

Hammed (Makram Khoury and Clara’s real life father) is the family patriarch who has already been jailed by the Israelis for his pro-Syrian activism. Embittered by the experience, he plans to attend a protest march on the day of the wedding despite the ramifications that might have on his daughter’s big day. Recently paroled, he has been told that he won’t be allowed to the border area, a sensitive military zone, to see his daughter off.

He has rocky relationships with his sons. Marwan (Barhoum) is a slick salesman who travels frequently to Europe. He calls himself a businessman but offers only vague explanations as to what that business actually is. A serial womanizer, he allows his charm and rakish good looks to scam his way through life. Hattem (Sheety) hasn’t spoken with his father in eight years after moving to Russia and marrying a Russian doctor. Outcast by the village elders, Hattem has returned for his sister’s wedding hoping to repair the damage in the relationship with his family bringing his tow his somewhat nervous wife and a son named for his father.

Orchestrating most of this is Amal (Abbass), the older sister. Married to a conservative man who has a somewhat bronze age view of women, she is independent, smart and ambitious. Intending to attend college in Israel now that her daughter is nearly grown, she is meeting stiff resistance from her husband who is more afraid of what the village will think than what will make his wife happy.

The wedding party soon makes its way to the immigration officer at the border where Mona presents her passport for the journey to a new life. However a new stamp, new Israeli policies and stubborn Syrian military officers jeopardize the wedding, which could leave Mona in a no-man’s land; a bride without a groom, a woman without a country.

Director Ricklis presents a story simply told about a situation which is not uncommon in that part of the world. Taking no sides, he instead lets the richly drawn characters tell the tale. But despite the movie’s title, this is less Mona’s movie than it is Amal’s. She is the driving force of the story and Abbass plays her like a young Irene Pappas with a bit of Sophia Loren mixed in.

I’ve always been fond of movies that present a slice of life in a part of the world that we don’t get to see much of on the evening news or in major movies. There have been quite a few of those types of movies emerging from the Middle East lately; The Band’s Visit, Paradise Now and Rana’s Wedding are just a few of the better ones. Ricklis wisely doesn’t cast stones here; he presents the situation as a fact of life, and that suits the story better.

Makram Khoury plays Hammed as a smart but bitter man, one who loves his family but might love his cause just a little bit more. While this is Amal’s movie, his journey from the stiff-necked patriarch to loving father during the course of the film is equally as compelling. While Hammed’s family is plainly dysfunctional, it is also just as plainly tight-knit. They bicker, yes, but they also come to one another’s aid when the situation calls for it. These are smart, independent people, and I would love to get to know them just a little bit better.

Cinematographer Michael Weisweg does an outstanding job of framing compelling images, such as a beautiful bride walking slowly in a demilitarized zone past signs warning of land mines, and of the desolate but oddly beautiful landscape of the Golan Heights. It’s a beautiful movie to look at.

One of the things I loved about the movie is the ambiguous ending, although some might be frustrated by this. Like the situation itself, there are no easy solutions and things are only going to change when somebody decides to lay down their rage and suspicions and make peace. Until then, movies like The Syrian Bride are going to be all-too-common.

REASONS TO RENT: A slice of life set in a world we see very little of in the States. Strong performance by Abbass. Gorgeous cinematography capturing compelling images.

REASONS TO RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A few too many characters in the family (such as the story of Amal’s daughter who is in love with a man her father disapproves of) that muddy up the plot. Ambiguous ending may frustrate some.

FAMILY VALUES: Some harsh language but otherwise nothing not suitable for entire families. Younger sorts might not understand the complex issues presented here.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Filming had to be done in two different Druze villages, one pro-Syrian the other pro-Israeli. Which village was filmed in that day depended on the political leaning of the scene. Since the Israeli government wouldn’t allow filming to take place at the actual border, a mock-up was constructed some miles away.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The commentary from director Riklis gives additional insight into the history of the conflict and how it affects those living in the region.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Avenue Montaigne