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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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

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 Water Diviner


Love can be illuminating.

Love can be illuminating.

(2014) Drama (Warner Brothers) Russell Crowe, Olga Kurylenko, Jai Courtney, Yilmaz Erdogan, Cem Yilmaz, Dylan Georgiades, Steve Bastoni, Isabel Lucas, Salih Kalyon, Megan Gale, Ryan Corr, James Fraser, Ben O’Toole, Jacqueline McKenzie, Jack Douglas Patterson, Ben Norris, Aidan Liam Smith, Damon Herriman, Sophia Forrest. Directed by Russell Crowe

The bond between father and son can be complicated. There’s always an element of competition between them; the old lion wants to have the loudest roar even as the younger lions are coming into their own. Still when push comes to shove, there isn’t a father who wouldn’t move heaven and earth for their children…sometimes even when hope is lost.

Joshua Connor (Crowe) has a farm in Australia. It’s not an easy life; water isn’t easy to come by in the arid landscape. However, with the use of a pair of sticks and his unerring instincts he is able to find places to dig wells that he desperately needs. It’s a hard life but it’s a good one – or would be. You see, Joshua sent his three sons Arthur (Corr), Edward (Fraser) and Henry (O’Toole) to war, in this case World War I. With many troops from their part of the world, they went to invade Gallipoli in Turkey and many thousands of young men in the ANZAC (Australia-New Zealand Army Corps) died in the attempt which ultimately failed. All three of Joshua’s sons were among the dead.

The grief of the loss of all her sons had led Joshua’s wife (McKenzie) to take her own life. Now with nobody and nearly four years gone, Joshua feels obligated to go to Gallipoli and bring the remains of his sons back home. However, there’s a problem there – basically so many soldiers died in the battle, one of the bloodiest of the First World War – that proper burials are only now just happening, led by an English Colonel (Courtney) who is being assisted by the Turkish officer Major Hasan (Erdogan) who led the Turkish forces at the battle. Civilians are not welcome – not that there are any clamoring to go. The battle site is still full of booby traps and other dangers that make it a dangerous place even in peacetime.

But Joshua has nothing to lose. With the help of Ayshe (Kurylenko), the owner of the hotel he is staying at in Istanbul and Orhan (Georgiades) her adorable moppet of a son he manages to make it past the British bureaucracy which is dead set on preventing his passage to Gallipoli. Once he makes it there though he acquires the friendship of Hasan, even though he commanded the forces that led to the deaths of his sons – and discovers that even amidst the carnage, hope exists. He also discovers that love might exist as well with the hotel owner whose husband disappeared in the same battle and is presumed dead, although she holds out hope that he may yet return.

Normally the presence of Crowe in front of the camera would insure a wide American release for a film, but the story is a bit of a hard sell to American audiences. Gallipoli doesn’t mean as much to us as it does to audiences in Australia and New Zealand, where the battle is part of the national identity. Released on the 100th anniversary of the battle, the story isn’t so much about the fight as it is of a father’s devotion to his children, even after they’re dead. It is about  his grief and his healing.

Crowe remains a compelling presence, giving one of his best performances in years. Joshua is a quiet and powerful presence, never demonstrative although once he begins interacting with the irresistible Orhan does he begin to start coming out of his shell. There is a bit of an aura of the supernatural here – Joshua has visions of his sons in the battle and is able to infer things that he shouldn’t have been able to know. The more practical-minded among the audience will find that whole concept to be poppycock, although the connection a parent has with their children and the way parents can sometimes know things they shouldn’t about their kids can’t be discounted.

This would be the last movie lensed by cinematographer Andrew Lesnie who also shot most of Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth films and he makes a stark contrast between Australia with it’s blade blue skies and dusty earth, and with Istanbul with its Blue Mosque and beautiful interiors. Then there’s Gallipoli itself with a lovely beach but once over the first hill becomes a scorched hell. Crowe made a smart choice in that department and it will remain part of Lesnie’s lasting legacy as one of the great cinematographers of his – and our – day.

Most of the battle is seen through flashbacks, particularly those that concern the brothers but those scenes can be pretty brutal with limbs getting blown off and young bodies being shredded by machine guns and artillery fire. Crowe doesn’t shy away from these scenes that depict the horrors of war, those who are upset by such things should be forewarned.

I generally don’t respond to specific criticisms of a film brought up by a different film critic but Andrew O’Hehir’s excoriation of Crowe and Warner Brothers, calling this a “disgraceful” film for not mentioning the Armenian genocide which occurred roughly at the same time the battle of Gallipoli was fought, is absolutely mind-boggling. Yes, there are sympathetic Turkish characters here but not all Turks participated in the Genocide which occurred hundreds of miles away and essentially before the main action of the film begins – the battle itself is pretty much only seen in flashbacks other than the opening scene which depicts the withdrawal of troops from Gallipoli. But what is disgraceful is a critic suggesting that a filmmaker not mentioning something that has absolutely nothing to do with his film or the events in it is somehow morally wrong and insensitive. Talk about Liberal Guilt.

For a debut effort in the director’s chair Crowe has come up with a pretty impressive film. Of course, when you have Russell Crowe to star in your first film you’ve got an advantage over most right there. I don’t know what Crowe the director did to inspire Crowe the actor but whatever it was, it resulted in a compelling performance that confirms Crowe’s star power. There is an epic sweep here that reminds me of movies from a bygone era.

The movie hasn’t gotten any sort of push from Warners and has been essentially released as an independent film in select cities. It isn’t easy to find but it is well worth seeking out; this is a surprisingly powerful film that I believe will appeal to more than just Australian audiences.

REASONS TO GO: Strong performance by Crowe who remains a compelling presence. Gripping storyline. Lovely cinematography.
REASONS TO STAY: Relies on Joshua’s visions and instincts a bit too much. The battle scenes may be too intense for the sensitive.
FAMILY VALUES: War violence and disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The horse that Crowe rides in the Australia scenes is actually his own horse, Honey.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/10/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Legends of the Fall
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Age of Adaline

The Two Faces of January


The Crete airport has a pretty out-of-the-way lost luggage location.

The Crete airport has a pretty out-of-the-way lost luggage location.

(2014) Thriller (Magnolia) Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, Oscar Isaac, Daisy Bevan, David Warshofsky, Yigit Ozsener, Karayianni Margaux, Prometheus Aleifer, Socrates Alafouzos, Ozcan Ozdemir, Nikos Mavrakis, Ozan Tas, Omiros Poulakis, Evgenia Dimitropolou, Peter Mair, Pablo Verdejo, Brian Niblett, Mehmet Esen, Kosta Kortidis, Okan Avci, James Sobol Kelly. Directed by Hossein Amini

In Tom Ripley, novelist Patricia Highsmith created a character whose moral compass pointed straight at himself; Ripley remains fascinating in the imagination not just because of his ability to become a chameleon but because he takes acting in his own self-interest to the ultimate.

While Ripley doesn’t appear in the latest film adaptation of a Highsmith novel, his ghost is hanging around the fringes of the themes here. Things start out pleasantly enough; Chester MacFarland (Mortensen) and his stunning wife Colette (Dunst) are vacationing in Greece in the summer of 1962. They wander around the Acropolis relying on Greek guidebooks that may or may not be terribly useful when they come upon an American named Rydal (Isaac) who is a tour guide who speaks fluent Greek. He’s also a bit of a hustler, although Colette doesn’t realize it. Chester however, wouldn’t trust the guy to mow his lawn although he does humor his wife and allows her to hire him to guide them the next day.

They spend a pleasant day together and if his eyes linger on the beautiful young Colette a little bit too much and if she is a bit too taken by him, it seems to be harmless. However, Chester is far from the innocent that his summer white suit would indicate. He left behind a mess back in the States of fraud and larceny which catches up with him in his five star hotel room that night. When that ends badly, it is inadvertently witnessed by Rydal who helps Chester clean up a literal mess. It becomes necessary for Chester and Colette to make a hasty getaway but they are unable to pick up their passports from the hotel, without which they can’t leave the country.

Rydal takes the couple to Crete where they can hide out. The ex-pat knows a guy who can forge some documents and while they wait for the passports to arrive, they try as best they can to lay low but once again things don’t go according to plan. Now paranoia and suspicion rule the day and getting out of Crete won’t necessarily be the end to their problems.

Amini, who earned his Hollywood stripes as a writer, chooses a writer’s writer to adapt for his first feature as a director and does a credible job for a debut. He sticks to a basic visual style, relying on his cinematographer Marcel Zyskind to bring the Greek and Cretan landscapes to life. The charming villages, the urban ruins of Athens, the desolate landscape of Crete all play a role in the action.

It doesn’t hurt that each of these lead characters are essentially flawed and make morally-challenged decisions, and yet we still root for them and identify with them. In a sense, there are no villains here; each character is his or her own villain. If there is a villain, it’s Lady Luck; if it wasn’t for bad luck, poor Chester wouldn’t have any luck at all.

Mortensen has ended to choose obscure roles after his breakout performances in the Lord of the Rings trilogy; I had predicted big stardom for him at the time but Mortensen hasn’t really taken roles that would further his profile, preferring to stick to small budget indies and lower profile films with roles that interested him. More power to him. Dunst has taken a similar career path, with only the Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy having that kind of major star profile. She has since taken meatier roles like this one. Isaac, on the other hand, is an emerging star who is about to embark on a major franchise of his own, the new Star Wars trilogy. I wouldn’t be surprised though if he stayed the same course that Mortensen and Dunst have taken on.

Highsmith doesn’t exactly write empty-headed upbeat novels so don’t go into this looking to escape. It requires a certain amount of brain power and a willingness to accept behaviors you might not ordinarily approve of; these are after all desperate people far from home and if you understand that, you’ll understand why they act the way they do.

There are some twists and turns, not all predictable. However I must admit that the movie seems to slowly lose steam during the last third and maybe it’s the somnolent atmosphere of a sleepy small town in Crete or the hard-baked prairies of the center of that island. It just doesn’t bustle with energy is what I’m saying.

This is a much better than average thriller, although maybe not as gritty as noir lovers might like, nor as fast-paced as the average thriller junkie might be comfortable with and yet this is one worth seeing if you get the chance, which Central Florida filmgoers can if they hurry.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific triumvirate, every one likable. Gorgeous Greek scenery.
REASONS TO STAY: Loses momentum over the third act.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence (none of it bloody), some sexuality, a bit of foul language and plenty of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the directorial debut of Amini who is best known as a writer for such diverse films as Killshot, Drive and Snow White and the Huntsman.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/8/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Third Man
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Big Eyes

The Son of the Olive Merchant (Le fils du marchand d’olives)


A cross-eyed sheep in wolf's clothing.

A cross-eyed sheep in wolf’s clothing.

(2011) Documentary (Choices Video) Anna Zeitindjioglou, Mathieu Zeitindjioglou, Jean-Claude Dreyfus (narrator). Directed by Mathieu Zeitindjioglou

It is said that history is written by the victorious. It is certainly not written by the victims. In 1915-16 during the height of the First World War, Turkey embarked on a relocation program of its Armenian minority program. According to Turkish history, many Armenians died during this relocation although the Turkish government hadn’t intended them to do so. Some of the Armenians had allied themselves with Russia and carried out terrorist attacks which necessitated getting rid of the snake at their bosom so to speak.

The rest of the world sees things quite differently. Not so much a relocation as a genocide, in fact, the first of the 20th century (and sadly not the last). Somewhere between a million and a million and a half Armenians died during an 18 month period. Eyewitness accounts have all manner of atrocities being committed – sexual assaults, children being burned alive, boatloads of refugees sailed into the Mediterranean and then the boats capsized or sunk. The town of Ani, once a beautiful capital of the region, was literally razed to the ground as were many other villages and towns.

French filmmaker Mathieu Zeitindjioglou now living in Paris has his roots here. His name was changed from the original Zeitounjian to Zeitindjioglou – they have the same meaning in Armenian as in Turkish. His ancestor managed to escape to France because authorities thought he was a Turk.

After marrying Anna, a vivacious Pole, he is convinced to visit Turkey for their honeymoon and get a sense of his homeland today. One gets the sense Mathieu was a bit reluctant to do so; throughout the film he is behind the camera and rarely a participant directly in the proceedings. Frankly, I think the movie would have benefitted from his insights; how he felt about seeing these places where his ancestors once called home.. We are left with Anna’s descriptions of his eyes as the only clues.

Anna drives the film; she relentlessly questions Turks about the genocide, which in Turkey is not recognized as such. Museums contain sections that are revisionist, blaming the whole thing on the Armenians themselves. Questions to ordinary Turks on the street gets either ignorance that the event took place at all, or a kind of “well they did far worse to us” attitude. Anna is also present at conferences in which Turkish diplomats make their case to join the European Union; not everyone in Europe was in favor of this because of the country’s revisionist stance and refusal to at least acknowledge that the policy was of deliberate obliteration of all Armenian presence in their country. Although that happened nearly a century ago, I can kind of see their point. Imagine if Germany today made it official state policy that the Holocaust never occurred.

The interviews in Turkey are for the most part shot guerrilla style on a small camera, so at times the camera remains far too static and the interviews themselves can be repetitive. The film is fairly short so I suppose that reinforcing the main point with five or six different subjects saying the same things is useful. It also should be noted that it is illegal in Turkey to go on record saying that the Armenian genocide took place so some of the interview subjects may well have not wanted to go on the record saying that it did and risk arrest, which of course the filmmakers also did so one must give them both appropriate marks for their courage.

Interspersed in the interviews are animated sequences using a wolf-boy allegory to depict Mathieu’s journey. The animations are uniformly well done and seem to be the closest thing we get into Mathieu’s mindset. These are narrated by Dreyfus in a fine stentorian voice and had some of my favorite moments in the film.

At times I got the sense that the filmmaker was floundering a bit in trying to make his point but that can be overlooked because of the quality of the animation as well as the archival photographs and film that Zeitindjioglou utilizes throughout. If the images look a bit too uncomfortably close to those from Auschwitz and Rwanda one shouldn’t be surprised. After all, atrocities transcend time and place and inhumanity and brutality is no different in Ankara in 1915 as they do in Warsaw in 1938 and Kigali in 1994.

The movie is available on Amazon and on VOD. While it isn’t playing the festival circuit any longer, it is worth seeking out. Most Americans are ignorant that the genocide took place at all (unless you happen to be of Armenian descent) and this is a good opportunity to learn something while accompanying the Zeitindjioglous on their journey.

REASONS TO GO: Interesting and well-done animations. Informative about a genocide few Americans know much about.

REASONS TO STAY: Lacks direct personal insight. Wanders aimlessly at times. Interviews are occasionally repetitive.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some disturbing images, some bad language and mature themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie gets its name from the filmmaker’s last name which is translated from Turkish as “Son of the Olive Seller.”

CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/19/13 the film has yet to be receive scores on either Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sarah’s Key

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Godfather Part II

The Edge of Heaven (Auf der anderen seite)


The Edge of Heaven

Tuncel Kuritz listens raptly as Nurgul Yesilcay explains the Zorba the Greek reference.

(2007) Drama (Strand) Nurgul Yesilcay, Baki Devrak, Tuncel Kuritz, Hannah Schygulla, Patrycia Ziolkowska, Nunsel Kose, Asuman Altinay, Onder Cakar, Emre Cosar, Nurten Guner, Elcim Eroglu, Sevilay Demirci, Yelda Reynaud, Turgay Tanulku. Directed by Fatih Akin

 

The one truth about life is that none of us survive it. Along the way to our inevitable destination we suffer bumps, bruises and sometimes whole amputations that make many of us, at one time or another, wonder if it’s possible to go another step. Yet it’s the joys, both large and small, that get us through the rough patches.

Ali (Kuritz) is an elderly Turk living in Bremen, Germany. He is alone; he is occasionally visited by his son Nejat (Devrak) who is a professor of German literature at a German university, but the two have only an uneasy connection. Neither one can really relate to the other, let alone understand one another. The gulf between father and son, already deep as with all fathers and their sons, is made wider by the cultural differences they grew up with. Ali is still at heart a Turk and Nejat is essentially a German.

Ali, being a lonely man, sometimes purchases himself a prostitute. One in particular, Yeter (Kose), is a favorite. She, like Ali, is a Turkish expatriate and is doing  the best she can to survive. She misses her daughter Ayten (Yesilcay) who is still in Turkey and is ashamed of her mother. Ayten is also a revolutionary whom the Turkish government is after.

Muslims in Bremen are not too thrilled with Yeter’s profession of choice and urge her, in no uncertain terms, to think about a career change or face the wrath of their community. Ali, discovering this, invites her to live with him so that she might continue to practice her profession (and this isn’t all altruistic – Ali wants her to provide her professional services in exchange for the room and board). It’s a pretty sweet arrangement for Ali but a momentary loss of control leads to a tragedy that has life-altering consequences for the both of them.

Nejat, horrified at what has occurred, travels to Turkey to find Ayten so that he may tell her what has happened and, if needed, do whatever he can to help. He is taken by his homeland which he has never seen and winds up impulsively buying a German-language bookstore in Istanbul which comes with two apartments over the store. He lives in one and rents the other to Susanne (Schygulla).

Susanne is a German mother who is in Turkey for her daughter Charlotte (Ziolkowska) who has travelled to Turkey for…well, let’s backtrack a moment. You see, even as Nejat had travelled to Istanbul, Ayten had fled to Germany to find her mom and to escape arrest. She hooks up with Charlotte, whose relationship with her mom is – you guessed it – strained. Susanne is an ex-hippie who went from that lifestyle to becoming a more bourgeois woman in order to provide for her daughter for which Charlotte has never forgiven her. Charlotte is fascinated with Ayten, whose status as a revolutionary on the run excites Charlotte’s sense of political romanticism. However, when Ayten is arrested, she is deported back to Turkey to be arrested. Charlotte goes to Istanbul to try and help Ayten be freed and then….life happens.

Akin, who was born in Germany to Turkish parents, presents a film with three distinct storylines. All of them are linked but ingeniously enough, none of the characters are aware of how closely linked they are. All of them crisscross their way through the various storylines without knowing their effect on each skein of the tapestry. This takes some pretty sophisticated writing and directing to pull off without throwing in serendipitous devices that exist only to move the plot from A to B. Here, you feel an organic flow and nothing ever seems forced.

The mood here as you can tell is somewhat bittersweet. None of these characters has easy lives or make the right choices in every case. They, as we alluded to earlier, suffer bumps, bruises and amputations and not all of them will be alive when the end credits roll. While the movie can get heavy-handed with the tragedies to the point where you want to scream “We get it! Life sucks! Let’s move on shall we” at the screen (or monitor if that’s your means of viewing).

There are some very nice performances. Many of the actors are well-known in Turkey but almost completely unknown here. Schygulla might be remembered by older readers as the muse of Rainier Warner Fassbinder, one of Germany’s legendary directors of the 70s and 80s. She lends some grace and gravitas to the movie and serves as the audience surrogate to a large extent. She is unfamiliar with Turkish culture (which we get a nice deep look at here) and navigates through a tricky emotional maze with her daughter.

This is the kind of film that will stay with you for a long time unless you’re the sort that don’t like to use a lot of grey matter when it comes to watching movies. There are a lot of themes to consider here, a lot of intellectual fodder for the engine. It is a film that sets out deeply drawn characters and allows them to interact and breathe. You’ll feel like you know all of them, see them at the market and run into them on the street for a 5 minute conversation about trivial things. But there’s nothing trivial about this film. Nothing at all.

WHY RENT THIS: An amazing, bittersweet mood. A look inside Turkish culture. Solidly acted.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Heavy-handed in places, particularly in the Job-like suffering.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a great deal of sexuality, as well as adult themes, language and some violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the police officers in the film are actual cops.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $17.8M on an unreported production budget; looks like the film was a box office success.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Incendies

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

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