I was a bit disappointed that I only had time to see two films at the Festival du nouveau cinéma yesterday (Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017). On the other hand, I liked those two very much. In fact, they were among my favourites so far, so things worked out pretty well in the end.
Both films will be shown again on Thursday, so, if you live in Montreal, maybe you can enjoy them, too. Luckily for potential viewers, the two films will not be shown at the same time (I hate when that happens!) though they follow each other quite closely.
I hope to review them properly soon, but for now, here are the synopses and screening times, from the FNC web site.
Ni Juge, Ni Soumise
This documentary is a France-Belgium co-production. Co-directors Jean Libon and Yves Hinant will take part in a Q&A after the film.
“The cult documentary series Strip-Tease adapted for the big screen. Deadpan Belgian humour that pokes at sensitive places. Uneasy laughter abounds. A judge who’s seen all the evil there is to see reopens a deeply sordid cold case. At the same time, a string of cases crosses her desk, reflecting the ills of an entire society and the absurdity of a world where sometimes all you can do is laugh. A relentless exercise in voyeurism, set as a trap for the viewer, who is left with no choice but to question himself.”
Ni Juge, Ni Soumise
Directed by Jean Libon, Yves Hinant
With judge Anne Gruwez and assorted Belgian residents and citizens
In French, with English subtitles
Thursday. Oct. 12, 2017
Program #243 17:00
Cineplex Odeon Quartier Latin Salle 17
350 rue Émery, Metro Berri-UQAM
Kenyan film Kati Kati won the FIPRESCI prize at the Toronto International Film Festival, and it’s also Kenya’s entry in the foreign language Oscar race.
“Tormented souls caught in limbo must face their demons and come to terms with their guilt in this poetic, unsettling film from Kenya. For his debut feature, Masya serves up a meditative storyline about spirits stranded in an odd village. A sort of No Man’s Land, the site is really a purgatory where each soul must confront past shame and regrets. A singularly inventive film that’s galaxies away from the more familiar representations of the African continent.”
Don’t let the words “tormented” and “unsettling” in that synopsis scare you. Concentrate on the “poetic” and “singularly inventive” aspects. And feel free to complain to me if you don’t like it. Seriously! It’s quite special, though, so I think audiences will like it very much.
Much of the dialogue is in English. When people speak Swahili or Sheng (Swahili-based slang) there are English subtitles.
Written and directed by Mbithi Masya
Cast: Nyokabi Gethaiga, Elsaphan Njora, Paul Ogola
75 minutes long
Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017
Program #239 19:15
Cineplex Odeon Quartier Latin Salle 16
350 rue Émery, Metro Berri-UQAM
The Festival du nouveau cinéma continues until Sunday, Oct. 15, 2017. Visit the festival’s web site for more information about the films, events and ticket prices. You can buy tickets online.
The subversive documentary film Under The Sun takes us to North Korea, where we observe 8-year-old Zin-mi as she eats with her parents in their apartment, attends school, joins the North Korean Children’s Union, and rehearses her part in a pageant that will celebrate “The Day of the Sun,” the birthday of Kim Il Sung, the grandfather of the current ruler, Kim Jong-un. The Day of the Sun (April 15) is the most important holiday of the entire year in North Korea.
We also visit the alleged workplaces of Zin-mi’s parents. (In an early meeting, Zin-mi had told filmmaker Vitaly Mansky that her father was a journalist and her mother worked in a cafeteria, but in the film they are seen as an engineer in a garment factory and a worker at a soy milk plant, respectively. Made me think of “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.” Mom and her co-workers wear white uniforms with red aprons and cute, red rubber boots. This echoes the white shirts and red scarves of the members of the Children’s Union.)
Mansky wanted to make a film about day to day life North Korea, with co-operation from the government. He knew there would be restraints, but he got many more than he had expected. The script was written by the North Korean government. Government minders were always close by, telling people where to walk, what to say, to speak more loudly, to show more animation. “Look at her when she’s talking!” They would make people repeat dialogue over and over to achieve the appropriate level of breathless enthusiasm. Mansky had no freedom in choosing events or locations. He was not allowed to make small talk with any North Koreans in between shooting scenes. He had to show his footage to the government at the end of each day.
You might expect the resulting film to be as exciting as the “Bulgarian tractor epics” of the past. The thing that makes Under The Sun different is that Mansky kept his cameras running all day. He did not wait for the government chaperones to yell “action,” and did not stop filming when they said “cut.” Despite all the supervision, he did not hand over ALL of his footage for scrutiny. I’ve read different explanations for exactly how that worked, but one way or the other, he had secret copies that the authorities probably did not know about until the documentary was released. On the other hand, he made filming two trips to North Korea in 2014, but never received his visa for a planned third trip. So maybe they did have an inkling, after all.
A scene of garment workers celebrating their heroic production is exceedingly awkward and unnatural. In the first take, they have surpassed their government quota by 150 per cent. By the next take, the figure has grown to 200 per cent. Seriously, how dumb do they think we are?
Even seemingly ordinary, boring scenes of people crossing a square or boarding a bus were scripted and directed. When films are sold on DVD they often include a behind-the-scenes “Making Of” documentary. Under the Sun has made those scenes an integral part of the film, instead of setting them apart.
In their alleged apartment, Zin-mi and her parents sit in front of a table that’s crowded with luscious-looking food. Remember that North Korea is a country that has lost millions of citizens to famine. After Zin-mi and her father praise the health benefits of their national dish, kimchi, (several times) the table is carried out of the room, with most of the food untouched. What happened to it? Who ate it? Perhaps Zin-mi is perfectly healthy, but she is very slight and often looks tired. Too bad they didn’t let her eat some more.
In one of the most heartbreaking scenes of the film, Zin-mi is asked how she sees her future. She has nothing to say, and starts to cry.
Needless to say, Under the Sun has not been shown officially in North Korea, though someone recorded a screening somewhere, and showed it to North Korean authorities. Those authorities contacted the Russian government, which had provided some of the film’s funding, and asked that the film be destroyed and Mansky be punished. Mansky was criticized, but he was not punished; his film was not seized. In fact, it won the FIPRESCI Prize at the Message to Man International Film Festival in St. Petersburg, Russia. And while eight theatres in Moscow refused to show it, 20 others did. In 2016, New York’s Museum of Modern Art cancelled its screening of the film, though it apologized later.
Vitaly Mansky was born in Ukraine, when it was part of the USSR. He spent most of his adult life in Russia, though he lives in Latvia now.
Random thoughts, observations and questions:
Though the Sun of the title refers to Kim Il Sung (Il Sung means “to realize the sun”) we don’t see much sunshine in the film at all. Some wintry scenes look foggy, but is it really fog, or air pollution?
Many scenes were shot in February. Mansky has said that it was very cold, even indoors. He lets us know by showing students warming their hands over a radiator in their classroom.
Every room we see, whether public or private, has portraits of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il-Sung, and his son, Kim Jong-Il. There are many huge murals and monuments to them in Pyongyang. How much did those photos and monuments cost? How much food could have been bought with that money?
In interviews, Mansky has speculated that many families do not live together. He thinks that many students live at their schools and he knows that many workers live at their factories. I’d like to know more about that.
Even though North Korea is cut off from the rest of the world, clunky, ugly platform shoes managed to get in.
North Korea is often demonized because it has nuclear weapons and an unpredictable leader. There has been some talk about bombing the place, “taking out Kim Jong-un,” etc. Films like Under The Sun add some nuance to the us-and-them narrative, and showing us the people who could be killed by those bombs.
Hope for the future? The huge monuments, the exercise instructions given over loud speakers, and the huge squares filled with robotic, marching people reminded me of scenes from China in the 1960s. Life in China might be far from perfect now, but it seems better than it was. Maybe things will improve for North Koreans, too? (Without the poisoned air and water of China?)
Choosing a girl to be the main character in this story might be the final irony. An article on the web site of Human Rights Watch says that “every day North Korean women face severe gender discrimination at work and home, and sexual harassment and violence that the authorities do nothing to stop.”
That name though….It’s a minor point, but the name Zin-mi was puzzling. In decades of watching Korean films I don’t remember anyone named Zin-mi. Articles about hangul, the Korean writing system, and hangul charts don’t show any symbols that correspond to “Z.” There are some online articles from South Korea that call her Jin-mi.
Under The Sun, directed by Vitaly Mansky
Russia, Latvia, Germany, Czech Republic, North Korea | 2016 | 106 minutes
In the original Korean, with English subtitles
Under The Sun was shown by RIDM+, January-to-May series of films presented by RIDM, the Montreal International Documentary Festival. RIDM will run from November 9 to 19, 2017.
Xiaobin is a young woman of 17 who moves from China to Buenos Aires to join her parents.
Signing up for Spanish lessons allows her to make friends, expand her horizons and contemplate many possible futures.
Each student in the class is given a Spanish name (she gets Beatriz). They can play at new identities – a nurse from Barcelona, a business woman from Colombia, a lawyer from Montevideo.
They read questionable statements from their text book, “If I marry a rich man, I won’t have to work.” (Tsk, tsk!)
They practice mildly stilted dialogue exercises, inviting each other to meals or to the movies. Outside the classroom, Xiaobin uses those phrases when talking to Vijay, an immigrant programmer from India, and they really do go places together. They still act like they’re practicing, though. They order orange juice, and then decide to leave a few minutes later without even tasting it. “Should we go? “Let’s go.” The audience in the cinema laughs.
After the film, a friend said that the person who played Vijay was not a good actor. I’m not sure about that. I think he might have played his part exactly the way director Nele Wohlatz wanted him to.
The dialogues in their text books will sound familiar to anyone who’s ever taken a language class, but some of the overwrought things Vijay says sound like they’re from a melodramatic telenovela.
Kitty content: After a few dialogues about cats, kittens start to appear in the homes of some of the students.
El Futuro Perfecto is not a typical documentary at all. It’s some sort of hybrid thing – drama/documentary/improv, based on the real-life experience of star Zhang Xiaobin. Many parts are quite funny, too. I would have been happy to spend more time in the world of El Futuro Perfecto, but it’s only 65 minutes long. Maybe writer/director Wohlatz and her cast said every thing that they wanted to say within that time frame. If so, kudos to them for not dragging things out.
Learn more about El Futuro Perfecto or buy tickets on the web site of RIDM, Montreal’s documentary film festival. El Futuro Perfecto, 65 minutes long, in Spanish and Mandarin with English subtitles.
Director: Nele Wohlatz
Cast: Zhang Xiaobin , Saroj Kumar Malik , Jiang Mian , Wang Dong Xi , Nahuel Pérez Biscayart
Producer: Cecilia Salim
Cinematography: Roman Kasseroller, Agustina San Martín
Sound: Nahuel Palenque
Editing: Ana Godoy
Production: Murillo Cine
El Futuro Perfecto
Sunday, Nov. 20 at 2:30 p.m., Cinémathèque Québécoise, Salle Principale, 335 de Maisonneuve Blvd E.
The Great Wall is about walls and borders, old and new. The old one is the Great Wall of China, as described by Franz Kafka, in his short story Building The Great Wall of China, which was written in 1917, though not published until 1931. (Coincidentally, I happened to read it a few weeks before I heard of this film. Everyone seems to call it a short story, but it reads more like a philosophical essay to me. )
The short story’s nameless narrator is someone who worked on the wall himself, thouands of years ago; he muses about why it was built the way it was – in many unconnected pieces of 1,000 metres each, with great gaps in between. He declares that it was dysfunctional and the authorities must have known that, so they must have intended it to be dysfunctional. . .but again, why?
The film’s narrator, Nicola Creighton, reads excerpts from Kafka, in the original German, while we look at walls and very tall fences marking borders in Europe and North Africa. Those North African scenes were shot in Melilla, a small chunk of Morocco that Spain has held on to since 1497.
Because I had read the story recently, I caught a change that had been made to Kafka’s words. He wrote: “Against whom was the great wall to provide protection? Against the people of the north.” The film narration says “people of the south.” This north-south change occurs several times in the narration.
Walls and fences alone are not enough to keep the “others” out. There are watchers in the sky, in airplanes, surveillance cameras with night vision, and the kind of towers you see in films about prisons and concentration camps.
Often, it is not clear where we are in the world, though palm trees hint at a hot climate. Is that because one border often looks like another? Is it because some refugees/migrants don’t always know where they are, either? Should we think of it as a metaphor, more than anything?
Sometimes, the forces of law and order give us a clue: what does it say on the back of their uniforms? POLICE, POLIZEI or GUARDIA CIVIL? In Greece, their shields say POLICE, but there is another word writen in Greek alphabet.
Some scenes start in one country and end in another (far as I could tell). The Great Wall was shot in 11 countries; I did not recognize all of them. One city had a large, strange, ugly building. I want to learn the story of that. (As in, who are the guilty parties?)
There are scenes of huge skyscrapers in big cities, with pedestrians in suits walking around looking powerful and purposeful. My thought about that was, those buildings are another kind of wall or border, that will succeed in keeping strangers out. It’s likely that few migrants will be able to enter them, except perhaps as cleaners.
The music in the film gives an air of menace to many scenes. On the other hand, we often hear birds singing. My interpretation of that: birds are almost everywhere, they sing on good days and bad, they can go to any place that the wind and their wings will take them, unlike humans, they know no borders.
Coincidence: This was the second time this week that I have seen Maersk shipping lines onscreen. The other time was in a documentary about the “boat people” who fled Vietnam 40 years ago. Some of them were rescued by a Maersk ship.
At 72 minutes, The Great Wall felt a bit longer than it is. Some viewers might find their interest flagging toward the end. Or not. I’m not sorry that I went. There’s lots of food for thought in the film. The Great Wall, 2015, from Ireland.
Director: Tadhg O’Sullivan
Camera: Feargal Ward
In German with English subtitles
The Great Wall is being shown as part of RIDM, Montreal’s Documentary film festival. See it at 8:30 pm, Friday, Nov. 18, at Cinéma du Parc, 3575 Ave du Parc. You can read more about it, and buy tickets on the RIDM web site. The trailer below looks very dark. Most of the scenes in the film are not like that.
Thursday Oct. 6 was the second day of Montreal’s Festival du nouveau cinéma. (It was Day 1 for me though, because I did not attend the opening film Two Lovers and a Bear.)
I saw four films on Thursday and liked three of them. That’s quite decent. Here are very brief descriptions of the films. Real reviews will follow.
In the morning I attended a press screening of the French documentary Merci Patron! Director François Ruffin, who is also the editor-in-chief of alternative news outlet Fakir, put a lot of effort into trying to get Bernard Arnault, CEO of LVHM and the richest man in France, to do the right thing for at least some of the thousands of workers who lost their jobs when he closed their factories and moved the jobs elsewhere.
Merci Patron! is a great film, I’m glad I saw it and I’d certainly recommend it to my friends. It will only be shown once at FNC, and that will be on Sat. Oct. 8, at 5 p.m. at Quartier Latin.You can read more about it here on the festival’s web site. There’s a link for buying tickets online, too.
Next, I saw Welcome to Iceland. In this black comedy from Swiss director Felix Tissi,a suicidal man, a couple and a family of four on a trekking holiday meet each other in an inhospitable Icelandic landscape. They are all German-speaking tourists.
Then I saw The Death of J.P. Cuenca. This falls between documentary and mock doc. Writer, director and star J.P. Cuenca is a highly praised Brazilian author. One day he finds out that he is officially dead, because a dead man’s companion gave the authorities Cuenca’s birth certificate. He sets out to find out who the man really was, how and why he had his birth certificate, etc.
The film got off to an OK start, but it lost my goodwill before it was over. Obviously some people like it, or it would not be in the FNC lineup, or at other festivals, either. But I’m NOT glad I saw it, and I would not recommend The Death of J.P. Cuenca to my friends. I wish that I had watched something else, or gone for a walk in the sunshine.
If you want to see it anyway, The Death of J.P. Cuenca will be shown again on Sunday, Oct. 9 at 9:15 pm at Cinéma du Parc.
Next, I watched Late Shift, an interactive film from England. (Before the film started audience members were invited to download an app to their smart phone or tablets.) Matt is a university student who works the night shift in a parking garage. He is kidnapped and forced to take part in a robbery at an auction house. Every few minutes audience members were invited to make a choice for Matt. Help the tourist in the subway, or ignore him and jump on the train? Do what the kidnapper says, or try to run away? The film has seven possible endings. Directors Tobias Weber and Caroline Feder were here for a Q&A.
I enjoyed Late Shift very much and would certainly recommend it, but sadly, it will not have a second screening at FNC. The filmmakers hope to release a non-interactive version in North America within the next few months. They already have distribution deals for several European countries. Keep your eyes and ears open for this one! Read more about Late Shift on the FNC site.
Staying for the Late Shift Q&A ate into my available travelling time, but I don’t regret doing that. In retrospect, taking the 24 bus on Sherbrooke, instead of continuing down the street to the Place des Arts metro, was a bad decision, though. There is so much construction on Sherbrooke that I could not get off the bus anywhere near St. Denis. Since I was already running quite late, I decided to abandon the attempt. So, don’t take the 24 to go to Quartier Latin.
76 Minutes & 15 Seconds With Abbas Kiarostami will be shown again on Wednesday, Oct. 12, at 9 pm at the Pavillon Judith-Jasmin Annexe (former NFB/ONF on St. Denis). With luck I will see it then.
B-Movie Lust & Sound in West-Berlin 1979-1989 – it’s long and unwieldy, but it’s also quite straightforward, unlike some film titles. It doesn’t need to be decoded or anything.
B-Movie is a documentary film with three directors (Klaus Maeck, Jörg Hoppe, Heiko Lange) and one guide – Mark Reeder, a musician and one-time record store employee from Manchester, England, whose interest in German music took him to Berlin in the late 1970s.
The directors had access to many film clips from the era, including some by Reeder himself, and they use Reeder’s experiences and his narration to tie everything together. Actor Marius Weber plays Reeder in some re-enactments. Mark Reeder is 58 now, but his voice still sounds youthful and enthusiastic, like that of a person still in his 20s.
And lest we think the film is only about looking backwards, Reeder told The New Statesman “Artists still come to Berlin searching for something, whether they stay for a few months or a few years. And this film is about inspiration. Not nostalgia.”
Footage includes day and night streetscapes, violent demonstrations, musical performances, interviews and visits to music clubs. (Reeder explains that typical night out might begin at midnight and end at 7 or 8 a.m.). German bands who play and talk include Malaria!, Shark Vegas, Einstürzende Neubauten, Die Tödliche Doris, Die Artze, and Die Toten Hosen.(Blixa Bargeld of Einstürzende Neubauten played with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds between 1983 and 2003.) There is a brief glimpse of Nena, who had the hit 99 Luft Balloons. Musician Farin Urlaub appears, wearing a clerical collar.
Singer Eric Burdon appears with a rodent on his shoulder, artist Keith Haring paints the Berlin Wall, TV star David Hasselhoff sings while wearing a flashing-light jacket AND a piano key scarf – guess he’s not one of those “less is more” types.
These days, Tilda Swinton looks ageless to me, but we see a few seconds of her looking really young. Swinton appeared in the 1991 German film The Party: Nature Morte; presumably Reeder met her through his bit part in it. (His part was “Drunk.”)
In regard to artists from English-speaking countries, the Australian Nick Cave gets the most screen time. He lived in West Berlin for three years and stayed with Reeder until he found a place of his own.
West Berlin rents were cheap in those days, though Reeder and many others lived in “squats” and didn’t pay any rent at all. Nevertheless, a person needs some money to live on and Reeder earned his as the Berlin representative of British company Factory Records, as a record producer, a band manager, and dubbing porn films. In addition to The Party, he also appeared in Joan of Arc of Mongolia, and the horror film Nekromantik 2, directed by Jörg Buttgereit.
My one quibble with this film: Reeder has a fetish for uniforms, because they “hard-wearing, practical and they get people mad.” Some of them are Nazi uniforms, or the look like Nazi uniforms. For me, that’s just creepy and distasteful.
B-Movie Lust & Sound in West-Berlin 1979- 1989, is being shown at 7 pm, Thursday, May 5, 2016 at Cinema du Parc, 3575 av du Parc, as part of the Goethe Institute’s once-a-month Achtung Film series. It’s 92 minutes long, in German with English subtitles.
The fine Canadian documentary Guantanamo’s Child Omar Khadr is many things at once – chilling, heartbreaking and heartwarming; a record of shameful behaviour but also one of kindness and dedication; and a testimony to the resilience of the human body and spirit.
Omar Khadr was only 15 years old when he was gravely injured in a firefight in Afghanistan in 2002. That made him a child soldier by definition, though it did not save him from being accused of murder and being imprisoned for 12 years. (A photograph taken after the battle shows gaping holes in his chest; I was amazed that he survived at all.)
In the film, Khadr himself describes the torture and ill treatment he suffered at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan and later at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. His account is backed by former prisoners and the former military men who witnessed or delivered this torture themselves. Treatment and medication were withheld when Khadr would not or could not say what his interrogators wanted to hear, in contravention of the Geneva Convention.
We see videotape of a visit that CSIS investigators made to Guantanamo. Khadr is happy to learn that they are Canadians, you can hear it in his voice – he mistakenly thinks they have come to help him, but then he realizes that’s not the case at all. When he tells them about his wounded arms, one man says “you look fine to me.” This interview was not new to me, it’s part of the film You Don’t like the Truth: Four Days Inside Guantanamo, but watching it still makes me sad and angry. It’s one more lesson to all of us that we can’t necessarily depend on our own government to look out for our interests, even though it is legally and morally obliged to do so.
Those are some of the shameful things in Guantanamo’s Child: Omar Khadr. Now for the positive side.
Edmonton lawyer Dennis Edney spent years representing Khadr and fighting for his release. It took four years of effort before he was even allowed to meet with Khadr. Others might have given up long before then. Edney has won many awards for his work, and probably deserves many more. Khadr was returned to Canada in September, 2012, and sent to prison. In May, 2015, he was released on parole into Edney’s custody. He lives with Edney and Edney’s wife Patricia, in their Edmonton home. Khadr says that over time, their relationship has changed from a lawyer-client one to a father-son one. It’s lovely to see the way they interact with each other. Edney says he looks forward to seeing Khadr graduate from university. He wipes away tears describing prison visits with Khadr at Guantanamo, when he tried to reassure him that eventually he would be released and that they would go camping and fishing together in Alberta. Edney wanted to show Khadr photos or maps of the places they would go, but even that was not allowed.
Despite the treatment he received, Khadr is amazingly, remarkably calm. (he could probably write a self-help book about surviving under intense pressure.) He takes obvious joy in just breathing fresh air, and being able to look up at the sky. He talks of his decision, while still in Guantánamo, not to allow the people who were mistreating him to take up too much space in his head. I wonder how many of us could do the same? Khadr wants the chance to prove to former prime minister Stephen Harper, and other Canadians, that he is not the man they think he is.
Guantanamo’s Child: Omar Khadr is co-directed by Toronto Star journalist Michelle Shepherd and Patrick Reed. Shepherd followed the case for years and also wrote a book, Guantanamo’s Child: The Untold Story of Omar Khadr, which was published in 2010. Reed’s previous films include Fight Like Soldiers, Die Like Children (2012), which is about former General Roméo Dallaire and his campaign to end the use of child soldiers.
Country : Canada
Year : 2015
Language : English, Arabic
Subtitles : English
Runtime : 80 min.
Production : Peter Raymont
Cinematography : John Westheuser
Editing : Cathy Gulkin
Sound : Downy Karvonen, Sanjay Mehta, Peter Sawade
Saturday, Nov. 14, 2015, 6 p.m. Theatre J.A. De Sève, Concordia University, 1400 de Maisonneuve Blvd. W.
RIDM (Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal) runs from Nov. 12-22, 2015. Visit the web site ridm.qc.ca for more information.