“Small children, big knives.” That’s one of the tag lines for the Norwegian documentary Tongue Cutters. There are some scary spikes, too. And forklifts zipping back and forth.
Ylwa, 9, leaves Oslo for two weeks to stay with her grandparents in Myre, northern Norway. At a fish processing plant there she will learn to cut cod tongues just as her mother and her aunt (the film’s director, Solveig Melkeraaen) used to do. Tobias,10, is already an old hand at it, and he shows Ylwa how it’s done. The first day, she can’t even bring herself to try it, but as the end of her stay nears, she’s ready to enter the “world cod-tongue cutting competition.” Is that “world” as in “World Series?” Does anyone from outside Norway enter?
When Ylwa and Tobias aren’t cutting cod tongues, they take his cute dog Alvin for walks or hang out at his spacious home, which has wall-to-wall windows with a view of the mountains and the sea. (I couldn’t help wondering – what does it cost to heat that place? Are those triple-paned windows?)
Ylwa and Tobias are such likeable characters I enjoyed watching and listening to them, whatever they were doing. They goof around with his hover board, talk about pets and the hassles of having parents who are divorced or separated. They act like the camera isn’t even there.
Ylwa is a big sushi fan and she’s disappointed that Myre doesn’t have any sushi restaurants. When she was still in Oslo, she was astounded to learn that sushi was not available when her mother was her age. “How did you survive, and not die?” she asked theatrically.
Nowadays, boys and girls cut cod tongues to earn some spending money, but many years ago, when times were harder, a young boy might have to leave school to do it full-time to help support his family. Archival photos from that era show us what life was like back then.
Do Donkeys Act is a charming, calm, contemplative film that just shows donkeys doing what donkeys do when left to their own devices. There are no experts explaining the evolution of donkeys, their place in history, or whatever.
So what do donkeys do? They gallop, they eat, they sleep, sometimes they just stand around, occasionally they’ll kick. Now and then one will decide he isn’t going anywhere and stubbornly dig in his hooves. (“Who enjoys going to the dentist?” asks narrator Willem Dafoe.)
I had a moment of dread when I saw a sign on a wall that said “knock down box.” I thought it was another way of indicating euthanasia, but no, the donkey was being given an injection to knock him out in preparation for surgery, surgery that looked like it was done on an inflatable mattress.
The most surprising thing for me was the great variety of sounds that a donkey can make. Braying, sure, I’d heard that before, but a donkey can also sound like a barking dog, a purring cat, a squeaky door, a foghorn, a whistle, a trumpet, or a wheezing asthmatic.
Do Donkeys Act was filmed at four donkey sanctuaries in Guelph, Ontario, the U.S., Ireland, and the U.K., and it moves seamlessly between them. Sometimes an an Irish accent led me to assume that a scene was in Ireland, otherwise it’s anyone’s guess. (Please excuse me if those places were identified in the first few minutes of the film; I arrived a bit late because the film I saw before Do Donkeys Act did not start on time.)
Most of the talking in this film is done by Willem Dafoe, and I have very mixed feelings about that. He does a fine job and seems to be enjoying himself at times, but I’m not sure that the words he was given to say contribute that much to the film. Sometimes they interrupt the mood. Google tells me there is another version of the film, called Sanctuary, that does not include Dafoe.
Do Donkeys Act?
Directed by: David Redmon, Ashley Sabin
Country: United Kingdom
Duration: 72 minutes
Cinematography: David Redmon, Ashley Sabin
Editing: David Redmon, Ashley Sabin
Production: Deborah Smith, Dale Smith
Sound Design: Tom Hammond
Do Donkeys Act? will be shown Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017 at 4 p.m. in Salle Fernand-Seguin of the Cinémathèque Québécoise, 335 de Maisonneuve Blvd. E.
RIDM (Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal) ends on Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017.
Visit the RIDM web site at ridm.ca for more information.
Dragonfly Eyes is one of my favourite films of RIDM 2017. It’s inventive, fascinating and more than a little disturbing.
While the dialogue in Dragonfly Eyes is read by actors, the video portion of the film is made entirely from snippets of surveillance video found on the Internet. This gives new meaning to “found footage” and it’s more entertaining to me than those films about people who get lost in the woods or the jungle and then spend an hour shrieking at each other until someone drops the camera. (Rant over!)
Qing Ting (Dragonfly) has spent the last few years living in a monastery. She was sent there for its calming effects, and considered becoming a nun, but changes are in the offing at the monastery and she does not feel comfortable there anymore.
She goes to the city and takes a job at a dairy farm. (Sounds weird when you think about it, that’s not a calm place, either. Are there dairy farms in cities? It seems so!) The work is hard, it doesn’t pay much, the bosses are disrespectful and the cows and workers are under constant camera surveillance. The people who watch the screens are watched as well.
At the farm, Qing Ting is noticed by the technician Ke Fan, and they start spending time together, visiting restaurants, and driving out into the countryside. Soon he is calling himself her boyfriend, even though she doesn’t seem to want one. Ke Fan does things that he thinks will please her, again without asking if that’s what she really wants. He’s quite violent, though not towards her. After assorted incidents that I won’t spoil here, Qing Ting loses her job at the dairy. She is insulted in her search for a new job and insulted some more once she gets one.
Ke Fan is sent to jail for several years, and starts looking for Qing Ting as soon as he gets out. It’s not easy, because she does not want to be found.
What do I mean by disturbing? Ke Fan’s violence, other violent instances we see, celebrity culture, an obsession with money and appearances, and all that surveillance video. In many places I couldn’t help but think, why would anyone need to watch or tape those places, or this activity?
Director Xu Bing collected hundreds of hours of video from the Internet to make the film. In many instances, the people who installed the cameras had not changed default passwords and other default settings, and they probably did not even know that they were broadcasting to the Internet.
Country : China
Year : 2017
V.O : Mandarin, English
Subtitles : English and French (depending on the screening date)
Duration : 81 Min
Director: Xu Bing
Editing : Matthieu Laclau, Zhang Wenchao
Production : Matthieu Laclau, Zhai Yongming, Xu Bing
Writer : Zhai Yongming, Zhang Hanyi
Music : Yoshihiro Hanno
Sound Design : Li Danfeng
Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017 Dragonfly Eyes, 81 minutes long, in Mandarin with French subtitles, at Cinémathèque Québécoise, Salle Principale, 335 de Maisonneuve Blvd E.
RIDM (Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal) runs until Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017.
Visit the RIDM web site at RIDM.ca for more information.
Taste of Cement is a melancholy, sympathetic, and arty documentary about Syrian construction workers in Beirut, Lebanon.
They are building a high-rise apartment building near the Mediterranean shore. When their working day is over, they retreat to bare-bones lodgings in the building’s basement. No commute time! But it’s a dark place, divided into haphazard units, with little privacy, and no security for valuables that I could see. Water dripping from above leaves puddles here and there. The living quarters are quite far from the entrance, which must contribute to a sense of claustrophobia. What’s the air like down there?
Some men have makeshift beds, while others sleep on thin mattresses or pieces of cardboard placed on the floor (ouch).
They wash their clothes in buckets and hang them on the wall. There was at least one TV down there. Many men use their phones to look at photos or news reports on the devastation back home.
Meagre evening meals include oily sardines plonked onto pita directly from the tin, and something that looked like ratatouille, eaten out of a pot. In the morning, a man used a Barbie Pink mirror while shaving. A dollar store find? A gift from a daughter?
This living arrangement is not voluntary – a sign says that there is a 7 p.m. curfew for Syrians and that violators will be prosecuted. Essentially, they are a captive workforce, even if they do get paid. I was hoping they weren’t paying anything to live in that basement.
Nothing could make that basement look welcoming or arty, but the outdoor scenes are another matter. The framing is masterful and many images could be mistaken for still photos if not for waves, or changing images on far-away video billboards. Colours are beautiful – the blue sky, the blue water, orange safety vests, red poles, yellow bulldozers.
The views from the building are stunning, but the men are probably too busy with work, and trying to stay alive, to notice. Many work without hard hats, or gloves, or harnesses; they are welding and running big saws without safety glasses. Just watching is scary.
The film has a narrator – I was not sure if he was supposed to be a specific person, or more of an Everyman. He tells of his father who also did construction work abroad, and whose hands always smelled of cement. He and his father are part of a cycle of destruction and construction. Buildings and cities are destroyed by war and then repaired. Certainly Lebanon has seen its share of destruction. I wonder, the workers must wonder. . .when or if Syria will be repaired? After all, the destruction is still taking place.
Many business owners are eager to do it, not for any humanitarian reasons, but to earn a profit. Even back in 2016 Robert Fisk wrote about that in The Independent. In August of 2017, the Associated Press said that ”markets across the Middle East are anticipating a mammoth reconstruction boom that could stimulate billions of dollars in economic activity.”
Taste of Cement
Country : Germany, Lebanon, Syria, United Arab Emirates
Year : 2017
V.O : Arabic
Subtitles : English
Duration : 85 Min
Cinematography : Talal Khoury
Editing : Alex Bakri, Frank Brummundt
Production : Ansgar Frerich, Eva Kemme, Tobias N. Siebert, Mohammad Ali Atassi
Writer : Ziad Kalthoum, Talal Khoury, Ansgar Frerich
Music : Sebastian Tesch
Sound Design : Ansgar Frerich, Sebastian Tesch
Presented in Collaboration with CSN, Goethe-Institut Montréal, Institute of International Education, Cinema Politica, La Maison de la Syrie, Kazamaza Restaurant and Bell Media
Taste of Cement will be shown Friday, Nov. 17, at 7:00 p.m. at Concordia University,
1455 de Maisonneuve W., Room H-110, Montreal, as part of the RIDM film festival, which runs until Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017.
Visit the RIDM web site at RIDM.ca for more information.
The documentary film Cielo is set in the Atacama Desert of Chile. I put Cielo on my “must-see list” after seeing extracts from the film at the press conference for Montreal’s RIDM film festival.
The film is full of absolutely stunning images of the desert, and night skies full of more stars than you could imagine. And the Milky Way! Just stunning! In time-lapse sequences, the heavens seem to be rotating. The occasional shooting star zips by.
The Atacama desert is one of the driest places on earth. That dryness, the desert’s high altitude, and the lack of air pollution and light pollution make it an excellent spot for scientific star gazing and there are several observatories there. There are traditional ones, with big domes and huge telescopes, along with the ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array). That is a single telescope of revolutionary design, composed of 66 high precision antennas located on the Chajnantor plateau, 5,000 meters altitude in northern Chile.” Those antennas look a lot like satellite dishes. When they swivel in time-lapse photography they also look like a field full of disembodied ears. Very weird!
Canadian director Alison McAlpine takes us inside a traditional observatory as the dome opes and the telescope is moved into position (cue metallic noises); she talks to astronomers and to people who live in ramshackle dwellings in the desert. They share some local lore, banter about gravity, etc. Because the desert is so inhospitable, I wondered how they managed to survive there. How far do they have to travel for food, etc? One man is a miner, others are described as algae gatherers in the credits and press kit, while others are described as cowboys. I saw their animals so briefly I could not tell if they were goats, llamas or vicuña. From previous films and reading I did not think there would be anything for those animals to eat, but apparently there are some very scrubby grasses. And maybe these animals live in the edge of the desert?
There is additional astounding imagery of stars and galaxies that I thought was shot through telescopes, but the press kit revealed that most of that footage is really “organic effects” of the kind seen in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life.
Now for some gentle criticism. Cielo is well worth seeing for the images, but I feel that director McAlpine’s narration does not do it any favours. It might be intrusive no matter what, but becauseshe is addressing the stars, rather than simply sharing them with us, I felt further removed from the film. Hearing her say “Now I can’t stop watching you, I’m trying to understand your crazy beauty,” felt weird, like eavesdropping, maybe.
Atacama Desert, astronomy, voice overs – those ingredients might remind you of Patricio Guzman’s Nostalgia de la Luz (Nostalgia For the Light.) While Cielo is worth watching, it does not approach the level of that masterpiece. Guzman’s narration sounded like poetry, in Spanish and in translation, even when he was talking about the atrocities of the Pinochet era. His film juxtaposed the beauty of the stars, the mysteries of the universe with the evil of the dictatorship and the grief of the bereaved who were still searching the desert for the bodies of their murdered loved ones. You can buy or rent Nostalgia for the Light on iTunes (and elsewhere, I imagine). And you really should! Here is a link to the review of Nostalgia for the Light I wrote for the Montreal Gazette in 2011.
CIELO, directed by Alison McAlpine
Country : Quebec, Chile
Year : 2017
V.O : Spanish, English, French
Subtitles : English And French
Duration : 78 min
Cinematography : Benjamín Echazarreta
Editing : Andrea Chignoli
Production : Carmen Garcia, Paola Castillo, Alison McAlpine
Music : Philippe Lauzier
Cielo will be shown on Monday, Nov. 13 at 5:45 pm at
Cinéma du Parc 3 (the printed schedule says 6 p.m.)
Cielo is part of RIDM (Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal) runs until Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017.
Visit the RIDM web site at RIDM.ca for more information.
(I found some interesting web sites while doing research for this review. I’ll add them later. Please come back to see them!
The documentary film Zaatari Djinn shows us what life is like for two girls and two boys in Jordan’s sprawling Zaatari camp, which is home for 80,000 to 100,000 Syrian refugees.
In the camp, Fatma, Maryam, Ferras and Hammoudi are at the mercy of their parents, circumstances, and the weather. The place is sometimes sunny, sometimes cloudy, often windy and dusty. The future is uncertain. But despite the many hardships, Zaatari Djinn is frequently lyrical and captivating. So far, it is one of my two favourite films on the RIDM schedule.
More than once, we hear a mother telling her children a story, beginning with the familiar: “Once upon a time…”
One tale involves a wicked stepmother – it sounds much like Hansel and Gretel, except that the evil woman plans to abandon the children in the searing desert, not in the deep, dark forest. One boy who has a real-life stepmother declares that she is evil. (After reading the press notes, I realized something I had not grasped while watching the film. The father married again after his wife died, then took yet another wife after moving to the camp. The two women don’t get along.)
Thanks to a drama class, Maryam has discovered the joys of acting, but her father does not approve, he says it is against their culture. Interestingly, the play she was rehearsing is Shakespeare’s King Lear, which has its share of father-daughter discord. The film show her happily playing soccer with other girsl, but the press notes say her father made her stop that, too.
Like girls in many countries, 13-year old Fatma argues with her mother about how old a girl must be before she can wear makeup and how much is too much. Like Maryam, Fatma clashes with her father. Unlike any girls I know, Fatma has a rooster for a pet and confidant. (When the rooster can’t be found, someone says many animals have been poisoned and maybe he was, too. Another indication the place is not warm and fuzzy. Who poisons animals?)
Ferras walks the streets of the camp, selling the sweets that his father makes. It’s the stuff often called Turkish Delight in the West; they call it raha in Syria. Making it requires lots of stirring with a big wooden stick. Ferras also buys the supplies, mostly sugar and cornstarch, which aren’t always available in sufficient quantities. Ferras doesn’t seem to have much choice about doing this work. While reading about the camp, I found an article online about Ferras and his father. The family had a candy factory in Dara’a, Syria, before the war. Most of the people in the camp are from Dara’a, though Fatma is from Damascus.
Hammoudi is happy when his mother offers to buy him a bicycle, and lets him choose it. He clearly knows so much about them I was surprised that the bicycle seller didn’t offer him a job. When Hammoudi accompanies his mother to the camp hospital, we see a place with modern equipment and doctors who are gentle and friendly with the children. There are many aid-group logos on the walls, and US and EU flag decals.
Hammoudi learns that he has a little brother on the way; the doctors ask him if he goes to school and if he is doing well there. (The answer to both questions is yes. Though school is mentioned several times we don’t see the inside any classrooms. Maybe the filmmakers could not get permission, maybe they did not have time for that.)
After his little brother is born, Hammoudi’s vows to protect him are so fierce they’re almost frightening. A paraphrase from memory: “I’ll kill anyone who so much as harms one hair on your head.”
Similarly, I felt distressed and uneasy watching some boys playing what might have been their version of “war“- they pointed toy guns at a playmate, and grabbed him shouting “Lock him up!” I don’t know, seeing children displaced by war playing with (toy) guns, doesn’t seem to bode well for the future.
Zaatari DjinnDirector: Catherine van Campen
Cinematographer: Jean Counet & Jefrim Rothuizen
Sound: Mark Wessner
Editor: Albert Markus
Sounddesign: Marc Lizier
Music: Alex Simu
Producers: Iris Lammertsma & Boudewijn Koole | Witfilm
Distributor: Cinema Delicatessen i.c.w. Herrie Film & TV
Contact: Nazima Mintjes (Production)
November! Bah, humbug! I dislike November because of its shorter days and colder temperatures. But RIDM, Montreal’s documentary film festival, is a rare bright spot in the otherwise dreary 11th month.
RIDM’s 20th edition got under way Thursday night with an invitation-only screening of 24 Davids. RIDM continues until Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017.
The festival will show 142 films from 47 countries on screens at Cinéma du Parc, Cinémathèque Québécoise, Cinéplex Odeon Quartier Latin, Pavillon Judith-Jasmin Annexe (the former NFB cinema) and Concordia University.
In no particular order, subjects include family connections (parents, children, siblings, with three films looking at grandmothers), Brexit, agribusiness, immigrants and refugees, animals (dinosaurs, turtles, lions, sheep, donkeys and the rats of Baltimore) live birds and a famous sculpted one by Brancusi, crime victims and perpetrators, musicians, the sea, the universe as seen from Chile’s Atacama Desert, and – smaller than the universe but still quite large – the New York Public Library, through the lens of Frederick Wiseman.
Based on the excerpts shown at the festival’s press conference, the most amusing film is Nothingwood, about Afghanistan’s prolific film director Salim Shaheen. Brimstone and Glory, about a fireworks festival in Mexico, might be the most visually astonishing.
For weirdness, and humour, too, there is Tongue Cutters, about two Norwegian children participating in the world cod-tongue-cutting competition. Dragonfly Eyes, from China, uses surveillance video to construct a narrative about a woman who leaves a monastery to work at a dairy farm.
RIDM is presenting retrospectives of the films by U.S. director James N. Kienitz Wilkins and Tan Pin Pin of Singapore. They will attend the festival as will many other directors. Audience members can ask them questions after film screenings.
You might have seen Leviathan, a film from 2012, set aboard a fishing boat. Directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Veréna Paravel have brought something quite different to this year’s RIDM – Caniba, a film about notorious Japanese cannibal Issei Sagawa. It’s the only film in the festival that has a “viewer discretion advised” tag attached. I did not see it. Friends who did said “That’s a REAL horror film!”
I saw a handful of RIDM films at press screening, and my favourite so far is Bagages, which was made right here in Montreal. Immigrant teens talk about their lives here and in their old country, and the challenges they face.
Visit the RIDM web site at RIDM.ca for more information.