“The Promise” (2016) directed by Terry George. (review/comments by Cynthia Webb

THE PROMISE poster
THE PROMISE (2016) directed by Terry George (Dialogue in English)
– review and comments by Cynthia Webb

Here is a film well worth seeing, which I viewed today, 15 June 2017.

Yes, it’s a political hot-potato between Turkey and the rest of the world.

In the first years of the First World War, Turkey entered the war on the side of the Germans and made enemies of the people who had formerly been long term friends of the Ottomans, and who had lived among them doing business, (the French and the British). The Ottoman Empire had a friendship and co-operation also, with the German (Prussian) empire of Kaiser Wilhelm at the time, including collaborating to build a railway from Istanbul to Baghdad and receiving military advice, after they failed dismally in the Balkan Wars 1912/13 and lost more territory. The choice led the failing Ottoman Empire into a tragic war which included an attack on their own Western shores, by the Allies. This attack included the ANZACS (Australia and New Zealand Army Corps) fighting with the British. So it led to a tragedy for two nations on the other side of the world as well as for Turkey who lost vast numbers of its young men. What madness is war!?!?
The Turks prevailed at Gallipoli, led by none other than Colonel Mustapha Kemal (Ataturk), a man of great vision and strength. He went on to become the first President of Modern Turkey. The old era was ending, not only in Turkey, but in all of Europe.

Please watch this film “The Promise” with an open mind…. Remembering that everything was in upheaval, and that the Christian Armenian people, who had lived amongst the Turks for the entire history of the Ottoman Empire (600 years) as friends and good citizens, found themselves called “a tumor in our society” in the early days of World War One, (to quote a line of the film’s dialogue).
To find out more about why, please do some research, because it’s too long a story to tell fully here.
What the film did not tell: From 1894 to 1920 the Armenians had been fighting against the Turks, as separatists. They wanted a land of their own, and during the early years of Turkey’s entry into World War One , they had identified them as severely weakened, so took the opportunity to ramp up their attacks on Islamic Turkish civilians in the East,attack and take the city of Van, bomb official buildings and to fight against the Ottomans along with the Russians (allied with Britain and France, against Kaiser Wilhelm’s Prussian Empire and allies).
As someone born and brought up in New Zealand, and who has lived 45 years in Australia, (in other words an “ANZAC”)I am also someone who has visited Turkey three times and I have great interest and admiration for this wonderful country and my friends there. I also have great admiration for Ataturk, so I tried to watch this film objectively.

And as for the complicated situation prevailing in Turkey in those years…. It is incredibly ‘byzantine’ (to use an appropriate modern expression), not only between the Ottomans and the Armenians, but with the presence of the Kurds in the East amongst the Armenians, and interference from many Western powers, Christian missionaries. Everyone had their own agenda, and there were millions of tragic deaths, on the sides of both the Turks and the Armenians.

At last an Armenian free nation was finally declared in 1991, over one hundred years after the beginning of their Revolt in an attempt to gain a nation of their own. The declaration came after the fall of the Soviet Union, because any surviving Armenians still in the region had gone over the Eastern Border of Turkey in the final days of World War One, and just as Lenin’s Bolshevik Revolution occurred (1917) so, they soon found themselves in the Soviet Union, with no options at all.

Back to “The Promise” – it’s a good film. The director, also co-screen-writer, has attempted to tell the truth, but the truth is far more complex than what is shown in his film. Another of Terry George’s films “Hotel Rwanda” is also about a genocide. This phenomenon obviously fascinates and appalls him. There is dialogue in the film, reminding us, of a later genocide. Talaat Pasha, Ottoman Minister of the Interior, is speaking to the American Ambassador, and reminds him that he (the American) is a Jew, and asks him why he is so interested in the fate of the Christian Armenians. The scenes between the American Ambassador Henry Morgenthau and Talaat Pasha actually happened, and are reported in Morgenthau’s book. The dialogue is the same as the Ambassador wrote it in his notes at the time.

“The Promise” is woven around a love story between an Armenian couple who meet in Istanbul, during the days just before the Ottoman Empire enters the First World War on what turned out to be the losing side, (strongly influenced by the Prussian Empire’s Kaiser Wilhelm). The lovers’ story is the centre around which the film’s portrayal of this tragic time revolves. Without this love story, and the friendship between the two men who love the same woman, the film would have been more or less, a documentary, albeit an almost one-sided one.
However, the film does try to tell us through one character only, that there were also Turks who cared about the Armenians, and who paid the ultimate price for their friendship. Of course, the Armenians had been living in the Ottoman Empire for its entire history since 1453 and were part of the fabric of Ottoman society, mainly loved and respected, by the Muslim Turks. They were the successful business-men,industrialists, and farmers, and some were even high ranking men in the Ottoman administration.
In attempting not to sensationalize the telling of the story, the director has made a film that is somewhat lacking in power and passion. We are kept at arm’s length emotionally, while the terrible tale unfolds. We watch, but from a distance. We never feel overcome with grief in the way that Steven Spielberg made us feel, when watching “Schindler’s List, for example.

Shot mainly in Sintra, and Lisbon, Portugal… and seemingly using photographic or CGI backdrops to show Istanbul, and views across the Bosphorus, it comes to us in a filtered golden light to give the feeling of Ottoman Turkey just over 100 years ago. It often looks very beautiful on-screen and the costumes of the era are fine.

The cast is excellent, and everyone is convincing. Oscar Isaac deserves special mention because he has the look to play many ethnicities and is a fine actor.
Christian Bale, plays an American journalist from Associated Press and witness to the events, who told the story in American newspapers. There actually was an American journalist there, named Damon Theron, so Bale is playing a sort of “composite character”.
Charlotte Le Bon plays the Armenian nanny who is initially in a relationship with the American journalist, and working in Istanbul with a family to whom she is related.

There was in fact a Seige of Musa Dagh, the coastal village from which the French ship saved about 4,000 Armenians, as shown in the film “The Promise”.

Orthodox Christianity of the Armenians and the Russian Orthodox Church and Greek Orthodox) owe their origins to the Eastern Roman Empire’s Christianity, when Emperor Constantine converted, and his subjects followed, around 313 AD. However, the Armenians became Christians before the Emperor, in AD301.

You’ll see some well-cast famous faces:
Oscar Isaac as Mikhael Boghosian, student doctor from a a village in Turkish-Armenia.
Christian Bale co-stars as Christopher Mayer, the American journalist from Associated Press.
Jean Reno as the French Admiral.
James Cromwell, as the American Ambassador Henry Morgenthau, in Istanbul.
Rade Sherbedgia (Serbian actor) as the Mayor of the little coastal town from which the survivors of Musa Dagh were evacuated by the French battleship.
Shohreh Aghdashloo (An imposing and gravelly voiced Iranian actress, who lives in California) as the mother of the hero. Mikhael Boghosian.

There is another excellent film about the Armenian Genocide, which the Turks still deny, called “The Lark Farm”, by the Taviani Brothers of Italy.
Atom Egoyan, respected Canadian-Armenian film-maker, has also made a film about this subject, entitled “Ararat”.
There are many photos in existence that attest to the reality of this tragic tale and many eye witness reports,and biographical novels and film-documentaries.
World War Two brought about tragedy in many lands, of unimaginable proportions.

Some interesting anecdotes: If you look on IMDb.com you will see some interesting facts.
This film had its world premiere at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. The director and lead actors (except Christian Bale) were in attendance. They told the audience that there were 1400 seats at that first screening, and yet already there were 4,000 negative reviews on IMDb.
One month later a viewer wrote that 4 or 5 months later there were 84,000 negative reviews for this film that hadn’t yet had a general distribution opening. The implication mentioned on IMDB is that these negative reviews from people who hadn’t even seen the film, came from Turkish people. Now I don’t know what the Turkish government teaches the people about this matter, but presumably they are teaching the facts NOT mentioned in this film, about the Armenian Revolution movement for a separate state, from 1894 until 1920. Also that the Armenians fought with the Ottoman’s enemies, the Russians, and they too committed massacres and slaughtered Muslim village people in vast numbers during those years quoted. Turkey says that they have proof, and can still supply a list of names of every person killed, 100 years after the event.
These things happen, and history always gets written by the victors… it’s an often-quoted and well-known fact. Thanks to Donald Trump’s spokeswoman for the useful expression, ‘Alternative facts’, which unfortunately have always existed, and always will. Each side will stress the facts that best portray themselves, and leave out or water down the ones that emphasise any guilt on their own part.
Probably in this Turkish-Armenian story, both sides have been doing so for a long time.
It’s time for all the facts to be revealed, and accepted, and everyone to admit their crimes, and express sorrow for them too, on both sides. One hundred years have passed.

Unfortunately this film doesn’t tell us anything about the Ottoman reasons, (perhaps there is just no time in a film already over 2 hours long), however these reasons were told to Ambassador Morgenthau, by Enver Pasha ( a very high authority) and this is what the Ambassador recorded:
1. They have enriched themselves at the expense of the Turks.
2. They are determined to domineer over us and to establish a separate state.
3. They have openly encouraged our enemies, assisted the Russians in the Caucasus, and our failure there is largely explained by their actions.
4. Three-quarters of them are already disposed of, and now there’s such hatred that we must finish the job or they’ll plan their revenge.
5. We are involved in a war for our survival in the Western part of Turkey, and we have no time to deal with the Armenians at the same time.
Please see this film if you have the opportunity, and try to watch with an open mind. It is a massive tragedy on both sides, and thinking about this century old but still painful time, warns us about today’s situation in the Middle East. Once again a huge population has had to leave it’s homeland, (Syria). Have we learned ANYTHING yet?
“The Promise” of the film is NOT the promise to marry the sweet village girl,– but is a promise that the Armenians, and their culture and their memories must and will survive.
Copyright – Cynthia Webb, 15 June 2017
Film Poster – courtesy of the film producers and IMDb

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“Frantz” directed by Francois Ozon (France, 2016) review by Cynthia Webb

FRANTZ posterHere is an anti-war film with a difference. “Frantz” (directed by Francois Ozon) is a French/German co-production, and made in both languages. The setting is a year after the end of World War One, 1919. We are in a small German town, where Anna is living with the parents of Frantz, Herr and Frau Hofmeister. (the meaning of their name – master of Hope). The Hofmeisters and Anna are grieving, and they are not the only ones. Anna’s fiancée Frantz, died, and was buried in France somewhere. There is also a sign-post in the film’s title –  Frantz/France….. the lost victims of both nations, are equal and innocent, and the  tragedy  is shared by both these young men…. Adrien and Frantz, the living and the dead. They are both the same.
In both countries, there are vast numbers of people who have the same grief for a son, brother, fiancée, friend….. No-one is spared after such a catastrophic war, between countries which had been neighbours who spoke one-another’s languages and could never imagine such a chasm could open up between them. That era was profoundly different from modern times, when royalties still ruled over empires. It was the War that changed Europe forever. The royal dynasties were swept away… but this war was an “old fashioned” war when people were still innocent and trusted and admired their royal rulers… and were encouraged to support their Empire building wars. Fathers encouraged their sons to defend their Fatherland/Motherlands, and innocent young men in their millions died.
When the Second World War came along, there was a clearly visibly evil, fanatical Nazi passion led by a driven man, who wanted to create a new kind of Empire.
Anyway, back to the film “Frantz” while bearing in mind, the above.
It’s worthwhile seeing, for its profound examination of the aftermath, the trauma left in the lives of those still lucky enough to be alive. Those who have lost loved-ones, and who are still bewildered by what it was all really about. All they know is their personal tragedy. They have the temptation to hate the other side, when actually that “other side”/enemy were just as much victims as they were.
There are different ways of coping, and it’s interesting that Francois Ozon’s screenplay demonstrates that lies are OK too, that is, if they are germinated in a pure impulse, in a heart wishing to spare already devastated people from further pain — or from having to bear more than is possible for them.
It’s not really an option to describe the story of this film without committing the film-writing sin of including “a spoiler” — so I won’t do that.
We all know by now that Francois Ozon is a highly skilled film director, so it must be a well above average film. He handles this deeply sensitive material , with a subtle touch. It is almost entirely in black and white, with just a few scenes in muted colour, which depict some rare moments of true happiness. Things are more than a bit ambiguous most of the time between the protagonists, although we the audience are let in on some secrets that not all of them know. This is coming from the strong theme of when it might be OK to lie. It is not always a sin. It is not always wrong.
Performances are all faultless, and the depiction of 1919, the era, and the mood between the two neighboring nations, still adjusting to the trauma of recent war, is communicated without being too obvious. Ozon trusts his audience to get the message – and we do.
It is not just a story about the past. It’s a warning for today. There are no winners in war. War is to be avoided at all costs. The innocent always suffer and die. Those left behind spend the rest of their lives struggling with the consequences. The other warning is about believing the propaganda, and innocently going off to war “for the glory of your country”. It is not always like that.
In these modern times, young men are fighting in wars, in places they formerly might not have been able to find on a map – in countries that do not threaten their own homeland in any way. But politicians at home still speak about “fighting in defence of their nation” at their funerals!
The message here, is beware of the lies. In the First World War too, millions of young men who enlisted voluntarily, and died in hell never knowing why. Many wars are not about defending your country, or your way of life. They are about power and profit… control of resources, or grabbing of territory.
Francois Ozon is telling us a message to bear in mind today, through a story of times one hundred years ago.

Copyright , Cynthia Webb, May 2017
Poster photo: courtesy of the film producers

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‘ETERNITE’ (France, 2016) directed by Tran Anh Hung Review by Cynthia Webb

ETERNITE poster
ETERNITE (2016) directed by Tran Anh Hung
From a novel by Alice Ferney, this story of a woman and her descendants in France during the early 1900s, this cannot be called “a movie”. It has great stillness, and the feeling is like looking through an old photo album, slowly turning the pages, and finding beautifully composed scenes of a wealthy and well-dressed family, in their lovely home or garden. Yes, it’s photographed in colour, with a sometimes slightly peculiar brassy golden light, by one of the great pones, Mark Lee Ping Bing. I’ve seen other films recently on which he worked as cinematographer (The Assassin, and Crosscurrent). On both his work was more beautiful than this.
The film has great credibility, directed by French-Vietnamese man, Tran Anh Hung who previously gave us some gorgeous cinematic experiences… “Scent of the Green Papaya” ((1993), “Cyclo” (1995), and “Norwegian Wood” (2010), all of which were better films than this one.
“Eternity” stars Audrey Tatou, Berenice Bejo, Melanie Laurent, Jeremie Renier, Pierre Deladonchamps, and Irene Jacob.
However they have almost no dialogue, and the viewing experience is mainly slow moving, meditative, and as mentioned, like looking back through old photos of lost times, lost people and their lives and loves. It is all centered around the women, and their children. They manage to have a lot of babies, and still look as gorgeous as they did on their wedding days. There is a brief hint of the first world war, as we see the matriarch’s twin sons in uniform, and later, she reads notes informing her of their deaths ( presumably) and cries beside filmy curtains at the window.
Even when dramatic things occur, it is handled with utter calm and the mood never varies much. We are kept on an even keel throughout, as uninvolved observers. We are never encouraged by the film-maker to identify with any of the characters, and obviously it is intention to make it a distant experience, but I wonder if it was wise.
Here we have a film about the journey of LIFE, (and death) and yet it is “life-less”.
Consequently it is rather hard-going. The music has been sourced from the classics, (a cheap alternative) and it is lovely music, but makes the experience rather flat and dull too. It’s mainly solo piano, or solo guitar, and there is one burst of dramatic orchestral music.
So for me the film was a disappointment, however some might enjoy it if you like to see pastoral scenes in the French countryside, lovely costumes and homes, beautiful people and perfect children.

copyright Cynthia Webb, April 2017

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GOLD (2016) director, Stephen Gaghan

gold-poster This film “GOLD” (2016, directed by Steven Gaghan) is currently doing the rounds of multi-plexes in Australia and might turn up in Indonesia too, (a note for my friends there.) This is because it’s loosely ( very loosely) based on the true story of the Bre-X Mining scam during the nineteen-nineties, in which a small Canadian mining company claimed to have found possibly the richest or second richest goldmine in the world, in the jungle of Kalimantan…at Busang, 360 km from the nearest airport in Samarinda and 1400 km from Jakarta. It’s a story worthy of Joseph Conrad, and contains echoes of his book “Almayer’s Folly”, set in Malaysia.

They raised vast sums by convincing no less than the J P Morgan, merchant bankers, and floating their mining company on the Canadian stock exchange. Greedy gold-crazed investors bought into it and the value of the shares sky-rocketed. Bre-X duped executives of a major gold mining company already working in Indonesia, and they even got the family of military dictator, President Suharto (starting with the eldest son, Sigit Harjoyudanto, then the daughter Siti Hardiyanti Rukmana) to buy into it. This gave the project “clout” seeming to be bankrolled by the Indonesian government. Later the Suharto shares were transferred to Bob Hasan, the multi-millionaire forestry magnate and best pal/golfing buddy of President Suharto! He lost all of it (nothing) when the whole scam finally collapsed. It was eventually proved there was no gold, just faked core-samples which had been “salted”, in mining jargon. Bob Hasan said, “It’s good propaganda – Now everyone in the world knows where Indonesia is.”

The geologist from whom it all started, a Filipino named Michael de Guzman, fell (thought by pilot and co-pilot to have jumped) from a helicopter into the jungle below, while on a flight to meet executives from the other major mining company. A suicide note was found and he left four wives and some children with the wife in Manila. The other wives were Indonesian women, after he converted to Islam. However, in the film they show his fall from the helicopter was forced, by members of military.

The film-makers have changed most of the actual facts and details. When the Indonesian military are shown in the film, they are wearing the red berets of Kopassus, an exclusive section of serious tough guys who were then led by Prabowo Subianto, who was a Presidential Candidate several years ago, losing to Joko Widodo.

An Indonesian friend has just told me about an investigation by an Indonesian reporter in which he claimed that de Guzman is alive and living in South America. This could be possible, as the Indonesian government autopsy was reported by TIME Magazine as being very difficult because the body had been savaged by wild boars. The Suharto regime would have been in a hurry to close the embarrassing issue. The real circumstances of the death or not, of de Guzman are open to question.

To add to the disappointment, the film was shot in Thailand, and the only authentic Indonesian things were two authentic Javanese Batik textiles, and one woman in the background of a cafe, wearing a headscarf/jilbab, in not quite in the correct way for Indonesian style. The Indonesian actors were played by Thais and no Indonesian names seemed to appear in the final credits. The background of the scenes claiming to be in a Jakarta luxury hotel, were beside a wide river with obviously Thai buildings and boats in the background. No such thing exists in Jakarta. Very poor attempts at authenticity in this film, working on the assumption that no-one will notice, I guess. But that isn’t good enough in film-making these days, when many production companies and directors make a great effort towards authenticity. There wouldn’t have been anything to prevent them shooting in Indonesia, and several Hollywood films have already done so. Maybe they were afraid of revenge from still living Suharto family members depicted?

Stephen Gaghan also directed “Syriana” which was a better film. Matthew McConnaughy has gained lots of weight for the part of the miner, who plays a gullible victim of the real bad-guy, de Guzman ( played by Edgar Ramirez). Even this character is white-washed, especially by a sort of final ‘twist’.

This version of a story which proves again that truth is stranger than fiction, is weak and dull and should and could have been a whole lot more engrossing. The protagonist, Kenny Wells ( McConnaughy) is such an average and sloppy sort of guy, and only Edgar Ramirez, as the geologist/scammer saves the picture, but even he is struggling.

Note: my information about the actual events that inspired the film, have come from a TIME magazine feature article, from edition of May 19th 1997, and from my other reading at the time of these events. There’s a novel based on the same events, by Kerry B. Collison,Pub. January 2002, “Indonesian Gold”, which has recently been translated into Bahasa Indonesia, by my friend Rossie Indira. I’m not sure if it’s in publication yet…
(Copyright, Cynthia Webb) February, 2017

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“Landscape in the Mist” (1988) directed by Theo Angelopoulos

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LANDSCAPE IN THE MIST (1988) Directed by Theo Angelopoulos
Today (January 2017) I watched this 1988 masterpiece from the late Theo Angelopoulos. It won the Silver Lion at Venice Film Festival, and many other awards too. It’s an exquisite allegorical tale and perhaps knowledge or lack of it, about modern Greek history could determine what you think it might be about. I have my own ideas as do reviewers before me, here on IMDb. I love the way this maestro director has used a sort of Odyssey (what could be more appropriate?) by two young siblings, (Voula, aged 14 and her brother Alexander, aged 5) travelling Greece in search of someone (or something) they want to believe exists, just to “understand and know but not to stay,” the older girl says. This is a film that is not about what it appears to be about, but is an allegory and a poem, a work of visual art, and profound emotional truth. The visual power and beauty, the gorgeous music (by Eleni Karaindrou), every frame on screen, are all spell-binding. To me, each scene and episode in their young lives on this journey through Greece to find the landscape in the mist, can be linked to the story of the Greek nation and its people. The landscape in the mist is tellingly, first seen on a few frames of 35mm movie film found in the muddy street by their young motor-cyclist mentor… a kind of guiding angel travelling with them for a time. Perhaps he can only see it on the celluloid because he is searching for this mythic landscape (or condition) too. This piece of “found film” serves to link the director himself into the collective experience of all the Greeks. Perhaps it’s the modern day “Golden Fleece”? What a gorgeous and poetic film. Almost as beautiful as the director’s “The Weeping Meadow” – one of my all time most admired works of art in cinema. (so long after the film was made, I (who live in Australia) had to order the DVD via Amazon, and it came to me from Greece, in a beautiful transfer supervised by the director himself, and with good English subtitles.)
Copyright Cynthia Webb, January 2017
photo: courtesy of the Producers and IMDb

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“LA LA LAND” (directed by Damien Chazelle, 2016)

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“La La Land” (2016) by Damien Chazelle (Proudly credited as “Made in Hollywood”.)
Post-viewing comments by Cynthia Webb

“La La Land” is a love-letter to Los Angeles, and to the studio era of Hollywood, when musical films were nothing unusual, as they are today. It is full of nostalgia – in particular, nostalgia for the jazz era.
It also contains reminders of certain other delightful things from the history of film: The early scenes are full of wild colors that brought to mind the early films of Pedro Almodovar.
The hero offers to take the heroine, to see a re-run “Rebel Without a Cause” – a legendary James Dean film by Nicholas Ray. It is being screened from a film reel (not a DCP – Digital Cinema Package) and it stops in the projector, the projection lamp heat burns the film, visible on screen. It’s a moment that a lot of people experienced in days gone by, and pulls the events back into the past.
The scenes featuring views over the city, bringing to mind “Mulholland Drive”. (David Lynch).
The strong accent on love of jazz, which recalls an earlier era, and various films which have featured jazz musicians.
I looked at the scenes shot in fake studio streets that look just like “Warner Bros Movie World” on the Gold Coast, Australia, where I worked for nine years… and I recalled reading that most studio back-lots that were once in Hollywood, have been sold off for their real estate value. Now is the era of shooting on location, or using CGI (computer generated graphics).
I thought of Francis Ford Coppola’s early film, ‘One From the Heart’ while watching “La La Land”, which was all shot on a Hollywood sound-stage in 1981.
Then I thought of Jacques Demy’s gorgeous, “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”, (France) a film unique in that it had no dialog at all. Every word was sung, but was also about 2 lovers and filmed in streets.
Then I thought of my all-time favorite musical, “West Side Story”, which had far better music and dancing, than “La La Land”.
But then – I just lost myself in this charming film. The stars are so real, not too glossy, and don’t sing or do anything TOO well. …. but just well enough to fit into today’s film world, while telling us an eternal story of young people in Los Angeles, with high hopes, trying to make their dream come true, almost giving up, and in the end trading true love for their ambitious dream. Have they settled for second-best? The big question is whether or not fulfilling one’s youthful ambitions is more important than following the heart, by way of the offers that Destiny puts in our way. .. these offers, might be Love, or sometimes something else. Most of us can look back and identify a moment when this choice was before us, and wonder – “did we really have a choice” or is it all ‘written’ in Destiny?
This lovely film is a welcome relief from Hollywood’s typical output of recent years. Thank you to the director for breaking the pattern, for daring to go back to some good old-fashioned entertainment. The mega-plex audience with whom I saw the film were certainly enjoying themselves and there was even a spontaneous burst of applause at the end. I think they are all relieved to get away from super-hero films, violence, and endless sequels that are not living up to the original thrill of the originals.
“La La Land” has won seven Golden Globe Awards, and deserves most of them, but perhaps not the Best Screenplay award. Yes, it’s nice, but it isn’t powerful and there are other films such as “Manchester by the Sea” that I think have a better screenplay. Emma Stone is a wonderful actress, and in her scene during an audition, she shows us with her immensely expressive and enormous eyes just what she can do. I think that is for me, the most memorable moment in the whole film, although I’m sure it isn’t meant to be.
I think the Academy will love this film – because they always respond strongly to any film that shows their own world, Los Angeles, Hollywood, the film business, and as this is an affectionate homage, they are going to vote for it, just as the critics did at The Golden Globes.
It seems to me that this film will take over 2017’s Academy Awards, even though it is light stuff, but very well done in every way… a lovely movie. However perhaps there are films with more substance and power,that might get pushed into the shade, by this bright starry and delightful film. (I’m writing on 11th January, and the Oscar nominations are yet to be revealed, however it is 2 days after the Golden Globe Awards.
Copyright January 2017 by Cynthia Webb
Poster photo credit – The producers and IMDb

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APSA/BAPFF – fabulous film-makers of 2016 “In the Last Days of the City” directed by Tamer el Said (Egypt)

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“IN THE LAST DAYS OF THE CITY” directed by Tamer el Said (Egypt)
(Nominated in APSA’s Cultural Diversity Award, under patronage of UNESCO)

There is an experience of immersion while watching this melancholy and poetic film.
A young film-maker , 35 year old Khalid, living in Cairo, is struggling with all that is happening in his world, and with finding a way to convey the situation in his beloved city. He collaborates sometimes with several film-maker friends, who have already left the city, in an attempt to find the right way to tell his story. One friend has gone to Berlin, one to Beirut and another to Baghdad. To me that seems to refer to other suffering cities in the region, and to the end result, fleeing the region as a refugee.
He has an ex-girlfriend, Laila, who is about to leave too. And he is looking for a new apartment, but his real-estate agent is frustrated, because no place is ever suitable. This works as a metaphor for the fact that not only is he not comfortable in his apartment any more, – he is not comfortable in Cairo any more, even though it’s his beloved home. He wanders in the yellow-tinged world of the decaying and suffering city. The yellow color in the air, is from the desert dust that often blows over the city.
Tamer el Said says, ‘I don’t know where the film starts and my life ends. I see the yellow colour in Cairo all the time. This colour goes with a sense of loneliness.’
Old Ottoman era houses are being demolished, there is unrest in the streets, and everything feels wrong, wrong, wrong. The film is clearly autobiographical, and Tamer reveals his soul via his alter-ego, Khalid.

Tamer el Said explained, “The process of making the film is also the process of trying to understand himself, reflecting on many things. My main project is myself, although the film’s main “character” is the City. I call Cairo the city that made me who I am. I live in the flat seen in the film, and that is my local neighbourhood. The people in the streets and cafes are my actual neighbours. The filming took place over two years and ended in 2010, only six weeks before the Revolution. I wanted to be part of this change. The editing process was a kind of battle with a beast – 250 hours of footage. Then I worked for a year doing the sound and post production, with collaborators, my amazing crew. Sometimes I spent the whole day editing one scene, then walked in the streets and saw the same people who had been in the footage I’d been editing that day, although four years may have passed. Then I asked myself, ‘did something really change? How can we change anything without changing everything?’
He continued: ‘We grew up, used to experiencing loss and war around us. It shaped our lives and made us different from other people who grew up in Europe, for example. When travelling I realized that I get nervous when I see a police-man, because of my life-experience in Cairo. We cannot carry on like this – things have to change. The situation is no better under our new government, in terms of freedom of expression.’

Tamer is disillusioned with the results of the “change he wanted to be part of.” He was hoping for freedom and social justice.

Tamer el Said graduated in 1998, and has been making short films and documentaries. “In The Last Days of the City” is his first feature film. It has been a slow process and low budget too, because there is no funding for film-making from the government, and there is strict control over freedom of expression in Egypt. However the end result of his labour is one of the most profoundly moving and poetic films I have seen in many years.
Better than all the news bulletins and articles we read about what’s happening to people in Egypt and other countries in the area around the Middle East, this film expresses the wounds, the disappointment, the eternal hope for a better life for everyone in the surrounding region. It is so tragic to see such ancient lands and cultures, that have had rich cultures and days of glory, now feeling this endless pain. A study of history will show that a lot of this turmoil today, was actually caused by events at the end of the First World War… when the victorious Allies sat over maps deciding on how to carve up among themselves, the former lands of the recently collapsed Ottoman Empire, and beyond. Also, by more recent political actions from modern powers too, but that’s another story.
Note: This film did not win the award, which went to another exceptional film “The Dark Wind” by Hussein Hassan. (see my separate review)

By Cynthia Webb
Copyright, December 2016
photo of Tamer el Said, by Cynthia Webb
copyright December 2016

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APSA/BAPFF fabulous films and film-makers of 2016 ‘THE DARK WIND’ directed by Hussein Hassan, (from Iraqi Kurdistan)

the-dark-wind-posterPhoto caption shows: Hussein Hassan, director of “The Dark Wind”IMG_0106.JPG

“The Dark Wind” by Hussein Hassan of Iraqi/Kurdistan
UNESCO sponsored Cultural Diversity Award, at the Asia Pacific Screen Award is a special place in the list, because the heart and soul and ambition of APSA is to give a platform for, and reward films that express and explain to us, unique cultures of our vast region, so much of which is unknown to wider cinema audiences. This story is about the Yazidi people, who number about half a million, a unique group within the Kurdish people.
The story of the film is desperately sad. A young and very much in love couple, Reko and Pero, have just become engaged. Their remote village is one day horrified to see ISIS riding towards them in their fleet of Toyota trucks, black clad, waving guns and their ominous flag. ISIS considers this group who practice a religion called Yazdanism, to be Infidels. The people flee, some die, most end up in a UN refugee camp, but all the young women are kidnapped, to be sold as slaves. The most beautiful girl of all is Pero. When it becomes possible for him, Reko gets leave from his fighting unit, and goes in search of his beloved. He finds her in the care of Kurdish soldier women… She has been used and abused and sold back to them, but she is shell-shocked, eyes vacant, and no-one needs to tell us the horror she has endured.
The village people, including her family receive her with fear and Reko’s family want him to forget her, now that she is no longer a virgin, and because of her state of trauma. Her own father is wary too, and only her mother and her fiancée Reko, stand beside her and support her. Slowly she recovers somewhat, able to speak again and walk about. But there are always the stares of suspicion, condemnation from the community. There is more, but I will not go on to tell you what happens.
The film is shot on real locations in the desert, and in a UN refugee camp, and is chillingly realistic. Two hours with these Yazidi people, and we have a far more compassionate idea of what it’s like to be victims of ISIS. As if Kurds did not already have enough of a problem, being without a land of their own, but scattered across the corners where Turkey, Syria, Iraq borders meet, and oppressed by their ‘hosts’ who have the land that should be Kurdistan.
Text by Cynthia Webb
Copyright December 2016
Photo of Hussein Hassan, by Cynthia Webb
Copyright December 2016

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APSA/BAPFF Fabulous films and film-makers of 2016.

img_0131 Caption for photo – This is Leena Yadev, director of “Parched”, the Opening Night film for the film festival.

PARCHED directed by Leena Yadav (India)
Nominated for Best Screenplay, “Parched” written by Leena Yadav, was the Opening Night film for the Brisbane Asia Pacific Film Festival. It premiered at the Toronto Film Festival to great success. It is a riot of colour by virtue of being shot in a Rajasthan village location. We follow the lives of four women who are connected by friendship and family ties and by the most powerful thing of all, ‘sister-hood’ as women, living in a world controlled by men.
Their only chance is to bond together and support one another.
They are all in different situations. Tanishtha Chatterjee plays Rani, a young widow of only 32, whose teenage son is just married to a fourteen year old girl. Her neighbor is a physically abused frequently by her husband, and her best friend is the village prostitute, who works from a tent at the carnival on the outskirts of the village.
Indian tradition is still oppressing women in the remote areas, even if the cities now contain many highly educated, and liberated Indian women. The screenplay contains talk of matters sexual, the sort of thing that women might laugh about together or say to one another, when men are not around. It has somewhat shocked audiences at home, but the Brisbane audience loved it, and this sort of innocent fun talk about ‘getting off’ by the vibration of sitting on your cellphone in your jeans pocket, served to bring them closer to these oppressed characters. It contains powerful and moving moments too, when the things these four women must bear are shocking to behold.
Leena Yadav pointed out that the sexist talk and behavior of the men and even abuse are a universal problem, (not just happening in Indian villages). She said, “Now in some places people have learned to hide things better.” She also noted “Parts of our lives (as women) are not represented on screen. There is a lack of women’s sexual politics on screen.”
With the content of this film being unusually daring for Indian cinema, Leena had a long battle with the censors, but eventually, it was passed un-cut, but had a very limited release in India. However, the battle with the censors took so long that it had already screened in Western Europe and been pirated and was being sold on the streets of India, by sellers of porn films, This categorization was just because of a pure and innocent scene featuring bare skin and closeness between two women after one has been severely beaten and has injuries, and her friend is caring for her.
The budget was small, but Leena said that she ‘reached for the stars’ when it came to choosing the people she wanted to work with. The film looks stunning on screen and it’s no accident because there are three Oscar winners in the crew, including the Director of Cinematograpy.
When Leena served on the APSA jury, a few years back, she became inspired to get the project into production. She already had written the screenplay. She was happy to see it come back home so to speak, by screening as the Opening Night Film of the film festival. It has already won 18 international awards and screened in 25 international film festivals. Box office was great in France and Spain, and it’s still in the early stages of it’s career.

Text and photo by Cynthia Webb
Copyright December 2016

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APSA/BAPFF Fabulous Films and film-makers of 2016

Asia Pacific Screen Awards and Brisbane Asia Pacific Film Festival

“THE STUDENT” (directed by Kirill Serebrennikov, Russia)the-student-poster

This film was nominated in APSA’S Best Feature Film category, and tells a cautionary tale for the whole world, not just the director’s homeland, Russia. The theme is the danger of religious fundamentalism. It is adapted from a German play by Marius Von Mayenburg. Kirill Sebrebrennikov is a big name in Russia and in Germany, who is based in the Gogol Theatre in Moscow and said that the theatre had performed the play for two years. For the film’s screenplay there is an extra layer of social commentary, and the setting is a Russian small town’s high school, where a highly intelligent student (played by Pyotr Skvortsov) becomes a fundamentalist in the Russian Orthodox religion. He begins to cause disruptions at school and at home, causing worry to his mother and major stress his teachers. His fanaticism grows worse, and a tragedy occurs.
The voice of reason and of science is embedded in only one character, a female science teacher (played by Viktoriya Isakov) who finds herself at loggerheads with this bright but misguided young man, and then with her colleagues and the school Principal. Actually, the message is that she is at loggerheads with the top leadership of Russia too. The finale is powerful, as she is the only one with the courage to stand up for common sense. She pleads with her colleagues, for common sense. Saying “He doesn’t belong here. I belong here.”
“The Student” premiered at Cannes in Un Certain Regard section. It screened for about seven weeks in Moscow cinemas, and won a music award in the 2016 European Film Awards.
Kirill explained that the rollout of Russian Orthodox religious teachings is becoming bigger and bigger. Priests now come to schools. They teach religious dogma, they ban things, they dictate the dress code and moral code.
The Producer, Ilya Stewart who has lived all his life in Russia, although he has an Australian parent, said that the feeling of the days of the Soviet Union are coming back.
“The church goes not only into my brain but also into my pants,” said the director, Kirill, who when asked to explain said he meant said they are not only telling people how to think but dictating the standards for one’s sex life too.
“I do not want to divide the world into parts. I want to belong to all of the world,” he said. His fear is that if each nation’s people sink deeper into their particular religious teachings, and become closed-minded, there will be a bleak future for our world. The film unfortunately offers no solution, but who can be expected to come up with that? This is the oldest and also the contemporary problem for Humanity.

Photo below:  Left, Ilya Stewart (one of the producers) and Kirill Serebrennikov (Director) of The Student.

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text and photo by Cynthia Webb
Copyright December 2016

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