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


“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)


“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.


text and photo by Cynthia Webb
Copyright December 2016

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Asia Pacific Screen Awards, 2016 The winners.

IMG_0333.JPGBrisbane, QLD, Australia, 24th November, 2016.  List of winners of the tenth Asia Pacific Screen Awards.

Best Feature Film: “The Cold of Kalandar” from Turkey

Best Youth Feature Film: “The World of Us” from Republic of South Korea

Best Animated Feature Film:  “Seoul Station”  from Republic of South Korea

Best Documentary Film:  “Starless Dreams” from Iran

Best Achievement in Directing:  Feng Xiaogang (People’s Republic of China) for “I am Not Madame Bovary”

Best Screenplay: “Happy Hour” from Japan

Achievement in Cinematography:  went to DOP Cevahir Sahin and Kursat Uresin for “The Cold of Kalandar”

Best Actress:  Hasmine Killip for “Pamilya Ordinaryo”  from The Philippines

Best Actor:  Manoj Bajpayee:  for “Aligarh”  from India…. and a SPECIAL MENTION for Nawazuddin Siddiqui, in “Psycho Raman” another film from India

Cultural Diversity Award:  Went to Hussein Hassan, director of “The Dark Wind” (Iraq, Qatar, Germany)

The first JURY GRAND PRIZE:  went to Youn Yuh-Jung for her performance in “The Bacchus Lady”

The second JURY GRAND PRIZE: went to Mark Lee Ping Bing, for his cinematography of the film, “Crosscurrent” (Peoples’ Republic of China)

SPECIAL MENTION by the JURY: went to: Sunny Power,(9 years old) for his performance in “LION”, (Australia)

FIAPF AWARD was presented to Manoochehr Mohammadi of Iran

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Asia Pacific Screen Awards and Brisbane Asia Pacific Film Festival – what is it and why should you pay attention? by Cynthia Webb, (Gold Coast, QLD, Australia)


Hello film-lovers! Do you live in South-East Queensland? Do you love cinema enough to pay attention to the fact that the Brisbane Asia Pacific Film Festival (BAPFF) is coming up next week? Everyone in Los Angeles knows when it’s time for the Academy Awards – the whole world knows! Yes, this is something similar, but here in Brisbane the public has a chance to see the nominated films, via the associated film festival.

BAPFF opens on 23rd November, 2016, screening an inspiring and colorful film from India – “Parched”. This film which I will be seeing for the first time at Opening Night, seems to highlight the situation of women in India, in an inspiring way. It’s about some not so ordinary women who ‘buck the system’ and so that means it’s made by women who have done the same. It has received accolades in Toronto, Canada, one of the world’s leading film festivals. It is an high note on which to begin the Brisbane Asia Pacific Film Festival (BAPFF).

For those who don’t know, APSA can be seen as the “Oscars of Asia-Pacific”. During the last ten years, it’s been mainly dominated by Asian films. The “Pacific” part of the name, means Australia, New Zealand and Pacific Islands. There are less films from the latter area, although there have been some very good ones.

From the previous winning films and nominated films over the last nine years, an Asia Pacific Screen Academy has formed (similar to the Academy in Hollywood, which runs the Academy Awards). Our APSA Academy is also a list of spectacular talent. In fact APSA has been where some now world famous film-makers got their first high level international recognition.

The story of Asghar Farhadi of Iran is the most obvious one. He first came to APSA with his film “About Elly” in 2009, won the Grand Jury Prize and Best Screenplay award, and took home the APSA/MPAA funding award for his new screenplay, “A Separation”. This enabled him to make the film. The scenario repeated itself, when he returned with the finished film in November 2011, and it went on to win Best Feature Film at APSA, then continued to scoop up every major world award , finalizing Farhadi’s amazing year with an Academy Award, for Best Foreign Language Film (2012) – the first one ever for Iran. In total, “A Separation” lists 77 wins and 42 nominations around the world, and we saw it first, here at APSA. This could happen again this year for someone and their film – why not? I’m wondering if it might be “Muhammad – The Messenger of God” – a film with superb talent at its helm and behind its lens, and on an epic scale.

APSA opens doors for comparatively unknown Asia-Pacific film-makers to emerge into the international world of cinema.

This is the tenth year of APSA, and we must thank the city of Brisbane, who rescued APSA back in 2012, when the Queensland Government changed from Anna Bligh’s administration, over to the years I personally prefer to forget, under Campbell Newman. He looked around for things to cut, and a lot of things to do with art and culture were on his radar, so APSA was in serious jeopardy. But the long-sighted people in the Brisbane City Council had more vision! They committed themselves to maintain and support APSA.

Brisbane can be seen as firmly linked into the “Asia-Pacific” in identity, because of its location, so tropical, so “Pacific “— and also because it already had a high-profile event in the region – the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, based at our very own Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA). I still haven’t understood why Newman’s government didn’t understand this.

This year’s Brisbane Asia-Pacific Film Festival contains most of the films that are nominated in this world-class screen-awards event, The tenth Asia Pacific Screen Awards. It also contains a retrospective of the most exquisite Japanese films from an era of classic film-making in Japan. The black and white, 4:3 screen-ratio art films – which can make your heart and soul sing for the sheer beauty within them. This is Head Programmer, Kiki Fung’s special gift to us this year.

There is also a new “category” – which comes from hearing the comments from the fans of the previous Brisbane International Film Festival. Many people missed the opportunity to see the international masterpieces of the last year – winners from Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Toronto.
So those of you who are waiting for “Toni Erdmann” (Maren Ade) and “Personal Shopper” (Olivier Assayas) , “Paterson” (Jim Jarmusch), “No Home Movie” (the late Chantal Akerman), “The Unknown Girl” (the Dardenne Brothers), and more – here is your opportunity. Book now, as these films have only one screening.
AND, dont forget, there is also a Gala screening of the newest and much anticipated new film by the above-mentioned Asghar Farhadi, (Iran), entitled “The Salesman”. As mentioned, Farhadi is a long-time friend of, and three time visitor to APSA. He recently served as Head of Jury. He’s now frequently mentioned by critics as a Maestro of World Cinema!

And another film of huge interest, is “Muhammad, The Messenger of God”, by Iranian director Majid Majidi. He has had a long career, and some of you may remember his film “The Color of Paradise” (1999) which was much loved in Australian Film Festivals. Also, “Children of Heaven” (1997). The newest work by Majidi, is photographed by none other than another Maestro (of cinematography),one of my life-long idols – Vittorio Storaro. The film runs for almost 3 hours and tells the story of the early life of Muhammad – yes, THE Muhammad. This film is of great interest, for those who wish to keep up with world events, as it’s made by a member of the Shia Islam group, who are considerably out-numbered by the Sunni Muslims. As far as I know it’s only the second film after a 1976 film, “The Message”, starring Anthony Quinn, (as Muhammad’s uncle) and Irene Papas, telling biographical story of Muhammad himself. That film was directed by Mustapha Akad, shot in Libya,(oh how times have changed) and ran for 177 mins) It was a co-production from Lebanon, Libya/Kuwait,Morocco, and UK. It was also nominated for an Oscar. “Muhammad, The Messenger of God” is Iran’s choice to submit to The Academy Awards for 2017.

As the film choice in mainstream cinemas becomes increasingly banal here in Australia’s multiplexes, here is your chance to see what’s really happening in the international film scene.The fact is, a lot of the best films of today are coming from the Asia-Pacific and Europe… and only occasionally from USA, but our cinemas are mostly offering us Hollywood fare, as usual. Yes, there are sometimes a few USA Indie films and some from the UK, and some semi-arthouse fare from France, which sometimes give us a lift. Otherwise, we don’t see much of great interest.

So my friends, do yourself a favour – go and see some of the films on offer at BAPFF – but also please remember to check thoroughly the trailers and information on their website and in the published (paper) program. .. looking for what suits your own personal interests. The screenings are at Palace Barracks cinemas, and at Palace Centro in Fortitude Valley.

A film festival exists to offer audiences the best of the art form. It’s a bit like going to the opera, instead of being content with listening to commercial radio all day! A film festival should bring us contemporary works, which are pushing the boundaries of the art of film-making, showing us worlds and lives that we haven’t experienced. Often there are ‘classics’ – films that are important in the development of the art of film. As you all well know, movies have many identities. They’re often just pure fun, holding no challenge, sharing no new perspectives, and making no demands, the worst of them just following a formula. Those are for a few hours of entertainment while you eat your popcorn! But even in most popular genres, there are poor, average and excellent examples.

Films are submitted to APSA from across the Asia-Pacific region, and are viewed by an international and highly qualified Nominations Council, and by process of elimination the members of that council come up with around 40 nominated films in the various categories. Amongst those nominations are usually some films from world respected directors, along with works from first time filmmakers, or at least, unknown outside their own country. Some of the works are simple and sparse, and yet compelling viewing – such as one from China,”Knife in the Clear Water” in which almost every frame is a work of art, reminding me of Vermeer and Georges de La Tour paintings. It’s up for the Cultural Diversity award, but wouldn’t be out of place if it had been nominated for Best Cinematography either.

The best aspect of APSA is that we get to see the cultures of places that some people probably cannot find on a map, where we didn’t even realize there might be a film industry. What a treat it is.

AND, don’t forget the documentaries. This is the era of amazing documentaries! They are no longer dry and boring and full of talking-heads. Some of them are unforgettable, and there’s one this year in that category , entitled “Under the Sun” which tells the story of how life is in North Korea, by following a little girl’s entry into school. This documentary has been so cleverly made and edited, and it is heart-wrenching. The film-makers have achieved a miracle in spite of being watched and often controlled every minute by government representatives. We know so little of what’s going on in that country, so don’t miss this film.

I have already watched quite a number of the nominated films in APSA, which are screening in BAPFF and believe me, they will wake you up, get you thinking, and sometimes stun you into seeing cinema in a whole new way.


Text – copyright, Cynthia Webb, November 2016

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A Documentary film by George Gittoes, (Australia) 2.28mins

Please go to my review, below the picture…….



“Steel”, one of the Snow Monkeys

 Snow Monkey (2015) a documentary film, directed by George Gittoes
I sat down this morning to have a look at the opening scenes of this documentary, but intending to watch it later in the evening, since the film is two and a half hours long. But, let me tell you, this is compulsive viewing, the time passes in a flash, and I couldn’t tear myself away. My plans for the morning were forgotten. This street level expose of what it’s like to live and struggle in the streets of Jalalabad, Afghanistan is a high-octane and fearless piece of cinema, not to be missed. If you are someone who still thinks that documentary films are dry and boring, forget that immediately. In spite of the tragic circumstances that it is showing us, it is unexpectedly enjoyable, and that is its brilliance.
The history of the Australian artist George Gittoes, and how he has come to this place, can be read online in other resources.
George’s relationship with his friends and neighbours in Jalalabad is one of warmth and mutual respect. His utterly non-judgmental way of relating to everyone, has brought him respect from even a local Taliban leader and the local authorities, who know that he helps people. He and his partner Hellen Rose, have established “The Yellow House” – a sort of headquarters for their artistic activities, and it appears to function as a drop-in centre too, for young people with more problems than usual.

Yes, this is Afghanistan and life is one big problem for almost everyone. But George concentrates on finding ways to assist the young children of the poor. He does what he can for these brave and tough children, (one of whom should be in kindergarten) working on the streets, to find money for their families. He finds ways to make their chosen enterprises work better for them all.
Some recycle rubbish, and there’s a group of boys who sell ice-blocks, who are frequently being picked on and robbed by another gang of petty criminal boys their own age. The leader of that latter group, is nick-named “Steel” and he’s one tough customer with razor blades between his teeth, like a Hong Kong pick-pocket. But as the film goes on, George gets close to him, and we begin to see what George is seeing… a very bright and brave kid, using his talents to live, but who has developed a merciless side, when it comes to robbing those weaker than himself. He says he despises the kids who cry when he robs them. Every other kid on the street is weaker than “Steel”. Much older men, including the drug addicts in the park, all speak of him with respect and some fear, although some are more than twice his age.

“Snow Monkey” also shows us the glorious humanity of people everywhere is strong, despite everything. Even “Steel” who seems to be hardened to the point of definitely deserving his nick-name, is a teenager in love with another young street-girl, who loves him back. “Snow Monkey” shows us the respect between the children, their fathers, (we never see any mothers, although some are reportedly rather cruel, beating and driving at least one of the children to find more money.) We are blind-sided by twice seeing a Taliban headman who seems to be very intelligent, respectful and considerate, at least towards George Gittoes! Jalalabad is under Taliban rule during filming.

George may or may not have seen Joshua Oppenheimer’s ground-breaking documentary film, “The Act of Killing”, however he is using the same idea that Joshua used. He engages the various street children in making his documentary film, and also in making their own film based on the style of local Afghan gangster films. This is a sure-fire way to engage teenagers, and they are thrilled to have the chance to learn how to use the camera, and even show some acting talent too. When they finally see themselves in the finished DVD of their home-movie their delight knows no bounds. There is a huge street poster, for their film, which enhances their street-cred immensely.
Also working to superb effect in George’s finished documentary film, “Snow Monkey” are the shots of the other posters for the Afghan gangster films, on which the children’s own movie is based.

“Snow Monkey’s” story-telling about each young worker or gangster in Jalalabad, and events in their daily lives, is also punctuated by shots of various types of flying machines passing overhead – planes, helicopters, drones.
My special congratulations to the editor, Nick Meyers and his assistant Keny Ang, who have done a superb job, assembling what might well have been a huge amount of somewhat confusing footage. The final result flows superbly, and George and his co-cinematographers have captured some powerful and moving images.

But the lingering feeling is that people are the same everywhere. They value and long for the same things. Family, food and water, shelter, safety, education, and a way to earn enough money to have this – a decent standard of living. These are basic human rights. But in this unjust world, some have it all – some don’t have any of it, or only some of it.

This documentary will tell you more about Afghanistan, in 2hrs 30 minutes, than has ever been communicated to us by our somewhat biased and often cowardly media, (or do I mean cowardly TV viewers?) When I say that, I am referring to the images of the utter carnage outside the Bank of Kabul, Jalalabad, after a bombing attack by ISIS. There are body parts, blood and horror, the like of which would not be shown on our evening news from SBS or the ABC. And to make sure we’ve seen the truth, the shot comes up twice and is held long enough to make it impossible to look away. Friends and family members of the protagonists in George’s film have died. Even the Taliban leader condemns this vicious attack on innocent citizens.

Another moving moment that actually had tears running down my face, was the day the brightest of George’s teenage Afghan comrades who had completed their crash-course at “The Yellow House” with a young volunteer school-teacher, donned their spotless school uniforms, and exercise books in hand went to the local school. George and the teacher convinced the principal to allow them to do a test to prove that they were to a standard enabling them to join up with the class, mid-term.

The hope and joy on the faces of those young boys will stay with me forever. For the first time in their young lives, the clouds have parted, and they can hope and dream of a better future. It is so heartbreaking and infuriating to think how many bright young minds in this war-torn, poverty stricken world, never have a chance to enjoy the inside of a classroom.
“The Yellow House” was the name of an artists’ communal house in Sydney, back in the Seventies, where the young George Gittoes was a frequent visitor. Back then, older artists helped the young George, and now he is doing the same, and he has uncompromisingly chosen to do it in a place where he’s putting his own life at risk.

“Snow Monkey” is the nickname of a gang of children, which they made up for themselves. But most of all “Snow Monkey” is a documentary film that you must see. We, who live in a safe and comfortable country, (Australia) one which has participated in war in Afghanistan, owe it to the people of that unfortunate country to witness their plight.

(For people in Australia, the film is currently on SBS on Demand, and it is nominated in the Best documentary category at the tenth Asia Pacific Screen Awards, (24 November 2016) in Brisbane.)
Writer: Cynthia Webb
(Copyright, November 2016)


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“Embrace of the Serpent” (Colombia, 2015) directed by Ciro Guerra


“EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT’ (Colombia) directed by Ciro Guerra
(Best Foreign Language Film Nominee, 2016)
“Embrace of the Serpent” is visually ravishing, in black and white, emotionally rewarding, and intellectually satisfying. I’ve been thinking, that if/when director, Terence Malick sees it, he will wish he had made it, as it has similar preoccupations to his recent films. It confronts the most challenging and bewildering issues facing Mankind.
Contained in this amazing work, all the things we need to know about life on Earth! It is multi-layered, leaving us with many issues to ponder afterwards. The story is actually two similar stories, one taking place in 1909 and one in 1940, linked by Karamakate, the Native Amazonian Tribesman in the poster illustration, who guides two different white-men up the Columbian Amazon ( the titular “Serpent”), at two different stages of his own life… when a young adult, and as an old and lonely man, beginning to forget himself and everything he used to know. Both white men are searching for a rare, possibly even extinct plant, Yakruna, with profound healing properties. Of course, they are searching for more than that, but are only dimly aware of that fact.
The issues to ponder include:

profound ideas about spirituality,
the tragedy of Colonialism,
the damage done by religious conversion of people who already have their own deep spirituality,
the destruction of the wholeness of Nature and her balance, when white men begin to intrude, (in this case – rubber barons),
the way white man’s scientific and technical advancement separates him from Nature.
During the two men’s stories, it is twice stressed that all our “stuff” (material things) holds us back, down, and in a sort of quick-sand of dependency, preventing us from travelling spiritually, OR up the river Amazon. The canoes are too heavy. (This immediately reminds me of the teaching of The Buddha, respect for all living things, and that the River represents Life.)
There is a timeless archetypal theme of pursuing a “holy grail”, and strong echoes of “Heart of Darkness” (Joseph Conrad).
The importance of dreaming is stressed, and for those of us who live in Australia, there is a strong resonance that reminds us of our own Aboriginal people who also had this Dreaming wisdom and deep connection with aspects of Nature that we Westerners can barely even imagine, unless we are dreaming too.
The film’s story is based on actual events recorded in travel diaries of two white explorers… Theodor Koch-Grunberg from Germany (1909) and Richard Evans Schultes of USA(1940). The horrifying scenes with the misguided religious cult and their “Messiah” actually happened. Those scenes also link the two explorers’ visits to the river-side Mission, thirty-one years apart, by cause and effect. (The other link, of course. is Karamakate.)  Filmed on location in the Amazon, the  awe-inspiring power of nature is humbling to the protagonists, and to us in our comfortable cinema seats.
This film is like cry of agony from the heart of Mother Earth….”Please white people, change your ways before it’s too late!”
Lines of dialog uttered by Karamakate: “We must help the whites to understand us, or we’re finished,” and “The whites will consume and destroy everything.”
The interwoven structure of the film is ideal and the editing, cinematography, and acting, often by untrained local people are all superb. It is a profound Ecological prayer and a masterpiece of cinema.
Copyright – September, 2016, Cynthia Webb

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A COPY OF MY MIND (2015)D.Joko Anwar

A COPY OF MY MIND ( Indonesia, 2015)
Joko Anwar’s Jakarta – a huge city where a large majority of the people struggle each day to make a living. They often work for tiny incomes, and they know the way to survive – eating Indo-Mie and living in cheap accommodation.
There is also a rapidly growing middle class including an inspiring group of creatives, intellectuals and good, hard-working families.
And of course the city contains people of the other extreme – rich beyond the imagining of the masses, and sometimes they are corrupt opportunists and even politicians too.
The film’s events take place during an election campaign, and Joko Anwar has taken advantage of the powerful street scenes and demonstrations during the election of 2014, when President Joko Widodo was elected, with a small majority. Those with all the hopes pinned on him were voting for a President who knows them, is “from them”, (not the Elite) and is without suspicion of corruption.
Indonesians are totally fed up and want an honest Democracy, after 32 years of Military Dictatorship, and an interim period since the fall of Suharto (May 1998), where corruptors were still pulling the strings in the background.
So in this complex socio-political situation, amongst this seething mass of humanity, we meet two nice young people from the first group. Sari works for a pittance in a rather run-down beauty salon, giving facials. Alek works for one of the businesses in Chinatown, where DVDs are pirated, putting Indonesian subtitles to newly released foreign films, and sometimes including porn movies – and not very good sub-titles either! The pay is ridiculously small, but he’s not so good at the job and it is all supposed to be illegal anyway. Those who have lived in Jakarta, and bought these discs, know that bad subtitles are common, whatever the original language of the film, until the piraters get their hands on the official international DVD release.
It was helpful of the director to tell us (within dialogue between Alek and Sari), which are the better quality DVDs (technically) and how to distinguish them from the lesser ones! The piraters copy everything – cinema rubbish, and Cannes Film Festival or Oscar winners, without discretion. They don’t know the difference, and often put wrong pictures and text on the packages too, which can sometimes give the more knowledgeable viewer more amusement than the disc inside.
Joko Anwar is a cinephile, with a huge body of knowledge of world cinema, as well as knowing how to make a good film himself. I would hazard a guess that he got this opportunity from watching a lot of pirated films, which have served their purpose well, in helping create one of Indonesia’s best film contemporary directors.
The atmosphere of the film is authentic in every detail, because Joko Anwar knows his city, and he has filmed in the city’s streets and back alleys, in real pirate DVD outlets, and Beauty Salons.
The inspiration to shoot his stars mingling in the real political campaign crowds really adds to the tension, when the plot steps up the pace in the latter part of the film. Election campaigning and demonstrations really bring out huge crowds into the streets and stadiums. Something politicians in Australia (for example) could only envy. But Indonesians have relatively recently fought a war of independence (with Dutch Colonialists and their allies) to run their own country, and now appreciate that they have a chance to live in what is probably South East Asia’s best (only?) democracy, so they are extremely interested in the politicians and the election campaigns. It’s not perfect yet, but they are working on it.
In this way Joko Anwar has told us a lot about his city and his country, which really enriches the story and our understanding of who these two young lovers are, and why they live the way they do.
Sari loves to watch Monster and Alien movies, and we meet her in a huge DVD store in Glodok, North Jakarta, (Chinatown), trying to exchange a DVD that has garbled Indonesian subtitles. Near here she meets Alek, the man who did those sub-titles, and after not long at all, his irresistible flirting and charm convinces her that he’s a nice guy and she goes with him to his room to look at his DVD collection. He lends her a handful of movies, a clever move, because he wants her to come back to return them. Soon they are lovers and their relationship develops into real love.
BUT, Sari is unhappy in her dead-end job, and she takes a position in an upmarket salon where conditions and the pay will be better, after her initial training period. After a week or so she’s not happy with a two week training period because she feels she already knows the work. The boss (Paul Agusta) compromises with her by sending her to care for a private client, who is in jail for corruption. This woman, Mrs Mirna, is at first wary of the new girl, but is soon talking a lot, while enjoying her facial treatment. Her jail cell looks more like a 4-star hotel room, (another slice of reality, in Indonesia, where well-connected and rich prisoners can have this privilege). Along with her flat screen TV she has a DVD collection. Sari spots one she’d like to watch, “Piranha v. Anacobra”, and slips it into her bag while her client is in the bathroom, intending to return it next time. It’s no Art-House film, but by now we know that she’s a sweet and smart, yet simple girl who has only recently come to Jakarta from a small town or village, to try to make a better life for her-self.
But this DVD is the cause of the lovers’ idyllic and passionate relationship running into trouble. When they start watching it, they see that the disc inside the packet is not “Piranha v. Anacobra”, but a private DVD recording of Mrs Mirna negotiating a corrupt deal for forest land on which to cut the trees and replace them with a resort. And she is talking with some of the highest level politicians of the time, who are now running for office, or trying to hold on to their places in Government. Their faces have been seen by the young protagonists, and by us, on TV several times.
The conversation reveals many topical issues of today’s Indonesia, such as polygamy, illegal deforestation and of course the ingrained corruption that still exists.
Sari asks her boss to send her back to replace the DVD, and has to confess to him what she has done, but it’s already too late. He gets violent and scared too. He tells her to just forget it, and go into hiding immediately.
But, the secret DVD has been missed already, and the crooks are on her trail. She is now not living in her own “Kost” (cheap room in a hostel), but hiding out at Alek’s place, which neither her boss nor the thugs know about. There she replaces him, as he has gone missing. She buys food for the invalid landlady downstairs, as he did, in return for free accommodation. Her own children are too busy to bother about her.
However, Alek has gone to Sari’s room to find her, and there some thugs grabbed him, put a bag over his head, beat him, and kidnapped him. The stakes are high, and once on their territory they beat him cruelly, but he will not tell them where Sari is.
Meantime Sari is desperately looking for him, walking in the election campaigning crowds, with a feeling of real dread in her heart, whose anxious throbbing is accentuated by beating drums of the marchers.
She has to find another way to dispose of the DVD, and her idea is the best bit of inspiration in Joko Anwar’s clever screenplay, which will be of great satisfaction to viewers of this well-made film, which mixes a love story with a thriller.
The love-scenes and a masturbation scene in the screener version I saw, appear sure to upset the Indonesian censors who will probably demand cuts if this film is to get general distribution. However, meantime, it is having a successful trip around the Film Festival circuit, Venice, Toronto, and Busan, South Korea.
Joko Anwar is a unique Indonesian film-maker, as his film-making style clearly demonstrates all that he has learned from a lifetime of consuming foreign-films and learning well from some of the best films ever made. Pirate DVDs were the only way to access most of them. His films stand out from other films made in Indonesia, by being edgy, daring, controversial and thoroughly contemporary.
“A Copy of My Mind” has an international style, although it’s subject matter and setting are totally Indonesian.
It stars, Chicco Jerikho as Alek and Tara Basro, as Sari. There is a short appearance by Aryo Bayu,as “man in black and Maera Panigoro plays Mrs Mirna. Paul Agusta, another Jakarta cinphile”, plays the Salon Manager, and Ronny P. Chandra plays “Mr Ronny”.
Paul Agusta’s character is another typical (and topical) Jakarta character. While trying to present the image of a boss of a high class establishment, he keeps on slipping into English when speaking with Sari about her job. Using English is trendy, to show your sophistication, and appear smarter than others. Some commentators criticize this and say it’s a cultural cringe, and that people should use and be proud of their own language, which is quite adequate for most purposes.
All aspects of the jig-saw puzzle that is a film, are good, and it is so great to see an Indonesian film which can hold its own both at home, and internationally, and I enjoyed it very much.
Copyright, by Cynthia Webb (March, 2016)

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