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Tuesday, November 05, 2019

Czech New Wave

A long time ago, once I discovered the beauty of World Cinema, I feverishly tried to work my way through all the essential films. Part of this journey meant taking the path down all the critical waves of cinema. A few films from the Czech New Wave were quickly checked off my list with as many VHS tapes (??!!!) that I could find. Then when DVDs came along, I managed to get a few more in. Blu-Ray and streaming followed but over the years, I stopped exploring the past because I was too busy viewing contemporary films including those from the Czech Republic or trying to catch the new cinematic wave. However, as it turns out, I never finished my due diligence when it came to the Czech New Wave which constitutes films from the early 1960s until 1968. I saw the following essential films but there are many more to discover still.

Diamonds of the Night (1964, Jan Nemec)
Loves of a Blond (1965, Milos Forman)
Closely Watched Trains (1966, Jiří Menzel)
Daisies (1966, Vera Chytilová)
Marketa Lazarová (1967, František Vláčil)
The Fireman’s Ball (1967, Milos Forman)
Capricious Summer (1968, Jiří Menzel)
The Joke (1969, Jaromil Jires)

Over the next few weeks, I will be diving back into the Czech New Wave. Thankfully, there is plenty of essential reading material to assist me in my journey.

1. A list of films to chase thanks to Zeppo on mubi
2. Surrealism in and out of the Czech New Wave
3. Vera Chytilová
4. Drahomíra Vihanová
5. Czech Rule Breakers
6. Taste of Cinema with 10 Essential films
7. Key films and directors
8. Tanner Tafelski on the films that inspired the Czech New Wave. In essence, a precursor to the Czech New Wave.

Sunday, November 03, 2019

Two films by Lino Brocka

Manila in the Claws of Light (1975, Philippines, Lino Brocka)
Insiang (1976, Philippines, Lino Brocka)

“The film is the same….It’s your eyes that have changed.”Pain and Glory (Pedro Almodóvar)

The above words from Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory came to my mind recently when I revisited two of Lino Brocka’s essential films. In Almodóvar’s film, the film director Salvador (Antonio Banderas) praises the acting of his lead Alberto (Asier Etxeandia) more than three decades after their movie Sabor came out. Back in the day, Salvador disliked Alberto’s performance in Sabor and stopped talking to him. When a local cinematheque plans to hold a screening of Sabor, Salvador decides to revisit the film and mentions that he appreciates Alberto’s performance and he feels it has gotten better. The above line is the response to Salvador because it is still the same film but Salvador’s life has changed and thereby his ability to critique his own film.

I had a similar reaction when I revisited Brocka’s films after more than a decade. I found my appreciation of these films has increased with time. They are still the same films albeit I saw them in a better print. It is in fact my eyes that have changed and I found it exciting to compare the newer Filipino movies with that of Brocka's and draw a line from his cinema to that of directors he has clearly influenced such as Lav Diaz and Brillante Mendoza. Back in the late 1970’s, Brocka put Philippine cinema on the map and Insiang was the first Philippine film to play at the Cannes Film Festival (1978).

Some reading material on these films:

1. Cinema Scope
2. Culture Trip
3. Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation
4. Criterion
5. Noel Vera, Insiang
6. Noel Vera, Manila in Claws of Light

Friday, October 25, 2019

Top 20 for CIFF 20

This year marked the 20th anniversary of the Calgary International Film Festival. Leading up to the 20th anniversary edition of the festival, I submitted an entry of my top 20 films from the previous 19 editions of the festival. It is republished here for reference.

Top 20

1. CERTIFIED COPY directed by ABBAS KIAROSTAMI (France/Italy/Belgium/Iran)

CERTIFIED COPY was the second Kiarostami film shown at the festival after TEN showed in 2003. However, CERTIFIED COPY marked a vital shift in his directorial career as it was the first time he shot a film outside of his native Iran. Featuring a radiant Juliette Binoche, the film shot in Italy was a breath of fresh air and showed how a master director could reinvent himself. CERTIFIED COPY was the first in a planned series of films Kiarostami was going to make outside of Iran. LIKE SOMEONE IN LOVE shot in Japan came out in 2012. Sadly, the next film in this series never arrived as the director passed away in 2016.

2. THE GLEANERS & I directed by Agnès Varda (France)


Cinema lost a leading voice recently when Agnès Varda passed away on March 29 at the age of 90. She was a pioneer of the French New Wave, the “mother or grandmother” of the movement, and directed her first feature in 1955 (LA POINTE COURTE). She experienced first-hand the evolution of cinema and moved from shooting on film to digital. For filming THE GLEANERS AND I, she used her first digital camera and that opened a new world of possibilities for her. The end result is an essential philosophical documentary that offers a heart warming and meditative commentary on our world today.

The film showed at the 2001 Calgary International Film Festival.

3. VOLVER and BAD EDUCATION directed by Pedro Almodóvar (Spain)


Pedro Almodóvar has had 5 films at the festival and all could have easily made this list. In the end, it was tough to separate VOLVER (one of the closing films at the 2006 Wrap Gala) and BAD EDUCATION (Calgary Film 2004) because each of them are brilliant in their own way. Yet, put both of these films together and you get a sense of the themes and styles often found in Almodóvar’s films which are a seductive mix of Hitchcockian suspense and mystery powered by incredible acting. Penélope Cruz steals the show in VOLVER while Gael García Bernal puts in a jaw-dropping performance in BAD EDUCATION. Vintage cinema!

Note: the other Almodóvar films at the festival have been BROKEN EMBRACES (2009), THE SKIN I LIVE IN (2011) and JULIETA (2016).

4. HOLY MOTORS directed by Leos Carax (France/Germany)


Sometimes a film comes along that jolts one’s senses. Watching Leos Carax’s HOLY MOTORS at the 2012 Calgary International Film Festival was such an experience. The film is a dizzying wild ride through multiple genres. Over the course of almost two hours, Carax creatively captures the essence of cinema from the silent era to contemporary times while paying homage to key genres throughout.

5. 2046 directed by Wong Kar-wai (Hong Kong co-production)


So far, 2046 is the only Wong Kar-wai film to have played at the film festival. The film showed at the 2005 edition and was the eagerly anticipated follow-up to the seductive IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE (2000). Like his earlier films, 2046 is a feast for the senses.

6. CACHE/HIDDEN directed by Michael Haneke (France/Austria co-production)

Haneke was always known to shock his audience and CACHE is no exception. The topic in the film was urgently relevant back when the film came out but has taken on a greater meaning given the shifting political landscape in France.

7. 4 MONTHS 3 WEEKS 2 DAYS directed by Cristian Mungiu (Romania/Belgium)

Cristian Mungiu’s 4 MONTHS 3 WEEKS 2 DAYS won the Palme d’Or at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival and justified the buzz around Romanian films that started with THE DEATH OF MR. LAZARESCU at Cannes 2005. The screening of 4 MONTHS 3 WEEKS 2 DAYS at the Globe at the 2007 Calgary Film festival helped introduce local audience to what is now known as the Romanian New Wave.

8. L’ENFANT/THE CHILD directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Belgium/France)

The Dardenne brothers have redefined cinema with their verité style and have inspired a host of filmmakers. Each of their films is an immersive experience. The Palme d’Or winning L’ENFANT, shown at the 2005 festival, is no exception. THE SON, shown in 2003, is the other film from the brothers at the festival.

9. UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Thailand co-production)

Apichatpong ‘Joe’ Weerasethakul was already established as one of the best directors in the world when his UNCLE BOONMEE competed at Cannes 2010. His films were critical favourites and he had twice won at Cannes with BLISSFULLY YOURS (Un Certain Regard, 2002) and TROPICAL MALADY (Jury Prize 2004). There was anticipation among film fans for UNCLE BOONMEE and shortly after the first press screening at Cannes ended, Twitter started buzzing with high praise from critics with ratings of 10/10, 9/10. Then a few days later, the unexpected happened. The competition jury led by Tim Burton awarded UNCLE BOONMEE the Palme d’Or. The top Cannes prize also ensured that it was a full screening at Eau Claire Cinema 5 at the 2010 Calgary International Film Festival.

It was the first Apichatpong film that I had seen in a cinema and the decision to pick the right spot to sit in was agonizing but I need not have worried. Joe’s mastery was such that it was easy to get lost in his world where only he can blend dreams, spirits, reality, past and future in a single flowing work. Plus, there were some images that stayed long in the memory. Red Eyes. Spirits at dinner table. And that catfish.

10. LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda (Japan)

Hirokazu Kore-eda is a top director and his films have always been loved by Calgary audience as evident by the high ratings his films get in the audience votes. 5 of his films have shown at the festival starting with AFTERLIFE in the first ever Calgary International Film Festival in 2000 to the Palme d’Or winning film SHOPLIFTERS at the 2018 festival. The remaining films were I WISH (2012), LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON (2013), OUR LITTLE SISTERS (2016). All of these films could have easily been in this list but I opted for LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON because it represented a change in his filmmaking.

Kore-eda’s films often focused on families and children but after he became a father himself, his attention to detail and the family dynamics got even more refined. This change in filmmaking was first seen with LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON which tenderly showed the two-way relationship that exists between parents and their young children. The film showed that both kids and parents change by their interaction with each other.

11. DISTANT directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Turkey)


Four of Turkish master Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s films have shown at the Calgary International Film Festival starting with DISTANT in 2003, THREE MONKEYS (2008), WINTER SLEEP (2014) and THE WILD PEAR TREE in 2018. WINTER SLEEP won him the Palme d’Or but it was DISTANT that first got him wider recognition. The beautiful visual language that Ceylan showed in DISTANT has been evolving with each successive film.

12. ASH IS PUREST WHITE Jia Zhang-ke (China/France/Japan)

ASH IS THE PUREST WHITE showed at the 2018 Calgary International Film Festival and is the 4th of Jia Zhang-ke’s films to show at the festival with the other 3 being THE WORLD (2005), USELESS (2008) and MOUNTAINS MAY DEPART (2015). ASH IS PUREST WHITE stands brilliantly on its own but builds on themes and references from his last few films. In that regard, the film feels like a cumulation of his illustrious cinematic career.

13. A SEPARATION directed by Asghar Farhadi (Iran/France)


A SEPARATION was Farhadi’s 5th feature and he had already won awards for his previous features but this was the film that catapulted him into the spotlight. A SEPARATION dominated the Berlin Film Festival in 2011 where it won the top prize and both acting categories. This was also one of the fastest films to ever sell out at the 2011 Calgary International Film Festival. The film continued to win awards on the film festival circuit and its amazing year was concluded when it won the Academy Award for the Best Foreign Film in 2012.

14. DOSAR / THE COMPANION directed by Rituparno Ghosh (India)

The Calgary International Film Festival had the international premiere for Rituparno Ghosh’s masterful DOSAR in 2006. It was his second film to show at the festival after CHOKHER BALI showed in 2004. DOSAR is one of the finest films directed by the late Rituparno Ghosh and manages to perfectly capture the intricacies of marital life and features a career defining performance by Konkana Sen Sharma.

15. TAXI directed by Jafar Panahi (Iran)

Jafar Panahi was banned from making films in 2010 and not allowed to leave Iran. It felt like the world would lose a vital voice in cinema. Despite the hurdles, Panahi showed that a true artist can still find a way to express themselves even if they are pushed into a corner. TAXI was the third film he made after the ban, following THIS IS NOT A FILM and CLOSED CURTAIN. In the previous two films, Panahi was confined to his apartment and a house respectively but in TAXI he drives around the street of Tehran in a taxi. The end result is a wonderful film that serves as a medium to bring forth relevant discussions about society, freedom, censorship, public vs private space and even film distribution. Everything is presented with plenty of humour, some melodrama yet bathed in reality.

TAXI won the top prize at the 2015 Berlin Film Festival and showed at the 2015 Calgary International Film Festival. Panahi’s subsequent film 3 FACES showed at the 2018 Calgary festival.

16. EVERYONE ELSE directed by Maren Ade (Germany)

Maren Ade’s EVERYONE ELSE is an insightful look at how professional competition can put an already fragile relationship under more stress. Ade skillfully uses the body language of the actors to depict the inferno of emotions that is on the verge of exploding at any moment. The end result is a fiery film packed with raw emotions and brutal honesty.

EVERYONE ELSE showed at the 2009 Calgary International Film Festival in the Mavericks competition and Maren Ade was present at the festival. Ade’s third film TONI ERDMANN was shown at the 2016 Calgary International Film Festival.

17. THE WORLD BEFORE HER directed by Nisha Pahuja (Canada)

Nisha Pahuja’s first documentary feature BOLLYWOOD BOUND (played at the 2001 Calgary International Film Festival) was a lovely film that announced her talent. THE WORLD BEFORE HER reaffirms that. The film, shown at the 2012 festival, is a balanced examination of two different camps of thought in India: beauty pageants and fundamentalism. The two different camps contain the essence of issues that are both dividing and driving India. On one hand, western capitalist ideas are flowing through India while on the other hand, traditional religious and cultural values are trying to block the western tide. Nisha Pahuja examines these issues with an objective eye and treats her subjects respectfully thereby allowing them space to bare their souls.

18. THE NOTHING FACTORY directed by Pedro Pinho (Portugal)

THE NOTHING FACTORY is a genre-bending film that uses an individual factory to highlight the financial crisis across Europe. The film starts off as a comedy, transforms into a documentary and ends as a musical. The middle documentary portion is essential and brimming with ideas. The film poses many questions about the meaning of relevant work in our lives, what happens to workers when a factory closes, how workers are trained when an industry they work in is no longer viable. The questions the film asks are ones that are impacting every part of the world and are clearly influencing the political spectrum across Europe and North America.

19. SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE directed by Park Chan-wook (South Korea)


The midnight screening of SYMPATHY FOR MR. VENGEANCE at the Globe at the 2003 Calgary International Film Festival was a startling experience. It was the first Korean film I had seen and that led to an exciting few years of discovering and seeing as many Korean films as possible. Park Chan-wook and Korean Cinema have gone from strength to strength over the last two decades and have a much larger following than back in 2003.

THE HANDMAIDEN, shown at the 2016 festival, is the other Park Chan-wook film to have played at the festival.

20. DONNIE DARKO directed by Richard Kelly (USA)

DONNIE DARKO was released in 2001 but it never got a proper theatrical release. Instead, word of mouth ensured that it developed a cult following and became a must-see film. It was exciting to finally experience the brilliance of DONNIE DARKO in a cinema at the 2004 Calgary International Film Festival!

21 other memorable screenings in alphabetical order:


AND NOW…LADIES AND GENTLEMEN… directed by Claude Lelouch (France/UK), shown at the 2003 festival

I went to see this film at the 2003 Calgary International Film Festival based on Claude Lelouch’s directorial credits and the presence of Jeremy Irons. However, the reason I ended up loving the film was due to Patricia Kaas, both for her soulful vocals and her arresting screen presence. I hadn’t heard any songs by Kaas before I saw the film but I bought the soundtrack for the movie after the screening. It still remains one of my favourite movie soundtracks. On a cold snowy day, I put the soundtrack on and Kaas’ voice transports me back to the warm Moroccan landscape where this film’s action took place.

AUDITION directed by Takashi Miike (Japan), shown at the 2001 festival

The film screening made for a shocking experience especially since I saw the film without reading anything about the story. For good or bad, there are images that still continue to linger in my memory and refuse to leave.

THE BARBARIAN INVASIONS directed by Denys Arcand (Canada/France), shown at the 2003 festival

An intelligent breathtaking film that packs in a lot of emotions. The film premiered at the 2003 Cannes film festival where it won Best Screenplay and Best Actress before going on to win the Oscar for Best Foreign film at the 2004 Academy Awards. It remains the last Canadian film to have won a Foreign Film Oscar.

BE CALM AND COUNT TO SEVEN directed by Ramtin Lavafipour (Iran), shown at the 2009 festival

This stunning debut film took my breath away with its poetic beauty. Shot on Qeshm Island south of Iran, in the Persian gulf, the film is unlike any other Iranian film that I have seen and exudes life in every frame. This film competed in the 2009 Mavericks competition and the director was present in Calgary.

EL VIOLIN directed by Francisco Vargas (Mexico), shown at the 2006 festival

EL VIOLIN depicts how the seeds of revolution are laid and passed on through generations. Shot in gorgeous black and white, the setting and events of this Mexican film could easily apply to any Latin American country where a military dictatorship crushes voices of dissent among the people by usage of rape, torture and violence.

EXILES directed by Tony Gatlif (France/Japan), shown at the 2004 festival

A mesmerizing film that follows two characters on their life changing journey from Paris to Algeria as they seek to find their roots. The film is shot with such purity and love that it justifies the best director award that Gatlif won at Cannes 2004.

GUY AND MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH directed by Damien Chazelle (USA), shown at the 2009 festival

Long before FIRST MAN and LA LA LAND, Damien Chazelle made his feature film debut with GUY AND MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH. Chazelle was at the 2009 Calgary International Film Festival as his film competed in the Mavericks competition. His debut feature is a lovely black and white jazzy film that is a breath of fresh air and has shades of John Cassavetes’ cinema.

INCENDIES directed by Denis Villeneuve (Canada/France), shown at the 2010 festival

An emotionally devastating film that established the brilliance of Denis Villeneuve. I saw it in a packed Eau Claire Cinema 5 and the gasps in the audience were audible when everyone unraveled the mystery.

KHOSLA KA GHOSLA directed by Dibakar Banerjee (India), shown at the 2006 festival

Dibakar Banerjee is one of India’s best known directors today but he was an unknown when his first feature premiered at the 2006 Calgary International Film Festival. KHOSLA is a lively smart comedy that was the first in a new wave of Indian films which used urban and rural settings to depict honest everyday stories and characters.

KONTROLL directed by Nimród Antal (Hungary), shown at the 2004 festival

Before he directed movies in Hollywood, Nimród Antal made his feature film debut with KONTROLL, a wild film that follows the lives of the Budapest underground subway metro staff on their daily routines. The humorous first half looks at the insanity, the male power games, the inner turmoils, and hilarious passengers but the second half shifts gears and explores the shades of darkness lurking beneath the surface.

LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT directed by Bi Gan (China), shown at the 2018 festival

Bi Gan’s sumptuous film provides an emotional ride across space and time by mixing past, present and dreams. The transition from 2D to 3D half-way through the film made for a unique experience as the cinema was filled with noise of audience tearing wrappers to put their 3D glasses on.

THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES directed by Walter Salles (Argentina/Brazil co-production)
, shown at the 2004 festival

The long line-up at the Uptown theatre made me worried that I wouldn’t get in to see the film but luckily I managed to get one of the last remaining seats near the front. Seeing this beautiful road journey film on a large screen remains one of my cherished memories at the film festival.

POLICE, ADJECTIVE directed by Corneliu Porumboiu (Romania), shown at the 2009 festival

A shining example of the Romanian New Wave, the film depicts a bureaucratic circle of paperwork hell. The serious conversations about the meaning of words and proper usage of grammar may be agonizing for the characters (and the people forced to live that reality) but Porumboiu’s style ensures plenty of humour.

PRIMER directed by  Shane Carruth (USA)
, shown at the 2004 festival

Made with a budget of just $7000, the film bursts with creativity as it depicts four young engineers working in a garage (outside of their regular 50 hour a week jobs) to come up with the next big thing. What the big thing is supposed to be, none of them knows; they just go with the flow until two of the men find a way to create their own time machine.

THE ROBBER directed by Benjamin Heisenberg (Austria/Germany)
, shown at the 2010 festival

The two highs of running and robbing give Johann’s life meaning and as a result, the entire film is defined by fast movement, shown by Johann's marathon runs or his perfectly timed car getaways. The end result is a highly entertaining intelligent film.

SAW directed by James Wan (USA), shown at the 2004 festival

Before the never ending sequels, there was the original SAW. The buzz that followed its Sundance premiere ensured it was a packed midnight screening at the Plaza.

SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR directed by Roy Andersson (Sweden co-production)
, shown at the 2001 festival

Swedish director Roy Andersson has carved a vital place in cinema with his absurd comedic style about the state of human existence. Evoking Samuel Beckett’s play “Waiting for Godot”, SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR shows characters that are always in motion looking for happiness.

THE SMALLS: FOREVER IS A LONG TIME directed by Trevor Smith (Canada)
, closing gala film at the 2015 festival

This film throws out the rule book when it comes to music documentaries and rewrites the script. Even though the film is about The Smalls, its smart editing and overall framework gets to the essence of why people fall for a certain band and why a piece of music resonates with some individuals more than others. Werner Herzog has mentioned how he loves letting the camera run a little bit longer after a scene is over in order to capture a magical moment. Such a magical moment takes place in THE SMALLS as well, where the camera stays a little bit longer at one of the band’s concerts. This magical scene depicts the trance like impact music has on people and why people pour their heart out when listening to their favourite band. The entire film is also enhanced by some beautiful contemplative shots which allow us to get a sense of the wider universe around a musical band and how ordinary objects and venues spring to life when musical notes fill the air.

TRANSIT directed by Christian Petzold (Germany/France)
, shown at the 2018 festival

Christian Petzold’s masterful adaption of Anna Seghers’ 1942 book is a cinematic treat that shows how history repeats in cycles.

VALHALLA RISING directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (Denmark/UK)
, shown at the 2010 festival

Nicolas Winding Refn was already an established director due to the PUSHER trilogy and BRONSON. However, that wasn’t enough to prepare me for the savage bloody rawness of VALHALLA RISING.

WAYDOWNTOWN directed by Gary Burns (Canada)
, shown at the 2000 festival

The Calgary International Film Festival has shown films from all corners of the globe but the distance of WAYDOWNTOWN was as local as it got. WAYDOWNTOWN is set in downtown Calgary office towers and the +15, just a few blocks from where the film was shown at the first ever edition of the festival in 2000.

Monday, September 30, 2019

2019 Calgary International Film Festival

The 20th Calgary International Film Festival ran from Sept 18-29, 2019.  This entry looks at the common themes among a few films in the World Cinema series and was originally published on the Calgary International Film Festival website.

2019 Calgary International Film Festival: World Cinema series

The 20th anniversary edition of the Calgary International Film Festival continues its goal to bring stellar films from different corners of the world. This year, there are films from countries that have never featured previously in the world cinema category: Afghanistan (THE ORPHANAGE), Guatemala (TREMORS) and Kosovo (AGA’S HOUSE). In addition, a contemporary film from Algeria (ABOU LEILA) is featured after a 17 year gap. These films have something for everyone, from action, animation, comedies, coming-of-age, crime, drama, sci-fi to films with tantalizing shades of darkness. The varied genres are layered with an equally rich scope ranging from focusing on individual cases of identity, to relationship and family stories and communities or nations on the verge of change. As a result, the films give an accurate glimpse of our world today and bravely address burning topics. In some cases, the films set in the past illustrate how we have arrived at current situations while some films use the current state of things to give a glimpse of a possible future. Each film stands on its own but a common set of themes and genres link together many of the world films in this year’s selections. Multiple films showcase individuals trying to find their voice in societies that expect them to conform. In depicting their urgent stories, quite a few films tap into the raw emotions often found in horror/thriller/crime films to convey the heightened state of anxiety and fear in our society today.


Two feature film debuts from different parts of the world highlight the emotional burden on societies in the aftermath of war/violent conflicts. Set in Algeria 1994, ABOU LEILA shows the psychological impact of a society engulfed in civil war and violence. The film digs beneath the surface and shows scars that refuse to go away and result in a drastic course of events. The film focuses on its male characters with women absent from the screen. In contrast, the female perspective of war and its emotional toll is provided by AGA’S HOUSE which never spells out the violent conflict but instead hints at it. The film removes specific time markers but it is clear that the past has had a direct influence on all the characters. Men are mostly absent from AGA’S HOUSE with the exception of 9 year-old Aga and one other male character. The boy’s presence is critical and highlights that women and children are often forced to deal with the consequences of war even though they are innocent bystanders. In their own separate ways, the two films show that even if a conflict is resolved during the lifespan of one generation, the impact is felt on future generations who are forced to deal with the consequences of events that took place before they were born.

The multigenerational impact of war also comes to mind in THE ORPHANAGE which is set in 1989 when the Soviets are on the verge of leaving Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s fate is well documented but the film takes us to the point when everything started unraveling. Director Shahrbanoo Sadat presents events in a realistic manner and that is due to the film being based on the real life events of Anwar Hashimi (he plays the orphanage supervisor in the movie). However, Sadat also smartly uses Bollywood songs to depict emotional feelings of the characters including one of the best uses of a Bollywood song by any director. Without giving away any spoilers, she uses a classic Bollywood song to pose the ultimate “what if?” question regarding the fate of Afghanistan. History has already written how events unfolded in Afghanistan but her question about an alternate and more hopeful turn of events is worth pondering.


While ABOU LEILA and THE ORPHANAGE depict the past from their respective national perspective, BACURAU and MONOS use the present to depict a stark future. BACURAU is set a few years from now while MONOS could be in our current time or take place in the future. We live in a world where a single tweet could potentially result in war and that is why the material of these two films is relevant because they depict the speed at which the fabric of society could start to unfold.

When it comes to dealing with the present, multiple films show the urgent case of individuals trying to fight for their basic rights or find their identity. Despite all the progress we have made regarding human rights, basic rights are still denied to many individuals forcing them to feel trapped, a sentiment shared by the lead characters in THE AWAKENING OF THE ANTS and TREMORS who struggle to breathe in households and societies that expect them to quietly conform. TREMORS shows how Pablo's family and community turns on him after his relationship with another man is discovered. Pablo was once loved and respected but in an instant, he finds himself distanced from everything he knew. DOLCE FINE GIORNATA also shows how respect and adoration can evaporate overnight due to the consequences of honestly speaking in today’s politically charged world. On the other hand, IT MUST BE HEAVEN shows that even silently observing the world may not be without trouble. In the film, Elia Suleiman’s mostly silent character wants to be left alone and quietly observe the absurdities of human behaviour. However, he still finds himself in hot water despite not saying anything. Of all the world films, the most radical response to conformity is provided by Tom Mercier’s spirited character of Yoav in Nadav Lapid’s SYNONYMS. Lapid’s film is unlike any Israeli film to have been made and shares its spirit with works belonging to the French New Wave. Yoav wants to change his identity in an instant and he rebels against the way of life he grew up in. For the most part, his rebellion is internal but he can only contain his emotions internally to a certain extent and it isn’t long before his emotions boil over and impact those around him. On the flip side to the expressive emotions of Yoav lies the charming polite character of Eva in THE AUGUST VIRGIN who quietly goes about trying to find her identity. Eva’s quest to find herself is universal and the lovely manner of her adventure echoes those of characters in Noah Baumbach’s films (especially FRANCES HA) or Argentine filmmaker Matías Piñeiro’s cinema.

In trying to find their identity and voice, many of the characters in the various world films take a journey; a literal one or a metaphorical one. When it comes to a journey, one film stands above all and that is the Philippine film LAKBAYAN which translates to “journey”. There are 3 stories in LAKBAYAN with each segment involving three variations of a journey involving a different mode of transportation. This is a landmark film because it was made to celebrate the centennial anniversary of Philippines’ cinema and it brings together three masters of Filipino cinema: Lav Diaz, Brilliante Mendoza and Kidlat Tahimik. The film’s inclusion in this year’s lineup is exciting because neither director has had a film play at the festival before, not for lack of trying! Since Brilliante Mendoza won a best director award at Cannes 2009 (for KINATAY), there have been attempts by the festival to show his film. The same goes for Lav Diaz. At one point, the only way to legally see a film from Lav Diaz was to attend a select few film festivals around the world which were able to show his films, some of which were as long as 10+ hours. However, in the last few years, his films have become more readily available. In LAKBAYAN, we are treated with a glimpse of his beautiful style distilled in just over 30 minutes.

Multiple world films in this year’s Calgary International Film Festival borrow elements from conventional horror, thriller or crime genres to depict their stories. This aspect of genre usage was evident at this year’s Cannes Film Festival where directors not associated with the genre such as Corneliu Porumboiu (THE WHISTLERS), Kleber Mendonça Filho (BACURAU) showcased films with gangsters and gory killings. Even the top Cannes Prize winner PARASITE smoothly incorporated a few genres. The world films in this year’s selection range in their usage of the genre with some apparent in their depiction, such as the crime/neo-noir framework of the Malaysian film FLY BY NIGHT, while some are playful like the case of THE WHISTLERS and then there are some which are very subtle (sorry, no spoilers). The usage of genre isn’t a coincidence. Elements of horror, crime, thriller films tap into our raw emotions of fear and anxiety. If our external world is amplifying these emotions to a heightened degree, then it is not a surprise that different international films have incorporated genre within their framework to hold up a mirror to our world!

In addition to having films from well established filmmakers and directors, approximately 60% of the world cinema features in this year’s selection are either debuts or sophomore efforts. These films are by emerging voices that may not be known today but could end up being a force in years to come. An example that comes to mind is looking at Calgary Film’s Mavericks class of 2009. Damien Chazelle (FIRST MAN, LA LA LAND), Maren Ade (TONI ERDMANN) and Alexis Dos Santos (UNMADE BEDS) were present at the 2009 Calgary International Film Festival when their first or second features competed in the Mavericks competition. The three of them were not well-known back in 2009 but it is hard for these trio to go unnoticed anymore. Alexis Dos Santos’ has co-written MONOS in this year’s selection and this is a film that is rapidly picking up awards on the film festival circuit and is now Colombia’s official submission to the Oscar’s Foreign Film category. The other films from this year’s selections submitted for consideration to the Foreign Film category are IT MUST BE HEAVEN (PALESTINE), THE WHISTLERS (Romania), PARASITE (South Korea) and the documentary HONEYLAND (Republic of North Macedonia). Several countries have yet to finalize their submissions for the foreign film category which means that some of the other selections could still be submitted in consideration for next year’s Oscars.

Between the Oscar contenders, a diverse range of genres, and standout works from emerging directors and masters, the foreign films in the 20th edition of the Calgary International Film festival offer an exciting feast of films which allow audience to travel the world without leaving the comfort of this city.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

In memory of Milorad Pavić

A long time ago, in a world before smartphones and social media, I was wandering through a bookstore when I came across an intriguing book “Dictionary of the Khazars” by Milorad Pavić. A gush of excitement at the discovery because he wrote two versions of the book, a male and female version, both identical with the exception of a single paragraph. I bought both versions and was delighted to have found the single different paragraph. I only bought one more book by Pavić but never came across any of his other books.

Today, out of the blue, I came across his book lying in the corner. I then decided to look-up if he wrote any other books or if he was still writing. Sadly, I found out that he passed away ten years ago in 2009. That explains why I never came across any new books. He did write many other books and I will have to find those other books, a task much easier nowadays than it was decades ago. I also have to re-read the Dictionary because I have forgotten many of the details. What I haven’t forgotten is the sheer sense of dizzying delight that followed when I read his book. It was a similar feeling when reading books by Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino or Haruki Murakami.

Here’s to you Mr. Pavić, thank you for making the world a better place with your words.

Sunday, June 09, 2019

Allan Fish Online Film Festival

This is my entry for the 3rd Allan Fish Online Film Festival.

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Hands Over the City (1963, Italy, directed by Francesco Rosi)


I have selected Francesco Rosi’s 1963 film Hands Over the City (Le Mani sulla città) because it is a film that feels contemporary despite being released almost 6 decades ago. Given the film’s topic of corruption and urban sprawl, it will always feel contemporary as long as politicians spend more time slinging mud at their rivals and lying to protect their crimes while letting innocent civilians suffer. The words “urban sprawl” are part of our everyday language yet it was Rosi’s film that gave an incisive look into how such a situation could occur. The city in Rosi’s film is his beloved Naples but as the film dives into the close connection between city planners, politicians, land developers and businessmen, it becomes evident that there is a universal aspect to the film.

The opening shots of Hands Over the City begin with a few aerial shots of Naples which highlight the city as a maze of buildings. After the opening minutes, we learn that it will get worse. That is because we are shown an informal meeting between a few businessmen who all want to profit from fast land development. The city council is about to propose expanding along the city's core, which makes sense from an urban development point of view. But these businessmen and land developers want to build outside the city because the land is cheap and they can earn more profits in the future. The businessmen can get away with this because one of the leading land developers is also on the city's board and he has a lot of friends on the council. The promise of fast money is enough to swing the votes in his direction.

There is a lot of money to go around when the city expands outside the core because there is more investment needed to provide necessary infrastructure such as water, electricity, parks, etc. The film shows that all the businessmen involved in such organizations have friends on the city council. Handshakes and promises are the two things that decide the city’s future. Land permits and architectural plans are passed in a matter of days as opposed to the normal waiting time of 6 months. One of the consequences of this quick development results in an apartment wall crashing down resulting in a few deaths.

An investigation is conducted to uncover the real reasons for this building's collapse. However, there is a lack of interest in the city council to determine why the building wall collapsed. Only one councilman accuses his fellow colleagues of having "dirty hands" regarding the land dealings. This results in one of the film's lasting images where all the councilmen shout "our hands are clean" and wave their 'clean' hands at the honest councilman.
As the investigation continues, it is apparent that the truth won't ever come out because behind each lie is a handshake and a promise. Watching this film, one can truly appreciate the complicated series of lies and promises that exists in each political party. Politicians today spend a lot of time lying to the media in order to prove their innocence even though there is plenty of evidence which implicates them. Their lies are akin to the “our hands are clean” image.

The film gives a fly-on-the-wall perspective to the audience and at times it feels like we are being led into a secret world about how politics really works. As per the production notes, Rosi got some of the city councilmen to play themselves in the movie. That adds a bit more to the realism of the heated council scenes. The core discussions and fighting between different sides can be extrapolated to our world and can explain why different political parties can never find a common ground and why some issues never get resolved.

Francesco Rosi returned to Naples in 1992 to film a documentary (Diario napoletano) to see how the city had developed compared to 1963’s Hands Over the City. The first part of the documentary takes place in a university class where Rosi is presenting the movie to students, some city planners, professors and architects. As it turns out, in some cases, things unfolded in Naples as per the movie's fictional situations and the sprawl got worse over the decades after the film was made. Some of the professors in the documentary offered solutions to improve things but it became clear that there is no over-night solution. When a city grows outward traffic congestion is one of the worst problems. Driving through the city, Rosi was able to truly get a feel for how bad the situation is. Unfortunately, Naples is not alone in this problem. The issue of urban sprawl is a problem impacting major cities across most continents. In this regard, Hands Over the City is still an essential and relevant film for our society. The dynamics of how each city chooses to expand may vary from the situation in the film but it is clear that plenty of the decisions made for new land development are driven by money. We can only guess at some of the real discussions that take place in a city but Rosi's film depicts some situations for us to ponder upon.

Cross-published here.

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

The Beautiful game lives

March 5, 2019: Real Madrid 1 - 4 Ajax

Once upon a time, a team from Holland appeared out of nowhere and changed the way people thought of football. Ajax Amsterdam changed the global game and while the rest of the world was trying to understand their movement and tactics, Ajax quietly went silent. 

They emerged almost two decades later and once again injected new life into the global game. Then, when big money changed the game, Ajax went silent again.

In the last few years, there were signs that Ajax might be awakening. However, no one really noticed as all the headlines were hogged by agents/players/managers whose egos knew no bounds.

After tuesday's demolition of Real Madrid, Ajax are no longer in the shadows. No matter what else happens this season, their 4-1 win provided moments of delight and was a reminder that the beautiful game isn't dead after all. It was just taking a nap.

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Best Films of 2018

2018 was an extremely strong year for world cinema due to many established auteurs releasing their films coupled with stellar works from emerging directors. Quite a few of these films made their debut at Cannes, which was the strongest in a decade. This year at Cannes there were films by Wang Bing, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Lee Chang-dong, Nandita Das, Asghar Farhadi, Bi Gan, Matteo Garrone, Jean-Luc Godard, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Nadine Labaki, Spike Lee, Sergey Loznitsa, Jafar Panahi, Pawel Pawlikowski, Alice Rohrwacher, Lars von Trier, Wim Wenders and Jia Zhang-ke. As a result, there is a big influence of the Cannes film festival on this list. 12 of the 20 films in this list premiered at Cannes including 7 out of the top 10 films. However, this end of the year list includes just a fraction of the worthy films that showed at Cannes and other film festivals in 2018. There are still more than a dozen essential 2018 films that I missed seeing and will likely spend the better part of 2019 catching up with.

Note: the Top 10 and Honourable mentions is restricted to only 2018 titles.

Top 10 films of 2018

1. Transit (Germany/France, Christian Petzold)

Christian Petzold’s masterful adaption of Anna Seghers’ 1942 book is a cinematic treat! With just a few tweaks, Petzold has ensured that there is a constant tension between the past and present in the film. This balance between past-present highlights how history repeats in cycles and shows that a book written almost 80 years ago speaks to today’s world situation. This is because throughout history there are always people or communities that are persecuted and forced to leave their homes. The film is further elevated by a haunting love story, one which references Casablanca with hints of Kafka and Beckett.

2. Burning (South Korea, Lee Chang-dong)

Burning, Lee Chang-dong’s cinematic return after a gap of 8 years, smartly transforms a Haruki Murakami short story into a seductive thriller that lingers in the memory long after the credits.


3. Long Day’s Journey Into Night (China, Bi Gan)

Bi Gan’s sumptuous film provides an emotional ride across space and time by mixing past, present and dreams.

4. The Wild Pear Tree (Turkey co-production, Nuri Bilge Ceylan)

Ceylan has combined the visual strength of his previous films with a meaty narration resulting in a tour de force which covers topics ranging from literature, religion, romance, philosophy to politics.

5. An Elephant Sitting Still (China, Hu Bo)

Hu Bo’s first and only feature was one of the most emotionally devastating films of the year. Shortly before the film was completed, 29 year old Hu Bo committed suicide. He didn’t live to see the film’s World Premiere at the 2018 Berlin Film Festival where it was extremely hard to secure a ticket to see this almost 4 hour film. Such is the strength of Hu Bo’s artistry that the film’s length is never felt. Instead, one is drawn into the lives of the four characters in Northern China and invested in their fate.

6. Sir (India/France, Rohena Gera)

Rohena Gera’s astute film gets at the core of what we seek in relationships and what causes two people from radically different backgrounds to form a connection. The end result is one of the most charming films of the year lit by a vibrant performance by Tillotama Shome.

7. Fausto (Canada/Mexico, Andrea Bussmann)

Canadian director Andrea Bussmann creatively uses the text of Goethe’s Faust as a jumping point to explore myths, local legends and tales in Mexico’s Oaxaca coast. The decision to use low light for shooting many of the scenes results in a shape-shifting film that strips away the concept of time; the film could be set decades in the past or could be contemporary. The end result is exhilarating as the film shows a unique way to perceive history and cultures.

 
8. Donbass (Ukraine co-production, Sergey Loznitsa)


Sergey Loznitsa cleverly depicts how events in Ukraine are influenced by the overarching influence of Russia. An urgent film that also depicts how the media is being manipulated by politicians resulting in further blurring between real and fake news.


9. Ash is Purest White (China, Jia Zhang-ke)

 Jia Zhang-ke’s newest film is a perceptive depiction of the Chinese landscape, both social and economical, over the course of two decades.

10. Another Day of Life (Poland/Spain/Belgium/Germany/Hungary, Raúl de la Fuente and Damian Nenow)

Based on late journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski’s book of the same name, Another Day of Life is a fascinating mix of documentary and animation that captures the energy of Kapuscinski’s book about the Angolan civil war.

 
Honourable Mentions (alphabetical order):


3 Faces (Iran, Jafar Panahi)
BlacKkKlansman (USA, Spike Lee)
Closing Time (Germany/Switzerland, Nicole Vögele)
Cold War (Poland/UK/France, Pawel Pawlikowski)
Dear Son (Tunisia/Belgium/France/Qatar, Mohamed Ben Attia)
Djon Africa (Portuga/Brazil/Cape Verde, João Miller Guerra and Filipa Reis)
The Image Book (Swtizerland/France, Jean-Luc Godard)
Grass (South Korea, Hong Sang-soo)
Roma (Mexico/USA, Alfonso Cuarón)
Season of the Devil (Philippines, Lav Diaz)

Notable 2016 and 2017 films seen in 2018 (alphabetical order):


Gabriel and the Mountain (2017, Brazil/France, Fellipe Barbosa)
The Great Buddha+ (2017, Taiwan, Huang Hsin-yao)
Hotel Salvation (2016, India, Shubhashish Bhutiani)
Machines (2016, India/Germany/Finland, Rahul Jain)
Phantom Thread (2017, USA/UK, Paul Thomas Anderson)
The Unknown Girl (2016, Belgium/France, Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne)
The Woman who Left (2016, Philippines, Lav Diaz)