Monday, November 23, 2009

Man sitting on a chair looks at a goat....

One can now easily find copies of Jon Ronson’s book The Men Who Stare At Goats in Canadian bookstores but that was not the case 4 years ago.  In 2005, there was no movie deal and the book was largely unknown in North America.  I had not heard of the book when I first came across it in a London bookstore.  I found the title amusing and picked up the book.  After reading a few pages, I was still not sure what to make of it but I decided to take a chance on it.  It turned out to be money well spent as Jon Ronson’s book was a quick and delightful read.  Ofcourse, the most surprizing aspect about the book was that it was supposed to be true.  The topic of psychic soldiers was something one would have found in The X-Files or things that one believed would take place in Area 51 but here was a book giving names and details. Hmmm.

Another jaw dropping aspect about the book were the segments which were tied to the Iraq war, such as using the "I love You" Barney song as a torture technique. As part of this method, the Iraqi prisoners were locked away in a shipping container and strobe lights were used in conjunction with the words of the purple dinosaur repeated over a period of 24 hours.   Jon Ronson’s book was the first account I had read about such a torture technique but in the last few years other sources (books, newspaper articles) have talked about this and other torture methods meant to break prisoners.

I still have to see the movie but going by the trailers it looks to have ensured maximum humour by incorporating some of these bizarre and strange aspects from the book.  Going back to the title, it is about a master sergeant who stopped a goat’s heart from beating just by concentrating.  When I mentioned this to a friend, he referred me to the following video about fainting goats.

Now, this video does raise an interesting question. Was the original goat in the book a fainting one? Did that goat fake death? Or maybe the goat dropped dead out of boredom?  Ofcourse, all it took was one dead goat for a legend to be born :)

Here are some quotes from the book:

Glenn leant forward in his chair. 'You've gone from the front door to the back door. How many chairs are in my house?'

There was a silence.

'You probably can't tell me how many chairs are in my house,' said Glenn.

I started to look around.

'A super soldier wouldn't need to look,' he said. 'He would just know.'

'A super soldier?' I asked.

'A super soldier,' said Glenn. 'A Jedi Warrior. He would know where all the lights are. He would know where all the power outlets are. Most people are poor observers. They haven't got a clue about what's really happening around them.'

'What's a Jedi Warrior?' I asked.

'You're looking at one,' said Glenn.

In the mid-1980s, he told me, Special Forces undertook a secret initiative, codenamed Project Jedi, to create super soldiers - soldiers with super powers. One such power was the ability to walk into a room and instantly be aware of every detail; that was level one.

'What was the level about that?' I asked.

'Level two,' he said. 'Intuition. Is there some way we can develop you so you make correct decisions? Somebody runs up to you and says, "There's a fork in the road. Do we turn left or do we turn right?" And you go' -Glenn snapped his fingers - 'We go right!"'

'What was the level about that?' I asked.

'Invisibility,' said Glenn.

'Actual invisibility', I asked.

'At first,' said Glenn. 'But after a while we adapted it to just finding a way of not being seen.'

'In what way?' I asked.

'By understanding the linkage between observation and reality, you learn to dance with invisibility,' said Glenn. 'If you're not observed, you are invisible. You only exist if someone sees you.'

'So, like camouflage?' I asked.

'No,' signed Glenn.

'How good are you at invisibility?' I asked.

'Well,' said Glenn, 'I've got red hair and blue eyes, so people tend to remember me. But I get by. I'm alive today.'

'What was the level about invisibility?' I asked.

'Uh,' said Glenn. He paused for a moment. Then he said, 'We had a master sergeant who could stop the heart of a goat.'

There was a silence. Glenn raised an eyebrow.

'Just by...'I said.

'Just by wanting the goat's heart to stop,' said Glenn.

Quotes from Pages 14-15, 2004 Picador edition.

'A Warrior Monk,' said Jim, 'is someone who has the presence of a monk, the service and the dedication of the monk and the absolute skill and precision of the warrior.'

Quote from Page 44, 2004 Picador edition.

"The Bucha Effect"

It all began in the 1950s, Sid told me, when helicopters started falling out of the sky, just crashing for no apparent reason, and the pilots who survived couldn't explain it. They had just been flying around as normal and then suddenly they felt nauseous and dizzy and debilitated and they lost control of their helicopters and they went down.

So a Dr Bucha was called in to solve the mystery.

'What Dr Bucha found,' said Sid, 'was that the rotor-blades were strobing the sunlight and when it reached the approximation of human brainwave frequence it was interfering with the brain's ability to send correct information to the rest of the body.'

As a result of Dr Bucha's findings, new safety measures were introduced, such as tinted glass and helmet visors and so on.

'Believe me,' said Sid Heal, 'there are easier ways of doing sleep deprivation than going to all those great lengths. Barney music? Flashing lights? Sleep deprivation may be a part of it, but it's got to have some deeper hidden effect. My guess is that this is the Bucha effect. My guess is that they're going for the amygdala.'

Quotes from Pages 157-158, 2004 Picador edition.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Spotlight on the Arab World

1948 and the question of land...

Tick Tock. 1948. Silence. A minute later, chaos. Many Palestinians left, or were forced to leave, their homes in 1948 with the hopes of returning one day but their ownership documents are meaningless because legally now their homes belong to someone else. So what happens when all the surviving members of 1948 are gone? Annemarie Jacir provides one answer to that question in Salt of the Sea by showing an example of a third generation exile who keeps the memories of pre-1948 alive. In the film, Soraya leaves her home in Brooklyn to visit her grandfather’s land and retrieve his money. However, the bank can no longer hand over the money because in their eyes that old Palestinian branch no longer exists. So Soraya decides to rob the bank along with two accomplices. What follows is a road movie but in this case, the road passes through non-existent towns and streets because the old Palestinian towns are either renamed or in ruins. What remains of the original towns? Only their memories. After the original generation of 1948 has perished, only memories will remain about streets, houses and the smell of oranges.

Border and Checkpoints

In both The Syrian Bride & Rana's Wedding, a woman’s marriage plans are strained due to the presence of border and checkpoints respectively.

 In The Syrian Bride, the border in question is between Syria and Israel (Golan Heights) while it is the various checkpoints dividing the Palestinian landscape that cause a problem in Rana’s Wedding. Interestingly, in both movies the bride is played by Clara Khoury. Completing the border/marriage trilogy is Randa Chahal Sabag’s The Kite which shows a girl’s relationship effected by the border between Israel and Lebanon.

Three different films but all tied together by images of a female foiled by man made borders. The following image of a bride in a white dress heading towards the border in The Kite can be found in The Syrian Bride as well.

Internal problems
Sometimes one’s problems are not created by a border but by friction within a nation’s boundaries. The two Algerian films Barakat and Rachida show how the consequences of internal struggle can effect the daily lives of people.

In Barakat it is civil war while in Rachida it is terrorism that causes fear in the population. In both films, women are the main characters who overcome their fear and find new strength to carry on.  Interestingly, both films are also tied in another way -- the lead actress of Barakat is Rachida Brakni and her first name forms the title and character name of the other film.

Youth and life on the streets

The Moroccan film Ali Zaoua packs quite a punch in depicting the life of streets kids in Casablanca. While it is heart breaking to see young kids miss their childhood and head straight into an adult life of gangs and crime, credit must be given to director Nabil Ayouch for balancing the harsh street realities with a fantasy tale. The fantasy tale, which forms the basis of the title character’s quest to find an elusive land with two suns, lends a sprinkling of hope to the film. Such is the strength of Ali Zaoua’s belief that his friends go to great lengths to fulfill his wish and in turn give their lives a purpose as well.

All about the girl and some falafel...

The soothing lyrics of Yasmine Hamdan’s "Lili s’en fout" liven up the opening moments of Michel Kammoun’s charming and enjoyable Falafel. Whenever Hamdan’s voice comes on, we find the main character of Tou in a happy state. Tou has valid reason to be happy, especially when he learns that Yasmin will be at the party that he plans to attend. The night is progressing the way Tou planned but a series of incidents turn things on their head. After an altercation in a parking lot, a man strikes Tou’s face with a gun and leaves his face scarred. But the scar is more than skin deep and the violent incident eats away at Tou and he wants revenge. He manages to get a gun illegally and despite advice from his friends to cool down, he is determined to use his gun. However, he is saved in the most unlikely way thanks to the mystical powers of a rebel falafel. Yes, a falafel. It is true. Anything can happen in a magical night in Beirut.

What a Wonderful World

It is indeed a wonderful world. Every frame of Faouzi Bensaïdi ‘s What a Wonderful World is poetic and beautiful. Even though the wonderful individual parts of the film do not add up to a coherent whole, it is hard to resist the charms of this unique film. What a Wonderful World is a mesmerizing mix of a French comedy (references to Jacques Tati), a Spy spoof, a musical and a love story.

Films seen as part of this spotlight and in order of preference:

Salt of the Sea (2007, Palestine co-production, Annemarie Jacir)
What a Wonderful World (2007, France/Morocco, Faouzi Bensaïdi)
Ali Zaoua (2000, Morocco co-production, Nabil Ayouch)
Falafel (2004, Lebanon/France, Michel Kammoun)
Rachida (2002, Algeria/France, Yamina Bachir)
Enough! (2006, Algeria, Djamila Sahraoui)
The Kite (2003, Lebanon co-production, Randa Chahal Sabag)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

2010 Movie World Cup

In 2006, I conducted a personal movie World Cup to go along with the FIFA soccer tournament. The entire experiment of comparing films from the various countries turned out to be quite enjoyable and I repeated similar movie/soccer spotlights for the 2007 Copa America and Euro 2008. Now that all the 32 spots for the 2010 World Cup are filled, it is time to plan for another version of a movie World Cup. The format for the movie World Cup will be once again the same as the soccer tournament, meaning that I will divide films from the 32 countries into the same groups as the soccer tournament. The World Cup draw will take place on Dec 4, so the film groupings will have to wait until then.

In the meantime, I want to start thinking of finding titles from all the countries. Last time around, I watched the movies at the same time as the soccer tournament. That was a bit hectic, so this time I will start watching the movies as early as December and limit my viewing to only a few films per month. My target is to finish watching all the films by June 25, 2010, to coincide with the last day of all the group matches in the soccer World Cup. Another reason to start watching the movies this early on is to ensure I will have enough time to get as many movies from all the countries involved. In 2006, I could only find films from 22 of the 32 countries in the soccer tournament. I really want to get as close to 32 films as possible, although I have a feeling that getting a film from North Korea might prove to be a real challenge.

Here are the 32 countries:

South Africa (hosts), Cameroon, Nigeria, Algeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast

Australia, Japan, South Korea, North Korea

Denmark, Portugal, Switzerland, Greece, Slovakia, Slovenia, Germany, Spain, England, Serbia, France, Italy, Holland

North, Central America and Caribbean:
USA, Mexico, Honduras

New Zealand

South America:
Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Argentina, Uruguay

[Update, Mar 2010]


The group stages & second round games will follow a similar format to the soccer world cup as all 32 films will be divided into 8 groups of 4 films each with the top two films advancing into the second round. The 16 films in the second round will go through knock out head-to-head matches and be narrowed down to a two film final.

The films will be placed in the same groups as the soccer world cup groups and have the same second round draw as the soccer tournament as well.

Group A: South Africa, Mexico, Uruguay, France
Group B: Argentina, Nigeria, Korea Republic, Greece
Group C: England, USA, Algeria, Slovenia
Group D: Germany, Australia, Serbia, Ghana
Group E: Netherlands, Denmark, Japan, Cameroon
Group F: Italy, Paraguay, New Zealand, Slovakia
Group G: Brazil, Korea DPR, Côte d'Ivoire, Portugal
Group H: Spain, Switzerland, Honduras, Chile

Group Stage Points

In the world cup the maximum points a team can get from playing their 3 group games is 9. So 9 points is set as the maximum total that a film can achieve. There will be 5 categories used to reach this total for fiction films:

Direction, Acting, Cinematography, Story - 2 points each
Production Values - 1 point

There are quite a few documentaries in the mix and I decided to break the total for those into 3 categories:

Direction, Structure (which includes story and editing), Cinematography - 3 points each

Group Stage Tie Break and Second Round Criteria

Four years ago, it was easy to have this criteria because I did not have any documentaries but this time around trying to pick a winner based on fiction vs documentary is not so straight forward. So to keep things simple, a head-to-head match-up will only feature three categories - Direction, Structure (story and editing) & Cinematography.

In case, two films have the same number of points in the group stages, then a winner will be chosen based on this head to head match-up. The same head to head match-up criteria will also be used in the round of 16, quarter-finals, semi-finals, 3rd place and final.

If film A is better than a film B in a category, then film A will get 1 point and film B will get 0. In this situation, a maximum score can be 3-0.

If both film A and film B are equal in a category, then they each get 1 point. This could lead to a situation where two films will be tied 3-3. In that case, the winning film will be decided by a subjective vote, which I equate to a penalty shoot-out.

Selection Criteria

#1: Choose a previously unseen feature film solely from the country, meaning no co-productions.

There is no restriction on the film’s production year or the type, meaning the film could be silent, art, commercial, genre, avant-garde or documentary.

The problem is that it is not easy to locate films which will satisfy criteria #1. So I will go down the list of these four fall back options until a film is found.

#2: Choose a previously unseen feature which is a co-production of the World Cup country.

#3: Choose a previously unseen short film from the country.

#4: Re-watch an older film from the country.

#5: Pick a film which is about the country in question or is shot principally in the country.

If I end up at #5, then I am basically grasping at straws. So the #5 selection ensures some sort of representation for the country in question.  For example, if I cannot find a film from Nigeria, then I will resort to using the Canadian documentary Nollywood Babylon which is about Nigeria’s film industry.  Also, if I cannot find a North Korean film, I will re-watch the German documentary Comrades in Dreams which features a story about cinema in North Korea.

The unwritten rule is to ensure some sort of balance among the selections.  In 2006, I had no documentaries and only had narrative fiction features, so this time around I want to mix things up.  Also, I am not going to rush to select films but have multiple films in consideration before making a final choice.  The following is a wish list of sorts which is color coded to indicate the film’s status.

Green: Film has been selected
Orange: Film is in consideration and is available.
Red: Film is in consideration but is not available.

Note: An updated film list can be found here

The following is maintained as an archive of the original first cut:

England: Of Time and the City (Terence Davies)

Mexico: In the Pit (Juan Carlos Rulfo)

South Africa: U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha (Mark Dornford-May)

Japan: Human Condition (Masaki Kobayashi)

Argentina: Liverpool (Lisandro Alonso)

Portugal: I really want a Pedro Costa film.  The question is if the Criterion DVD of Colossal Youth or In Vanda’s Room will be released before the summer of 2010.

Chile: This is turning out to be a fascinating wish-list. Currently, I am keen on these three films in order of preference:

Historias de fútbol (Andrés Wood)
The Maid (Sebastián Silva)
Tony Manero (Pablo Larrain)

I had enjoyed Andrés Wood Machuca as part of my South American spotlight so I am looking forward to tracking down his football related Historias de fútbol.

Paraguay: Paraguayan Hammock (Paz Encina)

Not much choice in terms of picking a film from Paraguay as this is the country's only feature in the last 3 decades.

France: The following two are in consideration

Sans soleil (Chris Marker)
35 Shots of Rum (Claire Denis) 

Spain: The Spirit of the Beehive (Victor Erice)

I have not seen any of the three features that Erice has made so looking forward to seeing his 1973 film.

Italy: Il Divo (Paolo Sorrentino)

This is a co-production but I am leaning towards this feature.

USA: There is no shortage of choices or availability of films from the US which is why this is such a difficult selection. Currently, these two films from two very different eras are up for selection:

Ballast (2008, Lance Hammer)
Scarface (1932, Howard Hawks)

Update: Ballast gets the nod ahead of the 1932 black and white Scarface

Brazil: I may have to hold off on this because some potential Brazilian entries might be released in the early part of 2010. For now, the following is a desired selection and if it is available on DVD first, then I will select it:

Garapa (2009, José Padilha)

What makes this selection interesting is that it is a black and white Brazilian documentary which ends up being at odds with the normally brightly color infused Brazilian cinema that one finds on the film festival circuits.
Another option for Brazil: Margarette's Feast (Renato Falcao)

Greece: Dogtooth (2009, Giorgos Lanthimos)

Honduras: Amor y frijoles (2009, Mathew Kodath/Hernan Pereira) , El Porvier (Oscar Estrada)

Uruguay: Gigante (2009, Adrián Biniez), The Dog Pound (2006, Manolo Nieto)

Serbia: Maradona (2008, Emir Kusturica)

South Korea: Beautiful (2008, Jae-Hong Jeon)

Note: The option of Kusturica's Maradona does violate the selection criteria rules because the film is a Spanish/French co-production that is filmed primarily in Argentina. However, the reason I am willing to make this exception is that Kusturica is a Serbian film-maker and has shot a segment of the film in Serbia. Also, the inclusion of a film about Maradona in a movie world cup appears to make perfect sense.