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5 Documentaries--Short Reviews

Dear readers,

Here are short reviews of five films I had watched as a member of the jury for the Best Documentary Film award in the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival. None of these films is Arab, but I do look forward to posting a long overdue review of Tawfiq Saleh's Diary of a Country Prosecutor next week.


The Fruit Hunters:

Bill Pullman stars in The Fruit HuntersFor years I have complained about the subdued taste of fruit in America (as wells as veg and eggs). I have not been as moved by an artistic celebration of fruit in art/literature since reading Chekov’s The Black Monk. The two rather distinct subjects of fruit hunting and of the ills of mass agriculture are well integrated. The photography sensuous as it should be. Two aspects of the doc hamper the effect, regrettably: the affected, self-important narration (reminiscent of that in The Corporation, another memorable doc hampered by its narration) and the unnecessary extended focus on Bill Pullman (who inexplicably appears on the film’s poste. He’s not the star, the fruit is). It’s as if the makers intended to underscore the merit of such fruit fascination by association with celebrity--good for publicity, bad for credibility. 

 Charles Lloyd: Arrows into Infinity:

Musician extraordinair Charles LloydA fascinating, underappreciated artist not served by a ho-hum biographic documentary film. In its chronological approach, its stuffing itself with archival footage and in its well-trodden commentary on the iconoclastic 60s the film waxes far too familiar. Moreover, near two hours in length, Charles Lloyd the doc seems to aim for fervent jazz fans for its comprehensive disquisition on an American legend. Lloyd deserves another attempt at his story. I nominate Spike Lee.


Off Label:

Bearing the psychotropic cross in Off LabelA pedantic exposition about the mendacious psychotropic drug industry that does not manage to deliver on its thesis, because of its diffuse structure and its heavy-handedness. There are moments of genuine poignancy and pathos, especially regarding one luckless Korean American chap—so bright, so wretched. The mother’s account of her son’s suicide is heart-piercing and the delay in its account is one of the best editing decisions that the makers have made. Yet what of the overbearing symbolism: cross bearing, smiley faces on the shirts of miserable people—hackneyed.

If the film is trying to differentiate itself from films such as Sicko by focusing on the plight of the consumers, instead of on the machinations and manipulations of the drug companies then why include the account of an ex-pharmaceutical sales rep? To support the thesis that the business of psychotropic drugs is rotten? Such a point would have been argued for more convincingly by physicians and prominently stationed whistle blowers instead. Moreover, if the film’s conclusion is that we the masses are better off dumping such drugs if at all possible then why include the testimony of the “guinea pig” who managed to get his book, the vehicle of his salvation, completed because he wrote it while on ADHD medication!


The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear:

Seeking stardom in The Machine Which Makes Everything DisappearIt is curious to compare this film to Off Label, in that both docs are topically and structurally disintegrated and both involve personalities based on a single criterion; in the case of The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear it is a seemingly arbitrary age group—15 to 25 (though with a single exception, just like Off Label). Yet, whereas diffusive fragmentation hampers the former it only enhances the mood of The Machine. Its eerie composition of the interview segments (most are based on 90 degree shots, generally a no-no in photography) and in its elliptical structure only deepen the pathos and entrench the melancholy. There are shots of remarkable ethereal beauty in this film. Yet, what really leaves an indelible mark is the honesty and self-awareness of young people, whose profundity in truth is a staunch rebuttal against superficial, patronizing youth cinema to which we have become so accustomed. The final testimony of the film in particular I found remarkable and canny at once—an epitaph inscribed on the tombstone of disaffected youth.


These Birds Walk:

Flying if only momentarily in These Birds WalkThere is a candlelit conversation scene in These Birds Walk that's the stuff of great realist novels. The film is poignant insight into the lives of children seeking refuge and those adults who have come around to realizing not only that the state is unwilling to move to shelter its citizenry (intimations of drone strikes anyone?) but more importantly, that assisting children in dealing with their misery is an effectual way to keep such adults’ own misery in check. Despite the heart-rending milieu exposed, These Birds Walk never turns maudlin. The kids curse, bully and attempt escape and in the case of the lead character Omar, even falsify their identities (his real name turns out to be Fuad). The earnest but jaded “ambulance driver” (It’s more than an ambulance and he is much more than a driver) is a fascinating and compelling portrait of social worker in an environ that could use with so much social work than, as the “driver” knows, Edhi Foundation could ever provide. The photography suffers from the inadequate lighting, especially in so many nighttime shots, yet makes up for it in its composition and verite style movement. 



60 Second Scoop: Whad'Ya Know about the Twin Cities Arab Film Festival?

Dear readers,

I have been on blog haietus, because of my work schedule, which has involved curating and directing the Twin Cities Arab Film Festival. Once the festival is concluded--it is scheduled for March 13-17--I intend to return to writing film reviews, including of films that I will have selected for the festival itself.

In the meantime, I hope that you may enjoy the first of a few promtional videos that we have created for the festival and encourage you to learn more about the festival, by going to the Mizna festival website.


For the Love of Film in Doha

I have just returned from Doha, having attended the Doha Tribeca Film Festival (DTFF). Energy and enthusiasm suffused the city, which seemed to have been wrapped in its celebration of film.

Photo credit: Doha Film Institute

Of course, I expected the abundantly funded festival to exude lavishness and glamor, but what I didn’t expect and what has driven me to post a day after my return is the community engagement, which manifested in ways that surprised and delighted me.

Museum of Islamic Art. Photo credit: riy

This year’s edition was held in three locations: the Museum of Islamic Art, an architectural marvel I unfortunately did not have the time to visit; Katara cultural village, which houses the Doha Film Institute, the organization behind DTFF; and Souq Waqef, a century-old shopping district that has recently been restored and expanded to include restaurants and fashionable boutique hotels wherein the festival guests stayed. Yet, physical signifiers of the festival—signs, posters, and billboards, some enormous—were strategically positioned throughout the capital city.

Souq Waqef. Photo credit: Jan Smith

The festival boasted much that I’ve encountered in other festivals: film screenings, Q&A sessions with filmmakers, panel discussions, workshops, award ceremonies, red carpet events, and, of course, parties. What really impressed me, however, was the engagement of youth in the festival. Beside supporting and celebrating many young local filmmakers in the “Made in Qatar” competition, the festival presented Family Days, a four-day program of family focused events aiming not only to expose kids to art, including film, but also to have them participate in creative workshops, including photography and filmmaking. All non-screening Family Days programs were free of charge. Family Days also presented free screenings of two wonderful films which long ago had me in memorable weeping sessions--E.T. and Cinema Paradiso--both of which were screened in the stupendous, beachside Sony Open-Air Cinema within Katara.

Sony Open-Air Cinema. Photo credit: Ayman Itani

The festival cultivated a youth reporter core, dubbed the DFI Kids Access Reporting Team, which covered red carpet events, proudly displaying their press badges as they interviewed guests then reporting on such events on the festival website—charming!

Katara. Photo credit: Karen Blumberg Ultimately, it was my encounters with young DTFF volunteers and guest service providers that left the deepest impression. One morning, I was heading to Katara for a meeting and thought to catch the festival shuttle bus. As I boarded, I asked the driver about going there and was told that it would take an hour. “That’s too long,” I responded, before turning to see a teenage boy, in festival T-shirt and badge, who had followed with “That’s too late for me too.” The transportation coordinator at this station (like most, in his early twenties), upon checking my credentials, availed me a car within the festival’s transportation fleet. When the car arrived, I asked the transportation coordinator if it would be OK if the teen came along, which he appreciated, as did my new companion.

On the way, I asked my companion what he was doing for the festival. I could sense the enthusiasm in his voice as he conveyed that he was in a hurry to get to Katara because he was volunteering in a Family Days event.

Next day, after spending a couple of hours watching films in a room designated for press viewing, at independent stations, of films exhibited in the festival, I walked over to the room supervisor, a woman in her early twenties. I handed her back the DVD of Rafea: Solar Mama as I poured praise over the irresistible documentary film, to which she said that she hadn’t seen it, but that she thought the winner of the Best Documentary Filmmaker Award In the Shadow of a Man was a really special, moving film. She then emphatically encouraged me to see it when I had the chance. She wasn’t just checking out DVDs; she was a film enthusiast.

And she wasn’t the only twenty-something female film enthusiast that I encountered in the Doha Tribeca Film Festival. Indeed, nothing has warmed my heart in attending DTFF more than this evident vitality among young people involved in one capacity or another in the festival. I was readily convinced that the Doha Film Institute was earnest and determined in its proclamation that it aimed to fashion a community centered international film festival. Many large events claim to be community based, few have struck me as such as much as DTFF—well done.


Article for Al-Monitor: Little Film Festival That Could: Beirut Beats the Odds

Dear readers,

Forgive me for not blogging for a few months. I have been utterly consumed in work. In addition to my fulltime college gig, I am curating the current round of the Twin Cities Arab Film Festival, organised by Mizna. In addition, in summer I joined Levantine Films in development affairs. Nevertheless, I hope to post in the weeks to come about my activities, and if fortunate enough, a film review or two!

For now, my interview with Colette Naufal, director of the Beirut International Film Festival (BIFF).





In Bruges (2008): Trangressive Comedy, Grim Fairytale

In Bruges

Note: Considering the tumult of summer and with the allowance I've given myself to write about "related matters," I've decided to post my review of In Bruges, from a few years ago.

“They’re filming midgets,” announces Ray (Colin Farrell) to Glen (Brendan Gleeson) at one point in the juicily macabre comedy In Bruges. He is referring to a film whose set the two had earlier come upon while “nightseeing” in Bruges.

Not Really. No more than is Martin McDonagh, the first time feature director of In Bruges, making a film about midgets. And he certainly isn’t making a film about little people.

But there is a little person in both films, and not simply by the syllogism that a little person appearing in a film being shot within a film would appear in the latter!

In In Bruges, he’s mostly referred to as a midget, a term many of us know is rejected by those who bear dwarfism. “Midget” is not the only politically incorrect term or reference that the film employs to generate laughs; the film assaults black people, obese people, women, priests, Americans, and Bruges itself—sometimes literally!

Do I forgive its doing this? Yes. Do I applaud it for doing this? No. Do I applaud it for getting away with this? Yes.

Oh, so then I must not stand firmly on the side of respect and compassion? Maybe not, but I think that a creative work must be permitted to transgress, assuming it accomplishes at least one of two things: First, it must earn such transgression. And this is a gauge that cannot unfortunately be anything but subjective. In Bruges, I qualify, earns its transgression because its script is so well written. The humour is so incisive that it’s as if the actors’ lines are hacking at us; it is so testing that our guts twist as we second-guess our urge to laugh.

Secondly, a transgressive creative work must, and this strikes me as a necessarily dichotomous mode of assessment, deliver redemption or let us in on its interest in agitating us or do both. In In Bruges, a member of each of two of the assaulted groups of people turns out heroic, one by way of steely determination, the other by way of sheer misfortune. (Spoiler alert: Move on to the next paragraph to avoid it.) As for the killers, they get got.

Moreover, In Bruges certainly lets us in on the artifice that is its very construction. Beside its incorporating a film shoot in its plot, a film that is being shot in Bruges (and in In Bruges) that is referred to by one character as “an homage to Don’t Look Now,” the marvelous Venice-bound psychological thriller, there is a scene wherein Glen is watching Touch of Evil, whose story unfolds near the Mexican-American border. Such references to two noir classics, in which, like in In Bruges, location is as prominent a character as any of the plot populating humans, wryly prod the audience to position In Bruges in the very camp of exotic noir that its mentioned antecedents have come to exemplify.

In Bruges

Colin Farrel’s eyebrows are also a character—the most animated eyebrows I’ve ever witnessed in film. Not that this comes off as a gimmick. It does not because the film regards its characters attentively. There is a scene in which Ray disconcertedly regards himself in the mirror. He then pokes himself in the cheek. What plot related purpose does such a shot serve? None. Why include it then? Because it offers a unique view into a primary character’s mindset. The film feels intimate throughout, though it never feels realistic, in part due to the earlier noted self-exposure in relation to films and filmmaking, and in greater part due to the film’s inexplicable, outlandish ending.

In Bruges

I doubt that the hired assassins in In Bruges speak the way assassins do in real life, but who says that they should? Realism is not a fair standard of excellence, not when realism is not among a film’s operative objectives. I further doubt that director and writer McDonagh would have set the film’s story in Bruges, if he’d been after realism.

“It’s a fairytale town isn’t it?” postulates one of the characters in admiration of the mediaeval city. Indeed, it is. And In Bruges is a fairytale, a grim fairytale.