Cinema has a way of capturing the unease of life, those wearying sharp fragments and provocations of everyday experience that reveal a greater truth. At the 54th Thessaloniki International Film Festival, the new cinema from Latin America and the Middle East discloses something much closer to dread than unease. Given the adversity of the times, this should not be surprising, but the exhibition of the world’s indifference to despair and suffering is still able to shock. And that, in its own way, is an act of defiance, and even hope.
Poverty, ignorance, and the exhaustion they breed are on full view in Pelo Malo (Bad Hair, 2013) by Venezuelan director Mariana Rondón. Set in the vast prison-like housing units of the Caracas slums, the film shows that hope for a better future is not a dream so much as it is an absurd fantasy. Junior (Samuel Lange), a sweet, precocious 9-year-old, wants nothing more in life than to straighten his kinky hair by any means available, including dumping the cooking oil his mother uses to fry plantains on his head. Marta (Samantha Castillo), who is struggling to find work and raise Junior and his infant half-brother on her own, is both driven to distraction by Junior’s hair fixation and frightened by it. In her mind it suggests homosexuality, and this gives her palpitations. Left unspoken, though, is the racism inherent in the “good hair”/”bad hair” dichotomy that Junior unconsciously picks up in the society around him, especially from television. We watch as Marta attempts to eradicate Junior’s desire for silky tresses with increasingly cruel methods, culminating in her encouraging him to watch as she makes love to her employer on the sofa. She believes this will teach him how real men behave. The end result is Junior’s crushed spirit, a life shut down before it has really begun.
The photography is spare, the palette muted, and the scenes on the streets choking in their vision of humanity bursting at the seams. Pelo Malo was awarded the Bronze Alexander in the international competition section of the festival.
Isolation and long-held rage mark the Argentinian film Deshora (Belated, 2013) by Barbara Sarasola-Day. A couple, Ernesto (Luis Ziembrowski) and Helena (Maria Ucedo), live on a remote hacienda in the immense northern landscape of Argentina. Their tepid day-to-day lives are slowly upended when Helena’s cousin Joaquin (Alejandro Buitrago) arrives for an extended stay after being discharged from a drug rehab. The young man’s presence creates a sexual tension among the three that begins as harmless flirtation, a few playful kisses, and tossed-off innuendos, yet taps into far deeper, and more dangerous, emotions that later flare into uncontrollable violence.
Washed-out images (the predominant color is pigeon gray) of life on the estate — the workers in the tobacco fields, horses enshrouded in early morning mist, dimly lit cockfights, hunting in near dark woods, and a visit to a squalid local brothel — add to the aura of stealth that permeates the film. Sarasola-Day also favors POV shots through mirrors and windows, accentuating the twofold nature of the characters’ desires. In the end, nothing here is what it seems.
The cruelty meted out to three Guatemalan teenagers as they attempt the treacherous journey to El Norte in Spanish director Diego Quemada-Diez’s, La Jaula de Oro (The Golden Cage, 2013) would be a very hard film to digest had he not made it with such compassion for his characters and their plight.
Shooting in a semi-documentary style with nonprofessional actors, Quemada-Diez creates an intense, realist drama not only about the near-mythic hold the U.S. still has on the imaginations of the world’s poor, but also about the hidden costs of such a dream. The teens, Juan (Brandon Lopez), Sara (Karen Martinez), and Samuel (Carlos Chajon), set off from the slums of Guatemala and head for the Mexican border. With luck, they hope to cross the U.S. frontier and start new lives. Their odyssey is anything but lucky, though, and their encounters with the immigration police, bandits, and assorted other predatory criminals leave the three reeling. Yet they remain undeterred. Along the way, Samuel cannot withstand the brutality and returns home, a gang of thugs abducts Sara, and a new fellow traveler, an Indian boy named Chauk (Rodolfo Dominguez), who speaks no Spanish, is left to complete the journey with Juan, although with devastating consequences.
From the jungles of Guatemala to the arid deserts of Mexico, the camera pans across hundreds of desperate people riding on top of rattling boxcars, walking barefoot, and hiding in fields. All are motivated by one thought: to cross “La Frontera.” The only humanity on display is when farmhands throw oranges up to those on the trains and a group of church workers offer food and shelter for the night. Otherwise, everyone is on his own, with his own fears and loneliness. All three protagonists give a bravura performance, imbuing their characters with a reckless, and touching, courage that only the young in their naiveté can lay claim to. La Jaula de Oro won the festival’s top prize, the Golden Alexander, for best feature and best director, as well as the FIPRESCI jury’s Human Values award.
L’Escale (Stop-Over, 2013), Tehran born-Swiss director Kaveh Bakhtiari’s first feature-length documentary, is a poignant, intimate portrait of a group of young Iranian immigrants who find themselves stuck in Athens while they try to amass the necessary documents that will get them into Western Europe. Bakhtiari was introduced to the men through his cousin, Mohsen, who is part of the group caught up in this immigrant nightmare of endless waiting and thinning hope. With his keen eye and sympathetic approach (Bakhtiari lived among the men for several weeks), he reveals the individual personalities who populate the small, miserable apartment run by Amir, himself an immigrant trying to leave. One by one, we come to know each of the men, hear their stories of detention and beatings by the police, their fear of deportation, their dreams, and what and whom they left behind. Eventually they all make it out of Greece with only Mohsen returning to Tehran — and a tragic end.
Bakhtiari’s hand-held camera, use of natural lighting, and occasional interjection heightens the film’s sensitivity, the feeling that these young men could be your family: a brother, uncle, father, cousin. That he chose not to examine the political aspect of the immigrants’ predicament keeps the focus on the human cost of current immigration policies. L’Escale was screened as part of the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes earlier this year.
Like the double-faced Roman god Janus, Palestinian filmmaker Annemarie Jacir’s second feature Lamma Shoftak (When I Saw You, 2012) simultaneously looks to the past and the future, and the feeling is bittersweet.
The setting is a dusty refugee camp in Jordan. It’s 1967, and a new wave of Palestinian refugees, this time displaced by the Six-Day War, is struggling to adjust to yet another profound loss. For 11-year-old Tarek (a first-rate performance by newcomer Mahmoud Asfa) and his mother Ghaydaa (Ruba Blal), the harsh conditions of camp life are made that much harder because Tarek’s father’s whereabouts are unknown; he was separated from them during the war. Recognizing that waiting for better days to come is a bad plan, Tarek, with the unassailable logic of a child, wants to go home and sets off to do just that. In the forest he meets up with the Fedayeen, who adopt him as their smallest comrade. His mother eventually finds him and ends up staying as well. The scenario then shifts to life among the fighters, where Jacir ably recreates the heady sensibility of the revolutionary movements of the late 1960s. From the army costumes and pop music drifting from the radios to the dancing of the dabke at night around a fire and political discussions about class and religion, we enter a world where righting injustices still felt not only possible but probable. Tarek’s idyll in the forest comes to an end, however, when tensions mount along the Israeli border and the fighting begins in earnest. He’s angry with his mother, with Layth (Saleh Bakri), the fighter who brought him into the training camp, and with a political landscape he cannot understand. He simply wants to go home. His obsessive desire sets him on his path and brings the film to its suspended, heartbreaking end.
For director Jacir, Lamma Shoftak is an attempt to show “how hope keeps us alive. …[It was] an important time period in our history where regular people, everyday people, felt they could do something to change their lives, an infectious feeling full of dreams and change.” It is difficult, though, when watching the film not to constantly think of the bleak future that slowly enveloped and bled this collective hope.
Ali Ha Gli Occhi Azzurri (Ali Has Blue Eyes, 2013) is a sharply observed if well-trod story of a second-generation immigrant teenager lost between two worlds, this time Egyptian and Italian. The main characters are played by the same three nonprofessionals who director Claudio Giovannesi followed in his documentary Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy, 2010). Nader (Nader Sarhan), his girlfriend Brigitte (Brigitte Apruzzessi), and Stefano (Stefano Rabatti) live in the seaside town of Ostia, a mostly poor and working-class distant suburb of Rome. The dramatic tension springs from the generational disconnect between Ali and his family, who disapprove of his girlfriend and want him to behave as the good Muslim boy he was raised to be. Ali refuses to give up the girl, saying he loves Brigitte. In a fit of pique, he leaves home and must contend with life on the streets. During his odyssey of petty thievery and delinquency, Ali comes to realize that although Italian may be his language (he speaks Arabic only when he fights with his parents) and Egypt an unfamiliar country, it is not so easy to walk away from his family’s traditions despite wearing blue contact lenses to Italianize his looks.
Shot in the cold light of winter and with mostly hand-held camera work, Giovannesi gives us a sensitive portrait of a young man trying to find his place in life and whether he can fuse the different aspects of himself or must chose one over the other. The film’s title is taken from a line in Pasolini’s poem, Prophecy, wherein the poet imagines a new, multiracial, multicultural world, a dream that pervades the works in this always engaging festival.
* * *
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