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Screenings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz


Selections highlighted from 2015 Tribeca Film Festival



Gerald SchmitzFor several months since March, being disabled kept me from the multiplex. Frankly I didn’t miss much with the Hollywood fare tending to the mediocre and meaningless. (There are notable exceptions to recommend: Noah Baumbach’s smart witty dramedy While We’re Young; the artificial intelligence sci-fi dream/nightmare of Alex Garland’s Ex Machina; George Miller’s awesome post-apocalyptic action epic Mad Max: Fury Road; the contrasting optimistic Disney fantasy future of Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland). As for the super-sized blockbusters earning box-office billions (Furious 7, Avengers: Age of Ultron), however entertaining, there’s nothing in them for this column .

Fortunately thanks to the Internet I could view some worthy Tribeca festival films via online press screeners. Last week I focused on the documentary audience award winner. This week I highlight more selections to watch for.

The real gold at Tribeca is mostly concentrated on the documentary side.

Democrats (Denmark), Camilla Nielsson’s jury award winner, offers an extraordinary behind-the-scenes insight into the fraught negotiations between the ruling ZANU-PF party of Zimbabwe’s dictatorial octogenarian president Robert Mugabe and theMovement for Democratic Change (MDC) party of Morgan Tsvangirai. These followed a disputed 2008 election that forced limited power-sharing and the drafting of a new democratic constitution. Filmed over the next three years, the focus is on the machinations involving the constitutional committee’s lead negotiators for each side — ZANU-PF’s supremely cynical Paul Mangwana and the MDC’s Douglas Mwonzora, a brilliant parliamentarian and human rights lawyer. As much as we sympathize with the engaging Mwonzora, up against an “evil party in an evil system presided over by an evil man,” we also grow to empathize with Mangwana as he suffers from, then rises above, his own party’s sabotage efforts in an escalating political drama.

Crocodile Gennadiy (Ukraine/U.S., Steve Hoover’s follow up to the acclaimed Sundance hit Blood Brother, tells the equally remarkable story of Gennadiy Mokhnenko, an intrepid man of God in Mariupol, a coastal city in southeastern Ukraine where his unorthodox tough-love methods involve raiding the streets to rescue street kids from lives of drug abuse, crime and prostitution. “I don’t need permission to do good deeds,” says Gennadiy who calls himself “Pastor Crocodile” after a character in a famous Russian animated children’s program. He runs “Pilgrim Republic,” the largest rehabilitation network of its kind in the former Soviet Union, and ministers to women in prison. He has adopted 32 orphans in addition to his own three children. As separatist war fomented by Putin’s Russia comes to Mariupol, Gennadiy admits to feeling “destroyed inside.” This unforgettable portrait of faith in action makes us hope his mission will endure.

Among the Believers (Pakistan/U.S. enters the deeply disturbing world of Imam Maulana Aziz, the deceptively grandfatherly head of Islamabad’s radical Red Mosque whose 5,000 young boy students spend their days memorizing and reciting the Quran as part of indoctrination in an extremist version of Islam that seeks to dominate the world. The centre of a network with 30 branches in a country of 40,000 madrassahs (Quranic schools), the Red Mosque has survived a 2007 attack by Pakistan’s military that killed 150. Linked to the Taliban and jihadi terrorism, its story also illustrates the failures of western interventions and Pakistani state institutions, showing just how challenging is the struggle to achieve a functioning secular democracy.

Song of Lahore (Pakistan/U.S. introduces us to another aspect of the Islamization of Pakistan that began with Zia’s military dictatorship in the 1970s. Music and film were among the arts that suffered greatly from the prohibitions of religious fundamentalists. With audiences lost, musicians, already denigrated as low caste, had to find other ways of earning a living. Yet the flame wasn’t extinguished. The film profiles the resilience and renaissance of traditional music that is open to the world through the dedication of a musical ensemble from Sachal Studios. After their jazzy interpretations became a hit on YouTube, an invitation from Wynton Marsalis led to a remarkable 2013 performance with his orchestra at New York’s Lincoln centre. They returned home to give a first public performance in Lahore. Despite the threats from Islamists, their story inspires hope. As one says, “We find God in music.”

Toto and His Sisters (Romania) by writer-director Alexander Nanau uses an unsparing cinema verité style to observe the bleak circumstances of three children — 17-year-old Ana, 14-year-old Andreea, and 10-year-old Totonel — living in squalour in a Bucharest slum. Their Roma mother Siminica is serving a seven-year prison sentence for drug trafficking. Supposedly being looked after by “uncles,” their chaotic apartment is a drug den of junkies shooting up. Ana is already an addict and becomes HIV positive. Andreea and Toto go to a “Children’s Club” remedial school and are eventually removed to a shelter.
Will they overcome years of harsh abandonment? There are hopeful even joyful moments, but they face an uncertain future when the mother is released.

Thank You for Playing (U.S. is a deeply moving story of parents coping with personal tragedy. When Ryan and Amy Green’s son Joel was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour at age one and given four months to live, Ryan decided to use his skills as a video game developer to transform the family’s struggle (Joel has two doting older brothers) into something creative as well as consoling. The result became an animated game “That Dragon Cancer” featuring Joel as a baby knight. Although he survived three more years, desperate interventions produced no miracle. One is left to marvel at the exceptional and courageous way the Greens have shared their intimate experience of loving a dying child.

Prescription Thugs (U.S.) is an eye-opening exposé of the prescription drug industry by director-narrator Chris Bell whose wrestler brother “MadDog” Mike died of an overdose in 2008. Confessing to his own struggles with addiction, Bell argues that the “war on drugs” has wasted vast sums and massively boosted prison populations even as pharmaceutical companies and complicit doctors have become in effect drug pushers feeding a “culture of addiction” to painkillers like oxycontin and stimulants like adderall. Bell mines his family’s experience to make a powerful case against Big Pharma which employs an army of Washington lobbyists to protect its bottom line (over $700 billion of profits in the past decade).

In Transit (U.S.), co-directed by the late great practitioner of direct cinema Albert Maysles, is an absorbing observation of the diverse mix of passengers aboard Amtrak’s “Empire Builder,” America’s busiest long-distance train running between the Pacific northwest (Portland and Seattle) and Chicago across the northern plains. Winner of a special jury mention, its fly-on-the-wall perspective becomes our eyes and ears capturing fragments of conversations and telling moments ranging from the lighthearted to the deadly serious as people on the move share their fears, hopes and dreams.

Havana Motor Club (Cuba/U.S. is a fascinating look at how a core of resourceful car racing enthusiasts have managed to keep their passion alive despite the sport being banned for decades following the Cuban revolution. As they move from illegal street racing to a first officially authorized competition in 2012, one contender has an American backer but most must use their inventive skills to transform 1950s vehicles. These automotive guys have something of the rebel in them and the film offers an unusual window on the uncertain speed of a society in transition.

Monty Python: The Meaning of Live (U.K. is a delight that recalls the subversive satire and zany antics of the eccentric British troupe whose Monty Python’s Flying Circus regaled audiences on stage and screen starting in 1969. Dedicated to Python original Graham Chapman who died in 1989, the film flashes back over career highlights and goes candidly behind the scenes as the members reunite after 34 years to rehearse a series of 10 live shows at London’s O2 in July 2014 (the last was broadcast to 1,800 cinemas worldwide). Snippets from those include famous sketches — “dead parrot” and “ministry of silly walks” — and an appearance by Stephen Hawking performing the Galaxy song. Even if they did it mostly for the money, the result is brilliant fun to the tune “always look on the bright side of life.”

Several documentary shorts also deserve praise. Top jury choice Body Team 12 follows a courageous group of workers with the Liberian Red Cross charged with the challenging task of removing the bodies of Ebola victims to prevent its spread. Kingdom of Garbage received a special jury mention for its glimpse into the precarious lives of children scavenging landfills in northern Iraq. Canadian Ann Shin’s My Enemy, My Brother concerns two veterans on opposite sides of the Iran-Iraq war who, from the battlefield to a Vancouver counselling centre, end up saving each other and finding friendship. (Their story is the subject of a moving essay, His Brother’s Keeper, in the May 4 issue of Maclean’s magazine.)
As for fiction features, a number explored situations that were depressing or rough, often both. Bridgend (U.K./Denmark) which follows an epidemic of youth suicides was shot on location in the Welsh county were 79 suicides were actually reported from 2007-2012. Necktie Youth (South Africa/Netherlands) also has suicides in its bleak black-and-white depiction of a Johannesburg were the post-apartheid dream has died. The adults are angry at scandal-ridden politics while their young are adrift in a haze of trash talk, intoxication and delinquency. Being 14 (France), which brings a raw documentary-like realism to the world of troubled adolescents and their anxieties, jealousies and insecurities, shows that high school girls can be as cruelly immature and sex-obsessed as boys.

Violent crime was at the centre of other grownup features. Wednesday 04:45 (Greece/Germany/Israel) has a jaundiced colour palette that fits its seedy underworld of drugs, blackmail and murder in which an Athens nightclub owner has to kill to survive. Hyena (U.K.) is a very hard-boiled London-based drama about a corrupt police drug squad whose dealings with Albanian thugs trafficking in drugs and women go horribly wrong. Sunrise (France/India) centres on the rain-soaked netherworld of a Mumbai social services officer whose own daughter was kidnapped into sex slavery (100,000 children go missing in India every year). At least this story has a little light following nights of darkness and death.

There was some comic relief on offer. I liked writer-director-actor Onur Tukel’s oddly-named Applesauce, a Big Apple tale of two yuppie couples that takes off from a low-brow talk-radio host’s “Tell All Tuesdays.” Things go off the rails at a restaurant as they play the game of “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” on each other. (The waiter did it and there’s even a reference to saxophones and Saskatchewan.)

I should also mention the unusual Lucifer (Mexico/Belgium), a three-act imagining of the fallen angel’s passage between heaven and hell through a Mexican village. Until the last minutes its black-and-white images are filmed in a “tondoscope” circular frame. The characters and carryings on grow stranger as the visitor’s presence enters the villagers.

The narrative feature that most impressed was the jury award winner Virgin Mountain (Denmark/Iceland), written and directed with great skill and sensitivity by Dagur Kári, a program head at Denmark’s National Film School. Its unlikely hero is a 43-year-old gentle mountain of a man Fúsi, a baggage handler at Reykjavik’s airport who still lives with his mother. Co-workers play cruel jokes on him; others call him a “weirdo.” A shy creature of habit, his life of innocence changes when he is pushed into going to a line dancing class wearing a cowboy hat and gives a ride home to a female loner Sjöfn. A friendship blooms until she falls into a deep depression. That’s when Fúsi becomes more than a caregiver. His unconditional affection pulls her through, gives her the means for a new life, and opens his own journey’s horizons. This story’s beautiful ending is just the beginning.