movies

Spotlight on Syria: Houses Without Doors

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Director Avo Kaprealian in “Houses Without Doors”

One of the great discoveries I’ve made for myself over the years programming this festival is the world of Syrian documentaries. In our very first edition of the Cape Cod Festival of Arab & Middle Eastern Cinema we showed a film called A Flood in Ba’ath Country by Omar Amiralay, which brilliantly and cinematically documented the Syrian people in a remote area under the previous Assad regime. I’ve seen that film many times now and even showed it again in a subsequent edition of the festival. Each year I have become aware of additional documentary work being done by Syrian filmmakers, sometimes anonymously created and shown online only, and sometimes more successfully disseminated through mostly Western film festivals, such as the Tribeca Film Festival or the Berlin International Film Festival.

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Alejandro Jodorowsky’s “El Topo” is incoroporated into the Syrian documentary “Houses Without Doors.”

Early this year, I found Avo Kaprealian’s film Houses Without Doors. I was stunned by the filmmaker’s courage—not only because he was filming in Aleppo even after being arrested and having his footage destroyed, but also because of the uniqueness of his vision. The film, shot from the Kaprealian family’s window in Aleppo, documents the changes to their Al-Midan neighborhood as the war in Syria escalates. The neighborhood is home to many Syrians of Armenian descent, including the filmmaker. His footage is combined with audio and sometimes video of other films, including two  films about Armenian, Stan Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes, as well as the neo-surrealist midnight movie El Topo by Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodoroswky, creating a mesmerizing contemplation on the interconnectedness of Armenian refugees who came to Syria and the current plight of Syrians seeking asylum in other countries.

It is really unfortunate that Avo will not be able to join us tonight at the screening at Wellfleet Preservation Hall (7 p.m. Friday, May 5) because he is a very interesting filmmaker with a great passion for cinema. I did, however, have the opportunity to “talk” with Avo virtually, and I will be playing a portion of my audio interview with him after the screening tonight.

Before Houses Without Doors, we will screen the short film Daesh Girl by Abdul Almutairi, a Saudi filmmaker who made this film while studying film in the United States. This film tells the story of a young woman who joins ISIL in order to free her girlfriend. Almutairi will be able to join us from Saudi Arabia tonight via Skype after we screen his film. We previously screened Almutairi’s film 1991 in Wellfleet, so it is really exciting to bring him back this year.

Houses Without Doors screens tonight, Friday, May 5 at 7 p.m. at Wellfleet Preservation Hall, 335 Main St., Wellfleet. For tickets and information on this screening as well as the entire festival schedule, click here. Tickets will also be available at the door 30 minutes before screening time.

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Programmer Notes: Opening Night Selections

HalalLove-stillI am so excited to bring to Cape Cod another edition of the Cape Cod Festival of Arab & Middle Eastern Cinema. For a couple of years now I have wanted to add comedies to the program, but I was never able to get the ones I wanted until this year. Opening night at the Chatham Orpheum Theater (Thursday, May 4, 6 p.m.),, after a wonderful reception with Middle Eastern food and cash bar, I am proud to present to you the feature comedy from Lebanon, Halal Love (and Sex) by Assad Fouladkar.

Halal Love (and Sex) was chosen because it is funny, at times dramatic, well acted, and overall a wonderful film, but also because this is a comedy I feel you will relate to, even as different as our countries are. In the film, we meet three romantic couples at different stages in their relationships. Living in a Muslim country, and being Muslims themselves, the rules and codes of their religion and culture restrict how they can behave, but there are also certain “loopholes” that give the characters some hope that they can resolve their romantic issues. This is something I think people who follow other religious traditions will relate to, but also, all of us can find ourselves in the situation of being stuck between what our hearts desire and what our communities will allow.

Humor is an essential human coping mechanism, but from the images we see of Lebanon, the Middle East, and the Arab world, one would think there is no sense of humor in these places. We only hear about terrorism, refugees, anti-Americanism, and religious extremism. So, although this film is a comedy, I believe it is still a vitally important film to screen this year, and I hope you will join be there tomorrow night.

To read more about Halal Love (and Sex) and its director’s thoughts about making the film, check out this story in Variety from when the film was screened at Sundance  last year.

18119506_791511167678237_5634968043991553126_nIn addition to the reception and screening of Halal Love (and Sex), we will be showing E.A.S., a short film by Kays Al-Atrakchi, an Iraqi-Italian filmmaker living and working in the United States. The film takes place in the U.S. in the near future, at a time when Arab-Americans must hold special ID cards. It was a film Al-Atrakchi made before President Trump was in office. In his director’s statement, Al-Atrakchi says, “When I came up with the original idea that ended up becoming E.A.S., I imagined a fictional America where Arab immigrants were viewed as hostile and national ID databases and interment camps were quickly becoming the law of the land. I could never have imagined that my fictional vision of an increasingly paranoid America would be so close to becoming reality.”

We are hoping to discuss this short film with Al-Atrakchi via Skype right after it screens, so please join us for this.

Opening Night is Thursday, May 4, with a reception at 6 p.m. and the screenings starting at roughly 7 p.m. Tickets ($25 including the reception) are still available online or at the box office at the Chatham Orpheum Theater, 637 Main St., Chatham.

Moonlight

MoonlightImpressionistic, poetic cinema is rarely set in the gritty reality of life in America’s poverty-stricken neighborhoods. But the new film Moonlight, writer/director Barry Jenkins perfectly captures the loneliness of being in a very different kind of closet than the one we’re used to seeing gay characters step triumphantly out of. Here, the rosy optimism of suburbia’s relative affluence doesn’t exist —not even as a reference point. Here, we look at poverty (always intertwined with race in America), and homophobia within the lives of characters who are rough around the edges but not caricatures or stereotypes.

In Moonlight, we meet Chiron, a young black boy who is teased and bullied by other boys in his Miami ghetto circa mid-1980s amidst America’s War on Drugs and crack epidemic. School-aged Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert), nicknamed “Little” by the others, is quiet, intelligent, and sensitive—all things seen as weird, unnatural, and undesirable, even by his crack-addicted mother (Naomie Harris), who loves him fiercely, but cannot express it. He is taken in by the local drug dealer and his girlfriend  who give him a refuge when things get to rough. He also has one friend, Kevin, a boy who is also sensitive and intelligent, but not quiet or introverted, and certainly better equipped to fit in with the crowd, for better or worse. These are the people who care about Little.

In part two of this three-part film, we meet Little again, only now he is in high school and people call him by his real name Chiron (Ashton Sanders). Many of his problems remain, and his burgeoning homosexuality becomes more apparent, but the socio-economincs of his life and the fear and  weakness of those around him lead him into the system that so many young black men end up in. When he comes our on the other end, we are in part three and his new persona is “Black” (Trevante Rhodes), himself a drug dealer who even looks similar to the one who took him in in his youth. We are full circle.

Moonlight belongs to a new category of cinema that includes films such as Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Below Dreams (which I wrote about in my coverage of the 2014 Tribeca Film Festvail here). I don’t know what to call this yet, but it is a category that is defined by its otherness. The characters in these films are not archetypes representing some subsection of American society, nor are they simple victims of circumstance. The filmmaking style is loose, instinctual, and economical. The films take place outside of the usual settings for American movies, like New York, L.A., or some unnamed, generic suburb. These are places cameras don’t often go, where stories go untold. The filmmakers themselves are concerned with poverty as well as with glimpses of beauty that can occur, even in an impoverished life.

As someone with little obviously in common with Chiron (I am a straight, white woman living on Cape Cod), it is remarkable how strongly connected to him I felt, a marking of the director’s skills in building empathy. Moonlight takes this intense experience and shares it with us in a unique form with expressive acting, sound design, and cinematography, as well as an editing strategy that is directed by the emotions of the main character. I haven’t seen this before, and that in and of itself separates it from most of what comes out in theaters today. So many movies, however different their basic plots, are so similar in approach and formal language that I can barely remember them a week later. Not so with Moonlight, which is a beautiful, tragic film that stays with you. In fact, I look forward to seeing it again to relive that experience of cinematic discovery.

There is a deep sadness throughout all three parts, and the dominant feeling is one of loneliness and isolation, which speaks to the real-life invisibility of gay, black men. We have seen them here and there (notably in the character of Omar in the brilliant cable series The Wire some years back), but it is a largely ignored subset of both the African-American experience and that of the LGBTQ community.

I hope Moonlight will not be pigeonholed into the usual distribution patterns where films with black characters only show in areas with larger black populations and films with gay characters are only aimed at gay audiences. I hope to see it for my second viewing right here on Cape Cod… at a theater near you.

Nantucket Film Festival Gets Underway

The Nantucket Film Festival (NFF) kicked off yesterday with their opening day film Finding Dory, an unusual choice for a film festival since it is a Disney sequel film and is already in theaters. But don’t let that fool you. The schedule this year is chock full of excellent fiction and nonfiction features as well as virtual reality experiences (new this year!) and panels and special events that celebrate the art of storytelling in cinema.

HERO_cameraperson On  the documentary front, there are a number of interesting choices. Under the category of documentaries by masters of the form, NFF is screening Miss Sharon Jones!, the latest from the legendary Barbara Kopple (Harlan County, USA; Wildman Blues; etc.), which screens Thursday, June 23 at 12 p.m. And, my personal favorite, Werner Herzog brings his unique approach to nonfiction film with his latest documentary Lo and Behold:Reveries of a Connected World, about the impact of the Internet and the multiplicity of screens that exist in our daily lives now, screening also on Thursday at 5 p.m. and again Friday at 9 a.m.

Although I have not seen many of the documentaries on offer, I did see Tickled, and I have to say that is one of the most bizarre stories ever to be captured on film—fiction or nonfiction. What begins as a fluffy human interest story about “competitive tickling” soon turns into a disturbing trip into the mind of a most peculiar character. To say more, unfortunately, would ruin the film for you. Trust me, you need to see this to believe it. It screens Friday at 5:30 p.m. and Sunday at 4:15 p.m.

In addition, I did see Cameraperson, a fascinating, non-narrative documentary by Kirsten Johnson, a cinematographer who has worked on many notable documentaries, such as The Two Towns of Jasper, Fahrenheit 911, and Citizenfour. With this film, she sits in the director’s chair and works with the outtakes from her career of shooting documentaries and puts together a piece that she asks us to see as her “memoir.” Although there are interviews that tell us powerful stories of loss, regret, and fear, it is not so much the verbal content as it is the imagery that demonstrates the overwhelming power of the visual. As someone who makes films, it taught me a lot about what images can have impact on an audience, aside from the usual focus on people’s faces. This film, which screens Thursday at 1 p.m. and Friday at 3 p.m., is meditative, but very relevant to the human condition through the films she includes.

HERO_WILDERPEOPLE- Still 2- Julian Dennison (Ricky) Sam Neill (Hec) Credit On the narrative fiction side, there are several films I recommend. Little Boxes is a wonderful small film about a biracial family that moves to the suburbs of the Pacific Northwest. The father is a black novelist and the mother a white college professor. Their son is “just what we need around here” according to the local white girls who see his blackness as a way to up their hipness quotient. The story is moving, very funny, and very well written and well acted. It stars Melanie Lynskey (Two and a Half Men), Armani Jackson, and Janeane Garafalo. It screens Saturday at 3:45 p.m. and Sunday at 6:30 p.m.

Captain Fantastic, screening Thursday at 1:45 p.m. and Sunday at 4 p.m.,  stars Viggo Mortensen as Ben Cash, a father of six with very unconventional views on child rearing. Having decided with his wife to raise their children in the wilderness, things take a turn when tragedy forces them to come out into the “real world” of other people. This clash of realities is at times hilarious, but also quite provocative.What is appropriate to tell a child? How much harm do we cause in protecting them from experiences? And what are the skills that we need to pass on to our children. Director Matt Ross has crafted an intelligent, funny, and resonant film here that examines parenting in a way we have not seen in the cinema before.

I also saw the Closing Night film, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, a film by Maori writer/director Taika Waititi about a troubled kid who is adopted by a couple who live close to the bush in New Zealand. This film, too, starts out as one about culture clash, with the young boy having to reimagine himself outside of the urban, hip-hop environment he’s used to. Like in Captain Fantastic a tragedy beyond his control forces him to deal with the outside world when he and his adoptive father take off into the woods on the run from a maniacal child-welfare officer. It’s a very funny film and also quite touching. This is one everyone can enjoy, from kids to adults. It screens Sunday at 5:15 and 8 p.m.

Filmmaker Todd Solondz is known for pushing the boundaries of people’s comfort zones for over a decade now, since his debut film Welcome to the Dollhouse and later, the very disturbing  Happiness. He’s on the festival circuit now with his new film Weiner-Dog, basically a collection of short stories about “weiner dogs” and the impact they have on the families who adopt them. This one is not for the squeamish, and despite its topic, it is not a great film for animal lovers. Solondz’ trademark cultivation of unease is on display here, sometimes making for hilarious entertainment, but more often veering into a contemplation of loneliness and the void that dogs often fill for people. If you’re someone who enjoys things that make you uncomfortable, this one’s for you, albeit not as brilliant as his previous films. This one screens at 9:45 p.m. Thursday and Saturday.

The festival also features a tribute to Oliver Stone, breakfast panels with various filmmakers (all of which are sadly sold out at this point), a suite of virtual reality experiences, and an In Their Shoes conversation with comedienne Molly Shannon. Hop a ferry and check out one of our region’s great cinematic celebrations. For all the details visit nantucketfilmfestival.org.