And the Oscar Goes To… Not a Clue

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AFIDOCS 2021: Arty Chick’s Download

This year was a distance festival. There were opportunities to be in the theaters in DC, but I chose to watch everything online from afar, on my couch. That’s a mixed blessing. No running from theater to theater. No missing something because it overlapped with another film. No frozen feet from arctic-cooled theaters. Lots of good snuggles with my dog. But also no standing in line with other festival-goers and talking about what we’ve seen and loved. No Q&A’s after the films. (There were some that were available, but it just didn’t seem the same taped from a distance.) And no watching films in some of DC’s beautiful landmarks like the National Archives. A slew of distractions that made it very different from sitting in a dark room with an audience. And for me the worst part was that I don’t have a big screen television, so some of the films were definitely shortchanged.

Nevertheless, it was a good festival and there were several films I will be thinking of for a while. The Audience Award for Best Feature went to one of my faves for sure, Storm Lake. It is a smaller film and I hope that the award will mean it gets seen by a lot more people.

The films I saw were: The First Step – Radiograph of a Family – Rise Again: Tulsa and the Red Summer – LFG – Storm Lake –  The Neutral Ground – The One and Only Dick Gregory – Obama: In Pursuit of a More Perfect Union –  Roadrunner: A Film about Anthony Bourdain – The Story Won’t Die –  Daughter of a Lost Bird –  and The Lost Leonardo.

Review: The Perfect Candidate

Saudi Arabian cinema has a very short history. The first feature shot there was only in 2012! And it was written and directed by a woman, Haifaa Al-Mansour. Since then she’s worked in other countries but for The Perfect Candidate she returned home and shot a film that’s part family drama, part feminist anthem, and all a pleasure to watch. It’s Maryam’s (Mila Al Zahrani) story. An accomplished physician in a small town, she’s still living in the patriarchy and chafing under it’s strict rules for women. Early on, she’s heading to a conference out of town when she’s not allowed to board a plane because her travel permit has expired.  And she can only rectify it if she has her guardian sign. A grown woman and she needs a man to sign! It’s a great way to introduce the audience to the insanity of being a woman in Saudi Arabia and to Maryam who’s fed up with it.

Review: There is No Evil

Shot in secret and smuggled out of Iran, There is No Evil is a four-part film centered on capital punishment and its effect on the men who are forced to be a part of the system. Director Mohammad Rasoulof understands the power and limitations of living in an authoritarian state personally. He’s been imprisoned more than once for taking a political stand. This is his seventh film, and many of them have won prestigious awards, though because of state censorship, none have been screened in Iran.  After winning the main prize at Cannes in 2017, he was accused of ‘endangering national security’ and ‘spreading propaganda against the Islamic government’ and officially barred from leaving the country, a verdict which is still in effect. He was also sentenced to one-year imprisonment. And yet he’s still risking his life to make films and this one is powerful.

Review: Tel Aviv on Fire

You might not think that there’s much humor to be found in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But Palestinian director Sameh Zoabi has crafted a very amiable farce that spans the borders and steps lightly around the conflicts. In Tel Aviv on Fire, Palestinian bumbler Salam (Kais Nashif) falls into a writing job on a very popular Palestinian soap opera. But he soon finds his freedom depends on the story going the way a certain Israeli Defense Force officer (Yaniv Biton) at the border crossing wants it to. Meanwhile Salam is also wooing an old flame and dealing with the diva antics of the soap’s French lead. And as he’s running around trying to please everyone, the show must go on.

Quickie Review: Girls of the Sun

In our #Girlpower era, a film about battalion of Kurdish women fighting ISIS in North Kurdistan should be a slam dunk. But somewhere between idea and execution Girls of the Sun got a bit lost. Part of that may be that it is framed as being about a French war correspondent who embeds herself with this group of women and her story is a distraction. I was never sure why I should care about her. After all, the women she’s with have lived through absolute hell. The more interesting story is that of the female commander Bahar (Golshifteh Farahani) who lost her husband and son to ISIS and has a reason to be fighting the fight.

Review: Capernaum (Capharnaüm)

Capernaum in French is used usually in French literature to signify chaos, to signify hell, disorder,” according to Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki, director of this emotionally wrenching film. At the center of this hell is a little boy named Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), a young Lebanese boy who is exploited and miserable. He’s 12-years-old but looks about 8. And his world collapses when the one person that he has a loving relationship with, his 11-year-old sister Sahar (Cedra Izam), is sold off as a child bride. So he runs away from his useless parents and has to fend for himself in a very ugly world. And he finds a temporary haven with an Ethiopian woman named Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw) and her baby son Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole), only that, too, falls apart and he ends up in jail for stabbing the “son of a bitch” who stole his sister. And it’s there that he decides to sue his parents for having him. And you totally understand his reasoning.

Review: Beauty and the Dogs

Beauty and the Dogs is a very timely and very taut Tunisian #MeToo movie. The entire film is just nine shots, each a slice of the harrowing story of a young woman raped by policemen and trying to bring charges against them for it. There is a very Kafka-esque feeling to the whole ordeal. She can’t get medical attention without her ID, but she lost it during the rape, and she has to go to the police station to report it before she can go to the doctor, and everyone along the way just wants her to let it go for any number of reasons. It is horrifying, but she’s a fighter and so it is ultimately a #GirlPower flick!

Review: The Insult (L’insulte)

Since most of what we’re fed about the Middle East is about war and strife, it’s always good to see a film about regular people set there. And since Lebanon is relatively missing from the news cycle these days, it’s illuminating to see one of their big films. The Insult isn’t lacking the political element though. It’s the story of two proud men, one a Lebanese Christian and a one Palestinian Muslim, who turn a small incident into a personal war that ripples through modern day Beirut. It’s a tense story exploring the rifts in the civil society of Lebanon, with Palestinian refugees being the outsiders and Christians in power, that turns into an edge of your seat courtroom drama and a case that rests on the power of words. And it’s Lebanon’s very worthy Oscar contender this time around.

Review: Clash

This is an edge of your seat sort of film. It takes place in Egypt after the Arab Spring, after the Muslim Brotherhood has been thrown out of the government and the police under Sisi are nominally in charge of a totally chaotic country, while the people are emboldened to take to the streets to push their side’s agenda. The story begins with a couple of AP journalists out covering a protest getting arrested and thrown into the back of a police truck. One is an American-Egyptian and thinks he can use that privilege to get some help. He can’t. Then another group of people are arrested at another protest. And then another. And another. Some are Muslim Brotherhood. Some were just at the wrong place at the wrong time. Some are pro-Police. And all of them are in this nightmare together.