By Ali Moosavi.
Men of Deeds, shown at Sarajevo, hits hard at endemic corruption perpetuated by those who hold power over people, either by position and money or by using religion.
Here is a look at a few films shown at this year’s film festivals in Locarno, Sarajevo and Venice.
This very timely movie from Ukrainian director Maryna Er Gorbach was shown at Sarajevo Film Festival where it picked up the Best Director award, having already garnered a multitude of awards including World Cinema Best Director from Sundance and the Audience Award in Berlinale. Klondike is set in 2014, when the tragic shooting down of the Malaysian Airline by Russian separatist forces happened.
Irka (Oksana Cherkashyna) and her husband Tolik (Sergey Shadrin, who died in June 2021, aged only 40, shortly after completing this film) live in a small farm in the Donetsk region of Ukraine. Irka is heavily pregnant but still carries on all the house and farm chores. The film starts with a big bang, caused by a missile destroying an exterior wall of the house. This provides Gorbach with both a dramatic opening and also a visual aid to contrast the destruction with the serene and beautiful countryside. Irka and her brother Yaryk (Oleg Scherbina) are fiercely nationalist and loyal to the Ukrainian government while Tolik is on friendly terms with the Russian Separatists, thus causing considerable tension between these three.
The Russian separatists are portrayed as men without any traces of humanity, decency and moral values. They are totally unconcerned about Irka’s pregnancy and being in great pain and order Tolik to kill their only cow in the farm and Irka to prepare food for them. The Malaysian plane crash produces another dramatic moment, further highlighting the separatists immorality, showing them to collect souvenirs from the crash victims.
Gorbach’s camera pans slowly and deliberately and a few of the evening shots reminded me of Nuri Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011). A scene of Irka giving birth in agonizing pain while the Russian separatists go about searching the house for food in a nonchalant manner is particularly painful to watch. Klondike is first and foremost a tribute to women and their resilience in harrowing circumstances and Gorbach has dedicated her film to Women.
Men of Deeds / Oameni de Treaba
One of the bright stars in this century’s cinema has been that of Romania. It came to the forefront of world cinema with films such as Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005), Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) and more recently, Radu Jude’s Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (2021). Romanian films often mix tragedy with dashes of humour and black comedy.
Men of Deeds, shown at Sarajevo, is a first-rate thriller from writer-director Paul Negoescu, which bears all the hallmarks of Romanian cinema. Negoescu wisely spends the early part of the film building the central character of the film, Illie (Lulian Postelnicu), the chief of police, in fact the only policeman in a village. Illie is on a meagre salary and his dream is to own an orchard. His only asset is a tiny apartment in town which he co-owns with his estranged wife, who is reluctant to sell. Any proceeds from the sale would barely allow Illie to buy a piece of barren land, let alone an orchard.
The mayor of Illie’s village appears to be very popular with all the folk there. He seems to be helping people if they are in any difficulty. As he tells Illie, we have our own ways here. When this “our own ways” extends to bumping off the husband of a woman that the lecherous mayor is after, Illie’s easy going quiet life is threatened. The mayor openly confesses the murder to Illie as an accident. He repeats “our own ways” justification and a priest, who is always by Mayor’s side, blesses him and says that God has forgiven the mayor, so who is a provincial policeman to argue?!, When Vali (Anghel Damian) a young man from police academy is sent to Illie for training and starts delving into the murder case, it makes the mayor uneasy and he asks Illie to stop Vali pursuing the case. When Vali is badly beaten up, Illie’s patience appears to be at an end, but the mayor silences him by virtually giving away a beautiful orchard to him. How much more can Illie’s conscience and sense of duty withstand? Will he risk sacrificing his lifelong dream of owning an orchard to carry out justice?
Men of Deeds hits hard at endemic corruption perpetuated by those who hold power over people, either by position and money or by using religion. Negoescu’s direction is unobtrusive but firmly in control, trying to make every scene and every shot interesting. When two people are having an uninteresting but necessary conversation, he fixes the camera on another interested party or shows people fighting in the background and out of focus. Lulian Postelnicu as Illie is nearly in every scene and is simply superb. The violent and bloody ending is reminiscent of the ending of Taxi Driver but this being a Romanian film, Negoescu garnishes it with a dash of Romanian style humour!
Saturn Bowling / Bowling Saturne
Saturn Bowling, a French psychological thriller directed and co-written by Patricia Mazuy was shown at this year’s Locarno Film Festival. It is like a modern retelling of Cain and Abel. Guillaume (Arieh Worthalter) and Armand (Achille Reggiani) are two half-brothers who share the same recently deceased father. Their father clearly favoured Guillaume and left nothing to Armand in his will. Armand is working as a bouncer in a disco and obviously has a psychological problem with women. One night he helps to protect a couple of girls from pouring rain by accompanying them to a car while holding an umbrella over them. Without even giving him a kind look they jump into the car where a couple of guys are awaiting them. Armand then vents his frustration by masturbating against a car.
Guillaume makes an offer to Armand to run a bowling alley that their father has left for him. There are a few stipulations though, their father’s old buddies are allowed to gather regularly at the bowling and have free dinner and drinks. They don’t think much of Armand , calling him “the bastard son”. Armand will also have to look after their father’s dog. Armand accepts and everything seems fine. Guillaume, who is a police officer has recently been promoted gets drawn into a case involving a serial killer with all the victims being young girls. We already know who the killer is. We witness the first murder in which Armand lures a girl into his father’s old flat in the bowling complex which he now resides in and in a very violent scene murders her. There is no need for director Mazuy to show any further murders, just showing the police discovering the bodies is sufficient. Therefore, it’s not a case of the audience waiting to discover who the killer is. The tension and pull of the story lies in discovering Guillaume’s reaction when he finds that the killer is his own half-brother, whom he unknowingly aided by providing him with the bowling alley in which he found his victims.
Further complication and a twist in the story arise when Guillaume get romantically involved with a girl who is an animals rights activist and has had a serious confrontation with one of the old hunting bodies of Guillaume’s father.
Armand clearly has more of his father’s blood in his veins than Guillaume. When he sees all the hunting photos and trophies in his father’s flat, he gets the urge for murder or “hunting”. When his father’s hunting buddies show a home movie of their departed friend hunting a lion, Armand’s killing urge reaches its peak. Saturn Bowling is a very gripping and disturbing ride.
A Ballad / Balada
The Bosnian writer-director Aida Begic is a familiar name to regular attendees of Sarajevo Film Festival where her films often have their world premier there. Her latest, A Ballad has followed this tradition. The film starts with Meri (Marija Pikic) attending an audition for a film. We come back to this scene a few times during the movie. Begic uses a loose, non-linear format to tell the story. The main theme of the story is how women are viewed and treated in patriarchal societies. Meri is in the middle of a custody battle for her daughter with her estranged partner. A family friend Samir (Slaven Vidak) who has connections in the court offers to help her. But at a price. Samir has had his eyes on Meri for a long time and once had made an unsuccessful offer to marry her. He feels that this is the perfect opportunity to try again. Meri is unemployed and to have a chance for gaining custody she must find a job. She feels that landing a role in film or TV is her best bet but everybody, even her best friend Adela (Lana Stanisic) try to dissuade her and tell her to find a “real job”. Samir tells Meri’s mum that acting is “an unsuitable job for a woman”.
The message that Begic’s film conveys is nothing new and we’ve seen it in many other movies, especially those coming from traditionally patriarchal countries. I felt that the film could have done with some tightening. Marija Pikic is very appealing as Meri and Begic has found an ending for the film which neatly ties all the loose ends.
Skin Deep / Aus Meiner Haut
Assuming someone else’s identity is a theme which has been covered in a number of movies, among them Seconds (1966) by John Frankenheimer, Cammell-Roeg’s Performance (1970) and Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975). In the German film Skin Deep, shown at this year’s Venice Film Festival, director Alex Schaad takes this theme to its extreme.
A number of couples have gathered in an island. Some of them have been here before and know what goes on there. Others have no idea. The couples are divided by draw into groups, each consisting of two couples. They then go through a process of swapping identities. Each person in these groups of four swaps identities with each of the others in turn. This identity swapping is complete and disregards gender. During this process the concerned persons take on the complete identity of the other. Therefore a male member can take on the identity of a female and carry out everything that she would do, including sexual relations with a man. Somehow, they all fully accept and get into this transformation almost immediately with no questions asked. I had difficulty buying into this. We are not shown what is done to these people to make them take on the full identity of another person, with all its inherent dangers and pitfalls. In fact, this is a wise move by director Schaad and his brother Dimitrij who co-wrote the screenplay and has one of the main roles in the film. Showing any type of process would have made the film vulnerable to ridicule.
The film focuses on two couples, Leyla (Male Emde) & Tristan (Jonas Dassler) and Mo (Dimitrij Schaad) and Fabienne (Maryam Zaree). Schaad has divided the film into chapters, each dealing with a different identity swap among the couples. This identity swapping would in theory provide a full and total understanding of your partner’s feelings, needs and desires, and all other characteristics which they would otherwise keep to themselves. Though on paper this idea seems very interesting with many possibilities for both dramatic and comedic situations, on film it is much harder to accomplish. Visually, Skin Deep is a treat but unless you fully buy in to the identity swapping concept, the visuals will not achieve their intended impact. The ideas explored in the film though can provide material for endless discussions.
In Dogborn, showing at Venice Film Festival, the central characters are a sister (Silvana Imam) and brother (Philip Oros) who are Syrian refugees in Sweden. They are homeless and jobless. The brother has lost his ability to speak due to the trauma that he suffered in Syria. Luckily they have a cousin in Sweden who introduces them to Yann (Henrik Norlen), someone with many businesses and properties. Yann offers them a place to stay in one of his luxury apartments. In return they have to do simple deliveries for him. These “deliveries” turn out to be delivering young girls to clients all over town. These girls are mostly refugees and this irony is not lost on the sister. Writer-director Isabella Carbonell adds another ironic touch by setting the story at Christmas time. The male clients receive the girls while Christmas trees and candles are in sight in their houses. They are oblivious to the religious aspects of Christmas. The brother and sister, or “twins” as everybody calls them, become increasingly uneasy about the job they’ve been given and have to weigh their conscience against the comforts being provided for them by their employer. The straw that breaks the camel’s back is when they deliver a South Asian young woman and her small daughter, both given school uniforms to wear, to a group of lecherous men who discuss what they are going to do with the girls.
Carbonell treats both the sexual acts and the violence with admirable restraint, keeping both mainly off camera. The first half of the film has a tight structure and very compelling. The second half is not as compelling and lags a bit but Cabonell’s assured direction and Imam’s impressive performance keep the film afloat.
Goliath, showing at Venice Film Festival, is the ninth film in four years from the prolific Kazakh writer-director Adilkhan Yerzhanov. His films often deal with the theme of corruption, both moral corruption of an individual and state corruption. For this reason he is not a popular figure with the Kazakhstan authorities. I interviewed Yerzhanov at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival (http://filmint.nu/commodified-yerzhanov-indifference/) and he told me that he has been put on a black list, because the government says that his films have shamed Kazakhstan as a country and he is being neglected and ignored from the viewpoint of the government, even though his films are admired by film festivals.
Another hallmark of Yerzhanov films is their visual quality. Each shot is very carefully composed and framed. Both the corruption theme and visual characteristics of his movies are apparent in Goliath.
The film opens with the first of three quotations from Machiavelli that starts with “People should either be caressed or crushed.” A group of three men and one woman are forced out of their home by a gang of criminals. Poshaev, the gang’s leader accuses the woman of causing him trouble by registering a complaint against him with authorities. In the next shot we see the men carrying the woman’s body and burying her in accordance with Islamic traditions. Poshaev tells the woman’s husband that he has no axes to grind with him and offers him a job in a factory so that he can support his small daughter. Poshaev is very popular in the community as he provides people with jobs and money and considers himself above the law.
When the husband’s brother is killed by Poshaev, he seriously considers revenge, though it seems an impossible task. Some of the people who also wish Poshaev dead, but don’t have the guts themselves, start to encourage the husband to do this deed. A friend, in front of Poshaev’s men recites a verse from the Quran to the husband that says “retribution is an evil act” but later tells the husband that Quran also says that “an evil act should be responded with an equally merciless act”. A policeman hands the husband an unregistered gun to kill Poshaev. When the husband asks him why can’t you do it yourself? The policeman answers “but he didn’t kill my wife and brother”, to which the husband replies “I have a daughter.”
Though the premise for this story is not new, Goliath benefits enormously from Yerzhanov’s visual sense, carefully composing each shot. This film is also unlikely to endear Yerzhanov to the Kazakhstan authorities.
Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).