À L’Abordag (Guillaume Brac, France, 2020)
By Gary M. Kramer.
The Philadelphia Film Festival, now in its 29th year, offered more than 100 films, shorts, and documentaries online, with select programming at the Film Society’s drive-in theater. There were some great documentaries and feature films from around the world screening at the fest. Here is a rundown of a half-dozen highlights from this year’s largely virtual fest.
One of the lighter entries was À L’Abordage, an easygoing, youthful romantic comedy co-written and directed by Guillaume Brac. Twentysomething Félix (Eric Nantchouang) meets Alma (Asma Messaoundene) one night at an outdoor dance and they have a lovely evening together. After she leaves the next morning, Félix convinces his friend Chérif (Salif Cissé) to join him on a camping trip in the region where Alma is staying with her family so he can spend more time with her. The guys use a car share and meet the uptight Edouard (Éduoard Sulpice). As they arrive in the town, an accident forces Edouard to stay with Félix and Chérif, and À L’Abordage chronicles each man’s misadventure. Félix tries to connect with Alma who is not entirely pleased he showed up in town unexpectedly. Some tension develops between them that other characters try to diffuse. Chérif befriends a woman with a baby and ends up caring for both of them. Meanwhile, Edouard wants to go biking and canyoning, and finds a sense of freedom. Brac does not go for big dramatic moments – though there are a few; instead, he lets his mostly talky film unfold casually with the characters sorting out their feelings – several characters apologize for their behavior – as they recalibrate according to their circumstances. The tone is sunny, like an Eric Rohmer film, and the ensemble cast plays well together. The interactions are believable, and viewers will be invested in each character. In fact, it is almost disappointing when L’Abordage ends abruptly because this film has such a amiable disposition.
Heist of the Century is an enjoyable caper flick from Argentina. It depicts a famous 2006 bank robbery masterminded by Fernando (Diego Peretti), who assembles a motley crew, including Mario (Guillermo Francello), to steal millions. (The four other robbers are mostly supporting players). This fleet film, directed by Ariel Winograd, shows how Fer and his gang cleverly solve every problem they encounter – from securing a floor plan, to figuring out how to beat the alarm system, to determining how to open the safety deposit boxes quickly. The reason for their theft is simple – it is simply about the money.
The heist itself is, of course, a terrific set piece, especially when Mario toys with Sileo (Luis Luque) the negotiator. (There is an amusing bit when Mario stops to celebrate a hostage’s birthday). Winograd’s relaxed approach to the action does not create tension so much as it has viewers rooting for the criminals. This is why the film is so much fun, but The Heist of the Century also shows the aftermath of the crime, which is revealing. Yet it the film’s closing sequence, where facts about the case are reported, that suggest a documentary – retold by the criminals – could be even more entertaining.
The astonishing documentary, Miracle Fishing, plays like a thriller. (The story eventually became the basis for a major motion picture in 2000). Tom Hargrove and his family were living in Cali, Colombia in 1994 when he is kidnapped by FARC, a group of revolutionary guerrillas. His son Miles filmed the family’s life during the ordeal, including the negotiations with the kidnappers for Tom’s safe return. It was a risky decision for the family to handle the situation themselves, but Susan (Tom’s wife) and a few close friends consulted with knowledgeable folks about tactics and strategies. Incredibly, a college-aged friend was assigned to talk with the kidnappers (because he was Colombian). There are some pulse-pounding sequences, such as the efforts to pick up maps and information for delivering the ransom, and setbacks, but Hargrove and co-director Christopher Birge’s sensational film captures the hopes, fears and exhaustion of everyone involved.
Another documentary that screened at the fest is the stunning Acasa, My Home, by Radu Ciornicuic. The filmmaker observes Gica and his family, which include nine children – Vali, a teenager, is the oldest – who live on an island in a natural area on the outskirts of Bucharest. They are seen fishing and foraging for food. (One intense scene has them capturing a pig). But their existence is threatened because social services are called in to house the family and educate the children. (There is also a plan to make the area into a nature park; Vali later becomes involved in that project).
The first half of the film is highly atmospheric. Ciornicuic takes viewers into the river and through the fields. When fires are started, viewers can practically feel the heat of the flames and smell the smoke. Vali sells fish he catches to get money for the family; they live off the land as much as they can. Gica, who loves his freedom, is determined not to leave, but eventually he and his family are forced into the city and set up in an apartment. The second half of Acasa, My Home, shows the clan trying to adjust. The kids get haircuts and are sent to school. They marvel at a washing machine. But eventually, there are issues from an encounter with the police to the family being forced to relocate.
Rica, one of the young sons, likens the city to a prison, missing his freedom, and it is hard not to feel for him. And this is how Ciornicuic quietly, shrewdly makes his case for his subject. He shows their dignity even if the greater society disagrees with how they want to live. Acasa, My Home opens and closes with Vali on the water, and the film chronicles how much he changes over that time. It is a remarkable portrait of a family in transition.
Yalda, A Night for Forgiveness is a gripping Iranian drama. Maryam (Sadaf Asgari) is young woman facing a death sentence for killing her husband Nasser. She will be pardoned if Mona (Behnaz Jafari), Nasser’s daughter (and heir), forgives her on a live TV broadcast. Moreover, if enough viewers text in Maryam’s favor, the blood money will be paid by the show’s sponsors. This is a remarkable set up, and Yalda crackles as it conveys the urgency and despair of its characters and their situations. Maryam is a nervous wreck just waiting for Mona – her only hope to live – to arrive. And she is uncertain that Mona will forgive her.
As the show presents a documentary about the case, viewers learn the tragedies that occurred. Writer/director Massoud Bakhshi keeps the action nimble as drama unfolds on screen and off. A subplot involving a couple arriving at the station with critical information provides one of the film’s juicy twists.
Yalda is all about women’s roles and restrictions in Iranian society, class differences, and, of course, forgiveness and regret. The film lards these moments with Maryam’s tears and Mona’s recriminations. But they are compelling as Bakhshi teases out the suspense – like every reality TV show – to its intense climax.
A Son is the dazzling feature debut of Tunisian filmmaker Mehdi Barsaoui. Fares (Sami Bouajila) and Meriem (Najla Ben Abdallah) are driving to Tatouine when a stray bullet injures their son Aziz (Youssef Khemiri). (The film is set during the Arab Spring). Taken to a nearby hospital, Aziz requires a liver transplant. However, a doctor informs Meriem that a test Fares took reveals that he is not the boy’s biological father. She is then put in the uncomfortable position to inform her husband of this bombshell, which also has legal ramifications.
Barsaoui rarely shows the couple together in the same frame after this news is revealed, which is symbolic of their now splintered relationship. Moreover, this development also sends A Son into two compelling directions to show the extremes each parent will go to save their son. Meriem becomes determined to find Aziz’s biological father and ask him to agree to a liver transplant; Tunisian laws are very specific about organ donation. Meanwhile, Fares meets Mr. Chokri (Slah Msaddak), whose offers to find his son a donor for a hefty price.
As each parent races against the clock to get Aziz the care he needs, Barsaoui includes scenes that magnify the pressures they face. Meriem is harassed by young men on the street, whereas Fares learns the insidious reason why Chokri is able to get the liver his son needs. A Son lets the ethical dimensions of the risks the characters take play out, but Barsaoui wisely resists handwringing and melodrama. That – along with the strong performances by Bouajila and Ben Abdallah – is what makes Barsaoui’s accomplished film so impactful and devastating.
Gary M. Kramer writes about film for Salon, Cineaste, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News, The San Francisco Bay Times, and Film International. He is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina, Volumes 1 & 2.