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Talking About Trees

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A group of retired filmmakers unite to put on movie screenings in Omdurman, Sudan.

This is the deceptively simple basis of Talking About Trees, Suhaib Gasmelbari’s ruminative and yearning meditation on the power of filmmaking, and united voices.

Passionate cineastes and friends Ibrahim Shaddad, Eltayeb Mahdi, Suliman Mohamed Ibrahim and Manar Al-Hilo hold great nostalgia for the joys of the films they saw as kids (they re-enact a scene from Sunset Boulevard early on).

Now living much quieter lives, the friends re-watch their favourite flicks, peruse old photos, play with broken film cameras, and reminisce about their once grand, now abandoned movie theatres, the venues which exhibited many of their favourite inspirations.

Sudan has compulsorily shut down all movie theatres in an effort to stymie any attempts at political revolution. (Ironically, the central cinema in the film is called The Revolution.) There is very little entertainment, nightlife or cultural gatherings in Omdurman. The four men (who together formed the co-operative Sudanese Film Group, (SFG)) decide to create a program of regular and free screenings for the community, to try to bring back some life to their town.

Yet, what they find is that they have to get approval from the same regime which imposed the ban on cinemas in the first place. The rebellious septuagenarians are repeatedly vetoed in their attempts to bring cinema to their town. Making matters worse, the government which enacted this decree is subsequently re-elected for another half-decade. The men aren’t getting any younger.

The four comrades face opposition from the highest levels of government. Not only that, but law bodies separate to the government have the same attitude. What to do? How does one stay optimistic in an oppressive climate?

This is the predicament at the heart of this earnestly charming work, which is as much about movies as the strength of solidarity, of willpower and comradery.

Whilst their attempts to revitalise their beloved theatre seem doomed, the audience is shown excerpts of African cinema, some made by our protagonists in their youth, a time of heady political and social revolutions, an evocation of an optimism which once existed in Sudan.

Then, among these glimpses of the past, and the doom surrounding their proposed plans to open a cinema, we learn that one of them is working on another film. Despite the suppression and hopelessness, this elderly filmmaking co-operative is still making movies and excited by them. The government has essentially outlawed any form of artistic dissemination or creation, but undeterred, they still pursue their imperiled calling.

This is a story with a zest for life, a zeal and universality recalling Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show and Milos Forman’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.

Whilst the friends are beset with uncertainty, facing a future with the same government, they still have something to say about it. And they do. The fragments of their future film that viewers get to watch, are the triumph over this censorship and repression. These are the seeds of the future.

This spirit is the core of Suhaib Gasmelbari’s own covertly made documentary, which he directed and acted as cinematographer on.

A story told with plain simplicity, this is a penetrating study of art and passion – of triumph over adversity in the drabbest circumstance.

Available to stream from Thursday, May 28, 2020 through Cinema at Home.


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Aznavour by Charles

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Unbeknownst to many, Charles Aznavour’s mastery of the soul-stirring ballad – imbuing upon each composition an emphatic quality that has become synonymous with mid-twentieth century French-pop – proves but half of the tools in his storytelling repertoire.

Documenting his worldly travels throughout his illustrious career, the celebrated French-Armenian troubadour hid a wealth of archival footage that when patched together in director Marc di Domenico’s evocative documentary Aznavour by Charles, showcases the crooner’s extraordinary gift of vivid expression.

Depicted in a grainy splendour, the authenticity of which will have sentimentalists lovingly clutch onto their polaroid cameras, di Domenico opens the bonnet on ‘France’s Frank Sinatra’ and details the inner-workings of an artist whose career existed as a triumph against class, loss and racism. di Domenico doesn’t so much as catalogue Aznavour’s impressive career as offer with fine objectivity a glimpse into one of France’s – if not the world’s – most captivating artists.

Aznavour by Charles is not without recognising his tremendous musical ability, with scenes showcasing the ‘She’ singer’s transportive gift. Aznavour’s profound lyricism, bringing with it, melancholic undertones as profound as they are core-shaking, transitions into contemplative narration that ponders the thoughts and motivations behind civilian society. The effect of this adds an extra layer of dimension that recognises Aznavour’s sense of compassion and the thought-out manner where he considered the perspective of others in his work.

Aznavour by Charles measures legacy not just as a by-product of popularity, but as a measure of character and prowess. The admiring manner the filmmakers capture Aznavour’s insatiable yearning for life speaks volumes to a once-in-a-generation virtuoso who was unable to switch off his keen sense of curiosity.

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School Life

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A large group of teachers assemble to discuss strategies for the new school term. Samia is introduced as the new vice principal (played by Zita Hanrot, Cesar winner and star of Netflix’s Plan Coeur) and it is through her point of view and reactions that we are introduced to the life of this suburban high school in Paris. The first few moments tell us the school has its share of challenges, common to the education system everywhere, especially how to discipline teenagers in mixed race and co-ed classrooms, particularly the ‘problem’ kids. Some schools integrate these pupils by spreading them across classes, but the policy here is to manage them in one group. They are known as the N.O.Ps, which means ‘No options (to choose electives)’ or, as one cynical teacher says, “All the dunces together”.

This fly on the wall, irreverent approach is a deliberate style choice from writer/ director Mehdi Idir, along with co-writer/director Grand Corps Mal, a nickname slam poet Fabien Marsaud adopted after a spinal injury. The pair worked together on Patients (2016), the adaptation of Grand Corps’ autobiography. The film was acknowledged for ‘coaxing comedy out of the unspeakable’ in a comedic take on the disability drama.

In School Life, classrooms are presented as challenging to long suffering teachers trying to maintain and model civility against a barrage of insolence and hostility. There are funny scenes as teachers cope by resorting to black humour or the totally inappropriate two school caretakers who use the kids as sport for their own amusement. There’s also a sports coach who’s borderline Tourettes with his foul-mouthed rants.

The film is in the familiar genre of classic schoolroom dramas where a newcomer teacher attempts to turn around the problem kids. To Sir With Love (1967) featured Sidney Poitier in an Oscar winning role as the ‘new broom’ teacher of an inner London school. The exceptional Stand and Deliver (1988) starred Edward James Olmos in a role based on real life maths teacher Jaime Escalante and gave us glimpses into troubled students’ lives at home and on the streets.

School Life also takes us into students’ home lives, so we get an insight into the context for their behaviour, what they might be managing outside school, and what they do or don’t tell the teachers. Long, loose scenes, some improvised, hover between documentary and plot-driven. It’s a credit to the directors that they encouraged the teenage actors to find their own words at times, but it leads to clunky, self-conscious moments. That’s characteristic of teenagers of course, but set against more well-acted performances, it’s uneven.

The script was inspired by the writer-directors’ own school experiences, especially Idir who based the character of Muslim student Yanis (newcomer Liam Pierron) on his own family background. The filmmakers researched at colleges and were also inspired by one of their friends who is a principal education advisor. And the film does offer sincere glimpses of troubled teens struggling to know what their options are in life.

The film’s value is in its egalitarian approach, that seeks to show all sides of the coin for students and teachers. By aiming to include a broad point of view, the storytelling is drawn out at times, as it flips between scenes of loose observation then onto sharp funny moments. The opening sequence that sets Samia up as the viewpoint uses a clunky slo-mo that seems out of synch with the rest of the film.

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The Mystery of Henri Pick

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This is a cosy Sunday afternoon crossword kind of film, undemanding, lightly humorous and with enough clues to keep you interested. Director and writer Rémi Bezançon (The First Day of the Rest of Your Life, 2008; and the animation Zarafa, 2012) adapted the novel by David Foenkinos into a screenplay. He told ExBerliner that he was intrigued by “the idea of this enigmatic library of refused and forgotten manuscripts. I found the idea very poetic.” He also liked the notion of the literary investigation “which was actually a small part of the novel” that he expanded in the film version.

The premise concerns a book, The Last Hours of a Love Story, written by a Breton pizza maker called Henri Pick. When the manuscript is discovered by young editor Daphne (Alice Isaaz) in a quaint library of books rejected by publishers, she recognises its potential and it becomes an instant sensation.

The protagonist is literary critic Jean-Michel Rouche who hosts a book show on TV. He’s arrogant, self-centred and a snob. A cultural elitist, he simply can’t believe the book was penned by a small town pizza maker. His characterisation, deliberately overplayed by Fabrice Luchini is pitched to farce. It’s all a bit mannered and reduces sympathy for him, especially in the romantic sub plot. Do we care if he gets a nice and younger girlfriend?

What’s good is that the film knows exactly what it is aiming for, a gentle, comical mystery story for literary lovers. The warm-lit locations around a small French town are pleasant to spend time in as Jean-Michel follows his treasure trail in pursuit of the real author of The Last Hours of a Love Story. His obsessive search starts with overtones of Hercule Poirot then when he hooks up with Henri Pick’s daughter (Josephine played by Camille Cottin) the action becomes more like a caper version of The Da Vinci Code.

Josephine is just one of many suspected ghost writers and Jean-Michel’s insistence on building a case to incriminate almost everyone he meets is a good comedic thread. His journey through small town Brittany takes him well out of his elitist comfort zone. He’s ruffled but barely dented by the experience as he trawls through encounters with many eccentric characters and a book club for crime novel fans. It’s amusing but you wish Jean-Michel’s obtuseness took more of a hit, and he’d be more deeply changed.

One good reason to watch films from other countries is to be taken into other cultures and social settings. In The Mystery of Henri Pick we are shown aspects of small town French life, specifically Brittany, contrasting with Paris sophistication. And, annoying as our hero is, if you get as far as setting out on his detective hunt, you’ll be compelled to follow him to the last reveal.

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Notre Dame

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Maud Crayon (Valérie Donzelli) is a single parent and architect at a small Paris firm. She’s incapable of anything approaching decisiveness and assertiveness, so she’s often berated by her overbearing boss, Greg (Samir Guesmi) and is paralyzed with indecision on whether she should boot the freeloading, feckless father of her kids (her dim-witted ex), Martial (Thomas Scimeca) out of her house. Things reach an even more surreal level when a Teletubbies-esque diorama she builds in order to sell a playground design project, is whisked away by a night storm wind like a magical realism carpet, whizzing across the Paris city-scape and submitting itself for the hotly contested (and highly sought after) Notre Dame esplanade re-design contest.

Bizarrely, her entry is selected by the Mayor’s Office and she is hurriedly thrust into a highly publicised design and construction phase. Maud’s previous ex, a TV Journalist named Bacchus Renard (Pierre Deladonchamps), turns up to document the entire process, ultimately spending a lot of time hanging around and inevitably making it easy to rekindle old desires.

Ratcheting the dial up to ‘maximum twee’, Notre Dame weaponises giddy positivity and plays with the narrative form as Writer/Director/Lead Valérie Donzelli utilises dance numbers, intermittent voiceover and even fast paced editing to create what is intended as a franco rom-com antidote to the doom and gloom of our world.

Throughout the film, we hear TV and radio programs in the background of scenes narrating the malaise of modern western life. We see everyday people in the street being weirdly aggressive and confrontational and homeless immigrants sleeping in makeshift shelters across the street from Maud’s house. It urges the audience to just go with the ephemeral frothiness of the plot and to have fun. So, yes, it’s saccharine at times and terribly French, but it’s also fun and playful. Overall, it’s an earnest, if not bafflingly inane, French cream puff.

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Suicide Tourist

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Suicide remains one of the more taboo subjects in media, which ironically is what makes it such fertile ground for artistic exploration. Of course, it’s easy to skew into the maudlin, or melodramatic, if the artist in question isn’t up to the task. In the case of Jonas Alexander Arnby’s Suicide Tourist, we’re certainly looking at a valiant attempt, even if the message ultimately seems a little muddled.

Suicide Tourist tells the tale of Max (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), an insurance agent who is going through an existential crisis. It soon becomes clear this isn’t just a midlife indulgence, rather Max has an inoperable brain tumour. He’s looking at a potentially very painful, undignified, death and he’s understandably not delighted by this development and wants to spare his partner, Lærke (Tuva Novotny) the horror of it all. So Max contacts a clandestine assisted suicide facility called Hotel Aurora. At first it seems a superior, merciful option, however, like Hotel California, at this joint you can check out any time you want, but you can never leave.

Suicide Tourist benefits greatly from the gorgeous direction of Arnby, who gave us 2014’s When Animals Dream. It overflows with gorgeously composed shots and striking imagery. It’s also extremely deliberately paced, delivering an experience that on occasion verges on the somnambulistic. It’s not an easy watch either, dealing with themes of futility and mortality, although pretty much everything that occurs at Hotel Aurora is gripping in a slow burn way. Suffice to say, Suicide Tourist won’t be for everyone, nor is it trying to be.

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau delivers an extremely effective performance as poor Max, and is capably supported by Tuva Novotny and a stunning turn from Kate Ashfield who plays a “fake mother”, roleplaying for patients to help them accept their deaths. This is a dark tale indeed, and while its conclusion doesn’t quite satisfy, it’s certainly compelling in a grim, icy, existential sort of way. If that sounds like your jam, have at it, but perhaps bring along a nice stiff drink.

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Chained for Life

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Introduced by a quote from critic Pauline Kael, opining on the topic of actors being “more beautiful than ordinary people”, Chained for Life opens with a scene set in a creepy hospital in the 1940s. Freda (Jess Weixler) feels her way through unfamiliar surroundings, stumbling into an operating theatre where an all-too-Germanic sounding surgeon performs cosmetic surgery on a patient.

Suddenly, a loud noise distracts them outside, a film crew member yells ‘cut’ and it’s apparent we’re watching a film being shot, on location at the very same huge, creepy old hospital.

The Werner Herzog-esque filmmaker overseeing the production is referred to only as ‘Herr Director’. He’s portrayed by Charlie Korsmo (who starred in Dick Tracy and Hook as a child but hasn’t acted on screen for twenty years). His strangled Bavarian accent impatiently berates performers as they struggle through take after take.

The film Herr Director is making seems to be something of a B-picture that features Nazi-type doctors performing weird medical procedures on patients, while prattling on about how aberrant human deformities and afflictions can be fixed by his amazing surgical expertise.

Mabel/Freda (Jess Weixler) is a well-established actress who’s taken a role that’s beneath her talents, solely to work with the lauded and (apparently) talented ‘Herr Director’. We follow Mabel as she prowls the set in her downtime, relaxing with cast and crew members, overhearing conversations about actors ‘getting facial work done’ or lamenting her own superficial shortcomings as she languishes in the make-up chair before a scene.

This concern towards performers’ perception of their appearance and indeed, people and their perspective of ‘beauty’ and symmetry in the world at large, is the primary concern of the entire film.

These sequences feel very Altman-esque in their sound design, as conversational chatter overlaps in waves. Mabel contends with the unwanted attention of sleazy co-star Max (Stephen Plunkett) but is enthralled and fascinated by an indefinable attraction to her co-star Rosenthal (Adam Pearson), a man afflicted by neurofibromatosis, which is a condition that causes non-cancerous but highly deformative tumours, much like ones John ‘The Elephant Man’ Merrick endured.

Rosenthal has been hired, along with a cast of other people born with natural deformities, to perform in Herr Director’s film because the filmmaker desires ‘authenticity’.

Seemingly influenced by Tod Browning’s Freaks, it’s this ‘carny’ infused element of the film that lends the most pathos. One scene in the film-within-the-film is lifted completely from David Lynch’s The Elephant Man, further emphasising the tonal shifting and referential trickery deployed by Writer/Director Aaron Schimberg in order to subvert audience expectations, playfully throwing a wrench into the mechanics of cinema and revelling in wrong footing us as viewers.

Whether Mabel’s feelings towards Rosenthal are genuine is open to interpretation, she could well be ‘method’ acting as part of her performance as an actress in the film’s production but it’s another layer of interpretation on top of the metaphor already in play.

As a visualist, Schimberg’s stylistic leanings tend towards a seventies-inflected surrealism bordering on dread-laden psychological horror. He’s unafraid to deploy a zoom lens for dramatic intensity and experiments with sound design, which recall UK auteur Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio and The Duke of Burgundy.

As a meditation on our perception of beauty and how much it infuses our psyches, Chained for Life is an intriguing effort; structurally it’s playful and enthralling, though ultimately falls short of being greater than the sum of its parts.

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Wild Butterfly

Australian, Documentary, Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

My brain is one big scatter, I can’t think of any way around it, so writes a young Claire Murray in her diary, wistful and cross-legged, sitting against her front door of a still evening in Shireen Narayanan’s dramatised true-crime documentary, Wild Butterfly.

The background details of Claire Murray’s life were either unacknowledged or unknown. Needing a second liver transplant in 2010 saw a trial by Australian media – including the betrayal of a 60 Minutes reporter – and a general public lapping up its focus devoted to her as a ‘junkie mother’ who seemingly squandered the gift of her first liver transplant after a heroin relapse.

The story was news-worthy hype where divisions were felt, and mass public outcry and prejudice ensued.

Should it be taxpayer assisted again? Was she worthy of a second transplant after screwing up the first? What media outlets chose to overlook, was the long-term suffering and more personal and tragic convolutions of Claire’s past to fully understand why it got to the point of needing a second transplant, despite how candid Claire’s father, Michael, had been on such matters to different reporters.

Wild Butterfly recovers important gaps and context, traced back to an adverse childhood event of immense and lasting impact. Narayanan, with almost thirty years’ experience as a clinician in mental health, structures the documentary by reflecting upon its practice. What seems at first a disruption of unsettling and scattered events, both at home and at school, reveals to be a poignant joining of the dots. In the manner of trauma narrative, Claire’s tumultuous life is broken down into parts to be rebuilt as a smooth and lucid timeline in order to make sense of it.

After a misdiagnosis of ADHD in her early teens to the more correct identification of post-traumatic stress with an emerging personality disorder as her drug use spirals, the overarching questions of how and why and where everything led her fall into place.

‘Blaming the past’ as a term can sometimes sound abstract. Dissecting it into a linear sequence of events, while identifying a person or an incident that ultimately caused the evolving destruction of another, is more precise. This is what Wild Butterfly achieves. It’s a moving portrait of resilience after pain, the erosion of self and how ongoing struggles from childhood trauma into adulthood can be the saddest of all.

**If the content brings up concerns for you please contact someone you trust, your GP or relevant service

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Queer Japan

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Expressing desires to be new and old, progressive and traditional, self-effacing yet eccentric, there is a polarity to Japanese culture that is unlike any other on this planet.

These attitudes result in many hardships for Japan’s queer community, with their plight standing at an unruly crossroad that gives the antics going on at Shibuya Crossing a run for its money.

Director Graham Kolbeins observes the experiences of Japan’s queer community, exploring the vast spectrum of gender and sexuality, in the revealing documentary Queer Japan.

Queer Japan smashes through some glass ceilings with its celebration of fringe queer culture; digging deep to offer insight into societal attitudes and politics. Attributing a lack of diversity in government as a hindrance on progression, Queer Japan provides a podium that is otherwise unavailable for trailblazing transgender voices to communicate their dissatisfaction.

Night-life/party culture and artistic movements provide an outlet of release for many Japanese queer people, with the film denoting the importance of visible queerness in changing toxic perceptions. (Particularly those holding beliefs which associate queerness with mental illness.)

That said, what intends to reflect the voice of contemporary queer radicalism, connecting queer Japanese struggle with the likes of Western society, becomes derailed by Kolbeins’ desire to position queer-culture as a flagrant, hyper-sexualised stereotype. From latex-clad fetishism to absurdist performance art, the filmmaker’s voyeuristic portrayal of LGBTQ+ sexuality reduces what ought to champion queer rights into a dangerously self-gratifying side-show calibrated for Western audiences.

Despite Kolbeins’ safe construction of interviews, Queer Japan is not completely deprived of soul. Efforts to create a sense of place and vibrancy, evoking the whimsy of Japanese culture, carry through to quirky captions that introduce characters and define complex Japanese words. These peculiar touches offer not just a nod to Japanese culture but bring about a sense of humanity to the marginalised interviewees.

Even with the eccentric portrayal of Japanese culture, Queer Japan’s equal-treatment-for-all thesis, regardless of gender or sexuality, is thankfully a virtue not lost in translation here.

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If you could mass-produce and force-feed the altruism expressed by the medical professionals who worked in Ward 5B of the San Francisco General Hospital during the AIDS crisis, you could bet your last dollar that malignant homophobia would be a thing of the past. The staff’s benevolence, illustrated by directors Paul Haggis (Crash, writer of Million Dollar Baby, etc) and Dan Krauss (The Kill Team) in grainy authenticity, is not motivated by a sense of duty, but by a shared commitment to extending the compassion that was denied to people suffering with an illness that is isolating and debilitating.

Where mainstream media and politicians propagated fear-mongering as a tool to disenfranchise the queer community – creating outrageous hysteria by perpetuating AIDS as an infectious ‘gay-cancer’ – the staff of 5B took to providing a loving environment that would debunk harmful perceptions that deprived AIDS patients of their humanity.

Treated with a level of empathy outside the norm of medical objectivity, the exemplary standard of care offered to patients living with AIDS in Ward 5B did just as much to mitigate pain as alleviating social stigma. From the comforting touch of a human hand, to fostering an environment that welcomed same-sex partners, the care expressed by the 5B staff, with an emphasis on the nurses, exists as an act of human exceptionalism.

Interviews conducted provide first-hand accounts of the goings-on inside 5B, with former staff sharing the profound impact that this ‘unique experiment in medical care’ had on their professional and personal selves. Haggis and Krauss intersect scenes involving the ward in present-day, now an empty station awaiting reassignment, to remark on the significant contribution these every day, lion-hearted individuals had on progressing queer rights.

As difficult as freedom is to obtain, it can just as easily be compromised, with 5B highlighting that despite the politicisation of the AIDS crisis, the hyperbole worsening the experience for many gay people, the persevering nature and strength of the queer community – allies included – held (and will continue to hold) firm against systemic discrimination.