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Talking About Trees

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

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.

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The Odd Family: Zombie on Sale

Festival, Film Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

When big-pharma does some experimental meddling on random homeless people, a test subject named Joon-Bi claws his way out of an underground dump site and staggers through rural South Korea before wandering into a senior citizens home, where he bites the forehead of Man-Deok (Park In-hwan), the grandfather of the Park family, before zombie-shuffling his way back into nearby woods. Thinking the attack to be a random nut job, Man-Deok feverishly sleeps off the encounter, before waking to feel (and look) twenty years younger.

After Joon-Bi has a series of encounters with other members of the Park clan: ne’er do-well unemployed middle son Min-Gul (Kim Nam-Gil), hapless eldest son Joon-Gul (Jung Jae-Young) and his very pregnant wife Nam-Joo (Um Ji-Won) and youngest daughter Hae-Gul (Lee Soo-Kyung), the family all presume that the limping, groaning zombie is just a homeless person who’s ‘not quite right’.

Thinking it best to trap the bitey wanderer in the garage of their dilapidated family-run petrol station, he’s kept there tied-up long enough for Hae-Gul to decide he’s the object of her romantic affections and for their now-youthful and reinvigorated father to start charging local elderly residents large sums of money for access to Joon-Bi’s rejuvenating chomps and the de-aging effects that await.

Mixing elements from Cocoon, The Castle and Shaun of the Dead, the film manages to homage everything from Peter Jackson’s Brain Dead to straight up showing characters watching a clip of Train to Busan. Despite wearing its influences on its sleeves, it’s clearly made by earnest fans of the genre, aiming the zombie shenanigans squarely at a broad audience, deploying a light comedic touch with less of an emphasis on gore and more on the screwball comedy.

There are funny character touches, particularly the pregnant Nam-Joo’s handy self-defence techniques utilising a frying pan and the weirdly romantic relationship between the zombified Joon-Bi and the young and impressionable Hae-Gul.

This is definitely on the comedy side of the ‘zom-com’ and there’s much to enjoy here. As an entertaining and family-centric horror-comedy, it’s a really fun ride.


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Horror, Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

With 2018’s Hereditary, director Ari Aster crafted a confident and harrowing feature film debut with some unforgettable imagery and an Oscar-worthy (but predictably snubbed) performance by Toni Collette. Just a year and change later, the 33-year-old New Yorker is back with his sophomore effort, Midsommar, and crikey there’s a lot going on in this one.

Midsommar tells the tragic tale of Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh), a young woman who in the opening minutes of the movie loses her entire family in a fashion we won’t spoil, but is utterly devastating. She’s also saddled with a slack arse boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), who stays with her post-tragedy out of a sense of obligation, even inviting her on a holiday to Sweden with friends Josh (William Jackson Harper), Mark (Will Poulter) and Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren); the latter of whom comes from the isolated commune where they’ll be staying. Naturally the idyllic, sunny commune isn’t quite as idyllic as it appears, and before too long events kick off, both bizarre and gruesome.

The concept of dopey Americans getting into fatal trouble overseas isn’t a new one. It’s been a staple of the horror genre as far back as An American Werewolf in London (1981), and more recently the formula was honed with the likes of Hostel (2005) and The Ruins (2008). However, what sets Midsommar apart is its weird commitment to digging into moments of real human drama and exploiting them for maximum audience discomfort. In lesser hands the cast of characters would be generic and dull – the jock, the slut, the funny guy etc. – but here they have layers. Christian is kind of a shiftless dickhead, it’s true, but Dani was also needy and insecure prior to her personal trauma. They’re a mismatched couple in a shitty relationship, and it’s explored in a subtle, layered fashion. This kind of commitment to a sense of emotional truth is, sadly, all too rare in modern genre cinema and it’s genuinely laudable.

That’s not to say Midsommar is an unqualified success, mind you. Similar to Hereditary, Midsommar’s best scenes occur in the first half. The opening is stunning, an ill-advised magic mushroom trip is a wonderfully well observed sequence and the first real incident at the commune is profoundly disturbing. However, the film weighs in at a hefty 147 minutes which is simply too long to sustain the slowburn tension with any consistency. The back half, therefore, is a bit of a mess, with genuinely harrowing moments awkwardly paired with goofy beats and subplots that simply go nowhere.

Performance-wise, Pugh owns the show, bringing real depth and pathos to a character brimming with uneasy self doubt and guilt. William Jackson Harper (Chidi from The Good Place) also delivers as an ambitious academic, but the best character is really the sunny environs of the cult (shot in Budapest, Hungary) and its grinning, white robed acolytes. It’s perhaps not quite the equal of the granddaddy of folk horror, The Wicker Man (1973), but it certainly has a red hot go with not a single tacky jumpscare to be seen.

Midsommar is a sun-drenched, hallucinatory nightmare that doesn’t know when to end, or quite what it’s trying to say, but is enormously effective (albeit inconsistently) and a giddily uneasy ride into hell. If you can look past its shortcomings, it offers an unusually nuanced take on relationships at the same time as delivering a story dripping with menace and dread. Ari Aster needs an editor, it’s true, but two films deep he has also proven a commitment to relentlessly resisting the urge to be ordinary.

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Sorry We Missed You

Festival, Film Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

50 years after his pioneering film Kes shadowed an underprivileged boy facing torment at home and at school, Ken Loach produces another sharp-eyed, unadorned snapshot of the working class, this time turning his lens to the horrors of the ‘gig economy’ of 2019.

Blue-collar parents Ricky (Kris Hitchen) and Abbie (Debbie Honeywood), struggling daily to keep their family afloat, decide to sell their car. This enables Ricky, formerly a building worker, to take a contract job as an independent delivery driver where he is paid per-job, not in wages.

Abbie, also on a contract, is a nurse and home carer to elderly and often neglected patients.

Their son Seb (an excellent Rhys Stone) is perennially getting into fights and being castigated. Abbie’s colleagues seem to call in sick daily, forcing her to fill in, working unpaid overtime, and neglecting her own (in crisis) family. To make matters worse, Ricky is in rising debt due to his employment situation.

As inconceivable as it seems, things only get worse for the family, with each part of their existence pummeled.

With Sorry We Missed You, Loach is making another major statement; a fiery call to arms for the beleaguered working stiff.

In the vein of The Bicycle Thieves and his own singular variety of social realism, Loach crafts a shattering account of a family living off casual zero-hour contracts. (An agreement where an employer has no obligation to provide minimum hours.)

Operating in a documentary-like wheelhouse that Loach has gravitated to throughout his six-decade career, each of the cast turn in affecting, honest performances.

Refined and considered photography from cinematographer Robbie Ryan (I, Daniel Blake, The Meyerowitz Stories) puts viewers inside Ricky’s van. Tight angles and modest lighting are favoured by Ryan and Loach (in their fourth collaboration) to plunge filmgoers into the constant capitulation of the family’s situation.

Whilst the tribulations the characters suffer are wrenching, if there is a fault with the film, it is that it can slide towards overstatement. Ricky’s boss is almost entirely unsympathetic to his colleague. On the phone to his hospitalised worker following a robbery, the supervisor speaks mostly of Ricky’s debts for the stolen goods. In the waiting room, he gives Ricky an arrears total. One wonders if Loach takes this a tad too far.

Regardless, this is a searing, brilliant and excoriating film from one of the giants of social realist cinema – a work which demands to be seen.

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Unmade Cinesound

Ken G Hall was Australia’s most consistently successful director at the box office – he made sixteen feature films through Cinesound Productions in the thirties and forties, only one of them a flop. Like all filmmakers, though, he had projects he wanted to make but was unable to.
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The Sweet Requiem

Asian Cinema, Festival, Film Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam’s The Sweet Requiem is the story of the untold struggles of Tibetan refugees. The film focuses on Dolkar (Tenzin Dolker), who made the grueling trip from Tibet to India at the age of eight. She is now twenty-six and living in New Delhi, India.

The film alternates between Dolkars’s present life and the past in the form of flashbacks that she had repressed for years. Dolkar’s friend Dorjee (Shavo Dorjee) assists the Tibetan community in Delhi and works alongside a man whose real name is Gompo (Jampa Kalsang Tamang), who they believe is a Tibetan activist.

When Dolkar sees Gompo, she immediately recognises him as the man who guided her group through the mountains and into the pass that leads into India; a difficult trek where losses were incurred. Dolkar struggles to forgive Gompo for the pain that his actions put her through. We also see her struggles with reaching her family back home, when she learns her sister has gotten married and has a two month old daughter.

The Sweet Requiem shines in its focus on Dolkar, a refugee that has made the most of her new life and who has tried to bury her past for the last eighteen years. Themes such as loneliness, alienation, and repression are explored throughout the visually impressive film. The mountain-set aspect of the film gives the viewer a wonderous sense of the journey, expertly contrasted with scenes of the crowded and busy streets of Delhi.

The intriguing The Sweet Requiem has its slower parts, but it is rich in its storytelling and its subtle approach to bringing attention to a struggle that is lacking in awareness by the general public. The film doesn’t come off as a cry for help, but rather, a true visual representation about something that is very real but unfortunately overlooked.