The Wild Pear Tree (Ahlat Agaci), Turkey-Republic of Macedonia-France-Germany-Bosnia and Herzegovina-Bulgaria-Sweden, 2018)

Wrapped up in yourself

I’m totally out of step with the critical consensus on this one, although I don’t resent the 188 minutes I spent watching it, the overall affect upon me was one of torpor. That wasn’t a result of the film’s slow pace but by the long conversations that pepper the film and the suspicion that Nuri Blige Ceylan thinks the positive outweighs the negative in the self-serving male characters.

There are three ‘set piece’ long conversations that the protagonist, Sinan, has when he returns to a rural backwater after graduation. They are with: a female friend from school; a successful writer who Sinan apparently hopes to emulate; two imams. It’s difficult to make long conversations visually interesting and for the religious discussion (apparently this lasts 20 minutes) Ceylan resorts to a walk down a hill with numerous long shots and I often didn’t know which of the three was speaking. In addition, subtitles are a huge disadvantage in a wordy film as too long is spent looking at the bottom of the screen. The discussions were interesting but maybe they better belong in a novel.

Thematically the film’s similar to, Geoff Andrew tells us in Sight & Sound, Ceylan’s early films; I certainly recognised the protagonist’s alienation from Uzak (Turkey, 2002). Initially I was sympathetic to the student returning home to Çan, a place that has little for him, from Çanakkale, where he studied. It’s clear he hadn’t been home for some time which was somewhat puzzling as the journey time was only 90 minutes; presumably this emphasised how much he hated Çan (I don’t know how long it takes to graduate in Turkey). Solipsism in youth is to be forgiven but not in Sinan’s dad who spends his family’s money gambling. He’s meant to be a ‘loveable rogue’ though he’s merely contemptible. Ceylan states he likes complex characters, who have good and bad points; I could only see the negative in the dad.

Some of the cinematography is beautiful, however the director stated he was less interested in beauty and often used a small Osmo camera for portability, sacrificing image quality. There are a fair number of shots were we plod behind the protagonist; this seems to me to be lazy filmmaking. The Dardennes brothers used it throughout (as I remember) Rosetta (France-Belguim, 1999) where it had cumulative power. Presumably the device is intended to aid identification with the protagonist but looking at his back and glimpsing surroundings is not particularly cinematic.

I loved Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, and have yet to see Winter Sleep (Turkey-France-Germany, 2014), so The Wild Pear Tree seems to me to be a step back rather than a development in Ceylan’s filmmaking. It must be hard continuing to make ‘deeply personal’ filmmaking which focuses on the merely autobiographical (the character of the dad is based on co-scriptwriter’s Akin Aksu’s). Occasionally the political inserts its head into the film, a local major’s paean to democracy is clearly a dig at Erdoğan and Sinan chats to a friend who is a riot cop; they are the most interesting scenes.

A plea to cinemas screening extremely long films: reduce the puffs, trailers and adverts. The extra 25 minutes added greatly to the pain in my arse.

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The Reports on Sarah and Saleem (Palestine, 2018) – LIFF10

What’s the difference?

In the bizarre world we live in where, for example, a President (on average) lies eight times a day, we can be forgiven for losing our grip on reality especially when once trusted news organisations (the BBC in the UK) seem incapable of navigating through the bullshit. One of the symptoms of the west’s drift toward fascism is the concocted controversy about criticisms of Israel’s appalling treatment of Palestinians. Equating criticism of Israel with anti-semitism is pure propaganda and is one of the reasons why news coverage of the conflict in Israel/Palestine is relentlessly one-sided. Earlier this week the Guardian website had to amend the headline ‘Israel officer killed during Gaza raid in which seven Palestinians died’; it’s the sort of reporting that dehumanises the dispossessed and is commonplace. Hence films like this become even more important because we have the opportunity to hear a Palestinian voice; in this case writer Rami Musa Alayan and his brother, the director, Muayad Alayan.

Using genre as a vehicle for making a political point (in a sense it’s impossible to make a non-political film in Israel/Palestine) is a good way of engaging a wider audience and, although slightly overlong, The Records of Sarah and Saleem is a gripping thriller of the Kafkaesque existence of people (particularly Palestinians) in the region today.

Sarah, an Israeli, is having an extra-marital affair with Saleem (Palestinian) which gets complicated when they visit Bethlehem, a Palestinian town just south of Jerusalem. Although nobody knows them there, the consequences of the visit drive the narrative.

One of the pleasures of the film is to see a ‘woman in a hijab’ as having narrative agency. Bisan (Maisa Abd Elhadi) is Saleem’s pregnant wife who is constantly told to let other people handle things when everything goes shit-shaped. She refuses to do so and the film switches tone slightly in its latter part and seems to be suggesting that a way forward in the intractable Israel-Palestine problem is through women.

As well as being part of the Leeds International Film Festival, it was the first screening in the Leeds Palestinian Festival which runs into December. The chilling shots of the ‘Apartheid’ wall and incessant checkpoints, as well as the casual treatment, by Israelis, of Palestinians as an Other, give an insight into the wretched world created by the Balfour Declaration over 100 years ago. And, it’s a riveting thriller.

Three Monkeys (Üç maymun, Turkey-France-Italy, 2008)

Strife is in the air

Strife is in the air

Nuri Blige Ceylan is one of the most interesting directors around; this is no secret, of course, as his latest film Winter Sleep won this year’s Palme d’Or. It’s taken me a while to warm to him; I eventually ‘twigged’ with Once Upon a Time in AnatoliaWhich is great as it means I’ve got a lot of catching up to do with what is, in essence, an ‘old school’ art house film director. Three Monkeys concerns the fall out of a politician bribing his driver to take the ‘rap’ for car accident. As the image above suggests, there’s trouble in the air.

Ceylan, who also scripted with Ercan Kesal, is a master of ellipsis and pregnant pauses allowing the spectator to fill in the gaps. It isn’t ‘obscure’, as the narrative unfolds, all is revealed but there are moments when you’re not sure what the conclusion of the last scene was. Such ambiguity, of course, is rife in life.

He’s also a master of composition and is very patient in waiting for the right weather conditions to illustrate the melodramatic emotions of his characters (or he also controls the elements). He favours the long take and, unusually, action in extreme long shot even for intimate scenes. This loses something on the small screen but then he is making films to be seen in the cinema.

The cast are excellent, especially Hatice Aslan as the driver’s wife.

The Wind Will Carry Us (Bad ma ra khahad bord, Iran-France, 1997)

Making strange the 'strange'

Making strange the ‘strange’

Abbas Kiarostami shoots his subjects tangentially; that is, he doesn’t necessarily place the camera in the obvious position to tell the narrative. Behzad Dorani plays the ‘engineer’, which is what the villagers in a remote location of Iran think he is, and we come to know the place through his observations. On a couple of occasions Kiarostami’s favoured long take simply focuses, from the position of the mirror, on the engineer shaving. The narrative, at this point, is carried by his conversations with the rest of his film crew; they are in the village to secretly film an ancient sacrament. Similarly, the opening sequence watches them arrive (see above) in extreme long shot, with the telephoto lens flattening the landscape; it makes strange what we recognise. We here the men in car trying to navigate via agrarian directions such as ‘turn left at the big tree’. Dorani, by the way, according to imdb, has only appeared in one other feature, which is remarkable given how brilliant he is in carrying this film.

For much of the film we are not clear what the protagonist is after; he seems to be waiting for someone to die. He spends his time wandering the village and, increasingly hilariously, rushing up the mountain to get a mobile signal. Not a lot is happening in a village where not a lot ever happens; except it does. The film covers birth, life, marriage, death, friendship, education, childhood. All of life in an exotic location is there for the spectator and it is beautifully shot; the colours are quite stunning, both the village, and its surroundings, occasional look like an Impressionist painting.

Making films in Iran is difficult unless they are treading the party line. Kiarostami’s success, and this film won the Palme d’Or, is rooted in his ability to appeal to the western art house audience. There is a slightly uneasy opposition set up in the film between the ‘town’ (the ‘engineer’ is from Tehran) and the apparently simple ‘country’ of the village. Despite the fact the film-maker is indigenous I think we are still being offered an ‘orientalist’ portrayal of a society we know very little of. The place is portrayed extremely sympathetically but we are no more than tourists. To be fair to Kiarostami, he probably feels that way too. Hence the village is ‘strange’ to my western eyes and is shot in a strange (arty) way; but what we learn is that, essentially, the strange is very much the same.

It might not be the same, though, I cannot tell from the film.

Where Do We Go Now? (Et maintenant on va où?, France-Lebanon-Egypt-Italy)

Dance of grief

Dance of grief

This is a cracker dealing with contemporary issues, the role of women and sectarian strife, in a way that’s both light-hearted and tragic. If that sounds a contradiction in terms it gives some idea of the film’s brilliance that the writer-director-star, Nadine Labaki, pulls it off. Her first film as director, Caramel (Sukkar banat, France-Lebanon, 2007), didn’t grab me, though it was well regarded; this is a big step up.

It focuses upon an isolated village, possibly in Lebanon, where tensions between Christians and Muslims ferment close to the surface. At least they do with the men, the women simply get on with living with each other, warts and all. There’s plenty of humour to be had with communal television watching, where the  (slightly) risqué images cause excitement and disgust in equal measure.  There are a few musical interludes, though not enough to call it a musical, that both give a sense of community and portray Layale’s (Labaki) fantasy romance with the attractive Jamale (they are across the religious divide).

From the startling ‘dance of grief’ (above) that opens to the film to its truly radical, I think, finale this is gripping movie. I’ll say no more as they would be spoilers.

Son of Babylon (Iraq-UK-Fra-NL-Palestine-UAE-Egypt, 2009)

On the road to nowhere

This is a devastating film following the search, by grandmother and grandson, for the boy’s father who’s been missing for over 10 years in Iraq. It’s set in the weeks after the fall of Saddam, in 2003, when the country was recovering from war but before the sectarian violence flared. It’s a major achievement, by director Mohamed Al-Daradji, to actually get this film made; that it’s a heartrending and dramatically satisfying film as well, is a testament to his skill.

It may be ironic to state that Iraq is shown to be ‘god-forsaken’, in a country where religion is so obviously important, but that’s the impression I got. The protagonists travel hundreds of miles in their search and we see a country littered with burnt out cars and bombed out buildings. Bewilderment competes with desperation as the default mood of the populace, with American troops shown only as a disruptive backdrop; less liberators than an impediment.

Al-Daradji uses non actors, in the tradition of neo realism, but whereas in the original films an insignificant event drives the action (the theft of a bike for instance) here it’s a missing relative. However, it’s soon clear that missing relatives are ‘ten-a-penny’ and this traumatic situation is commonplace in Iraq. A postscript states over a million of people have gone missing over the past 40 years; since Saddam Hussein took power.

As a slice of life of Iraq just after the war this is unbeatable. See here for details on the films making.

Lebanon (Israel-France-Germany, 2009)

Pressure tank

It’s a big challenge to set the whole of a film inside a tank but when you’re trying to convey what it was like invading Lebanon, in 1982, in an Israeli tank then it’s a good starting point. Writer-director, Samuel Moaz, makes the constraint a strength through the humanity of his (autobiographical, at least, to some extent) story, the performances and the brilliance of the set and sound design.

The grinding of the gears and metallic reverberation of the engine encases the audience in an authentic sounding soundscape and the often juddering camera, shooting the inhabitants in close up, adds to the feeling of ‘being in there’. ‘In there’ was a convincing vision of hell as it rapidly becomes decrepit as it’s ill-used by the conscripts and the walls appear to moldering as if in a Tarkovsky movie. We can see the outside, though the soldiers’ viewfinders, and the events shown are worthy of several circles of Dante’s hell.

Israel’s ‘Defence’ Force often splits opinion but there’s no doubt in my mind that its aggression contributes massively to world instability; only last week 11 where killed approaching Gaza in international waters. Moaz’s film is realist and takes no overt political position, but it’s ‘war as hell’ message – whilst commonplace – is powerfully portrayed. I think the destruction of a guy transporting chickens, and the fate of a Lebanese family, place the film firmly on the anti-Israel side (however, the opposite reading is possible).

The four soldiers in the tank are all out of their depth; one of them desperately wants his mum. And the terrible effects of war on these young man is painfully shown but so are the acts of humanity that can occur amongst degradation; one helps a prisoner to piss in a pot.

The best new film, along with A Single Man, I’ve seen so far this year so experience it in the immersive environment of the cinema while you can.