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.

The Band’s Visit (Bikur Ha-Tizmoret, Israel-France-US, 2007)

A fisherman's tale

A fisherman's tale

This is a beautifully observed ‘culture clash’ comedy, and when those cultures are Arabic and Israeli the resonances are large. Politics is largely absent but the Middle East conflict is so profound that it remains a loud subtext throughout. The film never becomes sentimental as the Egyptian band, marooned in Nowheresville, Israel, are befriended – more or less – by the locals, as it never loses sight of the deep loneliness experienced by many of the characters. Tears, therefore, spring from both happiness, at the humanist approach of the film, and sadness,

The direction is terrific as it allows space for the performers, particulary Sasson Gabai‘s often impassive demeanour, and offers some wonderful shots of the concrete hewn spaces in which the action takes place. The scene where the likeable rake, Halid, coaches his inexperienced ‘friend’ in the art of seduction – all in one shot – is a comic classic.