Pras on WorldFilms: THEEB

THEEB is a visually stunning and spellbinding Jordanian adventure film set in the farthest reaches of the Ottoman Empire in 1916. The movie is set in a period known as the Arab Theeb3Revolt, when Arab nationalists sought independence from the Ottoman Turks. The same year as “Lawrence of Arabia.”

During the first world war, a young boy in a Bedouin encampment (Jacir Eid) grows curious about the blond-haired, blue-eyed Englishman (Jack Fox, with decidedly evokes Lawrence-like  mien) who’s appeared from nowhere with a (what he believes) is a trunkful of gold.

“Theeb” is the directorial debut of Naji Abu Nowar, a British-born Oxford-educated filmmaker who grew up in Jordan. The film is an Aabic-version throwback to the westerns in the tradition of Sergio Leone. THEEB was  Jordan’s entry in the foreign language category of the 2015 Academy Awards.

Theeb5Events in history are seen through the eyes of a Bedouin child named Theeb (Jacir Eid), who has had no contact with the world outside his desert community. The young hero, played by Jacir Eid, got his name from his father, now deceased. It means “wolf” in Arabic. Coming from a family of pilgrim guides that roam the deserts on camels. Theeb, whose father has recently died, is the youngest of three sons in this family of guides. During these years, traditional Bedouin culture is being rapidly disrupted by the new railway a railway (nicknamed the Iron Donkey Trail) connecting Damascus and Medina. This would soon eliminate the need for Bedouin pilgrim guides.

The story begins in Theeb’s traditional Bedouin desert community, where, in the middle of the night, a blond British Army officer, Edward (Jack Fox), and his Arab sidekick, Marji (Marji Audeh), appear out of nowhere, seeking a well near the Ottoman train tracks. Edward has a wooden box rumored to contain gold.

Hussein (Hussein Salameh), the second-oldest of the three recently orphaned brothers, agrees to lead the party. Theeb,  instructed to stay behind is already recieving training in use of guns and how to wield a knife. He is a natural warrior who has an avid fascination with weaponry.

Theeb1Theeb, whose name means wolf, disobeys his brother and follows the men to the well, which they discover to be contaminated from slaughtered bodies thrown into it. Minutes later, they are ambushed in a canyon by a band of outlaws, and Edward and his companion are killed. Hussein and Theeb abandon their camel and flee to higher ground, but the next day, Hussein is shot before Theeb’s eyes, leaving the younger boy unarmed and alone, to brave the elements and the Arabic equivalent of the Wild West.

Theeb4More than style, though, it’s the substance of “Theeb” that’s memorable. The story of a Bedouin Boy’s Brutal Coming-of-Age whose nomadic way of life is threatened by war raging across the Ottoman Empire. THEEB, as a Bedouin-western film features the wide-open spaces of Jordan, the locations are as awe-inspiring in their breadth and aridity as the vistas. The film’s acute sense of this unforgiving environment is underscored by a soundtrack in which gunfire and voices ricochet eerily through the spiky canyons and arid mountain passes. Theeb is continually brushing off bugs.

Theeb2He learns about guns, dangerous strangers and the need to make strategic alliances with one’s enemies. Every Bedouin character, huddling round campfire games and slaughtering sheep, is played by a real-life tribesman. However the film isn’t political or anti-colonial in a conventional sense, but it plays out at a time when, as the boy is told (by a particularly dangerous stranger who is also a pilgrim guide), the railroad and what it brings is destroying Bedouin culture to the point of brother killing brother. Theeb himself is a pilgrim, searching for brotherhood in a bewildering world of sand lashed by relentless winds.

 

Pras on WorldFilms: Michael Moore’s WHERE TO INVADE NEXT

Sarcastic, Hilarious, Educational  And As Always, (Almost) Guaranteed To Make You Feel Shitty About The System That Exists In United States. “WHERE TO INVADE NEXT” finds Moore traveling to foreign countries, mainly in Europe, to claim their best civic ideas for America.

Where to Invade NextMichael Moore spent the first decade of the twenty-first century chronicling modern America at its worst: School shootings; a broken healthcare system; a berserk economy built on unregulated greed; and, most controversially, the Bush administration’s response to 9/11. It has been six years since Moore’s last big-screen documentary, “Capitalism: A Love Story,” and violence, injustice, and political cowardice are still everyday staples of American life.

As I walked in at this evening’s screening, I wondered if the new Michael Moore film was an anti-war message, or whether it was an indictment of America’s defense policies.   Michael Moore had taken them on already in the Cannes Palme d’Or winning Fahrenheit 9/11 back in 2004. He also took on the American healthcare system with his Oscar nominated film Sicko in 2007. He even took on gun violence and America’s obsession with guns back in 2002 with the Oscar & Cannes Palme d’Or winning film Bowling For Columbine.

His groundbreaking film ofcourse was the 1990 film  Roger & Me, a statement on corporate greed targeting General Motors  and how it bankrupted and destroyed his beloved home town of Flint, Michigan, a town in the news again about its suffering a massive drinking water contamination crisis  (the film was now used as subject material for many business school courses, including mine).

where-to-invade-next-20158197

This time around in the new film WHERE TO INVADE NEXT, Michael Moore trains his inimitable style of sarcasm and hilarious storytelling on the American education system, the American penal system, the deep social inequality and how America created a system built on white-washing our past history to showcase itself as the model system of national governance and economic management to the world, all at once. Now in his 60s, Moore has, in fact, transformed into a self-described “crazy optimist.”

To learn what the USA can learn from other nations, this time Michael Moore assumes the role of a self-appointed globetrotting “invader” on behalf of a much-troubled America to see what they have to offer. All that was missing was a cameo appearance by Bernie Sanders.

where_to_invade_next__2015_3557

Moore visits Italy to learn about how Italian companies allow their workers enjoys vacation days and worker pay that would unimaginable here, yet enjoys higher worker morale, productivity and prosperity that their American counterparts. Interesting visits to Ducati’s factory and interviews assembly line workers, and those at a high-fashion apparel house.

This image provided by Dog Eat Dog Films shows director Michael Moore, left, and Claudio Domenicali, CEO of Ducati, in a scene from his documentary, "Where to Invade Next." The movie opens in U.S. theaters on Feb. 12, 2016. (Dog Eat Dog Films via AP)

This image provided by Dog Eat Dog Films shows director Michael Moore, left, and Claudio Domenicali, CEO of Ducati, in a scene from his documentary, “Where to Invade Next.” The movie opens in U.S. theaters on Feb. 12, 2016. (Dog Eat Dog Films via AP)

In France Moore takes us on a visit to the public school system, the teaching system, the healthier school lunches served in French schools and  best of their no-homework policy.

In Slovenia, where a college education is free, he talks with American students and teachers who left America and moved here. They highlight why this system works better than America’s college system designed to load students with a lifelong burden of debt. He even gets a 45-minute private meeting with Borut Pahor, the sitting President of Slovenia.

In Germany we visit Faber-Castell, the famed maker of specialized pencils and drawing tools for schools and design work. In a digital age where use of paper is fast being replaced by the computer screen, Faber Castell has had its best year ever in productivity and worker morale.

Next we visit Portugal and meet with their head of drugs enforcement agency to understand why the country has the lowest incidence of drug-related offenses in a society that has decriminalized every kind of drug well beyond marijuana.

It’s the prison part of the film that proves to be especially insightful, with Moore learning that most developed countries outside of North America view prison as a means of rehabilitation rather than pure punishment.  Norway becomes his argument about a model penal system works and how its humane treatment of prisoners focus on human dignity and reformation and brings social benefits. He takes us inside two different prisons and chats with prisoners who live like free people, and administrative staff carries no weapons. Dehumanization is something that’s simply not acceptable in places like a Norweigian super-max prison where inmates start their sentence by watching a pop sing-along music video cover of “We Are the World” made by the guards

1where_to_invade_next

As for Tunisia, the country that touched off the Arab Spring, Moore finds democratic passion not only still thriving there but actually achieving worthwhile results. On his only non-European stopover, Moore also takes time to interview a Tunisian activist who cannot understand why Americans know so little about the rest of the world, when the rest of the world knows so much about them. Tunisia where government funded healthcare services for women works better than most advanced countries. It was amazing to observe how women power and public opinion brought down a dictatorship and replaced with a deeply conservative Islamic government which also was forced to give in to changes in its anti-women policies.2where_to_invade_next__2015_1974

Perhaps the most incisive and insightful segment was his visit Iceland where he shows how a country that was almost destroyed by the economic fallout from the 2008 mortgage crisis clawed its way back to health and became prosperous again.We also discover an educational system that not only turned itself around from being one of the worst in the world to being quite possibly the best, but also one that includes such foreign-to-the-U.S. novelties as shorter school days, minimal homework, and no private schools, thus forcing rich and poor to inhabit the same spaces. Its also a country that has served a s a model for women-led politics and business. In feminist Iceland, even more fascinating than the fact that the nation elected one of the world’s first female president, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, in 1980, is that the one bank that didn’t fall during their recent financial crisis had three women as part of its board of directors, thus leading to a discussion on how having more women in power led to diversity in views and leading to less risky business behaviour.

Where

Whether it’s serving tasty and nutritious school lunches or offering quality college education for free, these countries have found a way to do something meaningful. There are hilarious shot of the Italian couple’s astonishment when they’re told that Americans have no legally required paid vacation, or a quote from the French chef about how he’s never eaten a hamburger. The results might seem Utopian but in fact are based on practical realities.

Many of the ideas on display here seem relatively easy for the U.S. to implement, as Moore states earlier on, with the catch being that income taxes would have to increase for the wealthy. However, he makes the point that with things like medicare, free tuition, more vacation-time and more, citizens would actually wind-up wasting far less of their income on things that are considered a human right in places like Italy, Norway, France and more.

The final message of the film highlights the irony that most of the ideas he had been searching for Moore’s films have originally been American ideas. All the game-changing notions of other nations, the film notes in a wry postscript, began in the U.S. His big reveal is that Americans used to be much more caring toward one another, and that was reflected in the values we championed and the politics we practiced. How Did We Lose Ourselves? How Do We Get The Magic Back?

Michael Moore’s been among the most lucrative documentaries at the box office. His “Fahrenheit 9/11” earned $119.2 million in 2004; his last film, 2009’s “Capitalism: A Love Story,” made $14.4 million.

Pras on World Films: A SEPARATION

“A Separation,” written and directed by Asghar Farhadi (and Iran’s official Oscar submission for 2011) was also the Best Foreign Film Oscar Winner. It was also a a rare triple prize winner at the Berlin International Film Festival (it took home the Golden Bear for best film, plus the actor and actress prizes were split among the male and female cast).

The film takes place in present-day Iran, a modern nation trying to live under strict Islamic law. The film’s story has no quarrel with the Islam system, but demonstrates how an inflexible application of the letter of the law frustrates the spirit of the law. This is also a movie with an up-close and personal view of day-to-day social intricacies of life in Iran unlike any seen before. Its world is that of the sophisticated, well-educated middle-class residents of Tehran, people who have problems and personal situations much like our own. And it arrived at a time when other Iranian filmmakers (like the more overtly political Jafar Panahi) are being forbidden to work there.

Nader and  Simin (Peyman Moadi and Leila Hatami), a happily married middle-class couple in Tehran, have a sweet 11-year-old daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi); Nader’s senile father also lives with them. Simin (Leila Hatami) wants to leave the country with her daughter, Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), and Simin’s husband, Nader (Peyman Moadi), insists on staying at home in Tehran to care for his frail and elderly father, who suffers from dementia and needs constant attention. “But he doesn’t know you!” his wife says. “No, but I know him.” Both are correct.  Here we have the universal dilemma of Alzheimer’s care.


The partial split between Nader and Simin is only one of the schisms revealed in the course of a story that quietly and shrewdly combines elements of family melodrama and legal thriller. Because Nader refuses to agree to a divorce or to give the legally required permission for his daughter to travel abroad, he and Simin find themselves at an impasse. Simin moves to her mother’s apartment, and as a necessity sues for divorce, although the two want to remain married.

Nader hires a caregiver for his father. She is Razieh (Sareh Bayat). She keeps the nature of her job a secret from her husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), who as a strict Muslim, would never allow her to work in a man’s household without his wife present.

Events start to unfold when Nader returns one day to find his father tied to the bed and Razieh absent. She has a good reason for this, but Nader doesn’t know it and neither do we. He fires her, and she accuses him of pushing her downstairs and causing a miscarriage. Hodjat sues Nader for manslaughter. One of the witnesses will be Miss Ghahraii (Merila Zare’i), the daughter’s tutor, who is sincere but may not be as reliable as she thinks herself. That’s what we know about the plot.

Before long Nader is back in court, embroiled in long arguments with Razieh and her husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), an unemployed shoemaker laden with debt and seething with resentment, humiliation and angry piety.

The case shows up in the office of an interrogating judge (Babak Karimi), whose task is to hear evidence and evaluate it. The conflict between the two families, which often turns on forensic details and uncertain recollections, is inflamed by social tension. The interrogating judge is a fair man, open-minded, and all the witnesses testify as truthfully as they can. But none of them have possession of all the facts, and the findings must be in accordance with religious law. Nader and Simin are moderate Muslims. Razieh is so religious that she questions whether she can change the underpants of a man, even though he is so old and sick. What drives her is the family’s desperate poverty.

The writer-director, Asghar Farhadi, tells his story with a fair and even hand. Although the judge may be tending against our own sympathies, we understand why he does so and may be correct to do so. That a director can make such a sympathetic film in such a troubled time is a tribute to his strength of character. The actors manage to create those minor acting miracles with their characters that endows a film with all its conviction. Moadi and Hatami, as husband and wife, succeed in convincing us their characters are acting from genuine motives; they love each other and want the best for their family, but are divided on how to act. That this leads them into a manslaughter case is by unhappy chance. Nor is the judge eager to punish.

Director Asghar Farhadi, whose four previous films include another Berlin prize winner, 2009’s “About Elly,” has chosen his title with care. This incisive look at Iranian society reveals, without calling any special attention to it, divisions over class, over religious observance, over political philosophy. But what’s so inspired here is his decision to ground them all in the most personal of all separations, that between a husband and wife.

Left to Right: Leila Hatami as Simin and Peyman Moadi as Nader in, "A Separation." Photo: Habib Madjidi, Sony Pictures Classics / SF

A SEPARATION:     Written, produced and directed by Asghar Farhadi; director of photography, Mahmood Kalari; edited by Hayedeh Safiyari; sets and costumes by Keyvan Moghadam; released by Sony Pictures Classics. In Persian, with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 3 minutes.

WITH: Leila Hatami (Simin), Peyman Moadi (Nader), Shahab Hosseini (Hodjat), Sareh Bayat (Razieh), Sarina Farhadi (Termeh), Babak Karimi (Judge), Ali-Asghar Shahbazi (Nader’s Father), Shirin Yazdanbakhsh (Simin’s Mother), Kimia Hosseini (Somayeh) and Merila Zarei (Ms. Ghahraei).

Pras on World Films: MONSIEUR LAZHAR

Films about teachers and students are commonly inspirational melodramas about overcoming adversity inside and outside the classroom. The teacher is usually a newcomer to the school and initially dismissed by the students, but over the course of 90 minutes or so they wind up touching each other’s lives and all that mushy stuff. It’s a formula audiences are comfortable with. Writer-director Philippe Falardeau‘s Monsieur Lazhar breaks this mold and delivers a haunting look at grief, compassion, and boundaries through the eyes of both children and adults, while also examining the bureaucratic problems in contemporary teaching. Mr. Falardeau’s fourth feature film, adapted from a one-person play by Evelyne de la Chenelière  was Canada’s entry in the 2011 foreign language Oscar and nominated for best foreign language film.

In an opening scene of the film it’s Simon’s day to pick up cartons of milk and deliver them to his Montreal fourth-grade classroom before the school day begins. Only one other student sees this before the teachers usher all the students back into the playground. This incident, reported in a Quebec newspaper, is the inspiration for Bachir Lazhar (Algerian writer and actor Fellag) to present himself at the school principal’s office and volunteer to teach the class. Bachir Lazhar is a refugee from Algeria where he taught primary school for 19 years.

monsieur-lazhar Mohamed Fellag

The principal at the school is Mme. Vaillancourt (Danielle Proulx), who like most school administrators  is rigid in conforming to the rules. Hiring Monsieur Lazhar is a bit of an excursion for her, but he is a well-spoken, presentable man and makes a good impression.  The film chronicles events in the classroom throughout the year, as Lazhar tries to help his students cope with feelings of abandonment and loss, while balancing educational policy that requires teachers to relate to children at a physical and emotional distance. The students take to him fast though and as days go by we learn more details about Lazhar’s personal tragedies and loss. Like the children he’s now responsible for, Lazhar too is in need of a safe haven. As the details of Lazhar’s own life come into focus, his journey and that of his charges begin to dovetail in mournful, deeply meaningful ways.

Fellag, an Algerian comedian, plays the title character in the Oscar-nominated Monsieur Lazhar, who steps in to teach a class of middle school students after tragedy has struck their classroom.

The film begins in the dead of winter, follows his work in the classroom all the way through until summer. During that time, he — and we — get to know the students, who are generally cheerful and well-behaved, and get on well with their new teacher. They are assumed to be traumatized by their teacher’s suicide, and a psychologist is assigned to spend closed-door sessions with the class. We, and Monsieur Lazhar, are closed out of these sessions, but Lazhar on his own tells the students some gentle truths and assures them it wasn’t their fault. For this and other transgressions, he is criticized by the principal; to follow the rules, a teacher seems hardly allowed to be human.

Sophie Nelisse-Monsieur LazharMonsieur Lazhar is an honest simple film that nicely balances melancholy with humor. The story of how an Algerian substitute teacher in French-speaking Montreal and his middle-school class help each other confront the presence of death in life, this film deals almost casually with a range of issues and themes, handling with a light and even affectionate touch weighty subjects like grief, guilt, community and love. It’s difficult doing what “Monsieur Lazhar”does, conveying the delicate reality of human emotions in a way that engages without being overdone. The film delivers an affective message of compassion without any kind of sweeping, artificial sentimentality – a welcome deviation in the library of teacher-student films. What is most effective about “Monsieur Lazhar” is the natural, unforced but unmistakable way these two sides of the coin, the teacher and the students, help each other cope with the different but related issues of memory, regret and healing they face.The title character in “Monsieur Lazhar” is powerfully embodied by Fellag, an Algerian theater director and actor known for his one-man shows, who has lived in Paris since 1995. Fellag delivers an understated performance that miraculously brings forth the humor in all this mournful subject matter.

Monsieur Lazhar:             Written and directed by Philippe Falardeau, based on the stage play by Evelyne de la Chenelière; director of photography, Ronald Plante; edited by Stéphane Lafleur; music by Martin Léon; production design by Emmanuel Fréchette; costumes by Francesca Chamberland; produced by Luc Déry and Kim McCraw; released by Music Box Films. In French, with English subtitles.

WITH: Fellag (Bachir Lazhar), Sophie Nélisse (Alice), Émilien Néron (Simon), Danielle Proulx (Mrs. Vaillancourt), Brigitte Poupart (Claire), Louis Champagne (Janitor), Jules Philip (Gaston), Francine Ruel (Mrs. Dumas) and Sophie Sanscartier (Audrée).