Friday, February 4, 2011

Portland International Film Festival preview day 4: SON OF BABYLON & THE FIRST GRADER

Four days into these press screenings, I've seen five films (out of eight) that feature war torn landscapes.  Can't express just how much this makes me look forward to some of the comedies that are scheduled for next week.

Thursday's first feature was Mohamed Al-Daradji's Son of Babylon, essentially a road movie (on foot, bus, cart, etc.) set in Iraq shortly after Saddam Hussein's fall from power.  A boy, Ahmed, and his paternal grandmother, Ur-Ibrahim, travel across a deeply scarred Iraqi terrain in search of the child's father, Ibrahim, who was reportedly imprisoned shortly after the Persian Gulf War of the 90s.

Admirably, the film narrows its perspective to reflect only the experience of the central characters, refusing to include too many explanatory details regarding the political tension of that time and place  Rather than attempting to present an historical overview, Al-Daradji places much import upon the personal loss that Iraq's conflicted past has wrought upon Ahmed and Ur-Ibrahim.  And it's the focus on the smaller details of their larger challenge that allows the film to succeed as much as it does in the end.

The First Grader tells the true tale of an elderly Kenyan man, Maruge, who wants to attend an elementary school that has recently opened in his village.  Maruge is a survivor of the fight against British colonialism, which provides ample opportunity for the atrocities perpetrated against the Kenyan people to be relayed via flashbacks from Maruge's past.  In addition to those flashbacks, we also get more than a few truncated nods to the rhetoric of tribalism (both past and present) in Kenya.

While the film succeeds greatly on a technical level (beautiful cinematography, good performances, tight editing, etc.), the actual treatment of the story is so lightweight and steered towards a "feel-good" response that it's hard to take the film very seriously at all.  To make matters worse, the dialogue is peppered with groan-worthy platitudes that the filmmakers seem to have intended us to read as heartfelt and deep.  An example: one character asks, "can't we just put the past behind us?"  Another responds: "the past is always present, never forget that..."

Essentially, what we have here is a formulaic and slickly presented piece built around the notion that an inspirational true story always yields an inspirational film.  In this case, the final product ends up serving as a strong challenge to that assumption.

The First Grader plays at the Broadway Theater on Feb. 11th at 6pm.  An additional screening is scheduled for Feb. 14th at 6pm at the Whitsell Auditorium.

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