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.

Portland International Film Festival preview day 3: HIS & HERS and OF GODS & MEN

Wednesday's press screenings presented two films with very little in common other than their fixed focus on a single gender.  Even thought the title would suggest otherwise, the documentary His & Hers is made up entirely of interviews with women.  And, although a few women do show up in Of Gods and Men, the film places nearly all of its attention on a group of men and the uneasy decision facing them.

Ken Wardrop's His & Hers concerns itself with Irish women talking about the men in their lives.  As these women speak of their fathers, lovers, husbands and sons, the stories unite into a single and common tale of a life lived with men

Unfortunately, there's one glaringly big issue that keeps the film from blooming into something beyond a series of interviews on a related topic.  The choice to structure the film in a chronological order based on the age of the women, beginning with a baby and ending with a woman alone in a nursing home, is a great idea on paper that sadly doesn't bear as exciting of fruit as one might expect.  Instead, this editing strategy forms a film where the best interviews are delayed until the final quarter of the film, forcing us to wade through quite a lot of facile chit-chat beforehand.  While such a commitment to strategy is admirable, the actual application ends up producing a much weaker film than a non-chronological use of the interviews might have yielded.

I'm afraid I admired His & Hers more than I actually enjoyed it.  The final interviews with a series of widows are fantastic but cannot make up for the overall problems contained within the structure of the piece.  Pleasant enough but, ultimately, unsatisfying.

His & Hers plays at the Broadway Theater on Feb. 12th at 5:45pm.  Additional showing are at the Whitsell Auditorium on Feb. 13th at 2:30pm and at the Broadway Theater on Feb. 15th at 6:15pm.


Xavier Beauvois' Of Gods and Men, winner of last year's Grand Jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival, sets its sights on exploring the choice that a group of French monks in Algeria must make when war breaks out near their monastery.  Based on actual events during thee mid-90s Algerian civil war, Of Gods and Men masterfully establishes the pre-war peace of their monastic life, painting an admirable connection and ongoing dialogue between the Christian monks and the Islamic villagers who share the rural setting of the film.

The pivotal question that emerges when the danger of war draws ever close is this: does the threat of death negate the monks' obligation to God and the villagers?  Beauvois (Le Petit Lieutenant) explores that tension between faith, duty and mortal concerns via the daily meetings of the men and, most effectively, in the songs of faith that they sing throughout the film.  Those moments are supported by a gracefully elegiac pacing and tone that never ignores the dramatic circumstances of the characters but also resists being whipped into frenzy by them.

Of Gods and Men plays at the Whitsell Auditorium on Feb. 12th at 8:15pm.

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