Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Movie review: Wadjda

Wadjda
(2012)
Director: Haifaa Al Mansour



Wadjda is groundbreaking for a couple of reasons. First, it is the first feature length movie to be shot entirely on Saudi Arabia. Second, it is written and directed by a woman and is about the lives of women and girls in a place where we often do not get to hear their voices. 

On the surface, it is a simple story of a 10 year old girl, Wadjda, who wants a bike so she can race with her friend Abdullah. But there are a couple of problems: Wadjda doesn't have a bike, and even if she did, a lot of people would think it was scandalous for her to ride a bike because she's a girl. 

We see Wadjda go to school, get in trouble for being a spirited kid, come home and interact with her parents, sass her mom, and dream about her bike. In an effort to keep the toy store man sweet (so he won't sell the bike while she schemes to get the money), she makes him a mix tape. "Since we're friends," she says. He smiles, charmed. But how will she get the money? It's ok--she has a plan. 

Her parents are going through a tough time, because her father's family is pressuring him to take another wife. Wadjda's mother is upset because she loves her husband, and he's her one and only. 
Wadjda's father is upset because he also loves his wife and daughter, but he knows there is no son to carry on the family line.

The film examines the toll that societal oppression plays in people's lives, particularly women, but it does not make overt commentary. However, the filmmaker's point of view is clear, and she turns an unwavering and glad eye to the potential that lies in half the population of Saudi Arabia, particularly in Wadjda's generation.

The actors are all excellent, including all the children, and the narrative is compact and very well paced. I thoroughly enjoyed this little slice of Saudi life and I highly recommend it.  

The film examines the toll that societal oppression plays in people's lives, particularly women, but it does not make overt commentary. However, the filmmaker's point of view is clear, and she turns an unwavering and glad eye to the potential that lies in half the population of Saudi Arabia, particularly in Wadjda's generation.  

The actors are all excellent, including all the children, and the narrative is compact and very well paced. I thoroughly enjoyed this little slice of Saudi life and I highly recommend it.  

Saturday, January 31, 2015

movie review: We Are the Best! [original title: Vi är bäst!]

We Are The Best! [Vi är bäst!]
(Sweden, 2013)
director: Lucas Moodysson


This is a fun slice of life movie about three young teenaged girls who form a punk band in Stockholm in 1982. It is based on a graphic novel by Coco Moodysson, the director's wife, which in turn is loosely based on her own experiences.

The movie is told from the perspective of Bobo (Mira Barkhammar), a 13 year old who lives with her single mother. Bobo wants to be a punk and is used to facing the taunts of the kids at school who don't understand why she has cut her hair so short and refuses to dress like the other girls. It's OK though, she has her friend Klara (Mira Grosin) who has similar interests and a similar lack of interest in fitting in with conventional beauty standards. The two hang out, talk about important issues like the nuclear arms race and how stupid it is that their classmates are obsessed with sports. One day at the youth centre, they take over the band practice space because they're tired of being bullied by the boys who usually monopolize it, and they try their hand at playing drums and bass. At the annual school concert, they realize that their shy, slightly older schoolmate Hedwig (Liv LeMoyne), booed every year for playing classical guitar, is actually quite talented, and they recruit her to be in their band. She is the one who teaches them about things like chords, harmony, and, you know, tuning one's instrument.

Yes, We Are The Best! is about the punk band the girls form, but it's actually mostly about friendship and the sorts of dumb but harmless and fun things kids get up to at that age. There is some DIY punk hairstyling, a rather queasy-making evening of smooshing up ice cream sundae ingredients to be gobbled down later, drinking too much wine and barfing on Klara's older brother's records ("Well, he's the one who left them on the floor," says Klara reassuringly to a mortified Bobo). There is a little bit of dramatic tension over the fact that Klara always has to have her own way and isn't always great about letting Bobo and Hedwig steer the ship, and there is a little tiny bit of awkward teen romance with a local boys' punk band. Overall, however, it just follows the girls over a few months and documents their friendship and their growing confidence in themselves and their music (which, spoiler alert, doesn't ever get really polished, but that's OK, because it's not meant to be one of those movies). There is a great scene where two of the adult male staff members at the youth centre insist on calling the girls' band a "girl band" even after they say it is not a "girl band," and then condescendingly offer to teach Hedwig how to play the new electric guitar that's been purchased for the centre. It was pretty much my favourite scene in the movie.

As I said to my friend after We Are The Best! was over, it's so rare to see a movie that is entirely about girls just being themselves. She pointed out that it's also rare to have a movie that is entirely from girls' perspective, rather than just being about them. Here, then, is a movie that cheerfully passes the Bechdel Test in the most refreshing and joyful way.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

movie review: The Overnighters

The Overnighters 
(USA, 2014) 
directed by Jesse Moss


The Overnighters is difficult to pin down at first. It's hard to tell if it will be a documentary about the social consequences of companies like Halliburton moving in to states like North Dakota and drawing desperate workers from all over the US. Or perhaps it will be a documentary about how, when faced with actual need, congregations of Christian churches have a difficult time actually following the tenet of "love thy neighbour" rather than "be suspicious of thy neighbour and engage in NIMBYism." Or, perhaps it will be about how a pastor seemingly determined to actually help out those in need may be acting out of egotism and a Messiah complex. It turns out it's not solely about any one of these things, but all these elements combined make it a fascinating and complex account of community and individual lives in the 21st century's version of The Grapes of Wrath.

Pastor Jay Reinke is a compassionate community-minded man in charge of a Lutheran congregation in Williston, North Dakota, near the oil patch. Refreshingly, Pastor Reinke actually seems to take seriously Jesus' message about caring for those in need. He opens up the church building and parking lot to "overnighters," people looking for work in the oil patch who don't have any place to live. Because of the oil boom, there are no accommodations available in town, which is a problem even for people who have secured work and can afford a place of their own. Then there are the hopefuls who turn up but can't get work because they're too old or messed up or there just isn't the work available for them.

The town and part of the congregation are very distrustful of the "overnighters." There are stories in the paper about the rise in crime rates; neighbours complain about the noise and mess. There are revelations that some of the men being housed in the church have criminal records. Some are on the sex offender registry list. How Pastor Reinke deals with all this is interesting to watch. At times, I felt put to shame by the amount of personal sacrifice he was willing to undergo in order to help out people who need a hand. However, at other times, I was uncomfortable at how much he wanted his family to sacrifice, slightly disturbed at the manic zeal he displayed in defending the "overnighters" against the congregants and community, and alarmed at the way he would occasionally berate some of the men in his frustration.

In addition to Pastor Reinke, we meet some of the men who have come to Williston hoping to find work. Some, like Keegan, find work and manage to make a reasonable amount of money, but since there is no accommodation, they can only move on from the church parking lot or floor to an RV that isn't much better. They can't move their families to be near them so they have to Skype with their wives and little babies. Others are too old to be desirable to employers. Yet others have trouble with addiction or with criminal records that have followed them.

Aside from the personal narratives, the movie also throws into sharp relief the fact that fundamentally, something in America is broken. Pastor Reinke speaks to a clearly disturbed man who says he is broken, and the pastor says he is broken too. What is very clear is that the social and economic fabric of the US is also broken. There is something wrong when people have to live in RVs and sleep in their cars and church basements just to work at a job that isn't stable enough for them to move their families there too. What is Halliburton's social responsibility? What is the responsibility of the community to these "overnighters"? How do we deal with people in need? Why does this fall on one pastor and one congregation? What do we do when that isn't enough?

The last part of the movie knocked me for a loop. It's amazing to think this is a documentary and not a piece of fiction. I won't reveal what happens, but suffice it to say it's a strong movie even without the coda, and with the coda it's something else. It's certainly not how I expected the movie to end, but it closes the narrative nicely. I found myself looking back over the rest of the movie with a new perspective--not because I felt duped and betrayed, but because it made so many of the pieces of the film fall into place in a new pattern, and made me feel a renewed empathy for the beleaguered pastor.