PIFF 2017: Take 4 – closing it out


40th Portland International Film Festival/February 9-25, 2017

Once again I saw fewer films at the festival than I would have liked. And once again I had a wonderful time with those I did see. Perhaps next year a free man will be able to make twenty-five or thirty films instead of a mere eleven.

Death in Sarajevo (Bosnia and Herzegovina/France) dir. Danis Tanović (85 mins) Trailer

European dignitaries gather at the Hotel Europa in Sarajevo on the centenary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 to commemorate the event and its meaning for contemporary Europe.The shadow of ethnic and religious conflict, fascist collaboration with the Germans in the second world war, and the siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War hangs over everything.

Historical and social context is provided by the filming of a documentary about the assassination and the century that followed when an interview turns into a series of heated exchanges between a female journalist and Gavrilo Prinzip, a young Bosnian Serb with the same name as the archduke's assassin because each generation a male in his family is named Gavrilo.

Everything takes place in the once grand Hotel Europa, now in decline. The beleaguered hotel manager must deal with a European Union functionary who complains the silverware for a banquet is not elegant enough, it is old and tarnished, and hotel staff who threaten to go on strike because they have not been paid in two years. The club in the basement is a sleazy affair run by hoodlums that features gambling and pole dancing. The manager enlists thugs from the basement to "persuade" the leaders of the strike to call it off.

Meantime, a stylish young woman who is something of the manager's protégé navigates a delicate balance between her duties for the hotel and looking out for her mother who has worked there in the laundry for thirty years and has been tapped by her comrades to be their leader when the original strike leader disappears.

An agitated security guard snorts coke in the men's room while arguing on the phone with his wife who wants to buy new furniture they cannot afford. That violence happens is not surprising in a tense situation with a coked-up security guard and an environment where carrying a firearm is almost a matter of etiquette, simply what one does. A sexual assault with the drunken manager at the end of his rope pathetically pawing at his protégé's breasts is all the more horrific for being depicted with a kind of directorial restraint as the manager goes no further than pawing while a kitchen worker who has declared his love for the woman listens outside the closed office door to her pleas for the manager to stop before walking away.

For all this there is courage on display by the mother who puts her job on the line and herself at risk of harm to stand with her fellow workers and the daughter does the same for love of her mother. Whether we walk away from Death in Sarajevo with a sense of uplift or of inexorable and senseless tragedy hinges on which parts we choose to remember. Maybe we remember both.

Half Ticket (India) dir. Samit Kakkad (112 mins) Trailer (The film is has subtitles; alas, the trailer does not. Still, the trailer gives you a feel for the film.)

The Crow Egg brothers live with their mother and grandmother in a Mumbai slum. The mother works as a seamstress. Their father is in prison. His crime and the charges against him are not gotten into.

The younger brother dubs himself Little Crow Egg and his older brother Big Crow Egg because they steal eggs from crows' nests to crack open and eat raw. This is their treat in a world where few treats are on offer.

The Crow Eggs become obsessed with pizza when a Pizza Cafe franchise opens near their neighborhood. They do not know exactly what pizza is, thinking it may be sweet, but they must have it. Alas, the price of a single pizza is far beyond the means of anyone in the slum.

The boys scheme and hustle to scrape together enough money to buy pizza, only to find themselves denied entry to Pizza Cafe because they are from the slum. They ask their friend Tutti Frutti how the security guard knew they are form the slum. Tutti Frutti explains that he could tell by how they are dressed. Undeterred the Crow Eggs scheme and hustle some more and manage to acquire new clothes, only to be turned away again because even in the clothes of school boys from a better part of town they are still from the slum.

Half Ticket portrays the longing of those who have almost nothing for the simplest trappings of a way of life visible to them but beyond their reach. There is a poor mother's love for her children and concern for her imprisoned husband, and a grandmother's attempt to make pizza for the boys when all she knows about it is the picture on a Pizza Cafe flyer. Tutti Frutti, who works for the railway company and his little enough himself, is a kindly friend and as close to a male father figure as the Crow Eggs have.

At the end of the day the violent overreaction of the Pizza Cafe manager caught on a cell phone video turns the boys' quest for pizza into a cause célèbre that becomes a public relations nightmare for the cafe. When the owner uses the incident and the boys as a marketing ploy, the Crow Eggs find that the reality of a desire fulfilled can be less sweet that the longing for it. Irrepressible, they are okay with that. And I am okay with this charming film.

Kékszakállú (Argentina) dir. Gastón Solnicki (72 mins) Trailer of sorts

The festival program notes relate that Kékszakállú is "[l]oosely based on Béla Bartók’s 1918 opera 'Bluebeard’s Castle' and largely constructed out of improvised scenes featuring non-actors." Well, I reckon.

A group of young women from well-to-do families are on vacation at a Uruguayan resort. They swim, talk, meet boys, go for walks, dine. Scenes shift back and forth between the resort and Buenos Aires where they attend school and work part-time or maybe during the summer at dismal low-level jobs at their fathers' places of employment, one in a sausage factory, another at a place where I could not figure out what is going on, a theme that runs through my experience of the film.

At odd moments for no reason I could discern music, presumably Bartók's opera, erupts for a bit. Maybe the significance would be apparent if I knew the opera.

One girl is particularly troubled. She does not know what she wants to study at college and quarrels with her father because she does not have a job.

It is not clear whether scenes at the resort are in the present and those in Buenos Aires flashbacks to past events or vice versa. The troubled girl speaks to a woman employed at the resort about taking a ferry to Paraguay, I think Paraguay, somewhere at any rate. The employee tells her you cannot get anywhere from the resort by ferry unless you want to go to Brazil.

The film closes with the girl on a ferry approaching a dock in gathering darkness to what I presume is the rousing finale of Bartók's opera. I do not have a clue what happened. The cinematography is striking, but that is not enough. I have seen films where not much happened that nonetheless pulled me in with their strangeness and idiosyncratic charm. Kékszakállú is not one of those films. Maybe I missed something.

Barakah Meets Barakah (Saudi Arabia) dir. Mahmoud Sabbagh (88 mins) Trailer

A romantic comedy with a dose of social commentary and satire

Barakah (Hisham Fageeh) comes from a poor family and is employed as a low-level municipal official who tickets people for violations of local ordinances. While on duty he dresses in robes and traditional Saudi headdress. Other times he wears t-shirts and jeans like a typical young fellow in Europe or America or pretty much anywhere else in the world. He is involved in a small unfunded theater troupe that is rehearsing for a production of Hamlet. Barakah's slightly chubby, nerdy friend who lives for theater is the troupe leader. The friend will play Hamlet. Barakah will be Ophelia.

Bibi (Fatima Al-Banawi) is an instagram star from a well-to-do family. She promotes her fashion designer mother's line of clothing named after her and is paid to post videos of herself at art openings and other events. One day their paths cross and Barakah is smitten.

Class difference is no more than a minor obstacle to Barakah's pursuit of Bibi in a culture where an unmarried man and woman cannot be together without a chaperone even in public. In the manner of romantic comedy their paths cross several times by chance until at last Barakah manages to engage Bibi in awkward conversation, and she asks if he would like her number. They proceed to plot one improbable rendezvous after another by phone and text. And again in the manner of romantic comedy, as they get to know one another sweet interludes are interspersed with frustrations and quarrels.

Social commentary and satire are muted but nevertheless pointed. The film opens with a written statement that the pixelated images viewers will see are "not because of censorship — we repeat, it’s not because of censorship." On two occasions Barakah muses on the state of his country as the camera fixes on a series of old black and white photos from the 1960s and 1970s when things were different. How did we become like this? he asks. His mother and father could meet for dinner in a café, alone, just the two of them. A theater showed Italian films that his mother did not always understand but she saw them with her friends just the same. It all changed with the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by Sunni Muslim extremists in 1979. Afterward the Saudi ruling family fearful of the growing influence of Wahabi fundamentalism enforced the Wahabis strict, puritan interpretation of Islam.

Barakah Meets Barakah is Sabbagh's first feature film and only the second feature ever made in Saudi Arabia. Fageeh is an actor who studied improvised stand-up comedy in New York. When told there would be cross-dressing, he said, "I'm in 100 percent." Al-Banawi is a Sabbagh family friend with a master's degree in theology and psychology who had never acted before. Both give first-rate performances, as does a supporting cast highlighted by an older woman, a midwife and healer who is something of a mother figure to Barakah, advising him that he needs to find a wife, and by Barakah's uncle, a once-promising musician laid low by fondness for smoke and drink, who dispenses advice about women to his nephew who has no social experience at all.

This is nice little film, one I hope to have opportunity to see again.

Interview: Fatima Al-Banawi, Hisham Fageeh & Mahmoud Sabbagh on Introducing Saudi Arabia Cinematically in “Barakah Meets Barakah”

Memo from the Editorial Desk

This piece endured minor stylistic edits after it was initially posted.

#Cinema

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