Saturday, May 19, 2012

Caught in the Crossfire

Sentimentalists like to believe that there's no place like home. Realists shrug their shoulders and wonder if such people need to have their heads examined.

As people age, there is a tendency to wish that life could just go back to the way things used to be. While many long for a bygone era when you could leave the back door to your house unlocked and not have to worry about such things as polluted drinking water or identity theft, there is no escaping change.
  • Once upon a time teenagers had to struggle to acquire cigarettes or beer. Today, adults are freely smoking dope on the streets.
  • Watering the lawn used to be seen as a sacred ritual; today it is scorned as wasting a precious resource.
  • Former working class neighborhoods that were once bucolic havens in which to raise children are now terrorized by gang warfare.
  • Waves of foreclosures have devastated the real estate values in many communities.
  • Anti-immigrant legislation has forced many families to vanish from their homes overnight.
  • A recent headline indicated that, for the first time in the nation's history, there were fewer Caucasian children being born than children of minorities.
Americans have the curious distinction of having managed to avoid the ravages of war in their own back yards. While gunfire can often be heard in some neighborhoods, one rarely sees tanks rolling down city streets or planes dropping bombs within walking distance of one's front door. With the exception of natural disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes, and heavy flooding, one rarely sees rot and decay festering due to a lack of sanitation.

Unless, of course, one goes to a foreign film festival. Two movies recently screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival took audiences far outside their comfort zones. Each dealt with young men whose dreams are cut short. However, only one film went for the laughs.

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There is an odd charm to Nadine Labaki's delightful Where Do We Go Now? As she explains, this strongly anti-war movie was not inspired by a tragic piece of news but, rather, one of the oldest blessings in the world.
"I found out that I was expecting a baby on May 7, 2008. On that day, Beirut once again slipped into war mode with road blocks, the airport closed, fires and so on. Violence broke out all around. I was working at the time with Jihad Hojeily, my co-writer and friend, and we were thinking about my next film. In the city there was full-blown street-to-street fighting. People who had lived for years in the same building, who’d grown up together and attended the same schools, were suddenly fighting each other because they didn’t belong to the same religious community. 
War is utter absurdity, an evil that we inflict upon ourselves for nothing, or at least for things that are not worth killing ourselves over. It was because I became a mother that I felt this absurdity more strongly than before, and that I wanted to deal with a mother’s obsession to protect her children. I said to myself: If I had a son, what would I do to prevent him from picking up a gun and going out into the street? How far would I go to stop my child from going to see what’s happening outside and thinking he had to defend his building, his family, or his beliefs? The idea for the film grew out of that."
Amale (Nadine Labaki) and Rabih (Julien Farhat)

Labaki's film takes place in a remote mountain village where Christians and Muslims live side by side. As the film begins, a group of mourners are headed toward the cemetery, where Christians are buried on one side and Muslims on the other.

Cut off from the outside world (with neither television nor telephones at their disposal), the residents of this unnamed village are connected to the rest of their country by a bridge that has nearly been shattered by shelling. Roukoz (Ali Haidar) and his cousin Nassim (Kevin Abboud) are two teenagers who routinely risk travel outside the safety of their village to bring back merchandise for its residents.

The men in the village (like men everywhere) have grown up believing that violence is the answer to any situation. A perceived insult to one's faith or family can quickly escalate into a brawl. Attempts to join the military have inevitably led to a final resting place in a coffin.

The women, who have grown tired of burying husbands and sons who have been killed in combat, have surreptitiously worked together to keep their men distracted from potential conflict. When some young male villagers hook up a television so that people can watch the news, the women know there is a new round of conflict ahead.

Amale (Nadine Labaki) and her friends have a baking party

When necessary, the women of the village have colluded with the local priest and imam to fake a miracle. While the two spiritual leaders try to prevent their followers from blaming members of the opposite faith for various incidents (like goats wandering into the mosque), it is all the women can do to keep peace in their village. If a television must be broken to prevent another fight, it's a small price for the women to pay.

Labaki stars as Amale, the Christian owner of a local café which is being painted by the hunky Rabih (Julian Farhat), a Muslim. Because they come from opposing faiths, they can only express their thoughts of love in songs whose lyrics are laden with double meanings. When Nassim is killed in a skirmish between Christians and Muslims while running errands in another village, the news of his death threatens to ignite another clash between the men of the village.

Desperate times require desperate measures and the women embark on a radical strategy (call it mission-oriented medicinal marijuana). First, they gather to bake pastries laced with hashish that will get their men heavily stoned. Then they hire a band of Ukrainian strippers to entertain the men and keep them distracted while the women gather up all the guns and ammunition from their homes and bury them at an undisclosed location.

When the men awake the next morning, they are stunned and confused by what they see. Their wives, who have dressed in the clothing of the opposite faith, inform them that they've converted to the rival religion and there will be no more fighting in the village Not ever!

Where Do We Go Now? benefits immensely from the delightful original score (especially the baking song) written by Khaled Mouzannar (Labaki's husband). Although she is not a professional actor, Yvonne Malouf has some wonderfully droll moments as the mayor's wife. Here's the trailer:

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Known as "The Jewel in the Crown of Kashmir," Dal Lake is famous for its colorful gondola-like shikaras, and the lotus blossoms which cover the floating gardens during the summer months. If one keeps the camera lens focused at a certain point above the water's surface it can look like paradise.

Rowers crossing Dal Lake

Looks, however, can be deceiving. Musa Syeed's parents (who fled the political unrest in Kashmir) always told him that Kashmir was the most beautiful place on earth. But when he returned there after a 20-year absence, he was stunned by what he saw.
  • The lake where his parents had first met and fallen in love was choking on weeds, cluttered with garbage, and awash in untreated sewage.
  • The people who relied on Dal Lake for their livelihood were, by their very existence, polluting the lake.
  • Political protests were met with tear gas, gunfire, and a military curfew.
  • His tiny camera crew had to negotiate police who expected to bribed, various attempts at extortion, and a jinn exorcism of one of his cast members.
  • Because acting is considered taboo for women, it was hard to find an Indian actress who could play the role of a Kashmiri-American scientist without resorting to the kind of melodramatic emoting common to Bollywood musicals and local soap operas.
  • With the city under nightly lockdown, it was important for their actress to be able to move safely and easily past military checkpoints.
Mohammed Afzal Sofi co-stars in Valley of Saints

The fact that Syeed was shooting against a backdrop of 2010's mass protests calling for the demilitarization of Kashmir added new levels of risk to the production. Even though a group of teenagers hit one of his actors with a rock while the cast was shooting a scene in a local graveyard, the filmmaker has pulled a cinematic rabbit out of his hat.

After abandoning his original script, Syeed was forced to rely on his three leads to improvise (an air of unrehearsed performance pervades much of the film). In its final form, Valley of the Saints focuses on three young people at crucial turning points in their lives:
  • Gulzar (Gulzar Ahmad Bhat), a shy poet who earns his living by ferrying people across Dal Lake in his shikara.
  • Afzal (Mohammed Afzal Sofi), Gulzar's close friend who has a curious knack for getting in trouble.
  • Asifar (Neelofar Hamid), a young scientist performing environmental research on the polluted water in Dal Lake.
Gulzar and Afzal are best friends who have grown up on Lake Dal

For years, Gulzar and Afzal have planned to escape a lifestyle dominated by war and poverty and start life over in New Delhi, the second-largest city in India. Just when they are about to seize the moment, a military curfew forces them back into their homes.

When Gulzar meets Asifar, he is fascinated by her intelligence and starts to develop feelings for her.  She, in turn, is entranced by his sensitive nature and hires him as a full-time guide.

Asifa (Neelofar Hamid) is a young scientist
studying the environmental pollution in Lake Dal

Afzal (whose macho posturing is a real turn-off for Asifar) quickly becomes jealous and convinces Gulzar that it's time for them to escape to the big city. But as their bus starts to leave Dharamshala, Gulzar realizes he is much more interested in Asifar, abandons Afzal, and runs home.

Thanks to Yoni Brook's cinematography and the musical score by Mubashir Mohi-ud-Din, Valley of Saints manages to toe a delicate line between a narrative and a documentary film. There are moments of great physical beauty as well as shots of toxic sludge despoiling a beautiful natural resource.

Gulzar looks out at the beauty of Lake Dal

Valley of Saints seductively captivates audiences with its strange combination of civil unrest and natural serenity. In the following clip, Musa Seedy and his producer, Nicholas Bruckman discuss their experience making the film.

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