With the increased access to digital camcorders, everyone and their brother is taking a stab at making their own films. Whereas this fortunately puts moviemaking and truth-telling in the hands of the masses, it also creates some amazingly artless but sincere statements.
Director James Longley reminds us that filmmaking can be an art, that documentaries don’t have to be cold talking heads and that form is as essential as content. His lovingly created story of an Iraqi mother tending to her young children, one of them with AIDS, is a beautifully edited and photographed gem. With little dialogue, but carefully framed sequences, this short film entitled Sari’s Mother is more effective than many features.
Reminiscent of the early humanist works of legendary documentarist Robert Flaherty, Longley’s films should be necessary homework for all budding filmmakers. The tragedy here is that this moving 22 minute film will be almost impossible for anyone to see, unless someone like Sundance decides to pick it up. In the meantime, Longley’s Gaza Strip and Iraq In Fragments might be easier to acquire.
The Prisoner or How I Planned To Kill Tony Blair, directed by Michael Tucker, is a fascinating study of the “war on terror” that employs animation, personal interviews and a sense of irony and anger not usually found in documentaries. Iraqi freelance cameraman Yunis Abbas makes a living by selling his work to TV news agencies. During a raid on his home by U.S. forces he’s arrested and falls into the endless cycle of abuse by the authorities. Declared a terrorist because of some videos found in his home, and accused of planning to kill the British prime minister, Yunis goes through interrogation and torture in the dreaded Abu Ghraib prison. Nine months later he is finally released. The experience hardens him to the realities of the American presence in his homeland and convinces him to appear in this creative testament about the abuse of power.
Kabul Express, somewhat reminiscent of the “Road” movies of Bob Hope/Bing Crosby, features instead two Indian journalists, a Taliban fighter, an Afghan driver and an American female journalist traveling through the war-ravaged countryside of Afghanistan. It’s a daring film, with high production values, which addresses the violent realities of the region with a comic touch and a plea for understanding. An action-packed story with the benefit of an insider’s geopolitical view, this film will most likely never be shown in an American theater, due at least to its humanistic treatment of the Taliban soldier.
The great national cinema of Iran was also represented at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, including A Few Days Later, a personal family drama, and Offside, detailing the obstacles of female soccer fans. A Canadian-Iranian film, “Mercy” presents a fable about the aftermath of war set in Tehran.
Mainline, a film by Iran’s most popular female director, Rakhshan Bani-Etemad, deals with a problem most Westerners would not associate with Iran, a country that now has the world’s highest drug use per capita. Iran has two million documented drug addicts, and many more like the heroine of this story who never entered treatment centers. Sara is part of the burgeoning middle class and is not only about to get married, but also addicted to heroin. In her devotion to her daughter, Sara’s mother drives her around town for drug hits in order to save her from the pain of withdrawal. This film is a heartbreaking whirlwind of emotions and contains powerful performances from two women who appear to be living their roles. It’s a tragic statement about the brutality of addiction from a country known for its humanist cinema.