From Chernobyl to Islamophobia, new films take on history and politics

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The great Italian realist filmmaker Gianni Amelio has added to his stellar filmography with First Man, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival this year. Amelio is responsible for the humanist classics, Open Doors about capital punishment, Stolen Children about childhood trauma, one of the best films of the 90s, L'America, about post-communist Albania and The Missing Star, one of the most revealing films about inner China and it's industrial revolution. Always interested in the common man and the personal struggles that face humanity, Amelio has directed his first biography, about the French intellectual, Albert Camus, based on a manuscript found in his car after a fatal crash that took his life at the early age of 46. First Man begins with his return to Algiers after many years in France. The story brilliantly interweaves his early childhood with this visit to his French Algerian family. Amelio's storytelling is engrossing and heartrending, displaying his rapport with the actors who play at least three different periods in Camus' life. With the backdrop of the battles in Algeria in the 50s, the film pays a loving tribute to this man of letters and his complex cultural and political life.

With almost the same title, Free Men also covers the Algerian War, but from a distinctly different angle. It chronicles the Algerians who joined the French Resistance and worked clandestinely out of the Paris mosque and brings astonishing enlightenment to the role of Muslims during WWII. A prominent Jewish singer, Salim Halali, assumed Muslim identity to protect himself during the Nazi scourge. He was beloved by the local Muslims who helped save his life by telling the Nazi interrogators that his father was Muslim, and then creating a fake tombstone to mislead the Nazis. Many other Jews were saved through the mosque, an almost forgotten triumph of the Resistance. Algerians joined the Resistance with a hope that Algeria might be free once the French were liberated. This didn't happen of course, and as many as 45,000 Algerians were massacred in Setif during their celebration of hopeful liberation at the end of the war. This chapter in history is chronicled at the end of Indigenes (Days of Glory) followed by Outside the Law, which carries to the Algerian War. Both award-winning films are by the prolific French Algerian director, Rachid Bouchareb solely committed to setting straight the contributions of Algerians. The success of Days of Glory actually forced the French government to improve benefits to Algerian veterans.

Another piece of current history involving a Muslim protagonist, Omar Killed Me, produced and written by Rachid Bouchareb is the true-life story of a Moroccan gardener, Omar, arrested for brutally killing his French employer. Famed attorney Jacques Verges, defender of notorious clients such as Saddam Hussein, Pol Pot and German Red Faction leaders, powerfully examined in the unforgettable Terror's Advocate, takes on his defense, and at one point in the movie states that this is the first client he's represented who is truly innocent. The film follows the court case of this simple quiet family man with several reenactments of the crime where the blood of the victim is used to scrawl on the wall, 'Omar Killed Me.' The film is a gripping study of the current growing Islamophobia and the limitations of the justice system.

Back in 1999, an eerie documentary entitled Pripyat provided the first glimpse inside the evacuated city that used to exist just a few kilometers from the Chernobyl nuclear plant. The former shining city of the Soviet Union that housed 50,000 people, was shown as a ghost town, with everything in place as it was when the townsfolk fled during the nuclear plant explosion 13 years earlier. Now, a drama entitled Land of Oblivion adds new personal dimension to the tragedy that befell the earth in 1986. A wedding ceremony is taking place in an idyllic village setting, when the groom, a volunteer fireman, is pulled away for what he is told is a routine fire in Chernobyl. He's never seen again and the effects of the nuclear accident gradually take on horrific dimensions in the town. "The film is neither an indictment nor an historical reconstruction, but rather a drama inspired by human experiences," states the Israeli director, Michale Boganim. One of the more poignant films on the effects of Chernobyl is the 2002 documentary Alexei and the Spring that shows a son's love for his aging parents who want to remain in their little village just south of radioactive spill. Into the Zone, a 2009 doc also covers the disaster as five tourists get a complete tour and history of the region. And a new drama from Russia, Innocent Saturday, which has its American premiere at the upcoming Chicago International Film Festival, shines another light on the long hidden facts about this world cataclysm.

A new French film examines another sordid chapter in French colonial history. A standoff by local Kanak separatists in 1988 generates into a full-blown rebellion that forces France to react with overkill. Rebellion is hypnotic in its intensity and realistic in tone despite it being a drama. Director Mathieu Kassovitz also plays the lead role as an officer attempting to keep the collateral damage to the minimum. He befriends the militants who have take several soldiers hostage. French elections are at stake in this dilemma of foreign policy. The relatively unknown truth about this specific conflict is another revelation of the crimes of occupation.

Photo: Poster art for Land of Oblivion.

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