SIFF Week 2 Picks & Pans

Wednesday, May 22

[PICK] Forbidden Voices

3:30 p.m., SIFF Cinema Uptown

This is a humbling documentary for a reporter to watch. Following three bloggers whose beat is their government’s oppression, we see the extreme lengths they go to tell the world their stories: They bear house arrest, get beaten up by police, live for years in exile. Needless to say, there are none of the complaints about deadlines and cutbacks so common to American newsrooms. That all three bloggers are women is noted but beside the point, as the human-rights abuses they record affect all genders. Cuban Yoani Sánchez gives the film its backbone, as Swiss director Barbara Miller walks the streets of Havana with the renowned journalist. But in many ways, Sánchez has it easy compared to the other bloggers in the film. We meet Farnaz Seifi in Germany after she’s exiled for her work during Iran’s Green Revolution. And Zeng Jinyan speaks in choppy computer videos from China. Her husband is in jail and she’s not allowed to leave her apartment. She fears what kind of life she’ll provide her infant son. Yet despite the misery these women’s governments put them through, Forbidden Voices is hopeful: Information can no longer be managed by the state. That’s largely because of technology, but equally due to the spirit of women like Sanchez, Farnaz, and Zeng. (Also 5:30 p.m. Sat., May 25.)

Thursday, May 23

[PICK] After the Battle

6:30 p.m., Pacific Place

While the revolutionary protests of Tahrir Square soon faded from American consciousness, the Egyptians at the center of those battles had to continue living their lives. From those real events of 2011, Yousry Nasrallah launches this fictionalized account of the aftermath, an up-close view of the revolution woven with family drama and romance. The story follows middle-class activist Rim (Menna Shalabi) as she attempts to keep the revolution going by taking the message of democracy to her impoverished neighbors. This introduces her to the world of rural horsemen and the romantic advances of charismatic rider Mahmoud (Bassem Samra). Then things get complicated. She falls for him, but it’s difficult for us—and Rim, it seems—to discern Mahmoud’s role in the protests. Mahmoud was one of the horsemen who disrupted a peaceful gathering in Tahrir Square, made infamous by a YouTube video showing a rider falling off his horse and being severely beaten. Was Mahmoud a political operative paid by President Mubarak, or a pawn in a battle he didn’t understand? As Rim unravels the truth, Mahmoud’s life begins to unravel as well. Nasrallah deftly juggles the demands of his characters with the larger political implications of his story (though the need to serve both masters makes the film a tad long). And while Nasrallah is making a political statement here, the real message is that love and revolution make messy bedfellows. The pairing of such passions is difficult to resist. (Also 2 p.m. Sat., May 25.)

[PICK] Barzan

7 p.m., Harvard Exit

This is the disturbing story of Sam Malkandi, an Iraqi Kurd who settled with his family in Kirkland in the late ’90s. In 2003, as later reported in SW and elsewhere, he met an Arabic-speaking stranger at Northgate Mall, let the man use his address as a favor, then found himself arrested in 2005 and held at the Northwest Detention Center for over four years. Did he wittingly or unwittingly aid a member of al-Qaida? The matter remains unclear, as Malkandi was never tried. Instead, he admitted lying on his asylum papers and accepted deportation in 2010. Followed by filmmakers Alex Stonehill and Bradley Hutchinson, local journalist Sarah Stuteville interviews Malkandi in Kurdistan and his family here in the Northwest. Freedom of Information requests also yield valuable documents, with animation depicting some chapters of Malkandi’s Kafkaesque saga. (The feds wouldn’t go on record, no surprise.) “Where’s the evidence?” asks his teenage son, sitting in his suburban bedroom with Lamborghini posters on the walls. “They have no evidence.” Malkandi’s second wife, an Iranian, is no less affecting in her testimony, yet Malkandi’s many years as a refugee in Iran and the U.S. have given him a somewhat mutable past identity. A frustrated theater director, he admits, “I’m an actor”—changing his story to suit an audience. Stuteville does her best to get to the truth, but Barzan is more about the human cost to U.S. deportation policies; and since 9/11, Malkandi’s story is only one among three million. (Also 12:30 p.m. Sun., June 2, Kirkland Performance Center.)

¡Atraco!

9:30 p.m., Egyptian

With a title that translates as Hold-Up!, this is a fictionalized account of a famous jewel heist in 1955 Madrid. Deposed Argentine dictator Juan Perón is exiled in Panama, and his assistant Landa needs to raise cash for their future exile in Spain. Landa pawns the jewels of Evita Perón (now dead) in Madrid and hatches an unlikely plan with the jeweler to secure their return: They’ll stage a fake robbery before the wife of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco can claim the gems for her own, and Perón will never know of the ruse. What could possibly go wrong? Landa recruits a loyal aide, Merello, and his own illegitimate son, Miguel, for the job; they fly to Spain, where everything goes predictably awry. Director Eduard Cortés never settles on a satisfactory tone for this nostalgic period piece. The robbers are comic bunglers; the women and costumes are glamorous and chic; and while there’s constant talk of politics, that era’s brutality is never really felt. A cagey old cop, half blind with glaucoma, is the film’s most potentially interesting figure. Detective Naranjo (Jordi Martínez) is a grizzled survivor on the political outs because he sided with the Republicans in the war. He knows the cost of defying Franco’s regime, while the blithe Argentine robbers do not. Unfortunately, ¡Atraco! never makes those deadly stakes seem real. There are hugs, bullets, and blood, plus a sentimental coda that feels anything but earned. (Also 6 p.m. Fri., May 24, Renton Performing Arts Center and 11 a.m. Sat., May 25, Egyptian.)

In the Fog

9:30 p.m., SIFF Cinema Uptown

Wow, what a Russian movie. Gloom, doom, and existential foreboding. Peasants slogging through the forest. Constant hunger and hardship. You get all that plus the atrocities of World War II. And this slow, somber adaptation of a novel by Vasili Bykov (directed by Sergei Loznitsa) is over two hours long. And yet still I like it. Sushenya is accused of betraying two railroad saboteurs to the German-controlled authorities in 1942 Belarus. (Basically they’re Nazis who speak Russian.) Burov and Voitik, two resistance fighters, arrive at Sushenya’s door. “Should I take a shovel?” he asks. The answer is yes. Executioners and the condemned man accept their roles, even though Sushenya insists he’s innocent. The grave is dug, but before anyone dies, In the Fog gives each of the three parties a long flashback to explain how they came to their unhappy positions. Burov, it emerges, is no brute. Voitik’s character is consistent. And Sushenya, far from being a collaborator, is a peasant with a keen moral compass: Kill one Nazi, he reasons, and the entire village will be exterminated in reprisal. It’s early in the war, and Russia must accept its losses. Or as Sushenya tells his childhood pal Burov, the man with the rifle, “There’s nothing to discuss. It’s fate.” (Also 1 p.m. Fri., May 24, Pacific Place.)

Friday, May 24

C.O.G.

Egyptian, 4 p.m.

David Sedaris is a liar. I think we’ve established that by now. His “memoirs” are embellished, and his fame rests upon clever, vindictive rewritings of past humiliations and grievances. Yet those self-lacerating moments are true in spirit; it’s just how he looks back on them, reframes them for us chuckling readers of The New Yorker and his latest collection, Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls, that makes him suspect. C.O.G., adapted by director Kyle Patrick Alvarez from a story in Naked, casts the young, vulnerable Sedaris (Jonathan Groff) as an innocent, mendacious young man who travels west to work on an Oregon apple farm “to get my hands dirty.” In fact, pay-phone calls home indicate, he’s escaping the judgment of his mother for being . . . well, that will have to wait. (We all know Sedaris is gay, but C.O.G. treats that like the big reveal it’s not.) Alvarez doesn’t go gentle on his unreliable, unlikable hero. He’s petulant and petty, a snob who insists he studied Japanese at Yale; he’s also a sissy prone to gay panic when a local (Corey Stoll, forever Hemingway in Midnight in Paris) comes on to him. Put differently, he’s not yet a self-accepting gay man. Yet Alvarez wounds his hero with interesting thorns (Dean Stockwell, Denis O’Hare) and builds up scar tissue that toughens Sedaris’ hide. Warning: This film uses clap-track audio segues that will drive you insane. (Also 7 p.m. Sun., May 26 and 6 p.m. Mon., May 27, Renton.)

The Spectacular Now

7:15 p.m., SIFF Cinema Uptown

Scheduled for August release, this adaptation of a young-adult novel by Tim Tharp plays like one of those old, cautionary after-school specials. You know—Jenny has an eating disorder, or Jimmy is smoking too much pot, or Jeremy needs to tell someone the gym teacher is touching him in inappropriate places. Here our fatherless teen protagonist is Sutter (Miles Teller), who lives a wildly unsupervised life of partying and blown-off homework. He wakes up on the lawn, unsure where he left the car. Oh, and Sutter is plainly an alcoholic, though that term is curiously omitted from The Spectacular Now (directed by James Ponsoldt), because that would be too . . . no, wait a minute, what American family isn’t familiar with that term? When smart-girl Aimee (Shailene Woodley, one of Clooney’s kids in The Descendants) falls for good-time Sutter, she’s not smart enough to see his drinking? You’re telling me these things aren’t discussed, particularly by Sutter’s mom (Jennifer Jason Leigh) after her alkie ex abandoned them? The Spectacular Now is implausible on any number of levels, though its teenage cast behaves with a naturalistic ease. There are no Hughesian quips or ridiculously hunky/beautiful high-schoolers here. Teller and Woodley convey some awkward charm in this unlikely love story. You just wish it had been written to respect the intelligence of the average American teenager. (Also 1:30 p.m. Sat., May 24, Harvard Exit.)

After Tiller

8:30 p.m., SIFF Cinema Uptown

As legislatures in North Dakota and other red states seek to close their few remaining abortion clinics, this is a timely, sympathetic look at those doctors practicing at the least popular extreme of the pro-choice camp. Only four physicians in the U.S. offer late-term abortions in their three separate clinics. One is located in liberal Boulder, which makes sense. The other two are in New Mexico and Nebraska, which makes no sense. Is the need greater there? Are there more birth defects? And why, apart from the possibility of being assassinated (as was Dr. George Tiller in 2009), aren’t more than four doctors offering this service? First-time documentary filmmakers Lana Wilson and Martha Shane never grapple with such issues; they’re not journalists, and their intent is merely to humanize four aging physicians as people—not the demons subject to sidewalk demonstrations, fiery sermons, political denunciations, and the occasional bullet. I can applaud them for doing just that: This is a partisan, pro-choice doc given amazing access to doctor/patient consultations, and most of these conversations are heartbreaking. “I would rather her not suffer,” says a woman carrying a fetus with half a brain. Imagine going to the office each day—never mind the medical procedure—and simply listening to such stories over and over again. That these four physicians are brave and compassionate is beyond dispute. Now where is the documentary about how the health-care system has forced them into that lonely position? (Also 4 p.m. Sat., May 25, Harvard Exit.)

About 111 Girls

9 p.m., SIFF Cinema Uptown

In a letter to the Iranian president, 111 Kurdish girls threaten mass suicide, protesting that war and poverty has left their homeland without eligible husbands. A government functionary (Reza Behboodi) is dispatched to stop them. Not that he has a plan. Or a map. Or even a working knowledge of Kurdish culture. This Iraqi film, set in far northwest Iran, plays like a surreal version of a Kiarostami road movie. Every stop offers a warped slice of life in this neglected region. Ancient traditions have become absurdist rituals, leaders distract from tragedy with political theater, and the government is forever driving into the ditch. Under the satirical twists is a portrait of Kurdistan as a region depleted by war and forgotten by an impotent government, but it stops short of giving voice to the women and girls in this culture. The girls are perpetually out of reach and out of sight—apart from imaginary glimpses of them. Maybe that’s the entire point for directors Bijan Zmanpira and Nahid Ghobadi: Women have no voices in this culture. But that filmmaking approach also makes them all martyrs and symbols without letting us see them as people. (Also noon Sat., May 25.)

Saturday, May 25

Short Stories

5:30 p.m., Pacific Place

Four vignettes tied together by the superfluous framing device of the title—an author’s manuscript is rejected by a publishing house, but various staffers read the stories in his collection as it gets passed around. Three of the tales seem to be satires of contemporary Russian life: 1) A young couple sits for an interview with a control-freaky wedding planner, who’s hyper-organizing not only the ceremony’s details but future events like their inevitable adulteries and their child’s profession. 2) An envelope of money is passed around via various under-the-table transactions, up to the highest level of political power. 4) A relationship between an older man and a younger woman falls apart—despite the frequent, awesome sex—when he becomes disillusioned by how little she knows about history. The wit is so dry in all these that you never can quite tell if that’s what director Mikhail Segal is going for. The story that works best is 3), a poetic fantasy about a librarian/psychic, whose visions come in Pushkin-style rhyming tetrameter, enlisted to help find a a missing girl. It’s the least ponderous, chatty, overextended, and opaque of the four, and despite its elegiac tone, offers the film’s best sight gag. (Also 3:30 p.m. Mon., May 27, Pacific Place and 6 p.m. Wed., June 5, Kirkland Performance Center.)

Orange Honey

8:30 p.m., SIFF Cinema Uptown

Again with fascist Spain in the ’50s already. Army clerk Enrique (Iban Garate) is an unhappy conscript who dutifully types up the charges and testimonies of leftists dragged into military courts. The verdict is always the same, guilty, and the punishment is always the same, death by firing squad. Enrique’s boss, military judge Eladio, has no compunction about killing; it’s just a routine part of keeping the populace under control. And Enrique has only ink on his hands, not blood, so he goes along. Also, his fiancée Carmen (Blanca Suarez) happens to be Eladio’s niece, and Eladio gifts them an apartment expropriated from a dead leftist. There are tensions here, but little suspense. Enrique is recruited by a rebel cell, secrets are revealed, but Orange Honey is more a soap opera than a thriller. Its themes of loyalty and complicity to a corrupt regime have been worked through dozens of times before in more convincing dramas (notably The Conformist). Cast as a weakling, the bland Garate doesn’t help the cause. We never see any qualms his clerk might feel about typing those phony transcripts; he’s eloquent only with his fingers, not his face. (Also 11:30 a.m. Mon., May 27 and 6 p.m. Thurs., June 6.)

Sunday, May 26

[PICK] Remote Area Medical

3 p.m., SIFF Cinema Uptown

In Jeff Reichert and Farihah Zaman’s account of nonprofit pop-up health clinic Remote Area Medical, founder Stan Brock recounts a conversation with astronaut Ed Mitchell about his inspiration to start the organization. Kicked off a horse in the Amazon jungle and in need of medical care, Brock was a 26-day walk from the nearest doctor. “I was on the moon,” replied Mitchell, “and only three days from the nearest doctor.” Around the globe and in the U.S. (Obamacare or no), getting medical help is a remote prospect for many. For that reason, when RAM sets up in the parking lot of a NASCAR track in Bristol, Tennessee, thousands of uninsured locals start lining up for the three-day clinic. Meanwhile, when not tending to patients, the lean, fit 76-year-old Brock cycles around the massive racetrack for exercise. Here in the Stroke Belt, lung cancer, obesity, and tooth decay run rampant. The time to exercise or cook expensive fresh food is a luxury many don’t have. And while RAM’s medical providers can pull teeth and remove cysts, they can’t change the chronic unemployment, unsafe working conditions, and poor educational opportunities of the rural South. After three days, Brock’s volunteers pack up and leave. But there’s no doubt that if they stayed, the line for care would still grow. (Also 5:30 p.m. Mon., May 27.)

[PICK] The Pardon

6 p.m., Pacific Place

Can the power of friendship overcome the destruction of genocide? That’s the big question posed by this debut feature by Rwandan filmmaker Joel Karekezi. A letter informs young Tutsi family man Karemera (Wilson Egessa) that, after 15 years in prison, a Hutu man named Manzi has been granted pardon. Flash back to 1994, and Manzi (Okuyo Joel Atiku Prynce) is introduced as the man who saved Karemera from drowning. Through understated but powerful performances (relayed through rudimentary camerawork and sometimes muffled dialogue), it’s revealed that the two characters are best friends. They play and work together in their small village. But their friendship is doomed by circumstance: 1994 is the year that the Hutu killed more than 500,000 Tutsi in the Rwandan genocide. Manzi first defends his friend, then succumbs to military propaganda and his domineering, bigoted father. It’s tragic to see Manzi call Karemera a cockroach, but the events that follow are truly horrifying. The film benefits from the fact that director Karekezi is himself a survivor of the genocide. Aside from inflammatory radio dispatches from the ruling Hutu party, The Pardon doesn’t stray from the personal drama of these two former friends and their families. It’s an intimate portrait of a national tragedy that, with its unfathomable death tolls, is difficult to comprehend. And while the conclusion is difficult to swallow, it feels imperative that we must try to. (Also 3:30 p.m. Mon., May 27, Renton.)

Monday, May 27

Two Weddings and a Funeral

1 p.m., Renton IKEA Performing Arts Center

According to en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LGBT_rights_in_South_Korea, “Homosexuality remains largely taboo in South Korean society and same-sex couples are seldom if ever seen in public.” According to Two Weddings and a Funeral, it’s still 1990 there—not only because of societal attitudes but in the retro cinematic style of this kandy-kolored homo-rom-com, the kind of movie in which hot guys make their first screen appearance in dramatic, savorable slow motion. Hyo-jin (Ryoo Hyoun-kyoun) and Min-soo (Kim Dong-yun) are young doctors, both gay, who marry as the film opens; she wants to adopt, he wants an unshaveable beard—how could it fail? After some campy hijinks—oh no, Mom’s showed up unexpectedly at their apartment!—the tone sombers. Seok, Min-soo’s secret Seoul mate (I couldn’t resist), rejects Min-soo’s suggestion that they flee to France; that argument and the death alluded to in the title finally pry open his closet door. The friends in his circle form a banchan platter of gay cartoons: one ultra-swishy and giggly, one militantly out and self-righteous, one fat and wry, etc. The stereotypes are too blatant to be offensive—they read as send-ups, pokes at the unenlightened audience: This is what you think all gay men are like, don’t you? We wrap up with a happy ending, a K-pop production number with Min-soo in a feather boa. It’s all sparkly fun, if totally by-the-numbers and free of surprises. (Also 4:30 p.m. Tues., May 28, Pacific Place and 9:30 p.m. Wed., May 29, Harvard Exit.)

The Human Scale

6:30 p.m., Harvard Exit

Everybody hates the notion of urban planning when, for instance, the neighbor builds a backyard cottage or the waterfront is snarled with the viaduct replacement. But consider the alternative. This Danish documentary does, chiefly by celebrating the views of architect Jan Gehl, who sits on the humanist, Jane Jacobs end of the planning spectrum. “The megacity is a reality,” says Gehl, meaning the uncontrolled sprawl of Mexico City; Lagos, Nigeria; or Dhaka, Bangladesh. In five chapters, this doc sets out to answer Gehl’s hypothetical: “What is the scale for measuring happiness in the city?” The answers won’t be surprising to us zoning-obsessed Seattleites: more bikes and bike lanes, fewer cars, less parking, more public transportation, more open spaces, more density, etc., etc.—but all of it scaled to the pedestrian. All the experts here are Gehl’s acolytes, and all the examples—like making Times Square a pedestrian mall—are relatively small and cheap. In China or Pakistan or Bangladesh, growth is the only priority, and planning seems a frivolous luxury. In the built cities of the West, the big planning opportunities come only with disasters. The Human Scale shows us the empty, earthquake-ravaged Christchurch, New Zealand, which will be entirely rebuilt. It made me think of our waterfront and Gehl’s rule of “five-kilometer-per-hour scale”—i.e., the pace of pedestrians—and it makes me wonder if Seattle drivers will accept that speed. (Also 4:30 p.m. Wed., May 29, Egyptian.)

Redemption Street

8:30 p.m., SIFF Cinema Uptown

Some 15 years after the Balkan wars and ethnic cleansing, an ambitious young Belgrade prosecutor asks to be given a real war-crimes case, something to make his reputation and free him from the shadow of his father, a retired judge who lives with Dušan (Gordan Kicic) and his pregnant wife Irena. Be careful what you wish for. Dušan’s boss obliges, and the case inevitably puts his life in danger and threatens his family. Redemption Street has a nicely murky, underplayed sense of menace, as Dušan begins to suspect that the new Serbia has no interest in opening such gruesome old cases. Meanwhile, the surviving members of a paramilitary group are hunting down and killing their own—anyone who could testify or give evidence to a prosecutor like Dušan. In effect, both he and the assassins are tracking the same man: the bearded fugitive known variously as Micun, Sredoje, and “Blackbird” (Uliks Fehmui), who also has a pregnant wife. How Micun and Dušan meet is fairly implausible, and the rest of Redemption Street is entirely predictable. Dušan must surrender his gun and badge, then he lays out the rest of the plot in an angry speech to his boss. Home-movie flashbacks—or are they flash-forwards?—only confuse matters. This is not a case you should open. (Also 4:30 p.m. Tues., May 28.)

 
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