Category Archives: Religion

SJFF 2017: Who’s Gonna Love Me Now? ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 11, 2017)

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This bittersweet yet life-affirming documentary, which recalls the PBS series An American Family, takes an intimate look at the travails of a 40 year-old Israeli man named Saar, who has lived a happy and fulfilling life being out and proud in London, despite the fact that his move was precipitated by getting barred from the  kibbutz where he grew up. However, he is currently weathering a midlife crisis, with an added poignancy: he is HIV-positive and yearns to meaningfully reconnect with his estranged family in Israel, who seem unable (or unwilling) to reconcile their familial love for Saar with their deeply held religious fundamentalist tenants regarding homosexuality. Co-directing brothers Barak and Tomer Heymann were given extraordinary access to Saar and his family, resulting in something rarely experienced at the movies anymore-real and heartbreaking emotional honesty, handled with great sensitivity and compassion.

(For more info, visit the Seattle Jewish Film Festival website)

SIFF 2015: Challat of Tunis ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 30, 2015)

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While this qualifies as a “mockumentary”, there’s nothing “ha-ha” funny about it. That is, unless you consider sexual violence an amusing subject… which it decidedly is not, although (sadly) it is a global scourge that knows no borders. This is precisely the point that writer-director Kaouther Ben Hania is (bravely) making in her film, which is a scathing feminist sendup of the systemic sexism that permeates not only her native Tunisia, but Arab culture (and the Earth). The “Challat” refers to a motorbike-borne, self-anointed crusader who slashes the buttocks of women who dress “immodestly”. As the film opens, a decade has passed since this twisted customer has victimized anyone. An investigative journalist (played by the director) is trying to track him down, so she can get inside his head to see what makes such an odious individual tick. A young man comes forth, who may or may not be the elusive “Challat”. She calls his bluff, and things get interesting. Thought-provoking, yet also disheartening when you contemplate the distressing universality of the misogynist credo: “She was asking for it.”

SIFF 2015: Cartoonists: Foot Soldiers of Democracy ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 23, 2015)

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French filmmaker Stephanie Valloatto’s globetrotting documentary profiles a dozen men and women who make their living drawing funny pictures about current events. I know what you’re thinking…beats digging ditches, right? Well, that depends. Some of these political cartoonists ply their trade under regimes that could be digging a “special” ditch, reserved just for them (if you know what I’m saying). The film can be confusing; in her attempt to give all 12 subjects equal face time, Valloatto’s frequent cross-cutting can make you lose track of which country you’re in (it’s mostly interior shots). That aside, she gets to the heart of what democracy is all about: speaking truth to power. It’s also timely; in one scene, an interviewee says, “Like a schoolchild, I told myself: I shouldn’t draw Muhammad.” Then, holding up a sketch of you-know-who, he concludes: “Drawing is the correct answer to the forbidden.”

Yet another fruitless war: Tangerines ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 9, 2015)

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So there was this card-carrying commie banjo player named Pete Seeger, who used to perform an antiwar singalong called “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” The lyrics are essentially a set of rhetorical questions, ending with a haunting refrain “…when will we ever learn?” Apparently, the answer to that last question is: “Never?” At least, judging from the fact that 60 years after that song was written, wars continue to rage all over the world. Yet people keep singing that silly tune, in the vain hope that those who hold the power to wage them will listen, and that its message will finally sink in: Wars are dumb.

Card-carrying dumb.

Pete Seeger based his lyrics on a passage from a traditional Cossack folk song lamenting the fruitlessness of war. I only mention this because it so happens the latest antiwar film to inquire as to the whereabouts of the flowers also originates from the steppes of Russia.

Tangerines is an Estonian-Georgian production written and directed by Zaza Urushadze. Urushadze sets his drama in Georgia, against the backdrop of the somewhat politically byzantine Abkhazian War of the early 1990s. Although this bloody civil war is raging quite literally on the doorstep of their sleepy little hamlet, two crusty Estonian men with adjoining properties, woodworker Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak) and farmer Margus (Elmo Nuganen) are more concerned with harvesting Margus’ small tangerine crop and getting it to market before the fruit rots (or before the orchard itself becomes collateral damage).

However, faster than you can say “acceptable losses”, a sudden, violent skirmish erupts one evening, mere steps away from Ivo’s modest cottage. Ivo and Margus cautiously investigate the resultant carnage, and discover that there are two survivors: a Chechen mercenary, who is fighting for the separatists (Giorgi Nakashidze), and a Georgian government soldier (Mikheil Meskhi). Ivo takes both soldiers under his roof and begins to nurse them back to health. As these wounded men are sworn enemies of each other, you may already have an idea where this story is going. Or maybe you only think you do.

While there are obvious touchstones like All Quiet on the Western Front, La Grande Illusion and Hell in the Pacific, Urushadze’s film sneaks up on you as a work of true compassion. As the characters slowly come to recognize their shared humanity, so do we (after all, everyone bleeds the same color).

As the characters come to recognize their shared humanity; so do we. Beautifully written, directed and acted as the film is, I hope there comes a day in this fucked-up slaughterhouse of a world when no one feels the need to make another like it.  As a great 20th Century English poet once wrote: You may say I’m a dreamer…but I’m not the only one.

SIFF 2014: This May Be the Last Time ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 31, 2014)

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Did you know that the eponymous Rolling Stones song shares the same roots with a venerable Native-American tribal hymn, that is still sung in Seminole and Muscogee churches to this day? While that’s far from the main thrust of Sterlin Harjo’s documentary, it’s but one of its surprises. This is really two films in one. On a very personal level (similar in tone to a 2013 SIFF documentary selection, Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell), Harjo investigates a family story concerning the disappearance of his Oklahoman Seminole grandfather in 1962. After a perfunctory search by local authorities turned up nothing, tribal members pooled their resources and continued to look. Some members of the search party kept up spirits by singing traditional Seminole and Muscogee hymns…which inform the second level of Harjo’s film. Through interviews with tribal members and musicologists, he traces the roots of this unique genre, connecting the dots between the hymns, African-American spirituals, Scottish and Appalachian music. The film doubles as a fascinating history lesson, as well as a moving personal journey.

SIFF 2014: Fight Church ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 17, 2014)

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Man goes in the cage. Cage goes in the arena. Preacher’s in the cage. Preacher says a prayer, the two men proceed to pound the holy crap out of each other, and the crowd goes wild. Sunday! SUNday!! SUNDAY!!! Elmer Gantry meets Beyond Thunderdome in this objective and fascinating doc directed by Daniel Junge and Bryan Storkel, which profiles several manly men of faith (MMA competitors all) who lead “fight ministries” (a growing trend). But…what about that whole “love thy neighbor” and “turn the other cheek” thing in the Bible? Well, if watching The Legend of Billy Jack taught us anything, it’s this: Do it in the name of Heaven, you can justify it in the end.

Seattle Jewish Film Festival: Wagner’s Jews **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 22, 2014)

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Operas weren’t the only things that Richard Wagner (1813-1883) composed. He also published some virulently anti-Semitic manifestos (later parsed and re-branded by the Goebbels propaganda machine). Yet, an historical conundrum remains: Some of his most stalwart patrons and artistic collaborators were Jews (even Wagner scratched his head over their unwavering devotion). Director Hilan Warshaw sets about trying to make sense of it all in his documentary, using a mix of historical re-enactments and interviews with biographers, Israeli classical musicians and academics. While predicated on an intriguing premise, I found the film a bit on the dry side; although at just over an hour, it isn’t pretending to go too deep. It does raise an interesting question regarding whether it’s possible to separate an artist’s creative achievements from their peccadilloes and/or politics (for a more absorbing exploration on that theme, see Ray Muller’s great 1993 documentary, The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl).

Seattle Jewish Film Festival 2014: Aftermath ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 22, 2014)

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This intense drama from writer-director Wladyslaw Pasikowski (which reminded me of the 1990 West German film, The Nasty Girl) concerns a Polish émigré (Ireneusz Czop) who makes a visit from the U.S. to his hometown for the first time in decades to attempt a reconciliation with his estranged brother (Maciej Stuhr). He quickly gleans that his brother (whose wife has recently left him) has become a pariah to neighboring farmers and many locals in the nearby village. After some reluctance, his brother shows him why: he’s been obsessively digging out head stones from local roads that were originally re-appropriated from a Jewish graveyard during WW2, converting his wheat field into a makeshift cemetery. Oddly, he’s also learning Hebrew (the brothers are non-Jews). Not unlike the protagonist in Field of Dreams, he can offer no rational explanation; “something” is compelling him to do it. It seems he’s also dredging up shameful memories among the village elders that they would prefer not to process. It is a powerfully acted treatise on secrets, lies…and collective guilt.

And justice for some: 12 Years a Slave **1/2 & The Trials of Muhammad Ali ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 2, 2013)

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One of the lighter moments in 12 Years a Slave.

Let me make this perfectly clear. It is my sincere personal belief that slavery is evil. There is nothing that justifies robbing human beings of their freedom and treating them as chattel. And I do take the subject of slavery throughout the history of mankind (whether in discussion, literature, theater or film) seriously, from what the Pharaohs did to my own ancestors 5000 years ago, to the odious exploitation of Africans by European and American slave traders over a 300 year period. I offer this disclaimer to any of my fellow liberals who may be offended that the following review is not going to be a fawning one, no matter how noble and righteous the filmmaker’s intent.

Somewhere around the halfway mark of British director Steve McQueen’s latest wallow in human misery, 12 Years a Slave, one character begs the protagonist (in so many words) to “Please…kill me now.” Oddly enough, those are the exact words I was silently mouthing as I stole a glance at my watch to assuage a suspicion that I may in fact now be living in the year 2019. However, in polite deference to my fellow moviegoers in the packed, reverently hushed auditorium (and my sworn duties as your film reviewer), I took a deep breath, girded my loins for the 6 remaining years of the film’s running time and kept mum. I did hit a rough patch about 7/8 of the way through when one of the characters says (to the best of my recollection) “…and do you agree, sir, that slavery is evil?” To which I nearly leaped to my feet to exclaim “YES! Thank you for finally saying it! Now…for the love of god, please roll the end credits!” No such luck.

The film is based on an 1855 memoir by Solomon Northup, an African-American resident of upstate New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841, remaining in bondage until his rescue in 1853. Now, I have not read this source book, which I gather to be one of the earliest detailed first-hand accounts to shed light on the machinations of the American slave trade (most significantly, from the victim’s perspective), as well as an inspiring account of survival and retention of dignity in the face of such institutionalized horror. Sounds like perfect fodder for a multi-dimensional film that could personalize an ugly chapter of American history traditionally glossed over (at least when I was in grade school back in the Bronze Age).

Unfortunately, McQueen and his screenwriter John Ridley have chosen to fixate more on the “horror” than anything else. We are barely introduced to Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a genteel, well-educated, top-hat tipping gentleman who supports his family with his skills as a carpenter and accomplished fiddle-player, before he is bamboozled by a pair of con men with a laughably simple ruse and shanghaied into slavery by the next morning (if I didn’t already know that this was a Very Serious Film, I might have begun to suspect I had been bamboozled into a sneak for the latest Hangover sequel).

What ensues is not so much a tangible story arc as it is a two-hour aversion therapy session (how many repetitive scenes of beatings, lashings, lynchings and rape can you sit through with your eyes pinned open like Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange before you beg for mercy? Start the timer!) As the years tick by, Solomon is bought and sold and loaned and traded and sold again. Then more beatings, lashings,  lynchings and rapes…different plantations.

Occasional Malick-esque interludes offer some respite, with painterly antebellum dioramas that would make James Lee Burke moist. Using a sliding scale of evil, a few of the white folks Solomon encounters are “better” than others (including a sympathetic owner played by Benedict Cumberbatch and Brad Pitt as a Canadian abolitionist), but mostly cartoonish villains (Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano and McQueen veteran Michael Fassbender try to out-Snidely Whiplash each other).

I sense there is a really terrific film here, screaming to get out from underneath all the ham-fisted slavery porn. I understand that a film doesn’t have to be a “comfortable” experience, especially when dealing with an uncomfortable subject. I get “provocative”. I get “challenging”. That’s what makes good art. But a film also has to tell a story. I don’t care if it’s a happy story, or a sad story, or even a linear story. But a film shouldn’t be merely something to endure (unless you’re a masochist and  into that sort of thing; I  won’t judge you).

In an odd bit of kismet, I recently devoted several successive evenings to watch all 9 ½ hours of Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 Holocaust documentary Shoah. It is, hands down, the most harrowing, emotionally shattering and profoundly moving film I have ever seen about man’s inhumanity to man. And guess what? In 9 ½ hours, you don’t see one single image or reenactment of the actual horrors. It is people (victims and perpetrators) simply telling their story and collectively creating an oral history. And I was riveted. To be sure, Solomon Northrup had to endure 12 years of pure hell. I get that. But I’ll bet you he also had a story to tell. Sadly, I get no sense of it here.

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Rope-a-trope: The Trials of Muhammad Ali.

“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father… Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail”

-Muhammad Ali

There have been a number of films documenting and dramatizing the extraordinary life of Muhammad Ali, but they all share a curious anomaly. Most have tended to gloss over Ali’s politically volatile “exile years” (1967-1970), during which the American sports icon was officially stripped of his heavyweight crown and essentially “banned” from professional boxing after his very public refusal to be inducted into the Army on the grounds of conscientious objection to the Vietnam War. In a new documentary, The Trials of Muhammad Ali (not to be confused with Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight, the 2013 made-for-cable drama that HBO has been running in heavy rotation) filmmaker Bill Siegel (The Weather Underground) fills in those blanks.

As we know, Time heals (most) wounds…and Siegel opens his film with a fascinatingly dichotomous illustration. We witness a young Ali in a TV talk show appearance as he is being lambasted by an apoplectic David Susskind, who calls him (among other things) “…a disgrace to his country, his race and what he laughably describes as his profession.” (Ali deflects the insulting rant with a Zen-like calm). Cut to 2005, and footage of President G.W. Bush Jr.  awarding Ali the Medal of Freedom. It’s easy to forget how vilified Ali was for taking his stand (scars from the politically polarizing Vietnam era run deep; I know a few folks who still refer to Jane Fonda as “Hanoi Jane”).

Sigel then traces the evolution of Ali’s controversial stance, which had its roots in the early 60s, when the wildly popular Olympic champion then known as Cassius Clay became interested in the Nation of Islam, guided by the teachings of the movement’s leader at the time, Elijah Muhammad. Interviewees Kahlilah Camacho-Ali (Ali’s first wife, whom he met through the Nation of Islam) and a longtime friend only identified as “Captain Sam” provide a lot of interesting background on this spiritual side of Ali’s life, which eventually led to the adaptation of a new name and his refusal to serve in Vietnam.

As you watch the film, you begin to understand how Ali the sports icon transmogrified into an influential sociopolitical figure, even if he didn’t set out to become the latter. It was more an accident of history; Ali’s affiliation with the Nation of Islam and stance against the Vietnam War put him at the confluence of both the burgeoning Black Power and anti-war movements. Either way, it took balls, especially considering  that when he was convicted of draft evasion (later overturned by the Supreme Court), he was not only stripped of his heavyweight title (and primary source of income), but had his passport taken away by the government. This was not grandstanding; it was a true example of standing on the courage of one’s convictions.

Sigel has  dug up some revelatory archival footage from Ali’s three years in the wilderness. He still had to pay rent and feed his family, so Ali essentially found a second career during that period as a professional speaker (likely making him the only world-famous athlete to have inserted that phase of life usually associated with post-retirement into the middle of one’s career). During this time he represented himself as a minister of the Nation of Islam, giving speeches against racism and the Vietnam War (he shows to have been quite an effective and charismatic speaker). One mind-blower is footage of Ali performing a musical number from a Broadway play called Big Time Buck White. Wow.

It’s hard to see this film and not draw parallels with Edward Snowden; specifically to ponder how he will be viewed in the fullness of time. Granted, Snowden is not as likely to get bestowed with the Medal of Freedom-but god knows he’s being vilified now (remember, Ali didn’t just catch flak from the usual suspects for standing firmly on his principles, but even from dyed-in-the-wool liberals like Susskind).

Another  takeaway is that there was more going on than cloaked racism; Ali’s vilification was America’s pre-9/11 flirt with Islamophobia. Ali was “safe” and acceptable as a sports celebrity (as long as he played the face-pulling, poetry-spouting ham with Howard Cosell), but was recast as a dangerous black radical once he declared himself a Muslim and began to speak his mind on hot-button issues.

As one interviewee comments on the Islam quotient “…Since 9/11, ‘Islam’ has acquired so many layers and dimensions and textures. When the Nation of Islam was considered as a ‘threatening’ religion, traditional Islam was seen as a gentle alternative. And now, quite the contrary […] Muhammad Ali occupies a weird kind of place in that shifting interpretation of Islam.” Welcome to Bizarro World.

Miracle on 125th Street: Black Nativity **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 30, 2013)

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I make a concerted effort to avoid trite phrases like “warmhearted musical that the whole family can enjoy” when dashing off a film review. But when it, erm, comes to warmhearted musicals that the whole family can enjoy…you could do worse than Black Nativity, a Yule-themed musical  adapted from Langston Hughes’ eponymous early 60s Off-Broadway play by writer-director Kasi Lemmons (Talk to Me).

Glossy as a Hallmark card (and just about as deep), the film nonetheless ambles along agreeably enough, thanks to a spirited cast and a blues-gospel tinged soundtrack. Jennifer Hudson plays a struggling single mom who lives in Baltimore with her teenage son, Langston (Jacob Latimore). She decides (much to Langston’s chagrin) that this Christmas would be as good a time as any for her son to get acquainted with her parents (Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett) from whom she has been estranged for a number of years.

After a long bus ride to NYC (which yields the film’s best musical number, a haunting, beautifully arranged rendition of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”), Langston no sooner sets foot on Big Apple pavement than he’s being accused of theft and getting hauled off in handcuffs after an earnest attempt to return a wallet to a man who has absentmindedly left it on a store counter (I suspect I’m not the only audience member who flashed on the hapless newbie who gets racially profiled in the center section of Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City”). Luckily, his grandfather (a reverend graced with the punny name Cornell Cobb) clears up the misunderstanding and gets him out of stir. Sullen Langston and his pious (if well-meaning) grandparents are off to a shaky start for their “getting to know you” romp, which includes the rev’s annual “Black Nativity” church event, family melodrama, and (wait for it) A Christmas Miracle.

Were the film not buoyed by the presence of the charismatic duo of Whitaker and Bassett, and the fact that someone is inspired to break into song every 6 or 7 minutes, the entire cast may have been in grave danger of drowning in clichés. Still, Lemmons’ film earns extra points almost by default, due to the fact that the “family holiday musical” is on the endangered species list. So if you’re into that sort of thing, hey…don’t let me be a cantankerous old Scrooge.