Category Archives: Religion

SIFF 2017: Becoming Who I Was ****

By Dennis Hartley

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Until credits rolled for this South Korean entry by co-directors Chang-Yong Moon and Jeon Jin, I was unsure whether I’d seen a beautifully cinematic documentary, or a narrative film with amazingly naturalistic performances. Either way, I experienced the most compassionate, humanist study this side of Ozu. Turns out, it’s all quite real, and an obvious labor of love by the film makers, who went to Northern India and Tibet to document young “Rinpoche” Angdu Padma and his mentor/caregiver for 8 years as they struggle hand to mouth and strive to fulfill the boy’s destiny (he is believed to have been a revered Buddhist teacher in a past life). A moving journey (in both the literal and spiritual sense) that has a lot to say about the meaning of love and selflessness.

SIFF 2017: White Sun ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 20, 2017)

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Director Deepak Rauniyar uses the family row that ensues when a Maoist rebel returns to his isolated mountain village for his Royalist father’s funeral as an allegory for the political woes that have divided and ravaged his home country of Nepal. Naturalistic performances and rugged location shooting greatly enhance a story that beautifully illustrates how a country’s people, like members of an estranged family, must strive to rediscover common ground before meaningful healing can begin.

Original sin: The Student **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 6, 2017)

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In my 2008 review of Larry Charles and Bill Maher’s documentary Religulous, I wrote:

“Logic” is the antithesis to any manner of fundamentalist belief. Setting off on a quest to deconstruct fundamental religious belief, armed solely with logic and convincing yourself that you are going to somehow make sense of it all, ironically seems like some kind of nutty fundamentalist belief in and of itself.

Funnily enough, this is the conundrum at the heart of Russian writer-director Kirill Serebrennikov’s somber drama The Student. In this particular narrative, you could say that “fundamentalist belief” is a high schooler named Venya (Pyoter Skvorstov), and “logic” is his biology teacher (Lidiya Tkacheva). In fact, nearly every character in this stagey piece walks around with “I am a metaphor!” tattooed on their forehead; I was not surprised when credits revealed it was adapted from a play (by Marius von Mayenburg).

Venya is a brooding fellow who skulks about the halls, avoiding eye contact with any of his fellow students. He appears taciturn as well; that is, until he refuses to participate in co-ed swimming for P.E., citing it goes against his religion. His mother (Yuliya Aug) is called in for a conference, and it’s clear that she has become exasperated with her son’s obstinate behavior as of late; fueled by his inexplicably sudden fealty to biblical literalism.

The school’s deeply religious principal is happy to accommodate Venya’s request for a deferral. This emboldens the young man to become ever more vocal and disruptive, to the particular chagrin of his free-spirited biology teacher, who finds herself more and more on the defensive as Venya repeatedly hijacks her normally democratic class discussions.

Venya’s non-stop sermonizing and self-righteous scolding is off-putting to classmates, with the exception of shy and soft-spoken Grigoriy (Aleksandr Gorchilin). Grigoriy is an outsider himself; mostly due to feeling self-conscious about a pronounced limp, which makes him a frequent target for bullying. Venya makes an attempt to “heal” Grigoriy, which fails. Undeterred, Grigoriy offers to become his “first disciple”. Grigoriy’s devotion is not necessarily motivated by spirituality, leading to fateful misinterpretations.

I was reminded of John Huston’s 1979 comedy-drama Wise Blood and Peter Medak’s 1972 satire The Ruling Class; although it lacks the black humor of the former and irony of the latter. What it does have is intensity; perhaps a bit too much, as it threatens at times to collapse under the weighty mantle of its protagonist’s martyr complex. Still…its central message rings clear and true: a blind devotion to fundamentalism rarely ends well.

 

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).