Tag Archives: Syria

SIFF: A Political Thriller moprhs into a reflecting image about the power of peaceful protest, and a cry for “Freedom and Dignity” in THE TRANSLATOR

It is incredible when you walk into a movie that illustrates a situation happening thousands of miles away and realize that its events are much closer to the ones happening right at home, or in my case, in my own Dominican Republic, a country where I lived in for almost 20 years and who had its own shares of political violence against its resistors and who is today, trying to rebuild itself from the ashes of a dark yesterday.

Rana Kazkaf and Anaz Khalaf’s The Translator posits a stark reality for its exiled protagonist. Sami (Ziad Bakri), a Syrian exile living a life of privilege in Sydney, Australia, becomes drawn back to his country of origin when his brother Zaid goes missing following an arrest. The arrest seems to be linked to the 2000 Olympics when Sami (allegedly deliberately) mistranslated a blink or miss passage that sealed his fate. Having to see a video that shows Zaid being hauled off to an unknown fate (and potentially be disappeared as his own father was years ago when Sami was a boy) shakes Sami out of his zone and leads him into action.

Upon arriving, however, Sami has little time to breathe and becomes witness of just how dangerous the situation is. Reconnecting with his sister Karma (Yunna Marwan) is bitter; she blames his absence and that as a translator he is a hider — one who doesn’t speak his own words, when words equal the truth. Sami attempts to seek help anywhere he can, but it seems, no one can be trusted, and the more he stays, the less likely he might be able to leave.

If I had not seen the Q & A following The Translator I would have assumed this was based on actual facts. That is how sharp, how urgent, how “ripped from the headlines” Kazkaz’s and Khalaf’s movie looks. You could almost confuse it for actual news, or a risky, guerrilla-style documentary, with every shot filled with tension, its characters in a vicious struggle against oppression while those who do so loom over the narrative and give the movie a sense of inescapable doom.

The movie’s true meaning reveals itself later in the movie and it will resonate at a global level. A book containing documents of peaceful protests that get squashed by the military and the police becomes a weapon of truth — a truth we all know too well. The famous Kent State picture of Mary Ann Vecchio screaming over the body of Jeffrey Miller makes a striking cameo appearance. We then realize this is not just a “Syrian” problem but ours as well, and it reflects itself over and over into recent history when seeing how Charlottesville ended and how our own peaceful protests have been targeted for being dangerous.

The Translator has no release date in the US. If it shows up at a film festival near you please go see it. [A]

A Harrowing Depiction of Life Among the Ruins: Gianfranco Rosi’s Notturno

Every so often a movie comes around that really messes you up. The last time I saw a documentary that kept me up at night was 2013’s The Act of Killing. Joshua Oppenheimer and Anonymous’s portrayal of the horrors committed on a populace in the name of ethnic cleansing left me so shaken I didn’t know what to do. Yes, a movie can do this to you.

Alain Resnais’ Nuit et Broulliard (Night and Fog) managed to open a glimpse into the abyss in his portrayal of Nazi atrocities in barely 30 minutes of running time. Now, Gianfranco Rosi, whose work should be commended for his bravery, presents Notturno. His documentary posits itself as an observer, much in the way of the works of Frederick Wiseman. We never get interviews; we only observe its subjects, some broken, some jailed, some haunted, some hopeful, as they move about through life while the distant sounds of armed conflict pepper the soundtrack.

Threads emerge. Women, entering the prison where their sons were tortured and killed by ISIS. One mother’s pain is so palpable: she mourns the loss of her son, and even attempts, it seems, to absorb her son’s final moments before an untimely death while wondering, “Where was God in all this?” Another boy, Fawaz, narrates to his teacher the atrocities committed by ISIS, his drawing an abstract composition of death and horror. As the camera continues to roll his speech will turn into a stutter as he attempts to vomit forth all that he has witnessed. Another thread depicts a fisherman hunting for food at night while the oil fields burn, lighting up the night as though it were sunset. Yet another shows the Peshmerga female soldiers as they go throughout their days and nights, guarding the fort, conducting night surveillance, or simply watching violent videos on their iPads while others drink tea. Another sequence, still, depicts a mother having to listen to frantic messages left by her daughter who has been captured by ISIS. Most notably, a teen imparts lessons to hunters, but one scene left me wondering if there was something vaguely sexual about the exchange.

One interesting sequence lasts only about five minutes. In it, we see what seems to be ISIS prisoners, all dressed in orange, moving about their cell yard. It is disconcerting, to say the least, knowing the horrors they have inflicted, and how now they’ve been reduced to mere orange figures moving in a manner not un-similar to the laborers of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), only to be clumped together into one giant cell in which barely any light filters through.

This is an extremely harrowing movie that I had to view in portions because at times it was a bit much to take in one sitting. Mind you, Notturno is a little over 90 minutes long in length not counting credits. It’s just that to see a nation attempting to live in a weird sense of bruised normalcy under an unforgiving sky while nursing so many scars, so much death and destruction left by a horrendous militant group, was almost a litmus test in endurance. My only complaint with the movie is that while Fawaz’s (and other children’s) stories were necessary to be told, in the long sequence where he is clearly stuttering and spitting his words out as his story becomes more and more frenzied, why did no one break the fourth wall and come to comfort him? It seemed a bit too exploitative.

Notturno won’t be for everyone’s taste and should be approached with a strong stomach and a sense of detachment in order to process it all. It is available on most streaming platforms.

Grade: A–