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American Women's Club of Hamburg

Film review - Political films

Think, Reflect and Act … Maybe
“Filmfest Hamburg views itself as a political film festival. It is meant to interest the audience and make them think and reflect. Ideally, it should make people want to take action.”

This quote, taken from this year’s Special Events programme, offers an invitation from the film and media world to discuss what political films can achieve. They ask, “What will the average filmgoer take away from the Filmfest?” The answer may well be a feeling that many of the problems highlighted seem well-nigh insurmountable.

This is very obvious in the documentaries about the Arab-Israeli conflict. Omar, Two Meters of This Land and Once I Entered a Garden are three films which present this problem in three different ways. In Once I Entered a Garden two old friends, Jewish Avi and Palestinian Ali meet to discuss the possibility of making a movie together. Avi ( Avi Mograbi) a well-known documentary film-maker, mostly listens while erudite Ali talks humorously but provokingly about the plight of the Arab in modern day Palestine. The documentary is overlong and disjointed but manages to give the viewer a sense of optimism because the friendship of the two old men has flourished despite the injustice which they both feel exists in the land they share. They offer no solutions and are acutely aware of the political mistakes made in the past, but there is a genuine companionship between them.

There is no hint of friendship between Jews and Arabs in Omar. The main character, Omar, lives in the West Bank and regularly risks his life by climbing over the huge and hideous wall erected by the Israelis to separate Israel from Palestine. He does this to visit his friends Tarek and Ahmed because the three young men have started a militant group with the intention of killing Jewish soldiers. Omar and Ahmed have both fallen in love with Tarek`s sister Nadia and Omar`s feelings for Nadia colour his actions throughout the movie. He is caught and imprisoned when the Israeli army seeks revenge for the premeditated killing of a soldier. He is tortured but appears to be shown mercy by his torturer and is freed from prison. The price of his freedom is to spy on his friends, Tarek and Ahmed. Middle class Avi and Ali fight with words but the poor and poorly educated Palestinians have been taught that bullets, not words, are the way to deal with the conflict. Omar`s torturer is also a victim, a man who might have been an honourable one in another situation but who is trapped by the part he must play in this one. This movie, unlike Once I Entered a Garden offers no glimmer of hope but instead puts a human face on the despair and injustice felt by Palestinians and Israelis.

Two Meters of this Land also highlights the despair felt by young Palestinians. In this slow and rather boring movie a stage is built and technicians and actors are interviewed by a journalist. Teenagers chatter and flirt and eventually change into folk costumes from long ago. Everybody is preparing for a folkdance festival in Ramallah, which is close to the grave of Mahmud Darwisch, a Palestinian poet who died in 2008. Two members of the dance troupe visit the grave and recite his plaintive poem which begins with, ‘Two meters of this land are enough for me…’ This is another movie which shows the hopelessness and helplessness felt by the people involved.

A very different plight is that of the homeless and the refugee, but theirs should not be as hopeless as that of the Arab Israeli and surely a solution to it can be found. The Edge of the World was made by a director, Claus Drexel, who is a clever manipulator of emotions. He introduces his audience to a small group of homeless people living in one of the world’s most beautiful cities and contrasts the pitiful conditions in which they live with the elegance of the city. The magnificent buildings sparkle as these forgotten souls hunker down in makeshift tents and underpasses or, in Christine’s case, actually on the pavement. When Monsieur Drexel questions Christine and the others about their lives, they give him practical replies about having to cross the city for food in the early morning and packing up their belongings to make way for office worker’cars. They are grateful for the help they are offered and mention kindly policemen who give them food at Christmas and volunteers from  Doctors without Borders who provide medical help. Such help is welcomed but it is not enough to get these people off the streets and the overall problem in Paris seems not to be sufficiently considered.

By contrast, the four teenagers in La Juala de Ora receive almost no help from anybody. The leader of the group is Juan, who dreams of living in Los Angeles. The children leave their Guatamalan slum and set off for Mexico and then the border with the USA. Apart from a kindly priest, everybody they meet exploits them and treats them cruelly and violently. Sara, who is fifteen, is captured in Mexico and disappears into the sex trade, Chauk is killed by a sniper’s bullet at the very moment when he feels safe in California and Juan doesn’t reach Los Angeles and can only find work in a meat packing factory near the border. So who has fared best? Perhaps it is Samuel who turned back at the border with Mexico and returned home. The plight of the refugee, like the plight of the homeless, is a problem which is discussed by everybody but solved by no body.

Some movies showed people whose problems are solved. One such is Alphée of the Stars. Alphée was born with a genetic defect which impairs her development. Her parents resist sending her to a special school and take a year out of their lives, move to the Swiss Alps and encourage Alphée in developing some self-reliance. She attends the village school and is treated with patience and kindness there. Her father encourages her to walk in the snow and to climb in the mountains. The family takes every opportunity to develop her vocabulary and build up her stamina. The year passes as the seasons change and they are rewarded on their return home to Quebec with the news that Alphée has been rewarded with a place in the local school. This movie is a true story and has a happy ending thanks to the determination of dedicated parents.

Fatima in Against the Grain is another courageous problem solver. She is well-to-do and well -connected and seizes the opportunity to make things better for others. She succeeds in her quest but at great suffering to herself. When her nanny dies in mysterious circumstances Fatima feels compelled to learn the truth about her death. She travels to the remote village where her nanny had set up a soup kitchen and enters a feudal society in terror of the local landlord. Her nanny had incurred the wrath of the landlord and was punished. Fatima enlists the help of her influential friends to help break up the medieval way of life the villagers are enmeshed in. She decides to carry on her nanny’s work and builds up a food kitchen which offers some degree of self-sufficiency to the villagers. Fatima is punished by one of the hideous methods so prevalent in Pakistan (and most other countries) but she survives. The landlord is shown to be the bully he is and the villagers are optimistic about their future. At the end of the movie the audience is asked to support the director’s charities, one is to help set up food banks in Pakistan and the other is to help fight the use of rape as a way of suppressing women. Iram Parveen Bilal offers a positive way to help others.

These are only a few of the many interesting and well-meaning movies which are food for debate at this year`s Filmfest. Each offers a different point of view on a variety of problems, some of which seem insurmountable and some of which seem solvable. They all invite the audience to try to understand and perhaps to help. Let’s hope that some of us will take up the challenge. (Jenny Mather)

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