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American Women's Club of Hamburg

Watching for the Subtleties

by Marinell Haegelin

Movies entertain, educate, incite, reenact history, whitewash, experiment, and evolve ad infinitum. Leaving a wide window of creativity, and themes open to writers, directors, producers et al. Interestingly, a theme that to some degree is consistently woven into scripts’ texture is warfare. Big surprise, considering the human penchant for warmongering. I reviewed two films in 2012 incorporating skirmishes in their storylines: Kunduz, a German–Afghan docudrama set in Afghanistan, and the narrative drama Valley of the Saints set in Kashmir, India. This year hatched three more—three different conflicts.

Starting in Rwanda, we’ll scrabble to the northern tip of Africa before springing to the Asian continent. Echoing the Kashmiri film, this narrative takes us back in time, albeit the protagonists don’t separate. Imbabazi – The Pardon puts a personal angle on Rwanda’s 1994 genocide following the president’s assassination. Two young men are put to the ultimate test, whereby nationality precludes friendship. Manzi, stronger and a Hutus, is blinded my media hype and his father’s beliefs, with devastating consequences. Karemera staunchly refuses to cower like a “cockroach”—radio commentators’ powerful incitement against the Tutsis minority. History plays out. Released after 15 years in prison, Manzi is ready to atone for his sins; he belatedly realizes the prejudicial hate he’d inherited. His once best friend can’t easily forgive, even though the community and country want to move forward. It takes the next generation to remind Karemera of the importance of friendship. Only then does Karemera release his inner demons, which is brilliantly conveyed through the analogy of bricklaying a house’s wall.

At the crux of Egypt’s Arab Spring in January 2011—revolutionary social upheaval throughout the Arab world—a three-man TV crew notices a lone befuddled man in the chaos of Casablanca. Sensing a story, they bypass police and criminals to stick with him. Eventually the crew befriends and helps him; his currency is old, his reality is grounded in the past. Time passes; the crew’s in for the long haul. Along the way he inadvertently divulges secrets—They Are the Dogs—referencing Morocco’s 1981 turmoil. The crew also learns how to loosen up—“life’s too short”—and, ultimately, his family is found. Albeit not how he left them 30 years previously: circumstances thence begat consequences that time eroded. Without the mesmerizing performance of the main character, this film would’ve fallen flat. Both conflicts are lost in the meandering, inconclusive plot. Waiting to learn his great injustice is like waiting for Godot in Samuel Beckett’s play.

Labeled a Kurdish western, the action takes place on the treacherous, mountainous frontier—“Bermuda Triangle” smuggling hotspot—where Iran, Iraq, and Turkey meet. Independence won, ex-rebel Baran is subsequently duly appointed police chief of a newly established station. Meanwhile, Govend’s father finally gives his blessing; she returns to Sweet Pepper to continue teaching. Both are breaking with tradition. Baran and the corrupt local feudal chief Aga Azzi clash head-on. Govend becomes a pawn—Azzi doesn’t want an independent woman teaching the village children. Especially as a group of women rebels are thorns in Azzi’s side. For moral reasons Govend helps the rebels; she and Baran unite. Kids stop attending school; Govend’s predicament mounts. After a couple shoot-outs, Baran confronts Azzi: “I don’t do compromises.” Traditional Western films are straightforward morality tales: a semi-nomadic protagonist, with innate civil courage and an honor code, fights villains, and comes to the aid of persecuted townspeople. The hero’s moral obligation always comes before any distressed damsel until after the conflict’s resolved. Forgetting this formula dilutes My Sweet Pepper Land’s strong plot; the two inherent conflicts in the scenario are glossed over for a superfluous affaire de coeur.

Globally, there are countless conflicts that quickly become yesterday’s news. But not for filmmakers: intrinsic between the lines subtle information in reports and broadcasts can be compellingly retold from the enviable position of hindsight. Zero Dark Thirty and Captain Phillips this year alone testify to that; studying history offers valuable lessons. This theme guarantees continual new material and, for those who follow the news, at very least lessons in geography.

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