DownStream – Around the World, Part 2

We’re but a few days away from the Academy releasing its shortlists, including the final 15 vying for International Feature. As mentioned in Part 1 of this roundup, I was able to purchase access to 14 of the worldwide submissions via a virtual cinema option through the California Film Institute, which is still available until December 31. Of the 14, I had already covered two of them through individual reviews via their theatrical releases in Los Angeles. This post, and the previous one, are meant to cover the other 12 (one was missing, but has since been added to the virtual lineup). There’s one more entry that I will watch on Netflix later this weekend and review before the shortlist is revealed on Tuesday, but for now, here are the rest of the hopefuls that I had the ability to see before the big day.

Leave No Traces – Poland

Based on the award-winning novel by Cezary Łazarewicz, the Polish entry is a dramatization of an infamous miscarriage of justice during the country’s communist era. In 1983, an 18-year-old student named Grzegorz Przemyk (played here by Mateusz Górski) was abducted by police in broad daylight while celebrating with his friends, and subsequently beaten to death. Eyewitness accounts and forensic pathology conclusively determined who was responsible, but rather than let any police be punished, the government engaged in a massive cover-up and smear campaign to denigrate the witnesses and convict innocent paramedics for the killing.

The prevailing opinion is that the Party officials most likely targeted Grzegorz, or at minimum engaged in the propaganda campaign to exonerate his killers, because he was the son of Barbara Sadowska (Sandra Korzeniak), a dissident poet. When thousands turned up to the boy’s funeral, they perceived his potential martyr status as a threat, and thus sought to completely rig the justice system to ensure the Party line was triumphant, going to such lengths as torturing paramedics for a confession, replacing any prosecutor who dared assert factual conclusions, and taking active measures against the witnesses.

The key figure caught in their crosshairs is Jurek Popiel (Tomasz Zietek), a composite of several of Grzegorz’s friends, particularly Cezary Filozof, who was the sole eyewitness to the most brutal aspects of the beating. The film and book title comes from the order of the commanding officer present during the incident, telling his subordinates to beat Grzegorz in the stomach rather than the back because it will “leave no traces” that he was assaulted, and thus they could dump him at the nearest clinic and say he’s a crazed drug addict.

The film is gut-wrenching at times, especially if you don’t know the story. The absolutely absurd lengths the government is willing to go to just to attempt to maintain its air of absolute authority is hauntingly familiar. This case is almost 40 years old, but we see instances of this sort of thing happening in the here and now, in this country. Only in the last year or so has there been any real reckoning on police violence in the justice system, and we still deal with cases where clearly biased jurists can alter the outcome of a case based on their own political ideology. It’s the reason Kyle Rittenhouse is not only a free man, but also looking at numerous opportunities to further his ambitions as a hero of the authoritarian right.

The only thing that didn’t really work for me in the movie was the slight romantic subplot. I have no information to confirm or deny its accuracy, but the film decides that one of the skeletons to exploit is the fact that Jurek, himself only 19, was having an affair with Sadowska without Grzegorz’s knowledge before the incident. It has no relevance to the story, and until the final act there’s no real signs of anything resembling romantic affection between the two characters. Really it’s only used to set up a tense scene late in the film where Jurek’s father (Jacek Braciak), a retired Party loyalist being used by agents against his own son, goes to Sadowska’s house and threatens her in an attempt to get her to convince Jurek to recant his testimony. The scene is effective, but ultimately superfluous to the rest of the proceedings.

Still, this is a compelling entry, and a reminder that just because governments change, it doesn’t mean that people do.

Grade: B

Let it Be Morning – Israel

This entry comes with a bit of controversy attached (In Israel? Surely you jest!). The film debuted in competition at Cannes, but the cast left the festival in protest when it was advertised as an Israeli picture, even though the production staff and the vast majority of the cast are Palestinian. One of the subplots of the film even involves local militias and Israeli soldiers rounding up “daffawis,” which from context I can only assume is a slur referring to ethnic West Bank Palestinians who do not have Israeli citizenship. I can’t find a confirmed source on this, but from its usage in the film, it’s the best conclusion I can draw. Apologies if I’ve misconstrued anything and said something offensive here.

Anyway, the film is based on a novel by Sayed Kashua, who is himself a joint Israel-Palestine citizen, and the book is written in Hebrew, I believe as an attempt to bridge a gap between the two cultures. In a small Palestinian village, Local-Boy-Made-Good, Sami (Alex Bakri), returns home for the wedding of his brother, Aziz (Samer Bisharat). It’s a fun, lively affair, until the ominous moment when a cageful of doves are released, but they are unable to fly away. Mirroring this downer moment, when Sami takes his wife (Juna Suleiman) and son (Maruan Hamdam) back home to Jerusalem, they find the only road out of town blocked off by Israeli soldiers, who are busy building a wall around the entire area. No explanation is given as to why this is happening, or when the road will reopen. With no other options, Sami is forced to turn back and stay at Aziz’s place.

Over the next several days the situation gets worse. Food and supplies are cut off, the power lines are shut down, and a hotheaded militia leader named Ashraf (Nadib Spadi), has essentially taken on the role of mob boss, running the town with his own iron fist. Meanwhile, Sami is desperate to get in touch with his office (no cell service on top of everything else) to explain his absence, his marriage is on the rocks (he’s having an affair and his wife knows about it), and one of his old friends, Abed (Ehab Salami, who looks almost a dead ringer for Nick Mohammed from Ted Lasso) is in debt after buying a taxi from Ashraf to try to win back his ex-wife.

There’s a clever overarching theme of impotence to the whole affair. Sami no longer finds his wife attractive, though he still loves her. Aziz, stressed out about the entire situation, can not even sleep in the same room as his lovely new bride, much less consummate their marriage. There’s a massive feeling of fatalist sophistry amongst the townspeople because even though there are only a few soldiers at the road block, any action they take will result in several deaths and a full-on occupation by the government. Abed’s attempts to win back his ex are shamefully embarrassing and pathetic – particularly his loud usage of Sia’s “Chandelier” (by far her worst song) like he’s John Cusack in Say Anything. There’s all this frustration and fury, yet no ability to properly express it. It’s pretty well done.

The problem is that it’s just too long, and too boring. We keep rehashing the same points over and over with no real action to do anything. I understand that it would be foolhardy to wage guerilla war with Israeli soldiers and inflame more sectarian violence. You don’t want to do any of that. But the fact that it takes almost the entire film for anyone to do anything about Ashraf’s bully tactics is hard to accept. Yeah, he’s got a few goons and a few guns, but there are hundreds of people in this town. You’re telling me none of them know how to sneak up on the guy and give him what for? There is an eventual cathartic moment in this regard, but it should have been done the instant he started threatening Abed, not an hour later.

This isn’t a bad film. It’s very well-acted, and the camera work is superb. It’s just a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing for the bulk of the run time, and given the earlier perceived insult to the cast and crew at Cannes, I’m half wondering if submitting this film under Israel’s flag instead of Palestine’s (Palestine submitted a film called The Stranger instead, no release data that I can find as of yet), I get the feeling this won’t hit the right marks to advance.

Grade: B-

Nothing but the Sun – Paraguay

The submission from Paraguay is a massively intriguing concept that unfortunately doesn’t really seem to go anywhere. A documentary by Arami Ullón, who gained previous acclaim for Cloudy Times, Nothing but the Sun is another look at the potential loss of human history in the form of the indigenous Ayoreo people. Whereas most Western cultures know about forced relocations and Christian conversions of native people as part of our distant past, the Ayoreo are a much more recent example of the trend’s continuation, as most of them were displaced and converted in Paraguay as recently as the turn of this century.

The film follows Mateo Sobode Chiqueno, an Ayoreo who was taken from his forest homeland and forced to convert by missionaries in the 1990s, and ever since then he’s made it his life’s work to record the stories and voices of his fellows as a way of preserving their language, music, and culture. Chiqueno himself notes the consequences of this gentrification, as “Mateo” is his “Christian” name, one he’s obligated to keep for government assistance, but one he deeply resents.

As a concept, this sounds fascinating. In practice, however, it just fails to register. Chiqueno records all of his conversations on an old stereo tape recorder using cassette tapes, most of which are unspooled and warped beyond preservation, so half the scenes feature him either talking to himself or working with his fiends and community members to fix the tapes and re-record interviews he had with them years before. There isn’t much demonstration of Ayoreo culture, other than a couple of wailing songs from former shamans. The rest of the interviews are just vague recollections of each person’s displacement. Occasionally there’s mention of the possibility of returning to the forest, as there are still a few uncontacted Ayoreo tribes out there (Chiqueno reports that he saw one wandering on his land, but we never see anyone), but nothing ever comes of it.

This film feels like it’s set up to explore the plight of an indigenous population that’s essentially been wiped off the map, and all within our lifetimes, which sounds really dramatic and intense. But to hear these people talk – and to read the subtitles of their conversations – it’s presented more like a mild inconvenience. These people talk about watching their families be slaughtered like we would tell people that the grocery store ran out of Apple Jacks. I’m not saying they should be falling over themselves to sell drama, but just watching someone sit on a plastic deck chair and blather on about nothing while also mentioning offhand that, “Oh yeah, they shot my father as he was running away” isn’t the least bit engaging. And while it’s not up to Chiqueno to preserve video records of all of this, the fact that there’s NO video record of any kind for Arami Ullón to present alongside it just makes this whole affair feel like drip torture. What could have been an epic account of a lost people instead feels like one of your grandfather’s, “Back in my day” ramblings from his front porch.

Grade: C

Oasis – Serbia

God this one sucks! I mean, it just plain sucks. The title is meant to be ironic, referring to the less than ideal living conditions at a group home for children with mental disabilities. A government film prologue explains that Serbia has several institutional homes for kids with low IQs who cannot keep up in school, or those who have emotional issues that prevent them from operating in normal classrooms, so they go to these centers where they learn basic trades so they can still be contributing members of society, while also having a secure place to live.

Given that setup and the film’s title, we’re led to believe that this is going to be a film about abuses of the disabled, or corruption from government officials and medical personnel, or a compelling escape attempt, something like that. Instead we get, and I’m not joking here, a teenage love triangle. Are you shitting me?

Presented in three parts, each named after the corners of this bullshit, we learn the story of Marija (Marijana Novakov), Dragana (Tijana Markovic), and Robert (Valentino Zenuni). Marija is a girl with severe behavioral issues. She’s the newest resident at the center, and she tries to run away the instant she’s brought in. She’s assigned to be roommates with Dragana, and the two become friends. Dragana is a bit more calm and collected, but has something of a rebellious side and likes to have fun. She introduces Marija to Robert, who works in the kitchen and is completely mute. His primary method of communication, which he shares with the girls? Cutting his wrists. Lovely.

Somehow, Marija and Robert become interested in one another, making Dragana extremely jealous, as she was dating Robert before. The jealousy escalates into violence between her and Marija on several occasions, to the point where I honestly wonder when straight jackets will be involved. Things come to a head when Dragana believes that she is pregnant with Robert’s child. All the girls are taken to the hospital for checkups, but Dragana resists, thinking this is a ruse to force an abortion. She learns that she is not pregnant at all, but Marija is, which leads to even more jealousy and violence, with tragic results for everyone involved.

I wish there was some deeper message here, but there isn’t. Even when the idea of compulsory abortion comes into play, it’s not treated as any sort of moral dilemma, merely a logistical one, so I guess I’m not supposed to care (not that I would have anyway). Hearing Marija’s nonsensical screaming contrasted with Robert’s silence is interesting in small doses, and I will give credit to Zenuni for being able to convey Robert’s mood and desires through the entire film without saying a single word. But that’s a small consolation in an otherwise deeply annoying story, at least when it’s not boring as all hell. There’s no one to root for, no plot worth exploring, and apart from Robert, no characters or actors who give anything remotely close to a compelling performance. This is the best Serbia has to offer?

Grade: C-

White Building – Cambodia

This is the best one of the set, a relatively short, briskly paced coming-of-age story from Phnom Penh about how the realities of life can get in the way of one’s dreams with alarming speed.

Samnang (Piseth Chhun) is a 20-year-old aspiring hip hop dancer living in a dilapidated apartment building in the downtown area of Cambodia’s capital city. His sister, Kanha (Jany Min), has recently moved out, so it’s just him and his parents. His mother (Ok Sokha) is doting and deeply family-oriented, while his father (Hout Sithorn) is a retired sculptor who serves as the representative for the building’s residents in negotiations with the local government.

The building is too far into disrepair, and needs to be demolished, but the residents won’t leave without some form of compensation, so they are offered a buyout of about 900 Riels per square meter of their homes, which is not enough for them to afford a new place to live inside the city, so Nang’s father is tasked with trying to get a better deal.

Meanwhile, Nang is trying to live a normal life with his two best friends, Ah Kah (Chinnaro Soem) and Tol (Sovann Tho). They practice a dance routine they hope to use in an upcoming competition, and perform in local bars and restaurants to raise money for their education, all the while enjoying one another’s company and tooling around town on a motorbike hoping to pick up girls. You know, basic 20-something stuff.

But the writing is on the walls, literally and figuratively. Paper notices and graffiti show the city council’s latest offers to those passing by, and Nang has several disturbing nightmares about his parents and his friends, each with them walking away. He still has some hopeful dreams about everything working out, but once Ah Kah moves out, they become far less frequent, and Samnang becomes increasingly worried that it may be too late to have his desired future.

There’s a brilliant bit of dueling visuals here to illustrate the ticking clock of Nang’s situation. At several points we can see mold growing on the walls and ceiling of his apartment, getting more and more dangerous as time wears on. Similarly, his father, who is diabetic, has an infected toe that gets ever darker and blacker the longer they wait to see a doctor. He’s too fixated on his negotiations with the council to take care of himself, and just like the offer on their home (now up to 1,400 Riel per square meter), there will come a point where there’s too much damage to get anything positive out of the situation.

This is a lovely little window into the life of the working poor, as neighborhoods disappear and ambitions decline. Chhun leads a remarkably able cast that’s able to get all the conflicting wants and needs across without it ever devolving into melodrama or mindless confrontation. And like several other entries this year from all over the globe, the camera work here is just amazing, especially the last shot, which shows the building from the outside looking not all that bad, until the shot pans right and you see the sections that have already been torn down. It’s a tremendous visual metaphor for the entire film.

Grade: B+

White on White – Chile

Finally, we have White on White from Chile, and honestly my first thought when I saw it was wondering if it would even be deemed eligible, given the amount of English dialogue. The rules state that at least half of the lines must be in another language, but damn this is close. I’m pretty sure the film is mostly in Spanish, but we’re talking a margin of like, 53-47 at best.

Anyway, the film is a gothic, moody portrait of a man trapped in a world from which there is no escape, only judgment, and he must find a way to avoid going insane. Set in the early 20th century, Alfredo Castro stars as Pedro, a photographer commissioned to take pictures for an upcoming wedding. At a country estate overseen by the governess, Aurora (Lola Rubio), Pedro is instructed to take a portrait photo of the bride-to-be, Sara (Esther Vega), who looks exceedingly young. Despite this, and despite her overly conservative bridal gown, Pedro poses her in a way that looks far more seductive than was likely intended, but neither she nor Aurora give any objections.

After the session, Pedro is given half of his commission, with the other half to be paid once the wedding is complete. However, his mysterious patron, Mr. Porter (it’s noteworthy that in both English and Spanish, he is referred to as “Mr. Porter,” not “Señor Porter”), has not specified when the wedding will take place. Instead, through intermediaries, Pedro is asked to live on the compound and take more photos of the land, his workers, and the indigenous people who are either enslaved or slaughtered by Mr. Porter’s hunters. Pedro is given his own cabin on the property for this purpose, though he draws immediate criticism by boarding up the windows to create a darkroom to develop the pictures. Mr. Porter, though unseen, apparently has enough eyes around the place to pick up any derivation from his instructions, and punish accordingly.

Pedro eventually forms a bond with the “Propietario,” or “Landlord,” played by German actor Lars Rudolph. This unnamed Landlord speaks only in English, and his slightly sinister accent reminded me fondly of Peter Lorre. The Landlord initially befriends Pedro, offering him advice on how to live peacefully while he’s on the premises, and how to constantly be on Mr. Porter’s good side, though he professes to have never met his employer in person.

From there things begin to spiral, as Pedro’s situation becomes a form of purgatory. He has no word on when the wedding will happen, only that he must stay until it does, and as winter approaches, the lay of the land becomes too indistinguishable for Pedro to recognize landmarks so he can leave. The Landlord’s advice tuns quickly to demands that he perform manual labor with the other servants to “earn his keep” for Mr. Porter’s generosity in letting him live there, and he and Aurora never miss an opportunity to demean Pedro for their own amusement. By the time things hit bottom, the only control Pedro has left is what he can frame within his lens.

The only light in Pedro’s darkness is Sara, who he yearns to photograph more, treating her as a model and a doll rather than a person. A more poetic reading of the story would suggest that she is a representation of his own personal sin, and why he can never truly leave this state of living limbo.

There’s a ton of similar symbolism at play throughout the picture, but it becomes muddied at times as to what the messaging might be. If Mr. Porter is an omniscient, god-like figure, then why would he not only send hunters out to kill and enslave native people, but have Pedro document it through photography, unless this god is a complete sadist? If Pedro’s work is some sort of penance, then where is his redemption?

It makes an otherwise beautiful film a bit hard to process at times, leading to moments where you miss some of the absolutely gorgeous cinematography at play here, with the film’s title becoming increasingly literal as the winter wears on, pure snow piling on, layer by layer, to replace the dingy greys that permeate the scenery in the early going. Of all the International Feature submissions I’ve seen, this is arguably the best shot of the bunch, which by necessity it has to be in order to sell its concept with any credibility.

On the whole this works, but it does fall short for me, mostly because the performances – apart from Castro and Rudolph – are fairly flat. And while I love a bit of allegory, I do want a resolution to my stories, and if this film has one, I sure as hell didn’t see it. You have to pay off all the buildup for it to be satisfying to me. I’m fine with ambiguity, but when a film stops suddenly without any real indication that this is the end of the story, I’m left disappointed. Thankfully the visual marvel makes up for most of the structural missteps.

Grade: B-

Join the conversation in the comments below! Did you see any of these films? What’s been your favorite foreign film this year? What country’s film are you most looking forward to? Let me know!

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