Back Row Thoughts – The End of the Tour

The quest to tackle the list of candidates for specialized feature films is always a fun adventure. Fifteen films make the shortlist for both International and Documentary, while the Animated field is just whatever eligible movies get submitted regardless of individual merit or quality. But it’s always exciting to see as many of them as possible, because the spectrum of storytelling is unequaled. Apart from the most mainstream animated fare, you never truly know what you’re going to get with these entries.

This is also why I try to see as many International submissions as possible before the shortlist is determined. About one in every six films put forward by national committees from around the world end up making it through that first cut, so there are bound to be stories ranging from the incredible to the insulting that will never get serious consideration for one reason or another, and I want to give as many of them some due attention as I can. Last year I was able to see 32 of them, more than a third of the entire field. This time around, however, that number shrank to 20.

Part of that is because of distribution. With the COVID pandemic ebbing away and the traditional theatrical model returning, fewer and fewer outlets offered virtual screenings. I was able to see nearly a dozen foreign hopefuls through the California Film Institute’s online program alone for 2021, but that option was not available for 2022.

The other aspect was purely economical. Last year was incredibly busy for me, and I made good money, but work dried up at the end of October (fairly common in my sector of the TV industry), and so I spent the final two months of the year living off of savings and my credit card, including for things like Christmas shopping. My movie-going dollars were at a premium, and I had to prioritize things. As such, films that I could rent through Amazon or other streaming services were set aside in favor of those that were getting limited theatrical runs. I told myself that if the ones on the backburner made the shortlist, they’d be easy to make up, but I had to focus on the ones that I could miss entirely if I didn’t get into the cinema during their initial releases. Once the semifinalists were announced, those potential rentals fell by the wayside in favor of tracking down everything else.

Still, 20 is nothing to sneeze at, as it still accounts for more than 1/5 of the films under consideration, and is more than actual Academy members had to watch in order to participate in the nomination process. Under current rules, any member in good standing can vote for the shortlist by voluntarily viewing a list of films (rumored to be 12) on the Academy Screening Room online hub, and rating them on a scale (presumably 1-10) based on their reactions. Once complete, a member can volunteer to clear another list, though their ratings/votes will only be included if they complete their specific ballot. Those scores determined the 15 movies on the shortlist, and again any member could then vote for their five favorites to be the final nominees, provided they watch all of the semifinal entries. With a pretty high degree of certainty, I definitely put in more work than a significant number of those members.

I’ve been in the process of hunting down the films since the shortlist was announced in late December, and for what it’s worth, I cleared the eventual nominees fairly early in this process, with The Quiet Girl as the most recent of the group being seen and reviewed before the reveal of those first cuts. Everything I’ve done since then has been retroactively rendered as basically window dressing and self satisfaction. But that doesn’t mean the process wasn’t 100% worth it. The reason I endeavor so hard to see at least the entire shortlist is to get a better frame of reference for when the nominees are chosen. This is especially true this year, when Germany’s version of All Quiet on the Western Front is almost certain to win, given the fact that it leads all nominees at the BAFTAs and is tied for second with the Academy. Given that the race is all but determined, it’s even more important to see all 15 movies and figure out if the voters got it right, or if they were swept up in that movie’s hype and/or the convenience of it being on Netflix.

So, when the final five were selected last month, I still had three more shortlisted entries on my docket. None of them made it to the end, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t going to give them their due. I’m going to cover International Feature for the Blitz next week, but before that, it’s only appropriate that I close this chapter of the process and take a look at the last three that all Academy voters had to watch before they could vote for their top five. In an odd coincidence, all three of them come from Muslim nations, with the conventions of the faith being important parts of the story, and all three debuted at last year’s Cannes Film Festival.

Joyland – Pakistan

This was an incredibly difficult film to track down. It only recently got a North American distributor, and there still isn’t a public release date that I can find as of this posting. I was only able to see it because it was brought in for the Sundance Film Festival as a showcase presentation that included a virtual screening, because there was no way I was going to be able to schlep my ass to Utah just for one film, even one as significant and apparently controversial as this one, which was banned in its home country after initially being approved by the government. Conservative and religious activists protested and got the film put on hiatus until some cuts were made. It is still fully banned in the Punjab province.

The first Pakistani film to debut at Cannes, where it won the Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regard program and the Queer Palm as the best film about LGBTQ themes, the feature debut for director Saim Sadiq has garnered widespread acclaim worldwide, and even has big names like Riz Ahmed and Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai listed among its Executive Producers. And really, it’s easy to see why. This is a bold, powerful film that tells a distinctly human story in ways that may seem provocative, but never once seeks to attack or shame anyone.

Set in Lahore, most of the action centers around Haider (Ali Junejo), a weak-willed man in his 30s who basically still lives under the thumb of his father Rana (Salmaan Peerzada). Rana is a traditionalist, and often brusquely comments on how he believes Haider and his brother Saleem (Sohail Sameer) should lead their lives, particularly as husbands and fathers themselves. Haider is unemployed and married to the assertive and driven Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq), who works as a makeup artist and doesn’t want to put her life on hold to have children. Saleem has four daughters with the beautiful Nucchi (Sarwat Gilani), but Rana wants a grandson to carry on the family name and bloodline. Despite his age and failing health, Rana still insists upon the rest of the family as a pestering patriarch until he gets his way, and since all involved live in the same housing complex, it’s not like they have anywhere else to go to avoid his judgmental ways.

Hoping to placate his father, Haider shows up to an audition set up by his cousin Qaiser (Ramiz Law), not knowing that it is for a backup dancer gig during cabaret shows at a local erotic theatre. Initially scandalized and embarrassed, Haider agrees to try when he meets Biba (Alina Khan), the transgender lead dancer whose intermission shows he’ll be working on. Fascinated by her fiery personality, Haider is instantly attracted.

Obviously, this is the element that drew the ire of the most staunchly conservative zealots in the country. The mere acknowledgement of a trans person as a cinematic protagonist and love interest is treated as a personal slight to them and their version of faith. However, and this is what I found intriguing while listening to interviews with Sadiq, there was a longstanding acceptance of these people in pre-colonial Pakistan. Called “khwaja sira,” these people are considered part of a third bridging gender, recognized as neither male nor female, and were held in great regard until colonial rule, and were ostracized upon the nation’s full independence as a Muslim state. They still play an active role in Pakistani society, and according to Sadiq, consider the term “transgender” to be derogatory and reductive, as they don’t “transition” from one sex to the other, but rather inhabit both. In that sense, it’s an inverse of how we in America think of the trans community while essentially being a different side of the same coin.

Once Haider takes the job (being careful not to discuss the true nature of it for fear of being shamed by his father), Rana is pleased and immediately insists that Mumtaz quit her job, as a working husband is more proper in his eyes. Never mind that Rana pisses in a bag and has no room to talk to anyone about propriety and dignity, it is clearly crushing to Mumtaz to have her agency ended by fiat, especially when Haider once again refuses to stand up to defend her.

It is at this point that the focus of the film shifts away from Haider as the lead and onto Biba and Mumtaz as co-leads. Essentially, his meekness has led him to voluntarily cede the narrative initiative, which is an absolutely incredible cinematic touch. He continues his affair with Biba, but she’s clearly in control, to the point that Haider’s submissive nature becomes a point of contention. Meanwhile, Mumtaz discovers she is pregnant, which only breaks her heart further, because it means succumbing even more to a domestic life she never wanted, compounded by the fact that Haider will barely even acknowledge her, much less treat her as a romantic partner.

It’s all so beautiful and tragic, with Sadiq’s writing and cinematic eye easily translating the stakes for a foreign audience who wouldn’t otherwise understand the nuance. One of the best visual ironies in the film involves Mumtaz’s own secret sin of watching a man masturbate in the alley as he orders his unseen lover around. She sees in this pervert a passion that she can never find in her own husband. It’s a gorgeous juxtaposition to the rest of her life, because she hates being “treated like a woman” by someone as condescending and domineering as Rana, but she wants to be “treated like a woman” by a husband who vehemently desires her. It’s one of the best images I’ve seen in world cinema in a long time.

Grade: A-

Cairo Conspiracy – Sweden

Originally called Boy From Heaven (a title I prefer from a thematic standpoint), Sweden’s entry, written and directed by Tarik Saleh won Best Screenplay at Cannes as well as the François Chalais Prize, which honors films with life-affirming messages that honor the practice of journalism and truth. While this film is complete fiction, it imagines a scenario based in fact that has far-reaching implications, even here in America.

As the opening establishes, Cairo is home to the prestigious Al-Azhar University, one of the most powerful seats of Sunni Islam in the world, with its Grand Imam seen as one of the heads (if not the head) of the entire sect. Although it was founded over 1,000 years ago, in modern times it is seen as an obstacle by some in the Egyptian government, which has apparently (at least since the time of Hosni Mubarak) tried to exert some kind of influence over the school to make it an extension of the ruling party. The accuracy of this backstory is probably open to interpretation, and I only have so much time on my hands to research the intracacies of Egyptian politics, so I’m willing to give this take the benefit of the doubt.

The story begins with Adam (Tawfeek Barhom), the son of a small village fisherman and a devout student of the Quran. He has been accepted to Al-Azhar with a full scholarship, and leaves his home behind in hopes of becoming further educated in his faith and perhaps join the clergy. He quickly becomes friends with his bunkmate Raeed (Ahmed Laissaoui) and a classmate named Zizo (Mehdi Dehbi).

Meanwhile the Grand Imam’s health is failing, and upon his death, a private power struggle is set to begin. There are three sheikhs at the school with the support to perhaps succeed the office: the humble, charismatic, and blind Negm (Makram Khoury), al-Durani (Ramzi Choukair) who has radical views and potential ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, and Beblawi (Jawad Altawil), an ambitious opportunist who seems most receptive to toeing the party line. The military enlists an officer named Ibrahim (Fares Fares) to ensure Beblawi’s election through whatever subterfuge is necessary.

Zizo has long been Ibrahim’s man on the inside, acting as a spy to keep him abreast of the social and political movements within the school, including taking on considerable risk to himself by befriending extremist students. Upon meeting Adam, Zizo feels he has found his replacement, and introduces him to Ibrahim in order to free himself from his duties. Ibrahim then uses Adam as an unwitting agent to get Negm and al-Durani to remove themselves from consideration, first through friendly favors and later through outright blackmail. When Adam starts getting in over his head, he questions not only the morality of his actions, but his own faith if this is the path that God has laid before him.

There’s an awful lot of intrigue in this high-stakes game, largely because the plot is eminently believable to anyone who pays attention to educational politics both domestically and abroad. We live in a country right now where powerful people are essentially trying to dictate what children can and can’t learn in school, outright demonizing subjects of thought and debate, manipulating the curriculum of certain courses, and in some states literally passing laws to prohibit any education that might make them feel “uncomfortable” while at the same time spending taxpayer money to fill public schools with textbooks that support their agenda, particularly the idea of “American Exceptionalism.” Is it really that far-fetched to imagine a scenario where a government might intercede in the affairs of these institutions to make sure that students aren’t taught anything that might challenge their authority? It sure as hell isn’t for me.

Fares and Barhom both give tremendous performances, the former as a seasoned veteran at these tactics and the latter as a mouse trying to turn the tables on the cat. The understanding the two eventually come to is oddly endearing in spite of its dour, almost craven, context. There is something hopeful in seeing someone actually develop a conscience over the course of their Machiavellian machinations, and there’s something equally encouraging in watching a young mind learn critical thought on the fly and reconcile his faith with the harsh realities of the world around him.

In the end, the titular conspiracy isn’t all that complex, but it gets the point across. This is why I preferred the original title, because Adam as the “boy from Heaven” ends up having two diametrically opposed meanings. He’s considered a miraculous stroke of luck for the government officials that wish to exploit his naivete, but it’s that same trusting nature that ends up reinforcing his commitment to his faith, rendering him more godly than even some of his teachers.

Grade: B

The Blue Caftan – Morocco

First the Moroccan soccer team makes the semifinals of the World Cup, then the Moroccan Oscar submission makes it to the semifinals of the International Feature race. Of this trio, I’d say this is the least effective, but it still has its moments. Written and directed by Maryam Touzani, there is a tenderness to the proceedings that allow it to largely overcome the more trite moments and the overlong runtime.

Saleh Bakri stars as Halim, a “maalem” (traditional dressmaker) who hand crafts caftans (ceremonial tunics and dresses) in a store once owned by his father. While the trade has largely been automated over the years thanks to sewing machines and the like, Halim still makes each caftan painstakingly by hand over the course of several weeks, including highly-detailed embroidery patterns. He runs his shop with his wife Mina (Lubna Azabal) and his apprentice Youssef (Ayoub Missioui).

Mina is often curt with Halim and Youssef, and initially we’re meant to think that it’s because she’s aware of Halim being a closeted homosexual and jealous of the attention he pays to the young Youssef. However, in one of the more nuanced touches of the film, it turns out that Mina and Halim get along perfectly, and that she’s had a happy life with him despite this knowledge. Their relationship is filled with good humor and affection, and feels completely natural.

Her issue is more that she’s tired due to a lingering illness, and doesn’t fully trust Youssef to be the person that Halim needs, both on a professional and personal level, if it ever becomes impossible for her to provide for him. She has no objections to his working late or the fact that he unwinds by having clandestine sex at a local bathhouse. He has given her everything she could want or need, including romantically, and she simply wants to make sure that he’ll be able to get by without her one day.

The crux of the story unfolds around the tailoring of the titular caftan in its lovely shade of deep “petroleum blue,” as Halim calls it. As soon as we’re given the timeframe for the work to be done (about six weeks), it’s patently obvious where this is all leading, and just in case we weren’t completely sure, there are brief scenes around the halfway point to hammer it home. It doesn’t make the moment any less beautiful and heartbreaking when it finally comes, but it does drag down the proceedings to know how the film’s going to end 20 minutes in, given that there are still almost two hours to go. It doesn’t help that there are completely superfluous scenes like Halim and Mina being stopped by a cop while walking home just so he can intimidate them. It’s not paid off at all, and it’s five minutes we as an audience never get back. The film is overall well-acted and wonderfully shot, but it just goes on too long. You could easily watch this on your TV at 1.5x speed and not miss a thing.

This is also another entry where I wish the release had truly stuck with the original title. The film’s proper French name is Le Bleu du Caftan, which roughly translates to English the way it’s depicted here, but there’s a slight difference that should be noted. This is where four years of studying French in high school and college finally pay off, I can feel it! See, in the French language, when you attach an adjective to a noun, it typically comes after the noun rather than before like it would in English. As such, if we were truly just talking about The Blue Caftan, the original title would just be, Le Caftan Bleu. However, we have the preposition “du” here. A combination of “de” and “le,” “du” is used as a descriptive possessive in this case, literally meaning “of the.” So a more accurate translation as written would be The Blue of the Caftan, essentially remarking on the blue-ness of the caftan rather than just stating that it is blue. Going further, given the subject matter of the film, it’s clear that “blue” is used as a double entendre, a metaphor for the overall tone and mood of the story. As such, the most literary translation would be something along the lines of The Sad Caftan or The Melancholy Caftan, or even The Caftan’s Blues. Using the word “blue” does technically get the point across, but with far less nuance and a far more literal depiction than the movie requires.

Thank you for watching this episode of Bill Frenching, Which is Not Nearly as Gross as it Sounds. And anyway, yeah, the film’s fine, though I guarantee you I didn’t waste nearly as much time on this linguistic diversion as the movie itself does in getting to the point.

Grade: B-


And with that, we have completed this year’s International Feature shortlist! I hope you had as much fun on this little journey as I did. As previously mentioned, I’ll be covering the five nominees on Friday, at which point I will divulge my official rankings for all 15 entries. Thanks again for taking the trip with me!

Join the conversation in the comments below! Were you able to see any of these films? Do you think one or more should be up for the Oscar in place of the actual nominees? Did any of them enhance your understanding of the Muslim faith? Let me know!

One thought on “Back Row Thoughts – The End of the Tour

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