Archive for the ‘HOT DOCS’ Category

Generation Utøya (2021) HotDocs 2021

Dir.: Aslaug Holm, Sigve Endresen; Documentary with Ina Rangones Libak, Kamzy Gunaratnam, Renate Tarnes, Line Hoem; Norway 2021, 104 min.

Commemorating  that fateful day of 22th July 2011 when Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 young people on the island of Utøya just off Norway. Aslaug Holm and Sigve Endresen have created a passionate portrait of four women who survived to tell their tale, and they couldn’t be more different.

Kamzy Gunaratnam is the child of modest Sri Lankan’ emigrants at pains to keep their daughter away from politics after their own experiences in the homeland. Kamzy believed in that ‘old chestnut’: ‘It couldn’t happen here’. But it did. On that fateful summer day, Kamzy swam away from the shore in the midst of Breivik’s killing spree that went on for over an hour. Today she is the Deputy Mayor of Oslo, a position she has to fight for at every turn, the Labour Party fully aware that her background may not win her as many votes as a native candidate. But Kamzy is indomitable, she travels the country visiting schools to bring her message into classrooms.

Ina Rangones Libak was shot three times by Breivik – she recalls her experience with an almost clinical detachment: “First he shot my hands, and I thought -that’s not too bad, then he shot at my jaw and finally my chest. I knew I might die, my last thought, at least what I believed it to be, was a drop of water falling on a leaf”. Friends kept her warm, and stemmed the bleeding and after a long battle she recovered. From 2016 to 2018 Ina was Deputy leader of the AUF, before leading the organisation in the following two years. She still has treatment for PTSD, and receives permanent online abuse, particularly after the Justice Minister of the ruling ‘Progress’ Party, Sylvi Listhaug called the Labour Party to task for “putting the interests of radical Muslims before the safety of the Norwegian people”. Ina reminded the Minister that she and her Party had been the target of a terrorist attack.

We watch Line Hoem as she works with her therapist to help overcome the debilitating psychological after-effects of her ordeal. She also finds regular exercise – particularly running – is a helpful way of easing anxiety.

Renate Tarnes has coped with her ordeal in a community-based way, helping to restore the island of Utøya as a meeting place for people who shared the same beliefs as those who lost their lives there 10 years ago: they pick flowers, and put them onto the names of the sixty-nine who were actually shot down on the island, and whose names are engraved in a large ring structure.

The directors avoid sentimentality even though the emotional consequences are never glossed over. Generation Utøya is a testament to survival – not to victimhood – but to the enduring strength of those women who live on. AS

NOW AT HOTDOCS Toronto Canada

The Doll (2021) Winner of Hot Docs Best International Short Documentary

Dir: Elahe Esmaili | Iran, Doc 32′

A teenage marriage is viewed through the eyes of friends and family in this weirdly tragic ‘smoke and mirrors’ snapshot of modern Tehran from first time filmmaker Elahe Esmaili.

The ‘bride to be’ in question is 14 year-old Asil, a child trapped in a naive middle-aged woman’s persona, from her bright red nails to her fuddy duddy fashion sense, she cuts an odd figure, simpering like the cat that got the cream. It’s an arranged marriage of sorts. It turns out that a man saw her portrait in her father’s photography studio and decided she could make a good match for his son, who doesn’t make much of an appearance although we understand he is much older and has just finished college. We are fed snippets of information. And as the story unfolds an ‘smoke and mirrors’ story emerges making this intriguing viewing.

Their engaged status means the couple are allowed to spend more time together, Asil’s intended courting his giggling sweetheart with fluffy toys and sweeties, much to her delight. No whiff of pheromones or onscreen chemistry here. In fact, there’s something distinctly unconvincing about this young romance that leads us to believe that Esmaili is not giving us the full facts. Asil’s grandmother suspects there’s more to the match than meets the eye, and we tend to agree – Although Asil is not letting on. She may just be out of her depth, or desperately trying to hide the truth. Family photos from the past see her as a cosseted little angel used to being the centre of attention. Is she caught in a trap of her own making, unable to see the unfolding reality of her situation. Or is the romance wishful thinking?.

The family set-up soon reveals cracks in the facade. Asil’s father Alireza is divorced from her mother – although it’s complicated – and there’s a big question mark about his new relationship. The 35-year old father is struggling to bring up two teenagers in a pokey flat, so money is clearly an issue, raising questions about Asil’s boyfriend’s financial status. Meanwhile, Asil’s intended gives lip service to her pretensions at getting an education. Although you get the impression she may follow the more traditional route once celebrations are over. And as Esmaili delves deeper through a series of telling insights provided by members of the family, radical views emerge along with anecdotal stories. The Doll is a cleverly-scripted tightly-packed look at modern Iran where the paternalistic fist still waits in the wings for those who think freedom is now within their grasp. MT


Winner of Hot Docs Best International Short Documentary



Blue Box (2021) Hot Docs 2021

Dir.: Michal Weits; Documentary about Joseph Weits; Israel 2021, 83 min.

Israeli director/co-writer Michal Weits sheds light on a fragile episode Isreaeli history. Examining the Jewish National Fund’s Blue Boxes – part of a successful fundraising campaign to support the purchase of land in Palestine – in which her grandfather took an active part – Weits comes face to face with her own family history that unveils a painful and enlightening exploration of a nation’s past but also some unpleasant home truths.

There’s nothing more depressing than discovering skeletons in your own family cupboard. But this is exactly what happened when Weits delved deeper into the story of her mythological family figure: in this case her own great grandfather, Joseph Weits. Born in 1890 in the small Russian town of Boremal he emigrated to Palestine in 1908 where he joined the struggle for independence helping to lay the foundations for the new State of Israel. He is known as the “Father of Trees”, planting over 80 million trees in the Jewish state.

But further examination of his extensive diary, reveals Weits senior was also the “Father of Transfer”: helping Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion to ‘legally’ annexe villages and towns of Arabs, who had to flee after the “War of Independence” in 1948. The majority of the Weits family reacted with an outright denial of the facts.

When Joseph Weits arrived in Palestine, Arabs outnumbered Jews. In 1933, nearly a million Arabs lived with several thousand Jews in what was then the British Protectorate of Palestine. Both sides were unhappy with the status quo, and Jews started to pour into the country, after the rise of fascism in Europe. Zionists, encouraged by Theodor Herzl, tried to organise a steady Jewish immigration. In 1937, the British had plans to partition Palestine in two states. Joseph Weits was aware that the number of Jews living in Palestine would determine the nation’s future size. So he bought villages and land from ‘Effendis’, who lived outside Palestine, and sold the land of their small-holders. He also encouraged to buy directly from Palestine farmers, paying with the money of the Jewish National Fund (JNF), which had been founded in 1901. In his diary Weits writes: “The man was selling his homeland, and the Jews are buying it up. And: “It’s Them or Us. We want to be clear: There is no room for both of us. If the Arabs remain, the country will be crammed and impoverished. The only solution is Israel with no Arabs. There is no room for compromise. Transfer them all!”.

At the beginning of WWII, two of Joseph’s son, Raaman and Sharon, joined the British Army, whilst the third, Yehiam, was a member of the Zionist Underground, and later killed. After the end of WWII, and the discovery of the Concentrations Camps, Joseph writes: “Building the state of Israel will be our revenge”. After the War of Independence in 1948, nearly a million Arabs fled into neighbouring countries, only a few thousand staying put. Meanwhile, the Jewish population had risen to replace what had been an Arab majority.

In Haifa, only a few thousand were left of the once burgeoning Arab population. Joseph was leading the ‘transfer’ of properties, even though “Jaffa’s silence frightens me”. By annexing land and buildings, creating a “Transfer post factum”, the Arab exodus was made permanent. The members of the Transfer Committee, Joseph was one of them, had four guiding principles: 1. Preventing the Arabs from returning to their land; 2. Assisting the Arabs to settle in other countries; 3. Settling Jews in several villages and cities; 4. Destroying as many Arab villages as possible through military action”;

Old newsreels show the bulldozers doing their job. The UN resolution 194 stated clearly that all Arab refugees could return to their properties. Weits and his committee avoided the consequences by selling 250, 000 acres of land from the absentee landlords to the JNF, since the latter was not beholden to International Law. At this point, the filmmaker is confronted by a family member: “I have no idea how this this Transfer business worked. I am not comfortable with you doing this. You would have done the same had you been around in 1948/9. I want no part of this film”.

But Joseph Weits was less in denial than parts of his family: “There are 52 refuge camps, surrounding us. The Prime Minister thinks, the problem will go away with time. But they are surrounding us with hate, they will not desist in years to come. They will be a barrier to peace making. The illusion of occupation is convenient, but the intoxication of our victory has muddled our long term thinking. We have the land, but we did not pay the Arab refugees for their land. If we paid with the blood of our soldiers to get peace, why do we not pay with money now”. In 1966, 2.4 million Jews lived in what was Palestine, in contrast with just half a million Arabs. Joseph Weits left the JNF after 35 years. He was isolated, not even asking for advice anymore. “The West Bank annexation is a burden, now and for the coming generations.”

His great grand-daughter, the filmmaker, and her family have to live with the demystified Joseph Weits: yes, he planted 80 million trees, but he was also the “Father of Transfer”. But his fate is the fate of the nation he served, where good and evil live side by side for the coming generations to solve. With an insightful array of historical documentary material, this is a honest account of a family who grew up believing in the mythos of greatness. AS


Four Seasons in a Day (2021) Hot Docs 2021 Winner

Dir: Annabel Verbeke | Doc, 75′

Cross-border conflict is gently played down in this light-hearted look at the Carlingford ferry that brings Catholic and Protestant together in holiday mode as they contemplate another social divide – that of Brexit.

Four Seasons in a Day leaves the Emerald Isle’s legendary ‘troubles’ behind; – at least for a while – on the sea border crossing that divides the UK’s majestic Mourne Mountains from the Cooley Peninsula in the Irish Republic, only 15 minutes away. Families are at leisure reflecting wistfully on the past and future, post Brexit – but religious and nationalistic views are there to stay.

This impressive feature debut is the second foray into geosocial dynamics for Belgium filmmaker Annabel Verbeke – who first looked at the societal legacy of the wartime city of Ypres in We Will Not Forget (2018). Here the tone is as mellow as the gentle landscape but storms clouds overhead warn how quickly the mood can change. A dip in the limpid water warns of an underlying chill: “”the fish don’t change their views” say one bright spark about the border between the two countries, which lies somewhere under the murky depths.

Verbeke lets the camera roll over wide open seascapes and onto the Carlingford ferry to eavesdrop on tourists and locals from both sides of the border to find out what the new boundary means to them. What emerges is a no-holds-barred expose of low-key racism enforced by parents who lived through the ‘troubles’ and are keen to pass their staunch genes onto their family.

A tattooed “Leave”-voting Protestant dad makes his kids aware that although he’s glad the new generation can have Catholic friends, it wasn’t possible back in the day. Meanwhile an Irish mother, sitting down to a mammoth jigsaw puzzle with her son, states categorically – on the verge of tears – that she’ll always be Irish. There are no shades of opinion here.

And while everybody ‘welcomes’ multiculturalism there’s a sneaky suspicion they’re leery of it behind the scenes as we eavesdrop on discussions through windscreens of cars driving off the ferry, in the comfort of the mobile holiday homes, the windy golf course, or even the sandy beach.

Some are celebrating a major birthday, or mourning a loved one. All are delighted to spot the friendly dolphin cavorting in the waves, oblivious of cross-border changes. Kids are there to provide unscheduled moments of humour, and candid remarks on human relations. A discussion about their future romantic plans gets down to basics: “you’ll always need someone to help with the shopping and the bills”. Meanwhile a kindly funeral director takes a sanguine view of both sides of the equation: “make the most of each day, it may be your last”

This reflective and refreshing non-political look at Brexit’s border impact won the EMERGING INTERNATIONAL FILMMAKER AWARD at Toronto’s HOTDOCS 2021. MT




The Last Shelter (2021) IDFA


Dir.: Ousmane Samassekou; Documentary; Mali/France/ Germany, 2021, 85 min.

Malian director Ousmane Samassekou has filmed random travellers from all over North Africa in a transit home in Gao, near the Sahara Desert. Most have come a long way, the nearest from the Malian capital of Bamako which is 496 km away – and some as far away as Burkina Faso. Their common goal is Algeria, a stepping stepping stone away from France and Italy where there are magic money trees and streets of gold. The reality is migrant camps and years of misery.

The Caritas –  House of Migrants caters for mostly young people whose aim is to cross the desert, however reluctantly, to their families in Bamako or more far-flung destinations. Many of the girls and women have spent time in captivity and have been raped. Yet they travel on regardless, risking it all. One 16-year old girl talks about the usual teenage pipe dreams of becoming a celebrity, an actress or a boxing champion. Far from this reverie is the reality of road blocks, where they often robbed on the money to pay the people smugglers taking them over the border. They’d have been much safer staying at home with their families.

Esther doesn’t want to share details of her relative, ashamed that she has not made it to France, even though her family has given her money to support them from Europe. So her dreams are largely built on wild ideas from unrealistic parents who are simply living in the cloud cuckoo land of social media, and she is caught in an invidious trap. Another young woman had ended up in captivity, and only thanks to a benevolent older woman, has been released – but she still wants to try again to get to Europe from this Sahara’s hostile terrain and treacherous sandstorms.

Mariko, an older man, begs staff not to send him to Bamako where they will give him injections which make him sleep all the time. Another young woman was sold by the man who was supposed to be looking after her. Endless stories from Sahara crossings are told: “You die without warning. No matter why, they shoot us like chickens.” The staff warns them over and over again: “Your dreams and illusions make you feel clever, but you will not reach your destinations, it is better to have a job at home, than to dream of abroad.”

Made on a shoestring budget, The Last Shelter could do with a re-edit. But the rawness of the material lends itself to some structural inadequacies, a more polished version would only mask the terror these migrants have been through – and, worse, want to risk all over again. Their lives are so far removed from the dream of the places they want to reach – they think that wearing the logo teeshirt of a millionaire footballer from Barcelona and Arsenal – will transport them on a magic carpet to that lifestyle. They as well might try and reach Mars. AS

|CPH:DOX | DOX:AWARD Winner – Main Competition
|DOK.fest Munich (5-13 May) | NOW SCREENING DURING IDFA 2021 | 17 – 28 November 2021

Sivas (2014)

Director|Writer: Kaan Müdjeci | Cast: Dogan Izci, Okan Avci, Cakir, Ozan Celik, Ezgi Ergin, Banu Fotocan | Drama  Turkish with subtitles

Kaan Mujdeci’s brave feature debut has a fresh and feral feel to it, but don’t expect a shaggy dog story: this is about the powerful Kangal breed of working mountain dogs who are fierce and fearless in their work of protecting cattle and guarding the local farming folk who occupy this remote part of Turkey.

Set amidst the masculine world of dog-fighting in the wild open landscapes of eastern Anatolia, this stunningly photographed coming of age tale is about a boy of eleven with a strong personality despite his tender years. And it’s an astonishing performance for Dogan Izci, who plays Aslan, the boy in question. He has more ‘attitude’ and bravado than most adult men (we see him chucking stones at his father), yet he is still a child with his blue and white-collared school uniform peeping over his anorak. (Aslan appropriately means Lion in Turkish). His mutt, the eponymous SIVAS, whom he rescues from a savage local dog-fight, is named after one of the local cities in the region.

Mudjeci’s hand-held camera sketches out the the daily life of the village where Aslan lives with his parents and older brother, Sahin (Ozan Celik). A competitive and feisty character, Aslan considers it his right to play the principal part in the school production of Snow White, and yet there is still a cute vulnerability to his inchoate machismo: he has already an eye for the local girls, particularly Ayse (Ezgi Ergin) who has won the part of the Princess in the play.

But as the story develops, a more sinister vibe creeps in as the cruel and heartless world of dog-fighting is explored through Sivas’s meetings with other local kangal dogs. This is a serious sport. If these people lived on an estate in London, they would probably have ‘no fear’ tattooed across their muscled chests and own pit-bulls, but this is primitive rural Anatolia and Mudjeci gives the impression of a harsh, yet close-knit community where men are men and women remain behind closed doors. Although in reality some dogs will lose their lives, we are assured that this doesn’t happen during filming.

Eventually Aslan’s accompanies the older members of the village, including the head honcho (Muttalip Mujdeci), to the ‘National Championships’ of illegal dog-fighting in nearby Ankara. And this where the tone becomes more sinister and less intimate, the camera shifting into widescreen mode to capture the dangerous fights as darkness falls over the Anatolian countryside, lit only by roaring firelight as the macho crowd cheer noisily into the night. MT




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