Atirkül in the Land of Real Men (2023) IDFA 2023

Dir: Janyl Jusupjan | With: Atirkül Arzyldabekova, Arzyldabekova Abish, Arzyldabekova Samat, Bayaman Salimbek uulu | France / Czech Republic / Kyrgyzstan, 2023, 65 min.

In the spectacular landscapes of Kyrgyzstan where – apparently- “real” men hold sway, a fervent woman challenges their male prowess with her own particular brand of female empowerment.

Atirkül, a horse lover, is keen to preserve Kyrgyzstani heritage with the local sport of ‘buzkashi’. And to this end she has gathered together a group of men who excel in the ‘all-male’ daredevil horse-back pastime with time-honoured tradition.

Atirkül in the Land of Real Men joins a fascinating series of ethnographic docs and docudramas from the region that include the recent Song of the Tree and The Eagle Huntress. In this neck of the woods enterprising women continue to challenge gender roles and overcome unconscious bias, and are every bit as powerful in their endeavours, perhaps even more so, than their male counterparts.

The game itself is certainly dangerous for both horses and riders. To the outsider, buzkashi looks a bit like a rough and tumble version of polo with a dead goat (!) serving as the ball. Players try to wrestle the inanimate corpse from the rival team of riders while staying on horseback – and this, like polo, requires strong core muscles and powerful legs. Members of the team are seen struggling through the icy snowscapes to join the others, and practising swooping down to pick up the dead goat. A great deal of cut of thrust is involved in getting hold of the goat in a rugby-style scrum as horses and men pitch in fearlessly. Atirkül is campaigning to get bigger more powerful horses for her team but her plans are put on hold due to financing issues: the riders have to earn their living too, and take time out in Russia where they find gainful employment in the menial sector.

Clearly Atirkül’s strength lies in her mouth: her negotiating ability and spirited sense of humour certainly makes up for what she lacks in the physical department. Her enjoyment comes from the buzz of horse-trading, honed during her previous career as an importer and seller of Chinese goods, as she gradually builds an indomitable team.

And there’s seemingly no end to this gutsy woman’s day. After hours in her home village of Jaylgan (Tajikistan) we see her badgering one of her sons to get married. Never taking herself too seriously – another incident sees her grappling with a garden swing that collapses when she tries to sit down for a moment of well-earned rest.  Life is tough in Kyrgyzstan, and even more so for women. Twas every thus!. MT



Silent House (2022) IDFA 2022

Dir.: Farnaz Jurabchian, Mohammadreza Jurabchian; Documentary with Nassrin Mirsadeghi, Houssein Mirsadeghi, Mohammad Mirsadeghi; Iran/France/Canada/Philippines/ Qatar 2022, 100 min.

A striking Art Deco villa in Tehran becomes ‘silent witness’ to four decades of Iranian history in a revealing new documentary from the sibling filmmakers who grew up there during the Islamic revolution and beyond.

Farnaz and Mohammadreza Jurabchian spent nearly their whole lives in a palace once owned by Esmat Dowlatshahi, the fourth and final wife of Reza Shah Pahlavi (although the marriage was never officially recognised). The property came into the family when their grandfather, a local trader, decided he had to possess it. His own passion for photography was soon shared by his daughter Nassrin, and later by his grandchildren who would eventually become independent filmmakers, honing their craft in and around their impressive family home.

Silent House unfolds entirely within the confines of the villa, its proximity to the Shah’s official residence, the Sa’dabad Palace, restricted the cameras from roaming further afield. But the family story speaks volumes painting a colourful picture about their life and times. Enriched with personal reflections and archive material from TV and film, the doc provides a potted political and social history of post 1979 revolutionary Iran across three generations.

Their grandmother made her home comfortably on one floor of the building surrounded by gardens and a brood of cats. Growing up the daughter of a wealthy and religious family, she was married off at only thirteen to a much older, middle class, man who put an end to her studies and ballet lessons: “He was mean and treated me like dirt. He beat up any man who looked at me – and he was unfaithful”. But the couple lived there together for fifty years and had six children.

Her daughter Nassrin is an enterprising, over-achiever. But her own husband’s sudden death in the north of Iran forced her to become a single parent. Undeterred, she was soon finding ways to keep the family coffers replenished by turning the tennis courts into a country club. But despite her industriousness, her own mother wanted her younger brother Hossein to take over the running of the house until Nassrin found herself back in control after he was conscripted into the Iran-Iraq war. Hossein came back shell-shocked and suffering from severe PTS and soon cloistered himself in a cottage in the garden, where he later died.

Nassrin had meanwhile joined the 1979 revolution, even taking baby Farnaz with her to meetings where she wore army fatigues and taught her to sing revolutionary songs. Many houses were confiscated by the regime, and Farnaz’ grandfather had to buy back his house for the second time, forcing him into bankruptcy. He died shortly afterwards, of grief.

Nassrin had by now turned herself into a filmmaker and bequeathed a camera to her children. Her father’s funeral, a stately affair attended by all the local traders, is her personal cinematographical tribute to the family’s history. The house then underwent extensive renovations and Nassrin turned it into a film studio – with the fixtures and fittings providing the props. It made a perfect set for many feature films, with the family appearing in bit parts – “everyone in the house became part of the film set”. In 2005 it provided the location for Masud Kimiai’s feature The Command and later Ziaeddin Dorri’s The Pahlavi Hat series. The siblings then started to make their own short films.

Ever ambitious, Nassrin moved on to education, becoming director of the PBO Kindergarten in charge of 144 children and over 2000 employees. During the Iran-Iraq war, Nassrin had banned TV for her children, preferring them to watch light-hearted dramas such as The Sound of Music. Soon they were real cineastes. And while their mother was developing an interest in running for President during the 2009 elections, civil was breaking out, and Farnaz was encouraged to leave Iran.


In Montreal, Farnaz decided to enrol in film school rather than study engineering. “But whenever I wanted to shoot something, I had visions of home”. Meanwhile Mohammadreza had stayed in Tehran and was studying  photography. The siblings (and their cameras) were re-united in the villa when their mother’s eldest brother Mohammad arrived. He had left Iran forty years previously to live in the UK.

A family wedding is the last hurrah for the palace, their grandmother died shortly afterwards in her late eighties. The siblings film her non-stop during the last days of her life; “that was all we could do for her”. During her funeral, the cats roamed freely throughout the property, finally making a home for themselves in the house. Nassrin gives in to the demand of the rest of the family to sell. And prospective buyers are filmed, looking round a house where in 1943 Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin once carved up the world.

DoP Mohammadreza Jurabchian’s camerawork certainly improves during the long Gestalt period. Personal and political events interweave seamlessly, the mood is melancholic in this unique combination of social history and personal tragedy, as well as happy times.

The authorities in Tehran felt so threatened by the feature they refused to allow the directors and producers to attend the screening at the IDFA in Amsterdam on its world premiere. Another case of Iranian censorship taking the country backwards rather than forwards into the 21st century. AS


Polish Prayers (2022) IDFA 2022

Dir.: Hanka Nobis; Documentary; Switzerland/Poland, 2022, 84 min.

Like many countries nowadays Poland is deeply divided largely due to the erosion of what are often seen as ‘traditional’ values. For her first feature documentary, premiering in this year’s IDFA, Hanka Nobis spent five years following a group of young men who have formed “Brotherhood”, an association that champions Catholicism, nationalism, Pro-Life and celibacy before marriage. Her findings are illuminating as well as shocking.

In ‘survival camps’ in the countryside, the men club together to provide a united front against the LGTB community and the pro abortion lobby. After a year with the group Nobis decides to focus on Antek, who is now twenty-five years old.

Antek comes from a background where strict conservative ideology is at heart of family life. And yet his family is divided, his parents are divorced and Antek and his little sister celebrate Christmas in two households. It almost feels like Antek has sought refuge in the “Brotherhood” and retreated into its misogynist standpoint. Another group member rails against “his castration”, and “misses the time when men could look after women”. Finally, he posits, “even women are not happy today, because nobody looks after them”. Weirdly his mother, a physician, seems to endorse his membership of the Brotherhood.

Some weekends are spent in the rural setting where the members prepare for a ‘war’ they believe is inevitable. Antek has a gun, which, he is proud to admit, only cost him 500 Zlotys. But he’s not much of a shot. His other group activities involve heckling during LGBT and Pro-Choice marches. The Brotherhood’s banners proclaim: “Homosexuals are often Paedophiles”, but they avoid physical violence for fear of reprisals.

Then love arrives for Antek when he meets Weronika, and his picture of the world – and his place in it – starts to change. He tells a Brotherhood friend, that “he has doubts about believing in God”. Weronica makes him happy without the need for his Catholic faith”. And even though the couple eventually split up, Antek changes his mind about becoming a priest. Finally, his new fiancée is able to convince him to march under the ‘Rainbow flag of Love’. But when his mother pays him a visit, he takes the flag down. Later, his mother expresses her disappointment about him leaving the Brotherhood: “You were always so responsible as a teenager, that’s the reason why we let you leave home”. The final credits roll on a split screen, one half showing Antek playing the guitar, at peace with himself.

DoP Milosz Kasiura uses his hand-held camera to capture the instability of Antek’s life. And in some way the director’s inexperience works to her advantage in painting a portrait of uncertainty: Antek is also at the beginning of his metamorphosis and an accomplished filmmaker might have glossed over the raw and fractious undercurrents of change. Polish Prayers may lack polish, but it’s certainly a compelling debut. AS

POLISH PRAYERS | IDFA 2022 | World Premiere | 14 November 2022

Paradise (2022) IDFA 2022

Dir/Wri: Alexander Abaturov | DoP Paul Guilhaume | France, Doc, 91′

When it comes to wildfires the spectacle of a roaring blaze in the middle of a snowy landscape does not normally spring to mind. But climate change has recently played havoc in the northern hemisphere, as filmmaker Alexander Abaturov discovers in his cinematic ethnological portrait of Siberia where sweltering heatwaves and drought are a new phenomenon.

Paradise opens with a smoozy rather seductive opening sequence as the camera glides softly over frosty rooftops and sweeps down onto a reflective scene picturing a little girl saying her prayers with the words: “Tell me, Sacred Mountain, do you see the whole Earth from here?”.

In 2021 alone, fires burned 19 million hectares in Russia, and for first time ever ashes blew to the North Pole.  Back down to earth in the heart of the ‘taiga’ lies the village of Shologon where and the natives are adopting a zen approach to dealing with the exceptional circumstances. By nature a peaceful people their calm collaboration contrasts with the – hardly surprising – inflammatory reaction we have come to expect from the recent outbreaks, but the Siberian stance is certainly novel, and makes for a reflective and contemplative look at how these chilly lands are fighting fire – not with fire – but with collaborative calm. 

In the distance billowing smoke heralds the incendiary arrival of trouble. A group of firefighters make their way on open trucks to the root of the problem through sparse woodland. There is no blaze to speak of, just a smouldering scarlet-tinged landscape and the locals name it ‘the dragon’ as they quickly retreat back to base to report their findings and regroup.

Without a formal fire service or governmental aid they are forced to rely on mutual and community support.  Helicopters supply water to assist in quelling the outbreak and the final scenes, filmed in slow-burn close-up, take us right to the centre of the blaze creeping like a seething living carpet of flames through the undergrowth.

What impresses here is the way the firefighters work serenely and methodically to put out the blaze. Making use of an evocative soundscape scored by Les Percussions de Strasbourg, Abaturov’s sophomore documentary morphs into a surreal and dreamlike meditation as humans battle the elements, almost beyond them, and ‘The Dragon’ is tackled and finally laid to rest. MT



A Thousand Fires (2021) IDFA

Dir.: Saeed Taji Farouky; Documentary with Thein Shwe, Hwte Tin, Zin Ko Aung; France/Switzerland/Netherlands/Palestine; 90 min.

The day to day life of a family in the Magway region of Myanmar, home to the largest number of unregulated oil fields, vividly contrasts the past and the present. Myanmar – the former Burma – was once best known for its paddy fields but nowadays farming provides only a minimal income in this shift from agrarian to industrial lifestyle.

Thein Shwe and Hitwe Tin are a married couple who, like thousands of others, followed the oil-rush. now eking out a meagre living from their ‘home-based’ production of less than a barrel day. Even though this is still more profitable than working the fields, the work is just as gruelling and unpredictable. And although rigs are machine-powered: ropes and wheels drive the piston – the operation is controlled manually, like in the 19th century, before drilling became industrialised. And the oil reserves are rapidly running out.

The opening sequence is a flaming blaze of fire setting alight a landscape full of derricks and make-shift huts. Clanging, humming and banging fills the air, mud and oil are everywhere, and humidity makes the work even more arduous with Thein Shwe constantly covered in grime. But the future doesn’t exactly look promising with the parents still doing the manual work, while their three teenage children were supposed to bring financial relief through their education. But they’re not much help on that front. One of the sons Zin Ko Aung still lives at home but is unreliable, having left High School without a degree he’s now drifting between the pass and the future although one of his qualified college friends earns good money as manager of a textile company.

Thein Shwe is highly critical of Zin but realises that the teenager should make the best of his talent for football. The local Soccer Academy coach offers him a place and his parents drive him there. But the Coach then tells  Zin “to cut all ties with his family”.

Meanwhile the couple resort to their Buddhist faith and Fortune Tellers who offer a comfort of sorts: Thein Shwe being told not to be greedy. A somewhat scary ritual ‘Feed the Dragon’ is connected to their work environment.

Farouky keeps his distance and even avoids social commentary. What we see is the parents’ abiding love for their offspring – a universal theme that never changes. The old-fashioned 4:3 format creates an intimacy connecting us all with it common threads. Shot by the director with a vibrant colour palette and wonderful night sequences, when absolute peace replaces the clamour of the day, A Thousand Fires is unremarkable but moving just the same. AS

INTERNATIONAL DOC FESTIVAL AMSTERDAM | 17-28 NOVEMBER 2021| Locarno Critics’ Week Winner – Marco Zucchi Award 2021

Cause of Death (2018) *** IDFA 2018

Dir.: Ramy A. Katz; Documentary; Israel 2018, 79 min.

On the night of March 5th 2002, a gunman opened fire in a restaurant near Tel Aviv’s Maariv Bridge. Police officer Salim Barakat, who was nearby, brought the gunman down only to be found dead next to the killer. Director/producer Ramy A. Katz (Freeflow) researches the death of the Druze policeman, following his brother Jamal on his search for the truth.

The verdict was that Salim died from a knife wound to the throat. But after visiting a memorial ceremony for Salim, held every year in the police precinct for the tenth time, Jamal begins to question the official version. He discovers that the emergency ambulance’s doctor called in that night, reporting that his brother was “murdered by gun shots” and contradicting the official diagnosis of throat slashing. We watch a video where the main witness, middle-aged Willys Hazan, claims to have shot the attacker, after slashing Jamal’s throat. He is on a drip in a hospital bed, praising Salim, but admitting that the police officer was actually the terrorist. Then Jamal, a trained investigator, meets the head of the National Centre for Forensics, and tells him about the contradictions. The director is concerned l, and questions why no autopsy was performed; asking Jamal to have his brother undergo an exhumation  –  but Jamal’s religion does not permit such an option. Jamal also confronts the chief of Police who asks him to “let his hero brother rest in peace” – the same answer Jamal gets from Hazan, whom me meets twice. Breaking down, Hazan finally concedes, that “this would not have happened had Salim been an Israeli”. Finally, tracing down the staff of the restaurant, who were on duty on the fateful night, Jamal gets the answers he was originally searching for.

This is not just a document of Jamal’s investigation, but a testament to his coming to terms with grief – and his shattered belief in the righteousness of the law. The more he learns, the more his world crumbles. In the end he has not only lost his brother, but what he called his ‘extended family’,the police officers at the station where Salim served. There are some poetic moments, particularly when Jamal talks about his belief in reincarnation that persuades him that Salim has been reborn, and that his soul now rests in the body of a young boy in primary school. Moving, passionate and gripping, Katz takes a candid approach to his narrative, letting the audience make up their mind about the social implications of this cover-up. AS




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