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Culture and Arts

Culture Watch

In this issue:

These Movies Matter;
June's DVD Reviews

by Angela Pressburger

100% Arabica, a light farce, pokes fun at some of the more burning issues in the world of Islam in a way that is probably no longer possible since 9/11. Evil explores how easy it is for systems of privilege to list towards tyranny. Baraka is a film could be an inspiration to governments as well as to individual people who want to transform impoverished violent neighbourhoods. Moro No Brasil grants the viewer unparalleled access to the diversity and musical richness of Brazilian music. If you’re a science fiction fan, don’t miss the lost gem, The Quiet Earth.

100% Arabica
1997, France/Belgium/Switzerland, 85 min., subtitles
Director: Mahmoud Zemmouri

Nominated for Golden Bayard for Best Film, Naumur, 1997

A favourite with film festival audiences, this delightful comedy is named after a prominent neon sign in an overwhelmingly Arab suburb of Paris. A light farce, it pokes fun at some of the more burning issues in the world of Islam in a way that is probably no longer possible since 9/11. Although, when the film was first released, the director and Khaled, one of the stars, faced an official fatwa issued by France’s fundamentalist Young Muslim League. This resulted in plummeting ticket sales and has no doubt contributed to this title taking so long to be released.

The plot turns of the arrival of a new kind of music in the Arabica quarter, one which sets everyone dancing. The two rival 'Kings of Rai,' Rachid (Khaled), and Krimo (Cheb Mami) immediately meet with the disapproval of Slimane, the local Mullah, who finds their music, their general popularity, and their way with the local girls the work of the devil.  Slimane finds an unlikely ally in the local Mayor who is obsessed with maintaining law and order on the streets — at least until after the upcoming elections. The Mayor offers the Mullah a subsidy, which will continue if he can keep people off the streets.  At the same time, Slimane turns out to also be collecting protection money from the neighbourhood’s businessmen under the guise of a fund to build a new mosque.  But the streets are peaceful — although not because of either the Mullah or the Mayor, but because everyone’s dancing to the music.

This is a film which doesn’t take itself — or Islam — too seriously, and whenever it bursts into song you’ll recognize the feel-good energy. If you aren’t familiar with Rai, we suggest this delightful film as a good introduction; and if you are, then just let your hair down and dance!

2003, Sweden, 113 min., subtitles
Director: Mikael Håfström

Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, 2004; Robert Award for Best Non-American Film, 2005; Golden Goblet, Shanghai, 2004; FIPRESCI Prize, Viareggio, 2003.

Based on the autobiographical novel of the same name by Jan Guillou

A commentary on both class warfare and fascist oppression in its native Sweden, this is a film as blunt as its title.  There is evil at work in the world, and it is bad.

Erik Ponti is a social misfit. From a working-class background in which his sadistic stepfather beat him repeatedly, he has become violent himself.  This behaviour has led to his being expelled as “pure evil” from several schools.  But Erik is smart and wants to graduate so now he’s a rebel with a cause, at a posh boarding-school in 1950s Sweden, with the injunction that if he’s expelled again, that’s it; game over.

At the exclusive Sjärnsberg school, where students listen to Charlie Parker jazz records and have pointed discussions about Rebel Without A Cause, Erik quickly shows himself to be the smartest pupil and excels as a champion swimmer. He even finds a friend in his nerdy room-mate, Pierre.

But evil is at work in the form of a long tradition of seniors bullying 'newbies' and a headmaster who turns a blind eye to these activities. Only the swimming coach encourages Erik to hold on and rebel.  Rich, aristocratic prefect, Silverhielm, is  “pure bully” and takes an instant dislike to Erik. A graduated series of punishments for disregarding the gang’s arbitrary rules leads eventually to Erik being beaten. Not wanting to be expelled, Erik endures it all, until Pierre becomes the focus of the bullies’ attentions. And so, Erik finally snaps and takes his revenge ….

This is not a nice film but it is a very good one, tightly structured and well-acted. As it explores how easy it is for systems of privilege to list towards tyranny, the film alternates between entertaining us and making us feel ethically uneasy. It’s an all too human situation, but one we don’t like to examine so usually lock away somewhere in the
dark recesses of our minds. Ruthless teenage pecking orders may be hard-wired into society, but the boundary separating playful humiliation from life-threatening sadism has been seen time and again to be extremely thin. What happens then; And is it unavoidable? This film will make you think.

The Boys of Baraka
2005, USA, 84 min., documentary
Directors: Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady

Best Documentary at: Chicago, Atlanta and Newport, 2005; Audience Award at both Silverdocs and Woodstock, 2005; Outstanding Independent or Foreign Film, Image Awards, 2006

Baraka means blessings, but in this case it’s the blessings of a school, The Baraka School in Kenya, which has been set up to change the lives of inner-city school children in Baltimore, Maryland.

Founded in 1996 on a 150-acre ranch where there is no television or full-time electricity, it offers academic instruction and strict but gentle discipline in a two-year program that has a high success rate.

In the film, we follow four of the 20 at risk 12 and 13-year old black male students who are transported 10,000 miles to find a better chance at a life. A straight-talking recruiter has told them and their parents that they basically have three choices: jail, death or graduate from high school.

Despairing families embrace the idea of this strange school in Africa, because nothing could be worse than the inner-city life that is open to their children, one in which they are essentially 'throw-aways.'

During their first year away from home the four visibly flourish, and then tragedy hits. Because of regional politics and threats to its security, the school must suspend operations. With a sickening thud, the boys find that the horizons that had so recently broadened come crashing back in on them.

The filmmakers then follow the four into the future, showing how they deal with their disappointment, but try to make the best of the year they had. This is social change on the most basic level. We hope this film will be an inspiration to governments as well as to individual people who want to transform impoverished violent neighbourhoods: there are other things to build to help than a new jail.

Page Two of Angela Pressburger's June DVD Reviews>>

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