TIFF 2007 Day 3

Reviewed here:

  • Rebellion:  The Litivenko Case
  • Dans La Vie
  • Nothing Is Private 

Rebellion:  The Litivenko Case, directed by Andrei Nekrasov ** 1/2

Alexander Litivenko was an agent of the Russian security service who was poisoned in 2006 in London.  He had refused an order to participate in an assassination in 2000, believing that it was not for reasons of security but as part of corruption rampamt in the state.  Litivenko tried to expose this corruption between senior levels of government and criminal organizations, as well as the use of terror threats to mobilize population the population.

Andrei Nekrasov interviewed Litivenko and followed his case up to and beyond his death.  This film is both a memorial to Litivenko and an indictment of current policies within Russia.  The accusations here are not new — Russia’s “war on terror” is a product of the security service’s need for a perceived external threat, and they will manufacture events up to and including the death of their own citizens.

Russia’s official attitude is that Litivenko was a small fish, not worthy of their attention although the British have laid murder charges against Russian agents.  Rebellion opens with the director examining the aftermath of a breakin at his own house where, clearly, someone was trying to send a message.  Later, Nekrasov interviews the alleged assassin who calmly explains how easy it is to poison someone and offers the director a cup of tea.

Nekrasov documents the declining tolerance for dissent in Russia and the collusion of state forces.  The techniques are nothing new — isolate and discredit opponents, use physical intimidation (or worse) if necessary — and they are disheartening to see. 

In modern Russia, however, the forces are more sinister including criminal elements who have vested interests in power and no desire to be questioned.  Meanwhile, the government stirs nationalism and encourages anti-Jewish and anti-Chechian sentiment.  There is always an “other” to demonize.  Meanwhile, where does real control of the government lie?

I am reminded of two other contexts, one past, one present.

In East Germany, the Stassi monitored everyone, a huge waste of resources and drain on society as we saw last year in The Lives of Others.  That seemed almost comic, a government whose control and power rested in the possessing vast detail about everyone and everything.

In North America, the context is less evil, but use of state apparatus to stifle dissent is present.  Economic interests are amoral, war is used as a distraction, those who oppose the government are accused of opposing the country.

A cautionary tale for those who advocate increased, unquestioned state powers.

Dans la vie (English Title:  Two Women), directed by Philippe Faucon ***

The Arab underclass in France remains from the colonial days in Algeria, and this class tension appears in many French movies.  Here, Sélima (Sabrina Ben Abdallah), a young nurse born in France, fills in for a colleage and calls on a patient who quite openly doesn’t want “one of her kind”.  To improve her lot, Sélima seeks private work and her first client is a Jewish woman, Esther (Ariane Jacquot) who is paraplegic and confined to a wheelchair.  Esther’s son Elie (Patrick Chesnais), a neurosurgeon, is a bit uneasy about the possible Arab/Jewish tension, but Esther herself grew up in Algeria and knows all about discrimination first-hand.

Oddly, the resistance comes more from Sélima’s family, but when the mother, Halima (Zohra Mouffok) meets Esther, they become close friends.

A small crisis arrives in a job offer that will take Elie out of town.  Who will look after Esther?  By now the two families are good friends, and Esther goes to live with Sélima’s family.  There are difficulties.  Sélima’s father is offended by having a well-off Jewish woman in his house, and tunes the TV to news reports of Israeli raids on Palestinians.  The neighbours complain that it is sinful to take money from Jews, but this is just one more prejudice. 

Sélima consults her Imam who advises that Jews and Muslims can live side by side.  As long as the income is fairly earned and there is respect, then the money is not sinful and Sélima can pay for her trip to Mecca with a clean conscience.

Philippe Faucon’s Dans la vie gives us a story about races living together in France, and by extension the world, that amuses as a tale of what might be, not just something that could only happen “in the movies”.  This may be a fairytale given current affairs, but Faucon raises hope that at least the diaspora of both faiths can understand each other.

The performances are wonderful all around even though all of the actors in Dans la via are non-professionals.  Ariane Jacquot now has a role in a TV series thanks to this film.

Nothing Is Private, directed and written by Alan Ball (from the novel “Towelhead” by Alicia Erian)

I first met the mixture of darkness and comedy that lies in Alan Ball’s work in American Beauty and later marvelled at the series Six Feet Under which he created.  In Nothing Is Private, his first feature film, Alan Ball takes us back to the dark underside of American culture.

Our characters:

  • Jasira (Summer Bishil) is a 13 year old girl dealing both with her age and the conflicts of her Arab-American background.
  • Gail (Maria Bello), Jasira’s mother, separated from Rifat.  She is a blonde American living in Syracuse with a boyfriend whose interest in Jasira is not entirely altruistic.  Although we first meet him while shaving Jasira’s pubic hair, Gail refuses to think ill of him.  She packs off Jasira to live with …
  • Rifat (Peter Macdissi), Jasira’s father.  he is a smiling gracious man in public but an insecure racist boor in private.  He has a strong urge to control his daughter stemming from his own unease with women and his Christian Lebanese background.
  • Thena (Lynn Collins) is Rifat’s gorgeous, Greek-American trophy girlfriend.  She and Jasira are the most well-adjusted women in this story.
  • Eugene (Thomas Bradley) is Jasira’s boyfriend.  He is black, and Rifat cannot abide the idea of his daughter dating a black man.
  • Zack (Aaron Eckhart)  and his wife Melina (Toni Collette) live next door.  They are oh-so-friendly, but Zack is an openly racist member of the army reserve for whom Jasira is forbidden fruit in ways he cannot begin to control.  In time, we will learn that Zack married Melina only because she was pregnant.  As a side note, Zack has a stash of porn magazines that Jasira discovers and, through them, her own lust for women.

Stir well.

This is a film that the audience must stay with through difficulties of adolescent sex, racism and abuse, but the real story lies in strength of Jasira who stands out among the maladjusted lot around her.  Summer Bashil’s (who is 19 in real life) does a fine job with a very difficult role.  When asked what was hardest about this part for her, Bashil replied that she was terrified of reading for Alan Ball at the audition.

During the Q&A, Ball spoke of this as a coming of age story in a society where 1/3 of young women are inappropriately abused, but also a story where the victim is the strongest person.  Contrary to the puritanical requirements of so much fiction, Jasira is not punished for what others do to her.

This is a strong film, but I’m not sure its subject matter and content will find a wide audience.  Nothing Is Private is due for release sometime in 2008.