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Son of Babylon

SIFF 2010: Mohamed Al Daradji has arrived

[Originally published in Queen Anne & Magnolia News, May 26, 2010]

What are film festivals and film critics good for? Well, for one thing, discovering and boosting new or under-appreciated talent. And don’t discount the power of such visual and verbal exposure: that’s precisely how a little film called The Hurt Locker stole the Oscar out from under the nose of James Cameron’s massively promoted blockbuster Avatar! So by introducing fledgling artists from all around the world to mainstream American audiences, SIFF’s Emerging Masters program can do some real good for cinema while striking a blow in the ongoing battle against this country’s cultural parochialism.

This year’s slate of Emerging Masters includes Mohamed Al Daradji (Iraq-Netherlands), Ana Kokkinos (Australia) and Valery Todorovsky (Russia). In the coming week, two films by Al Daradji will be screened: Ahlaam and Son of Babylon, both powerful testaments to the suffering of ordinary Iraqis, caught between dictators and invaders.

After studying theater direction in Baghdad, in 1995 Al Daradji moved to the Netherlands where he worked as a cameraman. Later he earned a degree in cinematography in England, going on to make many short films and commercials before returning to Iraq in 2003. While the war dragged on, Al Daradji filmed Ahlaam under incredibly difficult circumstances. Lack of equipment and electricity, the near-impossibility of finding a Muslim actress to play a victim of rape, kidnapping by Iraqi insurgents, detention by the American military — everything conspired to block the completion of the shoot. (Al Daradji chronicles the making of Ahlaam in his documentary, War, Love, God and Madness.)

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SIFF 2010: Like You Know It All

The Seattle International Film Festival is upon us again, that equally cherished and dreaded pre-summer ritual that entails queuing and going indoors just as the city is collectively preparing to spread its wings after another monochrome season of scarce daylight and, quite probably, enough drama already. Complain, however, that the fest is too long, and it will end all too soon. Moan that it’s too big, yet still lament the absence of your favorite director’s latest masterpiece (where oh where is Claire Denis’ White Material, or Eugene Green’s Portuguese Nun, or Joao Pedro Rodriguez’s To Die Like A Man?). As for the lines that still stretch down the alley behind the Egyptian theatre: haven’t we all waited longer for something far less tasty, like bad coffee for instance?

Cast your net wide at this audience-friendly (as opposed to industry-oriented) festival and something’s liable to turn up, perhaps something unexpected, just as in the fisherman Syracuse’s (Colin Farrel) catch in Neil Jordan’s improbable Irish fable Ondine; is she a mythic half-seal come to land to redeem the recovering alcoholic and his wheelchair-bound daughter? A Romanian drug runner fleeing a bust on open seas? Or, to take the whole enterprise at face value, is she a perfect narrative muse of a lingerie model who seductively chants Sigur Ros tunes to the ocean’s depths as Colin Farrel is consigned to channeling profound sympathy with his eyebrows alone? At the very least, the film boasts a smoldering, bruised palette in keeping with its nautical Irish milieu, lensed by the estimable Christopher Doyle who, it’s worth remembering, was once considered Wong Kar-Wai’s primary pair of eyes, and who delivered a master class in cinematography in typical rambling fashion at a past edition of SIFF. Has it really been that long?

Of course there is the wisdom that says it’s not the size of the catch but how you fish, an apt metaphor not only for festing but for filmmaking as well. Which is what makes Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio’s Alamar such an exemplary case; its protagonist is a beautiful Mayan fisherman in Mexico’s Banco Chinchorro reef who snares his fish by hand or spear, under the curious gaze of his tiny son Natan, born to an Italian mother and now thousands of miles away, surrounded by the vast sea, dwelling in a hut on stilts flanked by crocodiles and birds (one of which he proprietarily names ‘Blanquita’). Is this a fiction? A documentary? Or simply, as its director attests, just a “film” ? A genuine sleeper, graceful and direct.

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