Lucy Popescu

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Posts Tagged ‘Documentary’

Film Review – Lost in Lebanon

Posted by lucypopescu on May 28, 2017


This heart breaking film  by Sophia and Georgia Scott follows four Syrian refugees as they struggle to rebuild their lives in Lebanon. Syria’s neighbour has had to cope with a massive influx of refugees – Lebanon’s population is 4.4 million and 1.5 million Syrians have flooded into the country since the beginning of the conflict. Lost in Lebanon was shot in Beirut and on the Syrian border between 2014 and 2016. During this time, Lebanon was forced to restrict its open door policy for Syrian refugees and imposed various visa restrictions aimed at discouraging Syrians from entering or staying. As the film makes clear, the result has been devastating for many refugees who have nowhere else to go and fear for their lives if they are forcibly returned to Syria.

Sheikh Abdo manages a refugee camp just five kilometres from the Syrian border. Abdo takes his responsibilities seriously and works tirelessly for his fellow refugees. Nemr is a 19-year-old high-school student who fled forced military recruitment: “My destiny would have been to become a killer or a victim.” He volunteers in the camp’s school but dreams of a better future. Reem is a former architect who now helps in the Shatila refugee camp in Beirut. As a refugee she is not supposed to work but spends her time trying to help those worse off than herself. Mwafak is a 26-year-old artist, also based in Beirut. Mwafak never stops giggling, but then we realise his humour is a defence mechanism, a means of survival, he is laughing at his own plight. He is proud; not wanting to be labelled a refugee he refuses to register with the UNRHC until he is forced to. Mwafak is driven by his imagination, his need to create art, and his talent. He also volunteers, teaching art to children in another refugee camp.

All four show similar commitment to the health and education of Syrian children, however rudimentary. They recognise the importance of educating the next generation and that their homeland will need to be rebuilt with love and creativity rather than hate and violence. They exhibit extraordinary resilience in the face of unimaginable hardship but the relentless fear of deportation impacts on them all with devastating consequences. Both Nemr and Mwafak consider attempting the perilous journey by sea. Nemr ponders why anyone would want to risk their lives and concludes “they’re willing to drown just to live as humans.” Lost in Lebanon contains many such shocking soundbites. At a meeting organised by Reem, one man remarks on the hell they find themselves in: “We can’t go back to Syria, we can’t renew our residency, we can’t leave by boat. Why don’t they just exterminate us and be done with it.”

If you have ever wondered what life is like for a refugee then see this film. No one should have to endure this degree of psychological torture and the West needs to demonstrate compassion rather than prejudice or indifference. Sophia Scott’s beautiful cinematography opens in a long dark tunnel with blinding light at the end and the joyous sound of children playing, calling out the name of their homeland; it ends in the same tunnel but the camera is travelling in the opposite direction with the light receding. Birds also feature; just as they are free to travel over land and sea, refugees are not. The refusal of these men, women and children to give up offers a ray of hope. A remarkable and humane film that never strikes a false note.

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Berlinale – film review: Tell Spring Not to Come This Year

Posted by lucypopescu on February 14, 2015

tell springSaeed Taji Farouky has carved out something of reputation for directing and producing documentaries that are visually arresting and pack a punch. Tunnel Trade (2007) about Gaza’s illegal underground smuggling economy, was nominated for a Rory Peck Award, while The Runner (2013), about an activist and athlete from Western Sahara, garnered high praise and was a finalist in the Social Impact Media Awards. Tell Spring Not to Come This Year is a co-production with Michael McEvoy. When NATO troops withdrew from Afghanistan in 2013 the Afghan National Army (ANA) took over control of Helmand Province, where they endure frequent attacks from Taliban fighters. The previous year McEvoy had worked with the British Army in the region and he wanted to document what it was like for the ANA after the foreign forces left. Farouky and McEvoy were embedded with an ANA unit over the course of a year and their film follow the fortunes of the soldiers and, in particular, unit commander Jalaluddin and Private Sunnatullah.

The soldiers have mixed feelings about the withdrawal of NATO troops. Some are relieved and are keen to defend their own land. Others feel abandoned and are concerned that they don’t have the right equipment and that they have been deserted at a particularly difficult time. Most feel a bit of both.

Farouky captures the soldiers’ daily existence on the army base. The cramped dormitories, the table tennis and card games, the phone calls home, the camaraderie, shared laughter and the regular meals. For many ordinary Afghans living in poverty, joining the army offers them the opportunity to better themselves, to earn a regular income and support their families back home. So it is all the more shocking when we learn that they have not been paid their salary for nine months. Over-burdened administration, complex bureaucracy, wilful mismanagement or embezzled funds? It’s never made clear.

What is evident is the men’s courage as they attempt to keep the peace and come under fire. Their fear is often palpably caught on Farouky’s camera. The bravery of Farouky and McEvoy is also evident when they are filming dangerous operations or when they are shot at as they follow the soldiers in retreat. In one telling scene, we hear the ragged breath of the cameraman as he runs after the soldiers under fire. When he reaches the safety of the vehicle sent to pick them up, the men’s adrenalin is palpable. The camera is immediately trained on one of the soldiers — the look of fear and relief on his face is a frank projection of the cameraman’s own.

It is this humanity that keeps us engaged throughout. Farouky captures the beauty of the landscape, despite the ravages of war, and he recognises the importance of the small moments that linger with you – the soldiers’ care for the Mynah bird that makes the barracks its home, for instance, or Jalaluddin’s love of literature. The film’s title comes from a poem by Khaliullah Khalili, which Jalaluddin recites.

As well as giving  ordinary Afghan soldiers a voice, Tell Spring Not to Come This Year offers a valuable window on the reality of the ground today, amply illustrated by the distrust of villagers caught between the Taliban and the army, and the desire of the soldiers to rebuild their country and earn a decent living.

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Film Review – The Act of Killing

Posted by lucypopescu on January 2, 2014

2013-12-01-theactofkillingAlthough it does not make easy viewing, Joshua Oppenheimer’s surreal and chilling documentary, The Act of Killing, recently released on DVD, is a must see. Oppenheimer looks back to 1960s Indonesia, a time of brutal bloodshed when more than a million alleged Communists, ethnic Chinese and intellectuals were killed with impunity following a failed coup. One of the main perpetrators of the massacres that took place between 1965 and 1966 was Anwar Congo, a leader in Indonesia’s pro-regime paramilitary, the Pancasila Youth. He was aided by a bunch of mindless thugs who happily refer to themselves as “gangsters” as if it made them heroes.

None of the men have been brought to justice for their appalling crimes and it is this impunity that allows them to laugh and boast about their acts of violence. Congo and his cronies appear delighted to be interviewed by Oppenheimer and positively relish the opportunity he presents them to re-enact and film the torture and murder scenes. For them, the word “gangster” means “free man” and their acts of cruelty are something to be celebrated. Early on, Congo demonstrates how he used wire to kill his victims which he found cleaner, in terms of bloodshed.

The casualness with which the acts of torture, murder and the rape of women and children are described makes one’s blood run cold. In one scene, Congo takes part in a chat show where the murder of Communists is applauded by the presenter and studio audience while the programme editors look on aghast at his lack of conscience.

It would all be too relentlessly brutal to watch in one sitting if it were not for the surreal musical scenes. In one, dancers in colourful costumes step out from the belly of a huge fish structure. One of the thugs¸ dressed in garish pink drag, admires them from afar describing them as “eye candy”. In a musical interlude towards the end, the dancers are surrounded by lush green, behind them is a waterfall. Set to the soundtrack of ‘Born Free’ the ghosts of the murdered appear and present Congo with a medal to thank him for executing them and sending them to heaven.

It’s a deeply unsettling portrait of a monster. Although resolutely unrepentant, Congo admits to having nightmares and he is haunted by the ghost of one particular man he decapitated and whose eyes he failed to close after death. When Congo takes on the role of victim and is interrogated by his fellow murderers, he appears to feel a shiver of remorse. After making his poor grandchildren watch the playback of a violent scene of torture, he tells Oppenheimer that he really felt what it must have been like for the victim. Off camera, Oppenheimer points out that his experience is not the same because Congo knows it is only a film whereas his victims knew that they were going to die. By the end of The Act of Killingwe realise that Congo has been affected by the numerous reconstructions; he’s less cocksure for a start. But it’s difficult to know whether the final scene of self-revulsion is genuine or merely staged by Oppenheimer.

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