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Memorable Movies
by Marinell Haegelin

Most movies leave an impression of some kind—good, bad, indifference—but it’s the ones you reflect on and remember later that deserve special mention. Whether it’s because of a unique story or positing an alternative scenario to an issue, juxtaposing central themes for a new perspective, and/or because you wind up laughing and feel good.

The 64-year-old Saboor is unceremoniously thrown out of a public bathhouse in Herat, Afghanistan, as writer-director Fariba Haidari’s bittersweet LEILA begins. It’s his breast buds that confound them. Readjusting his clothes, he explains Saboor means the patient one, but he prefers Leila, after the song and sings it at weddings, “I love you, Leila.” Caught between two bodies, born into one and denied the other, she bravely lives in a gender-nonconforming twilight. Leila, a vibrant, kind, and generous-hearted transgender talks from the heart about negotiating and navigating life amidst preconceptions, ostracizing, and discrimination. Her classroom of young girls relates easily to their teacher’s good nature. “I always tell my students to make good use of their time;” certificates of appreciation hang in her home, and Leila’s outspoken about education’s importance for girls’ futures. Performing at weddings, Leila tucks tips in the suit jacket pocket, and treats patients where she volunteers with genuine affection, respect. “Afghanistan is like a bird. One wing is women and the other wing is men.”

But it wasn’t always that way Leila explains strolling through her neighborhood. It’s intriguing to learn she went to a coeducational school in the 1960s, and that after high school Afghanistan’s Forensic Medicine Authority and a psychologist approved a sex reassignment operation but, “[E]veryone else in the family has prejudices.” Leila’s candidness is refreshing, enlightening. What’s sad is observing her treatment by male passengers merely for wanting to take a taxi, and it’s repugnant to learn about the physical abuse—to an eye, ear, foot—and a friend’s conniving brother raped her. “What have we done wrong to deserve this?” she asks relating there are 30-40 transgenders in Herat who hide their identities. Leila’s goodness shines through, her positivity hasn’t been broken; her honesty’s a tribute to trans people’s plight everywhere. Expository intertitles inform that three months after filming in August 2021 the Taliban assumed control; life became harsher, especially for transgender people. Thankfully, Leila escaped and is seeking asylum in a safer place. The production values are good. LEILA’s heartwarmingly poignant story won the 2023 Audience Award.

“Isn't it humorous when a bomb doesn't fall on the little boy! … and now he must live.” As BEZUNA begins so do a mishmash of disconcerting scenes striking a chord of unease, distress. The raw abnormal replace traditional coming-of-age rites of passage images. Expository intertitles: “On the news he heard they might bomb them tomorrow. His mom had said there would be a signal: If the old nationalist song was broadcast on television…then pack.” Baghdad. Before and after. His mother talking about the cat giving birth—nature, kittens, what to pack? Archival footage: prisoners, warfare, American troop convoys and wanting big distances between them and us. Saddam Hussein receiving adulation; refugees and immigrants saluting the Statue of Liberty. Abnormal sights, sounds, and behavior muddling, engulfing reason and common sense. Pain still exists.

Director Saif Alsaegh’s abridged 7:29 minute BEZUNA’s is witty, as well as a dejecting dissection of fleeing a war-torn country. Well-paced, it successfully uses the split screen technique, Buddy Rich’s solo drumming for music. Alsaegh layers socio-political issues and archival imagery to contrast the present (now a US resident) with growing up as part of the Chaldean minority in Baghdad. Until the invasion. “What should he have saved? The prayer books or the cat?” Leaving a war-torn country what would you pack? “Bezuna is an Iraqi-Arabic word for cat.”

ANDY AND CHARLIE (ANDY ET CHARLIE), a different kind of documentary by Livia Lattanzio, was filmed over four years. Its structure is straightforward, and Andy and Charlie are personable, good natured and clearly get along well. In 2016, Lattanzio introduces us to the two performers critiquing their act backstage at an erotic club. Indifferent to their state of undress they banter about most else, particularly men in the audience.

The young women are lounging on patios or hillwalking during a seaside holiday in 2018. Topics bounce from whimsical to serious: sex workers that want out, a client offering an IT job in AI (artificial intelligence), a guy paying $1,000.00 for a private show. If something’s unclear they confront one another. And keep talking. By 2020 their conversations center on pricing, and the crux of their work: how it’s only flesh, about prostitution and selling. They tell and share their stories. Andy declares she’d never want “to abolish fucking… so much pleasure in it.” And Andy’s mom’s prostitution? “It’s just that it exists, it’s part of life,” Out of club context vacationing outdoors, Andy and Charly’s candor invites nonjudgmental viewing; hearing them analytically scrutinizing their profession reduces its stigmatism. Clearly, they will decide for themselves what factors determine their lifestyle.

THE SANDMAN (RÊVES PARTY) by Marion Christmann is too good not to mention. At only 2:78 minutes, this Triple Axel film combines the sometimes-forgotten qualities of innocence and trust. Zoe, returning home from school sees a man filling small packets of “sand.” Saying hello to Mr. Sandman, he’s evasive. She asks questions and gets Mr. Sandman’s attention, albeit he’s in a hurry. Until the cops come. Hearing police sirens, he assumes the Sandman persona, putting little plastic bags in her backpack with warnings not to open, and about meeting tomorrow as flashing blue lights close in. Zoe promises. Still, she’s only a little girl. Before getting into bed, she puts a small bag under her pillow. She sleeps so wonderfully she doesn’t hear the commotion outside. In the morning at school, she excitedly shares the packets from Mr. Sandman with friends for under their pillows and the warning, plus swears them to secrecy. It’s the promise rather than the expectation that Mr. Sandman’s story supplies.