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HHFF 2008 Film Reviews: Part 4
by the KinoCritics

Ain Mäeots, Estonia
Sitting for a oil portrait is an odd old woman, dressed in ethnic clothes (Marje Metsur), whose weathered face is deeply etched by life. She has a flashback to her childhood: this is free-spirited Taarka (Inga Salurand), who dares to be different. As aged Taarka remembers, we learn who she truly is, gradually completing our portrait of her.

Seto (regional ethnic minority in South-Eastern Estonia) custom is to endow a daughter with silver adornments, however Taarka’s father gambles away her dowry, except for one small ornament, which Taarka keeps and wears on a red filament around her neck. Chosen to sing at a wedding, Taarka feels ostracized by the other girls until the bride says, “your singing is your ornament, Taarka”.

Taarka has out-of-wedlock twins with the love-of-her-life Vasso, scandalizing the village. Her parents die; Vasso (who never marries, yet never really publicly acknowledges their children) and Taarka (Siiri Sisask) then have a daughter Tato. An outcast, she lives miserably in a windowless hut, and just barely scratches out a living for herself and children by begging food, doing odd jobs and… singing. And oh can she sing: “I don’t sing the words of others. I sing my own — picked up from the ground, carved out of the woods”. The villagers loathe and fear her, yet desire her songs.

Years pass: a man and a woman arrive at the village; their goal is to record voices to preserve the language and culture. It evolves that they want to take a group of the women singers to sing for the President of Finland; a contest is held between Toomka and Taarka, which Taarka wins. But how can she, dressed in poverty, represent the village? The women dress Taarka, adding a wealth of adornments: “go show them there, how we sing here”, Toomka tells her.

Emotions are embroidered in the opulent tapestry of this film: the poignant love Taarka has for daughter Tato, defiance against giving in, life’s regrets, the affect of peoples’ prejudices. An ethnographic musical drama, the heart of this film is legendary Seto folk-singer Hilana Taarka, the Mother of the Song. Beautifully shot, with an unassailable story line, director Ain Mäeots, together with an accomplished cast and crew have authentically preserved Seto language and culture, in celluloid. (Marinell Haegelin, NT****, CG***, B****)

Terribly Happy ****
Henrik Ruben Genz, Denmark
(Mary Wienke, BS***, BT****)

Three Miles North of Molkom ****
Corinna Villari-McFarlane/Robert Cannan, Great Britain
Tucked away in the Swedish forest three miles north of Molkom, over a thousand people gather for the annual No-Mind Festival, seeking enlightenment through self-discovery, sharing and funky rituals. Long days shed the northern light on a particular “Sharing Group,” exposed for two weeks before the curious cameras: a Hulk Hogan look-alike Nordic new-ager, a hippy goatherd turned pineapple farmer from Hawaii, a tepid Swedish singer, a emotionally depleted retiree Oma, a cute blond Scandinavian twenty-something optimist, and Nick, the ever-skeptical rugby coach from Australia, who is convinced he fell into a pile of hogwash.  It is through Nick’s running cynical commentary that we follow his reluctance to be drawn into the aerie fairy “tree hugging” love fest.  But drawn in we are, despite our pre-conceived notions, and we succumb, just as stalwart Nick does, to the power of love and letting go. The success of this fledgling documentary lies in the full arch we experience as the voyeur to the metamorphosis of Nick and his new age buddies.  For some, the trials of putting your mind to rest and walking over glowing red coals is a huge leap of faith, for others in the group, a mere acceptance. Who will make it through the night in the sweat lodge, and who will give up? Will Nick actually become one with his chosen tree in the Shamanic ritual?  What pairs will participate in the Tantric sex tent? Will each member of the Sharing Group reach their own personal goals of enlightenment? There is a mild sensational urge to peek deeper at each character and will them to make it through; to see them evolve to a point at the end of the trip where they never imagined themselves to be.

As someone who has participated in a few retreats and gatherings, both of the New Age bent and the classical first communion weekend of the Catholic church, (twice), I can say that the director-production duo of Corinna-Villari McFarlane and Robert Cannan have captured the essence of the retreat experience and delivered a sweet and insightful gem of a documentary. Thoroughly enjoyable, utterly watchable and subtly motivational, allow yourself to let go for a few hours and peep in on this diverse and strangely endearing group of folks cavorting in the Swedish forest. Your place in the circle awaits you, albeit without your mind, if you are willing. (Kirstan Böttger, BS****, CG****, MW***, NT**1/2)

Three Monkeys (Üç marmun) **
Nuri Bilge Ceylon, Turkey/France/Italy
Awarded Best Director at Cannes in 2008, Ceylan’s (pronounced JEY-.lahn) fifth feature film, Three Monkeys is also among 67 films submitted by their respective countries to compete for the 2008 Foreign Language Oscar. Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil is about the poisonous power of secrets. The boss falls asleep while driving and kills a pedestrian. He then coerces an employee to take the rap which includes nine months in prison, thus initiating a string of deceptions involving the four main characters: boss, (Ercan Kesal), the employee/husband (Yavuz Bingol), employees’s wife (Hatice Aslan) and their son (Ahmet Rifat Sungar). Past truths surface concerning another son’s drowning.

If you have a high tolerance for unhappy, brooding and shouting people, this is a great film for you. The look is also restricted- dark with barely any color, wearing “depression on its sleeve.” (Nancy Tilitz)

Tokyo Sonata **1/2
Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan, Hong Kong, the Netherlands
With the realization of  the economic bubble burst, traditional families financially sink, then  become displaced and finally lose face. It is a portrait of a traditional Japanese family, stay home mother, father and son working and youngest son going to school. The lack of communication leads them to strange decisions and a sense of hopelessness in a regimental society that can only be saved if you have a prodigy for a son. What will save the US from it’s financial crisis? (Shelly Schoeneshoefer, JM, BT**)

Bong Joon-ho/Leos Carax/Michel Gondry, Japan
This is a trio of short films on the theme of Tokyo from two Frenchmen and a Korean. The first is Gondry’s film, Interior Design, a slice of life observing a couple staying with a friend in her tiny apartment until they get settled in the city. The second film, Carax’s Merde, is about Merde, an asocial man who lives in Tokyo’s sewers, periodically surfaces and is obnoxious to all. The third film, Bong Joon-ho’s Shaking Tokyo about a recluse who never leaves his apartment, nor has contact with others except when ordering pizza. This changes when one time the delivery person is a woman and an earthquake leaves an impression.

Was disappointed with the films, the best of which was Interior Design, still a must see for any Gondry fan. (NancyTilitz)

Tony Manero ****
Pablo Larrain, Chile, Brazil
Fifty-year-old Raoul Peralta (Alfredo Castro) lives in one room above a theater. He and his girl friend, her daughter and a young man, as well as the theater owner rehearse long hours to bring dance shows to the small stage. Tony prides himself on being the king: John Travolta as Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever, a film he watches daily in his local cinema. He will stop at nothing to win a national disco competition, not even tricking his housemate out of participation, not robbery, not even murder with his bare hands. This plays in Santiago against the harsh rule of Pinochet in 1978 where people must cooperate to survive police surveillance, while at the same time coping with life’s daily problems and relationships. Tony is basically a weak individual with an inferiority complex who thinks he is special. And then he comes in second in the contest. The director said, “The film is an exploration on the false belief that happiness, success or achievement can be reached by imitating and supplanting a culture by another foreign one.” Alfredo Castro has amazing body language, and not just as a second-rate dancer. This was one of my favorite festival films. (Becky Tan)

Tractor, Love and Rock & Roll **
Branko Djurić, Slovenia/Bosnia and Herzegovina
(Kirstan Böttger)

Vasermil **
Mushon Salmona, Israel
Shlomi delivers pizzas, Ethiopian Adiel looks after his young brother and recent Russian émigré Dima peddles drugs in a town in southern Israel. All three are on short notice at their school and receive an ultimatum: report daily to the soccer coach and play on the team. There is nothing special about this film. Too slow (cut 10 minutes!), it is a story we have already heard (better told) and when we finally get a twist, it comes too late at the end of the film.  (Marinell Haegelin)

Versailles ***1/2
Pierre Schoeller, France
Enzio. Lives on Parisian streets with his mother Nina (Judith Chemla) until they inadvertently land in Versailles. Where they stumble on disengaged Damien (Guillaume Depardieu), living in the haven of the Versailles forest. Nina flees leaving 5-year old Enzio (Max Baissette de Malglaive, whose eyes will stay with you) behind. Crushed Enzio embraces both Damien and the forest community. Ultimately they bond, until events reverse the roles of care-provider. The outcast returns and gains  acceptability with his family, the miscast finds her opportunity, the child craves the forest haven. Over time, responsibility flushes out the essence of each one’s disparity, leaving us with broader dilemmas to ponder.
(Marinell Haegelin)

Visitor, The
Thomas McCarthy, USA
University professor Walter (Richard Jenkins) is lonely and depressed following his wife’s death. He reluctantly agrees to give a paper at a convention and plans to stay in the apartment in New York City which he hasn’t visited for several years. He is initially shocked to discover illegal immigrants “renting” his apartment from someone else and asks them to leave, but he is drawn to their plight and befriends them. Zaineb is from Senegal and earns a living by making and selling jewellery. All live together until Tarek finds himself in a detention centre. His mother travels across the US to be near her son and then follows hum to Syria when he is deported. Walter had begun to find happiness but finds his new interest in life is snatched away. He tries to confront the authorities in order to help his friend but he is left to reflect bitterly on his country’s unbending immigration laws. This is Thomas McCarthy’s second film and he has tackled a modern-day problem in a reflecting and thought-provoking way. (Jenny Mather KB***, MW***, NT***)

Wall to Wall ***1/2
Patric Jean, Belgium
We travel from Berlin, home of the Cold War wall, to the southern most EU border at Melilla featuring a six-meter-tall double fence with watch towers. Immigrants’ emotive accounts on why they resettled are honest and straight-forward. Swathed with sardonic parallels this is a powerful social message. (Marinell Haegelin, CG***)

Wall to Wall
Director Patric Jean follows the lives of immigrants in Europe today. He starts at the Berlin wall where a Pakistani souvenir seller is saving to bring his family to Germany. In Belgium an aged retired miner recalls his decision to leave Sardinia to find work and a better life. In Marseilles Senegalese immigrants are amused to learn that a walled community for prosperous families is planned next to their homes in “the worst slums in Europe.” The people interviewed n this documentary have braved hardship in their attempts to improve their lives; some have risked death and most have left loved ones behind to face an unhappy and uncertain future. In these true glimpses into people’s lives the plight of the immigrant is given a human face. (Jenny Mather)

Was übrig bleibt (Left Behind) ***
Fabian Daub/Andreas Grafenstein, Poland/ Germany
This 15-minute short film documented Polish men who go into mines which were abandoned 20 years ago. Manually, they scrape out the last bits of coal to sell locally or heat their own homes. This is dangerous work as there is no protection from falling rock, no ventilation, no light, no gloves. They work in small groups, sometimes just two at a time. They cull 1-2 tons in about five hours. Daub and Grafenstein discussed their film with the cinema audience and said that they had met at film school in Hamburg. (Becky Tan)

Wasser und Seife **1/2
Susan Gluth, Germany
If you have never worked in a laundry, then you have never conceived of how excruciating hot, hard and boring that work is. The camera clings to our three central characters, sweating off (but not enough) layers of their personal lives. Each has a story. But as much as we want to connect, they are women whose names we do not know, whose lives (everyone’s life is interesting) do not prompt further curiosity. A trilogy of many peoples’ life. Ably shot in Whilhelmsburg, Germany: more story, less sweat and names to personalize, would have enhanced this documentary. (Marinell Haegelin)

Where in the World is Osama bin Laden ***
Morgan Spurlock, USA
Morgan Spurlock is at it again. So blithely he led us through Super Sized Me, his investigative documentary about the lawsuit against McDonalds for childhood obesity. Now he has embarked on another journey to find out exactly where the most wanted man of our time, Osama bin Laden, is actually hiding. Spurred on by oncoming fatherhood, he ponders the quintessential parental question: what kind of world are we passing on to our unborn children?  

Once more, Spurlock makes himself the centerpiece of his biased documentary, forging ahead alone to various global hot spots, following the trail of Osama from his roots in Saudi Arabia to his last-seen hideaway in Afghanistan. Morgan likes to prepare himself by checking his health with his seemingly beleaguered, sarcastic doctor. Health in order, he then enrolls in a terrorist self-defense course that teaches him how to avoid hand grenade blasts and how to act as a kidnapped hostage. Scary, but awfully funny in a tragically real sense, terrorist survival camp is loaded with wit and wry observations on dress codes, mosque procedure and defense tactics.  

Travelling with Morgan is always a treat, and dry humor in the face of real issues is entertaining. Often resorting to cute graphics and computer generated side bits, the bulk of this type of delivery is packed in the first 30 minutes. The remainder of his trip is centered around his arrival in various Muslim lands, arranging appointments with acquaintances of bin Laden or relevant dignitaries, street interviews and small sidelines of opinions on George Bush and America’s world standing.  By the time he arrives in Pakistan, chances are you’ve become world-weary of Morgan and his stunts, instead feeling rather depressed at the ragged US reputation in the Muslim world. This may or may not be the point of the film. Where Michael Moore is thought-provoking in his basic obnoxious manner of exposé, Spurlock has a bit more of an knowing, arrogant demeanor to his presentation, trying to immerse himself in other cultures to achieve his “objective” standpoint. Both Moore and Spurlock share a need to educate the supposedly uninformed viewing public by subscribing to a “radical documentary” style of filmmaking. It is to the credit of Spurlock that he goes about this goal in a more universally tongue-in-cheek way, thus making his version of the truth more digestible, and laughable, to the average Joe. hink “Moore Lite”. (Kirstan Böttger, BS***1/2, MW***, BT***)

Welcome to the Sticks (Willkommen bei den Sch’tis, Bienvenue chez les ch’tis) ****
Dany Boon, France
Multi-talented Dany Boon directed, co-wrote and starred in this very physical comedy, basically about the differences between the north and south of France, which produce prejudices, a universal theme for many countries. Post office administrator Philippe Abrams (hilariously portrayed by Kad Merad) is banished from his comfortable life in Salon-de-Provence after being caught red-handed scamming an inspector. His punishment (to everyone’s horror) is reassignment for three years way up north in Bergues. Not even his wife will join him, leaving him alone to deal with what the south considers Neanderthals, who speak the strange dialect Ch’ti. Upon Philippe’s arrival, letter carrier Antoine Baileul (Boon) attaches himself to his boss, helping him adjust to his new post—and many new adventures. Winner of the 16th FilmFest Hamburg Audience Award, this comedy was also nominated for Audience Award for the 2008 European Film Awards. Highly recommended! (Nancy Tilitz)

Welcome to the Sticks (Willkommen bei den Sch’tis, Bienvenue chez les ch’tis) ****
The Ch'ti (pronounced "Sch'tie" in German) live in Nord-Pas de Calais, a region in the North of France, and neither the Ch'tis  nor their region are really popular. It's common knowledge (in this film at least) that Nord-Pas de Calais is an uncivilized region, cold and dark, where people speak an unintelligible dialect called Chtimi and generally drink too much. In fact, having to live there is considered a punishment by almost everyone not Ch'ti.

Philippe (Kad Merad) lives in Salon-de-Provence with his wife and kid and wants to relocate to the South of France, because his wife, Julie (Zoé Félix), feels she must live by the ocean, in a warm and sunny climate. Philippe tries really hard to fulfil her wish, but in the end his job takes him in the opposite direction, to Bergues, a town in Ch'ti country. As his already depressed wife can't possibly be expected to live there, he leaves on his own to serve what they consider to be something like a two-year prison term in the North.

Poor Philippe arrives in Bergues after dark, in the streaming rain, only to find his apartment is unfurnished, not even a bed to sleep in! He spends the night at the home of a colleague, Antoine (Dany Boon), a shy man in his thirties who still lives with his mother. Due to the "language barrier", communicating with the Ch'tis is difficult and the food they serve also takes getting used to. Still, the natives are friendly and fill Philippe's apartment with all the furniture they don't need anymore. They also try to comfort him with a saying: A stranger visiting the Ch'tis will cry twice: when he arrives and when he must leave. True or not, the two years Philippe spends in Bergues will change his life in a way he hadn't expected.

This comedy, (called Welcome To The Sticks in English), a box-office hit in France and nominated for a European Film award (Best Film), was directed and co-written by comedian/director Dany Boon who also plays Phillipe's colleague Antoine. While certain plot twists did not exactly catch me by surprise, the dialect-related jokes and misunderstandings (a real challenge for the translator!) and the "clash of cultures" (the North versus the South of France) alone are good for a lot of fun. This film could be a work out for your laughing muscles - warm up before watching! (Christa Greiff)

With a Girl of Black Soil ***1/2
Soo-il Jeon, Korea
Motherless nine year old Young-lim (Yun-mi Yu) is responsible for her simple-minded 11 year old brother Tong-gu (Park Hyun-woo). Their father Hyegon (Yung-jin Jo) works at one of the few remaining mines in the village of Kanwon, South Korea. The family bond is relaxed and caring. Diagnosed with black lung disease (uninsured) Hyegon loses his job.  Optimistic, he uses his severance pay to start his own business, which literally crashes. Hyegon resorts to alcohol, relying on wise girl-adult Young-lim to mind Tong-gu and himself. Burdened with this gargantuan responsibility, Young-lim seeks a solution to bypass insurance requirements and have her father admitted to hospital —why not the rat poison Grandfather has given them to get rid of the household vermin? This film is rich in innuendoes and execution. Only the ending is a puzzle. (Marinell Haegelin)

Wolf** (Sweden)
Daniel Alfredson, Sweden
In the wide open spaces of Sweden on the border with Norway, a teenage boy Nejla and his uncle Klemens tend to their herd of reindeer. Not much money is left to be made with a reindeer herd but Klemens lives for the work and Nejla loves the animals and the life. Nejla’s parents try to get him to stay in school and emphasize that there is no longer a living to be made from the reindeer, but the reindeer are his passion and no one can stop him. Early one morning Nejla skips school to see the herd. He finds several slain and realizes a wolf has attacked them. Enraged, he calls Klemens, who instructs him to do nothing, but, instead,  tracks the wolf on his own. Catching the wolf climbing a rock face, Nejla bashes its head in and lets it drop into the rushing stream below. Killing wolves is criminal in Sweden and the rest of the film follows the cover up and subsequent trial of Klemens. This rare look into a dying way of life is interesting but slow with a rather predictable outcome and pointless death of a dog. (Mary Wienke)

Yolki Palki ***
Alexander Gentelev, Israel
In Russia, if you win the lottery you say,  “Yolki Palki.“ If something unpleasant happens you say it, too. Good and bad things have happened to the people in this documentary and lots of them have an opportunity to use this expression as they describe their lives. Director Alexander Gentelev decided to find his fellow passengers who flew together from Moscow to Israel’s Ben Gurian airport in order to begin a new life there. The flight took place n the early 1990s and almost twenty years later Mr. Gentelev discovers stories of unhappiness and difficulties but also of bravery and optimism.

He introduces us to a number of interesting people such as the skilled engineer who is forced to milk cows on the kibbutz in order to make ends meet. His little boy was ashamed that his father had to do such menial work but he, in turn, is proud to be selected by the Israeli air force where he will train to be a pilot. The novelist, who is famous in Russia, is pleased to accept a job cleaning a bookshop until she becomes a successful writer in her adopted country. And the four-year-old prodigy who won a scholarship to study the violin, now divides his time between being a butcher in a supermarket and busking on the street.

Some of those first optimistic Russian Jews who were given the opportunity to emigrate to the Promised Land decided that life was better at home and have returned there. Most of those airline passengers are still in Israel. Their lives have not been easy and they are struggling in an alien country which hasn’t truly embraced them. (Jenny Mather, BT***)

Darrell James Roodt, South Africa
When their country is renamed following independence from Britain, an idealistic couple gives their first child the same name as that new country. As the world knows, this initial enthusiasm has proved to be short lived. Every month a thousand people who try to escape the horror of their homeland by slipping into South Africa are sent home again. Zimbabwe tries to find a better life for herself and her siblings by slipping into South Africa but she is renamed Miriam so an not to antagonise her employers who are weary of the problem on their border. Director and scriptwriter Darrell Roodt has made a movie which examines the exploitation of illegal immigrants and the desperation of their plight. Everybody is horrid to Zimbabwe, both in her home country and in South Africa and she is powerless to control her life. There seems to be no solution to her problem. Producer Nicola Simmons asked Mr. Roodt to make a movie which examines the life of illegal immigrants and the reasons for their actions. He used ordinary people to tell a terrible story which has no solution in sight. (Jenny Mather, BS***)