Class Enemy (2013)

class enemySlovenia

4*
Director:
Rok Biček

Screenwriters:
Nejc Gazvoda

Rok Biček
Janez Lapajne
Director of Photography:
Fabio Stoll

Running time: 110 minutes

Original title: Razredni sovražnik

Although inviting comparisons with the French The Class (Entre les murs) because of filmmaker Rok Biček’s decision to shoot the entire film inside a single school building (the camera never even ventures outside, not even onto the playground), the Slovenian Class Enemy, which uses first-time actors for the student roles, is a more stylised representation of the tension created by a teacher whose straight talk is the spark that ignites an outwardly calm but already combustible situation.

The film is based on real events the director himself was witness to during his first year of high school, although he significantly altered the focus by having a single teacher (instead of what was historically a larger group of individuals) bear the brunt of the students’ attacks. The character is called Robert Zupan (Igor Samobor), a cold and distant educator who has only one desire: To see the children make something of themselves and achieve their best by doing their best, which he judges not to be the case at all when he replaces their beloved German teacher, Nuša (Maša Derganc), who is also the class teacher.

But the very first scene, which is set before Zupan’s arrival, should make it clear to those paying attention that all is not well. A dreadful silence hangs in the air, and we soon learn that one of the boys, Luka (Voranc Boh), has lost his mother. This being a high school, with dozens of children who are all very different, many things are said that can have an impact on others, and one ill-conceived comment by another boy in class, Tadej (Jan Zupančič), about how unnatural it is for someone to grow up with two fathers (because he says a child cannot grow up well if it doesn’t have both a mother and a father), seems entirely inappropriate in light of Luka’s recent loss.

Throughout the first act, an introverted girl named Sabina (Daša Cupevski) seems to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and the only thing holding her back from the precipice is her ability to play one of Chopin’s piano preludes. Zupan seems impressed and is even mesmerised by her performance, but before long he has a direct talk with her about her plans for the future, and when these appear to be nonexistent, he tells her she may become just another “loser”, and perhaps her parents are to blame.

She flees the class room in tears and literally into the white light outside that floods the screen, before we learn she has committed suicide. The students soon revolt against what they deem to be oppression, or even totalitarian rule by their German teacher the “Nazi”, and the consequences are grave.

Biček’s director of photography, Fabio Stoll, bathes the entire film, with the exception of a final scene that takes place outside, in a cold blue hue, and costume designer Bistra Borak also clothed most of the actors with navy blue material or jean jackets. The effect on the audience, remarkably, is not alienation but a thorough immersion in the frigidity these characters all have to deal with, because they all deal equally awkwardly with the life-changing event of a student’s suicide, for which there is no definite reason.

The director is no stranger to the depiction of existential anguish, as his student short Duck Hunting presented the case of two young men who take revenge on their father for an act he committed that is clear but never shown. Biček is a formidable director, completely in control of his subject, and his script, tightly focused on the mass heart ache and the easy transition to a mob mentality, has a palpable feeling of mystery and sadness at its core.

There is never a dull moment, and the shift in our understanding of the teacher’s motivations, from fear to potential empathy, is handled adroitly by the director, who also edited the film along with co-screenwriter Lapajne. This may be one of the best feature films débuts in a very long time. Despite the limitations the director imposed on himself, which prevent us from seeing these people interact outside the confines of the school, their bubble of existence inside the building does provide us with a sense of cohesion — a bubble of existence that is self-sufficient and whose energy can exert great force on those it comes into contact with. The events hurtle towards a well-conceived conclusion that makes a great deal of sense and provides us with an ending that is both logical and emotionally satisfying.

Fruitvale Station (2013)

Real-life story about family and forgiveness is brilliantly told in one of the best feature-film débuts of all time.

Fruitvale Station

USA

5*
Director:
Ryan Coogler

Screenwriter:
Ryan Coogler

Director of Photography:
Rachel Morrison

Running time: 85 minutes

Fruitvale Station is not a film about race and immediately accessible to a very wide audience. The story is about the beauty, the frustration, the dreams, the indecision, the memories and the love embedded in one man’s last day on earth. With mesmerising performances, an intimacy that is utterly compelling and a main character that is far from perfect but does his best until his past catches up with him in the most tragic way imaginable, this is one of the best débuts I have ever seen.

The director is Ryan Coogler, who shot the film in 20 days only a few weeks after his 26th birthday. His story is small enough to focus on the details of Oscar Grant’s last day, based on the real events that took place New Year’s Eve 2008 and early on New Year’s Day 2009 at the Bay Area Rapid Transit station of Fruitvale in Oakland, San Francisco. Its more ambitious moments, namely a handful of unbroken takes, don’t draw attention in a way one would have expected from an inexperienced filmmaker. They never stand out from the rest of the production, and perhaps the reason is the dynamite performance of the actor who plays Oscar, Michael B. Jordan.

The film is bookended by the events of New Year’s Day, and the opening scene is clearly shot with a cellphone camera or some other handheld device with low-quality images. The reason for this is only explained at the end, although the documentary quality accurately indicates the origins of the story with actual events. What we get during the film, then, is New Year’s Eve, which not only builds towards the evening’s midnight celebrations in San Francisco but also the birthday dinner of Oscar’s mother, Wanda (Octavia Spencer).

Over time, we learn a great deal about Oscar’s life through his interactions with those closest to him: his girlfriend, his daughter, his mother and his tight-knit group of friends. One of them is Cato, played by Coogler’s brother, Keenan. Cato works at the Farmer Joe’s Marketplace supermarket in Oakland, where Oscar was recently fired for turning up late to work once too often. The two are friends, but when Oscar’s attempts to get rehired by the otherwise affable manager are unsuccessful, he fails to mention this to Cato, instead telling him he will start again the following week. Oscar, whose tattoo spells out “Palma Ceia” (one of the gangs in the neighbourhood of Hayward) and who was recently caught cheating on his girlfriend, is actually a very vulnerable individual, and Coogler reveals his character with details that are surprising short but impressive.

Such moments include a flashback to a year earlier when his mother had visited him in prison, and another very intelligent add-on when he sees an ownerless dog, strokes it, before seconds later hearing a yelp from the highway, where he picks up the dog and carries its bloodied body back to the side of the road. Of course, this anticipates the events at the end of the film by showing us how quickly a creature can go from smiling and energetic to still and lifeless. But it is nonetheless (perhaps therefore) intensely poignant and may even move us to tears.

The seemingly mundane, within the context of a single day and given our knowledge that all of this is leading up to something terrible, takes on extraordinary meaning, and Coogler should be given all credit for imbuing his story with both energy and affection that always come across as entirely believable. Even Oscar’s daughter, Tatiana (Ariana Neal), is a natural in front of the camera and cannot be faulted for a single false move or response.

Fruitvale Station shows us the story of one man who has his faults but is totally likeable throughout and whose life is filled with some of the experiences and feelings we all share, conveyed with the utmost sincerity. His beautiful smile, his love for his daughter, his aggression in the face of injustice and desire to change his life for the better are all attributes we admire. This is not the story of someone up against the system, but rather about someone up against himself and especially his past.

It is difficult to believe this was Coogler’s first feature film. Especially the slightly risky move of presenting one of the final scenes without showing us the face of its central or focal character is jaw-droppingly astounding, bringing with it the necessary uncertainty that the scene calls for. I for one cannot wait to see what Coogler does next.

Horses of God (2012)

Les chevaux de dieuMorocco

3.5*
Director:
Nabil Ayouch

Screenwriter:
Jamal Belmahi

Director of Photography:
Hichame Alaouie

Running time: 115 minutes

Original title (French):
Les Chevaux de Dieu

Original title (Arabic): يا خيل الله‎
Transliterated Arabic title:
Ya khail allah

Horses of God, a tale of two best friends who grow up in the slums of Casablanca and eventually escape a life of poverty at great cost, is one that is entirely true, and it offers us a glimpse into the lives of a few men from one neighbourhood who would turn to terrorism to give their lives a sense of direction.

Multiple explosions rocked Morocco’s largest city on May 16, 2003 when suicide bombers wreaked havoc in the city centre, setting off their bombs nearly simultaneously in restaurants frequented by non-Muslims (or apostates, according to them, because they are Muslims mixing with people from other religions). Although the reasons for their actions are not entirely clear, there is enough evidence to support at least a loose connection to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq following the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the general sentiment in the Muslim world that the invasions were an attack on a religion rather than a search for so-called terrorists.

Horses of God does an excellent job of depicting the living conditions of the eventual killers. All of them hail from a squatter camp on the outskirts of Casablanca called Sidi Moumen where, even at a young age, life for everyone seems destined to go nowhere, except through brute force. In the opening scene, we meet a boy who calls himself Yashin, after the sportsman he wishes to emulate, the Soviet-era goalkeeper Lev Yashin. His real name is Tarek, and he spends most of his time with his only friend, Nabil. Tarek’s brother, Hamid, is slightly older but full of anger and criminal ambition, and he protects his brother whenever he can by using a chain he carries with him.

But despite Hamid’s aggressive nature, we quickly realise he cares both for his brother and for his place in the family, as he tells his brother not to follow him into the underworld of crime, as he wants to be sure Tarek would take care of his mother if something ever happened to him. Sooner or later, something does happen to Hamid, and when he comes back, many years later, he is calm, accommodating and noticeably more religious.

As a child, he had admonished his brother about his relationship with Nabil by telling him not to “follow [Nabil] around like a monkey.” The importance of these words cannot be overstated, as they are key to our understanding of the events in the last act of the film, and in particular Hamid’s attitude toward his brother’s fast-growing fanaticism. This brand of religious activism, sponsored by an imam with a soothing voice, attracts Tarek because he had been disoriented and unmoored and had little to give his life much meaning (the storyline of the migrant worker Wasim who becomes a suicide bomber in Syriana is equally compelling without eliciting empathy). Tarek had always been the brunt of others’ jokes and actions, and Islam offered him a path on which to walk with others and feel like he had strong support.

Another very significant line is spoken late in the film by Fouad, the brother of Tarek’s love interest Ghislaine, whom he adores but whose attention he always shrinks from out of timidity or fear, contrary to his later views of life (“Whoever fears Allah will not fear any man,” he says). Fouad, who is around the age of 18, is driven through the city towards an area in the mountains where he and his friends will train, when he says, “It’ll be my first time in the city.”

These words should punch us in the gut, as we realise what a complete bubble of isolation these boys have inhabited all their lives in the slums, and the actions they are about to take all spring from the knowledge they have gained without experiencing the real world, and yet they are on the verge of invading that world and blowing it to pieces for completely selfish reasons: to be martyrs and go through the gates of heaven where “hundreds, thousands of Ghislaines” are waiting for them.

But while the depiction of the socio-economic crisis in which all these men find themselves is accomplished, and the cinematography is highly commendable, especially thanks to a sprinkling of breathtaking shots obtained through the use of a Flying Cam that zips across the shantytown as it pursues a particular character, the main character Tarek lacks the depth and expressiveness that would at least interest us in his personal development.

The film is notable not only for its representation of complex reasoning behind the decision to become a martyr in the name of a religion, but also for its treatment of some very thorny issues in the Muslim world. It is surprising to see scenes in which the consumption of alcohol is shown to be widespread, and in a hair-raising scene early on, a moment of child-on-child rape is reminiscent of the equally harrowing scene in the 1981 Brazilian film Pixote. At another point in the film, the teenage Nabil looks in a mirror and tries on his mother’s lipstick. The camera doesn’t linger on him, and we don’t get any further explanation, but this sole indication that he has some gender issues, whatever the reason, is a fascinating revelation in an Arabic-language film.

Such scenes enrich the context of the boys’ living environment and go some way towards explaining, or at least illuminating, their reasons for choosing to turn their lives around by blowing themselves up. In this respect, however, it is not the trajectory of Tarek but of his older brother Hamid that is the most interesting, as he shows real self-doubt. Perhaps it is because he is more wise, having experienced much more hardship and dealt with more people in his time. By contrast, Tarek is always serious, never smiles and doesn’t get much of our empathy.

Director Nabil Ayouch’s use of the camera to tell his story is exceptional without it stealing the show, and his development of Hamid’s character is strong and credible. His film also breaks a number of taboos in a way that never has the look of sensationalism, and despite the desperate nature of life in Sidi Moumen, the universal aspects of family, survival and respect ensure the tale is at times very touching, even though we never empathize with the terrorists’ goals.