The Milgrom Report, part II

Al Milgrom

Back to what’s available this year in global cinema, and as reported in the Lens two weeks ago (before editorial space ran out), this writer was reeling from overexposure to film festival spores found among some 500 titles in Montreal and Toronto movie shrines this summer…

Among the must-sees are four Iranian films that have bravely touched on the issue of Afghan refugees. Given that the Koran is now a best-seller and previously unnoticed Taliban images now crop up on local book racks, a handful of major Iranian films are dealing with what’s beneath the veil of ordinary refugee lives.

Surfacing in Toronto was Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Kandahar, (also called The Sun Behind the Moon) a mix of poetry and realism with an intense and compelling indictment of life under Afghanistan’s Taliban regime and its suffocating treatment of women. Set in a no-man’s land on the Afghan border, Kandahar is the frustrating story of a Canadian journalist trying to reach Taliban headquarters just beyond the Iranian desert to rescue her younger sister who remained behind when her family fled Afghanistan years earlier.

Another Iranian prizewinner making the rounds was Delbaran (Locarno fest prize), about a l4-year-old Afghan refugee forced to live alone in a harsh dusty bordertown. Among assorted truck drivers and opium smugglers, he works at a cafe called Khan’s Place, which exploits him as the town’s messenger boy (here there are no telephones or cell phones). Though it lacks the Sufi-permeated mystical compassion of Baran, (the prizewinning Majid Majidi film reported on Oct. 12), Delbaran captures a mordant documentary reality of an isolated, foul and dusty border truck stop which the audience takes in through the nostrils. Delbaran, a place on the Afghan border, is not recommended as a comfort stop for mint tea.

With an estimated three million Afghan refugees flooding Iran (According to UN statistics, Iran hosts the largest population of refugees in the world.), complicated Moslem traditions begin to clash in these films, as shown by last year’s Toronto debut feature prizewinner, Djomeh, now in U.S. distribution. Djomeh is another story about daily interaction with the refugee problem but told in the oblique way that Iranian films often approach social problems, shunning the frontal assault that documentaries would normalliy lend to the subject.

In Djomeh, an Afghan kid in a mountain border village lives by his wits, picking up pennies and odd jobs by menial farm work. His boss wants to ship him back but finds his chatter so engaging, as they chug off to market in a battered pickup, that he has second thoughts.

The prominent names in current international cinema, grouped in Toronto under “masters,” include Italy’s Nanni Moretti (Cannes medalist, The Son’s Room, a story of grief and loss at the death of a son, noble in its muted understatement), Austria’s Michael Haneke with the Isabel Huppert shocker The Piano Teacher, Jean-Luc Godard’s convoluted In Praise of Love, Eric Rohmer’s The Lady and the Duke and Ken Loach’s The Navigators.

Among the “discoveries” at Toronto was the Eskimo tale The Fast Runner, which will be marketed under its native name Atanarjuat. Its all-Inuit cast and aboriginal language recounts a 4,000-year myth – a timeless, spellbinding story of intertribal intrigue, jealousy, adultery, murder and ultimately, forgiveness. Shot in the Canadian Arctic, it’s three-hour length doesn’t flag for a minute.

I would be remiss in not mentioning the one gem of a film from among all these rich festival nuggets no fan should miss – the four-hour Martin Scorcese compilation of his personal survey of Italian cinema, My Voyage to Italy, his homage to the great names in Italian film that he acknowledges influenced his own career (Rossellini, Visconti, DeSica, Fellini, Antonioni, et al). However, the film is not destined for the commercial screen.

Many of these films will only play the TC alternative screens or film festivals.

“Festivals matter,” said Toronto fest honcho Piers Handling. “Film festivals are beachheads. Whether these footholds will be evacuated or reinforced will say much about our desire for diversity, diversity of experience, of styles and of content.”