Monday, October 24, 2016

Samuel In the Clouds

SAMUEL IN THE CLOUDS              B-             
Belgium  Netherlands  Bolivia  (70 mi)  2016  d:  Pieter van Eecke  Official site    

A North American premiere, an especially spare and meditative film that finds fascination with a particular mountain, the Chacaltaya (bridge of ice, or cold gate in the Aymara Indian language) that measures at 17,785 feet in Bolivia (higher than the Mt. Everest base camp), just 20 miles from La Paz, a city with a metropolitan population (including neighboring towns El Alto and Viacha) of over two million people.  What’s particularly unique is that there is a road where cars can drive to 17,115 feet, a practice of many mountaineers, where they simply have to climb the last 660 nearly vertical feet to the summit.  It’s also home to what was once the world’s highest ski resort, as a ski lift was installed in 1939, running with a car engine, where the ski season was from November to March each year.  We are introduced to Samuel Mendoza, an Aymara Indian who lives with his family in El Alto, as he is the only surviving employee of the Club Andino Boliviano, the Bolivian national ski club that used to organize South American championships to determine the best skiers from Argentina, Chile, or Colombia on the highest slope in the world.  Since he was a small child, Samuel only had to look up, as he could see the top of Chacaltaya, the mountain where his father worked, as did previous generations of his family, where it was always covered by a crest of white snow.  Samuel and the Aymara believe in ancient mountain spirits, or Achachillas, wise grandfathers who belong to Mother Earth and protect their children, so they make offerings to the gods and offer prayers.  Nearly every day the 52-year old Samuel walks the four-hour, nine and a half mile hike to the top of the mountain from his home, leaving before daybreak, working long hours at the lift, helping tourists or anyone interested how to ski, then walking home again at night for another four hours, as he has done for the past 30 years.  But something happened in that period of time, as the snow on the glacier completely disappeared after 2009, leaving behind only a sandy soil.  Without the snow, the skiers are gone, as only a handful of tourists show up, or a collective of scientists measuring the air quality.

Despite being the lone witness to the disappearance of the glaciers, Samuel does not believe in global warming, and prays that the snow will somehow return to the top of the mountain.  Climate experts predict that the disappearance of the glaciers in the Andes Mountains will lead to severe water shortages in the region that could affect as many as 80 million people, where already Bolivia’s second largest lake has dried up and disappeared (Bolivia's Lake Poopó Disappears : Natural Hazards).  Since 2011 the world’s highest scientific air monitoring station was built on Chacaltaya peak that includes a collection of research groups from France, Italy, Germany, Sweden, and Switzerland, all part of the Global Atmospheric Watch that measures changes in atmospheric composition, monitoring of gases, characterization of particle properties, as well as radiation and meteorology, conditions for which the world has yet to provide any real solutions.  Even as several scientists regularly visit with Samuel, they are only a part of the mountain’s mystery.  Other families have been mining the mountain for minerals such as tin or zinc for decades, where individual families own certain mines that as the year’s progress dig deeper and deeper into the heart of the mountain.  Interrupting the quiet calm of the view from the top are intermittent dynamite blasts that can be heard throughout the film.  At the very top is an old wooden house sitting precariously on edge, with windows looking outwards in all directions, a place where Samuel can prepare a pot of mate, offering cups to any guests that arrive, while still housing all the old ski medals and sports memorabilia.  Several of the recent arrivals are experiencing altitude symptoms, feeling light-headed and faint, with racing heartbeats, as the body takes some serious adjustments to sudden changes in altitude, as there is less oxygen in the air.  Many Olympic and world class athletes train in these conditions, hoping to increase their endurance by forcing their bodies to produce extra red blood cells, which aids in the delivery of oxygen to their muscles.

It rarely snows at the top of the mountain anymore, yet Samuel recalls as much as 3-feet of snow would accumulate overnight.  The director was fortunate to be filming for the first snow in eight years, where people had to learn how to get used to it again.   Cars and tour buses had to be pushed out of snow banks, emptying the passengers, who then had to climb their way up the mountain.  On this occasion, a bus was delivering a group of musicians, but also another group of performing dancers, including women in brightly decorated native costumes.  After hiking up the mountain in the snow, they performed outdoors in the snow, as planned, creating a colorful, celebratory festivity.  The mood of the mountain changes throughout the film, engulfed in a mist of fog or snow, capturing the sunrises and sunsets from distant horizons, or simply offering an awe-inspiring view from on high, as the mountain provides a view of the world one rarely ever sees, becoming a picture of meditative serenity.  Samuel sadly points out the spot where his father fell off the cliff and died, indicating there was no safety netting or railing in those days, where accidents were more commonplace.  He also makes a calling sound for an eagle that drops out of the sky onto a wooden ledge at the side of the cliff, where a wild animal becomes a constant companion.  Still, it’s the image of the little rickety house sitting atop the mountain that holds the most fascination, sitting on a precipice, reminiscent of Chaplin in THE GOLD RUSH (1925), where he has to run to the other side of the cabin to keep it from tipping over and tumbling down the mountainside.  The mountain seems to defy time, standing firm for several million years, yet now suddenly at the center of a great warming trend that could have dramatic effects on the next generation of human life.  Yet, like Samuel, people tend to not want to believe these things will happen, remaining resigned to the inevitable course of nature for incidents like storms, famine, or flood, but this new possibility remains out of sight, something most people prefer not to think about, perhaps still hoping for the best.  It recalls a meditative line from a Donovan song, “First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is,” where something so obvious gets lost from sight, such as the view of a mountain when you are on a journey struggling to “climb” the mountain, yet once you reach the top, everything is clear again.   

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Layla M

LAYLA M                  B            
Netherlands  Belgium  (110 mi)  2016  d:  Mijke de Jong           Topkapi Films [Netherlands]

It’s hard to make topical films, especially when the screen reality doesn’t match the authenticity of on-the-ground news reports of terrorist attacks, police crackdowns, angry demonstrations, or following the hordes of refugees swarming into Europe, not to mention those citizens left behind in the war zones and refugee camps.  It’s a searing reality that is difficult to digest, no matter how meticulously accurate the newscasts may be.  But as links to terror organizations have been discovered within major European cities, it has led to an accompanying rise of Islamophobia, including burkini bans on French and Corsican beaches, leaving people wondering how local citizens are being recruited into jihadist organizations, where this film attempts to answer some of those questions.  Dutch director Mijke de Jong, with a script written by her husband Jan Eilander, combine their efforts in a story studying the roots of the problem.  Set in Amsterdam, Layla (Nora El Houssour) is an 18-year old student studying to become a doctor who is a Dutch citizen with a Moroccan background, living at home with her middle class Muslim family.  While her parents, including her father (Mohammed Azzay) and mother (Esma Abouzahra), encourage her to follow a promising educational path that will lead to a better life, she gets more distracted by the way Muslims are treated differently than ordinary Dutch citizens, as they are profiled simply by their appearance, labelled agitators by referees in local soccer matches, and routinely singled out and arrested by police for practicing free speech, even getting into a heated discussion with a fellow student when asked not to pray, to the point where she feels ostracized by society.  As she explores her Muslim background, she devotes more of her time studying the Quran, where she learns to identify radical phrases, scours the Internet for YouTube coverage of attacks on Muslims throughout the country and atrocities to Muslims around the globe, which she immediately shares with her friends and family, and is disappointed by the timid reaction by her parents, who lead a comfortable life and don’t make waves. 

What’s clear, at least in this film, is that she comes from a loving family, where she’s had plenty of opportunities to succeed, something her parents don’t want her to jeopardize.  She’s a bit of a tomboy, as she loves to play soccer and mix it up with the boys, and can more than hold her own when it comes to a fiery attitude, including plenty of trash talking.  But in accordance with custom, she wears a headscarf and dresses modestly, but she’s a modern woman that believes women can stand up for themselves, joining a radical group of women called the Sisters who discuss ways they can help fight repression, passing out flyers, posting YouTube videos depicting the horrors in Syria and Gaza, while also meeting a male radicalized friend that she likes named Abdel (Ilias Addab) in clandestine Skype sessions.  Developing a growing indifference towards her studies, she makes a bold move to drop out of school, secretly marry Abdel, and run away to Belgium to join a jihadist training camp, where the intimacy expressed while traveling together are among the best scenes in the film, showing a joyful and loving relationship.  But they barely avoid arrest when they leave, heading for Amman, Jordan, where they plan a life of religious activism.  While she is embraced by the women, where one takes her out to the refugee camps, where the children are starved for affection and anyone willing to spend time with them, she is totally ignored by the men, including her husband, spending long hours alone with absolutely nothing to do, where as an Islamic wife she is expected to clean the house and serve food, and do little else, as they have no use for a woman’s ideas.  The extent of the patriarchal society is not only demeaning, but cruel, as they demand total subservience, something that’s simply not in her DNA.  While she loves her husband, he positively stifles her spirit, where she’s not allowed to do anything without the husband’s permission, as the man makes all the decisions, while the subject of men’s discussions is off-limits to women.

What the film does is humanize the character of Layla, as she is searching within herself and in a surrounding society for a world without insults and recriminations, where people can lead their lives in peace without continual disruptions by police and angry citizens.  For most college-age kids, this is a fairly common dream, a belief in social justice, a hope that everyone can be treated fairly.  Instead what they discover is a daily reality of discrimination and profiling, which exists as much in black communities in America as Islamic neighborhoods in Europe.  The heavy-handed treatment, the overreactions by police that result in the shooting deaths of innocent young black men, or the continued harassment of Muslim men with beards, only leads to a seething discontent, a breeding ground for anger and radicalization, where the result is a lack of trust with existing authorities, which can lead to the extremist radicalization the film examines.  While this film asks as many questions as it answers, it attempts to fill the holes in a better understanding of what people are up against, where there are no easy decisions when facing the cruel realities of life.  One is reminded of Merzak Allouache’s Algerian film The Repentant (El Taaib) (2012) which is largely seen through a jihadist’s eyes, where despite honest efforts, they may never fully integrate back into society, as they’ve crossed too many lines.  While this is a well-meaning film, it only addresses the initial phase of radicalization, where she’s too intelligent and there are too many obstacles placed in this one woman’s path for her to become a true believer, becoming a public service corrective for someone who has swayed from the path of the civilized and was tempted by the jihadists, but ends up discovering their own extremism is too harsh.  That’s not the case with everyone, especially those coming from impoverished communities decimated by war, where there’s no hope anywhere to be found.  This is fertile territory for extremist recruits, as they have no other options.  So this is a somewhat watered down picture, but it’s helpful nonetheless, revealing how mistreatment builds discontent, that better police procedures that recognize the rights of minorities would be in society’s larger interests, as discriminatory behavior will come back to bite you.  That’s something both Europe and the United States seem to be ignoring, instead plunging ahead with more sophisticated use of surveillance and profiling techniques, where targeting racial groups will only lead to more ruthless police confrontations and create even more animosity.