Sunday, April 19, 2015

"A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night"

To be honest, I left the theater feeling a bit confused. “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night,” was billed as an Iranian Vampire Western. But the style was more like black and white French new wave – from the smoking cigarettes, the “Rebel Without a Cause” outfit of the protagonist (Arash Marandi), his 57 Ford T-Bird, even the striped shirt the aloof vampire girl (Sheia Vand) wears under her abaya. 

Shot in the California desert, it seemed to be more about an Iranian in the West, than a Western. Aside from the avenging outsider, there were none of the fixers of a Western - no shootouts, no barroom brawls.

All I could recognize as Iranian was the Farsi language and how the young vampire wears an abaya. In Iran, women must cover their bodies to keep men from sinning. Perhaps the film is commenting on how when, “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night,” she is seen as a temptation. But in this dark fairy-tale, the girl is actually empowered by the abaya. She sports the abaya like a superhero cape, giving her the power to walk the streets unseen as she plays avenging angel, preying on predatory men.

Perhaps it is a commentary on modern Iran. The setting is Bad City – which is certainly how Iran sees America. The streets are full of “American vices”: prostitutes and pimps, a free-spirited transgender person, drugs, and violence. Sex, drugs, and Rock and Roll. I suppose this could be a cautionary tale on the dangers of becoming too Americanized. 

Director Ana Lily Amirpour 
In an interview by Roger Corman, writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour spoke about how the movie was really about her and the loneliness she feels. It is about her Iran as seen by an Iranian expat in America. The setting is a lonely postindustrial living ghost town with a crumbling infrastructure, surrounded by stark desert with ominous oil pumps drawing black liquid from the earth. While great wealth is being made just outside its boundaries, the town doesn't benefit from it. Billboards taunt the citizens with products that few can afford. It seems that all the good has been sucked out of the town. The inhabitants are like ghosts of their former selves – before they became desperate drug addicts and street walkers preyed on by the bottom-feeder pimp/drug dealer. The loneliness is palatable as the characters are isolated by the secrets they keep. The vampire seems to feed on that loneliness.

The story takes a  bittersweet turn when this sad avenging angel vampire searches for some hint of hope for mankind as she follows a street urchin and warns him not to be bad like the other men in the town (or he might be her next feast). She makes a fleeting connection (over a shared love of rock music) with a young man who is trying to hold onto his last vestige of humanity as everything around him tries to suck it out of him. The film shares a similar theme with the, "The Babadook." This unlikely couple finds comfort in the shared connection of accepting their dark side.

Movie blessings! 
Jana Segal 

Friday, April 17, 2015

On the Wrong End of the FOOD CHAIN

I have attended the Arizona International Film Festival for ten years now. I've seen it grow into a world class festival by screening excellent independent films from Tucson and around the world. After watching several fascinating films in 2014, my ever-inquisitive fiancée, Dan Stormont, insisted that we get passes again this year. Thursday we attended the opening night screening of the enthusiastically received local documentary, "Many Bones, One Heart" (by Leslie Ann Epperson) about Tucson's All Souls Procession. Leslie really does Tucson proud! We have already gotten our money's worth in the first weekend of this two week fest.

Dan and I attend numerous films and lectures on the importance of creating a sustainable food system as research for Dan's blog on THE PINEAPPLE PROJECT (a humanitarian project to get agricultural information, such as what grows best in their area, to subsistence farmers so they can be more successful.) So we were glad to see the documentary Food Chains on the festival program.

We were deeply moved by this powerful documentary on how our farm workers are treated in this country. We were shocked to see how little things have changed since 1960 when CBS aired Edward R Murrow's documentary, Harvest of Shame. In this country that Murrow calls "the best fed country in the world," the people who harvest our food are working a brutal 13 hour day, and still aren't making enough to adequately feed and house their families.

This movie shows the courageous efforts of a group of farm workers who are rallying support for "Fair Food." This organization is standing up to grocery store chains demanding that they pay enough to provide workers a living wage and refuse to buy produce from farmers who abuse their workers. What struck me was how easy it would be to correct this problem. If we pay just one cent (one cent!) more per pound for fruits and vegetables, it would double the pay of farm workers from $10,000 to a living wage of $20,000 a year. We just need to create more awareness of the problem. Food Chains does an admirable job explaining one of the most important humanitarian issues of our time. Watch this film to see how you can help. This is doable, folks!  This is one problem we can solve. 

We want to thank the Arizona International Film Festival for creating more awareness. 

Please, help us get the word out by sharing this with your friends! 

Movie blessings! 
Jana Segal 

Dan was inspired to write about it on his blog too! 
by Dan Stormont

On the day after Thanksgiving in 1960, CBS News aired a documentary by Edward R Murrow entitled Harvest of Shame.

It documented the plight of a crew of migrant farm workers in the United States as they worked their way up the east coast from Florida to New Jersey. It showed in painful detail the long hours, hard working conditions, desolate housing, lack of education, and meager incomes earned by the farm workers brought in to harvest the crops. They often went hungry while harvesting the food that graced American families' Thanksgiving tables.

The documentary also addressed some of the causes of the farm workers' situation, like farmers who were being squeezed themselves by the large food producers and distributors who were controlling the price of crops. Farm workers had difficulty organizing to demand better working conditions. The law was rarely on the side of the farm workers. As Murrow noted, "The people you have seen have the strength to harvest your fruit and vegetables. They do not have the strength to influence legislation. Maybe we do."

Nearly 55 years later, things must be better right? In some ways they have improved slightly and there have been some gains (often followed by comparable losses). However, as the recent documentary Food Chains demonstrates, many farm workers are toiling in the fields for long hours while still not earning enough to own a home, save for the future, and care for their children. Far too many are still going hungry while picking the produce we eat. The big food producers, wholesalers, and retailers are still controlling the markets and exploiting farmers and farm workers alike.

Nothing is more important than a sustainable food chain. We all rely on it. But, right now, the food we buy at the supermarket is being harvested by people who are earning below poverty wages. Surely, we can afford one cent more per pound of produce to improve the lives of the people who harvest our food? That's how much it would cost to double the wages of farm cent a pound.

Seek Food Chains out. Watch it. Think about what it is saying and about the human stories being told. Then, take action! Don't buy food at stores that refuse to pay enough for farm workers to make a living. Demand action from your representatives. This isn't's just humanity. And it is ensuring a viable, sustainable food chain for all of us!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

You Can’t Get Rid of the Babadook

In the opening scenes, “The Babadook,” appears to be another child possession thriller with the primary question being whether the child is troubled (a bad seed) or whether supernatural forces are at work. Writer/Director Jennifer Kent masterfully creates a chillingly claustrophobic home atmosphere capable of attracting the family's greatest fear, The Babadook.

While grieving the death of her husband, Amelia (Essie Davis in an Oscar worthy performance) struggles to raise a son with behavioral issues. Since the tragedy, her son Samuel’s (Noah Wiseman) childhood fears have intensified. Checking for monsters under the bed and in the closet has become a nightly ritual. The situation gets worse when a children’s Gothic picture book called, “Mister Babadook,” pops up. Assuming that it is a story about coping with the childhood fear of monsters under the bed, Amelia begins reading it to Samuel. The director takes this familiar domestic scene and infuses it with a sense of dread. It soon becomes evident that there is no happy ending in this bed-time tale. The storybook child doesn't make friends with the monster, but understands that it is here to stay. “If it’s in a word or it's in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook.”

The book unleashes an evil being that only Samuel can see. “I’ll kill the monster when it comes,” he tells his mom, “I’ll smash its head in.” He constructs a crude trebuchet to protect them. As his behavior becomes more erratic and violent, mother and son become isolated from family, friends or any kind of support system. Tired to the bones, Amelia grows seriously depressed, trapped in this impossible situation with a strange child she doesn't understand. The movie breaks an industry taboo by showing the darker side of motherhood – the idea of a mother resenting or disliking her child.

This is particularly unsettling for the mothers in the audience who have been deprived of sleep by a sick or colicky baby. As mothers, we are suppose to put on a brave face for our children. But when you are depressed, you are not thinking rationally. You are barely able to hold it all together. There are times when you are so utterly exhausted that you don’t feel anything, much less love for your screaming, demanding infant. You feel shame because mothers are always supposed to be strong for their children, lovingly sacrificing their own needs to protect them. What makes this horror story groundbreaking is that we get a rare glimpse into the mind of the female protagonist as she is caught in this downward spiral of grief and depression. The tension builds as Amelia, trapped by motherly duty, is pushed beyond her limits, becomes angry and completely loses it. The realization that it can happen to us, makes it all the more harrowing. 

Writer/Director Jennifer Kent
Writer/Director Jennifer Kent shared her objective in making a horror film. “I think where horror excels is when it becomes emotional and visceral. It was never about, ‘Oh I wanna scare people.’ Not at all. I wanted to talk about the need to face the darkness in ourselves and in our lives. That was the core idea for me, to take a woman who’d really run away from a terrible situation for many years and have to face it. The horror is really just a byproduct.”

I was blown away by this film. I left the movie theater still trying to process it. I asked a horror fan in the lobby what he thought of it. He said it wasn't really his kind of horror. I wondered why. Certainly, there weren't the blood and guts of a slasher flick, but there were plenty of jumps and starts. And I felt a lingering sense of dread throughout. He said he preferred things more black and white. Good vs. evil. That was one of the things I liked about it – that it wasn't that simple. It required reflection on the part of the audience. Even the monster’s origin wasn't painted out for us. The horror comes from the tragic situation – how their grief unhinged the little family as they became increasingly isolated.

Kent forgoes shocking violence in lieu of artistry and delving deeper into authentic emotions. She pushes boundaries by showing us the inner world of a female protagonist and cracking open a societal taboo by shining a flashlight on the dark side of motherhood.  She explores the themes of loneliness and isolation and shares how to cope with that isolation by facing our dark side together.

Movie blessings!
Jana Segal 

Look out for my review: "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night," by Ana Lily Amirpour.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Savoring "The Lunchbox"

The Lunchbox” is a breakthrough film for India because it steers clear of the usual showstopper musical numbers and emoting melodrama popular in Bollywood productions. Instead, it delivers a taste of bitter-sweet “slice of life,” spiced with pinches of humor. Multiple layers are delivered in the tiffin lunchbox.

Director/Writer Ritesh Batra started off doing research for a documentary on the Babbawala, the 125 year-old tradition of delivering tiffin lunches from homes and restaurants to the work place. The lunchboxes represent the countless generic Mumbia workers who cram onto trains to commute to their jobs every day. In fact, the lunchboxes make the same commute. Famous for its efficiency, it is said that only one in a million lunchboxes is ever lost. That story is told in, “The Lunchbox.”

Ila (Nimrat Kaur), a lonely housewife, takes her auntie’s advice and recipe (shouted down from the apartment above) to win her husband’s love by sending a very special meal in his lunchbox. When it comes back empty, Ila anxiously awaits his return. When he says that it was OK, that the cauliflower was very good; she realizes that someone else has eaten the meal and sends a note thanking the stranger for the compliment of “licking it clean.” She also sends along her husband’s favorite dish. The lunchbox is delivered to Saajan (Irrfan Khan), a grouchy widower, who only wants to be left alone until his imminent retirement. He uses the excuse of going to lunch to avoid teaching his eager protégé (Nawazuddin Siddiqui). The lunchbox is returned empty with a note saying only that there was too much salt. Auntie (the voice of Bharatic Achekar) isn’t having any of his rudeness, and sends down a basket full of hot chilis to include in the next day’s lunch.

Auntie’s little lesson succeeds in teaching him empathy for others. To relieve his burning mouth, Saajan buys a banana from a street vendor and notices that other employees can only afford a banana for lunch. When he sees that his pesky protégé only has a banana and apple for lunch, he ends up sharing his precious lunch with him.

Is it a miracle or just an error that the lunchbox was delivered to the wrong address? It is certainly a miracle that these two lonely people, lost in the modern world, connect over a good meal and details of their lives scribbled on scraps of paper. The director sets up hints of a miracle with magic realistic flourishes - like the fly that connects their two worlds. In the scene transition, the director cuts from Saajan swatting the pesky fly in the marketplace to Ila swatting one at home.

This same device is used with ceiling fans. Ila tells how Auntie’s husband had been in a coma for 15 years. One day he woke up and started staring at the oriental ceiling fan. Ever since he has stared at that fan all day, every day. He wakes up in the morning and stares at the fan. One day the power goes off causing the fan to stop and uncle’s heart slowed down. Auntie believes it is the fan that keeps him alive, so she has a generator installed that day. As Saajan reads about it, the power goes off at work and all the ceiling fans stop. It is a shared metaphor for being trapped in a meaningless existence. “Uncle Deshpande stares at his fan. My husband stares at his phone as if nothing else exists. Maybe nothing else does.” Saajan writes back that things have changed since her uncle was a worker. “Everyone works so they can have what everyone else does. If Mr. Deshpande woke up and went to work these days, he would go back to his ceiling fan.” 

The rush-hour commute represents how people are too busy working to enjoy the simple pleasures of life. Their motivation flashes by on billboards – like the billboard that honors those who excel at the university. But if you pause to look closer, you will see that the honorees don’t look happy. Everyday, the lunchboxes commute like the workers. This lunchtime ritual is the highlight of their day when workers get a taste of home or at least of the old ways. The miraculous appearance of that special lunch nudges Saajan out of his solitude. His protégé’s expression of pleasure for the wonderful lunches teaches Saajan to appreciate them too. During the crowded train commute, the protégé finds a way to enjoy more time with his girlfriend by cutting the vegetables for their dinner.

When things become unbearable with her distant husband, Ila writes Saajan about moving to a place her daughter heard of in school. She shares her fantasy with Saajan. “In Bhutan everyone is happy. They don’t have Gross Domestic Product, only Gross National Happiness.” Saajan tells his protégé that he is thinking of going to Bhutan, rather than the retirement town of Nasik. His protégé responds that he has only been to Saudi Arabia, but, “Sometimes the wrong train will get you to the right station.”

This time the wrong train delivered “The Lunchbox” to the right station. And it was delicious. 

Movie blessings! 
Jana Segal