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Review: City of Ghosts

The director’s intimate relationships with the RBSS’s heroic journalists help to sustain the film’s undeniable urgency.

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City of Ghosts
Photo: Amazon Studios

The canniest and most overwhelming documentary to date about the ongoing Syrian civil war, Matthew Heineman’s City of Ghosts contrasts the story of a heroic group of citizen journalists with a grim view of the international community they desperately need to galvanize. The city of Raqqa, situated along the Euphrates River, was a hub for citizens seeking shelter from areas still under the control of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in the wake of the 2012 Arab Spring movement. Mere months later, Raqqa was besieged and occupied by a then-nascent ISIS. Were it not for the group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, our sense of ISIS’s aims, methods, and recruiting tactics would be far less complete.

Heineman’s film begins in Manhattan, where RBSS, a small collective of self-trained activists turned journalists, is being honored by the Committee to Protect Journalists. The room is full of merriment that turns to awkward sobriety whenever the journalists are greeted by a wealthy man in a tuxedo. The sense that the West is complicit in its meek response to the complex tangle of atrocities in Syria permeates the film, and Heineman confronts it with a bombardment of horrific imagery and persistent reminders that the members of RBSS live and work under the constant threat of assassination.

City of Ghosts focuses on a handful of the group’s two dozen or so members, all young men who were students and teachers before the 2012 protests began. Pre-Arab Spring Raqqa, under Assad’s thumb, is described in idyllic terms, which seems reductive until the film gets into the news reports that established RBSS as a vital news organization. Covertly filmed videos show a caravan of black cars waving black flags rolling into Raqqa, and subsequently after a string of horrors: public executions and beheadings, recruitment events, and societal restrictions that reduce the city to a disconnected, isolated breeding ground for those willing to pervert their faith in exchange for a depraved type of martyrdom. Comfort, for these journalists, is a relative notion, and RBSS’s success in documenting these events quickly puts them in ISIS’s crosshairs. Many of the group’s members decamp for Turkey and Germany while fostering new sources to capture news and video in Raqqa.

The film excels as it balances the journalists’ personal stories of loss, determination, and life under threat with what essentially becomes a media war. Heineman makes liberal use of ISIS propaganda footage, having the members of RBSS elucidate the terrorists’ use of video-game aesthetics and Hollywood editing techniques, which serve to glamorize a string of increasingly desperate recruitment tactics and suicide missions. Instead of protecting the viewer from this gruesome content, Heineman’s decision to have us watch the journalists watch this footage underlines the film’s moral imperative: It’s far more difficult to become numb to the terror after it’s seen through the eyes of those whose lives have been wrecked by it.

Heineman gradually broadens his focus, moving farther away from Raqqa as the journalists as they’re transitioned from one European safe house to another, tracked by ISIS with means that are alternately sophisticated and barbaric. Meanwhile, the film’s subjects face a mixture of sympathy and disdain from an increasingly polarized West, receiving protection from police and non-profit groups just as they confront a new form of violence from Europe’s burgeoning right-wing movements.

City of Ghosts’s welcome lack of explanatory titles and talking heads only hinders the film in its final act, as Heineman’s efforts to simultaneously stitch a few notes of perfunctory uplift alongside an elliptical dramatization of how ISIS’s campaign has infected global politics fall a bit flat. (According to a recent New York Times feature, there’s reluctant cause for hope in Raqqa, which is primed to be reclaimed by an American-led coalition.) Otherwise, the director’s apparently frank and intimate relationships with the RBSS’s heroic journalists help to sustain City of Ghosts’s undeniable urgency, which culminates in a final image of appropriate, irresolvable anguish.

Director: Matthew Heineman Distributor: Amazon Studios, IFC Films Running Time: 93 min Rating: R Year: 2017 Buy: Video

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Review: The Resonant Tito and the Birds Wants Us to Reject Illusion

The Brazilian animated feature offers relief from the impersonal assault of contemporary pop culture.

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Tito and the Birds
Photo: Shout! Factory

In several ways, Gabriel Bitar, André Catoto, and Gustavo Steinberg’s Tito and the Birds offers relief from the impersonal assault of contemporary pop culture. Instead of the sanitized, disposably “perfect” computer animation that gluts children’s TV shows and films, Tito and the Birds weds digital technology with oil painting, abounding in hallucinatory landscapes that casually morph to reflect the emotions of the narrative’s protagonists. This Brazilian animated feature has the warm, handmade quality of such adventurous modern children’s films as Henry Selick’s Coraline and Mark Osborne’s The Little Prince.

Tito and the Birds’s artisanal tactility is also inherently political, as it invites consumers or consumers-in-training not to mindlessly gobble jokes, plot, and branding opportunities by the yard, but to slow down and contemplate the sensorial experience of what they’re watching. For instance, it can be difficult to recall now that even middling Disney animated films of yore once seemed beautiful, and that the studio’s classics are ecstatic explosions of neurotic emotion. These days, Disney is in the business of packaging hypocritically complacent stories of pseudo-empowerment, which are viscerally dulled by workmanlike aesthetics that deliberately render our consumption painless and unmemorable.

In this climate, the wild artistry of Tito and the Birds amounts to a bucket of necessary cold water for audiences. Throughout the film’s shifting landscapes, one can often discern brushstrokes and congealed globs of paint, which are deliberate imperfections that underscore painting, and by extension animation, as the endeavors of humans. And this emphasis on the humanity of animation underscores the fulfilling nature of collaborative, rational, nurturing community, which is also the theme of the film’s plot.

Like the United States and much of Europe, Brazil is falling under the sway of far-right politics, which sell paranoia as justification for fascism, and for which Tito and the Birds offers a remarkably blunt political allegory. The world of this narrative is gripped by a disease in which people are paralyzed by fright: In terrifying images, we see arms shrinking and eyes growing wide with uncomprehending terror, until the bodies curl up into fleshy, immobile stones that are the size of a large knapsack. Characters are unsure of the cause of the “outbreak,” though the audience can discern the culprit to be the hatred spewing out of a Fox News-like TV channel, which sells an illusion of rampant crime in order to spur people to buy houses in expensive communities that are fenced in by bubbles. Resonantly, the network and real estate are owned by the same rich, blond sociopath.

Ten-year-old Tito (Pedro Henrique) is a bright and sensitive child who’s traumatized by the disappearance of his father, a scientist who sought to build a machine that would reconnect humankind with birds. Like his father, Tito believes that birds can save the world from this outbreak of hatred, and this evocatively free-associative conceit underscores the hostility that far-right parties have toward the environment, which they regard as fodder for hunting grounds, plunder-able resources, and parking lots. In a heartbreakingly beautiful moment, a pigeon, a working-class bird, begins to sing, and its song resuscitates Tito’s friend, also pointedly of a lower class than himself, from a frozen state of fear and hopelessness.

As the birds come to sing their song, the landscapes lighten, suggesting the emotional and cultural transcendence that might occur if we were to turn off our TVs, phones, and laptops more often and do what the recently deceased poet Mary Oliver defined as our “endless and proper work”: pay attention—to ourselves, to others, to the wealth of other life we take for granted and subsequently fail to be inspired by. Inspiration has the potentiality to nullify fear, but it doesn’t sell as many action figures as the frenetic velocity of embitterment and violence.

Cast: Pedro Henrique, Marina Serretiello, Matheus Solano, Enrico Cardoso, Denise Fraga, Matheus Nachtergaele Director: Gabriel Bitar, André Catoto, Gustavo Steinberg Screenwriter: Eduardo Benaim, Gustavo Steinberg Distributor: Shout! Factory Running Time: 73 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: The Invisibles Is an Awkward Combination of Fiction and Documentary

The film doesn’t bring to light otherwise unexplored aspects of the experience or memory of persecution and genocide.

2

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The Invisibles
Photo: Menemsha Films

If Schindler’s List and Shoah represent the opposite ends of a spectrum for cinematic representation of the Holocaust, The Invisibles is at the perfect midpoint between those two extremes, combining intimate interviews with cleanly composed, tightly controlled reenactments of the events discussed therein. But in seeking the precise middle ground between the dreadful beauty of Steven Spielberg’s historical melodrama and Claude Lanzmann’s radical privileging of personal testimony over visual representation of suffering, The Invisibles finds a mediated position that’s also decidedly middle-brow.

The basis of director and co-writer Claus Räfle’s film is archival interviews with Holocaust survivors Cioma Schönhaus, Eugen Friede, Ruth Arndt, and Hanni Lévy, four of the 7,000 Jewish Berliners who hid within the city even after Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels declared it “free of Jews” in 1943. Sheltered by friends, shepherded between members of the limited communist resistance, and in Cioma’s case, maintained in the basement of the Afghan embassy by a network of document forgers, all four managed not only to evade the mass deportations to death camps in Poland, but also to survive the Allies’ incessant late-war bombings of Berlin and the devastating siege of the city that brought an end to the war.

Complementing the subjects’ verbal accounts of their experiences are dramatic reenactments of their lives as “invisibles” in a hostile and dangerous city. Cioma (Max Mauff) is a talented young artist who escapes deportation with his aged parents by forging documents verifying that he’s needed in Berlin as a laborer, eventually managing to eke out a black-market salary from the forgery business. Because his stepfather is a gentile, Eugen (Aaron Altaras) is afforded a bit more time to find a place to hide, ending up masquerading as a cousin to a family of secret Nazi opponents—even occasionally donning a Nazi uniform as part of the act. Ruth and her brother huddle for months with their respective significant others in a single room. And Hanni hides mostly in the open, dying her hair blond and spending her time in the populated commercial area around the famed Kurfürstendamm boulevard.

The four individuals didn’t know each other, and while their stories correspond in certain ways—Ruth and Hanni both adopt disguises, using the omnipresence of mourning women in Berlin to their advantage, whereas Eugen and Cioma must either hide completely or come up with reasons for why they haven’t been called into service—Räfle and co-writer Alejandra López resist staging an arbitrary intersection of the subjects’ lives. While they’re all in the same city, they’re totally isolated, from their families as well as from other young Jews like themselves. “I thought I was the only one,” the real-life Hanni explains as she recounts discovering that 1,500 other young German Jews survived the war in Berlin.

Through its subjects, The Invisibles tells us much about the precarious conditions that they endured during the war, but the staged reenactments show us little that these individuals’ words haven’t already captured. The short bits of drama that Räfle and López compose out of their subjects’ testimony have a cable-documentary quality, both in terms of the excessively neat, stagy sets and the simplicity of the correspondence between the real survivors’ narration and the action depicted. The narrative loosely assembled there has affecting moments—particularly the finale to Ruth’s ordeal, which features a tense confrontation with a Russian soldier—but it never develops its own unique insights or personality.

Missing from the narrativized sections of the film is also a strong sense of environment. We see the cramped corners that the four young people must hide themselves in, but the film is limited in its ability to convey a sense of what Germany’s capital city was like under the constant bombardment that brought an end to the war. Bombings are mentioned but never depicted, except in intermittently deployed archival footage. The Battle of Berlin, when Soviet forces sieged the city and effectively ended World War II, is largely depicted through allusion. The absence of a palpable representation of these events, and of a sense of the city as a whole, is enough to make one wish that the film had simply stuck with the interviews.

The Invisibles’s combination of documentary footage with dramatic conventions doesn’t bring to light otherwise unexplored aspects of the experience or memory of persecution and genocide. The result isn’t a film that manages to craft out of its staged portions a meaningful and evocative portrait of life lived under the constant threat of death, nor one that, like Shoah, gives itself over fully to the harrowing stories of survivors.

Cast: Cioma Schönhaus, Eugen Friede, Ruth Arndt, Hanni Lévy, Max Mauff, Alice Dwyer, Ruby O. Fee, Aaron Altaras Director: Claus Räfle Screenwriter: Claus Räfle, Alejandra López Distributor: Menemsha Films Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2017

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Review: Myth and Reality Are Smartly Tangled in The Kid Who Would Be King

Joe Cornish’s film is vigilant in its positivity and hope for the future at nearly every turn.

3

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The Kid Who Would Be King
Photo: 20th Century Fox

In modern-day London, 12-year-old Alex Elliot (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) is thrust into combating forces both global and intensely personal. Following an animated prologue that briefly recaps the legend of King Arthur, the opening shot of Joe Cornish’s The Kid Who Would Be King pans over a series of newspapers, each with headlines preaching doom and gloom while overlying audio from various news programs informs us of the widespread rise of authoritarian strong men. This is the only direct glimpse we’re given of the current chaos of our political climate, but it looms large over the film’s events as the focus shifts to young Alex, who finds himself with more immediate problems to confront.

At his new school, Alex and his best friend, Bedders (Dean Chaumoo), a goofy but sweet pushover, are quickly targeted by the most notorious bully in the yard, Lance (Tom Taylor), and his loyal minion, Kaye (Rhianna Dorris). Acutely aware of his status as one of the most “insignificant” and “powerless” kids at school, Alex fights back against his tormentors, tackling Lance from behind, only to later be scolded by the school principal (Noma Dumezweni): “The world is not going to change. It’s you who has to change.”

It’s meant as a condemnation of Alex’s violent reaction to aggression, but the woman’s
empty platitude also serves as a motto for the scarcely effective adult leadership in Alex’s life. Indeed, the boy’s principal is incompetent, his father abandoned him as a child, and his mother (Denise Gough), caring as she may be, seems incapable of truly listening to him. Adults have let the world turn to shit and Alex is quickly learning that they’re not particularly well-equipped to protect him or fix the very problems they’ve allowed to fester and multiply.

When Alex soon discovers a sword stuck in concrete, The Kid Who Would Be King shifts gears into a full-on adventure fantasy akin, though never beholden, to ‘80s kids’ adventure films like The Goonies and The Neverending Story. Cornish layers familiar forms with new meanings, amending an age-old tale to directly address the perilous and uncertain future that today’s youth must face. In doing so, the director’s postmodern re-imagining of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table retains a refreshing earnestness in both its unwavering sincerity and commitment to lending its characters an affecting emotional vulnerability.

The film’s humor doesn’t stem from ironically mocking stodgy, centuries-old mythology, but from richly rewarding character details mined from children grappling with an increasingly terrifying world. Cornish retains the framework of Arthurian legend while connecting its themes to the struggle of the disenfranchised to forge bonds with their equally oppressed enemies. In The Kid Who Would Be King, the myth of King Arthur becomes entangled with reality—and a catalyst for self-actualization. Here, adventure empowers Alex and his friends to apply lessons from the past to the challenges that await them moving forward.

As Alex and Bedders discover the responsibilities they must shoulder as a result of Alex pulling Excalibur from the stone, the two convince their former foes, Lance and Kaye, to help them take on the fiery skeletons on horseback that arise from the underworld under the command of the evil Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson). Along with the extremely verbose and awkward Merlin (played by the hysterically precocious Angus Imrie in his 16-year-old form and by Patrick Stewart whenever the magician is in his dotage), the group sets out across England to find the portal that will take them to Morgana. But even as the group battles Morgana’s demons along the way, they continue to struggle with the ever-present fears and insecurities of adolescence.

In one of many inventive grace notes, Cornish has all of London’s adults vanish at night whenever Morgana’s army arises, leaving the kids to literally fend for themselves as they adapt to their newfound roles as both protectors and shapers of the future. And despite its relatively bleak view of the present, The Kid Who Would Be King is vigilant in its positivity and hope for the future at nearly every turn. Cornish’s film meets a world full of bullies, thieves, and malevolence with a warmth and pureness of heart that’s evident in everything from the inclusivity of its casting and its offbeat sense of humor to its thrilling, galvanizing finale, which sees Alex’s entire school takes up arms in an epic battle against Morgana.

Cast: Louis Ashbourne Serkis, Dean Chaumoo, Tom Taylor, Rhianna Dorris, Angus Imrie, Rebecca Ferguson, Patrick Stewart, Denise Gough Director: Joe Cornish Screenwriter: Joe Cornish Distributor: 20th Century Fox Running Time: 120 min Rating: PG Year: 2019

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