Two of the best films that we've watched so far deal with the topic of school, in relation to bullying and nasty rumours:
THE TEACHERS' LOUNGE is the International Feature submission for GERMANY. Director Ilker Catak’s latest film is a physiological warfare set in a classroom led by teacher, Carla Nowak. The film is set in a school where the've been having problems with theft and the other teachers and staff have reached their limit. They think it’s one of the students in Ms. Nowak’s class. This powerful film touches the themes of authority, power, justice, judgement and truth. What starts out as a story about theft turns into something bigger. The Teachers’ Lounge isn’t a film to find out who committed the crime. It isn’t a film to find out who’s innocent or guilty. It’s about the actions of people and the spiralling effects that it has on everyone it reaches. In this situation, if what happened in the teachers’ lounge actually stayed in the teachers’ lounge, things could've been resolved. But as things go, rumours have a way of branching out so that eventually it reaches everyone, in this case the students, the teachers, the staff and the parents. Everyone has their own opinions. Everyone has their own versions of the truth. And more importantly, everyone is convinced that they are right. This begins a cycle of lots of talk while nothing is being said. Questions remain unanswered and everyone involved is angry about the unsatisfactory resolution to the problem. Despite having the best intentions, some situations are practically impossible to resolve.
EXCURSION is the International Feature submission from BOSNIA. Director Una Gunjak latest film is about a young girl named Iman, who’s in the eighth grade. Seeking acceptance from her classmates, during a game of “truth or dare,” Iman lies to her peers that she’s had sex with an older boy named Damir. Iman is a young woman trying desperately to find her identity. In her world, and in the world of teenagers, the way they see themselves is going to be shaped in part by how others see them. While her other classmates seem to have a more solid understanding of who they are as people, Iman is at a loss. She fabricates a story in the hopes of winning their respect. She thinks that announcing to everyone that she’s had sex will make her cool, that it’ll make her seem more important. But one of the more concerning experiences during adolescence is the tendency for rumours to spread, quickly. A lie, which may feel small at first, can spread rapidly amongst ones peers. And once a rumour starts spreading, the widespread effect that it can cause is insurmountable. These effects can fester and derail a young person’s entire life to the point where they lose whatever self worth and whatever self confidence they had to begin with.
(Bosnia - Excursion)
There are three films that are dark, violent, extremely important and some of the best, if not, the best films we've seen so far:
BLAGA'S LESSONS is the International Feature submission from BULGARIA. Starring the incredible Eli Skorcheva, the film is about a 70 year old retired literature professor from Shumen named Blaga. One day, Blaga receives a frantic phone call from a police officer stating that she’s in danger of getting robbed by a group of highly skilled scammers. The officer insists that if she cooperates, they will be able to arrest the culprit red-handed. Blaga must take all her money, put it in a bag, and throw it over the balcony. She does as she’s told. Little does she know that she’s been scammed. She’s lost all her cash and now she has nothing. Blaga must now figure out who to do next, and she’s desperate and alone. Anchored by an astounding performance and driven by a sense of bleak honesty, Blaga’s Lessons is a fascinating psychological drama about a woman who’s been violated, about a woman who’s entire life has changed because of one incident, about a woman who’s lost everything but not her willingness to fight back. Blaga goes to extreme measures to ensure her own survival, in a country where day to day life is hard. It’s a powerful exploration of desperation and the impact that it has on one’s well-being, both physically and mentally.
THE SETTLERS is the International Feature submission for CHILE. The film takes place in Tierra del Fuego, in the southernmost point of Chile and Argentina in 1901. The entire land is owned by Jose Menendez. With the help of dozens of men, he’s been building fences across his entire property in order to protect his sheep from any intruders. Despite his efforts, his sheep keep getting attacked by the Indigenous people who have lived on this land their entire life. In retaliation, Menendez hires Alexander MacLennan, a Scottish war veteran, Bill, a ruthless “Indigenous tracker,” and Segundo, a local from the area, to secure a safe route from his land to the Atlantic Ocean for his sheep. The three men begin their journey to the vast and expansive unknown. Their search to cleanse the island has begun. The film showcases some of the darkest parts of Chile and Argentina’s past. The unimaginable bloodshed that was done to these people lasted for decades as the population dwindled from thousands in the late 1800s to less than 500 in the early 1900s. The Indigenous men and women were tortured, raped and exterminated. The Settlers tells one story, one colonization, one part of a bloody history. The epilogue is such a tragic, gut-punching ending and such a perfect way to solidify the message of the film and the impact that it's caused for thousands of people.
BEHIND THE HAYSTACKS is the International Feature submission for GREECE. Around December 2015, Germany closed its borders to the refugees. Shortly after, Austria, Hungary, Slovenia and other countries followed. This left around 17,000 refugees, mostly Syrians, trapped for weeks in a makeshift camp between Greece and North Macedonia by the Doiran Lake. This film focuses on a family of three who were swept under the tragic circumstances during this time. The father, Stergios is a co-op farm worker and fisherman. His wife Maria works as a volunteer for the local church and their daughter Anastasia is training to be a nurse at the local hospital. Divided into three sections, dedicating each segment to every member of the family, Behind the Haystacks examines the repercussions of a single, tragic event and the ripple effects that it has across an entire community. This family, and many other families, got entangled in a disastrous human-smuggling ring. The film displays how easy it is for people to turn into the criminal world and for them to consider the costs of their actions for the first time. It further showcases how everyday people, mostly good people, became trapped in corrupt systems and societies. This is their response towards hypocrisy and morality.
(Bulgaria - Blaga's Lessons)
We have two incredible documentaries directed about women, one about the fall of ISIS and the other about women who disclose their personal lives inside a sauna:
ROJEK is the International Feature submission for CANADA. Directed by Zayne Akyol, this documentary takes place after the Syrian Democratic Force, along with the Global Coalition, have succeeded in dislodging the Islamic State (ISIS) from their last stronghold in Syria. Since then, several thousand jihadists have been detained in prisons, while their wives and children are held in camps. The film introduces us to a dozen ISIS soldiers as they answer questions based on their own experiences with the war. They speak like prisoners, sitting in front of a camera, talking about their nostalgia, their disappointments, their remorse, their betrayal, their anger, their fear. They believe that they’re in a fight against all disbelievers of their religion, as they’re convinced that they’re doing what the Prophet did many years ago. This is their story. The film is direct, focused and uncompromising. It allows the ISIS jihadists to demonstrate their humanity and their emotions. It doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable conversations or points of view. Rojek showcases each interviewer and allows them to express themselves without holding back or making them feel ashamed for thinking differently. This is their life. This is their experiences with the rise and fall of the Islamic State.
SMOKE SAUNA SISTERHOOD is the International Feature submission for ESTONIA. The latest documentary from Anna Hints is a film focused on a small group of women who disclose their secrets and fears to one another inside a smoke sauna. This safe space is sacred and it’s a place where these women are open to all conversations and feelings. These nameless subjects bond over topics such as family expectations, sexuality, maternal labour, dating, trauma and sexual abuse. The sauna is a space of community for these women. And in this safe place, they share their pain, hopes and regrets, and their ability for healing. Through water and smoke, the sauna activates tenderness and catharsis between these women, creating a sense of care from one woman to another. The sauna cleanses them. It exalts them both inside and out. Smoke Sauna Sisterhood is an ode to the female body and a celebration of stories between women. The film is framed in a way that every body part is shown: arms, legs, stomach folds, breasts, and body shapes from every size, and they’re photographed with affection. The film feels so liberating and safe. It doesn’t objectify. The camera allows privacy when it’s warranted. And it’s incredible how joyous this film can feel despite feeling so mournful at the same time.
(Canada - Rojek)
We have three films that deal head on with domestic violence, parents being in jail, and the effects that it has on the rest of the family:
SHAYDA is the International Feature submission for AUSTRALIA. The film is about Shayda, a wife and mother who has to come to Australia from Iran with her husband, Hossein, and daughter, Mona. Hossein is studying at the university on a scholarship to become a doctor. When Hossein’s possessiveness spills over into physical violence, Shayda and Mona flee their home and take refuge at a women’s shelter. Shayda though is in a tricky situation as she begins the legal custody battle against her husband. She knows her husband will never grant her a divorce. She also knows that he can abduct Mona at anytime and flee back to Iran and she can’t do anything about it. As the Australian courts grant her abusive husband visitation rights once a week on Saturdays, her entire world comes crashing down as she's forced to face Hossein face to face. Shayda lays bare the stress, frustration, and pain of being a woman trying to navigate multiple systems that seem to favour men over women. The film doesn’t focus on the gruesome events that led to Shayda and Mona fleeing to the shelter, but it focuses on the aftermath. And sadly, we see the ways in which law enforcement and the legal system are unequipped to support women in dangerous situations.
THE VISITOR is the International Feature submission for BOLIVIA. After serving a three year prison sentence for an undisclosed crime, that seemed to have been spawned by his alcoholism, Humberto returns to his hometown hoping to rebuild his relationship with his teenage daughter Aleida. His daughter has been living with his wife’s wealthy parents, Carlos and Elizabeth, who are the popular leaders of an evangelical church. As Humberto talks to a lawyer hoping to regain full custody of Aleida, he quickly realizes that he’s not in a position to do so. He first needs to reestablish himself again by finding a job, earning a solid income, and finding a house for the two of them. As a result, he is forced to submit himself to all the demands that Carlos and Elizabeth throw at him, even if it’s humiliating like attending the congregation and having to confess his sins in front of the entire church. Humberto’s journey has just begun. Some people have bad days and some people have bad years. Some people choose alcohol, while others choose drugs. But it’s never too late to get it right. Unfortunately, some individuals never regain the trust back from their loved ones. And even worse, some people, like Humberto, are never granted the opportunity for redemption because they aren’t given the chance from their own family, let alone strangers, even if they’re fighting and clawing their way to become a better person. In the end, they feel like a visitor.
A MALE is the International Feature submission for COLOMBIA. It’s the directorial debut for Fabian Hernandez and his film is about a 16 year old boy named Carlos who is temporarily living in a homeless shelter in Bogota. His mother is in jail and his sister is a prostitute so he dreams for the day when the three of them can be reunited again and to live like a family. In the meantime, Carlos begins working with a new gang by selling drugs and cigarettes to the other men living in the shelter. He tries to act tough in front of everyone, to be a man, to hide his emotions because “men don’t cry” but deep down inside he is scared and lonely and hiding his true self. It’s the only way to survive under these circumstances. As he gets more and more involved with his gang members, Carlos is forced to make a life changing decision. Carlos has a desire to be his true self, but every time he goes out on the street, his inner self is forced to adapt to a machismo culture that relies on homophobia, violence and rituals that are inevitably linked to crime. “The streets shape you and make you into a bad person.” Carlos cries alone, he expresses his sexuality alone, he faces life altering choices alone. A man is so much more than the image they’re forced to portray on the outside, and the outcome is the loss of one’s self.
(Bolivia - The Visitor)
The natural world around us, and the need to protect it, are the key topics in these two films, one if them being animated:
FOUR SOULS OF COYOTE is the International Feature submission from HUNGARY. This incredibly well done animated film is an environmental parable that merges together a present day story of an oil pipeline protest with a beautiful story of creation. The film is an ode to the importance of humans living together with the natural world. The film begins right at the start of the world, where there’s nothing but water and sand. And the creator and a duck. Once mud is discovered, the creator is able to construct a fresh new world, beginning with grass, plants and the trees. Slowly animals begin to emerge. Houses are formed and life is perfect. But, one night, when the creator has a dream, he creates a coyote made with four souls, four lives. This coyote is a combination of arrogance, greed, gluttony, lust and envy. When the coyote steals the “magical” mud from the creator and shapes two little humans it leads to the appearance of death, of murder for food, the cycles of the seasons and reproduction. Humans are now part of the world and nothing will remain the same. Four Souls of Coyote is a fascinating new take on the myth of creation. Here, humankind is simply one of the creatures of the earth, with no more importance than any other animal. Here they live harmoniously as one, living of the earth’s resources and working together to build a world that works. Life is so very good here. But, with the coyote always in the background looking for trouble, the world will eventually lead to the mess that humans have created in the present day.
MELODY is the International Feature submission for TAJIKISTAN. Written and directed by Behrouz Sebt Rasoul, the film takes place in a care centre for children with cancer. The thirty children who are patients at this facility have asked their teacher, Melody, to compose a musical piece using the sounds of thirty different birds. In order to finish this project, she goes back to her home village to record the birds living in that area. As Melody’s reunited with her mute caretaker, Mango, of their family home, they both work together to record twenty birds. Struggling to find the remaining ten, they seek out an old villager who lives alone in a remote part of her hometown. They need his help to find the remaining birds in order to finish the composition that her students so desperately want to hear. But along that journey, Melody begins to learn a life long lesson. As the film progresses, it delicately portrays being one with nature. It gives us an immediate feeling of peace and calm. It involves letting ourselves become absorbed with the natural world. Nature can be a place where we can sit and reflect on life’s meaning, away from the distractions and demands of our regular lives. It allows for us to hear birds, even the most difficult ones to find, in order to create an eternal melody, not only from their voices, but to understand what goes on inside them.
(Hungary - Four Souls of Coyote)
Family drama, family deaths, family tension, parents versus siblings are all part of the drama in these four films:
TRACES is the International Feature submission for CROATIA. This subtle, quiet film is about a woman named Ana who lives with her father in Zagreb. They’re the last two remaining members of what used to be a large family. Ana is a doctor of anthropology and she is writing her latest book about local burial customs. She is especially interested in the practice of mirila, in which a measurement of the deceased is taken by using two stones, one at the head and one at the feet. Each headstone is decorated with a unique personal symbol. When her father passes away, Ana is left alone having to deal with her own loneliness, her own feelings and her own grief. She decides to head back to her childhood home in hopes that a different scenery will bring back happier memories and will help her clear her mind and restart her life. This also gives her an opportunity to further study the practice of mirila. For Ana, now completely alone, she finds solitude in delving head on in these burial customs. It brings her back to her happy childhood, her loving family, and a beautiful past. As she begins to forge ahead with her life, she begins to see these signs all around Zagreb and not just in the mountains. They’re a constant reminder of her lost family. But it also gives her comfort knowing that they’re all around her forever.
THE ERECTION OF TORIBIO BARDELLI is the International Feature submission for PERU. This dark comedy is about a father, Toribio, and his three children, Luz, Sara and Silvester. Toribio’s wife has just passed away and the remaining members of the family are left trying to figure out the next steps of their lives. The film revolves around each member of this family, their individual pain, their individual struggles, and their search for a better future. For Toribio, his need for sexual relief comes from learning that his wife was unfaithful to him for numerous years. With photos of her found in every room, Toribio is trying to assert control again and to rediscover his masculinity and self-worth. This is part of his healing. For Luz, Sara and Silvester, each one of them is suffering from the loss of their mother and they’re each handling it in different ways. One is drinking heavier. One is making poor decisions at work, while another is mishandling situations. This is their healing process. When losing a loved one, like a mother and a wife, people begin to question the purpose for living. This kind of contemplation can often lead to a real sense of loneliness and fear. It leads to the inevitability of fearing ones own death. It can be painful and anxiety-provoking. But mourning is part of the natural process in accepting a major loss. Grief is an experience that everyone will go through and therefore it can be a shared experience, with the right support, like it is for the Bardelli family. Despite all of them faltering at the moment, they're all just human beings facing the uncertainties of life.
SWEET DREAMS is the International Feature submission from the NETHERLANDS. The film takes place in the Dutch East Indies in the early 1900s. This is around the time where the Dutch begin to lose their grip on numerous territories that they controlled for over a century. Indonesia was one of them. Jan, the owner of the estate, runs a large sugar plantation on the island while frequently having sex with one of his servants, Siti. They both have a child together named Karel. When Jan passes away suddenly, his wife Agathe sends for her son Cornelis and his wife Josefien to come to the island due to all of the unrest that’s been happening lately. Cornelis wants to sell off the fields and the estate as quickly as possible so that they can return back to Europe, contrary to Agathe’s wishes. But, there’s a problem: Jan has left the entire property to his son Karel. Sweet Dreams is a film on the verge of total eruption of violence between all of the characters. Some of the family members want to stay on the island, while others want to leave. The normal rules don’t apply here, according to Cornelis. With the mosquitoes lingering and the heat and humidity overpowering, the sense of doom is imminent. With so many options available, and with so many people wanting different things, Sweet Dreams highlights the chaotic turbulence that existed during this time.
MARRY MY DEAD BODY is the International Feature submission for TAIWAN. Cheng Wai-Hao’s latest film is about a homophobic police officer, Ming-Han, who accidentally picks up a red envelope after the end of high-speed car pursuit of a wanted drug dealer. This envelope belongs to the grandmother of her grandson Mao Mao. He died unexpectedly from a car accident after an altercation with his father. Mao Mao always wanted to get married, and so Mao Mao’s grandmother comes up with the idea of a ghost marriage, and the bride would be the owner of the red envelope. After a string of bad luck, Ming-Han reluctantly agrees to the wedding. Together, the newlyweds begin an adventure to solving his latest police investigation, but to also find out who was responsible for the hit and run that ended Mao Mao’s life. This is the only way that he can finally be at peace and to be reincarnated. Marry My Dead Body is a wholesome film. It’s heartwarming, bittersweet, at times soul crushing and very tender underneath all of the comedic aspects to it. It's campy and hilarious, with supernatural and crime elements. But the heavy moments of drama is where the film succeeds. It’s the humane part of the film. And those special moments of acceptance, love, grief, forgiveness, resulting in a new outlook on life are the best parts.
(Netherlands - Sweet Dreams)
We have two coming of age stories about best friends, who come to terms with their past, but also with their future:
THUNDER is the International Feature submission for SWITZERLAND. Written and directed by Carmen Jaquier, the film is set in the summer of the 1900s in a small Swiss town in southern Switzerland. Elisabeth, who’s now 17, has been living in a convent for the past five years. Upon learning about the sudden death of her older sister, Innocente, she returns back to her family farm to help with the household chores and to find out what happened with her sister’s disappearance. As Elisabeth slowly begins to discover more about Innocente and her life and death, she reunites with boys from her childhood which will awaken new desires within her, and as a result put her at odds with her devout faith and strict upbringings. Thunder is a gorgeous film which explores heavy themes of sexual repression, religious trauma, and the clash of faith and desire. The film is extremely claustrophobic and intimate. It’s both radiant and catastrophic. It’s both pleasure and pain. It’s a highly uncomfortable, yet remarkable story, of a teenage girl’s exploration of herself despite society forcing her to conform.
RIDERS is the International Feature submission for SLOVENIA. Inspired by the VHS of “Easy Rider,” two best friends, Tomaz and Anton, live in a small village in Northeastern Slovenia, in the spring of 1999. Tomaz works at a machinery workshop while spending his free time at Church with his mother. Anton, who works at a mailroom, is constantly getting into trouble in his home and in his job. Both of them grew up fatherless, with Tomaz’ father passing away when he was young and Anton never having one. After getting fired from his job, Anton discovers a VHS tape about two bikeriders who travel through the American Southwest. He convinces Tomaz to go on a weekend road trip to Ljubljana. After upgrading their mopeds, their journey begins. For Tomaz, this trip represents an opportunity to discover the world, while for Anton it’s a chance for a fresh new start, away from his abusive step-dad and negligent mother. For the two of them, it’s an attempt at freedom.
(Switzerland - Thunder)
A weakened economy and the effects of a crumbling society come into full force with these two films:
DO NOT EXPECT TOO MUCH OF THE END OF THE WORLD is the International Feature submission from ROMANIA. Radu Jude’s latest film follows a young, overworked woman, Angela, who works as a production assistant. Her latest assignment is to audition workplace victims for a commercial about workplace safety. Tired from working 16 hours shifts, Angela wakes up at 5:50am to start another long day at work. Her boss has arranged for her into interviewing four blue collar workers who have experienced workplace accidents. She interviews a man who lost some of his fingers in a freak accident. Another man lost half his face. One woman broke her spine following a terrible fall. And another man got hit in the back of the head with a metal pole. Between getting stuck in traffic, getting into road rage with other drivers, running late for meetings, dozing off while driving, the films follows Angela’s endlessly never ending day, all the while not getting paid. The film touches on labour, exploitation, death, and a failing economy. Part comedy, part road movie, part montage, the film is not harrowing and beautiful, but humorous and bitter. The film, without any shame, eviscerates a number of zeitgeist issues such as corporate greed, globalism, and the toxicity of social media.
THE BURDENED is the International Feature submission from YEMEN. The film takes place in Aden, in October 2019, and it’s about a family of five: Ahmed and Isra’a, and their three children. The country is still embroiled in a war that’s been going on since 2014. Salaries aren’t getting paid, including for Ahmed who hasn’t been paid in over two months. Schools are shut down. The economic struggles are affecting everyone. And to add to the burden, Isra’a has just found out that she’s pregnant with a fourth child. A child that they can’t afford. Due to the civil war, prices have tripled in the last few months, while everyone’s salary has remained the same. In order to cope with the financial stress, Ahmed has taken a second job as a bus driver. The family has also been forced to downgrade from their beachfront apartment to a run down basement in the city centre. Ahmed and Isra’a have also decided to have an abortion. The film is about the struggle for survival. It’s about the mundane aspects of daily life, like having food, like having water, like having electricity, like having a place to sleep at night. It’s a brutally honest representation of the quiet pain and exhaustion of a family making their way through a chaotic landscape and trying to do something that will make life just a little less difficult.
(Yemen - The Burdened)
Now of these 20 films, there’s a chance that perhaps three or four of them will make the shortlist. In this first stage of voting, the films with the most buzz, and the films that debut in high prestigious festivals like Cannes, Toronto and Venice usually end up getting shortlisted. If we had to pick three, and this is solely based on who we think will be nominated, we would single out the following:
The Teachers' Lounge - This film feels like the safest bet to be shortlisted because Germany is always a contender. After having won the Oscars last year, Academy voters will be paying attention to their next submitted film. And their submission this year is good, really good.
The Settlers - This film has everything going for it. It debuted to rave reviews at Cannes. It has some of the highest critic scores of the year and it has been picked up by Mubi. The film is dark and violent that might detract some voters but we feel like it's strong enough to still make the shortlisted top 15.
Shayda - This was a hard one to choose between so many other options. The reason why we feel like this one has a slight advantage is because Cate Blanchett's name is attached to the film and because Zar Amir Ebrahimi is back after her incredible performance in Holy Spider this year.
In a perfect world, Blaga's Lessons (Bulgaria), Excursion (Bosnia), and Smoke Sauna Sisterhood (Estonia) would also be serious contenders to be shortlisted.
Let’s see what the next 20 films have to bring - we’re only getting started.