Two of the best films that we've watched so far deal with the horrors of war. One shows the atrocities committed in Ukraine front and centre, while the other doesn't show anything about Auschwitz, but instead focuses on a loving Nazi family.
20 DAYS IN MARIUPOL is the International Feature submission for UKRAINE. This film begins in February 24th, 2022. Vladimir Putin announces that a “special military operation” in “self-defence” was starting due to threats that Ukraine might attack Russia. Mstyslav Chernov, and two of his colleagues, photographer Evgeniy Maloletka and producer Vasilisa Stepanenko decide to head to Mariupol, knowing full well that this key port, just 30 miles from the enemy border would be Russia’s first target. They were right, within hours, bombs begin to fall and this documentary showcases the next twenty days in the city. There aren’t enough trigger warnings to prepare someone for what’s to come in this unflinching, never compromising documentary. From its opening frame, the film doesn’t shy away from the most harrowing scenes, including graphic depictions of violence, bloody deaths, and the aftermath of destruction. 20 Days in Mariupol gives one a sense of life during wartime that isn’t an abstraction. It conveys the true cost of armed conflict and the human lives that it swallows along the way. Lives are shattered as family members are killed, homes destroyed, neighbourhoods blown away, and hope gone.
THE ZONE OF INTEREST is the International Feature submission for the UNITED KINGDOM. The film takes place around 1943 and it’s about a German family: Rudolf, a long-serving commandant, his wife Hedwig and their five children. They live in a large country house, impeccably maintained by a handful of Jewish women, with a beautiful garden and right by a lake, where they frequently spend their time to relax. This could be any loving, ordinary German family. But they’re not. Right next door is the Auschwitz concentration and extermination camp. The signs of horror are subtle yet always constant. The black smoke in the distant is always present. There’s ash in the lake. Gun shots are frequently heard, followed by screams. At night, the redness of the gas chambers glow. This is the place where more than one million Jews were murdered, tortured and forced into the most inhumane forced labour. But it’s never shown. Instead, Rudolf and Hedwig, and their children enjoy lavish parties. They spend time gardening their plants. They have business meetings and lunch gatherings with their friends. This is their dream home and they’re happy here. The film is a meditation on evil. It gives us a different perception on what evil can look like. And the scary part about it is that it looks very familiar.
(Austria - Vera)
These next two films are about two hopeful women who are about to start a new relationship with a man, both are cautiously optimistic, but life isn't always so easy.
FALLEN LEAVES is the International Feature submission for FINLAND. The film is about Ansa and Holappa, two lost souls in Helsinki who live simple lives and who are struggling to make ends meet. Ansa currently works at a supermarket but she’s fired when she steals expired food. Holappa struggles to stay sober long enough to get through an entire shift at work. Like Ansa, he is also fired. As both of them try to rebound to find new jobs, they meet by chance at a karaoke bar. It’s love at first sight. The film dances around the love of these two lonely people, who are both struggling to stay afloat in an expensive city like Helsinki. Ansa and Holappa search for warmth, within each other, and the light in the darkness. Life doesn’t have to be so bleak just as long as one can escape it and find comfort in the things that one enjoys the most. It is a comedy that is sweet without ever tipping into sentimentality. It is a romance between two lonely people who, for a time, appear to have no hope of finding happiness. It is, occasionally, a musical. It is, at time, a sobering reminder of the war in Ukraine, as heard throughout the radios in Helsinki. And, most importantly, it’s a film about alcoholism and the dangers of it.
VERA is the International Feature submission for AUSTRIA. Playing herself as the lead role, Vera Gemma is struggling to find her own identity as the daughter of a famous actor. She grew up in a household where the idea of being beautiful is the most important thing in life. The film follows her life, going to high end parties, red carpet events, movie auditions, dressed perfectly and being driven around by a driver. Being the offspring of a famous actor has made her life seemingly comfortable and has opened the door for many opportunities, but at the same time it’s closed just as many. She thinks her dad destroyed her relationship with men, as her latest director boyfriend, just like all her previous relationships, is just using her for connections and money. This all changes though, when one day her driver accidentally hits an eight year old boy Manuel, which causes him to break his arm. She feels a sense of responsibility for the injury and she begins to form a bond with the son’s father and his grandmother. Vera is a story about a beautiful woman who so desperately wants to find a decent relationship with a man, any man. It’s about the exploration of being a child of nepotism and trying to find one’s own identity. It’s about the cruel beauty standards that our society inflicts upon ourselves and the pressure to keep up with one’s appearances. Vera knows that the most important thing is to be happy within oneself, no matter where you are in life, and not with material possessions. But it's a daily struggle to be happy.
(Sweden - Opponent)
These next three films are about extremely complicated family dynamics, all of them struggling in different ways to keeping their family afloat.
OPPONENT is the International Feature submission for SWEDEN. After a fellow wrestling teammate starts a damaging rumour about Iman, he is forced to flee Iran immediately along with his wife, Maryam, and his two daughters. They end up in a small, cold Swedish town near the Finnish border. After two agonizing years of waiting on their asylum application, the family of four are constantly being shuffled from one refugee housing apartment to the next, while Iman works as a pizza delivery man to make ends meet. When Maryam finds out that she’s pregnant with their third child, they hope that this will help them get residency in this new country. And to further help their application, a translator friend suggests that Iman should start competing again in wrestling for Sweden, after being part of the Iranian national team at the Rio Olympics. Maryam strongly opposes this decision, as wrestling is the reason why they had to flee Tehran, but nothing will stop him from re-joining the sport. Much of Opponent plays out like a wrestling match, with the married couple grappling for an advantage, with often blocking and locking each other’s movements. Likewise, the push and pull within Iman and his family are shown as they slowly become accustomed to unfamiliar freedoms, like drinking at parties, smoking a joint, and getting lost on the dance floor. Life is different in Sweden and the jostling for acceptance of this new life, this new country, this new reality is always on the forefront of their minds.
SEVEN BLESSINGS is the International Feature submission for ISRAEL. The film is about Marie, who has been living in France for years and has created a successful life there, including finding love. She has come home to Israel to marry her French-Jewish fiancé, Dan. She hasn’t seen her Moroccan-Israeli family for over 10 years. The wedding is beautiful, extravagant, and everyone appears to be happy, but something just isn’t right. The wedding is followed by Seven Blessings. These blessings are celebratory meals, honouring the bride for every night of the week. Different family members host the happily married couple preparing lavish dinners. Marie’s brother hosts the first night. The next day Marie’s mother, then her sister, then her other sister, and so on, until seven dinners have been blessed. As the days go by, there are moments of joy, but they are also overshadowed by a tense, usually angry conversations about the past. The reason being, is that Marie was given away as a two-year old to her aunt, ripping her apart from the home she knew and away from her siblings. This formidable ensemble of actors in the film showcase the psychological trauma that was caused due to this decision. It’s heartbreaking to see Marie listen to stories of her sibling’s childhood. The missed memories she lost. The feeling of loneliness and not fitting in with the family. The decision to leave everyone and everything behind to start a new life in a foreign country.
HOUSEKEEPING FOR BEGINNERS is the International Feature submission for NORTH MACEDONIA. Dita’s house is chaotic. She owns a house in Skopje, which is shared with her partner Suada, and her two daughters Vanesa and Mia. They’re not the only ones living in the house. Dita’s best friend Toni, along with his new boy Ali, and three other lesbians have found this place to be home for them. It’s a full house, a loud house, with different conversations happening at the same time, and someone fighting with one another at any given time. Suada has terminal cancer, and her prognosis isn’t a good one. She doesn’t have much time left so she begs Dita to take care of her daughters when she’s gone. She knows that with their fathers not in the picture, her children will end up in a very vulnerable situation. After much convincing, Dita accepts the request and after Suada passes away, Toni is enlisted to register as the girls’ legal father, protecting them from homophobic legalities. Dita and Toni though aren’t the most parentally inclined people. They’re now forced to merge this new family into one, but Mia, and especially Vanesa are dealing with a loss of a mother and being newfound orphans.
(Israel - Seven Blessings)
Revenge, seeking for a better life, and violence, lots of violence are driven in these two films set in the 1700s and 1800s.
THE PROMISED LAND is the International Feature submission for DENMARK. Set in the 18th century, the king has been trying to turn and develop the wild heath of Jutland into a productive, prosperous and tax-paying territory of the kingdom. In 1755, Ludwig Kahlen has come up with an idea of how to upstart this wild territory and after much convincing, the Royal Treasury agree to let him attempt to do the impossible. All he wants in return is to become a noble, own an estate, and have servants. Ludwig is the illegitimate son of a maid and her master. And his determination is driven by earning himself a proper title and a glorious home. This drive sets him off for Jutland, and the harsh environment that awaits him. This classic Scandinavian drama is about human frailty. It is also a deep-etched picture of a vicious past where the poor had no rights and were subject to the unjust laws of the people in power. The rich could do whatever they wanted from raping their servants, from killing workers, from claiming land, to changing the laws so that it benefited them entirely. They would only get richer, while the poor got poorer. Ludwig is so hard headed in his mission to get his dreams fulfilled that he slowly begins to perpetuate the chaos around him. He squashes his relationships with his newfound family in Jutland. He unintentionally has his workers killed. He prolongs his battle with Frederik. And all of it for the sake of fortune. Is it all worth it in the end?
THE LAST ASHES is the International Feature submission for LUXEMBOURG. The film begins in Luxembourg in 1838. Under Dutch occupation, and due to war and famine, one quarter of the population has been killed. The Graff family reigns in the north in a remote castle. The people that live there are taken care off, but they are under strict rules and must make sacrifices in order to remain alive. Helene, a young girl, refuses to follow the customs of the castle, so her parents decide to leave despite the risks of the outside world. Immediately after leaving the walls of the fortress, Helene’s parents are killed by the Graff family, and Helene is left for dead. The film resumes 15 years later. Luxembourg is now free from foreign occupation. The Graff family are still the undisputed leaders of their fortified village, but they’re slowly weakening. And because of that, Helene has decided to return back to the north to exact revenge on the family that destroyed hers. The journey she’s about to experience is nothing like what she could’ve ever imagined. When everything has been ripped apart from you, as a child, and you’re forced to re-start and re-build your life again from nothing, seeking revenge becomes a form of motivation to be stronger, to be better, to make yourself whole again. Human atrocities has been a part of society since the beginning. For Helene, it’s all she’s ever known. Waiting for the exact moment to seek vengeance for all the death that’s happened to your community becomes the only thing that matters to you. And it becomes a reality that death awaits us all.
(Denmark - The Promised Land)
One tragic event changes the rest of the lives of the individuals in these three films.
FOUR DAUGHTERS is the International Feature submission for TUNISIA. Based on a painful true story, the film is about Olfa Hamrouni, a divorced mother of four daughters from the coastal town of Sousse. They made the headlines seven years ago when two of her daughters, Ghofrane and Rahma, fled their home and country to join ISIS in Libya. Neither a documentary or a feature film, Four Daughters showcases the lives they lived, the pain they’ve had to endure and the agonizing personal stories that they share from their memories as children to where they are now. It’s impossible to ever find out the main reasons why Ghofrane and Rahma left everything behind to join the Islamic State. It could be due to feelings of alienation, feelings of inequality, and perhaps the search for a father figure, maybe even love. It’s scary to realize how quickly these two young girls were radicalized by what they heard in their communities and on the news. It all began slowly when they were essentially forced to wear a niqab. And their lack of religious knowledge and their unstable home life made them vulnerable to extremists. They were easy prey.
THIS IS WHAT I REMEMBER is the International Feature submission for KYRGYZSTAN. The film is about a son, Kubat, who’s been searching for his father, Zarlyk, for the past 23 years. Zarlyk was working in nearby Russia when a terrible car accident occurred making him suffer from total memory loss. Kubat, finally reunited with his dad, brings him back to his small rural town in hopes that a familiar surrounding will help him regain some of his memories. A family member who suffers from memory loss can have huge effects on, not only the person suffering from the disease, but with everyone around them. One’s home is just not the same when a loved one is living through it. Work tasks and simple day-to-day activities become a hassle. Patience and re-adjusting one’s life is needed to fully take care of someone who doesn’t remember where he is anymore. Memory loss is not about the past, it’s about the present, the struggle, the fight to live with the disease. It’s being in the moment, the relationships, the new experiences, this is the core of life. The story is simple, the message is clear, and the emotions that one feels when watching such a compassionate, loving family makes this film a winner.
GOODBYE JULIA is the International Feature submission for SUDAN. Set in 2005, riots begin to happen in the streets of Khartoum after the death of the leader of the South. Akram and Mona, a married couple who live in a wealthy part of the capital, are attacked by protesters from the street. Gunfire breaks out, windows shatter and cars are set aflame. Akram is able to scare everyone away but they’re clearly shaken. The tension between Northerners and Southerners are now at an all-time high. A few days later, after a visit to the doctor, Mona is distracted in her car and runs over a young boy, Daniel, while driving. She panics, causing a hit and run, but Daniel’s father chases her in his motorbike. Unaware of exactly what’s going on but thinking that a “Southerner is attacking my wife,” Akram shoots and kills the man after Mona is able to arrive home. In order to redeem herself and help with the guilt, Mona tracks down Julia, the now widow and Daniel’s mother, and hires her to be her maid. Together the two women begin to bond and become close friends, but will this devastating secret remain hidden? The relationship between the two women is built on Mona’s guilt and, crucially, Julia’s economic desperation.
(Kyrgyzstan - This Is What I Remember)
Two films set high in the mountains are two of the most beautiful films to watch.
SONGS OF EARTH is the International Feature submission for NORWAY. The film takes place in the spectacular mountainous Oldedalen Valley in Nordfjord. It was one of the first villages that was established in the area. Director Margreth Olin’s film is a love letter to her parents: Jorgen and Magnhild. Jorgen is now 84 years old, while Magnhild is nine years younger. Their family has lived in the same place since 1603. Margreth invites audiences to figuratively walk in her father’s shoes, with her mother at times beside them, in this visually stunning documentary. Jorgen has been exploring Norway’s wilderness all his life. He takes us to spectacular views of glaciers, fjords and waterfalls during his daily walks. He reminds his daughter to not “walk so fast, that you forget to look.” It’s a harmonious blend of melodies that transports viewers to the heart of nature’s beauty. It makes the world seem so large and humans so small. Each frame in the film is a work of art. This documentary is a heartfelt ode to this world, and a gentle reminder of what we can lose if we aren’t careful. And what can happen if we grow disconnected from it. Songs of Earth speaks volumes on the state of our climate emergency, without ever stating it once in the film. Nature is a fairytale and it must be protected, it should be enjoyed, and it must be respected. THE BREAKING ICE is the International Feature submission for SINGAPORE. The film takes place in the Northeastern city in China called Yanji, a Korean autonomous prefecture right on the border with North Korea. Haofeng, a successful finance professional from Shanghai, has come to the city for a wedding. Depressed and quite possibly suicidal, as he’s been purposefully missing his appointments at a mental health counselling program, he accidentally spots a charming tour guide named Nana. He decides to skip the rest of the wedding and joins her tour group where they strike an immediate friendship. Nana is a former professional figure skater who was forced to give up the sport after a career-ending ankle injury. She decided to come to Yanji to start a new life and escape her problems but she’s struggling to make ends meet. She introduces him to Xiao, a high school dropout who moved to Yanji to help his aunt run her restaurant. The trio form an immediate bond with one another after a night of drinking. When Haofeng misses his flight the next day, he decides to stay a little longer to further grow his friendship with his new lost friends.
(Norway - Songs of Earth)
Four films are about individuals and families who were forced to leave their homes at a young age, but have returned for different reasons back to their hometown.
SIRIN is the International Feature submission for MONTENEGRO. The film opens up in 1993 in Yugoslavia in a small town called Strpci. During the war, military forces from the Republic of Srpska boarded a bus, seizing 20 passengers and killing them, just for having a Bosnian last name. Sanela, now called Nathalie, was on that bus and 20 years later she returns back to her hometown, along with her employer, Valery, to execute a will from one of their clients. Like Nathalie, most immigrants who come to the USA come for better opportunities for employment, for a greater degree of freedom, for avoidance of political oppression, for escaping a war, and for the chance of providing better lives for themselves. But with more opportunities, immigrants are also now alone, working, and struggling with having to start all over again. There will always be something that is missing, because one’s home is far away. But the person they were back in that first home also doesn’t really exist anymore. Their struggles and their triumphs, their experiences and their age have also changed who they are. An immigrant trying to go back home is like a ghost returning to a ghost town. When no place is home then there is nowhere to feel comfortable, and loved.
OMEN is the International Feature submission for BELGIUM. Koffi is a young Congolese man who’s been living in Europe for the past couple of decades. Along with his fiancee, Alice, they’re heading back to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Hoping that everything will go well on the trip, he’s been taking Swahili lessons and he’s shaved his hair in order to comply with the norms of the country. He hopes to make amends with his family by offering a dowry. Alice is pregnant with twins and he’s hoping that his family, especially his mother and father, will accept the marriage. Omen illustrates the wide divide between modernity and tradition in African societies, touching mainly on witchcraft. The various aspects of African culture, rites and religion are all depicted stylishly. The film flows from reality to magical realism creating vivid scenarios of life and death. Calling something witchcraft is a way to exercise control over it, to push out different feelings and desires from an overly constrictive way of life. Koffi is just one example of an individual who was branded as a bad omen for being born with a birthmark on his cheek. His consequence was being banished from his household and being forced to start anew in a different continent.
ALEXANDER is the International Feature submission from ALBANIA. The country of Albania was a one-party communist state from 1946 to 1991. The country was ruled mainly by Enver Hoxha, who established Albania as a totalitarian state, causing it to be one of the most difficult countries to visit, let alone leave. During this time, life in Albania was extremely tough, as people lived under total restrictions, poverty and a dictatorship. Alexander Gruda and his family lived in Shkoder during this time, and they felt that their only way to survive was to somehow flee the country. No other country in Europe has gone through such a turbulent period like Albania, making it one of the poorest economies in the area, with almost half its citizens at risk of poverty. The situation in Albania was so bad during the early 1990s that people were willing to risk getting killed by trying to flee to neighbouring countries. With everyone trying to leave the country, it caused heavy political instability, while at the same time dealing with incompetence and heavy corruption from their leaders.
AMERIKATSI is the International Feature submission for ARMENIA. The film is about Charlie, who escaped Armenia, which was then Turkey, as a four year old during the Ottoman Empire in 1915. 30 years later, in the aftermath of World War II, Joseph Stalin offered to pay survivors of the Armenian Genocide money to return back to Armenia, which was still under Soviet control. In 1948, Charlie decides to come back home, despite being an American citizen, as his wife just passed away, and he longs to hopefully be re-united with family and learn more about his culture. Just having arrived back to Armenia, Charlie meets a young boy and his mother Sona. She’s the wife of a powerful government official. As a result of his innocent flirting with her, he is imprisoned on bogus charges, citing public displays of religious propaganda and glorifying materialism as the reasons for his arrest. He is sentenced to ten years in jail. At first, he is extremely despondent, but after an earthquake hits the jail, and part of the prison collapses, Charlie realizes that he can now observe the day-to-day life of a young couple, Tigran and Ruzan, living in an apartment that’s located across the street from his cell. This now gives him an opportunity to observe this couple as they dance, play music, play games and entertain family and friends with dinners. Charlie is about to learn the Armenian way of life.
(Montenegro - Sirin)
Two women go back and explore their families from events that happened in the past in these two documentaries.
THE MOTHER OF ALL LIES is the International Feature submission for MOROCCO. The film is about Asmae, and her family, her friends, her neighbours and her experiences growing up in Casablanca under a strict household. Using a scale model of her childhood neighbourhood and little figurines to represent all the characters in her film, this moving documentary explores the tragedies of the 1981 Bread Riots and the aftermath that it had with the entire family. To add on top of it, a personal tragedy that occurred to Zahra as a young mother, involving a photograph, is the reason why she is as strict and emotionally hurt when it comes to pictures. The problem is that Asmae, up to the age of 12, never had a photograph taken of herself. While it can be said that this generation takes too many pictures of themselves, there’s something to be said about having precious moments accessible as a reference for later on. It’s proof that they existed. It can be difficult to build an identity, when one’s memories become unreliable. If someone doesn’t have any visual references as a child, as a teenager, as a parent, how can someone remember the past, if one’s memory isn’t trustworthy anymore?
TITO, MARGOT AND ME is the International Feature submission for PANAMA. This documentary is about the endless love story between two historical figures in Roberto Emilio Arias and Margot Fonteyn. Roberto, known as Tito, was a Panamanian international lawyer, diplomat and journalist. He was from a prominent Panamanian political family, whose members had reached the Presidency four times, amongst them his father Harmodio Arias. Margot Fonteyn was, at the time, the most famous ballerina in the world. Born in England, she spent her entire career as a dancer with the Royal Ballet. This documentary provides intricate personal details of their lives, their relationship, the good times and the bad times, and the love that they had for one another. The film doesn’t shy away from controversies, from implied affairs, from politics, from a shooting that left Tito as a quadriplegic, from the complicated lives that these two well known individuals had. But as the saying goes, a perfect love that is never wrong, that does not make mistakes, does not exist.
(Morocco - The Mother of All Lies)
Now of these 20 films, there’s a chance that perhaps 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 four, and this is solely based on who we think will be nominated, we would single out the following:
The Zone of Interest - This film is the current frontrunner to win it all, so it's definitely the safest bet to be shortlisted. The film debuted at Cannes to the best reviews out of all films. It's a film that is unique, highly thought-provoking and one of the best films of the year. Currently at 95 on Metacritic and backed by A24 with a release date in December, this film is locked.
20 Days in Mariupol - This film debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and received acclaim immediately. With Navalny winning best documentary at the Oscars last year, it's hard to imagine that this Ukrainian film will not follow in the same path. It's scheduled to be released on PBS end of November so it'll be seen and we can't see voters not supporting it after watching a film like this one.
Fallen Leaves - This film is different than most of the other contenders. It's a comedy, it's quirky, it's funny and short and sweet. It debuted at Cannes Film Festival to great reviews. It got picked up by Mubi and it'll be released in theatres in November. Acclaimed director Aki Kaurismaki is back and his latest film is looking very solid at being shortlisted.
Four Daughters - This was a toss up between the Tunisian film and The Promised Land (Denmark). We think Four Daughters has an advantage because this film debuted to raves at Cannes, it got picked up by Kino Lorber with a release date in a couple of weeks, and Kaouther Ben Hania has already been nominated before. This film is different, shocking and a truly moving experience like nothing we've seen before.
In a perfect world, Opponent (Sweden), Seven Blessings (Israel) and Vera (Austria) would also be serious contenders to be shortlisted.