Two of the best films that we've watched so far deal with old traditions being forced to adapt to the ever changing world.
THE MONK AND THE GUN is the International Feature submission for BHUTAN. The film begins in 2006. The King of Bhutan has decided to abdicate and introduce elections for the very first time in the country’s history. Democracy is now a part of the country and the citizens are unsure what to think of it, let alone understand how the process works. As the country prepares to abandon its traditional monarchy, democracy activists travel to the most remote villages to teach its largely uneducated citizens on how to vote. The Monk and the Gun is a brilliantly made political comedy intertwining two key elements on Bhutan’s history: political modernity and economic modernity. This clash between tradition and progression is at the forefront of this film, providing insightful moments on Bhutanese culture, but also how the legitimacy of political systems is lived, practiced and can be transformed in everyday life. While the introduction of elections may be seen as an empowering step in Bhutan, it also can’t be imposed on a nation if the people don’t want it yet. This democracy is being forced on people that don’t understand why they can’t keep doing things the way that’s always worked for them. Instead, the citizens of the country has taught the rest of the world how to live in a peaceful, safe, loving country without the need for guns nor the need to change their way of life, not yet anyway.
CITY OF WIND is the International Feature submission for MONGOLIA. The film is a coming of age drama focused on a Mongolian shaman, Ze. By day, he is a seventeen year old high school student who is quiet and soft spoken. During his free time, when members of the community need spiritual help, Ze summons his ancestral spirit known as “Grandpa Spirit,” while wearing a robe and mask and changing his voice when speaking. Ze believes in what he does, and he’s known of his special gift ever since he was a young boy. Things change for him though when one of his clients is a girl his own age, brought to him by her mother to prepare for a major heart surgery. Maralaa is highly skeptical of Ze’s abilities and calls him a con-artist. She feels that he’s an opportunist just wanting to make some easy cash. But the surgery is a success and Ze visits her in the hospital and the two of them have an instant connection. It’s Ze’s first love and soon it begins to control his entire life. But this all has consequences, and this change in lifestyle begins to separate him from his ancestral spirits. For Ze, his body has been split into two halves. One half is his spirituality. And his other half is his newfound freedom.
(Mongolia - City of Wind)
These next two films are about debilitating trauma and the fight to re-build one's life from scratch.
THE MISSING is the International Feature submission for the PHILIPPINES. The film is about Eric, a quiet young man who works as a computer animator and who has a crush on a co-worker Carlo. One day he receives a phone call from his mother Rosalinda. Eric has not said a word since he was a child. He now communicates by writing on a whiteboard that’s always hanging around his neck. He also has been suffering from nightmares as a child. A giant green alien keeps re-appearing in his dreams, but also while he’s at work or hanging out with Carlo and Rosalinda. His safety is hiding under his bed for hours, and sometimes even for some days. He hasn’t spoken to anyone about what’s been happening with him, and he feels alone despite Carlo and his mother’s best attempts to find out what’s wrong. This film approaches those suffering from debilitating trauma with such care and compassion. There are certain moments in the film that are incredibly difficult to sit through, and even more so watching it a second time, but the film’s belief in gentleness and openness to those living through unfathomable mental and emotional distress is what makes The Missing so special. There are depictions of Eric’s entire world collapsing, but the reconstruction of his life is just so brilliant and gut-wrenching all at the same time.
SIRA is the International Feature submission for BURKINA FASO. The film is about Sira, a member of a nomadic Fulani tribe. They’ve been travelling across the desert for the past five days through the Sahel. This Muslim tribe is headed towards the small town of Koursa for a wedding. Sira is the bride and she’s set to marry a Christian farmer Jean-Sidi. Despite Sharia being against a Muslim/Christian wedding, the tribe chief Tidiane has allowed it to happen as love is the most important thing. One morning, as the tribe is getting ready to start moving again, they’re confronted by a group of militia men. They claim to be searching for two men who’ve murdered a tribal chief in a neighbouring town. As Tidiane approaches the armed men, he’s assassinated along with all the other men in the tribe. Sira is kidnapped, by the head boss Yere, where she’s raped and left for dead. The film doesn’t shy away from depicting the reality of life for men, and especially for women, who’re held in terrorist camps across the desert. Young women are enslaved against their will by the Islamist regime in make-shift barracks. They’re treated as chattels and sexual slaves while young men are brainwashed and trained for future wars against the military. It is a raw and gripping watch with a satisfactory resolution. It feels like a losing battle in a region where instability has become the norm.
(Philippines - The Missing)
Growing up, young love, new responsibilities, and their futures are all up in the air in these next three films.
BANEL AND ADAMA is the International Feature submission for SENEGAL. The film is about two young lovers, namely Banel and Adama, who live in a tiny village in Northern Senegal. They spend their days together telling stories to one another, laying in the grass while taking care of their village’s cattle, spending their evenings together planning for their future. They dream of living together in an abandoned house which is buried by a recent sandstorm. They’re in a dream like mentality, utterly infatuated with one another. Inseparable. They’ve been in love with one another since their early teens, but Banel was forced to marry Adama’s older brother Yero, who was the tribal chief. When Yero died after a horrific accident, Adama was welcomed by the tribal elders to now marry Banel. They’ve now been married for a year. But the community is furious at them for two reasons: Adama refuses to accept the position of tribal chief and Banel doesn’t want to get pregnant, to raise a male heir. While this is all happening, a drought strikes the village, and weeks and months go by without any rain. Are the newlyweds to blame for the calamity that has struck the village?
NOT FRIENDS is the International Feature submission for THAILAND. The film is about Pae, a grade 12 student who just got transferred to a new school. He was expelled from his previous school due to a physical altercation with his ex-girlfriend and her friend. One of Pae’s new classmate is Joe, who tries to strike a new friendship with him. But Pae has no interest at all in forming any friends. But slowly, day by day, their bond begins to grow. It’s all cut too short though when Joe dies instantly from getting hit by a car while crossing the street. Pae isn’t the brightest of students and his only hope for getting into university, a goal he wants to achieve in order to avoid working in his father’s business, is to enter a competition in creating a short film. He has no previous experience in the film industry nor is he the most creative of people. While writing the script for his film though, he comes up with an idea to steal one of Joe’s stories from an external hard drive he kept before his classmate passed away. The film is ready to get started, and now all he needs is help from his peers to get it done before the deadline. Friendship is the heart of the film. Relationships during high school are short-lived and once students graduate and move on to different universities, or different trade schools, the military, work or to new cities, these friendships can fade. In this life, one might never get the opportunity to see one’s peers ever again. It’s like a spark from fireworks. But, the bonds created will always matter and have an impact on one’s life, long after graduation.
TIGER STRIPES is the International Feature submission for MALAYSIA. The film is about Zaffan, a 12 year old girl, who’s being raised in a very strict conservative Muslin town, by her parents and by her school. She has just had her first period, the first girl in her class, and Zaffan begins to realize that her body is changing. She begins to get ostracized and bullied by her classmates for being different, and this is mainly due to the lack of proper sex education being taught in her school. The film is a striking allegory for how oppressive social conservatives can affect an individual and how it can make a young girl like Zaffan feel like a monster, or a rage-induced tiger.
(Senegal - Banel and Adama)
These next two films are polar opposites to one another, but dealing with one's passion towards their work.
THE TASTE OF THINGS is the International Feature submission for FRANCE. This film is a story about love and food, which it presents as the same thing. It captures mouthwatering dishes like edible, gorgeously realized paintings. Eugenie has been working for acclaimed chef Dodin for the past twenty years. Together they prepare the most lavish meals at their restaurant where they’ve become famous for their Michelin star food. The attention to detail in preparing all the dishes is what makes this film so extraordinary. The use of natural light, whether it’s the sun streaming into the kitchen, or whether it’s the candlelight at night, it sets the atmosphere for every meal we get to witness. Set almost entirely in the picturesque rustic kitchen, or in the dining room, or the neighbouring vegetable garden, we all leave hungry, desiring the opportunity to taste the food. The pressure to maintain a high level of culinary excellence can lead to long hours and immense stress. Chefs sacrifice their personal lives, their relationships and their health in pursuit of the Michelin glory. We can only appreciate the dedication it takes to be able to taste such excellence that brings us so much joy.
THE DELINQUENTS is the International Feature submission for ARGENTINA. The film takes place in Buenos Aires in a bank where Moran and Roman are employees. Moran has been working at this same job for decades and he’s had enough with living the same life. He’s tired of wearing the same clothes. He’s tired of eating at the same restaurant. He’s tired of taking the same train to work. He’s tired of the same routine day after day and week after week. One day, Moran decides to rob the bank. Being almost invisible to his colleagues, he heads to the vault, places $650,000 in his backpack and walks out. No one notices and no one pays any attention to what just happened. Later that night, Moran asks Roman to meet him for dinner and he explains that he’s just stolen twice as much money as he would earn before retirement if he worked every day for the next 25 years. He will confess to the crime and spend three and a half years in jail, and that Roman needs to hide the money during the duration of his prison stint. Once he’s out they will split the money. It seems like a good idea, right?
(Ireland - In the Shadow of Beirut)
These next four films are about families living in extreme poverty and their fight for survival and their hope for a better life.
IN THE SHADOW OF BEIRUT is the International Feature submission for IRELAND. Lebanon is currently in its worst economic crisis ever due to corruption and a broken political system. The poverty in the country has increased from 42% to 82% in only two years. Hundreds of thousands of people have been living in impoverished neighbourhoods, mainly in Sabra and Shatila, including more than 30,000 people crammed in less than one square kilometre. Beirut’s poorest people live in these areas, alongside the displaced Palestinian people, the nomadic community, and families who escaped the war in Syria. This documentary follows four families from 2018 to 2022. There are countless individuals who become trapped in the cycle of homelessness, like the individuals depicted in the film. And breaking the cycle becomes impossible when young people are unable to gain an education, thus making it that much more difficult to get a job that pays a liveable wage in the future. To add to that, non Lebanese citizens are faced with numerous restrictions, such as being unable to work in certain professions and being unable to own property. The documentary witnesses it all, and provides an insight on why it’s such a challenge to break the vicious cycle of poverty from one generation to the next.
HANGING GARDENS is the International Feature submission for IRAQ. Set in Baghdad in 2021, the film is about As’ad, a 12 year old boy, and his older brother Taha. Both presumably orphaned by the war, they now barely scrape a living, searching for discarded junk and plastic bottles at a vast, garbage dump called the Hanging Gardens. They sell that junk to a local honcho for just enough money to survive another day. But with As’ad’s fascination with US army-base dump, he frequently finds playboy magazines, and other pornographic images of women, which he sells on the side for a little bit of extra cash to his friend Amir. One day though, while at the dump site, As’ad finds a state-of-the-art love doll, equipped with several top notch functions including a recording device. He brings the taboo item home, only to be assaulted by Taha, for ruining their reputation. As’ad retreats back to Hanging Gardens and creates a new home for himself, and his new doll, inside an abandoned military tank. When Amir discovers this sex doll, he pushes As’ad to pimp her out to the people in the area, which proves to be successful, but highly dangerous in a city and country where self-pleasuring aids are highly illegal.
CITIZEN SAINT is the International Feature submission for GEORGIA. Strikingly shot in black and white, the film takes place in a small Georgian mining town. A saint’s statue stands atop a small hill right beside the entrance to a mine. Mine workers pay tribute to this saint before starting their gruelling shift in the dark confined underground world of tunnels. Elderly couples arrive to pay tribute to this statue. Even local gangsters ask for protection and absolution. Legend has it that this saint was tortured, crucified and on the third day turned to stone. Now he’s the town people’s saviour. The film explores the presence of faith in the most abandoned corners of the world, where dangerous work and poverty can lead people to imagine a saviour is looking out for them. In this town, where hundreds of people have died inside the mines, a little bit hope is what they’re looking for to keep working in a job where one’s life is always at risk. That’s why, in a mining city, the saint guarding the people’s lives must also be a miner, and someone who suffered the same way.
THE SHADOW OF THE SUN is the International Feature submission for VENEZUELA. Set in the small Venezuelan city of Acarigua, around five hours west of Caracas, is the story Leo and Alex, two brothers who’re struggling to keep afloat. A former singer, Leo, now works at a factory earning minimum wage, while Alex works at a bakery. Haunted by financial debt and endless personal problems at home, Leo’s excessive drinking leads to his dismissal at work. When his younger brother, Alex, who’s been deaf since birth, finds out about a musical contest in Caracas, where the winner gets $5,000, he suggests to Leo to join the competition in hopes that the prize amount will help with all their economic problems. Reluctant at first, but agreeably a few days later, they sign up for the event, and together they create a band together, reuniting with old friends from the past. Nervous, yet hopeful, the two of them begin an impossible journey of self-discovery with their love of music.
(Iraq - Hanging Gardens)
Men's egos are put to the test in these next three films where women are fighting for their rights, their freedom and for their lives.
INSHALLAH A BOY is the International Feature submission for JORDAN. The film takes place in 2019 in Amman, when Nawal one day discovers that her husband Adnan has died during his sleep without any warning. His death leaves Nawal and their daughter, Nora, alone and forced to fend for themselves in a society that revolves around men. As a widow with no sons, the grieving widow has very little say when it comes to her future. The domestic legal reality for Nawal is that the property ownership now rests in the hands of her brother-in-law, Rifqi. He gets to decide how the property will be divided, which includes the house and their car. Despite paying for most of the downpayment and half the mortgage payments, Nawal discovers that Rifqi now owns half the apartment. And since he desperately needs cash, he wants to sell it, which essentially will leave Nawal and Nora homeless. It’s a crazy system where the family of the deceased has a right to a share of the inheritance just because Nawal doesn’t have a son. Desperate and alone, Nawal claims to the judge that she’s pregnant with a boy hoping that it’ll keep a roof over her head for a little while longer.
ABOUT DRY GRASSES is the International Feature submission for TURKEY. The film is about Samet, a teacher at a state school in the remote region of Eastern Anatolia. He is an art teacher and he’s very friendly with his pupils, especially with Sevim, a 14 year old girl who he has flirtatious banter with and sometimes puts his arms around her. After a bag search at the school, a love letter is found in Sevim’s school bag. It’s not addressed to anyone but it’s clearly meant for Samet. Embarrassed and humiliated, she asks for the love letter back, but he refuses to give it and claims that he’s shredded it. He’s worried that this will get him into trouble. Sevim is furious and makes an allegation that Samet has made inappropriate advances towards her to the principal. This rocks Samet’s world and it propels him down a road of existential crisis. The lives of predators and victims don’t stop once an accusation has been made. Samet begins to lash out at all his students in his classroom and Sevim is the one most affected by it. He even begins to attack his relationship with his roommate, another teacher in the school, by flirting with the woman he’s interested in, not worried about the consequences and the hurt that it’s causing everyone around him. Samet is a groomer, and his tendencies are displayed in all aspects of his life, with most of them being more socially acceptable.
MVERA is the International Feature submission for KENYA. Set in a small town close to Mombasa, Mvera has dreams about leaving her country behind to get a job so that she can support her grandmother and to end their poverty. Like her mother, who left for the USA fifteen years ago, Mvera hopes to follow in the same footsteps. Her grandmother insists that she stays behind to further her education at the University of Nairobi, to become a doctor, and to be patient in regards to getting a great job, but Mvera has already made up her mind. Thabiti, a shrewd millionaire, sponsors twelve young men and women every year and takes them abroad to different countries around the world to gain valuable job experience. Mvera has applied for this opportunity. The chosen few head to Thabiti’s mansion and they soon discover that it’ll take a week before they fly overseas. This is due to the visa application. Once they settle down in Thabiti’s house, something feels a little off. They’re given medical examinations, they’re trapped in their room, their phones are taken away, and one by one they’re removed from their rooms in the middle of the night to never return back. Mvera is in for a shocking realization.
(Jordan - Inshallah a Boy)
War, independence, colonization, and the displacement of millions of people are all part of these next three films.
BYE BYE TIBERIAS is the International Feature submission for PALESTINE. Surrounded by Lebanon, Syria and Jordan is Tiberias, a small town along the Sea of Galilee. Under British rule, in 1948, fighting broke out between the Jewish residents of Tiberias and its Palestinian Arab minority. British troops evacuated the entire Palestinian Arab population forcing them to settle along the borders of Lebanon or in Syria. They were refused reentry after the war, and as such today the entire city is exclusively Jewish population. The film focuses on the events of 1948, where after being forced to leave their home, Um Ali and her family settled down in Deir Hanna. Bye Bye Tiberias is a story of vanished places and scattered memories. It’s about women who learned to leave everything behind to start anew. Shown through photos, private videos, poems and letters, director Lina Soualem creates an affecting, ceremonial patchwork of the women in her family. It’s a tribute to the bravery and perseverance of women who managed to take their destiny into their own hands, despite being forced to leave everything behind due to the creation of the Israeli state.
MY FREEDOM is the International Feature submission for LATVIA. The film is about the Popular Front organization of Latvia, which was formed in the late 1980s and continued into the early 1990s. The Latvian population, at the time, was 48% ethnically non-Latvian. Most people living there had moved to Latvia from other parts of the Soviet Union. The goal of the organization was to reach out to these ethnic minorities. They wanted everyone in Latvia to be able to speak publicly and freely about their issues and their needs in their communities. They knew that they needed the support of non-Russian minorities in order for Latvia to gain its independence from the Soviet Union. During this time, the Baltic countries of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia were all trying to gain independence from the Soviet Union. It was a tumultuous time for the countries, and even tenser for all the individuals living in these areas with so much uncertainty. For the Latvians, they all have their own roots, and they all speak different languages at home. However, they are all united by their love for their homeland. In March 18, 1990, the Popular Front candidates gained a two-thirds majority in the Supreme Council and the following year they finally gained independence.
UNDER THE HANGING TREE is the International Feature submission for NAMIBIA. Set in a majestic remote area, the film is about Christina, a young police detective who is of Herero heritage. Her mother has passed away and her son lives in the city, presumably with his father, so at the moment she’s living with her aunt. Her latest crime takes her far away from the city where a white man is found hanging from a tree. Christina visits the dead man’s farm, where she meets Eva, his wife. The police detective discovers that Eva is descended from the original German settlers, who arrived in Namibia in the late 1800s. They’re part of the families who’re associated with some of the worst colonial atrocities. The German colonial forces massacred around 100,000 Herero and Nama people between 1904 and 1908. This large-scale ethnic cleansing remains a highly contentious issue between Germany and Namibia today, where around 5% of the population consider themselves to be German Namibians. The remaining Herero people are still justifiably enraged about their loss of land, their loss of lives, their ancestors being hung from trees. They feel that nobody cares about them and that if they don’t do something now, no one will stand up for them.
(Namibia - Under the Hanging Tree)
PICTURES OF GHOSTS is the International Feature submission for BRAZIL. Growing up and beginning his career as a writer and director in Recife, it’s only natural that his latest film is a love letter to his hometown. Kleber Mendonça Filho has created a personal story, through the streets of his neighbourhood, and the history of the city, to illustrate a never ending changing nation. His documentary has been divided into three segments. Part one is dedicated to his childhood home and the neighbouring buildings around his area. Part two is dedicated to the cinemas and downtown Recife. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, the downtown area was an important commercial hub for Northeastern Brazil. Money was pouring into the city. To Kleber’s glee, it was also a vibrant movie scene, where he would watch several films a week. But as time passed, downtown Recife has been forgotten. The theatres have either been abandoned or turned into shopping malls. Part three is dedicated to how these theatres have now been converted to Evangelical churches, mainly due to the extreme right-wing Bolsonaro regime. According to the film, Evangelicals bought cinema. It’s an end of an era for Recife, as in the past 50 years more than 30 million people watched films in their local theatres. Now, it’s no more.
(Brazil - Pictures of Ghosts)
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 Taste of Things - France is always a contender. This year, instead of Anatomy of a Fall, they have selected the latest film from Tran Anh Hung. Debuting at Cannes to rave reviews, the film has been picked up by IFC Films for a theatre release in December. Starring Juliette Binoche, the film is unique, beautiful to watch, and a solid bet for getting nominated at the Oscars.
The Monk and the Gun - Director Pawo Choyning Dorji is back after getting nominated for an Oscar for Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom in 2022. His newest film is an absolute crowd-pleaser. Debuting at the Telluride Film Festival to exceptional reviews, and with Roadside Attractions as its distributor, the film is looking very good at getting shortlisted.
About Dry Grasses - Turkey hasn't had the best success when it comes to getting shortlisted, only making it once, despite submitting an acclaimed film time and time again. It feels like this might be the year to breaking the streak. This film, despite being over three hours long, debuted to incredible reviews out of Cannes and it feels like it should be able to make it to the final fifteen this time around.
The Delinquents - This was a toss up between the Argentinian film and Pictures of Ghosts (Brazil). We think that The Delinquents has an advantage because this film debuted to raves at Cannes, it got picked up by Mubi and it's currently in theatres right now. Argentina was also nominated last year so voters will be paying attention to their newest submission.
In a perfect world, The Missing (Philippines), In the Shadow of Beirut (Ireland), and Inshallah a Boy (Jordan) would also be serious contenders to be shortlisted.