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Our favorites from Arsenals International Film Forum (Sept. 16-24)

  • 2006-09-27
  • Elizabeth Celms, Sherwin Das, Paul Morton
Something Like Happiness
Director: Bohdan Slama

"Something Like Happiness" is an absolutely sublime film. From the movie's endearing characters to its beautifully subtle dialogue, Czech director Bohdan Slama captures life - and its struggles - with grace and honesty.
In the style of Krzysztof Kieslowski's "Decalogue," the plot centers around two life-long friends, Moni (Tatiana Vilhelmova) and Tonik (Pavel Liska), whose families live in the same Soviet housing block. Longing to escape their families and the industrial Czech town where they live, the two share a tragically touching friendship.

Having played "doctor" as children ("Can you imagine the shock, walking into the living room to see my little girl, skirt up, showing Tonik her pee-pee," Moni's father recalls with a laugh one Christmas night.), Moni and Tonik face more serious problems today, struggling to care for their distraught friend Dasha's (Anna Geislerova) two toddlers, as she wastes her life away with alcohol, men and despair.

Throughout the film, the camera lingers over the silent emotion hanging between Moni and Tonik 's in a rickety elevator, on a sun-drenched farm roof, in times of tragedy and moments of joy. They are some of the film's most moving scenes.
For me, "Something like Happiness" was a 102-minute anthology of moments, from the film's heartbreaking opening 's a weary woman, slumped over a wearier table, sings a Czech song of pure sorrow - to its heartbreaking end.

Vilhelmova's portrayal of Moni as the angelic friend and naive daughter rivals that of Geislerova, whose Dasha captured my every emotion with her desperate hysterics and darting blue eyes, their glints of madness terrifyingly real.
At times I found myself on the verge of tears, at others I laughed out loud. But the most wonderful part was, none of these feelings were contrived. The film was so natural, so aesthetically sound, it was as if Slama hadn't made it at all 's it had just made itself.

Elizabeth Celms

Man Push Cart
Director: Ramin Bahrani

"Man Push Cart" is an impressive and deeply moving independent film which has the stamp of a young auteur in the making. Written, directed and edited by Ramin Bahrani, a 31-year-old Iranian-American, the film centers around Pakistani immigrant Ahmad played by Ahmad Razvi who was once a pushcart vendor in real life.

Ahmad rises early each morning and, with a gas tank in hand, travels from his cramped apartment in Brooklyn to midtown Manhattan where he collects a chrome pushcart from a local garage. The heavy pushcart is meant to be towed by a vehicle, but with great effort Ahmad wheels it by hand through the darkness and past whizzing cars to a sidewalk location where he sells coffee and bagels.

We gradually learn that Ahmad was a hit singer back in Pakistan but came to America for his wife's sake. His wife has died, and his only son has been taken in by his parents-in-law who blame Ahmad for their daughter's death. Alone in New York, he's scraping enough money together to take his son back. After he's through selling coffee and bagels, he hawks pornographic DVDs for eight dollars each, two for 15 dollars. Life is lonely for Ahmad but Mohammad (Charles Daniel Sandoval), a Pakistani-American banker, and Noemi (Leticia Dolera), a Spanish woman from a nearby newsstand, present opportunities to potentially break the cycle of suffering.

There are many special things about "Man Push Cart." Bahrani imbues it with atmospheric shots of the city in the early morning hours and after dark as Ahmad's lone figure maneuvers his cart through congested streets, a haunting depiction of isolation in America's biggest city. Ahmad doesn't say very much in the film, but as the nuanced story unfolds, his stoic face and solitary figure pushing that cart begin to say more than any words possibly could. Inspired directly by Albert Camus' "The Myth of Sisyphus," the film highlights both the tragedy and absurdity of a man's struggle to keep his dignity despite a fate that isn't dealing him many lucky breaks.

Sherwin Das

Gitmo: The New Rules of War
Director: Erik Gandini and Tarik Saleh

When Erik Gandini and Tarik Saleh began making their documentary "Gitmo: The New Rules of War" in Sept. 2002, America's operation in Afghanistan was only starting to show cracks, the war in Iraq was still six months away and most people had yet to learn the name Abu Ghraib. By the time they finished, in the middle of last year, the Bush administration was in the middle of two disastrous wars and Fidel Castro was able to give his anti-American propaganda depressing credibility by posting pictures of Americans torturing Arabs throughout Havana.

In their quest to discover what the hell is going on at Guantanamo Bay, the Swedish filmmakers meet a former prison guard at Abu Ghraib 's at another point in the film they prove the near certainty that the two prisons were operating under very similar laws - who explains various "coercive" techniques (putting an inmate in a cell that smells of sewage, sexual humiliation), all of which he calls counterproductive. When asked what code of laws he follows, a Romanian contractor who fights for the Americans in Iraq, says he follows the "rules of my heart."

The film dwells on a Swedish national who happened to be in Afghanistan at the time of the American invasion and ended up spending two years at Guantanamo Bay without being charged with a crime before being released. But the young, awkward, clearly traumatized man tells them almost nothing about his time in captivity or why he was in Central Asia in the first place. For anyone who reads the newspaper, there's not that much new here, but "Gitmo" does dramatize the frustration of being confronted by Orwellian half-truths and awkward telling silences when trying to figure out a big, awful story no one wants to deal with honestly.

An American official stands in front of the prison section of the complex at Guantanamo at night as what sounds like a co-ordinated protest in Arabic is chanted behind him in the distance. When asked to explain what the inmates are saying, he says, unable to hide institutional nervousness, that they're probably praying or just, you know, talking to each other.

Paul Morton