51ST SAN SEBASTIAN INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL - 9/18/2003-9/27/2003
WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 24, 2003
(written by Laura Clifford except where noted as Robin)

Zaman, L'Homme des Roseaux (Zaman, the Man Who Lives in the Reeds) (Zabaltegi)
Zaman, the Man Who Lives in the Reeds This simple tale has a dramatic backstory.  Director Amer Alwan left Iraq in 1983 to study filmmaking in Paris.  He returned in January 2003 to shoot this film on digital video, the export of film from Iraq being forbidden at the time.  Facing censorship and the loss of five videotapes which were confiscated, Alwan nonetheless was able to bring this fable, the first Iraqi film to be seen internationally in fifteen years, to the screen.

Zaman (Sami Kaftan) lives the simple life of those who live in Iraq's swamp area with his beloved wife Najma (Shatha Salem) and the adolescent boy they took in when his parents were killed.  Zaman awakens each day, washes in the river, prays and makes breakfast with his wife before working at weaving the reeds indigenous to his home.  When Najma falls ill, a visiting doctor tells him he'll need to travel to obtain the proper medicine for her and Zaman begins a trek up the Tigris that will end in an exhaustive scouring of every pharmacy in Baghdad. After spending the night curled up against a mosque (Alwan incredibly managed to shoot his character inside the holy building), Zaman, lacking necessary papers, is aided by Iman, a clear-eyed young woman fed up with the political manueverings of the director of the Catholic medical center.  Zaman returns home to Najma, who has waited for his return before taking her final rest.

This moving tale is simple, containing images of startling beauty like the play of light that falls into Zaman and Najma's hut through its woven walls.  Francois Rabbath's original low key music score features piano and native instruments.  B

Robin:

An aging man walks out of his reed hut, gathers up his mat, cleanses his face in the river and says his daily prayers to Allah. It is an everyday scene that has taken place for a thousand years in the marshland along the Tigris River in Iraq. The man, Zaman (Sami Kaftan), and his wife, Najma (Shatha Salim), have built their happy life together in their house of reeds and, though childless, adopted a boy, Yacine (Hussein Imad), orphaned by the 1991 Gulf War. They have lived a quiet, contented existence until Najma falls ill. The local doctor tells them she needs surgery or some special medicine he does not have. Thus begins the journey of salvation and discovery for “Zaman, the Man of the Reeds.”

This is a controversial film – during shooting, the Saddam regime confiscated five of the filmmakers’ tapes for being politically incorrect – and it is the first Iraqi film to enter the world in over 15 years. The controversy, though, is not with the film itself. “Zaman” is sweet and sad story about love and devotion, hope and fear. When Zaman learns of Najma’s sickness, caused by the war, he is fraught with grief and can only think of getting the miracle drug that will cure his beloved. He sets off in his small boat and journeys up the Tigris to Baghdad in search of the precious cure.

This is where “Zaman’s” director Amer Alwan changes gears as the story shifts from a quiet culture that has existed, unchanged, for a millennium to a world of traffic jams, smog and a fast-paced hubbub totally foreign to Zaman’s stranger in a strange land. Now he must trek from one Baghdad pharmacy to the next, dozens of them, in search of the medicine that will save Najma. But, the international embargo against Iraq makes the drug impossible to get and Zaman is frustrated at every turn. Finally, one of the shop owners directs the haggard man to a Catholic hospital that might have the prescription. He finds the place and learns that they have the drug, only to be denied because he doesn’t have a proper identification card.

Despondent, Zaman turns to leave but is stopped by the receptionist. She promises to try to get the ‘script filled by the hospital’s director and asks him to come back the next day. Although the hospital bureaucracy would thwart him, it’s the kindness of strangers that helps to make things right.

Sami Kaftan, a longtime veteran of Iraqi television, is touching as the devoted Zaman. His love for Najma and fondness for Yacine are palpable elements of the character and help drive him to lengths that are beyond anything he has done during his long life. His journey is one through time from a world where the only modern convenience is a radio to one that is wrought with high technology – the only intrusion into Zaman’s people’s world from the outside are the occasional fly-bys of Saddam’s air force pilots. Shatha Salim is also convincing as the loving, stoical Najma who, despite her serious condition, frets over her beloved husband and only wishes for his safe return.

Technically “Zaman, the Man of the Reeds” represents how, in the right hands, the digital video medium can be used to superb affect. Helmer Alwan, with the efforts and eye of cinematographer Thomas Cichawa, does a splendid job of capturing life in a beautiful and ancient place that, with the encroachment by civilization and technology, may soon cease to be. The splendid look of the film, and the talent of the cast and crew, despite the Iraqi government’s intrusion, is a heartfelt work and deserves attention. I give it a B.


Veronica Guerin (Official Selection) - click for link to review

In This World (Zabaltegi)
In This World Michael Winterbottom's documentary style road movie follows young Afghan refugee Jamal and the older cousin who joins his escape of the American bombing campaign. Jamal was born in a refugee camp and earns $1 a day in a brick factory.  By paying a series of smugglers and using their wits, the duo get into Pakistan, then Iran, where they're put on a bus with instructions they cannot understand, then questioned by officials who make them disembark. Eventually making their way to a Turkish seaport, the cousins are stowed with other refugees in shipping containers that are sealed during the journey to Trieste, Italy.  Not everyone survives these horrific conditions and their pitiful thumpings are ignored.  Alone now, Jamal exists with a hardscrabble life on the streets, but mostly tourists ignore his please to buy his braided bracelets for one Euro.  A pocketbook presents an opportunity and Jamal turns thief in order to buy his way towards London.  Still, he's forced to cross the Channel propped over a truck axle.  Winterbottom ends his harrowing tale showing Jamal working in a London cafe. He has respite for two years, but on his eighteenth birthday will face deportation. "In This World" may be the work of a liberal, but anyone of humanity must give pause to the horrors faced by those unlucky enough to be born in unfortunate circumstances.  Winterbottom's has us believing we're watching Jamal's actual journey except that it occasionally occurs to one that it would have been impossible for a cameraman to have been in places like a sealed shipping container.  B+

Robin:

A pair of Afghan refugees, Jamal and Enayatullah (Jamal Udin Torabi and Enayatullah), with the aid of Jamal’s uncle, plan to leave their beleaguered country and make the arduous trek to London, England. Director Michael Winterbottom takes his camera and creates a docu-style drama of their often hellacious journey as the two travel from the sprawling refugee camp on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan aboard ramshackle buses, trucks and, even, in a stifling cargo container. Young Jamal survives the worst the trip offers but it still leaves him with an unsure future “In This World.”

I had to keep reminding myself, during the course of “In This World,” that I was watching a fictional film, not a chronicle of real events. Winterbottom, with cinematographer Marcel Zyskind, creates a work that has an incredibly realistic feel as it follows young Jamal and his companion across Pakistan into Iran, across Turkey, over the Adriatic Sea to Trieste, Italy, into France and, finally, suspended precariously beneath a trailer truck, into England.

This harrowing tale, though scripted by Tony Grisoni, never gives up its documentary realism as Jamal faces incarceration, injury and death as he makes his way on a truly incredible journey. “In This World” may be considered an exercise by the filmmakers but it is also a remarkable work as it constantly fools the mind into believing what you see is real. I give it a B+.


The San Sebastian film festival is highly regarded for its retrospectives and this year's featured Preston Sturges and Winterbottom.  Yet again, the festival frustrates.  I pity the journalist covering the Winterbottom tribute, as the only showing of his latest, "Code 46" has been scheduled against the press screening of "In This World" AND Winterbottom's own press conference!  Having been assured by the festival's information booth that "In This World" would be presented in English, we see a film that is truly international, with English present along with the languages of every other country represented, but only Spanish subtitles.

We take the evening off to meet a friend visiting his home town of San Sebastian and are treated to a ride into the country where we see local kids practicing the Basque sport of Jai Alai and have seafood at Txulotxo, a restaurant in the charming old town of Pasajes San Juan that is reachable via a short boat ride from Pasajes San Pedro (a very long trip by car is the other alternative).  After a leisurely feast of local delicacies such as hake neck and squid sauced in its own ink, we realize we're about to miss the last boat just as cigars are lit and brandy is served. After an amusingly hasty exit, we return to the city for take two on the brandy and cigars back in San Sebastian.



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