The West meets Islam on the Mill Valley Film Festival’s penultimate day

I saw three films Saturday at the Mill Valley Film Festival – all at the Rafael. Two were narratives, one was a documentary. All three dealt with the line between Islam and the West.

A- Northern WindThis essentially serious film offers flashes of humor while studying the universality of working-class struggle. Two blue-collar men, who never meet, hope and struggle in two different countries. In France, Hervé loses his factory job, buys a boat and sets out to become a fisherman, but government bureaucracy makes his dream impossible. In Tunisia, Foued hates his factory job, dreams of better things, and hopes the girl he loves will choose him over a wealthier suitor. Director Walid Mattar and cinematographer Martin Rit have an off-hand yet unusual way to photograph ships and planes.

After the screening, director Mattar and actress Abir Bennani Zarouni, who played Foued’s girlfriend, answer questions. Mattar spoke through an interpreter. Here are some highlights, edited for clarity and brevity:

  • I put humor in my movies even though they deal with serious issues. I want the viewer to have a good time.
  • I went to engineering school for a year. That experience inspired me. I felt very close to the workers. I saw how the wages went down.
  • It was important to me that both stories would be in one movie.
  • The main characters couldn’t meet. They’re in different worlds.
  • my main message is that we’re all human beings. It’s the same kind of disappointment for everyone. I’m not very optimistic about this whole thing.

There are no more screenings of this film at the Festival. As far as I know, it won’t get a theatrical release here…but we can hope.

B+ From Baghdad to the Bay

You can’t watch this documentary about Ghazwan Alsharif’s life without loving him. He has experienced tremendous cruelty, and yet, he can smile, laugh, and love. When we occupied Iraq, Alsharif offered his services to the American army as an interpreter. When they were done with him, they threw him into prison and tortured him. Under the agony, he blurted out his one big secret: He’s gay. Now living in San Francisco with a good career as a chef, he misses the country he can never return to and the family nearly ruined by his public outing.

This documentary is part of the Festival’s Active cinema series. That’s why representatives of Humans Right Watch and The LGBT Asylum Project joined director Erin Palmquist in answering questions. And yes, the selected comments below are edited for brevity and clarity.

  • We originally wanted to follow three or four Iraqi refugees, but that didn’t work.
  • Many were afraid of putting their names out because of what might happen to family in Iraq. But Alsharif said “Heck, yeah! I’ve got a story to tell.”
  • Early on we agreed not to discuss his sexuality. Without that it would have been a very different film. But over the years he changed his mind.

You have one more chance to see From Baghdad to the Bay, Sunday, 2:15, at the Sequoia. The Q&A after that screening will include Alsharif, himself.

C+ Saint JudyThis film about a heroic immigration lawyer starts by telling us that “This is a true story.” Not “based on” or “inspired by,” but actual facts. Highly unlikely. The movie is just too precious and too clever for its own good. Over and over again I could see what was coming up. But while Judy’s story is too warm and fuzzy, her client’s story almost saves the movie. Asefa Ashwari, a courageous young Afghan woman who angered the Taliban by creating a school for girls. If she is sent home, she will almost certainly be killed. Screenwriter Dmitry Portnoy and director Sean Hanish made a film about the wrong woman.

There was a Q&A after the screening, but for transportation issues, I had to skip it.