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  • David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (20/10/2023)

(Reviews of Our River...Our Sky; Night of the Hunted; and A Mystery on the Cattle Hill Express)


OUR RIVER...OUR SKY.


Since debuting with the Channel Four documentary, Voices From Gaza (1989), Maysoon Pachachi has dedicated herself to depicting the lives of ordinary people. During the Iraq War, she revisited to her homeland for the first time in 30 years to make Return to the Land of Wonders (2004), which captured daily life after her politician father, Adnan Pachachi, was appointed to the Iraqi Governing Council.


During this sojourn, she teamed with Kasim Abid to found the Independent Film and Television College to give Iraqis an opportunity to record their own stories. She also edited Abid's 155-minute Life After the Fall (2008), which distilled five years of documenting the aftermath of the 2003 invasion. Now, at the age of 75, Pachachi makes her feature debut with Our River...Our Sky, a reflection on community spirit that draws on the experiences of novelist, activist, and co-scenarist, Irada Al-Jubori.


In a cosmopolitan area of Baghdad in December 2006, writer Sara (Darina Al Joundi) keeps track of troop movements on a large map on her wall. From her balcony, she hears someone playing `Silent Night' across the street and watches those scuttling through the curfew to smuggle goods or return home after a night's drinking. A car passes through a checkpoint, only for the driver to detonate a bomb. Residents peer out of their windows before returning to bed. After three years of occupation and sectarian slaughter, such events are no longer unusual.


A fisherman (Ali El Kareem) tends to his plants on the banks of the Tigris before noticing the floating corpse of a woman who has been executed for consorting with the enemy. Rookie policeman Emad (Karam Thamer) drives through the neighbourhood clearing up after another night's shelling and takes his place on the checkpoint for his first day on duty.


Sara readies daughter Reema (Zainab Joda) for school, while her mother, Khairiya (Suzan Muneam), chides brother Yahya (Amed Hashimi) over the photographs she has just received from her son, Sadiq, who has relocated to America. Yahya clerks for an architect, while Abu Haider (Mahmoud Abu Al Abbas) works as a gofer. His son, Haider (Muslem Hassoun) worries about his father's drinking, but Yahya is concerned that the teenager is vulnerable to the recruiters making fancy promises in order to lure the unsuspecting into sectarian gangs.


Having abandoned her taxi in a traffic jam, Sara comes to the office where she translates documents for those dealing with the US authorities. She thanks Professor Sami (Kamaran Raoof) for helping her get the PhD in English Literature that enables her to earn money. But he laments the fact that she has stopped writing short stories and hopes that she will be able to draw on what she has witnessed. He's about to leave for Syria and Sara is dismayed that people who have battled against war, sanctions, and Ba'athist repression can no longer bear to stay in Iraq.


Sara befriends Zahra (Fatima Mazin) and her younger brother, Saif (Yassin Taha), who are scraping a living as street hawkers. She chats to taxi driver Kamal (Basim Hajar), who panics when he realises that his passenger is a suicide bomber and orders him out of the car. A prisoner of war during the conflict with Iran, Kemal is trying to obtain documents to start his own business, as wife Mona (Labwa Arab) is pregnant. She, however, is anxious about her children from another marriage and about Nermeen (Siham Mustafa), her ageing mother, who has been withdrawn since her son, Ibrahim, was disappeared by Saddam Hussein's regime.


They share a house with Kareem (Zaydun Khalaf), a baker who is hoping to move to Brazil, as he is tired of serving gunmen at his café. Meanwhile, Sara visits her Christian actress friend, Sabiha (Badia Obaid), and gives her a copy of Federico García Lorca's

The House of Bernarda Alba as an early Christmas present. Her other close friend, Dijla (Myriam Abbas), is a manic depressive who frets about her younger brother, Nabil (Sami Al-Ali), who is confined to a wheelchair. Kamal is their older brother and he lectures her about covering her head in public after a pedestrian harangues her while riding in his taxi. Affronted, Dijla strides off into the congestion.


Sara gets home just as neighbour Mustafa is reunited with his kidnapped son and she chides her mother for allowing Reema to wander out on to the street alone after she had rowed with her playmate, Nour (Razan Maher), who is Sabiha's granddaughter. Nevertheless, she accompanies her to the funeral of a friend's son, only for them to be sent back by an armed guard and the old woman despairs that she no longer recognises Baghdad.


Kamal feels much the same way after he witnesses a kidnapping near the bakery. He sits on his bed and strums a saz and tries to ignore the argument between Mona and Nereen about her lost children. Kamal comes home and order his wife to forget about the man who wronged her and begs her not to fritter the imminent happiness their baby will bring by dwelling on the past. However, when he goes for a nap, she borrows his laptop to try and discover her ex-husband's whereabouts.


Obsessed with music and fashion, student Tamara (Kholod Mohamad) ticks off Emad at the checkpoint for making life difficult for ordinary people going about their business. The next day, he has to hide in the back of his bakery and Kareem overrules his assistant in giving him sanctuary. By contrast, Yahya has problems with his superiors, as they have been accepting bribes in order to sign off jobs that have cut corners and used cheap materials. Sara warns him about the dangers of speaking out, but he still warns Abu Haider about his son's growing involvement with a shady gang. When Yahya confronts the youth, however, he claims his new friends can help him exact revenge on those who killed his mother.


On Christmas Day, Sara spends time looking at old photos with Sabiha. She has been to church and feels sad that so few people felt able to celebrate. That night, however, someone daubs a threat on her front wall and Reema is distraught to discover that Nour and her grandmother have left hurriedly. Sara takes the bus to work. It gets stuck in a jam and the passengers listen the a helicopter passing overhead. The duck down at the sound of gunfire, but sit up to joke about the perils of existence and Sara scribbles down their quips in her notebook.


While Kamal accompanies Nermeen to the missing person's bureau, Mona goes to see her children and sobs as she watches them chase each other. Sara picks Reema up from school because her mini-bus driver has been shot and killed. Reema wants to know whether she's Sunni or Shi'a and her mother tells her to say she's Iraqi if she's ever asked. Fearful for her safety, Sara consults a people trafficker, who informs her that Reema is too young to travel. Conflicted about what to do for the best, Sara meets Tamara, who is appalled by the fact that young boys are being hired to execute `fallen women' for fraternising with the Americans. She curses the fact she has always been told to have patience, as she sees no future in a world gone mad.


Walking in the market, Dijla says she needs better `happy pills', so Sara buys her some falafel. When her mood fails to improve, Sara tells her to stop dwelling in the past and look forward. Nearby, Tamara (who has cut her hair short) goes to a café for a date with Nabil, who she got to know online. She is dismayed to see him in a wheelchair and storms out. However, she thinks better of it and is making her way back to the café when a bomb explodes.


Yahya resigns from his firm and Sara tries to persuade him to stay in Baghdad because life is about overcoming challenges. She takes Reema on a trip along the river with the fisherman and reminds her that the Tigris and the sky above it belong to them. In her room, Sara starts to write a story, while the fisherman hears the news that Saddam has been executed on 30 December. He looks up to see Haider sleepwalking on the balcony calling for his mother. His father steers him back to bed, while Kareem lights a cigarette. A baby's cries ring out over a long shot of the neighbourhood, with the sights and sounds of war greeting the infant whose destiny is to be part of a better tomorrow.


Less a film about the tumultuous events of the last week of 2006 than an account of how ordinary people reacted to what was happening around them, this intricate fabric of interweaving stories recognises the courage required to `act life' in the absence of normalcy and cling on to the fragile sense of hope that makes facing each new day possible. Pachachi and Al-Jubori's screenplay (that was originally entitled `Another Day in Baghdad') is relentlessly busy and makes few concessions to those not paying attention. Indeed, it takes a while to register all the characters and confirm their relationships to one another. But the fragments coalesce with an austere sense of authenticity that renders the measured approach to both content and form all the more compassionate, credible, and compelling.


Jonathan Bloom's camera is more interested in expressions than explosions, as Pachachi relies on André Stiebe's sound design to convey the atrocities occurring in the near distance. Yet this focus on faces reinforces both the tight-knit sense of community and the claustrophobic nature of being confined in an enclave that is vulnerable to attack from both indiscriminate mortars and self-proclaimed martyrs.


The ensemble playing is solid, but Darina Al Joundi stands out, as the woman torn between being a mother and a neighbour, an artist and an activist. Her relationships with Badia Obaid's Sabiha and Myriam Abbas's Dijla can feel a little contrived, particularly when they're used to make banner statements about the invasion and the insurgency, corruption and coercion, and religion and the status of women. But the documentarist in Pachachi ensures that she avoids melodrama in making her points with poignancy and power. Two scenes in particular standout, when Tamara and her friend see a pile of bodies at the side of the road and just hurry on and when an illiterate woman asks Kamal to search for a name among the dead in the missing persons office and is too preoccupied with his own concerns to console her on breaking the bad news.


NIGHT OF THE HUNTED.


Having started out as an actor in his native France, Franck Khalfoun has built a reputation Stateside as a director of indie horrors. Since debuting with P2 (2007), he has proved a dab hand at both building suspense and jolting pulse rates with such pictures as Wrong Turn at Tahoe (2009), Maniac (2012), i-Lived (2015), Amityville: The Awakening (2017), and Prey (2019). He attempts a state-of-the-nation piece with Night of the Hunted, although it's less likely to make you re-think your political standpoints than cause you to ponder on what's for sale in your local garage shop.


Alice (Camille Rowe) is sleeping with work colleague John (Jeremy Scippio) in a roadside motel when her partner, Erik (Aleksandar Popovic), calls because he's too excited by their upcoming appointment with a fertility specialist to sleep. Stopping off for petrol at a remote garage beneath a church billboard reading, `GODISNOWHERE', Alice goes inside to pay, while John fills up. Unable to raise the clerk, she notices blood on a sign behind the counter and get winged in the shoulder when she tries to leave. Struggling to staunch the blood and reach a walkie-talkie on the counter, she is unable to prevent John from being shot in the throat when he enters the store.


Realising that the man on the two-way is the sniper (Stasa Stanic), Alice unhooks one of the wheeled shelving units and reaches the wall to turn off the lights. Finding herself sitting next to the corpse of the shooter's unfaithful wife, Amelia (Brenda Nunez), she uses the radio to ask why she's being targeted, as she's never done the stranger any harm. But he's not in the mood to listen, as he seems to have a grudge against everyone.


Using some glue behind the counter to close her shoulder wound, Alice breaks a sunglasses display to make a periscope with the mirror and sees a car draw up at the pumps. Doug (J. John Bieler) is a friend of Amelia's, but Alice is suspicious because the shooter has fallen silent since his arrival. He agrees to sneak outside and retrieve his phone while she distracts the gunman with a torch beam. But he gets hit anyway and the killer taunts Alice for sending Doug to his death because she is too much of a coward to risk herself.


Taken aback by the fact the sniper knows which pharmaceutical company she works for, Alice denies that she is a drug dealer or lures people into addiction through the social media campaigns she posts. While he rants on about woke culture and the woes of white men in a world they no longer control, she tries to use some black-and-white golf umbrellas to block the lines of sight through the sliding door. As he reveals that he fought in Afghanistan, Alice spots another car pulling on to the forecourt.


When he lets the hippy who can't get the pump to work leave unaccosted, the shooter gloats that he's not a psychopath. Alice tries to reason with him and confides that her life is far from perfect, as she has spent it trying to please men with power over her. But he's not buying the fact she was sleeping with John to alleviate the pain and accuses her of always putting herself first, even to the point of having had a couple of abortions in her youth. She tells him where to get off, but has to watch in dismay as a cop car zooms past with its siren wailing.


He loses sight of her, as she tries to sneak round to John's car. But he hits her in the leg as Alice makes a dash back to the store and she passes out from the pain. Waking to make herself a hacksaw behind the counter, she tries to block out the gunman's claims that the world has gone crazy and that she's part of the problem. However, she responds by agreeing that things have been tough in recent times and that the media hasn't helped matters. Dismissing her efforts to chat, he quotes Kris Kristofferson's lyric from `Me and Bobby McGee' about freedom being another word for having nothing left to lose.


She calls him Henry and asks if he really lost a child, but they are interrupted by Bob (Brian Breiter) pulling up at the pump. He notices the parked cars and is shot trying to back away. Wife Eleanor (Abbe Andersen) rushes to his aid and is also struck, leaving Alice to despair at the sight of Bob trying to pull himself across the concrete to console his beloved.


The killer decries such cornball antics and tells Alice that she is better off being self-centred. She admits that not having kids is her own choice and she comes to the door to give him a clear shot. But he lets her go back inside because he wants to let her know that he's not some Trumpist maniac, but someone who simply wants to be left alone.


As he fumes, Alice spots Cindy (Monaia Abdelrahim) peering out of the car window at her dead grandparents. Aware that the shooter will have spotted her, Alice offers to let him kill her if he spares the innocent child. He agrees and she scrawls messages on a toilet roll to urge Cindy to flee. But she runs into the shop and Alice sees the shooter emerge from his position under the GODISNOWHERE sign.


Frantically, she saws at the padlock of the garage door and fashions a spear out of items lying around. As he approaches, the gunman tells her to consider his motives. Is he a hitman hired by her cuckolded husband or a former colleague she back-stabbed to gain promotion. Perhaps he's a disgruntled employee or an activist who followed her from the convention. He might even be a father seeking revenge for her company costing him his baby.


Ordering Cindy to hide and sing a song if she feels afraid, Alice confronts the sniper and they tussle over his gun after she stabs him in the side. He appears to overpower her, but she rallies and belts him with a pipe as he looms over Cindy. Dragging his body across the floor, Alice lowers the mechanical door and crushes his skull. However, the bullet wound to her abdomen proves fatal and the film ends with Cindy leaving the carnage behind her and wandering on to the highway, as the sun comes up.


Numbering Alejandre Aja among its producers, this is a slickly grotesque chiller that could easily form a disarming double bill with Ken Collins's hold-up comedy, Convenience (2013). Each makes canny use of the mini-mart setting, particularly the lighting, shelving, and the counter area, while ramping up the tension by having unsuspecting customers wander into the crime scene.


While the staging is adept, the discourse is less persuasive, as Khalfoun and co-scenarist Glen Freyer muse on the ills fueling the populist `Make America Great' ethos with hammer blows rather than lacerating incisions. Indeed, the subtlety of the script can be summed up by the signage dotted around the mise-en-scène: the bloodied `God grant me the serenity...' notice behind the counter, the `Luv a Lottery' slogan on one of the displays, and the billboard banner that can be read as `GOD IS NOW HERE' or `GOD IS NOWHERE'.


Camille Rowe brings a degree of complexity to what is essentially a Final Girl role, as she proves a resourceful adversary, while also not being a blameless victim. Remaining off screen until the denouement, Stasa Stanic has to rely on menacing threats and ruminations over a tinny walkie-talkie. But, while it's never made plain how he seems to know so much about Alice (or why she thinks he's called Henry), he's never as invidiously menacing as Robert Mitchum's Harry Powell in Charles Laughton's Night of the Hunter (1955).


Steeven Petitteville's camera work is suitably stealthy, while Stéphane Roche's editing is joltingly precise. Matthieu Carretier's score is less nimble, but it rather mirrors the timbre of Khalfoun's uneven direction, as it reworks not compatriot Jean Rollin's La Nuit des traquées (1980) but Spaniard David R. Losada's La noche del ratón (2015), which was primarily seen on the fright fest circuit.


A MYSTERY ON THE CATTLE HILL EXPRESS.


Five years have passed since Klara the cow made her first screen appearance in Lise I. Osvall's Cattle Hill (2018). British audiences missed out on the chance to see her in 3-D in Will Ashurst's Christmas At Cattle Hill (2020), but she's back with some new friends in A Mystery on the Cattle Hill Express. Introducing younger viewers to the whodunit format, this has its moments. But it lacks the sustained wit of Ashurst's BAFTA-nominated cartoon series, King Arthur's Disasters (2005-06), which boasted the vocal talents of Rik Mayall (King Arthur), Matt Lucas (Merlin), Morwenna Banks (Guinevere), and Phil Cornwell (Lancelot).


Klara the teenage cow (Emily Cass) and friend Gavin the goat (Barney Cooper) have turned detective to find the missing rake belonging to her farmer father, Biff (Tony Mooney). Uncle Baart the sheep (Tom Clarke-Hill) turns out to be the culprit, but Biff is more concerned about the state of the soil and isn't amused when Chickolina the hen (Fiona Paul) tries to do a rain dance. He's even less impressed when Pauline the porcine landlady (Julie-Ann Dean) shows up on her Segway to inform him that his land has been appropriated to test a new Nano- seed.


Biff doesn't approve of genetically modified crops, but agrees to take a trip on a flashy train owned by Albert Einswine (Eric Meyers), the inventor of the wonder seed. His lab forms part of the train, which runs on methane (or cow farts and burps, as Albert puts it) and he proudly shows the animals around. Biff turns his nose up at Super Seed X, which can be programmed to produce any crop required. Consequently, when the prototype is stolen, he becomes a prime suspect for ace detective rabbit, Agatha Christensen (Fiona Paul).


Thrilled to be assisting the famous sleuth, Klara and Gavin feel bad about Biff being placed in the train's jail cell. So, they do a little clue gathering of their own, while Baart stuffs himself in the restaurant car and Chickolina conducts a New Age ritual with Albert's robotic servants, who resemble corked Erlenmeyer flasks. They find a broken button, a bent spoon, some Groucho glasses, and a jacket that has a hand-sketched map of the train in one of the pockets.


Klara is baffled, but they borrow some photos taken by Ernie the moose reporter (Tom Clarke-Hill) and spot a blurred bit of jacket in a snap of Baart picking his nose. This leads them to a ventilation shaft, where they overhear Albert claiming insurance on the stolen seed. Suspecting that he has taken it as part of a scam, they delve into Albert's involvement in Rabbit Woods and realise that Cattle Hill will be the tenth farm to test Super Seed X,


Taking their findings to Agatha, she commends them on their work. But the other half of the broken button drops from her handbag and Klara deduces (in a monochrome flashback) that Agatha had slipped aboard the train in disguise, used the spoon to enter the air vent and lowered herself into the lab to purloin the seed. She applauds Klara's reasoning, but insists she's on a mission and slips out of a window on to the train roof.


Hurling carrots at Klara to stop her from following, Agatha goes to the room containing Metana (Julie-Ann Dean), the computer that runs the train. Gavin's allergy to rabbits allows Klara to track her down and learn that Albert destroyed Rabbit Woods with his demon seed. A cartoon flashback shows the trail of destruction left behind by the experiment. But Agatha has detached the engine from the rest of the train to make her escape and it crashes after they let out all of the methane.


Agatha entrusts Klara with the seed and vanishes before the rest of the train rolls up. Biff returns to the farm to find that letting the soil rest has done it the power of good and everyone gets back to farming the old-fashioned way, with Albert using his methane technology to power Biff's tractor. In voiceover, Klara announces that love is all you need when you love what you do and that she hopes the future at Cattle Hill will be bright.


Brash and breezy, this junior whodunit is more likely to make an impact on home entertainment platforms than at the cinema. The mystery isn't particularly baffling, as only two of the characters aren't series regulars. But screenwriter Kristian Landmark tinkers amusingly with the conventions of the genre, while Ashurst finds stylish ways to present the flashbacks.


The voiceovers are a tad over-emphatic, but they go some way to atoning for the skimpy characterisation that presumes viewers are already familiar with the Cattle Hill crew. There's also a peculiar musical number that reveals Agatha, Klara, and Gavin having a good time while solving the crime. But we could do without the dubious joke about the protruding key when Biff falls on top of Baart after the train jolts while he's unlocking the cell door. Having escaped scot-free, Agatha hints at a return before she vanished. Let's hope they don't attempt another Christie pastiche.


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