• David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (20/8/2021)

(Reviews of Sabaya; Pig; and Conni and the Cat)


Cinemas are open again. But not everyone is going to want to sit in the dark being distracted by the prospect of whether everyone else in the auditorium is still behaving as though the social distancing guidelines are still in place.


Consequently, the streaming platforms seem set to keep up their good work a little while longer. In addition to subscription sites like Curzon Home Cinema. MUBI, Netflix and the BFI Player, therefore, the likes of iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Microsoft, Vimeo, Google Play, Rakuten, BT and Playstation will be staying open for business. Whatever choice you make, stay safe.


SABAYA.


Having made a deep impression with The Girl Who Saved My Life (2016) and The Deminer (2017), 40 year-old Swedish Kurdish documentarist Hogir Hirori produces another indelible study of everyday reality in the war-torn Middle East with Sabaya, which chronicles the efforts of the Yazidi Home Center to rescue abducted women and girls from the al-Hawl refugee camp that is situated on the Syrian-Iraqi border.


As the battle rages between ISIS and the Syrian Democratic Forces, 73,000 refugees seek shelter at al-Hawl, which lies on the Syrian side of the border. A worker at the Yazidi Home Center run by Sheik Ziyad, Mahmud Rasho is intent on liberating girls and women who have been treated as `sabaya' by ISIS forces. The term translates as `female prisoner of war', but everyone also knows it means `sex slave'.


Mahmud places volunteers in the camp to seek out Yazidis who need to be removed and Hirori has to don a niqab to hide his camera so that he can film inside al-Hawl, as a new infiltrator is registered with the camp authorities. He maintains phone contact with his agents (reception permitting) and risks his life in leading nocturnal raids on the camp with an ancient pistol tucked into the waistband of his trousers. However, his devotion to duty isn't always appreciated by his wife, Siham, who wishes he was home more to help her raise their sons, Suleymn and Shadi, along with his mother, Zahra.


At al-Hawl, Eylol (who is the leader of the camp's female troops) says there are people from 58 countries on the site. She jokes she is more powerful than Donald Trump, as she leads Mahmud's party to the tents where Leila has been hidden. There's a degree of chaos, as the women living in the sector deny any knowledge of the sabaya. But they locate her and she describes how badly she had been beaten, as they shake off a car pursuing them through ISIS territory.


Eventually, they reach the YHC and Zahra gives Leila a reassuring welcome. They remove the black clothing she has been forced to wear and give her the space to sleep and come to terms with being free. She laments the loss of the male members of her family and curses the world for being such a dark place, as she tells the camera she is contemplating suicide. As time heals and she is joined by other women, she is able to smile and offer support to those telling tales of being beaten with broomstick handles until they snap.


Meanwhile, Mahmud and Ziyad have been tipped off about three girls who were kidnapped in Sinjar some five years ago, when they were 12-13 years old. They are aware the smugglers will be guarding them, as they can be sold for a good price. But they venture into the camp in the middle of the night and refuse to believe the protestations of a woman who claims she teaches at one of the camp schools.


They go from tent to tent asking women to remove their veils so they can be inspected. After a while, they find the Yazidi girl and she identifies the teacher as her jailer. Despite her protests that four witnesses are needed to condemn her, she is turned over to the military police. The girl returns to YHC, where she describes how she was taken to Mosul and forced to marry an older man. When he was killed, she was held in an ISIS house until another husband could be found.


Shadi helps Siham burn the black clothing and provides new outfits for the rescued women to wear. As new search requests come in, Mahmud also makes plans for his emancipated guests to cross the border to Sinjar. However, nothing can be done quickly and the YHC volunteers have learned to remain calm at all times. They are also intent on finding out about how ISIS abused their victims and Mahmud pays a visit to Hasake Prison, where around 10,000 jihadists are being held.


One man he interviews looks suitably shamed at having had a sabaya, but Ziyad isn't sure the information gathered was worth the risk taken. A few days later, the fields that are the YHC's sole source of income are set alight. But Mahmud shrugs that tomorrow is another day and that his mission will continue.


After being told by his contact that she couldn't find Dilsoz, Mahmud drives up to her in broad daylight and takes her away in his van. His next target is Mitra, who is only seven years old. An initial sortie ends in frustration, but they return to the same tent by night and find her and Siham takes pleasure in brushing her hair and showing her clips on her phone to keep her amused. She was snatched when she was still a baby and can only speak Arabic rather than Kurdish. But the other women take a shine to her and brightens their days, as news comes about Turkish air strikes and ISIS bomb plots in the villages surrounding al-Hawl, which has itself become a no go zone.


One of the rescued girls had born a son to an ISIS fighter and his picture is taken while his mother re-finds her feet. But the time has come to take the women back to Sinjar and tearful farewells and reunions follow. YHC's work goes on, however, and a new group of infiltrators are readied to go undercover at al-Hawl. Shooting can be heard in the distance, as ISIS try to intimidate their adversaries. Nothing can stop them seeking out their sabaya sisters, however, and the camera follows inside a niqab, as the search begins all over again.


Closing captions reveal that 206 Yazidi women and girls have been freed by YHC, 52 of whom had given birth to children. Over 2000 are still missing, however, and their fate will depend upon people like the unassuming heroes and heroines in this harrowingly immersive documentary, which should serve as a clarion call for the world's so-called big powers to intervene on behalf of the persecuted and abused.


They won't, of course, because they never do. Indeed, the ongoing shameful retreat from Afghanistan reveals how little store the United States and its allies set by those under threat from fundamentalists and extremists. Consequently, it's left to remarkable individuals like Mahmud and Ziyad and the necessarily faceless moles to locate and liberate the Yazidis exploited by the ISIS/Daesh thugs who treat them as barterable chattels rather than human beings.


Blending into the background and operating unobtrusively with the same freakish sense of calm as Mahmud and his cohorts, Hirori works wonders as cameraman and confidante. His editing is similarly all the more effective for its pragmatism and restraint. There are no lurid descriptions of brutality here. Instead, the inhumanity of ISIS and its ethos is exposed through the deeds and endurance of ordinary men, women and children who refuse to let them prevail.


PIG.


Hailing from Wisconsin, Michael Sarnoski studied film at Yale before making his first short, Love of the Dead (2011). Released the same year, his second outing, Fight Night Legacy, spawned a TV series and he has since directed for another show, Olympia, as well as completing another short, That (2012). After some time away from the camera, he returns with his feature debut, Pig, which affords Nicolas Cage his best role since David Gordon Green's Joe (2013).


In the first part of the narrative triptych, `Rustic Mushroom Tart', recluse Robin Feld (Nicolas Cage) forages in the woods for truffles with his porcine companion. He rewards her for finding a particularly fine specimen with a mushroom tart cooked outside the cabin they share in the depths of the woods.


Rob's sole contact with the outside world is Amir (Alex Wolff), who is trying to make his name selling luxury ingredients to the high-end restaurants in Portland, Oregon, He doesn't understand why Rob would resist bathing and dedicate himself to his pig. But he knows that the supply he collects each Thursday is always top quality and will help him emerge from the shadow of his successful father, Darius (Adam Arkin).


One night, Rob is knocked unconscious and his pig is stolen. He staggers into town to ask Donna the diner waitress (Beth Harper) if he can use her phone. He calls Amir and orders him to drive his flashy yellow sports car to the camp operated by a rival truffle hunter. When she hears about the theft, she tells Rob about a couple of drug addicts (Julia Bray and Elijah Ungvary) whose van had been seen in the vicinity. Terrified, they reveal that they passed the animal to someone from Portland and Rob coerces Amir into driving him into the city.


The pair head for a large hotel. Edgar (Darius Pierce) is surprised to see Rob, but insists he knows nothing about the pig. He also informs Amir that Rob used to be one of the most famous chef in Portland until his wife died some 15 years ago and he simply disappeared. Amazed to be traveling with the great Robin Feld, Amir accompanies him into the hotel kitchen and helps pull away the shelves blocking a secret door.



As `Mom's French Toast & Deconstructed Scallops' opens, Amir cooks Rob breakfast in his apartment and recalls how his ever-bickering parents had returning from his restaurant in the sweetest mood because the food had been so sublime. He also reveals that his mother had been driven to suicide and admits that he wants to beat his father at his own game. Rob asks Amir to book a table at the trendy Eurydice restaurant before wandering into the suburbs to visit the house where he had lived with Lori (Cassandra Violet). He finds a small boy sitting on the back step and they discuss the fate of the persimmon tree.


Following an underground passage, they reach an open space where Darius is compèring a bare-knuckle boxing bout that gives staff members a chance to earn extra money by acting as punch bags for gamblers to bet on the number of blows they can take. Rob volunteers himself and takes a savage pulping from a rich punter who has to be restrained after Edgar allows him a few extra digs. However, he also hands over a scrap of paper containing the next clue.


At Eurydice, Rob sticks out with is grizzly beard, dishevelled attire and the untended cuts and bruises from his battering. He is appalled by the pretentious menu and asks to see the chef. Derek Finway (David Knell) doesn't recognise Rob at first and tries fawning over him until he is reminded that he was fired after a fortnight for overcooking the pasta. Rob asks Derek why he gave up on his dream of opening an English pub serving Scotch eggs and reminds him that the critics and patrons he panders to don't care a thing about him. Before leaving, he asks about his pig and Derek admits to knowing its whereabouts and suggests Rob would do well to avoid a confrontation, as Darius is not a man to mess with.


Furious with Amir for blabbing to his father about the pig, Rob ends their partnership and storms off to tackle Darius. While Amir pays a visit to his mother, who is in a long-term coma, Rob turns down Darius's offer of $25,000 to walk away and forget the pig. Even when Darius threatens to kill the animal, Rob refuses to back down and is nettled when he implies that no one has missed him in the decade since Lori died.


Leaving the house, Rob is surprised to find Amir waiting for him on the doorstep. He admits that he doesn't need the pig to find truffles, as he reads the signs given by trees. But he loves the creature and simply wants her back.


As Rob gives Amir a list of ingredients, `A Bird, a Bottle and a Salad Baguette' sees the pair go in different directions. Amir collects a bottle of wine from the chapel of rest where Lori reposes, while Rob revisits his old restaurant and asks Helen (October Moore) for one of her salted baguettes. She took over Hestia and (befitting premises named after the Greek goddess of the hearth) converted it into a bakery and Rob commends her on removing the curtains from the front windows, as Lori had always urged him to do.


Hooking up with Amir, Rob breaks into Darius's house and proceeds to cook him the meal he had so enjoyed all those years before. Reluctant to come to the table, Darius dissolves into tears after a few mouthfuls and retreats to his office. Rob asks for this pig and is told that the junkies had made such a mess of abducting her that she had to be put down. Darius apologises, as Rob crumples to the floor and starts to rock himself in agony.


Amir takes Rob to the Skyline Tavern, where he laments that the pig would have remained alive in his imagination if he hadn't gone looking for her. But Amir points out that the pig would still be dead and Rob shrugs in agreement. He accepts a lift home, but decides to walk through the woods. Shaking hands, he arranges to see Amir on Thursday and trudges back towards the cabin. Pausing to wash his face in the stream, Rob gets home and plays a birthday cassette that Lori had made of her singing Bruce Springsteen's `I'm on Fire'.


Coming after a compelling pair of documentaries, Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw's The Truffle Hunters and Victor Kosakovsky's Gunda (both 2020), Michael Sarnoski's Oregon odyssey could easily seem a little trite by comparison. Indeed, with its mythological allusions and classical music references on Amir's car stereo, it could even be accused of being a tad pretentious. But Sarnoski and co-scenarist Vanessa Block (whose 2015 documentary short, The Testimony, he co-wrote) have to be given the benefit of the doubt that there's a knowingness behind such digressions from the gruff intensity and single-minded sincerity of Rob's pursuit.


It helps enormously, of course, that he is played by Nicolas Cage, who is the only actor currently working in Hollywood who could invest his performance with such a high-wire blend of pathos, rage and absurdity. Some of his hissed words of wisdom have a fortune cookie feel, but Cage dignifies them with a deadpan profundity in conveying the intensity of the heartache he has endured in losing the only two things he has ever loved. Moreover, by being prepared to sacrifice his self-sufficient solitude in order to retrieve something he treasures, he embodies the real meaning of value and the true sense of taste.


Alex Wolff just about keeps pace, as the conscience-stricken Amir, while Adam Arkin and Darius Pierce contribute cameos of blistering malevolence that make it clear why Rob would have wanted to shroud his past in secrecy. Cinematographer Pat Scola ably contrasts the light in the forest and the urban jungle, while editor Brett W. Bachman maintains a measured pace befitting a man striving to retain his poise while stumbling around in the dark. Alexis Grapsas and Philip Klein's is also nicely judged, as is Sarnoski's direction, as he keeps threatening to take the action into Cage XXL territory, but keeps the focus instead on the russet porker with no name, whose endearingly snuffling performance proves all too short.


CONNI AND THE CAT.


Although she's excited about the prospect of going on a three-day kindergarten trip to the Old Mill with her class, Conni (Mia Ciscon) knows she is going to miss her grey cat, Mau. She gets told off for trying to smuggle him into her haversack and he's locked indoors when her parents take Conni to the school. However, Mau follows them and is accidentally bundled into the luggage hold of the coach and gets bounced around on cobbles during an eventful journey that also sees Conni's classmates, Lars (Caleb Wilson) and Simon (Zac Ciscon) scare new classroom assistant Lennart (Adam Diggle) with stories about the Mill being haunted by the ghost of a robber baron.


Teacher Hanne (Noella Brennan) is amused by them ribbing him, but reminds them that they have to behave themselves while they're away. Mau doesn't get the message, however. On arriving at the Mill, he jumps down and sneaks into the undergrowth before anyone can spot him. Conni thinks she hears him miaowing, but reasons she must be imagining things.


The Mill is run by Mrs Weingartner (Amy De Bhrún) and Mr Polda (Dan Russell), who supervises the activities. Mrs Weingartner has a son, Luca (Séafra O'Rourke), who owns a pet racoon called Oscar because his mother is allergic to cats. During a bonfire cookout, the children play fencing with their toasting forks and a sausage gets hurled into the undergrowth. Mau and Oscar fight over it and Conni is again convinced she can hear her pet rustling in a clump of grass.


Needing somewhere to sleep, Mau clambers up a drainpipe and skips across the roof tiles until he finds the dormitory that Conni is sharing with Laura (Evie McNaughton), Anna (Siobhán Ní Thuairisg) and Semire (Cara O'Rourke), as well as the boys. He's so pleased to see her that he bounces between beds and Conni has to hide him in the attic to prevent them getting into trouble, because pets are barred.


Next morning, Conni wakes to find Mau missing. He has chased a magpie into a tree, but falls from a branch and lands in a bowl of eggs that Mrs Weingartner has left on a table. She blames Oscar and even wonders if he is responsible for the theft of a golden ring, in telling Luca that she is considering sending the racoon to the nearby petting zoo if he causes any more trouble.


Unable to find Mau, Conni confides in Anna and Simon that he's at the Mill, although she insists that she didn't bring him on purpose. They agree to help her find him because that's what friends do. But they look in all the wrong places, as Mau gambols with some butterflies and finds himself swinging from a horse's tail before being bounced off its back.


Luca warns Conni to stay away from the racoon pen and she snaps that it's obvious why he has no friends because he's so rude. In fact, Luca is lonely because the Mill is miles from anywhere and guests never stay longer than a week. He decides to pay Conni back by following her party to the nearby caves, where Mr Polda tells the children about the prehistoric bears that used to live there. Using a model and a torch, Luca casts a giant bear shadow on the cave wall and Lennart gets scared when he hears a loud growling noise.


Meanwhile, Oscar and Mau team up to open the pen door and play around some sheets Mrs Weingartner has put out to dry. Oscar gets wrapped in one and Mau tears it with his claws in an effort to free him. But he runs away, with the result that Oscar is blamed for ripping the sheet and Mrs Weingartner calls the man from the petting zoo.


Luca blames Conni for losing his pet and, that night, he tries to scare her in the costume chamber. However, Mrs Weingartner and Lennart hear a noise and barge in just as Mau leaps on to a suit of armour and the lights go out. The kids escape, but Mrs Weingartner finds Luca's sneakers behind a curtain. Hanne isn't impressed with Lennart being such a cowardy custard and he goes to bed feeling sorry for himself.


At breakfast, Conni tries to help Luca by telling Mrs Weingartner that Mau tore the sheet. But she refuses to believe there's a cat on the premises because it would trigger her allergies. Besides, she has more to worry about because Laura has lost a bracelet that had been given to her by her grandmother. Conni knows that Mrs Weingartner will only forgive Luca if they can catch the thief and suggests leaving a silver soldier on the windowsill with some modelling clay around it.


When the bait vanishes, they see the claw marks on the clay and realise that the magpie is the culprit. However, they can't find its nest in the tree and aren't allowed to follow it outside the Mill, as they have been grounded and ordered to help Martha with the kitchen chores. This also means they have to miss the trip to the neighbouring castle. But they can't resist following when the magpie flies away and they are amazed when they see it land on the turret on the top of the castle tower.


In a bid to scare Mr Polda and the children away, Luca dresses in armour and pretends to be a robber baron's ghost. Naturally, Lennart gets the heebee jeebies, but Lars recognises Luca's sneakers. Nevertheless, there's a comic chase down the stairs that allows Conni to slip up to the tower to find the magpie's nest. She spots the jewellery, but can't reach it without the risk of falling. However, she finds a lose stone in the wall and disturbs the bird, which attacks her before flying away. Reaching inside the hole, Conni recovers the loot and everyone hurries back to the Mill.


Luca rushes in to find Oscar to be met by Mrs Weingartner sneezing in the kitchen. She mentions her allergy and Conni produces Mau. However, she also shows Mrs Weingartner the recovered trinkets and she is relieved that the crisis is over. Luca thinks that Oscar has been sent away, but Martha had found the modelling clay and had shown it to Mrs Weingartner, who had sent the petting zoo man away empty handed, That night, there's a party and everyone dances to the music, with Hanne being delighted when Semire plays along on her recorder.


Based on the picture books of German author Liane Schneider, Ansgar Niebuhr's Conni: The Secret of Mau the Cat (as the title appears on screen) is an enjoyable adventure that should keep younger viewers happily engaged. The story is relatively simple and the characters are relatable, if not particularly diverse. But the focus will fall on Mau and Oscar, who are animated without excessively anthropomorphic cuteness. Indeed, the feline behaviour is well observed and it would be nice to think that the film will send dozens of tinies off to their local library to find some of the Conni and Mau texts.


The script contains lots of references to friendship and teamwork, as well as the need to respect animals, which are all good themes for small children. They will also learn a little about the differences between living in the town and in the country attitudes, as well as the importance of telling the truth, even when you don't want to and bad things might happen as a consequence.


The adults are an odd bunch, with Mrs Weingartner coming down hard on Luca while being so welcoming to her guests. By contrast, Hanne and Polda are more prosaic. But the tiresomely timid Lennart is resolutely unfunny and his hurried introduction before the bus departs leaves one wondering what he's doing there at all, other than to be the butt of the jokes.


The voiceovers are genial enough, although the Irish accents become more pronounced as the story progresses. Another curious detail is the inclusion of the characters' bottom teeth. As they are only ever glimpsed in the corners of their mouths, it makes it look as though they are constantly chewing gum. This can be overlooked, however, providing Conni's tussle with the magpie is a homage to Tippi Hedren's ordeal in Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (1963).


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