Thursday, December 27, 2012

SCN: My coverage closes with Pedro Pérez Rosado's Western Sahara-themed WILAYA

Putting the lie (at least partially) to the documentary, Sons of the Clouds -- the movie that recently closed this year's Spanish Cinema Now -- the new narrative film from Pedro Pérez Rosado titled WILAYA takes place in either the Algerian or the Western Saharan desert (I am not sure which) and is the name of, not one of the movie's characters, as I had imagined, but of the type of long-term detention camp in which thousands of the Western Sahara people now reside. This is due to the take-over by Morocco of their land that was earlier colonized by Spain -- which eventually pulled out and left this little country, sparsely populated by nomadic people, to the devices of nearby and more powerful nations.

While Sons of the Clouds gives us a good historical perspective on what happened to the Western Sahara and why, Wilaya shows us an example of one group of these refugees in the center of which is a young woman adopted and raised by a Spanish family in Spain from age ten, who comes back to her distressed "roots" (these detention camps have existed for over a quarter century now) and tries to "fit in" again with an extended family to whose culture she feels almost no connection.

This is a terrible situation to be in, and the filmmaker (picture above, at right, with two of his cast members) reveals it to us slowly and carefully. We don't know that much about (I believe her name is) Fatimetu, but the lovely neophyte actress, Nadhira Mohamed (shown below), who plays her is certainly beautiful to observe. The way in which this movie seems to contradict its documentary "sister" is in how we see life lived in this camp. Sons of the Clouds tells us that the Western Saharan people (the Sahrawis) are remarkably Democratic in their life style and culture. Now, while I realize that everything is indeed relative, the culture shown here still seems oppressively male-dominated -- though, at least, females can drive and speak their mind without ending up dead. Religion is still strong here, however, but it does not seem to have the ability to regulate life and death. (This is probably one of the unintentional gifts to the Sahrawis from their Spanish colonizers; another is their ability to speak Spanish.)

With fine cinematography by the talented Óscar Durán (whom Jaime Rosales uses consistently), the movie offers the desert as a breathtaking backdrop for some interesting actors and actresses who breathe life into characters that, though we don't learn all that much about them, still manage to resonate and make us care. The kind and caring crippled young woman who is Fatimetu's sister (or maybe cousin) is also brought to fine life, as is another cousin, a younger man (well, really an older boy) named Said, who quickly falls in love with the new arrival and tries his best to woo her.

Said is played with low-key but smoldering sexuality that is something to behold, and we learn about his story, too. Missing his father who, years before left for Spain, Said's task in life -- in addition to winning his girl -- is to find the man again. There are also present Said's mother, an uncle and several other characters we meet and learn about, but the lion's share of the plot is given over to Fatimetu, Said and the crippled girl (shown above, left, and who can, it turns out, drive a car quite well).

The cultural differences between a character raised in Spain and another raised in these camps is handled with humor and some subtlety, and the performances of the entire cast are believable and specific. Our "Spanish" girl in particular, next to her Sahrawi counterparts, seems both selfish and far too entitled, but as the movie progresses, she begins to adapt. As do the other characters to her and her unusual abilities.

By the end of this quietly touching little film, a small but wonderful and moving rapprochement has been reached, and you leave the film noticeably more joyful than you entered it. The movie makes a fine double feature with Sons of the Clouds, and the pair should provide a real education about the Western Sahara for many of us.


Wilaya is yet another of the SCN movies that one wishes might have a chance to be seen again here in the U.S. This is probably unlikely, however. Which is the reason, for some of you who may wonder why I spend so much time on these Spanish films, that TrustMovies devotes a large chunk of his output to covering this annual series. Not only are the films shown eminently worthwhile (for the most part: Each series may contain a clinker or two, but the great majority are absolutely worth one's time), most of them will not be seen again on these shores. Therefore -- and since television critics ignore the series completely, and the print critics are lately doing the same -- that leaves us web bloggers with the job of making certain interested readers know what was seen here and why it was worthwhile.

Another good reason: These 20 films are among the best that Spain had to offer over the past year, so of course they are likely to make for worthwhile viewing. As to most -- well, many -- of the filmmakers, these Spaniards have poured their heart and soul into their films; at the very least, they should be able to know what someone over here in the U.S.A. felt about their creations. They deserve this, and we -- though most of us don't even realize it -- deserve to see their films. So thank you, Film Society of Lincoln Center and the about-to-retire Richard Peña, for gifting us with this series for the past 21 years. I dearly hope that the new Director of Programming, Year-Round, Robert Koehler, will continue the tradition.

And now, a final apology: I missed four of this year's programs (I usually see them all) -- due to the inability to make the film's public screenings, and/or to the fact that DVD screeners of these film were unavailable to critics. So, please accept my apology, Marçal Forés director and co-writer of Animals; Gabriel Velázquez, director and co-writer of Iceberg; Eduard Cortés, director and co-writer of Winning Streak; and all the many filmmakers involved in this year's assemblage of new Spanish shorts, Shortmetraje. I will hope to see all of these someday, but, as noted above, due to the lack of distribution available, my chances are probably slim.

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