Nathaniel reporting from the last weekend at TIFF where brides-to-be are in the air. It's easy to see little mini-festivals blossom within the overall festival you're watching. Sometimes it happens quite by accident as with three films I caught recently (two of which might be fighting for Oscar foreign film nods). All feature female protagonists who pine for a man they thought they would marry before things went horribly wrong. We've already discussed François Ozon's Frantz. In that film the fiancee is already dead when the movie begins but in these next two films The Wedding Ring from Niger and Sand Storm from Israel, both of the young women begin the movie with a combination of dread and hope: will they be able to marry the man they loved who they met in a liberal university setting or does their conservative rural village community have other futures in mind? Both films are narrative debuts by female directors. In addition to their romantic dramas these two films speak to the clash of modernity and tradition, West and East, and especially to gender roles with young women chafing at the expectations placed on them to be subservient to whims of the patriarchy...
Sand Storm (Dir. Elite Zexer, Israel)
Nominated for 12 Ophir Awards (Israel's Oscars). World Cinema Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. Oscar Submission Finalist.
This debut feature, which has already met awards success, initially appears to be all about a young rebellious college student named Layla (Lamis Ammar) who doesn't want to follow the customs of her parents. She's not strict with her clothing and has a tense relationship with her downtrodden mother. Her father humors her to an extent, or so Layla thinks. Soon, though, Sand Storm reveals its true intent: Layla's frequent clashes with her mother Jalila (Ruba Blal), a strict Bedouin woman who is very tetchily hosting her husband's second wedding, reveal how deep the patriarchal traditions of this rural community run and how caged everyone feels, even the father Suliman (Hitham Omari).
He regular defaults to local customs and religious expectations and says "I had no choice" which angers both his wife and his daughter. In one of the smartest sympathy complicating scenes we learn that the second wife, who seems to be getting the lion's share of the husband's money and attention, also feels essentially trapped in a strangely concubine like role. The family drama and oppressive community expectations form a toxic mix and when Layla and her father realize they have very different ideas about who she'll marry things go from bad to worse. We get a peek into unfamiliar rituals and customs - why are the women wearing fake mustaches at the wedding?! Why are brides clothed in elaborate wedding gowns that seem to be parodies of Western culture? Despite holding your interest, the film's oppressively dour tone stamps out a broader range of feelings that might have benefited our understanding of the family dynamics and the way the characters are complicit in the oppression even though they love each other (I think). The lynchpin character of Layla was also hard to warm to, Ammar playing her less as a headstrong progressive daughter than a petulant reckless teenager. [Sand Storm, which will likely be the Israeli Oscar submission if it wins big at the Ophirs, will be playing at NYC's Film Forum beginning September 28th for two weeks.] B-/C+
The Wedding Ring (Dir. Rahmatou Keïta, Niger/Burkina Faso)
TIFF's "City to City" program highlights a different city each year, celebrating filmmakers who live and work there (the films don't have to be set there). This year they chose Lagos, Nigeria. Nigeria's film industry (known as "Nollywood") gets little attention away from home, unlike other large film capitals like Hollywood, Bollywood, or the French or Chinese industries. I knew I had to see at least one film from the program. I chose the film that sounded most interesting. No, I amend: I chose the one that had gorgeous costumes in the stills. I am, after all, me.
The Wedding Ring, while somewhat shakily acted, didn't disappoint on the costume level. Tiyanna (the talented and beautiful Magaajyia Silberfeld) is pining for a man she hopes to marry who she met when she was sent "to the white man's land" - which land is unspecified. Her best friend worries that the relationship went too far in the West where "there are no taboos - people touch and kiss everywhere!" Tiyanna spends the entire movie moping about missing her college boyfriend but The Wedding Ring keeps things amusing and interesting rather than monotonous. She's frequently surrounded with colorful characters like a Westernized girl who struts around in tight jeans and tank top (to the horror of her peers), the elderly chatty women of her village who want Tiyanna out of her funk, and a mystic who reads her future in a bowl of teeth and gives her rituals to perform to win her man.
Despite the light tone there are a few unsettling moments and numerous warning signs that Tiyanna has been dumped including a tragicomic relief character that she loves to visit with, the town crazywoman who had once married a White Man and sits homeless outside the house he once built for her determined after years of waiting that he will return. The Wedding Ring's playful mix of the silly and serious, its beautiful costumes, and a charismatic lead performance all add up to a charming film. B
P.S. Nigeria was approved for Oscar submissions by the Academy in 2014 but has yet to submit a film. One of the problems is that a large number of Nollywood films are in English. Though The Wedding Ring is produced outside of Nigeria (in neighboring Niger and Burkina Faso, the latter of which has submitted once to the Academy in 1989) the director is Nigerian so -- perhaps one of those three countries can submit it? There's no reason why they shouldn't if they're lacking in foreign language options! It's good and its in multiple foreign languages.