REVIEW: The Wanted 18: Contemporary Cinema from the Islamic World

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Claymation from the perspective of cows, real interviews of Palestinians and Israelis, a personal narrative interwoven as the spine of the movie, and a compelling true story of a town of Palestinian people who secretly milked eighteen cows as a way to resist Israeli occupation– this movie is artistically ambitious, politically evocative, and utterly heartrending.

The International Institute and Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies is hosting a series of movies of contemporary cinema from the Islamic world, and The Wanted 18 is kicking off the series. The film screenings take place in East Quad’s Benzinger library at 7 p.m. After the film screening, audience members had a short dialogue on the movie lead by the series’ curator. I appreciated the organization of the events, the dialogue that followed it, and the film was easily one of the best documentaries I’ve seen.  

This documentary takes place in Beit Sahour in the 1980s, a small town east of Bethlehem with a majority-Christian Palestinian population. The people of Beit Sahour used the cows as a way to boycott Israeli goods and remain self-sufficient. The eighteen cows went from ordinary livestock to infamous celebrities that were “threats to the national security of the state of Israel”. How? How did these cows, as one interviewee put it, become “political activists” alongside the Palestinians against Israeli occupation?

This movie unfolds that answer in one of the most creative documentary formats. The film brilliantly includes claymation in a comic-book-like style. In fact, it takes the humor so far that the animation is from the perspective of the cows. They’re the hilarious epicenters of the movie, and all the events unfold around them. “Oh, shit,” one cow says to another as they’re given off to the Palestinians; they have distinct characters (Lola is called the “sexy cow”, for example); they don’t side with the Palestinians or the Israelis, but are shown to be strong and powerful allies to their own cause. We as the audience relate to the cows in some very commonplace way– they have western accents, make crudely funny remarks, seem to full of desire and indecision. At first, the cows are reluctant to join the side of the Palestinians and even try escaping from the truck that held them. One cow said in the beginning to the Palestinian attempting to milk her, “Ugh, get lost, tiny terrorist.”

As much as we get of the cows, though, we also get of real interviews from people that lived through the boycott. For the people of Beit Sahour, these cows represented an attempt to join the narrative of resistance and recognition. One man from the documentary says when first acquiring the cows: “I felt as if we had started to realize our dreams of freedom and independence.” The cows became Beit Sahour’s symbols of civil disobedience and autonomy from occupation. They knew they were mere civilians– a doctor sweeping the street, a homemaker hanging up the laundry, butchers, teachers, tailors– but they wanted to feel like their lives were no longer dictated by an external force, like their homes weren’t a prison. “We deserve to have our homes,” another interviewee said, “We deserve to have our land, we deserve to have our freedom, and we deserve to have our cows.”

During the height of Palestinian resistance in 1987, the cows rise to celebrity status outside of Beit Sahour and Israelis become deeply paranoid that they may lose control over their occupied lands. In a scramble to regain power and composure, the Israelis declare the eighteen cows as “wanted criminals”

There are parts of this movie that are controversial and jarring. There is an animated scene where a woman throws off her bedsheets and finds a dead cow beneath them; some of the things the cows say can be considered offensive expletives, like the “tiny terrorist” comment; one person frequently referred to by the interviewees dies at the end of the movie to the heartbreak of the audience; and of course, we know the struggle is not over for the people of Beit Sahour, or Palestinians, and Israelis. During the dialogue, one person critiqued the movie for trivializing the seriousness of the issue by the sense of crude humor the cows possess. The director of the film, however, counters this; he says, “When you laugh, you are challenging your oppressor and challenging the image of being a victim.” There is a great deal of conversation to be had around this film, for it is complex and deals with complex issues.

What I love about this movie is that it takes something so difficult to discuss and creates conversation around it in a manner that is intelligent and artistic. I would recommend this film to anyone who is exploring art from the Islamic world, or who is interested in political art, or loves to watch compelling, deeply moving documentaries. This film is brilliant and raw in its storytelling and creativity, and, in its own way, is a form of resistance.

You can find more films in this film series in the poster below:

Additional sources:

PREVIEW: 2001: A Space Odyssey

For the 50th anniversary of the release of Stanley Kubrick’s classic movie “2001: A Space Odyssey”, the University Music Society along with Michigan Engineering are co-presenting the groundbreaking film in a special viewing. This free event will feature live orchestral and choral accompaniment by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra for a one-of-a-kind experience at Hill Auditorium on Friday, September 21 st 8pm. Registration for the event is currently full, but general admission will open at 7:40pm to people without a ticket on a first come, first serve basis, so it’s not too late to attend this out-of-this-world showing of one of the greatest sci-fi movies of all time.

REVIEW: Searching.

So much of our lives takes place in the realm of screens and the digital abundance, and these days, the web is vast and alive, leading to a kind of fascination with an almost Kantian sublime. Thus, technology has this great potential for horror – as seen in television shows like Black Mirror and in movies like Unfriended, laying out a perfect foundation for a thriller set in this medium.But what separates Searching from other films using the same laptop cinema format is the intrinsic understanding of the internet and technology. The director of the film, Aneesh Chaganty – who has worked at Google and was born to computer engineering parents – has a clear sense of the behaviours of online individuals and the way the web works, and the presence of technology is elevated beyond a singular screen.

The film is detailed and realistic; each application, like Reddit, like Tumblr or Instagram is used in a way that is subtle in its familiarity, perfect in the part it plays in leaving clues and unfolding this story. Details like the timeline montage in the beginning add to the pull and immersion into the online world, and the indications of what is to come, scattered throughout places like Pam’s text document, a school homepage, or a video call, invite us for a second, third, and fourth viewing.

The use of media is carefully considered. Everything is elegant in that any use of the screens feels natural, doesn’t feel clunky, or have the need to be explained away. So the technology is comfortable in the script of the movie, only enhancing the central plot points and themes. It is not the whole movie; it does not constitute the entirety of the plot. Instead, it helps frame a well-paced thriller and the continuing theme of family.

The plot itself is well thought out with all ends neatly tied. With a brutal precision, the film reveals revelations that change the course of the story, a single, exact moment that often uproots the entirety of the direction John Cho’s character, David Kim, had been gunning towards. These twists are framed with things as simple as just a shot of an interior of a car or a mouse hover over an image. It’s this rhythm and pacing of the film that builds the tremendous momentum towards the ending.

We feel for these characters from the very beginning; pictures and clips that David looks at from time to time remind us of the depth of the characters and their motivations, and what makes them act the way they do. As David discovers more about his daughter through her digital footprints, the words she had no place to express but on camera – so do we. The relationships established between the characters through the medium and the universality of these sentiments make it easy to care.

While like the way Crazy Rich Asians is lauded for showcasing an east Asian cast in vivid colour, Searching is much subtler in the way it introduces us to our Asian leads, and perhaps is even more important in the place it has in an industry that struggles with diversity. filmmakers often had to find a “reason” for including diverse characters, relegating them to certain roles and archetypes, and Searching does away with any such requirement or “explanation” as to why the family is Korean. It simply is, giving us common experiences we can share and relate to. Ground-breaking yet understated, the film poses itself to be the classic prototype for many more movies to come.

PREVIEW: The Wanted 18: Contemporary Cinema from the Islamic World

If you’re interested in the intersection between art and politics, this film screening is just right for you. With tasteful and clever genius, the creators of “Wanted 18” tell the true story of a group of Palestinian civilians that subtly resist Israeli forces who label Palestinian farms “a threat to the national security of the state of Israel.” The Palestinian farmers privately buy 18 cows and produce their own milk; in little time, the cows become local celebrities and a symbol of resistance. This film combines stop motion animation and in-person interview for an intriguing artistic documentary film about the power of grassroots activism. “Wanted 18” premiered in 2014 at the Toronto International Film Festival. You can watch the screening on Tuesday, September 18th at 7 p.m. in East Quadrangle’s Benzinger Library. Entrance is free and the viewing is open to all students!

This screening is also part of a series of movies on contemporary Islamic films: 

PREVIEW: Searching.

Just like found footage horror movies that preceded it, Searching uses a medium different from the traditional picture format to drive its plot. It’s a part of a new laptop cinema movement still assembling itself in its early arthouse years as the lives we live are increasingly intertwined with our technology.

Screenwriters are beginning to explore this technological horror, with movies like Unfriended and its dispensable sequel laying the shaky groundwork. While those films have had negative to mixed reviews, Searching seems to be bringing a fresh take on the growing trope. Here, David Kim searches for his missing daughter Margo through her laptop, a digital thriller as clues and twists are dispersed in missed phone call logs and old chats between her classmates. With the unprecedented success of the film at Sundance and its opening, Searching perfects a new style, a film to catch soon before the inevitable successors of years to come.

REVIEW: Truth or Dare

Everyone is familiar with the old trope of going out with your friends on a Friday night, settling into theater seats with some popcorn or soda, and watching a scary movie. Like Michael Jackson in the “Thriller” music video. Even if you’re not that much into horror yourself, you’ve likely seen this image before. The movie might not necessarily be good, but for many people, it’s still an idea of a fun night.

Truth or Dare is a great type of movie for this. It’s surprising and scary, shallow enough to make fun of but still deep enough to be genuinely clever. The film tells the story of Olivia (Lucy Hale, Pretty Little Liars), a kind and charitable girl who is enticed into joining a spring break trip to Mexico by her best friend, Markie (Violett Beane, The Flash). While they’re there, they end up getting roped by a stranger into a game of Truth or Dare. When they return to school, they find that the game is possessed with a demon that has followed them back, and now they must take turns being forced to play with the demon. If they answer untruthfully, fail to complete a dare, or refuse altogether, they will be killed.

In a lot of ways, this movie follows a typical, formulaic scary-movie structure. Without naming names, many of the friends are picked off one by one in a series of violent deaths that each manage to be shocking, despite the often-predictable nature of the movie. Olivia and Markie, the main characters—each a “Final Girl” in her own way—eventually end up returning to the Mexican mission where they initially played the game in an effort to set everything straight. When people are possessed temporarily by the demon, their faces take on smiles with a freakish Uncanny Valley quality, which is genuinely disturbing to see.

Additionally, many of the characters fall into convenient and general archetypes, particularly when it comes to the side character friends. Ronnie (Sam Lerner) is an insensitive jerk nobody really wants around. Penelope (Sophia Ali) is an alcoholic. Brad (Hayden Szeto) is the perfect son who’s hiding the fact that he’s gay from his police officer father—who, incidentally, manages to crop up out of nowhere at even the most random and improbable places and times. Each character has one defining feature about them. Only with Olivia, Markie, and Lucas (Markie’s boyfriend and Olivia’s crush, played by Tyler Posey), do these features begin to expand into truly fascinating character arcs.

At the center of the movie is the friendship between Olivia and Markie, established at the very beginning. The repeated line, “Between you and the world, I choose you,” is crucial, as over the course of the movie this friendship is tested in ways that range from trivial to terminal. The audience is coaxed into caring about each of them. Markie is grieving the death of her father, who took his own life, and even at the times when the story seems to flirt with turning her into an antagonist, it is always easy to sympathize with her point of view. Hale and Beane have tangible, believable chemistry, and one finds oneself rooting just as much for them to stay friends as for them to make it out of everything alive.

In many ways, Truth or Dare can be said to be another drop in the bucket of predictable, college-student-focused, slasher horror movies. But the characters are real enough (and the performances strong enough) that it’s still engaging, and it is truly clever in a lot of ways, featuring some major plot twists—again, some of them easily foreseeable, but some still totally out of the blue. It’s not the type of movie you’d root for at the Oscars, but it is the type of movie that will show you a good time if you’re just in the mood to buckle down with some friends and enjoy some good, old-fashioned scares. Truth or Dare is currently showing at multiple local theaters, including the Quality 16 and Rave Cinemas.