Film Review by Kam Williams
Afshin Ghaffarian (Reece Ritchie) had the great misfortune of being born in Iran in the wake of the Islamist coup d’etat of 1979 which meant he was reared under a repressive religious regime which banned all the arts, from painting to poetry to playing music. So, when little Afshin began to exhibit an insatiable interest in dance as a youngster, he was warned by his mother (Nazanin Boniadi) that the activity was banned in accordance with the dictates of the nation’s authoritarian Ayotollah.
Nevertheless, she enrolled her son in the Saba Arts Academy, a fledgling studio secretly operating in the shadows. Under the tutelage of Mr. Mehdi (Makram Khoury), Afshin exhibited early promise while enjoying the freedom to express himself creatively, at least until the fateful day the place was trashed by morality police enforcing of Sharia law.
Fast-forward a decade or so and we find the promising prodigy now attending the University of Teheran but still holding fast to the impractical pipe dream of becoming a professional dancer. Along with a few curious classmates, he forms an underground company which proceeds to practice regularly in an abandoned factory loft.
Elaheh (Freida Pinto) is the only member of the modern dance club with any formal training, having been surreptitiously schooled in technique and choreography by a mother who’d been a prima ballerina prior to the fall of the Shah. Against the ominous backdrop of the burgeoning, student-led Green Revolution of 2009, Elaheh gradually forges the motley crew into a concert-quality troupe.
But between the tense political climate and the official state sanction against public performances, it looks like the idea staging a concert for an audience is out of the question. Thus unfolds Desert Dancer, an uplifting, overcoming-the-odds drama, recounting the real-life dilemma of defiant Afshin Ghaffarian and his equally-rebellious comrades.
The movie marks the absolutely splendid directorial debut of Richard Raymond who has crafted a visually-engaging spectacular with a compelling plotline leading to satisfying resolution. The story seamlessly interweaves inspired dance sequences, organized resistance and a little old-fashioned romance while touching on a litany of themes like love, loyalty, friendship and betrayal.
A must-see biopic poignantly illustrating the indomitability of the human spirit, even in the most oppressive of circumstances.
Excellent (4 stars)
Rated PG-13 for mature themes, violence and drug use
Running time: 98 minutes
Distributor: Relativity Media
To see a trailer for Desert Dancer, visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MZC3er0RuVw
My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me
by Jennifer Teege with Nikola Sellmair
Book Review by Kam Williams
The Experiment Publishing
230 pages, Illustrated
“When Jennifer Teege, a German-Nigerian woman, happened to pluck a library book from the shelf…she discovered a horrifying fact: Her grandfather was Amon Goeth, the vicious Nazi commandant chillingly depicted in Schindler’s list—a man known and reviled the world over.
Although raised in an orphanage and eventually adopted, Jennifer had some contact with her biological mother and grandmother as a child. Yet neither revealed that her grandfather was the Nazi ‘Butcher of Plaszow,’ executed for crimes against humanity…
The more Teege reads about Amon Goeth, the more certain she becomes: If her grandfather had met her—a black woman—he would have killed her.”
Excerpted from the Bookjacket
How do you think you’d react if you were black and you inadvertently uncovered evidence that the mother who callously left you at an orphanage at less than a month-old was the daughter of an infamous Nazi who ran a concentration camp? That’s precisely what happened to Jennifer Teege who learned at 38 that her grandfather was Amon Goeth, a monster who not only ordered the extermination of thousands of Jews, but took a certain sadistic pleasure in participating in all the torture, maiming and killing.
For, while serving as warden of the Plaszow death camp in Poland, the coward was very fond of shooting Jews for sport from the balcony of his home overlooking the prison yard. That’s just one example of Goeth’s numerous atrocities recreated in Schindler’s List, the Academy Award-winning Best Picture where his character was played by Ralph Fiennes in a chilling, Oscar-nominated performance.
Understandably, Jennifer became severely depressed upon unearthing her genealogy, especially since she’s of African-German extraction, being the product of a brief relationship between her mother and a Nigerian. Among other things, she found out that her white supremacist forebear was so proud of his mass murder of people he considered subhuman, that his last words before his death by hanging were a defiant “Heil Hitler!”
So, Jennifer’s emotional tailspin made sense seeing how her bubble was burst, given how orphans are more inclined to fantasize that they’re descended from royalty than the scum of the Earth. Now, how was she to square having the blood of an inveterate anti-Semite coursing through her veins when she was adopted and raised by a loving couple who had encouraged her to speak fluent Hebrew and get a college degree from Tel Aviv University in Israel.
My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me: A Black Woman Discovers Her Family’s Nazi Past represents the culmination of a bittersweet quest for closure uncovering some of the most disgusting skeletons imaginable. In fascinating fashion, the author recounts her two-year, intercontinental trek during which she both confronted her long-estranged, biological mother and revisited the concentration camp and Jewish ghetto where her despicable granddad did his dirty work.
Yes, he must be spinning in his grave or perhaps more likely rotating on a spit in Hell about his granddaughter’s skin color, but let’s all give thanks that Jennifer in spite of his genes turned out to be a rather respectable apple that fell far from one very gnarly family tree.
To see a book trailer for My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F6o3S-3Xnz4&feature=youtu.be
Aunjanue Ellis and Clement Virgo
“The Book of Negroes” Interview
with Kam Williams
Aunjanue Ellis starred as Aminata Diallo in The Book of Negroes, the hit, TV-miniseries based on Lawrence Hill’s award-winning best seller of the same name. Here, she and the picture’s director, Clement Virgo, share their thoughts about the adaptation of the historical novel chronicling the life of an 11 year-old girl kidnapped in Africa and enslaved for decades in the U.S. until she manages to escape to Canada.
Kam Williams: Hi Aunjanue and Clement, thanks for the interview.
Aunjanue Ellis: Thank you, Kam.
Clement Virgo: Absolutely!
KW: What interested you in The Book of Negroes, Aunjanue?
AE: To be honest, the first thing that interested me was seeing that the CBC [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation] and BET [Black Entertainment Television] were partnering on the project. In my mind, I couldn’t think of two more divergent networks. Then, I found out it was based on this wonderful historical novel about a woman’s story of survival. I love doing that kind of work.
KW: Did you read the book before accepting the role?
AE: Yes, I did.
KW: Clement, what inspired you to turn it into a mini-series?
CV: The book was quite a phenomenon in Canada, where it won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and sold a million copies. I fell in love with Aminata Diallo and enjoyed reading about the period of history that she takes us through. I thought I knew about the American Revolutionary War and about my own and Canadian history. But I didn’t know about people migrating from New York to Nova Scotia, or appreciate that if you were African-American, you really had to choose sides during the Revolutionary War. And I saw Aminata as being a lot like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, where she was caught up in this twister of slavery, and all she wanted to do was get back home. Her determination to survive was so powerful, I felt like I had to tell the story.
KW: Given the facts brought out about the Revolutionary War by The Book of Negroes, do you think that the American colonies were on the wrong side of history? The film suggests that the British were lesser of two evils. Have blacks been mis-educated into siding with the Patriots over the British Loyalists in the same way Native Americans talk about being manipulated by movies as children into rooting for the Cowboys over the Indians?
AE: The British kept their slaves while wanting to get rid of America’s, so you can take from that what you will. It’s a lot more complicated than we’re led to believe.
KW: Do you think George Washington’s ex-slave, Henry Washington, should be more of a hero to African-Americans than his master, the first president of the United States? After all, he escaped from slavery and then gained his freedom by fighting with the British during the Revolutionary War.
AE: America is steeped in mythology. The problem is that it’s been living a myth since its inception, starting with The Declaration of Independence. How can you say that all people are created equal, but mean only if they’re white and male? So, we, as its citizens, have continually had to die in the streets to force the country to live up to that promise and be more than a myth, and be a reality for all. That’s why it’s so genius that Clement has Aminata say to George Washington, “If this is what you’re claiming to be, then why do you have slaves?” This picture does a great job of shattering the myths perpetuated in many schoolbooks.
KW: This film actually moved me to tears on several occasions, like the very touching scene where Aminata tracks down her baby shortly after it was sold, but was immediately ordered off the plantation by its heartless, new slave owner.
CV: I’m glad to hear that. It was important to all of us to capture the totality of these characters’ humanity and not just reduce them to their circumstances. Aminata fascinates me, because she reminds me of all that black people have had to overcome. I also appreciated the fact that she was a midwife, since one of the last things she had been told by her mother before being kidnapped and sold into slavery was, “As long as babies are being born, life will go on.” So, her subsequently bringing life into the world is very, very significant.
KW: Editor Lisa Loving says: I meet so many people who don't really know, or worse, don’t think about, the racist roots of our country which have grown into this imperfect present day. Do you see the success of The Book of Negroes miniseries as part of a greater awareness in the United States of our racist history and how we should be living now?
CV: I consider it part of my job as a filmmaker to put art out into the world that is positive and affirms life. Yes, it says the roots may be racist and brutal, but it cannot define us and it cannot stop us.
KW: Lisa also asks: Who do you feel is The Book of Negroes’ intended audience?
KW: Harriet Pakula-Teweles asks: How much of YOU is in Aminata Diallo, and how much did you allow yourself to get lost in the character?
AE: Aminata couldn’t be more different from me than any character I’ve ever played in terms of her temperament, her world view and the way she carried herself with so much wisdom and grace, even as a child. My sense of self is a lot more haphazard. I lost myself with her, when I put my costume on. You can’t go through what she went through as an actor without giving yourself over to it completely. And I did. So, it got very hard and depressing. Who she is, is not me, which is why playing her was so rewarding ultimately. And I’m very grateful when anyone compliments me on my performance, since that means that they didn’t catch on that I was acting.
KW: Lastly, what’s in your wallet?
CV: [Laughs] What’s in my wallet? I have a check for $257 that I’ve been walking around with for three weeks that I need to cash.
AE: [Laughs] I have a wallet that I got when we were shooting in South Africa. What’s in it? Some change from Canada and other places, and my expired driver’s license. [Laughs some more]
KW: Thanks again for the time, Aunjanue and Clement, and best of luck with all your endeavors.
AE: Thank you so much, Kam.
To see a trailer for The Book of Negroes, visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QNHG_3-Zad8
Beyond the Mask
Film Review by Kam Williams
Mercenary-Turned-Patriot Redeems Himself in Revolutionary Era Faith-Based Drama
Up until 1775, cold-blooded assassin William Reynolds (Andrew Cheney) never had a problem with his job as a hit man for the East India Tea Company. But the veteran mercenary finally developed second thoughts about his grisly line of work after being double-crossed by his diabolical boss, the conniving Charles Kemp (John Rhys-Davies).
So, he ventures to America where he proceeds to impersonate a recently-deceased vicar upon being fished out of a lake by a fetching, eligible lass named Charlotte Holloway (Kara Killmer). It’s love at first sight as soon as their eyes meet, which makes it unfortunate that this faux man-of-the-cloth’s identity is a total fraud.
The plot thickens when Charlotte’s long-lost uncle arrives in the New World, since he also just happens to be the aforementioned Charles Kemp. He not only outs William, but nips the smitten couple’s budding relationship right in the bud.
Before being run out of town, the disgraced suitor apologizes for the lies but vows to prove himself worthy of her love one day. An opportunity for redemption presents itself when William moves to Philadelphia and becomes an apprentice to none other than Benjamin Franklin (Alan Madlane).
For, it is 1776, and Ben, George Washington (John Arden McClure) and the other Founding Fathers are planning to convene the Continental Congress in the City of Brotherly Love that July. Meanwhile, it comes to light that evil Uncle Charles is a British Loyalist with a diametrically-opposed agenda involving disrupting the convention.
Can William foil the plot, get the girl and gain forgiveness from God? That is the proposition posed by Beyond the Mask, a swashbuckling Revolutionary War saga featuring an absorbing mix of romance, derring-do and patriotism served up as a parable of Biblical proportions.
Directed by Chad Burns (Pendragon), this unabashedly Christian production is a faith-based film which avoids heavy-handed moralizing in favor of a subtle style of sermonizing. The sort of action adventure a Born Again Quentin Tarantino might make.
Very Good (3 stars)
Rated PG for action, violence and mature themes
Running time: 103 minutes
Distributor: Burns Family Studios
To see a trailer for Beyond the Mask, visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6pX6Ih7YhQ8
Film Review by Kam Williams
After being bashed beyond recognition by her alcoholic husband (Fran Kranz) again, Molly (Jocelin Donahue) made a beeline to her regular port of refuge in a storm. So, by the time his hangover wore off the next day, he knew exactly he could find her.
Her mother (Joelle Carter) was so upset when Teddy showed up that she pointed a gun at his chest and ordered him to “Stay away from my daughter!” But the savage wife beater defiantly called her bluff by waiting for his spouse while arrogantly asserting, “Angela, you’re not going to shoot me.”
Emerging from the house with a black eye and bruises all over her body, Molly brushed past her mom before forgiving her sadistic abuser for the umpteenth time. Fed up with this predictable cycle of dysfunction, Angela prevails upon her son (Kenny Wormald) to defend his sister’s honor, like their late daddy would’ve done, if he were still around.
Although Gordon loves his sister, he’s too much of a milquetoast to rise to the occasion by taking the law into his own hands. And after taking a humiliating tongue lashing from his irate mom, he decides out of desperation to enlist help in exacting a measure of revenge.
So, he arranges a meeting in a diner with Howard Blake (Chris Mulkey), a tough guy for hire. The ex-con turns out to be not only a cold-blooded hit man but cheap enough to retain on a modest, grocery clerk’s salary. So, the next thing you know, Gordon finds himself stuck in a conspiracy to commit murder that he can’t back out of even when he starts to have second thoughts.
That is the intriguing point of departure of The Living, a serpentine psychological thriller written and directed by Jack Bryan (Struck). This character-driven drama chronicles the slow descent into depravity of a well-meaning hero who reluctantly takes to the wrong side of the law for the sake of a sister stuck in denial.
A grim, grudging-buddies splatterfest featuring a few surprising plot twists and all the fixin’s for a riveting cinematic experience.
Very Good (3 stars)
Rated R for profanity and violence
Running time: 91 minutes
Studio: Shooting Films
Distributor: Monterey Media
To see a trailer for The Living, visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9BEnVJM2NZQ