Collective attempts to untie the Gordian knot that is Romanian corruption

Throughout much of the last century, there hasn’t been very much positive news to come out of Romania. From 1947 to 1989, during the Communist period, Romania was an Eastern European version of North Korea. Then, in 1989, Romanians were given a grisly holiday gift when a period of civil unrest eventually ended with the public execution of the head of state and his wife on Christmas Day. In the years after the Romanian Revolution, news outlets covering the country reported on the lingering effects of corruption in Romanian society. For example, many media outlets have reported on state-run orphanages that were replete with abuse and neglect. The children who lived in those orphanages continue to face the psychological toll of their traumatic experiences over thirty years later.

It is against this backdrop that I, the child of a Romanian immigrant, watched Collective, a documentary film about corruption in Romania’s healthcare system. This documentary effectively conveys a simple message: corruption is still alive in Romania. This film chronicles how a variety of systems within Romanian society have failed to change in any meaningful way. Specifically, this film follows the efforts of journalists to uncover widespread healthcare fraud committed in the aftermath of a deadly fire at a Romanian nightclub in 2015.

Undoubtedly, the most moving parts of the film are those scenes which follow one of the victims of the nightclub fire. Early in the film, we see a woman as she poses for a photographer with her disfigured body on display. For much of the film, she remains silent, letting the scars from her burns speak for her. We see her as she gets fitted with a mechanical, prosthetic hand. Near the end of the film, it is revealed that the photographs were used for an art exhibition. People look up at the photographs, utterly speechless, gazing upon the the various poses in which this woman displays her scars both literally and figuratively.

There are also scenes, at the beginning and end of the film, which feature a man whose son died after receiving negligent medical care after the nightclub fire. In another impactful scene, a doctor films a patient who literally has maggots crawling across his neck. These scenes personalize a tragedy that would otherwise fade into obscurity. In early scenes featuring a health minister that later resigned, it becomes apparent that one of the few advances in Romanian governance has been in the art of evading responsibility. Whereas earlier generations faced a more explicit threat, Romanians today seem to be at the mercy of a far more subtle one: bureaucratic indifference.

Though this review may seem bleak, this documentary does give me a restrained sense of hope. There appear to be some signs of a shift in Romanian society. For one thing, the mere existence of this documentary is one such sign. It is difficult to imagine a documentary of this sort existing prior to 1989. The fact that there are journalists brave enough to expose corruption through their reporting and through this film should inspire and motivate Romanian citizens to work toward substantive change.

Another sign of change involves the efforts of Laura Codruța Kövesi, former chief prosecutor of the National Anticorruption Directorate, an agency of the government tasked with fighting corruption. Kövesi makes a brief cameo near the end of this film as she speaks to a doctor who describes the horrendous conditions in which she works. Ousted from her position for political reasons, Kövesi is now the first prosecutor to lead the European Public Prosecutor’s Office, which investigates fraud in the European Union. Her commitment to running an independent prosecutor’s office is laudable and her success at prosecuting government officials in Romania deserves the recognition it has received.

But, the overarching lesson of Collective is perfectly encapsulated by a conversation interim health minister Vlad Voiculescu has with his father following parliamentary elections. In that conversation, Voiculescu’s father voices his concern that his son will not be able to make changes necessary to eliminate corruption after observing that the ruling political party has prevailed on election night. Throughout the film, Voiculescu is one of the few government officials that seems to take his job seriously. In the aforementioned phone call, his father insists that change is not possible and he tells Voiculescu it would be better to return to Vienna where he could really help people.

Changing systems is difficult work. Collective is a film that lays that truth bare for all to see. As the name inadvertently suggests, Collective proves that the efforts of individuals alone is not enough. In order to combat corruption, the collective effort of an entire society is required. This film is worth watching for anyone who wants to develop a better understanding of the power of social systems to perpetuate suffering. This film is available now through The Nightlight Cinema’s Virtual Screening Room.

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An Honest Liar is the biographical parable we need right now

“Some people cannot believe that a magician can fool them in such a way that they can’t figure it out. But magicians can and magicians do. Don’t be too sure of yourself. No matter how smart or well-educated you are, you can be deceived.”

James Randi, An Honest Liar (2014)


Almost two weeks ago, this infamous year claimed another victim. James Randi, the beloved magician and skeptic, recently died. On learning of his death, I decided to revisit the biographical documentary that chronicles his life’s work, An Honest Liar. After viewing it, I can’t help but call attention to an inescapable truth: we need the lessons James Randi taught us now more than ever before.

An Honest Liar offers its viewers a captivating portrait of Randi’s life. The film chronicles both his professional achievements and his personal challenges, effectively blending them together in a seamless fashion. We learn of his efforts to challenge con artists, faith healers, and others who deceive and exploit people for personal gain. Throughout the documentary, Randi’s charisma and sense of humor shine brightly, giving viewers a good sense of what made him so special. He became a recurring guest on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and was featured or interviewed on a number of other television programs. Footage from some of those appearances are spread throughout the film, thus breathing life into his narrative.

A documentary about a magician might be compelling on its own, but it’s the underlying motivation of Randi’s work that is worthy of admiration. Throughout the film, we learn that Randi adheres to one overarching principle as a magician: his aim is to use deception to entertain audiences, not to fleece them. In advocating for restraint in the use of deception as a magician, he modeled an ethical approach to entertainment that we all would do well to emulate.

Interwoven into the narrative is the story of Randi’s relationship with his husband, Deyvi Peña. The film unveils details about their relationship slowly, eventually revealing the process by which Randi decided to come out as gay in a manner that highlights this important aspect of his identity without sensationalizing it. Similarly, we learn about the challenges Peña faced on the basis of his sexual orientation and how they affected the trajectory of his life in the United States. Without revealing too much, all that needs to be said is that these challenges profoundly affect both Randi and Peña in ways that would give any empathetic viewer pause.

The above quote, which bookends the film, serves as a useful summation of Randi’s lifelong mission: to educate the public. During his life, Randi founded an eponymous non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of critical thinking and skepticism. For years, he offered a One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge to anyone who could demonstrate paranormal abilities under controlled conditions, a prize which no one successfully claimed. Content produced by his organization, including talks held at an annual conference hosted by his foundation, The Amaz!ng Meeting, is still available for viewing online.

Given how intensely truth itself is being debated in today’s political climate, An Honest Liar is the biographical parable we need right now. It is required viewing for anyone with an interest in critical thinking, skepticism, and magic. It is streaming now for free on Plex and Tubi.

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South Terminal is a raw and unflinching view of totalitarian rule

In the United States, the current political climate has caused many observers to sound alarm about the erosion of democratic norms and institutions. Some commentators have, somewhat recklessly, perhaps, even suggested that the United States may be on a path to a second civil war. Whether this is true or political hyperbole is outside of the scope of this review. But, if the tired old cliché is true and history does actually repeat itself, films like South Terminal have the potential to serve as a warning of things to come.

In this French-Algerian drama, viewers are given a raw and unflinching view of totalitarian rule through the eyes of a doctor. Though, as other critics have noted, this film resembles the Algerian Civil War, it transcends the strictures of the historical war drama. Instead, the film focuses on a more conceptual portrayal of totalitarianism. By only vaguely approximating the events of a specific war, viewers must instead come to terms with the intensely personal consequences of absolute power on the people of a given society. This film offers viewers a glimpse of sociopolitical trauma inflicted at a societal scale. Such a message applies broadly to groups of people everywhere regardless of the time and place in which they live.

While the ambiguity of the sociopolitical context adds an aura of tension to the otherwise simple narrative, the ambiguity of the interpersonal context in which the doctor operates does the opposite in almost equal measure. The drama of the narrative might have been given more of an emotional impact if we had more of a reason to become invested in who the nameless doctor actually is, both personally and professionally. Implied from several scenes is the doctor’s principled commitment to his patients, but this seems mostly like a footnote. Likewise, there is little emotional resonance in the few scenes that portray the effects of the war on the doctor’s relationship to his wife. Although we come to learn that the doctor and his wife disagree on how to respond to their circumstances, the plot does not linger on that tension for long. Ramzy Bedia’s performance excels when the narrative calls for a dispassionate demeanor in the face of adversity, but it is relatively muted when the narrative calls for greater emotional engagement. It can be argued, however, that a realistic portrayal of intense trauma probably should favor numbness over exaggerated emotion. For that reason, Bedia’s performance is mostly satisfying for me.

Overall, this film depicts brutality and oppression in a compelling manner. The admittedly minimalistic narrative seems to serve an artistic purpose, which it mostly achieves. Additionally, the Swedish folk song that bookends the film is beautiful. This is a film worth watching and is now showing on Mubi, a streaming service for cinephiles.

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With Songs My Brother Taught Me, a melancholic meditation on Native life emerges

There are moments in life when one can come to feel stagnant and restless. Amidst a sense of hopelessness, some people dream of a better life. But, time often passes and such dreams feel out of reach. Then, one comes upon an inflection point. When that moment arrives, one can be plunged into an existential crisis and, eventually, propelled into action in order to bring the crisis to a resolution.

In Songs My Brothers Taught Me, the protagonist, John, finds himself at just such a moment. Although his existential crisis is a quiet one, John’s restlessness and indecisiveness are palpable to the astute viewer. Life on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota feels just as desolate as the Badlands that surround the area. With an absent father, a dispirited mother, and loose connections to his numerous brothers, John clearly wants more out of his life. But his hastily hatched plan to move to Los Angeles with his girlfriend, Aurelia, never quite feels fully satisfying. John’s only meaningful connection to his little sister, Jashaun, looms large in the background of the narrative. Neither person ever initiates a direct conversation about the impending move, except for when Jashaun exclaims, “I hate you” to her brother.

As the critical consensus on Rotten Tomatoes reads, Songs My Brother Taught Me is a “naturalistic drama that quietly earns its emotional resonance.” Some critics often subtly attack the slow pace of such dramas despite the obvious benefit a slower pace has in conveying the intensity of the emotional landscape within the narrative. One such critic described the film as “unemphatic” and mused that some viewers will find themselves “wishing it possessed just a little more oomph.” Another critic reports that the “plot is wafer thin” and suggests that “it might not be a bad idea to down a few caffeine-rich drinks before settling in to watch.” Though it would be unfair to summarily dismiss those critics, particularly because those reviews also have some positive things to say, such commentary feels like a bit of a punch to the gut to those who appreciate the aesthetic choices evident in these types of films. In a world filled with films that assault the senses with jump cuts, computer-generated imagery, and the like, one can’t help but wonder if we’ve lost the art of watching a story unfold slowly on screen. Mindfulness is a buzzword these days, but one could argue that films like this force us to be more mindful. They encourage us to focus our attention without technical assistance. In short, these films force us to become better viewers.

Viewers who appreciate the beauty of desolate landscapes and the richness of naturalistic performances will love this film. Such viewers may even want to grab that cup of coffee recommended by the critic above, not because they will feel the need to stay awake, but to savor both what they are tasting and what they are seeing in real-time; to have a genuine experience. This film is now showing on MUBI, a curated streaming service for cinephiles.

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Rooted in wartime, Youth offers a visually stunning view of idealism in adolescence

Ambitious in scale, Youth, a Chinese coming-of-age drama set during the Cultural Revolution, mostly excels at portraying the complexities of adolescence during a transitional period of time in Chinese culture. Using a military arts troupe as a frame of reference, the film effectively conveys the progression from youthful idealism to mournful regret in its characters. However, the film rarely scratches beneath the surface of any one element, whether it be a specific character, an intimate relationship, or a political dynamic, to reveal what lies underneath. Instead, the narrative prefers to elevate breadth over depth. In this way, the film is likely to please some viewers while disappointing others.

For example, one critic wrote that the makers of the film “fail to meaningfully address the time period that informs its protagonists’ fraught relationships.” While this is true, it isn’t clear that the film was ever meant to be a penetrating exploration of the sociopolitical context in which it was situated. Though the Cultural Revolution and the Sino-Vietnamese War help add texture to the narrative, Youth feels like it was always meant to be a coming-of-age drama rather than a political thriller or a war film. While it may be a matter of taste, the manner in which this film holds the political subtext of the story at arms-length allows it to focus on other aspects of the story. In an highly politicized age, where every public statement feels like a performance, it was somewhat refreshing to view a film that makes use of political elements without exploiting them in an overly propagandistic way. Although it’s true that no narrative is ever value-free, by virtue of the fact that decisions are made about what is seen and what is ignored, it feels like the decisions made in the production of this film do not serve explicitly political purposes.

The most impressive aspects of this film are the cinematography, the choreography of the dance performances, and the musical score. Every scene feels perfectly crafted. The staging is also incredible. Though the musical score sometimes embellishes the melodramatic atmosphere just a bit too much, this feels mostly forgivable. A deeper exploration the relationship between the main characters, Feng Liu and Xiaoping He, and their individual traits and histories may have added substance to the narrative. This, in turn, that may have justified the melodramatic embellishments described above. Overall, Youth is worth a viewing. It is now showing on MUBI.

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In Sivas, a wayward boy sees himself in his adopted canine companion

In this Turkish drama, a subtle sense of aimlessness permeates the life of an eleven year-old boy, Aslan. From the opening scene, it quickly becomes apparent that Aslan is something of a latchkey kid. Some of his family members do make appearances throughout the film, but their apathetic demeanor toward him suggests that his presence or absence is of little consequence. A similar dynamic is at play between Aslan and his classmates, though there is more conflict between them. Even Aslan’s teacher carries himself with an aura of indifference. In one scene, Aslan pays his teacher a visit at home in an effort to persuade him to give Aslan a leading role in the school play. The visit interrupts Aslan’s teacher from whatever explicit adult activity is implied by audible moans of pleasure in the background. Thus, time and time again, we see that Aslan is deprived of the opportunity to have meaningful relationships with peers and adults. Disconnection is woven into the fabric of Aslan’s life.

When opportunities for human connection are tenuous, at best, where does one turn? For Aslan, the answer is companionship with a dog he adopts as his own. He attends a dogfight and bears witness to the brutality of such a blood sport. The loser of the fight is presumed to be dead. But, Aslan is intrigued and sticks around to discover that the dog is still alive. The parallel between the defeated canine and Aslan himself is painfully obvious to anyone who has even a semblance of emotional intelligence. Both the boy and the dog live in a callous world defined by detachment. Aslan finds himself drawn to the fallen canine and he quickly develops a fierce sense of loyalty to the animal. Despite his brother’s insistence that the dog is dead, Aslan demands to bring the dog home with him and refuses to leave his side. In yet another act of brazen indifference, Aslan’s brother leaves Aslan behind with the dog only to return well after dusk to retrieve him. Aslan stands firm and the dog comes home with him.

One critic argued that the storytelling in Sivas was “less rewarding, taking rather too long to get into gear” and another describes the film as “a well-shot if slight story.” But, isn’t that the point? Part of what contributes to the atmosphere of the film is the sense that the world around Aslan remains stagnant despite Aslan’s wishes for more engagement with those around him. One might argue that only two characters in this narrative display a full range of human emotion: Aslan and his dog. The responses of all of the others in this film paint a barren emotional landscape befitting of a major depressive episode. Perhaps that is why they resort to dog-fighting as a means of entertainment. They need to literally see living creatures kill each other in order to feel alive. While the critiques linked above may have merit, one can’t help but wonder if a richer narrative would rob the film of the ability to convey a stark aesthetic. Though I am typically a fan of multilayered narratives, the so-called “thin” storytelling in Sivas achieves an artistic purpose I can appreciate.

Opponents of animal cruelty or the faint of heart may have trouble viewing some of the dog-fighting scenes in this film. Despite this, the film is beautifully shot and Doğan İzci’s performance as Aslan is nothing short of remarkable. If you can stomach it, this film is worth watching. It is now showing on MUBI, a curated streaming service for cinephiles.

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Ixcanul tragically depicts a life out of reach

Although it has been categorized as a coming-of-age drama, Ixcanul feels more like an understated tragedy. Viewed from the vantage point of its young protagonist, Maria, it is not difficult to envision what volcanic emotions might be bubbling beneath the surface for her. Throughout the film, we see glimpses of Maria’s wishes flash before us only to see her desires thwarted at every turn.

Filmed in a rural Guatemalan village against the backdrop of a volcano, Maria is a girl who lives on a coffee plantation with her parents. As the film opens, we see Maria’s mother preparing Maria for her wedding. It isn’t a wedding of her choosing; her marriage to the foreman of the plantation has been arranged and it is painfully obvious that she does not feel good about the whole affair. Yet, despite obvious signs of displeasure, Maria is thoroughly ignored by everyone in her family. Her lack of enthusiasm and even her somatic symptoms are summarily dismissed as mere nervousness. For the men involved, Maria’s marriage is merely a matter of tradition and business. Her strife doesn’t even register on their radar, which is perfectly epitomized by one scene where Maria’s father asks her mother to move their daughter farther away from them because Maria’s vomiting is keeping her father awake.

Perhaps most striking, however, is how women are enlisted in maintaining the patriarchal order. Maria’s mother plays a central role in nearly every significant narrative development, from a failed attempt to induce an abortion to her efforts to conceal an illicit pregnancy from her husband-to-be. A simplistic narrative would draw a straight line between the dominance of the men in the village and the compliance of the women. But, what this film does masterfully is situate the patriarchal elements of this society within a cultural and socioeconomic context that adds layers of complexity to the narrative. The mother is not behaving in a manner that is incongruent with her values or beliefs when she tries, in vain, to manage her daughter’s affairs. Her responses to her daughter are tender and caring while also falling in line with cultural scripts for women of her time and place. There are, perhaps, few scenes in contemporary cinema as warm and intimate as those where Maria’s mother is shown bathing her pregnant daughter. The love is clearly there. Yet, cultural and religious edicts prevail in assuming complete control over Maria, thus squashing her innate curiousity and hunger for a different life. For Maria, such a life remains out of reach.

In addition to a richly textured narrative, Ixcanul features beautiful cinematography and a view of a social and cultural context we rarely see portrayed in film. Despite the musings of at least one critic, I did not find the pace of the plot to be slow, though viewers who prefer Hollywood blockbusters would likely become impatient. Overall, I highly recommend this film, which is now showing on MUBI.

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