There Is No Evil

There Is No Evil is an anthology film with 4 short stories with the common thread being the impact of the death penalty in Iran on ordinary people.

The first, titular story is a little slice-of-life, following a guy getting off night shift, picking up his wife, going to the bank, trying to get parking, picking up his kid, getting the messages, going to visit Granny and getting her tea ready for her, coming home and unpacking the shopping, and getting a bit of kip before his next shift. Then he goes into work, makes a pot of coffee, and releases the trap door on that day’s condemned prisoners. The ordinary banalness of his life is sharply cut off with this stark horror, leaving the viewer feeling like the floor has just given out beneath them too. It’s the casual brutality to it, and the everyday routine of it. The fact it’s just woven into accepted life as if it was nothing.

The second story is called She Said, “You Can Do It”, which follows a young soldier as he tries to figure any way out of his executioner’s duty in the morning. See, in Iran, there’s national service, and you can get out of it, there is some wiggle room, but until you complete it, you can’t get a driver’s license, you can’t get a passport, you can’t leave the country, you can’t get a good job, you will struggle in just about every way. So most people roll the dice and do the 2 years, hopefully just get posted somewhere dull, and stand watch every night looking at nothing. This story is about what happens when you lose that roll of the dice. The main character has been posted into the executioners squad, and is facing his first kill in the morning. He spends the night trying various strategies to get out of it, trying to convince other squad members to take his turn, trying to buy his way out of it, trying to phone anyone he knows who might have a little pull. But the clock is counting down, and the film shows it as though it were he who were going to the gallows when time runs out.

The third story is called Birthday. Javad, one of the soldiers in the previous story’s squad, goes home for the birthday of Nana, the woman he loves. He decides he’s going to propose to her . . . and then everything falls to shit. Javad is far less conflicted than the soldier from the previous story, separating work from civilian life. But even in his countryside idyll, the horror of what he is involved in has a way of spilling out in unimagined ways.

The last tale is called Kiss Me, and follows a young woman coming to visit her aunt and uncle in Iran for the first time. Again, living up on the hills in a ragtag farmstead, you could not feel like that darkness could be further way. But old sins cast long shadows. And it shows how the impact these decisions that are being made are felt even generations on.

This film is just great. Gorgeously shot, it marries the mundane and the monstrous in an impressive and nuanced way. It never gets preachy. While obviously being anti-death penalty, it is not here to make an argument, but to explore the human heart, and how it copes when put in these life-and-death decisions. Powerful.

Tree Fellers

Tree Fellers is a documentary about the Belize lumberjacks who came to Scotland as part of the war effort during WW2. When bombs were falling on homes and factories, a lot needed rebuilding, but all the men were off at war, so they recruited men from Belize for the forestry. It was wonderful to see men in their 80s and 90s reminiscing about their contribution. Many felt like they’d hit gold because the work was easier than back home, the pay was better, and the women were desperate for company. Despite experiencing some racism, especially once they were in a mixed race relationship, many settled down and made Scotland their permanent home. And it is just lovely to see them with their families, being able to tell the story of their war work to their children and grandchildren. Such a nice look at a story that’s not as well known as it should be.

The Man Standing Next

The Man Standing Next is about the 40 days leading up to the overthrow of President Park of South Korea in 1979. This is some straight-up slick 70s spy shit right here. If you like John le Carre, this will be right up your street.

I have to admit, I’m completely ignorant about South Korean political history, but you don’t need to come to this with any previous knowledge to enjoy it. A lot of context is given in the film and a lot of it is pretty self-evident from the time period. There are communists to the north, and this is a right-wing military government being propped up by America, as part of the Cold War.

But things are not going well in South Korea of the film’s setting. All the main characters are veteran armed forces leaders who took part in the military coup that was supposed to be temporary, but has, by now, lasted 18 years. You have President Park, who has grown paranoid and more dictatorial in his autocratic reign. You have Director Kim, who is the film’s protagonist, the head of South Korea’s CIA, and who believes President Park has become unstable, and the government needs to move back towards democracy. And you have the ex-head of the Korean CIA, confusingly also called Park, who I’ll call Traitor Park, who is defecting to the US and outing all their secrets. This is really a story about loyalty and betrayal among old friends.

Set aside that everyone involved is an evil fascist bastard so you can actually enjoy the movie. Spy movies don’t have goodies, everyone’s hands are dirty. Director Kim is as close as you’ll get to a sympathetic character, and even he does a number of ruthless and appalling things over the course of the film.

But you do root for him. Obviously because he’s the only one talking sense in a room full of sycophants and toadies, but also because his is a deeply emotional journey, with very expressive but not overly verbose soul-searching. The film asks you to buy into the idea that here was the one guy who genuinely did think the military coup was temporary, that they were just there to restore order and ensure the North didn’t invade, and that there was meant to be a path to democracy down the line. It’s kinda the plot to Julius Caesar, the tragic figure among all the back-stabbing self-interested shits is Brutus, who genuinely believed Caesar was a threat to the republic.

Director Kim is shown as having possibly selfish reasons for his actions, as there will always be a mix to muddy the waters of the human heart, but it is more interesting a story if he is a true believer, that he is genuinely acting out of concern for his country. Because he does definitely seem torn, between loyalty to President Park, a lifelong friend, and loyalty to his country, who is suffering at his hands.

I think I enjoyed this more because I came with so little knowledge of the subject, every twist and turn I was on the edge of my seat, I genuinely didn’t know what was gonna happen next. A real tension-pounding classic style thriller.

The X in Scotland

The X in Scotland is a short film looking at what the life and words of Malcolm X means to young Black and Muslim Scots. Shot in the 1990s, many interviewees mention the racist murder of Axmed Sheekh, who was attacked and killed on Edinburgh’s Cowgate. Nowadays it would be Sheku Bayoh’s name they would say, who died in police custody with a number of injuries. The film, unfortunately, has a timeless quality.

The interviewees often lament how Malcolm X’s name and image has been co-opted as a meaningless fashion statement appropriated by white people. He is a tshirt or hat to them, that edgy type of cool associated with interactions with objectified blackness. A symbol to signal some cultural capital that is completely divorced from actual anti-racism work. It’s depressing.

This film seeks to reclaim Malcolm and his message for the people it was intended for, and who it was life-changing for. And hopefully that will keep the flame burning for the next generation to see it. God knows, we still need it.

First Cow

Pleasant story of friendship on the frontier. Cookie teams up with King-Lu and they try to make a living out in Oregon in the 1820s. King-Lu is an ideas man and an entrepreneur, and Cookie is, well, a cook and a baker. When the rich English dandy in charge of the territory brings the first cow into the region in order to have cream in his tea, Cookie and Lu take to milking it at night in order to sell cakes at market.

First Cow is really a folk hero tale. It’s the little guy sticking it to the big guy. But anyone familiar with folk hero legends know they only end one of two ways.

When Lu is introduced, you really find out everything you need to know about this story, about who Lu is, about what kinda place this is. Also the movie overtly starts with the end, so there’s no surprises. Still a nice yarn. Got a warm and kindly feel to it.

Also, for Rene Auberjonois fans, he has a very small part in this, but it is lovely to see him in his last role.

American Badger

Boring. Like, almost criminally dull.

I mean, I can see what he was going for, a noir action/romance, like Sin City meets John Wick. But, ugh.

The gravelly voiced narration, a genre staple, is just cringey, feeling not like the main character’s inner thoughts but the filmmaker having to speak directly to the audience over his film, to explain or even apologise. The camera work is just another nothing. Like, if two characters are meeting outdoors, it feels like the camera just followed them there because it knew their meeting was part of the story. There’s no sense that a shot is deliberately set up in such a way as to convey something. There seems to be almost a total absence of visual language. I feel like if you asked the director why a scene was shot a certain way, he’d say to keep the actors in frame, and not much else.

There’s a hollowness to the film. Because the movie is working with tropes, it’s fair enough to not go into overly complex explorations of the central characters – he’s a hard-bitten assassin, she’s a vulnerable and loving prostitute – but at the same time, there does need to be some variance in how they’re presented, otherwise they become one-note, and the audience has no reason to care about them, understand them as an individual character beyond the archetype.

And the violence is just . . . Having seen the trailer, I had hoped American Badger was trying to move away from shaky cam multi-cuts to a more fluid, in camera choreography style of action. But it’s not. The fight scenes do look well co-ordinated, but there is still a lot of shaky cam and cuts on top of it, leaving you more queasy than excited. Plus also the obligatory sexual violence.

American Badger feels like one of those comics rated mature, that are so not mature. Like X-Men is dealing with life, death and identity over in the kiddy section, and Mark Miller or Garth Ennis has drawn a woman getting shot in the tits and it’s labelled mature. This movie is a 14-year-old boy’s idea of the movie he’d make.

I don’t want to get ripped into it, coz it’s a first feature and you always cut someone some slack on their first go, and also because diatribes usually just end up making a movie sound much more interesting than it actually is. So yeah, American Badger’s not the worst movie in the world, it’s just not got anything to it. It doesn’t fail enough to be interesting, it’s just dull.

Rosa’s Wedding

Rosa’s Wedding is a rom-com about loving yourself.

Rosa is the lynchpin of her family, holding everyone together and being taken for granted more than a little. She takes the lion’s share of looking after her lonely elderly father on behalf of her siblings. She helps out her divorcing brother with his child care. She does the bulk of work at her job. She is always running errands for her boyfriend or her sister, and struggling to support her daughter who has just become a mother for the first time while living abroad.

And one day, exhausted, she sits down and decides enough is enough. Someone has to put her first. Someone has to take care of her. And that someone is going to be her.

Rosa decides to marry herself, commit herself to her own happiness, to be true and faithful to herself, to listen to herself, to fulfil all her dreams. And the comedy comes in when word of the wedding gets out and misunderstanding ensues.

A warm-hearted story about family, and showing yourself as much care as you show others. Really sweet.

Yer Old Faither

Yer Old Faither is about the life of John Croall, a Glasgow native who emigrated to Australia, to the little town of Whyalla. It is a film which traces out the extraordinary impact of an ordinary life. Or not entirely ordinary, because Croall was a bit of a character.

The film traces his professions and passions, his love and concern for life. When he arrived in Australia, he was so impressed with the huge range of beautiful foliage. He had that immigrant’s ability to see with new eyes what everyone else takes for granted. He loved golf, but was unimpressed with the golf course in Whyalla, so he quietly began growing tree samplings, and planting them out on the golf course and surrounding areas. Over his lifetime he planted somewhere between five and six thousand trees.

He was an obstetrician, and delivered three generations of babies over his 40-year career serving Whyalla. Despite being seen as a bit of an eccentric, which was fair, he was very highly regarded. The nurses and midwives interviewed all spoke of him very highly, saying he had magic fingers, and was able to turn a breach when no one else could. He was dedicated and would come out any hour of the day or night when called, and would take all night turning a baby, no matter how long it took he had the patience. They said he was an expert in breach births, and could make successful deliveries other doctors wouldn’t even attempt. For a many years, he was Whyalla’s only obstetrician and was prepared to take on that work and responsibility solo. When he started working there, the mortality rate among mothers and babies dropped.

He was also the only doctor performing abortions outside of the cities in South Australia. He ensured women in Whyalla could get safe healthcare and terminations right there in their local hospital. And it was a bit of a discovery to his daughter, when putting the film together, that he had in fact studied to be a priest in the Vatican. He was raised Catholic in Glasgow, was sent to the seminary, then sent to study in Rome for 7 years. Then finally sacked it, and became a doctor. And this was never a point of conflict for him, because he disagreed with the Church’s view on reproductive health entirely. So he really led the way in reproductive care in his part of the world.

After he retired, the midwives lamented, they were unable to find anyone to replace him, as a small post-industrial town away from the city wasn’t a very attractive destination for a new doctor. They no longer had 24-hour care in the maternity unit, they were served only by a rotating locum, and they wouldn’t come out when off duty, and some even had to be flown in from Germany and America, with one obstetrician’s caesarean section rate well above 70%, when Croall’s had been at 8%. When Croall retired, his retirement party wasn’t thrown by management, but by the nurses and midwives. He was a doctor who was very well respected by women.

And in his free time, he made tables from recycled wood. Towards the end of the film, one of the trees in his garden has to come down, and he decides to turn it into a table, and it feels like a metaphor for the breadth of his impact, that here is this tree he planted 40 years ago, grown thick and solid, and now felled and also turned into something beautiful. It is like even with the trees in Whyalla, he cares for them cradle to grave.

As the film comes to the end of its story and the end of Croall’s life, they start playing Caledonia. And I, of course, burst into to tears. You can’t do that to us, you know that’s the Scottish kryptonite! The film just radiates with the love his family have for him, and he for them, and his love for his community, and the town’s love for him, and his love for nature, and these wide vines of impact he had for the better in his little corner of the world, in his garden. It’s just so moving, such a beautiful portrait, such a celebration of this quietly extraordinary ordinary man.

Surge

Surge is about a guy having a total mental breakdown.

Ben Wishaw is outstanding in this nerve-searing, idiosyncratic, spontaneous feeling performance. He looks like every interaction he has with someone in this film is using the last thread of his patience. In November, I got a wisdom tooth out, and the pain was white electric, throbbing through my jaw, it felt like every one of my teeth was about to burst, it snaked up past my temple and into what felt like a crease in my skull, spread across one side of my face, along my cheekbone, and it was too painful for me to open my eye or even my mouth. Ben Wishaw looks like he’s in that kind of pain in every single second of this film. He looks like what it feels like in a microwave right before your blood starts to boil.

The sound design in this is amazing, making you feel like he’s experiencing a full-body migraine. Every noise, every beep, every clang feels like this building crescendo, a complete sensory overload driving him insane. And the way it is filmed is very frenetic and too close, like the world is pushing in and in on him. It all feels very improvised and naturalistic, as though the story beats might be in place, but the journey is being led by Wishaw’s performance. It adds to this sense you don’t know what the character is going to do moment to moment, because he doesn’t know what he’s going to do, because he’s losing his mind. Films that are about a character’s psychology, rather than narrative plot, tend to be slow because by nature they have to be introspective. This is the opposite of that. This is edge-of-the-seat gripping, because this is a manic spiral, and every moment for the character feels like a heart attack.

Teeth-grindingly tense film.

The Dissident

The Dissident tells the story of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. It is gripping, enlightening, and moving.

This film was quite an eye-opener for me, going into a wealth of context I did not know. I followed the story in the news at the time, but my reaction was “Brutal regime murders journalist. No mystery there then.” I didn’t feel the need to dive much deeper into the details because it was so obvious that no explanation seemed needed.

But there is a huge amount of pertinent context to Jamal’s killing. Firstly, the idea of Saudi Arabia as a place that always has been and always will be as oppressive as it is now, is a reductive over-simplification. Reporting usually has slightly racist connotations of the ancient (and backward), brutal rulers of the ruthless and opulent East, this image of sultans chopping off hands, in an unchanging and unvarying stereotype from a timeless age. This obscures the truth of what is actually happening in the 21st century in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. And it makes it harder to tackle the reality of government oppression, and denies and erases the reality of activists and citizens who resist on a daily basis.

In Saudi Arabia, 8 out of every 10 citizens is on Twitter. There has been for generations a suppression of free speech there, but the boom in social media has overturned that in an extremely short time frame. With IRL speech dangerous, online is the only place to have open discussions about the state of the country. It reminds me of a joke in the movie Rosewater, another movie about a journalist being targeted by the state, where his interrogator accuses the protagonist of disseminating anti-government propaganda through newspapers, and the journalist replies that there would be no point doing that, it’s a dead medium.

The Saudi Arabian government has reacted quicker than most to the digital revolution, and has strategies to neutralise online dissent. They have a building with 1000 government staff all with multiple dummy accounts who flood Twitter with pro-government propaganda, to drown out the noise of any differing opinions. Like Russia and China, it has top-level hackers.

At the same time, Saudi Arabia’s government is changing. While yes, it is a monarchy, not a democracy, the king used to have a wide range of other royals as government appointees. To our ears this sounds worse, because then you’ve just stacked ever more of the same powerful family into positions of power, but it had the converse effect of dispersing power among a range of powerful individuals. Yes, not great, but what is happening now is worse. Because Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) is wildly ambitious, and has been strategically removing from office other royals, and concentrating power solely on him. And up until Jamal’s murder, he was doing so with excellent spin. He was seen as a reformer and moderniser, purging corruption from within the royal ranks. He pushed through many popular policies, such as allowing women to drive, and allowing cinemas and concerts.

So where does Jamal fit in this story? Despite how he is seen now, as a martyr for free speech, Jamal spent most of his life in government reporting institutions, he was part of the establishment. He was a supporter of MBS, seeing his values and goals for the country as aligned with MBS’s espoused vision. He considered himself a patriot, and was not particularly bothered by the Saudi style of reporting, which he saw as basically telling the truth while not being disrespectful to the honoured institutions of the royal family. While he met with reprimand on some stories over the course of his life, he was considered a loyal servant of the state.

So how did he get from there to here? Step-by-step, and very much against his will. While speech was always limited in Saudi Arabia, MBS’s rise to power saw a crackdown. And several journalists, colleagues of Jamal, were arrested. Jamal, as someone considered friendly to MBS was let off with a warning, but even the intimidation he faced was enough to make him flee the country. Even then, he believed he would return, that things would calm down, that he would watch for the release of his colleagues. But things got worse, and he was now seen as a defector. His wife had to divorce him to protect her and their kids. He was fired from all his Saudi Arabian outlets, and he became targeted by trolls on Twitter. It was MBS’s overreaction that drove Jamal from someone content to see the country change little by little to someone who became an activist against increasing government tyranny.

And that was why Jamal was considered so much more dangerous. Because he had spent his entire career on the inside of the establishment, he knew how they worked, he had powerful connections, he knew MBS, and he had a large following because he had mainstream exposure. And now he was going rogue, using his platform and knowledge to speak about against MBS, and hiding behind the shield of American residency and employment at the Washington Post.

He was not just any journalist. And he was considered far worse than any protestor who was on the outside of things. MBS took Jamal’s defection and criticism as a personal betrayal.

And worse, when Jamal started to meet up with other dissidents like Omar Abdulaziz, he became a mentor to the younger generation of activists, and they in turn radicalised him and educated him on how new technology was being utilised for surveillance and oppression. He learned of the government tactics on social media, the new frontier of propaganda, and started to organise an online resistance. And for the Saudi government, if you are trying to counter their cyber attacks, that means you are engaging in war against the state.

That is the big picture part of the story, but this film also has the very human part of this story. Jamal was a man, who at the age of 60, had the life he had built for himself taken away. And while he had his integrity, he facing a lonely life in a strange land. And then he met Hatice Cengiz, and fell in love. And they planned to marry and start a new life together. And while he had taken every precaution to stay clear of his government’s reach, if they were to wed, he had to get a marriage document from the Saudi embassy. So he and the woman he loved turned up in the bright sunshine of the afternoon, and he told her to wait for him outside while he stepped inside and got it. And she stood. And she stood. And she stood. And hours passed, and she began to worry, and she called the police, she called journalists, she called Jamal’s friends with political clout. And she stood there until 1 in the morning. And he did not come out. And that’s because she had stood outside on the street while he was being murdered in that building. It is a nightmare we cannot even imagine.

And now this is the future she has, trying to hold to account her fiancĂ©’s murderer. It is not what she wanted, but it is what has come to pass.

It is a deeply moving story, showing the best in people, who act with love and integrity, and the worst in people, who act with cruelly and callousness.