Friday, 13 March 2015

STANDSTILL - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Identity, redemption and facing the past drive this haunting portrait of a Canadian Mohawk living in the shadow of Colonialism and a Palestinian Refugee living in the shadow of an abusive lover.

Standstill (2013)
Dir. Majdi El-­Omari
Starring: Atwena:Ron David Deerhouse, Meisoon Azzaria, Iohani:Io Curotte, Skawennati Madelaine Montour, Tatum Ieronhienhawi McComber, Jean Pierre Lefebvre

Review By Greg Klymkiw

…Gently she sleeps
With her fingers
in her ears
Gently she dreams
With her palms
on her eyes…
While her Mother sings,
"They Killed the fish
They Killed the bird
and the Little Girl in the house."

-Excerpt from Wedad's poem

Standstill is a powerful and deeply moving first feature film by the Canadian-Palestinian filmmaker Majdi El-­Omari. Set in and around the Quebec town of Oka, the city of Montreal and the Native Reservation of Kanehsatake, it tells the tale of a middle-aged member of the Mohawk Nation. Arihote (Atewena:ron David Deerhouse) is a former war correspondent who used his gifts as a photographer in Sarajevo, but now seeks peace and solace as an anonymous wedding photographer. Juggling the emotional turmoil of an at-risk son, a wife who left him - disappearing as if into thin air - and a father who, in despair, blew his brains out, Arihote shambles through life like a somnambulist.

One night, though, this all changes when he hears a disturbance in the apartment above his basement suite. Upon investigating, he discovers that a murder has been committed by Wedad (Meissoon Azzaria), a Palestinian refugee. The victim is her abusive lover. Arihote is consumed with a need to help the woman, but at the same time, he's equally concerned about personally involving himself in anything that will bring him in contact with the police.

There's a good reason for both of these compelling feelings. They're rooted in the personal, to be sure, but there is also a historical backdrop to his motivations.

Canada's ages-old apartheid, aimed at its First Nations, has been one of the most horrendous, foul and insidious policies of hatred and racism in the history of colonialism in the Americas. The country has also had its fair share of violent genocide, though it's a drop in the bucket, compared to its neighbours to the south (right from the USA and down to the bottom tip of South America). What's been especially infuriating in the Great White North is the "polite" Canadian approach to decimating its Aboriginal Nations through lies, deceit and bureaucracy. The Canadian apartheid has essentially been a cultural genocide; ignoring treaties, swindling land, attempting to smother cultural identity and a grim system of residential schools aimed at "whitening" Native children (and sexually abusing them at the hands of Catholic priests).

More often than not, Canadian Aboriginals have attempted to use legal means to address this infinite litany of injustices perpetrated upon them by politicians and bureaucrats feathering their own nests whilst kowtowing to the needs of old money and corporate pigs. Resistance, more often than not, has been peaceful.

In 1990, the resistance had only one way to go. A whack of lily-white-bread-inbreds living in the town of Oka, Quebec near the Kanehsatake reservation, decided willy-nilly to mow down a huge swath of forested traditional lands belonging to the Mohawks of the region. A sacred and ancient burial ground would have been desecrated and the land would have been decimated environmentally. The Canadian government, as per usual, reneged on old agreements and subsequent attempts to rectify the situation legally amounted to a hill of beans.

The reason? The town wanted a golf course.

Yes, you read that right - a fucking golf course!

The Mohawks had only one choice - they set up barbed wire fences, blocked roads and occupied the forest. And they were armed to the teeth. This led to yahoo vigilantes, Quebec Police and eventually the Canadian Army descending upon the Native People. The "Oka Crisis", as it was eventually dubbed by the lily-white-bread-Canadian-media (and many historians who should know better), was indeed one of the most severe, tension-ridden armed conflicts between First Nations and their Colonizers during the history of Canada in the 20th Century. (It eventually took an Aboriginal filmmaker, Alanis Obomsawin, to provide a proper perspective on this injustice with her now-immortal documentary Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, a film which the publicly-funded Canadian Broadcasting Corporation shamefully refused to broadcast.)

It is within this almost-ghostly social, historical and political backdrop that the character of Arihote is haunted in writer-editor-producer-director El-­Omari's astonishing Standstill, the first feature film presented primarily in the Mohawk language (with a smaller percentage in English, French and Arabic). Shot in stunning black and white (save for the equally arresting colour bookends) by cinematographer Stephanie Weber Biron and underscored by jangling, forbidding, mournful and evocative music by Antoine Bustros, this might be one of the most important films to be made in Canada in some time. El-Omari's mise-en-scene includes a series of neo-realist tableaux and simple, but effective handheld camera movements (floaty-cam-style, not shaky-cam) to tell this story about two people forced by political and social upheaval to confront the past in order to move forward with the future. Arihote is a stranger in his own land whilst Wedad is most definitely a stranger in a strange land.

So much of the film's story unfolds in slow, but richly composed and always fascinating details of real life - the camera at once being a fly on several walls, but also revealing the extremely potent points of view of Arihote. These latter moments are especially extraordinary, because we get a sense of his "camera eye" and when we see what he sees, it's as if we're seeing it through the eyes of one who has spent a lifetime photographing death, destruction, exploitation and despair.

El-Omari places most of the narrative emphasis upon Arihote. He is haunted by his wife's disappearance after he left for Sarajevo as well as trying to raise his motherless son in a world of conflict, but all of it far removed from his own experiences as a war photographer. What's especially moving is when we (and his son) discover that Arihote, was more than an ineffectual husband and partner to his long-gone wife - that he did a lot more than look at the world through a camera lens. She was a major activist in the "Oka Crisis", as well as being a brilliant visual artist. She placed her life on the line in a serious conflict, but also exposed her soul upon canvas. Arihote was not dissimilar. He's described to his son as being a vital participant at Oka "with a camera in one hand and a semi-automatic weapon in the other."

In a sense, we're faced with the tragedy of a couple whose love is effectively torn apart by the weight of colonialism and the crisis of Oka. She sought solace in rebuilding their family and love. Alas, he sought solace in the bitter war of Sarajevo. The broken pieces of this marriage resulted in abandonment on both sides of the equation and in the middle, Arihote's brilliant young son without a mother, his distant suicidal father and a sense of not belonging to either Kanehsatake or Montreal.

Add to this mix the parallel tale of Wedad and Arihote's involvement in her crisis - a strange narrative choice which starts the story off, but fades into the backdrop until the hugely emotional final third of the picture. Doing the math on the whole, we have a colonized aboriginal man, a female refugee from Palestine and a young man who doesn't know where he belongs. As such, El-Omari delivers what might be the ultimate indigenously Canadian story of all, one that recalls the title and even thematic layering of Edward Everett Hale's classic of short American fiction, "The Man Without a Country" (itself an allegory for the American Civil War).

To be without a country seems to be tantamount to being without a soul, not unlike so many aspects of Canadian existence amongst its aboriginal peoples, the diaspora of the poorest European immigrants and their progeny and the myriad of recent immigrants often fleeing political persecution in their countries of origin. In spite of this, though, El-Omari doesn't let us or his characters muddle about for an eternity of identity crises. He provides, like any great storyteller, obstacles that must be overcome and in so doing, he creates a film that is as despair-ridden as it is eventually very moving, powerful and oddly, but genuinely uplifting in a completely un-sentimental fashion.

There are no easy decisions or answers for any of the characters. Like most of us, they are living within an existential quagmire - one brought about by the crashing waves of history. As individuals it is their despair, practically hard-wired into their very beings by external powers which force them to face a new world, fresh horizons and a future in which they can break through the wall of stasis permeating their lives.

El-Omari presents all this in a muted fashion, but by doing so, he actually creates a film which might be one of the few Canadian films to be imbued with the strength and power which we have, for some 20 years turned to the Belgian filmmaking duo, the Dardenne Brothers for. Their intense naturalism and concentration upon the lives of the disenfranchised have been reflected in such masterworks as La promesse, Rosetta, L’Enfant, Le gamin au vélo and their most recent stunner Deux jours, une nuit.

Where Standstill might occasionally veer from a completely naturalistic style are its occasional dream-like visions and flashbacks, though even these extraordinary sequences are imbued with a highly realistic approach within the context of both the narrative and as self contained units of dramatic action. There's no overt flash to these haunting scenes, though in retrospect they are as unforgettable as anything else in the more realism-infused sequences. Like the Dardennes, El-Omari delivers considerable poetry, cinematic magic and flirts briefly, but pointedly with the cerebral.

It seems fitting, of course, that during a critical point in the story, the father of independent Canadian art cinema, director Jean Pierre Lefebvre appears in a pivotal, important role. (Full disclosure: Lefebvre appeared in a not dissimilar role in a film I produced in the late 90s by Bruno Lazaro Pacheco entitled City of Dark.) Here, as a weary French Canadian police detective investigating the murder that sets the whole film in action, he brings a wise, knowing humanity to his role as a man who has suffered similar personal bereavements as those experienced by Arihote. Lefebvre plays his role as more bureaucrat than Sûreté du Québec crime fighter whilst Arihote has all but given up his past as an activist and photographic eye upon the despair of war. It is here where we come face to face with men who both, in their own way, have been victims of British colonization and recognize a common ground in each other's place in the world.

Standstill is a film that gives Canadian Cinema the hope and promise that our truly indigenous stories will be told, stories about those who do far more living and dying in this world than the country's oppressors will ever do. Such stories will indeed be in very good hands with Majdi El­-Omari and the handful of other film artists who bring far more to the table than merely ephemeral expressions of cultural experience. He's made a film that has every potential to withstand the sands of time.

I can hardly wait for his next movie.


Standstill is a Domino Films release playing theatrically in Toronto at The Royal Cinema. Demand your local independent exhibitor bring it to your town.