CHENNAI: Oscar-nominated actress Frances McDormand plays a disenfranchised widow in “Nomadland,” where she takes to the road in a van after she loses her job in a mine, which shuts down in 2011. The Nevada town that depended on it crumbles, its zip code is binned.
“Nomadland” has clinched several Academy Award nominations, including those for Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Director for Chloe Zhao. The first Chinese woman auteur with this recognition, Zhao had in her earlier two films — “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” and “The Rider” — created a romance with the American West, training her script and camera toward the magical landscape with its huge, thinly populated open places.
Zhao usually works with amateur actors, but in “Nomadland,” she makes a departure, and her choice of McDormand could not have been more brilliant. My first recollection of this wonderful actress is in “Fargo,” in which she is a police detective, whose heavily pregnant condition does not deter her from pursuing a man guilty of botching up the kidnapping of his own wife.
Another work of McDormand — “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri” — also revealed her riveting style. The rape and horrific murder of her teenage daughter leaves her shattered, but she is not one to be cowed down and with the local cops twiddling their thumbs, she takes it upon herself to find the culprit.
It is the same kind of steely nerve she displays in “Nomadland,” where she is widowed in her early 60s. When her house provided by the mining company is taken away and the increasingly ghostly town begins to shed residents, Fern (McDormand) moves into her van. The sorrow of the loss of a lifelong partner and her vanishing home and town are poignantly portrayed by her, capturing the raw emotion of the painful transition.
She drives around the country taking up menial jobs, despite having the qualifications to work in teaching or administration positions. But with the disastrous economic scenario, nobody wants to hire someone her age. When close friends offer her a home, she refuses: “I’m not homeless, I’m just houseless. Not the same thing, right? Don’t worry about me.”
The movie, which premiered at Venice last year, is based on Jessica Bruder’s 2017 non-fiction book “Nomadland: Surviving in the Twenty-First Century.” The film closely follows the text, examining the hardship faced by some elderly Americans who are forced to live in vans and pick up odd jobs. The pathetic manner in which they are treated is heart-wrenching. Zhao captures the cruelty of this aspect of the US with admirable imagination, alternating between forceful and subtle depictions. Fern’s dignity and self-respect are remarkably handled, and the director uses many real-life drifters who play themselves.
Working with her regular cinematographer, Joshua James Richards, Zhao scripts a story that mingles the elements of a feature with a documentary film. Picture postcards sceneries that include skies ready to welcome a sunset add to the visual richness of “Nomadland.” A work par excellence.
New app reconstructs the ancient glory of Baalbak’s Roman ruins in Lebanon
Updated 22 April 2021
DUBAI: In 1898, an unlikely royal visit was made to the 10,000-year-old city of Baalbek, a jewel in the crown of Lebanon’s archeological history. As part of his grand tour of the Orient — an expedition that involved 100 coaches, 230 tents and 10 guides — the last emperor of Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm II, and his wife Augusta Victoria were awestruck by Baalbek’s famed Roman ruins. Although the Emperor spent just a few waking hours in the ‘City of the Sun’ — his last stop before heading back to Potsdam via the Port of Beirut – he was so captivated by what he witnessed that he decided to commission German expeditions to excavate the site.
Commemorating the centenary of the Kaiser’s consequential stay in Baalbek, a local museum was inaugurated in 1998 by the Lebanese General Department of Antiquities (DGA) and the German Archaeological Institute (DAI) to display a collection of pre-Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine artifacts. The Lebanese-German cultural relationship continues to grow to this day. In fact, thanks to a collaboration between the DGA, the DAI and the US-based virtual-tourism company Flyover Zone, a new smartphone and tablet app has now been developed that lets users view Baalbek virtually.
“Baalbek Reborn: Temples” allows you to see this UNESCO World Heritage Site — known as Heliopolis in Roman times — as it was in the past and as it is now. It provides a 38-minute guided tour with an audio track available in English, Arabic, French and German. It includes a map with 38 individual stops — some of which are inaccessible in reality — that can be ‘visited’ in panoramic, up-close, and satellite views. Highlights include the iconic six columns of the Temple of Jupiter and the Temple of Baachus, considered by experts as one of the world’s best-preserved examples of Roman-era temples.
The app, released in late March, is another example of how the COVID-19 pandemic has changed tourism and travel. Since global lockdowns began a year ago, there has been increasing interest in the use of advanced technology and virtual reality to allow people to explore the world.
Advanced and impressive as such ‘travel’ may be, however, the app’s project manager Henning Burwitz is aware that it is a very different experience to actually going somewhere.
“This was never intended to replace an actual visit,” Burwitz told Arab News. “To learn about a World Heritage Site in a book, in an app, is great. But to be there is a different thing. We (see) this as a way to encourage people to learn about it, to get people to go there, or to maybe even hear about it for the first time.”
Burwitz recalled the first time he laid eyes on Baalbek back in 2002: “When you go there once, you want come back a lot of times. The size and the impression it leaves on you… It is anything but modest.”
In modern times, Baalbek has been a major artistic hotspot in the Arab region, hosting high-profile performers including Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Fayrouz and Umm Kulthum at the open-air Baalbeck International Festival. During the 1950s and 1960s, Baalbek’s temples were prominently featured in tourism and aviation posters. So aside from its historical importance, what is it about Baalbek that creates such a lasting impression on people?
“The fact that Baalbek and its sites are still preserved as they are today, after the civil war, after a lot of bad (times) this beautiful country has seen, is due to the people,” Burwitz said. “They love their site and they do this because it’s their life, it’s their wellbeing.”
Time-traveling has always been the passion of American digital archaeologist and professor Bernard Frischer, who was involved in the development of the app. Through his company, Flyover Zone, his team has virtually recreated the entire city of Ancient Rome and upcoming plans include sites in Egypt and Mexico. “The cultural mission of what we’re doing — of bridging time and space — is to help bridge people and show people each other’s cultures, starting from when they’re children,” Frischer said. “We have to show young people that there are many great monuments around the world and we have to make them easily accessible.”
The graphics of “Baalbek Reborn” were originally based on 20th-century German archaeologist Theodore Wiegand’s book documenting his findings at Baalbek. A 3D-model was developed and minor details that make the research more scientifically viable and accurate were later added, along with touches that gave the images of Baalbek, captured via drone, a richer look and feel.
According to Burwitz and Frischer, the app has been positively received in the region and abroad, with around 9,000 downloads within a few days of its launch.
The project also supports a crowdfunding campaign to raise funds for the Lebanese non-governmental organization, Arc en Ciel. This initiative will offer restoration training for 100 artisans and workmen in Lebanon, in an effort to rehabilitate Beirut’s heritage homes damaged in the August port explosion.
With the situation in Lebanon so desperate — with political turmoil, an economic meltdown, increased migration and the collective trauma caused by last year’s Beirut blast all exacerbating the issues caused by the ongoing pandemic — Burwitz and his team hope that this project, reconstructing a beloved architectural gem in remarkable detail, might provide the Lebanese people with something to smile about.
“We are all hoping for a light at the end of the tunnel and this might be the little torch trying to guide the people,” said Burwitz.
“We want them to feel that this is good news, which will make them happy and give them some hope,” added Frischer. “It should also give them a special sense of pride that they live in a country that was able to achieve the monumentality of a site like Baalbek.”
Saad Kamel’s daughter discusses late artist’s Egyptian folklore
The late artist’s daughter discusses the latest exhibition of her father’s work
Updated 22 April 2021
LONDON: “My father enjoyed delving into Egyptian folklore. He studied folk tales and was intrigued by the painted motifs that adorned the walls of houses — including the murals painted by pilgrims upon their return from Mecca,” said Amany Kamel, daughter of the late contemporary Egyptian artist Saad Kamel, of an exhibition in Cairo last month featuring a rare collection of her father’s work.
“Folklore Tales” was held at Mashrabia Gallery of Fine Art, founded by Saad Kamel in the Eighties. It promised to take visitors on “a unique journey of fairy tales; the exciting world of Saad Kamel's imaginations, inspired by our Egyptian folklore heritage, enriched by his genius creativity, sensual details, and diverse, innovative techniques.”
“He used to travel across Egypt and collect these folk tales, drawings and myths that have been passed from one generation to the other, then reinterpret them using his own imagination,” said Amany, an architect and designer who co-manages the gallery with her brother, Ayman.
Among the folkloric and historic figures incorporated by Saad Kamel into his work were the famed moulid sugar dolls, the 11th-century Arab leader and warrior Abu Zeid al-Hilali, and the pre-Islamic poet al-Zir Salem.
One epic narrative of which he was particularly fond was that of al-Shater Hassan, the humble fisherman who fell in love with a beautiful girl he saw daily at the seashore, whom he later realized was a princess. When the princess suddenly disappears, Hassan keeps going back to the seashore where they first met, until he stumbles upon one of her guards who asks Hassan to accompany him to the palace. There, Hassan finds out that the princess has fallen ill, and that the only cure was visiting the sea. He decides to take her out to sea, where they remain until she fully recovers. When the princess returns to the palace and expresses her wish to marry Hassan, the reluctant king sets Hassan the seemingly impossible task of procuring a huge diamond. Hassan grows hopelessly depressed, but one day discovers a diamond inside one of his freshly caught fish. Hassan is able to marry the princess, and the couple lives happily ever after.
“He was infatuated with these examples of popular imagination and eventually amassed a huge collection of works traversing popular culture, as well as Islamic and Coptic heritage,” Amany said.
Beyond having manifold influences, Kamel was also a versatile artist, having mastered a number of printmaking techniques. He experimented with batik design, engraving, and painted kilim, among other methods.
“Some of his works are very rare,” Amany said. “There is only one copy of his depiction of Sitt al-hosn (the ‘lady of beauty’ whose hair hung down from the window of a tower) for example. As far as we know, he didn’t make any copies of it, and only he knew the technique [used], so there’s no way we could replicate it.”
It is this singularity of Kamel’s work — not just his technical experimentation but the fact that, among the current generation of Egyptian artists at least, national folklore is an uncommon theme — that continues to inspire Amany to celebrate her father’s legacy, including staging an exhibition of his work every year on his birthday.
“There is an entire generation of artists who are not familiar with Saad Kamel and his work. In that sense, it becomes important to remind them of his oeuvre, and perhaps encourage them to borrow some aspects of his work in their own art,” Amany said.
“My father’s dream was to disseminate art, and he specifically wanted to showcase Egyptian art to the world. That’s why he founded Mashrabia gallery back in the Eighties,” she continued. “So as his children, the least we can do is showcase and celebrate his own art in this gallery he founded.”
REVIEW: Riz Ahmed-starring ‘Sound of Metal’ makes all the right noises
Delayed Oscar-nominated drama proves worth waiting for
Updated 22 April 2021
LONDON: In a peculiar twist of pandemic-related fate, it’s been almost two years since “Sound of Metal” premiered at the Toronto Film Festival — and two years of whisperings (from those lucky enough to have seen it) that director Darius Marder and star Riz Ahmed had made a film that was very special indeed.
Those rumblings were only heightened when the movie was nominated for six Oscars ahead of this month’s ceremony, and now, with Amazon Prime finally bringing the film to audiences around the world, it’s possible to say whether or not it lives up to the hype.
It’s a resounding yes. Marder (co-writer of “The Place Beyond the Pines”) has made a movie that is sometimes abrasive, sometimes shocking, and sometimes heartwarming. At the center of these contradictory moods is Ahmed, who plays drummer Ruben Stone with a sense of practiced nihilism (yet rough-around-the-edges decency) upon which the whole story relies.
Ruben and his girlfriend Lou (Olivia Cooke) are a metal duo called Blackgammon. As they gig round the US in their RV, Ruben’s hearing suddenly drops out before a show. Worried that he might relapse (due to a history of addiction), Lou takes him to a deaf shelter run by Joe (Paul Raci), who tries to show Ruben that his outlook isn’t quite as catastrophic as he fears.
Marder and his sound team (who quite rightly received one of the movie’s six Oscar nods) put us right there with Ruben, as the audio flits from vibrant and busy to muffled and indistinct. It’s a discombobulating experience, but one that relies on Ahmed’s spectacular performance as a musician struggling to find any positives after his world changes overnight.
Ahmed (who learned sign language and drumming for the part) displays a sensitivity and an awareness that Ruben can only dream of at the start of the movie. He is utterly captivating as the beating heart of the film. Cooke and Raci deserve credit for the richness they bring to complex characters, but it is Ahmed who brings “Sound of Metal” to life — a movie that deserves all the plaudits surely heading its way.
Saudi tenor Marwan Fagi kicks off Abu Dhabi Festival’s Ramadan series
Updated 21 April 2021
DUBAI: The 18th edition of the Abu Dhabi Festival (ADF), themed “The Future Starts Now,” kicked off on Tuesday, and to celebrate the launch of its Ramadan series, Saudi singer Marwan Fagi opened up the event with a virtual performance.
The singer, who hails from Makkah, performed “Ateehu Fika” (Lost in You), a song he composed based on a poem by Lebanese poet Nada El-Hage, with music by Saudi musician Rami Basahih.
Composer, soprano and academic Hiba Al-Kawas produced and conducted the show and mentored Fagi, weaving together the singer’s natural high tones and soothing low tones.
Fagi was accompanied by members of the Lebanese Philharmonic Orchestra. The performance was streamed online on ADF’s digital platforms.
Members of the orchestra recorded the melody in the National Museum of Lebanon in Beirut, while Fagi recorded his voice in Al-Tayebat International City of Science and Knowledge, an Islamic heritage museum in Jeddah.
Fagi said in a released statement: “Being part of Abu Dhabi Festival is a great opportunity for me, given its cultural status on local, regional and global levels and its unique multicultural message of acceptance and openness, which positively serves the music industry in the Arab world. My current experience with ADF is unique and special because it is liberating from all traditional musical restrictions.”
The Ramadan series, titled “Human Fraternity: Dignity and Hope,” includes digital performances of over 25 songs and chants by Arab vocalists and creators, written by 11 poets and writers and performed by eight chanters and singers who are accompanied by 60 musicians.
‘Promising Young Woman:’ A mesmeric, Oscar-tipped performance by Carey Mulligan
Updated 21 April 2021
CHENNAI: Director Emerald Fennell’s debut feature “Promising Young Woman” is in the Academy Awards race in a multitude of categories, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress and Best Original Screenplay. Penned by Fennell herself, it is Carey Mulligan’s work all the way, and she gives an Oscar-worthy performance as Ohio-based Cassandra Thomas.
A medical school dropout, Cassandra is 30 with no boyfriend and no real friends, much to the anxiety of her doting parents. Of course, there is a reason for this. Years ago, her med-school classmate. Al Monroe (Chris Lowell), sexually assaulted her best friend, Nina Fisher. A corrupt lawyer and the school’s uncaring administration let Monroe off and left him not feeling the faintest sense of remorse. Cassandra, a promising student, dropped out and withdrew from social life.
Against this backdrop, which is gradually revealed in the nearly two-hour movie, we watch Cassandra make a weekly trip to a bar until a “friendly” male attempts to take advantage of her inebriated state, before she reveals she is in perfect control of her faculties, having pretended to be tipsy to lull predators into a false sense of security.
The plot is extremely gripping. We watch with trepidation as Cassandra challenges men, who on the surface seem so jovial, friendly and highbrow — the ultimate “nice guys” — until the moment of reckoning, when they fail to do the right thing.
Cassandra’s life of solitude is upended, however, when she re-connects with Ryan Cooper (Bo Burnham), an old classmate who finds a chink in her armor. The pair does have genuine chemistry — enough for a whole film on them.
“Promising Young Woman” is not about their romance, however. It is about Cassandra, it is about Mulligan, and audiences will be amazed to see her comic side in a film on such dark subject matter — it is a mesmeric performance.
The soundtrack is moody and meaningful — songs like “It’s Rainin’ Men” and Britney Spears’ “Toxic,” fill the air, as well as Paris Hilton’s cheery pop numbers that are foot-tapping but jarring.