VENICE: It is not easy to pull off a biopic on someone as iconic as Marilyn Monroe and writer-director Andrew Dominik’s attempt “Blonde,” which was unveiled at the recent Venice Film Festival, was moving in parts, but ultimately extremely lopsided. The director used James Carol Oates’ bulky 738-page book of the same name as source material, while Cuban Spanish actress Ana de Armas does a stellar job at portraying Monroe.
The men in her life, including President John F. Kennedy, are painted as monstrous, while she is depicted as a poor lost soul throughout.
Despite the star’s difficult life — she did indeed have a troubled childhood and was exploited by powerful men throughout her career — the film’s nearly-three-hour overemphasis on the negativity Monroe endured is difficult to sit through. It is also voyeuristic and exploitative, leaving her in a state of unnecessary undress for much of the runtime.
What is even more worrying is that the story is full of historical distortions, based often on rumors, that serve to add layer upon layer of sordid details to the already misery-laden film.
The one hugely redeeming factor is de Armas. She is intensely fascinating and fits the picture of the seductively sweet Hollywood icon. The actress was certainly a legend and de Armas tries — and succeeds — in getting that right, aided by superb camerawork by Chayse Irvin who captures 1950s Hollywood with its popping flashbulbs and desirous fans to great effect. Monroe’s scenes with Arthur Miller, to whom she was married when she overdosed on sleeping pills in 1962, are touching and Adrian Broody plays the role with his usual natural ease.
But these qualities are not quite enough to salvage this production, which will begin streaming on Netflix at the end of September.
Sally El-Hosaini’s ‘The Swimmers’ — a very different refugee story
The filmmaker on her acclaimed movie about two Syrian sisters, one of whom became an Olympian after fleeing their homeland
Updated 08 December 2022
DUBAI: Conjure an image of war — an image of what a young woman stuck in those circumstances must be going through to take the desperate decision to flee into the dark of night, to become a refugee. Is your image full of ash and smoke, of abject terror and starvation? That is exactly the image that Sally El-Hosaini’s film “The Swimmers” — based on the remarkable true story of Syrian refugee and Olympic swimmer Yusra Mardini and her sister Sara — attempts to dispel from the start.
The film, which is now streaming globally on Netflix, begins in a very different civil-war-era Syria than the one commonly depicted in the news: Two young women are dancing to Sia’s “Titanium” with their friends, clubbing and finding joy where they can. Bombs are falling in the distance, but they have found a way to push that out of their minds for a moment, to continue their normal, middle-class lives because they refuse to give into the fear.
“When Yusra was watching this scene, she turned around to me in the cinema, and said, ‘Thank you for this. This is what it really felt like,’” El-Hosaini tells Arab News.
“Yusra told me the story of the day a mortar landed in front of her as she was going to meet her friends, and there was chaos, so she hid behind a wall. And as she hid, she thought, ‘Should I run home, or should I still go meet my friends?’”
As Yusra Mardini hid behind that wall, she told El-Hosaini, she did the math in her head. Surely, if she was going to die tonight, it would have been here.
“Statistically, I’ve already had the mortar land in front of me. Another one’s not going to hit me tonight. I’m going to meet my friends,” Mardini thought.
“That’s the way it becomes normalized. It’s horrific, but that’s what really happens. They were just trying to be teenagers,” El-Hosaini continues.
In many ways, El-Hosaini’s film can’t help but be remarkable. The fact that the sisters cheated death time and again for one to reach the pinnacle of their sport on the other side of the world is undeniably inspiring. What makes it especially notable, however, is not just the true story at its center, but the way that the British-Egyptian filmmaker El-Hosaini frames it as a film of “female emancipation” — a story not of passive victims, but of active heroes who used a desperate situation to rise up in ways that, ironically, they never could have had their circumstances not been changed so dramatically.
“War turns everything on its head,” says El-Hosaini. “All of the structures of society — cultural, patriarchal structures — no longer exist. They're shaken. That allows the young the freedom to really go on a journey like this. It’s an ironic liberation that came out of tragedy and war. On that journey that they took, they really were making crucial decisions about their lives. They became heroes by doing that. That’s something I really responded to.”
This is not just a story that El-Hosaini dreamed of making, it’s a story she had grown up wishing already existed.
“You don't often see young, modern Arab women on screen. I saw this opportunity to make complex heroes out of these types of women. Normally, you have, like, victimized portrayal. When I was growing up, I never had a role model like that — a version of me on screen. I had the thought that if I didn't do this project, and I saw the film, I might feel disappointed, because I knew what it could be in my hands. And if it didn't achieve that, I would be very sad. And that was when I realized I had to do it myself,” says El-Hosaini.
At the center of the all-star Arab cast, which includes Syrian superstar Kinda Alloush as the Mardini sisters’ mother, acclaimed Palestinian actor Ali Soleiman as their father, and rising Egyptian star Ahmed Malek as their closest friend, are two relative unknowns — Lebanese sisters Nathalie Issa and Manal Issa as Yusra and Sara Mardini.
The Issa sisters were only cast after an exhaustive search, one that initially only included Syrians before the visas required by the film’s locations made Syrian casting impossible.
“Manal had been in some independent Lebanese films and she had this very charismatic, rebellious presence. When she auditioned, she mentioned she was a big sister just like Sara, but her younger sister, Nathalie, was not an actress — she was studying for a master’s in literature. We asked if she could audition, and after Nathalie read the book, she was inspired, and came to screen test for us. Their chemistry blew me away, as they each embodied the very different energies of Sara and Yusra. I thought, ‘Oh my goodness! I’ve found the Lebanese version of the Syrian Mardini sisters,’” says El-Hosaini.
When the two pairs of sisters met, the connection was instant.
“Within a few hours, they were sharing their life stories. When they spent the night at their house that first meeting, they talked all night, and they were like the best of friends. And they’re still friends now. It just felt so natural,” the filmmaker continues.
But the film did more than provide the two pairs of sisters with new friends. It also brought the Mardini sisters back together, as they had drifted apart somewhat since the events of the film.
“When we first screened the film for them in Berlin, we all sat in the back room, terrified, because they hadn’t seen anything. And then, as the movie started, they started laughing, and then crying, and talking through it — whispering to each other. When the movie ended, Sara climbed over the cinema seats, and she gave me a big hug. She said, ‘Thank you. You reminded me how much I love my sister’” says El-Hosaini.
“Most people don’t ever see their life contained in two hours in that way. It was a very intense experience,” she continues. “But I’m so thrilled that they’re proud of it, and that they felt represented. It was really one of the great honors of my life to tell their story.”
The Saudi artist discusses her 2005 photograph, recently displayed on one of the FIFA World Cup art water bottles
Updated 08 December 2022
DUBAI: In her own words, Saudi artist Manal AlDowayan discusses her 2005 photograph, recently displayed on one of the FIFA World Cup art water bottles:
Photography was the first medium that I worked with as an artist. I made my series “The Choice” 20 years ago. I was still an employee of Aramco at the time and it was five more years before I decided I was going to be a full-time artist.
Photography is direct. You look at the image and that’s your engagement. The idea, always, was to connect to my community through my art with a conversation with a viewer and not become static. That’s why I moved from digital photography to darkroom printing. You’re printing with your hands, moving the picture to get the right light on it, and I felt darkroom printing was very tactile.
I felt an urge to express myself at that point. There were no galleries, museums, no art ecosystem — nothing. I was quite young, a working woman, and a woman’s status was quite difficult in Saudi Arabia. One of the activities we were excluded from was sports. I consider this work a participatory artwork, because the women that were photographed were not just models, they were actual participants. The woman is a young Saudi and she’s always played excellent football, but she never played football in Saudi and never pursued a career in sports, because the opportunities were so limited, even abroad. Women were not encouraged to play soccer.
The reason it was posed showing only half her face was because, at that moment in time in Saudi Arabia, a woman’s face was a taboo. I was very worried about showing a woman’s face. I wanted to add the element of traditional jewelry as an interruption; it was just so out-of-place.
There needs to be a closer look at traditions that are truthfully good ones and that work within today’s society. You can see a glimpse of what it means to be a woman and how it’s changed significantly over the years. Today, I can speak about the transformation that’s happened with women’s rights in my country. They are part of the parliament, they’re in sports. . . Women’s voices have been heard.
Spectacular Samarkand: Ancient Uzbek city is a cultural treasure
Updated 08 December 2022
TORONTO: I had only ever heard of Samarkand — a 7th-century city on the Silk Road, the famous trade route running from China to the Mediterranean — in history class. And it was the allure of the ancient Silk Road that took me there.
Present-day Samarkand in Uzbekistan still bears traces of its former status as part of the Soviet Union, and the city is influenced, both linguistically and ethnographically, by bordering nations. Tajik Persian, Russian, and Uzbek are the most widely-spoken languages. Regional tourism by way of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan is predominant; as are investments and trade relations with China and Russia.
Samarkand might not be a major tourist draw, but there are plenty of great accommodation options, including five- and four-star hotels like the Samarkand Regency Amir Timur or the Savitsky Plaza, named after Igor Savitsky and featuring some of his avant-garde artwork. There are also some attractive boutique options, including Sangzor Hotel in Registan Square.
As you would expect from a city that’s been around for 1,400 years, Samarkand is steeped in culture and history, and contains some breathtaking architecture.
The Gur-e-Amir, or mausoleum of Amir Temur, is where the Turco-Mongolian conqueror and Uzbekistan’s national hero, Amir Temur lies, along with his sons and grandsons. The entrance to the courtyard features an elaborate muqarnas, the honeycomb-style design common across the Islamic world. The inner chamber was once made of gold, jade, and onyx, but after centuries of plundering has been refurbished with cheaper materials. Nonetheless, it remains a work of art.
Perhaps the greatest reminder of the Timurid Renaissance — when Samarkand witnessed a revival of arts and sciences, and the construction of mosques and madrasahs — is Registan Square. A short distance from Gur-e-Amir, the square houses three madrasahs, and it is here that some of the greatest minds of the 14th and 15th centuries — including Amir Temur’s grandson, the renowned astronomer Ulugh Beg — pursued Islamic studies, astronomy, and sciences.
All three structures are fine examples of Islamic architecture: a grand entranceway with geometric patterns laid out in blue and turquoise tiles patterns leads into a courtyard. Kufic calligraphy is inscribed on the minarets and domes, in the same exquisite glazed tile work. And although souvenir shops now occupy the dormitories and hallways of the madrasahs, the buildings maintain a solemn air.
The Sher-e-Dor madrasah on the right, notably, features a mosaic of a tiger and man, symbolizing man’s quest for knowledge.
With its intricate window arches, lattices, and expansive gardens, the square is reminiscent of Humayun’s Tomb and the Taj Mahal in India. This is no surprise. After all, it was another one of Amir Temur’s grandsons’ Babur who conquered the Delhi Sultanate and founded the Mughal Empire in the 15th century.
Further out, the Shah-i-Zinda Necropolis is a three-level complex housing mausoleums of Amir Temur’s relatives, close accomplices, and religious scholars. The most prominent among them is Kusam (Qutham) ibn Abbas, the cousin of Prophet Muhammad. Shah-i-Zinda’s brilliance — its resplendent sapphire domes and tiled entranceways against the contrasting taupe of the structure — can only truly be taken in as you walk up its stairs and look back at each level. It also contains several vantage points affording a fine view of the city and the local cemetery next door.
Some 20 minutes away from the center of Samarkand is the Eternal City, a recreation of ancient Uzbek cities with artisan shops and local cafés. It’s popular with locals for a family day out and although the buildings may not be authentic, its cultural experiences are. For example, you can watch how samsa (akin to samosa) is made over a tandyr here.
In terms of food, the Uzbek diet is notoriously meat-heavy (to the point that it’s a major health concern). The national dish — plov, made with plump raisins and caramelized sweet carrots — is known colloquially in Saudi Arabia as ‘Bukhara rice’ and is commonly eaten for both breakfast and lunch.
Other specialties include lagman — hand-pulled noodles simmered in a meat and dill broth that is said to originate from the Uyghur region — and Uzbek manti (dumplings stuffed with meat and potato).
If you want to see some of the city’s lesser-known sites, a two-hour “Invisible Samarkand” walking tour starting at the Bibi-Khanum Mosque takes you through its diverse neighborhoods, including an ancient hammam and the quarters built for refugees coming from other parts of the Soviet Union in the 1960s.
Samarkand’s allure lies in its rich history and diverse cultural background. It might be a name you recognize only from textbooks, but it’s well worth seeing in person.
Red Sea film festival travels back in time with outdoor cinema
Cinephiles can grab popcorn from the Vox kiosk, cozy up in a bean bag and enjoy movies such as “Love in Karnak” (1965) and “Watch out for Zouzou” (1972)
Updated 07 December 2022
JEDDAH: An outdoor cinema overlooking the Jeddah waterfront has been set up to screen restored classic movies as part of the Red Sea International Film Festival.
The setting is reminiscent of the 70’s when “Cinema Alhosh,” meaning backyard cinemas, were common in Saudi Arabia.ac
Cinephiles can grab popcorn from the Vox kiosk, cozy up in a bean bag and enjoy movies such as “Love in Karnak” (1965) and “Watch out for Zouzou” (1972).
Antoine Khalife, the head of the Arab program and film classics at RSIFF, said that movies for the outdoor cinema were chosen with Jeddah’s audience in mind.
“‘Watch out for Zouzou’ came out 50 years ago, it was produced in 1972 and we are in 2022, so for us, it was amazing to do the restoration. A lot of people, maybe your mom and aunts, watched it on TV, and they love Soad Hosny or the songs.
“We decided on something light, nice … and at the same time it is a masterpiece and a film that is very modern,” said Khalife.
Khalife said that he wanted to remind people that the festival was for the public, for a large audience, and for the people of Saudi Arabia. “They can meet the directors, the stars, the actors, and it is not just a place for professionals,” he added.
He said that many amazing movies await the people and that he was looking forward to the public response.
Amna Khalid, a 25-year-old Egyptian, who watched the first screening of “Watch out for Zouzou” said: “When my mom moved to Jeddah after she got married, she said she would watch this movie all the time with my dad.
“So when I saw there was a screening, I rushed to watch it. I don’t think the story even matters to me, the movie makes me feel warm inside because of how many childhood memories I have of it.”
REVIEW: Fatih Akin’s ‘Rheingold’ raises Red Sea pulse rates
Updated 07 December 2022
JEDDAH: Fatih Akin, the renowned German director of Turkish descent, has made dramatic cinema his calling card with films like “Head-On,” “The Edge of Heaven” and “In the Fade,” and his Red Sea offering “Rheingold” is just as exhilarating.
First premiered at the Venice Film Festival and based on events in German rapper Xatar’s 2015 autobiography “All or Nothing,” Akin's movie begins on a gruesome note.
The first 20 minutes are intense with Xatar (Giwar Hajabi), played by Emilio Sakraya, being brutalized in a Syrian prison in 2010 by fellow inmates, who want to know where stolen gold is hidden.
This takes Xatar back to childhood memories of his composer father Eghbal (Kardo Razzazi) being jailed at the beginning of the Iranian revolution in 1979.
We are then swiftly taken through the terrifying Khomeini regime, the father’s plight and the spirit of his mother Rasal (Mona Prizad) who, following Xatar’s birth, declares: “Your name will be Giwar, born of suffering.”
“Rheingold” then takes us to Paris in 1986, and to Bonn where Xatar’s refugee family struggles to make a life out of misfortune.
The father abandons his family, leaving Xatar to assume a mountain of responsibility. He wanders into petty crime and drug dealing which results in him spending time at a Cologne juvenile detention center.
The man who emerges hits a reckless path to give his earlier tormentors a hard time.
In Amsterdam he sells drugs and falls in love with his old neighbor Shirin (Sogol Faghani). If she and his supportive mother are constants in his life, there is one more: his love for music, inherited from his father.
Xatar’s resolve to start his own label, and his desperate attempts to finance it, land him in a Syrian prison, and it is only after eight years that he walks out a reformed man.
Akin uses his trademark style of snappy montages, slow motion and freeze-frames to take us on a whirlwind trip through Xatar’s life.
He never lets go of his swagger, even in his darkest moments, steering us through 140 minutes of a strange yet riveting narrative.