Editor’s Note: Anywhere Except Hollywood highlighting what’s new and worth watching on international TV and movies. This month the spotlight is on the French thriller “Athena,” the Senegalese action film “Saloum” and the Iranian drama “No Bears.”
French writer-director Romain Gavras wants your attention, and like Karim, the fiery young man at the heart of his third feature “Athena,” he’s willing to do anything to get it.
In the first ten minutes of “Athens” we see tense press conferences erupt into violence, raids on police stations by angry youths and a thrilling race back to their city forts with the loot. It was only after a series of breathless action and a bewildering camera, as they set up the barricades triumphantly, that the director decided to call the cut.
Gavras and his cinematographer Matias Boucard have created a round-the-clock tracking footage to kick off this new Netflix thriller, created specifically to grab the attention of audiences. It is a long time that makes opening “Touch of Evil” looks like it could pull his socks off; it makes raids on “True Detectives” looks like a walk in the park. It is a shot of adrenaline to the heart and sets a speed that is impossible to maintain. But in 97 minutes of tireless and thrilling, this film will try.
Karim (played by newcomer Sami Slimane) mourns the loss of his sister, beaten to death by uniformed officers – the third case of police brutality in two months in Athens, a poor community on the outskirts of Paris. He wanted a name but the police refused to take responsibility. Their brother Abdel (Dali Benssalah, “There’s No Time To Die”) is a soldier pleading for peace, while the eldest brother Koktar (Ouassini Embarek) is a drug dealer who fears the riots will have a bad impact on business. Karim, meanwhile, has emerged as a character ready to take a generation to war.
Immediately after the attack, the police descended on Athens to confront the youths. Stuck in between were his parents and their extended family. The film questions their passivity while asking for sympathy for them, as well as Jerome (Anthony Bajon), a frightened officer sent into the fray. But mainly we channeled Karim’s fair temper, not dissuaded by the intervention of his brothers.
Gavras and co-authors Ladj Ly and Elias Belkeddar tell the story of a siege that follows almost entirely within Athens’ concrete maze, building around a long time series emphasizing the chaos of skirmishes and Karim’s contingency plans. Filmed with an IMAX camera, Molotov cocktails and Roman candles are launched at night; body masses filled the corridors, racing across rooftops and crashing into each other with baroque scoring sounds.
What if the Trojan War took place in a Paris housing estate? It might look like this. With its clashing brothers, mythological men, and epic scale, “Athens” is reminiscent of ancient Greek tragedy. But the pain is rooted in this day – and they are very much felt. This is a piece of bravura film of a general behind the camera; one that inevitably draws attention to the art of war is filmmaking itself. The logistics of it all give me a headache.
“Athena” is in select theaters now and available on Netflix on September 23.
Gavras, an alumnus of music videos including Kanye West and Jay-Z’s “No Church in the Wild,” is no stranger to rebellion. But he’s never done it on this scale before — no wonder he cites epics like Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” and Akira Kurosawa’s “Ran” as inspiration for “Athena.”
“There’s no CGI in the film, we do everything for real,” Gavras said. “His plans are, oddly enough, almost military and very precise to create havoc on camera.”
To hear more from the writer-director, read our full interview.
Congolese filmmaker Jean Luc Herbulot delivers a vibrant midnight film about three mercenaries who escape in a remote corner of Senegal. Yann Gael, Roger Sallah and Mentor Ba entertain as tough male snipers, but their arrogance is put to the test when a paranormal enemy threatens them and their gold stash. Herbulot’s meandering Neo-Western (“South,” he calls it) packs a lot of undead West African themes and history into a tight runtime. The specter of colonialism and exploitation of people and places looms large, offering a gloomy tone. Nevertheless, it’s a lot of fun with a fierce imagination and eye-catching visual flair.
“Saloum” is available at Feeling horrified in America.
Every new Jafar Panahi movie feels like a little miracle. Iranian directors have been banned from leaving the country and making films for more than a decade, but he kept looking for a way. In “No Bears,” Panahi plays a version of himself who travels to a border village to remotely direct a film in neighboring Turkey. He becomes caught up in a local dispute, accused of photographing the forbidden meeting of the couple, the woman who had been promised another. Meanwhile, the real-life couple in the film plot an exodus. Borders of all kinds look great. Plagued by villagers treating him and his camera with suspicion, and with the authorities asking questions, the director weighs which place is best for him.
Reflecting on the perils of observation and the unforeseen consequences of making art, “No Bears” is a richly layered metafiction, usually self-reflection and inseparable from its context. Circumstances have turned the filming of Panahi into an act of dissent. This is perhaps the best and most challenging work of this period. It’s also the most painful. Arrow first arrested and was jailed in July to serve a previously unenforced six-year sentence for “propaganda against the system,” per Reuters.
At the Venice Film Festival in September, where the film won an award Special Jury Prizea empty chair reserved for the director after the premiere. “Our fear empowers others,” one character tells the director in “No Bears.” Arrow has shown its mettle once again.
“No Bears” premieres in the US on New York Film Festival in October.