Against corruption and for culture

“Documenting the Undocumented” by Huda Beydoun, 2013.

Misk Art Institute is organizing an October Arab art festival in New York and sending Saudi artists to study in California

By Rasheed Abualsamh

The sweep against corruption in Saudi Arabia began to wind down on Jan. 27, 2018, when Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a billionaire businessman, was released from his luxury jail at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in the capital, Riyadh.

Hours earlier, an interview that he gave to the Reuters news agency was posted on the internet. In the video, the prince – whose personal wealth is estimated at US$17 billion, making him one of the wealthiest men in the world — categorically denied that he is corrupt and said he had insisted on spending more time in the hotel to get rid of all suspicions. It seemed strange how he showed the little kitchen where they brought vegan dishes for his meals, since he owns a palace in Riyadh with more than 400 rooms. Alwaleed said he will return to running Kingdom Holding, which includes several cable TV networks, a record label, a stake in Banque Saudi Fransi and large stakes in Citibank, Apple, Twitter, and Lyft, among others.

News of Alwaleed’s release made the value of Kingdom Holding shares rise 10% in one day, after having fallen more than 20% when he was arrested in November.

Bakr bin Laden, the former head of the Saudi Binladin Group, was also freed last week. But the government now controls the construction company, although the Bin Laden family holds several seats on the executive board. The contractor faced difficult times in recent years, despite being hired for decades for the expansion of the mosques in Mecca and Medina. But a lamentable accident occurred in the Great Mosque of Mecca in 2015, when a crane fell during a violent gale and killed 107 people. It seems that this sealed the fate of the company, which never recovered from the accident.

In any case, the Saudi attorney general, Sheikh Saud al-Mojeb, announced on Jan. 30, 2018, the end of investigations into the 325 people who had been detained at the Ritz-Carlton. He also announced that the government had recovered US$107 billion in deals made with the detained princes and businessmen. About 60 prisoners remain, who have refused to make a deal or admit to having made money illegally. They were transferred to Al-Hair prison, south of the Saudi capital, and will face legal proceedings.

As far as the eye can see, 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) has the support of the Saudi population for this anti-corruption campaign and for his liberalizing steps. Under his influence, his father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, has allowed Saudi women to drive automobiles from June of this year. Until 2017, the conservative kingdom was the only country in the world that banned women from driving. King Salman also ordered the reopening of cinemas, after a break of more than 30 years, and allowed the entrance of women in sports stadiums to attend football matches.

But it is in the area of ​​culture that MBS is going further. He authorized the formation of the Misk Art Institute and appointed the Saudi artist Ahmed Mater to direct the institution. The Crown Prince already chairs the Misk Foundation, with educational, social, and cultural programs aimed at Saudi youth.

The institution has several Saudi artists on display at a museum in Brooklyn, New York, and is choosing the design for the Saudi pavilion at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale. The institute will also organize an Arab art festival in New York in October, and send Saudi artists to study in California. More than 60% of management positions in the entity are held by women.

Saudi directors were very excited about the news that cinemas were going to open again in the country. Until now, they could only display their works abroad or on the internet. Now, with these cultural reforms, they will be able to show their films in local cinemas or on Saudi TV.

Saudi filmmaker Faiza Ambah, who filmed “Mariam” in France in 2015 — about the struggle of a young Muslim woman on whether to use the hijab (Islamic veil) in her public school — told me that she recently showed her film to a mixed group of young Saudis at a café in Jeddah, and then participated in a conversation with the public about the topics touched on in her film.

“The audience’s reaction was very surprising to me,” she said. “First, they understood the movie on several levels. They really were movie fans. Half the audience was female, and two girls talked about relationships that did not work out over the issue of whether or not to use the hijab,” said the director.

According to Faiza, the next exhibition of a movie in that café is already scheduled, and will be a film of another Saudi director, Shahad Ameen.

Faiza told me that she has already received invitations to show short films on Saudi TV, and that the Misk Foundation is granting funding to filmmakers in the kingdom. “The King Abdul Aziz Cultural Center in the Eastern Province is also supporting Saudi filmmakers. They called me a year ago and asked me to share new projects with them, and they wanted to support me. And a university professor who was in the audience offered to provide me her students to be interns on any project that I would execute.”

Only five years ago, this level of official support for Saudi artists and filmmakers did not exist. Film funding always came from the private sector, and even so, several Saudi filmmakers had to seek foreign funding to make their films. But now, it seems the Saudi government has realized the soft power that culture has. It remains to be seen how much freedom Saudi artists will have.

–This article appeared originally in Portuguese in O Globo newspaper.

Do Começo ao Fim tackles controversial subject with compassion

Do Comeco ao FIm

I WATCHED Do Começo ao Fim, a much-awaited Brazilian film with a gay theme, on Friday night at Park Shopping, and was a little disappointed with the script and some of the acting.

Directed and written by Aluisio Abranches, From Beginning to End is the love story of two half-brothers, Francisco and Thomás, who grow up together in Rio with their mother Julieta (Julia Lemmertz) and become lovers. The first half of the film shows the two when they are six and 11 years old each. Played by Lucas Cotrin (Francisco) and Gabriel Kaufmann (Thomás), the young actors are much more convincing and natural as the young brothers than João Gabriel Vasconcellos (who is a Ford model in real life) as the grown-up Francisco and Rafael Cardoso as the grown-up Thomás, who come across as being too self-conscious and thus irritatingly corny.

The veteran actress Lemmertz is excellent as the mother of the two boys. She notices the intimacy that develops between the two half-brothers, but does nothing to stop it. Instead she has a heart-to-heart talk with Francisco and tells him if he ever wants to talk about his feelings for his brother that she will be there to listen to him, and that he shouldn’t be ashamed of his feelings.

The director Abranches had trouble getting financing for the film because of its controversial theme of gay and incestuous love. Some producers offered support only if he made the two brothers heterosexual or if they became cousins in the script. He refused and was still able to get enough backing to finish the film. The director says he is not trying to raise any flags with the film, but that he only wants to tell a love story without making any judgments on it.

Vasconcellos as the grown up Francisco kept laughing too much in his scenes, which I found annoying and seemed to be a byproduct of his feeling nervous and the fact that he is a neophyte actor. Lapses in the script also left me and other viewers wondering how the two brothers could live together as lovers and never seem to encounter any hostility from friends and relatives.

Nevertheless, Do Começo ao Fim is a fine film that tackles a potentially controversial subject with dignity and compassion.

— The film is being shown in Brasilia at Park Shopping and at the Academia de Tenis.






Erik de Castro talks about his new film ‘Federal’

SOME cinema-goers in Brazil were surprised last month when Erik de Castro’s new film “Federal” was released just days after the blockbuster “Tropa de Elite 2” had opened. They rightly believed that “Federal” would be unfairly compared to “Tropa”, which had a much bigger budget and opened on nearly ten times more screens than Castro’s film.

In the following interview, Castro, who studied filmmaking in Los Angeles in the 1990s, talks about the timing of the release of his film; what it was like working with Selton Mello, one of Brazil’s most popular actors; why he thinks the sex scenes in “Federal” were not excessive, and why he thinks Brasilia is the capital of cocaine.

QUESTION: Why was your movie released shortly after “Tropa de Elite 2” in Brazil? Didn’t your distributor realize that it would face stiff competition since it is a police/action movie too?

ANSWER: That’s a long story. To make it short: we had no option. “Tropa” is a blockbuster. “Federal,” which was called “a masterpiece” by a film critic in Rio shortly after its first screening at the Rio International Film Festival, is more in the path of a cult movie now. That’s okay, though. “Blade Runner” was indeed one of my influences!

Q: Why did it take so long, from the inception of the script in 2001, to the filming of “Federal” in 2006, and then finally to its release this year? Was it because of a lack of funds?

A: Film production in Brazil is a tough endeavor. Also “Federal” was a completely independent production, from a first time feature filmmaker, out of the Rio/São Paulo axis — and it had a lot of action. We shot in 2006, than it took us a few years raising the money for its conclusion and proper release.

Q: At the beginning of “Federal”, the opening credits say that the movie was made with the support of the Prefeitura do Rio, which confused me. For a moment I thought I may have come into the wrong room and was about to watch “Tropa de Elite 2”. Was your movie edited in Rio?

A: No, but the whole sound editing and mixing process was done in Rio. Riofilme invested in the production, as a co-producer. Jose Wilker was the president of the company and he liked the screenplay a lot.

Q: How was it as a director to work with Selton Mello, who is considered a star in Brazil? Was he difficult to direct? Why isn’t he promoting the film right now? Is it because it took so long after the film was finished for it to be launched that may have lessened Mello’s enthusiasm?

A: The same as it was with any of the almost forty actors and actresses that I had on my cast on “Federal”: a creative collaboration. Also, I just didn’t see him as a star. I’ve known Selton since 1995 when I invited him and he accepted to be in my first short film shot in Brazil — I had a few others shot during my student period in Los Angeles — called “Reason to Believe” (1996). I showed ‘Federal’s script to him in 2001, right before the Sundance Lab Institute selection, and he promptly accepted. He was not difficult to direct at all. Like I said, filmmaking is all about creative collaboration.

As for the last question, why don’t you ask him about it? He’s currently dedicated to his own projects that he is producing and directing and that is happening at the same time of “Federal’s” release.

Q: Some viewers of “Federal” have complained about the various sex scenes in the film, saying they were gratuitous and too explicit. Did you include them on purpose to “spice” up the story?

A: To me they’re very organic. Sex is something that is part of our lives. So some cops in “Federal” do have a lot of love to give to their ladies…and vice-versa! I think people should relax more with sex scenes in films — and enjoy it. Truth is I’ve heard a lot of people who loved them in “Federal”!

The “spiciest” one, the scene of the character Rocha (Christovam Neto) and his “blonde” is the favorite of a lot of people, including my film professor Tom Stempel who defined it as: “My kind of sex scene: fast, funny and keeps the story going.”

Q: In the movie one of the characters says that Brasilia is “the capital of the powder,” a reference to the trafficking and consumption of cocaine here. Don’t you think that cocaine as a drug was more widely consumed here in the 1980s, and that nowadays, at least among the younger generation, ecstasy and crack have taken over as the drugs of choice?

A: Other drugs come and go, but cocaine is always there. I don’t see a character like the diplomat Sophia consuming crack or ecstasy. Cocaine made our point. Cocaine is the classic drug. And that phrase (“the capital of the powder”) didn’t come from me. It came from UnB Professor Argemiro Procópio, PhD, one of the consultants of the script. He’s the author of many books about drug trafficking and how it affects our society. One of them “O Brasil no Mundo das Drogas” (“Brazil in the World of the Drugs”) points out Brasília as one of the cities where drug consumption, especially cocaine, has grown more than elsewhere in the entire country.

And that has a reason: cocaine is an expensive drug and Brasilia has a lot of rich people. Period. Big shopping malls brands come here, great fashion stores, hip and very expensive concerts, and cocaine too. That’s historical in this city but no one seems to care or talk about it. Professor Argemiro dared me: “I dare you to put that phrase in your film.” Well, it’s there.

Q: I found many of Michael Madsen’s lines as a corrupt DEA agent to be very cliché! Him saying that Brazil has the best coffee in the world and that he needed to “fuck” a Brazilian woman made me squirm. Were these the original lines in the script or did he improvise?

A: Original lines and Michael loved it! Sam Gibson originally was a one-scene character, who was supposed to be a kind of a comic relief in the story, with all those lines and purposely cliché. His character grew in the story and some of the cliché lines stayed. That’s all. We had a ball on the set with Michael.

I’ve heard different opinions about Sam’s sense of humor and for me that’s what “Federal” and any good film — or art form for that matter — is all about: Not having consensus.

Q: Some viewers of “Federal” have complained that the storyline is not coherent, and that you failed to adequately link the various scenes. How do you respond?

A: I don’t. Others have congratulated me for the script and the way that the edited film kept them tight in their sits, waiting for what was going to happen next. These people understood the film thoroughly.

I had as an editing consultant on this film — and who is also a dear friend — Roman Polanski’s editor, Academy Award nominee Hervé deLuze (“The Pianist”). He had read the script and appreciated very much the way Heber Trigueiro (“Federal’s” editor) and myself were conducting the rhythm and pace of the film.

Again, film is a very complex art form. Either it hits you, or not. If everyone understood it the same way, it would be too boring. That’s why cinema is so great: cinema is disagreement. I might like a film that you hate and vice-versa.

Q: In the scene of “Federal” where the federal police surround the chacara of the head of the NGO, the police shoot a stream of bullets into one of the cars trying to escape from the scene. Is this standard procedure for the police? To me it seemed like overkill. I would have thought that they would just shoot out the tires to get the car to stop so that they could get the passengers alive. Instead, they stop the car but have also killed everyone in it!

A: Come on, give me a break! It’s a cop movie! They were being shot at. So, let’s kill the bastards!!

At some point in a movie like this, it is a matter of kill or be killed. This was one of those moments. It’s like a modern Western.

Q: What was the reaction of the Federal Police to your film? I read the comment of one policeman online who said that your movie shamed the Federal Police for showing them to be so corrupt.

Do you agree with this, or do you think “Federal” showed them in a more nuanced light?

A: Again the arrow hits you according to your own perceptions and thoughts. If this guy felt this way, who am I to disagree?

There were a lot of people at the Federal Police who knew about this project ever since its screenplay was written back in 2001. One retired deputy, to whom I showed the script in 2002, said to me that everything that was there was true.

I’ve heard about federal policemen who saw it and liked it very much. I just think that I’ve shown the cops, their wives and even the criminals in a humane way.

The Federal Police Department is a very big place and I’m sure you would get a lot of different opinions there.

Q: What are your next projects that you are working on?

A: I’m working right now on a romantic vampire thriller called “A Lenda de Cândida” (“Candida’s Tale”), which I wrote with my “Federal” co-writer Érico Beduschi back in 1999. Diler Trindade will produce this one.

Also, I have yet another police story called “BR-306” (“Route 306”), written by myself, which is being developed with producer Marcus Ligocki, from Brasilia, for his company Ligocki Z Entretenimento.

Currently I’m finishing my production company’s (BSB Cinema) third World War II documentary, called “Brazil and the Battle of the Atlantic”.

The previous ones were “Senta a Pua!” (directed by myself), about the first Brazilian fighter squadron in WWII and “A Cobra Fumou”, about the Brazilian Expeditionary Force (FEB) in WWII, directed by Vinícius Reis.

Selton Mello in a scene from “Federal”

‘Federal’ fails to make plausible link between drug traffickers and politicians

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

THE new Brazilian film “Federal” by Erik de Castro, that opened nationwide on more than 70 screens across Brazil on Oct. 29, is a labor of love that had been percolating in the head of its director since he was 16 in 1987.

Twenty-three years later and after several rewrites at the Sundance Institute in the US, “Federal” has finally made it to the big screen. It is the story of a small group of federal and civil police officers in Brasilia who are hot on the trail of international drug trafficker Carlos ‘Beque’ Batista (Eduardo Dussek). Led by a serious yet affable Vital (Carlos Alberto Riccelli), the group includes a young and idealistic federal agent Dani (Selton Mello), a street cop called Lua (Cesario Augusto) and a feisty federal agent named Rocha (Christovam Neto).

De Castro is wildly ambitious in trying to set out telling a story that will illustrate how drug dealers are linked to corrupt politicians in high places, but he fails to paint a convincing picture. Instead, he has produced an interesting look into the lives of policemen, some good others corrupt, in their daily fight against the menace of drugs.

The opening scenes of policemen looking over the body of a murdered drug dealer in the garden of a posh house could have been filmed anywhere in Brazil, but soon De Castro has policemen chasing after another suspect in the satellite city of Ceilandia in an action sequence that involves the traditional dance/martial art that originated with Brazilian slaves called “capoeira”.

The director, who is a native of Brasilia, filmed the entire movie on location in super-16mm that was later blown-up to 35mm. This shows. At the Parkshopping cinema that I watched “Federal” at, the screen was left with a blank space on either side, as the projected film did not fill up the screen entirely. The use of traditional film, instead of digital video, gives the film a cinematic feel that De Castro was aiming for. One reviewer of the film however complained that the scenes looked washed-out and monochromatic, compared to the sweeping and brighter shots of Brasilia’s famous skyline that the director scatters throughout the movie to constantly remind us just where this police thriller is taking place. I found his lighting to be very naturalistic, giving the film a realism that is often missing from other Brazilian films, especially those produced by Globo Filmes that tend to be super-glossy and perfect looking.

Unfortunately, the film’s acting and script deserve less praise. Some of the actors either overacted their parts, such as Michael Madsen as the American Drug Enforcement Agency agent Sam Gibson, or under-acted their parts such as Selton Mello did with Dani. Here the script is also very much to blame, with Madsen saying such clichéd things as: “Brazil has the best coffee in the world!” and “I’ve been in Brazil for several days now and I haven’t even fucked a Brazilian woman yet!” His forced hilarity was over the top and made me squirm in embarrassment. He came across as the stereotypical obnoxious American: Loud, tacky and over-confident.

On the other side of the spectrum, Melo played Dani so low-key that at times it seemed like he was on tranquilizers and sleep-walking his way through the story. Melo is a big star in Brazil, so having him in an independent and relatively low budget film like “Federal”, which was produced on a budget of R$5 million (approximately $2.9 million), is considered a coup of sorts. But not only is Dani moping throughout the movie, he also has an annoying conversation with Vital near the beginning of the film after he sees that a suspect has been tortured for hours by his civilian police colleagues.

“How can we justify this torture?” Dani asks Vital.
“I think that if I had been a policeman during the military dictatorship I would have joined the guerrillas and fought on their side,” he says, referring to the 1964-1985 period during which Brazil was under strict military control and Marxist guerrillas robbed banks and kidnapped diplomats.

“This is our job, this is what we do as policemen,” Vital replies.

I felt like Dani needed a slap in the face from Vital, and a good tongue-lashing. While I’m sure the Federal Police is full of principled and honest agents, Dani’s constant whining and depression throughout the movie made one want someone in the film to suggest to him that maybe he wasn’t cut-out to be a federal agent after all!

Script problems aside, it is clear from seeing “Federal” and from talking with the director (see my interview with him in the next entry), that De Castro loves Brasilia and is trying to showcase the city in this film. I like the capital too but it would have been better if De Castro had been subtler in including shots of the city in the story.

For instance, twice in the film Dani is shown standing next to his motorcycle at the JK Bridge that links the Plano Piloto to the Lago Sul district of Brasilia. This is the most beautiful bridge in Brasilia, and one of the most unique in the world. Its graceful white arches stretching across the Paranoa Lake have become an iconic landmark of the capital. But we already know that Dani lives in a small apartment, which if you live here would know that the superquadras that house most apartments here are not really near the bridge. Which brings me to my point: The shots of the bridge seem gratuitous and do not appear as a convincing part of the narrative.

De Castro also finds it necessary to show us just how human each of our policemen are by showing that each one either has a vigorous sex life or not. At the cinema that I watched “Federal” at, I heard teenagers behind me groan in desperation at some of the protracted and rather explicit sex scenes, which seemed gratuitous and did not do much to advance the story.

I did not mind those scenes so much. What bothered me were the rather sketchy performances of the bad guys: The head of the NGO, Eliezer Gallo (Adriano Siri), who also funded a church (in which he hid a drug manufacturing lab in its basement) seemed to me like a flimsy caricature of shadowy power brokers in the capital. And the reverend of the church, played by Andre Amaro, was cartoonishly funny in the way he led prayers, raising his arms and uttering foolish words. It just made me laugh.

The point that “Federal” makes very well though is that Brazil has become a major trans-shipment point for drugs going from South America to Europe. The country has thousands of kilometers of extremely porous borders with Colombia, Peru, Venezuela, and Paraguay. Much of that border is in the Amazon jungle, and as such is very difficult to be policed effectively by Brazilian border guards. Just last week, Italian police announced they had seized several tons of cocaine that had been smuggled from Brazil into Italy by sea, hidden in a container of agricultural machines.

While De Castro succeeds in showing us just how corrupt or honest various anti-drug smuggling policemen can be, he utterly fails to paint a convincing picture of the relationship between international drug dealers and political leaders in Brasilia. Which is a shame really. Perhaps he can do that in “Federal 2”.

From left to right: Selton Mello as Dani and Carlos Alberto Riccelli (Vital), with Christovam Neto (Rocha) in the middle, and Cesario Augusto (Lua) behind him, in a scene from “Federal”.


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