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CIFF 2017: “Sea Sorrow,” “Killing Jesús,” “The Charmer”

Reflecting on the past eight decades of her life, Vanessa Redgrave has begun to see history come full circle. Her rigorous attempts to portray the humanity of oppressed people drew controversy forty years ago, when she produced and narrated Roy Battersby’s documentary, “The Palestinian,” while earning an Oscar for her performance as a woman targeted by Nazis in Fred Zinnemann’s “Julia.” The renowned actress’s fierce opposition to fascism in all its forms is readily apparent in her new documentary, “Sea Sorrow,” a wrenching portrait of the refugee crisis that marks her debut as a feature director. 

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Whereas Ai Weiwei’s “Human Flow” surveyed the global scope of the crisis in the form of a masterful visual essay, Redgrave’s picture is an enthralling symphony of words, fusing interviews and on-the-ground accounts with archival footage and staged readings. Photographs of Redgrave’s own youth also materialize, as she recalls how Nazi air raids forced her family to move far from their London home when she was only three years old. “We were refugees in our own country,” Redgrave notes, illuminating the cyclical nature of history that has resulted in the largest displacement of people since the aftermath of World War II. 

When Redgrave accepted a Visionary Award this past Monday prior to a screening of her film at the Chicago International Film Festival, she thanked Chicago for being a “sanctuary city,” and encouraged everyone in attendance to do their part in combating division and ignorance. “Sea Sorrow” is unflinching in its depiction of recent crimes against the increasing displaced population, from the French government’s destruction of a refugee camp in Calais to the notorious EU-Turkey deal that shipped migrants back to their home country, where they were stripped of their basic rights. There’s horrifying footage of refugee families nearly drowning as they attempt to cross from an overcrowded raft onto a boat. What is guaranteed to linger most potently in the minds of viewers is the terror and despair observed in the eyes of countless children. 

Redgrave has always possessed one of the saddest smiles ever to grace the stage and screen, and here it conveys hope for the future while acknowledging the long road that lies ahead. Her face beams as she shares a sign constructed by her youngest granddaughter that reads, “For Every Child Protection,” suggesting that greater unity could potentially be achieved by the next generation of adults. The intricately personal nature of “Sea Sorrow” is further reflected by the involvement of Redgrave’s family: it was produced by her son, Carlo Gabriel Nero, and includes appearances by her daughter, Joely Richardson, and her niece, Jemma Redgrave

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One of the filmmaker’s greatest recent performances was in Ralph Fiennes’ 2011 directorial debut, “Coriolanus,” so it’s only fitting that Fiennes turns up here to perform the haunting monologue from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” that inspired the documentary’s title. During her visit to a refugee camp, Redgrave replies, “I feel like I’m in ‘Richard III,’” citing how the appalling figures populating the Bard’s plays have begun to emerge in prominent places of power. It’s downright chilling to hear so many words from the past that might as well be commenting directly on our present crisis, such as Eleanor Roosevelt’s 1948 speech about why the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is utterly essential. Emma Thompson reads excerpts from a 1938 issue of The Guardian, including a letter to the editor detailing the plight of a Jewish refugee left stranded by nations unwilling to welcome her. 

What appears to fuel Redgrave’s artistry and activism, above all, is her love of people. Like Agnès Varda, she is a gleaner at heart, characterized by an insatiable interest in others. At a reception held after the Chicago premiere of her film, Redgrave and Nero invited guests to chat with them individually. As a love letter to the human family, “Sea Sorrow” makes a profound statement.

Several of the selections at CIFF 2017 share a common theme best articulated in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia”—“We may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.” That’s certainly the case with Laura Mora’s “Killing Jesús,” a riveting Colombian drama triggered by an act of murder that circles back like a boomerang. Leading the exceptional cast of first-time actors is Natasha Jaramillo as Paula, an outspoken teen with convictions to match those of her father, a professor who encourages his students to never stop questioning their society. When her father is gunned down outside his car, showering Paula in shards of glass, she catches a fleeting glimpse of the killer, Jesús (Giovanny Rodroguez). When the police prove to be no help in tracking him down, Paula decides to sleuth her way into his life after spotting him at a club. 

It's not long before Paula discovers that Jesús is more complicated than one would assume. There’s a poignant scene in which he instructs her on how to use a gun, insisting that she must graft her hatred onto her intended target, even if it happens to be a complete stranger. James L. Brown’s cinematography captures the beauty of the characters’ environment without romanticizing their desperate circumstances. Sexual tension doesn’t develop between Paula and Jesús so much as a mutual understanding. Both of their families have been victimized by violence, and when they rest their heads on each others’ shoulders during a party, the surrounding crowd evaporates for a brief, lovely moment. Mora based the film’s suspenseful plot on events from her own life, and she knows fully well that there are no easy answers or closure to the questions raised regarding mammoth forces of corruption. Yet the filmmaker makes a heartfelt and convincing case for how empathy can serve as its own form of catharsis. 

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One of the most loathsome programs currently airing on television is TLC’s “90-Day Fiancé,” a reality show about visa-seeking immigrants who must wed their significant other in order to remain in the country. The producers of the series are the worst kinds of enablers, prodding couples to stay together long after they should’ve bid each other adieu. Milad Alami’s superb Danish thriller, “The Charmer,” is a rebuke to the offensive stereotypes so often perpetuated by the American media. It centers on Esmail (played by Ardalan Esmaili, resembling a young George Clooney), an Iranian man seeking a serious girlfriend in Demark to avoid deportation. All of the women he encounters are infinitely smarter than the ones drudged up by TLC, beginning with Johanne (Stine Fischer Christensen of “After the Wedding”), who admits to feeling suffocated by Esmail’s need to move the relationship along faster than it should. 

Eventually our protagonist meets Sarah (Soho Rezanejad, in a marvelous debut performance), a Danish-Persian woman resistant to his initial charms. She sizes up his game immediately and protects a friend from his advances, yet her knowledge of his predicament causes a bond—and infatuation—to grow between them. Alami and his splendid cinematographer, Sophia Olssen (who lensed last year’s Silver Hugo winner, “Sparrows”), craft an atmosphere fraught with paranoia, where scorching headlights threaten to expose unspoken truths. Though Esmail’s actions are questionable, we feel enormous sympathy for him, especially after his secrets are revealed in a final sequence evocative of Ambrose Bierce’s short story, “An Occurrence On Owl Creek Bridge.”

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