I have always loved going to the movies. As a child growing up in New York City, I remember waiting in line at Radio City Music Hall in the frigid cold winter, my faux fur muff wrapped around my hands. I felt excited and eager. Cinema is a great form of entertainment and going to the theater always feels like an event.
The experience of watching a movie can transport us to a different place and story. This momentary reprieve from our own insular lives can provide perspective, something we can easily lose sight of. By paying attention to how difficult life can be for someone else, we become kinder, more compassionate and more generous of spirit. A film can also be an education, an exercise for the brain that can enlighten and inspire. In a two-hour period a film can open a window to another culture and people whose experiences are vastly different than our own.
Increasingly, film is a powerful medium for change. The vast archive of titles now available through streaming has made it possible to discover the plethora of exceptional film makers that exist throughout the world. These artists are taking their talent and desire for social action to the screen by sharing the struggles of people whose voices might otherwise go unheard. Many of these courageous writers and directors have produced these films with scarce resources. Some have faced imprisonment for taking a stand against their government.
The passion, outrage, and determination to tell the truth exemplified by these heroic storytellers can feel like an antidote to the spurious news stories we are regularly bombarded with. The integrity and kindness of the characters we meet through these films can feel like a soothing balm for these turbulent times.
The recent lockdown has provided me with an abundance of time to view some of these exceptional works of art. I picked out a few of them to share with you. I hope you will not be deterred by the subtitles. Once you get used to them, you will not even notice them.
Sweet Bean, Japan, 2015. Directed by Naomi Kawase
The owner of a dorayaki shop (red bean patty cafe) in Japan posts a help wanted sign and an unlikely candidate applies for the position. What begins is a remarkable friendship between three people, decades apart in age who are bound together through loneliness, longing and grief. Delicately crafted, this film confirms that our need to feel loved, valued and connected to each other is fundamental to our search for purpose and meaning. This graceful, moving study of the human experience is just lovely.
Capernaum, Lebanon, 2018. Directed by Nadine Labaki
This heartbreaking story takes viewers to war torn Beirut, Lebanon where poverty and hopelessness have prevailed for many years. We meet twelve-year-old Zain, a Syrian refugee who is experiencing the unthinkable: living on his own without parents or anyone to take care of him. Part fiction, part real life, this unusual film portrays the devasting poverty, injustice and abandonment inherent in the lives of so many children due to this endless war. Thought provoking and disquieting, we owe it to these children to listen to their stories.
Departures, Japan, 2008. Directed by Yojiro Takita
The stark reality of our mortality is addressed fearlessly and unapologetically in this heartwarming and funny story. A young cello player learns that the orchestra he plays in is shutting down. Faced with the need to provide a living for himself and his wife he decides to take a position preparing dead bodies for funerals. Being forced to view death on a daily basis leads him down the inevitable path of facing his unresolved struggle with his father’s abandonment. Visceral and unfiltered, this daring film addresses the importance of our acceptance of death as a necessary component to live a fully engaged life.
Taxi, Iran, 2015. Directed by Jafar Panahi
A fascinating tour of life in Tehran, Iran all through the lens of film director turned taxi driver, Jafar Panahi. The highly acclaimed filmmaker has been banned by the Iranian government from producing films, so he brings his talents to the screen clandestinely while driving through the streets of Tehran. Original, provocative and intelligent, the delightful assortment of passengers he picks up provide a captivating glimpse of life in Iran’s largest city. Just watching Pahani’s face is sheer delight and his smile feels like home.
And Breathe Normally, Iceland. 2018. Directed by Isold Uggadottir
My heart ached throughout this riveting film that takes viewers to the edge of Iceland’s Reykjanes peninsula where two women have a chance encounter that binds them together. Unnerving and painfully wrenching at times, two single mothers, a West African asylum seeker and a native of Iceland, connect through their shared aloneness and desperate struggle to make a life for their children. These fragile and unshakable women feel like people we could easily know.