My eyes are becoming bloodshot. I’m developing chair fatigue. It’s like sitting in an airplane and flying coach from Los Angeles to Africa; there’s a point, maybe a quarter-way into the flight where you just can’t sit still anymore, where your legs needs circulation and you lower back needs more support. This can also happen while sitting in a car or bus for long distance road trips. For me it’s happening because of the Tribeca Film Festival. I’ve seen a ton of movies these past couple of weeks.
Now that the embargoes are over, I can actually start telling you about some of the films I’ve seen, my recommendations and the ones that have thus far left the biggest lasting impressions, and first up are two World Narrative Competition works that share remarkable similarities despite being so vastly different.
The first film that I screened for this year’s festival was Dog Pound, a story of three juvenile delinquents (unrelated) who travel very different paths to end up in a Montana juvenile detention facility at the same time. Through circumstances of being “fresh fish”, they’re forced to band together against the forces unknown. I use the term band very loosely—the three boys never become friends, per se. It’s more one of those situations where because they knew each other upon arrival before meeting anyone else, there’s a common rapport that’s lightly treaded and never quite called upon until one of the boys finds himself in serious trouble.
We meet Butch, a perpetually incarcerated individual who’s become notorious amongst the correctional ranks for taking out an officer; Davis, a pretty boy who’s presumed to be a lady killer (socially speaking) who got busted with a bag of drugs; and Angel, a younger Hispanic youth arrested for carjacking and assault. Director Kim Chapiron is subtle in making us understand Angel’s solitude; the boy rarely talks and generally does what he’s told. Instead, he focuses heavily on the stories of Butch and Davis. Butch, as we come to learn is on a potential reprieve: if he can go just a little while longer without getting into more trouble, he won’t be transferred to prison upon becoming an adult. The other boys know who he is, but he turns dormant in hopes of becoming, for lack of a better term, a free “man”. Davis, on the other hand, has all sorts of problems. The bigger boys have singled him out as a mark and continually punk him in a series of incidents that grow steadily more alarming.
All three boys have very specific issues that they must confront while in detention and none of all of the seem doomed—at least this is the impression that struck me after Angel and his immediate CO get into a tussle. Butch tries his damndest not to unleash his Sleeping Lion, but it’s proving to be more difficult by the day. Davis, god knows how, finds himself if the most dire of correctional situations. Dog Pound sort of plays like a cross between HBO’s Oz and Kids; it’s the type of film that’s only worth seeing if you have an appetite for hardcore drama in your bones (ie, if you like The Wire, you’re in; if you like The Bachelor, you’re probably out).
But if Dog Pound is a dark film that will resonate more with the male demographic, allow me to serve up an equally troubling When We Leave for the women. Carefully crafted by Austrian-born Feo Aladag, When We Leave follows the plight of Umay (played by the ridiculously beautiful Sibel Kekilli . . . and before I exit out of this parenthesis please allow me just a moment to say that I cannot, cannot overstate enough how beautiful she is. Go ahead and Google her . . . this article isn’t on a timer or anything). Let’s just say that Umay represents what the entire Western world would like for oppressed women, especially in the Islamic world, to get for themselves: emancipation. For all of you feminists out there, Umay is your girl. The film opens up with a boy who pulls a gun on Umay and her son on the street. We then see this boy running, for his life it seems, and then he’s on a bus peering out the rear window in horror. We’re then taken back to the beginning of when it all started. Living in Turkey, Umay is married with a son, and she lives in a Muslim marriage that at first glance seems like the most subtle form of oppression: she doesn’t love her husband but she can’t leave him. But she does(!) and bounces from her stereotypical husband with son in tow and flees Turkey for safer pastures in Germany, where her family resides. Only problem is, her family are staunchly Muslim themselves and well-rooted in their Berlin community where Umay’s father is highly regarded. We also learn that the boy who pulled the gun on Umay is her youngest brother, whom she has an affectionate attachment to.
When they find out that she has no intentions of going home to her family, their happiness soon turns to worry and frustration (what will your husband think of this? What will our friends think of this?). All it takes is for Umay’s husband to declare that she is a whore for the real fallout to begin. But Umay doesn’t care; she’s a woman on a mission, a mission for all womankind(!), and the new life she leads comes head-on with the old life her family are fighting to preserve. And maybe this is where some readers and moviegoers will be upset with me for saying this, but throughout the film there was this ill feeling that I couldn’t shake about Umay’s character and it’s this: when you’re a mother, and you have a son, at what cost is freedom when it is clearly at the detrimental expense of your child’s happiness? Who's happiness is more important? And how much struggle makes potential happiness later worth it?
Throughout Umay’s struggle to break free, her son witnesses her being abused by her husband, her father and her brothers, and even her mother must decide whether or not to turn her back on Umay and her son. He plods through the film like a little tragedy, and though none of her friends ever say it, I’m sure some of them wonder. I can’t imagine how complex of a situation something like this must be for someone in her situation, but honestly, there came a point where I wondered if I should be rooting for Umay anymore. In the end, I was convinced that sometimes, freedom is a selfish want and not necessarily a best choice. And Aladag, for her filmmaking genius, may have wanted it this way.
Both Dog Pound and When We Leave do brilliant jobs of questioning one’s moral compass. If you’re looking to be riveted and nothing more, consider Dog Pound your film. If you want a film that you can talk about and argue about over dinner, When We Leave is perfect. So far it’s been the most devastating film that I’ve screened in my three years covering Tribeca films, and if it makes its way to an IFC channel near you, you’ll definitely want to save the date.
Dog Pound: B
When We Leave: A