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TiFF 2012: Zaytoun, Apres Mai, Underground: The Julian Assange Story, End Of Watch

Posted on Saturday September 15, 2012, 20:10 by Damon Wise in Under The Radar
TiFF 2012: Zaytoun, Apres Mai, Underground: The Julian Assange Story, End Of Watch

Zaytoun (pictured) is a somewhat leftfield next movie for the people behind The King's Speech. One would assume it might be something slightly bigger and starrier, maybe even more American – in short, something like Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close. Instead, they have given us Zaytoun – from the Arabic word for olive – which couldn't be more different. Although it also comes from a very worthy place, Eran Riklis's film goes to the opposite side of the world for this sweet, subtle road movie. Like The King's Speech, it is the story of a very unlikely friendship, this one much explicitly crossing the tracks, so to speak, since the gulf here is so much more than social.

My one quarrel with Zaytoun is that, for once, it requires the viewer to do a lot of catching up from the outset. Thankfully there is no voiceover, and neither should there be, but it takes a little while to get a handle on the history of the film's setting. We begin in Beirut in 1982, where displaced Palestinians live in settlement camps and the young Fahed (Abedallah El Akal) makes his living on the streets. Fahed doesn't care much for school, joins the Palestinian resistance movement when he's basically forced to, but becomes much more politicised when his father is killed in an air strike. He is not best pleased, then, when his newfound friends in the militia capture an Israeli soldier, Yoni (Stephen Dorff), and while Fahed is standing guard, Yoni makes him a deal: if Fahed will help him escape, Yoni will drive him to his father's beloved but long-abandoned village in the old country.

The deal is struck, and so begins a very unusual buddy movie. It takes a while to accept Dorff as an Israeli, and there's perhaps not enough tension in the friendship to sustain the second half of the movie. El Akal, however, is a real find, and through him Zaytoun does articulate some very awkward questions about the situation in Israel. Fahed and Yoni are two people with the same quest, to get home, and in a very understated, humane way, Riklis seems to be saying that every man has the right to know who he is, and that our roots are part of us and should never be denied us.

Another film I liked and especially appreciated for its lack of voiceover was Olivier Assayas's Apres Mai (aka Something In The Air). After the wonderful Carlos, this isn't about to make any great commercial headway for the French director, but for those who are tracking him, this is very atmospheric, stylish piece that lives up to expectations technically, even if the story is nebulous. Clement Metayer stars as Gilles, a few teenage schoolboy caught up in the political change that swept France in the aftermath of the student riots of May 1968. A protest at school backfires when a security guard is hospitalised by a bag of cement, and so Gilles goes on the run with his sometime girlfriend. That really is the bulk of the core plot, but Assayas has fashioned something beautifully oblique and – dare I say – even Proustian in the vignettes that ensue. Period detail is outstanding, as is the use of prog rock (notably Soft Machine in a terrific party scene), and any film that ends up in Pinewood studios with football-playing Nazis, a U-boat and a dinosaur must be great, mustn't it?

Less overtly radical in its politics was Robert Connolly's Underground: The Julian Assange Story, another near-perfect period piece, this time chronicling the behaviour of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange in his early years as a computer hacker. Even if you think you've had your fill of Ecuador's most famous lodger, there are some surprises in store, mostly regarding his youth – ten years of which were spent on the run from his cult-member stepfather. Alex Williams is uncanny as the young Assange, and Connolly makes him very sympathetic, though perhaps not as much as hangdog cop Ken Roberts (Anthony LaPaglia), whose attempts to get to Assange first stem more from a desire to save him from the wrath of the Pentagon than to see him banged up. Today, the story has a pretty uncomfortable prescience, what with the extradition threats and the Swedish sex scandal, but Underground paints Assange as a rebel with a cause and a conscience, albeit one with an unfortunate set of people skills when it comes to dealing with any woman other than his mother.

David Ayer's End Of Watch came with a lot of advance buzz, most of which it deserved. An interesting corrective to the average cop flick, it stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena as Officers Taylor and Zavala, two ordinary cops on the LAPD beat. The bulk of the film deals with their incredibly close friendship; Pena is married to his longtime sweetheart, Taylor has just met the girl of his dreams and has decided to propose. And while this absorbing, impressively scripted (and acted) human drama plays out, a more conventional crime plot plays out too, as the pair stumble on a violent drug cartel that is sweeping into South Central. Though Ayer handles the latter very well indeed, with satisfying gunplay and some scorching car chases, the two halves don't always meet in the middle, which he tries to resolve with some neat, Pulp Fiction-style sleight of hand at the end. I liked it enough, but, for me, the balance of action and heart was never really quite right.

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