Mustang, Theeb, and Strange and Familiar

The last time I remember seeing all the films nominated for the Academy Awards Best Foreign Language picture in cinemas was in 2007. The awards celebrating films released in 2006 took place on February 25th, and anointed The Lives of Others with the gold statuette. At that point the only film I’d seen in that category was Pan’s Labyrinth, which just floored me. I wondered how it was that The Lives of Others could win the prize instead of Guillermo Del Toro’s masterpiece.

Then I saw The Lives of Others and understood.

Oscar winner  The Lives of Others

Oscar winner The Lives of Others


In the months following, Empire Theatres chose to bring into local cinemas every nominee in the category: The Danish melodrama After The Wedding, the Algerian war picture Days of Glory, and Deepa Mehta’s Water. What a treat to see all those on the big screen.

We’re going to get close to the same achievement this year. The winner of the Oscar, Son of Saul, ran at Cineplex for a few weeks in February. It was a reasonable choice for the Academy, but I have to say: the three other films we’ve screened at Carbon Arc in the category so far this season—Embrace of the Serpent, Mustang, and Theeb—have been stellar, too. I adored Embrace of the Serpent. Theeb was wonderful—more about that film in a minute. But Mustang may be my favourite, based simply on how much the film rolled over in my mind since we screened it on Friday night.

Mustang was co-presented with the Alliance Francaise (it’s a picture produced in France, though shot in Turkey). It tells a story of five sisters living in the country, far away from the bustle of cities like Istanbul. One day after school they embarrass their family—a grandmother and uncle who are raising them after the death of their parents—by frolicking in the ocean with boys. Subsequently, they’re locked up in their home, kept from school, and instructed on behaviour and dress more suitable for someone’s future wife. As the eldest girls are married off, the younger ones plan their escape.

The young sisters of  Mustang

The young sisters of Mustang


The picture would make a terrific double-feature with Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides or The Wolfpack (which screened at Carbon Arc in the fall of 2015), the documentary about the brothers who grew up in a New York City apartment with very little access to the outside world. Mustang is a fiction, but the story it tells is so important and relevant, I hope the film is widely seen.

It’s a wonderfully crisp and nimble picture. We enter scenes late and leave very, very early. It makes for a delightful pace, a deft managing of tone. We’re often given just suggestions of plot details; a notebook with a scrawled address, dark happenings in other rooms heard but not seen, a shard of an argument over a subject not revealed. This loping narrative structure, while more demanding of the attention, is also very rewarding. It forces the audience to piece together story elements like a puzzle.

It’s a dark and frequently grim story, but spiked with grace notes of joy, light, and not a little humour. I loved how when we first meet the girls they’re a happy unit in their school uniforms, though interchangeable—with the possible exception of Lale, the smallest and youngest. But as time goes on their individual characters emerge along with a growing, shared desperation to change their fate.

I don’t think I’ve heard so many of the Carbon Arc audience say, “good choice” to the staff as they left the cinema as with Mustang

Theeb screened on Saturday following a winter storm—a wonderful escape into the sunny desert from our bleak snowy landscape. It’s set in 1916 in what would later become southern Jordan, shot there in Wadi Rum, which also recently served as a location for The Martian.

I’ve heard Theeb described as an Arabic Western. That’s a little reductive, though it gets to some of its tone. Theeb is a Bedouin boy, the youngest of three brothers where the eldest is the tribal leader. The crux of the tale has Theeb and his middle brother, Hussein, helping bring a British soldier across a desert full of bandits.

Theeb  traverses the Jordanian desert with the title character and his brother.

Theeb traverses the Jordanian desert with the title character and his brother.


Theeb is a story of brotherhood and the values inherent in these nomadic people, of silence and long, quiet scenes of desert travel. Due to the silence and stillness, when violence erupts it’s especially shocking. The locations are so well-utilized, with such care to sound, light, and shadow, I felt like I’d been there amongst the camels, the clouds of flies, and the sea of sand. It’s also a film that takes care to accentuate small details and props—witnessed through Theeb’s willful eyes—a watch, a wooden box, and a pistol are all key to the plot. Interestingly, there’s not a single woman onscreen.

I don’t know a lot about this culture circa World War I, but I have it on very good authority that the filmmakers did a good job depicting the changes that war brought to the region, including the impact of the Hijaz railway on those who for generations knew only one way to travel through the desert.

After Theeb, we screened Strange & Familiar: The Architecture of Fogo Island in partnership with Doc Atlantic. The film was introduced by co-director Marcia Connolly and Darrell Varga, author of a new book, Shooting From The East: Filmmaking On The Canadian Atlantic, which we celebrated with a reception after the film. It was great to have them both there.

The film explores how Zita Cobb, who was born on Fogo Island, returned with a plan to build an inn and artists’ retreat in partnership with the island residents and a crew of creative designers, including architect Todd Saunders. It’s a fascinating exploration of place, of culture, and a dream of how the modern can marry gracefully with the traditional to create something that sustains a sense of heritage while also being entirely fresh.

Fogo Island, the subject and setting of  Strange & Familiar

Fogo Island, the subject and setting of Strange & Familiar


Connolly and her co-director, Katherine Knight, travelled to the island repeatedly to tell the story of this project, perfectly framing its elemental beauty and the gorgeous new studio spaces in the landscape. One of the audience members remarked to me that it felt like the filmmakers’ care to capturing images was equal to the care taken by the artisans, designers, and architects in the structures now manifest on Fogo. 

Now Carbon Arc takes a two week break. We’ll be back on Good Friday, March 25, with two features: The Brand New Testament and Embrace Of The Serpent, back by popular demand.

Though we won’t have films to show through the next two weeks, I’ll still be posting here, starting with profiles of some of the Carbon Arc staff, more details on my efforts to pen a short film, and hopefully more programming details of Carbon Arc screenings going into April.

Thanks for reading.