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Friday, May 24, 2024

Wisconsin Film Festival highlights: Noteworthy films from around the world

The 2024 Wisconsin Film Festival included films from Turkey, the Netherlands and Poland.

Another annual Wisconsin Film Festival has come to a close on campus. 

The 2024 lineup of films was diverse and varied, with Cannes darlings from Anatolia and independent features from the Pacific Northwest sharing the same screen.

Here are some notable highlights from this year’s festival.

‘About Dry Grasses’

Director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s newest feature is a tough work to digest.

The protagonist of “About Dry Grasses” is an art teacher in rural Anatolia named Samet who dreams of transferring to Istanbul after being accused of inappropriate favoritism toward a student.

Throughout the 196-minute runtime, we’re forced to empathize with a man who has few redeeming traits. He is cruel, pretentious and — worst of all for Nuray, a young woman who lost her leg in a suicide bombing with whom he falls in love — unwilling to take a concrete side in anything.

Samet’s attempts to stay individualistic to the highest degree by avoiding things like integrating into the community, partisanship and even dating disconnect him from others in a way that only makes him more depressed as the film goes on.

The film is at its best when it focuses on characters in dialogue with each other. The standout moment is when Samet and Nuray discuss his lack of partisanship over dinner before sharing a romantic moment.

It’s in this scene that we gain a window into Samet’s thought process and understand why he is so antagonistic to others, a moment needed to make the film work.

Unfortunately, the film is not without its flaws.

It has a few scenes that don’t serve a large enough narrative or thematic purpose to have warranted inclusion, and the montages of still photographs at certain parts of the film didn’t add much to the picture overall.

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Additionally, the main plot point of Samet being accused of impropriety toward his students is quickly brushed aside to make way for interactions between him and his acquaintances. It’s only brought up again at the end in a way that makes it feel like an extended subplot that detracts from the surrounding well-written drama.

While it has its issues, “About Dry Grasses” is a movie designed to elicit strong reactions from each individual who watches it. It’s a standout from this year’s festival.

‘Sweet Dreams’

“Sweet Dreams,” a film about Dutch colonialism in Indonesia at the turn of the 20th century, centers on an inheritance dispute between a recently deceased sugar plantation owner’s legitimate son and the young son he had with his Indonesian mistress.

The film uses this conflict to examine colonialism, with veteran Dutch actress Renèe Soutendijk giving the film’s best performance as a matriarch trying to keep everything together in a role that won her the Golden Calf for Best Leading Role at the Netherlands Film Festival last year.

At a Q&A session after the film, director Ena Sendijarević said films where “every shot is almost like a painting” informed her approach to visual compositions in “Sweet Dreams.” 

Sendijarević in particular described French Naïve painter Henri Rousseau as a major visual influence on the film, with the “exotic viewpoints” of his tropical landscapes setting up how colors are used in scenes.

As a result, “Sweet Dreams” shines in cinematography bound to captivate viewers looking for a break from the drab, uninspired color palettes and shot composition of modern American studio pictures.

Despite the film’s focus on a topic not widely discussed in the Anglosphere, Sendijarević believed its theme of belonging is applicable to everyone.

“I wouldn’t say [belonging] is a topic I necessarily choose or I will necessarily continue with,” Sendijarević said at the Q&A. “It just happens to be part of my first feature film, this one as well and the short that I did before. I guess it’s the majority now on this planet that has a migration background in some ways, right?”

As a Bosnian woman who immigrated to the Netherlands as a child and now lives in France, Sendijarević said the question of belonging defines her work thematically.

“The sentence, ‘You don’t have to have been somewhere in order to be from there,’ it’s not necessarily a statement I want to make in the film,” Sendijarević said. “How far are you going to go back when you think about where you’re from? Is it the place where you were born? Is the place where your parents were born? Is it the place where their parents were born?”

Despite asking these tough questions, Sendijarević acknowledged she doesn’t “necessarily have answers” to them.

Whatever the answers might be, they’re sure to cause intense speculation for cinemagoers who decide to give “Sweet Dreams” a try.

‘Green Border’

“Green Border,” a controversial new film from Polish director Agnieszka Holland, is sure to spark wildly different opinions among those who see it.

Condemned by the Polish government upon release, the film focuses on the refugee crisis at the Poland-Belarus border and the use of Middle Eastern migrants as political pawns by Alexander Lukashenko’s government in their cold war with the European Union.

The film focuses on three main stories: a Syrian refugee family tricked into going to Belarus with lies of easy passage into the European Union, a Polish Border Guard soldier slowly cracking under the weight of pervasive brutality while caring for his pregnant wife and a widowed therapist who joins a group of activists working to give refugees asylum.

Jan, the Polish Border Guard soldier, is the most fleshed out character. His arc of increasingly becoming more distressed at having to deport refugees who were intentionally misled by an enemy nation — including many refugees who are sick and injured — was captivating and brought to light an underlooked side of the European migrant crisis while giving the film a powerful emotional draw.

The plotline of the Syrian refugee family forms the impetus for the story. Seeing their struggle — being constantly sent between the two sides of the Poland-Belarus border while trying to get to Sweden — was harrowing, and it humanized people often depicted in mainstream media as figures rather than individuals.

The film’s main flaw is that it does not allow us to see the refugee family in a moment of quiet after they illegally cross the Polish border. Showing the family would allow us to better connect with their plight, something a film on a migrant crisis needs.

While it may not be the most complex film on the Belarus-E.U. border crisis, “Green Border” presents a chilling look at the crisis sure to incite heated discussions for audience members.

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