Interview: Rami Kodeih Talks About His Short Film ‘Alina’

Below you’ll find the first of an upcoming series by Drink in the Movies’ own Anna Harrison in which she performs interviews with the filmmakers behind select Oscar Qualifying Short Films. Alina won the Oscar-qualifying Award at Bengaluru International Short Film Festival. Remember to keep an eye out in the coming weeks for her correlating interviews and capsule reviews!

Audiences can view Alina at the follow film festivals: Hollywood Women’s Film Festival, Queen Palm International Film Festival, Asti International Film Festival, Borrego Springs Film Festival, Ridgewood Guild International Film Festival, and Boca Raton Jewish Film Festival.

Interview by Anna Harrison

Could you explain the timeline of this movie to me? When did you first get the idea, and how long did it take to get from the idea to filming to distribution?

Nora, our screenwriter, first told me about the idea around February 2016. Her passion for this story was infectious, and we started doing research together on the subject and exchanging ideas. It took us time to find the right partners and to put together the resources to film. We ultimately premiered ALINA in late 2019 in England and are very thankful to have shared the film with over 180 festivals so far. It’s been mostly a virtual experience due to COVID, but the film programmers and audiences have truly been wonderful and encouraging across the board during this challenging time for everyone.

Were there any major script changes from conception to end?

Nothing major, but we did end up cutting a scene before filming to better accommodate the shooting schedule and constraints, which ended up being better for the overall tension-building of the story.

I’m from Atlanta, so I couldn’t help but noticing the “Atlanta Theatre Club presents” at the beginning of the film. How did they contribute?

Atlanta has a very special place in our hearts. Joshua Owen and Rachelle Owen, our great friends and EPs on this project — along with Rebeca Robles, who plays Nelly in the short — all co-founded Atlanta Theatre Club, which highlights stories about women and under-represented communities. They were the first people to hop onboard the project with us as Executive Producers to help us launch production, and we’re so grateful for them.

The music in the film was incredible. What was the process to create that with Zoë Keating?

I just fell in love with Zoe’s existing music and how she’s a solo musician with her cello creating pieces of music that are genius in my opinion. At first when I started editing the film, I thought of her music as the perfect temp music and later in the process after finishing the edit, it felt like her music was composed for this short. We reached out to Zoe’s team and are truly honored to have her music in our film.

The editing was also quite remarkable: frantic cuts at the beginning and while the SS officer loaded his gun at Alina’s mother’s house, but then long takes to slowly build the tension. What was the editing process like? How much did you have planned while shooting?

Thank you! I loved editing this film. The great advantage to lack of budget and resources for me is that it always leads to meticulous prep! Just like the script needs to be written beforehand, I always like to design the film before shooting with the edit in mind — but always remain open to the magical unexpected moments that come up on set.  

What are the most challenging and rewarding aspects of wearing so many hats (director, editor, producer) for this film?

It’s something that develops out of necessity; where I come from, almost everything is done on low budget. So bit by bit you start to develop abilities to keep your ambition and dream alive even if you’re limited to a specific scale or type of story that you can tell. 

Storytelling is a form of art and expression where the storyteller is determined to express something to the world and will find a way to express it, despite any obstacles that may come their way. At least, that’s how I see it. I think wearing several hats forced me to at least understand other areas of filmmaking, such as producing and editing. This made me personally less intimidated by lack of resources and made me expand my ideas of what could be possible.

What are you most proud of from the film?

I’m proud that this film is speaking to the dangers of our current climate as much as it is highlighting these unsung heroes of the past. The women in this story didn’t have much at their disposal but they managed to commit extraordinary acts of bravery during the Holocaust. Smuggling children to safety was something the Nazis would immediately execute a person for. Despite all the risks and personal stakes involved, this network of women collectively saved over 2500 children. ALINA speaks to that power of love and hope, even in the darkest moments of history. We’re very thankful to be able to share this story in times like these.

What takeaways do you want the audience to walk away with after seeing the film?

We hope it sparks conversation on how, while set in the past, this story truly speaks to our current moment — especially the way in which acts of love can be a powerful form of resistance against hate and fascism.

What’s the best way to unwind after a hectic day on set?

Food, hands-down! After the most hectic days of filming, Nora and I would eat our favorite food at Carousel, an amazing Armenian restaurant in LA. There’s nothing like a comfort film during a shoot.

You can also read Anna’s capsule review of Alina or you can follow more of Anna’s work on Letterboxd and her website

Capsule Review: Alina

Below you’ll find the first of an upcoming series by Drink in the Movies own Anna Harrison in which she provides a capsule review of Oscar Qualifying Short Films. Alina won the Oscar-qualifying Award at Bengaluru International Short Film Festival. Remember to keep an eye out in the coming weeks for her correlating interviews and capsule reviews!

Audiences can view Alina at the follow film festivals: Hollywood Women’s Film Festival, Queen Palm International Film Festival, Asti International Film Festival, Borrego Springs Film Festival, Ridgewood Guild International Film Festival, and Boca Raton Jewish Film Festival.

Written by Anna Harrison

70/100

Alina wastes little time with its opening as viewers are thrust into the middle of a Nazi raid in the Warsaw Ghetto, surrounded by shouting and gunshots. At only 25 minutes long, the film has no time to waste: director Rami Kodeih immediately signals the stakes through rapid-fire editing (Kodeih served as editor and producer as well) and expert deployment of Zoë Keating’s cello-filled score, its staccato notes matching the frenetic cuts as Alina (Alia Shawkat) rushes to smuggle another woman’s child out of the ghetto. Kodeih knows when to pull back as well and let the camera linger, building a different kind of tension that is no less effective. 

The film highlights the unswerving bravery of a group of ordinary people doing extraordinary things, and focuses on the titular character rather than wallowing in the atrocities of the Nazis who follow her—though it certainly shows us their casual cruelty throughout, especially in a memorable scene where one officer forces Alina to remove her bra. Alina is the driving force behind the film, and Alia Shawkat plays her well, though viewers are left to fill in the gaps about her past and motivations. The other characters largely feel stock, though the film is so short that it would be hard to give everyone in-depth development. Still, even with these flaws, Alina remains a tight, stirring portrayal of heroism in the face of danger, elevated by its technical aspects rather than its script.

You can also read Anna’s Interview with Rami Kodeih the director of Alina or you can follow more of Anna’s work on Letterboxd and her website

The Eagle’s Nest

Written by Alina Faulds

72/100

The Eagle’s Nest is a thrilling debut feature from up and coming British-Cameroonian director Olivier Assousa. The Eagle’s Nest finds Paris (Claude S Mbida Nkou) and Samantha (Felicity Asseh), best friends and sex workers, living in their rural village in Cameroon. Paris, appropriately named, dreams of leaving behind everything and moving to France, her sex work is a means to achieve this goal. Samantha on the other hand uses her work in the sex industry to further her standing in Cameroon. Both women are seeking to escape from their current lives, but after a night of work ends in tragedy, both women are pulled back into their familiar violent worlds.

The Eagle’s Nest employs traditional themes in African films, the desire to leave the continent for a better life, and the love for Africa keeping their characters home. In addition to the desire to escape, multiple other themes are explored such as violence, patriarchal societies, the search for truth and friendship. The Eagle’s Nest does get muddled as it delves into all of these elements, but brilliant performances and chemistry from Nkou and Asseh pull the film along. The two women are the film’s most compelling characters, Paris’ ripped jeans and combat boots and Samantha’s blue dress and Africa-shaped earrings are both iconic wardrobe choices. Their clothes are totally reflective of their desires, Paris’ need to rebel and Samantha’s need for home. The film’s setting is also visually stunning and reminiscent of Paris and Samantha’s ambitions, with wide-open shots of Cameroon’s nature and claustrophobic scenes in village huts. 

Much of the scenes in The Eagle’s Nest are quite grim but the film never has the guts to properly dive into the violence. Much of it is glossed over or fails to hit hard, though this can largely be chalked up to The Eagle’s Nest’s minuscule budget. At some points, it gets a little too campy and sometimes it’s a little too dramatic. The film needed to completely go in one of these directions to work better. English language songs also take the viewer out of the film, a weird juxtaposition to Cameroon’s French culture. Despite its fluctuating tone, The Eagle’s Nest remains a compelling film because of Paris and Samantha’s relationship. With high tension and hostilities, it’s easy to understand their desire to escape the patriarchal violence and inequalities plaguing the women in Cameroon, especially as the plot escalates. Paris and Samantha are the emotional core of The Eagle’s Nest, dragging the viewer along as they seek vengeance. The Eagle’s Nest is an interesting take on emigration, with two conflicting characters and their conflicting wants. 

The Eagle’s Nest Trailer

You can follow Alina Faulds’ LetterboxdTwitter, or Instagram and view more of her work here.

The Eagle’s Nest screened as part of the 2020 edition of Raindance Film Festival.

Raindance Film Festival Website: https://cinema.raindance.org/

Nasrin

Written by Alina Faulds

86/100

Nasrin Sotoudeh is a human rights lawyer fighting for marginalized people in Iran. A strong proponent of civil rights, Sotoudeh has represented countless people in her country including Baháʼís, a religious minority in Iran, children facing capital punishment, and women protesting Iran’s compulsory hijab laws. Nasrin directed by Jeff Kaufman and narrated by Olivia Colman documents Sotoudeh’s fight to make Iran a more just society. 

Nasrin was largely filmed in secret over two years, with many of its camera crew wishing to remain anonymous in order to protect themselves from unjust charges at the hands of the Iranian government. The documentary is an intimate portrait of Nasrin Sotoudeh’s life, exploring not only her law career but her personal life as well. Much of Nasrin’s time is either spent in her law office or in court, a clear testament to the dedication she has to her job. In fact, Sotoudeh sees her law career as more than a job, it is a fight for justice. In court defending women from such charges as inciting prostitution and spreading propaganda against the state, simply for protesting to have the choice to wear the hijab or not, Sotoudeh is impassioned in her defense, her morals on full display as she argues for her clients. 

In her office, Sotoudeh’s beliefs in law and justice are also very present. She often gives interviews in front of Lady Justice, a blindfolded statue holding a beam balance in one hand and a sword in another. Sotoudeh is fighting for Iran’s laws to properly represent this notion of blind justice, hoping to see the country shift towards a more democratic society filled with choices instead of punishment. Despite the constant arbitrary injustices Nasrin witnesses day after day she remains a positive and happy person. She hangs up drawings and words of motivation around her office. She’s always smiling around her loving husband Reza and their two children. 

What makes Nasrin Sotoudeh such an interesting subject is the balance between her work and her life. She is loving and kind in each and every aspect of her life, driven by the belief that Iran can be a better place, for ethnic minorities, for religious minorities, for children, for women. Nasrin Soutoudeh knows this hopeful reality is possible and this is why she keeps fighting. The documentary captures this balance extraordinarily well as it shifts between Nasrin’s work and personal life in the same way Sotoudeh does. Nasrin also features a number of activists to further illustrate Sotoudeh’s incredible work. The audience is treated to words from Nasrin’s husband, women’s rights activists like Shirin Ebadi and Narges Mohammadi, along with filmmaker Jafar Panahi and many other Iranians that believe in Nasrin’s work. Olivia Colman occasionally narrates over archival footage of Sotoudeh or reads letters written by Nasrin to her family to fully round out her character.

Given Sotoudeh’s work, Nasrin should of course be classified as mandatory viewing. She is such a compelling figure and a hero for women’s rights. She teaches other women to fight for their rights. Director Jeff Kaufman illustrates this inspirational trait of Nasrin’s by showing other women protesting. One beautiful scene features different videos of women standing on podiums before pulling off their hijabs and wearing them like flags. Nasrin is unafraid to speak up for herself and other marginalized people, she’s been imprisoned in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison and still continues her fight.

Nasrin follows Sotoudeh until her second imprisonment in 2018. This is what makes Nasrin fundamental viewing. She is still serving prison time, sentenced to 38 years and 148 lashes for a number of charges including spreading propaganda and insulting Iran’s supreme leader. The documentary functions as a way to put Nasrin Sotoudeh’s story out there in hopes that people will continue to pressure the Iranian government for her release. Nasrin Sotoudeh is an incredible woman and the documentary on her life’s work is no different. She is someone that deserves to have her story told and someone who deserves to be freed.

You can petition for Nasrin’s release here: https://www.amnesty.org/en/get-involved/take-action/iran-free-nasrin-satoudeh-now/

Nasrin will be available through DOCNYC Nov. 11th-19th 2020. Link below.

You can follow Alina Faulds’ LetterboxdTwitter, or Instagram and view more of her work here.

Thanks to David Magdael & Associates for providing this film.

DOC NYC Website: https://www.docnyc.net/film/nasrin/

GlobeDocs Website: https://globedocs2020.eventive.org/welcome

Jumbo

Written by Alina Faulds

60/100

The narrative structure of Zoé Wittock’s debut feature Jumbo is reminiscent of the amusement park ride that Jeanne (Noémie Merlant) is supposedly enamoured with. The Move-It ride is the kind where you’re strapped in as the machine’s arms fling you in all sorts of circles and every which way. Jumbo’s tonal shifts feel the same way, often not making sense as the film’s emotions change too abruptly leaving the viewer confused and nauseous.

Jumbo follows the character of Jeanne, a young woman that still lives at home with her single mother Margarette (Emmanuelle Bercot). Preferring to tinker with machinery over interacting with other humans, Jeanne takes a summer job working at an amusement park, the perfect form of employment for her interests. The amusement park is where she first encounters the Move-It ride which she affectionately decides to name Jumbo and quickly falls in love with it. Along with having to cope with her newfound objectophilia, Jeanne has to take a lot of criticism from her overbearing mother and deal with a boss that has feelings for her. 

Noémie Merlant’s performance is one of the few lights of Jumbo. She totally commits to the role, having Jeanne unconditionally fall in love with Jumbo and expressing confusion at her own actions. Merlant does her best to refrain from making Jeanne a mockery despite her strange and bizarre obsession with an inanimate amusement park ride. Merlant portrays Jeanne’s feelings for Jumbo just as she would if Jeanne was in love with another human, the same devotion she shows for Adèle Haenel’s Héloïse in Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Another highpoint of Jumbo is the film’s score by Thomas Roussel. Its synthetic and techno beats help portray the character of Jumbo as Jeanne looks for signs that the machine is acknowledging her, along with the rides mechanical groans and flashing lights.

Director Zoé Wittock puts in an immense effort to make Jumbo feel real despite the whimsically fairytale nature of the film, which is actually based on a true story as stated at the beginning of the film. However despite reality, Jumbo is still going to be too bizarre to be a believable story for many people. People who are more attuned to reality will simply look at Jeanne’s character as crazy, while those who live in fantasy will understand the love she has for Jumbo. No matter how great Merlant’s performance and Wittock’s directing efforts the plot will just be too out there for people to get behind. 

Jumbo’s tonal shifts fail to help as well, making the film’s realism even more difficult to believe. Jumbo freely jumps between the mother-daughter relationship with Jeanne and Margarette, Jeanne’s uncomfortable relationship with her boss, and Jeanne’s romantic relationship with Jumbo. It jumps between a comedy with humorous jabs coming from Margarette to a drama as Jeanne cries at Jumbo’s base begging for forgiveness. There are also a few scenes where Jeanne pictures herself in a blank white room with Jumbo as her only company. Pitchblack oil comes out of the machine and envelops Jeanne’s naked body, meant to be Jeanne’s release of pleasure but it just pulls the viewer out of the story’s realism once again and doesn’t make sense in the context of the entire film.

Despite immense efforts from Merlant and Wittock, Jumbo is just too bizarre of a film to fully enjoy. It’s difficult to give oneself over to the film’s while remembering how strange it is that Jeanne is in love with an inanimate object, it’s flat out weird. Wittock’s intentions are to have the viewer understand Jeanne’s love for Jumbo but instead, the viewer is just going to feel bad for Jeanne because her actions are so crazy. Jumbo is worth checking out for its bizarre plot but overall it is a disappointing piece of film.

Jumbo screened at the Vancouver International Film Festival 2020.

VIFF Website: https://viff.org/Online/

You can follow Alina Faulds’ Letterboxd, Twitter, or Instagram and view more of her work here.

Undine

Written by Alina Faulds

60/100

Director Christian Petzold brings Paula Beer and Franz Rogowski together again for his latest feature Undine, a love story tinged with European mythology. The film opens on a bitter note, Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) brings Undine (Paula Beer) to their regular date spot, a cafe outside the Berlin City Museum-to break up with her. She tells him that she’ll have to kill him. While subtly shown in the film, the title gives Undine’s true presence away. She is an undine, a type of water nymph that longs to live amongst humans. With Johannes breaking up with her he’s doomed Undine, but her luck changes very quickly when she’s swept off her feet by a diver named Christoph (Franz Rogowski). 

Undine works best when it focuses on its romance. Petzold previously had Beer and Rogowski act as love interests in his film Transit, and their chemistry is just as present in Undine. Undine and Christoph fall for each other hard, cuddled in each other’s arms as they stroll the streets of Berlin and steal kisses from each other. Undine works as a historian at the Berlin City Museum giving lectures on urban development. Christoph loves her so dearly that he happily listens to her speaking and also takes her diving to see her name carved on an underwater wall. They’re quite the sentimental pair as Undine carries around a diver figurine that looks like it belongs in a fish tank. Rogowski makes Christoph into an extremely kind and loving man, fascinated with Undine’s quiet intensity. Petzold takes meticulous care in crafting the relationship between Undine and Christoph, their love is what ties the film together.

Where Petzold’s film struggles is in its mythology, which is largely brushed over. Undine is supposed to be an undine, but Petzold never makes this clear other than a strange underwater scene with a catfish named Gunther. The water nymph story is not explained very well either, as Petzold goes for a subtler approach with his narrative. When Undine tells Johannes that she’ll have to kill him for breaking up with her, it’s not implied that Undine is a water nymph and would have to go back to the lake from which she came. Her great desire to stay on land fails to be explored properly because of how quickly she meets Christoph. Any time Petzold tries to hint at this mystical plot point Undine loses itself. 
Undine works best when it purely focuses on the aching romance between Undine and Christoph. The tension between Beer and Rogowski translates beautifully into the devoted love their characters have for each other. Yet Petzold’s insistence on adding the undine water nymph myth into his film does not work, especially for those who have no prior knowledge of water nymph characteristics. The fact that Undine is an undine feels shoehorned into the film for no good reason other than a nice parallel that Christoph happens to be a diver and Undine is from a lake. If Petzold had taken more time to articulate how undines function this story would have worked much better, unfortunately, Undine is too rushed, a murky romance that loses itself in unexplained mythology.

Undine screened as part of the 2020 Vancouver International Film Festival.

VIFF Website: https://viff.org/Online/

You can follow Alina Faulds’ Letterboxd, Twitter, or Instagram and view more of her work here.

Possessor

Written by Alina Faulds

45/100

Possessor is the latest film from Brandon Cronenberg, another attempt to live up to his father’s legendary status in the industry. On one hand, he succeeds, the sci-fi body horror is just what one would expect from a Cronenberg flick, on the other hand, Possessor doesn’t live up to its hype often losing itself in its poor pacing and fails to properly convey a message. Possessor is violent, arthouse, graphic, and just plain weird. Plenty of people are going to love it for these reasons and will actually take something from the film, but it won’t do much for the average movie watcher.

A highpoint of Possessor is its opening as Cronenberg throws the viewer straight into the film wasting no time on exposition. Holly (Gabrielle Graham) begins stabbing a random man before putting a gun into her own mouth while screaming “Get me out!” Next Holly is dead and Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) wakes up in her own body, lying in some sort of machine. The sequence is chaotic and whiplash-inducing, and full of a lot more blood than necessary. A perfect set-up for what the audience should expect out of Possessor.

Instead of ghosts and demons, it’s Tasya that’s the “Possessor.” An assassin working for a mysterious organization, they use the aforementioned machines to take over random people’s bodies, using them as pawns in their missions to assassinate too-rich targets. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character supervises the twisted science experiment but not much else is explained. When Tasya comes out of the machine she is given objects to trigger her own memories and remind her who she is. Tasya is struggling in her job, while she’s supposed to be cold and calculating, she begins to struggle as she thinks about her own family, she’s beginning to feel empathy for the people whose bodies she’s stealing. This comes to a head when she possesses Colin’s body (Christopher Abbott), the two battling against each other for control.

Possessor definitely has a compelling storyline but the pacing loses itself especially in the middle of the film. It gets rather dull as Tasya in Colin’s body is getting ready to off her next target, needing to prove herself to those in Colin’s life. With a compelling beginning and an incredible ending, unfortunately, Possessor is bookended by two great scenes that make the rest of it a snooze. Where Possessor does excel outside these scenes is in its visuals, especially those when the body’s two souls are fighting for control. With chilling screams and nightmare-inducing faces, the practical effects shine in these sequences, as they do in the killings as well. The acting between Riseborough and Abbott excel in these scenes as well. 

The other problem in Possessor is Cronenberg keeps saying the same thing. Tasya is struggling in her job and especially in Colin’s body, clearly shown in the multiple gross soul-ripping scenes. But Cronenberg never explains why this is the case, just that possessing other people’s bodies is bad. Possessor loses its touch here, getting a little too vague. Again it’s for these reasons why Possessor is such a divisive film, some will love the ambiguousness, trying to find an answer on their own. Others won’t like it, frustrated at the answers Cronenberg refuses to give the audience. 

Possessor is part of the Vancouver International Film Festival 2020 line up.

VIFF Website: https://viff.org/Online/

You can follow Alina Faulds’ Letterboxd, Twitter, or Instagram and view more of her work here.