Stars: Cavin Gray and Ayman Samman
Paul DeNigris, Professor of Digital Video at the University of Advancing Technology in Tempe, is no stranger at Apocalypse Later. I first experienced his work through Cowboy Dreams, a hilarious short comedy western with a cast to die for: Danny Trejo, Bill Engvall and David Staley. I didn't meet him until 2010, after his post-apocalyptic short, Fallout, showed at the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival. He gave me a DVD of Cowboy Dreams, so I could watch some of his older shorts and a year and half later I got round to reviewing them, from the poor and prototypical The Hard Way to the glorious and gleeful Stabbing Stupidity. Now, I wonder if there's some sort of unwritten rule that there must be a DeNigris short screening at every festival I visit, from the most prestigious to the most tangential. This one, a thesis film which helped him receive his Master of Fine Arts in Digital Cinema, may be his most ambitious and successful film to date.
|This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in Scottsdale in 2012. Here's an index to my reviews of 2012 films.|
At 22 minutes, it's an epic short film, with everything you might expect from a feature except length. In fact, it has everything you might expect from an Oscar winning feature except length: it's a timely political statement, a call for cultural education and a plea for humanity; it's a war movie, an action picture and an effects flick; and more than anything, it's a story of redemption. No wonder it made it to the Short Film Corner at the Cannes Film Festival this year. If Paul keeps growing like this, pretty soon I'm not going to be able to afford to get into the festivals screening his work. The film's message went down well at the Phoenix Film Festival, though I can see that it won't be as popular in some circles because it's an anti-war movie, albeit one that's carefully as anti-Saddam Hussain as it is anti-American invasion. The politics here are not overt. Nothing is red or blue except blood and sky, the colours being visually and metaphorically desert colours.
The story follows Daniels, a US infantryman on a tour of Iraq and a rollercoaster of a story arc. It isn't a true story and Daniels isn't a real person, but they're both fashioned from real experience, courtesy of story consultants Alexander Snyder and Hiba Al-Fatle. Daniels may be fighting to free a foreign nation from tyranny but he has as much hate for that nation's people as for his actual enemy. He confuses the two, through ignorance, habit and the situation he's in. It's not an easy situation, as he quickly finds when he's blown out of his Humvee by an improvised bomb set by a child, but he wakes up in the home of an Iraqi civilian who has apparently saved his life. That, to him, is no less easy to deal with. Through survival instinct and a gradual understanding that there's a reality wider than the one he thought he knew, he finds common ground with Hassan and his son Jabir, which shapes how he and the story move on.
The writing is excellent here. Though Daniels does start out painfully obnoxious, it's probably not unrealistic and the growth of the character is superb. This is no Disney film, so the progression is both believable and worthy of a 22 minute short. While initially we're emphatically on the side of 'the enemy', the depth that emerges from both lead characters helps us as much as Daniels to see the complexity of the situation. It helps that the leads are superb, with young debuting actor Evan Ananian providing a grounding as Jabir for both Cavin Gray and Ayman Samman to build on. Gray is no stranger at Apocalypse Later either. Purely by coincidence, I'd reviewed every film he'd made. Now that he's made three more, I find that I get to review all those too, Paranoia and Covet coming shortly. While there's a consistent thread in most of his roles, they become varied as they evolve. Samman is new to me but he's a great foil for Gray and is even better here.
Egyptian-born Samman gets much of the best dialogue, Daniels having to grow as a character before he really deserves any. We're drawn quickly into the situation and evalute the motivation of both leads. Nothing here is black and white, those muddy desert colours being an appropriate basis for so much of our evaluation. While it's obvious that Hassan saved Daniels, the soldier is unable to find any reason why he might do so. It's an alien concept to him, but it's really simple. 'Does your Bible tell you to do the right thing only when it is convenient?' Hassan asks. 'Neither does the Koran.' My favourite line follows a revelation about the bombs that killed Hassan's wife and daughter. 'Was it us?' Daniels asks. 'Does it matter?' is the response. With each response to each reminder that we're never far away from violent conflict, we grow with Daniels, though I'd hope that most viewers don't have as far to grow as he does.
Beyond the acting and writing, much of the success here comes through just how immersive the characters' surroundings are. We're believably in Iraq, though the desert that we see is far closer to home than the Middle East and pretty much everything else was shot against greenscreen. It's testament to the skill of Gray and Samman that we're drawn so quickly into this world, but also to DeNigris's effects wizards. So many sci-fi shorts I see are built entirely on sucky effects work and I feel I should send their filmmakers to DeNigris's class to learn how it's done. Sure, he has better equipment than them, but he's not shooting in a state of the art Hollywood studio either. What we see here isn't always perfect but it's easily good enough and occasionally outstanding. With attention given equally to acting, writing and to the variety of sets, greenscreen, CGI and 3D models, this is a textbook for young filmmakers. It's proof that it can be done and done well.