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Picks of the Week - DEVS, A World Not Ours, Ema

Thursday 30 April 2020, by Abla Kandalaft

I’ll concede that my selection this week is eclectic but I’ll argue that the three picks are sort of tenuously linked together by their haunting qualities. Read in that what you will. So here’s a series, a doc and a fiction film.

DEVS - Available on BBC iPlayer

I think "haunting" probably best describes Alex Garland’s miniseries Devs. Absolutely gorgeously shot, Devs is set in some sort of vaguely parallel / mildly futuristic San Francisco, in a world in which quantum computing is in a fairly advanced state of development. For some of you, this is a selling point, for the technophobes, hang in there, it’s much more philosophical, eerie and intriguing than it is techy. No? It’s worth watching for the soundtrack alone.

Young and hip Silicon Valley workers Lily Chan and her Russian boyfriend Sergei are both engineers, employed by Amaya, a quantum computing company set amongst acres of forest over which towers a huge, creepy statue of a young girl - the eponymous Amaya, and we soon learn, the deceased child of lugubrious CEO Forest. The series opens with Sergei being offered a much prized position in the very exclusive and secretive Devs (presumably for development) department at Amaya after impressing Forest with a bit of genius coding...

A WORLD NOT OURS, directed by Mahdi Fleifel - Available via The Palestine Film Institute

This is a beautiful, very moving award-winning film by Mahdi Fleifel - a filmmaker who certainly privileges quality over quantity. Named after Ghassan Kanafani’s short story, A World Not Ours is the director’s personal account of his time spent in Ain Al Helweh, the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon. Using archive footage and personal recordings, he tells the story of three generations of his family. Through this intimate portrait, the film explores issues of identity and belonging and exposes the plight of stateless Palestinians living in limbo since 1948.

Fleifel’s film isn’t quite chronological, it is structured around his musings pivoting around successive world cup finals. He takes us back to his childhood growing up in Dubai but visiting his relatives in Ain Al Helweh during the summer were everyone would gather to watch the football and get into occasionally violent scuffles over their support for various world teams. After eventually living in the camp for a few years, his family moves to Denmark. Over the years, he documents his regular visits to the camp, seemingly filming everything, and introducing us to various eccentric members of his family.

First up is his grandad - providing light relief with his hilarious rants at the kids disturbing his peace - who moved to the camp shortly after the Nakba - the expulsion of Palestinians from their land following the creation of Israel and the origin source of the Palestinians’ exile and subsequent stateless status. The other standout figures are two other relatives, Said, unpredictable and irrational since the death of his brother, a local hero who died young protecting the camp against attacks by Israeli soldiers and incursions by Lebanese militias - and Abu Eyad, who’s on Fatah’s payroll but grows disillusioned with the Palestinian political authorities. The footage showing Abu Eyad becoming ncreasingly restless and hopeless over the years gives us the film’s most moving and frankly upsetting moments.

These people, with their irrepressible sense of humour, their resilience, their resourcefulness and hospitality are left trapped in these insalubrious surroundings for decades, in quarantine forever, unable to study, to work, to claim citizenship of the countries they’re in, to travel and of course, to eventually go home.

EMA, directed by Pablo Larraín - Available on MUBI

EMA by Neruda director Larraín is wacky, chaotic and uneven. It could have easily fallen into shambolic contrivance but instead it’s an exhilarating and hypnotic ride, carried by two strong leads.

Dancer Ema and her choreographer partner Gastón’s fraught relationship is tainted by failure and defeat - that of giving their unruly adoptive son back to the authorities after he sets fire to their home. The film follows the aftermath of this decision and the unravelling of Ema’s mental health and the couple’s lives.

Somewhat bizarrely, for the majority of the film, we don’t see the boy and what really happened seems very nebulous. Larraín’s use of vibrant colours and music and hypnotic dance sequences heighten the overall sense of chaos, drawing us in and keeping us on edge.

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