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Living in New York and being press credentialed, I have access to foreign films, offbeat indies, documentaries—often connected to festivals–that never make their way to smaller cities and towns. That is one of the benefits still extant in a city rapidly being converted into a hedge fund Sodom and Gomorrah.
There is Netflix, of course. It does manage to include some offbeat items that unfortunately are the proverbial needles in a haystack. To address the needs of the serious cinephile, some websites have emerged over the past decade or so that take us into account. As opposed to Netflix, Amazon, Hulu Plus and Vudu that are accessible through a Smart TV, a Roku box, or a similar device, these websites can only be streamed to your computer. However, if you own a flat-screen TV with HDMI input, with which such TV’s are generally equipped, all you need to do is connect your computer to the TV and voila.
This is not an exhaustive review of all the websites that are alternatives to Netflix but they are among the most popular. Viyer and FilmMovement generally offer films that are not available on Netflix. But they have smaller inventories in comparison to Fandor and MUBI that do overlap to some extent with Netflix. However, Fandor and MUBI are not loaded down with the garbage on Netflix so it easier to find something worth watching, as is the case with two of the films I review below. Just out of curiosity, I checked to see if they were on Netflix and they were (“Sous les bombes” and the William S. Burroughs documentary). That being said, I never would have found them there since Netflix in its pandering to Cineplex tastes would have no incentive to highlight them.
All but one (FilmMovement) have trial memberships so it is worth checking them out to see which one most nearly meets your needs. I will say this, however. If you are a serious film buff without an art house in your city, you will find that the monthly fee that compares roughly with Netflix is well worth the price of admission. Plus, you can make your own popcorn at home without the tablespoons of salt that Cineplexes and most art house popcorn drench theirs in.
Vyer was the first Netflix alternative I became aware of. In 2012 I made the case for it in a piece titled “Vyer Films: the cognoscenti’s Netflix.” It is worth mentioning them once again.
On the “about” page, you can find the criteria they try to meet: “Vyer Films releases are drawn from international film festivals like Cannes, Venice, Berlinale, Toronto, and more, have been awarded by juries and lauded by top critics and film writers, and are selected by our board of curators composed of filmmakers, fans, and current Vyer Films users.” I should add that I am gratified that they left Sundance off the list, a festival that is too often marred by following dubious trends like mumblecore, etc.
I selected “Yumurta” from the ‘currently featured’ menu on the Vyer home page. This is a Turkish film that I knew by reputation and was anxious to see for the first time. Semih Kaplanoğlu directed “Yumurta” (the word for egg). His surname means son (oğlu) of the tiger (Kaplan). I always get a chuckle how the Turkish word for tiger is the same as the common Jewish surname that has the same root as chaplain.
“Yumurta” is the first in a trilogy of films, followed by Süt (Milk) and Bal (Honey). In my opinion it was strongly influenced thematically and stylistically by Abbas Kiarostami’s “The Wind Will Carry Us”, reason enough to view the film based on what I wrote about it for CounterPunch a while back.
Like “The Wind Will Carry Us”, this is a tale about the tensions between urban and rural society. The main character Yusuf, who owns a used bookstore in Istanbul, visits Tire, a small city in the province of Izmir, to attend his mother’s funeral and to settle her affairs. He discovers that Ayla, a young and beautiful distant female relative, has been looking after his mother during her prolonged illness. She makes him feel at home but only so far. His mother had asked Ayla to instruct Yusuf to sacrifice a ram on her behalf as part of her burial ritual, something the chain-smoking, poetry-writing, nonbeliever is loath to do. He tells Ayla that he does not believe in that stuff.
Like “The Wind Will Carry Us”, there’s not much that happens in “Yumurta” except Yusuf’s encounters with the locals, just as Kiarostami’s filmmaker character interacted—unevenly—with the Kurdish villagers. If you are looking for car chases, stick with Netflix.
As a youth, Yusuf yearned to escape the rural confines of Tire but having returned he discovers how much was lost. The Kemalist revolution sought to put the “old ways” behind it permanently but tradition has a way of staying alive. In developing a breathtakingly beautiful portrait of Tire street life and its uniquely Turkish characters (played in most instances by nonprofessionals), Kaplanoğlu is arguably working through his own conflicts about Turkish society, a feature of many films made in this complex society by urbanized intellectuals.
Film Movement is featuring “Grigris” right now. The title refers to a good luck amulet and the nickname of the main character who is anything but lucky. Filmed on location in Chad, we soon learn that he has the odds stacked against him. Compounding his disability (his left leg is paralyzed), he needs to raise a small fortune to pay for his stepfather’s hospital bills during his treatment for a lung ailment.
Notwithstanding his disability, Grigris aspires to be a professional dancer. On many nights he can be seen performing before adoring crowds in a local nightclub who chant his name as he dances ecstatically to AfroPop. He is played by Souleymane Démé, a dancer that director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun spotted in Ouagadougou, Burkina Fasso. After seeing him dance, Haroun said, “That’s the hero of the story I want to tell.”
To raise money for his stepfather’s bills, Grigris joins a gasoline smuggling gang run by a thug named Moussa who is not somebody to be trifled with. When Grigris is forced to double-cross Moussa in a desperate bid to secure the funds necessary to pay off the hospital, he becomes a marked man.
The only person he can rely on is Mimi, a prostitute who he meets early in the film when she shows up in his stepfather’s low rent photography studio to take modeling photos. Her hopes to become a model are as vain as his hopes to become a dancer. Sensing each other’s vulnerability, they are drawn together in a touching romance that might have been inspired by Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess”.
Mahamat-Saleh Haroun works in a neorealist style befitting the meager circumstances of his characters and in a most effective way. One of the things I have learned over the years watching films from poverty-stricken locales like Chad is their affinity for the style that developed in the immediate post-war years in Italy. For countries such as Chad, such dire conditions are permanent no matter the buzz heard from Thomas Friedman columns or Obama speeches about Africa’s great leap forward under capitalism.
I watched “Sous les bombes” (Under the Bombs) on Fandor; this is a film made in the immediate aftermath of the 2006 war in Lebanon. Directed by Philippe Aractingi, of French-Lebanese descent, it is gripping tale set against the massive destruction wrought by Israel. As the film progresses, you will see city blocks leveled to the ground—products of the IDF jets that just destroyed Gaza.
Zeina Nasrueddi (Nada Abu Farhat) has just arrived at the Beirut airport determined to find a taxi that will take her to her hometown in the southern region of Lebanon where she hopes to find her six year old son Karim and her sister, in whose care she has left the boy while she was off in Kuwait with her husband.
None of the cabbies is willing to risk life and limb traveling south even though a truce has been declared. The Lebanese, like the Palestinians, have learned that Israel is likely to drop a bomb on you whether or not a truce has been declared.
Finally she recruits Tony (Georges Khabbaz) to go south, but only for $300. Tony starts off strictly for the money but eventually develops emotional ties to Zeina, partly out of solidarity with someone suffering the effects of a brutal war and partly out of physical attraction.
“Sous les bombes” is a classic road movie and a two-character study for the most part. Nada Abu Farhat and Georges Khabbaz turn in powerful performances in a screenplay that is passionately antiwar even if it avoids providing much in the way of historical context. That being said, Israel is denounced throughout the film for its savagery and bad faith. Needless to say, the film is highly relevant as well as being intensely dramatic.
I first came across MUBI when it was known as www.auteurs.com, a website that had some extraordinarily interesting free films, not long after I discovered Vyer. I have no idea what MUBI means but the website is geared to the global cinephile market. Wikipedia states that Turkish-born entrepreneur Efe Cakarel founded it as a social network for cinephiles in 2007. As a strong recommendation, it is the one favored by CounterPunch editor Jeff St. Clair.
From MUBI I selected “William S. Burroughs: a Man Within”, a 2007 documentary directed by Yony Leyser. Leyser was a young man and Burroughs fan who grew up in Lawrence, Kansas, where Burroughs lived in the last few years of his life when he had become too old and frail to deal with New York City life.
It is an unabashed work of fandom committed to paying remembrance to the beloved writer who seemed to do everything calculated to drive a wedge between himself and the public, from homosexuality to drug addiction.
The film benefits from some really perceptive interviews from people in the entertainment industry as well as literary figures equipped to make some really shrewd judgments on Burroughs’s character and role in cultural history.
From the first group you hear from Iggy Popp, who claims Burroughs as a major influence on his punk esthetic. Indeed, the film argues that Burroughs was the father of the punk movement and not really someone with that much of an affinity for the peace and love hippie vibe that Allen Ginsberg embraced. Like Hunter Thompson, Burroughs was a gun nut who kept one under his pillow and fully loaded. Unlike Thompson, he was ready to use it on anybody who came into his house looking for trouble rather than himself. As a gay man, Burroughs knew that there were homophobes who had to be held in check.
From the second group you hear a wide range of writers and literary people including Amiri Baraka and Diane Di Prima, two icons of the beat generation. It is really very rewarding to hear his contemporaries reminding us of what an important contribution Burroughs made to American literature.
Like all of the other films considered above, this documentary is a testament to the power of “alternatives” to the mainstream. Bohemianism is a cultural trend that will be with us as long as capitalism seeks to keep us within narrow definitions of what it means to be an American. For those who seek to march to the beat of a different drummer, especially when it comes to film, my recommendation is to check out the websites enumerated above. They are the cyber-equivalent of the great art houses of the early 1960s that helped me get grounded in classic film and an excellent way to get up to speed on the definitive art form of late capitalism: the motion picture.
Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.