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Global Cinema Film Festival of Boston offers passport to intriguing stories

Ordinary people face extraordinary challenges in these documentaries chronicling upheaval in Syria, Beirut, and Venezuela

A still from "So Foul a Sky."Syndicado Film Sales

As suggested by the title, the Global Cinema Film Festival of Boston (May 27-29) covers a wide range geographically, from Syria to Beirut to Venezuela in the three documentaries discussed below, alone. But the films in the program also venture far afield aesthetically, from the conventional to the poetic to the avant-garde. Regardless of the style and formal ambition, all offer lucid glimpses into places where ordinary people face extraordinary challenges.

The German filmmaker Antonia Kilian takes a straightforward approach to her subject in “The Other Side of the River” (2021). In 2016, after learning from a news item how female soldiers liberated the women in the Syrian town of Manbij from ISIS, she decided to take her camera and travel to this site of feminist empowerment. But the authorities told her the place was still too dangerous and suggested instead she visit a nearby military academy that was training Kurdish women for the police force. There she met 19-year-old Hala, a woman from Manbij, and decided to tell her story.


Hala had opted for the police force after fleeing a forced marriage (her father is a suspected ISIS collaborator) and found that she thrived in the regimented, gung-ho environment of her new profession. She wants to free all women from patriarchal oppression, starting with her sisters, one of whom has also joined the police force. But family and community pressures stymie her feminist zeal, and the conflict between freedom and submission can’t be resolved by resorting to force or ideology. Kilian explores these issues without passing judgment, her acute gaze offering an intimate portrait of a complex woman and detailing with sympathy and insight the harsh but beguiling world with which Hala must come to terms.

A still from "The Other Side of the River."Syndicado Film Sales

Álvaro F. Pulpeiro opts for an impressionistic, oblique, and elliptical style in “So Foul a Sky” (2021). It opens with a murky image of an oil refinery belching fire and smoke into the air, and it is not until after snippets of radio news broadcasts are overheard that it becomes clear that the film is about the Venezuelan presidential crisis of 2019. An impasse developed when socialist strongman Nicolás Maduro claimed to defeat the US-backed opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, in what many regarded as a rigged election. Guaidó insisted he won and threatened to enlist the military in a coup. The country’s already declining oil economy teetered as tension built over potential social unrest and military intervention by the Trump administration.


Meanwhile, Pulpeiro films seemingly random scenes including sailors on a warship, oil smugglers filling jerricans, and various vehicles driving through desolate landscapes at dawn and dusk or in darkness, one with a squalling baby in the backseat. Occasionally, a voice-over will intone portentous, poetic, and obscure observations. The overall mood is of dread and despair, with sudden, brutish images expressing an underlying evil, such as an enormous man in a hammock with a gun in his belt extolling the aphrodisiacal powers of turtle soup, or a mangled snake writhing in agony but refusing to die.

Intermittent news broadcasts also provide some of the background and exposition in Karim Kassem’s “Octopus” (2021), an enigmatic collage about the aftermath of the huge explosion of thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate that devastated the Beirut waterfront in 2020. In the film, Kassem does not explain his personal connection with the event: He had been in the city planning a new feature when the explosion occurred. Afterward, he abandoned that project and made this film instead.


A survivor of the explosion that devastated the Beirut waterfront in 2020 in "Octopus."Karim Kassem

Even knowing this background story, the chronology, context, and interconnections of the images and scenes remain unclear, though haunting. Most of the subjects — elderly people in rest homes, workers engaged in reconstruction, children playing in the ruins, nuns praying in a battered church, snorkelers on the beach — seem benumbed and perfunctory as they go about their business. Occasionally, a long shot of the harbor will reveal the extent of the destruction. Narrative threads vaguely coalesce: A bearded man piles salvaged planks onto a van. Images of an octopus are stenciled on the planks. The bearded man drives to a damaged building and knocks on the doors of vacant apartments. An elevator door opens revealing a fedora on the floor. The world is shell-shocked, and so is the film.

Global Cinema Film Festival of Boston can be streamed online May 27-29 at worldwidecinemaframes.com/global-cinema-film-festival.

Correction: Due to a Globe correspondent’s error, an earlier version of this story misstated the name of the Global Cinema Film Festival of Boston. The Globe regrets the error.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.