If our fast-paced world of ever-instant information has taught us anything, it’s that there are so many more differences of opinion, belief, values, and experience than we ever could have imagined. In some spaces, like social media, these differences can cause anything from minor friction to all-out internet rage.
Amid the divisions that are very much a part of the human experience, I’ve been struck by recent films that have resisted trite categorizations of people and their ideas. These films have instead wrestled with the tensions that exist between peoples and between individuals and their societies. In steering clear of simplified us vs. them thinking, these films invite viewers to see the humanity of the characters first, and to acknowledge that their attitudes, questions, and values are territories well worth exploring.
This film follows the Yi family (Jacob, Monica, and their two children Anne and David), who have just moved from California to Arkansas, so Jacob may follow his dream of being a farmer of Korean vegetables. Tensions are high from the film’s start. Monica struggles with being so far from town; she misses both a church community and proximity to medical care for their son David, who has a heart murmur.
In the midst of these struggles, Monica’s gregarious mother comes to live with them and plants minari on the bank of a nearby creek. This resilient plant that can grow anywhere becomes a symbol for the Yi family, who by the film’s end have learned a bit more about how to grow alongside each other (especially Monica and Jacob).
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (2019)
Based on a true story, this film highlights the innovation of 13-year-old William Kamkwamba, who responds to his Malawi village’s farming crisis by building a windmill to create an irrigation system for the dry fields. While watching, I was repeatedly struck by William’s family’s perseverance and fierce love for each other as the bad harvests took much away from them—the family’s food security, William’s ability to go to school, and even the future prospects of William’s sister, who elopes so her family has one less mouth to feed.
A major theme woven throughout this film is that of considering the community. In the beginning of the film, this is immediately tested when some farmers cave to a land agent’s offer to cut down trees on their land in exchange for cash. The scene in which this exchange happens is fraught with tension, as the community’s chief says no to the land agent and then farmer after farmer says they will sell their trees. The results are disastrous for the community, leading to heavy flooding which kills the harvest. Against this backdrop, William endeavors to build a windmill to help his family and village, which ends up asking a lot of all of them, and increasing their hope for the future.
Watch The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind on Netflix.
Though I’ve written about this documentary before, it makes this list because of the symbiotic relationship it illustrates between the cats of Istanbul and various residents and shopkeepers who live there. Though these cats belong to no one, this film beautifully highlights what happens when an animal becomes beloved. Among the humans in this film, there’s a sense of responsibility for the wellbeing of the cats, as well as an appreciation for what the cats have done for them—from keeping a restaurant free from mice to helping someone cope with mental health struggles. In turn, the humans give the cats food, affection, and continued freedom.
Through beautiful shots that allow us to follow cats on their routes through the city, it is clear that there is respect for the cats and the spaces they occupy in Istanbul. Kedi is a clear reminder that caring for the world means caring for all that is in it—people, animals, and the landscapes and environments we share.
Exploring the intersection of religion and cultural practice around marriage, this film tells the story of Rochel, an Orthodox Jewish woman, and Nasira, a Syrian Muslim woman, who work at the same New York school. Both must navigate their religion’s custom of arranged marriage, while also encountering pushback from their school principal, who expresses the wider American culture’s ignorance of this practice. The film does not shy away from exploring topics like family pressure and religious intolerance (including discussion of the tensions between Jewish and Muslim peoples in some parts of the world, which is highlighted by Rochel’s family’s attitude toward Nasira). In each other Nasira and Rochel find someone who understands that the practice of her religion sets her apart from what is considered the Western norm, and their friendship provides solidarity as each navigates her family’s expectations for an early married life. Though Arranged is only able to skim the surface of this conversation, I was impressed that the film chose to explore arranged marriage from a view that respected the cultural and religious contexts in which Nasira and Rochel are operating.
Focusing on a time not too distant from the Rwandan genocide, this film follows two young men, Munyurangabo and Sangwa, who have become best friends in Kigali. Early on in the film they decide to take a journey together—to see Sangwa’s family and to avenge Munyurangabo’s father’s death. As the film progresses, we learn that Munyurangabo is Tutsi, and Sangwa is Hutu. Their friendship is tested by Sangwa’s father’s hatred of Tutsis, and Sangwa’s desire to remain with his family. The film is relatively sparse in dialogue, and the camera’s use of close-ups creates intimacy, while its at times shaky camera effect evokes a sense of instability and tension.
In the end, Munyurangabo tells a story of care for the other despite devastating division.
Photo credit: Netflix