There is an undeniable sadness that flows throughout Majdi El-Omari’s directorial debut. Similar to prisoners in a chain gang, each of the characters in El-Omari’s film are bound by the events of their pasts. Unable to shake the emotional ghosts that haunt them, they wander through life on a fragile tightrope whose tension is about to break.
Heralded as the first film to feature the majority of its dialogue in the Mohawk language, Standstill is an intriguing study of regret and loss. Arihote (Atewena:ron David Deerhouse) is a Kanienkehaka “Mohawk”, and war photographer, whose relationship with his son Karhiio (Iohahiio Curotte) has been strained ever since his wife left them. His life takes an unexpected turn when he happens upon the aftermath of the murder of his upstairs neighbour. The killer is Wedad (Meissoon Azzaria), a Palestinian refugee who sits stunned in the victim’s apartment still clutching the murder weapon. Instead of notifying the police, Arihote decides to help the distraught woman flee the crime scene.
Why would Arihote take such a grave risk for a woman he has never met? Furthermore, what would lead a waitress at a café / laundromat to resort to killing in the first place? In a strange way, the events surrounding the murder are not that important. El-Omari’s lens is more concerned with observing the journey that occurs after Arihote and Wedad’s lives intersect. For Arihote this means finally confronting his unresolved feelings about both his wife’s departure and his father’s suicide.
Filmed primarily in black and white, El-Omari displays much promise as a filmmaker. His subtle, but impactful, framing brings out powerful emotion in even the quietest of moments. A simple shot of Wedad’s face, as she lays naked watching her bloodstained clothes in the washing machine, speaks more to her inner pain than any of the poetry she writes a few scenes later. The same can be said for the scene when Arihote sits outside a diner observing his son chatting with a married couple he knows. As if observing a portrait of a happy family unit, the windows of the diner serving as the picture frame, the sense of regret in this moment is palpable.
One area where Standstill makes a few missteps is in its overall pacing. El-Omari lingers a little too long on Arihote at times. As a result, Wedad’s narrative never feels as smooth as it should. It takes a good hour before Wedad and Arihote even meet again. It is only then that the viewer begins to truly learn about Wedad’s past. The additional focus on Arihote also hinders Karhiio’s thread – he embraces the same thirst for political activism that his mother once had – as it does not provide the closure one would hope.
Through characters such as Karhiio and Wedad, Majdi El-Omari manages to infuse pointed commentary about the current state of both the Aboriginal and Palestinian communities. He utilizes flashbacks and audio recordings to evoke memories of a time when communities worked together in the fight to create a better future for themselves and the next generation. As Karhiio’s mother poignantly remarks “it is everyone for themselves now”, a point hammered home by the fact that Arihote would rather go and document the war overseas than stand alongside his wife in protest of the atrocities occurring closer to home.
Although Standstill could have delved even further in regards to its political and social commentary, arguably the film’s most captivating trait, there is still plenty of food for thought to chew on. Majdi El-Omari crafts a film that, much like its characters, ultimately finds strength and life within the river of sorrow.
Standstill begins its exclusive run at The Royal on Friday night.