Thursday, October 24, 2013

Mumbai Film Festival (Oct. 17-24, 2013): Round-Up

La Jaula del Oro ("The Golden Cage")

Liberty Cinema Liberty Cinema

I hadn't attended previous editions of the festival, but my fiancee and I decided to catch as many as we could this time around, not only for the foreign films, but also the Indian ones that rarely make it to wide-release or even a proper DVD release.  Over the festival week there were frustrations galore -- the organizers have set up a perverse booking/registration system that seems intended to use the internet to make life harder; a bunch of screenings weren't compatible with, um, employment; and I missed out on the films by Jafar Panahi; Asghar Farhadi; Hsiao-Hsien Hou; and Jia Zhangke) but nevertheless, there was enough magic (some of it at Bombay's legendary Liberty cinema, with its fantastic Art Deco interior still intact; Metro, sadly, is completely Ambanised as a BIG Cinemas property) to make it all worthwhile:

The Circle Within (Turkish (2012); dir. Deniz Cinar) begins with a wonderfully atmospheric build-up, as we watch an itinerant peddler in a remote part of Turkey go about his daily business; and a second, much younger, and somewhat troubled man, ostensibly helping his grandfather around the house.  The peddler is a Yazidi, a tiny (one might even say obscure) religious minority in the Sunni-majority country (or anywhere, for that matter; the Yazidis' belief system is fascinating, and the community is beleaguered by Muslim intolerance of both the Shiite and Sunni kind); we are not told the younger man's identity, but over the course of the film it is clear he isn't Yazidi, and likely Muslim.  The two men's paths cross in a violent and cruel way, as Hassan uses the peddler's own religious beliefs to imprison him, threatening not to release him until the peddler (in a manner of speaking) renounces his faith.  The drama inherent in this stand-off had a lot of potential, but sadly, the film resolves things by a rather cheap sleight-of-hand at the end, leaving me disappointed: The Circle Within raises disturbing questions, about bigotry and communal co-existence, and about the all-too-human love of cruelty and control, but chose a denouement that felt implausible and trivial, diverting the discourse from the realm of ethics and politics, to one of idiosyncratic psychology.

Good Morning Karachi (Urdu/English (2011); dir. Sabiha Samar), Samar's follow up to to the critically acclaimed Khamosh Paani (2003) is embarrassing, right from its old-as-the-hills plot -- a lower middle-class young woman wants to make it big as a model, chafing against a bunch of societal restrictions, even as the notion of modeling serving as a liberatory vehicle is never critically examined -- to its stilted use of English -- the dialog is just bad, but in any event the film needed a lot more Urdu, and the wafer-thin conceit about the female protagonist wanting to practice and improve her English at every opportunity just doesn't hold up -- to the woeful miscasting of Pakistani model Amna Ilyas as the film's protagonist (Rafina), who dreams of a modeling career and escape from her stifling environment in a modest part of Karachi.  You can't really hope for two dimensions for the characters here, much less three: this is the kind of film where the posh set can be expected to bemoan the fact that you can't get a good bagel in Karachi as a huge issue; or where modeling agencies are run by men who say (with no discernible directorial tongue-in-cheek) they are taking Pakistan back from the mullahs (one might even say that in making the country safe for unabashed consumerism, they are doing God's work); or where Benazir Bhutto's 2007 return from exile (and subsequent assassination) serves as backdrop for completely obscure reasons.  Based on this film, and her responses at the Q&;A session at the festival, Samar risks becoming the purveyor-in-chief of two separate myths: one, about Pakistan as simply That Dangerous Place; the other, no less insidious, and much beloved of many in the urban elite, is that the country is just as cool as anyplace else, with its share of glitterati (undoubtedly true, but no one who ISN'T part of this set seems to be having any fun in Samar's Karachi, and must content themselves with shouting at political demonstrations; burning billboards; or just generally being caught on camera as part of the scenery); moreover, the fact that the film gets the odd barb in at a sneering elite (those scenes themselves border on caricature) enables it to leave unexamined the entire structure of elite privilege (and the modernizing discourse it uncritically advances), and hence the nature of any promised liberation.  Both myths dovetail into the old one: if retrogrades like the mullahs would just get out of the way, the country might just reach the Mecca of modernity.  I don't mean to deny Samar the right to make a fairy tale: but the idiom of art-house cinema is not the appropriate one: the Hollywood or Bollywood musical is by far the better vehicle for superficiality.

Oonga (Oriya/Hindi (2013); dir. Debashish Makhija): There have been many films set amidst "the Naxal problem" or that are "about adivasis" (heck this isn't even the first to star Nandita Das), but Oonga is different.  Unlike its siblings, the film is unafraid to have a point of view, one it articulates with both nimbleness and polemical edge, as it focuses on the village of Putucheru (close to the Orissa-Andhra Pradesh border), amidst land that is being gobbled up by a faceless aluminum corporation, mostly represented here by signboards and devastated, fissured red earth.  It's a baddie far more threatening than the more familiar depredations of men in uniform (even here, though, the fact that the film humanizes the ordinary soldier without sentimentalizing him -- indeed one of the best scenes in the film involves a conversation between a hardened veteran and a newer recruit, on why the former became a soldier in the first place -- makes the casualness of the cruelty meted out to those unfortunate enough to be ensnared by the state's representatives in insurgency-hit areas all the more disturbing).  And then there's Raju Singh, the boy who plays the title character, in the most winning child actor performance I have seen in a long time: he is no less a natural than the other villagers (played by Gond tribals, not professional actors, for the most part; although the local shaman is played by the Malayalam actor Salim Kumar, in a strange double role I can't say more about without giving too much away).  Oonga is definitely worth watching: it's important because it's a little film that tackles momentous -- and horrifically violent -- events occurring as we speak, but also because it's a good film, sensitive to the power of good acting, narrative, and (albeit intermittently) striking visuals (the standouts are the shots of Oonga walking past the paraphernalia of mining and other heavy industry, eloquent testimony to how frail the human has become). The bucolic scenes seem to owe more than a little to the great Malayalam films of the 1980s, even if the edge is Oonga's own. Oonga does flag a bit over the last third, and the ending felt a little forced to me, but when I asked Makhija about it at the Q&;A session after the screening, he made it clear the ending proceeded from his determination not to let us leave the theater with a good feeling: there could be no upbeat takeaway where the world refuses to provide it.  I respect Makhija's point of view, and sympathize with his determination to resist anything that smacks of a Hollywood/Bollywood-ending, even if it seems to me that choosing the route this film has intensifies the focus on the individuals at the story's core, and hence away from the systemic nature of the dispossession the rest of the film has shown us (never more so than when visuals of the forests are contrasted with the stripped, gutted terrain where aluminum mining takes root).  Nevertheless, the road taken has integrity, and the film ends with almost all pathways open to Oonga when (if?) he grows up.  Almost: he, like virtually all other members of "tribal" societies, don't anymore have the option of being left alone.

The Golden Cage/La Jaulo del Oro (Spanish (2013); dir. Diego Quemada-Díez) was by itself worth the festival's registration fees.  Despite a number of quality films over the last few years dealing with migration issues (for instance, "Welcome"; "Dirty Pretty Things"), The Golden Cage stands out for its uncompromising vision, and its heartbreaking poetry.  The film is centered on three youngsters trying to make their way from Guatemala to the United States, almost literally drawn along train lines by America's magnetic pull.  The three are always enframed by things: apart from the trains (that are a visual signature for this film), the detritus of the world we live in -- in the form of run down shacks and houses; broken things; bits of refuse -- is everywhere.  With his eye -- this was the most cinematic of the new films I saw at the festival -- Quemada-Diez does not need to clutter up the film with too much dialogue, and there isn't much here (and some portion of the dialog is untranslated, adding to the sense that the world is not only implacable but impenetrable too).  What we do have is loss, the kind that brought tears to my eyes, and a sense of wasted, vulnerable youth.  If the latter brings Bolano's "The Savage Detectives" to mind, then the film's evocation of the sinister, distorting (and gendered) effects of the juxtaposition of American prosperity with Central and South American labor and displacement evoked the same author's "2666."  Here too, there are no winners, although some lose a lot more than others. The Golden Cage is one of the best films I've seen all year, and deserves a wide release.

La Caza ("The Hunt")

La Caza (Spanish (1966); dir. Carlos Saura): I had never heard of this 1966 classic until Satyam brought it to my attention -- and it was outstanding in every sense of the word.  This account of a hunting trip involving three friends and the much younger brother-in-law of one of them, has all the force of a Biblical parable; a deeply unsettling one, with resonance far beyond Spain's borders.  Each of the three men seems scarred by the legacy of the Spanish Civil War, and the ghost of an absent fourth haunts the film (we never learn what happened to him); but the amnesia of the youth is in a sense even more disturbing (at one point he asks "Which war?" when the others reminisce) -- combined with a heady cocktail of guns, alcohol, and the pleasure the men take in killing rabbits (the casual cruelty is palpable), and the locale (the craggy hunting ground was once the site of a Civil War engagement), all mean La Caza is headed toward an explosive climax from the outset.  Despite that expectation, the ending is unpredictable, and I can't overstate the visceral impact: afterwards, I wanted to watch it all over again.

Katiyabaaz (Hindi (2013); dirs. Fahad Mustafa & Deepti Kakkar):  I'll be doing a full-fledged write-up on this film in a few days, but suffice it to say that one of the most entertaining Indian films I've seen all year is this documentary on Kanpur's electricity crisis, more specifically on two people at the center of it, a senior bureaucrat trying to reform the system; and a local hero who helps (mostly rather poor) customers steal electricity.  The documentary owes a lot to the tradition of both masala movies and reality TV, which accounts for its kinetic energy and sheer enjoyability, but that debt comes with its own share of problems, not least of which is a tendency to pander to middle-class prejudices about politicians towards the film's end, when the nuance and ambiguity of the earlier portions is abandoned.  Nevertheless, Mustafa and Kakkar have done an outstanding job in bringing to the screen the desperation and frustration that attend all matters electrical in much of India, and in a format that kept this viewer riveted.  Katiyabaaz could have been more thoughtful if it had lingered a bit more, rather than thrusting forward, but it's a film I would urge everyone to try and watch (if the audience reaction was any indication, the film should be getting some kind of cinematic release in India soon).

Before Midnight (English (2013); dir. Richard Linklater): I hadn't seen the first two films in Linklater's trilogy ("Before Sunrise" (1995) and "Before Midnight" (2004)) until earlier this year, and when I did, the nerd in me was smitten by their romantic "talkiness" -- hence my eager wait for the third film (it might not even be a trilogy, but an indefinite series, the fictional equivalent of Michael Apted's "Up" series).  Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) are back, but the film has a different vibe than the first two, which seemed quite focused on getting the characters from one point in their lives to another (the fact that the journey was compressed in a very short span of cinematic time -- a night in Before Sunrise; a few hours in Before Sunset -- heightened the effect that something significant was happening); Before Midnight is more of a snapshot of the state of Jessie's and Celine's relationship, and while it draws blood towards the end as the two get into an argument, one doesn't get the sense anything has changed by film's end (perhaps a fourth installment will lead me to revise that view).  That isn't necessarily a problem -- the protagonists are now in their 40s, and perhaps the tonal shift is appropriate -- and the dialog is as sparkling as ever, but the sense of stasis does make Before Midnight less, well, interesting to me.  The fact that Jesse is now a successful writer also adds a certain remoteness -- it's much harder to relate to a chap who's achieved his dream and is getting asked for autographs in hotels, than to the earnest idealist from the first film who one was half-sure would end up unsuccessful.  On balance these aren't fatal issues in a film that is a very worthy link in Linklater's chain, but do mean that it left me a bit untouched.  But I'd be remiss if I didn't add that Before Midnight is also the first film in the trilogy to explore the question of gender, and the relative toll even a good marriage/relationship/family can exact on a woman: nearly a decade on from Before Sunset, Jesse is at his professional peak, the author of acclaimed novels; Celine (and I confess I owe this insight to my fiancee) seems a bit worn down, not just from years of activism (and its attendant frustrations), but from the sheer work of bringing up two children.  She hasn't had, as she reminds Jesse, the luxury he has had to do his own thing; and while there's no solution to the problem, the viewer never feels that Celine's weariness and resentment; or the privilege of Jesse's magnanimity, bubble out of nowhere.

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