I am a Cliché was released in January 2021 and has been playing mostly through streaming outlets and festivals since the summer. The film gives a rare glimpse into the soul of Marianne Elliot Said aka Poly Styrene, the brilliant, iconoclastic frontwoman for British punk band X-Ray Spex. It’s a sensitive and compelling piece co-directed by her daughter, Celeste Bell, and Paul Sng.
Bell explores her mother’s journey through the challenges that confronted her as a biracial, non-conformist artist, celebrating her life and her art and offering inspiration to future generations of artists. Other than two LPs with X-Ray Spex and a couple of solo albums, very little information remains about Poly Styrene, in contrast to the volumes of material available on her white male contemporaries (such as the Sex Pistols’ John Lydon). This film is a precious document that counters the ongoing erasure of BIPOC presence in the arts.
In addition to the documentary aspect of the film, Bell very deftly constructs a narrative that weaves in the complex and sometimes difficult relationship that she had with her mother, “A punk rock icon,” a famous figure, far removed from the flesh-and-blood person that she knew.
July 3, 1976 was the fateful day when Marianne Elliot Said started on the path to become Poly Styrene. She was hanging out on Hastings Pier on the day of her 19th birthday. She saw the Sex Pistols perform live for the first time. It was a life-changing moment. After a year hitchhiking across Britain seeking a purpose, she collided with it on her birthday!
Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché, Official Trailer
This documentary may not have happened if Celeste Bell hadn’t explored her mother’s archives. It took Bell five years to process the loss of her mother. When she opened up those archives, she found photos, lyrics, albums… a variety of things of great value and cultural importance. She says she was “blown away” by the quality of her mother’s artistry. She wrote the songs and did all the artwork for the band herself. A number of Poly Styrene’s peers are interviewed in the film and there is broad consensus that she was one of the leading exponents of punk rock and certainly one of the most interesting and gifted songwriters to surface from the new wave.
Neneh Cherry relates how “… the first time I heard Poly’s voice, it was like an awakening for me. There were a lot of men around, but obviously, being a woman and being a young woman, I think Poly being a woman of colour on that scene was another reason why she became a huge role model for me, and I actually started singing because of her, to be perfectly honest.”
Marianne Elliot Said chose “Poly Styrene” as her stage name by looking through the Yellow Pages. “I thought I would use the name of something around today. You know, something plastic and synthetic – and I just looked in the yellow pages and then I saw it. It sounded alright, it was a send-up of being a pop star. Like a little figure, not me – Poly Styrene, just plastic, disposable.
That’s what pop stars sort of meant to me, so therefore I thought I might as well send it up.”
The film takes us through Poly Styrene’s childhood growing up in a poor family in the Gosling Way estate flats in post-war London. There was no separate bathroom and the flat was heated with two coal fireplaces. Her single mother, Joan, or ‘nannie’ as Marianne Elliot Said and her sister called her, worked full-time as a legal secretary.
Joan had met Poly’s father at a dance. He was a handsome and dapper Somalian immigrant with impeccable style. He asked her to dance, sweeping her off her feet. Poly’s sister recounts how their mother ended up with no friends: “They saw her as a black man’s whore. It was bad enough being a single mother but being a mother with half-black children was hey hey! The white community really shunned ‘nannie.’”
Poly Styrene struggled with her status as a “half-caste,” fitting in with neither the white kids nor the black ones: “When a white person looks at a mixed-race child, they think, My God, a white person went with a black person or vice versa. It’s their genes really. They want to preserve themselves. Because they see us as a threat to their genetic existence.”
Poly recognized the importance of identity early on. Although a born and bred Londoner, she was constantly questioned about where she was from. She developed a yearning for Africa and daydreamed about running away from England, where she never felt at home: “I wanna go back to Africa, learn about my heritage and how my ancestors lived. ’Cause all I’ve seen is Jungle Book. And I know that ain’t the way it looks. I grew up on Tarzan too. What can you do? I’m going to cross Ethiopia, see that ancient land, and then I’ll go to Somalia, barefoot across the sand.”
She found no role models in the media or in the music business. There were no Black women to be seen on the front pages of fashion magazines of the day. She was one of a handful of women of colour working in an industry full of white middle-class men. So she felt that it was up to her to carve out her own identity.
Poly Styrene was very much into the DIY ethic that characterized early British punk culture. She made her own clothes, wrote her own songs and came up with the artwork for her albums herself: “Clothes are never really you. That’s why people wear them. Cause you can just create an image with clothes. They’re just part of the facade. Which is good fun to play with sometimes.” She placed an ad in the Melody Maker in 1976 that said: “Young punx who want to stick it together.” She auditioned the band members herself, and X-Ray Spex was born.
Punk Britannia at the BBC: X-Ray Spex – The Day The World Turned Day-Glo (TOTP 1978)
Rhoda Dakar (The Body Snatchers/The Specials) recalls the explosion of punk rock in the 1970s in Britain: “We were embraced by punk because punk was full of people who nobody else wanted. We were welcomed because we were already outsiders.”
“Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard,
but I think: Oh bondage, up yours!”
~ Poly Styrene – “Bondage Up Yours”
“Bondage Up Yours!” was a call to arms against oppression for women and young people of colour in Britain. The song was rejected for radio and television because of the superficially BDSM theme of the lyrics: “I was just talking about all forms of bondage, you know, oppression and everything else. Sexual bondage stems from that… it’s all part of the same thing really. It all depends which way you take it… yeah, it’s to do with all bondage. And it’s bondage because it hasn’t been played, and that proves it as well. That’s bondage in itself.”
Poly Styrene explored themes in her music that were far from the typical punk rock fare, including genetic engineering, mass media control, the environment, disposable fashion, and society’s obsession with cleanliness. The artifice of the music industry and its insincerity influenced her, and she imagined a future dystopic plastic synthetic universe where the natural world has retreated. The final triumph of everything that’s fake.
Another theme that runs through much of Poly Styrene’s work is that of consumerism. “It wasn’t a conscious attempt to be clever. I just thought that I’d write about all these plastic things because they seemed to be creeping in more and more. Which is why New York totally blew me apart. I saw everything that I’d been writing about in extreme, but for real. For them it wasn’t a joke, it was the way they lived. For me it was all a joke – play with it, indulge it, have fun with it because there’s not really that much of that over here… but when you go there, it’s so bad that you think, God if that’s what it’s going to be like, I don’t want it.”
Over time, her songs were evolving to reflect how her feelings were changing; she wanted to reflect those changes in her music. She had started to branch out of the political power pop of X-Ray Spex, fusing pop, rock, funk and reggae into a rich and at times playful tapestry of sounds that only a rapidly maturing artist like herself could pull off.
She was misunderstood by the media, which wanted more of the original X-Ray Spex brashness. Poly Styrene had already moved on. A diary entry from the time reads: “I muse over the future and all it may bring. I open Pandora’s box of hope. I envision a time in the distant future when synthetics rule. The downside is, humankind will destroy the natural environment; the upside, burgers will be cruelty-free veggie rubber buns.”
Unfortunately, her solo album Translucence, which featured her outspoken political views but showed a more vulnerable and introspective side of her, was a commercial flop that led her to leave the music scene in spite of her optimism.
By the time Bell was born, Poly had left her punk phase far behind. She never really considered herself a punk, nor was she limited by the formula of punk. However, she recognized that the scene was the perfect vehicle for her own creative transformation.
The latter part of the film deals with Poly’s disenchantment with her life as a punk/pop star and the decline in her health. She is confined after a misdiagnosis of schizophrenia. A later evaluation confirms that she was actually suffering from bipolar disorder. After withdrawing from public life, she found happiness and spiritual growth in the Hare Krishna movement, taking her daughter to live with her for a while at Bhaktivedanta Manor in Watford.
Sadly, cancer took Poly Styrene from us in 2011. She leaves a long legacy of accomplishments, including a memorable performance in 1978 at the Rock Against Racism rallies in Victoria Park, London, triggered by Eric Clapton’s drunken outburst in which he praised Enoch Powell’s anti-immigrant philosophies and called for Britain to remain “white.”
Her legacy includes two superlative and hugely inspiring albums with X-Ray Spex, Germfree Adolescents (1978) and Conscious Consumer (1995); her solo albums, Translucence (1980) and Flower Aeroplane (2004); and her final album, Generation Indigo (2011).
Los Nombres de Las Flores (2019)
Director: Bahman Tavoosi (79 minutes)
Amid the majestic terrain of Bolivia, a poetically sublime film unfolds. The Names of the Flowers / Los Nombres de Las Flores, a feature length fictional portrait of a village with allegorical inferences of diaspora and political fallacy, is filmed in a poignant documentary-genre aesthetic.
Bahman Tavoosi, citing inspiration from neo-realism and employing still-motion theatricality, has authored an investigation surrounding the circumstances prior to the death of the legendary revolutionary martyr, Che Guevara. The arid and harsh scenery sets the background for this ambiguous tale of a rural teacher who met with El Che, providing him with a simple meal of a bowl of soup that inspired the revolutionary to compose a poem, the title piece of the film.
What distinguishes this film from the current spectacular pageantry and excesses of the narrative fiction genre is its serenity, portrayed with exemplary camera direction. Devoid of technical artifice, the characters of the village are revealed, their status and mundane hardships only illustrated by visual sequences, and the audience is drawn into the enchantment of absurdity and realism. The core narrative is interspersed with fragmented images that sustain a visual suspense. The intriguing claims of the anonymous village woman who is said to have received and fed the martyr prior to his assassination keep shifting throughout the film, while figures arrive to enliven the construction of the narration.
There is no clear protagonist. An elderly woman, mother to a mute boy, appears throughout the film. The stark interior of her residence, a spartan adobe home of clay and brick, houses a silent testimony to the extreme poverty of the region. Her child, a social misfit, wanders and is filmed at random, playing in abandoned vehicles or open spaces adjacent to the village. His presence underscores the absurdity of the premise behind the police investigation, as the political echoes of a defunct junta embed in the filmic memory.
The aesthetic and pacing of the film are reminiscent of the works of Antonioni or Kiarostami. The static camera absorbs the poetic stillness of life. The resplendence of the common surfaces is reflected as the rustic interior and majestic landscape are caught, frame by frame, in an underlying visual tension. The attention to light might be akin to that of Vermeer, and a painterly quality is achieved that is consistently present throughout the visual horizons of the camera.
The absence of a child, gifted in music, permeates the shadow of the elderly woman in portrait. The foolish pageantry of state officials, intent on celebrating the death of the martyr, resounds with satirical accolade. The spectre of Che Guevara frames the story, yet Bahman Tavoosi’s masterful oration impels the audience to meditate on the farcical and fragile aspects of the human condition.
The identity of the heroine is never quite affirmed. The ambiguity of the honours to be duly awarded her dooms that to fail. What emerges as an apparently anodyne, benign presence in the lives of the actual villagers is the facile dichotomy of remembrance and the ostensibly salutary efforts of a political vestige of the junta. One is led to wonder about the actual state of affairs in modern-day Bolivia – especially after being further captivated by the film’s incorporation of the native dialect, the authenticity of the non-actors who played the majority of roles, and the textured details of the cinematography.
The visual poetics enact a telling, spatial mnemonic, placing emphasis on the parallelism of image and narration: the art of film. The subtext of detachment and isolation amid the inner plateau of Bolivia, which Tavoosi infers through the visual impact of cinematographic movement, positions the quiet absurdity of the characters who arrive, interspersed with the objectivized role of the police detective who appears to be investigating not crime, but myth.
The manner of storytelling is particularly evasive: the filmic montage (suggestive of Godard’s approach) utilizes non-symbolic imagery to suspend a tale without either a definitive beginning, middle or end. The film might imply influences of magical realism, as sections of the narration appear to be cyclic, while the overall achievement remains one of the sublimation and fusion of the political with the social. The legend of Che awoken, the thread unwinds in a non-linear episodic movement.
The film is essentially visually episodic. With the primacy of the camera and the scenic display, the original quest to ascertain the identity of the “antagonist” who served soup to the legendary figure of transnational South American liberation becomes a pale shadow of itself. The travesty of the officials who arrive to conduct the memorial services and pay homage to the mythic accomplishment of a village that played host to the martyr in his last waking days is clear. The scenes resound with a sense of avarice and subversive humour.
Sporadic interrogations begin placidly, as devoid of menace as possible, led by spectral, vapid figures echoing what can only be a diffuse and impossible power, amid the expansive landscape and stoicism of the village characters. As they endeavour to resurrect and create an idol, the myth dissipates. There appears to be no collective voice of the community, only individuals introduced in the mundane but intimate isolation of a schoolhouse, accompanied by a narration on the futility of veracity in such an unorthodox, non-linear tale.
The Names of the Flowers evokes a powerful imagistic portrait of an era, where nuanced filmmaking and cinematography emerge as the a priori force in the relating of a mythical tale. Evidently, improvisation supersedes a traditional script, with dreamscape and erratum woven in a manner evocative of Bergson.
We are immersed in a distant land, a cultural encapsulation juxtaposed with the ravages of time, the paradox of forensic research and imaginary fabula. What has been crafted with emphatic, contemplative silence is the correlation of the absence of linear time and eternal of image. We are left with the poetic words of Che prior to his death, when – moved at receiving a simple meal – he counted the names of flowers. The film engenders a barren sense of warmth and nostalgia, as it unfolds with subtle irony and speaks of life in a generation gone amiss.
Los Nombres de Las Flores has won the following awards:
2021 Gilles-Carle Prize, Rendez-vous Québec Cinema Award
2020 Best Narrative Feature, Venice Film Week
2019 Jury Award, Tallinn Black Nights International film Festival
2020 Best Narrative Feature, Brussels Independent Film Festival
2020 First prize, Best Feature category, Flickers’ Rhode Island International Film Festival
2020 Audience Award & Jury Award, Aswan International Film Festival
2020 Sao Paulo International Film Festival
2020 Beijing International Film Festival
2020 Haifa International Film Festival
2020 Mill Valley International Film Festival
[Editorial note: In late August 2020, Mirella Bontempo, a long-time Serai contributor, submitted a pitch for reviewing Indigenous films at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). She was able to obtain pre-screening links to Trickster and Inconvenient Indian, and submitted her reviews in the fall. Then the Michelle Latimer bombshell exploded. After consultations with our editorial board, we decided to go ahead with the review, in recognition of all the Indigenous artists and contributors to these productions who had justifiably assumed that Ms. Latimer’s claims of Indigenous identity had been substantiated. Latimer and two producers of Trickster have now resigned—but the significance of these works, along with the livelihoods of the contributors, are suffering in the fallout.]
Trickster, a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) television series directed by Michelle Latimer and adapted from Eden Robinson’s speculative fiction Trickster trilogy, Son of a Trickster
When Robert Lepage claimed that he couldn’t find good, professional Indigenous French-speaking actors for his play, Kanata, Indigenous actors in Québec spoke out. Perhaps he didn’t look into the new generation of actors emerging nationally. Michelle Latimer, who also came from a theatre background and adapted Eden Robinson’s Son of a Trickster trilogy for television, seemed to have no trouble finding professional Indigenous actors, including the eponymous Trickster. Latimer was adamant that the production crew behind the camera had to be Indigenous as well. This would prove to be ironic. Unbeknownst to everyone involved in the series and the author behind the books, the director’s own claimed Indigenous identity wouldn’t pass muster. With the ensuing fallout, another person will direct the second season of Trickster.
Trickster tells the coming-of-age story of Jared, a Haisla teen in Kitamaat, B.C. On the surface, it may appear like an Indigenous Young Adult television series with elements of the supernatural – a sort of Northwest Coast-tinged magic realism with shapeshifting humanoid tricksters who tell “half-truths.”
Right from the first episode, we are reminded of the Highway of Tears, ‘sixties scoops, gas pipeline workers in white pick-up trucks, mental illness or supernatural hallucinatory holograms, inter-generational trauma manifested in alcohol and drug abuse, and family neglect, with an impotent addicted father and an abusive white drug dealer who takes over his Indigenous girlfriend’s home. The series’ colour schemata are part of the symbolism at play: white and red trucks for white and Indigenous, respectively; a couple copulating on green bedsheets and blankets representing the creation of Turtle Island.
The Raven as a trickster animal, guardian spirit, transformer and originator of the Northwest, is omnipresent. The Windigo (Wechuge) character also appears, but to understand its symbolism, the viewer needs to be cognizant of Indigenous mythology. Its traits include cannibalism and greed, and it is associated with ice, environmental destruction, and famine. As the Windigo character explains, “We were all family: witches, tricksters, what the ancients call cycles, balances and harmony.”
Pacific Northwest Coast art is featured throughout – totems, spruce-bark hats, a raven mask carving in trees in the forest – for shapeshifting tricksters turn into trees and rocks. All the historical art and narrative elements of Trickster culminate in a rite of passage ceremony.
Fireflies represent knowledge, illumination, the ecosystem and communication. Sara, the new-to-town colourful-wigged activist girlfriend, is surrounded by a halo of fireflies, and prods the un-woke Jared, who claims that there is nothing to do in town unless you are an oil worker. “Did you know gas and oil workers here are a direct link to industrial exploitation and violence against Indigenous women?” she enlightens him. Jared makes fun of her activism as “reclaim this, re-colonize that,” whereas she asserts she is “hardcore resistance with a dash of sparkle.” She organizes die-ins protesting fossil fuel, and sews moccasins against culture vultures. After growing up in the foster system, Sara is intent on finding her birth parents, while for Jared, the layers of mystery enshrouding his origins get peeled away with every episode.
Flashbacks take us to the colonial era, where one character in an alternative reality in the past sells beaver pelts in exchange for alcohol from the White Man, and his spiritual nemesis harasses him in both dimensions. She exclaims, “I want you to hear what I hear, thousands skinned alive. I hear the land and its screams of pain.” The physical and supernatural worlds collide, attesting to why the speculative genre lends itself well to narration of the non-dominant experience.
This CBC series has been picked up by SyFy UK and CW for U.S. distribution, and part of the universal attraction may be the public’s curiosity (and ignorance) about Indigenous lore.
Indigenous truth-telling in Inconvenient Indian
In recent years, Michelle Latimer has become a recognized name in documentary film in Canada, since the launch of her VICELAND documentary series about the Standing Rock pipeline protests. Environmental and Indigenous land rights activism in that series, RISE, is also highlighted in Inconvenient Indian. Latimer came into the limelight after winning two TIFF awards: The People’s Choice Documentary Award and the Amplify Voices Award for Canadian feature film. The latter was for underrepresented BIPOC and women, which was awarded before her claimed Indigenous identity was questioned.
Just as the book by Cherokee-Greek-American author Thomas King, The Inconvenient Indian, prefers a storyteller’s approach over that of a historian, the documentary adaptation relies on a variety of modes, like re-enactments and visual vignettes. When it does become traditional in observant mode in the latter half of the documentary, the visual break creates unevenness but never detracts from this expository documentary’s message.
Arcane representations of what King calls the “Dead Indian” archetype stand in contrast with the issues facing “Live Indians’” traditional knowledge, languages and food systems and other traditions from the original way of life that the residential school system attempted to obliterate through forced assimilation. Living artists are reclaiming their identities in contemporary arts such as facial tattoos (see the film Tunniit: Retracing the Lines of Inuit Tattoos by Inuk filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril) and protest music from groups like A Tribe Called Red.
The documentary also contains a tacit critique of paternalistic white commentators who admonish seal hunters. A hunter in the North reflects on the changes his mother has witnessed in her lifetime, after being “born onto the land into a semi-nomadic lifestyle following the hunting seasons,” and now living in an institutionalized community. “When we try to capture our traditions again, our culture revitalized,” he comments, “we get criticized for it. Not fair at all.”
We are introduced to one of the emblematic animal symbols to many Indigenous nations, the vain Coyote, a trickster character akin to a thief, and to the story of the ducks, as an implicit metaphor between settler and Indigenous relations. Coyote has an insatiable desire for feathers from the ducks, who end up acquiescing: “Half (plucked) is better than being eaten.”
In Inconvenient Indian, museums celebrate artefacts of the Dead Indian: “Most of the history of Indians in North America has been erased. We are left with a series of historical artefacts or memorial tokens of static voiceless objects from the past, unthreatening and without agency. Dead Indians … stereotypes that North America conjured up in collective imaginings and fears. More importantly, a source of entertainment.”
The segment on Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922), with pulsating editing to Tanya Tagaq Gillis’ throat-singing, is characteristic of the director’s style. The jump cut licking of the sword is accentuated twice. In film history, this silent documentary is remembered for its anachronistic use of harpoons when the Inuit had long abandoned them for rifles. It was the first filmic representation of the Noble Savage archetype, the continuation of the Primitive, in the inception of the documentary genre. According to King, “The idea of the Indian is more important than the reality. Nobody wants the Indian. They want the idea because the idea is non-threatening.”
The Hollywood Western montage fused with the children’s tune Ten Little Indians brings dynamism to the images of stereotypical shy girls in headdresses played by non-Indigenous actors. The montage includes Daniel Boone, the Lone Ranger and Buffalo Bill in Tomahawk Territory (1952), along with mirror sideshows, arrows, and characters from Riders of the Whistling Skull (1937), Stagecoach (1939), She wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), and Escape from Fort Bravo (1953) exclaiming: “We own this land,” “Don’t show your face,” “blood-thirsty Indians,” “they all look alike to me,” and “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.”
King’s Dead Indian is an archetype born from Post-Contact conversion to Christianity and trade in North America. Modern living Indigenous Peoples “don’t look like that… (It) makes us invisible. Unless we are looking like Indians and acting like Indians (according to) what the media have in mind, we really don’t exist.” Modern expressions of the Dead Indian are motifs such as sacred headdresses that dominant cultures co-opt for Halloween costumes, zombie walks, or Coachella apparel.
Cree artist Kent Monkman and their Two-Spirit alter-ego, Miss Chief Eagle Testikle, mention how Canada’s 150th anniversary spurred their Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience exhibit at the McCord Museum in Montréal. Monkman’s Confederation paintings, diorama and ceramics convey “the worst 150 years in Indigenous peoples’ history” – “the signing of treaties, the Indian Act, proselytization, dispossession of land, residential schools, the penitentiary system and the legacy of the foster system. The colonial system exacted multi-generational traumas in Indigenous communities,” as revealed in their Winnipeg off-reservation series The Urban Rez. His painting “The Scream” depicts the brutal raids by the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) and the clergy to abduct children from their families and communities and force them into residential schools.
The camera depicts a Northern community, with a barren landscape except for the houses and swings.
You can’t judge the past by the present.
It’s a splendid slogan. It permits us to set aside the missteps of history and offers a covenant for the future, allowing us to be held blameless for the decisions we make today. Ignorance. This is their defence. Our grandparents didn’t know any better. (…) If we knew then what we know now, we wouldn’t have done what we did.
(…) Perhaps it is unfair to judge the past by the present. But it is also necessary. In the history of Indian-white relations, it has been the Federal authorities, politicians, clergy that knew the potential for destruction their actions would have on Native communities. (…) They were able to make these decisions because they weren’t betting with their money. They weren’t betting with their communities. They weren’t betting with their children.
The most elegiac images in the documentary are overhead shots of the land and emptied cavities of the tar sand pits’ scarred landscape, with a bloodcurdling scream in the soundtrack from Peter Mettler’s film commissioned by Greenpeace Canada, Petropolis: Aerial Perspectives on the Alberta Tar Sands. Latimer’s activist lens tells us that all environmental issues and land rights are one and the same, since the Indigenous Peoples are stewards of the land.
Sure, whites want us to assimilate. They want Indians to realize that everything whites do is for our own good. We can’t make good decisions for ourselves…The issue that has never changed and is with us to this day is the issue of land. The issue has always been land, will always be land. The vast beauty of Canadian forests. Indians systematically removed all over Turtle Island, for the settlers to have access to the resources.
And the land is imbued with spirituality, as the female voice-over explains:
Inherent within the belief systems of Indigenous peoples across Turtle Island, there is an understanding (that) we are the land. The land is us. We believe that there are spirits existing in the land, in the forest – that the earth is alive. We don’t have a right to things. We have a responsibility. When you live like that, the pace slows down.
Inconvenient Indian is an important visual and didactic essay that ends with a positive vision of the future, thanks to “Live Indian” artists and youth. As Concordia University’s Manon Tremblay puts it as head of Indigenous Directions, overseeing AbTeC – Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace: “It gets better. We aren’t surviving but thriving.” The animation in Second Life is created by young Mohawks such as Skawennati, whose oral traditions get transcribed for a digital age where “an avatar gives thanks to the waters in a virtual land.”
Thomas King’s reframing of the question of Indigenous demands is reflected in the major stand-offs – from the Oka Crisis to the Wet’suwet’en Coastal GasLink pipeline challenge to Mi’kmaq lobster fishing rights’ protests – as “What do whites want? You can drink water, feed all territories, and never see an injunction. Your army and police are breaking your own laws, trespassing on Mohawk land and removing (them) forcibly with semi-automatics. There is little shelter and little gain for Native Peoples to do nothing, when all we possess is unseen sovereignty on parts of the land… The question will be, how badly do we want sovereignty and self-determination? How important is it to protect our homelands? Are our traditions and language worth the cost of carrying on the fight?”
The South Asian Film Festival of Montréal (SAFFM) was launched in 2011. Since then it has established a reputation for showcasing quality documentary and feature films from India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh, as well as films about the sub-continent made in Canada and the USA.
Three documentary films from Pakistan shown this year drew my attention: These Silences Are All the Words, Indus Blues and With Bells on Her Feet. The films were screened on October 26, 2019.
What struck me as a journalist in India during the 1980s was the lack of coverage of Pakistani culture within English language media at a time when India-Pakistan politics dominated print and airwaves. I wonder if my experience would have been different had I lived in Delhi (Northern India) or Hyderabad (South Central India) instead of Mumbai in Western India. I also lived, unwittingly, in Hindu India.
These Silences Are All the Words (15 minutes) is a deeply personal portrait of three libraries – Bedil Library, Ghalib Library and Saeed Hashmi Reference Library – in linguistically diverse, “madly urbanized” Karachi. The film is made by photographer and filmmaker Madiha Aijaz, who unfortunately passed away earlier this year.
The camera pans “unvarnished” interiors: cupboards filled with aging books, some that seem uncategorized, books on tables, including some ancient-looking manuscripts, librarians at work, people reading, contrasted with empty interiors, old photographs on the wall and other memorabilia, views from the windows, entrance ways, exterior views of the libraries, as well shots of the city. The soundscape consists of traffic and other city sounds and Urdu voiceovers – excerpts from interviews with the librarians, the library users and unidentified others. Some of the reasons for the decline of the libraries come through as the changes wrought by the internet, the growing influence of English and contemporary urban culture, an ignorance of local languages and literature, and a lack of care and resources.
One voiceover is of a man who says he cannot identify with what is happening outside; the library is his refuge. Another is of a woman librarian who talks about keeping the library going against many odds, then indicating in a phrase that perhaps her own faith in the undertaking is faltering. We hear a voice asking why the library was closed over days, at particular times, and could the librarian please respond to phone messages.
We learn that the Saeed Hashmi Reference Library, a bastion of Balochi language and literature, is in turn dominated by Urdu. (According to Wikipedia, Balochi is a Northwestern Iranian language spoken primarily in Balochistan, a region divided between Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan). A voiceover tells us that some people (in authority) are looking at what people are reading here and asking questions, exposing the Big Brother attitude of a centralizing Urdu-dominated State and the growing influence of radical Islam in Pakistan.
While I found this film atmospheric and interesting, I also felt a little lost while watching it, perhaps because I lacked context. These Silences are All the Words nevertheless communicated its central message of language, literature and culture under threat, also conveying that there are still people who care as readers or as custodians.
With Bells on Her Feet (15 minutes) is a striking portrait of the art and resistance of Pakistani dancer, Sheema Kermani. At 68, she is an indomitable presence. At the beginning of the movie she says: “For me, there is a direct relationship between dance and liberation. When a woman stands on stage to dance, what she’s saying is: Here I am, I’m not ashamed of my body, I am confident, and I do not fear you.”
Here again we have a marriage of visuals and voiceovers. The voice is that of the articulate Kermani who describes and defends her art with infectious passion. The visuals show her at work: performing, teaching. There is some archival footage as well. These sequences are interspersed with images of people moving through everyday life in Karachi.
The film traces the genesis of political and cultural repression in Pakistan to the rule of General Zia-ul-Haq (1978-88) who introduced Sharia laws. We see close-ups of official forms that say: “Dance, obscenity and nudity not allowed.” Kermani had to re-label her performances when she filled out these forms. Incredibly, she got away with performing, and has continued her work despite death threats in recent years. Many other dancers however have left the country.
Towards the end of the film, a voiceover tells us of the suicide bomb attack at Sehwan Sharif, a Sufi shrine in Karachi that killed 90 people in February 2017. Soon after the brutal massacre, the devotees, including Kermani, pray and dance at the shrine.
“My journey has been a lonely one but what keeps me going is a hope that future generations will embrace dance, not just as an art form, but as a means to achieve humility, freedom and beauty,” says Kermani. The film is an essential, well-rendered tribute to an artist who richly and courageously embodies her art and ideals.
Indus Blues (76 minutes) by Jawad Sharif is a stark, touching, beautiful depiction of impending cultural death. It also throws light on how a revisionist view of culture is being expressed in Pakistan. It travels up the Indus introducing us to poor, marginalized, fantastically talented, folk musicians who take great pride in, and are very knowledgeable about, their musical lineages, which hark back to the distant past. Unfortunately, they are the last in the line.
With them will also disappear some unique musical instruments like the boreendo, played by Fakeer Zulfiqar and the sarinda by Ejaz Sarhadi. The boreendo is a small, calibrated clay pot with holes – a wind instrument, and the sarinda is essentially a bowed, string instrument.
The film takes us to starkly beautiful, desert landscapes and frames the informal performances against mud huts, thorny trees, children at play, and women at work. The musicians are often dressed in strikingly traditional costumes and jewellery. We also see the more urban musicians framed against heritage sites like a mosque and a garden. Some are filmed performing on simple boats that float on the mighty Indus.
The film also depicts the careful work and dedication of the craftsmen who make the musical instruments locally, and who are often musicians themselves. A telling scene portrays Ejaz Sarhadi in traditional garb, playing the sarinda, accompanied by his son in modern clothes, on the sax. Most of the musicians address the difficulties involved in passing musical heritage to the next generation in the 21st century.
As if the disappearance of this music because of the “lack of economic sustenance, poor opportunities, low market demand and lack of government patronage” isn’t enough, director Jawad Sharif explains the other hurdle these artists face: “There is no doubt that music is a rich and inseparable part of the cultures in Pakistan, but the increasingly menacing religious orthodoxy and obscurantism are jeopardizing this beautiful form of creative expression. I believe our very civilization is under threat…The musicians and craftsmen that we have featured in this film have first-hand accounts of harassment and violence at the hands of religious clerics and their followers. Even the makers of this film were physically threatened and obstructed by some miscreants in some of the communities covered.” And we get to witness all this on camera.
This film is in contrast to Song of Lahore, another film shown at SAFFM a couple of years ago, made by Oscar award winner, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy with Andy Schocken. A sort of Pakistani Buena Vista Social Club, it is about musicians who had scattered and gone underground during the repressive years. They come together to create a roots-fusion-jazz sound popularized via internet videos. They end up being invited to play with Wynton Marsalis and his musicians at the Lincoln Center in New York. One of the reasons for this success and for who gets highlighted and helped vs who gets ignored seems to be based on opportunities available in urban Pakistan as opposed to what is out there in the backwaters.
I found myself crying throughout the film. When I left the theatre, it was cold comfort to know that at least Indus Blues was able to record these musicians and their lives. Perhaps the film will bring about a “rescue mission.” Whatever the case, it was a privilege to witness the haunting and soulful art of these wonderful musicians and bear witness, albeit briefly, to their lives.
Bios of the filmmakers
In her films, photography and writing, Madiha Aijaz (1981-2019, Pakistan) explored how people experience pleasure and privacy in reordered urban spaces. She was a recipient of the Fulbright Scholarship (2010) and the ROSL Visual Arts fellowship (2017). She obtained an MFA in Photography from Parsons – The New School for Design, NY. Her works have been presented at Chobi Mela X in Dhaka, Bangladesh (2019), the International Film Festival of Rotterdam (2019) and the Karachi Biennale in Karachi, Pakistan (2017), and in Liverpool.
Her book with Reema Abbasi on the Hindu temples in Pakistan was published in 2014 (Historic Temples in Pakistan: A Call to Conscience, Niyogi Books, New Delhi). Aijaz also served as Assistant Professor at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, Karachi, and as Visiting Professor at Habib University.
Jawad Sharif is a Pakistani filmmaker who believes in using his skill as medium to inspire social change. He started his career in 2007 and has also directed several documentary films and a drama series for TV. He worked on a number of socially and culturally sensitive film projects involving the themes of human rights and social injustice, as well as arts and culture. He has contributed as the cinematographer and editor to the critically acclaimed K2 and the Invisible Footmen, which has been screened and won accolades in festivals around the world.
Taimur Rahim is a producer and director from Pakistan. He completed a Bachelor’s degree in Film and Television at Concordia University in Montréal and later finished a Master’s degree in Film and Digital Image at the University of Sydney. Taimur has worked in television for over 10 years. His work includes producing and filming television programs in Pakistan, Australia and the UAE. With Bells on Her Feet is his first major independently made documentary.
The 29th edition of the Montréal First Peoples Festival (Présence autochtone) unfolded from August 6 to August 14. On this occasion, it celebrated diversity and creativity through a combination of visual arts, film, music, song, poetry and gastronomy. It even featured an open-air workshop for women, of invigorating haka, or Maori ceremonial dance.
The regular film sessions at the renovated Cinéma du Parc opened up with Quentura (Mari Corrêa, Brazil, 2018), a documentary on the effects of global warming on the health of the Amazon jungle, rightly considered to be the earth’s lungs.
“Quentura” means heat or warmth in Brazilian Portuguese, but it also has connotations of temperatures that can burn. Sadly, the word is very appropriate for a scenario of hitherto lush tropical forests withering and dying. The culprits are global warming, industrialized farming practices, a trend towards single crops as opposed to traditional mixed crops, where biodiversity guarantees the health of the plants, and the sheer perversity of a greedy economic system.
Several Amazon women are depicted at their daily tasks, weaving baskets, harvesting edible roots, taking a break, clearing dead plants and generally sharing stories with each other about ancient planting and harvesting techniques. As they laugh and talk and enjoy each other’s company, they lament the accelerated death of mother earth and the loss of the traditional wisdom necessary to protect it. Their conclusion is that it is only by sustaining Indigenous communities and their traditional livelihood that mother earth has some hope of survival. The spectator is left with the conviction that this is an incontrovertible fact.
As a side note, the reviewer was struck by the fact that the Amazon women who participated in this documentary painted their faces and bodies in the traditional manner and wore jewellery made of natural products such as bamboo, wood, feathers and flowers, but instead of grass skirts, they wore short cloth skirts and instead of unashamed unfettered breasts, they covered them with nylon brassieres in garish colours. Was this a requirement of the filmmakers or just the insidious imposition of a society intent on alienating humans from their natural environment?
Quentura is a dire reminder of what human society claims to want to protect but is intent on destroying.
This was my third time at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). It was also Piers Handling’s final year as the TIFF director, with Joana Vicente now as its new director – a sign of the times reflected by a woman at the helm of the festival. TIFF’s mandate this year was to re-address gender disparity at film festivals with the Share Her Journey rally and the #TimesUp movement demanding more representation from directors and critics. An invitation was extended to black or queer female critics with the aim of seeing film through their optics since male and pale critics make up 30% of the industry, as do white female critics, while minority male and female critics make up 20% each. Apparently TIFF outreached to 20% of global critics.
Claire Denis premiered her new sci-fi High Life at TIFF, as did Canadian Patricia Rozema with Mouthpiece and Nicole Holofcener with her Netflix release, The Land of Steady Habits, while Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum premiered at Cannes. A CTV reporter asked people waiting in queues if representation was important to viewers. I realized that I was only seeing one film directed by a woman because it just happened to be that way – hardly a ringing endorsement of women in cinema and only slightly better than my CanCon roster. TIFF’s World Cinema section represented women as well, from Bai Xue (China) to female directors from India, including Rima Das with her film Balbul Can Sing.
While Nandita Das’s Manto premiered at Cannes, it was her male compatriot Vasan Bala’s The Man Who Feels No Pain that won TIFF’s Midnight Madness People’s Choice. When it counts, women are denied the Platform and People’s Choice Awards. The FIPRESCI (Fédération Internationale de la Presse Cinématographique) International Critics jury’s Discovery Award went to Irish Carmel Winters’ Float Like a Butterfly, about a female boxing Traveller who worships Muhammad Ali. Laura Lucchetti’s Flower Twin, about an African migrant in Sardinia, got an honourable mention.
The Best World or Asian film Premiere Award was given to Vietnamese Ash Mayfair’s The Third Wife, while the Eurimages Audentia Award for best female director went to Ethiopian-Israeli Aälam-Warque Davidian’s Fig Tree. Montréal based Katherine Jerkovic’s Roads in February won the best first Canadian Feature Film Award, while the best Canadian Short Award went to Meryam Joobeur’s Brotherhood, about Tunisians in Québec.
Pawel Pawlikowski’s much anticipated film, Cold War, is inspired by his parents’ laborious and tumultuous love story defying borders and all reason. Like Ida (2013), which examines Poland’s complicated complicity in the Holocaust through the eyes of a novitiate nun, it is shot in chiaroscuro black and white with music taking on a prominent role. After Liberation, Poland wants to reveal its national pride in the People by bridging nationalism and populism with Communism amidst the 1949 land reforms. Cold War begins with an Alan Lomax-type ethnomusicology segment, with the Party’s cultural representative and music directors searching for undiscovered talents in the Polish countryside. Lech Kasmarek, the chauffeur/apparatchik is lamenting that an ethno-linguistic minority’s folk song can’t be in it because it’s “too bad Lemko isn’t our language.” Poland Has Talent-like auditions at a former manor where “all this is yours,” provided the individuals are well versed in Polish folkloric song and can dance to “the music of your grandparents against imperialism” or on songs like “I won’t marry a master.” This is in preparation for a Youth Festival in Berlin.
Crafty and ambitious Susana, henceforth Zula for short, convinces a peasant girl, Leda with the pure voice, to audition for a duet that masks her vocal limitations. Wiktor, the pianist/choral/music director, prefers her charms, while the female judge has her all figured out since she is an ex-convict. Zula is sent to prison for the attempted murder of her father who, after a night of drinking, “mistook me for my mother and I showed him the difference with a knife.” Suffice it to say that Wiktor, who looks like a French New Wave character – a Belmondo minus the broken nose, more closely resembling François Truffaut – is smitten, and he and Zula automatically embark on a relationship, frolicking in the fields. At the first lovers’ quarrel, she jumps into the river. One can mistake Zula’s personality disorder for the dramatic exuberance of a temperamental artist.
Yugoslavia, 1955, at the Partia Narod, Wiktor follows the Polish Troupe’s tour playing Mazurkas and a Serbian folk song about a silk thread. Zula eyes him in the audience. Yugoslav police arrests Wiktor during intermission despite his having a visa. A policeman adds, “Warsaw is the Paris of the East,” as he is sent on the train. Luckily, this time it isn’t the Trans-Siberian Express.
By 1957, in Paris, Wiktor is working on the soundtrack of an Italian film depicting a murder. Zula finally reaches Paris, married to a Sicilian to get her out of Poland. She says, “It wasn’t in church so it doesn’t count. The main thing, you’re not married.” The scenes near canals look like a nod to Luchino Visconti’s White Nights; instead of St-Petersburg, Seine by night with lovers in alcoves. Back in the jazz club where Wiktor plays piano and watches Zula’s frenzied rock n’ rolling dancing, the handheld camera pays a dizzy musical tribute to Tony Richardson’s Look Back in Anger’s dance scene.
The sequence represents the Western side of the Cold World divide. Bill Haley and his Comets “Rock around the Clock” while Zula is passed around male partners under Wiktor’s impassive eye. When she falls off the bar counter, she tells Wiktor, “In Poland you were a man.” The club’s name, L’Éclipse, and Zula’s blonde hair resembling Monica Vitti’s mane, seem like deliberate signifiers, harkening the ennui of Michelangelo Antonioni. At the end of the evening, a sedate Zula singing in Polish, “Dark Eyes, you cry” (not the spirited Russian “Dark Eyes/Ochi Chernye”) shows she is more comfortable on the other side of Europe.
The abyss in culture between the lovers and the gulf between them widens at the party. Zula drinks and flirts with Michel, Wiktor’s colleague at the film dubbing company. Back in Poland, 1959, an unglamorous, kerchiefed Zula is on a train bound to a snowy village to visit imprisoned Wiktor. This time it is Zula who promises she will wait for him.
At Warsaw’s Lato z Pisenka, Song of Summer Extravaganza of 1964, we see a brunette-wigged Zula singing a tropical Baio Bongo number with bandmates donning Mexican hats, depicting how her career has drifted into mainstream cabaret.
Finally, Zula takes Wiktor back to the countryside where they met, to the abandoned bombed-out church with no cupola, to marry without a priest but by solemn candle, where Wiktor, with his atrophied finger (acquired while in the Gulag), tries to exchange vows. Soon thereafter, Zula wants to see the view from the other side. The film makes the Cold War the periphery, the context where the metaphor is the pendulum – through time or geo-politics – shifting the yo-yoing relationship itself. Curiously enough, Pawlikowski’s parents died before Glasnost.
Greta is Neil Jordan’s offering, starring the legendary Isabelle Huppert and Chloë Grace Moretz. Described as a psychological thriller, it playfully situates itself somewhere between camp and comedy. From a Ray Wright play, the tone takes an eerie turn when Huppert answers the door to an ingénue delivering the purse she had lost on the Manhattan subway. That is when I realize that Isabelle’s acting was different. This film is similar to Get Out, without the identity politics. She seems to be typecast as an intense character like the ones in La Pianiste and Elle. The Irish-Canadian-NY co-production in three countries may have something to do with the unevenness, which is the “reality of independent film,” especially for post-economic-crisis Ireland: Toronto’s Bay subway station featuring as New York in this film or as Boston in The Handmaid’s Tale. “The house in Dublin,” Jordan contends, “has elements of Hansel and Gretel leaving crumbs, the European monster and American innocent.”
During the Q and A session, Huppert said she loved her first horror film and “found the script very funny” as she improvised a scene with Stephen Rea where she is seen dancing to Chopin. Jordan prefers calling it a psychological thriller rather than a horror film: “How grotesque any situation [can be]. So grotesque that it is almost funny.”
Jordan’s favourite sequence is the double dream sequence, which has “a familiar alcoholic terrifying feeling” of the mundane: situations of loss, manipulation, friendships gone awry, stalking and trauma. Comic relief punctuates the tense moments. In an attempt to shake Frances from her naïveté, her best friend interjects, “Did I just snort crystal meth? Manhattan is going eat you alive.”
“There is always a guy in such stories… a deranged guy like a computer nerd,” Jordan told the audience about the logic motivating the villain in this film. One wonders if the playwright’s relation to his mother, her constant badgering, inspired him to pen this thriller.
TIFF has always been about selling and buying. People kept asking me which stars I had seen, and when I mentioned them – blank stares. At the Elgin Winter Garden Theatre, I noticed Atom Egoyan and his wife, actor Arsinée, in their seats. My friend forbade me to approach them but quipped I should ask Arsinée for her signature whilst ignoring the director. You often see young fawning masses waiting hours near hotels in Yorkville or the Variety party at Momofuku. One must wonder if they attend any of the screenings. After watching Isabelle Huppert piling into a black van, I noticed Neil Jordan signing mementos from Irish ex-pats. A man behind me asked me who he was. I obliged, “The director of TheCrying Game.” “Never heard of him,” he announced within earshot of Jordan.
FROM THE UNCANNY TO THE CANINE
Matteo Garrone’s Dogman starring Marcello Fonte as the titular dog groomer won Best Actor at Cannes. He discovered his calling in a prison theatre troupe, and went on acting on television with shows such as Don Matteo and La Mafia solo uccide nell’estate. Garrone couldn’t attend due to his filming schedule in Italy, and sent Fonte instead to Toronto, who recognized that he wouldn’t have had this part if it weren’t for the death of an actor in the running. With Fonte’s particular face, you cannot think of any other actor playing the simpleton single father navigating loyalties, trying to do the right thing for survival in his personal sense of morality. The precision in the acting, caring for the canine, whether at his workplace or in the show-dog competition sequence, comes from actual dog-grooming classes.
Fonte stated that the film is “the story of the little man,” the victim of the local bully, drug fiend, man-beast, sometime friend and partner-in-crime, Simoncino. The familiar landscape of desolation of Gomorra is echoed here. This time it is the seaside in Campania built by the US Army only to abandon it – perplexing the audience with their ideas about Italy. Dogmanis based on a true crime story of Pietro De Negri, Er Canaro, but not to the point of “re-telling” it, says Fonte. Garrone’s penchant for such poverty porn, as other critics superficially contend, is a stylistic choice he honed in The Embalmer, while Tale of Tales is based on Giambattista Basile’s fables where the set is hyper-stylistic.
The harshness of the landscape and narrative is tempered by Mina’s Il Cielo in una stanza – literally heaven in a room – a piece included only in the trailer of the film. Is it his love for his daughter, Alida, or his dogs, or the sense of abandonment under the immensity of the sky? The Gino Paoli song isn’t in the film’s soundtrack at all. Garrone preferred the film to have a minimalist, atmospheric soundtrack inspired by Lucio Fulci’s giallo, Don’t Torture a Duckling, specifically Florinda Bolkan’s murder sequence as well as the use of the Ornella Vanoni song in the scopophilia scene of a boy watching a reclining nude, Barbara Bouchet. There is nothing sensual in Dogman, just a compassionate lens.
After apologizing profusely for erroneously thinking he was a non-professional actor (since Garrone has worked with new faces, in-and-out of prison), I told him I had been looking forward to the film ever since I watched the trailer. Fonte gave me a wet kiss as a Dogman would.
Manta Ray is the debut for Thai director and cinematographer, Phuttiphong Aroonpheng, who won the Orizzonti Award at this year’s Venice Film Festival. The film is elegiac and silent for the first 20 minutes, where his cinematography background abounds. His handheld camera in the mangrove follows a black-clad sniper wrapped with Christmas lights on a manhunt, and we witness a tied-up body in a ditch. Aroonpheng breaks the 180-degree camera rule of classic Hollywood cinema when our nameless fisherman protagonist returns to save the injured, whose wound continues to bleed after being bandaged with gauze. The victim vomits after eating his first meal since his famine-ridden experience. The shell-shocked visitor cannot communicate in Thai or any other language, and our protagonist names him Thongchai, after a singer.
The home has flickering “Christmas” lights, strobe lights reminiscent of Marie Menken’s experimental short, Lights(1966), where the men dance, a sensorial return to life. Lights appear in the lush green forest, punctuating the screen like fireflies. Later we realize they are gemstones hidden underground, which sparkle in the full moon. Our fisherman narrates that his wife left him for a sailor (who is incidentally less handsome), taking the gemstone bracelet he had made for her. “Dead bodies in the field. Nobody goes into the forest. Nobody knows where they come from. Scares people from entering at night.”
There is no narrative device guiding us to read the symbols in the film. We wouldn’t even know if the prey, Thongchai, is a Rohingya if it weren’t for the opening credits. Aroonpheng did not agree with the dedication in the opening credits because the character could be any refugee. He didn’t want to reveal too much, but the film is evidently about the crisis. On why he left Thongchai mute: “because the Rohingyas remain voiceless.”
The fisherman takes Thongchai under his wing, teaches him to fish, teaches him to breathe under water for diving, to attract manta rays with gemstones – for they come after a monsoon, and when the sea is calm they leave. When hunting for crystals in the ground, Thongchai unearths a dead baby, reawakening memories of the genocide.
One day the fisherman does not return home. Once again Thongchai is alone, searching for his rescuer until the captain of their sea trawler tells him that the waves took him away and his body was never found. Fisherman seems to work for the captain as the clean-up man in the slave trade of Rohingya run by Thai gangsters. Thongchai begins to wear Fisherman’s clothes, takes his motorcycle, his job on the sea trawler – the embodiment of foreigners stealing our jobs.
Fisherman’s wife returns, for her sailor dumped her after she became pregnant. She returns only to find Thongchai living in their home. She takes him to the hot springs and pines for her dead husband. Thongchai morphs slowly into Fisherman, catching crabs in the mangrove, with Fisherman’s wife metaphysically seducing him by taking him shopping at the night market, buying him a shirt of his own, enjoying the ferris wheel under the kaleidoscope of colours. Fisherman returns from the dead, peeps into his former house and life, finds his wife bleaching Thongchai’s hair like his own – the replacement is complete. Fisherman takes revenge on the captain boss and comes home to the wife whose excuse for shacking up is, “I thought you were dead.”
Fisherman says he can’t stay here. Thongchai knows he can’t either. He runs to the ocean, strips off the fisherman’s clothes and starts to hum in the water like he was taught, to breathe while diving. Souls represented by the lights emanating from the gemstones in the forest are alone in the cosmos where no justice can be had. The non-diegetic soundtrack emits electrifying sounds, like live wire in contact with water. The French composers were asked to create low-frequency sounds of a heart beating, which we can deduce is of a person in flight, running for their life. In the ocean, Thongchai drowns and a Manta Ray appears, black like a Rohingya.
Aroonpheng said he came up with the idea of the title from the location itself, when he saw this giant creature while diving near the Myanmar border. His friends asked him what the film has to do with Rohingyas? He started questioning the role of the artist prior to the Rohingya crisis. His 2000 short film was about copying another artist: the nature of art, being mechanized and reproduced. He cites David Lynch as an influence, as well as Apichatpong Weerasethakul. The opening scene in lush foliage with a black-clad sniper in Christmas lights is lifted from Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boomee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. He is also interested in national identity questions. The image of Alan Kurdi on the beach in 2015 made him delve into social issues concerning the refugee crisis.
He says the film is essentially probing identity issues. “Thai society has never met a Rohingya. The idea where a guy replaces another, the replacement of the citizen” is the central theme. He didn’t follow his 30-page script much, since he had just a few days of filming. He continues, “Society is afraid of [outsiders]. In 2009, 300,000 Rohingyas on boats were not allowed into Thailand by Thai authorities, and 300 of them disappeared.”
Without alluding to the slave trade in fishery that one member of the audience was pressing him on for a comment, the director walked a tightrope of self-censorship in responding to this accusation of complicity. He said there was “no problem with the government because it didn’t know I was filming, and release of the film will not be a problem.”
MANTO: THE SUBCONTINENTAL MADHOUSE
Nandita Das is a female actor and filmmaker from India fighting for the de-stigmatization of dark skin within Indian society. Her biopic on Urdu journalist, screenwriter and short story author Saadat Hasan Manto, in the turmoil of the Partition of the subcontinent, is conventional filmmaking – not to be confused with the 2015 Pakistani musical also entitled Manto. Manto, played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui (The Lunchbox), was born in Mumbai and ends up alcoholic in dry Lahore. Dislocation, like the refugee in Manta Ray, is the main theme. Das opens the film by dramatizing Manto’s controversial story, “The Smell,” about a young girl who is sent out by her father to entertain rich men who’ve paid lots of money for the scent of her pubescent armpit.
In 1946 such realism is too much, for he garners his first obscenity charge. In a Bollywood film production, Manto is angry when the lines are changed. The literary circle he belongs to – Progressive Writers’ Association – includes a female writer, Ismat Chughtai, who is acquitted in her first obscenity trial concerning “The Quilt” – a story about two women in a relationship. He falls out with the circle because they still want to write about British atrocities, ignoring present-day taboos and the struggles of women. Manto defies them: “Why not prostitutes? Prostitutes who kill their pimps?” His ambivalent stance about colonialism – “when British left dams, telephone” – sets him apart from the intellectuals. However, he is hopeful that the baby his wife is carrying shall be born into a free India.
The film posits that the reason he is attracted to women’s issues is because he is surrounded by strong women. His wife, Safia, wonders how he can imagine these short stories while the couple stare at a woman with facial hair at the park awaiting her partner. The humorous interplay is highlighted by music as the two weave a story about Hameda with a horse braid whose lover shaves both of their faces.
The perennial Hindu-Muslim conflict is central to this period. Hindu fundamentalists rioting in Mumbai’s Muslim neighbourhoods chanting, “We’ll kill you Muslims! Burn! Muslims go to Pakistan. Long live India!” doesn’t persuade Manto to move to Pakistan as his wife pleads, “Jinnah says we are safer there!” Manto is unmoved because his family, including son Asif, is buried “here.”
The Bollywood industry is also facing a sectarian backlash, where talkies are being produced and studios are accused of hiring too many Muslims, in open letters by anonymous writers. Other studios are employing fewer Muslims. Manto sends his wife, kids and sister to Lahore for their safety. Ashok Kumar, a Hindu Bollywood actor, refuses to wear Manto’s Muslim cap in a Muslim neighbourhood where he is welcomed as a star. Manto has both Hindu and Muslim caps to fit in with whichever part of the city. But Shyam, his best friend and another real-life Bolly actor, starts changing his demeanour when his uncle Manjeet is killed by “bloody Muslims” in Pakistani Punjab, conceding that it is possible that one day he could kill his friend too. Manto starts all his stories with 786, a promise of religious importance he made to his mother, using numerals for the invocation of Allah that is only used by Muslims in Indo-Pakistan area.
In Lahore, 1948, while Manto is working for Urdu newspapers, he witnesses a teen agitatedly exclaiming that Gandhi has been killed by three bullets shot by a Hindu. There is no indication that we are embarking into literary vignettes, for those of us not familiar with Manto’s short stories. His displacement and the stories he witnessed become his inspiration. In “Khol Do,” a father can’t find his daughter Sakina in the confusion of post-Partition train massacres. When he finds Sakina at the hospital morgue, she is half-alive, removing her drawstring from her shalwar as an automatic reflex. Dead bodies don’t move. This story depicts countless stories of women raped by vindictive mobs as witnessed by many during the Partition of India and Pakistan. Women’s bodies often become the battleground for war and strife.
Manto finally gets his first obscenity trial in his new homeland for “Cold Meat.” He has already faced censorship from an editor laughing at Manto’s penchant for using pencils over typewriters and Sheaffer pens, when Manto divulges that he uses pencils to erase his editor: ”If you never erase your words, would anyone else?”
When Pakistani officials get wind of his “Cold Meat” story, officials come with a warrant to rifle through his papers. “Cold Meat” re-enactment features a Sikh man confronted by his jealous wife, who aggressively pursues sex, mentions throwing his trump card as a euphemism (only to confuse impotence with infidelity), and plunges the kirpan into his neck. With his slit throat, he confesses killing seven people with the same dagger. Along with this, he confesses necrophilia with a dead girl. Manto is charged for sick, perverse and filthy language, and the corruption of youth. To add sting to the wound, his writer friends are called upon as witnesses, claiming “freedom to write is to write responsibly.” Faiz Ahmed Faiz from the Pakistani Times devastates him the most in the witness box by stating: “It is not obscene but not up to the standards in literature.”
Acting as his own defence solicitor, Manto cites a line in a poem and recites it to an Imam to judge the context. The Imam confidently declares that it disgusting, but reels incredulously once it is revealed that the writer is no other than the great mystic Sufi poet, Mir Dard.
Manto compares his trial to those of James Joyce for Ulysses and Gustave Flaubert for MadameBovary. The judge decides that speech alone is sufficient to convict, and sentences him to three months’ imprisonment. Upon his release, Manto demands his old column back.
Manto’s most personal story is “Toba Tek Singh,” named after a town in Punjab. It is emblematic of the Partition and Indo-Pakistani relations, and is inspired by his detox in a mental asylum after learning about the death of his friend Shyam. During Partition, India and Pakistan exchanged lunatics along with criminals. Most of the men in this madhouse – an allegory for displacement – are affected by PTSD. The old Sikh man, Bishan Singh, was born in Toba Tek Singh under the British Raj, but is now in Pakistan. Marooned in No Man’s Land between the two borders, Singh falls in between the barbed wires, tells the officials to go to hell, and dies. “[In] a place with no name lay Toba Tek Singh.”
At a more personal level, Manto feeds his dislocation by going into a downward spiral of alcoholism; the affliction is exacerbated by being left unpaid by his editor, who was looking for lighter material for Rs.20.00. Manto cannot see past the murders: “enslaved, differed, which is my country? The 1857 uprising? The East India Company?” In one very short story, a man takes a knife to a pregnant woman’s belly but finds that he has made a mistake when the male victim’s circumcision indicates that he is a fellow Muslim. Manto falls out with fellow writers who call his work depressing and nihilistic. In turn, he critiques “Life for so-called Progressives looking for a positive silver lining.” His in-laws hate the fact that he doesn’t work, and his alcoholism causes further marital rift. He thanks alcohol-selling Parsis who make Lahore feel like Mumbai. He lives in the Lakshmi mansion where Hindus were butchered, a reminder that death hangs over him: “What has been forgotten? What is to forget? A simple man is to forget.”
The film has not resonated with non-Desi critics, due to the verbosity of the script that most biopics on writers tend to display. This is the reason #TimesUp is demanding more culturally sensitive reviewers.
3 FACES: CHANNELLING KIAROSTAMI
Barred from travelling outside Iran, Jafar Panahi came to be known for his women’s issues themes from The Circle and Offside. After the 20-year ban imposed on him, he had to film in taxis. In 3 Faces, Panahi isn’t confined within Tehran, and musters all his creative resources to circumvent the ban. Technology, an iPhone in this film, is the gateway to the current debate on viral videos with faked, staged or doctored images. A slo-mo thriller/road trip about technology and media, even if it is set in a town with power shortages.
Actress Behnaz Jafari, who plays herself, gets a troubling video message from Marzieh, who pleads to her most trusted friend to relay the video to the actress who has ignored her texts. The sense of urgency in her voice, her message that her family has betrayed her and wants her to rescind her place at the acting Conservatory to marry, ends with a “forgive me,” a noose inside a cave, and some blurred action as the iPhone is dropping. The guilt-ridden and tenacious actress abandons a film set and drags real-life Panahi – since he speaks Azeri like the girl – on a mission to find her whereabouts and find out if she committed suicide or if it was a prank.
A critique on the place of women in Iranian society is often in the foreground with Panahi. Questions surrounding Marzieh drives the narrative: whether she committed suicide or not. If she did, then did the family move the body and bury it to avoid village shame, seeing that suicide is such a taboo in these remote areas?
Throughout the road trip and misadventure, we peel this simple story from the hinterland and get a sense of how it relates to Panahi’s own predicament – being accepted for international awards (like the Cannes Best Screenplay award for3 Faces), but not being able to travel outside Iran to accept them. The film mirrors this through Marzieh’s acceptance into the Conservatory but her denial by the powers that be – her parents.
There is still filming from and within a vehicle, with imagery of trees and stops at houses. Sometimes the camera channels Abbas Kiarostami’s rural landscapes. Upon arriving in the town, characters speak Azeri, and the older man chastises Panahi for forgetting his mother’s Turkic tongue. He tells Panahi about their honking system to warn drivers coming from the other side of the mountain, to avoid collision on the narrow road. An emergency gets two honks. The handheld camera captures unpaved roads. Jafari notes that if there is a wedding in the village, that means no mourning. On their way to the cemetery to see freshly unearthed plots, the villager opines that they don’t look like treasure hunters and in any case, in the old cemetery all the treasures are gone. They meet an elderly lady who has dug her own grave –“her final abode.” Lying deep inside, she brings a lamp to ward off snakes.
In town, the villagers finally recognize Behnaz Jafari and ask for autographs. The men are upset that they hadn’t come to highlight and film the town’s problems with cuts to electricity and gas. They figured they came for Marzieh, the “empty-headed brat.” Her oafish brother denies them entrance to the home. “First studies, then what? She dishonours us.” The mother locks up the raving brother and tells the duo from Tehran that they are looking everywhere for her and fear that they will “lose face in the village.”
The investigators go to the cave and find the branch in the video. They sense it is a staged hoax. Panahi asserts, “You expect that it will be here? The phone? A cover up! They staged it for us. It’s their honour.” In another meta-moment, Panahi’s line about a familial cover-up alludes to not believing what you see and doubting images like the ones found in official state news, in the wider argument of censorship in Iran. Behnaz tries to allay the producer’s anger for having left the film, by claiming that she would have been useless on the set.
The mayor – the man who gave roadside honking instructions – says they “set their own rules here. Common sense is necessary. If one falls ill, we need doctors… [there are] more satellite dishes than people or wannabe entertainers. She does what suits her best. She won’t listen.” The town needs young people – “our lives depend on them, we are miserable.”
The acting profession isn’t well thought of in the area: “we don’t want entertainers here,” they say, referring to the dancer, Shahrzaad, who worked in films in pre-revolutionary Iran and now lives alone as a secluded spinster in her house, where she paints because she is banned from entering the village. She represents the indomitable female spirit. She isn’t fond of directors: “Directors, they’re all the same,” but ultimately gives a parting gift to Panahi, a CD of her poems. The name alludes to a mythical weaver of tales for survival, Scheherazade, a Persian literary figure. Like with Marzieh, there is an element of life at risk, marriage against a woman’s will, an unreliable narrator, ending with a cliff-hanger. Panahi probably wove all the narrative devices from the epic tale, winning the Best Screenplay Award at Cannes.
One character in the village teahouse asks the actress about her TV show: “Since you are here now, show me how it ends?” She replies, “The usual: tears, mourning, the death of a character.” The viewer fears the worst for Marzieh, if this dialogue’s intertextuality renders a sense of foreboding for our story.
Panahi leaves Jafari at Shahrzaad’s home to find the town’s only road blocked by Golden Balls, a sickly bull whose owner needs a mobile phone to call a vet in time for the fair the next day. The meeting becomes philosophical: “Even humans are put out of their misery.” But the farmer is resolute in his beliefs: “Suffering is not up to you to intervene, but God’s will.” Golden Balls is a much sought-after bull for breeding. His testicles are miraculous: “one sniff of him, local cows swoon,” and the farmer offers his card for kebab delivery. Marzieh’s father also has queries about the cost of meat in Tehran.
There is a humorous and strange souvenir a father gives Panahi to plant in Tehran to influence the fate of his son, Ayoub, making Panahi the boy’s godfather and keeper of his destiny. The father had tried in vain to bury it near the Palace in the hopes that his son would get a janitorial job there, but the Guards arrested, jailed, and beat him.
In the final scene, 3 Faces is at its most poetic with a serpentine languid road in the depth of field. The ambiguous ending, when a white veil is thrown to the wind while cows come in for the fair from the other end. The clash between rural versus city values remains timeless and universal in the face of history, technology and extinction.
In response to a three-page critique of the film by Boots Riley, the first point I want to make is that labelling, categorizing, denouncing, and tearing apart a filmmaker’s entire IMDb may be cool posturing, but it is not necessarily educational for those who haven’t been exposed to Spike Lee’s entire body of work. Brother Lee has not always been the most thoughtful presenter of ideas. He dabbles and walks away. When he does not, he swings. But there is a strain in him that highlights issues that many in the Afro-American community tend to skirt around. Is he anywhere near being a James Baldwin or a Malcolm X? He would not make a size 6 if Malcolm X wore a size 12. But when it comes to mass culture, he is important – like Michael Moore – because that is where work needs to be done to de-hegemonize manufactured cultural consent. And look where identity and PC politics have taken us! The backlash feels like a roto-rotor.
The film makes high-speed probes and covers many episodes of the civil rights movement, with excellent reminders of dance and music tracks from the late sixties to the present, including Prince’s fantastic rendition of Mary Don’t You Weep, released posthumously.
BlacKkKlansman holds the promise of a spliff. A well-conceived and high-powered film that includes the Charlottesville killing of Heather Heyer suggests that Spike Lee continues to bring together a left popular (not populist) perspective on what needs to be continuously reinforced among people who have had limited exposure to the civil rights movement, the Black Power Movement, and the entire cultural battle against white settlerism and racism, a seething and mutating core heritage of the US – not just the Southern confederate rage against de-segregation and civil rights, but the more refined east-to-west, coast-to-coast neo-liberal consensus to maintain and reinforce a system that denies equal rights through well-thought-out official means such as voter deregistration.
The Birth of a Nation as sign on
The movie starts off brilliantly with Alec Baldwin and a snapshot from Gone with the Wind, as well as Birth of A Nation by D.W. Griffith, as grim reminders of where the roots lie, of what it was to continue to wage war against civil rights. Spike Lee has chosen a story about a Colorado Springs black undercover police officer who noses his way into a predominantly white police force, literally begging to infiltrate the local chapter of the Klansmen. Incredible!
He eventually succeeds, and that is where a new tragedy starts. He shows them up and exposes them when one of the most vicious and stupid Klansmen blows himself up accidently, possibly aided and abetted by another dimwitted white police officer and sympathizer. Denzel Washington’s son, John David Washington, is excellent as the black officer, showing cool reserve, poise and an enormously wicked (but often naïve) sense of humour.
The film unfortunately makes too many forays into caricature – caricatures of black imagery from the ‘60s and ‘70s: beehives, Afros, bellbottoms, African jewellery, strutting heels and, of course, music that’s just unforgettable. But there’s vacuousness in the language that is spoken. That is the start of caricature.
Stokely Carmichael, less well known as Kwame Ture, was one of the greatest speakers in the Black Power movement. He worked on the audience with facts instead of empty rhetoric. If his words had been used in the film followed by a speech from H. Rap Brown, I would have felt better. However, Spike Lee chooses not to educate, and makes a caricature of Stokely Carmichael. Kwame Ture is played by an uninspiring Corey Hawkins – dull and uncharismatic. As a director and scriptwriter, Spike Lee knew he had creative license, but lost focus in that area. The depth that Kwame Ture spoke to is reflected in his speech beginning with: “Thank you very much. It’s a privilege and an honor to be in the white intellectual ghetto of the West.” Speakers who educate are important during these times, and focusing on slogans and posturing does not help as much as facts and figures from the past.
This movie fails to separate the informed and the educational from the rhetoric – it ribs too far in self-absorbed humour and plunges into the superficial anger that often seems to attract Spike Lee. Unfortunately for him, it was right at that time that the Black Power movement started its fight against black capitalism, the Vietnam War, and the imperial history of the United States following Hiroshima. Spike Lee did a good job with the movie he made on Malcolm X in the ‘nineties. However, in BlacKkKlansman, he misrepresents the Black Consciousness movement. Quite comically, I would say.
What this movie does, though, is that it brings together a broad spectrum from the civil rights movement itself – from the time of the birth of the Ku Klux Klansmen – and updates it to expose the continuity of ignorance through shots of David Duke today, the ex-grand wizard of the KKK and ally of President Donald Trump, spewing racism as never before. It is astounding how this entire undercover exposure pans out to the extent that it rationally brings together these peculiar inflections in white policemen, racist as hell, but still capable of grandstanding for “law and order,” nailing down bigger bigots and even arresting them, exposing them, and showing a sort of respectful condescension towards a black undercover agent.
What does this movie achieve?
Not a lot, but something…
It has the feeling of a “spliff” – as Spike Lee always referred to his movies in the past – but then it becomes a drag, due to the caricature element that keeps slipping in. However, a sort of quick run off to the present is educational and excellent, including a rather fantastic appearance by Harry Bellafonte at ninety, who holds down a Mr. Turrentine, remembering a lynching he had witnessed. He does this in the most gentle, articulate and storytelling nature – like a griot. Much appreciated!
The movie is erratic in some ways, spoofy, but still a kind of hard blow to the current state of America. And despite it being unsettled at times and unsophisticated, it still carries a necessary element of exposure. It’s a drag because you can easily tell what’s coming. There are no surprises. Bigots play bigots. Black Power harangues tend to be portrayed as just that, often comical diatribes, since the militancy of the Black Power movement lay somewhere else. Although that type of portrayal is probably closely bound to the book written by Ron Stallworth, a doc film based on a personal story must eventually mobilize people, inform people. It is no secret that filmmakers do not always follow the script. It is not the kind of movie that people go to see and say, “Is that really what happened? Is that what happened? Oh my God! Is that in the book?” But the film doesn’t raise the level of dignity of the civil rights movement.
The civil rights movement was an extraordinarily dignified movement. Loving to dance, sure – you can’t take that away – but it was not all about strutting and attitude. It was not about clenched fists only. There was a lot of organizing and unity among blacks, whites, and people of colour. This movie unfortunately makes a 70 percent mark. It is useful nonetheless.
Jews and civil rights
There’s something else to this movie that needs to be pointed out, and Spike Lee does a fantastic job at it. He continuously brings up the fact that the treatment of Jews in the entire history of the United States has been vicious and violent. Jews and Communist progressives were the real targets of the Christian Evangelical Deep South nexus. This is important because there are many grey areas that float around today in the Black Consciousness movement when it comes to the bond between Jewish intellectuals, Jewish activists, Jewish scientists, Jewish civil rights workers and their enormous contribution to the civil rights movement – a political heritage rooted in class struggle and the history of settlerism. It wasn’t blacks or Muslims who mobilized against Jews and Communists/Socialists, but Christian Evangelists and Catholics. Spike Lee as a black filmmaker makes it very clear that the left-wing Jewish contribution to progressive politics is crucial and must be known.
It’s not about what we see and hear today. It’s about a much longer tradition of stereotyping and caricaturing of Jews, starting out long before the portrayals of Shylock or Jesus-killers. The movie sets out to ensure that people understand that racism was directed formidably against Jews, and that it was wielded by Christian fundamentalists. Today that is masked with all kinds of proto-Zionist and Zionist notions of defending Israel as if Israel and Christianity stand for each other. Perhaps Israel today is highly dependent on evangelical support.
Having said that, the movie adds one of the undercover agents who is a cultural Jew, who doesn’t even know he is a Jew, who has never lived the life of a Jew, but who nevertheless shows extraordinary chutzpah and intelligence in going undercover into the Klan as a white person (Flip Zimmerman, played by Adam Driver). His intellectual compassion with the civil rights movement is clear.
[Note: The film was featured in the diaspora panel at the South Asian Film Festival of Montreal (October 2017) and generated a dynamic discussion, with the director in attendance.]
“Egalitarianism isn’t always a by-product of education and upbringing.” This thought kept surfacing as I watched Pallavi Somusetty’s film Escaping Agra. The 23-minute short documentary allows us to view the challenges that Naveen Bhat faces to simply live a life of dignity – a basic human right for all.
From the outset, the title of the film intrigued me. Having grown up in India, I was familiar with a phrase often used by people for anyone acting a little crazy: “You will end up in Agra’s asylum/loony bin!” I therefore came to associate Agra with its huge mental asylum even though the city is most known for its beautiful mausoleum, the Taj Mahal, a symbol of eternal love. The title offers viewers multiple levels of interpretation as they engage with this work. In the film, the city becomes a scary confinement for Naveen. What does one do when their own family thinks they are crazy? Where do they find solace?
The film is a bold portrayal of Naveen’s strength in overcoming various obstacles to express their sexual orientation. I was struck by the confidence of this young person who, at the age of five, immigrated with their parents to the west. Naveen is later taken back to India by their parents under the pretext that their grandmother is sick. All this occurs when Naveen is of legal age. Naveen is detained in their home in Agra once the family learns of their sexual orientation and thinks “treatment” is necessary! In the course of the film, we are introduced to a queer feminist activist, Rituparna Borah, who helps Naveen escape and gives them house protection in India. During that time there were threats, and the police detained some of the activists for no reason other than the fact that they were not straight.
The film documents Naveen Bhat’s point of view interspersed with some exchanges with Madi Kuss (Naveen’s friend and partner) and their family. It is clear that Naveen has not had any positive parental figures, and parenting was introduced to them more through an authoritarian method than a relationship where one could find support and strength.
The exchanges with Madi Kuss’ parents provide insight into how conversations can and should be held when one is trying to understand unfamiliar issues. Madi Kuss’s parents politely ask about the various terms used in relation to gender constructs, allowing Naveen to elaborate on their understanding of gender and their body. The scene towards the end where Naveen goes through medical treatment is captured very poignantly.
In 23 minutes, Pallavi Somusetty unravels the challenges that this young person faces in battling their parents in and out of court in India, and shows how Naveen later pieces a life together in California. I see this film as an engaging tool that can be used to pique people’s interest in such struggles, whether or not they’re sure of their beliefs, to start important dialogues and discussion.
At the end of the film, we learn that the mother had not agreed to provide any interviews with the filmmaker and are left wondering about her stance and her own journey. I also wondered why Naveen Bhat mentions meetings with their mother and siblings, but not with their father.
Somusetty succeeds in capturing a range of emotions felt by Naveen, their friend and their family, but unfortunately doesn’t manage to bring Naveen’s parents and family members on camera. This leaves viewers with unanswered questions and unresolved concerns.
As I wrote this review, Article 377 of the Indian penal code that criminalized same-sex activities in India was finally scrapped by the Supreme Court, cracking open one of the legal barriers against those who felt trapped within their own country. But cases such as Naveen’s remind us that bigotry and prejudice still prevail in many societies. We need to remember what Naveen impresses upon us: “there is no wrong way to have a body – I know my body cannot be wrong.”
“JHOLMOLIA” The Sacred Water – a documentary by Saiful Wadud Helal, who is originally from Bangladesh and has worked as director, producer and writer for television channels in Canada and abroad.
Saiful Wadud Helal’s latest film echoes the need for rebuilding our relationship with nature and water, and questions how modernization has had a direct impact on water crises in Bangladesh.
Following the devastating cyclone in 2005, multiple villages were destroyed. Jholmolia, a small pond in an isolated region of Southern Bangladesh, was the only surviving area left untouched by the destruction. This pond now sits surrounded by villages.
Jholmolia is not only a source of drinking water, but also a place where villagers spend much of their time socializing and interacting with one another. They come to discuss socio-political and spiritual issues that affect them in their daily lives. This kind of interaction creates a sense of community and belonging for the villagers. Jholmolia has thus become the centre of many people’s well-being and an intrinsic part of their identity. This body of water serves as a lifeline for the neighbouring villages, and people have developed a sacred bond with the pond.
Muslim and Hindu villagers alike worship Jholmolia as their mother and believe her waters bring light into their lives. A sense of unity within people’s hearts and minds grows through this special relationship, and it helps to remove some of the ever-present political polarization and religious extremism in Bangladesh. Through Jholmolia, the villagers discover that the essence of humanity lies in love, where nature and water form an integral part of the living cycle.
As a result of damaging cyclones and floods, increased drinking water crises and infiltration of salt water into freshwater sources in Bangladesh, hundreds of people have become homeless. In the midst of these challenges, the untouched sacred body of water affectionately known as “Ma Jholmolia” gives hope to the people of Hurka village.
The filmmaker takes us on a journey to discover the spirit of Jholmolia through the various lives of the villagers. He portrays how the grace of this small sacred lake has enhanced everyone’s well-being. Through their life stories, viewers are left with a deep sense of longing to return home. Saiful Wadud Helal himself searches for this sense of home in his native country, and finally finds it in the spirit of Jholmolia.
The film shows us that water has deeper dimensions stretching beyond our everyday perceptions. JHOLMOLIA reminds us about the consequences of modernization and how government control over basic needs like drinking water can have a devastating impact on people’s health and social development. Most importantly, it can undermine their knowledge of how to live in harmony with Mother Nature. The villagers see Jholmolia as their only hope of survival, and they believe that this living body of water protects them from all calamities and embraces them with endless generosity. At a time when we are going through drinking water crises around the world, JHOLMOLIA offers us a glimpse of hope.
This film asks a broader question as well: in this industrialized world, are we willing to sacrifice essential clean water for monetary gain? JHOLMOLIA shows how our actions today are directly affecting villages like Hurka and their chance of survival.
At the end of the film, Jholmolia becomes a home to many, including the filmmaker.
This is a beautiful film with a strong spiritual and political message conveyed through the sentiments and stories of the villagers, and delivered through the spirit of “Ma Jholmolia.”
The camera shows a woman in a field. The ground around her is rough, with a bit of greenery in the distance. She goes down into a ditch, comes up with her shallow enamel bowl filled with water and tilts it into a watering can. In this way, she fills the whole can then takes it a bit further out into the field and waters the parched ground. Though the ditch with its muddy water isn’t shown, we can imagine it and we realize that this is a precious resource for her.
The camera stands still – an observer, interested but unobtrusive. There are no zooms, no close-ups, no cinematic gimmicks that viewers have become so accustomed to.
This opening shot from Mathieu Roy’s The Dispossessed (Les dépossédés) encapsulates all that is to follow. This is the life of a small farmer in a so-called developing country – an existence replete with repetitive, continuous physical labour that goes unnoticed in the high-tech frenzy of urban existence.
The small farmers in Roy’s film are ever-present in our world, have been for time immemorial, with their basic tools, humble dwellings and simple diet, and they are numerous, 3.5 billion to be precise. And yet they are almost invisible. Roy’s intention in The Dispossessed is to imprint their hardy existence on our consciousness.
The film brings to mind the magnificent photographs of Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado in his book entitled Workers. Here he powerfully portrays, in stark black and white, labourers of all ilk from across the world, documenting and dignifying this million-armed surge of humanity. Roy’s ambition goes beyond bearing witness. Aided by his talented cinematographer, Benoît Aquin, he poses the question: why are these feeders of the world so marginalized themselves and often so malnourished?
That question becomes a piercing arrow in this political film, which goes from micro to macro settings, often from one frame to the next. Given the palpable reality of peasant life that it embodies, a bird’s eye view of a giant fallen tree and women hacking away at it with an axe to make firewood; a misty shot of two young farmers seeding and spraying their fields; the slick precincts of the World Trade Organization (WTO) or the high-tech lab of Syngenta, the world’s largest crop chemical producer with approximately US$13.4 billion in 2015 (source: Wikipedia), come as a visceral shock.
Worldviews collide, particularly when Roy interviews a left-wing Indian economist and award-winning developmental journalist, P. Sainath (Everybody Loves A Good Drought, 1996, Penguin India), who, along with others, delves into the whys and hows of farmer disempowerment – western protectionism of agriculture and the dumping of cheap surplus grain and other foodstuff in developing nations; farmers forced to shift from food to commercial crops that are priced by a volatile commodities market, wreaking havoc for small farmers; the need to take loans to buy expensive and harmful chemical inputs that have caused massive indebtedness in India and a wave of farmer suicides; not to mention the degradation of soil fertility and other environmental fallouts of neoliberal policies.
In underlining the global scope of the problem, Roy takes us to Switzerland where traditional dairy farmers in a remote, rural community talk about their inability to compete with a market flooded with commercial, factory-produced milk – an ethos that treats cows as milk-producing units, making profane the age-old bond between a farmer and his or her animals.
For me the success of this 3-hour film rests in the indelible images of the unending work of farmers and people in farm-related sectors, and the way the film weaves together the human and political story (micro-macro) into a cogent and compelling whole.
“These (small) farmers are inefficient; they should be doing industrial jobs; let global agribusiness feed the millions,” is a common cry of market-is-king economics. Roy’s rejoinder to this is to show the displaced rural poor, working on a huge construction site in an Indian city, with no safety equipment, babies tied to the women labourers’ backs or older children walking around on slabs of concrete hundreds of feet above the ground. The camera shows a crumpled sheet on the slab and a woman bathing with water gushing out of a pipe in far shot, letting us know that for these people, even the basic brick structure that we were shown as their home in their village is now gone.
My only critique of the film is that the approach of ‘show not tell’ and ‘letting the camera sit still as action unrolls before it’ (that is so life-like and effective in depicting the farmers’ lives) does not work when the camera is trained through a window on executives dining in expensive suits or on a blonde woman relaxing on the roof of the WTO, taking her sunglasses on and off and talking on her cell phone. The camera, humane until then and intelligently probing, grows petty and didactic, falling short of the systemic critique that the film otherwise makes so well.
The last scene is also a telling one. Now the farmer has somehow procured some grain and is shown squatting near a mud hearth at dusk, cooking cereal in a pot that she balances with some difficulty over her faulty “stove.” She stirs her proverbial pot, and we realize how very little she has to eat and how precarious is her existence.
These images in the film will stay with you long after you’ve exited the theatre and the statistics and arguments have faded. The conviction will remain with you that a terrible wrong is being inflicted here – one that must be exposed, fought against and righted.
(The following piece is based on the author’s musings and reviews of a novel, its sequel and its adaptation into a film.)
Someone is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe
A first novel by Nan and Ivan Lyons, published simultaneously in New York and London by HBJ in 1976. You might wrongly assume that most of the events occur in London or somewhere in Europe.
Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? A Delicious Mystery
A 1978 film by Canadian director Ted Kotcheff. “Delicious” it is, not only for the chosen tone of comedy, but also for the exquisiteness of the recipes. Released in 1978, it became an immediate success.
Someone is Killing the Great Chefs of America (1993)
A sequel by the same authors. Many of the characters and events are borrowed from the first novel.
In order to avoid “spoilers,” I will use material from my previous writings to explore some comparative aspects of the adaptation of literary works to the cinema. After writing for half a century, I now find it difficult to avoid talking about myself. (One of the greatest French novelists declared that a good writer tries to make believe that he never existed.) Having to write in English (my fifth language), I feel more at ease talking about myself because I realize that the first person pronoun is always capitalized. Would that be characterized as imperialism?
Who is (are?) the actual culprit(s?) in both books and in the film? Please do not consider my initial question as a provocation, but as something to be taken literally, although ironically so. It could not be otherwise. Before deciding what to expect of a screenplay adaptation of famous mysteries – material previously read as literary text – many film fans might bet that some aspects (e.g., the perpetrators of the crimes, or their methods) would need to be modified. Sometimes accomplices are added in the film, and the dynamics are different. Sometimes the surprise consists in following the original text literally – but that is dangerous and should be done only once in a lifetime by an experienced director.
No matter what, my opinion will remain that of a dilettante. Although I have written books, articles and film reviews, organized and directed film societies, attended film festivals (the Mostra Internazionale d’Arte Cinematografica started in 1932 and the new Palazzo del Cinema was inaugurated in 1937), I was unable to find a reason for the special retrospective I myself witnessed at the age of eight, in the summer of 1938, held in the open air garden of the Excelsior Hotel at the Venezia-Lido. Who organized it and why there? I remember watching Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion. There was a second feature: Extasis by Machaty. A few years after, Luchino Visconi chose the same hotel to film Death in Venice based on the novella by Thomas Mann.
Who or what predisposed me to become a film fan at an early age? Undeniably my parents, since they both cherished films and opera. Every fortnight there was a lyrical drama, and there were ample opportunities to watch films, even on weekdays. My first collection of reading material was libretti for opera, issued periodically with a red cover, and I was in charge of cataloguing them. My mother was enamoured with Pirandello’s works, while my father puzzled over mysteries. Those came with a yellow cover, a colour so attractive that it became the designation for the genre. It is very rare in Italian for an adjective to be transformed into a noun that finds its way into all the dictionaries.
No one will deny that at the root of every film there is a text, which may be a short treatment, a fully developed script, a novel, a play, a story, etc. There are a few exceptions that confirm the rule. The most notorious is Andy Warhol, incessantly filming a building overnight in New York – he makes his point. Avant-garde movements all have to break the rules. In France in the 1950s, Isidore Isou and Maurice Lemaître systematized that practice, and the latter persists in doing so bravely to this day. Not everyone agrees on the literary importance of the script. Ingmar Bergman, one of the great filmmakers of those times, declared that cinema had nothing to do with literature. Visconti writes: “The author of a film is an author in his own right. The script is only a point of departure.”
One of my first articles about the literary origins of cinematic endeavours was written in Portuguese upon seeing Antonioni’s Blow-Up. I was so electrified that for the first time in my life, I felt nailed to my seat of that Rio de Janeiro movie house, compelled to watch the film twice in a row – a very rare occurrence. I now can’t resist narrating what appears to have been the conversation between the filmmaker calling from Rome and the Argentinian writer residing in Paris. Carol Dunlop, a very intelligent Canadian writer, picks up the ringing phone and tells Julio Cortázar that Antonioni wants to talk to him. Julio thinks that she’s pulling his leg, and doesn’t move. At her insistence, he finally complies. Antonioni explains to Cortázar that he was fascinated by the mechanism of blowing up images, but that he would do a different film. Julio, who is already a sincere admirer of Antonioni’s previous films, bows and approves. After the release of the film, Cortázar is interviewed and asked if he sees himself reflected in the film. He answers enigmatically: “we meet somewhere in the clouds…” but adds almost immediately that the film was magnificent. Indeed, Antonioni alters as many aspects of the short story “The Devil’s Drool” as he possibly can: the location of events – London instead of Paris; the characters – a mature gentleman and a younger woman seemingly married but not to one other, instead of an adolescent boy and a go-between for a predator of young flesh waiting patiently in a nearby parked car; and a professional fashion photographer instead of a Sunday-only amateur, etc. Moreover, Antonioni adds to his plot a crowd of characters that are non-existent in the written text. I analyzed the film in at least two academic papers that later became articles, in the hope of proving that Antonioni did the most intelligent thing he could in adapting Cortázar to the screen – instead of illustrating by sticking to the letter, he stuck to the spirit of the book.
As far as I am concerned, it is not up to me to conclude if I succeeded in convincing my listeners and my readers. The question can be reopened at any time, and here is the bibliographical data:
“Blow-up from Cortázar to Antonioni,” Literature/Film Quarterly, IV, 1. (Winter 1976), 68-75;
“Antonioni’s Interpretation of Reality and Literature,” Forum Italicum, XIII, 1, (Spring 179), 82-93;
“Nouvelles perspectives comparatistes: Le Ciné-roman. Vers le ciné-roman et au delà,” Neohelicon (Budapest) XVII, 261-271. In it, Antonioni is quoted when commenting on his last book, Techniquement douce: ‘I was so involved in it that I thought that I had filmed it” (p. 34 of the French text, translated by me). The same article serves also to confirm my bias in regard to Marguerite Duras’ much more radical point of view than mine, when she describes issues pertaining to Le Camion and some of her own films.
The time has come at last to deal with the real crux of the subject. This long preamble was not incidental or a digression, for it gave me the excuse of showing how the great masters of the past have dealt with the problems of adaptation. Let’s begin with the book.
First of all, a mystery implies suspense, and that starts immediately and is constantly present. The authors should be commended for fulfilling this delicate and important task so brilliantly. Secondly, they chose to mix comedy and mystery, and one invariably laughs at every page.
The only cause for astonishment is the quality of language employed in the descriptions, contrary to the courtly vocabulary of British essayists who banned any allusion to sexual matters from their dissertations. But since both authors are Americans, they did not feel compelled to moderate their tone or hold anything back. How free we are from Victorian conventions on this side of the Atlantic, in allowing ourselves to indulge in violating old moral codes with very detailed incursions into anatomical items!
The characters are well developed and believable, despite some obsessive quirks.
The common obsession is with food, as the reader can tell from the title of the novel. The authors are generous in their haute cuisine recipes. One may even try out some recipes if s/he has time, patience, talent, and is able to find the ingredients. I don’t think I would spoil anything if I said that the authors devised a very original way of killing the chefs (whether they died or not), inspired by their own gastronomic specialty.
Here comes the film, and one cannot help but notice that the script is entrusted to Peter Stone, a veteran of Hollywood screenwriters, already famous for Charade, rather than to the two authors of the book (the point of departure for the screenplay). Ivan Lyons majored in film writing at the N.Y. Film Institute. That decision may be a coincidence associated with production, or a deliberate and significant choice. While the book exudes intelligence (diabolically so), the film director replaces that with human sympathy. The crimes are illustrated in a very vivid iconic manner, which increases the enjoyment. Driving the film are Jacqueline Bisset and George Segal, playing, alternately, a married then divorced couple. As they also produced the film, they obviously had first choice about the length and extent of their contribution. But already in the novel, Bissonette’s character plays the role of the easy nymphomaniac (motivated by revenge?). The fact that Jean-Pierre Cassel speaks English with a French accent when he is supposed to be Austrian remains puzzling.
A case of total miscasting was that of Stefano Satta Flores. I am sorry to have to express a negative view on a very excellent actor whom I happen to respect, and who died of cancer prematurely at the apex of his career – an actor whom I have applauded on the screen and on TV, and one who was at ease in any kind of a role. He is not to be blamed, but whoever chose him for his role did not know an old proverb describing the inhabitants of the three sub-regions that form the Republic of Venice. I will quote and translate only the first part, although the entire text applies to all the other regions. “Veneziani gran signori” implies being refined, polite, generous, intelligent, magnanimous, courteous, educated, appreciative of good food and of all arts and sciences, elegant, definitely trustworthy, scrupulous – a Renaissance man. Tall, without extravagance, treating women as ladies (even when they are not) and naturally charming. Since pinching ladies is considered extremely vulgar by the gran signore, he instead engages in appropriate bowing and well-choreographed hand-kissing.
The second novel features some of the same characters and some new ones.
The suspects are also some of the same. The traditional duty of avoiding spoilers prohibits me from disclosing the stroke of genius that inspired the authors to hide a new-old character and a new-old suspect. Let us add that this is not the only pleasant surprise that happens in the book; many other extraordinary new developments are introduced, all meaningful and unexpected. The authors themselves become characters, in a rather uncommon and very clever twist. The readers will uncover soon enough the enigma, and figure out what dictates the authors’ behaviour. They frequently prefer not to say things openly, relying instead on suggestion or inference. For example, they have studied and travelled abroad extensively and are well aware of culinary terminology. Yet they do not write a single sentence in Italian, French, German, Spanish, or Japanese without including some mistakes. They do this on purpose, to caricature the ugly American tourist with a fake Hawaiian shirt hanging down over inappropriately long shorts, sun eyeglasses, binoculars on his beer belly, attempting to order lunch in a foreign restaurant. The fact that the language is replete with four-letter words does not shock anyone any more, since that has become the prevailing style.
The authors are masterful at creating fast-paced suspense, and the moral of the two novels is a hymn to the couple. In fact, the husband seems to forgive his beloved wife and overlook her erratic sexual adventures. Is she telling the whole truth?
With This Ring, 2016, Documentary by Ameesha Joshi and Anna Sarkissian.
With This Ring….is a sentence usually followed by “I thee wed”, but you are in for a big surprise. This is not a feature film about romance and happily-ever-after stories, although three young women are involved and they do get married. This indie movie is India’s answer to A Million Dollar Baby, except that it was not produced by a big Hollywood star nor does it feature a young woman who became a star after playing the role of a female boxer. Nor is it a screen-writer’s phantasy. It is a heart-felt and joyous documentary produced by two young Canadian women over the course of six years and multiple visits to India and other boxing championship venues. The protagonists are MC Mary Kom and Sarita Devi, both from Manipur, a Northeastern province of India and Chhoto Louro, from Haryana, a province adjacent to Delhi.
These three women share some similarities in their backgrounds. They come from disadvantaged traditional milieux and they were born in a country where female foeticide – and even infanticide – is endemic. In fact, the ratio of women to men has been decreasing considerable over the years. For Mary, Sarita and Chhoto to have become boxers and multi-medal world champions in such an environment is mind boggling.
The story line starts with boxing training camps in different parts of India. In one such camp participants are expected to train full time for a year with monthly visits to their families. One of the boxers started training unbeknownst to her family until she won her first championship. The other one, in spite of her shyness and unassuming personality, was able to develop an extraordinary stamina and technique. The third one won an international championship several months after giving birth to twins and went on to win five consecutive world championships.
At first I tried to keep track of the different championships these three incredible women had won, but decided that score-keeping was a futile game. Suffice it to say that they raised the stature of the Indian Olympic boxing team to a preeminent position. And they did so with little or no sustenance from their community expect for their spouses and the sporting milieu. Just imagine what Indian women could achieve if society at large gave them the sustenance that all human beings need to thrive!
Do watch this film, even if you are not a boxing buff. I’m not but I enjoyed it thoroughly.
With this Ring premieres in Montréal on April 3, at 7 p.m. Room H-110, Concordia University.
Scriptwriter and co-director: Paolo Zaffaina
Reviewed by Pietro Ferrua, based on an interview with Paolo Zaffaina
One of my last contributions to this on-line journal was on film and politics. I was paying homage to the memory of a great film director and, concurrently, to a great screenwriter, praising them for fooling the censorship at a very delicate moment of the political history of their country. I was taking a formalistic position as I think one should when dealing with any form of art, but I am ready to admit that no art is created in a vacuum, and that human aspects are bound to prevail in certain situations, and I am ready to admit that Article 4 is the exception that confirms the rule.
The title refers to an article of the Constitution of the post-WW II Italian Republic. Article 4 was voted and approved in 1946, and became effective on January 1, 1948. It deals with the right of every citizen (regardless of race, sex, gender or any other bias) to obtain a reasonably paid, decent job. Although the film is less than 17 minutes long, it deals with a wide range of issues: financial, economic, historical, political, psychological and others. It is a reflection on a situation that affects our daily lives, and which a succession of left and right wing governments have never been able to address adequately in the past 70 years of Italy’s so-called democracy.
The film starts at the exit of the train station of [Mestre] Porto Ovest – the site of the shooting is Venezia-Mestre and its suburbs. An alleged representative of the Pinelli Company holds a handwritten cardboard sign with “Del Zan,” the name of the newly hired employee. He introduces himself as Carlo and the conversation goes on for a few minutes in a very cordial manner. The traveller has no reason to suspect foul play, and seems satisfied with the explanations provided for two timid objections regarding a long detour. As a matter of fact, the interlocutors seem to enjoy each other’s company, and both seem to possess a sharp sense of humour.
Valerio Mazzuccato (as Carlo), who specializes in character’s roles, progressively and visibly, begins to change his mood. You can feel and see his growing despondency on screen. His demeanor changes until he turns brusquely onto a side street, stops the car, turns around, starts unzipping his pants, and almost runs. The viewer concludes that Carlo needs to urinate, and Del Zan humorously comments: “when you got to go…” But Carlo’s absence, with his back still turned, immobile and rigid, tells us that something is puzzling, and the man from Belluno leaves the car to offer his help. Here we begin to see the socio-political implications about Article 4 of the Constitution. What if there are not enough vacancies? Historically there have never been enough jobs for everyone, and there has never been a plan to address that problem. Del Zan understands, and generously promises that he will help Carlo, but that with a pregnant wife at home, he cannot give him back the job that might have been his had he arrived a few minutes earlier. Carlo insists that he does not want anyone else’s position but his own: the one that the Constitution promises to every citizen. Who is then responsible for this blatant injustice? No one, it seems, due to lack of resources. The film takes a shocking turn at this point, and powerfully manifests the fury, frustration hopelessness and desperation of lives denied the fundamental right to a decent job: Article 4. The concluding music in the film is composed and played by Alberto Guariento, who is also a co-director of the film.
The author of the script and co-director is Paolo Zaffaina, the main factotum without whom this masterpiece would not have been possible. It is rather unusual for a short documentary to boast the many film directors that helped in the production of this film. Their names are: Matteo Manzi, Andrea Segre, Alina Marazzi, Franco Piavoli, and Gianfranco Pannone. Besides this uncommon solidarity among film professionals, another pleasant surprise is the quality of acting for a modestly budgeted endeavour. Of the two protagonists, Francesco Wolf holds a degree in Dramatic Art from the Teatro Stabile Del Veneto.
Wolf won numerous awards in his career for his performances in theater, film and TV. He was also awarded early trophies for this short while it was still in post-production. Valerio Mazzucato, the other protagonist, was also recognized for his superb rendering of a newly hired employee. Cinematography by Marco Zuin from the Venetian region is excellent. Zuin has been everywhere as a screenwriter, editor, still photographer, cinematographer, director, producer, but always returns home to Treviso (near his native Vicenza) where he founded the production company Videozuma. Alberto Guariento is not only the co-director but also the composer and player of the soundtrack. The film was shot during the last four months of 2012 and only released in 2014. There are various versions of it and because of this, there might be discrepancies in spelling of names, etc., within credits.
1 “Film and Politics: Focusing on Muriel ou le temps d’un retour,” Montréal Serai, July 1, 2014.
On the Side of the Road
Director and scriptwriter: Lia Tarachansky
Hide Israeli history? Forget it!
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar….
— “Intimations of Immortality” by William Wordsworth
Israel is anxious to have its ugly birth forgotten, but On the Side of the Road, written and directed by Ms. Lia Tarachansky, is an inconvenient documentary film about it. The film records past events and times showing the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948, referred to as “The Nakba,” or calamity, by Palestinians. The film premiered on November 28, 2013 during an International Film Festival on “Nakba and Return.” It was the opening film at the fest, held in Tel Aviv — a radical break from the past.
“The dominant group’s narrative starts to unravel once one starts asking questions; so Israelis deem it important to condition people socially not to ask certain questions,” says Tarachansky, a Russian-Israeli citizen of Israel and Canada who resides in both countries.
It is clear that attempts to kill off all Aboriginal people weren’t successful in North America, but those very attempts have become a part of history. Israelis may fear that what they have done to Palestinians may someday be done to them. If that is so, their colonization may well be a work-in-process that continues until all Palestinians are killed. The film has two Israeli ex-soldiers speak of the murderous ethnic cleansing to which they were accessories in 1948. It shows that Palestinians who had lived in villages for centuries were driven out forcibly to make way for “Israelis,” thereby losing not only their chronological narrative of the past, but also their dwellings and their very country.
“The name (of the film) comes from the title of a book by Noga Kadman, which in Hebrew means ‘on the side of the road’, but in English has the title Erased from Space and Consciousness,” explains Tarachansky. Ms. Kadman, a historian, wrote that book about the erasure of 418 depopulated villages from Israeli history, based on official archives, kibbutz publications and visits to former village sites.
“It is also a reference to the remains of destroyed villages on the sides of the roads in Israel, and how that which we deny is never far from our sight,” continues Tarachansky: “As Stanley Cohen says in the opening remarks of the film — what do we do with that knowledge, and what does that knowledge do to us?”
It is illegal for Palestinians to observe Nakba Day in Israel. They are deprived of the right to voice their personal reactions, perspectives and feelings, much as Jews were stripped of their rights during the holocaust.
Meanwhile, it is not illegal for occupying Israelis to celebrate that very same day as their “Independence Day” or Yom Ha’atzmaut, with shocking insensitivity to what Palestinians or others may think. No one is sure what “Israelis” gained independence from.
For this film reviewer, one particularly poignant scene showed a Palestinian man who eventually got official permission to visit his grandparents’ former home in a village that the Israeli occupiers insist was “abandoned” by its erstwhile Palestinian citizens. The scenes of our childhood are dear to our hearts, and this man’s quest evoked memories of my own return to my old Calcutta home when I visited India in 2012.
To call such villages “abandoned” is but linguistic legerdemain, conveniently glossing over the fact that they were abandoned for fear of death. That is hardly the same as being impelled, as I was, to “abandon” my Calcutta home for better employment in another Indian city.
The Palestinian calls his grandmother on a cellular to inform her that he’s standing at the site of her erstwhile home.
Tarachansky points out, “There are many great historians who have worked on documenting and exposing the events of 1948. Historians such as Ilan Pappe, Noga Kadman, Benny Morris, Simha Flapan, Avi Shlaim, and others. There is therefore no lack of historians; there is at the same time a powerful project of propaganda and historical distortions, perpetrated by various levels of the Israeli government. Most Israeli school children do not learn anything about the Nakba, and are therefore ignorant of the basic facts.”
Not a film to enjoy with sodas, pretzels or chocolates, but one that exposes the cheery sadism of early Israeli “lawn-mowing,” which continues, tragically, to this day, aided and abetted by the UK-US axis.
“The dead cannot be brought back to life,” reminded Sun Tzu in “The Art of War.” But as long as a few conscientious writers and filmmakers exist, the dead may be out of sight but they are not out of mind. Perhaps Israel does not place too much confidence in its own immortality, then, in modern times.
[The film was screened November 9 at the Canadian Mennonite University Chapel in Winnipeg, and the stills are courtesy ofLia Tarachansky.]
An aging movie theatre owner in a small town near Kolkata, India, is forced to send his dreams up in smoke as new technology and morality takes over (Cinemawala, Bengali feature film, 2016), while a group of talented musicians in Lahore, Pakistan, almost all senior citizens, whose careers were crushed when Zia-ul-Haq’s regime (1977-88) supressed the arts, are given a way to renew their passion and go global with an innovative, hybrid form of music that combines Western Jazz and Hindustani classical (Song of Lahore, Urdu, Punjabi, English documentary, 2015).
Yet, in nearby Karachi, Pakistan, we see impoverished street children, some of whom come not only from marginalized, but also most likely abusive families, up-close and personal, in a way that I have never before seen in a documentary film (These Birds Walk, Urdu documentary, 2012). We are right on the spot, caged in with these children, in a barebones institution run by the Edhi Foundation, watching them, the feisty protagonist, Omar, in particular, crossing over from cruelty, bravado and a make-believe machismo to total vulnerability, religiosity and even playfulness and camaraderie.
The 2016 edition of the South Asian Film Festival of Montréal (SAFFM) presented by the Kabir Cultural Centre transported 100s of viewers who packed the auditorium on a promised, cinematic journey across this complex and compelling subcontinent, with 17 films spread over a weekend (November 4-6, 2016) that came from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and beyond, capturing, as it did, stories from the South Asian Diaspora as well.
The subjugation of women and class oppression were strong themes and the omnipotent yet layered gender oppression that cuts across social class in South Asia came through persistently. The opening short feature, Mala, (Bengali, English, Hindi, 2016) for example, showed how a privileged, well-educated young girl with dreams of working in Cinema was expected to marry and settle down with a foreign-educated “boy”, with a coveted corporate job. Why? Because. Her father was retiring soon, her elder sister had married 10 years ago and had had a son, were among some of the reasons given by her strong, but conventional, mother.
While Mala came across as somewhat stilted and formulaic, Angry Indian Goddesses (Hindi, English, 2016) flowed naturally, balancing a range of emotions and humour with complexity and character development (not easy to pull off given an ensemble cast of 7 women actors). In a clip Director Pan Nalin sent to the SAFFM for this opening feature film he said that the actresses had made a significant contribution to the script, dialogue, and their roles, during the filming.
Here again we see educated, middle to upper-middle class, professional women (save the servant girl, also a strong character) whose lives are systematically marked and marred by patriarchy. The endemic, women-focussed violence around them eventually informs the actions of the Angry Indian Goddesses as well. I read some criticism of this film online but I did not find it convincing as the film works overall. Not to mention the importance of portraying female friendships on-screen, definitely not common in Indian cinema. The film ends with a potent message: everybody needs to collectively take a stand against female oppression.
The message of female solidarity echoed again in Threads (Bengali, English, 2014), a film set in Bangladesh. There is a middle-class, artistic, real-life heroine, Suraiya Rahman, in this documentary. She is rather strict and conventional as a leader, yet also caring. She not only makes it possible for a group of destitute women to earn a decent living, but also ends up empowering them. Rahman’s dazzling design skills and seemingly boundless creativity are displayed on screen in the form of Kantha embroidery tapestries that reflect historical, mythological as well as domestic and everyday themes, and which, like the music captured in Song of Lahore, travels to different parts of the world, including making it into prestigious museum collections.
I found this film gorgeous. Rahman’s life had many ups and downs, but her art was incredibly uplifting; she lived for and through it. As striking is the fact that the disadvantaged women who worked for her became expert embroiderers, lifted themselves out of poverty and gave their children an education and a better future. We also see them confidently taking care of the business in the last part of the film as Rahman retires. Bravas!
Suraiya Rahman and the women who worked for her were Muslim, but this did not hold them back. Miya Kal Aana (Urdu, 2016, Mister Come Tomorrow), a feature film set in an Indian Muslim, small-town milieu, on the other hand, portrayed utter female subjugation, indeed invisibility. It lay bare and condemned the retrograde, Sharia practice of “Halala” (possibly a perversion of the original, traditional practice) as it manifests in India. If a husband says talaq (I divorce you in Arabic) three times to his wife, the divorce becomes legal. If he wants to remarry her, she must first marry someone else. After that marriage is consummated the second husband must divorce her as well. Only then can she remarry.
In contrast was Blouse (in a Hindi dialect, 2014) a charming, comic, short feature set in small town, Hindu India. The two women in the film are housewives but they are not under their husbands’ thumbs. Their husbands are portrayed as decent, bread earners who love and respect their wives. Whew! A breath of fresh air. (A blouse is the upper garment worn under a sari.)
There were other honourable male portrayals. For example, in These Birds Walk we see Abdul Sattar Edhi, the founder of the Edhi Foundation, who has won the highest awards for his humanitarian work, and, on another scale, Asad, the young driver who works for the Foundation and fulfils his difficult task of driving the runways and corpses home and picking up sick people in his van, with consummate humanity.
The intersection of gender and class oppression was effectively portrayed in the short feature, Class (Marathi, Hindi, English, 2016), showing the plight of a female, domestic servant who is constantly berated by her educated, middle-class mistress, but who finally gets her sweet revenge by teaching herself to read and write.
Then there was the in-your-face and rather strident, Two Girls (Malayalam, 2016), by first-time filmmaker Jeo Baby, which succeeds overall in showing the systemic nature of oppression despite some awkwardness and raw edges. This film also takes us to the countryside, this time in the South Indian state of Kerala, where feisty Achu and flighty Anagha, the former poor, the later middle-class, form a tight, schoolgirl friendship.
Achu is constantly inundated by messages of “how a girl must behave” even as rhetorical slogans put out by the government about girl child and women’s empowerment also permeate her social space. Two Girls portrays the authoritarian education system, based on rote learning, as one more system of oppression, though it does show one child-friendly teacher.
The film, which seems to have had financial support from individuals, keeps us engaged in the lives of the two girls, Achu in particular. The most effective scene shows the normally smart-lipped Achu becoming intimated and afraid. But the ending sees her rising to strength and rebellion again. I heaved a sigh of relief, but wondered what the future might hold for her, as indeed for the divorced and forcibly married off woman in Mia Kal Aana or even Mala and the Angry Indian Goddesses, or the street children in These Birds Walk.
A film festival that has you pondering and worrying over the fate of people portrayed in the movies shown can be deemed a success. What do you say?
The films I saw did not provide facile solutions to the many problems they brought to light, rather, they scattered important questions like so many birds in flight all over the South Asian sky. I left admiring and applauding the courage of all these offbeat filmmakers and their crew, all of whom had chosen to engage, and passionately, in the art and craft of filmmaking with a purpose.
Did women make some of the Festival films? Yes, 5 out of the 17! In all there were 6 women directors as two made one movie. This list includes award winning Pakistani-American director, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy (co-director of Song of Lahore). Also a couple of the films had female producers, and likely a few more had female film editors.
Kabir Cultural Centre (Kabir Centre for Arts & Culture), an important institution in Montréal, launched a South Asian Film Festival in 2011. With the approach of the 6th session of the Festival, Veena Gokhale spoke with Festival Director Dushyant Yajnik, a Board member at the Centre, about its vision and the Festival programming.
VG: Your website says that the vision of the Kabir Centre is to promote harmony and mutual respect among Montrealers of South Asian origin, and in this process establish a bridge with the larger Canadian society, and that you do this through the medium of arts and culture. Could you expand on this vision and give us some background on how the Centre came about?
DY: In 2002, two progressive Montrealers of Indian origin – the late Daya Varma and the late Salim Omar – founded the Kabir Centre. In different ways, both had been active for many years in socio-political and artistic/cultural spheres with regard to South Asians in Québec and Canada. The Centre was incorporated with Omar Salim as President. T. K. Raghunathan is the current president, and is supported by an Executive Board of 14 members.
Kabir was a 15th-century Indian mystic, philosopher and poet. In his pithy, earthy and simple verses and religious songs, he criticized orthodox rituals and suggested an inner personal path of righteousness. Legend has it that he was a Hindu who was adopted by a poor Muslim weaver’s family. Many South Asians are inspired by his teachings, and take him as a model for the ideals of pluralism and harmony.
In naming itself Kabir, Montréal’s Kabir Centre aims to promote harmony and pluralism among the South Asian diaspora and build bridges with the larger Québécois and Canadian society through culture and art related activities.
Since its inception, the Centre has focused on presenting high-quality music and dance programs with well-known performers from South Asia. We have also made deliberate efforts to present local practitioners of South Asian arts, such as Aditya Verma, Jonathan Voyer, Julie Beaulieu, Shawn Mativetsky, the late Catherine Potter and her Duniya Project, Alexandre Brunelle Garon, Subir Dev, Sudeshna Maulik, Deepa Nallappan, Alexandre Lavoie and Krucis Khan. There have been many “fusion” music concerts with artists from other traditions in the world.
Kabir Centre also runs a thriving book and poetry club, screens films, and hosts the South Asian Film Festival (SAFF) in Montréal.
VG: I have personally experienced some of your fine programming. While music and dance from South Asia are not as easily accessible in Montréal, cinema is more present: there are movie theatres that show Bollywood films, and some independent and alternative films from the region are screened at Montréal film festivals and repertory cinema. Why did you feel the need for a South Asian Film Festival?
DY: We started with film screenings as part of our general programming, and the film festival emerged later on. As you said, Bollywood films already receive some exposure in Montréal’s commercial theatres, so we give them less priority. With the explosion in the number of interesting films from the subcontinent and its diaspora, there is always room to showcase independent and “offbeat” films that receive little or no exposure in Montréal. In fact, the problem for our selection committee is that we have had to decline some very interesting films because of the sheer number of such films and the limited number of screening slots that we have.
The Festival creates synergy and momentum among viewers. South Asians, along with film lovers from other cultural origins, and from the “mainstream” Québécois and Canadian society, have an opportunity to gather, mingle and participate in our stimulating post-screening discussions.
We received initial guidance and ongoing inspiration for SAFF from two individuals: Vijaya Mulay, filmmaker and Indian film historian, now in her 90s, and Thomas Waugh, professor in film studies at the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema, Concordia University. We have also received other collaboration and help from the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema.
VG: What is the vision for SAFF? How do you select your films? And yes, there is an embarrassment of riches to choose from, as you mentioned.
DY: Our vision is to show films that reflect life experience – the joys and struggles of South Asians. In our choice, there are films that are appealing and delightful but also engaging and arresting. Hopefully they show the human condition in all its complexity. We try to balance films from different countries of the subcontinent and diaspora communities across the world as well as among the different regions and languages of the Indian subcontinent. We show feature films as well as documentaries. There is usually a short film before the main feature.
VG: How is this vision reflected in the films chosen for 2016? What are some of the films you’re particularly excited about?
DY: If you go to our website and read the film descriptions, you will see the variety of stories and subjects covered. For example, we open the festival with Angry Indian Goddesses by Pan Nalin. Described as India’s first female “buddy movie,” it shows what transpires over a few days when a few young women meet for a reunion. They share their doubts and their desires, their conflicts at work and in their relationships, and the limitations and frustrations stemming from being female in India. Will the archetype of the Hindu goddess, Durga, be unleashed in them when an unexpected crisis happens?
Cricket and Park Extension: a love affair is by the award winning, Montréal director, Garry Beitel. To quote from Bill Brownstein, film critic at the Montreal Gazette, “The film offers an illuminating peek into both the sport and the community which supports it the most in the city. According to stats, about 50 per cent of Park Ex is populated by those with South Asian roots. More than 80 languages and dialects are spoken in this ‘multi-sensorial’ neighbourhood. While residents have become increasingly more integrated in the province and their offspring most proficient in French, they have kept a tradition brought from their homelands: their love of cricket.”
Kakka Muttai (The Crow’s Egg) is a Tamil film about the trials and tribulations of two young boys from the slums of Chennai who aspire to collect enough money to be able to afford a small pizza from the new fancy pizzeria just outside their slum.
Song of Lahore is a new feature length documentary by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy from Pakistan. She won the Oscar for the “best documentary short subject” in 2015 for her film, A Girl in the River, about a young woman who survived an honour-killing attempt. Song of Lahore is about a group of classical musicians who were disfavoured and went through hard times during Zia-ul-Haq’s regime. They come together and created an ensemble that plays jazz music on classical Indian instruments like the sitar and the tabla. The film follows them to New York where they are invited to perform with jazz trumpet player Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. It has the spirit, poignancy and pleasure of American guitarist Ry Cooder’s film, Buena Vista Social Club, in which he gets some old and forgotten Cuban singers and musicians together, records them in Cuba, and brings them to NYC for a concert.
And I could go on like this about each of the other 14 films we have programmed.
VG: While the Festival is generally well appreciated, one critique I have come across is that you tend to shy away from films that reflect more radical, political views – those that sharply critique the Indian state. And, following on that, you tend not to feature subjects like Hindutva and the cultural impact of the extreme right in India, or Dalits (formerly untouchables) and Adivasi (indigenous) struggles for equality, etc.
DY: Kabir Centre neither shies away from nor goes after movies that critique the Indian state (or Pakistani or Bangladeshi, etc.) or deal with specific subjects such as untouchability.
We have screened films dealing with some of the themes mentioned above. For example, Amu, partly-inspired by the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi after Indira Gandhi’s assassination; Fandry, which is about untouchables; Something Like a War, about State-sponsored forced sterilization, and so on.
Kabir Centre is not an organization with any particular political agenda. We do not deliberately go after issue-oriented social or political films just for the sake of a particular issue, no matter how worthy or correct that might be from an individual’s point of view. We select (a film) as long as it is a well-told story that rings true of the human condition in all its complexity. The above subjects have, over time, ended up being reflected in our past film festivals. And this trend will continue.
VG: Given the dominance of India on the cultural scene in South Asia, do you find it difficult to find films from other countries in the region? Are there some examples of such films in the forthcoming Festival?
DY: Given all the information on the internet, following the lead of other more established South Asian film festivals in the world, and having joined a platform that connects film festivals and film submitters, our own programmers’ networks, etc., this task is easier now. In this year’s Festival, These Birds Walk and Song of Lahore are set in Pakistan. Threads is a documentary about Suraiya Rehman, a Bangladeshi woman artist who took inspiration from the traditional “Kantha” embroidery quilt work, and started a collective of destitute young mothers who create masterful works under her guidance. Two years ago we had a film from Sri Lanka, and last year we had a film set in Afghanistan.
VG: Who is your audience? Are you satisfied with the numbers of people who attend? What are your criteria for success? Do you feel there’s enough youth participation?
DY: Our audience is the South Asian diaspora from the countries and regions of the Indian subcontinent, along with many local non-South Asians who are curious, and film and culture lovers. We would like a bigger attendance, but that will happen as we improve our organization, publicity skills and outreach. This applies to youth participation as well. We are doing better publicity at McGill this year and in some of the CEGEPs. All our Saturday and Sunday afternoon film selections this year are appropriate for children.
Montréal’s multicultural residents attending the films in big numbers and being enriched by the stimulating discussions after each screening – that would spell success for us.
VG: How are the Centre and the Festival funded? Do you feel this funding is secure? Do you see the Centre expanding further through more government funding or by other means?
DY: By and large, the Centre is funded by the revenues from other ticketed events such as music and dance concerts, as well as sponsors from the community who are interested in its growth. This funding is not secure, and sooner or later the Festival will need to seek and obtain funding from government agencies and other funding institutions. This is part of our strategic plan.
VG: Can you speak a little about the volunteer aspect?
DY: The Film Festival is run on a voluntary basis with many hours put in by the festival committee members over several months. Other volunteers, including the Board members of Kabir Centre, also pitch in. The Film Festival committee for 2016 consisted of: myself; Dipti Gupta, faculty, Department of Cinema and Communications, Dawson College; Shireen Pasha, filmmaker, retired from the National College of Arts Lahore, Pakistan, in 2014 as head of the Film and Television Department; and Jill Didur, associate professor, English Department, Concordia University.
There is healthy discussion and debate in the programming committee before we arrive at our final selection. T.K. Raghunathan, the President of Kabir Centre, is also very involved.
VG: How many members do you have?
DY: We currently have around 200 members who pay a nominal annual fee. The members get approximately 20% rebate on their tickets for every event.
Montreal is an island in the St. Lawrence River so wherever you turn, you can see water, provided you poise yourself on rooftops, stand on top of Mount Royal or cycle your way close enough to the shore. But that doesn’t mean Montreal is insular as in isolated and inward looking. Just the opposite. Montreal is a very cosmopolitan city with a rich cultural life, an international cuisine and accented voices from all over the planet. It is also a city of festivals, especially film and music festivals.
The International Black Film Festival is one such festival, but with a difference. It is perhaps the only festival that commands the presence not only of well known actors and directors from Hollywood such as Spike Lee or Harry Belafonte but also that of activists for social justice, the men and women from the ghettos, from the heartland of jazz and pop culture and the men and women stomping the streets crying out loud: Black Lives Matter! Indeed they do. We all have to make ourselves heard. The Black Film Festival provides a space with a long-reaching echo.
This year’s festival is the 12th Edition of Fabienne Colas’ brainchild which is now held in Toronto as well. When Madame Colas, consummate artist and media personality, inaugurated the festival on September 28, she thanked all the donors and patrons and bemoaned the fact that the Province of Quebec had not contributed a cent towards its success. Could it be that it is because the festival, even in French, is billed as one showcasing Film Black? And why Black and not Noir? The answer is obvious to any cinephile worth her popcorn: Film Noir is a specific genre whereas Film Black deals with the history of people of African descent in the American continent and has now expanded to include African films. It is not surprising that one of the special events during the festival will be a round table on the Black Lives Matter movement which started in the United States and has now spilled over into Montreal and beyond.
The festival kicked off with MAYA ANGELOU: AND STILL I RISE, a documentary on the life of Maya Angelou. For those who’ve lived under a rock all these years, let me remind you that she was one of the most beloved of poets, singers, dancers and activists that the United States has ever produced. Her peers were James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni and her pupils were Oprah Winfrey and aspiring artists from younger generations. Her poetry has been honed by the harsh realities of her life and softened by her very warm and tender heart. She passed away in 2014 but her poetry lives on. There is no need for her to rise, because her ponderance never sank her. It is no coincidence that Bill, of Clinton fame, chose her to create a poem for his inauguration characterizing his administration’s hope for a better society. Clinton was/is a smart politician and wished to be linked to the deepest culture of the deep South, his and Angelou’s birthplace.
Montréal Serai is proud to always try make itself present in this most original of Montreal Festivals. We urge you to give it a try. You will not only be supporting a festival that deserves our support, but you will be nurturing your soul in the process.
Dheepan is a Tamil-language film directed by French director Jacques Audiard, featuring Jesuthasan Anthonythasan as Dheepan, Kalieaswari Srinivasan as his wife Yalini, and Claudine Vinasithamby as their daughter Illayaal.
However, things are not what they seem. Dheepan is in fact a Tamil Tiger leader who was taken for dead. In a refugee camp, he meets a woman who in turn picks up an orphaned girl so that together they can pose as a family to increase their chances of finding asylum in Europe. In actuality, Dheepan lost his wife and children during the Sri Lankan Civil War; Yalini lost her two brothers, and Illayaal, her parents. With the help of a dead family’s passport, they are lucky enough to be granted asylum and flown to France and freedom.
While they wait for their papers, Dheepan finds a job as a caretaker in a run-down building in some god-forsaken immigrant suburb. Yalini is hired as a maid to look after a disabled old man related to a gang leader. Illayaal learns to cope with bullying and racial discrimination at school; and with the French that she quickly picks up, she is able to act as an interpreter for the adults. All seems to be going well until a violent war breaks out between two rival drug gangs, shattering this make-believe family’s sense of security. It is here that Dheepan’s Tamil Tiger training kicks in to save the family that he hopes one day will become his very own.
Dheepan is a beautiful movie about a brutal reality. All’s well that ends well for our protagonists. But is all well in the land of liberty, equality and fraternity?
Twist is a feature-length documentary about Hu, a Chinese contemporary dancer, directed by Mai Liang whose work has been premiered abroad.
There are many twists and turns in the life of Hu during the two-year period covered by this documentary, although I would hesitate to call it just that since the film straddles genres such as reality shows and travelogues. Moreover, I get the impression that Hu is playing to the camera and that reality is often manipulated, such as when Hu reluctantly pays a visit to his long absent father. However, when he uses his smart phone or plays with his tablet, he does not appear to be acting.
Hu was born into a dysfunctional family. His father left the family when Hu was two years old. His mother then remarried a man 47 years her senior whom she promised to look after in his old age if he provided for her son’s education. The stepfather lived to be 99. His mother’s sacrifice proved to be worth it considering the considerable talent shown by this 23-year-old dancer. But will Hu prove to be a son worthy of his mother’s devotion? Only time will tell.
In the film we see Hu dropping out of a Can You Dance contest, opting for a scholarship abroad, turning it down later on, seeking another job, spending a year in Tibet in search of serenity and travelling. We also see him dancing on the edge of a wall on the roof of his apartment building, dancing at the entrance of magnificent Burmese golden temples and sweating it out in dance studios here and there. There is the occasional bar and restaurant scene. He experiments with a female roommate but that doesn’t seem to work out. Later on he takes a gay lover with whom he dances a piece called “Falling in Love” and then choreographing another piece called “the break-up” shortly before he breaks up with his lover. Did the relationship spring from the dance or the other way around? We shall never know. What is crystal clear is that Hu has a lithe and beautiful body which he struts throughout the film in a fluid graceful calligraphy.
POMPEII – ETERNAL EMOTION.
Pompeii, Eternal Emotion, is a very short documentary currently showing at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts together with the temporary exhibition. It is also featured in the 34th FIFA . It shows the current state of affairs in Pompeii, the impressive museum that has grown around the ruins and the spread of a modern-day Italian city around it. There is no dialogue, but then again, there is no need for a voice-over. The visuals and the music say it all.
I visited the site when I was a child and I still vividly remember the bodies frozen in time, or should I say, cast into petrified sculptures: the dog eating what appeared to be a piece of flat bread, the pregnant woman shielding her child with her hands, the couple huddled together. The colours of the erotic frescoes appear as vivid as they might have been sixty years ago when, because of my age, I was not allowed to view them and indeed, they might still be as vivid as they were centuries ago for all I know. What I do know for sure is that the emotions elicited by these images of living forms congealed in a flash of fire still are very much felt by the viewers. If you cannot make it to the FIFA festival at least do visit the current exhibition at the museum. It is an experience you will never forget.
The Collection That Did Not Exist. [La collection qui n’existait pas] Joachim Olander, Belgium.
Radiologist Herman Daled and Lawyer Nicole Daled-Vestraeten are a husband and wife team who spent many years of their life and a great share of their joint income to the financial and logistical support of conceptual art in Belgium. It is in this manner that they unwittingly built a massive collection of XX Century conceptual art, including works by major artist Marcel Broodhaers and his coevals. The collection consists of documents, photographs, film clips, commentary and other memorabilia.
It is traditionally said that art must appeal to the senses and through them, to the emotions. Not so with conceptual art which, by definition, is very cerebral. Joachim Olander, a young Belgian filmmaker interviews Daled at great length to gain a better understanding of what conceptual art is or is not, and the reasons that led Daled to finally sell his collection to MoMA in New York in 2011.
Many questions were raised: What is the product called conceptual art if there is no art object per se? How can you collect it when there is nothing tangible to collect? And what value or monetary price do you assign to something that does not exist? And so forth.
I left the movie theatre a tad early because my head was spinning with all these disquisitions. Moreover, I wanted to return to my computer and whittle down complex ideas to simple words. But I could not. Everything has vanished like a dream upon awakening. Only a whiff remains. But then again, as Daled took pains to explain, conceptual art by definition is more interested in the process than the product and being an ephemeral experience, it is bound to vanish into thin air.
One thing I do know for sure. Conceptual art makes you think and see the world differently.
Do watch this film for a transformative experience.
Filmmaker Don Kent’s father was born in Scotland in 1914 and his father’s brother died in 1915 while in the trenches in France. Kent’s father left behind an old suitcase containing some personal effects of his dead brother, including some old photographs and books by leading intellectuals of the time. His father’s birth date and his uncle’s memorabilia inspired Kent to envisage an imaginary train ride from Paris to Vienna to study and document what life was like before WWI broke out.
Life in prewar Europe was a mass of contradictions: the Edwardian era was coming to a close, Tzar Nicholas was convinced he could ride the revolutionary wave and Archduke Franz Ferdinand never imagined a violent death in Sarajevo. It was, after all, La Belle Epoque and Vienna was the capital of the “civilized” world. But, as Kent reminds viewers in an ominous voice-over, WWI erupted with unheard of violence in 1914 and the film was made in 2014, exactly one hundred years later.
Let us hope that Don Kent is better at making documentaries than at predicting the future.
Davide Rivalta – A Look of Innocence [Lo sguardo dell’innocenza], directed by Elena Matacena.
Davide Rivalta is an Italian sculptor who works on the preliminary designs of his sculptures out of his studio in Bologna but casts his pieces in an art foundry in Turin. His pieces, monumental works of raw force, are located in different parts of Italy, mostly in public spaces, although he has produced some murals in private palazzos. A striking example of his work is a collection of gigantic gorillas placed in the courtyard of the Court of Ravenna. Why gorillas? To defuse the solemnity of judicial proceedings.
Rivalta loves to work with animal figures, but only those that he has personally seen, because he laments the disappearance of animals from the human landscape and wishes to make up for this loss through his art. He encourages visitors to touch his works but has no pity for them if they climb on the animals and get hurt in the process. After all, animals have the right to defend themselves, albeit with spiky metal.
This film is more about the creative process and less about the finished product. And even though Rivalta resorts to technology and modern tools, sculpting in metal is as arduous as sculpting was in Michelangelo’s time.
Krag Kantora (Kantor’s Circle), Poland, was as good a place as any to start viewing the engaging roster of films presented by the 34th International Festival of Films on Art – FIFA 2016, a traditional spring offering in Montréal. By the way, this festival is much anticipated by the general public and art connoisseurs but unfortunately it is ailing from lack of funding. Let us hope that the powers that be, and its faithful public, come to its rescue.
Tadeusz Kantor was a painter, set designer, theatre director and assemblage artist who held the post of professor at the Cracow Fine Arts Academy during WWII. When the Nazis invaded Poland, many students were sent back home or recruited as slave labour in Germany while others were simply told to stop producing “decadent art”, which was the Nazi way of spitting in the face at an art movement they did not understand. This did not deter Kantor and his circle of students and friends from doing exactly the opposite: Kantor went on to become the director of an underground theatre group and his students became the main exponents of the avant garde movement in Poland in later years.
This documentary consists of priceless archival footage of Cracow during the war, interviews with survivors from that dark period and film clips from Kantor’s thespian productions.
Undine Gruenter – Le projet d’aimer, Switzerland, is a biographical film documenting author Undine Gruenter’s sojourn in Paris. Gruenter was a German-born writer who came from a lineage of writers and intellectuals and who married into the same profession. She had originally studied law with the aim of becoming a family judge but turned to writing novels instead. This film is based on her Parisian journal with voice-overs from her writings which are steeped in self-questioning and musings, particularly on the subject of the nature of love and the meaning of freedom. Hence the reference to love in the title. For Undine Gruenter, love meant total freedom which brooked no restraints. She died at the age of 50 from a brutal neurological disorder which first stopped her from writing and then from breathing.
I had never heard about her before watching this powerful film directed by Anita Hugi. It is up for competition. If it does not win it will be because the quality of the competitors is even higher than imagined. In any case, when I get a chance, I will make sure to read her Parisian Journal.
Editorial note: This is a slightly modified and edited version of an essay that appeared in the author’s personal blog.
Directed by Todd Haynes in a Cincinnati, Ohio made over to look like New York and its suburbs in the early 1950s,Carol is loosely based on Patricia Highsmith’s happily-ever-after 1952 lesbian romance, The Price of Salt. Published under the pseudonym “Claire Morgan,” and one of scores of lesbian pulp fiction available at the time from Bantam Books, The Price of Salt was and remains notable for its happy ending; this is because love stories involving gender non-conforming people tend, still, toward tragic plots involving suicide, insanity and murder. Indeed, so accustomed have I become to such plot devices that I was unprepared for the denouement of the film: the moment where the lovers catch each other’s eyes across a crowded bar, and you know that their relationship will continue. That’s it? I think I asked aloud. I was sure that one of the protagonists would have to die, be committed, or go to jail.
The story seems a sweet one, if you go for that kind of thing. Cate Blanchett plays Carol Aird, a mink coat wearing wealthy suburbanite, unhappy in her marriage and her big house, but deeply attached to her daughter and her best friend and former lover, Abby. Rooney Mara plays Therese Belivet, a young aspiring photographer. The two meet in the Christmas rush at the department store where Therese works; their relationship unfolds slowly as mutual fascination over martinis and cigarettes in enclosed spaces−the interiors of cars, restaurants and houses, their faces often in shadow, the camera peering at them through soft focus, rain-spatter and around and across thresholds−not quite voyeuristic, but dreamlike, a bit out of the world, despite overheard occasional chatter and radio broadcasts that refer to Senator McCarthy or the House Un-American Activities Committee.
In the midst of a nasty divorce in which it looks as if she will lose her daughter, Aird (in whose name you would be right to hear “erred”) invites Belivet (“good living”) to go for a car trip “west.” The two become lovers in a small motel west of Chicago, and then part when they discover that Aird’s husband has had them tailed and taped by a private eye. Such evidence allows him, on the basis of an “amorality” charge, to sue for exclusive custody of his daughter−historically a not uncommon event in the lives of North American lesbian mothers.
Nursing her broken heart, Belivet returns to New York, where she finds work as a clerk in the photo department at the New York Times−for to be paid to be a photographer, well, that’s a man’s job. After work, she develops her photographic practice, and wanders, unattached, in a sort of straight village bohemian scene. After a time−Aird has settled some aspects of her divorce and moved to a swank Manhattan apartment−the two meet again for drinks. Aird confesses her love, but gives Belivet time to think about whether she wants to pick up their love affair again. Late that night, Belivet has her answer, and the lovers catch sight of one another across a crowded smoky bar. Fade to black from bright eyes. Riff of American songbook inspired jazz, Jo Stafford’s 1953 hit, “No Other Love.”
Innocuous at worst, right? Possibly even uplifting; a recovery, albeit partial, of some aspects of North American queer history. And yet, the film bothered me. A lot.
What do you think? my partner Marike asked me. Why was this film made now? We both knew it couldn’t be because lesbian love is somehow now worthy of celebration−that remains an iffy proposition at best in mainstream cultural productions. The price of salt remains very high in the lives of most gender non-conforming people. We’ve not yet moved to a place where families don’t frequently toss their queer children or commit them, and closets are simply places where you store your shoes and your extra tights or ties. Some other politics is at work in the revival of this particular version of the queer New York 1950s.
Why so much vaseline and soft focus, the camera that caresses Blanchett’s pale face, her tossing blond locks?
For sure, this is a film about blond allure−as the enthusiastic ride-home commentary from our friend, who describes herself as “partial to blonds,” amply testified. Even more than that, however, I’d say that this is a film about and in praise of whiteness.
Not only can you count the fleeting appearances of silent people of colour in the film on one hand (the walk on by a black couple in a Village street scene, the black maid at Airds’ in-laws), the film works hard to abolish class and ethnic barriers among its principles, to subsume them in affluence, “local colour” and nostalgia, in order to create a seamlessly white world in which no barrier is truly insurmountable, provided we ignore any inconvenient historical chatter at the edges of the screen.
When, at their first meeting, Belivet begins to explain to Aird that her last name is Czech, but misspelled and corrupted by the immigration process, Aird cuts her off; she doesn’t want to know even that much. Therese Belivet, she says; that’s a lovely name. Likewise, the film gathers Belivet’s friends, all of whom are male, and some number of whom might be Jewish or of Italian working-class extraction, into its snowy fold.
Everything is possible in this hopeful world of affluence-polished upward mobility−provided you’re not too leftist, too outspoken, too racialized, too poor. The soft focus and Carol’s flipping blond curls, the close-ups, the peering at pale faces through darkened, rain-streaked glass, the winter landscape as the couple flees west, the expanse of Therese’s white skin as the two women at last begin to make love: these key tropes serve to establish a love affair between these two women as a love affair with whiteness.
As such, the film bleaches away history, political critique, class distinction, financial limits, even loss−it all comes right (or promises to do so) between the protagonists in the end. No matter lost custody or family recrimination; no matter the recently ended Nuremberg Trials, the Rosenberg Trial, or the McCarthy hearings; no matter job loss or gender limits, unequal distribution of wealth or sexual discrimination: Therese can come to live in Carol’s luxurious apartment, and the two will continue to be served by nearly invisible servers, to drive at night along dimly-lit streets, listening to nostalgic and mostly white−Billy Holiday is the only notable exception−crooners, in a world where checks on freedom of speech, assembly and political affiliation and long-running battles around integration at lunch counters, in the military, in schools (Brown vs the Board of Education will begin to mandate school desegregation in 1954), on voters’ rolls, and in sports are so far away as to be non-existent.
Thus, while the film seems to be about queerness, or even a principled and proactive stand−Carol’s quite striking insistence, as she and her lawyers meet with her husband and his lawyers, that how she loves is not immoral, but any law that would sever her from her daughter is−such moments don’t hold up against the cigarette-saturated nostalgia and watery focus of the rest of the tale. In Carol, in short, the lesbian story is a whitewash, a screen blocking out other contemporary and pressing concerns.
Why this film now? I think it is clear: we are living in a time when a certain part of (increasingly mainstreamed) American politics is all about whiteness: there are the birthers and truthers, who persist, against all evidence and reason, with the argument that Barack Hussein Obama is an illegitimate and ruinous president simply because he is black and has three non-European names; there’s Trump’s insane and all-too-popular demagogic vision, where what will make America great again involves ridding the country of immigrants, non-Christians, and people of colour; at this writing there is the band of armed white men who have taken over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, in protest against First Nations and federal land management strategies that limit their (apparently divinely granted) use of park lands as cattle-grazing territory. And while it might be easy to dismiss all of these phenomena as the last-stand ravings of an outrageous maniac white fringe, that’s too easy. Like them, Carol is all about the celebration of white privilege; we shouldn’t let the lesbian theme or the lovely blond curls of Blanchett (more whiteness) blind us to such snow.
Carol enlists a new fringe (white middle-class or affluent queers) to a new mainstream, to a history in which black and indigenous lives not only don’t matter, they’re virtually invisible. This is a dangerous message and an abuse of history, as well as a turn away from spaces of the present where we, as citizens and North Americans, are called to act. Where #blacklivesmatter; where we look for and count murdered and missing Indigenous women; where unemployment and poverty are rampant; where access to clean water is not a given for all of our citizens, nor is healthcare or shelter; where more than one in five children are raised in poverty; where prisons are big business, and nonwhites are disproportionately arrested, detained and incarcerated; where corporate kleptocrats flout the law and do not pay their fair share; where the 1% continues to make more, while many of the rest do with less; where soft-focus neoliberalism persuades us to cede more and more common spaces, not to mention our critical acuity.
The Price of Salt might have sold a million copies as “the novel of a love society forbids,” but I’m not buying that story today, as Carol tells it, where a love between women forbids not only most of society, but clear vision and nuanced contemporary conversation.
Why should Carol be the big queer tale of the year (and The Imitation Game last year’s offering)? If we’re going to hang about in the precincts of the queer mid-twentieth century, where is the film version of Audre Lorde’s Zami? Or a life of Lorraine Hansberry−To Be Young, Gifted and Black? Where’s the Marsha P. Johnson blockbuster, or the smash biopic about Babe Bean/Jack Garland? What about a big film about Samuel Delaney? Or James Baldwin? I tell you, it had better be The Fire Next Time!