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Spotlight on the human spirit

The list of significant films that the latest edition of the IFFI omitted was long. The Indian Panorama section was weak and the retrospectives lean. But the festival did include some memorable ones, says GOWRI RAMNARAYAN.

The lilting pace and humour of Helvecio Ratton's "Radio Favela" are irresistible.

THE RESPONSE to the 34th International Film Festival of India (IFFI, Oct 9-19, New Delhi) was mixed. The Indian Panorama proved weak — some of the better films had been released long ago, and featured in earlier festivals elsewhere. The retrospectives were lean and there were premieres only of Indian films ("Pinjar", "Choker Bali" and "Mian Maqbool" ).

The list of significant films missed out in world cinema was long, but the festival did include several, which lingered in the mind. They were different in theme, approach, culture, language and style. A few lacked finish and technique. But all of them had one thing in common. They spoke of the human spirit that strove to overcome adversity, of human courage that refused to buckle under misfortunes and calamities.

For the first time this year a Critics' Award was instituted, for a film chosen informally, by regular festival attendees of over 10 years. The film that lost by a single vote was an outstanding production from Brazil.

"Radio Favela" proved that big budgets, stars, eminent directors, master technicians, post modern stylistics, and avant-garde experimentation are all dispensable adjuncts when you have a subject that exalts, actors who live their roles, and a director (Helvecio Ratton) who knows how to tell a story without manipulating character — or viewer. This is a film for the young at heart, its lilting pace and humour are irresistible. There was nothing new in its realistic mode, routine flashbacks, or in cameras comfortably placed in one spot and left to record the visuals. The lighting was no more than adequate. But the tale needed no other excitement than truth.

A young black in Bello Horizonte, the third biggest city in Brazil, refuses to go the way of his slum buddies — he wins a fellowship in the school where his mother works as janitor. He holds his own in classroom and games field. He retains his self-respect despite insults from racist classmates, and from teachers who will not recognise that Brazilian society has its own brand of apartheid. Itsintolerance is all the more noxious for being socially and politically inadmissible. He prefers to wash cars than peddle dope, play football rather than tote guns, though these unexciting choices bring little money and less glamour.

He is sustained by a dream. With friends, he launches an unlicensed `community' radio station for favelas or ghettos, hoping to offer youth alternatives to drug dealing. It becomes a hit. Its sassy quips and news bites are broadcast between Brazilian hip-hop, soul and funk, their terrific rhythms making a subtext of a bubbling, joyful irreverence for announcements like ``Today the governor gave more cars and guns to the people, but no schools for kids or jobs for teenagers''... ``Four boys died in a street fight today. How many more will have to die before kids learn that drug dealing is a way to the grave.'' The radio answers questions, shares concerns, links people.

The establishment tries to locate the `radio station' and smash the equipment. Capture, interrogation (``Answer, you dickhead nigger! is there racism in Brazil?''), imprisonment (fellow prisoners `interview' their favourite radio VJ), — nothing can faze the man with the mission.

Norwegian actress-director Liv Ullmann, recipient of the IFFI's Lifetime Achievement Award.

``The system is trying to make me a crook, a pusher. But I will not fall into the trap,'' says he and carries on against injustice, persecution and invisible slavery. After a major setback, the community raises money so that he can continue — a moment that had the theatre resounding with applause.

After 20 years of resistance Radio Favela is honoured by the U.N. for its campaigns against drugs and promotion of education.

As fiction the story seems improbable. But since it is based on reality "Radio Favela" restores faith, energises hope, making us feel that every one of us can make a difference to the world around us.

Closing film "Rabbit Proof Fence," also based on real life and true history, had the unflinching voice of a morality fable. In this Australian holocaust the aboriginals are doomed by Government decree to lose their culture, language and children.

The film records the 1970s State policy of separating children from mothers — the scenes are like street hunts for stray dogs — herding them in internment camps for their `wellbeing and education', to train them as domestic servants.

"Kedma", by Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai, turns the Israel-Palestinian war into a study of human suffering.

At a slide show in Perth, the Chief Protector of the Aboriginals declares that three generations of careful mating can `breed the aboriginal out', and integrate half castes into white society. The `stolen generation' is forced to forget its bush connections.

The ironies are stunning — the white warden tells the girls to `keep the jabber (their mother tongue) out' and to learn duty and responsibility. The children sing "Swanee River" to the visible approval of the white supervisors. The Government announces that "The native must be helped in spite of himself, the mulatto uplifted to white status.''

Director Philip Noyce crafts a minimalist narrative, with a camera so confident (Christopher Doyle) that it draws no attention to itself. Three little girls of white-aboriginal parentage escape from the Moore River Native Settlement to return home.

Their incredible journey across 1,500 miles of wilderness is along the rabbit proof fence, which cuts across the continent. No relentless black tracker or clever white plotter can capture sisters Molly and Daisy, though cousin Gracie is caught in trying to take an easier way by train. Long echoing silences, and awesome visuals of scrubland and desert become inseparable from the children's battle for survival. There is little speech, communication is by sign, whistle, glance and touch. There are eerie moments when the girls' eyes glow in the dark as they hide from pursuers. Molly is heartened by the bird of prey soaring in the blue — her mother has told her that it is a good omen.

Mother and grandmother sense the children before the girls hurl themselves into their arms. As we are told that Molly and Daisy escaped into the bush with their family, we see them as adults, their faces carved like rock sculptures, standing under the sun. The film raises haunting questions about human rights, values, free will and personal liberty to make choices.

Well-made pastimes included "Inheritance" (Per Fly, Denmark), on a marriage that collapses when a man loses his values. "Eight Women" (Francois Ozon, France, with a lush cast including Catherine Deneueve, Isabelle Huppert, Emmanuelle Beart) made a musical out of `murder'. A spouse starts her own striptease on video as a birthday treat for the husband, and ends it as punitive shock ("Alexandra's Project", Rolf de Heer, Australia).

But "Gaza Strip" and "Kedma" kept consciences awake. They turned the familiar Israel-Palestinian war into a study of human suffering. The former is a documentary, which sees the conflict through the eyes of a 13-year-old paper boy, who can make no sense of the inexplicable forces destroying his world. Director James Longley's restraint makes you catch fire.

Maker of poignant films like "Kadosh" and "Kippur", noted Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai, employs the force of a balancing irony in "Kedma" to heighten the sense of unending grief. The film demands close attention, weaning you from literal narration, overt visuals, fast cutting and television close ups.

The Jewish survivors of the holocaust from Europe disembark from freighter Kedma (1948). The beach becomes a battleground with British soldiers hounding them for unauthorised landing, and Israeli guerrillas saving them only for deployment in combats against Palestinians.

In the following skirmishes, the cantor who hoped to sing for the Lord finds a gun in his hand. The man who escaped Nazi pursuit is riddled by bullets in the Promised Land.

The old Arab couple witness the destruction of their village and curse the Israelis for occupying their homeland. ``We will resist you, we will breed rebellious children, we will not go away,'' shrieks the old man, as he totters away into the distance.

Beginning with sequences shot in real time, the film moves into carefully orchestrated sequences, as when deafening cannonade is succeeded by deathly silence.

At the end when the dead and wounded are piled onto trucks, Polish immigrant Janusz rages against the destiny of his people held in thrall by visions of the messiah, martyrdom and madness, ``We enjoy suffering, we exist only in exile.''

The Israel-Palestine strife becomes the metaphor for fratricidal persecution. Gitai shows how the human race revels as much in oppression as in suffering, trying to find meaning not in hope, but in tyranny and martyrdom.

The bleakness overpowers, as in the Golden Peacock winner of the festival "Five in the Afternoon" (Samira Makhmalbaf, Iran). But since creation is in itself an act of positive assertion, can the camera make us face harsh truths? And thereby, as urged by Liv Ullmann, IFFI's Lifetime Achievement awardee, can cinema make the world a safer place?

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