Smorgasbord of world cinema

Politics of violence: Nandita Das’ directorial debut looks at post-Godhra Gujarat.

Politics of violence: Nandita Das’ directorial debut looks at post-Godhra Gujarat.  


The real stars at the recent Toronto International Film Festival were the stories lighting up the screen.

Variety in themes and treatment by some well-known and some new filmmakers marked the recent 33rd Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF08). Divided into sections like Discovery, Special Presentation, Real to Reel, etc. the 300 plus film-package was a smorgasbord of contemporary world cinema, from big budget premiers to low-budget niche films, from documentaries to first features.

For the cinephile, it was like a constant juggling act. Celebs there were a-plenty since the festival has grown in size and stature over the years, but frankly, the real stars were stories lighting up the screen, which a general audience often misses out in countries like India.

Talking about themes, the political situation of a country, whether seen through the protagonist’s eye or a cult hero, figured in quite a few films.

Faithful adaptation

“Disgrace”, for example, faithfully adapted by Steve Jacobs from Nobel Laureate J. M. Coetzee’s eponymous novel may not look like a political film per se, as a professor of English in South Africa (John Malkovich in a perfect role) goes through a personal journey of agony and redemption after being dismissed for having an affair with a black student.

But the changing scenario in the country emerging from the Apartheid and the changing dynamics between the ruled and ruler constantly hovers in the background. His relationship with his daughter, who chooses to live in the outback, despite being robbed and raped because it is her country, and his slow transition to accepting her stand — despite his initial opposition — makes for a strong, if difficult, film. “Disgrace’ incidentally won the Special Presentation Fipresci prize (the prize of the international critics).

“Laila’s Birthday”, by Palestine’s Rashid Masharawi , is a simple story on the surface as father Abu Laila, who drives a taxi, promises to come home early to celebrate his only daughter’s birthday. But the uncertainty of life on the Gaza strip, the corruption of the people in high positions and a sudden bombing mar his day. At last even Abu cannot take it any more, he shouts his protest, almost insanely angry. Though the film ends in a happy note, it gives a glimpse of a people living on the edge.

“Che”, a biopic in two parts by well-known Hollywood director Steven Soderbergh, traces Guevera’s rise as a revolutionary in Cuba fighting alongside Fidel Castro to his misadventure, as many called it, in Bolivia which saw his steady decline as a leader to be captured and killed by the army, betrayed by the very people he tried to liberate from an oppressive regime.

Soderbergh’s undoubtedly skilled work is more a homage to Che’s persona, than a probing look at the man. Benicio Del Toro as Che fits the role like a glove.

Though not a biopic in the strict sense, “Me and Orson Welles,” another film that made quite a buzz focuses on the “Citizen Kane” director in his former role as a theatre director. Into his formidable creative world walks in a young hopeful who gets a bit role in the play Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’ which Welles morphed into a contemporary story (1937) with uncanny resonance to Fascist Italy.

Innovative treatment

Director Richard Linklater, however, portrays Welles, undoubtedly a creative genius (Christian McKay in a great performance) warts and all, an egotist (which is well-recorded), womaniser and manipulative, even revengeful. The treatment — weaving a story of love and youthful hope, ambition and cynicism, around a legendary figure — is innovative and adds to the reputation of the independent filmmaker.

Nandita Das’s directorial debut “Firaaq” premiered at the Festival. The politics of violence and its aftermath is told through post-Godhra Gujarat. The aura of fear and insecurity as affected families try to pick up the threads of their lives is unmistakable as also undertones of religious divide — the ‘us’ and they’ that troubles other parts of the world as well.

Canadian director Atom Agoya’s “Adoration” also tries to pose disturbing questions about attitudes and dogmas through a tech-savvy teenager, whose dead parents belonged to two different religions with the father accused of being a terrorist.

However, when the director tries to vindicate his point of human values often being ‘crucified’ at the diktat of system of belief, the effort shows and almost defeats the purpose.

Many films focused on the home as an emotional battlefield with ego clashes, separations and loneliness that bedraggle modern lifestyle.

Canada’s brilliant “C’est pas moi, je le jure” (It’s not me, I swear!), set in 1968 and directed by Philippe Faladardeu, is about 10-year old Leon (Antoine L’cuyer literally lives the role) and his increasingly outrageous pranks after his mother leaves while a strict and moralist father tries to bring up his two sons.

Inside families

It is funny and heart-wringing at the same time. Young Leon breaks into neighbourhood houses but also writes endless silent letters to his mother and loves an equally lonely girl Lea whose father had left them.

Germany’s acclaimed Caroline Link premiered her “A Year Ago in Winter” here and, as is her forte, she probes the cracks within a family. A 19-year-old commits suicide and nobody knows why. A year passes but the family — husband, wife and sister — drift away emotionally instead of getting closer after the tragedy, unable to communicate the grief within. The fissures in the relationships are slowly revealed through the eyes of a painter who is commissioned to do a portrait of the two children by the seemingly-in-control mother.

There were exclusively women’s stories as well. Max Färberböck’s “A Woman in Berlin” is based on the actual diaries of an anonymous German woman, a journalist (Nina Hoss) in the film, written as the Red Army entered Berlin in the summer of 1945. Her diary reveals the terrible ordeal women went through to survive when the Russian soldiers treated them as spoils of war. Realising the futility of resisting physical assault the protagonist seeks the protection of a Russian commander, Andrej (Yevgeni Sidikhin). But this liaison unexpectedly turns into an emotional attachment, as she finds the sensitive enemy soldier could be one she could fall in love with, a betrayal in a way.

“The Stoning of Soraya M” is based on a real-life story. Adapted from Cyrus Nowrasteh’s best-selling book which tells of a woman being stoned to death on allegations of adultery in a remote Iranian village, it is a damning comment on patriarchy and its effect on women. More so because Soraya’s story is not fiction.

Indian connections

On the other hand, New Zealand’s “Apron Strings” directed by Samoa-born Sima Urale, is set in a seemingly more mundane situation. Three women from divergent social strata have made culinary art their profession. Glamorous Anita hosts an Indian cookery show on TV, her estranged sister Tara runs an Indian restaurant, and white Kiwi woman Lorna runs a bakery, constantly trying to run against the tide with a buy-up offer, an irresponsible, unemployed son, and old mother to take care of. All three women collate into each other’s world, displaying their strengths and weaknesses, but ultimately learning to adjust even if it means untying some apron strings. Though food takes centre stage, the spreads that fill the screen invitingly does not divert from the core; problems women face while pitted against filial love and reality check.

Deepa Mehta’s new film “Heaven on Earth” on domestic violence offshore, however, did not work. The marriage of a myth of a snake (from Girish Karnad’s Nagamandala) and a modern-day NRI bride’s abuse in Canada made a pretentious and unconvincing film.

India was very much on show in U.K. filmmaker Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire” — a Bollywood story told with a twist. Incidentally, it was quite a revelation how popular the word Bollywood or films, which is recognised as a genre, has become with the western audience today.

To an Indian audience Boyle’s setting is instantly familiar: the extremely popular game show “Kaun Bonega Crorepati.” Jamal, a slum kid displaced after the Mumbai riot, grows up the hard way, but becomes a crorepati as he answers every question correctly.

How does a chaiwalla at a call centre who enters the show on an impulse know all the answers? Because, each question is related to an incident in his harrowing and brutal past.

Shot in Mumbai, Boyle catches contemporary Indian urban life, the filthy slums, dons appearing as saviours, the underworld, the frenzy over Bachchan and the hero-worshipping of film stars and, above all, the dream of every poor kid to become rich and live happily ever after. The film does have a happy ending as Jamal meets the love of his life, separated by years, and predictably dance together on a railway platform with a group in attendance a la Bollywood.

Boyle’s experimental work is definitely set to make waves in the film circuit. The Toronto audience loved it and bestowed it with the ‘Cadillac People’s Choice Award.’

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