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Festival Report: Revolutions and Political Processes at the 16th International Film Festival of Kerala

 | Festival Report |

  BY Ankan Kazi

Peter Kahane's The Architects (1990)

The recently-concluded Kerala International Film Festival presented retrospectives of Robert Bresson, Yasuzo Masumura, Nagisa Oshima, Theo Angelopoulos, Adolfas Mekas, Madhu and Djibril Diop Mambety; paid homage to Elizabeth Taylor, Raul Ruiz and Tareq Masud and offered a wide selection of contemporary films including those of Semih Kaplanoglu (Contemporary Master in Focus), DEFA films, Football Films and an intriguing collection of films slotted under ‘An Arab Spring’, apart from several Indian selections.

The Opening film- screened at the wonderful open-air theatre, Nishangandhi- was Zhang Yimou’s Under the Hawthorn Tree (2010). Unfortunately, the film will probably go down as one of Yimou’s weaker efforts. Although it features astonishing cinematography, a melodramatic love story set during Mao’s Cultural Revolution and earnest performances that reduced large sections of the audience to tears, it is unabashed Chinese Kitsch - asking nothing from viewers except for a dollop of irony to really see how things were terribly wrong. Or maybe it does so deliberately; by refusing to concentrate on explicit political engagement, it narrates a ‘pure’ love story that ends tragically and reminds the viewer of the essential falseness of a pure aesthetic (and ethical) beauty that excludes grime and shit. Keeping both interpretations vaguely available to the viewer is perhaps the film’s greatest strength.

One of the more tempting things to do with Festival line-ups is to attempt to tease out possible narratives emerging from the whole selection. 

Contemporary selections seemed to focus on political processes in all their dramatic, tragic, comic, surreal, sexual and ultimately exhausting glory. All of it definitely came together in the French entry The Minister (2011), which tells the story of a Transport Minister struggling against a stream of crises from a tragic bus crash in the Ardennes to desperate intra-cabinet horseplay in the wake of the economic downturn. After watching the bizarre contortions of the plot being played out, one can finally understand the need for the preface, which described a surreal tableau in which a naked woman crawls into the jaws of a huge crocodile and is swallowed whole.

The problem of deciding what stories to tell after pre-determined narrative structures have been established in society is a concern not only limited to Zhang Yimou’s film and Communist China, but also erstwhile East Germany. In this context, the DEFA’s (Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft) public-owned films were interesting museum pieces that narrated East German experience and attitudes towards art and their purpose in society. For those who wish to look for complex narratives emerging out of ‘failed’ states, the DEFA films are worth watching. Peter Kahane’s The Architects (1990) remained, I think, quite unambiguously critical of the GDR and its stranglehold over a utilitarian approach to art and architecture that bred and encouraged dull conformity, but it does offer us a glimpse of committed and idealistic architects who did not believe they were doing anything against the principles of socialism by remaining faithful to their architectural/artistic choices. Indeed, if any character deserves the audience’s antipathy it would have to be the protagonist’s wife who breaks up the family and defects to the West out of, it appears, little more than sheer boredom. If the film is infected by a general sense of doom and bleakness (reflected in the character of the protagonist and the ghost-like evocation of suburban East Berlin), it is because of the late date of production when the socialist utopia was already on its way out.

Responding to recent political upheavals, the ‘Arab Spring’ section focuses on the Tahrir Square revolution and its aftermath. Tahrir Square: The Good, the Bad and the Politician (2011) is made up of three short documentaries that are told from the perspective of the good people who overthrew Hosni Mubarak’s regime, the conflicted and confused central security officers who struggled to unite duty with patriotism and the bad dictator’s propaganda machine. The Tahrir Square spectacle perhaps needed an immediate film that would consecrate the revolution in public memory, but more usefully, as a protestor explains, it is a collection of images that truthfully convey the extent and nature of atrocities visited upon the peaceful protestors in Tahrir Square. The use of cell phone cameras and amateur equipment marks another significant step towards a conflation of ‘event’ and its representation in film. We are shown images of Tahrir Square becoming a self-contained republic in itself, with its own public announcement systems, marriage ceremonies, music concerts and designated barbers. A helpful segment illuminates the different ways in which Mubarak maintained and perpetuated his regime through propaganda. Although the film wraps the revolution in moving pictures, there is very little new information on offer; nothing that you wouldn’t know already from news reports. It brings some amount of perspective, but not enough to generate a complex narrative that could anticipate some of the troubling breakouts of violence and repression (especially against women protestors) after Mubarak’s resignation.

In stark contrast to an occupied Tahrir Square teeming with thousands of protestors, we had another ‘cell phone protest’ movie- This is not a Film (2011), in which we find filmmaker Jafar Panahi islanded in his apartment, planning to make a film about a girl confined to her apartment, while night falls darkly outside his window punctured with random explosions from Fireworks Wednesday. He talks to his lawyer and grows increasingly disillusioned halfway through the film he is narrating to us: “If a film could be narrated, what is the point of making it at all?” All this, while an iguana crawls around the apartment.

Revolutions as complex political processes goes for a bit of a musical toss in Christophe Honore’s new film Les Bien-aimés (2011). Formally reminiscent of his 2007 film Les Chansons d’amour, this film expands the canvas to include the march of time from 1964 to a few years after 9/11, with, ultimately, mixed results. The film uses Prague Spring as a springboard into its avowed concentration on politics solely with reference to sexual attitudes. A prostitute called Madeleine (played by Ludivine Sagnier and Catherine Denuve) falls in love with a Czech doctor (played by Rasha Bukvic and, yes, Milos Forman) and moves to Prague with him, only to escape back to Paris during the spring unrest of 1968. She marries another man, but continues her affair with Jaromil, her Czech lover, whenever he happens to visit Paris. Her daughter, Vera (played by Chiara Mastroianni, Deneuve’s ‘real-life daughter’) attempts to reconcile all of this with her own life as she falls in love with a gay American man in London. Echoing her mother’s instinct, she also seeks to escape 9/11, but with far worse consequences. So, you’re excited when the credits wish to thank Milan Kundera and the songs happily pun on ‘les femmes légère’ (looseness/lightness), but a little disappointed when none of this is really given time to marinate, away from different sexual permutations and combinations.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011)
Reaching the last stages of what must have been another draining process, a posse of policemen, a doctor, a prosecutor and a convicted murderer are driven around the dark and unyielding landscape of Anatolia - looking for a dead body- in Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once upon a time in Anatolia (2011). Close-ups only serve to reveal the drawn and weather-beaten faces of the men and one is tempted to map the fabulous, serene and harshly forbidding landscape of Anatolia on their faces and actions too. It is a film where, very often, images, lighting and sound come together to create a perfect cinematic moment and dialogues are often resorted to as a means of underscoring their essential irrelevance to this perfect moment. This film, along with Wim Wenders’ Piña (2011), scores for sheer aesthetic delight at the cinema this year.

The body becomes the site of poet Ingrid Jonker’s revolution in Paula van der Oest’s Black Butterflies. A biopic on the life of the South African poet, it shows us the various ways in which she attempted to negotiate the thick injustices of the Apartheid years and construct her own voice among other writers. The film is not nearly as compelling as its subject appeared to be. Carice von Houten’s performance lacks any real range and the film struggles to articulate anything of real relevance about the central protagonist or the tensions of living as dissidents under an oppressive regime.

For those who have grown to admire Chantal Akerman’s auteurism, Almayer’s Folly will not disappoint. Working loosely with Joseph Conrad’s early novel, the film deconstructs what are now considered heavily loaded concepts, like the ‘colonial experience’, and lingers on individual elements that translate the plush prose of Conrad into haunting, lingering images and shadows. Extremely long takes and protracted uses of darkness, incantatory structuring and theatrically distancing cinematography come together to create a scary impression of alabaster serenity giving way to creeping madness in the character of Almayer. This is Conrad done very differently, but effectively, I think, from the aggressive thump of Coppola which seems to have colonised (excuse me) any discussion of Conrad on cinema. The long last take- offering a frank close up of Almayer after his daughter, Nina, has abandoned him- sums up the exhausting manner in which a complex political position affects, eventually, a complete transformation on the body of the participants and their sanity. Wordy dialogue is abandoned, like in Ceylan, but the force of the scene is retained by Almayer simply repeating under his breath: “The sun is cold...”