Sunday, 5 April 2009

Films at Bologna HRN Film Festival 2009

This year I am president of the jury judging the short films at the festival, plus I must go to work during the day, so that leaves little time for doing much else. Still I am trying to catch as many films as I can. Here are some comments about the films I have seen this time:
I bring with me what I love (director Chai Vasarhelyi, USA 2008, 80 min.): I loved this film about the Senegalese song writer, composer and singer Youssou N’Dour. The film chronicles his search to express his sufi Muslim faith through his music and his encounter with the the more fundamentalist positions in the Muslim world that see music as against Islam and feels that as a pop singer, Youssou N’Dour doesn’t have the right to sing about Senegalese sufi saint and freedom fighter Bamba and Islam.

94% of the population in Senegal is Muslim but they follow a sufi version of the religion characterized by tolerance and openness. Senegalese women do not cover themselves with black veil.
The film shows Youssou N’Dour’s journey from his Griot (traditional storyteller-singers) family background, his early attempts to sing in Gambia, his slow success and international fame and finally in 2000, his desire to express his sufi spiritual feelings through music in collaboration with a group of Egyptian musicians, that culminates in a music album called “Egypt”.
While in Senegal, “Egypt” is rejected outright without anyone ready to listen to it as religious “leaders” have expressed against it, he takes it abroad in his music tour. In Ireland, as the Egyptian musicians refuse to play till alcohol is removed from the tables, Youssou N’Dour says with a smile, “For me it doesn’t make a difference that there was alcohol, I would have sang all the same.”
He tries to take his music to Touba, to the shrine of saint Bamba but rumours of his show having nude dancing girls, creates riots and he is forced to withdraw. Still Youssou N’Dour refuses to give up. As his album receives the Grammy award, finally he finds acceptance for his music in Senegal.
The film offers a rare glimpse into Youssou N’Dour the person and has added bonus of listening to his music from different famous albums that are considered as part of the music history.
Reel Bad Arabs (director Sut Jhally, USA 2006, 50 minutes): The film based on a book of the same name by Dr Jack Sheehan takes a systematic look at Hollywood movies since the silent film era in early twentieth century right to our days, to see how American and European cinema have used particular caricatures and stereotypes of Arabs, Muslims and Palestinians over the years. These stereotypes show Arabs as rich, stupid, vicious, cruel, unethical and unsocial starting from the Disney cartoons right down to serious and pulp cinema.

While similar stereotypes were used in the past about Jews and Blacks, these have been overcome over the previous decades while Arab stereotypes continue and have been enlarged to include the ruthless terrorist stereotype. Thus while Arab women were and are mostly shown as black burqa covered submissive kinds, a ruthless terrorist Arab women figure has been added to this repertoire.
The film ends with a hopeful note citing films like Syriana and new young film-makers who are looking at the middle-eastern world with more open eyes and less prejudices.
The film is interesting in terms of its message and the examples it shows from different films. At the same time, it feels a bit monotonous and boring after some time, since all the film is made of Dr Sheehan speaking about the subject, interspersed with movie clips. Having some voice overs, having other persons say something, getting reactions of persons linked with films, especially persons from Middle east, would have made it more alive. Sheehan is good in explaining but there is too much of him, which in the end detracts from the film’s message.
Russia 88 (director Pavel Bardin, Russia 2008, 104 minutes): The film is a fictionalised account of a Moscow based Russian extreme right skinhead gang called Russia 88. Film’s hero is Sasha (Blade for his gang members, played very well by Pyotr Fyodorov) leader of the gang and the film is seen through the eyes of a half Jew boy, Abraham (Mikhail Polyakov), who longs to be accepted as a true-blooded Russian by the group but is not hard and tough enough.

Abraham is shooting a video to explain the gang’s philosophy and ideas for putting them on Youtube. Slowly the gang members get used to having him around with his camera and thus become unself-conscious in front of the camera and explain why they feel and act the way they do. Gang has a woman, Marta (Marina Orel), Sasha’s girl friend.
The film has used authentic right wing clothes, songs, etc. to present their world, as the gang plans to throw out all emigrants from Moscow, as they participate in army-camps, to aim for a “Russia for Russians” as the foreigners are “hungry and angry, ready to take away their jobs”. The main target of their anger is market where most of the shops are by emigrants. There are conservative party persons who believe in similar philosophy and want to use the gang for their political aims, but Sasha believes that they can get a better deal and is not willing to sell his services cheaply.
Tragedy  comes in the shape of Robert (Kazbek Kibizov), a Tajiki emigrant with whom Sasha’s sister Julia (Vera Strokova) is in love, leading to the death of Kliment (Archibald Archibaldovic), the ideologue of the gang. As Sasha grapples with revenge, the group scatters.
The film is an interesting view into the world of extremist right wing groups and is accompanied by good acting from the main actors. The only aspect that seemed weak to me was the depiction of mindless violence and hate usually surrounding such groups, so in the end, you don’t really feel afraid of Sasha and his gang members and you feel sympathy of his dilemma.
Film’s official website says that they are not fascists, but I feel that film has been made in a way that creates sympathy and understanding for the cause of right wing conservatives. Their concerns and fear seem understandable, while their victims, specially the emigrants, except for Robert, seem like shadowy figures, not real persons.
Waltz with Bashir (director Ari Folman, France-Germany-Israel 2008, 87 minutes): The Golden Globe award winning film does not need introduction. The film is about persons who had participated in a war twenty years ago and their nightmares. As layer after layer of memories is peeled away, the horror of the war time memory comes out.
In 1982, Israel had helped Christian militia leader Bashir Gemayel to become president of Lebanon. On his assassination, Israeli soldiers had arranged for angry Lebanese Christian militia men to kill civilians, including women and children, in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla near Beirut, in which about 3000 persons were killed.

The film is stunning in its visual imagery and merciless in showing the human cruelty. You can find more about the film at its official website.
On one hand, it made me rethink about the killings of Sikhs in Delhi after the assassination of Indian prime minister, Indira Gandhi. It also made me think of the reports in the press about the recent Israeli attack on Gaza strip, during which it seems that Israeli soldiers were given the “freedom” to shoot on all “targets”, including women, children doctors, sick persons, and destroy hospitals, houses, schools while newer chemical weapons were tested.
Jihad for Love (director Parvez Sharma, USA-UK-Germany-France-Australia 2007, 81 minutes): The film was presented at the gender-bender festival of Bologna last year but I had missed it at that time, so I was happy to have this opportunity to see it.
The film explores the conflicts and contradictions when  you try to bring together the issue of homosexuality with that of Islam. By presenting the stories of Muslim men and women from countries like India, Egypt, South Africa, Turkey, Pakistan, Morocco, etc., the film looks at the different facets of the issues people face.
The South African story is about a gay Imam (Muhsen Hendricks), as he talks on radio to explain his situation and struggles to keep his role as Imam and his relationship with his two daughters. A learned Maulana answers his quest with cold logic, “The only answer is death, while there is some disagreement about the way the person can be killed.” His daughter half-jokingly says, “Papa, if they kill you by throwing stones, I hope you will die with the first stone and not suffer.”
A group of Iranian friends exiled in Turkey wait for the UN High Commission for Refugees to decide if they will get political refugee status, while they miss their homes, friends and families. The Egyptian young man Mazen exiled in France misses his mother too and breaks down as he talks about his rape in the Egyptian prison.

The young man Ahsan from North India also wants to find answers from a learned man of the religion, “What can I do, I was born in Muslim caste, I have to follow my faith”, he says. The answer he gets is to read holy Koran, it will take away all wrong thoughts from your mind. When he persists, he is asked to consult a psychologist and get treatment for his “sickness”.
The young women (Maha and Maryam) in Cairo, hold each others’ hand. One of them is filled with guilt. It is wrong to feel like this, it is against our religion, she sobs. The other one reads an Islamic text to her and tries to consol her, “See it says if there is no penetration, it is not a serious sin.”

The only happy couple in the film is in Turkey, where the two women (Ferda and Keymet) joke outside the mosque and kiss each other.
I was surprised by this continuous struggle of Muslim men and women of trying to find some way to reconcile their sexuality with their holy book, shown in this film. Are there Muslim gays and lesbians, especially young men and women growing up in the west, who don’t feel guilty because Koran forbids it and can live in peace with themselves?
I don't think that any religion in the world really accepts homosexuality. Still persons from different faiths, Hindus, Christians, Jews have raised their voices to speak about their human rights. Among the gay persons I have known, I had never met someone who was struggling so much with his/her own sense of religious guilt and shame in the way shown in the film. Probably some young Catholic gays face something similar.
Hindus have some mythological stories that talk of male gods taking a female form or the figure of Shiva seen as Ardhnarishwar (half man and half woman) that can be constructed as religious sanction for homosexuality. In any case, Hindus are not bound by any one single religious text. Christians are bound by Bible but at least in Europe, the idea of following something because "it is written in Bible" wouldn't be acceptable to most young persons. So to find young Muslims in this film feeling that way about their holy book surprised me a little.
To me it seems obvious that if our religion does not abide by the notions of human rights, we should fight to change them. Religious books were written centuries ago, how could they understand the issues of today and give answer for every thing?
The film made me reflect on on other issues as well, like how can Muslims change such laws that relate to homosexuality, to women’s education, to women’s dress codes, etc. if they can not question the views written in their holy book? I feel that Muslims themselves, especially those who are struggling with such issues can propose answers to these dilemmas, though they are going to have a long and tough path in front of them.
Parvez Sharma is a strange name, as it brings together a Muslim name with a Brahmin surname, and I am a little curious to know the story behind it. Perhaps he is related to the well known Hindi writer with a similar sounding name, Nasira Sharma?
In any case, it requires huge courage to make a film like this. About 50% of the persons in the film never show their faces, that makes you understand the risks in raising such uncomfortable questions. Parvez's blog shows how he is still being threatened by persons, who don’t share his views. Such persons have even started hate groups on Facebook. I hope there would many more who would start groups to support the issues he is raising.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Behind barbed wires

Finally it had stopped raining, as I went for the second day of the short films in competition for the Human Rights Night film festival of Bologna. The projection started with a bit of delay as we waited for Manli Shojaeifard, the Iranian director of one of the films in programme.

If on the first day, for me the theme of the films had been crossing some kind of boundaries, yesterday I felt that stories had less hope, they were about persons imprisoned behind barbed wires. Barbed wires that were there in their own minds or were built by circumstances, but in all cases there was not much chance of getting out.

The first film was "...She was no one" (director Manli Shojaeifard, Iran, 2002, 13 minutes). It was about a saint's tomb that is supposed to cure persons with mental illnesses and where people tie mentally sick persons with a chain and a lock, presumably overnight. Manli herself explained that to avoid problems, she had visualized this film in a more symbloic form, using symbols such as green wishing-threads tied around the tomb, the rosary and the burning candles. There were no dialogues in the film.

I personally had difficulty in understanding this film and afterwards, asked Manlie some clarifications. The main event of the film was the rape of one mentally ill girl left there by her family, by the caretaker of the tomb. This was shown indirectly, when a woman living near by, finds the girl on the ground near the tomb, having convulsions and closeby she finds the rosary left by the man.

However, even after understanding the idea of the film, I had trouble in visualizing that man raping the girl, since actor playing the caretaker of the tomb seemed like a kindly elderly gnome with laughing blue eyes. Perhaps they could have taken a different actor for this role.

People tying mentally ill persons with chains and treating them like animals is probably common all over the rural world, where there are few psychiatrists and little understanding of mental illness. Both mental illness and epilepsy are surrounded by myths, superstitions, stigma and discrimination. It does happen in India and a mainstream film like "Tere Naam" (director Satish Kaushik, 2003 with Salman Khan and Bhumika Chawla) had shown it very graphically. However, I am digressing here.

The second film was Alfred (director Leonardo Guerra Seràgnoli, USA, 2008, 17 minutes) about nightmares of a man called Alfred. When he was a child or adolescent, he was involved in some war. Hit by a bullet, enemy soldiers had left him on the ground thinking that he was dead. Now he is haunted by some unseen demons, probably unable to come to terms with fragility of his life or the fear of dying.

The film has beautiful photography and actor playing Alfred (Daniel Bell) looks suitably angst-stricken, shaving off his head, toying with tablets, fighting with his pillow, contemplating the darkness in his soul. At the same time, I found the film like a glossy magazine, great looking but a little artificial and lacking in soul.

The third film was Hungry God (director Sukhada Gokhale-Bhonde, India-USA 2008, 8 minutes). It was about a young boy (Omkar Gaekwad), his face made up like Hindu god Shivji with toy snakes around his neck, going around asking for food, looking hungrily as people buy or eat food, continue to offer food to the statues but no one takes pity on him.

The film is visually very beautiful, lyrical and the music helps in that. The first shot of boy looking at his own split image in the broken mirror can be interpreted as a metafor in different ways.

Child actor (Omkar Gaekwad) playing the part has eloquent eyes and the film pulls at your emotions. Yet, the film does seem a film, little artificial, a make-believe world and not about real poverty and hunger, perhaps because it is too beautiful. The boy is too well made, clearly he had professionals doing his make up, complete with fresh flowers and eye liners and this takes away from the authenticity of the film.

There was a similar figure of the boy, dressed like a god in the riots scene of The Millionaire (David Boyle 2008). Perhaps it is films like The Millionaire that change the way we look at poverty and slums?

The last film of yesterday was "Vida Loca" (Crazy lives, Stefania Andreotti, Italy 2008) about gangs of adolescents in some countries of central America like Honduras. This film is more of a straight forward documentary with some wonderful night photography and haunting images of eyes with pupils dilating as the young gang members talk about the three dots of their crazy lives in the space between the thumb and the index finger, signifying death, drugs and jail.

The story of two gangs, Rio 18 and Mara, extending from streets of central America right up to Los Angels, about illegal emigrants, drugs trade, violence and revenge shocks because of the hopelessness of their young lives, where killing or getting killed is the only real option they have. Seen as vermin, to be crushed and violated, the brutality of the prisons, recruiting new members of the gangs in the prisons seen as the gang headquarters, show the effect of the repressive harsh ways of dealing with the issues. Social workers and rehabilitation centres show a faint glimmer of hope as some persons do manage to go out the narrow confines of the gang-thinking.

The film ends with the haunting laugh of one of the adolescent gang member, who had been talking about his lack of fear of death, that we was ready to  kill and to be killed, as he asks, "Help me to change". His heart-breaking smile and the hopelessness of his situation is what remains when the film is over.

Among the four films seen yearday, I liked "Vida Loca" most.

Friday, 3 April 2009

Crossing borders

There were five films in the short-films section of the Bolgona Human Rights Night film festival yesterday, and overall I liked all five of them. We still have another seven films to see so it is too early to speak of which of them is the best film, but already I can see how subjective it can be to decide about the best film or the best actor or actress, and in the end why some persons feel so strongly about the awards and film festivals.

The first film was Mofetas (Director Inés Enciso, Spain-Morocco 2008, 10 minutes). The word "Mofetas" means skunks, those furry animals that use bad odour as their defence, and is what the police in Tangiers calls the children trying to illegaly cross into Europe, hanging under the trucks.

The films heroes are two Moroccan mofetas (Mostafa Abdeslam and Mohamed Maltof), trying their luck once again, hiding under the belly of the truck, waiting for the crossing to Spain, while waiting, sharing their dreams. If the reality of their life is poor and dirty, their dreams are in technicolor complete with blondes and chocolates.

Newspapers in Europe regularly talk about emigrants trying to sneak in, hanging on to the trucks or boats, hiding in the freezer cells, some times dying, some times making it but then sent back. They are just numbers, illegals without faces or humanity. The film gives faces, names, dreams and humanity to them.

The second film was Viko (Director Larjsa Kondracki, Canada 2008, 17 minutes). It is the story of teenager Viko (Luke Treadaway) in ex-Jugoslavia, hoping to escape from poverty and be able to go to Berlin or London with his girl. His borther, hard and cussing, offers Viko to help in his illegal work. Viko does not know that he is getting into trafficking of Ukrainian girls for prostitution. Initially shocked and repulsed by the tragedy of girls they are violating, Viko finally reacts with violence himself, becoming hard and cussing like his brother.

The film is about a young boy reaching adulthood, losing his innocence and turning into a violent exploiter for his own survival. I think that we all want our villains to be very different from us, without humanity, so that we can hate them and feel relieved that we are not like them. The film shows that violent men who exploit poverty of young women to push them into prostitution were persons like others, circumstances and their work turn them into monsters.

There is a part of the film that is really shocking with rape and violence, I wanted to close my eyes and close my ears. It is not for the faint hearted or for children.

It is a film that makes you reflect about the scantily clad girls you can see standing by the side of the road, smiling provocatively, hoping to coax you to a room and think about how they got there and the kind of racket that exists all around to make that to happen.

The third film was Una Vida Mejor (director Luis Fernandez Reneo, Spain, 2008, 13 minutes) about three children crossing over from Mexico to America through the Arizona desert. The children get separated from their handler and the group during an attack by bandits, then alone without water they try to cross the desert. One of them doesn't make it.

Some parts of the film are very well done like the last part where the mother receives the letter from her children. In other parts, I found it is less real and more artificial, in the sense everyone and everything is too nice and beautiful. For me it lacked grit of a documentary and was more of a film.

The fourth film was About The Shoes (By Rozalié Kohutovà, Cech republic, 2007, 13 minutes) about a Rom (gypsy) slum near Slovakia. The film in black and white is told by a young woman-volunteer-teacher who wants to bring the gypsy children to school, and about the girl without shoes, who can not come to the school.

The poverty and the squallor of the gypsy campment is caught well. However, the film seems to be a outsiders look at gypsy world, the otherness of the gypsies is accentuated. It lacks their point of view.

The choice of stark images in black and white also help to create views that reminded me of documentaries about concentration camps under Nazis, that again seemed to accentuate their otherness, a feeling that it is not about us normal persons, it is about them, and they are different from us. I am not sure if director did want to convey this.

The fifth and the last film yesterday was Portuale (director Gregor Ferretti, Italy 2008, 4 minutes) about Lucio, a young boy who had died during his first day of work at the port in Ravenna. The film, a musical video, sung by Gregor (Lucio is dead, crushed like a cat), has beautiful visuals and shows the different stages of Lucio growing up, his friends, his dreams and then his body at the port, covered by a sheet.

Use of beautiful colours, nice locales and the contrasting words are pleasant even if you may have seen similar songs already on Music TV, it doesn't add anything to the understanding about what happened and why. Lack of security at work places, the theme of the film, remains more of an accident.

Overall the first day of short films was satisfying and much better than what I had expected. Viko was especially shocking and Mofetas made me reflect more, but each film gave me something to remember, and something to reflect upon. I think that is the purpose of documentary films, to make you relfect and to understand. 

As I had walked in the theater, I saw bits of a press conference of a new Italian film coming out today, Amici del Bar Margherita, shot in Bologna. There were some of the Italian stars like Pierpaolo Zizzi and the popular Italian singer, Lucio Dalla. (In the picture below with director Pupi Avati and other actors).

I am looking forward to the second round of short films today that is going to have films from Italy, USA, Iran and India. I am also looking forward to tomorrow to watching Parvez Sharma's A Jihad for Love and Ari Folman's Waltz with Bashir.

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