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A German Party, Simon Brückner’s magnificent political documentary about the workings of the far-right outfit Alternative für Deutschland (AfD, Alternative for Germany), begins with a declaration of its own uselessness. Allaying the worry of party members that a camera in the room might make their financial discussions public, senior leader Frank-Christian Hansel informs them that the film will not release until 2022, that is after the 2021 parliamentary elections, and by then it won’t be of much value. A German Party has nothing to be embarrassed about the comment, for its goal is not to persuade voters or influence elections.

Founded in 2013, the AfD experienced a meteoric rise in its first years, winning 12.6% of the votes in the 2017 federal elections to become the first far-right party since the Second World War to enter the Bundestag. Feeding off anxieties triggered by the migrant crisis, the AfD gained as much as every third vote in certain regions of erstwhile East Germany, but has since experienced a backlash for its shift further to the right of the political spectrum. In 2020, the domestic intelligence service placed large sections of the AfD under surveillance, classifying them as a threat to the constitution.

Outside of opening and closing title cards, however, the film gives very little contextualizing information. There are few markers of time and place, no direct interviews or archival clips to aid the viewer. The film follows a handful of party members, but we learn their names only incidentally, if at all. Divided into six chapters and spanning three years, Brückner’s fly-on-the-wall documentary instead drops us into the middle of the operations, alternatingly walking us through cool deliberations of top-level meetings and high-temperature confrontations of grassroots activism. The result is a markedly composite picture that offers a sense of the heterogeneity of an organization popularly considered an ideological monolith.

The very first scene, where party workers discuss slogans coined for the upcoming campaign, lays down the orientations and beliefs of the AfD: distrust of the establishment (“Courage for Truth” goes the main catchphrase), the European Union (“More Europe, Less EU”), immigration (“Integration Needs a Dominant Culture”), eco-socialism (“Stop with the Windmills”) and a support for the army (“Modernize the Army”), heterosexuality (“Only Mom and Dad Make the Future”) and the family (“Grandkids Safeguard Grandma’s Pension”). “Screwing for pensions,” jokes one skeptical member, prompting another to point out that the slogans are there to galvanize the voter, not the partymen: the bait is for the fish, not the fisherman.

These hot-button topics recur throughout A German Party, but the film avoids sensationalism and instead emphasizes the ordinariness of the AfD’s day-to-day negotiations — a risky move that could invite charges of mainstreaming the group. The film was made with the consent and cooperation of its participants, who perhaps saw in it an opportunity to polish their public image. The individuals we see here aren’t the tattooed, tonsured skinheads of Vice documentaries, but ordinary citizens and politicians formulating responses to specific issues, solving logistical problems or involved in public outreach.

Yet, what we get is far from an attempt at white-washing, and the film sheds its mundane garb at regular intervals to reveal the pathologies of movement we are dealing with. “Those who don’t love Germany can leave,” states a speechmaker of the party’s youth faction. Another one talks about land-grabbing migrants from Africa taking up too much space in public transport. Supremacist jokes, anti-mask rhetoric, badmouthing of news media and references to Prussian valour should ring alarm bells even for the uninitiated viewer. In one sequence, party members dressed in suits drive to a refugee camp near the Bosnian border to make incendiary videos for their TikTok accounts. When they spot three figures in the far distance, they get into a mini panic and prepare to leave.

These incriminating evidences aside, the film pronounces no further judgment. It is so focused on the mechanics of party operation that every viewer is likely to walk away with their own evaluation of the AfD. There are thematic connections between the chapters, but A German Party doesn’t aim for an exhaustive portrait. Condensing five hundred hours of footage into a commercially viable two-hour runtime, the film instead positions the AfD as an elephant that can only ever be partially apprehended.

Indeed, even the members of the party perceive it in highly divergent ways. Each one has a theory of what its identity, strengths and failings are, of why the party isn’t succeeding or how it should correct course, but these assessments are riddled with contradictions. Unity is important to some, getting rid of dissidents to others. The AfD is too niche and must reach out to a wider audience, believe a few. It is already spreading itself too thin in trying to appeal to the entire right half of the political radar, think others. The fact that many of AfD’s leaders are not seasoned politicians like those in other parties is seen as both an advantage and a shortcoming.

These contradictions have to do with the evolution of the AfD itself. What is so compelling about A German Party is that it presents a political outfit fully caught up in the dialectical process of self-definition, an organization trying to identify itself through differentiation — a body at its mirror stage, as it were. The need for the party to go mainstream, to form alliances and influence policy, runs up against the image that it has built for itself, namely that it represents a force outside the establishment. The most intriguing suggestion of Brückner’s film may be that rightward shift of the party, far from signalling the formation of a coherent ideology, may actually be the fruit of a lack of clear identity; the AfD is the AfD because it is not the CDU or the NPD.

A German Party shows the degree to which AfD is caught up in an internal war between the ‘moderates’ and the ‘extremists.’ Party chief Jörg Meuthen calls the provocateurs of the party’s extreme-right factions “pubescent schoolboys,” which convinces some that Meuthen must go. (He did, in January 2022.) In convention after convention, we witness radicals elbowing out their rivals for candidacy and party positions. The fight is not just at the level of leadership; at a tiny borough meeting of three people, an elderly member bats for the deportation of Muslim families, a proposal that doesn’t go well with the meeting host.

There are other internal incompatibilities too. We see politicians promising higher financial security, better welfare, more protection from international competition to impoverished towns of the east. But a significant cross-section of the party, including its aggressive economic wing, appears to be of a libertarian tendency. The tug-of-war is most apparent on the issue of Covid-19 measures. We discover that as much as 70% of the party membership doesn’t believe that the restrictions are excessive. Yet we get the impression that the AfD condones, or has no control over, its extremist wings, Flügel and Junge Alternative, who conduct strident anti-vaccination, anti-masking rallies.

Whether this lack of consensus points to a healthy culture of debate and democracy within the party, or a kind of doublespeak that appeals to two different voter bases or simply ideological inconsistency is left to the viewer to decipher. Towards the end of the film, the residents of a flood-ravaged town refuse to take the relief money offered by the AfD, reportedly out of concern about associating with the party. Is the refusal a reflection of Germany’s robust democracy and its people’s moral courage, or is it a sign of their cowardice and self-destructive political correctness? For you to judge.

 

[First published in News9]

Crisis unites homes. If the pandemic has forced us to reassess the terms of our relationships, it has also perhaps sharpened our sensibility to the frailties of the body and the mind. That is, at least, the impression one gets from the recently concluded Visions du Réel documentary festival in Nyons. Several works that premiered at the event find expatriate filmmakers returning home, often obliged by aging and ailing parents, to capture less-than-flattering aspects of family life, elevating them into subjects worthy of cinematic consideration.

To be sure, there is nothing sordid about My Old Man, in which director Stephen Vit accompanies his successful salesman dad, Rudi, on his last business trip to China. Rudi works at a large multinational firm and is about to retire after 43 years of service. A Canadian by birth, he lives with his wife in a lush corner of Switzerland that one of his clients calls “paradise.” As a young man, though, he was a perennial globetrotter who always came home “smelling of airplanes and hotel rooms.” His retirement thus offers Stephen a chance to understand the remote figure of his childhood.

Rudi’s retired life, which his son documents on his yearly trips home, is the stuff of middle-class dreams: health, affluence, real estate, recreation. There is obviously some restlessness and boredom stemming from Rudi’s sudden loss of purpose and some discord with his wife born of his mean streak. There is also a degree of malaise in the couple’s (re)adjustment to life under a single roof after decades of virtual singledom. But the existential crisis and marital breakdown that Stephen forebodes, almost hopes for, never materializes. Yet, as his father watches old home movies on VHS tapes, something like the regret of lost years traverses his teary face. Rudi has become old.

When Peter Entell began documenting his father Max in Getting Old Stinks, the latter was already over seventy-five. An American settled in Switzerland, Peter filmed his father on his annual stateside trips over fifteen years until the old man’s death in the early 2000s. But the filmmaker didn’t revisit the footage until 2021, when he was sixty-seven years old himself, the age that senior Entell had his first cardiac arrest. For Peter, then, the film is something of a meditation on his own aging, and its title appears to reflect his feeling about the process.

The filmmaker assembles his material chronologically in a repeating structure. In each variation, we see Peter and his three elder siblings travel from all over the world to visit their father at an assisted living facility in California. The occasion is Max’s birthday and the family goes to lunch at a Chinese restaurant, gathering at the same table and ordering with the same waiter. They all wish the old man, read fortune cookie predictions and make jokes about it. After a few cordial hours back at the old-age home, they bid farewell. These variations are bridged together by old family photographs, with voiceover by Peter addressing the film to their absent mother who never had the chance to grow old.

Over the course of fifteen years, we see Max deteriorate from a sharp super-senior who trots out songs from memory to a frail figure who is hard put to recall his wife’s name. A favourite poem that he recites turns from a token of his charm to a test of his memory. The children, too, grow old, yet the jokes on the lunch table remain the same, becoming quainter with each passing year. A longitudinal study of the Entell family’s annual ritual, Getting Old Stinks is a poignant document about the ravages of time on human bonds.

When Humaira Bilkis, the director of Things I Could Never Tell My Mother, returned home to Dhaka after her studies in India, she found her once-liberal mother Khaleda transformed into a devout woman after a pilgrimage to Mecca. Where young Khaleda wanted her daughter to grow up to be a painter, she now repudiates images. She laments the fact that her daughter makes films, collects old photographs, stays out late and, most importantly, refuses to get married. It is left to the viewer’s imagination how she would react if she learnt that Humaira has a Hindu boyfriend in Calcutta with whom she has trysts in a friend’s apartment.

Khaleda’s constant sense of disappointment and maternal failure weighs heavily on Humaira. When the pandemic hits, the filmmaker is obliged to take care of her ailing parents, forced to live with all this corrosive emotional furniture. Her response? To film her life, to turn the overly familiar into something akin to a “text” that could afford her the necessary distance. It is telling that the relationship between mother and daughter is at its most cordial when Humaira is away on work in Japan and makes video calls to Khaleda, telling her of the freedom women that enjoy there.

All through, Humaira imagines her romance in terms of the love poems her mother wrote as a young woman. In turn, she narrativizes her mother’s life through the images of her film. In Things I Could Never Tell My Mother, art becomes a mediator in family life, the crutch using which individuals tolerate one another.

Filmmaker Wenqian Zhang’s mother is worried about her daughter’s future too in A Long Journey Home. Like Humaira, Wenqian has completed her film studies abroad and has now returned home to mainland China. Her mother’s worries and appeals notwithstanding, she doesn’t yet want to get married to her boyfriend (and co-producer), Yue Huang. She says she doesn’t believe all that much in marriage.

For good reason, since her own parents are an irreparably damaged couple. After a series of failed business ventures across the country, Wenqian’s father Bo is now a stay-at-home husband mistreated by pretty much everyone around. His wife belittles him at every opportunity, even hitting him at one point. His brother-in-law insults him for owing money. Even his parents-in-law, who live in the same house, use him to run errands. A pitiful figure, Bo seems the quintessential product of patriarchal pressures on men. The most tender scenes of the film feature Wenqian lending a sympathetic ear to the broken man, who is in turn more understanding of her feelings and aspirations than her excessively pragmatic mother.

Wenqian composes the film as a series of static shots, all of which are interesting in their studied composition and some of which are downright dazzling in their use of off-screen space. This formalist reserve allows her to describe the domestic space with fluency and provide us a glimpse into the relative affluence of the Zhangs.

Located at the farther end of the class spectrum, the family of Elvis A-Liang Lu, director of A Holy Family, is something you might imagine having seen in a Tsai Ming-Liang film. Laconic to a fault, his father is an incurable gambler who cannot keep away from the numbers racket even when he is dying of cancer. His mother is a perpetual sufferer who walks up and down the stairs to maintain the home shrine. His brother fashions himself as a spiritual medium, relaying concerns of paying customers to a pantheon of gods. On the side, he grows cash crops on a small patch of land subject to the vagaries of weather. The whole family seems to have surrendered its future to faith and luck, which are at times indistinguishable.

It is perhaps not surprising then that A-Liang left for Taiwan as a young man to determine his own life. His mother calls him home at the beginning of the film, broaching the subject of her death, audibly making him uncomfortable. Over the course of A Holy Family, A-Liang changes from a seemingly indifferent son to someone with pangs of guilt over ‘abandoning’ his family. Like with Humaira Bilkis, filmmaking here serves as an instrument of reconciliation with the family. A-Liang’s lot is unhappy in its own way, but his film is bracing in the way it transforms this unhappiness into a graceful portrait of a modest family playing with the cards it has been dealt.

[First published in News9]

In the Romanian film Graduation (2016), a doctor helps a local politician jump the queue for a liver transplant in exchange for fixing his daughter’s test scores. The moral corruption of an entire society is refracted through cheating in exams also in Abdullah Mohammad Saad’s Rehana Maryam Noor (2021), which screened in the New Directors/New Films programme at the Museum of Modern Art in April. Assistant professor Rehana (Azmeri Haque Badhon) is a medical professional too, but unlike the compromised physician of Graduation, she is an idealist acutely sensitive to wrongful conduct. Saad’s film describes the price that she has to pay for staying upright in a world that is forever willing to bend.

Shortly after she expels a student for cheating in an exam, Rehana becomes witness to what she perceives to be a sexual assault by Arefin (Kazi Sami Hassan), one of her colleagues at the medical college. The victim is a student who had, just earlier, spoken out against Rehana’s expulsion of her friend at the exam hall. Rehana’s conviction that the injustice needs to be exposed is at loggerheads with the victim’s desire to stay low and let it pass. Worse, her simmering anger at her colleague’s action comes up against the fact that she hasn’t actually seen the incident and the creeping doubt that there may have been extenuating circumstances.

Saad’s film puts Rehana in a pressure-cooker atmosphere, letting her resentment come to a boiling point. Set entirely within the premises of a medical college — the architecture of which is never clear — Rehana refuses to go outdoors even when its protagonist is in perennial interaction with the world outside. Even at work, Rehana is constantly on the phone, now asking her ne’er-do-well brother to pick her daughter up from school, now talking with the school principal over a disciplinary action or admonishing her mother. A single mom supporting an extended family, she needs to keep her job, a dependency that Arefin and the college dean exploit to keep her silent.

Badhon, who carries the film from start to finish, plays Rehana not just as a morally sensitive person, but as a thorough sceptic with a chip on her shoulder. The zealousness with which she guilt-trips Arefin in passive-aggressive (and sometimes plain aggressive) encounters reflects a moralist who has personal stakes in the matter. At one point, she even assumes the role of the victim to lodge a false harassment complaint — a grey area that the film uses solely to take the plot forward. Moving briskly in and out of the frame, Badhon’s Rehana has little time for either rest or idle chatter — an attitude established by her contemptuous scowl after she receives an unwanted touch early in the film.

Rehana’s vehemence is, however, understandable. After all, she has a young daughter who has been asked to apologize at school for no mistake of hers. Moreover, the film is set in 2015, that is before the explosion of the #MeToo movement, and as such, it appears to articulate the conspiracy of silence that surrounds the subject in Bangladesh, a country that is believed to have been, by and large, indifferent or at least a latecomer to the movement.

Rehana is made in the intense, muscular style that is the malaise of so much of post-Dardennes art cinema: handheld cinematography, shallow focus, realist sound design and an absence of musical score. The camera never stops moving, oscillating to impart some tension even when it is supposed to be still. It follows the protagonist from up close, observing her from over the shoulder and making the viewer intimate with her experience of her surroundings. This results in a spate of profile shots, including a long passage where Rehana repeatedly splashes water on her face to telegraph her angst. In her confrontation with authorities, in contrast, she is filmed from behind, often decentred and made vulnerable.

The decision to never leave the hospital lends the film its claustrophobic keynote, just as the dull choice of soaking the film in shades of steely blues offers no visual relief. These pre-formed ideas produce the intended effect, but at the cost of sucking all air out of the project. Too tightly bound to its script for its own good, Rehana has no more space for its audience than its protagonist. The film directs our attention at every moment, cruising like a well-oiled vehicle on autopilot, with director Saad betraying very little by way of personality or character.

The filmmaker’s personality is right at the centre of Humaira Bilkis’ Things I Could Never Tell My Mother (2022), a poignant home movie from Bangladesh that premiered at the Visions du Réel in Nyons. A portrait of familial reciprocity through art, the film inhabits the space between Humaira and her mother Khaleda. Once a liberal woman who gave her surname to her daughter and who wrote playful, longing love poems in the Hindu manner, Khaleda became a devout Muslim after a journey to Mecca, swapping her evocative Bengali verse for prayers in broken Arabic. Where she once wanted Humaira to become a painter, she now disapproves of her daughter’s vocation, declaring that, to Allah, “photos are worthless.”

Humaira’s faith, in contrast, resides in images. A collector and conserver of photographs, the filmmaker views them as ramparts against death. “You can’t see the soul,” she replies to her mother’s warning against images, “but you can see the body.” She is unmarried, a fact that gives her mother great grief. But Humaira can’t possibly tell her pious mother that she has a Hindu boyfriend in Calcutta. The filmmaker formalizes the opposition between her mother’s faith and her love affair by interweaving her interviews with mother with shots of her sneaking away to meet her boyfriend, the latter passages charmingly accompanied by Humaira reading her mother’s love poems.

Khaleda’s religiosity, it must be said, isn’t as intransigent for all that and her beliefs take a rest from time to time. She has no qualms watching cricket or television serials, and even the veil comes down when prayer is not on the mind. The filmmaker asks her mother what is it that troubles her about her daughter’s life. Khaleda thinks that her daughter is living in sin and sees it as a reflection of bad parentage; she hopes to help Humaira mend her ways by taking her on hajj. The daughter acquiesces, seeing in the pilgrimage a good opportunity to tell her mother about her romantic entanglement.

Alas, the pandemic strikes, ruling out the journey to Mecca, but also producing other kinds of stress. The filmmaker’s father is diagnosed with tumour and he loses his memory to the point of not recognizing his daughter. Mother slips into a depression and begins to lose weight rapidly. Humaira’s own relationship dissolves and she finds herself taking care of her ailing parents. The most touching passages of the film involve Humaira playing a caregiver to her father, a counsellor to her mother. She struggles to find a language to encourage her mother, drawing despite herself from the Prophet’s messages. Palliating her mother’s fear at outliving her husband, Humaira offers her own single life as a model, but it only accentuates her mother’s sense of failure.

Through all this, Humaira keeps filming, as though capturing these difficult episodes of family life were in some way a means to gain control over them. Like Chantal Akerman in No Home Movie (2015), the filmmaker holds on to images of her mother as a way of warding off her physical disappearance. In a process of filial reciprocation, she offers documentary images in return for her mother’s poems, which had so far provided commentary to her life. “May this film give a new dimension to our togetherness,” she muses, “the same way my mother’s poems give a new meaning to my life.”

 

[First published in News9]

[The following essay was published in Ultra Dogme’s dossier on Tamil Cinema.]

Nayagan (1987)

A man in a sleeveless vest is bleeding from his eyebrow,  arms raised. A hand from outside the frame grabs him by the hair and turns his face upward towards the light. A towering figure appears between the man’s face and his raised left arm, putting its arms around the man and pressing his chest with a baton. The camera pulls back to reveal the setting; the room is sparsely furnished. The hand belongs to a constable in uniform, the tall figure is a police officer (Pradeep Shakti) and the man receiving the blows is Velu (Kamal Haasan, an actor who loves to get hurt even when he is the aggressor). The inspector is wearing an undershirt too, one with sleeves, which serves a practical purpose (hitting someone is an arduous, sweat-inducing task) as well as a symbolic one (he is acting only partially in his official role). He has picked up Velu for defying him and, with the zooming camera now outside the room, he strikes his victim from behind with all his might.

A saga of Velu’s evolving relationship with law and its enforcers, Nayagan (1987) contains possibly the earliest representation of custodial torture in Tamil cinema. As such, it would set the standard mise en scène for similar scenes that were to follow: characters in partial undress, taunting dialogue, top lighting, the camera placed near the actor’s face as the hitting takes place in the background. The soundtrack is sparse, consisting only of the policeman’s exhortations, the clinking of the handcuffs, the quick claps of the baton striking Velu and the whistle of a passing train, a traumatic memory associated with a young Velu’s panic-stricken escape to Bombay following the murder of his father by the police. Velu can never go home again.

The subject of this essay is custodial violence in Tamil cinema, films produced in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, where over a hundred custodial deaths were recorded in the past two decades without a single conviction. Custodial violence represented as custodial violence. In other words, the films mentioned here have the viewer ostensibly identify with the character undergoing the ordeal rather than the one causing it. This is to rule out an ocean of Dirty Harry-type “cop movies” where custodial aggression is framed as gestures of instant justice. And though there’s an interesting historical account to be written about the transition of policemen, once respectable if minor characters, into villains in Tamil cinema, this is not the place for it.

Nor is the aim to provide an exhaustive inventory of scenes of custodial violence in Tamil films. The essay only seeks to look at certain salient representations of the phenomenon, to discern certain recurring figures of style, to trace out an outline of its formal evolution. Legal particulars are obscured for the sake of simplicity: characters may be held without a chargesheet, be under interrogation, in remand or even in jail.

While operating within the loose bounds of realism, Tamil cinema has demonstrated a surprisingly fair variety in the depiction of custodial violence. Take the instruments of torture, for instance. Most films stick to the lathi, the long bamboo pole that police all across India carry. But detainees on screen have also been treated to a belt (Thalapathy), pliers (Narasimma, Nellai Santhippu), tongs, cigarette ash (Samurai), marbles, rubber tubes (Pithamagan), palm stems (Visaaranai), an awl, barbed mace, barbed whip, salt water (Anniyan), chilli powder (Jai Bhim), electric shock (Kandasamy, Narasimma), temperature chambers (Sathuranga Vettai, Anniyan), ice cubes (Kandasamy), ice slabs (Narasimma, Sathuranga Vettai), ice dildos, cockroach rice, ant pants (Kadhalan) and even a rat in a bag (Gentleman).

The rope, in particular, has proven a versatile tool in restraining suspects and contorting their bodies into positions favourable for a good beating. Captives have been hung from a pole like a hunted animal (Pithamagan) or suspended by the wrist (Thalapathy), the legs (Gentleman, Visaaranai, Thalapathy), the biceps (Visaaranai), the thumbs (Jai Bhim) or the neck (Nayagan); they’ve had their hands tied to their legs from the front (Vazhakku Enn 18/9), from the back (Kavalthurai Ungal Nanban), from the back and strung from the ceiling (Jai Bhim). Similar taxonomies can be made for the costumes, actor positions, set design, lighting techniques, use of lenses and, particularly, the sound mix (from the dull thuds of Thalapathy to the crunching bones of Papanasam).

All this bondage, of course, spills over into sexual perversion, and the viewer may not be wrong in seeing a sublimated masochism at work in these scenes. Cinematographer Santosh Sivan shoots the custodial torture in Thalapathy (1991) like an erotic massage, but it is Kadhalan (1994) that presents a Freudian minefield. Prabhu (king of camp Prabhu Deva) is held captive for loving the daughter of a minister. The cop responsible for making him recant is not a dude in underwear, but a short haired, gutka-chewing woman in boots (Kavita Sri). If the reversal of roles isn’t emasculating already, at their first encounter, she inserts a phallic ice dagger in Prabhu’s mouth and then has him sodomized with it.

Director Shankar, who has much in common with Cecil B. DeMille, intercuts these scenes of abuse with shots of Prabhu’s girlfriend Shruti (Nagma) protesting his detention. Shruti chisels her beau’s name with a crowbar on the walls of a decrepit outhouse that resembles the dungeon where Prabhu is held. Just as the howls and the anxiogenic music accompanying Prabhu’s torment segue into a romantic number, the power of love transforms every instrument of torture into a fetish object: Shruti eats a worm in response to Prabhu being fed cockroaches, the ice dagger penetrating Prabhu’s mouth finds an echo in his finger brushing Shruti’s teeth, the hair that Prabhu finds in his food reminds him of the strands of Shruti’s hair caught up in his shirt button. Lust becomes inextricable from pain and disgust. As Prabhu is beaten, he bites on a dislodged hook from Shruti’s blouse; gigantic replicas of this device feature in a preceding song whose lyrics sacralise the lover’s bodily emanations.

Kadhalan (1994)

Things are as bodily in Visaaranai (2015) too, but in a different sense. Vetrimaaran’s third film ushered in a sea change in the iconography of custodial violence on screen, as stylized conventions make way for greater realism. A bipartite work, Visaaranai derives its effect from the way it plays off its two halves against each other. In the first part, four immigrant labourers from Tamil Nadu are held in a police station in the neighbouring state of Andhra Pradesh and coerced into admitting to a crime they never committed. It is a white-collar criminal, an extremely influential auditor, who is the object of police brutality in the second half. By wedging our perspective with the workers at the outset, Visaaranai leads us to want them to not get mixed up with the auditor, whom they helped arrest — this apathy being an important theme of the film.

The film’s principal torture sequence takes place in a portico outside the station. A bald officer—clad in a khaki shirt and a lungi, an inversion of the Nayagan dress code—instructs the labourers not to shout in pain, for there is a school next door. To break their solidarity, the cop (Ajay Ghosh) tells the ‘leader’ of the group (Attakathi Dinesh) that if he falls down when struck, the others will be beaten. Vetrimaaran films the sequence in a wide angle such that we see the aggressor, the weapon and the victim in the same shot; the blows really land on Dinesh’s bare upper body. This misplaced Bazinianism sets a frightening precedent for actors, but it is bracing in the way it made concrete, for the first time, a violence that was so far largely notional, like Bouguereau’s Flagellation of Christ set against Cimabue’s.

Visaaranai (2015)

On its appearance, Visaaranai felt new, its unremitting cruelty necessary. That the film has only a limited digression away from its main narrative and setting, that its first instance of police violence comes completely unexpected, draws us inexorably into a Kafkaesque world whose workings we can only grasp as it unfolds. Visaaranai is still a very effective, intelligent work, but also something of a victim of its own success. Many of its novelties have been imbibed and regurgitated by works that followed, its imagery of police brutality made a new gold standard, to a point that Vetrimaaran’s film feels tame and hollowed out in certain respects today.

Comparably disturbing images of police atrocity resurface in Karnan (2021). Cops run riot in a village late in the film, but a more crucial incident takes place at a police station a while earlier. Running close to two and a half minutes, the sequence is a synecdoche, a mini-movie reflective of the entire film. Rather than an individual, it is the whole community that is at the receiving end of a slighted inspector’s wrath. As the officer (Natty) rains blows on a group of elders from the village, who try in vain to take shelter under a table or the stairs, he taunts them over their lofty names, drags them by the neck and has them later thrown on the terrace as though they were bait for birds of prey. In the seventy-one shots that make up this dense and disorienting scene, sophomore helmer Mari Selvaraj manages to insert images of a constable breaking down in the adjacent toilet, a young boy watching the assault in shock, an active police siren and even a dying butterfly.

Karnan (2021)

Along with Vetrimaaran, Mari Selvaraj belongs to a generation of Tamil directors that is concerned with the politics of representation. Not only do these filmmakers recount stories of the oppressed, but in doing so, they are also mindful not to effect other forms of intersectional oppression. Yet their films frequently feel obliged to showcase elaborate humiliations of marginalized figures in order to make a case for their humanity. If they ensure that our sympathies align squarely with the persecuted, the graphic scenes of abuse in these works nevertheless offer the viewer a space to identify with the persecutor. Super Deluxe (2019) features an excruciatingly protracted passage of sexual violence in which a cop forces himself on a transgender woman — a scene whose sleaziness is safely amped up in the knowledge that the actor playing the trans-woman is only a cis-male (Vijay Sethupathi).

This tendency to put disenfranchised characters through trials by degradation reaches a crescendo in the much-discussed Jai Bhim (2021), a talismanic title that made the film unimpeachable in the eyes of its adherents before anyone knew what it was about. Jai Bhim is unusual in that it is not the star of the movie that is brutalized by the police, but a group of helpless Irulas (members of an indigenous ‘tribe’) framed for theft. This difference allows the film to crank up the violence on the suspects without any sort of gesture at resistance. The relentless abuse is intended to unsettle the viewers and precipitate the messianic intervention of lawyer Chandru (Surya), the vehicle of justice, but it also serves to excite the audience with the thrill of a forbidden spectacle: the accused are dragged by the hair, suspended by the thumbs, broken on a bench, covered in chilli paste…

There are, in fact, about ten episodes of police violence in Jai Bhim, unfolding alternatingly inside and outside the station, including raids into the Irula settlement. The most prominent of these involves a sub-inspector (Tamizh) charging at five inmates, one of them a woman, with a lathi. Set in a spare cell illuminated by a shaft of light from the window, the assault lasts all of 54 seconds, contains 41 shots and features 36 blows. (We are far from the 45-second, 4-shot, 6-blow sequence of Nayagan.) It is filmed in three kinds of camera setups: a wide angle from the top to capture the full scene, a low angle to film the blows and the cowering inmates and a reverse shot to show the grimacing policeman. But at the end of this rampage, it is the lawman who has to take a pill to check his blood pressure, a touch borrowed from a similar scene in Anniyan.

Jai Bhim (2021)

Like Karnan, this scene in Jai Bhim incorporates a large number of cuts to maintain a sense of constant unease and confusion, and like Visaaranai, the blows are actually shown landing on the bodies. But unlike these earlier films, many of the hits here are, in fact, presented in continuity in consecutive shots (shot 1: cop swings baton, shot 2: baton lands on body), which means that the number of hits visually perceived feels much higher than what is heard on the soundtrack. The canted camera, the swinging baton, the beams on the ceiling, the window bars, the slanted shaft of light, all produce dynamic diagonals that reinforce the impression of instability and chaos. The sequence is visceral, effective in the repulsiveness it evokes, but it pales in comparison to an antithetical scene later in the film, where other Irulas recount their experience of police harassment in words. These potent oral testimonies only demonstrate how impoverished graphic representations of custodial torture generally are.

When the bloody excesses of Jai Bhim were called out by reviewers, fans were quick to point out that the film is based on reality. That begs the question: whose reality? If modernist cinema has taught us anything, it is that the camera doesn’t just record facts, but transforms them into representation in a medium with its own history and tradition. Not only does the naive appeal to reality betray an ignorance of this alchemy, it also robs the audience of the important work of imagination and empathy.

The aforementioned sequence in Nayagan is not even the most memorable scene of custodial violence in the film. Shortly after Velu’s rude treatment, his foster father is killed in the police station. But this incident is not shown. Prevented from entering the station, Velu only sees the old man’s hanging legs through the cell gate. This disturbing elision is powerful and it is an object cinematic lesson when it comes to the depiction of trauma: tell, don’t show.

Filmography

Nayagan (“The Hero”, 1987, Mani Ratnam) — Thalapathy (“The Commander”, 1991, Mani Ratnam) — Gentleman (1993, Shankar) — Kadhalan (“The Paramour”, 1994, Shankar) — Narasimma (2001, Thirupathisamy) — Samurai (2002, Balaji Sakthivel) — Ramanaa (2002, A.R. Murugadoss) — Pithamagan (“The Grandsire”, 2003, Bala) — Anniyan (“The Outsider”, 2005, Shankar) — Kandasamy (2009, Susi Ganesan) — Naan Kadavul (“I Am God”, 2009, Bala) — Vazhakku Enn 18/9 (“Case No. 18/9”, 2012, Balaji Sakthivel) — Nellai Santhippu (“Tirunelveli Junction”, 2012, K.B.B. Naveen) — Sathuranga Vettai (“The Chess Hunt”, 2014, H. Vinoth) — Visaaranai (“The Interrogation”, 2015, Vetrimaaran) — Papanasam (2015, Jeethu Joseph) — Super Deluxe (2019, Thiagarajan Kumararaja) — Thadam (“The Trail”, 2019, Magizh Thirumeni) — Kavalthurai Ungal Nanban (“The Police Is Your Friend”, 2020, RDM) — Karnan (2021, Mari Selvaraj) — Jai Bhim (“Hail Bhim”, 2021, T.J. Gnanavel) — Writer (2021, Franklin Jacob)

 

[Originally published at Ultra Dogme]

The Fribourg International Film Festival, which completed its 36th edition in March, has made a part of its program available online to watch for free until April 18. Two short films in competition, one from India and one from Pakistan, make intriguing forays into social portraiture through very different formats.

Rishi Chandna’s excellent short documentary Party Poster offers a glimpse into Mumbai’s visual culture around the Ganesh Chaturthi festival. Every year, residents of Bandra’s laundrymen association commission a banner to accompany the festivities in the dhobi colony. These posters follow a convention: horizontal layout, bright background, an image of Lord Ganesh on top, lines of text inviting onlookers to the pandal, a graphic representing the legacy of the colony and, most crucially, an array of mugshots of the men (and only men) organizing the event at the bottom of the image. The latter respects a hierarchy, with the faces of the most influential individuals dominating those of junior members of the committee.

Distinguishable from movie posters that feature in countless montages about Mumbai, the festival poster is something of a self-referential object, an icon attracting worship. While its nominal function is to invite passers-by to the festival, it really seeks to draw attention to its own grandeur and to valorise those who have put it up. One interviewee in the film describes these banners as a gateway to popularity, even asserting that without them, one doesn’t even exist. After the festival, they sometimes get recycled, serving as thatching material against rain water or, tellingly, as the makeshift wall of a local shrine.

Party Poster is set in 2020, and the pandemic has had financial repercussions on the washermen community: the contributions for the festival have dropped and poster printing has become more expensive. The Ganesh idol too seems to have shrunk in response. Rajesh, Munna and Prem, the three figures that the film follows, feel strangely obliged to include Covid-awareness messages on the banner, exacerbating the fight for poster real estate: faces become more crowded, shoulders are cut off, the Ganesh image is cut down in size.

What’s worse, these awareness messages seem to be at odds with the purpose of the poster. Rajesh & co. want to lead by example by appearing with masks on the banner, but no one would be able to identify them anymore. They recognize the contradiction inherent in asking the public to stay home while inviting them to the festival. Reflected in their ambivalence is a tug-of-war between the eternal desire for community and the urgent need for social distancing. Chandna includes a very funny shot of an organizer who instructs caterers not to serve those without a mask and then, realizing the presence of the camera, quickly pulls up his own mask.

Party Poster zeroes in several such tensions that the poster culture embodies. Imitating the prime minister, Rajesh wraps a scarf over his mouth in place of a mask. He lives in a shantytown, but still believes he can work his way up the party ladder. To this end, he asks the poster designer to make the tilak on his head more prominent. The poster provides him a relief from the anonymity of the city, whose contempt for people like him is barely concealed: outside the colony stands a hoarding for a high-rise apartment complex that promises its customers “mask-free living”; that is, away from the crowd that Rajesh and his friends represent.

In Arun Karthick’s Nasir (2020), Ganesh Chaturthi was an occasion for Hindu assertion, pandals and processions staking a claim on the secular landscape of Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. In Party Poster, the festival procures a semblance of enfranchisement to otherwise marginalized individuals. It does this not only by offering them a chance to momentarily assimilate into dominant identities, but also by allowing them to participate and bond together in the open ritual of putting up banners without governmental or corporate retaliation.

The film, however, takes pains to point out that this poster culture is nonpartisan and that individuals and organizations of all stripes partake in it: political parties, professional fraternities, cultural associations. In opening the phenomenon up, Party Poster poses the question of who owns a city. The hoardings all carve out private shrines out of public spaces — an encroachment that the authorities appear to tolerate seasonally. Rajesh and his friends perch their banner on a tree by the main road. With no additional support, the installation looks fickle and Chandna amplifies the sense of fickleness by filming it from a distance at late night.

The fragility is but more than just physical. Like the festival, the empowerment that Rajesh & co. experience in putting up their banner comes with an expiry date as well. When the season comes to a close, the men carefully dismount their poster and take it back into the colony, ruling out any more outsider attention. As the credits roll, we see municipal authorities bringing down banners in a different part of the town. Public space is reclaimed and re-secularized, but in doing so, it is also reintroduced into the market for corporate bidding.

In Seemab Gul’s short drama Sandstorm, on the other hand, it is a question of private images and private spaces. Zara (Parizae Fatima) is a high-schooler from an upper middle-class home in Karachi. She has befriended a young man from another city (Hamza Mushtaq) with whom she chats every day in the privacy of her room. On his request, she sends him a video in which, sporting a sleeveless kurta, she performs a dance with her dupatta. The man saves the clip that was supposed to vanish and tries to take advantage of Zara with it.

The threat, and the boyfriend’s comment that her dance looked a little chhichhori (subtitled as “slutty”), cuts Zara’s world down and makes her realize how limited it is. She is truly free only in her room and has to lie to her father about her secret conversations. A neighbour appears to stare at her as she is removing her lingerie from the clothesline. At her all-girls school, she is taught that women’s virtue is the foundation of a civilization.

Sandstorm is indeed about gendered social norms and the double standard that men have. But the film focuses on Zara’s response to it more than anything else. Gul shoots Zara from up close, at her eye level and largely from over her shoulder, resulting in a surfeit of left and right profiles. This abstracts the world around the girl and invites the viewer into her inner life. We dwell on Zara’s long hesitation before she sends the clip, we observe her anxiety over the video leak in her interaction with others, and we see something that we seldom see on screen: the first pangs of sexual shame.

Caught between propulsive desire and restraining guilt, Zara’s reactions to the blackmail are soaked in an ambiguity that sustains the tension. Some of this ambiguity passes through the dupatta she wears, which registers first as a sensual dance prop, then as a sexual accessory and finally as a boa constrictor that wraps around Zara’s neck. On the day that she is supposed to meet him, Zara turns the dupatta into a headscarf at the request of her boyfriend, putting on and then rubbing off her lipstick. The scarf eventually helps her gain anonymity and evade the scrutiny of the man’s eyes, threatening to turn the film’s feminism — despite its obvious sympathy for Zara — into a cautionary defence of tradition: “see what happens when you don’t cover up.”

 

[First published in News9]

Writing with Fire, directed by Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh, is a documentary about Khabar Lahariya, an all-woman media company based in the Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh. But in the run-up to the Oscars, where it has been selected for the Best Documentary Feature award, the film has become the story. On 21st March 2022, the editors of Khabar Lahariya put out a statement distancing themselves from Writing with Fire, which they believe “eclipses the kind of work and the kind of local journalism we have done for twenty years.”

This soft disavowal has come as a surprise to the filmmakers, who had so far enjoyed the support of the newspaper and its journalists. Whether the volte face stems from a puritan recoil from international recognition for a grassroots organization, or a resistance to being co-opted by partisans, or simply post-election damage control, we won’t perhaps know. But the affair goes to show that, even in a closed system like filmmaking, the best intentions may not always lead to favourable outcomes.

And the best intentions, Writing with Fire abounds with. In fact, it casts Khabar Lahariya as nothing less than David taking on Goliath; the opening title cards tell us that when Lahariya was set up in 2002, it was “expected to fail,” but that it went on to “stir a revolution.” With wide-eyed admiration, the film profiles the reporters of the newspaper who brave societal discrimination, sceptical family members, unsupportive husbands, malevolent governments, corrupt police force and internet trolls to give voice to the voiceless and speak truth to power.

We don’t get to know about the history of the newspaper, its charter, its funding mechanisms or its machinery as such. The film instead looks at its everyday operations by following three of its reporters. Meera, who is currently the Bureau Chief of the outlet, was married at the age of fourteen, had children in high school, completed her masters and became something of a mentor in Lahariya’s ranks. The younger Suneeta is articulate, plucky, unmarried and a resident of a mining town devastated by illegal extraction. Shyamkali would seem to be the oldest of the three and is still a learner. Writing with Fire films them on buses, trains, autos and on foot, as they travel to towns and tiny hamlets in search of stories. The women cover a host of topics including elections, sexual assault, sanitation, illegal mining and religious radicalisation.

The film captures Lahariya at a moment of transition: after fifteen years of newspaper publishing, the company is launching its YouTube channel, which means that its employees will now have to produce video content too. Meera trains junior reporters on the use of smartphones, but there is still apprehension about the new medium. The upskilling is however successful, and over the course of the four years over which Writing with Fire was shot, Lahariya accumulated over 500,000 subscribers. Over time, the reporters themselves become savvier, more well-versed with the aesthetics and rhetoric of video reportage. The film fashions Lahariya’s growth as a value-neutral media success story, periodically showing us its increasing viewership and reach.

To see marginalized young rural women actualize themselves through education, employment and technology is thoroughly uplifting, and for them to do this through conscientious journalism is stirring. But Khabar Lahariya’s recent statements evidence a disconnect between how the organization regards its own work and the film’s response to it. There is a process of contextualization at work all through Writing with Fire that views the newspaper’s day-to-day efforts through the prism of national political discourse. This reframing obscures as much as it clarifies.

On one hand, the film’s national consciousness performs the important task of analysing Lahariya’s larger role within the political climate of the country. To this end, it stands to reason that the murder of Bangalore-based journalist Gauri Lankesh is one of the stories that Writing with Fire includes: in the film’s view, the reporters of Lahariya face adversity as reporters, in addition to their other identity-based disadvantages. The narrative firmly establishes that theirs is a risky, even life-threatening occupation that is not welcome in these quarters. In that regard, their participation in Writing with Fire may have come with the promise of some degree of immunity, in addition to publicity.

At the same time, the film’s approach reveals a tendency to simplify, to recast something new and specific in terms of the familiar. Writing with Fire explicitly pits the newly minted BJP government of Uttar Pradesh with the operations of the Lahariya, in effect bringing them on the same playing field. But what for the film amounts to a direct defiance of an extremist leader may perhaps only be the negotiation of everyday reality for Lahariya’s field workers — we don’t get to know how they perceive this exactly. Sword-wielding, effigy-burning Hindu Yuva Vahini youths make sensational fodder for the national media, but it is hard to believe that such a low-hanging fruit would provoke similar reactions among the reporters.

Moreover, in its effort to editorialize the Lahariya story, Writing with Fire risks making the mistake of sorting complex issues into distinct progressive and reactionary camps: patriarchy, intolerance, casteism and avarice are the sole dominion of the latter, while Lahariya embodies the ideals of liberal democracy. There is undeniably some truth to the classification, but any reasonable person living in the country would know that reality is more intransigent than what such mental models would allow for.

This rhetorical manoeuvre becomes something of a handicap in the film’s depiction of Lahariya as an institution. To its credit, Writing with Fire dedicates passages showing the functioning of the outlet: how raw footage by reporters is edited and transmitted on the internet by a group of younger, savvier newswomen. In the monthly meetings or yearly outing, Lahariya comes across as a fairly democratic outfit where every voice is heard. But the film doesn’t get into the disagreements and ideological differences within the organization. This homogeneity is discordant, especially as we can perceive class differences between the reporters and the newspaper’s top brass — it is probably in response to this impression that Lahariya’s statement emphasizes the heterogeneity of their newsroom.

But the accusation that the film passes off some of its own footage as Lahariya’s is more serious since it suggests a formal obfuscation rather than mere ideological simplification. Writing with Fire presents the reporters’ work through video clips that simulate the YouTube browsing experience, complete with upload titles, subscriber count and user comments. A cursory search on the site doesn’t bring up these videos for verification, but given that an original shot of Yuva Vahini members taking a selfie is cut to the same image embedded in Lahariya’s report on the topic, the charge has substance.

In the same vein, the presence of the film crew alongside the reporters called for a little more reflexivity. Meera’s inquiry at a police station is shot with two cameras and edited into a shot-reverse shot sequence. Another interview appears to be photographed with two lenses. Point of comparison: the documentary A Rifle and a Bag (2020), in which an Adivasi woman’s interactions with the state are shot with a single camera setup from the behind the functionaries. Writing with Fire raises questions that plague other works of its kind: did the presence of the film camera facilitate or complicate Lahariya’s access to people in power? What was the film’s process of collaboration with Meera and co.? How did the subjects of Lahariya’s stories perceive the film crew?

To be fair, these formal issues are challenging to address without making the work cripplingly inward looking, and the film’s introduction of extraneous footage into Lahariya’s reports may finally be excused as a lapse of judgment. Above all, Writing with Fire has a communicative purpose that it achieves with considerable success: to present and celebrate a form of journalistic endeavour that instils hope in those who find it increasingly hard to come by. By linking Lahariya’s reporting to remedial actions by the state, the film assures us, willingly or not, that that the powers that be can still be held accountable. In that, Writing with Fire is possibly more optimistic than a lot of its viewers.

 

[First published in News9]

In the biopic The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2021), nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress, Jessica Chastain plays the titular evangelist who, along with her husband Jim Bakker, preached the gospel to millions of households via satellite television, before fading away in financial fraud. The female preacher is an unusual but striking figure in cinema, embodying Hollywood’s attitudes towards both organized religion and working women.

In The Miracle Woman (1931), Florence Fallon (Barbara Stanwyck) takes to evangelism as a means of avenging her father, who dies of heartbreak after the church board replaces him with a younger pastor. In the film’s opening scene, she rages at the complicity of the congregation and drives them out of the church: “You’re thieves, killers, adulterers, blasphemers and liars six days a week, and on the seventh day you’re hypocrites!”

Director Frank Capra is often associated with sentimentalism, but there is a strong cynical streak that courses through his work. Florence’s business of saving souls is portrayed like a circus, complete with designated freaks and a pack of lions. The employees of the ‘company’ are party animals, and her manager doesn’t mind snuffing out a dissident or forcing himself on Florence.

The Miracle Woman was made at a time when the talkies were increasingly populated by wisecracking city girls. Stanwyck herself represents the quintessential screen cynic, wise in the warped ways of the world, hardened to its injustices. Her Florence is an A-rate con woman, but she is shown as someone with an uncorrupted core. Having abandoned her father’s ideals, she feels guilty and wants to come clean. She redeems herself in a climactic sequence — an inversion of the opening — where she pleads with a gathering of churchgoers to keep faith and not to abandon a burning tabernacle.

The ending of Capra’s film comes from Sinclair Lewis’ novel Elmer Gantry (1927), which was adapted by Hollywood’s in-house liberal Richard Brooks into a 1960 movie of the same name. The protagonist of the film is Elmer Gantry (Burt Lancaster), a smooth-talking city slicker who starts as a petty salesman and goes on to become a zealous crusader for God. But in some ways, Elmer Gantry is the story of Sharon Falconer (Jean Simmons), a small-town revivalist preacher who dreams of founding her own church one day.

When we first see Sister Sharon, she is dressed like a milkmaid — one among the commoners — and distances herself from the “stodgy old ministers discussing hell and damnation.” Her spiel is successful, but Gantry, who wiggles her way into her good books, has bigger plans for her. Eventually they form a tandem: he puts the fear of Hell into people while she promises them Heaven. Gantry’s increasing influence and hypnotic power is reflected in Sharon’s bewitched, frightened eyes. Caught between the old school revivalists, who still want to it to be a rural movement, and the entrepreneurial churches of the city, Sharon’s dilemma is the dramatic focus of the film.

Elmer Gantry is a caustic work typical of post-studio era Hollywood. It is hard to read Lancaster’s Gantry, who can talk eloquently about the healing power of faith, but also quote from the scriptures themselves to repudiate religion as childish. Lefferts, a skeptical journalist (Arthur Kennedy), stands in for the audience, but the film spares Sharon its cold treatment. While she too is touched by Gantry’s ambitions, her faith remains untainted, so much so that it turns out to be an expression of naivety by the film’s end. She is the New Testament to Gantry’s Old Testament, preaching love and persuading even the hardboiled Lefferts to take a knee for Jesus.

Like Sharon’s, Tammy Faye’s vision of God isn’t retributive. As a child, she grows up in a fundamentalist household where makeup is sin and mortification the only path to grace. In reaction to this punishing puritanism, Tammy projects a positive piety predicated on love for all of God’s creatures. This is what connects her to her husband-to-be, Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield), who advocates enjoying earthly pleasures at a trial sermon in their seminary.

Tammy’s unconditional love also means that she is blind to social codes and taboos that prescribe behaviour. In the film’s view, if Tammy’s actions seem to us to be models of liberal acceptance — disregarding gender segregation at parties, plugging penile pumps or inviting HIV patients on her show — it is only the by-product of her undifferentiated view of human life. “I do my best to maintain a blameless conscience before God and before men,” she tells her professor. Love of God and love of men are for her not just inextricable, but the same. That is why the medium of television exerts such a primal attraction: if TV broadcast offers millions of attentive eyes for Jim, it translates to millions of receptive ears for Tammy to spread the Good Word.

Jessica Chastain’s portrayal is challenging to pull off as well as to evaluate since it is a performance of a performance. Tammy is a superficial woman in the etymological sense of the word. All her emotions show instantly on her face and body. She nods in fervent agreement to Jim’s declarations at his trial sermon. Her professor disapproves of her makeup and compares her to a harlot, and Tammy scowls so bluntly in response that it comes across like sarcasm. “I have no secrets,” she tells Jim, “What you see is all there is of me, I don’t pretend to be something I’m not.”

This transparency and guilelessness are suspect at first: it is hard to imagine that she isn’t hiding something beneath this unambiguous exterior. But Tammy’s surface emotionality only serves to conceal a void. Chastain’s performance turns around the idea that the real Tammy Faye was a creature of the media and a purely external being. The film ascribes this hollowing-out of Tammy’s inner world to parental neglect in her childhood. When young Tammy sulks at the dinner table for not being allowed inside the church, her mother asks her to “stop performing.” To compensate for this maternal indifference, the girl creates an imaginary friend that would later become one of the puppets used on her TV show.

Cinema being an art of surfaces, it is impossible without context to tell performance from mental illness. Or from miracles for that matter. When little Tammy enters the church against her mother’s wishes, she is gripped by religious rapture and falls to the ground spouting arcane exhortations. We can’t quite say if it is really spiritual transport that we are witnessing or a devious act by the girl to get back at her mother.

If the film pathologizes her spirituality, it doesn’t question Tammy’s faith. Like Benedetta (2021), which premiered a few months earlier, The Eyes of Tammy Faye entertains the possibility that its protagonist completely believes in what she claims, even though there is the constant doubt that she may be a charlatan. Practically everything Tammy says is prefaced by a “God tells me to,” but viewers need not believe her proclamations; they only need to believe that she believes in them. By the end, despite Tammy’s dyed hair, tattooed lips and flamboyant eyelashes, despite Chastain’s deforming prosthetics and flashy tics, Tammy registers as an authentic character. This is perhaps the film’s success.

 

[First published in News9]

In comparison to its documentary and animation counterparts, the slate of nominees for this year’s Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Films cuts a sorry figure. Racism, patriarchy, ableism are formidable villains embraced for their dramatic potential, turned into reliable strawmen and dutifully slain for liberal edification.

The least contentious of the nominees, Martin Strange-Hansen’s On My Mind (2021) contains no villains as such. There is certainly a greedy bar owner (Ole Gorter Boisen) who tries to palm off expensive whisky on our protagonist Henrik (Rasmus Hammerich), but even he redeems himself at the end. The bulk of the film is a single scene at the bar where Henrik tries to convince the owner and his wife (Camilla Bendix) to turn on the karaoke set so he can sing Elvis Presley’s Always on My Mind for his wife — a song that, he says, makes the soul fly. And he only has fifteen minutes to do it. The film’s strong point is this theatrical integrity of time and place, thanks to which it is able to set up fine passages of tension.

The time pressure also creates a mystery around Henrik, who is something of a poet. He is not a great singer, but the song has a great deal of meaning for him. In the film’s opening scene, he is seen breathing heavily at the window, his exhalation creating fog on the pane. He later makes a lyrical observation about it. Henrik’s existential outlook, combined with the information that he is on borrowed time, invites the supposition that he is on death row, but the mystery is resolved differently. Compared to the critical bite that the other nominees have, however, On My Mind is practically harmless.

Towering far above its competitors is Kristen Dávila’s Please Hold (2020), a Kafkaesque parable of a man arrested without charge and faced with a lifetime in prison. The tale is timeless, but the setting is an unspecified future in which automation reigns supreme. On his way to work, Mateo (Erick Lopez) is arrested by a police drone and sent to a detention facility run by a private company called Correcticorp. There are no human personnel at the complex, with everything from catering to legal services carried out through voice-commanded AI systems, all of it charged to the prisoner’s bank account.

The film may present a dystopian fantasy, but its projections are based on questions around technology and industry that are all very current: the removal of the human element from value judgment, the commercialization of personal time, the judicial fallout of machine errors, the romanticization of hand-made objects and the conception of legal process as service. These are philosophical ideas that you might find on The Guardian’s science pages, and the success of the film lies in synthesizing them into an alarming vision of the future.

Please Hold works as well as it does because it pitches this cautionary tale about technology — software, hardware, beware! — as a dark comedy rather than drama. Mateo struggles with the computer in his cell to find a lawyer to help him, but his mounting frustration cannot be taken out on the computer screen, for it is his only chance at freedom. On his prison walls, he scribbles what may be the final words of many of us when trapped in such a future: “read the fine print.”

The Long Goodbye (2020), starring Riz Ahmed, was made as an accompaniment to the actor’s album of the same name. It is understandable then that the film’s thrust is less dramaturgical than musical. Directed by Aneil Karia, it begins with scenes from a middle-class desi household in suburban Britain. An extended family prepares for a wedding: girls gossip as they put on mehndi, a couple is playing a quiz game, Riz is learning some dance moves from a nephew, blocking his father’s view of the TV. Such episodes of curated chaos, marked by accumulating friction between characters, are familiar to us from the films of Gurinder Chadha or Mira Nair.

But The Long Goodbye shifts gears when assorted armed men, clad in black, storm the house. “It’s happening,” Riz shouts, as if this invasion were long coming. It would be no spoiler to say that the family is dragged to the streets and shot as neighbours watch the horror from behind their windows. The film breaks away from its realistic description as Riz, having survived the massacre, begins a monologue in verse. His rap, a number called Where You From, speaks of his complicated identity as a brown Briton. This is slam poetry made film and the lyrics are the kind that make Twitter go into a tizz. Viewer mileage, though, would depend on their appreciation for lines like “Yeah I make my own space in this business of Britishness / Your question’s just limiting, it’s based on appearances.”

Tadeusz Łysiak’s The Dress (2020) and Maria Brendle’s Ala Kachuu – Take and Run (2020) are products of arthouse melodrama at its high academic stage. Both films offer non-normative subjects as points of identification — a working-class woman of short stature in the former, a young woman from rural Kyrgyzstan in the latter — and make us see the problems that they face because of their identity. The style is naturalistic, the filmic expression restrained and the meaning largely presented through symbolism. Cinema, in this scheme of things, becomes what the critic Roger Ebert called “empathy-generating machine.”

Even so, The Dress comes across as a rather cruel work. Protagonist Julia (Anna Dzieduszycka) is a small person who performs room service at a small-town hotel in Poland. A frustrated virgin, she makes up for her inexperience with world-weary chain-smoking. There’s another compensation at work: as someone who has lost the genetic lottery, Julia spends all her free time playing slot machines at the local bar. She faces discrimination and bigotry every day, but chooses to stay in the town and “teach people a lesson.” Her desperation results in a funny scene of flirtation where she dares an interested truck driver to take the next step.

Except for one shot of her walking with the trucker, Łysiak films Julia mostly at eye level or in isolated shots such that we don’t see how short she really is. Her periodic conversations with an older colleague (Dorota Pomykala) are a welcome relief from her disappointments. But the film keeps insisting that Julia is an incomplete woman, doomed to look yearningly at perfect feminine bodies or vent that she’d rather be a “normal woman.” It takes her through one insult after another, as though these were the only experiences available to her.

The longest of the nominees, Ala Kachuu furnishes its main character a little more manoeuvring space, but its distortions are equally telling. Sezim (Alina Turdumamatova) is an aspiring young woman from a traditional rural family. She wants to continue her studies in the city, but her parents want to marry her off. She flees the village and takes up with Aksana (Madina Talipbekova), another single young woman whose rejection of tradition has brought disrepute to her family back home. In the city, Sezim is kidnapped by a band of men and forced into marriage. Worse, her parents accept this union and abandon her to fate.

Ala Kachuu demonstrates the perils of bringing an unreflective Western perspective to bear upon non-Western phenomena that it doesn’t have the necessary intellectual wherewithal to grapple with. Picking an extreme case within the practice of bride kidnapping, the film takes the easy out way by dramatizing the struggle of an modern-thinking individual against reactionary upholders of tradition. The film may bring more attention to the bride lifting, but what it does first is to reinforce its prospective audience’s ideas of itself and the world.

 

[First published at News9]

Disability in sport, homelessness, school bullying and war-induced displacement are some of the themes of the films nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject) this year. All five works showcase the capacity of individuals to overcome adverse circumstances.

More importantly, these films attest to an increasing willingness on the part of documentary filmmakers to incorporate fictional methods, to dramatize their material in collaboration with their subjects. Whether this impulse stems from a concern to compete with fiction films for the viewer’s attention or from a confidence in the authenticity of their narratives remains to be seen. But on the evidence of some of these shorts, we may be witnessing the evolution of a Netflix documentary aesthetic.

The Queen of Basketball (2021) is a relatively conventional biographical sketch about Lusia Harris, an icon of women’s basketball in the US and the only woman to be drafted by the men’s NBA. Harris, who passed away in January, was the tenth of eleven children in a family of sharecroppers in the state of Mississippi. Towering at 6’3”, she was part of the college team at Delta State University that won three consecutive national championships.

As a poor Black woman in the Deep South, and one who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder later in life, Harris has evidently had to overcome several disadvantages. Where a feature length documentary would have furnished more context, The Queen of Basketball touches upon these aspects of her identity only in passing. Interspersing interviews with Harris with archival clips of her games, director Ben Proudfoot focuses instead on her individual accomplishment.

Some of the sports footage is rousingly scored to Vivaldi, but Proudfoot multiplies the cuts for no apparent reason other than to impart some pace to the film. That Harris’ statements are constantly interrupted by edits may owe to issues of articulation, but when key passages of play are also broken into multiple shots, it takes something away from their power.

Basketball is often promoted as a way out of poverty for Black children, but Harris’ case illustrates a telling counter-example: as there was no women’s NBA at the time, Harris struggled to make a living, had to give up playing in order to raise a family. The film ends on the note that all her children are highly educated today, two of them holding doctorates. Does she have regrets about her shortened career?  “Maybe the world would have known my name had I continued playing. But I didn’t, so I don’t speculate,” she smiles.

Audible (2021), in contrast, is a sports biography in the present. At its centre Amaree, a football player representing the Maryland School for the Deaf. Directed by Matt Ogens, the film follows Amaree through his senior year, his relationship with his family and friends and the intense training that he and his teammates undergo after a scarring defeat. As a hearing-impaired team, Amaree and co. are certainly disadvantaged in the field in some ways, but as their coach says, it also helps them cut out the noise from outside.

An undiscerning viewer could mistake Audible for an underdog sports drama, thanks to its slick finish with stroboscopic lighting effects, slow-motion sequences and impressive sports photography. There is a pointed fictional quality to the scenes featuring Amaree’s conversations with his girlfriend and his estranged father. Interviews with Amaree and his friends are interestingly presented in sign language, without voiceover and with subtitles, which makes the film’s sound design choices more transparent. On the other hand, Amaree’s father’s speeches at the church aren’t accompanied by any on-screen sign language, prompting the question of whether the film was conceived only for the hearing.

There is lingering doubt as to what future awaits Amaree and his mates after school, when they have to go out into the world without the protection of their community. Sensitive to discrimination, however, the youngsters seem more accepting of racial and sexual differences, more determined to prove themselves equal. From the looks of it, the kids are alright.

The future is also in contention in Three Songs for Benazir (2021), the only nominee not set in the US. The film is a human-interest story that follows Shaista and his wife Benazir, a young couple internally displaced by the war in Afghanistan and interned in a refugee camp in Kabul. Shaista is faced with the option of either joining the national army or going to work in the poppy fields. The former would earn him a respectable living, but at the risk of antagonizing the Taliban, who still seem to hold sway over the refugees’ lives. Harvesting opium, on the other hand, would pose the risk of addiction and of coming under the influence of the Taliban.

Members of Shaista’s family refuse to sign his enlistment form, and his conversations with them comprise the most absorbing moments of the film. Shaista’s father tells him that, because he doesn’t have an education, someone would steal his “machine gun and satellite.” Shaista’s brothers are a little more convincing, pointing to his pregnant wife who might be widowed. Hovering over these exchanges is the US presence in the form of a surveillance balloon, an eye just as omniscient as the Taliban with their ears to the ground.

On the margins of it all is Benazir herself, a silent witness but also a moving force. Over the course of the film, shot over many years, we see her transform from a giggly girl slapping her husband’s arm to a taciturn woman covering her face in front of the camera. In the end, when she comes with her two boys to a rehab centre that Shaista has been admitted to, we perceive the toll of time on her face just as much as on her husband’s emaciated body.

Like Shaista and Benazir, some of the participants of Lead Me Home (2021) are hopeful despite their bleak circumstances. Shot in the cities of Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle between 2017 and 2020, the film explores the problem of homelessness in the West Coast. Directors Pedro Kos and Jon Shenk offer a composite if clouded picture of the phenomenon, juxtaposing everyday scenes from the lives of homeless individuals with soundbites from NGOs, policy makers and citizens. Filmed seductively in tracking or drone shots, the cities themselves become a character, their streets and parks dotted with rows and rows of shanty settlements.

The list of interviewees spans genders, age groups, ethnicities, sexual orientations and marital status, and each one comes to the welfare services with a different set of expectations and problems. The most harrowing account is that of a single mother who, pregnant again by rape, tries to keep her children away from the streets. For someone not familiar with the relevant public policy, it is not always clear why certain participants come back to the streets after getting an apartment or why they can’t find jobs. More than any of the other nominees, this is the film that needed an elaborate, Frederick Wiseman treatment.

Unlike the other four works, When We Were Bullies (2021) is structured around an absence. When filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt contacted Richard Silberg for some voiceover work, he realized that they were both perpetrators in the same bullying incident at elementary school. Amazed at the coincidence, but also ashamed at his participation in the event, Rosenblatt set out on an investigation. He reached out to all his classmates in grade five involved in the act, asking them what they remember of the victim. With Silberg, he revisited the primal scene at his school after fifty years, trying to make sense of both the event and his response to it.

It’s a remarkably powerful idea, but also an extremely challenging one, poised on the fine line between introspection and self-absorption, where the search for justice and reconciliation can easily collapse into an exercise of guilt. Written like a New York Times feature article, Bullies is unfortunately far too focused on its own process to be able to see a way out of the dilemma.

But the film’s bigger problem is formal. To illustrate his lines, Rosenblatt repeatedly employs clips from old educational documentaries such that there is a short circuit between the individuals he speaks about and the figures on the screen. The long middle section of the film consists of a series of telephone recordings whose content is visualized by extended stop-motion animation of photo cut-outs. The filmmaker generously includes his primary school teacher’s prediction about his film-in-progress: “possibly very tedious to watch.”

 

[First published in News9]

The list of nominees for the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film this year presents an eclectic slate. Spanning different genres, subject matters and styles, these works demonstrate that animation can sometimes deepen ideas and feelings in a way that live-action filmmaking cannot.

The Windshield Wiper (2021) is perhaps the most striking of the nominees in terms of animation technique, which here consists of 3D modelling over painted backgrounds. The gestures of the central character — a middle-aged man smoking in a corner of a café, lost in thoughts — are so precise and expressive that it is hard to believe that the film wasn’t rotoscoped out of a live-action film played by real actors. The impression of realism is accentuated by the ambient sound mix, which captures stray conversations in the café, as well as mock-cinematic devices like out-of-focus shots and cloud effects.

A painter by training, director Alberto Mielgo is nevertheless careful not to imitate photographic reality closely. To this end, he only picks out the salient features of his human characters and renders the play of light on their bodies in thick painterly strokes. There also appears to be some frame dropping, which takes the film further away from realism.

As the man in the café muses on what love is, Mielgo cuts to vignettes of unfulfilled romance: a young pair at a sunny beach staring at the sea in silence, a homeless man talking with a mannequin as though she were his old flame, a Japanese schoolgirl jumping off a high-rise in Tokyo, a man with a bouquet of roses in Berlin rushing for a planned date, two tattooed Tinder hopefuls in a supermarket who don’t realize that their match is standing next to them. At first, these scenes feel like the man’s reminiscences, but it turns out that they are just unconnected scenes connected by the theme of love and given the music video treatment.

Romance is also at the centre of the Anton Dyakov’s Boxballet (2020), in which a fading heavyweight boxer in Soviet Russia falls in love with a ballerina. Over their courtship, the two exchange personalities: visiting museums and dance halls, the pugilist discovers the softer side in him; the dancer, in turn, develops the inner strength to defy her sleazy trainer who offers her the lead role in his next production in exchange for sexual favours. It’s an unlikely romance between two characters whose careers are on the wane. Also on the wane is the USSR, whose history has a complex relationship with ballet. The film thus has an unusual political resonance: it is conceivable that the couple might not have existed in a different era.

While its setup recalls American film noir, Boxballet opts for an exaggerated cartoony style with caricatured characters, aquarelle colours, visible contours, charcoal-like shading and rapid cuts. Figures in the ballerina’s scenes are elongated to underscore her long legs and her flexibility, but also her frailty. The environment of the boxer, on the other hand, is characterized by an accent on volumes and solidity. He is a sack of potatoes compared to the ballerina’s carrot. This simple duality makes for some effective contrast and formal rhyming. His bulk attaches him to the ground while her litheness draws her towards the skies. Raising her hand to slap her trainer, the ballerina instead curls it to punch him on the nose.

Hugo Covarrubias’s Bestia (2021) is also a period narrative, one set in Chile during the Pinochet regime in which political dissidents were tortured and killed, often with the cooperation of private companies. The film is based on the ghastly life of Íngrid Olderöck, an executive in Pinochet’s intelligence agency, who allegedly used her dog to rape her detainees. Bestia begins by emphasizing Íngrid’s everyday life, her culinary habits, her relationship with her German shepherd and her commute to ‘work’. This quotidian reality becomes progressively unsettling as Íngrid murders abducted prisoners to upbeat music or has her pet perform sexual acts on her.

The corpulent Íngrid is modelled like a cracked china doll, with light bouncing off its glazed surface, to reflect the hollow, broken woman that she is, but also to underline her porcelain coldness. Her tiny, painted mouth hardly moves, but the film puts this impassivity to good effect. The lovingly designed décor, made of everyday material such as cardboard, wool or fur, aptly echoes the film’s central theme of the banality of evil.

Much more children friendly is Robin Robin (2021), an old-style Christmas movie about a bird that grows up among a family of mice, ill-suited to the business of stealing food from humans. It’s the only nominee that has the glossy finish of a Pixar production, with its dynamic ‘camera’ movements, hyper-sensitive character features and extremely detailed object textures. The voluptuousness of nature on display harks all the way back to Bambi (1942). The animals all have a fur that resembled pilled wool, conveying a feeling of warm domesticity.

With a runtime of just over thirty minutes, Robin Robin is also twice as long as the other nominees. The length helps the film pack four musical numbers penned by directors Dan Ojari and Michael Please. The best of these is a Tim Burton-esque sequence set in a tool shed and features a villainous cat taunting our hapless robin. As the cat bandies his victim across the shed, mechanical tools come to life in coordinated motion, turning into instruments of torture, just as the cat’s apparently consoling verses become threatening: “A robin or a mouse? After all, under the skin, you’re all the same.”

A cat is at the receiving end of violence in the fifth and the funniest nominee, Affairs of the Art (2021), made by British animators Joanna Quinn and Les Mills, who have been developing the lead character, Beryl, for over three decades now. A middle-aged housewife in a family of obsessives, Beryl recalls how monomania runs in her family. Her sister Beverly, a natural-born sadist and a precocious taxidermist, tortures small animals and is haunted by Lenin’s preserved body. Beverly’s obsession with death and decay perhaps comes from their grandmother, who would pickle any living thing that came her way. Beryl’s son Colin speaks only in Dutch and is possessed by railway signals. Beryl, for her part, is into art now, “drinking from the cup of creativity.” She makes her husband repeatedly come down the stairs naked in order to capture “the movement in between the moment of change.”

It’s the kind of neurotic bunch that you might find in films by Woody Allen or Wes Anderson. And the animation is appropriately nervous: the hand-drawn lines pile on top of one another, the colour fields exceed the lines, corrections are left visible, figures quiver with repressed energy. The writing and the voice acting are superb, and the animation matches it in its suppleness and expressivity. Motifs of aging, beauty, violence and death recur in different forms. But it is the manner in which Affairs of the Art treats patently morbid subjects with irreverent humour that stands out. It could be the winning film.

 

[First published at News9]

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