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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]

The last week of March 2022 marks the second anniversary of India’s first covid-enforced lockdown. Out of work and anxious about the immediate future, migrant workers from every part of the country decided to go back to their homelands by whatever means was available to them. The harrowing, mediatized tracking shots of men and women trudging along highways with their belongings are now a veritable part of the visual history of independent India.

Migrant labour also happens to be one of the most prominent themes of the recently concluded Cinéma du Réel documentary festival. While several films that premiered at this year’s edition explore the intersections of technology, nature, politics and work, four projects train their attention on the experiences of the expatriate working-class.

We barely see workers in Noah Teichner’s Navigators; even so, the film centres on an important chapter in the history of migrant labour in America. Following the October Revolution in Russia, the United States drafted the Immigration Act of 1918 to deport anarchists and communists living in the country. In November 1919, the US Department of Justice raided the premises of the Union of Russian Workers, an anarchist organization comprised of Russian immigrants. 249 of the arrested radicals were put aboard the USAT Buford on December 21 and sent away to the new-born Soviet Union.

Among the deportees were the anarchist intellectuals Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman, whose diary entries and letters on the voyage serve as textual material for the film. But the protagonist of Navigators is the USAT Buford itself. Commissioned in 1890, the ship was put to varied use during its forty-year lifetime. At one point, it even served as the set for Buster Keaton’s classic comedy The Navigator (1924).

Presented entirely in split screen, Teichner’s film employs three distinct formal elements. Its visual component is made largely of newsreels and scenes from silent comedies, particularly The Navigator. Clips of Buster Keaton wandering on a ghost ship are juxtaposed with excerpts from writings by Berkman describing the harsh conditions aboard the overloaded Buford over its 28-day journey. The comic images and radical text are scored to a selection of humorous anti-communist music, sometimes slowed down to the point of being unrecognizable.

In Buford, Navigators discovers an instance of history appearing first as tragedy, then as farce. But history resurfaces in other bitter ways as well. If America’s deportation of anarchists recalls the pogroms of Tsarist Russia, Lenin’s persecution of the same anarchists in the 1920s strikes a note of sad irony. Comedy and history come across as conjoint twins in the disorienting crosstalk between text and image, fiction and reality, that Navigators puts in place. Cinephiles will no doubt notice that the three-way clash of cinema, radical politics and red scare that informs the film’s formal scheme would emerge again in the Hollywood blacklist of the late forties.  

Migrant workers are also deported in Jessica Johnson’s Anyox, which mixes current-day footage of a former mining town in British Columbia, Canada, with archival material from the twenties and the thirties, when the site was owned and administered by the Granby Consolidated Mining corporation. During its heyday, about half of the company’s workforce was made of immigrants from Central Europe who mostly worked at the mines, while labourers from English-speaking countries were deployed at the smelting facility. The workers all appear to have been sensitized to their rights by political newspapers available in a host of languages.

Compelling the viewer to read forbiddingly long reports and newspaper clippings, director Johnson provides a detailed account of the agitation that gripped the town in the thirties. Since the company owned all the businesses in Anyox, the worker’s sustenance-level salaries came back to the firm in the form of shopping receipts and dorm rents. When the demand for copper plummeted during the Great Depression, the company further cut down wages. The employees struck, demanding better living and working conditions. The police intervened, hundreds of strikers were put on barges and expelled from the town.

The immigrant workers of Crossing Voices, on the other hand, returned to Africa of their own volition. In 1977, fourteen migrant labourers working in France travelled to Kayes, Mali, to establish a farming cooperative named Somankidi Koura. The group had first met in Paris as members of the Cultural Association of African Workers in France (ACTAF), which fought for the rights of migrant workers, but also supported the liberation struggles of Portuguese colonies in Africa. ACTAF members protested the lamentable living conditions for African labourers, housed in terribly equipped, undersized dormitories in suburban Paris.

Following the liberation of the Portuguese colonies in 1974, however, the group turned its attention to the droughts that were gripping the Sahel region. They came to the realization that the very phenomenon of African immigration to Europe has its roots in the exploitative practices of colonial agriculture: the colonisers’ insistence on cash crops such as peanuts had eroded the quality of the soil in rural Sahel, producing the drought and the subsequent exodus of rural workers to cities, including in Europe. In order to address the problems of urban immigrant life in France, one then had to address the state of rural agriculture in Africa.

To this end, the group undertook underpaid internships with French farmers. They carried this knowledge back to Africa, their reverse journey from Europe a symbolic undoing of the effects of colonial economics. “To fight the sun and the famine, our weapon is the daba (pickaxe),” became their motto in establishing the Somankidi Koura cooperative.

Using material from public archives and the personal collection of filmmaker Bouba Touré, one of the co-founders of the cooperative, Crossing Voices illustrates the continued struggles of immigrant and illegal workers in France and contrasts it with the everyday operations of the cooperative. Spanning decades, continents and economic activities, the film offers a cogent historical analysis of blue-collar emigration from Africa.

The politics of migratory labour takes a backseat in Caught in the Rain, which instead adopts an oblique, lyrical approach to representing migrant life. The setting is a nondescript residence in Belgium. Two African men are engaged in what appears to be fragments of renovation work, peeling old wallpapers, clearing scrap materials or doing the laundry. But there are interruptions: responding to offscreen signals, one of the men abandons his task and rushes outside. It rains a while later, and the man lets half-a-dozen other immigrants inside. They wait until the rain stops and then make their way out as quietly as they came in.

We learn shortly that the two workers were picked up by the police five months ago on a raid. The men, it appears, are illegal immigrants squatting in this abandoned house; far from distraction, their alertness to off-camera stimuli is indicative of their uncertain situation, a compulsion to be ready to flee anytime. But this scenario isn’t treated for dramatic effect.  

Rather, the film unfolds like a haiku; instead of putting their actors through a narrative, directors Mieriën Coppens and Elie Maissin photograph them in partially-lit profiles, lending them a monumental presence that underscores their silent dignity. There are precedents to this approach in the work of Pedro Costa or even John Ford. But the film’s rarefied portrait of immigrant labour and community life is moving in its own right. In their apparent precarity, their quiet desperation, the workers here call to mind India’s nameless, numberless migrant labourers who, too, were forced to run for shelter, caught in the metaphorical rain.

 

[First published at News9]

Slavoj Žižek once argued to the effect that capitalism can only truly be actualized in a communist state like China. In Ascension (2020), nominated for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar, American filmmaker Jessica Kingdon travels to the country that she has roots in to test this hypothesis, as it were. Amassing footage from factories, markets, corporate offices, training seminars, recycling plants, business conferences and theme parks, Kingdon builds an experimental documentary that seeks to illustrate the march of the free market, Chinese style.

The film opens in a literal labour market where head-hunters from various companies recruit blue collar workers like hawkers selling wares. They announce the nature of the job (standing/sitting), wages offered, allowances and other curious requirements: no tattoos, no prison record, perfect vision, no metal implants in the body and maximum allowed height. Once the quorum is achieved, company buses ferry the new recruits to their respective dormitories and workplaces.

Shortly after this, we see vignettes of Taylorized labour from the food, textile and packaging industries: workers sort roasted ducks, jeans pants, plastic bottles or syringes, while elsewhere, they segregate incoming trash for recycling. The job is repetitive, but the procession of commodities on conveyor belts makes for alluring patterns. Soundbites present employees’ complaints with their bosses and their pay.

This section also contains the most extraordinary find of the film: a nearly all-woman shop floor that manufactures life-size sex dolls. The women are absorbed in work, either designing the dolls or instructing trainees on finer details. Their precision and skill make them look like gynaecologists or coroners; they measure the size of nipples, craft private parts, glaze the skin and fill cavities. They handle chemicals and high-temperature tools without gloves, and this scene of women exposing their real bodies to hazard in order to produce fantasy bodies makes for some uncanny images.

Half-an-hour into the film, the attention turns to the service industry, where neophytes in different domains are put through arduous, even inhuman training regimes. This is evident in the episode set in a company that supplies security personnel. Indistinguishable from an army boot camp, the firm’s induction programme humiliates recruits for their mistakes, makes them slap each other until they are sore and has them perform dangerous car stunts. But equally rigorous are the preparatory classes in the field of hospitality, where candidates are instructed on how many teeth to show when smiling or how high to raise the arms when going for a hug.

How is capitalism à la chinoise different from capitalism elsewhere? For one, it is complicated by forces external to the market, but not inimical to it. Ascension traces how the Chinese state’s emphasis on civic virtues combines with free market values to inculcate an economic morale in the citizens. Trainees pledge their “loyalty” to the company: “I will behave myself!  I will follow orders!” they declare marching. The Chinese dream — hard work guarantees success — is only the American dream in garb, but when laced with a dose of wounded nationalism, it can become a moral imperative.

Ascension, however, has greater ambitions and makes forays into the informal economy of freelancers and influencers — the subject of Shengze Zhu’s fine documentary Present.Perfect (2019). Streaming their lessons or everyday life simultaneously on different online portals using multiple smartphones, these young entrepreneurs use the same predatory language of their corporate counterparts: “knowledge that is monetized is useless” avows one personal branding guru; “influence or be influenced,” states another.

The film trains its guns finally on the consumers themselves: hordes of young college goers enjoying theme park rides, kiddies on a day out at the water world, gamers sealed to their seats playing Dota in internet cafes. We accompany an affluent family that at an upscale restaurant, served by the waiters we have just seen in training. They discuss European table manners, cutlery design, ski resorts and the trade war with US. It would seem that the elites are in some kind of self-training too, modifying their manners to imitate old world bourgeoisie.

Ascension contains some on-screen text and snatches of conversations between factory workers. But there are no voiceovers or talking head interviews with authorities to guide us through its narrative. It is indeed admirable that the film expects the audience to do the intellectual labour of accessing its meaning. But this comes at the cost of rigour.

Ascension is characterized by the bloat that often accompanies an overabundance of research material. Like American documentarian Lauren Greenfield, Kingdon has enviable access to scores of factory floors, corporate training programs and consumer forums — access whose details she does not care to reveal. Her film seems gripped by the anxiety of leaving anything out from the wealth of footage that must have come from this outing.

The result is a highly unwieldy film that goes everywhere and nowhere in particular. It isn’t that Ascension has no discursive framework, but that its material is so wide-ranging and scattershot that the film’s argument is generalized and its focus spread thin. Kingdon jumps not just across industries, factories, work sites and job descriptions, but also across economic activities and modes of being. The film’s vignettes are all connected by the single fact that the participants in them are embedded in the capitalist machinery. But then, who isn’t? Filmmakers perhaps. That Ascension is produced by MTV, a network known for shaping late-capitalist visual culture, is an irony that the film lets pass by.

It is to Kingdon’s credit that the film does not devolve into a freak show like Greenfield’s Generation Wealth (2018) or Sascha Schoeberl’s Mirror, Mirror on the Wall (2020), although the shot here of an automatic piano playing the Addams Family theme doesn’t exactly feel out of place. The filmmaker is also able to capture workers during their “down time”, breaking for lunch, taking a nap or watching videos at work.

These embellishments aside, the dominant note of Ascension, amplified by a nervous-making score, will only serve to reinforce the viewer’s prejudices: factories are dehumanizing places, the rich are fake and shallow, the service industry is a put-on, and the planet is drowning in our greed and glut. The film’s formal gambit, which has precedents in non-narrative works such as Godfrey Reggio Koyaanisqatsi (1982) and Ron Fricke’s Baraka (1992), means that we barely get to know the opinions of the participants themselves on work, money and good living.

The concern that Ascension exhibits about the malaise of our times is obviously justified. But its diagnosis lacks the discipline and precision needed to advance the debate. There is a shot of a caged ostrich late in the film, sandwiched between sequences about video gamers and theme park visitors. Its purpose or emotional logic is unclear, and like much else in the film, it is washed away in the excess on display. Kingdon’s film needed just what its subjects do: a little bit of minimalism and abstinence.

 

[First published at News9]

In Thomas Balmès’ docu-fiction hybrid Sing Me a Song (2019), a young Buddhist monk-in-training in rural Bhutan is obsessed with his smartphone and decides to travel to Thimphu to meet a singer that he has discovered on WeChat. At the centre of Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom (2019), the first Bhutanese film to be nominated for the Oscar award for Best International Feature Film, there is a young man obsessed with gadgets too, but he is forced to make the reverse journey.

Ugyen (Sherab Dorji) is an orphaned middle-class public-school teacher in Thimphu who dislikes his job. He wants to emigrate to Australia and become a singer, a fact that upsets his grandmother (Tsheri Zom) and surprises his friends. At the office of the education secretary, he gets a scolding for his lack of motivation and receives a punishment posting to the mountainous village of Lunana, which shelters “the remotest school in the world.” (That the ministry posts their worst teacher to their neediest school is more telling.) “I can’t do this, I have an altitude problem,” he demurs. “You don’t have an altitude problem, you have an attitude problem,” the secretary hits back.

With his Australian visa still under process and his contract with the ministry still active, Ugyen is compelled to leave for Lunana, a location five kilometres above sea level and only accessible after eight days of arduous trekking. Over the course of the trip, on-screen texts alert us to the increasing altitude and decreasing population. Ugyen begins in denial, disregarding the villagers who have come to receive him, burying his head instead in his smartphone and iPod. He shuts himself off from the captivating sights and sounds of the landscape, its beliefs and mores, until the batteries run out, forcing him to engage with his surroundings. He comes to notice the harshness of life in the highlands, its grinding poverty and its changing climate.

Way before he reaches his destination, Ugyen is welcomed by the entire population of Lunana. The head of the village Asha Jinpa (Kunzang Wangdi), who becomes something of a father figure to Ugyen, accompanies him to his residence. There is no electricity, the toilet is a hole in the floor, and the windows are covered with paper. The school, too, is poorly equipped. There is no blackboard, paper is scarce as money, the desks covered in dust; it’s that the school shuts down in winter, when the designated teacher has to leave Lunana before the village is snowed in. Ugyen is understandably vexed and tells Asha that he wants to leave at the earliest opportunity.

Right off the bat then, we know the familiar direction that the film will take. A city brat, Ugyen will be disabused of his prejudices and will learn to appreciate life in the highlands, thanks to noble villagers. Sure enough, as he begins to reluctantly teach the children of Lunana and those of the neighbouring villages, Ugyen comes to perceive the value that his teaching holds for them. His iPod is relegated to a corner of the house and his beloved Australia brochure turns into a scribble pad for song lyrics.

The narrative simplicity and emotional clarity of Lunana should not, however, occlude its subtler qualities. There is very little musical score in the film, with most of the songs that we hear sung by the characters themselves. This spareness, like the acapella songs of the herders, serves to deepen the viewing experience rather than supplant it. The yak that the singing herdswoman Saldon (Keldon Lhamo Gurung) ties in Ugyen’s classroom has a symbolic function, but it isn’t rubbed in our faces.

Likewise, the actors, a mix of professionals and villagers alike, don’t go beyond a given range. Their reactions are not amped up for effect. Sherab Dorji’s Ugyen is introduced as a self-absorbed, indolent fellow, but the performance and the writing don’t allow this to devolve into petulance. Nor do they distort the character to effect a transformation in him. There is certainly an evolution to Ugyen, but it isn’t a Damascene conversion that he is put through.

Indeed, the staying power of Lunana (and the gut punch it delivers at the end) might have to do with the fact that it doesn’t resolve the tensions it sets up. There are no miracles in the film. Ugyen decides to stay back in the village not because he changes, but because he is contractually obliged. We don’t know what happens to his girlfriend in Thimphu, and his attraction to Saldon isn’t brought to a completion either. A dissolve late in the film from the mountains of Lunana to the Bondi beach in Sydney is quite unsettling in this respect.

The importance that Bhutan accords to its citizens’ happiness is rightly renowned — Ugyen sports a T-shirt that promotes Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness index — but the film raises the question of what that happiness consists of. Ugyen’s aspirations would have him move to Australia to pursue a career in singing, but his work as a teacher effects a positive change in many more lives. In that sense, his move from Thimphu to Lunana foreshadows his planned move to Australia, with the difference that it is his personal wishes that are snuffed out here rather than those of the people around him. It is the classic conflict of modernity, one between the desire of an individual and the needs of his community. Flee gives it a specific form by refracting it through Bhutan’s education policy.

Curiously, the anxiety that Ugyen’s impending emigration produces is framed firstly as a matter of abandoning national responsibility rather than as an error in his judgment of his inner needs. Ugyen’s grandmother, who vanishes from the film early, is worried less about his posting to Lunana than about his decision to resign from a government job. In the village, wide-eyed children speak of their ambition to serve the king. They sing the national anthem every day, even if they don’t know of a world beyond the mountains. The faith that the villagers in the film repose on the power of education is thoroughly moving.

Lunana’s journey to Oscar nomination is a story of its own: made in 2019, it was disqualified from submission because Bhutan did not have an Oscar committee to send films through. When it was resubmitted through a newly formed committee the following year, the Academy had to add Bhutan to the list of countries in their submission portal. Over the past two years, the film has won numerous awards at festivals and found distribution in several countries.

More than its commercial power or aesthetic merit, however, Lunana must first be seen as a gift. To bring back images, to tell stories of people from a place without electricity, with very little access, is a logistical marvel, but a film from underrepresented cultures also opens us up to lives and landscapes that we might not have otherwise known. Without Lunana, we may not have known of Pem Zam, the heart-breaking school captain who plays herself in the film, and that would have been a loss.

 

[First published at News9]

Animation films can conjure worlds that don’t exist, furnish a picture of how things could be. But they can also make interventions into our world, make visible all that is unseen in it, all that refuses to be seen. It is perhaps for its expressive qualities that some of the better animated films of recent years have put it at the service of real biographies. Persepolis (2007) described a young Iranian girl’s search for identity in Europe. In Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir (2008), an army veteran struggles with the memories of the 1982 Lebanon War. In Danish filmmaker Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s new work Flee (2021), a refugee gathers courage to recount his painful journey from Afghanistan. The film has been nominated for the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film, Best Documentary Feature and Best Animated Feature — an unprecedented combination.

The refugee in question is Amin (a fictional name), a man of about forty who fled the Taliban with his family as a young boy. Amin, his mother and his three siblings took shelter in post-Soviet Moscow and waited for his elder brother in Sweden to help them into Europe. In Moscow, the family was harassed by the police for overstaying their visa and were threatened with repatriation. With the help of small sums of money, Amin’s sisters were smuggled into Sweden in subhuman conditions. Amin’s fate was determined by his trafficker, who dispatched him to Denmark, away from his siblings, with the instruction that he should never talk about his family. After decades of silence, Amin finally opened up to filmmaker Rasmussen, his long-time friend, resulting in the film.

Rasmussen has a background in radio and he says he initially approached Flee like a radio documentary. Over four years, he interviewed Amin at his own convenience and pace — a process that is illustrated in the film — and amassed over fifteen hours of testimony. At some point, he expanded the project into a documentary film. Amin was concerned that this might expose his identity and bring him unwanted attention. When Rasmussen got a chance to participate in an animation workshop a while later, he found a solution to the dilemma: the project would now be an animated docudrama.

Rasmussen condensed the material he had gathered down to around two hours, which then served as the base for an animation team led by Kenneth Ladekjær. Sifting through many visual styles, Rasmussen and Ladekjær decided on a kind of hand-drawn, 2-D animation that, while vivid in its anime-like discontinuities and its lack of photographic smoothness, does not diminish the gravity of Amin’s experience.

This process meant that the narrative was strictly guided by Amin’s words. Even details that aren’t accompanied by his description have the texture of recollected memory: a young Amin brushing his sister’s hair as she trades Bollywood cards with a friend, posters of Bloodsport or Mardon Wali Baat in his bedroom, point-of-view shots of treetops or street lights as Amin is being trafficked through forests and cities.

The choice to animate the film helps conceal Amin’s identity, but it also serves to solve an ethical problem. Flee contains several harrowing passages of human suffering that would have been questionable were they dramatized using actors: Amin’s sisters being transported in cargo containers, his family traveling in the deck of a trafficking boat or Amin fleeing the mujahideen. During these episodes, the film’s animation segues into black-and-white abstraction such that we only see the barest details of what follows. The result retains the horror of the events while affording us a necessary distance from them.

It isn’t that Rasmussen doesn’t want to show violence and hardship on screen. Woven throughout Flee are archival newsreels and TV clips, presented in a boxed-in frame, of the unrest in Afghanistan following the communist overthrow of the monarchy, the civil war after the withdrawal of Soviet troops, a sordid refugee camp in Estonia and other scenes of human trafficking. Some of these are disturbing, bloody scenes. It is rather that, in animating the personal experience of refugees like Amin, the film offers private images where public archives fail. In the process, the film is able to develop a more rounded portrait of displaced persons than what the media presents.

In framing Amin’s past through his interactions with the filmmaker, Flee foregrounds testimony over truth. After all, Rasmussen has no other material to corroborate his subject’s account. But this reflexivity isn’t used to cast doubt over his friend’s past. Late in the film, Amin recalls being unable to control his tears while recounting his story to the Danish authorities as a teenager, even though this story was made up by the traffickers who brought him into the country. The film’s focus is not the accuracy of Amin’s recollection of his past, rather the weight that this past has on his present.

To this end, Rasmussen intersperses Amin’s biography with tensions from his present life. Amin’s boyfriend Kasper is looking for a new house in the Danish countryside for them to settle in, but Amin has plans to move to the US to pursue his post-doctorate — a fact that he reveals to Rasmussen first. One prospective house reminds Amin of his time at an asylum, and he is worried about slipping into depression at this new place. On the other hand, Amin’s constant peregrination rests heavily on him and he expresses a wish to settle down. But this desire for home is strained by Amin’s quest for academic excellence, which he feels he owes his family, who sacrificed everything for his survival.

Flee illustrates with remarkable economy how Amin’s traumatic past has a strong bearing on the image he has of himself and others. He feels responsibility for his elder brother not being able to start a family because the latter had to spend all his money trying to rescue his siblings. The freedom and sense of self that Amin gains as a gay man in the West comes at the cost of a sense of community that he had back home in Afghanistan, where his queerness would have brought his family into disrepute. Amin’s progressive acceptance of his homosexuality is thus accompanied by a progressive dissolution of his family. In that respect, until the confession that is Flee, he has always had to lead a double life where a part of his identity had to be kept under wraps.

Rasmussen knows Amin since high school, but it reportedly took Amin twenty-five years to be finally able to tell anyone his story. Amin explains this reticence in terms of the fear of being repatriated by the authorities — a fear that became a real threat when he confided once to an ex-boyfriend. “When you flee as a child, it takes time to learn to trust people. You’re constantly on your guard, even when you’re in a safe place,” notes Amin as he lands back in Copenhagen after his post-doctorate. At the airport, he stares at Kasper from a distance for a long while before approaching him. It isn’t just that Kasper represents a “safe place,” but also that he represents home — an idea that is inextricable from anxiety for Amin, who has always had to flee it despite himself.

 

[First published at News9]

Lips don’t touch when you say Gehraiyaan (“Depths”), the title of Shakun Batra’s third film. But they are always sealed in this story of cheating, subterfuge and long-kept secrets. Deepika Padukone plays Alisha, a yoga instructor living with adman-turned-aspiring-writer Karan (Dhairya Karwa). She is estranged from her father (Naseeruddin Shah), whom she holds responsible for her mother’s suicide. She meets her affluent cousin Tia (Ananya Pandey), who is in town to meet her social climbing fiancé Zain (Siddhant Chaturvedi), a property developer beholden to her money. The four set sail on a yacht to Tia’s swanky beach house outside the city. Tia and Karan are long-time friends, and in their shared feeling of being outsiders, Zain and Alisha fall for each other and begin an affair. Matters are complicated as Karan proposes marriage to Alisha and as Zain gets into financial issues, finding himself increasingly dependent on Tia’s wealth. The narrative proceeds like milk on a low flame.

Besides its plot-level similarities to Match Point (2005) or even Cassandra’s Dream (2007), there is possibly another reason why the film recalls Woody Allen. Gehraiyaan is written like a Greek tragedy in the way it moves ahead with a sense of inevitability. I can think of no event in the film that could been removed without bringing the whole edifice down. Like Oedipus, Alisha thinks she is breaking out of her preordained fate by making choices, but all of it only seems to lead her to the ultimate punishment of forbidden knowledge. (She believes she is unlucky in life, but it is precisely a stroke of luck that saves her from death.) It is, however, not a divine law that she transgresses by her actions. If Woody Allen’s universe is a morally neutral place where goodness is a pose, justice a matter of chance, the world of Gehraiyaan is ruled by a moral law governing the family, which revisits the characters in tautological forms and holds terrible sway over their lives. In the most touching moment of the film, Alisha’s father looks at a pair of bloody scissors that Alisha, her world shattered, has used to try and cut herself with. He grits his teeth and quietly withdraws into his room. It’s that he has seen this before.

Gehraiyaan is about the inheritance of malady, and its tight writing sets up a domino chain of personal choices that wreck other people’s lives: Alisha’s mother’s mistake estranges her husband, whose aloofness upsets Alisha, who, not wanting to end up like her mother, forces the issue with her fiancé. Differently put: Tia’s father’s mistake estranges his wife, whose inability to trust carries over to Tia, who, not wanting to end up like her mother, forces the issue with her fiancé. It is uncanny how Alisha’s self-image, her idea of where she is in life, is poised on her perception of her parents’ relationship — a self-image that could have been completely different had she read the relationship differently. In spite of the social bubble that they live in, the characters of Gehraiyaan are anchored, imprisoned in their personal past. Because of the film’s artful dodging, I was first led to believe that the writers are giving Alisha the same raw deal that they gave Ratna Pathak Shah’s character in Batra’s earlier work Kapoor & Sons (2016), a sense that she is ascribing her misery to her partner’s lack of material progress. Thankfully, this turns out to be not (entirely) true.

Gehraiyaan attests to a marked leap in Shakun Batra’s directorial capabilities, and I get the feeling that he aspires to an invisible style that can adapt itself to different kinds of material. The director’s hand that was a little too palpable in Kapoor & Sons retreats into the background in the new film. There is, to be sure, the Woody Allen-like treatment to bickering characters, with the Steadicam trailing behind actors walking in and out of room. But for the most part, the film displays the anonymous slickness that characterizes the work of several Hollywood auteurs. On the other hand, it is also clear now what kind of situations that get Batra’s juices flowing: sequences turning around withheld information set in partitioned spaces, of which there are multiple in Gehraiyaan. The night-time set-piece on the yacht with Alisha and Zain is superbly directed; despite the literal quality of its lyrics, the score is genuinely ambiguous and Padukone perfectly conveys the drowsy sickliness that hits the stomach following a revelation like that. This scene alone is a calling card to Hollywood.

Another unusual aspect of Gehraiyaan is how much of its story is actually conveyed by actors talking to each other. Where a more traditional filmmaker might have staged the episodes from the characters’ past as flashbacks, Batra has them delivered to us largely in words. So we have Tia telling Zain about Alisha’s father, Alisha telling Zain about Tia’s relation to Karan, Zain telling Alisha of his abusive father, and so on. This disregard for the golden principle of “show, don’t tell” has two effects. It brings the characters closer to one another, and not just the ones talking. But more importantly, it allows the film to remain with just these handful of characters for almost its full runtime. What struck me about Gehraiyaan is how little excursion it makes away from its central figures. We don’t see Tia’s father, her mother only appears in video calls, Alisha’s mother is unseen except in Lynne Ramsay-like flash inserts and Karan’s parents barely register. Scenes are centred, instead, on interactions between any two of the four protagonists (the film is a repository of two-shots). The result of this economy is that the world is whittled down to these figures, the movie turning into a kind of chamber drama scattered across the city.

Which city, though? Gehraiyaan is nominally set in Mumbai, but it is starkly different from the Mumbai we usually see on screen. This was already the case with the de-Coonoored Coonoor of Kapoor & Sons, but it appears that Batra doesn’t even want to use the city for local colour here. The bulk of his new film takes place in private (or privatized) spaces: apartments, holiday homes, upscale restaurants, hotel rooms, yachts, corporate offices. Except for a carefully curated section of the Marine Drive, there are no crowded public spaces, and public transport is limited to taxis at best: no teeming locals, no quaint BEST rides as you’d see in a Mani Ratnam movie. The sight of unwashed masses is kept out of the frame just like intense tints are kept out of the sober, matte colours of the visual palette. The most jarring shot in the film is perhaps the one where we see Zain stop at a corner store carrying a flashy hoarding. Even the Indian tricolour on top of Zain’s yacht seems out of place.

So would an American flag for that matter, for these people don’t seem to belong to any particular place. Gehraiyaan produces the impression that it could have taken place anywhere in the world (and I don’t mean this as a put-down). It seems like a deliberate decision on Batra’s part to de-familiarize the city, to renew its iconography. His solution is to turn it into a kind of Los Angeles outside of Los Angeles. Its title notwithstanding, Gehraiyaan is a film of surfaces, its imagery of Mumbai closer to David Hockney’s LA than anything closer home: pools and skylines, glass and reflection. It is a work that would be at home in Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003).

Despite the cloistered quality of its narrative, despite the characters’ writerly laments that they feel stuck, the feeling I got from Gehraiyaan is a sense of openness. A large part of it has to do with the film’s extremely wide aspect ratio (2.39:1), which is able to fit not only Zain’s rented yacht, but also Padukone’s long legs, which determine the composition in many shots. The skyline, the sea, the beach, the yacht all establish Gehraiyaan as a strongly horizontal film and redouble the sense that it is an LA movie superimposed on Mumbai, like Tia’s accent which, to my ears, straddles Valleyspeak and South Bombay talk.

Given Zain is a property developer, it is understandable that the film has an interest in horizontality. Gehraiyaan may be a middling movie about relationships, but it is a very good movie about real estate. Even within the privileged cocoon of the story, there are finer class stratifications: Tia the rich, Zain the arriviste, middle class Alisha and the bohemian Karan. But more crucially, their relationships are all mediated by private property. “I need some fucking space,” Karan cries out, but it is more than just mental space. He and Alisha live in a tastefully decorated (and tastefully dishevelled) 2-BHK (or 3?), but they are trying to move to a new apartment — a fact that Alisha sheepishly tells Tia when the latter comes slumming. To write his novel, Karan moves into Tia’s beach house in Alibaug, which Tia lets Zain mortgage following business trouble. Zain sets up a studio for Alisha, using it as address for a shell company. Relationships in this film sour because real estate deals sour. No money, no honey. There you have it: Gehraiyaan, Marxist movie.

[The following is a translation of Luc Moullet’s short monograph Luis Buñuel (1957), the fifth volume in the series Les Grands Créateurs du Cinéma, published bimonthly by the Club du Livre de Cinéma in Brussels. I’m extremely grateful to Samuel Bréan for finding me a copy of this rare volume.]

 

Contradiction is the root of all movement and vitality; it is only in so far as something has a contradiction within it that it moves, has an urge and activity.

– Hegel

In our time, in our era of blockbusters and epic films, Luis Buñuel’s work and career stand out. While the vast majority of important filmmakers choose to marry art and commerce, with varying degrees of success, Buñuel confines himself to low-budget ventures, just like Roberto Rossellini. He thus enjoys a great deal of freedom: producers’ interference is limited to the choice of subject, which is generally very banal, and to the development of the script. The filmmaker imposes the expression of a highly distinct personality on such weak material. El río y la muerte (The River and the Death) was completed in fourteen days; technically it is superior to many French films, and in terms of quality, it has nothing to envy most of Buñuel’s great works. Like a novelist, the maker of L’Âge d’Or and El (This Strange Passion) works for his own pleasure; that is why the most mediocre of his offspring, the most industrial of his films, still bear his mark. This is a kind of miracle that cinema is not familiar with.

 

The Surrealist Experiment

One of the main constants in Buñuel’s work has often been explained using his Spanish origin. I’m referring to his taste for cruelty and violence, which also throw light on the inclinations of his personality. He was born at the dawn of this century, on 22 February 1900, in a small town in Aragon, Calanda, located on the edge of the famous Sierra de Teruel. After spending ten years at a Jesuit school, he left his provincial bourgeois parents for the University of Madrid, where he studied science, particularly neurology: physiological phenomena had always captivated him, as had the life of animals. But the Castilian capital attracted him towards less studious pursuits. He enjoyed idleness and led a merry and dissipated life. This is how he became friends with two of the greatest creators of twentieth-century Spain, Federico García Lorca, the poet, and Salvador Dali, the painter, who were then young unruly students. Buñuel’s films retain some of Lorca’s tragic lyricism and, above all, Dalí’s phantasmagoria.

Un Chien Andalou (1929)

Our young man was soon to be found in Paris, where he worked as a scientific attaché. But he was interested in many other things. Dali, who lived on the banks of the Seine, introduced him to the Surrealist Movement, in which Buñuel discovered an equivalent to his taste for the unusual. Cinema seemed to him to be the best means of expression, one that allows one to show the most amazing aspects of reality. After a first script, written from a surrealist perspective, which he could never shoot for lack of means, he took technical lessons, a trial run for Un Chien Andalou (1928). This small, fifteen-minute silent film made a great impression at the time and is still the biggest hit at film clubs today. The story, written by Dali and Buñuel, doesn’t follow any logical rule; underlying the main plot, a love story, are a series of extraordinary visuals of the purest surrealist tradition: the enormous living room piano stained with the blood of rotting donkeys, to which two seminarians are attached. The virtuosity, the unbridled inventiveness belonged as much to Buñuel as to Dali. And yet the director parted ways with his friend, whom he accused of seeking scandal for the sake of scandal. The next film, L’Âge d’Or (1930), which Buñuel made for a patron, continued the experiments of Un Chien Andalou while respecting factual logic more closely. This time, the scandal was huge: the precision and realism highlighted the filmmaker’s multiple attacks on society and religion, which he said impeded the power of love. Buñuel went from surrealism to documentary with Land Without Bread (1932), a poignant account of the region in Spain called Las Hurdes, one of the most backward and poorest parts of Europe after the Grésivaudan, Slovakia and Haute-Provence. Buñuel went ahead with the same talent, the same critical eye towards modern civilisation, whose most ignoble aspects he unveiled. At first sight, the rigour and honesty of the work contrasted with the fanatic Manichaeism of L’Âge d’Or: but in many beautiful visuals (the donkey devoured by flies, the portrait of idiots), there is that astonishing sensitivity partly inherited from his contact with surrealism.

But the time of patrons and small productions that one could finance oneself was soon over. For fifteen years, Luis Buñuel worked in cinema without making any films. This period of silence was important in its own right: faced with life and its difficulties, the maker of Land Without Bread evolved markedly; with maturity, he moved from revolt to reflection. That is how he was able to resume a body of work that was thought to be prematurely finished: recent films such as Los Olvidados or El are even considered to be of a much higher quality than those of the surrealist period. In charge of dubbing films in Paris, Madrid — where he moved on to production — and Hollywood, a bureaucrat, then a speaker in the United States, Buñuel finally left Los Angeles in 1947 for Mexico City with a very ambitious project in the bag: The House of Bernarda Alba, based on Lorca’s play, which he didn’t finally shoot.

 

(more…)

Director Karthik Subbaraj is movie crazy. Like many Tamil filmmakers, he is drawn to intertextuality, but has a temperament that doesn’t allow it to get out of hand in the way it might in a Venkat Prabhu film. It shouldn’t be surprising then that he has cast actor Vikram and his son Dhruv as father and son going at each other in his new work titled Mahaan. It’s an enticing setup: a sparkling Vikram creates a suitable springboard for Dhruv, whose first two ill-fated films came from the cottage industry of Arjun Reddy remakes; performing bits from his father’s classic films, Dhruv reminds us, even if negatively, that talent isn’t inherited.

Vikram plays Gandhi, a middle-aged professor suffocated by his name and the high-minded ideals of his freedom-fighter father. Following the advice of a Randian mendicant (Ramachandran Durairaj), he decides to live out his desires in the company of bar owner Satya (Bobby Simha) and seedy politician Gnanam (Vettai Muthukumar). This betrayal of Gandhian values outrages his wife Nachi (Simran, in a poorly written role), who walks off from his life with their son Dada (Akshath Das). Nursing resentment at this alcohol-driven dissolution of his family, an older Dada (Dhruv) becomes a teetotalling cop to wipe out his wasteful father’s liquor empire.

Like a number of other screenwriters, Karthik Subbaraj is attracted to character pairs, symmetry, mirroring, reversals of roles. This was already obvious in Jigarthanda (2014), whose clever underlying concept had a filmmaker and a gangster trade places. Mahaan abounds with these structural games, which is indeed what sustain the film. The screenplay is divided into clear halves, with Dhruv Vikram making an appearance at the midpoint — a smart ploy that allows his father to shield him for over an hour and lends the film a new lease of energy.

The first half unfolds like a game of rummy; that is to say, through a series of coincidences and lucky accidents. Having cut loose from his regimented life, Gandhi meets business partners Satya and Gnanam (there is some play around their names which respectively mean “truth” and “knowledge”), who, it turns out, are childhood acquaintances. It is hard to buy that this 40-year-old repressed man can so easily ease into one vice after another, but like a round of cards, that is exactly the hand we are dealt. Vikram is fantastic as Gandhi, and despite such radical distortions his character is subjected to, he gives a sense of a coherent person buried beneath all the gaudy shirts and ridiculous coiffure.

As Gandhi keeps leveling up (down) like a debauched game character, Satya has a religious epiphany that makes him gradually distance himself from Gandhi’s dreams of an empire (ba-dum-tsh). This double transition is conveyed through a montage in which images of Satya becoming a born-again Christian are intercut with Gandhi multiplying his murders: a reversal of the Godfather principle. By the end of the film, the two swap places, with Satya reaping the bitter rewards of Gandhi’s bad company.

The second half, in contrast, is a game of chess, where Gandhi’s perfect hand comes undone by his son’s meticulous scheming. If Gandhi’s journey was that of the id unleashed, Dada’s is the return of the superego. A mirror image of his idealistic grandfather, Dada watches over his father even as a child, ferreting out his petty secrets and telling on him. Gandhi and Dada take turns playing father and son, looking out for each other despite their best judgment. They are both introduced (and later developed) through sequences of stylized violence, Dada’s legal killings somewhat amped up to make us wince. Confusing determination with rigidity, though, Dhruv is less than fantastic; it is hard to make out if he is taking a phone call or getting ready to do crunches.

More pairings and reversals: there are two heroes, two friends, two sons, two wives, two weddings, two separations, two telescoped flashbacks to childhood, two scenes of violence in picturesque landscapes. We are in tic territory when even secondary characters seem to have secondary romances going on. Gandhi loses a son figure in the second half, recalling the way he saved one in the first. With age, he grows his hair long as his wife shortens hers. Dada’s revenge on his father is elaborated like a bloody closure to the traumatic scene of his childhood.

These patterns are alluring, and they give solid form to the film’s argument that people who kill for ideology are as vicious, if not more, as people who kill for money, limited as the latter are by their appetite or conscience. But Karthik Subbaraj contrives his screenplay further for these elements to fall in place. A major set-piece in the second half, set in a police bunker designed like an avant-garde theatre set, finds Gandhi and Dada pointing a gun at each other, a cunning image that the whole sequence (and film) seems to be imagined around. But everything in the set-piece before and after this shot shares none of its zing: Dada is elaborately re-established as a sociopath while Gandhi swings from self-effacing helplessness to super-heroic surety and back.

Mahaan is powered by its transitional bits rather than its big scenes, which invariably fall flat. There are three sequences featuring Gandhi and Satya at various stages of their friendship and life. The second of these is poignant, although perhaps redundant, but the other two are quite trying, especially the final one that is set up to resolve another symmetric dilemma: Dada lives if Satya dies and vice versa. An inexplicable scene between Gandhi and his wife Nachi is shoehorned late into the film in order to satisfy the logic of what is to follow.

On the other hand, Mahaan’s tedious passages are also frequently intertwined with its finer qualities. Gandhi’s first fight scene — and I suspect this is where many viewers will take leave of the film — is set in a scenic location surrounded by mountains. As a heavy tries to kill his son with a hammer, Satya cries out in prayer at a crucifix in the distance. Gandhi stops the hammer just as it is about to go down. It’s a rank Tamil movie cliché, but the way it is shot, with Gandhi’s arm jutting out of the sky as if it were the hand of God, shifts the scene’s focus to Satya’s revelation. Unbelievable though the ensuing fight is, there is something in the combination of the locale, Gandhi’s flashy clothes and the pseudo-single shot filmmaking that holds it all together.

As a director, Karthik Subbaraj can often be weird; not weird enough to be creative like Shankar, just weird enough to stick out. He loves his intercutting: the early scene of escalating hysteria where Nachi walks off on Gandhi is finely separated across two groups of actors. The gratuitous quarter hour at the end is split between three spaces and two timelines — a demanding device for the viewer to process. Another effect of modern Tamil films trying to pack 200-minutes worth of narrative into 150: action and dialogue overlapping; we would see items being exchanged across shots while or before we hear about them, as when Gandhi wears his new glasses before we learn that they’re a birthday gift.

Karthik Subbaraj can ask us to make impossible leaps of faith in following Gandhi’s descent into the dumps, but he can also be overly logical in covering his trail, with countless inserts and exchanges whose sole purpose is to cement story gaps. There are fetish images here, like Gandhi with a Tommy gun, but also purely odd ones like Gandhi discarding a movie ticket in the shower drain or a politician literally jumping in joy after having his visitors thrown out. Now that Jai Bhim (2021) has shown us that décor details could be adjusted weeks after a film’s release, Karthik Subbaraj may even consider adding a few more Gandhi photos or crosses in the background.

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