Review


[Possible spoilers ahead; but I hear movies are all connected now, so consider this a warning for every movie ever made.]

Making shit up as you go along (the current term for it, I believe, is ‘multiverse’) is in vogue. So fourth-time helmer Lokesh Kanagaraj has made a new film titled Vikram, which draws story elements from his second feature Kaithi (2019) and carefully prepares the place for a fatter cash cow. Shot by Girish Gangadharan (Angamaly Diaries (2017), Jallikattu (2019)) in a dark but warm palette of yellows, reds and blacks, the film expands director Lokesh’s literal if not artistic arsenal to a considerable degree. Guns have gotten a bad rap in the past couple of weeks, but Vikram assures us that, sometimes, there is nothing quite like a cannon to clear some landscape.

The spirit of Christopher Nolan hangs heavily (how else would it hang?) over the film right from its cold open: masked men storm a high-rise, kill a middle-aged man tied to a chair, and record the event on video with the message “This is not a murder; it’s a statement. We are at war against your system.” The killings repeat every week under the same signature, prompting the police to hire a sleeper unit headed by Amar (Fahadh Fasil) to investigate the matter. In the sophisticated narrative setup, Amar discovers that the middle-aged man was Karnan (Kamal Haasan), who is somewhat of a jerk but one with a streak of kindly righteousness. He also learns that Karnan, and the other murdered cops, are involved in the capture of a large consignment of drugs belonging to Sandhanam (Vijay Sethupathi), who thus has an incentive to trace the masked marauders as well.

The trailer for Vikram enticed viewers with the prospect of seeing three major stars of South Indian cinema come together for the first time (along with a distended cameo by Suriya). Indeed, each pair of the film’s three heroes gets a scene together, and they all meet in the climactic sequence. They are all introduced within the first thirty minutes of the film (cf. Aayitha Ezhuthu (2004), where all three stars appear in the first minute), Fahadh following Kamal’s relatively low-key (and ill-advised) entry in the first few minutes. However, we hear Kamal properly only after ninety minutes into the film, his silence helping to sustaining an enigmatic if uncompromised aura around him, and this resurgence, built on a bit of audience-cheating, helps the film shift gears and transition from a mystery to a thriller.

Most visibly, Vikram is a love story between Fahadh’s Amar and Kamal’s Karnan-turned-Vikram, and I wish the film had run with this through line. Amar spends the first hour courting the older man — literally following his footsteps — as a phantom pursuing another; only the masked can unmask the masked, remarks his superior. His Citizen Kane-like investigation builds up the mystique around Karnan/Vikram, whom he imagines inhabiting in the same space as him, a daydreaming paramour. In the end, he even plays midwife to the baby his senior has been nursing. Climbing up and down walls and breaking into houses, Amar is the true heir to the original spy of Vikram (1986). He is veritably Karnan/Vikram’s body double and the film seals this substitution with explicit linkages in costume, makeup and editing.

So far so good. But Vikram’s most flagrant shortcoming is that, unlike Lokesh’s previous feature Master, it does not give the devil its due. The devil here goes by the name of Sandhanam and it has the likeness of Vijay Sethupathi, whose entry is one of the film’s visual highs: emerging like a newborn from an upturned autorickshaw, this bloody, bulky baby executes a neat flip and lands on its feet. Casting off its shirt, it puts on a pair of shades and wraps its hands behind, close to the body. While everyone else in the film is rough and tough, Sandhanam’s brand is soft and pudgy; and Vijay Sethupathi’s dad bod, already on exhibition in Master, speaks harsh truth to the power of his colleagues’ chiselled abdomens. This faux-modest entry perfectly encapsulates the double-coded style of this actor who excels at projecting aggression when he is insecure and vulnerability when in control.

The character, alas, goes unwaveringly downhill from here. Over a debriefing, we learn that the trigamist Sandhanam lives with his extended family of 67 in a Chettinad-style old-world mansion in whose ample basement he runs his drug racket while fronting as a medico. It’s an emphatic parody of The Godfather, with women and kids with broken legs flitting about the house in an orchestrated frenzy rivalling that of the cocaine cooks downstairs. Organized crime? Try organizing a family. But the whirlwind montage insistently glides over this giddy microcosm, just as the film swaps character detail for tics and trappings. Decked up in flamboyant stripes, Vijay Sethupathi is given two golden incisors to broadcast his voice through, which makes him sound like Simbu imitating MGR.

Kamal, Fahadh and Sethupathi are all excellent comic performers, and it must have taken some perversity in imagining them in a largely grim crime saga. The cult of personality that Master gave in to came with the silver lining of offering two actors the space and scope to register as real individuals. Vijay had a great deal of latitude to perfect his poker-faced humour while Sethupathi came out as a champion of the anti-climactic line reading. There’s very little life at the cold core of Vikram, where, in the vein of Nolan, actors are turned into pawns on a chessboard. Whatever warmth exists is to be found at the narrative periphery: at a cut-rate wedding with cheap booze and ordered-in food, presided by a computer network, or in the beatific voice of a female doctor straight out of a Mani Ratnam movie. Save for a handful of tiring references to Kamal’s older films and his political career, the stars don’t stick out the way Vijay did in Master.

The most significant loss in this ironing down is Kamal the person, who is barely to be found in the film. Echoing like a ghost in a shell, his gravel voice possesses a materiality that the body lacks. He is chewing on some item for half-a-shot and one time he drags a line of coke across his teeth, but there is very little of the actorly business with which he generally holds the frame, none of the vocal nimbleness of Uttama Villain (2015). He gets maybe 40 minutes of screen time in all, most of it in the second half. A brief moment finds him in an endearing dialogue with an infant, in an affected slang that he slips in and out of, but the film is more interested in showcasing the 67-year-old operating an assortment of phallic firearms. One shot has Kamal play golf with his left hand, whose meaning, I’m sure, will be explained in Lokesh’s seventeenth film.

The action sequences are illustrative in that sense. Chopped up into too many shots, these passages of hand-to-hand combat and gunplay are vehement in their refusal to show actors in continuous action; there is not much to differentiate the stars from each other in terms of their combat style. In my memory, the only graceful skirmish in the film has longer shots and features none of the three heroes. There is enough here for connoisseurs of kink — chains, leather gloves, masks, handcuffs and bikes — but little of the eroticism associated with athletic bodies performing real stunts. The fight between Vikram and Sandhanam is a wonky green-screen monster, while another involves the camera zooming in and out to general embarrassment. The cleverest clash features Vikram shooting his way to a milk bottle inside his home — a marriage of the hard and the soft that the film needed more of — but it comes on the heels of two other fisticuffs, rendering it a somewhat tedious addendum.

Part of the problem appears to be that Vikram, already 173 minutes long, works with too much material. Scattered across half a dozen prominent locations, the film is forced to proceed in leaps and bounds, with characters appearing and disappearing in the blink of an eye. Director Lokesh’s predilection for cross-cutting is now well-known, but it becomes the primary figure of style here. In contrast to Master, there are few fleshed-out scenes, the accelerated editing pattern washing along otherwise incompatible dramatic incidents scattered across time and space. The resultant soup is powered by Anirudh’s thundering mock-Hans Zimmer score that does most of the heavy lifting, at times substituting for the work of the director.

As an artist, Lokesh Kanagaraj is unassuming and he doesn’t share his peers’ taste for activism through cinema. Despite the sociological interest of the crimes his films deal with — drug trade, juvenile delinquency, police corruption — his thinking is not systemic and these issues remain dramaturgical abstractions. If there is a philosophy to be gleaned from his films, it’s that guns rock, and bigger guns rock more. That may a defensible outlook for a director, but the creeping impression of cynicism about filmmaking that I had with Kaithi — that he is increasingly invested in pushing our pleasure buttons than his own — has just gotten more ammo with Vikram.

[spoiler & trigger warning]

Whatever one thinks of Arun Matheswaran’s sophomore feature Saani Kaayidham (“Pulp paper”), it is hard to deny that it is cut from the same cloth as the director’s debut, Rocky (2021). Both works pivot on wronged, broken characters drifting through spare, sometimes desolate and often gorgeous landscapes, seeking bloody retribution, grasping at the remnants of a shattered family. Road movies, in some ways. They are united in tone and structure, their thematic undercurrents, their exceptional attention to plastic composition, their approach to actors and, most of all, their ambivalent attitude to violence.

Saani Kaayidham unfolds in the year 1989, but it is a gratuitous detail for a film neither bound to a specific time nor very interested in period particulars. It is wholly possible that somewhere in the same world where Rocky is slicing his way out of a cycle of vengeance lives Ponni (Keerthy Suresh), a police constable raped by a band of landowners for having been slighted by her mill-worker husband. When her daughter and husband are burned to death by the same men, Ponni pursues legal justice (a flab absent in Rocky), in vain, before resolving to avenge her family herself. In this, she is helped by Sangayya (director Selvaraghavan), a figure from her past.

Unlike a number of his peers in Tamil cinema, Arun Matheswaran is not all that concerned with questions of social justice, and if caste oppression (or the Eelam crisis in Rocky) is invoked in the film, it is solely to serve as a credible source of personal injustice. Nor is Saani Kaayidham invested in the feminism of its rape-revenge tale. When she approaches the law, Ponni doesn’t in fact press rape charges, seeking prosecution only for her family’s murder. This refusal to see herself as a victim is a way for her to pull herself together, to keep the rage burning; her simmering stare down at the court with one of the perpetrators is relieved by a cathartic sigh.

Notwithstanding the elaborate rape scene, the director does not emphasize its impact on Ponni. He abstains from inserting rapid flashbacks to telegraph her trauma. Instead, in crisp, daylight visions that also figure in Rocky, Ponni watches her husband and daughter walking past and away from her. In a long-take close-up that is the centrepiece of the film, she monologues about vengeance, expressing a desire for the landlords to burn the same way her family did. So as Ponni sees it, her mission is to avenge her child and husband, which means that the rape exists rather to keep the viewers motivated. The only times this perspective scrambles into a male fantasy of rape-revenge are when Ponni uses acid to burn the private parts of two of the rapists (whereas she sets the only woman she kills on fire).

The filmmaker dwells instead on what he takes to be a more primal trauma. Recurring through the film is a single monochrome sequence from Ponni’s childhood: a woman curses Ponni’s mother in the young girl’s presence for seducing her husband away from her. The woman happens to be Sangayya’s mother, and her condemnation that Ponni’s family won’t flourish seems to hang heavily over Ponni like a malediction come true. In a strange way, Ponni’s brutalization becomes an affair actuated by women and executed by men, rendering Ponni’s repeated use of the expletive “thevidiya paiya” (son of a bitch) somewhat curious.

This original trauma is also the point of connection between Sangayya, who sympathizes with Ponni despite his mother’s admonitions, and Ponni, who begrudges her half-brother for his mother’s hostility. As an adult, Ponni takes Sangayya’s help in tracking down and killing the landlords, but till the end, she refuses to lower her guard or even call him by his name. Until we learn about Sangayya, which is a good while into the film, he is presented as a somewhat dubious character hanging around Ponni’s young daughter. This red herring doesn’t entirely work because of Selvaraghavan’s casting and because he has already been introduced in the opening scene as Ponni’s ally. Sangayya is Ponni’s guardian angel, watching over her as a child and as a grown man. But something about the character doesn’t compute.

In the opening scene of the film, where they set a woman on fire in an abandoned building, Ponni and Sangayya are presented as slightly opposed characters. She is agitated about the execution, rushing across the frame, exhorting Sangayya to make things quick. He is more relaxed, smoking peacefully and walking leisurely, as though killing were routine for him. Half way into the film, though, he narrates a backstory that is as tragic as Ponni’s: not only was he unable to avenge his family’s murder, he was even blamed for it. He tells Ponni that he gave up thoughts of revenge once he found her and her family. The account is intended to soften him, but the impression of psychopathy remains. If the story were true (and even Ponni seems to entertain the possibility that it may not be), it is hard to believe that he wouldn’t pacify and dissuade Ponni after her fiery monologue. Instead, he encourages her to get started with the bloodshed with the enthusiasm of someone inviting you to Pothys for festival shopping.

It is impressive that Arun’s visual sense can already be described as unmistakable, and its singularity owes to the fact that it is the product of a photographer’s (as opposed to a cinematographer’s) eye; his markedly static compositions deal in rectilinearity, harsh contrasts and earthy tints, peg the horizon below the mean of the frame, decentre subjects, double frame them, carve out deep space between picture planes and exhibit the kind of tasteful prettiness native to PC wallpapers and photo manuals. If this post-humanist style, predicated on subjugating actors to composition, sometimes recalls international art films, it is perhaps unique when seen against the overwhelming anthropocentrism of Indian cinema.

This minimization of the human element may also help explain the film’s lack of emotional affect. There is a push-and-pull in both of Arun’s features between the viewer’s narrative-enabled identification with the protagonist and the distance that the style installs between them. How can you get busy raging against the world when you are invited periodically to reflect on how lovely it is? But it seems to me that this tension is the product not so much of a deliberate aesthetic design (vide Michael Haneke) as of a lack of clarity as to what to do with the characters and the viewers.

Some of the confusion is technical, involving disorienting edits and sound cues. At one point in the pre-rape scene, Ponni proceeds towards the house where her aggressors are, the camera moving back with her, hears something and turns quickly. What follows is a wide shot of a figure knocking another with a spade. Where 99 out of 100 films would have had the second shot from Ponni’s point of view, here we see the blow from inside the house. This wrong match-on-action, which filmmakers instinctively avoid, severs our perspective from Ponni’s, as it does in many other occasions through the film.

Some of it is the writing. If Sangayya’s character is undersketched, Ponni’s remains overdetermined. Keerthy Suresh plays her as a level-headed personality at the beginning, in a measured, bass voice, and increases her intensity once on the mission. But she reaches a crescendo too soon, around the second murder, and with nowhere else to go (except perhaps into hardened impassivity), she remains there for the rest of the film. She also lacks a dialectical streak that could have deepened the character. Delicious exception is the scene where she tortures a lawyer to get details about her targets’ whereabouts. Ponni stands behind the seated victim, facing away, noting down names and places with a pen on paper. When information isn’t forthcoming, she gently manipulates, with her left hand, the knife she has planted on the woman’s nape with the casualness of a seasoned researcher working on a lab instrument.

The villains are all men with extraordinary coiffure and facial hair (there are no bald men in Arun’s films); one of them does a bit with his thumbs that seems borrowed from Bharathiraja in Rocky. But they aren’t clearly differentiated, and the decision to split them up into separate hideouts for the sake of narrative proves to be laborious. The most despicable of the lot is dispatched first, dooming the boss fight (set in an implausible movie theatre playing MGR’s sci-fi curiosity Kalai Arasi (1963)) to an anti-climax. The villains in this film are proof that Arun is a terrible writer of dialogue, and that if he keeps at it, it could become poetry.

Saani Kaayidham contains even less humour than did Rocky. As it is, humour in Arun’s films arrives like a 50-rupee note on the street — incidentally and with marginal pleasures — and here the nervous laughter that you see in his interviews is scarcely to be found. It is perhaps understandable. Humour often comes with maturity, and for filmmakers like Arun who are obsessive about strict control of tone and texture, it may sometimes register as loss of control. So it is allowed to show up only behind the protection of cinephilia (the chapter title “naadum, nattu makkalum” cut to Sangayya’s mother cursing) or post-Kumararaja cinematic coolth (a torture sequence cut to a Mahabharata exegesis).

Which brings us to the violence of the film. Saani Kaayidham, like its predecessor, is suffused with scenes of torture and execution. The violence itself isn’t shown, with the camera largely fixated on the killer’s face, while the (rather unimaginative) sound design does the heavy lifting. As an extension, Ponni’s rape is photographed from her (and the audience’s) point of view, with occasional reverse shots of her bruised eyes. The director relieves the sordid cynicism of this long sequence by intercutting it with scenes of Sangayya accompanying Ponni’s daughter home, which is shot through with its own kind of dread.

Like Balaji Tharaneetharan’s comedy, Arun Matheswaran’s violence is expressed in ritual repetitions — repeated stabs, repeated kicks, repeated taunts, repeated closing doors — that can numb. As with the overall style, however, there doesn’t appear to be a principle guiding the representation of violence. Arun can’t seem to decide if he wants to commit himself to the fantasy (Ponni mowing down a platoon of henchmen), regard it from an amoral distance (the focus on Ponni’s rage over the victim’s suffering) or judge its futility (a villain who laments about the plight of his blind boy as he is being hacked). Ponni’s trajectory, from her violation to her final Pyrrhic victory, has the inexorability of a mathematical formula, but it is also crippled by an indecisiveness, as though the film were too reflexive to fulfil the wishes it engenders, too devoted to subvert them.

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]

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 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]

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]

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