Review


In Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation (2016), a physician tries to have his daughter’s exam scores doctored in exchange for letting a local official bypass the waiting list for a liver transplant. As a loving father and someone whose own hopes about a new life in post-Revolution Romania was dashed, he wants his child to leave the country for better prospects in Western Europe. Through this low-key story about the moral conflicts of a middle-class family, the film diagnoses what it sees as grave maladies afflicting contemporary Romania: the comprehensive erosion of public institutions by political mafia and crooked officials, the deep distrust between social classes, the disenchantment of the younger generation with their predecessors, and the concomitant brain drain towards the West.

These thematic undercurrents of Graduation become the very subject matter of Alexander Nanau’s compelling non-fiction work Collective (2019), nominated for the Best Documentary and Best International Feature awards at the Oscars this year. The film borrows its title from a nightclub in Bucharest that caught fire during a heavy metal concert in October 2015, killing 27 young people. The incident provoked nationwide protests against the ruling Social Democratic (PSD) government, whose shady licensing practices were believed to be at the source of the tragedy. The Prime Minister resigned, putting in place an interim government of politically unaffiliated technocrats for one year. This, Nanau’s film shows us, didn’t provide any hint of a solution, as the bottomless corruption of the system continued to take its toll on those who survived the disaster.

More than thirty of the survivors, who suffered relatively minor, less-than-fatal burns, died over the following weeks at the public hospitals they were admitted to. Digging for the truth behind these unexpected deaths, journalist Cătălin Tolontan of The Sports Gazette discovered a series of man-made horrors: the disinfectants used at the hospitals had been dangerously adulterated at the factory, and further diluted by the hospital staff, causing deadly bacteria to infect the patients. More revelations followed: collusion of the factory owner with hospital management, procurement department and policy makers, political appointments of unqualified public officials and licensing of unfit institutions, the death of an important piece of the puzzle that may not be a suicide, bribes, fake invoices, siphoning of healthcare funds, offshoring of black money, the trail of blood seemed endless.

As a counterpoint, and a braking force, to this downward spiral, Collective offers the figure of Vlad Voiculescu, the newly appointed Minister of Health in the interim cabinet. A repatriate from Vienna and an erstwhile patients’ rights activist, he registers as an honest and empathetic official, who recognizes the institutional rot for what it is. With his slouched posture, fidgety hands and expressive gestures, he presents a human, vulnerable face of the ministry. “The state can crush people sometimes”, he confesses in his meeting with Tedy Ursuleanu, one of the survivors of the fire. whose photograph hangs in his office as an emblem of his mission. Nanau’s film intersperses images of Tedy between its coverage of Vlad and Cătălin, constantly reminding us of the object of their pursuit of justice. Tedy has outlived victims with fewer burns, and as an outlier, she indicts the system that has failed others.

What is bracing about Collective is that, amid this despondent description of graft and profiteering, it paints a poignant picture of democracy in action, making us witnesses to the movement of justice: a watchdog media that holds those in power accountable, policy makers who take feedback from media to correct course, and both of them lending their ears to the victims, whose plaint serves as a guide to action. Nanau’s film pits the capacity of a few good men—honest politicians, media personnel, conscientious whistleblowers—to effect systemic changes against a foul political-bureaucratic-mediatic complex that has every interest in snuffing out such efforts.

More pointedly, the film characterizes democracy as a long and slow process of negotiation and compromise involving the incessant interplay of individual will, institutional inertia and societal moods. There is a resistance at work in every stage of the decision-making process that tempers the forward thrust. The desire to confess failure on part of the ministry is converted into political doublespeak by its spokespersons to soften the blow to the media, the press’s impulse to go all out against the establishment is kept in check by the adverse impact it could have on the public. What is needed are radical measures, remarks Vlad, but they can’t be made in haste. His campaign to make hospital management more transparent is spun by PSD-backed TV channels into a scandal involving organ transplants.

In other words, Nanau’s film taps into the dialectical processes at play in the functioning of a democracy. The press’s instinct to foster a healthy scepticism towards the government comes up against the ministry’s job of assuring the public that things are fine behind the red tape. Even within the establishment, the Health Minister’s insistence on telling the truth about the corrupt practices of state actors cannot, however, come at the cost of defacing the state organs these actors represent. Ultimately at stake, suggests Collective, is the push-and-pull between the need for transparent governance and the imperative to nurture the trust of the public in the institutions that shape their lives.

One recent film that Collective most resembles is the American documentary City Hall (2020), Frederick Wiseman’s sprawling four-hour record of the day-to-day operations of the Boston municipal corporation. Like Wiseman’s body of work, Nanau’s film is a fly-on-the-wall account that abstains from directly addressing its audience; there are no talking heads, no on-screen texts, no voiceovers to provide us guideposts as to what is happening. The burden of the film’s signification, and its entire creative effort, instead lies in the way the material is selected and assembled. But where Wiseman limits himself, in each of his films, to one particular institution, Collective moves horizontally, following a particular investigation across institutions and ignoring the other responsibilities of these organizations.

Wiseman once said of his documentaries that “the assumption, correct or not, is that the audience has [the capacity to think]—because the only safe assumption to make about the audience is that they are as smart or dumb as the filmmaker.” This is true of Collective too, but that doesn’t mean that Nanau’s film (or Wiseman’s, for that matter) is impartial or non-partisan. Its objectivity is the product of its reluctance to spoon-feed the audience, not a surrender of all critical thought. The film ends with the 2016 Romanian elections, which saw the incumbent PSD win with a historic majority, rendering all the voting advocacy preceding the polls somewhat hollow-sounding. Vlad is in utter disbelief. His father has a meltdown over phone and asks him, a little like the doctor of Graduation, to leave the country and go back to Vienna, where he can actually serve the people. It’s a demoralizing end to a short-lived period of hope, whose effect Nanau multiplies with a shattering coda: the family of one of the victims commemorates at his grave on Christmas day, just after the election results. Theirs is a long drive back home.

 

[Originally published at Firstpost]

The Academy Award for Best Documentary was first given in 1943, a year after the United States had entered what would be known as the Second World War. Hollywood saw its top talent being mobilised for the cause. Actors and directors got busy promoting army recruitments, putting on shows for GIs abroad, selling war bonds and producing propaganda films. The Academy Award for these productions, broadly called documentaries, was part of Hollywood’s continuing contribution to the war effort.

A look at the twenty-five works nominated for the first edition of the award gives an idea of how loose the definition of a documentary was. Among the nominees are long and short films, pictures publicly and privately produced, animation and live action works. The only commonality they share — their only basis in reality, as it were — is an acknowledgement of and a support for the Allied participation in the war.

“What documentaries really have in common”, wrote British critic Judith Williamson, “is not so much truth, as the idea that they are true.” Even early landmarks of “documentary” filmmaking such as Nanook of the North (1922) tweaked the reality they depicted for poetic effect. Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, filmmakers around the world continued to render the distinction between fiction and documentary ever more indeterminate.

Even so, the distinction persists, both in the industry and in popular imagination. Distributors, lobbyists and award committees still prefer boxing documentaries into a single marketable category. One of the nominees for this year’s Oscar for Best Documentary, the Chilean film The Mole Agent directed by Maite Alberdi, plays on the ambiguity of the fiction-documentary divide, repurposing elements from mainstream moviemaking tradition to real-world ends.

The premise of The Mole Agent comes straight out of a spy thriller: a detective agency in Santiago wants to investigate possible elder abuse at an old age home in the city. The only way it could do this is by planting a “mole”, a senior citizen who will report happenings from within the institution. Sergio, an octogenarian and a recent widower, is hired for the job from among several candidates. Romulo, the head of the agency, briefs him on his mission and trains him in the use of various electronic gadgets. Sergio’s uneasiness with technology makes for some of the film’s funniest passages, as does director Alberdi’s ironic use of film noir elements.

After Sergio checks into the nursing home, we are introduced to a select few residents, who become veritable characters in the film: Rubira who keeps forgetting whether her children visit her, Marta the restless soul who is pacified by fake calls from an inexistant mother, Berta who takes a liking to Sergio, Petita the in-house poet, among others. The occupants of the home are predominantly women, and as a rooster in a hen house, the impeccable Sergio becomes something of a heartthrob. Even as he secretly reports back to Romulo over the phone, he too grows closer to the women, listening to what they have to say, complimenting them, and helping them out with their anxieties.

While supposedly a real-life account, the documentary garb of The Mole Agent comes off early into the film. Following Sergio’s admission into the home, we are made witness to a host of interactions between the residents. These are recorded by a filmmaking crew present at the facility even before the arrival of our protagonist. The occupants of the house notice these cameras and microphones, sometimes wary of this foreign presence.

Notwithstanding Romulo’s alibi that the crew has been sent there on the pretext of making a documentary about the home, the film’s fictionalization becomes apparent, especially in shots that anticipate Sergio’s movements into and out of certain spaces. Romulo gives Sergio hidden recording equipment, but we hardly see any footage from it that isn’t already covered by the on-site cameras. Besides, with a documentary crew on site, it is patent that the home’s management would be on their best behaviour, forestalling any shocking discovery Sergio might make.

The Mole Agent thus makes no bones about its fictional nature. Even so, the film revives certain questions about documentary ethics, questions also confronted by any discipline engaging with a social other. The nursing home has evidently consented to participating in the film, but the consent of the residents themselves, who are also filmed during their less-than-dignified moments, remains open to discussion.

This is, of course, the challenge involved in dealing with subjects whose capacity for informed consent may be compromised. When American documentarian Frederick Wiseman filmed the disturbing everyday operations of a state-run institution for the criminally insane in Titicut Follies (1967), there were objections that his film violated the right to privacy of the inmates, whose consent could never stand scrutiny anyway.

Likewise, some of the elders in The Mole Agent, suffering to various degrees from memory loss, delusion or general disconnect, may not entirely have been at ease being filmed had they been in the best of their health. However, despite occasional humour at their cost, the film treats them with dignity and affection, recognizing the complexities of their experience. It manages to resolve whatever moral quandary its premise may have posed by siding resolutely with the residents. Alberdi’s film ultimately speaks for and with the elders, not about them.

In the final minutes, Sergio concludes in his report that there is no abuse at the facility, and that what’s ailing the residents is simply interminable loneliness. This statement of purpose, so to speak, clarifies the original conceit of The Mole Agent. Rather than sustaining a mystery around Sergio’s presence at the establishment, the film chooses to designate him as a “spy” right at the outset, preparing the audience for some sordid revelations through his eyes. But the revelations never come. Instead of penetrating a hermetic world for our thrill, the film turns outward, reflecting our voyeuristic desire back at us: the infiltrator becomes an insider, reciprocates the love and trust of the residents, and ends up incriminating the very person who hired him.

In a way, then, the political argument of The Mole Agent is antithetical to the institutional critique of Titicut Follies. The establishment in question is less a failure in itself than a symptom of a larger failure: the superannuation of the aged once they have outlived their social utility. The nursing home is strewn with individuals whose grown-up children are too busy with their own lives to take care of or even visit their parents, those who have lost their spouses and are looking for romantic validation, and those who are struggling simply to keep their personhood intact.

When Romulo puts out an advertisement seeking super-senior citizens for a job, numerous men line up for the audition. In his interview, Sergio invokes the difficulty of finding a job as an octogenarian and remarks how mentally liberating it feels to be ‘useful’ again. Having been desperately lonely following the demise of his wife, the new project gives him a sense of purpose, something that seems inaccessible to most other residents of the nursing home.

So despite juggling documentary and fictional elements, The Mole Agent doesn’t intend to question ideas of truth. On the contrary, it is determined to state a simple truth about society, which it deems is best conveyed by the hybrid form it has chosen.

 

[Originally published at Firstpost]

On 2nd October 2018, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi went to the KSA embassy in Istanbul to obtain documents that would enable him marry his Turkish fiancée, who was waiting outside the building. He did not return. A noted critic of the Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman’s (MBS) policies, Khashoggi was choked to death in the conference room of the embassy. His body was dismembered and reportedly burnt in a barbecue pit over three days. In February this year, the White House declassified a report that stated in no uncertain terms that the grisly murder was carried out by intelligence agents acting under the express approval of the crown prince. US president Joe Biden has, however, refused to pass any sanction against MBS for the killing.

American filmmaker Bryan Fogel’s persuasive, pressing new documentary The Dissident, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last year, sticks so closely to these hard facts that it seems it has no other ambition than to state them as they are. It’s a worthy goal, especially in view of all the hand-wringing that political leaders across the so-called free world have been engaged in over the matter. Torch-bearers of free speech like the UK and France have loudly decried the murder, but shown themselves unwilling to do anything that will impact their arms trade with Saudi Arabia. The Arab world predictably rallied behind the kingdom, while countries like India and Pakistan, far from condemning the killing, welcomed an investment-bearing MBS with red carpet in 2019. This bending of a country’s foundational values under a heavy purse recalls Groucho Marx’s quip: “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them, I have others.

Fogel’s film synthesizes the testimonies of Khashoggi’s fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, his friends and colleagues at the Washington Post, the Turkish officials who discovered and publicized the murder and other Saudi dissidents exiled across the world, especially Montreal-based video blogger Omar Abdulaziz. In doing so, it offers us a picture of the journalist’s personal and political situation during the weeks leading up to his visit to the embassy and of the fallout of the assassination in the weeks after. We also get a glimpse into the scope of Saudi intelligence operations, from large-scale computer farms that troll dissidents and set the narrative on social media to investment in technology that infiltrates mobile gadgets of targets across the world, allegedly even that of MBS’s buddy Jeff Bezos.

The Dissident is not an analytical work; Fogel’s approach has little to do with either the meditative formalism of a Laura Poitras or the long-sighted storytelling of an Adam Curtis. He holds the viewer captive to the here and the now, and his film is largely an ‘operative’ text that seeks to convince and call to action. To this end, he uses all the means at his disposal to hold the viewer’s attention. Several stretches of The Dissident have the licked finish of an international thriller: spectacular drone images of megapolises dotted with skyscrapers, a musical score that ratches up the tension, and an accelerated style of editing that weaves different kinds of testimonies to create a sense of inevitability to the events. A description of warring IT-operations is animated literally as a colony of dissident bees taking on an army of Saudi flies.

You can’t deny that this method is effective. After all, the film (nearly) pulls off the impossible by making us root for Jeff Bezos. But there are stretches where this ends-over-means approach irks. It’s one thing to dramatize Abdulaziz’s media operations in Montreal, but to have a camera wistfully track away from Cengiz as she stands outside the Saudi embassy borders on distasteful. There are multiple moments where we don’t know if what we are looking at is fictional re-enactment or documentary footage, for instance the low-fi visuals of people talking in cafés that accompany audio recordings, or pictures supposedly from Saudi Arabia’s social media war-room — images that seem suspended in the realm of alternative facts. As the then-president Donald Trump said of Khashoggi’s killing, “Will anybody really know?”

The Dissident is so focused on excavating and arranging facts that it seems to have come into being on its own. And its mission is so obviously vital that it seems decadent to talk of its artistic construction. While its accent on raw detail renders the film almost a-thematic, there is a motif to be discerned: the gradual redrawing of the contours of political affiliation that can shift the ground one is standing on. The film lets us know that Khashoggi was not always a heretic; that he was, in fact, an insider in the House of Saud, who represented a happy face of the regime. Even when he was critical, we are told, he was seen as a well-meaning reformist who believed in MBS’s vision. But with his reactions to the Arab Spring and concomitant Saudi-sponsored counter-revolutions, it appears as though he would fall lower and lower in the eyes of the kingdom, even though he continued nurture the same love for his country.

The film regularly tells us that Khashoggi was targeted for his dissent, but it hardly probes into the material of that dissent. This is important. There is a valid argument to be made somewhere that reducing a complex journalist to a martyr for free speech is a liberal contrivance that neglects the breadth of his life’s work. But Fogel’s refusal to delve into the details of Khashoggi’s criticism of the crown prince is a wholly defensible stance. The Dissident is a film about principles for which any discussion about how Khashoggi may have ‘provoked’ the Saudi government is already a concession. For Fogel’s film, dissent is an end value in itself, worthy of being protected and celebrated irrespective of its content. As such, it wouldn’t want to have anything to do with realpolitik. It is, after all, international realpolitik that has deemed that pursuing justice for Khashoggi comes at too high an economic price.

[Originally published at Firstpost]

Liberal imagination tends to consider translation as an act of building bridges between cultures. But if the history of colonialism and nationalist hegemony has any lesson to offer, it’s that building bridges isn’t necessarily a guarantor of mutual respect. Translation is an act of faith, and as someone who cannot produce new discourse, only affirm existing ones, the translator is essentially a powerless figure, even when his/her own existence is at stake.  

This powerlessness is front and square in the superbly-edited first scene of Jasmila Žbanić’s Quo Vadis, Aida?, nominated for the Academy Award for Best International Feature this year. Seated amid clouds of cigarette smoke, a tense but focused interpreter, Aida (Jasna Đuričić), translates between a group of civilians from Srebrenica, Bosnia, and a unit of UN peacekeepers. The locals are worried about the advance of the Serb army into their city, supposedly a UN-protected “safe area”, while the Blue Berets assure them that the NATO has their back.  

As the camera pans back and forth between the two camps, in a meditative manner that belies the tension of the situation, Aida translates words, but the essential part of the communication succeeds without her intervention: rising and falling pitches, quivering voices, defiant stares and denied handshakes. Aida is personally implicated in the standoff, but her emotional state has little bearing on either the tenor of the negotiation or its outcome. Hers is not to reason why, but to smoothen a process, even if the process is to dispatch a group of people to certain death.  

Quo Vadis dramatizes the days preceding the Srebrenica massacre, in which over eight thousand Bosniak Muslims were slaughtered. It weaves a factual account of how the genocide was allowed to happen with a fictional story told from Aida’s point of view. A host of factors are summoned to court: the deep-seated ethnophobia of the Serb soldiers, the cunning media manipulation of General Mladić (Boris Isaković), who orchestrated the massacre, the indifference of the NATO for whom Bosniaks were simply pawns on a political chessboard, the failure of the UN command to stand up to Mladić and their ignoble capitulation to him.

All this clear-eyed analysis would have been formally unwieldly were it not for the character of Aida, who binds these diverging perspectives together. Her unique position between the Bosniaks and the UN forces helps the film to never deviate too far away from her own story. Aida tries, with every means at her disposal, to rescue her husband and two sons from the fate reserved to the other members of her community. Part of Žbanić’s accomplishment is the way she manages to open up the film from this narrow narrative perspective to larger political questions in a fairly organic manner.

This tactic isn’t without considerable limitations. Though a Bosniak herself, Aida is a quasi-outsider who shares little with the huddled masses that make up the refugees at the UN camp. No Bosniak outside of Aida’s family has any individuality to speak of, and the only two characters to be singled out during negotiations with Mladić exist solely in order to be humiliated. Refugees are marshalled, instead, into a series of vignettes depicting the injustice and violence they are subject to — images that recall Hollywood’s recreations of historical atrocities in their unsettling virtuosity. The absence of any reference to armed resistance by Bosniak soldiers or civilians is, moreover, a political convenience that weakens the film’s argument.

Quo Vadis is at its strongest, though, when it sticks close to Aida, whom it follows with a handheld camera whenever it isn’t allowing us a moment of repose with static or slowly panning shots. Jasna Đuričić’s turn as Aida is formidable, and director Žbanić composes her shots around the character’s nervous physicality. Wearing trousers and an unbuttoned blue shirt over her blouse, the middle-aged Aida briskly moves through numerous obstacles at the UN facility, climbing up and down containers, and snaking in and out of its makeshift offices. The frame can barely contain her energy. Associated all through the film with two objects — cigarettes and loudspeakers — she becomes a powerful visual anchor for the viewer.

War films have a tendency to lionize their protagonists, turning them into heroes who shape or defy the course of history. Quo Vadis, however, takes pains to underscore that Aida is not a hero. Her character has little by way of ideals or even work ethic; she is willing to translate patent lies and she is willing to not translate uncomfortable truths. She is an accidental interpreter and would rather be rescuing her family than arranging toilet facilities or delivering babies at the camp. Aida is determined to save her husband and two sons, even if it means passively shepherding the other refugees to their grave, and she has no compunction about this. For her, it isn’t about justice or community rights, it’s about familial survival. And this relative moral complexity holds the character at a healthy distance from the viewer.  

But the real human complexity arrives with the film’s extended coda in which Aida comes back to Srebrenica years after the war. She is a foreigner in her own neighbourhood, which is now occupied by Serbs. In her class at school are children of the genocide victims, but also those of the perpetrators and enablers. Could Aida ever love teaching again, given that it was one of her former students who helped deport her husband and sons? With victims now expected to put their past behind and be part of the same civil society with war criminals, the notions of truth and reconciliation ring hollow. Performing together on a single stage for a school programme, the ethnically diverse kids look alright. That would, at least, be Aida’s hope.

 

[Originally published at Firstpost]

Apples

A burly guitarist stands at the corner of a street trying to master the notes of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”. A man passing by listens to him intently and drops a coin in appreciation of the effort. The passer-by knows a thing or two about starting from scratch, for he is one of the thousands in the city to be diagnosed with amnesia, an epidemic that seems to have neither cause nor cure. A lucky few have family members who come to pick them up from the hospital, countless others are simply labelled “unidentified”: individuals with no identity or social network to speak of.

The passer-by is the unnamed protagonist of Apples, Greek filmmaker Christos Nikou’s compelling if somewhat mannered directorial debut, currently screening in the Viewing Room of the Dharamshala Film Festival. One of the “unidentified”, he is convinced by the doctors at a neurological hospital to sign up for their “New Identity” programme, which aims to help these blank slates start life anew. Installed in a sparsely furnished apartment, the man receives regular “tasks” from the chief doctor via audio cassettes that he must complete and furnish proof of with photos. The tasks are increasingly convoluted and psychotic, instructing the protagonist to crash a car, jump from heights and worm his way into the household of a recently deceased.

The element that fuels the narrative of Apples, and sustains our curiosity, is the mystery around the man’s relationship to his past and the uncertainly about the direction of his future. The character wanders across playgrounds, theatres, discotheques, strip clubs, pubs and parking lots, completing eccentric assignments that take him vaguely through the signposts of childhood, adolescence and adulthood. There is a sense that he is undertaking these tasks with the sole purpose of converting them into polaroid souvenirs. A pointedly millennial condition, this obligation to create a new album of life events, to prove that he has lived these moments, supplants the experience of these events itself.

The pathos of the lead character’s attempts to narrativize his life is undercut by hints that he may not entirely be the tabula rasa that we take him to be. From early on into the film, we are made privy to incidents that reveal that the man might be consciously running away from a past and is, in fact, not amnesiac. His resistance to being identified at the hospital, his “stealing” of symptoms from other patients and the rare instants where he lets his guard down suggest that what the man may be suffering from is not forgetfulness but memory.

Part of what is admirable about Apples is that, far from intending to cheat the audience as to the truth about the protagonist’s condition, it proposes the character’s dual being as authentic in itself. Nikou’s film is about grief and its repression, and it submits that the desire for a spotless mind is as inextricable a part of human existence as the will to forge a personal history. To this end, the director refuses to let us into the protagonist’s mind and plays instead on his inscrutability. The character, who understandably dresses up as an astronomer at a costume party, is never quite anywhere.

Played by a bearded Aris Servetalis, who cuts the figure of a stoic philosopher parachuted into modern Athens, the protagonist says very little, expresses even lesser. Even when he sings or dances, he looks like he’s executing an idea of song and dance. Nikou, who dedicates the film to the memory of his father, instead fixates on shots of the actor eating, sitting or staring into the distance. Looking at him biting into one apple after another, we wonder if anything at all lies behind his cryptic, silent stare.

Apples is thin on narrative incident or exposition, and fashions itself above all as the study of a cipher. As is de rigueur in cinema of this kind, Nikou shoots in shallow-focus, pivoting his compositions on Servetalis’s sculptural face and upper body. The actor is consistently decentred in the frame, reflecting the character’s loss of centre and the feeling of being never blending into the landscape. Outside of another “unidentified” woman (Sofia Georgovassili), whom the protagonist meets during one of his tasks, there are few full-fledged characters, which encourages Nikou to stay away from shot-reverse shot patterns.

Contemporary Greek filmmakers operating in this narrative mode can barely escape comparisons to Yorgos Lanthimos, with whose idiosyncratic, high-concept works Apples has considerably in common. Besides borrowing his lead actor from Alps (2011), Nikou channels his compatriot in his taste for absurd plot developments, unorthodox shot composition, clinical indoor settings and handling of secondary characters, who are suitably caricatured in voice and gesture to the benefit of the protagonist.

Nikou, though, pitches his film at a level above realism—the viewer is simply expected go along with the premise, which may not stand logical scrutiny—but several notches below Lanthimos-like parable. He accentuates the incongruence by a calculated anachronism: his film looks by turns contemporary and futuristic, but is strewn with props that are forty years old. While such preconceived quirks as the film’s 4:3 aspect ratio have by now become veritably academic, Apples keeps it light and avoids being overwhelmed by its film-awareness.
 

[Originally published at Firstpost]

“Like in a wrong man thriller by Hitchcock, Hans disowns the name at first, but eventually slips into the role, getting admitted to a mental asylum, serving as a shill at Lenin’s demonstration, and even carrying out acts of violence in Peter’s stead. Over the course of these events, zealous ideologues seek to entice and co-opt him, subjecting him to what Louis Althusser called “interpellation”: the recruitment of the individual as a subject of a Grand Narrative.

All through, Peter fights hard to follow his own moral compass, to flee subjecthood, and to retain his individuality. As the Great War ends, however, he finds himself a hero and in the upper echelons of the Soviet state, dispatching dissidents to gulags with a wave of the hand. So, in line with his friend’s counsel, Hans does indeed become the flag-bearer for a cause, ‘turning into’ Peter wholeheartedly, but he is not necessarily any better than the man who bowed down to a bigot at the entrance of a hotel. In the scheme of The Year Before the War, it’s those who believe in an ideal that are capable of much greater violence than apolitical opportunists.”

 

(Full article at Ultra Dogme)

Like several events over the past year, the 50th edition of the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) was reconceived in light of pandemic-imposed restrictions. In addition to a significant part of the proceedings taking place online, the festival is also split across February and June, with a host of repository screenings (online and off) and a special exhibition at the Eye Filmmuseum in Amsterdam offered for audiences in the interceding time.

It was also the year that the festival found a new director in Vanja Kaludjercic, who, in an interview with Screendaily, evoked her work as a programmer with festivals specializing in a diverse range of cinemas. The programming at IFFR this year, too, was nothing if not eclectic. The films on showcase spanned a range of styles, genres, budgets and themes, suggesting a festival beginning to open up to newer horizons while remaining focused on its mission of promoting up-and-coming talent around the world. The June leg of the IFFR promises to throw more light on the overall character and orientation of the festival under the new direction.

Two films set in Japan, featured in the Big Screen Competition section of the festival, provide complementary perspectives into the intersection of class and gender in Japanese society. At first glance, the films couldn’t be any more different: one is a classically-styled fiction, while the other is a sport documentary. Yet, the two films succeed, in their own ways, in drawing out what they see as certain fundamental features of the national temperament.

Adapted from Mariko Yamauchi’s serialized novel Ano Ko wa Kizoku (2015-16), Aristocrats presents two narrative arcs each centred on one young woman. Hanako (played by Mugi Kadowaki) is the last child of an upper-class household in a posh ghetto of Tokyo. The opening scene, a New Year dinner in an upscale restaurant, establishes the family dynamic: just jilted by her fiancé, Hanako sits humiliated in silence as everyone from grandma to her sisters offers tone-deaf advice on how she should find a new partner soon.

And so, Hanako is sucked into the rigmarole of arranged marriage, meeting one unsuitable boy after another in locations across Tokyo. Where another film might have dispatched these unfortunate encounters in a quick, comic montage, director Yukiko Sode chooses to flesh out each meeting, dwelling on Hanako’s discomfort in not just interacting with these basket cases, but in negotiating these alien spaces of the city.

The problem with Hanako, however, is less romantic than existential. She is a cipher with no identity of her own. Brought up in the cocoon of ultra-privilege, she never comes into her own, moving straight from the role of a father’s daughter to that of an aristocrat’s trophy wife to that of a mother to a political heir. In the duty-bound upper echelons of Japanese society, Hanako must fulfil the social function ordained for her, whether she wills it or not.

Miki (Kiko Mizuhara), on the other hand, has always had to fend for herself. Born in a modest household in the provinces, Miki is nearly forced to drop out of her college by her ne’er-do-well father and takes up a job as a hostess to be able to continue her studies. Not all spaces of Tokyo are open to her, but as a working-class girl, she enjoys freedoms that Hanako in her regimented social station cannot. She lives alone in a studio in the city, drives around on a bicycle and forges friendships in a way her social better can’t imagine. Even formally, her story moves freely between the past and the present, in contrast to the strict linearity of Hanako’s narrative.

The first time the two women meet, it’s in order for Hanako to confront Miki about her relationship with her aristocrat husband, whom the latter had met in college and had an affair with ever since. What one expects from the scene is an expression of jealousy and anger from the women; what we get, instead, is mutual curiosity and respect. The affair itself comes to an end in a dignified, bittersweet fashion.

The two meet one more time in the film. Hanako, resigned to her gilded cage, spots Miki on the road. Miki takes her to her tiny studio, which Hanako peruses with a fascination recalling Greta Garbo’s ‘memorization’ of the bedroom in Queen Christina (1933). It’s a busy loft, filled with souvenirs and photographs, attesting to a life of individual enterprise and genuine camaraderie – concrete signs of a personality that prompts Hanako to take control of her own life.

Issues of class and gender identity are present in a more subdued manner in Witches of the Orient, French filmmaker Julien Faraut’s documentary about Japan’s legendary national women’s volleyball team that won the gold medal at the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo. Given the epithet of the film’s title by the Soviet press for their athletic wizardry, the team went undefeated for 258 games in the early sixties – a still unbroken record – and were eventually assimilated into Japan’s broader pop culture.

The film opens with a lunch meeting between some of the players as they are today. Faraut takes us through their daily sport routine, while their voices on the soundtrack furnish recollections of their glory days. Some of the teammates are no more, some infirm, but most still very fit, and at least one still coaching younger volleyball teams. The film doesn’t get too much into the details of their private lives, allowing their public role to take centre stage.

The team originally belonged to a textile factory in the Osaka prefecture, where the women worked at daytime. After their shift, they would train for the rest of the day, sometimes until dawn. Faraut, who is in charge of the audiovisual repository at the French national sports institute, INSEP, unearths archival clips that show the rigours of the women’s training: a barrage of balls directed at individual players, who keep throwing themselves at the ground with the last ounce of energy in order to gain the points that will allow them to wrap up the session.

Faraut charts the team’s dream run by intercutting footage from the games with clips from an animated television series that was later made based on the team’s sporting exploits. Set to pulsating electronic music, these dynamic sequences neatly illustrate the way the rugged working-class bodies of the players were idealized and exaggerated into elegant, expressive anime forms that became part of Japan’s popular lore.

Towards the end of the film is a sequence presenting Japan’s astounding rise from a country left in ruins by the war to being a global industrial giant in less than two decades. In a bit of cultural essentialism, Faraut equates this economic miracle with the volleyball team’s ascent to world domination, the common thread being the indomitable determination of the Japanese in beating almost impossible odds. It is pertinent that the team’s brutally exigent coach, Hirobumi Daimatsu, was a commander in the Imperial Army who survived starvation with his platoon in the Burmese jungle.

Despite the heterogeneity of their source material, both Aristocrats and Witches of the Orient adopt a relatively simple style that can at times even feel rather flat and disinterested. But through accumulation of detail upon detail, both films manage to achieve a certain critical weight and emotional resonance. They are likely to travel far.

 

(Originally written for Firstpost)

The Last Farmer, multi-hyphenate Manikandan’s fourth directorial venture, is nothing if not timely. To be sure, in a country where agrarian suicides are permanent fixtures in the annual news cycle, any work about farmers is timely. But the premiere of Manikandan’s film also coincides with the nationwide protests underway against newly enacted agricultural reforms. As a story about the only remaining farmer of a village, it is, at the very least, bound to benefit from and contribute to the discourse.

Any film by Manikandan is a closely-plotted affair, and The Last Farmer juggles no fewer than four narrative arcs. It is, firstly, the picture of a village that overcomes its internal divisions when faced with adversity. Old customs, beliefs and ways of life are revived as the crisis galvanizes the villagers around an expiatory feast. Thwarting its progression, a second storyline finds the titular last farmer, Mayandi (Nallandi), being harassed and ground down by the legal establishment for having buried dead peacocks found on his land.

Woven through this mesh are vignettes that dramatize items from the headlines: the persistence of drought, the introduction of GM crops, the financialization of agriculture and the corporate takeover of farm lands. There is even an extended star cameo by Vijay Sethupathi as a wandering holy fool who moves in and out of village life. The result of this narrative density and shifting focus is that the film is made less of fleshed-out scenes than of short, melodramatic incidents that move the plot forward.

The farmer is arguably the single most sacred figure in modern Tamil cinema, rivalled perhaps only by the Sri Lankan Tamil. And Manikandan’s film has no intention of impinging on this saintly aura. Its protagonist is the last fount of agricultural knowledge within a largely oral tradition. He leaves everyone who comes into his orbit in thrall, and the filmmaker treats him with comparable awe and piety, even at the risk of idealizing the character. This renders The Last Farmer a film primarily addressing an urban Tamil audience, one which longs for a lost unity back home.

With Lenin Bharathi’s Merku Thodarchi Malai and Mari Selvaraj’s Pariyerum Perumal (both 2018), it seemed as though the ideological and aesthetic stakes of village-based Tamil cinema could never be the same again. While it wishes away the deep, irreconcilable caste divides unveiled by the latter film, The Last Farmer owes a debt to the Vijay Sethupathi-produced Merku Thodarchi Malai, not just in its use of crane shots to chart mountainous landscape, but also in the way it adapts some part of its comprehensive political-critical outlook.

But Manikandan is no ideologue. His film is less the product of cohesive theoretical reflection than a personal tribute to his ancestors. (In the film’s opening credits, he mentions his lineage up to three generations—a first in cinema?) It is made with the filmmaker’s characteristic humour and attention to detail, nowhere more evident than in the authentic courtroom scenes, which were already a standout in his previous work, Aandavan Kattalai (2016). He depicts the village with a cinematographer’s eye, integrating its geography, people and nature into a whole ecosystem, which is one of the film’s main themes. The Last Farmer registers as a work Manikandan had to get out of his system, but the feeling remains that his sentimental attachment to a subject close to his heart may have come a little undone by his distance from it as an essentially urban filmmaker.

 

[Originally written for the International Film Festival Rotterdam]

pebbles

There is a scene early on in P.S. Vinothraj’s first feature Pebbles that takes place in a town bus. Diverging from the story at hand, the director fixates on a series of objects that accompany the passengers: a marapachi doll, a yellow cloth bag, a new set of brass lamps, a CRT television, plastic water carriers. It’s the sort of sentimental detail, each item conveying a world of stories, that gives the film its lived-in quality. As the bus plods along the narrow road, someone smokes one beedi too much. A scuffle ensues, waking up a sleeping baby at the back and bringing the shuttle to a halt.

If these sensations of small-town transit are ostensibly wrought from experience, Pebbles supplements them with material ripped from the headlines. The film unfolds in parched stretches in the outskirts of Madurai in Tamil Nadu. Once there were rivers in in these lands, but all that remain today are signs: empty water canals, drought-resistant vegetation, dying springs. And pebbles. The possibility of agriculture having collapsed, some families have resorted to hunting and consuming rats.

Amid this bleak picture is the story of a father and a son. The man, an alcoholic, seethes with uncontrollable rage at his wife who has left him. The internal movement of the film is closely coupled with the rhythms of this man’s quivering body. Despite the bottle, he walks briskly, his chest heaving, as his child follows him far behind in a mix of fear and concern. For the most part, Pebbles is a horizontal film made of characters traversing the frame from left to right. As the man heads towards his in-laws’ place to find his wife, we also get a tapestry of scenes from the village in the background.

The child, in contrast, is a mute receptacle to his old man’s violence whose muteness is also a force tempering this violence. He wants his family to stay together. When his father sets out to board a bus back to his village to take it out on his wife, he tears up the wad of cash entrusted to him, forcing both of them to walk back home. As a collector of pebbles, the boy knows that this unforgiving landscape has a way of smoothening rough things. Sure enough, the long pedestrian voyage under the scorching summer sun does things to the man’s head, even if it doesn’t entirely cool it down. By the time he reaches home to down some water and food, the film too has settled into a sedate rhythm. Pebbles, then, isn’t as much a story of the terrain as a story by the terrain.

Even when it goes through familiar emotional beats, Pebbles manages to remain fresh, an important quality for a debut work. Vinothraj executes bravura sequences with serpentine camera movements, but he is also concerned with capturing a child’s confusion within a conflict situation. His film is about survival, about life in its barest details, but it doesn’t rule out the capacity for aesthetic experience: waving a balloon out the bus window, transforming dry leaves into a simulated rain shower, collecting feathers and pieces of a broken mirror. And pebbles.

 

[Originally written for the International Film Festival Rotterdam]

City Hall, or 272 minutes of “the future that liberals want”. I don’t know if Frederick Wiseman intended his film to coincide with the run-up to the American elections. But what is certain is that this wide-ranging documentary on the day-to-day operation of the Boston municipal government presents the city as a kind of laboratory offering a glimpse into one possible future for the nation. Mayor Marty Walsh, who is a something of a protagonist in the film, says so in no uncertain terms: he hopes Boston will be a model for other cities to follow. If Boston is a laboratory, what are the experiments? More equitable contracting opportunities, better rehabilitation facilities, reinforcements for food banks, construction of homeless shelters, more funding for eviction prevention, pushback against discriminatory renting practices, certification for same-sex marriages, authorization of marijuana retailing, increase of inner-city school capacities, and so on. True to his style, Wiseman films all these processes non-intrusively, in which the subjects don’t interact with the filmmaker or even look at the camera. Most of the film’s scenes are either speeches to an audience or a group discussion, both of which allow the filmmaker to compose them with countless portraits of attentive faces.

While what we see is practically the ‘Democratic agenda’ made real, Wiseman remains focused on a central theme. Boston, we are told, is 55% non-white, a fact that the city hall hopes to reflect in its policies. Wiseman, likewise, picks out diverse faces in the audience speaking or listening closely, as though to mirror Boston’s demographic distribution. In a way, City Hall is a picture of how a multicultural city comes to terms with its ethnic reality, how identity groups gain in power and how values enshrined by institutions are challenged and modified, all through democratic, constitutional means. However, given Wiseman’s non-interventional style, we aren’t told what to make of these observations. Wiseman doesn’t provide any reaction to the municipality’s policies from people and institutions outside it. In this absence, the audience’s own opinion about the proceedings comes into play in a significant way. In other words, viewers from the extreme-right could find as much material to justify their beliefs as liberals might.

On the other hand, the fact that there is hardly any friction within the operations of the city hall itself tilts the film’s balance. For a film about democracy in action, we barely see any dissent within the meetings themselves. We get new angles into specific issues, sure, but nothing that resists the fundamental thrust of the institutional charter. Only a faintly humorous, somewhat superfluous sequence late in the film, in which businessmen seeking to commercialize marijuana in an impoverished district face the cross-examination of the district residents, comes anywhere close to capturing the fault-lines of the democratic process. Moreover, Mayor Walsh unequivocally comes across as a political hero dedicated to the cause of his people. The mayor is everywhere, now supporting a gathering of nurses on strike, now thanking a group of war veterans, now extending support to Latina hopefuls, now organizing an NAACP rally. The only opposition he faces in his work is Trump’s federal policies, which register as an abstract external threat that the paternalist mayor will help his people overcome. In this respect, the film veers uncomfortably close to propaganda.

So it’s ambiguous whether City Hall is really ambiguous. The film adds to the impression of objectivity by expanding sideways. Almost obsessively, Wiseman documents operations at every organ of the city hall, located all across the city: from traffic control to pest control, from animal shelters to archaeological repositories, from cross-cultural cooking sessions to construction sites. This breadth is aimed at exhaustiveness, to show that the municipality’s operations touch every aspect of the city’s life. To this end, Wiseman glues together his sequences with shots from the city streets showcasing residential and official architecture, commercial establishments and the sea port. This offers a dialectic in which the city hall’s work becomes the invisible labour sustaining the order and beauty of Boston’s visible surface. Conversely, these digressions also risk scattering the focus of the film, all the more so because they are presented in bits and pieces, almost half-heartedly. City Hall is at its strongest when it depicts Boston as a seismograph of the larger changes afoot in America. At the same time, when it remains on its focal point, it starts losing its nuances. More than Boston, it’s Wiseman’s film that is a real litmus test for its viewers.

Orson Welles has been quite productive of late, considering he’s been dead for 35 years. Produced by the same team as The Other Side of the Wind (2018), Hopper/Welles is a documentary born of the director’s filmed discussions with Dennis Hopper in 1970, prior to the making of Wind. Coming out of their graves to give us company in our collective confinement, Welles and Hopper hole up in a dark room with half a dozen technicians to talk filmmaking, politics, religion, love, magic, news, television and literature while dutiful assistants scurry about readying one refill of liquor for them after another. Talk is perhaps not the right word here, for what Welles to Hopper does may better be described as an interrogation, a grilling. He plays the Grand Inquisitor, pressing his timid interlocutor to state his artistic and political beliefs, pulling theories out of nowhere to counter him and never allowing him a respite or a resting ground. While part of it is low-key ragging, Welles’ insistence clearly comes from a place of goodwill and seeks to draw out the young man’s best. Hopper, in his early thirties, is rather unsure and self-contradicting before Welles’ towering figure. Sporting a hat, he constantly caresses his beard, qualifying all his tentative, half-joking answers with a nervous, self-protective giggle. What Hopper lacks in persuasiveness he makes up for with his keen attention and youthful vigour; his eyes are full of life. “You’re a hard man to talk to”, he tells his questioner.

At the beginning of the film, a short text let us know that both Welles and Hopper changed the face of movies with their respective debuts. In doing so, it places both filmmakers at par with each other. That doesn’t quite reveal the entire picture. Now, in 1970, Welles is a greatly respected, almost legendary figure, but whose glory days are behind him, something of a ‘has-been’ if he ever ‘was’ for Hollywood. Hopper, on the other hand, is a star hot off an era-defining blockbuster in Easy Rider (1968). Yet, in their conversation, they are able to find a common ground, namely the question of authenticity in filmmaking. We never see Welles, save for rare glimpses of his bellowing pin-striped trousers moving at the edge of the frame. Hopper’s eyes, wide in evident admiration, follow him everywhere he moves in the off-screen space. At several points, the Caravaggesque Hopper literally looks up at Welles, who appears to be playing some kind of metaphysical force, re-orchestrating a Kafkaesque trial for Hopper. What results is a stark power imbalance between the seen and the unseen, between the subject and the author, between the one who is recorded and the one who wields the camera. Hopper’s cinematic forefather looms large over him even as he speaks about the need to one-up his old man.

I can’t imagine what form the film would’ve taken had Welles edited and completed it himself, but as it exists, it looks nothing like what he has done until this point. Shot with multiple handheld cameras and a single lantern next to Hopper, the film never ‘settles down’. The operators constantly move around the room, seemingly for no reason, relocating the camera, changing focus, zooming in and out in a way that may be disorienting for those interested solely in the dialogue. The camera’s magazines run out and the clapboard cracks indifferently in front of Hopper’s face even when he is in the middle of an important point. Whether on Welles’ instructions or on editor Bob Murawski’s, the view keeps switching from one camera to another at a frenetic rhythm, with inexplicable black leaders inserted in between shots. The overall impression is that Welles is making something like a Cassavetes picture, improvising the whole film with his actor by placing him in a dramatic situation and teasing out his responses by way of direct questioning. Welles, we are told, is also in character, as the filmmaker from Wind, and Hopper calls him Jake (Hannaford) as well. So the film may be said to operate in some undefined region between documentary and fiction, a precursor to F for Fake (1973); as much a story about a director shaping and rehearsing with his actors as a record of a man eating, drinking and getting drunk over two hours.

But the primary pleasures of Hopper/Welles are rather straightforward: two maverick filmmakers in a terribly fascinating conversation. The movie-related anecdotes that emerge are very interesting, for instance Hopper’s relationship with the Fondas, or his work on Crush Proof (1972), a self-financed experimental film by architect François De Menil (scion of the Schlumberger family and a cousin to Sylvina Boissonnas, producer of avant-garde French films including the early work of Philippe Garrel), as are the political talking points, such as Welles’ support for Francisco Franco, his prediction about a black US president and Hopper’s observation about the rift between the counterculture and deep America as he saw it in the varied response to Easy Rider. Most of all, it is compelling to see two artists grapple with the cinematic-aesthetic problems of the time. As the discussion turns around the films of De Sica and Antonioni, Hopper and Welles reflect on the challenges in dealing with boredom and lack of drama on screen, a few years before Jeanne Dielman (1975), among other narrative films, would do away with drama altogether. Going public after 50 years, Hopper/Welles is both a standalone film and an anniversary celebration. It hasn’t dated one bit.

Next Page »