Review


A train moves across the screen from left to right. The camera echoes the movement, panning slowly to the right, in the same direction as the locomotive. In the foreground, in front of the train, are three women, clad in sarees, striking a graceful pose before a tree, their heads gently responding to the moving vehicle behind them. The edge of the panning camera stops just to the right of the tree. We expect the train to come into view after it passes the tree, but no, the iron horse simply vanishes behind its trunk, as if swallowed by this compositional element. This shot, worthy of a John Ford, constitutes the opening of Bengali academic and experimental filmmaker Ashish Avikunthak’s seventh feature, Glossary of Non-human Love, one of the five Indian films screened in June at the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR).

And it’s a shot unlike anything else in contemporary cinema, combining movement and stasis, a classical idea of plastic beauty with some SFX magic. It will be a question of such incongruencies and anachronisms all through Avikunthak’s film, which, we are told, is set in a future when Artificial Intelligence has taken over human life. Divided into 64 chapters, variously titled “Jealousy”, “Affection”, “Remorse”, “Delusion”, “Perfection”, “Rebirth” and so on, the film offers a series of vignettes in which half-a-dozen men and women, presumably hollowed out by AI, try to understand the cumulus of emotions and sensations around physical love.

The chapter names have little relation to what we see in the vignettes; if there is a connection, it is mostly oblique, for instance the chapter titled “Shadow” where an actor plays shadow cricket, or the one called “Non-Duality” where another performer smokes with a CGI double of hers. Many of the vignettes are propelled by dialogue, but the lines are shared by different actors such that none of them has any fixed identity. Several scenes feature the performers in the nude, composed into striking tableaux or engaged in minimal but precise movements, with their desexualized nudity echoing the blank states that their minds are. What sounds like residual memories of lovemaking are invoked, as are mythological and historical accounts; the difference between past and present, male and female, gods and humans all vanish in this collective stream of consciousness.

It is a tall order to process Glossary of Non-human Love in any meaningful way in one viewing, especially for those who don’t speak Bengali, caught as the eyes are between its visual provocations and the subtitles. Unless your name is Ashish Avikunthak, trying to closely follow its philosophical arguments will not take you very far. It will, in any case, take you away from the primary pleasures of the film, which lie not in its text but on its surfaces.

There is always something of formal interest in each of the vignettes, the film constantly experimenting with newer ways of composing them. At times, it is the gonzo camera angles that prompt the viewer’s eye to recompose space; elsewhere, it is the fragmented compositions in which the frame is divided into multiple rectilinear subframes, each one competing for our attention. Or it’s the fine-grained sound design, which suggests a world beyond what we see. Some sketches are presented as single-shot tableaux while others are distributed across several settings, jumping from one to another even in the middle of a single line of dialogue.

It is, however, the use of architecture in the film that is most striking. Discounting the outdoor locations, Glossary of Non-human Love is shot inside half-a-dozen different residences in Kolkata and Mumbai. The buildings range from angular, modernist designs to colonial structures and traditional brick houses; their peeling paint, rusty ironwork, double doors and grilled windows with Indo-Mughal motifs, scorched courtyards and general lived-in quality possess a nonhuman sensuality and warmth that stand in contrast to the icy, naked bodies of the performers.

Despite the dead seriousness of its subject, Glossary is also a film with a subtle sense of humour. Many of its indoor scenes are intruded upon by the external world, either visually through the windows or in the form of ambient sound, which pierces the Great Art Film Experiment conducted by the filmmaker and his collaborators, hermetically sealed within expressly emptied houses. In this, and in its attention to the textures of everyday living, it joins the cinema of Tsai Ming-Liang, whose work too taps into the spiritual possibilities of the quotidian spaces.

Equally provocative, but in another manner, Kerala-based filmmaker Don Palathara’s fourth project Everything Is Cinema is told entirely from the point of view (and the camera) of a Malayali filmmaker called Chris, unseen but voiced by Palathara himself. Chris, we learn, went to Kolkata in January 2020 to shoot some kind of a remake of Louis Malle’s documentary Calcutta (1969). But the project comes to a halt with the outbreak of the pandemic, and Chris is stuck in an apartment in the city with his partner, an actress called Anita (Sherin Catherine). At this point, his film turns inward, with Chris now shooting Anita in her daily routine.

The city documentary may have turned domestic, but the filmmaker’s gaze remains that of an outsider, with Malle’s voiceover over street scenes of Calcutta giving way to Chris’ voiceover over monochrome images of Anita. We see right away that their relationship is in tatters: the pair is estranged; Chris can’t stand Anita and subjects her to a barrage of criticisms on the soundtrack, ranging from mild rebuke for her supposed hypocrisies to misogynistic tirade. With little self-awareness and much self-love, he assumes a higher moral and intellectual stand, regularly quoting philosophers and undercutting Anita’s supposedly pseudo-progressivism.

Even within the confines of a private space, Chris and Anita are enacting a filmmaker-actress duo, that classic model of modernist filmmaking with its own gender biases: the camera-wielding filmmaker is the creator-subject (thoughtful, capable of Deep Emotion) with the capacity to describe the actress-object (shallow, conceited if interesting and colourful), not very unlike the power dynamic Malle found himself in in relation to the city he was filming. The camera, in Chris’ hands, becomes the vehicle of objectification and abuse.

The impression one gets, however, is that Chris is somewhat thick in the head. Making this film, he thinks he is incriminating Anita, finding irrefutable proof of her vanity and vileness. The poor idiot even assures us that he isn’t manipulating the footage to place her in an unfavourable light. But the visual evidence incriminates only him. Nothing in what we see of (and hear from) Anita confirms Chris’ negative characterization of her in the voiceover. He generously offers to intersperse footage of Calcutta as a welcome break for the viewer from having to constantly see Anita’s face, but it only serves as a welcome break from his obnoxious monologue.

So Chris’ film gets out of his hand and turns against him. The camera frame, instead of imprisoning the figure it contains, indicts the one behind it. In one of his many moments of self-flattery, Chris compares himself to the protagonist of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Camera Buff (1979), a man who can’t relate to the world around him unless he sees it through the frame of a camera. But in fact, he is closer to the protagonist of another Kieślowski film, A Short Film About Killing (1988), which immerses us entirely into the subjectivity of a murderer. There are moments where we sense that there may be a more reflective, nuanced individual in Chris, as when he wonders why Anita stopped writing or when he mulls over the possibility of collaborating with her, but it’s these contradictions that serve to throw his darker thoughts into relief.

Palathara’s film is patently treading on dangerous ground. In its very concept, it offers the viewer a space to intimately identify with the deranged impulses of a woman-hater. But unlike a work like Gone Girl (2014), this identification is kept in check in different ways. Firstly, the (presumably) liberal audience of the film already has their sympathies aligned with Anita, especially as she is obviously in the right here. There are, then, scenes of Anita speaking for herself before the camera—like Malle’s subjects who return the camera’s gaze—puncturing Chris’ descriptions of her. Finally, Palathara amps up Chris’ odiousness to a breaking point—and this is arguably a failure of nerve on the part of the film—that we are more hostages to his point of view than accomplices.

The film doesn’t always succeed in working out solutions to the problem of identification posed by its framing concept, but for the most part, we are kept in a state of fugue, laughing sometimes with Chris and sometimes at him. And Palathara certainly deserves credit for taking the risk, for not settling for an easier way out by, say, telling the story from Anita’s perspective. His film is less a cinematic exploration of a relationship gone sour and more an investigation into the ethical questions of cinema through the time-tested device of a marriage-in-crisis picture. In just that, the film accomplishes more that most domestic dramas out there.

 

[Originally published at Mint]

The history of battle,” wrote Paul Virilio in 1984, “is primarily the history of radically changing fields of perception.” Examining the relationship between war and images, the French philosopher advanced that, through the ages, victory in an armed conflict has always been a matter of perceiving and representing enemies and enemy territories; that, in industrial warfare, “the representation of events outstripped the presentation of facts”. He continues: “Thus, alongside the army’s traditional ‘film department’ responsible for directing propaganda to the civilian population, a military ‘images department’ has sprung up to take charge of all tactical and strategic representations of warfare for the soldier, the tank or aircraft pilot, and above all the senior officer who engages combat forces.”

Virilio’s analysis has only become more accurate with time. A few years ago, MIT developed a camera that can look around corners — an invention that has obvious military application. In March this year, the U.S. Army publicized their goggles that allows soldiers to remain inside their armoured vehicles while being able to see everything happening outside. To be able to see the source of danger without exposing yourself to it — the Rear Window principle — is already a battle half-won. Photography and filmmaking have therefore increasingly been at the centre of contemporary military strategy.

The work of German filmmaker Harun Farocki (1944-2014) has, over decades, thrown light on the profound, multi-layered links between war, photography and cinema. His films echo Virilio in demonstrating how, in modern warfare, terrains are mapped out in extensive detail, combat tactics are thoroughly simulated in software and variables of battle are controlled to such a degree that the actual field operation simply becomes a logistical formality. In such an asymmetric war, the side that controls machine-filmed, amoral and objective images of a region is one that has already conquered it. To see is to capture.

Two films screened at the recently concluded Visions du Réel festival in Nyon imbibe the spirit of Farocki’s work and explore the intersection between images and war with great cogency and rigour.

Directed by Massimo D’Anolfi and Martina Parenti, the Italian feature War and Peace lives up to the ambitions of its lofty title. The opening part is set in a film archive, where researchers study footage from a “forgotten war”: the Italian invasion of (current-day) Libya in 1911. Perhaps the first war expressly filmed for public consumption back home, the clips show soldiers advancing in the desert and or assembled outside captured sites. These films, we are told, played a part in creating the fiction that was unified Libya. As it did elsewhere under various imperial film units, cinema here served as a colonizing force, with the power of writing history residing with those who wield the camera.

The second segment of the film parachutes us into a crisis unit in Italy that helps locate and repatriate civilians and military personnel stuck in war-torn areas around the world. More than a century since the Libya invasion, technology has now democratized image-making. Even the “enemies” have the means to fashion their own narrative through film. Thanks to global media and the internet, these images of war can now be produced, distributed and immediately seen across the world. We observe experts at the crisis unit investigating and interacting with these videos to navigate the chaos of the present. It’s effectively a battle for the control of future history.

Production and control of images of war is also the theme of the third part of the film, set at a French military academy. A new batch of recruits in what Virilio called the “images department” is being trained in the techniques of photography, visual composition, voiceover commentary, live telecast and filmmaking. At the end of the course, a whole combat operation is simulated in the campus for these trainees to shoot and edit into a wide-screen Hollywood-like movie, as though the primary goal of war was to fabricate images, “representation of events” outstripping “presentation of facts”.

War and Peace nevertheless concludes with a reflection on cinema’s power to prevent history from falling into oblivion. As footage of post-war devastation and testimonies of Holocaust survivors wash over reel cans, we realize that while cinema may not have been able to forestall historical tragedy, as Jean-Luc Godard lamented, its true mission may simply be to pick up the pieces, to preserve the memories of the victims of war. And that perhaps is the only way cinema could film peace.

Bellum – The Daemon of War deals with similar ideas as War and Peace, but weaves them into human interest stories. Made by David Herdies and Georg Götmark, the film follows three subjects living at different corners of the world: an engineer in Sweden, an American photographer working in Afghanistan and an Afghan war veteran in Nevada, USA. They don’t meet one another in the film, but their lives are all shaped by war and Western attitudes to war.

Fredrik Bruhn, the Swedish engineer, is involved in designing an AI-powered military drone that will take autonomous decisions on bombing a perceived target — a game-changing invention that will eliminate the need for any human intervention in combats. Bill Lyon, the war vet suffering from PTSD, has trouble reintegrating into civilian life and hopes to go back to the front, not just for the money, but also to regain some semblance of normalcy. Paula Bronstein is a photojournalist from the East Coast who covers the aftermath of the Afghan war. We see her directing her subjects with makeshift lighting, wandering the streets of Kabul coaxing children for a pose or signing photo-books at her exhibition back in the United States.

Bellum emphasizes that these are nice people. Bruhn is a doting father and a science enthusiast. Bronstein is empathetic and wants to put a human face to the fallout of the war. Despite his hatred for the conditions in Afghanistan, Lyon too is a loving husband. Well-meaning though they might be, it becomes apparent that their life and work are marked by a certain guilt surrounding the fact of war. This is evident in the case of Lyon, who has seen his friends and colleagues die in the field, but Bronstein’s own activity may not be untouched by a liberal sense of culpability about her country’s interventions in Afghanistan. Bruhn’s efforts to eliminate the human factor of war, too, is an attempt to eradicate feelings of guilt about liquidating an enemy, which, the film’s narrator notes, is the only real restraining force in an armed conflict.

Elsewhere, the narrator remarks that armies don’t use just cardboard silhouettes for target practice anymore, but well-defined human-like figures, such that soldiers find themselves in a situation as close to real life as possible. Lyon drives past a large military facility in Nevada, where a life-size replica of Kandahar was set up. Such hyper-realistic simulation environments, which were the subject of Farocki’s four-part Serious Games (2010), are ultimately designed to blur the boundary between reality and fiction and to have combatants take one for the other.

It’s judgment that defeats us,” says an embittered Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) at the end of his famous monologue in Apocalypse Now (1979). What Bellum points to us is that this judgment, this human fallibility, is the variable that technology seeks to eliminate from the equation of war, seeking to forge amoral killing machines that will, somehow, do the “right thing”. In this mission, these two films show us, cinema will be always on the side of the powerful.

 

[Originally published at Firstpost]

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]

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