The view from afar...

The view from afar…

The Oscar Official entries are out (Full list here) and as many as 67 countries have submitted their candidates for the golden statuette – A record number by itself. With the nominations out in January, here is an early look at the major players this year.

GomorraItaly’s tale of the life and times in Camorra, the crime hub of Naples interweaves 5 stories of people living in the area and trying to make a life and name for themselves. The film is already making waves as the author of the book on which the film is based on is under a life threat. Confusing and unconventional narrative keeps one engaged. And the Academy won’t fail to notice such films.

The Baader Meinhof Complex: Consistent performer at the Oscar Awards, Germany’s fantastic portrayal of interconnected lives in The Edge of Heaven may have been overlooked, but this film about the rise of the Red Army Faction during the late 60’s seems to be the favorite especially since the Academy seems to have shed its policy of not embracing violence.

The Class: A sleeper, even for Cannes where it went all the way. It has become a thumb rule that Oscar should not be given to the Palm D’Or winner and The Class may just succumb to that. Another minimalist film, following its Cannes predecessor 4 Months. 3 Weeks and 2 Days, The Class serves as a exhibition of the various cultures and their intersection in the city of Paris. A low chance, but the Academy never ceases to surprise.

Waltz With BashirIsraeli reply to Persepolis follows the life of the director during his involvement in the Israel-Palestine war told in animation. The Academy loves issues – be it cultural or political (conditions apply!) – and what bigger issue at this time than the middle eastern conflict. Persepolis was unfairly ignored and let’s hope Waltz with Bashir makes up for that.

Dream Weavers: Beijing 2008: We’ve all seen it and we’ve all collapsed in awe – the 2008 Olympics in China. Surprising entrant is this documentary from China that follows the Chinese government’s run up to the Beijing Olympics. The film took 5 years to make and hope is that it is as grand as the Olympics itself. But a docu? Propaganda? And China? Fat Chance!

Opium War: Siddik Barmak made an instant mark with his film Osama (2003) and Opium War follows suit that follows life in Afghanistan as a country influenced by both the Russian and American involvement in War. With the film grabbing the top award at the Rome International Film Festival this year, this one comes as one of the dark horses in the race.

The Song Of SparrowsIran’s safest director Majid Majidi is embodiment of consistence and it may be high time he gets another nod after Children of Heaven (1998). The Song of Sparrows follows the life of a man after being fired from an Ostrich farm for his negligence. How the melodrama supporting academy views this one is a question mark. But the profile of the director may just give it the required boost.

Taare Zameen Par: The Indian entry is not exactly a strong contender and may be one of the first films to be weeded out. For a person not new to the Hollywood way of filmmaking, the ordeal of a boy suffering from Dyslexia and his subsequent treatment may be just too typical. Taare Zameen Par edged past contenders like Vallu, Tingya, A Wednesday, Mumbai Meri Jaan, Black & White, Jodhaa Akbar, Rock On and Ghanyam.

The Rest Is SilenceRomanian Follow up to the Cannes winner 4 Months. 3 Weeks and 2 Days is an unconventional movie that depicts how a film based on the Romanian war of independence is made. Part fact, part fiction, the film is being praised in internet circles for its extraordinary art direction and cinematography. We’ll have to wait to hear more about this seemingly strong contender.

Mermaid: Coming of age tale of a girl whose illusions of Childhood are slowly crumbled as she discovers love and the real world may not recreate the magic of Moscow Does not Believe in Tears (1980) at the Oscars, but given Russia’s track record of the Academy Awards, Mermaid seems to be a formidable player this year.

Captain Abu Raed: Jordan enters the race for the first time in its film history and how! Already the winner of the revered Sundance Audience Award and going great guns among the internet forums, Captain Abu Raed is the story of a janitor who is mistaken for a captain by the children in his neighbourhood. He begins to assume the bestowed role and develops fictional stories about his travels to far off countries. This genuine crowd pleaser may just be one of the five the Academy is looking for.

Let’s wait for January.

(Spoilers ahead)

Iranian cinema was first put on the map when the films of Abbas Kiarostami caught the attention of the west. The avant-garde style and the peculiar yet totally fresh concept of “plotlessness” impressed the critics, invariably, throughout the world. After Kiarostami had made way for Iranian filmmakers to venture into the international scenario, it was up to the new generation to develop a stronghold and reserve a unique place for the cinema of their country without mimicking their forerunner. Quite a few of them have made it big, all in their own styles.

Jafar Panahi’s eye for the social issues and status of women in Iran, Bahman Ghobadi’s penchant for the portrayal of the fate of the Kurds and Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s authority on depiction of proletarian life still remain unchallenged. Majid Majidi, taking an altogether different path, too has made his mark on celluloid. His films remain detached from the society and hence radically different from his contemporaries. These films, nevertheless, make an equally deep impact on the viewers, but in a very different sense. The following passages attempt to examine few of the themes and motifs employed in four of his major works – The Father (1996), Children of Heaven (1997), Colour of Paradise (1999) and Baran (2001).

The most evident facet in Majid Majidi’s works is the firm bonding of the central character with his family, especially with his father. Though Mohammad’s relation with his father does not seem to be all rosy, Colour of Paradise is essentially about their eventual bonding. Memar acts as a surrogate father for the orphaned Lateef in Baran and supports him as a real father does. Needless to say, Pedar is all about the father-son relationship. Furthermore, his works also track the sacrifices his characters make for their beloved ones. Mehrollah goes to the city for earning money for his sisters and mother, Ali is determined to win his sister the shoes he promised even if it means wounding his feet and Lateef literally loses his identity to get money for Baran. The exception of Mohammad shows his inability to mend his family’s situation and tackle his own suffering, eventually relying on God to do the needful. However, his love for his family is unvanquished and unadulterated.

Running becomes an integral motif in Majidi’s films. The characters are frequently seen running for life and sometimes running away running away from it. These images are invariably captured by a pan shot, taking the audience along with the character and thereby placing them in the character’s shoes. Additionally, running also becomes the major part in the plot of Children of Heaven with Ali needing to come third in a marathon to win a pair of sneakers.

The protagonists in Majidi’s films are often seen connecting to the outside world and the nature in their moments of solitude and depression. Be it Lateef (Baran) feeding the pigeons, Mohammad (Colour of Paradise) caressing the birds of the nest or Ali (Children of Heaven) being “consoled” by the fishes of the pond (incidentally, the gold fish is a sign of good omen in Iran), the agonists are in a dire need to be heard and soothed. Again, the exception of Mehrollah (The Father), who has no emotional outlet into nature or to his friend, substantiates the closed and inaccessible nature of his mind.

Yet another motif in the four films is the image of a flowing stream of water. The stream, in various manifestations ranging from sleek to tumultuous, represents the flow of life and carries along with it the disappointments and lost opportunities of the characters’ lives. The central characters are shown making contacts with the stream flowing at various rates that reflect the emotional turbulence of the characters themselves.

Another noticeable aspect about the movies of Majidi is their poetic endings that carry with them a sense of resurrection – destruction of the old and beloved and the arrival of a new one. Mehrollah accepts a new father, Lateef notices the departure of one Baran (rain) and the onset of another, Mohammad is free from his paternal alienation and is able to feel God at the end of his fingers and Ali spoils his shoes as he gets a new pair. This kind of visual poetry overflows in Baran.

Of course, this list is non-exhaustive and Majidi’s films carry many more themes and symbols than specified here. For example, the images of Roti (Bread) and tea appear almost consistently. Though no explicit meaning can be assigned to this leitmotif, it does give a sense of realism and struggle for daily survival. Also, the close up of hands doing various activities that define the key idea of the film – hands trying to connect to loved ones, hands unsuccessful at the same and hands attempting to restore lost happiness – provide the right tone for the emphasis of the central ideas sans verbalization.

In a country whose political and artistic barriers are just opening up to the world, Majidi has carved a niche for himself and his films without offending the nation’s sentiments and ideologies or getting into controversies. More than anything, these recurring elements of visual composition and mellifluous poetry affirm Majidi’s position as a true cinematic auteur and have made him the most respected Iranian after Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf.

Pedar (1996) (aka The Father)
Majid Majidi

“Mehrolah, your mom has married a police officer”


For a large part of the world Majid Majidi’s filmography begins with the disarmingly charming Children of Heaven (1997). But the Iranian auteur had already struck gold a year before the first Oscar nomination from Iran. The themes, style and idiosyncrasies that were to mesmerize the world in the years following Children of Heaven clearly show their roots in Pedar (1996) (aka Father).

The film kicks off with the image of Mehrollah (Hassan Sadeghi), a boy in his teens working in the city in the south of Iran, purchasing clothes and ornaments, possibly for his family. The sweat on his face and his crumpled currency clearly indicate the boy’s struggle for a living. At his Spartan room besides the shop, Mehrollah packs his stuff that includes a photograph of himself with a man, probably his father, and leaves the city the next day.

Mehrollah makes a long trip by bus and arrives at his village. He halts to freshen up at a stream nearby and in the process loses the photograph. He notices his friend Latif (Hossein Abedini, who will go on to become the protagonist of Majidi’s spectacular Baran (2001)), and plays a childish prank on him. Immediately following that, Latif informs Mehrollah that after he had gone to the city following his father’s death, his mother had married a policeman. Mehrollah is infuriated and hits Latif, indicating his straddling between the playfulness of childhood and the fits of adolescent anger.

He reaches the policeman’s house where his mother and sisters are staying and notices the policemen with them. He throws the gifts he had bought for them at the gates and leaves the place in frustration. Determined that the policeman had married his mother only by offering money for the treatment of his sister, he decides to teach the man a lesson.

The next day he returns to the house and throws his wad of money at the policeman’s face and asks him to leave his mother alone. The policeman, much too experienced with these kinds of reactions, is passive and asks Mehrollah to either get into the house or flee the place. In another futile attempt at retrieving his sisters, Mehrollah refurbishes the place where he is staying in and brings his sisters without the knowledge of his mother. After the policeman and his mother track him down, he is rebuked severely. Following a minor protest outside the policeman’s house that rainy night, Mehrollah falls sick, only to be helped by the policeman. The policeman brings Mehrollah to his house for care and leaves the house for a few days in the pretext of a mission, leaving Mehrollah and his mother to bond. It is now that we find that the policeman was a divorcee and had married Mehrollah’s mother out of true love for her and her kids.

After the few days of bout, Mehrollah decides to hit back big time. He pinches the policeman’s pistol and leaves the village by night along with Latif, after wooing the latter with the hopes of making tons of money. The policeman, now out of his patience limits, sets off on his bike in order to arrest the juvenile delinquents who have now reached the beach at the city (a la Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959)). The two friends play in the sandy waters at the beach, a scene reminiscent of Elem Klimov’s war epic Come and See (1985), suggesting that they are, after all, children.

The policeman manages to track them down, but not without a marathon of a run. He grabs hold of Mehrollah and cuffs him to his own wrists suggesting his realization that he has to bring his kid up the hard way. He also sends the weeping Latif off to the village on a bus. The rest of the film follows the policeman’s struggle to bring back Mehrollah back home both physically and emotionally. The pair travels through the scorched desert on foot following the breakdown of the bike and get lost. As they set off on an excruciating quest for water and civilization, Mehrollah realizes how the policeman has taken responsibility of his safety and survival. He learns that the policeman has married his mother for reasons beyond what he had thought.

The policeman collapses, unable to keep with the heat, but not before freeing Mehrollah asking him to carry on. Mehrollah, determined to save his companion, runs in search of water and finds a stream at a distance. He performs a mammoth task by dragging the unconscious policeman to the stream and collapses besides him on the water. In the final moment, as poetic and moving as all of Majidi’s later film endings, a photograph of the policeman with his “new family” floats towards Mehrollah. Mehrollah, who lost the photograph of his father in a stream early on, finds this photograph coming to him through a similar stream. Mehrollah has found a new father.

Majidi’s films, unlike his contemporaries’ Jafar Panahi and Bahman Ghobadi, do not intend to highlight the social ills prevalent in society of Iran and the discrimination of humans based on gender and ethnicity. Rather, they focus on the best parts of the country’s culture and flourish on them. They are deeply rooted on the family values and traditions of Iran, yet are universal in their themes.

Pedar is shot in the rural localities of Iran, a place that may look like a whole new world to the outsiders. However, the alienation stops there and one will be emotionally overwhelmed as the movie proceeds. The global themes of fatherhood, adolescence and emotional bonding through distress will remind every viewer how the world is so large yet so small.