Category: Festivals and Conferences

Saturday Afternoon (Shonibar Bikel, Bangladesh-India-Germany 2019)

Nusrat Imrose Tisha plays a hostage, a local Bangladeshi woman interrogated by terrorists as the other hostages keep their heads down

The third film from the ‘South Asian Film Festival Up North’ offered another change of direction. Saturday Afternoon is written, directed and produced by the Bangladeshi auteur Mostofa Sarwar Farooki in a co-production with Indian and German companies. Farooki has had success with several films in major festivals such as Busan and for this film he had a $500,000 budget and international stars and crew. The 86 minute feature starts with some street scenes on a quiet Saturday in Dhaka during Ramadan. It cuts to a man washing his hands in the washroom of a restaurant bar and from that point a single take is used to explore the tense drama unfolding in the building in which a small group of terrorists are holding hostage the staff and diners. The screenplay is based on/inspired by a real news story from 2016 in which 5 terrorists held hostages in a bakery shop/café resulting in multiple deaths of hostages and terrorists.

The single take shoot by DoP Aziz Zhambakiev (known for several high profile festival films from Central Asia) is not there as a gimmick and instead it is used mainly to keep up the tension as the camera swings around the action. This is a brutal film with the terrorists, who belong to an unnamed Islamist group, separating foreigners and locals and killing at will. The deaths are not shown in detail but we hear the shots and see the bodies being dragged away. Nobody is safe. The gunmen seek out atheists and non-observant Muslims as targets even if they are Bangladeshis.

Hostage dramas are problematic as film narratives if there is little chance of escape for hostages or even for perpetrators. What expectations do audiences have? When the narrative begins the police are already on their way and Farooki decides to end his film before the final shootout. The audience doesn’t know if anyone will survive. This means it makes most sense to discuss the narrative as a ‘hostage procedural’ – what do the gunmen do, how do they do it and why do they do it? Their aim appears to be to get publicity for their cause. They have a leader who is mostly in the background and may be a foreigner. There are three active men dealing with the hostages. One is generally calm, one much louder but seemingly in control, but the third, who speaks only English (?), is close to losing control and shouts loudly. All are killers but some appear more impetuous than others. The Indian Bengali actor Parambrata Chattopadhyay plays Polash, the most controlled of the three. They contact the police by forcing a hostage to call her mother who has a police friend. When they pass on their demands to the police they monitor what happens on the TV news. The script is sharp about the use of mobile phones, though I thought I saw a mistake. As well as the three active terrorists there are others in the building guarding entrances/exits.

Bagnladeshi star Zahid Hasan has the most complex story of the hostages

The second way to think about the narrative is as a stage drama. The single take turns the restaurant into a theatre stage. We wonder if the terrorist leaders will maintain control and eventually we realise that there is a specific sub-plot about saving a hostage who the terrorists seek to identify and kill. This creates a suspense narrative. Will this character be exposed? In this kind of narrative the audience is also asked to consider attitudes and human emotions. What kind of morality is at play? How can the hostages collectively defeat the terrorists? What makes a person willing to sacrifice themselves to save somebody else? I’m sure there must also be questions about Islam and about how Muslims are supposed to behave in situations like this. Killing people because of religious belief (or the lack of belief) is completely bewildering to me. I note that several reviewers have praised the film for its approach:

Through this approach, by highlighting the tragic ridiculousness of the whole terrorist rhetoric, Farooki manages to highlight the benefits of tolerance and education, but at the same time stresses the fact that in the area, guns and not words or thoughts are the ones in command. (Asian Movie Pulse)

I wonder if the film really does highlight tolerance and education? I don’t think we can definitely say the terrorists are ‘uneducated’. When terrorists are prepared to die for a cause it’s very difficult to argue with them. The best strategy would seem to be to tell them very little, to try to distract them without provoking them. Having said that, foreigners are going to be killed anyway and perhaps only the locals who know enough about Islam to second guess the answers to the terrorists’ interrogation stand much chance. According to Deborah Young in her The Hollywood Reporter review:

Unfortunately, [the film] has been banned in Bangladesh on the grounds it could “damage the country’s reputation” and incite religious hatred. The only thing this Bangladesh-Germany co-prod could do to the country’s reputation is improve it, and its plea for religious tolerance is nothing short of touching.

It seems we will struggle to see how the film goes down in Dhaka itself but international reviewers think it works. I’m not sure I could say that I ‘enjoyed’ Saturday Afternoon, but I was certainly impressed by the filmmaking skills and intelligence on display by the cast and crew. As well as Farooki and Zhambakiev I’d also like to pick out two local actors, Zahid Hasan and Nusrat Imrose Tisha as well as the Palestinian actor Eyad Hourani (Omar, Palestine 2013). I’d like to pick out more but this is a film short on info about cast members.

Eyad Hourani is another hostage with a back story – will he be able to walk free?

The Lift Boy (India, English 2019)

Raju (Moin Khan) ‘Princess’ (Aneesha Shah) and her mother (Shilpa Iyer)

This second film in the ‘South Asian Film Festival Up North’ was screened at HOME in Manchester. It’s a first feature written and directed by Jonathan Augustin who I take to be from the Roman Catholic community long resident in Bombay/Mumbai. Augustin trained at Bournemouth University and after returning to Mumbai he began work in advertising and TV. The background to the production of The Lift Boy is described in the radio interview below. The film dialogue is 60% English, 35% in Hindi and the remainder in Marathi. The film has relatively few ‘sets’ – a traditional Victorian school, a bar/restaurant, a multiplex, a residential tower block in an affluent area and the poorer dwelling where the central character lives. Apart from these there are a few street scenes. Overall the film reminded me of a British TV series from a while back (Mumbai Calling, 2007-8). The cinematography is bright and ‘clean’ but lacking any kind of realist ‘feel’.

The cast includes several first-time performers and some local Marathi actors. That is remarkable as I would say that the narrative is held together by the performances of four or five main characters. The story, sparked by the director’s encounter with a lift boy, features a 24 year-old young man Raju (Moin Khan) who has just failed his engineering drawing exam for the fourth time. He’s already in the multiplex cheering himself up when he learns that his father Krishna has collapsed at work and is in hospital. With his father required to rest for several weeks, Raju is pushed into deputising for him as the lift boy in a residential block in an up-market neighbourhood. Raju has always looked down on menial jobs like operating a lift, thinking it beneath anyone who has attended English medium school. He expects to become an engineer but he really wants to be a writer. But knuckle down he must as the owner of the building Madame D’ Souza, who lives on the top floor of the block, appears to be a stern taskmaster. The only compensation appears to be the presence of ‘Princess’ (Aneesha Shah) the 18 year-old model and actor whose mother is pushing her into a Bollywood career that she’s not sure she wants. The film includes several familiar themes about contemporary young Indians.

Raju at first feels uncomfortable meeting Madame D’Souza and giggles a lot

Raju is a very likeable character who oddly has only one close friend (who has successfully made it through the exams) and no girlfriend. He turns to reading The Great Gatsby sitting on his stool in the lift. He’s at first wary when Madame D’Souza starts to take an interest in him but eventually he realises that he has plenty to learn when he is invited into her apartment. (His mother warns him about getting too familiar with his boss, but don’t jump to conclusions!) The director reveals that his crew found Nyla Masood who plays Maureen D’Souza by following his advice and looking in the shopping malls for what he describes as ‘posh Catholic aunties’. She gives a very convincing performance. The cast developed their performances through extensive rehearsals after working on their own dialogue.

The London Indian Film Festival brochure describes The Lift Boy as “a heart-warming entertainer” and that’s not a bad description. I enjoyed the film and particularly the performances. I did worry that it might tip over into mawkishness. This was mainly because of the music. I don’t really want to criticise but I thought the music was just too much at times and undermined the playing. From the interview I learned it was composed in the US. I think the film is a little too long for the narrative and I’m not sure about the short coda that finishes the film. The story is fairly predictable once you’ve asked yourself the question “how does the son of a lift boy get to go to a fee-paying English medium school?”. On the other hand, the plot did remind me in an odd way of one of the first (and best) English language parallel films, 36 Chowringhee Lane (India 1981).

The writer-director Jonathan Augustin with his two leads at one of the 21 film screenings.

The radio interview reveals the film’s unique release pattern. In a tie-up with the PVR cinema chain, the film opened on just 7 screens (3 in Mumbai and 1 in each of Pune, Delhi, Kolkata and Bengaluru) with just one evening screening per night over three nights. The film was then pulled. This is a ‘premium release’ strategy aimed at attracting the biggest per screen audience. The film has been sold to Channel 4 in the UK via the Film Bazaar in India and Augustin will be looking for similar deals in other territories. He mainly paid for the film himself and took an active role in marketing and selling tickets. He suggests that he recovered the marketing and distribution costs and that he hopes to recover the production costs from further sales to other territories and TV networks.

Overall, this was an enjoyable watch and an interesting and informative research exercise covering the background. Jonathan Augustin is a bright young man who works hard and deserves to go far.

Widow of Silence (India, Urdu 2018)

Aasia (Shilp Marhawa) is the ‘widow of silence’

This year I managed to catch three of the films from the London Indian Film Festival on tour as the ‘South Asian Film Festival Up North’. The first up was this remarkable film set in Jammu and Kashmir and screened at Square Chapel in Halifax. I was also able to chat with the charming and very interesting writer-director Praveen Morchhale who was there to take part in a Q&A.

The film’s title refers to the fate of women in Kashmir who have had their husbands taken from them, either by insurgents/terrorists or by Indian security forces. The men taken are invariably then seen as ‘disappeared’ and very few are heard from again. There is a long and sad tradition of ‘disappearances’ like this in many parts of the world and especially in Latin America where films feature this element regularly. The difference in Kashmir, where the widows are known as ‘half-widows’, is that the local customs make daily life for these women very difficult. The script does eventually offer us the information that Muslim women whose husbands have been missing for more than four years are allowed to re-marry under Islamic law, but by that stage they may have suffered from forms of ostracisation as well as lack of income.

Mother-in-law is tied to a chair by the window

Aasia waits outside her house for her lift to work

The film narrative introduces to Aasia (Shilpi Marwaha), a half-widow with an 11 year-old daughter and a sick mother-in-law. The trio live in a crude house in a small settlement and Aasia works as a trainee nurse in a hospital in the nearest large town. She travels to work in a form of communal taxi – a pick-up driven by a cheerful would-be poet. She leaves behind her mother-in-law tied to a chair by the window while the girl is at school. Aasia can’t improve her life unless she can negotiate Indian bureaucracy and get a copy of her husband’s death certificate. Without it she cannot sell the small piece of land owned by the family which they are unable to work. The local registrar is corrupt and attempts to co-erce Aasia into behaviour which she knows would be harmful to herself and her family but from which he could derive different forms of reward. In the meantime, her daughter is bullied at school and her mother-in-law’s health deteriorates. This starting point is quite enough to develop the spare narrative into a compelling drama.

The beauty of the mountains as the pick-up makes its way to the town

Praveen Morchhale had previously made two films, both of which were well-received and Widow of Silence has been shown at major international festivals such as Busan and Rotterdam and at leading Indian international festivals such as Kerala and Kolkata. He started as a theatre director and then began to make his own very personal films. He told us theat he didn’t go to film school and that he hasn’t seen that many films. What is clear, however, is that he has a strong sense of what he wants to put on screen and how he wants it to look. Kashmir is a very dangerous region (the film was shot only 17kms from the ‘Line of Control’ separating Indian and Pakistani Kashmir) but it is also extremely beautiful. Even if Praveen hadn’t told us before the screening that his cinematographer Mohammad Reza Jahanpanah was Iranian and that he himself was an admirer of Abbas Kiarostami, I think I would would have guessed from the images of the pick-up driving along the mountain roads in long shot. I was immediately struck by memories of Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us (Iran 1999) and a film shot in a similar style in similar terrain, Zhang Yimou’s The Road Home (China 1999).

Aasia’s daughter is persecuted at school and she knows something about her mother’s misery

The entire production team was just 10 people and the film was shot in October when the light was most favourable. The print we watched was presented in 2.35:1 and the long shots of the landscape were complemented by a mainly static camera focusing on the intensity of the interior scenes. Apart from Shilpi Marwaha, the Delhi-based theatre actor in the central role, most of the rest of the small cast are local people without acting experience. The film is a concise 85 minutes. The story is simple but powerful. I won’t spoil what happens except to comment that it is in some ways a logical outcome, but with a neat twist. The narrative derives its power from the conflict between the strength of the widow, the harshness of her treatment by the local community (with a couple of notable exceptions) and the corruption of the bureaucracy. Perhaps the film is a dark satire on the state of Kashmir? I was reminded of Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Death of a Bureaucrat (Cuba 1966), another narrative about a widow frustrated by bureaucracy in her attempts to claim her legal rights. There isn’t a great deal of complex dialogue in Widow of Silence (at least not via the subtitles) so one line stood out when Aasia’s work colleague says to her: “You cannot afford your own thoughts”. That’s a chilling indictment of the world in which Aasia finds herself.

Praveen Morchhale told us that he financed the film himself. He didn’t tell us the production budget but it is reasonable to assume that it was not large and that not a rupee was wasted. Interestingly, he told me that although it would be difficult to show the film commercially in India, he didn’t think Netflix and other streaming services were the answer to the distribution of Indian independent films – a different response to the same question posed to Rajat Kapoor when he discussed his own independent film Ankhon Dekhi (India 2013) at HOME a couple of years ago. Praveen Morchhale felt that he was happy with the exposure his films were getting in festivals. I was very impressed by Widow of Silence and I’ll now look out for his earlier films, Barefoot to Goa (2015) and Walking With the Wind (2017).

Il Cinema Ritrovato 2019

 

This major Archive Festival opened on Saturday. We reckon up to 4,000 visitors may be here over the coming week for a feast of cinematic classics and masterpieces.  The temperatures are expected to reach 40℃ so film-buffs will be thankful for the city’s elegant arcades to shelter as they move between the festival’s five different sites and venues.

The Festival opened officially at mid-day on Saturday with a screening in the Cinema Modernissimo, a 1915 underground cinema which is currently be restored. The lower cavern is a wonderfully atmospheric setting for ‘reel’ film. We were welcomed by the festival’s key organisers in both Italian and English. Then we enjoyed a tribute to that glorious gothic masterpiece which suffered so recently, Notre-Dame de Paris.

The tribute was George Franju’s Notre Dame – cathédrale de Paris (1957) filmed in colour and a scope format. This was a fine 35mm print with the narration translated in digital sub-titles.  Franju had a great visual sense and this is beautiful to watch. The film’s treatment seemed to me to be influenced by Victor Hugo’s marvellous descriptions in his classic novel.

The film explores both the interior and exterior of the massive building and treats the famous gargoyles with care and attention. The film ends with these ‘petrified statues’ and their great vistas of the city. This was a fine way to open a week of cinematic treasures.