Sunday, September 21, 2008

CIFF notes -- Day 1 & 2

While the opening CIFF gala was on Thursday night with Blindness, the festival proper kicked off on Friday, Sept 19. In the past few years, it is usually around the middle of the 10 day festival that I finally start getting a bit tired after juggling a day job along with the evening weekday screenings. A few years ago, I even had to take a day off right in the middle of the festival (Wed) to rest up for the final few days. But this time around, I was exhausted even before the festival truly started.

Day 1: Friday, Sept 19

5 am. I woke up awfully early so I could put in a full day’s work before resting up for two possible screenings in the evening. But despite two coffees, I was already tired by mid-afternoon. Still I made it out to the festival expecting my first choice to wake me up. If the film did just that, then I would have classified it a success, otherwise it wouldn’t have been not worth it. And Aleksandr Sokurov’s Alexandra proved to be a perfect cinematic tonic for my tired self.

The film follows a grandmother (who plays the title character of Alexandra) who goes to visit her grandson in a Russian military base in Chechnya. She hasn’t seen him in seven years but goes to visit him because she is lonely. For the first hour, we only see her on the base, wandering around and interacting with the soldiers, most of whom are not happy at being stationed there. The film truly comes to life when Alexandra leaves the base and wanders the local market. There she meets a local Chechnyan woman, Malika, who befriends her. As the two walk back to Malika’s place, a few shots of the neighbouring buildings tell us all we need to know about the region -- some buildings are marked by bullet holes while others are heavily bombed. Malika lives in a building on the verge of collapse and her causal remark to Alexandra that there are always men aimlessly hanging outside the building points to the state of unemployment in the region.

There is a shared bond of suffering and understanding that comes across when Alexandra and Malika talk. But when a local Chechnyan boy takes Alexandra back to the base, we get a glimpse that Alexandra is not very understanding after all. When the boy asks her why can’t the Russians just give the Chechnyans freedom, Alexandra remarks that weapons won’t accomplish anything but intelligence is required. Later during the night when she is talking with her grandson, her real views come into focus. She accuses the genes of the Chechnyans for the acts they commit regarding kidnapping and torture.

Sokurov has managed to tenderly weave political sentiments into the film without any melodrama or bloodshed. And the camera stays on each character’s face for the just right time for us to gauge their true feelings, be it insecurities or anger, without having them utter needless dialogue. A wonderful film.

Alexandra (2007, Russia/France, Aleksandr Sokurov): 9/10

I decided to skip watching a second film later in the night.

Day 2: Saturday, Sept 20

An Icelandic double

It was a real treat to watch Ragnar Bragason’s double features
Children & Parents. I had never heard of either film or even the film-maker previously but I had a good feeling about both movies and I was lucky to have been proved right. The two films are part of CIFF’s Iceland Series this year.

Ragnar was present at both screenings and I was able to ask him a few questions in between the movies and he answered further audience questions at the end of Parents. Both films are shot in black and white and as per Ragnar the reasons for B&W and his filming style were the following:
  • Ragnar was inspired by the early films & style of John Cassavetes. Like Cassavetes, Ragnar got together with a group of actors and flushed out their characters over a period of 6 months. The actors were given a rough skeleton of the film, with just some situations, but were required to improvise their own dialogues.

  • The lack of budget was a big reason for Ragnar’s choice of B&W. Since he didn’t have money for art design, make-up, etc, Ragnar decided to shoot the films in B&W to give them a consistent look.

  • One cannot tell that the films are improvised. Such is the strength of the acting and the characters portrayed. The two films stand separately on their own, with some characters making a brief appearance in the other film. Both films are a gritty look at the chaotic lives of humans, with the parents trying to juggle their jobs & family while the children face enough pressures of their own to keep sanity.

    I will say a bit more about the films in a future post, after the festival is over. But both films were a real find and such gems truly make attending a film festival a real joy.

    Children (2006, Iceland, Ragnar Bragason): 10/10
    Parents (2007, Iceland, Ragnar Bragason): 10/10

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