Sunday, July 21, 2019

In memory of Milorad Pavić

A long time ago, in a world before smartphones and social media, I was wandering through a bookstore when I came across an intriguing book “Dictionary of the Khazars” by Milorad Pavić. A gush of excitement at the discovery because he wrote two versions of the book, a male and female version, both identical with the exception of a single paragraph. I bought both versions and was delighted to have found the single different paragraph. I only bought one more book by Pavić but never came across any of his other books.

Today, out of the blue, I came across his book lying in the corner. I then decided to look-up if he wrote any other books or if he was still writing. Sadly, I found out that he passed away ten years ago in 2009. That explains why I never came across any new books. He did write many other books and I will have to find those other books, a task much easier nowadays than it was decades ago. I also have to re-read the Dictionary because I have forgotten many of the details. What I haven’t forgotten is the sheer sense of dizzying delight that followed when I read his book. It was a similar feeling when reading books by Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino or Haruki Murakami.

Here’s to you Mr. Pavić, thank you for making the world a better place with your words.

Sunday, June 09, 2019

Allan Fish Online Film Festival

This is my entry for the 3rd Allan Fish Online Film Festival.


Hands Over the City (1963, Italy, directed by Francesco Rosi)

I have selected Francesco Rosi’s 1963 film Hands Over the City (Le Mani sulla città) because it is a film that feels contemporary despite being released almost 6 decades ago. Given the film’s topic of corruption and urban sprawl, it will always feel contemporary as long as politicians spend more time slinging mud at their rivals and lying to protect their crimes while letting innocent civilians suffer. The words “urban sprawl” are part of our everyday language yet it was Rosi’s film that gave an incisive look into how such a situation could occur. The city in Rosi’s film is his beloved Naples but as the film dives into the close connection between city planners, politicians, land developers and businessmen, it becomes evident that there is a universal aspect to the film.

The opening shots of Hands Over the City begin with a few aerial shots of Naples which highlight the city as a maze of buildings. After the opening minutes, we learn that it will get worse. That is because we are shown an informal meeting between a few businessmen who all want to profit from fast land development. The city council is about to propose expanding along the city's core, which makes sense from an urban development point of view. But these businessmen and land developers want to build outside the city because the land is cheap and they can earn more profits in the future. The businessmen can get away with this because one of the leading land developers is also on the city's board and he has a lot of friends on the council. The promise of fast money is enough to swing the votes in his direction.

There is a lot of money to go around when the city expands outside the core because there is more investment needed to provide necessary infrastructure such as water, electricity, parks, etc. The film shows that all the businessmen involved in such organizations have friends on the city council. Handshakes and promises are the two things that decide the city’s future. Land permits and architectural plans are passed in a matter of days as opposed to the normal waiting time of 6 months. One of the consequences of this quick development results in an apartment wall crashing down resulting in a few deaths.

An investigation is conducted to uncover the real reasons for this building's collapse. However, there is a lack of interest in the city council to determine why the building wall collapsed. Only one councilman accuses his fellow colleagues of having "dirty hands" regarding the land dealings. This results in one of the film's lasting images where all the councilmen shout "our hands are clean" and wave their 'clean' hands at the honest councilman.
As the investigation continues, it is apparent that the truth won't ever come out because behind each lie is a handshake and a promise. Watching this film, one can truly appreciate the complicated series of lies and promises that exists in each political party. Politicians today spend a lot of time lying to the media in order to prove their innocence even though there is plenty of evidence which implicates them. Their lies are akin to the “our hands are clean” image.

The film gives a fly-on-the-wall perspective to the audience and at times it feels like we are being led into a secret world about how politics really works. As per the production notes, Rosi got some of the city councilmen to play themselves in the movie. That adds a bit more to the realism of the heated council scenes. The core discussions and fighting between different sides can be extrapolated to our world and can explain why different political parties can never find a common ground and why some issues never get resolved.

Francesco Rosi returned to Naples in 1992 to film a documentary (Diario napoletano) to see how the city had developed compared to 1963’s Hands Over the City. The first part of the documentary takes place in a university class where Rosi is presenting the movie to students, some city planners, professors and architects. As it turns out, in some cases, things unfolded in Naples as per the movie's fictional situations and the sprawl got worse over the decades after the film was made. Some of the professors in the documentary offered solutions to improve things but it became clear that there is no over-night solution. When a city grows outward traffic congestion is one of the worst problems. Driving through the city, Rosi was able to truly get a feel for how bad the situation is. Unfortunately, Naples is not alone in this problem. The issue of urban sprawl is a problem impacting major cities across most continents. In this regard, Hands Over the City is still an essential and relevant film for our society. The dynamics of how each city chooses to expand may vary from the situation in the film but it is clear that plenty of the decisions made for new land development are driven by money. We can only guess at some of the real discussions that take place in a city but Rosi's film depicts some situations for us to ponder upon.

Cross-published here.

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

The Beautiful game lives

March 5, 2019: Real Madrid 1 - 4 Ajax

Once upon a time, a team from Holland appeared out of nowhere and changed the way people thought of football. Ajax Amsterdam changed the global game and while the rest of the world was trying to understand their movement and tactics, Ajax quietly went silent. 

They emerged almost two decades later and once again injected new life into the global game. Then, when big money changed the game, Ajax went silent again.

In the last few years, there were signs that Ajax might be awakening. However, no one really noticed as all the headlines were hogged by agents/players/managers whose egos knew no bounds.

After tuesday's demolition of Real Madrid, Ajax are no longer in the shadows. No matter what else happens this season, their 4-1 win provided moments of delight and was a reminder that the beautiful game isn't dead after all. It was just taking a nap.

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Best Films of 2018

2018 was an extremely strong year for world cinema due to many established auteurs releasing their films coupled with stellar works from emerging directors. Quite a few of these films made their debut at Cannes, which was the strongest in a decade. This year at Cannes there were films by Wang Bing, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Lee Chang-dong, Nandita Das, Asghar Farhadi, Bi Gan, Matteo Garrone, Jean-Luc Godard, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Nadine Labaki, Spike Lee, Sergey Loznitsa, Jafar Panahi, Pawel Pawlikowski, Alice Rohrwacher, Lars von Trier, Wim Wenders and Jia Zhang-ke. As a result, there is a big influence of the Cannes film festival on this list. 12 of the 20 films in this list premiered at Cannes including 7 out of the top 10 films. However, this end of the year list includes just a fraction of the worthy films that showed at Cannes and other film festivals in 2018. There are still more than a dozen essential 2018 films that I missed seeing and will likely spend the better part of 2019 catching up with.

Note: the Top 10 and Honourable mentions is restricted to only 2018 titles.

Top 10 films of 2018

1. Transit (Germany/France, Christian Petzold)

Christian Petzold’s masterful adaption of Anna Seghers’ 1942 book is a cinematic treat! With just a few tweaks, Petzold has ensured that there is a constant tension between the past and present in the film. This balance between past-present highlights how history repeats in cycles and shows that a book written almost 80 years ago speaks to today’s world situation. This is because throughout history there are always people or communities that are persecuted and forced to leave their homes. The film is further elevated by a haunting love story, one which references Casablanca with hints of Kafka and Beckett.

2. Burning (South Korea, Lee Chang-dong)

Burning, Lee Chang-dong’s cinematic return after a gap of 8 years, smartly transforms a Haruki Murakami short story into a seductive thriller that lingers in the memory long after the credits.

3. Long Day’s Journey Into Night (China, Bi Gan)

Bi Gan’s sumptuous film provides an emotional ride across space and time by mixing past, present and dreams.

4. The Wild Pear Tree (Turkey co-production, Nuri Bilge Ceylan)

Ceylan has combined the visual strength of his previous films with a meaty narration resulting in a tour de force which covers topics ranging from literature, religion, romance, philosophy to politics.

5. An Elephant Sitting Still (China, Hu Bo)

Hu Bo’s first and only feature was one of the most emotionally devastating films of the year. Shortly before the film was completed, 29 year old Hu Bo committed suicide. He didn’t live to see the film’s World Premiere at the 2018 Berlin Film Festival where it was extremely hard to secure a ticket to see this almost 4 hour film. Such is the strength of Hu Bo’s artistry that the film’s length is never felt. Instead, one is drawn into the lives of the four characters in Northern China and invested in their fate.

6. Sir (India/France, Rohena Gera)

Rohena Gera’s astute film gets at the core of what we seek in relationships and what causes two people from radically different backgrounds to form a connection. The end result is one of the most charming films of the year lit by a vibrant performance by Tillotama Shome.

7. Fausto (Canada/Mexico, Andrea Bussmann)

Canadian director Andrea Bussmann creatively uses the text of Goethe’s Faust as a jumping point to explore myths, local legends and tales in Mexico’s Oaxaca coast. The decision to use low light for shooting many of the scenes results in a shape-shifting film that strips away the concept of time; the film could be set decades in the past or could be contemporary. The end result is exhilarating as the film shows a unique way to perceive history and cultures.

8. Donbass (Ukraine co-production, Sergey Loznitsa)

Sergey Loznitsa cleverly depicts how events in Ukraine are influenced by the overarching influence of Russia. An urgent film that also depicts how the media is being manipulated by politicians resulting in further blurring between real and fake news.

9. Ash is Purest White (China, Jia Zhang-ke)

 Jia Zhang-ke’s newest film is a perceptive depiction of the Chinese landscape, both social and economical, over the course of two decades.

10. Another Day of Life (Poland/Spain/Belgium/Germany/Hungary, Raúl de la Fuente and Damian Nenow)

Based on late journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski’s book of the same name, Another Day of Life is a fascinating mix of documentary and animation that captures the energy of Kapuscinski’s book about the Angolan civil war.

Honourable Mentions (alphabetical order):

3 Faces (Iran, Jafar Panahi)
BlacKkKlansman (USA, Spike Lee)
Closing Time (Germany/Switzerland, Nicole Vögele)
Cold War (Poland/UK/France, Pawel Pawlikowski)
Dear Son (Tunisia/Belgium/France/Qatar, Mohamed Ben Attia)
Djon Africa (Portuga/Brazil/Cape Verde, João Miller Guerra and Filipa Reis)
The Image Book (Swtizerland/France, Jean-Luc Godard)
Grass (South Korea, Hong Sang-soo)
Roma (Mexico/USA, Alfonso Cuarón)
Season of the Devil (Philippines, Lav Diaz)

Notable 2016 and 2017 films seen in 2018 (alphabetical order):

Gabriel and the Mountain (2017, Brazil/France, Fellipe Barbosa)
The Great Buddha+ (2017, Taiwan, Huang Hsin-yao)
Hotel Salvation (2016, India, Shubhashish Bhutiani)
Machines (2016, India/Germany/Finland, Rahul Jain)
Phantom Thread (2017, USA/UK, Paul Thomas Anderson)
The Unknown Girl (2016, Belgium/France, Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne)
The Woman who Left (2016, Philippines, Lav Diaz)