Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Art, Beauty and Torture

All the 4 movies I saw in the last 2 days could claim to have swum in the river of cinematic art. In the end, one movie succeeds in being pure art covered from head to toe, a second one is a beauty tainted with its off the river activities, a third is a flick pretending to be artistic with the use of some artificial glitter and the 4th is a glorious disaster.

Tropical Malady (2004, Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul): Rating 9/10

At VIFF last year, I saw Apichatpong up close as he was present to award the Dragons & Tiger Award to John Torres -- Apichatpong was part of a 3 member jury which picked Todo Todo Teros out of 8 nominated films. Tony Rayns remarked that over the years, VIFF has shown all of Apichatpong's films. Unfortunately, I had not seen any of his Thai films because none of them ever made it out to my city. So on a recent trip to Bangkok, I managed to officially buy this much talked about Cannes Winner film. Even though Tropical Malady won the Cannes Jury Prize, Quentin Tarantino (the head of the jury) indicated that not all members were in agreement about this film. But he said that the few that loved the movie's passon convinced the others. After watching the movie, I can understand why people would be conflicted.

On first glance, it appears to be a movie broken up into two acts -- the first a love story (more like a forced seduction) and the second a jungle hunt. However, the two stories are tied closely together and we are even given clues right from the start. Tong (played by Sakda Kaewbuadee) is shown to be an innocent country boy who after being discharged from the army reserves is in need of work. Tong's neighbour Keng (Banlop Lomnoi) is head over heels in love with Tong and tries to woo him at every chance. Tong appears to be conflicted and gives Keng mixed signals yet draws him closer. This aspect of the film is tenderly developed and makes for interesting viewing. We believe we are seeing an innocent boy being trapped. But without any warning, the first part of the film ends.

The second part begins with Keng hunting a tiger which has terrorized the village. But this is no ordinary tiger as we learn from the on screen description. As per legend, a shaman has powers to shift shapes and transform himself into whatever form he desires -- his current form is of the tiger. The hunt is developed at a slow yet beautiful pace. Near the end, we get clues to the identity of the tiger and why Keng is so drawn towards the wild animal. The scene where Keng comes face to face with the Tiger is one of the beautiful scenes I have seen in a while -- Keng is on the jungle ground struggling. In the darkness, he senses a presence. He looks up and we see a tiger hidden in darkness on a tree branch. Keng flashes his torch towards the tree branch. The tiger is now lit up by the flashlight & the camera points directly towards the tiger's magical eyes. We see the tiger slowly breathe and stare sternly towards Keng and are left in awe to his beauty (yes it is a male tiger). Words can't do justice to scene but it was pretty amazing. Which is the same feeling I had of watching the movie. Unlike anything else that I have seen! A true cinematic experience!!!!

Apocalypto (2006, Director: Mel Gibson): Rating 9/10

If Mel Gibson's name was removed from this film, then the movie surely would not have been ignored as much as it has been. It is shame that this movie has fallen by the wayside because it is a fabulous effort -- raw, beautiful, rich, violent and absorbing. The only negative I have for this movie is its length of 2 hour 20 minutes. Upto the 100 minute mark, I would have considered this as a perfect film. But then a jungle chase scene goes on longer than it should have. On top of that, quite a few scenes in the jungle are framed in such a way that they seem forced, contrary to the verite feel of the 100 minutes before the chase. How much historical accuracy is there in the film? Not sure but I am willing to bet all the violence is real. Why? Because since the dawn of time, man has been a savage who has been killing and destroying for his own selfish needs -- only his weapons have changed. We are in the year 2007, yet man continues to kill. Even the most civilized nations engage in brutal violence.

The most absorbing sequence in Apocalypto is when the slaves are taken to the city. There is hardly any dialogue in this sequence but one does not even notice the lack of words because the images are so powerful -- slaves working away on the pyramids, women slaves being sold, middle and upper-class tribes observing (or looking down) at the newly arrived captured lower-class slaves, trade & use of money, modern sewer system, laundry, the emergence of clothes. The film's cinematography is top-notch & enriched by usage of digital camera -- we truly are placed in an ancient Mayan land on the cusp of destruction. The Spanish ships are closing in on this virgin land and once the Spanish arrive, the Mayan civilization would destruct forever.

Along with Children of Men, this was the most absorbing movie I saw in a cinema this year!

The Bow (2005, Director: Kim Ki-Duk): Rating 7.5/10

Kim Ki-Duk pulls a lot of elements from his previous movies for this 2005 effort. In The Isle a young woman works on a house-boat on a river. Men come to the boat to fish and sometimes for her body. Well, the house boat is replaced by an actual boat in the middle of the ocean in The Bow. A 60 year old man lives with a 16 year old girl on the boat. The man is waiting for the girl to turn 17 so that he can marry her. And if any of the tourists, who come to the boat to fish, try to make a move on the girl, the old man scares them off with his arrows. The girl has not seen land for 10 years, ever since the man found her. One day, a young boy visits the boat and the girl falls in love with him, causing the old man to be jealous. He attempts to drive the boy away with limited success. On top of that, the girl starts to change -- she wants to see a new world and leave the boat, which is becoming a prison for her.

So what is the best solution to satisfy all three people? A touch of an element from Kim Ki-Duk's 3-Iron where an act of invisibility makes for a happy compromise. I am still not sure what to make of the ending sequence -- is it a joke or are we to take it in a serious manner? I would have thought a lot more of the movie if that sequence had not been included because the story could have worked very well without that.

Eklavya (2007, Director: Vidhu Vinod Chopra): Rating 6.5/10

It has been almost 7 years since Vidhu Vinod Chopra's last directorial effort. In between the years of 2000 and 2007, he was busy producing and co-writing three good and successful films -- Munnabhai M.B.B.S, Parineeta and Lage Raho Munnabhai. I was quite looking forward to this film but I am still in shock as to how bad this movie is. At least the torture does not last long as the movie is only 1 hour 45 minutes in length. The only way this movie could have been good is if it was a 20 minute short. That short length could have removed some of the bad acting & terrible screenplay -- the screenplay recycles some elements from Parineeta with Saif Ali Khan and Vidya Balan acting out similar characters from that movie.

I have to say that it takes some skill to make a powerful actor like Boman Irani look like a fool. It takes even more skill to make Amitabh Bachchan look like a confused person, unsure as to what he is doing in such a movie. That being said, the only positive of the movie is the lavish set and Indian locales. A modern India is shown against the background of traditional Rajasthan. If one looks closely, one can see a DVD of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon among a collection of DVD's in the palace. Also, in a sequence near the movie's end, Vidhu Chopra has scenes from Parinda playing in the background. What was the director thinking there? Whatever his idea for including that scene, the truth is that despite directing the movie in 1989, Parinda still remains as Chopra's last great directed effort.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Proposition & Tristram Shandy

The Proposition (UK/Australia, Director: John Hillcoat)

"Australia. What fresh hell is this?" so speaks Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) a few minutes after the movie's opening fierce gun battle. Yes, the Australia depicted in this movie is a glimpse into a bloody hell indeed!! The heat burns the land and ignites insanity. It is 1880s Australia. Colonists want to 'civilize' the natives and impose their law, by whatever means possible ('civilize' may also mean taking the locals land by force and maybe killing a few hundred natives in the process).

A few people fight back and are branded outlaws. But like any good old western, the cycle of violence never ends -- an eye for an eye. The only difference with this Western is that the setting is Australia and the outlaws have a name -- The Burns brother. After a horrible slaying, Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) has had enough of his elder brother's (Arthur Burns played by Danny Huston) mad killing ways and takes their younger brother, Mikey, (Richard Wilson)far away from Arthur's clutches. But Charlie and Mikey are captured by Captain Stanley who wants to exchange their freedom for Arthur.

Beautifully shot, this is a powerful and intense tale of morality and violence. Benoît Delhomme's fantastic camera captures the radiant heat, vastness and isolation of the Australian landscape. Also, the camera never flinches from one of the most shocking scenes in the film -- a quick-flash bullet blows away one of the local's head after he has just flung a spear into Charlie.

Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (UK, Director: Michael Winterbottom)

I finally got around to watching this hilarious and charming British film. This film's style resembles the wicked genuis of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's BBC comedy series Extras. After the success of The Office Gervais and Merchant turned to Extras and came up with another winning idea by depicting the lives of struggling film extras fighting to get parts or dealing with high-profile egoistic actors and directors. An additional reason for Extras success was the addition of Ashley Jensen who stole most episodes with her perfect expressions and great timing. Ashley has a small part in Tristram Shandy as well but this movie is about Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon's bittersweet interactions.

How do you shoot an unfilmable novel? That is the question asked of Steve Coogan in the film by a TV reporter. But is that simply a question within the movie or does the question apply to the movie Tristram Shandy itself? This is not a film adaptation of Laurence Sterne's book The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy but instead is a film about the attempted making of a movie about Laurence Sterne's book. Huh? Even though the idea of turning the making of an unfilmable novel into a movie sounds like Charlie Kaufman & Spike Jonze's film Adaptation, Michael Winterbottom's and writer Frank Cottrell Boyce's work is completely different. This effort is more concerned with depicting fun of the filmaking process and its difficulties -- the issues of budget contraints, producer demands, actor's egos and not-so secret affairs are all tackled. And even actor's agents and celebrity chasing article writers are featured. A completely original film about making a film! The movie also pokes a little fun at serious film buffs who analyze every aspect of a movie to the nth degree. Near the end as the mad chaotic world of a film-set is shown, one can but help think of Fellini's 8 1/2.

Loved it!

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Political Reading

I Didn't Do It for You: How the World Betrayed a Small African Nation by Michela Wrong

It has been a few years since I first heard about Eritrea but I am willing to bet there are plenty of people out there who still have never heard of this African country. But what reason would people in the West (or the rest of the world for that matter) have to hear about this tiny country? While the western media isn't busy reporting on incidents right out of 1984 or filling space with popular culture references, there really isn't much else to report on. And when it comes to international nations, silence is the key behaviour. Unless, ofcourse that other nation has something to offer (resources which can be exploited or threat which can be used to keep the local population under fear). I can't help but think of Kapuściński at this moment -- more than anyone else, he understood the value of silence in international politics, especially in Africa.

On paper, the tiny nation of Eritrea appears to be silent. But that is where the misconception lies. It isn't and never was silent. In fact, as Michela Wrong so beautifully shows, that if ever there was a place where the rest of the world's noise can be heard, it is from Eritrea. And this is what precisely drew the US to this land. But I am getting ahead of myself and jumping a few decades in time. Long before the Americans learned of this Eastern African country's juicy benefits, the Italians and the British had their way with her. To each his own, as they say. Each European nation equally used and abused Eritrea for their own needs. Ofcourse, if foreigners can rape and pillage, then what of the neighbour? Ethiopia jumped into bed as well and tried to have its way. And before one knew what time it was, the Cold War had begun. This meant yet another country would be a pawn in the international game of espionage. But what could Eritrea offer? As it turns out, the Hamasien Plateau in Eritrea is one of the best (or even the best as Michela Wrong finds out) places on the planet to listen in on radio waves from all over the world. Hmmm...what better way to spy on the Russians than from here? Funny how a tiny geographical gift like that could turn a tiny country into a giant toy.

The radio-wave/cold war segment is only a tiny fragment of this well written and researched book. Michela Wrong does a great job of laying out the country's history, from the early colonial past to even the modern times when once again, things in Eritrea are not right. She starts each chapter with her personal travel experiencs before diving into the nation's history. This makes for an interesting read and prevents the book from being a dull history recount. Her writing is so poetic at times that I want to visit Asmara and see this wonder-land for myself.

The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq by George Packer

George Packer's book is just one of several books about Iraq in current circulation. 4 years ago when the lies were on the air-waves, nothing negative was written about Iraq. But after its invasion the truth, which always existed, started to come out slowly by slowly. It all started in the summer of 2003 when the first wave of independent journalists and filmmakers headed to Baghdad. The documentaries shot in 2003 made the festival rounds in early 2004 and since then, many more TV and theatrical doc films have been produced & released. But when it comes to books and newspapers, it seems a lot of the same stories are doing the rounds. Ofcourse, when only a few people were in the know and responsible for this mess, it should not be surprizing that multiple authors would churn out their version of the truth. Just some extra sources or quotes are changed from book to book.

If I had not read any other book on Iraq or seen any of the several documentaries, then George Packer's book would be a good read. But given the amount of material out there, a large portion of the book seems repeated. That being said, it is still a captivating read especially when Packer starts recounting more of his personal travel experiences from Baghdad.

Friday, February 16, 2007

African Cinema

Inspired by the recent article on African Cinema in Sight and Sound, I decided to track down some African films. I had only seen two of the movies mentioned in the article (Waiting for Happiness and The Silences of the Palace) and in my search, I only found one additional movie mentioned in the article (Touki Bouki ) but atleast this is a start:

When the Stars meet the Sea (1996, Madagascar/France, Director: Raymond Rajaonarivelo)

Since this is the newest film out of the bunch, it is also the most technically polished. A mythical story which is beautifully shot!! The locales may be Madagascar but they could easily be Brazil or even India. And considering that Madagascar's ethnic make-up is an enchanting mix of African, Indian and a shade of Asian, the film has a universal feel to it. I am sucker for this "journey" type of story and this movie has an emotional attachment to it. A baby born on the day of the solar eclipse is left to die. However, against the odds, he survives. Yet, he never leads a normal life and as a young adult, he gets a taste of his dark powers. In order to discover his true identity, he undertakes a journey to his birth town. A dazzling journey which leads to a satisfying conclusion for an ancient mythical tale.

Touki Bouki (1973, Senegal, Director: Djibril Diop Mambéty)

Long before the killing floor scene in Fast-Food Nation there were the unflinching slaughter scenes in Touki Bouki, a dreamy movie which gives a good slice into an emerging African nation -- we see street shots dripping with poverty, heated arguments at the market, youths looking for jobs and upto no good, a young couple dreaming of a better future, corruption and payback lurking around the corner with a club in hand. The relaxed lingering shots, mixed with carefully spliced scenes give this movie a surreal feel. Also, there is plenty of symbolism in the movie with a cow's capture and slaughter being the most commonly used symbol to echo the mental and physical entrapment of the citizens.Overall, this is a wonderful film which has some shots much ahead of its time.

Quartier Mozart (1992, Cameroon/France, Director: Jean-Pierre Bekolo)

Everytime Cameroon's national team heads to the World Cup, the talk of withcraft comes up (news reports showed how the team was consulting a local witchcraft person about the team's outcomes). So it was not a surprize to find this film's story shaped by withcraft. In order to educate a young teenage girl about the political nature of love, the local withcraft woman transports the girl's soul into a young male body. The story is funny enough and is peppered with charming and colorful characters. The editing and acting for the most part is substandard and overall, this is an average flick.

La Vie Est Belle (1987, Zaire/France/Belgium, Directors: Benoît Lamy & Mweze Ngangura)

Life is Rosy also has a tiny element of witchcraft in it but this is a light hearted story about love, music and money. Kourou heads to the city to earn some money. Almost immediately, he falls in love with Kabila. But in order to win her over, he needs to earn more money to buy her presents. However, Kabibi has another rich suitor around and that leads to a complicated cycle of cheating and lying. During times of misery, poverty, happiness and riches, Kourou always has his music to help him get through. Overall, a decent and enjoyale flick.

Comments from Part II of the spotlight are reproduced below

The African films neatly fall into two distinct regional areas -- West Africa & North Africa.

The West – Soccer & Films:

Pic from: My Travel Guide

Western Africa has provided a rich dose of films and soccer players over the last few decades. In fact, some of my favourite African soccer players have hailed from West Africa. Players such as Kolo Toure (Ivory Coast), Abedi Pele (Ghana), Emmanuel Adebayor (Togo), George Weah (Liberia), Kanu & Jay Jay Okacha (both from Nigeria) have fascinated me over the last 15 years or so. But these are just a handful of players from an impressive selection. Ofcourse, it is a bit easy to know about West Africa's pool of players because a huge number of them ply their trade in top European teams.

There is also a rich selection of directors and films that have graced the international scene from the complex diversity of 16 countries that constitute West Africa. The films range from artistic & poetic tales to crude commercial works that cater to local cinematic palates. Stories that feature both harsh reality and magical myths are shown in equal measures, sometimes in the same film.

Exile and the return: Sissako & Mambéty

Professional African soccer players may be the highest paid people of the group that leave Africa for European employment. But plenty of other people who leave the continent struggle to earn an income in Europe. Some of them manage to do fine but find themselves longing for life back home. Such is the case of the main character Dramane in Abderrahmane Sissako's Life on Earth. Dramane (played by Sissako himself) decides that he wants to usher in the new century (2000) in his native Mali.

At the film's start, we find Dramane wandering through a grocery story packed with numerous varieties of cheeses and other food items.

He returns home to a village where the craziness of Year 2000 couldn't be further. It is a peaceful place where one would be thankful for finding even one brand of cheese.

The relaxing life allows Dramane to ponder his life and even the fate of Africans on a global scale.

I first saw Sissako's Waiting for Happiness (2002) and was impressed. That film was about a young man waiting to head to Europe for a better life (as the title indicates). So his days are spending waiting while watching people go by. Well Life on Earth is about a character's return back to Africa from Europe to find happiness. But this movie was made first, so it forms an interesting circle with his later work. And, there are some characters in the film who simply sit around and watch the world go by, much like in Waiting for Happiness.

Exile is also a central idea in Djibril Diop Mambéty's 1992 film Hyenas. This time however, it is a woman who returns back to her village to seek revenge not peace. When she was a young girl, she was forced into prostitution by a man and had to leave the village in shame. After she has earned riches abroad, she returns to set things right. Besides the revenge aspect, the film is an interesting look at greed and how money can shift politics in one easy go. One absurd segment in the movie revolves around a trial which is rendered useless when the returned woman offers to buy the judge. While all the political games are going on, the hyenas (literally) are simply laughing on the sides. I saw Mambéty's Touki Bouki (1973) back in February. The title of that surreal road movie translated into ‘Journey of the Hyena’. Well, almost two decades later, Mambéty truly exposes the hyenas disguised as men.

An element of exile is also tackled in Moolaade. A rich village elder's son is back from France to marry a local woman. The son is prized because of his French education and he returns with modern ideas which are at odds with those of his father. For example, the son supports equal rights for women as opposed to his father who wants the women to be oppressed like the old days. Interestingly enough, both the son in Moolaade and Dramane in Life on Earth find inspiration in the words of French poet Aimé Césaire, a person who fought for the rights of French colonies in Africa and the Caribbean.

Old tradition and values vs winds of change:

Certain traditions such as the importance of family are best kept and nurtured. But old traditions such as the oppression of women are best buried and forgotten. Ousmane Sembene's brilliant film Moolaade looks at a village’s old practice of female circumcision. Problems arise when a local woman supports the decision of a handful of girls to avoid the ritual. Her defiance leads to a mini revolution which shakes the old male dominated rule.

In order to oppress the village people, the elders decide that radios should be banned because they are influencing the minds of the people and exposing the villagers to dangerous foreign ideas. So an order is issued to collect all the village radios and burn them. This scene echoes the burning of books depicted in Fahrenheit 411.

The clash of traditional vs modern values is also depicted in Haramuya, a film set in the capital of Burkina Faso, Ouagadougo. The film also shows the economic difficulties that exist in the city where some people struggle to earn an income and have to resort to petty theft to make ends meet.

Gaston Kaboré's Wend Kuuni is mostly the story of an orphaned ‘mute’ child and the family that takes him in. But around the boy, we can see old practices and beliefs dominating the people. Through a flashback, we learn about the traumatic event that caused the boy to lose his voice -- his mother had been accused of being a witch and killed. While the film shows that sometimes old beliefs can cause harm, the movie also highlights how traditional values can benefit as the boy in Wend Kuuni is lovingly raised by his new adopted family.

Myth and witchcraft:

My first introduction to the witchcraft that existed in Africa was through soccer. June 8, 1990. Argentina, the defending World Cup Champions, stumbled to an unbelievable defeat against Cameroon. No one could have predicated Cameroon's 1-0 win. I still remember that day and the reaction of shock that surrounded that win. Very soon afterwards, almost all neutrals were cheering for Cameroon and its 38 year old star Roger Milla. Most soccer players stop playing soccer in their early 30's, so it was extraordinary to see Milla playing at the top level at 38 (even more remarkably, Milla played in the 1994 World Cup and currently holds the record for the oldest player to have scored goal at the age of 42!). Milla was not supposed to have been in the team for the World Cup because he had retired from the game prior to 1990 but he was asked to play thanks to Cameroon's president. And what a great decision it was as Milla scored crucial goals to lead Cameroon into the quarter-finals. In fact, Cameroon were 7 minutes away from the World Cup semi-finals before England knocked them out. But despite the heroic on-field efforts by Cameroon, talk of witchcraft hovered around the team. It was rumoured that a witch doctor was brought in to bless the team. Was this blessing merely a stunt or an actual belief? Whatever the case maybe, with each subsequent World Cup, the talk of witchcraft does return whenever Cameroon or even Nigeria play. Witch doctors do make headlines predicting World Cup winners and even game scores! Such talks of witchcraft are not limited to Western Africa only but also find roots in almost all parts of Africa with maybe the exception being North Africa.

When did the first mention of witchcraft originate? Probably with some of the oldest myths that can be found in a country’s history. Souleymane Cissé's film Yeelen beautifully films an ancient Mali myth about a battle between father and son (Nianankoro). Set in the 13th century Mali Empire, Nianankoro must tackle an entire cult group along with his wizard father while trying to restore his family name. The folk story is peppered with elements of magic and witchcraft in depicting the family battle. Because Nianankoro holds the power of magic, he is equally feared and respected.

Kenyan author Ngugi Wa'Thiong'O's book Wizard of the Crow also features witchcraft in the story about a corrupt African ruler set in a fictional African country. In fact, the book's title comes from a magical curse that a character (a beggar) invokes in order to ward off the policemen chasing him. The beggar is amused to find that a simple hand written sign threatening a curse could have such a powerful effect on the adults and scare them into submission. Such is the power of magic on the minds of the people. I am still in the middle of reading the book so I am not sure if in the end reality will win over black magic.

The Third Wood: witchcraft, love and family

What is the third biggest film industry in the world? This Guardian article first drew my attention to the answer which stumped me -- Nollywood. The entirely video film industry in Nigeria churns out movies at a rapid rate behind the studios of Hollywood and Bollywood. Since none of the movies are shot on film or shown in a theater, producers and film-makers can quickly shoot and produce movies on video. The films are often distributed and sold at road-side stalls for an eager audience.

Recently Film Int studied Nollywood in great detail. The essays ranged from history of the film industry to the themes covered and the social & political impacts of these movies. Unfortunately, none of those in-depth essays are available online but here a few quotes:

"The first Nigerians to shoot feature fictional films on video were artists from the Yoruba travelling theatre tradition, who turned to video when making films on celluloid became prohibitively expensive as the result of Nigeria's catastrophic structural adjustment programme". Jonathan Haynes, Nnebue: the anatomy of power.

"The Video film is arguably the most popular mode of cultural expression in Nigeria, produced at a rate which arguably makes Nigeria the hothouse of the genre in the world". Chukwuma Okoye, Looking at Ourselves in our Mirror.

On Nollywood's essential themes: "the corruption, moral turbulence and pervasive anxiety of the post-oil-boom era; the garish glamour of Lagos; titillating and dangerous sexuality; melodramatic domestic conflicts; and immanent supernatural forces including both dark cultic practices and Pentecostal Christianity." Jonathan Haynes, Nnebue: the anatomy of power.

"From its very beginnings in the 1990s the 'home video' industry in Nigeria has churned out movies that were constructed around a mode of narrative that seeks to naturalize the supernatural by dwelling on stories or plots that blend reality with fantasy. These movies have seized the imagination of audiences in Nigeria, across Africa and the African diaspora. It would seem that Nollywood movies have the strong capacity to appeal to deep currents in the psyche of its captive audiences, particularly its African audiences. The interplay between the magical and the real is part of the African consciousness and is part of the popular culture of postcolonial Africa." Hope Eghagha, Magical realism and the 'power' of Nollywood home video films.

Even though Nollywood started out in Nigeria, a few articles show how the industry and its practices cover neighbouring Ghana and Ivory Coast as well. One of the most surprizing things I discovered was how a certain number of Nollywood films were inspired by Bollywood films. In fact, some Nollywood films entirely lifted the stories or even dance steps from Bollywood films such as Taal, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and Maine Pyaar Kiya. In a way, it should not be a surprize that Bollywood's appeal reaches to the Nigerian audiences as the tales of domestic problems and love stories should have no problems finding homes in countries with a strong focus on family life.

Images of a region:

German filmmaker Ralf Schmerberg's 45 minute black and white documentary Hommage à noir manages to capture both the African village and city life in a series of gorgeous black and white visuals accompanied with resonating music. His camera captures tribal practices, leisurely soaks in all the sights and sounds of a local market and even records a local soccer game. Filmed mostly in Cameroon, the abstract images could be used to apply to certain Eastern, Central and Southern parts of the continent as well.

Moving on to the North...

The North – Football & Cinema:

Pic from: My Travel Guide
North Africa also has an amazing selection of top class soccer players but only a few of them leave for Europe. The Egyptian soccer league is the most established of the North African countries with the Moroccan league providing some worthy teams as well. One of my favourite North African players is Mustapha Hadji (Morocco) who was named African Footballer of the year in 1998. He had limited success in the English league but scored some amazing goals for Morocco.

But sometimes football can indeed tale the state of a country or even a region. Professional Egyptian soccer is certainly better known than its other Arab North African counterparts, much like how Egyptian cinema and literature dominates its Northern African neighbours. In fact, for the longest time it was Egyptian film that dominated the entire Arab world. But in recent years, other nations such as Tunisia and even a few of the Middle Eastern countries have started making in-roads towards establishing a unique cinematic identity of their own. Tunisian film-maker Férid Boughedir’s insightful documentary Caméra arabe (1987) looks at the development of Arab cinema and its rise against a background of turbulent political pressures. It was interesting to watch Boughedir’s documentary but unfortunately, I was only familiar with one director in that 60 minute film -- Youssef Chahine.

Coming of age via the lens of Férid Boughedir:

I first came across Boughedir thanks to his 1996 film A Summer in La Goulette. Sometimes a movie impacts a person tremendously. In that regards, ..La Goulette was one of the first few foreign films to overwhelm me and leave me breathless. I was seduced by the film and its three female characters, one Christian, one Arab and one Jew. I too wanted to travel to the beaches of La Goulette to bask in the white walled town where the three girls wandered, leaving men speechless in their wake. It was a tremendously enjoyable film and showed that no matter what religion the girls followed, their fathers were equally stressed and worried about their daughters; the fathers wanted to protect their daughters from the eyes of the local boys at all costs but they didn’t realize that it was their daughters who were the ones eyeing boys with equal passion and lust in the first place.

But before Boughedir showed the coming of age of teenage girls, he beautifully portrayed the maturing of a young boy Halfaouine: Child of the Terraces (1990). The film starts with the following images of the boy.

What are the interesting images that are holding the boy’s attention? Well his mother has been talking him to the local Hamam since he was a little boy but she has not realized her boy is growing up fast and developing an interest in girls and women. His eyes are wide open because he is staring at the naked girls and women around him.

The film is shown from the point of view of the little boy. We see what he sees and at times, we are given a few glimpses into the political revolution that is taking place around him. Not too much time is spent detailing the political struggles against a dictatorship regime because the boy does not understand what is going on. He has no idea why some people get arrested, why some disappear or how writing some harmless slogans on the wall could get someone in trouble. His goal in life is to understand the female species and to that end, he does accomplish his goal.

The purpose of a film and struggles along the way:

The last viewed film turned out to be an appropriate choice to close out the African spotlight. Youssef Chahine’s Alexandria Again and Forever details a film director’s struggle to get a movie made, the struggles he has with himself and his lead actor, the pressure of his producer, the overwhelming expectations of film festivals and the challenges posed by a writer’s strike. Chahine plays the main role in a film that can be described as his 8 ½.

The issues described in the film could possibly plague every film-maker as they could find themselves questioning the relevance of each scene and even the impact that their work would have. And surely there are plenty of directors out there who have one eye on the film festival circuit during their film’s post-production. Indeed, some directors attempt to get their movies completed in time for that prestigious film festival screening. So when a director is working with an end goal already in mind, it is not far fetched to believe that the pressure of expectations could creep up into some of their decision making during the filming.

Final notes:

Africa will once again take centre stage for me at the start of 2008 thanks to the African Cup of Nations soccer tournament held in Ghana from Jan 20 – Feb 10. 16 nations from all corners of Africa would complete in this usually entertaining competition.

Group A: Ghana, Namibia, Guinea, Morocco
Group B: Nigeria, Benin, Mali, Ivory Coast
Group C: Egypt, Sudan, Zambia, Cameroon
Group D: Tunisia, Angola, South Africa, Senegal

Ideally I would have liked to have a film festival to coincide with the soccer games but unfortunately, I would struggle to find films from all nations. As it stands, I have atleast seen films from 8 of the 16 countries. This spotlight was definitely an improvement in terms of getting films from African. But there are plenty of classics out there which are either lost or not distributed in North America. Slowly, but surely, maybe some of these works will start finding their way across the ocean.

Film (Year, Director): Ratings out of 10
  • Life on Earth (1998, Abderrahmane Sissako): 9
  • Hyenas (1992, Djibril Diop Mambéty): 8
  • Moolaade (2004, Ousmane Sembene): 9.5
  • Haramuya (1995, Drissa Toure): 6.5
  • Wend Kuuni (1982, Gaston Kaboré): 6
  • Yeelen (1987, Souleymane Cissé): 8.5
  • Hommage à noir (1996, Ralf Schmerberg): 8
  • Caméra arabe (1987, Férid Boughedir): 7
  • Halfaouine: Child of the Terraces (1990, Férid Boughedir): 8
  • Alexandria Again and Forever (1990, Youssef Chahine): 7.5
  • Thursday, February 15, 2007

    Black Friday, Pickpocket and the Swamp

    Black Friday (2005, Director Anurag Kashyap):

    Well Anurag Kashyap's film is finally officially released after spending more than a year banned by the Indian censors. The film's crime: depicting the inside story about the terrorists behind the multiple Bombings in 1993. The Indian courts felt that the movie might sway the jurors in passing judgement so the film was banned until the courts passed their sentence to the men implicated. Now that the court proceedings are done, the film can be finally be watched. And the verdict? This is film-making of the highest order!

    However, can this movie be watched in isolation to the real life crime committed? That is the same question that comes up while watching United 93. While these films deal with events regarding terrorist strikes, the two films are set in different time contexts -- Black Friday starts when Bombay is rocked by the multiple bombs and examines events after that bombing, and only goes into the past via flashbacks. On the other hand, United 93 takes place mostly on the morning of the terror attacks and ends when the crime is finished. Both films are gripping in their own right but at the end of day Black Friday feels like an absorbing crime film, especially one that has graduated from a Ram Gopal Varma academy. That is not a surprize as Kashyap has written dialogues for previous RGV films, especially the intense Satya. If one took Black Friday to be an underworld crime film, then it would be considered a sheer genius work of art. The film breathes realism in every scene, more than that of regular RGV films. However, this is a movie based on real incidents and that puts it under a different spotlight -- One can't shake the feeling that Anurag Kashyup is treading a fine line between showing events objectively and trying to let subjective feelings about the criminals filter from behind the lens. Can a writer ever accurately portray the actual dialogues criminals talked during their criminal planning? No. This is where a screenplay has to be careful in that it does not go overboard with feelings of jingoism. I do believe that Kashyup achieves a fine balance here in that the dialogues are both angry yet restrained and never feel too melodramatic.

    There is a sequence in the movie which goes into long extended details about a terrorist's ordeals in trying to escape India. This character hardly has a presence in the movie so it makes no sense to spend so much footage on him. With the exception of these long un-necessary scenes, the rest of the movie stays focussed to the task at hand which is about depicting the interrogation of the criminals and the odd background info about their motives. Since so many movies have been made in the last decade about Mumbai's underworld & outside terrorist support, some parts of the movie feel like recycled material. That being said, I loved the entire film from the opening shots to the closing credits -- dark, grim and harsh. Real? Not completely but seems to contain some truth to it. But a worthy film? No doubt about it!!!

    Pickpocket (1959, Director Robert Bresson)

    The best films are the simplest ones. And such is this case with this old classic. True to the title, the movie is about a pickpocket. The films starts with Michel's confession in how he got into stealing upto how he refined his slight of hand tricks. The precise camera-work lets us focus on only the essential details; not a single shot in the film is wasted. Martin LaSalle's cold emotionless expressions are perfect for depicting Michel and Marika Green demonstrates plenty of charm with only a few expressions as Michel's love interest. A quick and breazy film under 80 minutes.

    La Cienaga (2001, Director Lucrecia Martel)

    There are some films that require a person to be in the right mood. Safe to say, I was not in the mood to watch this depiction of upper middle class life in a small Argentine town. The film is well shot and is leisurely paced. In fact, the few sudden tragedies in the movie occur in such a matter of fact manner that if one blinks, they might miss the accident. Sure, few images stayed with me long after the film was over but overall, I was not drawn into this family saga. Lucrecia Martel got a Sundance award for this film's script which is not a surprizing fact. It seems such movies are tailor made to win awards at Sundance -- take a family movie, and just focus a camera here or there, show some off-beat characters and then sit back and watch the critics go crazy.

    Sunday, February 11, 2007

    An Author's style: Recent reading

    There are very few authors who have the ability to change their writing style from novel to novel. In most cases, no matter what different story an author tackles, his or her unique style permeates through the story. Sometimes, the style could be a particular narration mode (always using third person) or specific plot elements (dreams, corrupt cop, etc) which make the author's work familiar to returning readers. Those repeating elements are only a drawback if the author has nothing new to say and is simply rehashing their previous work. In the case of the first two books below, elements from the authors earlier novels were clearly evident. But these authors have some much to say and have clearly done their research that those familiar elements end up enhancing the reading experience.

    Snow by Orhan Pamuk

    I first came across a Pamuk book about 7 years ago. Back then, I didn't find his The White Castle very engaging. However, my view changed when I read his pulsating The New Life, a book that brought him much acclaim and introduced most Western readers to Pamuk. 3 books, a Nobel Prize in literature and a political controversy later, Pamuk is well know around the world -- back in December 2006, one could walk into bookstore in New Delhi and find all his 6 English translated works. His works give a mirror into both past and present day Turkey. On top of that, Pamuk is not afraid to tackle political or religious topics either. Which brings me to Snow, a book that is more relevant today than ever. At the core of the novel lies ideas about Islamic vs Western values. The story mostly takes place in Kars, a Turkish town where young girls are committing suicide because they don't want to live a life where they have to remove their headscarves. In the story, a newly passed Turkish law forbides women to wear a headscarf anymore. However, this law leads to much political battle and clash of ideologies. In the middle of this war of ideas, steps Ka, a Turkish poet who has come to Kars for his own personal reasons.

    The book is narrated by Ka's friend and manages to balance the political, religious and poetic sides perfectly. Although, I have to admit that at 436 pages, the novel is a bit too long. I wish Pamuk had trimmed 50 pages or so. Still, this is an engaging read.

    The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

    Poor Toru Okada. He just wants to stay quietly at home, make his pasta, sip some coffee and have the odd beer. But the phone just does not stop ringing. His cat disappears, and then his wife vanishes. Strange women enter into his life and add to his complications. What is an unemployed man to do?
    There is a pretty thick novel at 624 pages but in Japan it was originally broken up into 3 seperate books. The English version has all 3 books together which is great because it is easy to get sucked into the wonderful world that Murakami creates. Like his previous books (especially Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World), themes of dreams and the underground creep into the work. The third book of The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is structured similar to Hard-boiled Wonderland.. which gaves an idea to solving the story's mystery. Also, there are multiple stories and subplots through the book, some of which have a direct relationship with the overall story and some which are just are interesting to read but offer nothing to the overall plot. Like Snow, I do feel again that this book is longer than it should be but that is a problem with most authors.

    I have plenty of other Murakami books lying around which I will tackle later in the year.

    Bangkok Tattoo by John Burdett

    Normally, I would never have picked up this murder thriller book. But since I had just visited Bangkok, I wanted to read a book which talked about the crazy city's insane underbelly. For pure junk satisfaction, this is a very easy read which combines topics of Thai whores, corrupt Thai cops, reincarnation, CIA, Muslim fundamentalists, Al-Qaeda, Japanese Tattoos, Yakuza into a 320 page book. This was a fun read for me because I enjoyed reading some of the spots I had visited in Bangkok and could relate to some of the author's observances. One of those books that could be easily made into a multiplex thriller. And since the book is packed with cliches found in most thriller genre books, one can have an idea about the nature of the real mystery.

    Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

    In North America, this hyped up book is still in hardcover because publishers want to milk as much money from this as they can. However, in Europe and Asia, this book is available in paperback. I duly bought my paperback in London to see what the hype was all about. The book does contain some interesting ideas backed up with solid numbers. For example, the chapters about the economic realities of drug dealers and real estate agents are interesting enough but they are nothing earth-shattering. Even though there were some new things for me in the book, in other cases the book re-affirmed some well known ideas with stats. The book is written to cover a wide audience range (teenagers to adults), so the style is pretty easy going. Overall, I didn't find this book to be that great so I was glad that I only spent money on a paperback version.

    Saturday, February 10, 2007

    A bad patch of viewings

    It happens every now and then when I run across a bad patch of films. However, I just didn't expect it to be from this collection of 4 films, 2 of which are efforts from world class directors at the start of their careers and a third was a promising director's second film.

    Novo (2002, Director Jean-Pierre Limosin):

    Eduardo Noriega plays Graham, a man who can't form long term memories and as a result forgets things right after they happen. In order to remember people and facts around him, he makes notes and sticks them in places. This aspect of the story is the only similarity with Memento as the rest of the film is set-up to be romantic sex film with some dry humour. Even though the film is visually sharp with some slick editing, I didn't find it interesting enough. The sex and relationship story-line seems dull and eventually I lost interest.

    Shanghai Triad (1995, Director Zhang Yimou): Rating 7/10

    Long before Johnny To directed his Election films, Yimou made his own triad film. The big difference is that Shanghai Triad is seen primarily from the eyes of a 14 year old boy who finds himself working for Shanghai's biggest mob boss. The other key character of the film is the mob leader's mistress played beautifully by Gong Li. The little boy's expressive eyes steal the show along with some slick cinematography. However, the first half of the film is dull and sluggish.

    Ashes of Time (1994, Director Wai Kar Wong):

    The poor quality of the DVD and the frustrating black subtitle bar which took up almost 30% of the screen certainly tarnished my viewing experience for this film. That being said, this is unlike any Wai Kar Wong film that I have seen. Ashes of time is a philosophical action film set in a stunning desert (which looks amazing thanks to Christopher Doyle's camera-work). I can't judge this film properly as having seen lavish productions such as Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Hero and House of Flying Daggers, the poor DVD quality really made Ashes of Time a difficult watch. Although having sat through the entire film one way or another, I know there is merit in this movie. I just rather wait to see if in the future a sharper DVD verison would be released.

    Anwar (Director Manish Jha): Rating -- painful viewing

    I loved Manish Jha's first feature film Matrubhoomi: A Nation Without Women which was an intelligent work. So I was really looking forward to his second effort. I had already grown to love Anwar's haunting soulful music and the film's colorful posters and trailers indicated a promising film. But it is sad to see so much promise go to waste. I truly feel this could have been a very good movie with some better acting, editing and a finer tuned screenplay. The needless item number song and the annonying edition of a few characters (Rajpal Yadav for one) really weighs down the film. In the end, the story boils down to a love story wrapped around a political religious theme. I can see what Manish Jha wanted to do. He wanted to use an isolated incident to mirror the current state of religion and politics in India. One man's story in a temple was to have been a spring-board into the tense relationships that existed between different classes and individuals in India -- aspects of young romance, heart-break, jealousy, friendship, corrupt political leaders, policemen, media, journalists, thugs, etc would all have been covered by this one story. Unfortunately, the end result is simply unwatchable.

    Friday, February 09, 2007

    Letters from Iwo Jima & The Departed

    For the longest time I have wondered what it would be like to watch a movie in an empty theatre. In the past, I have been to some shows where there were only a handful of people (6-8) but I had never been the only person in a theatre. Well I almost got my chance to be the only audience member at Monday night's 9:50 pm show of Letters from Iwo Jima at the local multiplex. Now, I had expected the theatre to be not busy given the screening time and day but I never expected it to be empty. So I was completely shocked to find that I was the only person present in theatre #10 at exactly 9:50 pm. I looked up towards the projection room to see if they were indeed planning on carrying ahead with the show. No sooner did I take my seat, the screen readjusted and the movie trailers started.

    9:57 pm -- after 3 movie trailers, the film starts and still no one else had come. Eerie. At this point, I felt this experience brought true meaning to the words "home theatre" -- I had my very own personal multiplex theatre. Not a single sound to disturb my movie watching experience. However, I had trouble focusing on the movie. It seemed I had difficulty overcoming the theatre's emptiness.

    10:05 pm -- another man walks into the theatre. He too is shocked by the emptiness and finds a seat a few rows above me. He seemed to respect the utter silence perfectly and I hardly heard him chewing his popcorn. And so it was just the two of us for the next 2+ hours watching this film. Atleast for 7 minutes of the film, I had my own theatre :)

    Onto the film itself....

    Prior to seeing the movie, I had a gut feeling that it would not be that great. But seeing how much I loved Clint Eastwood's Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby, I felt I should give this a go. For some reason, I decided to skip Flags of our Fathers and wanted to watch ..Iwo Jima first. In the end, my gut feeling was correct. The movie is not that great. But I have to give credit where it is due.Given the current political climate, I think it is very brave that Eastwood made a war movie from the other point of view. It is not very often you get to see a human face to the enemy from an American film, let alone Hollywood. Looking at Hollywood's history of war films, it would appear that everyone is American's enemy. The Germans, Japanese, Russians, Vietnamese, Arabs, etc have all been villains at some point in Hollywood's shining war film history. Yes, in the past some American directors tried showing the 'horror' of war but it was always from an American point of view -- those films just showed the occasional American character who turned 'insane' and tried to kill his own American people.

    Eastwood's feature is completely in Japanese with Japanese actors. Like most war movies, you get an assorted array of innocent, brave and weak characters. The films just changes the locales and language from previous Hollywood war movies. Of course, one could argue that war brings our similar behaviour on both sides and there is never any winner in a war. One side may bomb the other and claim victory but the real damage comes at the expense of mere citizens who are representing a nation, even though they may not believe in that nation's ideals. I do plan on seeing Flags of our Fathers to complete both angles of the story but I want to pretend that movie does not exist and only focus on this Japanese version for now.

    ..Iwo Jima is shot very well and the sounds + cinematography really gave a bleak view of the situation. The visuals are very grayish (bordering close to black and white) with the only color in the film shown in scenes of Iwo Jima in 2005 (when the letters of the soldiers were discovered) and when the bombs go off in 1944 Iwo Jima. I did feel there were a few forced scenes in the movie. Now, I am almost willing to blame those scenes on Paul Haggis. Even though I loved his Crash, I do feel he may be trying to insert his emotionally rigged scenes in films. I blame some of the worst scenes of Casion Royale on his writing as well. Now, this could be an incorrect assumption on my part as I have no idea which scenes he wrote in both Casino Royale and in..Iwo Jima. In particular, one scene in ..Iwo Jima reminded me of a moment from The Shawshank Redemption -- in ..Shawshank there is a scene when Tim Robbins's character plays classical music over the prison loud-speakers. All the inmates pause and listen to this musical piece. I was reminded of this scene when all the Japanese soldiers pause and listen to the words of a letter an American mother wrote for her son. This scene felt forced and was not the only one in the movie. Overall, disappointed with the movie. Rating 7.5/10

    The Departed (Director, Martin Scorsese): Rating 8.5/10

    This movie has been in the theatres for a long time. At first I didn't want to see this because I quite liked Infernal Affairs and was not happy that Hollywood had decided to remake it. But I finally changed my mind and saw this on Friday, Feb 9. I can't remember every scene of Infernal Affairs but I do remember how I was hooked onto that movie's intelligent cat and mouse game -- the Hong Kong film was dark, gritty and very well done. So I was quite surprized to find how different The Departed feels. Scorsese's film has a very light hearted undertone to it. The first 30 min or so are filled with bits of humour. On top of that, the setting of Boston and presence of Irish music & humour changes the mood of the film for the better. Although, it was strange to find a lot of the characters Boston accent off in some scenes. At times, the characters accent was perfect only to disappear in the next.

    The Departed does get the cat and mouse game kicked in high gear after an hour or and it is indeed well done. The body count only rises in the end and even then it happens in a flash. The entire 2+ hour is packed with witty (and sometimes smart-ass) conversations but the body counts happens without any words or warnings. The suddeness of the scenes brought surprize and even some confused laughs from the audience. Another surprizing aspect of the film is the love story. One can notice the difference between Matt Damon's and DiCaprio's characters just by their interactions with the sole female interest. Jack Nicholson's character's love life is also briefly shown. The lingering relationship scenes in a gangster movie felt right out of a Michael Mann movie.

    In the end, I am glad I finally saw this movie and liked it but I am not convinced this is the masterpiece as it being hailed.

    Saturday, February 03, 2007

    Power and Hell

    The theme of power and hell is a common element in all four films I saw recently -- each film shows how abuse of power can lead to the victims being trapped in a perpetual hell. All the movies are interesting in a way, but I have to admit I was quite disappointed with the two big name movies set in Africa.

    The Last King of Scotland (Director, Kevin MacDonald): Rating 7/10

    What a major disappointment! I expected to see a powerful political film which peered deep into the hellish terror of Idi Amin. But all I got to see was a film that scratched the surface while only briefly dipping into the horror underneath. Not having read the original novel the movie was set on, I can’t fully comment on if the problem is with the story itself. However, there is a problem with how the film is constructed. The first 30 minutes are about how a young person can be easily seduced by power. A newly graduated Scottish doctor (Nicholas Garrigan played by James McAvoy) can’t imagine leading a dull boring life in his little town. He spins the globe and picks Uganda as his land of adventure (this was after he rejected Canada as an interesting option). It does not take him long to be seduced by Uganda & Africa. Getting laid and being welcomed as a hero get him off on the right foot. He lands in Uganda just as Idi Amin leads a successful coup and is installed as the new president. It does not take long for Garrigan to be seduced by Amin’s power. After a chance encounter, Idi is impressed by the young Scottish lad. Very soon, the dreamy eyed Garrigan is working for Idi and becomes his trusted advisor. Despite all the warnings of Idi’s terror, Garrigan continues to worship the president. This has to be the weakest part of the film, even though it keeps us interested by giving a few hints for darker things to come.

    But when the darkness does descend, it quickly lifts and is followed by more scenes of dullness. By the end, I was both disappointed and angered that I had wasted my time watching this. Sure, Forest Whitaker has brilliantly acted his part out – he dives deep into his role and relishes it; his expressions are fascinating to watch and he precisely delivers each dialogue. But everything else about the movie is just tiring and exhausting to watch. My expectations might have been misplaced but I truly got nothing from watching this movie.

    Blood Diamond (Director, Edward Zwick): Rating 7.5/10

    “T.I.A. This is Africa.” Yes going by the film locales, this really is Africa. But unfortunately, it is Africa as seen through Hollywood’s lens. And when it comes to Hollywood, it is all about “bling bang”, a little flashy show followed by loud explosions. Ofcourse, I am taking the words of Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Danny Archer, out of context, when in the film Danny utters the following words “over there it is bling bling, but here it is bling bang…” The strongest aspect of this film is DiCaprio’s fresh and lively acting. He plays his Rhodesian character with great aplomb.

    The movie does have some scenes of genuine political implications as it attempts to shed light on the lucrative diamond business and how the quest for a mere stone impacts the lives of innocent people. The film shows how ‘conflict diamonds’ are used by ruthless dictators to finance their personal wars. The civil wars and genocides result in innocent victims being forced in leaving their homes and living in refugee camps – in fact, one of the best scenes in the film is when the journalist Maddy (Jennifer Connelly) comments on the million displaced people living in a substandard refugee camp and how such a scene would barely get a mention in the Western media. Seriously, does the average North-American really care? How can they be expected to care when they are busy killing the environment with their SUVs, hummers, mini-vans while gulping extra-large, no fame lattes!

    Overall, I did like this film but what bothered me is how it is flawed because of Hollywood’s touch of adding un-necessary action sequences and melodrama. Blood Diamond also continues the recent trend of depicting African children soldiers in Western commercial films likeThe Interpreter, The Constant Gardener and Lord of War. In addition, a lot of scenes felt like a rehash of Lord of War and The Constant Gardener. The ending sequence and the beautifully shot street scenes of Sierra Leone are framed & edited similar to how Kenya was depicted in Fernando Meirelles’s film – in both films close-up street scenes of garbage and poverty serve as interludes in between the film’s story line. The potential is there for this movie to be much better than what it is and the film’s long length of 142 minutes does not help either – it is about 30 minutes longer than it should be.

    Hell, L’Enfer (Director, Danis Tanovic): Rating 9/10

    Based on Krzysztof Kieslowski’s proposed trilogy of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory and written by Krzysztof Piesiewicz.

    The first 45 minutes seem pretty straight forward – three sisters are stuck in their own personal hell. Each of their relationships is complicated and only serves to torment them further. Sophie (Emmanuelle Béart) discovers her husband is cheating on her. A beautiful scene is shown when she follows him to the hotel to catch him in the act. As she looks up from the lobby of the hotel, she only sees an endless spiral of stairs (Dante’s Inferno?). Each floor is spiral shaped with the walls painted red. In fact, the color scheme of red, blue and white can be found at different points in the film, clearly evoking memories of Kieslowski’s color trilogy. Anne (Marie Gillain), the youngest sister, is having an affair with her professor while Céline (Karin Viard) is the only sibling to look after their mother. Upto the hour mark, the film feels like a typical French movie – relationship problems, crisp dialogues, shots of cafes and French apartments. But then a revelation changes the film’s complexion. A truth about the past gives importance to the opening scene in the movie and also reveals how the three sisters are living in their hell. In fact, the three women are playing different roles in the exact version of hell that had changed their lives when they were little. The same endless play is being continued forever and ever. The film references the Greek story of "Medea", a play about a revenge of a woman. Hell is a portrayal of that play and shows how one woman’s revenge caused others around her to be forever plunged into a never ending hell. Interestingly, when the discussion of the play is shown in the movie, Sophie’s character is shown to be shielding her children in the rain. In the context of the film’s story, this simple gesture might seem to indicate that Sophie is trying to break away from her circle of suffering and is not willing to let her kids go down the path that she was dealt.

    I have to say, the last 30 minutes are pure perfection!!! I was not that impressed with the first 45 minutes of this film but the revelation at the hour mark truly changed my outlook on this movie. Overall, this truly is a film that feels worthy of having Kieslowski’s name associated with it. Now, I can’t wait to see what the third film in this installment will contain.

    Otomo (1999, Germany Director, Frieder Schlaich): Rating 8/10

    It starts with the cold stare. Fassbinder knew that and depicted that in Ali: Fear eats the soul. That was back in 1974 but the stare never went away, despite the passage of time. Stuggart 1989: the stare is still there. Otomo is used to the stare. But he can’t help getting upset by the hassle that follows the stare. After more than 8 years of frustration in a city that refuses to give him his dues, he loses his cool and lashes out at the problem instigator. Ofcourse, his instigator is a white German and Otomo is black. No question on who will be blamed! This was West Germany before the wall came down. Have things changed now? Will the stare disappear one day? In a way, a stare never goes away. The stare can be about skin, race, religion, choice of soccer team, or whatever else. And people who believe they are superior will always try to exert their power. Now false power also comes with meaningless jobs because in a given context, even a peon can feel like God. In a train, a traffic inspector checking for valid tickets feels he has power over every single person on that train. The traffic inspector can decide who is allowed to sit on a train and who is not. Who can question this God? Not his fellow white police men for sure. Police are often known to abuse power as well, no matter how 'democratic' a country is. To quote a few lines from Spiderman: "with great power comes great responsibility." Some people are responsible, others are not. Unfortunately, it is the ones who are irresponsible that destroy others lives and are the ones who give every other responsible person a bad name.

    Otomo is a powerful film shot very much like Fassbinder’s cinema. Otomo was a real person, but the only real elements in the film might be facts about Otomo’s life, the incident with the train conductor and the film’s climax. The final credit rolls indicate that the story shown between the train conductor and climax might just be pure imagination. Whatever the truth, that imagined story gives the film an earthy feel; those scenes show that even in hell, there is usually some hope. Out of all the stares, one stare might be tender and warm!