Monday, August 08, 2016

195. Colombian director Ciro Guerra’s “El abrazo de la serpiente” (Embrace of the Serpent) (2015) (Colombia/Argentina/Venezuela): An amazing film with deep insights on nature and civilization dedicated to “peoples whose song we will never know.”

Both posters above are predominantly in black and white,
while colour is utilized sparingly and effectively,
 as in the film

The display I witnessed in those enchanted hours was such that I find it impossible to describe in a language that allows others to understand its beauty and splendour; all I know is that, like all those who have shed the thick veil that blinded them, when I came back to my senses, I had become another man.” ---German scientist and explorer Theodor Koch-Grunberg’s (1872-1924) writings, quoted at the opening of the film

The year 2015 witnessed the release of three outstanding films from South American countries: Land and Shade from Colombia, The Pearl Button from Chile, and Embrace of the Serpent a co-production from Colombia, Argentina and Venezuela. Each of the three films deals with history and economics. Each film present a combination of fact and fiction, the last two blending history with actors playing fictional roles that have some facts to rely on. Each of the films provide the viewer an unsettling perspective of reality that you rarely encounter in cinema these days. Each of these three is an artistic work that will satisfy a sensitive viewer who is looking for entertainment without sex, violence, and escapist action. All three films are bolstered by outstanding cinematography, direction, and incredibly mature performances by little known actors that can make big Hollywood names pale in comparison. And more importantly, these films have been made for a fraction of the cost of an average Hollywood film.

First journey: Koch-Grunberg (Bijvoet), Manduca, and young Karamakate,
with material possessions, including a phonograph
Embrace of the Serpent is a tale of two scientists/explorers: the German Theodor Koch-Grunberg (1872-1924) (played by Jan Bijvoet of Borgman) and the American Richard Evan Schultes (1915-2001) (played by Brionne Davis of Avenged). Both men were seeking a medicinal flower “yakruna” from a native shaman Karamakate (played by Nibio Torres, when young, and Antonio Bolivar, when old), who lives on the banks of the Amazon and its tributaries. 
There is a 20-30 year gap (1909 to 1940) between the two encounters of Karamakate and the two explorers from the developed world. Koch-Grunberg was an ethnographer who had fallen ill while studying the Pemon natives of Venezuela and is brought to the shaman Karamakate, who knows about yakruna and where it can be found. This flower Koch-Grunberg had been told could cure the sick explorer. Karamakate distrusts Koch-Grunberg and Manduca, Koch-Grunberg’s native companion and recently freed slave. Karamakate refuses money as he takes the German and Manduca to Colombia along the Amazon only to find Colombian soldiers misusing the plant as an hallucinatory drug and growing it in untraditional ways for profit and drug abuse. The drugged soldiers and the plants are destroyed by the enraged young Karamakate. Koch-Grunberg is thus not cured and dies even though he is sustained for a while by Karamakate blowing a hallucinogenic powder up his nostril. However, Koch-Grunberg’s detailed notes of his trip with young Karamakate and the yakruna that he saw before the plants were destroyed, survive his passing. 
Second journey: American Richrd Evan Schultes (Davis) and the older
Karamakate (Bolivar), reach where the last yakruna grows

Decades later, the American scientist Richard Evan Schultes, having read the detailed notes of Koch-Grunberg, locates Karamakate, now much older and possibly with memory fading (or at least affecting to fade) and less temperamental than in his youth. The American is also searching for yakruna for commercial reasons because the genetic resource of the flower’s seeds can apparently make rubber trees disease-free adding to the profits of the global rubber industry chain, from forests to factory. Old crafty Karmakate shows him the last yakruna flower and cleverly cooks it for Schultes. The outcome shown in Embrace of the Serpent is, to say the least, fascinating. 
What is the serpent in the title of the film? It is the Amazon. The Amazon does look like an anaconda when viewed from the sky. It appears as a massive snake that populates the Amazon banks and the director cleverly shows the birth of young anacondas early in the film. To add to the visual suggestion, there is a clever line in the script that states the natives believe the snake came from the skies. (This is not far removed from similar analogies within the traditional beliefs of natives of Chile in The Pearl Button.) 
Two aspects of this important film stand out for any viewer. The two native actors who play Karamakate overshadow the performances of professional western actors in this film. The credit not only goes to the native actors but to the script of director and co-scriptwriter Ciro Guerra, co-scriptwriter Jacques Toulemonde Vidal and the cinematographer David Gallego. One has to admit considerable fiction has been enmeshed with the two historical trips on the Amazon river separated in time by some three decades. 
The young impetuous Karamakate (Torres) with the Amazon behind him

The second aspect of the film is the deliberate choice of the director Ciro Guerra to make Embrace of the Serpent in black and white (cinematographer David Gallego) for most parts. [This deliberate choice needs to be compared with a few other important films on evil/distrust and reconciliation deliberately made in black and white with superb outcomes: Mike Nichol’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995) and Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon (2009)—all cinematic works with reflective depth and common concerns which would have had lesser impact were they made in lush colour.] It is possible that a colour version of the film Embrace of the Serpent would have emphasized the wrong elements of the tale—the formidable river and the overarching rain forests. The pivotal aspect of the film is the traditional world of the natives and their knowledge of traditional medicine orally handed over generations and kept protected from commercial misuse. When colour is used briefly by the filmmakers in Embrace of the Serpent, it is to communicate this wisdom. It is not surprising that several reviewers have noticed the parallels between Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Embrace of the Serpent. Science/scientific knowledge (here, specifically the commercial production of rare plants and genetic resources) and accumulated human wisdom are weighed against each other in both the cinematic works. Somewhere in the film Karamakate says, “Every tree, every flower brings wisdom.” The endings of both films, their release separated by half a century, will humble a reflective viewer. 
Embrace of the Serpent provides much food for thought. The journeys on the river have parallels with Homer’s tale of Ulysses voyage. In Ciro Guerra’s film, there are three major ports/stops during the river voyage. The first is a native village on the banks of the river. There is a peaceful exchange of knowledge and understanding of each other’s cultures. The natives listen to European classical music from a phonograph of Koch-Grunberg. Koch-Grunberg and Manduca dance to German music of Haydn and Handel and entertain the natives who end up stealing his compass. Koch-Grunberg is upset that his only scientific aid for navigation is lost. Karamakate sagaciously drills reason into the mind of the upset German, ironically reminding the scientist “Knowledge belongs to all. You do not understand that. You are just a white man.” Even the natives need to learn from the developed nations, the shaman appears to assert. Ironically, we learn in the film that shamans such as Karamakate were almost wiped out by the colonizers. One reason for Karamakate to agree taking Schultes on the second voyage on the river is to connect with those remnants of his tribe that had shamans. 
At the religious settlement, the trio treads with care 

The second stop is at a religious settlement run by fanatic Roman Catholic monks who brutally inculcate Christianity in the minds of innocent native kids obliterating any respect they had for traditional wisdom. The monks seem totally oblivious of the virtue of translating Christ’s pacifist teachings in real life. Karamakate, Koch-Grunberg and Manduca try to help free the native kids from the priests' influence. The freed native kids are ironically later found some 30 years later by Karamakate and Schulte as grown-up twisted Christians who have interpreted religion in a bizarre manner, taking to idolatry and cannibalism. The effect of Roman Catholic monks on the natives during the colonization period is dealt in a parallel manner in both Embrace of the Serpent and The Pearl Button
The final decision for the old Karamkate comes from his environment
and wisdom that he has acquired over time

The third stop in both voyages is where the yakruna flower grows. Karamakate’s reactions are different each time. It is important to note that yakruna is a plant that can heal, symbolic of the independence of the natives. And it grows on rubber trees! But commercial compulsions of the developed world always lead to loss of independence of the natives. A rubber slave pleads for death as the rubber sap pail he had nailed to a rubber tree has been emptied and he will have to face brutal consequences from his masters. It is therefore not surprising that Karamakate’s constant refrain to both explorers is to unburden themselves of their material possessions.
Embrace of the Serpent constantly pits personal material possessions against collective traditional memories. The old Karamakate says, “To become warriors, the cohiuanos must abandon all and go alone to the jungle, guided only by their dreams. In this journey, he has to find out, in solitude and silence, who he really is. He must become a wanderer and dream. Many are lost, and some never return. But those who return they are ready to face what is to come.“ The film is unusual in many respects. In the film nine languages are spoken including Spanish, Portuguese, German, Catalan, Latin and four aboriginal Amazonian languages. 
Secondly, women are almost peripheral in the film for reasons best known to the filmmkers alone.
Then, the film touches on the resources of the river itself—the fish. Karamakate specifically warns the scientist Koch-Grunberg not to fish during a particular period (possibly its breeding period to preserve its numbers) but the German does not listen and answers, “The river is full of fishes. We cannot possibly end them.” Today, oceans and rivers are rapidly losing the rich fish species and their diversity by mindless over-fishing.
Finally, there is the contrast of the messages in dreams presented in Embrace of the Serpent —the anaconda suggests that Karamakate kill the scientist Theo, the jaguar suggest the opposite. The two dreams distil the quandary of the film for the viewer—science vs human wisdom. The final action of old Karamakate before he disappears seems to reconcile the jaguar’s view and the shaman’s accumulated wisdom. The American explorer Schultes is cured of his insomnia, he can dream, and is now a changed human being. In a parallel Kubrick moment, he is at home with butterflies!

P.S. Embrace of the Serpent won the Golden Peacock at the 2015 Indian International Film Festival in Goa; the Art cinema award at the Cannes film festival; the Golden Apricot at the Yerevan film festival (Armenia); the Golden Astor at the Mar del Plata international film festival; and the Alfred P. Sloan prize at the Sundance film festival. The film is in myriad ways superior to the Hungarian film Son of Saul, which won the Best Foreign Film Oscar while Embrace of the Serpent lost to the Hungarian challenge after both were final nominees for the award. All three films Land and Shade (Colombia), The Pearl Button (Chile), and Embrace of the Serpent (all released in 2015) are on the author’s top 10 films list for that year and have been separately reviewed in detail on this blog. Another film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) mentioned in the above review is also reviewed in detail earlier on this blog.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

194. Iranian director Jafar Panahi’s Farsi/Persian language film “Taxi” (2015), based on his own original screenplay: Very interesting subject but intriguing cinematic docu-fiction.

The difficult Kafkaesque conditions for the intellectuals and the financially insecure in Iran discussed in Taxi are indeed very real.

I have visited Iran several times and therefore I have seen it all first-hand. You do not encounter beggars but it is only natural that economically weak families exist in Iran.  In the film Taxi, too, you don’t see beggars but there is a conversation about Iranians being publicly hanged for petty crimes and of a husband-wife duo wearing masks taking to mugging of their richer neighbours because of their pecuniary compulsions. The film ends with thieves/plain-clothed policemen on a motorbike ransacking the “taxi’s” cameras.

Anyone who criticizes the Iranian government is perceived to be a foreign spy and brutally interrogated, while blindfolded, in notorious prisons.  In his film Taxi, the director Jafar Panahi claims that he himself underwent a similar situation and that he is still hoping to one day identify his interrogator by his voice. In the movie Taxi, the Iranian prisons are referred to tongue-in-cheek as “Paradise” by a famous Iranian human rights lawyer, Ms Nasrin Satoudeh (the flower woman), who travels in the Panahi driven “taxi.” She explains that once you are released from prison, your neighbours and friends treat you so differently that you wish you were back in prison. She would know because she was there herself. Ms Satoudeh has represented prisoners and political activists. Her impressive list of clients includes the Nobel Prize winner Shirin Ebadi. 

Director Panahi drives his taxi in Teharan's streets with a camera on the dashboard,
while a pirated CD hawker engages him in a conversation on films

Everything discussed in the movie is real. My heart goes out to the people of Iran where the best works of Iranian cinema are banned and good foreign cinema rarely shown. My favourite Iranian film Bitter Dreams, a 2004 debut feature film by Mohsen Amiryousefi, was banned within months of it being shown at the Cannes film festival and awarded the Camera d’Or (the award for best cinematography) and subsequently most cineastes are not even aware of that path-breaking film’s existence or the unique capability of the young director.

Now Panahi is different. He makes very interesting films. He claims he is hounded by the Iranian authorities but yet continues to make films, one after the other, openly on the streets of Teheran. It cannot be that he has accomplished it without people noticing his filming activities in public areas. Iran is a nation, which has lots of cops in civilian clothes and a slice of its population is ever ready to report on activities that would please the government machinery.

Now Taxi is a laudable work--including a discussion of males wearing ties in public (I have not spotted a single Iranian male wearing a necktie in Teheran, but two people in Taxi wear ties, Panahi's friend who has been mugged and a just-married bridegroom), the human rights lawyer  Ms Satoudeh (the flower woman) referring to prison tales after she herself was an inmate of the notorious Evin prison,  pirated film CDs of American, Japanese  and Turkish films being hawked surreptitiously  on the streets of Teheran--all laudable, realistic cinema.

Or is it? In Taxi, the taxi driver Panahi is concerned that his two women passengers with a fishbowl will wet his backseat. When the fishbowl does break by accident, Panahi is not concerned about the water or the broken glass. The camera angles of the sequence with him helping the ladies saving the lives of the fish could not have been taken from the dashboard camera. Evidently there were more cameras (and camera persons) used than we are expected to believe.

Two women with a glass fish-bowl enter the taxi.
Where is the camera? If it is positioned outside the vehicle,
were there regular cinematographers at work?

We are supposed to believe Panahi’s friend who was mugged has captured electronically some evidence of that event on his electronic notebook that he shares with Panahi, the contents of which we don’t get to see. We just see Panahi’s expressions while viewing it.  Are we expected to conjecture the mugging was caught on camera? Further, are we expected to believe Ms Satoudeh and Mr Panahi could drive around Teheran without raising suspicions of a film being made, when Panahi was banned from making films in Iran?

I have actually shaken hands with the director in my city when he was chairing a film jury. He appeared sullen and unfriendly. In the movie Taxi, you see a charming, ever-smiling and friendly Panahi. Which is the real Panahi? In my opinion, the Berlin film festival ought to have bestowed the Best Actor award for this film not just the Best Film!

Candid videoography by Panahi's niece taken within the taxi (She was present in Berlin
 to pick up the Golden Bear on behalf of her uncle)

As in Panahi's The Circle (2000), the subject of Panahi’s film is totally laudable once again in Taxi. But is there an implicit collusion between Panahi and the Iranian authorities? How much of Taxi is spontaneous? Probably nothing.  Panahi, who was not allowed to make a film by the Iranian government, makes a film (or several films critical of the state of affairs in the country) and gets away with them.  Panahi’s niece captures on camera a rag picker picking up some cash dropped by a newly-wed groom.  Are we to believe that photographic evidence will go unpunished in Iran, however trivial it is?  Now that is intriguing.

P.S. The film won the Golden Bear at the 2015 Berlin film festival and the audience award at the Mumbai international film festival.  Amiryousefi’s Bitter Dreams (2004) and Panahi’s The Circle (2000) are discussed on this blog. Other reviews of several important  Iranian films (and those co-financed by Iran) on this blog can be found by clicking here.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

193. Icelandic director Grímur Hákonarson’s film “Hrútar” (Rams) (2015), based on his own original screenplay: Unusual tale of sibling hatred and bonding

Rams is an unusual tale, remarkably told. Rams are male sheep and the entire film is appropriately about two dour male, hairy, unshaven Icelandic brothers.

The two male characters, Gummi and Kiddi, are quite old and not married. They are not gay; they are not womanizers either. They are both passionate sheep farmers, who live on different homesteads, separated by a road and fences. It is indeed a strange tale to surface from a matriarchal country, one of the only two such countries in Europe, the other being Albania.

The tale, created by director Grímur Hákonarson, is centred on the two brothers who have not talked to each other for 40 years but communicate with each other by sending written messages carried by a dutiful sheep dog. As you watch the film unspool, you wonder about what could have led to the grim, silent antipathy of one brother towards another. When the movie ends, you are never the wiser. But what one realizes at that point is that this information really does not matter; the film is actually about bonding and over-rides hatred. It is this that makes the film remarkable.

The hatred of Cain..

...changes under trying circumstances alone.

Viewers learn from bits of information that percolates. as the film progresses, that the deceased parents of the two brothers had made two interesting decisions.  As most rational fathers would have done, the father bequeathed his son Gummi the sheep he owned, because Gummi was obviously the more dependable and better of his two sons in behaviour. 

Now, since Iceland is matriarchal, the mother of the two sons gets Gummi to promise that he would let his undependable, wild and irresponsible younger brother Kiddi to farm sheep as well. 

The reflection is more about sheep
than about broken relationships within the family

When the film begins both brothers are farming the best sheep in the neighbourhood and are proud of their work. When one brother’s ram wins the competition for the best ram, the other brother comes in second. They do know the intricacies of sheep farming and are superior to the other sheep farmers in their vicinity. They don’t have wives or children to bother about—their only world is sheep farming. There is no clue provided within the film of the unknown events 40 years past that led to the break in aural communication between the two brothers.

Hatred among siblings is unusually common around us if we care to be observant.  Often this hatred is expressed through resounding “silence.” Even when they hate each other, there is often a sibling bonding under the surface. When one sibling in the movie is found by another drunk and freezing in the cold, he is scooped up mechanically by a scooping truck operated by the other sibling and dumped in front of a hospital without the sober brother getting off the truck—actions that show both the contradictory feelings of an intense disdain as well as care for the health of the other sibling, in a remarkable sequence where no words are spoken. On another occasion, one sibling fires bullets at the other’s house, smashing window panes. One hears the gunfire and the breaking of the glass but no words!

Iconic shot of two rams--when the film Rams is about two hairy, stubborn men

The strange reality is that such animosity is not uncommon among siblings but ultimately blood is thicker than water.  The words spoken in the film by one of the warring brothers underscore this oxymoronic situation “No sheep. Just the two of us.” The final words spoken in the film “It will be all right” have tended to confuse some viewers but if the movie is viewed attentively there is no ambiguity. Perhaps the ambiguity stems from the fact that the words are spoken by a sibling painted earlier in the film as being wild and undependable. The ending of the film is not the film’s weakness; it is its strength.

The message of the film goes beyond sibling rivalry. Neighbouring countries go on long intense senseless wars for similar unfathomable disputes and yet many inhabitants of these warring nations like those of the other nation on personal terms. The message of Rams is not odd, it’s real. Only the Cain and Abel tale often goes beyond siblings, in a modern, wider perspective.

Nature and landscape of Iceland is a bleak backdop for the grim tale

Grímur Hákonarson’s Rams has very little spoken dialogue, often those are words spoken by tertiary characters whose dialogues flesh out details about the primary duo. The elements of the film Rams that “speak” are the cinematography and the sounds of nature. When icy winds blow in Rams, the viewer shivers. It is little wonder that cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen (who was also responsible for the single-take 2015 German feature film Victoria) won the Camerimage award for this film. (One suspects that certain locations used in Rams were common with the 2015 Icelandic film Rúnar Rúnarsson’s Sparrows.) Director Hákonarson’s choice of music by Atli Örvarsson is another element of the film that raises its quality above the ordinary.

P.S. Rams is one of the author’s best 10 films of 2015. The film won the top award in the 2015 Cannes film festival’s Un Certain Regard section, and major film awards at the Thessaloniki (Greece), Hamptons (USA), Ljubljana (Slovenia), Palic (Serbia), Transilvania (Romania), Valladolid (Spain), and Zurich (Switzerland)  film festivals. It also won the Silver Frog award at the Camerimage festival in Poland for its cinematography.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

192. Chilean director Patricio Guzmán’s spellbinding documentary feature film “El botón de nácar” (The Pearl Button) (2015): A powerful, poetic essay interlinking water, memory, buttons, and genocide in Chile’s history

The Pearl Button is one of the most thought-provoking and visually stunning documentaries ever made. The incredible narration of the film, which deservedly won Patricio Guzmán the Silver Bear for the Best Screenplay and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the 2015 Berlin film festival, connects up anthropology, geography, history, meteorology and cosmology  relating to a single country—Chile. If one has not seen this movie, one would be aghast at the very scope of connecting such diverse subjects. The amazing thing about The Pearl Button is that the facts presented are correct and they do connect up as Guzmán presents it. In case you still do not buy the connections made by Guzmán, you will be enthralled by the magical cinematography of Katell Djian. And Katell Djian is immensely talented and reminds one of the abilities of cinematographer Ron Fricke’s contribution to Godfrey Reggio’s brilliant 1982 feature length documentary Koyaanisqatsi.

The magical cinematography of Katell Djian

The Pearl Button begins with the examination of a drop of water caught in a block of quartz some 3000 years ago. Early in the film, Guzmán states in his narration the theme of the film that follows: “Water is the essence of life and it remembers.” Now, that’s an odd statement but if you view this remarkable film up to its end, the Guzmán statement does fall into place.

It is indeed true that water on earth was a result of cosmic events and there is some evidence that humans might have evolved from aquatic life forms. The ancient natives of Chile were water nomads moving from one island to another along its 785,000 mile coastline (data according to The World Resources Institute, next only to Canada, USA, Russia, and Indonesia) on small canoe-like boats.
By the end of the film, Guzmán extends his argument “They say water has a memory. I believe it also has a voice.

Melting ice on the shores of southern Chile

Magical cinematography of water

The importance of water for Chile as a country is further explored with amazing facts in The Pearl Button. Chile has the driest desert in the world—the Atacama Desert. (This desert made of sterile soil receives less than 1.5 cm of rain per annum, compared to other American deserts such as the Death Valley that receives more than 25 cm of rain per annum.) Ironically not far from the desert is the deep Pacific Ocean. However,  the Atacama Desert was found to be ideal place to study the cosmos with radio telescopes at an internationally funded observatory facility known as the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA). Intriguingly, Guzman points to evidence that the ancient natives of Chile had believed in life after death on earth in the cosmos and thus painted their bodies with dots and stripes to signify celestial bodies. His commentary then wonders how we are studying the cosmos while neglecting what lies in the depths of the Pacific. Of course, Guzmán reveals the most unnerving part only in the third part of the film—the Pacific Ocean’s “memory.”

A small segment of an artist's view of Chile's incredible shoreline,
breathtakingly captured by the film's director and cinematographer

The Pearl Button can be divided into three segments. The first is about the importance of water to Chile geographically and the cultural affinity of the natives of Chile in the past to the cosmos.  The mid-portion of the movie is devoted to how the natives were exploited by European settlers and missionaries including a historically real native called Jemmy Button, who for the price of a “Pearl Button” agreed to be taken to England and be transformed into a gentleman. Subsequently, he returned to Chile disillusioned, only to take off his western clothes and seek acceptance amongst his own kin. The third and final portion deals with the Pinochet regime that brutally crushed the democratically elected Allende government that had sought to give back the natives their pride and possessions. The Pinochet regime had dumped hundreds of its political opponents after torturing them in the Pacific Ocean tied to iron rails to avoid detection in the future. One such rail is retrieved with a button on the clothing of the tortured individual still intact. The oceans that gave life to people on the mainland had ironically become a cemetery during the Pinochet regime in the Seventies. The Pearl Button takes you though the full circle of the tragic history of Chile.

A button retrieved from the Pacific Ocean attached to the clothing of
a Pinochet regime opponent clinging to a rusted iron rail

The Pearl Button is not merely a film with amazing photography and an interesting narration.  It includes revealing interviews with the surving natives of Chile. It includes acted bits of Jimmy Button in England. Like Koyaanisqatsi, this work of Guzmán is a treat to watch. It informs and it entertains. The first part of the film The Pearl Button is exquisite, to say the least. The citation of the Ecumenical Jury Prize at the Berlin Film Festival sums it all up: “Patricio Guzmán's documentary shows a moving history of the people of Patagonia and Chile reminding us that human suffering and injustice go beyond political and social systems. Using water not only as a symbolic tool but also as a natural element it puts the concrete story of the region's victims, including pre-colonial indigenous persons and those who opposed Pinochet's regime, into the vast perspective of humankind."

Old photograph of Chilean natives with bodies painted with stripes and dots:
 they believed in life after death among the stars

Chile’s Guzmán joins Germany’s Hans-Jurgen Syberberg and USA’s Geoffrey Reggio as one of the finest thought-provoking documentary filmmakers in the history of cinema. If Pinochet’s coup achieved one good thing, it was to gift the world the cinema of Raul Ruiz and Guzmán that made people all over the world to recall the horrors of the Pinochet regime and to learn from it.

P.S. The Pearl Button is one of the author’s top 10 films of 2015. The film won the Silver Bear for the Best Screenplay and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the 2015 Berlin film festival. It also won the “In Spirit of Freedom Award” at the Jerusalem Film Festival. Koyaanisqatsi is on the author’s top 100 films list.

Friday, April 15, 2016

191. Japanese director Naomi Kawase’s “An” (Sweet Bean/Sweet Red Bean Paste) (2015): Zen and the art of making pancakes

Globally, Naomi Kawase is not as well known as are Japanese filmmakers Akira Kurosawa, Yasijiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, Masaki Kobayashi, Nagisa Oshima, Hiroshi Teshigahara and Shohei Imamura. Ms Kawase is an odd one to be included among those stalwarts. First, she is the only woman among all those men. Second, she is the only one with a non-Japanese first name, while her filmmaking is quintessentially Japanese, harking back to nature and traditions of the Japanese people. And finally her filmmaking is distinct from the rest—each feature film with strong female characters, each feature film that exudes respect for elderly folks and their accumulated wisdom, each feature film stressing on equilibrium of relationships between human beings and nature. Finally, her reflective and philosophical style of filmmaking unintentionally is very close to that of the US director Terrence Malick. She could well be considered Japan’s answer to Malick.

Lonely Sentaro makes a living making dorayaki sandwiches with "an" and
selling them his customers to pay off his debts

Like Malick and the Swedish maestro Ingmar Bergman, the majority of her eight feature films are built on her own original screenplays, mostly without the help of a co-scriptwriter.  Only two Kawase films are adapted from novels, Sweet Bean/ Sweet Red Bean Paste and Hanezu (2011).  Only one of her eight feature films—Nanayo (2008) utilizes the services of a co-scriptwriter. This fact is not trivia, if one compares it to the acclaimed body of Kurosawa’s output which is almost entirely built on ideas of novelists, short-story writers, and top-notch gifted scriptwriters. Kurosawa’s success was considerably due to the following 10 talented scriptwriters he worked with over the years:  Hideo Oguni (12 films) Ryuzo Kikushima (9 films), Shinobu Hashimoto (8 films), Eijiro Hisaita (4 films), Masato Ide (3 films), Ishira Honda (3 films),  Keinosuke Uekusa (2  films), Keiji Matsuzaki,  Senkichi Taniguchi, and Yuri Nagibin (1 film each). In contrast, Kawase’s films are by and large products of her own ideas, spoken words, and stories, captured on film.

Naomi Kawase made two major shifts from her usual pattern of filmmaking for Sweet Bean/ Sweet Red Bean Paste. First, having made only eight feature films, this is Kawase’s second attempt to adapt a novel for a movie.  And for the first time, this feature film turns out to be a commercial success as well! Second, this is her first feature film that has the entire action captured on film in the city of Tokyo, far away from the Nara prefecture in Japan which has been her favourite filming location. (One of her earlier films, Nanayo, did have some scenes filmed in Thailand.)

Wakana, Tokue and Sentaro bond as a virtual family,
listening to birds and enjoying small pleasures of nature that sorround them 

Sweet Bean/ Sweet Red Bean Paste has three unrelated individuals of three different age groups in Tokyo bonding as a family. What brings the three together is “An” the Japanese name for the sweet red bean paste, an essential ingredient for dorayaki, a popular hot pancake sandwich. One individual cooks the bean paste, one sells the dorayaki, and the third is a regular customer at the dorayaki stall. The film is a delightful tale of how the trio come together and how their lives change. The closest works of cinema to this Japanese film is the Oscar winning 1987 Danish film Babette’s Feast and the 2000 UK/US film Chocolat The key element that the entire Kawase's body of films have that was missing in both Babette’s Feast and Chocolat was what human beings need to observe and learn from the harmony in nature.  There is a deep message in the Japanese film beyond the story line: that a person’s worth is not to be measured by one’s career but in one’s being and that inner joy can be experienced with the help of our sensory faculties in the natural world that surrounds us. That is very close to Buddhist philosophy.

It would be too simplistic to describe the film as a mere tale of three individuals bonding over a confectionary item and finding a virtual family in unexpected circumstances. The film is drenched in philosophy and the experience of viewing the film is close to what a reader would feel after finishing the Robert M. Pirsig novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It’s a tale of people learning from each other.  

In an interaction with the media at the Cannes film festival, Kawase pointed out “No one can live alone.... I get the impression that in today's societies people create their own barriers. In a broader context, these barriers could make us rethink the idea of getting rid of 'the other'. Sometimes a person looks very angry from afar. But if we get close enough, we see that he is crying. That person may only seek attention and affection of others.” That encapsulates Kawase’s body of cinematic work, not just Sweet Red Bean Paste.

Tokue makes the dorayakis as Sentaro, her boss, is late for work

The virtual family in the film is made up of three “misfits” in today’s society. The lead male character is Sentaro (Masatoshi Nagase), possibly in his late twenties, divorced, who after injuring someone in a drunken brawl, was imprisoned for it, and had to pay a huge sum of money to the grievously injured man. We learn his dour countenance is a reflection of the hard work he has to put in to pay back the debt. The greedy owners of the dorayaki stall where he works are an added headache. Sentaro is not a bad individual, but life is not easy for a freed jailbird with a debt and no family. The lead female character is Tokue (Kirin Kiki) a cured leprosy patient in her Seventies with disfigured hands, who by a quaint Japanese law is not supposed to exit her sanatorium. Again this character is a lovely individual who cannot interact with the rest of the world for no fault of her own and her only “family” is reduced to her compatriots at the sanatorium.  The third character of importance is Wakana (Kyara Uchida, the real life granddaughter of actress Kirin Kiki) a sensitive and curious school girl who loves to eat doroyakis and dreams of going abroad. Her only family is a mother who does not give her much attention. Durian Sukegawa’s novel and Kawase’s film bring together the trio of misfits without a family as they meld into a new virtual family.

Sweet Red Bean Paste as any Kawase film presents characters that are aware of the natural world surrounding them. Even in Tokyo, a vertical concrete city, Kawase focuses on the cherry trees in bloom between buildings  and a yellow canary chirping away on one of the branches.  This was perhaps more pronounced in her earlier works The Mourning Forest, Hanezu and Still the Water, which were less accessible to comprehend for a casual filmgoer. In Sweet Red Bean Paste, the silences, the sounds of leaves in the wind and even footsteps, are to be savoured as they hold meaning for the tale, unlike most other films. Tokue’s last message to her young “family” is not to regret the isolation in society that unfortunate events can dictate in your life. She advises the young “family” members the necessity of living life appreciating the wonders of life. In the film, Tokue says, “Everything in the world has a story to tell.” She talks to the beans that she cooks, she listens to them cook, and has tales about beans cooking to narrate.  She is grateful to Sentaro to have given her an opportunity to cook ‘an’ after all these years and watch the public savour the fruits of her labour. Sentaro in turn is grateful to Tokue for making his business boom. Wakana is grateful to Sentaro who gives away the imperfect dorayakis to her gratis. These simple actions have a larger effect and meaning in the film.

Sentaro sells his dorayaki under a cherry tree amidst nature--he has learnt
from the advice of Tokue

Two details need to be stated. Naomi Kawase was left by her own parents and brought up by her grandparents, which is probably why recurring stress on family and respect for elders underscore her films. Actress Kirin Kiki, who plays the cured leprosy patient Tokue, had battled cancer herself and got cured.

While Sweet Red Bean Paste is a major work of Naomi Kawase, a delightful work exuding positive philosophy of life, and relatively easy to comprehend, The Mourning Forest and Still the Water remain her more complex and satisfying works. Nevertheless, Naomi Kawase is one of the most important filmmakers alive and making films today.

P.S.  Sweet Red Bean Paste is on the author’s top 10 films of 2015 list. The films of Naomi Kawase The Mourning Forest, Hanezu and Still the Water mentioned in the above review—have been reviewed in detail earlier on this blog. Sweet Red Bean Paste has won awards at Sao Paulo, Cork, and Valladolid film festivals and the Best Actress award for Kirin Kiki at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

190. French director Stéphane Brizé’s “La loi du marché” (The Measure of a Man) (2015): Internalized reactions to jungle law of the market forces under economic gloom

Economic stress can do strange things to an upright individual. Stéphane Brizé’s French film The Measure of a Man does not merely look at individuals who scramble for jobs to make a living, the film is equally a critical look at the human resource development teams that hire the workforce for their companies in trying times of low GDP growth. The film is set in France but the tale it presents is universal.  The film entertains sensitive thinking viewers by providing options on personal ethics one has to adopt to bring home the bacon on the table under trying circumstances.

The tale of The Measure of a Man revolves around Thierry (Vincent Lindon), a 51-year-old middle class man, with a wife and a differently-abled son. He has lost his previous job in which he evidently earned enough to own a trailer (a mobile home) to enjoy his holidays. We learn that Thierry has not lost his job because of inefficiency on his part but because his employers wanted to earn more with a leaner workforce.   Co-scripted by Oliver Gorce, Brizé’s script and movie builds on the world of Thierry 20 months after being laid off by his employer. His resentment and frustration are not directed at his past employers, they are directed at the employment exchange/services that is/are supposed to help him find a new job and his potential hirers when he applies to get a job and is given a short shrift during on-line Skype interviews. He is hurt but does not make any outbursts, when they state that they don't want to meet him face to face even when Thierry suggests that. Cyber interviews may not help every good candidate.

Thierry (Vincent Lindon) helps his differently-abled son at home

In 20 months, Thierry's savings are rapidly depleting while his responsibilities as a parent and husband looms large. The internal stress and conflict are externalized subtly by an amazing performance by Lindon, who is poised and watchful in the most trying of situations.  Brizé and Gorce craft a screenplay in which Lindon hardly speaks a word to his wife and yet communicates his support and love for her. Even with depleting finances, both he and his wife go for dance lessons together—the subtle message of the filmmakers on the couple’s compatibility will not be lost on an alert filmgoer.  The introduction of the family is completed in the first half and in the second half Thierry finds a job. This is a job which changes the human values of Thierry because he needs to keep it.  It is this change that makes you think about what you would do to measure up as a man in Thierry’s shoes. The citation of the Ecumenical Jury commendation at Cannes for The Measure of a Man reads: “For its prophetical stance on the world of work and its sharp reflection on our tacit complicity in the inhumane logics of merchandising.”

Searching for a job includes listening to humiliating assessments of Thierry
by other job seekers, half his age, on why he is not successful in his job quest

It wouldn’t be out of place to compare and contrast The Measure of a Man with the recent award-winning Dardenne bothers’ Belgian film Two Days, One Night (2014). Both films dealt with effects of unemployment and both have a pivotal central character struggling to survive. Both films are similar in style, slow paced, and yet very intense. Of course, the genders of their lead characters differ. Yet both films offer different perspectives. In Two Days, One Night, the lead character is emotionally fragile with a somewhat strong family, especially a caring husband. In The Measure of a Man, the lead character is stoic in facing his adversity but has a growing disabled son who needs the parents’ support. In the Belgian film, the focus is on attitudes of the co-workers towards a laid off worker, while the French film reverses the perspective by looking at the emotional turmoil of a worker towards his co-workers, who are likely to be laid-off for petty misdemeanours related to financial stress. More importantly, The Measure of a Man deals with lack of empathy of the human resource staff of various organizations as they recruit new employees. The French film provides several pointers where recruiters could improve on their interactions with candidates seeking a job and could thus be ideal for business students specializing on human resource management to study and reflect upon. It is easy for employment services to ask a laid off worker to take 5-month course as a crane operator. Thierry follows the suggestion only to find that there is no vacancies for the new profile that he was asked to create for himself.  Who will bear the responsibility for the lost time and effort of this unfortunate man? Would the employed person who suggested the additional burden to Thierry be accountable to the unemployed man? Brizé and Gorce step away from blaming anyone. In The Measure of a Man, the decision of to lay off an employee is made to appear to be a collective decision of co-workers and not of the employer. In The Measure of a Man, the employer is evil or inconsiderate and the ethical and considerate worker gradually becomes less ethical and considerate towards people including his co-workers, much against his conscience.

In a new job, Thierry faces a new challenge, within himself

The Measure of a Man offers a lovely screenplay that suggests continuous humiliation of a gentle soul could result in actions by the sufferer that are contrary to his nature, all for the sake of survival not just of oneself but also for the sake of one’s dependants. Debut cinematographer Eric Dumont cleverly aids the viewer to realize the internal predicament of Thierry by using long shots and close-ups as he relates to changing scenarios.

Now Brizé may not be a major French filmmaker but The Measure of a Man, his sixth feature film, proves he can make interesting and original screenplays that have a relevance in contemporary society, He can make a film that is relevant worldwide. He can get a lot said without his key character speaking a lot. He proves that the true power of cinema need not be in spoken words but in body language. That is how Brizé helped Lindon win the best actor awards for this film at Cannes Film Festival and at the Indian International Film Festival in Goa, India. 

P.S. The Measure of a Man is on the author’s top 10 films of 2015 list. The film Two Days, One Night compared with The Measure of a Man in the above review, has been reviewed in detail earlier on this blog.

Monday, March 07, 2016

189. Colombian director César Augusto Acevedo’s debut film “La tierra y la sombra" (Land and Shade) (2015): A grim, yet amazingly, beautiful tale of the poor when sugar cane is symbolically no longer sweet and can kill

For a debut film, César Augusto Acevedo’s Land and Shade is amazing in its simplicity and quiet power.  

Land and Shade is powerful because it deals with two things that mean a lot to most people--home and family.  When you are poor, home could mean your house, your apartment, your hut, your piece of land that you own. In Acevedo’s Land and Shade—the word “land” refers to all those things. In Land and Shade, in halcyon days decades ago, that piece of land on which a modest house stood benefitted from the shade of a giant tree.  Decades later, the sun is obliterated not by the tree but by smoke—smoke that kills the dogs and humans without distinction in the vicinity. And the smoke comes from man-made fires to burn sugarcane crop residues as a cost effective method adopted by the farm owners to clear the land before planting a fresh sugarcane crop once again. Ecologists have been increasingly critical of this practice as it has several negative effects the industry ignores, which myopically concentrates on profits.  The word “shade” in the title Land and Shade, refers to the shade of a giant tree in the past which has been replaced by the omnipresent ash flakes from burnt sugarcane stubs in the air that blocks out the sun’s rays. The film exudes “quiet” power because its soundtrack is almost devoid of music except towards the end when a song is played—and the song is translated in the subtitles as “love is written with tears.” Ironically nobody cries in this lovely film. And spoken words are minimal.

Acevedo’s remarkable debut film Land and Shade makes one recall the tale and approach of Italian filmmaker Ermanno Olmi’s Golden Palm winner The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978). Both films deal with farm labourers.  Both deal with their dwellings. Both deal with economic disparity between rich and poor on agricultural lands. Both deal with relationships between parents and their offspring.  Both deal with the pain of leaving their rural homes that they liked. Both deal with contrasts of the poor in rural farms of the poor in urban communities. Both films employ unprofessional actors. And more importantly both films are original stories and screenplays of the respective directors themselves. Despite the common threads, Land and Shade is quite different from The Tree of Wooden Clogs. And both prove to be extraordinary films.

Grandfather Alfonso and grandson meet for the first time in their house

Acevedo’s Land and Shade begins with a static camera shot of a man walking towards the camera on a dusty road flanked by sugarcane fields.  You see a truck approaching in the distance behind the man.  As the truck nears the man, he has to step aside, close to the sugarcane fields to let the symbolic monster of industrialization pass. He is covered with dust and ash as it passes.  Much later in the film, a similar situation is again captured by the filmmaker and his cinematographer. This time the same man is walking with his grandson who is enjoying an ice-cream cone. A similar truck approaches them from behind. They step aside to let it pass. The man tries to cover his grandson as best as he can. But the dust spoils the ice cream. Not a word is spoken. The visuals and sound speak louder than words. These two parallel sequences are unforgettable once you have seen them. It is not surprising the film went on to win the Camera d’Or prize at the Cannes Film Festival for the cinematography of Mateo Guzmán, possibly making his debut as a feature film cinematographer as well.
Alfonso's wife (right) and daughter-in-law work as daily wage farmhands
harvesting sugarcane often faced with delayed payments of salaries

Land and Shade is a tale of five members of a rural Columbian family delicately told. Grandfather Alfonso, we are told, left his family 17 years ago (17 years before the film’s tale begins) to live in an urban dwelling. There is no evidence of Alfonso having another spouse or other offspring. His rural house is occupied by his wife, his son, his daughter-in-law, and his young grandson. His taciturn wife, who apparently knew where he was living, has called him home to look after his grown-up and married son, who is slowly dying from the ash polluted air after struggling as a daily wage earner on the sugarcane farm. Now his wife and daughter-in-law work long hours in his son’s place to make ends meet alongside male labourers.  Scenes of flying ash from the oppressive fires resemble the locust and fire scenes of Malick’s Days of Heaven.  The intensity of the family ties in the film is not imagined but has roots in the director’s own life.

Father-in-law and daughter-in-law have a moment to themselves
(the windows are closed to keep out the dust)

Director Acevedo’s reveals why he made Land and Shade in the press kit of the film distributed at Cannes Film Festival and available online. His reasons are poignant:

“La tierra y la sombra (Land and Shade) was born of personal pain. When I began writing the screenplay my mother was dead, my father was a ghost, and because it was impossible for me to generate memories, I was condemned to lose them forever. And so arose the need to make a film that would allow me to recover the people dearest to me, using cinematic language. At the time I set out to use the most private, the most important people and events to reflect upon what our lives together had been, and what they might have been. I therefore constructed a house with words and shut everything I desired inside it. I don’t know why I hoped to find them there, in this way, but I trusted in the idea of sharing a little more time together, one last time. I quickly discovered that this was a serious mistake: I’d filled a house with ghosts that wandered from room to room without recognizing each other, incapable of expressing everything they kept inside. It wasn’t easy to understand that I needed some distance in order to construct more human characters, and I was only able to advance once I’d accepted that all I longed for in the world was gone forever.”

“The film became a way of attempting to return to my roots, of facing oblivion. Despite the inevitability of the family breakdown and the solitude this brings about, I wanted to speak of the importance of maintaining the fragile ties that bind us to those we love most, regardless of the violent emotions provoked occasionally by the internal passions that devour our hearts. For this reason I chose to give a different family some time, a final opportunity to find one another and face their guilt and pain before it was too late. The dramatic power in this conflict, however, does not lie in words, but rather in the silences, in the distance between bodies, in the gazes that never meet, and in the small things, like a plate of food growing cold on the table. Because what is truly important is not found in what the characters show or say, but in what they hide from us, or what they don’t even suspect they harbour inside. Because my roots are firmly anchored in the geography of Colombia’s Valle del Cauca region, I also wanted to base the story on the microcosm set up in the film (a family of five, a tiny house, and a tree surrounded by an oppressive sugar cane field), to speak of how a false illusion of progress has threatened the history, memory and identity of an entire people. For this reason I attempted to use cinematic language to make visible some of the greatest social problems inherent in the overwhelming expansion of the sugar industry in this region: modification of the landscape, soil destruction, the bankruptcy of small-scale farmers, poverty, disease, and displacement. To me, this film responds to an urgent need to draw attention to the rural people’s sense of belonging to the land and their valiant struggle and resistance, especially important in a country where the identities of a variety of peoples are constantly under threat.”

“Land and Shade is a hymn to life, liberty, dignity, and hope. An honest attempt to clear our vision and rethink the way we see ourselves. Perhaps in this way we can understand that what binds us is something more than indifference and that only by remaining united will we be able to face oblivion. This project is another contribution to this cause, thanks to having finally understood that my gaze is what I am, and where I’m from.”

The sick and dying son views his bleak future

In 17 years, Alosnso’s house is surrounded by sugarcane fields almost choking the building. But the big tree survives. One of the most moving conversations is between grandfather and grandson. The grandson wishes he had pet puppy dog and wistfully informs his grandfather “We can’t have dogs here because they die.” So the duo tries to attract birds that will hopefully entertain the lonely child, who cannot have a dog to play with, in that fractured environment.

Land and Shade and the 2013 Chilean film The Quispe Girls (based on a true story that took place in 1974) are examples of resurgent South American cinema by committed young filmmakers who discuss pertinent and real issues with non-professional actors, a very well thought-out script and amazing photography in their very first respective feature films. Yes, both are extraordinary debut films. Colombia should be proud of Acevedo’s persistence to make this film against all odds, eventually winning awards at Cannes Film Festival, the Best Film award at the Bratislava International Film Festival (Slovakia), and multiple awards at the Thessaloniki Film Festival (Greece). We should be proud of a man like Acevedo, who recognizes the importance of his parents and record it for posterity through a slightly fictionalized cinematic tale of quality. This is one of the most important films of 2015 proving once again that good cinema can be made with limited budgets by committed, creative filmmakers..

P.S. Land and Shade is on the author’s top 10 films of 2015 list. The three films mentioned in the above review-- The Tree of Wooden Clogs, Days of Heaven, and The Quispe Girls have all been reviewed in detail earlier on this blog.

Official Trailer - LAND AND SHADE directed by César Acevedo from Burning Blue on Vimeo.
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