Friday, February 29, 2008

58. Portuguese director Teresa Prata's Mozambican film "Terra Sonâmbula (Sleepwalking Land)" (2007): A lovely film based on a major African novel

Not many filmgoers may be aware of Portuguese director Teresa Prata’s Sleepwalking Land. A film that took Ms Prata some 7 years to complete, it is yet to be extensively screened beyond the international film festival circuit. The movie is evidently Ms Prata’s labor of love after she spotted a goldmine in Mia Couto’s Portuguese novel Sleepwalking Land published in 1992. The novel is now widely recognized as a major literary work from and on Africa in recent years. Extracts (translated into English) that I read indicate a remarkable, powerful literary work, falling within the realm of magical realism. It was indeed a work screaming to be captured on celluloid with the help of special effects and convincing local acting talent. The young lady grabbed the opportunity to shoot the film in Mozambique and do the special effects in Portugal. Today, her interesting movie adaptation is helping publicize Mia Couto’s writing even further and is bringing global attention to both the Mozambican and the Portuguese cinema.

Sleepwalking Land is one of the most interesting and realistic films on Africa. In the past two months, the film has won the international FIPRESCI award for the best film in competition at the recent Kerala film festival, and an award for best director at the lesser known Pune film festival.

African films, in my view fall into three distinct categories. The first category includes films made on African subjects by native Africans, as exemplified by the cinema of the late Ousmane Sembene. The second category includes movies made by African Arabs on subjects relating to north Africa and the Horn of Africa (e.g., films of Youssef Chahine in Egypt, Mohamad Asli and Souhel Ben Barka in Morocco, Mahamet Saleh Haroun in Chad). The third category is African cinema made by expatriates with a short exposure to Africa, blending external sensibilities with those of native Africans (e.g., Gillo Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers, Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala). Teresa Prata’s Sleepwalking Land will fall within that final category.

The book Sleepwalking Land and the film based on the novel are both set during the 15-year civil war that crippled Mozambique. Mia Cuoto has a gifted philosophical turn of phrase to describe the catastrophe of the war: “what’s already burnt can’t burn again.” The film (as in the book) looks back wistfully at the tragedy of the unrest through the eyes of a dreaming orphan boy and provides a glimmer of hope for the survivors of civil anarchy to cope with what is left to build anew. While Mia Cuoto and Teresa Prata focus on the social and economic plight of Mozambique, their respective works can equally mirror the problems of the continent.

The film follows a young orphaned Mozambican boy Muidinga (an endearing performance by an acting novice, Nick Lauro Teresa), who can fortunately read as he had once attended school and is even familiar with Melville’s Moby Dick, and his unrelated, illiterate guardian, a wise old man called Tuahir (played by non-professional actor Aladino Jasse), tossed accidentally together by the civil war. The film and the book trace their common will to survive the difficult days. The young boy might have read, or rather heard, the story of Moby Dick, but the name is indelible in his memory. Director Teresa Prata, who adapted the story for cinema, therefore takes creative license, and allows the young boy to call his pet goat “Mody (sic) Dick.” (When I queried the director on this detail, she stated that she was responsible for this change and that it was not part of Couto’s book.)

The film and book have two parallel plots. The young boy and the old man, on the run in the bushes from marauding, gun-toting factions of the civil war, come across a charred bus with burnt corpses and their possessions that escaped the fire. Among the possessions of the dead passengers are notebooks that describe a story of a woman named Farida, a squatter on an abandoned ship, waiting for her young son to find her, and a hardworking young man Kindzu, who has fled his burning village that has faced the wrath of the civil war-mongers. In this discovered manuscript, Kindzu meets Farida. Subsequently, Kindzu goes searching for Farida’s lost son.

The young boy narrates the tale to the illiterate old man, after reading the manuscript, and begins to associate Farida as his lost mother. He even imagines the name of the ship she is squatting on is called “Mody (sic) Dick” (again, Ms Prata’s contribution to the story).

A strength common to the book and the film is that the parallel love story of Farida and Kindzu never takes center stage—the backbone remains the dreams of the young boy under the guiding spirit of the wise old man. Between the two, the viewer of the film is introduced to the problems of Mozambique, of Africa, of any developing country. As in a Greek tragedy, you trudge along a path that gives you a notion of travel and progress, only to return to the same spot, literally and metaphorically.

Here is a sample dialog from the film/book:
"But isn't it more dangerous on the road, Tuahir? Isn't it better to hide in the bush?"
"Not at all. Here we can watch the passersby. Don't you see?"
"You always know everything, Tuahir."
"It's no use complaining. You're to blame: isn't it you who wants to find your parents?"
"That's right. But the bandits are the only ones to pass by along the road."
"If the bandits come, we'll act like we're dead. Pretend we died along with the bus."

Pretense and dreams make the film move forward. To aid the young boy on his “journey” to his “loving mother Farida” squatting on “Mody (sic) Dick,” the old man devises the means to reach the sea (Indian Ocean) from the bushes of Mozambique. The old man digs a hole in the ground. Water sprouts and a stream forms. The stream becomes a river and at the end of the river there is the ocean. In the Ocean, the lead characters find the derelict “Mody (sic) Dick” with Farida on it. Obviously, if you demand conventional realism—there is very little that the film can offer. If you accept magical realism as a tool to narrate a realistic socio-political scenario in Africa, both Mia Couto and Teresa Prata have much to offer and delight your senses.

The viewer gets a glimpse Couto’s Mozambique. An elderly Portuguese lady chooses to remain in her house even when her servants have fled. A Gujarati shopkeeper family that opts to return to India, when their shop is ransacked during the war. There are railroads that have no trains to run on them. But among the ruins, Couto and Prata, show a glimmer of hope in the form of an orphan, learning hard lessons of life in the bush. Ms Prata has made a fine effort to extract remarkable performances from non-professional actors and has proven her capability to adapt and direct an interesting work that would be interesting for any person interested in good African cinema. This film may not be a cinematic masterpiece, but it is certainly a fine example of good African cinema made by a gifted and persevering lady from another continent.

For the intelligent viewer, the writer and the director throw a silent challenge. Spot the real Captain Ahab and spot the real Moby Dick that confronts Africa today and you could enjoy the film even more. The description of a civil-war torn country as a sleepwalking land offers fodder for thought, beyond the usual images of violence, poverty and carnage that adorn the typical African cinema.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

57. Canadian filmmaker Paolo Barzman's second film "Emotional Arithmetic" (2007): Subtracting the past, adding the present and balancing the equation

It is fascinating how the horrors of World War II continue to spark off good, intelligent cinema around the world even after a gap of over half a century.

Emotional Arithmetic, based on a novel by Matt Cohen (I guess, a Jew), begins with an astounding remark "If you ask me if I believe in God, I am forced to answer does God believe in us?" The film is not about atheism. But it is a startling opening statement that makes you re-evaluate the film even after the movie is over. It reflects on the terrible scars left by war on orphans, on individuals who stand up and protest when wrong is done, on relationships forged in times of stress, pain and loss. It probes the secondary effect the scarred individuals have on their close family, who were not directly affected by World War II. Thus, a beautiful Canadian landscape seems to hide the horrors that inhabit the minds of some of its inhabitants.

The charm of Paolo Barzman's second film rests considerably in the hands of the capable actors—-Susan Sarandon, Max von Sydow, Christopher Plummer and Gabriel Byrne—-all who have a maturity to carry off their parts in the film with grace. Ms Sarandon has matured into a formidable actress in recent films and this one definitely showcases her talent. Ms Sarandon plays a comfortably married middle aged grandmother who cannot forget the trauma of having experienced life in a Nazi concentration camp called Drancy as a young American-born girl. Plummer plays her husband who is constantly worried about her health (“Did you take your pills?”).

Elementary arithmetic adds these facts to tell us that her character is not very stable. Add on the sudden arrival of her benefactor at the camp a Polish dissident played by the enigmatic Max von Sydow, the first meeting after a gap of some 40 years. Another addition to the equation is the arrival of concentration campmate played by Gabriel Byrne, another character indebted for life to the Polish dissident. Old memories, old flames of love are rekindled. Possible emotional multiplication is suggested in the emotional equation. The husband seems to be threatened with an eminent subtraction from the emotional equation. What follows is not as important as the equation itself. The film offers some answers—you can get run over a speeding train at an unmanned crossing, or just be able to survive and move on with your determination.

If you are familiar with cinema of Bergman, the film offers tantalizing parallels with Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly. Both films have Max von Sydow. Both have a pivotal wooden dining table in the open air as an important prop for the story. In both films, you have rain that is likely to fall on the table. In both films, a woman is in a fragile mental state, with men hovering around her watching her with concern.

Screened at the 12th International Film Festival of Kerala, India, the film forced this viewer to compare the contents of Emotional Arithmetic also with those of a Swiss documentary A Song for Argyris, also shown at the festival. Both films underlined the difficulties in forgetting tragic events in our lives and moving on. Both films indirectly discuss the bonding of survivors of tragic events. As I watched the film I could not help but note the growing interest filmmakers in family bonds—in Emotional Arithmetic it is merely a subplot balancing a "virtual" family that suffered during the Nazi rule with that of a real family comprising three generations living in idyllic conditions in a most beautiful part of Canada.This film would offer considerable material to reflect on for the viewer, beyond the actual events shown on the screen.Though there is no mention of a divine presence, the use of the vertical crane shots of the dining table and the car at interesting junctures in the film seem to suggest this debatable interpretation. This Canadian film provides eye-candy locations that grab your attention from the opening shot. Mesmerizing crane shots provide an unusual charm to the high technical quality of the film, which becomes all the more apparent on the large cinemascope/Panavision screen. So is the competent editing of the sequences that make the viewing process delectable.

Emotional Arithmetic could fetch acting honors for Susan Sarandon, Max von Sydow and Christopher Plummer (his best performance to date after his formidable lead performance in Phillip Saville’s Oedipus the King made in 1967), when the film is officially released.

Like another Canadian film Away from Her (which shares the same gifted cinematographer Luc Montpellier with Emotional Arithmetic and shown at the 11th edition of the Kerala festival more than a year ago), Canadian cinema has proved capable of dealing with serious subjects with the help of international actors, without resorting to the commercial gimmicks of mainstream American cinema, and employing high standards of craftsmanship in the true tradition of the famous Canadian filmmaker Claude Jutra!

P.S. The films Away from Her, A Song for Argyris and Through a Glass Darkly have been reviewed earlier on this blog.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

56. Turkish film director Abdullah Oguz' "Mutluluk (Bliss)" (2007): Taking Livaneli and resurgent Turkish cinema to wider audiences

Some forty years ago, one went to a movie because it was based on a famous book. Today, you are more likely to ferret out a book because the movie on which the film was based was interesting and probably warrants a closer look at the written word.

One such movie that has set me on the paper chase is the Turkish award winning film Mutluluk (Bliss) based on the Turk Zulfu Livaneli’s book of the same name. Apparently the considerably well-known book has been adapted and written for the screen by three writers and the director of the film Abdullah Oguz. I believe the translation of the book is available in English but I have yet to lay my hands on a copy. My search for the Livaneli book resulted in two interesting bits of trivia. Livaneli is himself an award-winning film director (at San Sebastian and Montpellier festivals) not just a literary figure. And Livaneli is a music composer of some repute, having closely collaborated on music with Mikis Theodrakis (composer of 0f Zorba the Greek) of Greece (see my review of A Song for Argyris in this blog) and Livaneli provided the music for my favorite Turkish director Yilmaz Guney’s film Yol (the Way).

The first five minutes of the film Bliss (probably the most stunning 5 minutes in the entire film) is pure heavenly cinema—not anything remotely related to literary genius. You have a shot of a hillock and its mirror image captured in the still waters in the foreground, with heavenly music provided by (you guessed it!) Livaneli. As you are mesmerized by this feast for the eye and ear, the crane shot of the camera zooms in on a herd of sheep. So what’s so spectacular? Anyone can do that, you say. But wait, the director captures a cyclical contrarian rotation of the sheep within the herd that is idyllic, providing almost an epiphany of what is to follow in the movie. How the director got the herd to move in that fashion beats all logic and likely animal choreography.

What follows the opening sequence is a typical honor killing dilemma. A young orphan woman in beautiful lovely rural Turkey has been raped. There is no evidence of who perpetrated the crime until towards the end of the movie. The tradition is that the hapless women are provided a rope to hang themselves. As the young lass remains silent and is reluctant to kill herself, her family decides to send her to the city where her escort is charged with the job of honor killing—kill the victim of the rape.

What follows is a love story between the would-be killer and the victim, a fascinating interplay of the duo with a rich intellectual who owns a wonderful yacht and is running away from a marriage and responsibility, soaking in the natural beauty of the Aegean Sea and the picture postcard coastline. Everyone seems to be running away from some problem or the other...only to find refuge in beautiful nature. Director Oguz and writer Livaneli seem to suggest that "bliss" for the three different characters can be attained if they try to attain it, irrespective of the socio-political or religious conditions in which they (and therefore you, the viewer) are placed by providence or a cosmic scheme of sorts.

At the end of the film, you begin to wonder at what the film insinuates. At a very obvious level there is a conflict between tradition and modernity, between rural lifestyles and the urban lifestyles, between Asian cultures and European/Western values. At a not so obvious level, there are pregnant references to turmoil within Turkey. Much is lost in translation. You get a feeling that there is more to the story than what you are told in the film. Why did author Livaneli, himself an accomplished filmmaker, choose not to direct the film or even write the screenplay, when he graciously provided the music?

Perhaps there is an inverse image of the story as suggested by the opening shot of the film. Probably the novel will have some answers. Even without the answers the film is an invitation for anyone to glimpse the beauty of Turkey, with its melting pot of cultures, religions, and ethnicities. More than anything this possibly sterilized Turkish film has a positive outlook for a country seeking EU membership. Its cinema is quietly surging forward just as its writers are beginning to get noticed worldwide.