Sunday, March 30, 2008

61. Iranian director Jafar Panahi's "Dayereh (The Circle)" (2000): Interesting cinema that calls for close evaluation

After making two feature films and many short films on children, director Jafar Panahi made a third feature film, The Circle, where he dealt with the condition of a wider gamut of the female gender in Iran. The new canvas included a girl child, a girl toddler left behind for adoption. a wide-eyed teenage girl, a pregnant mother whose spouse has been executed, a prostitute, the only wife of an expatriate doctor, the less-preferred first wife of a husband with two wives, a grandmother who wishes for a male grandchild and a possibly unmarried mother who can no longer support her girl child in Iran. The film's structure is somewhat similar to the later films of Robert Altman, presenting a collage of separate incidents involving varied characters that are somehow connected and come together at a crucial point.

The Circle begins and ends with a name of a woman--Solmaz Gholami--being called out through a door hatch. Interestingly, the film never introduces us to this character. It is apparently the name of a woman who has given birth to a girl child. The film instead introduces us to the grandmother of the child who is informed by the nurse that she is now has a girl grandchild. The hatch belongs to a white door of an operation theater in a hospital.

The film ends with the same name being called out from a similar hatch of another door—this time, it's a hatch of prison door of a room that holds most of the female adult characters that the viewer encounters in the film rounded up by the police for varied offences. Implicitly, the film states that women face discrimination from birth until death in Iran.

Evidently, the film suggests that someone had uttered a white lie earlier that the unseen Ms Gholami was to going to give birth to a boy after an ultrasound test of the foetus. The revised information of the arrival of the girl child upsets the grandmother living in a society that prefers a boy to a girl child.

In between the opening of the two hatches, the roving handheld camera underlines the state of an unusual group of women in Tehran, without identification papers or male chaperons, evading the police and a few eve-teasing males. The viewer is informed that most of the women (except the grandmother and two children) have either been paroled from prison or have escaped prison and are, therefore, on the run from the cops. Their original crimes are never stated. One woman is picked up by the police while she is making a call from a public phone booth. Once imprisoned, the women are afraid of the blot in their lives to the extent that they hide it from their husbands! They even run away from their own brothers who disapprove family members bearing children out of wedlock. Were these women imprisoned for possible sexual offences? None of the women seem to be politically active. They do not behave like petty criminals either. However, the film underlines one fact—if they are accompanied by either a husband or a father, or possess student identification papers, they would be relatively safe to move around freely. Some of these women are desperate to smoke a cigarette in public. They can only do so when the men (in the film, a policeman) are smoking in public! Yet these women do not wallow in self pity. They move on with resolute energy.

Mr Panahi is able to present interesting aspects of female bonding in Iran. Some women travel the extra mile to help other women in distress. Even a prostitute helps another woman to dodge the police. Then there are women who do not help others because they do not want their husbands to know that they were once behind bars. A mother leaves her girl child in the street in the hope that a stranger will provide a better life for her child. Who are these women ex-prisoners with no husbands? Are they representing the typical Iranian woman?

Any woman or sensitive man could be seduced by the subject of the film. However, the film ought to be evaluated beyond the obvious feminist issues. The film equally serves as a study of individuals (not just women) born into any society (and not just Iran) that deprives them of equal privileges. Many men shown in the film are caring men who help women in trouble rather than become their exploiters. Some policemen are arguably corrupt, yet decent, helpful cops are also shown. It would be presumptuous to classify The Circle as a feminist film merely because the female form covered in burkha/chador indicates a symbol of repression. The film is more humanist than feminist—which the director has asserted in interviews. One tends to agree with Mr Panahi on this point, if you accept the socio-cultural norms of Middle-East society, markedly different from Western and many Asian and African societies.

Women are indeed less equal than men in many parts of the Muslim world. I was privileged to visit Iran twice in recent years and interact with a cross-section of its population. Many women in Iran that I met are well educated, outspoken and enjoyed considerable freedom of movement without a shadow of obvious male dominance that Mr Panahi’s film indicates as an implicit requirement in the specific cases of his characters in this film. While Iranian women may not enjoy political clout, Iranian women do hold influential positions in education, law, research and business. They definitely do not require a man to chaperon them as suggested by the film.

However, it is likely that to abort a child in Iran is a difficult proposition as it would be in most other countries today. Similarly, it would be difficult in most countries for any young girl without identification papers to take a long distance bus ride all alone in the night. (Iranian women enjoy more relative freedom than their counterparts in Saudi Arabia—where women cannot even drive a car!) The unknown crimes of Mr Panahi’s women in The Circle are never clearly elucidated in the film except in the case of the prostitute. If they were political prisoners, there is no clue to substantiate this except that a pregnant woman states that her spouse has been recently executed. There is a wide-eyed girl who has never seen her village in recent years, who has evidently been in prison for some time. Why was she imprisoned in the first place? Do young women get imprisoned for no apparent reason?

Mr Panahi’s film seduces the viewer, until you begin to wonder, if even the fact that it was banned in Iran, is a viewer-seduction tool (many of the good Iranian films are banned in Iran, even though they do not contain sex or violence, merely because they are remotely critical of the current regime). The film was shot in Tehran and evidently the government did not have any problems at that time with the script. And then, bingo, it gets banned!

An interesting trivia to note is that the multiple international award-winning filmmaker Mr Panahi, who does not speak English, was treated like a terrorist in New York recently while changing international flights and kept in chains for a good part of a day just because he refused to be fingerprinted. The flip side is that Iranian immigration authorities are equally xenophobic of any non-Muslim entering that country even if they have proper papers.

I went up to Mr Panahi, 3 days after I viewed his film The Circle in Trivandrum, India, and congratulated him on having made an interesting film because I genuinely loved the film’s interesting elliptical structure and its wonderful performances by mostly non-professional actors. But some 3 months after I had viewed the film and reflected further on its contents, I am not sure if the film is as credible as I initially thought it was. Mr Panahi is obviously a very intelligent director who prefers to walk a tight rope by insinuating facts rather than stating them.

The Circle is an interesting film (made partly with Italian and Swiss resources) that offers considerable fodder for thought. As cinema, it is without doubt an intelligent work and deserved the Golden Lion at the Venice film festival. It deserved the FIPRESCI award at San Sebastian. Yet it is a film that calls for close evaluation with an astute mind rather than with the heart of an impartial, impressionable viewer.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

60. Spanish director Carlos Saura’s stunning documentary on the Portuguese folk song tradition "Fados" (2007): Direction upstaging the song and singer

Seventy-six year young Carlos Saura charmed film lovers with several melancholic dance, music and song styles: flamenco in Flamenco (1995), Blood Wedding (1981) and Sevillanas (1992); tango in Tango (1998); and finally, opera and flamenco in Carmen (1983). Then comes his latest film Fados, a heady mix of dance and melancholic Portuguese folk song rendered by mesmerizing singers such as Mariza and Carlos do Carmos…If you thought as I had, that I had seen all that the wizened genius from Spain could do, you will be pleasantly surprised. Fados is undoubtedly one of his finest films—forget the music, forget the song, forget the singers (if you possibly can!) and enjoy the art of fine direction.

I am forced to recall the US film Woodstock (1970). Millions would remember that wonderful film, but few would recall its director Michael Wadleigh. The gifted Wadleigh not only directed the fascinating documentary film, he was one of the cinematographers and one of the editors of the film. His assistant film director for the film was Martin Scorsese! If you enjoyed Woodstock’s groundbreaking editing, it is important to note that Wadleigh's editing collaborator was Thelma Schoonmaker, who has edited each and every Scorsese movie since 1980. Now why am I writing about Woodstock instead of Fados? It is because, like Woodstock, Fados is very likely going to be discussed in years to come for its endearing music, song and dance, bypassing its vibrant cinematic ingredients. (See the shot of the film above and note the varied perspectives of the same scene, captured through multiple projections, recalling the shots of Woodstock--only Saura does the cinematic flourishes a lot better.)

The first few minutes into the film introduce you to breathtaking effect of the cinema of Fados. You have shadows of live individuals walking as they do on a street (you do not see them under direct light). These shadows fall on a screen where another film image is projected. The present and the past merge. As the opening credits roll, you realize you are being seduced by the kinetic images. And even up to the final shot of the film, you realize that you are under the spell of creative use of shadows, images, mirrors, projection screens and shiny reflecting dance floors. The final shot is of the film camera lens, which is the appropriate mainstay of the film—not the music, song and dance, which merely provides the subject for the director. Even the English subtitles were aesthetically placed in the left corner of the frame, so that the beauty of each shot is maximized for the viewer. The director conveys his viewpoint by using light and shadows that say a lot without words.

Saura has a great ear for music. No wonder he made all these movies on music, song and dance. Go back in history, and you will recall his most famous film, Cria cuervos (Cry ravens) (1975) featured a song called Porque te vas (Because you are leaving) sung by an American singer called Janette who was living at that time in Spain. The song had been released by the singer earlier but few took note of it. After Saura’s film won honors at Cannes, Janette’s song soared in popularity and became a worldwide hit. (Somewhat like Antonioni’s boost to Pink Floyd in Zabriskie Point, even though Pink Floyd was arguably quite famous by the time of film’s release) That was unfortunately the career high for the singer. Today, some 30 years after I saw Cria cuervos during a Saura retrospective in New Delhi, the notes of the song resound in my ears. Fados, like Cria cuervos, is a delight for those who can appreciate good music.

In Saura’s Fados, achievements are many. The film is entirely made on a set, eliminating extraneous sounds such as street noise. The Portuguese icons of song come to Spain to film the scenes—a clever canvas of light and shadows, dance and song, mirrors and projection screens that recall the brilliance of another of my favorite documentary films—Hans Jurgen Syberberg’s Hitler--a film from Germany. Like all Saura’s films there is some politics at play—his work is a cry for Iberian unity between two neighboring nations that never historically trusted the other. In an interview Saura stated that he was deliberately removing artists from their natural surroundings so that they could create “something new”. To Saura watchers, he is continuing his favorite exploration merging theatre and film, without being hemmed in by the boundaries of a written play.

After you enjoy the film, you might like to ask yourself the following questions. Why is the aging cinematic genius obsessed with melancholic music/dance styles? Is he urging his viewers to go beyond nationalism and adopt global perspectives in the very manner the Fado evolved? You get a feeling as a viewer that this old man is communicating through the camera more than what is obvious. He is able to present a melancholic song style with pulsating positive resonance, using all the tricks up his sleeve. Now that’s good cinema.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

59. Veteran Czech director Jiri Menzel's "I Served the King of England" (2006): Social and political satire at its best

The works of Czech director Jiri Menzel constitute a tasty cocktail of humanism and laughter. In I served the King of England this cocktail is personified in the words spoken by the narrator and lead character early in the film: “It was always my luck to run into bad luck.” As in this film, Menzel’s innocent male country bumpkins have simplistic goals in life—get rich and charm the beautiful woman in their horizon. His films remind you of the social satire embedded in the works of Charles Chaplin and the visual gags in the cinema of Buster Keaton. Only Menzel’s body of work adds a dose of moral ambiguity that would be apparent only if you reflect on what was presented.

While Menzel’s cinema is often mistaken as being essentially portraying his genius, he actually rides on the shoulders of three major literary giants of the former Czechoslovakia—-Bohumil Hrabal, Vladislaw Vancura, and Zedenek Sverak. Menzel’s cinema provides a convenient “easy read” of the fine literary tradition to which Milan Kundera belongs, by bringing slivers of statements and observations, as recorded by these novelists, on the cinema screen. Menzel’s true artistic contribution is making the written word look attractive on screen with imaginative visual gags. Menzel's use of the camera angles and perspectives to bring out what was literary humor is truly remarkable for any student of cinema. The spoken words used in narration (the writer’s contribution) and carefully chosen actors serve as the pivot to enjoy the visual feast of Menzel’s cinema. His mastery of visual comedy has made a major difference to Czech cinema being associated with comedy and the related world of animated comedy rather than drama, quite unlike other East European cinema where tragedies and serious drama overshadowed the comedy genre.

I served the King of England is the sixth work of Hrabal that Menzel has adapted on screen—-the first being Closely watched trains (1966), a comedy film that is included in the Time magazine’s list of 100 most important films ever made.

Politicians find satire uncomfortable. It is not surprising that Hrabal’s novel I served the King of England was banned for years. When ultimately Menzel made it into a movie in 2006 using Hrabal’s script it won the FIPRESCI prize at Berlin and a handful of other minor awards. Menzel’s cinema (and Hrabal’s novels) has considerable political and social criticism. The film opens with clemency/pardon given to a prisoner who has almost completed his jail term. Communist political bigwigs wish to ape the capitalists, without a clue of what is required to gain social respect. Hrabal’s script is clearly critical of the communist regime: “People who said social work was ennobling were the same men who drank all night and ate with lovely young women seated on their knees." Butlers act superior to their new masters who do not know social etiquette. The new Czech communist politicos bend over backwards to please any one with the remotest of Russian credentials. It is no small wonder that Hrabal got into trouble with the authorities until the political regime changed in recent years.

Apart from political criticism, social criticism of Czechs get liberally dished out in the film. When the physically short-statured waiter Jan Dite (literally translated as Johnny Child) throws coins on the floor for fun, rich and poor Czechs crawl without social distinction on the floor to pick up the money, allowing the short-statured waiter to look down at those he was serving and emerge physically and socially “tall” for a brief period. There is another line that Hrabal/Menzel uses to describe Czechs and their actions over the decades “Czechs do not fight wars—therefore we were not invaded, we were annexed.” These are lines that will make many laugh, but these lines could make the author/ the director unpopular with a few who cannot take self criticism.

The quest for money and riches underpin I served the King of England in particular and much of Menzel’s cinema and any critical comment on such aspirations went down well with the old Communist regime in the former Czechoslovakia. Early in the film, the lead character is shown selling sausages at a railway station. So engrossed is he in counting the change he has to return to a customer who has given him a big bank note, that he is too late to notice that the train is pulling out with the angry customer fuming that he has been cheated of his change. But Hrabal and Menzel, you will recall, had together done a similar scene in Closely watched trains where a train pulls out as the young hero is about to kiss his love with eyes closed, taking away his beloved girl whose eyes are ironically open and the girl is agitated that the kiss was missed.

Chasing opportunities to make money is a recurring theme in I served the King of England. The anti-hero of the film has one ambition: become a millionaire. Another colorful character in the film keeps himself amused spreading out cash on the floor like a carpet. Money is what waiters get as tips if they are good and smart, sometimes enough to buy up the hotel as shown in this film. He gets a medal from an Ethiopian Head of State, modeled on the physical attributes of Haile Selassie; merely because he can bend down to receive it. He gets a huge tip because he is always strategically near to a rich guest doling out largesse.

After one has laughed sufficiently, one could reflect on the less obvious but darker side of Hrabal/Menzel’s contribution to cinema. Their women are lovely to look at. They bear a striking common factor—-they are all there to be won. They are to be used, often as useful commodities, by people with money and power. One Nazi girl makes love with our anti-hero, thinking of Hitler during the act. Interestingly, you do not see Hrabal and Menzel developing the women characters as they do their male ones. Hrabal lived alone with cats until he died precisely as he described a character’s death while feeding pigeons in a story he had written, which could well have been a suicide. Hrabal's own life seemed to be a lonely one, preferring cats to women. Hrabal and Menzel’s anti-heroes are “outsiders” in the society they live in, even though they made so many of us to laugh. In this film, the anti-hero is dismissed from his job because he is not a "good" Czech. But we, as viewers seem to love the "bad" Czech.

I served the King of England are the spoken credentials of a respected waiter in the film as he trains the lead character of the film. Yet the film is about a successful Czech who became a millionaire as he had dreamt, who married a Nazi and had enjoyed life when other Czechs were being led to the gas chambers, and was finally imprisoned when the Communists came to power. Was our anti-hero a winner or was he a loser? Hrabal and Menzel may have given us great comedy over six films. Evaluate the content closely and there is more to their work than pure comedy.

P.S. The famous Hungarian director Istvan Szabo gives a rare cameo appearance of a rich stock-market investor in this movie.