Saturday, April 26, 2008

63. Spanish director Jorge Sánchez-Cabezudo’s feature debut “La noche de los girasoles (The night of the sunflowers)” (2006): A fascinating thriller

Here's a thriller with an interesting title that seems to query: Where do sunflowers face in the night?

When the sunflower plant, Helianthus annuus, is in the bud stage, the head and the leaves do indeed track the path of the Sun. The genus name Helianthus is from the Greek helios "sun" and anthos "flower". Interestingly, however, and contrary to popular belief, once the massive topmost flower opens into the radiance of yellow petals, it slows and then stops moving, ending up permanently facing east.” ---Solar flower, New Scientist, 3 August 2002

Why am I quoting this interesting bit of trivia? Sunflower buds, we all know, keep moving but a stage comes when it does not move any further. Why am I discussing the night? That’s the name of the film. The only teeny-weeny bit about sunflowers in the film is over as the opening credits end. But then the sun is not relevant for the night, is it? The near oxy-moronic title give a life to the movie after the film is over—in many ways similar to the disturbing Austrian-French film Caché made by Michael Haneke.

For a cineaste, who can sit through the film right up to the end of the film, the real punch line from the director/screenplaywriter comes in the form of an audible TV program statement about bees in a beehive, that do not attack unless provoked. It is stated while the end-credits are rolling. This is an innocuous fact but is loaded with meaning in the context of the film's ending. This is a statement heard by the unpunished rapist still on the prowl.

The Spanish director Sánchez-Cabezudo’s film is based on his own script. (He is the latest among formidable Spanish directors making good films based on their own scripts, following the tradition of the gifted directors, Amenabar and Almodovar). Most viewers would appreciate or find good entertainment in the film while mulling over in the different non-linear narrative segments of the story of rape, vigilante killing, extra-marital sex, corruption, village vs. urban comparisons, love for a dead spouse. Each segment provides a different Rashomon-type perspective of sections of the same story from a different angle, as seen by a different character. The director uses a technique used in modern pulp literature most recently used by Dan Browne for his book The Da Vinci Code. While the technique might baffle a few, most viewers would derive entertainment as they are constantly challenged to figure out the plot.

The film offers dollops of entertainment ice-cream that most viewers want—mystery, exploration of new found caves, a rape scene, a brief scene of violent death, and some endearing performances from the actors. If presented as a straight chronological narrative—the story could be ideal for a typical Hollywood thriller. But why is it different? It is different because of its end.

That is where the director and screenplay writer scores a bull’s-eye—for a patient viewer who does not leave the theater once he sees the end credits begin to roll. The comment about the bees drive home the uncomfortable, parallel moral issues that Austrian filmmaker Haneke raised in Caché.

Europeans and many of us prefer to retain status quo rather than rake up disturbing moral and social issues. It is convenient for us to do so. It is not because the issues are resolved. In this film the main culprit, a rapist is never brought to justice. If an attempt was made to bring him to justice, three persons would go behind bars for manslaughter, a homicide would surface, the reputation of an erring wife would become public knowledge, a good policeman’s daughter would find out that her husband and father of her unborn baby is a corrupt cop and so on.

The film is, therefore, not merely a film to be appreciated for its structure but its underpinning question of morality. The film shows us that evil is not limited to a rapist but the best of us. A good man could do evil in a fraction of a second. And to defend lesser evils, the bigger evil gets away. Only to scar our conscience for ever.

Spanish cinema is on the move this decade. This film has won several Spanish national awards. Sánchez-Cabezudo’s film is good but the post-script in his screenplay is truly formidable. Figuratively, the film suggests there indeed comes a time these days when "sunflowers" mature and stop turning towards the sun and only to face the east.

Because it is convenient!

P.S. The Austrian-French film Caché directed by Michael Haneke was the first film reviewed on this blog.

Friday, April 11, 2008

62. Haitian director Raoul Peck's US/French film "Sometimes in April" (2005): Remarkable feature film on the Rwandan genocide

In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends." Martin Luther King, Jr.

(Opening quote from the film)

After I saw the Hollywood’s multiple Oscar nominated film Hotel Rwanda (2004) in a regular theater, I could stand up and be counted as one who felt that that the noble efforts of a hotel worker (based on a real person who worked at Hotel des Mille Collines) to save so many lives were worth emulating, if I was ever to be in his shoes.

Just a few days ago, I chanced to see Sometimes in April (2005), on the Rwandan massacre on television’s HBO channel, released a year after the release of Hotel Rwanda. You begin to wonder why so few have written about this wonderful little film made for TV, partly with US financial support. This small film is undoubtedly far superior to the acclaimed Hollywood product in both content and style, even though the subject matter of both films pertain to the real events that surround the genocide in Rwanda. The genocide took place in the month of April, when the rains begin, and hence the title of the film.

Yet the two movies are as different as chalk and cheese. To any discerning viewer Hotel Rwanda would be easily identifiable as a commercial effort using “star” power of Don Cheadle, Nick Nolte and Joaquin Phoenix to highlight one of history’s darkest chapters by developing a “feel good” screenplay that builds on the typical Hollywood mantra of success: an individual’s heroic acts against all odds. It won some Oscar nominations (two of those were predictably for acting), a minor Toronto festival award and an Irish award. But the film did not make the competition grade of Cannes, Berlin or Venice film festivals.

Then a good one year later, along comes Sometimes in April made with one big star name Debra Winger and loads of African actors. The Africans are so realistic in their roles that Cheadle’s laudable effort pales in comparison. In contrast to the Cheadle film, Sometimes in April was nominated for the Golden Bear at the prestigious Berlin Film Festival, won the best film award at the Durban International Film Festival, and a minor award in Norway. What is startlingly different is the mature screenplay and direction that discusses the genocide not merely by concentrating on individual heroic acts but by discussing some key facets on the genesis of the genocide, the reasons for the delayed international reaction to the genocide, and the aftermath of the genocide when the international community rounded up a few perpetrators who had fled the country to face justice. The screenplay is a clever blend of fact and fiction, even recreating an international court set up in a hotel at Arusha, Tanzania. (By a coincidence, I had stayed in that very hotel in Arusha, while participating in an international workshop a year before the court began its activities.)

What makes Raoul Peck’s Sometimes in April tick? Minutes into the film and the viewer will realize the scriptwriter knows Africa well. Radio is the mass medium in most parts of Africa, not the newspapers or the TV. If a popular radio host decides to call the Tutsi community “cockroaches” that need to be exterminated thousands of listeners will accept the verdict because they have no access to another viewpoint. That is precisely what happened. That’s the power of radio in most parts of Africa. Hate spewed out of a radio station and countries that had the power to jam those broadcasts, refrained from doing so in the name of “free speech” and “democracy” as death tolls rose to 8000 victims a day. Western nations and the UN did intervene—only to rescue expatriates, Tutsis did not matter. Christian priests in the film are shown as reluctant collaborators as they are forced to identify Tutsis taking refuge with them so that other Tutsi’s might survive the carnage. The high point of the movie for me was when Hutu girl students of a convent school collectively refuse to be saved from death and stand as one only to be butchered when vigilantes try to identify and kill Tutsi students. And this is not fiction but a fact. (For those who care to read about the subject I suggest Lt. Gen. Roméo Dallaire's book Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda.)

How else is Sometimes in April different from Hotel Rwanda? The core strength of the film lies in its attempt to analyze the effect of the difficult period on Rwandans right up to the recent past. The film examines the conflict of interest of Hutu soldiers who carry death lists of good Tutsis as good soldiers. It examines the conflicts of families with spouses from the two communities. The film explores family bonds that rise above career interests (here those of a radio host). There are shots of women who prefer to blow themselves up (see picture above) than be raped again and again. Finally, the film looks at how individuals facing trial accept their guilt—a very rare example in cinema.

The director of Sometimes in April, Raoul Peck is an unusual filmmaker from Haiti switching between documentary and feature films with remarkable felicity. He grew up in Zaire (Congo) and then lived in France. Peck served as Haiti’s Minister of Culture similar to the honor accorded by Greece to late actor Melina Mercouri. Peck’s first feature film feature L’homme sur les quais (1993) (The Man by the Shore) was nominated for the Golden Palm at Cannes in 1993. His documentary film Lumumba has been hailed by critics and I look forward to see it. He has already won a lifetime award from the Human Rights Watch in New York and the Nestor (cinematographer of Mallick, Rohmer and Truffaut) Almendros prize. Evidently Peck is a director worth noting.

In the marvellous 10-hour documentary Hitler-a Film from Germany, German director Hans-Jurgen Syberberg explored the reasons for the rise of Hitler and the hidden Hitler in each of us. Peck's Sometimes in April offers the viewer somewhat similar perspectives.

It is interesting to note that the two last words that flash on the screen as the film draws to a close are “Never forget”. I will not forget this film and what this film has to offer for any viewer. One should not forget the bigger picture—Peck’s film is not about Rwanda alone, it is about human actions and the consequences anywhere. That’s what makes the film interesting.

Thank you, HBO. Thank you, Mr Peck. I only wish this film gets a wider audience.