Thursday, January 27, 2011

112. Danish director Susanne Bier’s “Hævnen” (In a Better World) (2010): The importance of parents revisited in the contemporary world scenario

“Surprisingly endearing and thought-provoking” is what I consider Susanne Bier’s Hævnen (In a Better World) to be. To appreciate this Bier offering adequately, it might be useful to note that the lady belongs to “Dogme 95” group—a group of prominent Danish filmmakers who vowed in 1995 to make films utilizing traditional values of story, acting, and theme, excluding special effects or technology. Some prominent members of this group include directors Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg.

Some directors leave you cold when you see a particular movie they made. The first film of Ms Bier that I had seen—an earlier work called After the Wedding--left me rather unimpressed. The film had dealt with orphans in India and a father-daughter relationship in Europe that was at best interesting but not convincing enough to make me sit up and take note of either the lady behind the camera or of the scriptwriter. It remains for me a convoluted, predictable and unconvincing movie.

Now, why do I describe In a Better World to be a “surprisingly, endearing film?”  I do not consider Susanne Bier’s preceding work After the Wedding to be either significant or to be a work of a promising director. Therefore, it was a pleasant surprise for me that in the very next film In a Better World, Ms. Bier has so much more to offer for the viewer in every department of filmmaking that you begin to wonder if it is indeed the very same team of Bier and scriptwriter Anders Thomas Jensen behind the film you are watching. I am not surprised the film In a Better World won the Golden Globe for the best Foreign Film and the best director Silver Peacock at the Indian International Film Festival in Goa. This film deserved those honours, even if the film is simplistic enough to fall in line with the Dogme 95 values.

It is amusing to note that the Bier-Jensen team actually has reworked on the very same theme offered in After the Wedding only to remodel it afresh in In a Better World. Both films offer thought provoking comparisons of parallel relationships on two continents (this time Europe vs Africa, replacing Europe vs Asia/India in the earlier film). Instead of dealing with the father-daughter interactions of the earlier film, the Bier-Jensen team devolves the interactions to two sets of fragile father-son relationships. The other less-important parent in both films hover in the background and are never fleshed out by Jensen. You would expect the cocktail not to work when it is shaken as it was in the earlier film, but it somehow works wonders when the cocktail is stirred, rather than shaken, by the duo in the second film. While the main parent-child relationship is discussed threadbare in the European context in both the films, the viewer is also provided a connected inter-continental relationship of love and philanthropic social work involving one of the European parents in the first equation.

I have been trying to figure out for over a month why I liked Bier’s In a Better World so much when I was left nonplussed by After the Wedding. One possible reason is that I could easily identify myself with the incredibly real characters of the two 10-year old or so schoolboys and the peer pressure to agree to do certain morally wrong actions because you value more the friendships that you develop in school than ethics that you have adopted during your upbringing. Another possible reason I liked the film was the Gandhian parent who taught his children to develop moral strength rather than give in to bullies. A third reason was the underscoring of the effect of the absence of a mother on a growing child. A fourth possible reason I loved the film was the suggestion that seeds of terrorism can be easily be sown in the minds of youngsters when parents are separating or divorcing. A fifth likely reason was the awesome screen presence of the actor Mikael Presbrandt as the Gandhian father and a surgeon, who spends time in Africa providing medical care for victims of civil strife in an unspecified country, putting his Hippocratic oath above all other values and his conscience—at least for some time.

In a Better World lifts up a simple tale of two schoolboys, essentially having good moral values, who are both missing their respective mothers, deteriorate into modern terrorists or young vigilantes. The power of the film does not lie in the story line—it is undeniably a simple, predictable one. The power of the film lies in default by what the film suggests to the viewer by presenting the simple tale. Do “caring” parents really care for their children? Are the parents there during critical moments when they are needed the most?

One of the reasons for In a Better World to work magic was the Bier/Jensen effort to concentrate a lot more on the thoughts and actions of the growing-up children more than the adults in the film. There are so many sequences in the film that remind one of the 2003 Russian masterpiece Andrei Zvyagintsev’s The Return (dangers of heights, troubled youngsters who find solace in retreating to dangerous and isolated places, the father-son relationship). In the earlier Bier/Jensen film, the focus was on the adults and the lack of a complete childhood. However, the adult characters in In a Better World are equally developed even though the African segment is unbelievably predictable and clichéd, even though similar African warlords have dotted the African map in recent decades.

The Bier/Jensen treatise on relationships works this time around because it connects relationships with seeds that sow terrorism. The treatise worked even more because it seemed to promote Gandhian values. It works because it underscores the importance of parenting over philanthropic social work. The movie seems to scream “Look after the emotional needs of your family before you go out to help others in distant lands.” When a child needs his father most of all to talk, the father is too involved and tired by his well-meaning actions in a physically distant world. These are real scenarios today, and that is the key to the success of this film. All the elements of the film are real and that is what makes the film connect with the viewer. Perhaps Jensen ought to be complimented for his wonderful screenplay. The film has an optimistic ending though the English title suggests an element of doubt and presents a pessimistic nuance. The film does leave the audience yearning for a "better world" for all youngsters growing up today in this complex but interconnected global village.

Susanne Bier, as the director, needs to be complimented for the superb convincing performances she has elicited first from Mikael Persbrandt, as the surgeon and father of the one of the boys, and then the two boys Elias (Markus Rygaard) and Christian (William Nielsen) that recall similar performances of young actors in certain films of François Truffaut and Louis Malle. Bier needs to be eqully complimented for her choice of locations that add to the veracity of the tale.

For viewers who value cinema that concentrate on “story, acting and theme” as the Dogme 95 group projects, In a Better World is a great film to watch and enjoy. The film having won the Golden Globe is now in the Oscar race, once again competing against the remarkable Mexican/Spanish film Biutiful. (And do the two films have a common link? Yes, both deal with parenting! And both have mesmerizing performances by the respective lead actors.) If the viewer goes solely by traditional filmmaking that the Dogme group propounds, then the Bier film would pip the Mexican/Spanish film to win the foreign film Oscar. However, if you step out of the Dogme world, Biutiful deserves the Oscar.

In a Better World, apart from the accolades mentioned above, also won the Grand jury award at the Rome International Film Festival, the Thessaloniki film festival's audience award, Best male actor for Mikael Presbrandt at the Tallinn Tarta Black Nights festival, Best Director and Best Screenplay at the Sevilla Film festival.

P.S. The Mexican/Spanish film Biutiful and the Russian film The Return have been reviewed on this blog earlier.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

111. Turkish director Semih Kaplanoğlu’s “Bal” (Honey) (2010): Joseph and Jacob relationship revisited in a contemporary scenario

Turkish cinema is on the march. Decades after Yilmaz Guney’s Turkish films made an impact on the minds of connoisseurs of the finest in world cinema, came the formidable Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan and the less impressive but yet notable Abdullah Oguz. And now we have a new Turkish director Semih Kaplanoğlu who can match Ceylan’s sophistication in a different way. Semih Kaplanoğlu’s Bal (Honey) is an unusual film in many ways—it has no music at all, it grabs your senses by focusing on natural sounds and sights, indoors and outdoors. It is different.

To appreciate Bal beyond the obvious sights and sounds, one has to be well read on the theological tale of Joseph and Jacob (or Yusuf and Yakub) common to three great religions of the world—Christianity, Islam and Judaism. The intricate relationship of father, son and God/Allah, paves the way for the “spiritual realism” of Semih Kaplanoğlu’s cinema.

The story of Bal appears to be simple, but it is not so simple. It is a tale of Yusuf (read Joseph), a young boy, with a narrative structure that uses an Islamic perspective. Like the Joseph of the Bible, Yusuf dreams, and shares them with his father Yakup/Yakub (read Jacob). Yusuf/Joseph is an interpreter of dreams. Yakub/Jacob advises his son in the film Bal/Honey never to share his dreams with others. To understand the importance of this seemingly innocuous statement the viewer has to be familiar with the religious books of any of the three religions. When Yakub dies (the death of Yakub is captured cinematically in way that is reminiscent of death captured in Iñárritu’s Biutiful, both films made in 2010, amidst visual references to tall trees and metaphors of unusual birds, owls in one, hawks in the other), his son Yusuf stops speaking and searches for his father on his own using his dreams as clues. The intense but silent bonding between father and son (a superb performance by child actor Bora Atlas) is amazingly and sensitively captured in Bal,  again recalling a similar bonding of a father and his children in Iñárritu’s Biutiful. All elements of the film comes together seamlessly because Kaplanoğlu is the co-screeplaywriter and co-editor as well.

This notable and uplifting Turkish film, set in the Black Sea region of the country, is an odd film if seen from a conventional movie viewer’s perspective. It is the third and final film of director Semih Kaplanoğlu’s Yusuf trilogy—three films named after Yusuf the lead and part-autobiographical character in all the three films somewhat like the Apu trilogy of Satyajit Ray. The three films are called Süt (Milk), Yumurta (Egg), and Bal (Honey). Odd names indeed to describe the life stages of a human being! But wait the oddest bit is that one would expect the three films to be chronological segments: first of the child (and the death of his father), the second of the coming of age of young man struggling to be a poet, and the third segment on the established adult poet (and the death of his mother). But for director Kaplanoğlu that does not work: his three films are not presented in chronological order.

The last film in the trilogy Bal (Honey) is all about the child Yusuf. This film won the 2010 Golden Bear (the Grand Prize) and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the prestigious Berlin Film Festival, while the earliest film Milk is about the struggling poet living with his mother, and the second film Egg is the presentation of the matured poet, whose mother dies and a new young woman enters his life. Unfortunately all this critical (and to some trivial) information is often not available to a viewer watching Bal as the first Kaplanoğlu film; I had to dig up this information from various sources to appreciate the film better. But avid filmgoers will understand this to be a familiar problem with appreciating any major trilogy whether the director is Satyajit Ray (Apu trilogy), or Krzysztof Kieslowski (Three Colors trilogy), or Grigory Kozinstsev (Maxim’s trilogy) or Ingmar Bergman (Faith trilogy). To appreciate any single film in a trilogy of a good director, one needs to see all the three films and hopefully grasp the connections. Therefore, to have seen the last segment (Bal/Honey) first, before seeing the other two was not disconcerting in the case of Kaplanoğlu as you were seeing the early years of the poet first. And what a segment that has proven to be!

Fortunately, the directors’ own statements provide many insights for the viewer to comprehend Bal further. Kaplanoğlu’s statement available on the European film awards website: “Bal is the third film in my "Yusuf trilogy." The idea of the "Yusuf trilogy" took form while I was revising a script which I had written long ago and which was more or less the story of university aged Yusuf in Süt (Milk). While I was elaborating on the character of Yusuf, I started to think about this young man's future as an adult (Yumurta/Egg) and his past as a young boy (Bal/Honey). Those ideas helped shape the trilogy. I started with Yumurta (Egg), maybe because I wanted to peel down the character slowly and reach his core. The trilogy could be considered an extensive flashback. However, they are not period films. All take place in the present day amidst various places, relations and economic standards in Turkey. I have been asked if all three Yusuf characters are indeed the same man. I choose not to answer so as not to disclose the secrets of the character, the direct and indirect relationship between the films, the mysteries to the films.”

I drew on my own past experiences while shaping the character of Yusuf. So we can say that Yusuf has parts from me. I referred to my own youth and childhood while writing the three scripts and I believe I was able to handle the issues about Yusuf’s life, troubles and quests realistically. My own childhood served as a point of reference for the script of Bal (Honey) as well. My troubles at school while trying to learn how to read and write, my questions which grown-ups left unanswered, the intense cruelty and richness of nature... In a way, a child forms his personality while discovering the world with curiosity. An occasional misunderstanding leading to naïve mistakes, dreams, joys and sorrows allows him to reach the truth. I hope Bal (Honey) allows us to reach the truth of Yusuf.”

For Yusuf and his father Yakup, the forest represents a fairytale place containing many mysteries at its heart. The forest is a magical realm into which they vanish and appear back again. It is no ordinary place where they walk to and from for a means of livelihood. It constitutes another world with big old trees, various mysterious creatures, like the mule and the hawk which accompanies them into the forest. It was quite difficult to find a place where there were broad and tall trees with big trunks. I tried my best to find a location both suitable for placing the hives and the visual world that I wanted to create in Bal/Honey. We worked in various forests, particularly in those where beehives have been placed for centuries. They were located 30-40 km from each other and at different heights way above sea level, and Yusuf's father Yakup is a beekeeper who gathers black hive honey, considered some of the world's finest honey and specific to the region. This therapeutic honey is the essence of an older world, untouched nature and holiest knowledge for the inhabitants of the region. It is produced by a dwindling number of beekeepers. Yakup's occupation will soon die out. This tough labor includes placing specially-made hives on tall treetops in mountainous areas. This profession is as dangerous as it is grueling. Yusuf’s admiration of his father certainly owes something to his unconventional job. In my point of view, it has something in common with Yusuf’s future vocation -- writing poetry, which feature many different kinds of trees.”

On the website of the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation, director Kaplanoğlu summarizes his film, “Before the trilogy I quest for answers to the questions in my head regarding myself, my life, what I’m doing here. I tried to create a perspective on the Creation by departing from a poet’s questions. Aren’t the cinema and the arts trying to get closer to the secrets of the human’s existence?”

Those ideas helped shape the trilogy.”,  Kaplanoğlu adds.

To revert to the awesome movie itself, the fine narrative is punctuated by the visit of young Yusuf to his grandmother’s house during which on a magical night he learns of the story of the Prophet Mohammad’s arrival in Mecca after climbing the Miraj (ladder) and conversing with Abraham, Moses and Jesus, after meeting Allah (God) to retell his experiences in heaven. For young Yusuf he uses clues from his dreams and the tale of Prophet Mohammad to unite with his dead father Yakup in spirit at the place he died.

Beyond the magical/spiritual realism the film Bal provides a great essay on the classical father-son relationship. In the classroom (an interesting inversion of the dense forest), young Yusuf struggles for social acceptance, sometimes with perseverance, sometimes with guile, passing off his bench mate’s homework as his own. The film is able to capture Yusuf alone in his classroom (even when the class is full of students, Yusuf is strangely alone) just as it captures Yusuf alone in the forest. Interestingly, the film underscores a factor often missing in today’s society: a child with a speaking disability gets total undiluted support from his father, building a bond that matters in life, even after the father's death. Again to truly appreciate the father-son spiritual bonding one has to study the Joseph/Jacob dyad from the religious texts that goes beyond a mere social relationship. The last shot of the film may be silent but it is one of the finest sophisticated and subtle endings in cinema’s history. Kaplanoğlu and Ceylan have truly lifted Turkish cinema to soaring new heights of quality in world cinema.

Apart from the major awards at the Berlin Film Festival 2010, Bal/Honey has won the Best Cinematography Award at the Istanbul International Festival 2010, the UNESCO award at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards for its outstanding contribution to promotion and preservation of cultural diversity through film and the best film award at the Adana International film festival.

P.S. Turkish directors Ceylan's Three Monkeys and Oguz' Mutluluk/Bliss have been  reviewed  earlier on this blog. Semih Kaplanoglu's later films Grain; Milk; Commitment; and Commitment Hasan have been reviewed in detail on this blog.