Sunday, December 30, 2018

233. Lebanese director Nadine Labaki’s third feature film “Capernaum” (a.k.a. Caphernaum; and Chaos)(2018) (Lebanon): A film that puts Lebanon on the world cinema map by presenting truth, humanism, and issues often swept under the carpet, in many parts of the globe

“Why are you attacking your parents in court?”—Lebanese judge/magistrate to Zain, a 12-year-old Lebanese, already behind bars for a crime he has committed 
For giving me life”—Zain’s response

The year 2018 has seen the release of three interesting films from three distinct parts of the globe. Each of the three  are very interesting, have several common themes and have and will be competing against each other for major honours at different awards nights and film festivals. The three films are directors Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum (from Lebanon), Hirokazu  Kore’eda’s Shoplifters (from Japan) and Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma (from Mexico).
Zain (Zain al Rafaeea) pondering on ways to feed and take care of
someone younger and more helpless

All three films deal with multiple children and their families into which they are born-- for no fault of theirs.  All three films are original tales conceived and developed by the directors from their own experiences and imaginations. All three films deal with poverty, though in Roma the effect of poverty is limited to the servants and not the children of their masters who are luckily born into a world of financial security. All the three films have already won major awards either at Cannes or at Venice film festivals and are/were competing for the Golden Globes and the Oscars.  Though Capernaum is the weakest of the three in production quality, it offers much more to the viewer to reflect on and appreciate than the other two films.

Perhaps, to relegate all the production aspects of in Capernaum as less stunning than Shoplifters and Roma would be quite inaccurate.  An early aerial drone shot in Capernaum of the shantytown districts of Beirut, thanks to its cinematographer Christopher Aoun, stuns you. What you see is a mosaic of tin sheets that act as roofs of human habitation held in place by old rubber tires of all sorts of vehicles.  

A 12-year-old Zain takes care of a 1-year-old with
responsibility and love he never got from his own parents

Zain carrying Yonas around Beirut to find food and shelter

Assuming this low-cost camera shot in Capernaum is real and not a computer generated perspective, that simple astounding shot deserves more credit than the comparatively awesome beach rescue scene and the hospital delivery scene in Roma captured by the able Mexican cinematographer/director Cuaron with the relative high costs involved, the mainstay of the Mexican film Roma’s technical finesse. Now why would that one shot in Capernaum be so important? Beyond the humour and surreal perspective of Beirut that shot offers, it encapsulates the chaos implied in the title of the film. And to place that stunning shot at the start of the film is a master stroke of co-writer and director Labaki.

Capernaum is a film close to the neorealist film traditions of Vittorio de Sica (Italy) and the contemporary works of Ken Loach (UK) and the Dardenne brothers (Belgium) using non-professional actors to etch realistic tales of poverty in an engaging, intelligent manner. On the other hand, Kore’eda’s Shoplifters is a film that has used experienced actors who have appeared in films before, often in earlier works of the director.  If the viewer of Capernaum dissects each scene with the 12-year-old Zain (Zain al Rafaeea, a Syrian refugee in Lebanon  who has never acted before playing the role of a Lebanese kid) and the one-year-old Ethiopian child Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole) who is not old enough to walk but can crawl, one can glimpse the mammoth effort taken by director Labaki to capture the right emotions of the two kids and the amount of time spent  and footage the filmmakers shot to get the final edited version of Capernaum. And it looks so real!

Capernaum offers an unusual tale—a 12-year-old boy so frustrated with his miserable life on earth which led him to commit a crime out of rage that results in imprisonment with other kids of his age. From the jail, he is ingenuous enough to contact a live TV show host on a cell phone to start the process of suing his biological parents with an unusual demand that his mother abort the foetus that she is carrying. He does not want yet another child to be born into his family of illiterate and incompetent parents, who neither have money or time for their offspring but continue to breed.

Zain in court speaks to the judge with his lawyer (director and co-scriptwriter
Nadine Labaki) standing next to him

While Capernaum is a plea to parents worldwide who cannot afford to have another mouth to feed and to stop procreating further, it is equally an unsettling plea against child marriages, where a girl child (Zain’s younger sister Sahar) can be given off in marriage in exchange of five chickens to feed the family for a few days.  It is a plea by a child who has never been to school on behalf of the children of the world for a right to education and their right to the joys of childhood.  In stark contrast to the children in Shoplifters, who experience love of parents, grandparents and foster-parents, the children in Capernaum are pushed by poverty to survive from day to day employing ingenious methods of drug peddling and their incredible transmission of opioid medication routes to survive and generate income to help other kids, more fragile than themselves, live another day.

The illegal Ethiopian migrant Rahil in Lebanon
 in search of a better life for herself and her son Yonas

Capernaum prods the viewer to spread the word on the importance of sterilizing illiterate parents already burdened with kids, blind to the travails of their progeny present and future. It is a film that underscores the importance of registering the births of children in today’s global village to have their own identity and rights in their own country that will help them in their life. It is also about paperless emigrants: an Ethiopian single mother Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw) ekes out a living in Lebanon, evidently because Lebanon offers her a better life than in Ethiopia and in a similar flip-side scenario to escape poverty the Lebanese Zain goes scrounging for his identity papers (that never existed because his parents never bothered) so that he and Yonas could be transported to Turkey and/or Europe as immigrants also seeking a better life. The film’s unspoken message is that immigration problem starts at home, with parents who are responsible for the upbringing of the family rather than curse their own financial predicament. It is thus not unusual to find brothers being more responsible for the fate of their sisters than the parents in the Middle East. The many Zains of Lebanon do manual child labor to survive each day while more privileged children head to school in small vans covered with their schoolbags.

In Biblical terms, Capernaum in Galilee was where Jesus began his ministry, performing miracles, and  a town cursed by Jesus unless the people repented. In Labaki’s Capernaum, there is scope for the parents to repent after hearing Zain’s plea from behind bars and sterilize themselves or adopt other temporary birth control methods so that other Zains are not brought forth into the world.  Labaki’s Capernaum might be focusing on a small portion of Beirut—but the message of her film is universal.  One is again reminded of the iconic shot from the sky of Beirut’s shacks with tin sheet ceilings held in place with old tires.

Zain and his younger sister Sahar who will be given away in
marriage by his parents for the price of five chickens

Though Labaki’s Capernaum lacks the financial and acting prowess of Roma and Shoplifters, the strength of the film is in the message and the ability of the filmmaker to work with a 9-year-old Syrian Zain playing a 12-year-old Lebanese with the same name.  The fictional character Zain cares for those weaker than himself and, in jail, shows a maturity beyond his physical age to envisage a similar fate as his that awaits his future brothers and sisters unless he acted quickly against his parents. Director Labaki plays the role of Zain’s lawyer in the film. Step back and the viewer will realize that Labaki is the “lawyer” making an impassioned plea for a better deal for children of poor illiterate parents who disregard sterilization and beget children deprived of food, education and love and plead innocence without taking responsibility as production of children is equated with currency. 

The more economically stable film viewers of Capernaum can scoff at the concept of a child suing his parents, but it is a viewpoint few filmmakers would have dared to address till now.

Capernaum is the film of 2018 and arguably the best film from the Middle East in a long, long while.

P.S. The lovable Zain al Rafaeea, who is the main actor, is now a legal immigrant in a Scandinavian country with his parents.  Capernaum is the winner of the Jury Prize and two other awards at the Cannes film festival; award for direction at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards; best screenplay award at the Stockholm Film Festival, audience awards at Calgary, Acadie, Ghent, Melbourne, Mill Valley, Norway, Sarajevo, St Louis, Sao Paulo, and Toronto international film festivals.  The author's ranked list of the top 20 films of 2018 includes Capernaum.

Thursday, December 06, 2018

232. Danish/Irish director David Noel Bourke’s third feature film “Bakerman” (2016) (Denmark) based on his original story: An interesting tale of a quiet and introspective Dane facing career threats from his employer who is an immigrant, and unprovoked and unconnected vandalism from other immigrants, sparking off an unusual chain reaction

Bakerman is an award-winning Danish film that has surprisingly not been picked up for screening by international festivals beyond western Europe and the American east coast. Few critics seem to have either seen the film or discussed it. Yet it is better than some of the films that do get screened at film festivals around the globe and get discussed.  It won the Best Foreign Film award at the Maryland International Film Festival and Best Actor award at New York’s Nordic International Film Festival, both in USA.

Director David Noel Bourke’s original script of Bakerman is quite engaging because it captures several feelings any economically fragile Dane would face in recent times.  Bourke presents a variant of the very subjects that the Belgian director brothers Dardenne or even the French director Stéphane Brizé usually work on. Bourke’s script injects a sinister psychological perspective to what the Dardenne brothers or Brizé would perhaps have preferred to skip while moulding their own scripts for their films.

Bakerman’s title character is Jens (Mikkel Vadsholt), an introverted middle-aged baker by profession. It might not be the best of careers in Denmark but Jens loves his work and is concerned about retaining the quality of his baked products. It is doubly interesting when the viewer realizes that he is just an employee and not the owner of the bakery.  Not many workers consider quality of the product they help produce to be important when they are not directly sharing the profits of the establishment or enjoying wide recognition for their inputs. Yet Jens is a quiet man worried about the drop in quality of the bakery’s products and chooses to voice it. The viewer begins to like Jens at this stage.

The introspective baker Jens (Mikkel Vadsholt) at home

In the film, when Jens asks his employer, an immigrant to Denmark who has acquired the bakery, for a salary raise because others in the bakery have been given one, he is rudely turned down with the argument that there are others who could replace him. One feels sorry for the good hard working Jens.

The viewer is slowly drawn closer to Jens, living alone in a house in the suburbs, waking up early before crack of dawn to have fresh baked bread and other baked products for customers in the morning. Compared to his colleague in the bakery, Jens is reticent but an observant gentle giant who referees football games.  However, women friends who drink with him in the pubs do not find him sexually attractive, while his male bakery colleague is successful on that front. The viewer begins to reassess Jens.

Jens alone by the sea, reflecting and planning

A wanton act of theft and another of vandalism by immigrants from a Muslim nation involving Jens’ car parked near Jens’ workplace sparks off a Batman-like transformation in the quiet baker. He travels in his modest “Batmobile” clearing lone immigrant drug peddlers off the streets, without a mask or a cape. On one such lone night vigilante trips, he rescues a Muslim immigrant girl being brutally beaten up on an empty street by her “brother.”  When Jens offers to drop the lady (Mozan) home, she explains in broken English that she has no place to stay. Our Batman takes her to his home and behaves like a gentleman towards her as Batman would.  The director Bourke intentionally makes the viewer more inquisitive about Jens with his contrasting actions: one a ruthless killer and the other a genuine good guy and a gentleman.

Mozan (Siir Tilif)  at the party hosted by Jens' sister

Bourke’s film grows in complexity as Jens is evidently not what he appears to be at the start of the film. The job insecurity and vandalism triggers off a set of a proactive deeds by him to set right "Jens’ world." Some of those actions reveal that quiet, boring people can be meticulous planners who can literally get away with murder.

Jens has a past not unlike that of Batman.  This is revealed by newspaper clippings secretly stored away in closed boxes, which explains his moody behaviour. Jens’ attitude towards religion suggests he is an atheist as he avoids attending his nephew’s confirmation, an important milestone for religious Christians.  These subtexts are important in the context of the film’s ending that clarifies that Jens’ vigilante-like behaviour against immigrants is not based on their religion but on their unprovoked, unacceptable actions.

Jens wearing  a superhero costume for a party
appears a frail human being searching for Mozan

Bourke’s film Bakerman is interesting on several fronts.  The main character Jens is revealed gradually, where the viewer is led to assess him and then reassess him continuously as the film progresses. It is a roller-coaster ride for the patient viewer right up to the end of the film to figure out the Danish Batman/Bakerman.  An example of Bourke’s remarkable ability is being able to compress a murder sequence to one without any scene of the actual murder itself by creative editing of shots.  More interestingly, Bakerman is a film that challenges the viewer’s judgements and luckily the dark, brooding, evil mid-section of the film gradually blends with the positive ending that Bourke provides us. 

Birds in flight, an appropriate metaphor
for the happy Jens at the end

Bakerman is not a perfect film (e.g., how could a woman who cannot speak Danish figure out the headline of a Danish newspaper clipping?) Yet, its strengths are the performance of Mikkel Vadsholt who brings out the complex yet vulnerable character of Jens and the ability of Bourke to reconstruct the script into a shorter film at several stages due to budgetary constraints that an independent filmmaker faces. Both Mikkel Vadsholt and director Bourke are talented individuals and one hopes that they contribute even further to good filmmaking in the future and be more widely accepted. 

P.S. Three films of the Dardenne brothers (Rosetta, The kid with the bike, and Two days, one night) and director Stéphane Brizé’s Measure of a man were reviewed earlier on this blog. (Please click on the coloured titles of the films within this post-script to access the reviews.)

Sunday, December 02, 2018

231. Indian director Praveen Morchhale’s third feature film “Widow of Silence” (2018) (India), based on his original story: A lovely tale woven by the director’s observations on the no-win situation for the women in Kashmir

There is always an unusual distinct flavour when a director makes a film on a tale that he or she has written from scratch. Praveen Morchhale’s three films are such films and have shown an ability to highlight positive bonding of people in ordinary situations and as well as in extraordinary situations.

In his debut film, Barefoot to Goa (2013), Morchhale highlighted two unusual bonding situations. The first was the love of two kids for their lonely grandparents, a wistful look at the large Indian family being gradually replaced by a more impersonal nuclear family due to economic compulsions.

The second was contrasting the humane attitude of poor rural folks towards kids and strangers compared with the uncaring attitudes of the urban rich.

In his second film, Walking with the Wind (2017), Morchhale chose to write a film on a school boy of modest means living in the high elevations of Ladakh, in Kashmir, trying to repair his chair in his school classroom that he inadvertently broke and desperately attempting to procure a bottle of ink critical for his sister to write her forthcoming school examinations. Nobody tells the young kid to do these acts: these are conscientious decisions taken by the school kid to act proactively without the knowledge of the school authorities or parents.  Morchhale’s ability to magnify the maturity of the kid in taking responsibilities without being told to do so and ensuring his microscopic school-centred world of writing examinations remains Utopian is commendable. The family in the second film was essentially reduced further from the first film to a caring brother-sister relationship, with the parents/grandparents having much lesser roles. Morchhale’s second film recalls the early works of the late Iranian maestro Abbas Kiarostami such as The Bread and Alley.  (The film was formally dedicated to the maestro in the film’s credits.) Walking with the Wind has been subsequently rewarded with recognition in India and elsewhere. 

The pensive "widow" silently washing clothes.

In Widow of Silence, the third film, the writer/director further reduces the family size under the cinematic microscope, either intentionally or unintentionally. Here unlike small kids of the earlier films, there is only a single major figure—a married woman making a living working as a nurse. Her husband is missing for 7 years, and is therefore called a half-widow, as he is technically missing and not dead. She supports, from her meagre earnings as a nurse, two other members in her family: her 11-year-old school-going daughter and a semi-paralysed mother-in-law who can’t speak. As in Morchhale’s first film there is a bond between granddaughter and grandmother but the communication in this film is one way. The daughter’s presence is minimal uttering a few lines to express her loss of paternal presence and that classmates taunt her for being the daughter of a “half-widow”, who cannot pay her school fees.

The "widow's" 11-year-old daughter returns home from school

The "widow's" mute and semi-paralyzed mother-in-law has
to be tied up to a chair when she is alone in the locked house

The main story of Widow of Silence deals with the plight of half-widows where husbands go missing after they are abducted by security forces or militant groups. The lack of a death certificate creates economic and social distress for the wives. If they are attractive and young, they have to fend off suitors and predatory men. The film ends with a stunning and thought provoking action that might surprise the usual Morchhale watchers. To the director's credit, the ending is well executed and credible..

The 7-year "absence" of of the widow's husband (in the torn photograph)
causes anguish to the widow's daughter

Morchhale’s film Widow of Silence rings true in the context of the #Metoo social upheaval unsettling the rich and the powerful.  It rings true of the problems faced by the average peace loving Kashmir denizen who is not taking political stands. Who can give succour to the families who are bereft of male members to protect them and earn sufficient, steady income for the family in a unjust male-dominated Islamic society?

Morchhale’s first two films were on love and innocence; his third is on an anguished cry from the upright and marginal individual for justice and protection from predators in a democratic republic. The creation and introduction of the poetic taxi driver (Bilal Ahmad) serves as a chorus in a Greek tragedy mourning the lack of humanity and love in the once beautiful and tranquil Kashmir. It is very interesting to note that the very credible adult performers in the film are not Muslims (if one goes by their names), except for the very charming actor who plays the taxi driver.

The three films of Morchhale prove a few undeniable facts.  Directors and screenplay writers don’t have to look far for good ideas; the best subjects for a film can come from a keen sense of observation. Morchhale’s gambit of following the style of Kiarostami’s cinema and seeking the collaboration of the Iranian cinematographer Mohammad Reza Jahapanah for both Walking with the Wind and Widow of Silence have paid off. Jahapanah has worked for Iranian directors of repute such as Jafar Panahi as the cinematographer in his film Closed Curtain. Jahapanah recreates the Kiarostami-like visuals in the two Morchhale films shot in Ladakh and in Kashmir—the exterior long winding road shots reminding the viewer of Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry and the driver and co-passenger in an automobile's front seats recreating images of Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, while one of them is talking.

A long shot of the taxi in which the widow travels:
a visual touch reminiscent of Taste of Cherry

The widow sits in a taxi with flowers grown in her garden:
a visual touch reminiscent  of Certified Copy

Morchhale’s gambit in investing on a talented crew for sound management and editing has made a difference. He is able to make low-cost films of international quality which his contemporary filmmakers in India have not been able to do because those directors prefer invest on famous actors instead of compact and talented production crews. Morchhale brought a breath of fresh air to Indian cinema just as Anand Gandhi did by investing on a Hungarian sound designer for his remarkable Indian debut film Ship of Theseus (2012). Indian directors have lagged behind their international peers because they never saw value in acquiring talented production crews with their modest budgets. Morchhale and Gandhi did see the value and they reaped their rewards with national and international recognition. Both have made films with titles in English.  Both these young directors are likely to gain further recognition in future if they trudge on the same trodden path and not deviate. Widow of Silence is a film that will count as one of the major Indian films of 2018.

P.S. The film Widow of Silence has already won the Best Indian feature film at the Kolkata International Film Festival. Morchhale’s earlier films Barefoot to Goa and Walking with the Wind were earlier reviewed on this blog. So also were other films mentioned in this review:  Certified Copy and Ship of Theseus. (Click on the coloured names of the films in this postscript to access the individual reviews.)