Saturday, April 25, 2020

251. Turkish director Semih Kaplanoglu’s seventh feature film “Baglilik Asli” (Commitment) (2019): An interesting study of the modern educated woman, motherhood, and family ties in a fast developing Turkish economy

The poster captures the essence of the film--
the child is the fulcrum of the tale,
with the mother almost absent in the frame

Film directors and screenplay writers Semih Kaplanoglu and Nuri Bilge Ceylan are the leading lights of Turkish cinema today. Their contributions have understandably resulted in Turkish films being considered among the very best in the world in recent decades. Unfortunately, Kaplanoglu’s previous film Grain made in 2017 has been totally neglected by most cineastes, even though the film won the top honor at the 2017 Tokyo film festival and was made in English on a subject that ought to interest a larger educated film-going global public. It possibly antagonized the powerful lobby of private sector involved with agricultural genetic engineering that effectively curtailed the film’s distribution and publicity worldwide, similar to the case of the Cannes-award winning European film Little Joe (2019). Grain was a departure for Kaplanoglu, not just for venturing into the world of science fiction but for leaving the recognizable Turkish geographical territory for an indistinguishable one, set in a near-future time frame.

Asli (Kubra Kip) has a happy marriage, financial security
and a child--but wants more

Semih Kaplanoglu’s film Commitment marks a u-turn for the director from Grain. In Commitment, he returns to a very identifiable Turkey, its contemporary status, and the Turkish language. Five of his earlier feature films (he had made six)  focused on male figures, markedly in his Yusuf trilogy comprising the films Honey, Milk, and Egg, though women had secondary but important roles in those films.  Only his second film, Angel’s Fall, primarily focused on a woman. In Commitment, too, he returns, after four films, to focus once again on women.

Turkey, like Russia, is largely located in Asia and less in Europe. Both countries, however, prefer to be identified as European than Asian (e.g., the denizens of the city of Vladivostok situated in Asia). Turkey, in recent years, has been making a bid to be a part of the European Union, disregarding its Asian connection and heritage.  The richer sections of Turkey’s population are rapidly moving closer to European life styles, while the poorer sections still retain the Asian traditions in their social lifestyles. 

Asli (right) hires Gulnihal (Ece Yuksel).to take care of her baby
while she returns to her job as a banker

In Commitment, Asli (actress Kubra Kip) is a well-to-do banker in her late twenties or early thirties, who has given birth to her first child and wants to return to job at the earliest, and attempts to regain her pre-childbirth physical allure. She is not always able to take care of her child, dislikes breast feeding her child, neglects the indoor flowers in her house, and cannot cook well enough to please her husband (she serves cold potato salad of the previous day to her husband when he returns from work). For Asli, her career and her looks are more important than her family responsibilities.  Even her gynecologist doctor does not approve her returning to work soon after childbirth and dislikes her requests for medication to reduce her lactation for the sake of maintaining her appearance.  Asli represents the richer middle class of Turkey yearning to mimic European lifestyles and objectives. Kaplanoglu’s Commitment underscores the fact that despite the wealth of the nouveau-riche, the upper middle-class nuclear families in Turkey are clearly missing self-fulfillment.

In contrast to Asli, the contrasting socio-economic elements of Turkey are embodied in Gulnihal (actress Ece Yuksel), essentially from a village background. Gulnihal is hired by Asli as a babysitter-cum-domestic help to look after her child as she returns to her life as a city banker. On her return to work, Asli finds that she has been given a less important position in the bank following her return from maternity leave than the one she held before. Yet Asli hangs on to the less-attractive job, despite being downgraded. On the other hand, Gulnihal also works for Asli’s family as she needs the money though she would rather be with her own child, almost the same age as Asli’s. Gulnihal knows her child is in good hands—her mother-in-law.  Gulnihal, a young mother herself, dotes on Asli’s child as her own and even breastfeeds Asli’s child without seeking permission.  Gulnihal brings to the Asli household food prepared by her mother-in-law (a typical Asian family gesture of goodwill transcending economic barriers) that Asli’s husband appreciates assuming it was prepared by his wife. Evidently, Gulnihal is relatively a happy individual unlike Asli who is a lot wealthier than her.

Asli's life lacks the true joy of being a mother,
enjoying a good marriage, a child, and a job as a banker

The film is also a study in family relationships.  The film presents multiple subplots relating to the family members of Asli (her parents and siblings and their feelings towards her), the family of Asli’s husband (his parents and their relationship towards him) and finally Gulnihal’s relationship to her husband, mother-in-law and her own child.

Asli gifts Gulnihal a jacket--the economic ploy
of gaining affection of her employee

Add to all this there are political commentaries relating to Turkey’s recent past history (a newspaper or journal that continues to publish despite its dwindling readership, is one example) that Turkish viewers might comprehend better.

Commitment is a film based on an original script written by Kaplanoglu himself. The strengths of the film lie in the script (a male scriptwriter dealing with so many female viewpoints) that is complex and yet a delight for astute viewers, the direction of a very talented filmmaker, the crisp cinematography of Andreas Sinanos and finally a very good ensemble cast. The initial visual of the film (which would perplex the viewer) is replicated at the end where the significance falls into place. 

This critic viewed the film in a packed auditorium at the International Film Festival of Kerala which possibly did not have a single Turk in the audience. That audience loved the film and was clapping away after the film ended. (The director and crew were not present and, therefore, the reaction of the audience was spontaneous and genuine.)

Asli and her husband have a meal at home--the food
becomes an important tool of non-verbal communication

Commitment was Turkey’s submission for the 2019 Oscars in the foreign language category. But it did not earn the nomination even though the film’s screenplay and direction are commendable. Nuri Bilge Ceylan pips Kaplanoglu in international stature because the former has succeeded in infusing internationally accepted literary connections, while Kaplanoglu (with the exceptions of Grain and perhaps Honey) has made films that Turkish audiences would relate to more than international ones. Despite this, Kaplanoglu and Ceylan are filmmakers, whose every new film is well worth the wait.

P.S.  Commitment is one of the author's top 20 films of 2019. It won the Best Director award at the Bosporus (Bosphorus)  Film Festival. Kaplanoglu’s three films Grain (2017), Honey (2010), and Milk (2008) have been reviewed earlier on this blog. Significantly, two other major women-centered films made in 2019, Vitalina Varela and Beanpole were made by male directors/screenplay writers and have been reviewed on this blog. (Click on the names of the films in this post script to access the reviews.)

Sunday, April 05, 2020

The late Hungarian film director Zoltan Fabri speaks to the Indian film critic Jugu Abraham in Budapest, Hungary, in 1982

Zoltan Fabri, 1917-94 (Courtesy: MUBI)

Transcript of the interview published in the daily newspaper The Telegraph, (Kolkata, India) on 15 August 1982 

Zoltan Fabri is not an unknown name in India. His films have been widely shown in screenings in India, courtesy NFDC, and he holds the distinction of winning two awards at the Delhi International Film Festival of India (IFFI). In 1979, Hungarians won the Golden Peacock for the Best Film and in 1981 his film Balint Fabian meets God was awarded the Silver Peacock for the Best Actor. Fabri is one of three great Hungarian filmmakers—Miklos Jancso and Istvan Szabo completing the trio. Jugu Abraham, who interviewed him in Hungary, found him to be ‘a lovely old man’ with impeccable manners and forthright views. The interview: 

Q. In India, we see a lot of your films but we hardly know anything of the person behind the camera. I would like to ask you something of your personal life. Your films have shown the protagonists playing very tragic and sombre roles, full of strife and sadness, in Hungary of the Second World War and before. Was your personal life as tragic, as difficult and as sombre as the heroes of your films?

A. My parents were relatively poor. My father worked in a bank as a clerk. In the summer, I lived with the peasants. And the reason peasants recur in my films is that I learned very much about their lifestyles. I went to school in town. I went to the College of Fine Arts. I wanted to be a painter. At that time film was not taught in college. I was born a weak child. I had problems with my tonsils which were removed, and I was beset by recurring illness of a weak heart.

Q. How much of your life was affected by the World Wars?

A.I was born during the First World War I have very few memories of that World War. We lived in misery. I was living in a big house with lots of people living in it. During the Second World War, I was in college, on a scholarship. In college, I would win at poetry recitals and wonder what I would do later in life. I had to choose between painting and directing plays. In my sixth form, I put up Julius Caesar and played Antony. But am I boring you?

Q. No, please continue.

A. So I joined the School of Fine Arts. At the end of the third year my father tried to find a job for me. He found me a job as a drawing teacher in one of the plush schools. But I decided to leave college.

One afternoon, I went to my father, who was shaving, and told him I am going to quit the School of Fine Arts and I intended to join the Theatre College. My father chased me like a mad man with a razor in his hand for 10 minutes. But after a lot of pleading, he agreed to let me try out theatre studies for a year at college. At the end of the year, my father went to the school to find out how I was doing. I was allowed to stay on. I need not elaborate why.

I finished the school in 3 years, making it clear that I did not want to be an actor but a director. I wrote scripts for an Ibsen play and even made sets for it. And the play was a great success. The production went through all the Budapest theatres in one year.

Two days after getting my degree, I got a letter from the National Theatre that I should go and discuss my contract. In my first play at the National Theatre, there were actors who had been my teachers at the college.

Q. Was your private life greatly affected during the Second World War?

A. In 1943, I was taken prisoner till 1945. I had no contact with my family at that time. I was single then. I wasn’t married. I returned to find Budapest totally bombed. As I approached my house, I found all our neighbouring houses were bombed but my parents’ flat had survived.  I found them safe. It was a horrible memory to reconstruct things.  I went back to theatre and worked in all Budapest theatres as a director, as a set director and sometimes as an actor.

Q. Today if you were to choose between film and theatre which would you choose?

A. I would choose film.

Q. Which films have been close to your personal life?

A. Twenty hours perhaps was one. Unfinished Sentence was almost as if it was written for me. I didn’t come from an aristocratic family but what happens in the family almost happened to me.

Q. Do you feel the characters in your films are reflections of your trials?

A. in my films, I am speaking about people who somehow have to get to the battlefield of history and they have to pass a trial of human conduct, a probe, a search.

Q. What do you feel about your black and white films like Merry Go Round visually?

A. In spite of the fact that I never became a painter, one cannot totally bring oneself to reconcile to making films in colour after making films in black and white.

Q. Why is it that you delve in the past? Doesn’t speculation of the recent past of your country or its future interest you? Science fiction, for instance.

A. I do not think I am suitable for science fiction or the like but I do think of the future. In Unfinished Sentence, I spoke about the future, in a way.  The future became the past in the film. The past and the present are in a very close relationship. You cannot for instance understand the present day Hungary without understanding the past. Consequently, when I make a film on the past, I want to communicate to the present viewer.

A still from the Golden Peacock (IFFI) winner "Hungarians"

Q. Would you like to comment on the fact that you made Balint Fabian meets God after you made Hungarians?  Hungarians chronologically should have come after Balint Fabian meets God.

A. It wasn’t my decision. Studios who wanted me to make Hungarians knew very well I wanted to make a film of Balint Fabian. I told them that chronologically it should be Balint Fabian meets God that should come first. But they considered Hungarians to have a more universal message. So they said “How do you know if you will ever get to finish Balint Fabian? So why not make Hungarians first? “ They were right in saying Hungarians contained the fate of a nation in a delicate and miserable situation, with a limited spectrum of thought and communication. At the same time, the characters in the film thought and expressed in a very universal way without being conscious of it.

A defining moment in The Fifth Seal; filming
"the most important question of our life" for Fabri

Q. Why did you pick up the book The Fifth Seal for a film?

A. I picked it up in 1965. But there were cultural-political reasons, which were against my plans to film it. First, they said it was an existentialist work.  I said that was not true at all. But they won. I could only make it in 1975-76. It was a great message for me to put on screen. First, I was challenged by the stage-like story—it is almost anti-film. The second part was more appropriate for cinema.

What basically attracted me were the four or five petty bourgeoisie characters talking of survival and the extent one can go to survive. As a counterpoint, there is a Fascist who is educating the younger person to emulate the other persons to achieve his own aims. The third part is how neither of the theories will work—neither of the petty bourgeoisie nor of the Fascist.

Q. What made you pick up the book? Did you like what was said in the story?

A. This thesis anti-thesis leading to synthesis formula I found most intriguing. And the most important question of our life is there.

Q. Are you religious?

A. I cannot make dogmatic religion acceptable for myself in spite of the fact that I went to a religious school when I was young. I believe in the moral content of religion; for me it is very significant to assess a person’s moral values. At the same time I am not bothered about a person’s religion or whether he practices it.  Morality is most important.

Crucial scene from Balint Fabian Meets God

Q. In India, after viewing your films, we get an idea that you are ambiguous in your treatment of religion. What is your personal attitude towards religion?

A. In Balint Fabian meets God, it is true that Balint Fabian’s relationship with religion is ambiguous. You can see it as self-sacrifice of a person deeply in love with his wife to meet God. Isn’t that true?

Q. Why are Russians kept out of your films?

A. I have no idea.

Q. Has any filmmaker influenced you other than Marcel Carne and Orson Welles?

A. The French directors, of course but Orson Welles influenced me most. Welles could not surpass what he did at 25—Citizen Kane—which can be appreciated and enjoyed even today.

Q. Children hardly occupy any place in your films. If they come in, they are only fringe characters. Is there any reason for it?

A. Basically, I don’t know why.

Q. Why have you specialized in tragedy? Is it something to do with your theatre experience?

A. Most probably because my view of life attracts me more to tragedy than to comedy. My mentality of daily life style is serious, not comic. However, in Two Half Times in Hell and in The Tot Family, I approach the tragicomic border.

Q. You have worked with Georgy Vukan as the music composer for the last five or six films. Would you like to tell us something about this man who has intrigued me with his music?

A. It is a personal relationship I have with him. He is an artist whom I like. He was a discovery of mine, you can say. I used his music when he was 21 years old. Now he is 30 or about that age.

Q. What do you feel about Boys on Paul Street made for Hollywood?

A. I liked the message of the book. It was not my best film. It was a “noble” film.

Q. What then was your best film?

A. You can pick between Prof Hannibal, Twenty Hours, The Fifth Seal and Hungarians.

P.S. The author's detailed review of Zoltan Fabri's film The Fifth Seal was published earlier on this blog. The Fifth Seal is one of the author's top 100  films ever made. (To access the review, click on the name of the film in this post-script.) The author, who was a staff film critic of the Hindustan Times group of publications in New Delhi, was invited to Budapest to interview Zoltan Fabri and Miklos Jancso in 1982. During the interactions, Fabri expressed his disappointment that US director John Huston's film Victory, in its credits, did not mention Fabri's earlier film Two Half Times In Hell, which was evidently a major source for the US director, a film personality who Fabri always admired.

The opening title sequence of Fabri's "The Fifth Seal" with the music of Georgy Vukan:

Thursday, April 02, 2020

250. Brazilian director Maya Da-Rin’s debut feature film “A Febre” (The Fever) (2019) in Portuguese language: Promising debut, treading the path of filmmaking taken by Portuguese director Pedro Costa

Two films made in 2019 mark the resurgence of Brazilian cinema: Dornelles’ and Filho’s joint effort Bacurau (a Cannes film festival winner) and debutant Maya Da-Rin’s The Fever (a Chicago international film festival winner).  The following citation for the Chicago win is a good encapsulation of the merits of the second film, The Fever:

""The Silver Hugo for Best Director goes to Maya Da-Rin for her debut fiction feature The Fever. The film drifts between dream and reality, portraying with both tenderness and precision the world of an indigenous father and daughter in the north of Brazil. It takes us into the family and their hearts, but never forgets the importance of the political context."  Citation for the award from the Chicago International film Festival

Justino (Regis Myrupu), a denizen of the Amazon rainforest,
chooses to work as a security guard
in Manaus, where instead of trees,
he is surrounded by steel containers shipping goods 

Director Maya Da-Rin was into ethnographic documentary filmmaking in Brazil before she decided to make her first fictional feature film The Fever. Ms Da-Rin has had sufficient interactions with the indigenous native tribes of Brazil while making her ethnographic documentaries that preceded this feature film. Those interactions gave her the idea to write a script for a feature fiction film focussing on the migration of the forest dwelling tribes to nearby cities for the sake of jobs, education and healthcare. One of Da-Rin’s two co-scriptwriters is a full time anthropologist Pedro Cesarino. The Fever is tale of Justino (Regis Myrupu), a Desana tribal who comes to the city of Manaus on the banks of the Amazon River, in the middle of the rain forest, to work as a guard at a river port where containers are berthed before or after being transported across oceans. Manaus has evolved as a major duty free zone port city in Brazil.

The genesis and the creation of Da-Rin’s film are very similar to Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela. another 2019 film, this time from Portugal. Both films are distinguished by their original screenplays developed by their respective directors after discussing with people about their own experiences that ultimately get projected so realistically in the films. Both films are in Portuguese language: one made in Brazil, the other in Portugal. Both films mainly rely on non-professional actors who incidentally have been rewarded internationally for their performances. Both films have most sequences shot at night time with an obvious absence of natural light. Both films were major winners at the 2019 Locarno film festival in Switzerland. The two films underscore the effectiveness of directors to conceive of films by talking to people and developing their films from ideas that emerge from real conversations with people living on the margins of contemporary society,

Justino with his daughter, who aspires
to be a doctor

The fever in the film relates to a realistic medical condition that affects Justino, the guard working in Manaus. Medical tests conducted do not reveal any known disease. Justino is a widower and a Christian (most Desana tribals are apparently Christians)  living with his daughter, who is studying medicine and a recent recipient of a scholarship for further medical studies in Brasilia, Brazil’s capital, to become a  medical doctor. The scholarship means a great deal for the young lady but this development hurts her father as he realizes that he will be deprived of her company in Manaus for the next 5 years.  The fever is perhaps also linked to Justino’s brother’s social visit to Manaus making both brothers recall their early lives as happy hunters in the Amazonian rain forest, content hunting for fresh food in the forest rather than shop for food in the supermarkets. Justino’s brother wants Justino to return to the forests but Justino does not seem to agree, claiming that his employers won’t let go of him and even has a plastic smile when says he “will be fine” after his daughter departs for Brasilia.

Da-Rin’s film explores at a secondary level the true relationship between the employer and the employee, Justino. Even though he has been an ideal worker for a long while, the Human Resource department summons him to state that he could be fired without compensation as he has been found dozing at work. The film explores racism, too.  A greenhorn guard joins Justino’s shift and decides to call him “Indio” rather than Justino. It is this work scenario that Justino describes as one where “his employer won’t let him go.”

Justino (extreme right) with his brother
and family enjoying food from the rainforest

At a third level, there is the psychological beckoning of Justino by the rain forest and its fauna. The food that Justino’s brother brings with him to Manaus attracts Justino’s taste buds by its taste, encouraging him to consider returning to the forest. The strange sounds of fauna heard on the forest edges of Manaus city at night seems to communicate with Justino. But the viewer is never shown the mysterious animal  by the director.  A section of the Manaus population alleges that the animal killed a pig. It is possibly the same animal that made a hole in the fence of the port’s facilities that Justino meticulously guards. The mysterious animal also seems to be trying to connect with Justino.

The fever is a metaphor transcending medical knowledge in this film. It suggests a connection between animals, spirits and humans that the rainforest tribes believe in and the fever seems to attract Justino back to the forest. Whether Justino does return or whether he dreams of his return is for the viewer to figure out.  The film ends with a song sung on the soundtrack that ambiguously states: “This is why I have come to talk to you. Like our ancestors, we must live with strength and courage

At the Locarno film festival, the film’s director Da-Rin indicated her antipathy towards the Bolsonaro regime that is cutting down the rainforests to encourage industry and corporate farming, at the cost of precious natural genetic resources and disrupting the world of the tribes who lived in harmony with rainforest for centuries.

Films like Vitalina Varela and The Fever open up exciting, reflective cinema for serious film viewers while encouraging a new method of developing original scripts and the employment of non-professionals as actors who go on to win awards. These films are indeed  different from the usual.

P.S.  The Fever is one of the author's top 20 films of 2019. Much of the dialogues quoted above are from memory of a single viewing and are approximations. The film won the Best Actor award for actor Regis Myrupu and the FIPRESCI prize for the best film at the Locarno Film Festival; the Silver Hugo Award for the best director at the Chicago International Film Festival; the Best Latin American Film Award at the Mar del Plata Film Festival (Argentina); the Roberto Rossellini  award at the Pingyao International Film Festival (China); and the Silver Alexander Award as the Special Jury Prize at the Thessaloniki International Film Festival (Greece).The Brazilian film Bacurau and the Portuguese film  Vitalina Varela have been reviewed earlier on this blog. (Click on the names of the films in this post-script to access the reviews.)