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July 31, 2008

Calcutta 71, 1972

calcutta71.gifIn the book The Essential Mystery: The Major Filmmakers of Indian Art Cinema, John W. Hood proposes that the Bengali famine in 1943 was a watershed event that would deeply mark then 20 year old Mrinal Sen and lead to his politicization and involvement with the left-leaning Indian People's Theatre Association. In hindsight, this convergence between personal and cultural history also seems to provide the underlying link between the overarching portrait of contemporary life in 1971 Kolkata with its prevailing images of the Naxalite insurgency, and the three self-contained, period stories presented in the film, each a crystallization of the spirit of the times and a harbinger of things to come. Framed through the perspective of a doomed, anonymous 20 year old militant student whose restless spirit hovers over the city to confront its legacy of poverty, underprivilege, and cruelty, each story exposes society's complicity in the unraveling of a natural crisis into human catastrophe.

The first installment, 1933, based on Manik Bandyopadhyay's The Right to Suicide, underscores the everyday realities of life in the flood-prone city, where life remains in a state of transience, caught in a perpetual cycle of construction and destruction, transformation and decay. Capturing an impoverished family's futile attempts to weather the monsoon rains from their dilapidated home, as the head of the family (Satya Bannerjee) increasingly shows his frustration and helplessness by lashing out at his adolescent daughter and a stray dog, 1933 illustrates the inhumanity imposed by an entrenched caste system that continues to reinforce arbitrary power structures even within the inescapable reality of impotence and destitution, a corrosive cycle that perpetuates a sense of entitlement (that, in turn, leads to complacency in its illusion of expected privilege) and oppression of the weak.

Adapted from Prabodh Sanyal's The Disgraced, the second episode, 1943 examines the wide-reaching toll of the famine, from an early montage of desperate villagers converging in the already overcrowded city to beg for food, to a day in the life portrait within the relative comfort of a middle class family, where a young widow, Shobhona (Madhabi Mukherjee) struggles to support her mother and younger siblings. Relocating to Kolkata after giving up custody of her son (having moved into an apartment building under murky arrangements with the owner), the family is compelled to face their degraded circumstances when a cousin, on his way to a new civil service job in Delhi, pays an unexpected visit. Contrasting fond memories of their idyllic lives in the village against the austerity of their new life in Kolkata, Sen reinforces the idea of the famine as a juncture of paradise lost, a complete rupture from the past. Moreover, in confronting the mother's instigations to solicit money from her neighbor (by sending her teenaged daughter to run errands for him), and her son (by goading him to exploit his employment at a tea shop), Sen parallels the family's decline in status with their moral prostitution (a theme that also surfaces in Satyajit Ray's Distant Thunder, where the erosion of social class is created by the commonality of despair.

The intersection between (artificially created) class disparity and food shortage also provides the framework for 1953 in its tale of two cities - one, propelled by urban development and agricultural reforms stemming from Jawaharlal Nehru's five-year plan, the other, relegated to the sidelines of economic transformation. Based on Samaresh Basu's The Smuggler, the film challenges the notion of national unity that the consolidation of the railways symbolizes in its segregation of passengers between the working class and the poor, uneducated backwards classes who stow away on trains to panhandle, or smuggle food through the porous borders of (then) East Pakistan for sale in the drought affected villages. Devolving into a symbolic class war between the privileged passengers (as embodied by a health conscious traveler who epitomizes the Darwinian capitalist model: survival of the fittest) and the young, impoverished smugglers, Sen alludes to the perils of complacency and displaced retaliation (a theme that also recalls the father's impotent rage in 1933) that also underlies the anonymous stranger's social indictment. Revisiting the transgressions of the past, the disembodied stranger becomes the nation's figurative collective consciousness, confronting society's tendency to reconstitute human suffering as distant histories removed from everyday reality. Culminating with the portrait of contemporary Kolkata in which a politician (Ajitesh Bannerjee) hypocritically expresses his concern during a lavish dinner party over the flood of refugees arriving into the city from Bangladesh as a result of the war for independence, the image of famine victims repurposed as wall art encapsulates the aestheticization of tragedy as abstract spectacle, and humanity's moral imperative to reclaim art from its bastardized role as status symbol to its ideological origins as an instrument of social revolution.

Posted by acquarello on Jul 31, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Mrinal Sen

July 17, 2008

The Little White Girl Had to Bow Her Head for Emperor Hirohito, 2003

little_white.gifBased on author, choreographer, activist, and filmmaker Lydia Chagoll's autobiography A Childhood in the Japanese Camps and historical essay Hirohito: Emperor of Japan, The Little White Girl Had to Bow Her Head for Emperor Hirohito is a lucid and impassioned examination of the postwar geopolitics that have led to the cultural amnesia and historical whitewashing (enabled by western governments) of Hirohito's role in the commission of atrocities during Japan's expansionist campaign that culminated in the tragedy of the Pacific War. The daughter of an outspoken, anti-fascist journalist of Jewish ancestry, Chagoll fled her adopted home of Belgium with her family as a young girl in 1940 during the Nazi invasion, making their way south through the continent as refugees seeking asylum before being deported by South Africa - because of their Dutch-issued passports - to the island of Java in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) in 1942. Detained and interrogated by authorities upon arrival to Batavia (now Jakarta) in an attempt to root out agitators seeking to undermine colonial authority, their belated freedom in the increasingly volatile region would prove to be short lived when Japan expanded their military campaign and began occupying the islands. Separated from their father and imprisoned in a series of progressively worsening conditions and inhumane treatment at concentration camps over the course of the next three years, Chagoll's family would face even further humiliation when, at the end of the Pacific War, Indonesia declared its independence and Europeans were forced to remain in the camps for their own safety, still guarded by the same Japanese soldiers now tasked by General Douglas MacArthur to protect them as they await their delayed repatriation. Returning to Europe only to discover that their relatives had been killed at Auschwitz and Sobibor, the family's harrowing ordeal in Java would be supplanted by their own guilt of survival and an immediate need to rebuild their interrupted lives, leading to a shared silence of history that would continue for decades until Frans Buyens convinced Chagoll to write about her experience as a means of exorcising her haunted past.

Structured as a talking head news panel with Chagoll, moderator Anne Blanpain, and actress and friend, Michèle Simonet reading passages from Chagoll's memoir (the author, still reluctant to talk about her personal experience in the camps), the stark, brightly lit, minimalist sound stage reinforces the autobiographical and editorial dual nature of the film, serving as a platform for Chagoll's recounted trauma that alludes to the austere circumstances of her captivity (where prisoners suffered from malnutrition and systematic abuse), and the idea that tragedy is inherently unfilmable (a theme that also finds kinship with Alain Resnais's Night and Fog). Placing their discussions within the context of Chagoll's public protests, first, during Emperor Hirohito's state visit with King Baudouin in 1971, and subsequently, in the royal couple's decision to attend his funeral in a sovereign capacity in 1989, Buyens and Chagoll frame Hirohito's transformation from untried war criminal to venerated dignitary (presumably duped by a military clique into embracing expansionist policies) as the result of politically expedient revisionism, where the act of waging war (even a cold one) "has become so banal that it has given killers human faces." In essence, Japan's wartime amnesia is symptomatic of an absence of closure, a U.S.-orchestrated wholesale absolution designed to preserve the country's hierarchical structure as a means of ensuring national stability and, consequently, a strategic foothold against an expanding communist threat. It is a negation of history that continues to shape the murky contours of contemporary Japanese society, most notably, in (then) Prime Minister Yasujiro Nakasone and his cabinet's official visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, a socially ingrained evasion of moral accountability and reckoning that once again comes full circle to its origins in Hirohito's impunity from past transgressions that Chagoll challenges with the question: "Who is a war criminal: the one who kills, the one who gives the order to kill, the one in whose name the killing is done?"

Posted by acquarello on Jul 17, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Frans Buyens & Lydia Chagoll

July 10, 2008

Tren de sombras, 1997

tren_sombras.gifOstensibly framed as a restoration of a degraded found film recovered some 70 years after the sudden and unexplained death of its creator, a Parisian attorney and amateur filmmaker named Gérard Fleury at a lake in the village of Le Thuit in Normandy, Tren de sombras (Train of Shadows) is a dense, sensual, and richly textured exposition of José Luis Guerín's recurring preoccupations: the nature and subjectivity of the image-gaze, the permeable borders between truth and fiction, the role of architecture (and landscape) as palimpsest of hidden histories. By placing the discovery of Fleury's last shot footage of his home and family within the context of the ambiguity surrounding the circumstances of his death after a seemingly innocuous scouting trip early one morning to find suitable lighting conditions to incorporate into his home movie, the found film becomes both a curious artifact of the early days of cinema in its informally staged performances that suggest the whimsical, created illusions of Georges Méliès (in a performance of dancing ties and magic tricks), and also a non-fiction, historical record that can be deconstructed, reconstituted, and re-analyzed to glean further information into the real-life mystery.

The dual nature of film is similarly suggested in the multilayered transitional shot between Fleury's footage from 1930 and modern day Le Thuit - the image of a caretaker sweeping leaves at a sidewalk corner overlooking a cemetery as schoolchildren cross at the intersection, a folding billboard advertising a cinémathèque program featuring pioneering filmmakers propped against a lamppost on the edge of the frame - visually repeating interchangeable themes of decay (fallen leaves, graveyard, film nitrate) and renewal (children, film revival, the act of sweeping). Interweaving depopulated, still-life compositions that alternately show ethereal images (casted shadows, lake mist, clouds, rays of light poking through occlusions, reflections on mirrors and windows) and physical objects (landscape, architecture, framed photographs, clocks, period furniture, camera equipment), Guerín further expounds on the idea of film as a medium of materiality and immateriality, where filmmaking itself becomes an act of creation (in capturing images that do not physically exist), destruction (in the chemical degradation of the medium), and transformation (in the projection of material into light). Moreover, by introducing sequences that overtly demonstrate the image manipulation of Fleury's unfinished film (with the apparent motive of finding hidden clues to the mysterious death) - splicing damaged footage, matching cuts that illustrate parallel gestures and expressions, freeze frames and zooms that provide detailed observation - Guerín not only reflects on filmmaking as a godlike process of suspension and reanimation, but also on the inherent responsibilities (and limitations) that it enables in creating permutations of the story, where truth is arbitrarily defined by editing, and the idea of closure to a story is negated by the competing idea that the same film can be rewound, reconfigured, and re-edited into a plurality of equally valid, alternate endings. It is this open-endedness that is reflected in the film's long take, closing shot of a dead-end street intersection in Fleury (a recurring aesthetic that also surfaces in Guerín's En Construcción and In the City of Sylvia), where people momentarily pass into and out of frame - each passerby representing another open story, each passage, a corridor leading to new, alternate angles of perspective and (re)discovery.

Posted by acquarello on Jul 10, 2008 | | Comments (5) | Filed under 2008, José Luis Guerín

July 2, 2008

Less Dead Than the Others, 1992

less_dead.gifComposed as a fiction film based on Buyens's autobiographical novel, re-enacted with the intimacy of a documentary, but framed from the observational distance of an essay, Frans Buyens and Lydia Chagoll's Less Dead Than the Others resists facile categorization - alternating between poignant crystallization of living memory in the aftermath of his younger brother's accidental death and his parents' struggle with terminal illness, and an impassioned polemic on a person's right to die with dignity. This idea of inhabited contradiction is established in the opening sequence, crosscutting between the somber procession of mourners lined up for a casket viewing (presumably, of Buyens's mother) and the animated, candid shots of his mother (Dora van der Groen) pulling together an important occasion outfit from her wardrobe (which she is shown wearing later in the film while packing for her hospital admission) and performing calisthenics in the kitchen. In hindsight, the juxtaposition of these contradictory images - life and death, stasis and activity, reality and dramatization - reflects his mother and father Jozef's (Senne Rouffaer) daily routine following the death of his brother, Armand (Koen De Bouw) from severe burns, having worn a gorilla suit for a costume ball that was accidentally set on fire by a pair of half-drunken revelers throwing lit matches at a crowd (and who, rather than help douse the flames, instead went to get a last drink before leaving).

For his parents, Armand's death also relegates the present to a constantly rewinding past, where the ritual of grief metamorphoses into a mythology of the dead (a sentiment that is also implied in his mother's observation that Armand, like Jesus, died at the age of 33): re-reading newspaper obituary clippings that described the funeral (which his mother was too inconsolable to attend), revisiting commemorations given in his brother's honor by friends and colleagues, looking through old photographs of family vacations and happier times, re-evaluating decisions made throughout their lives that aligned to meet his tragic fate. Languishing in a hospital for ten days before dying alone at night - the less familiar, off-shift nurses failing to realize that his repeated calls for "François" were for his brother - the experience would also mark his parents in another way, as they faced their own mortality.

Confined to a hospice after being diagnosed with incurable cancer, his once physically fit father - an avid dancer and tireless labor activist - would endure the emotional roller coaster of several false alarms over his imminent passing, isolated from his family, slowly wasting away, but resigned to a lingering death by an exceptionally strong heart. The specter of Armand's unanswered calls for his brother also hovers over Jozef's death, in Buyens's admission that he ignored his father's pleas to help him end his life. Alternating between antiseptic images of his ailing father confined to his hospital bed, and color-saturated shots of him dancing and casually dispensing advice from his favorite chair, the stark juxtaposition not only illustrates the disconnection between Jozef's mind and body towards the end, but also reinforces the image of his coexistence between life and death, both as a grieving parent who never recovered from his son's death, and as a patient struggling with terminal illness. In contrast, the image of his mother's subsequent return home after an unproductive extended hospital stay is warm and bathed in light. Reconciled with her fate, the stillness of her death seems paradoxically ecstatic - a peaceful deliverance from a body wracked with constant pain. In a way, by passing unnoticed between life and death, she liberates her son from the guilt of survival that had once consumed them and, in sharing the intimacy of her final moments, enables his own lonely transition to a life without her: "I don't know when she died. I didn't see it. I didn't feel it. I didn't hear it. Her life passed into mine. She is less dead than the others."

Posted by acquarello on Jul 02, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Frans Buyens & Lydia Chagoll