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Images of conflict

Print edition : Aug 26, 2005

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Osian's Cine Fan, a film festival focussing on Asian cinema, captivates audiences in Delhi and provides a platform for independent filmmakers to express themselves.

ANNIE ZAIDI in New Delhi

IF a picture is worth a thousand words, it stands to reason that a motion picture is a better representation of the collective trauma of a people than hundreds of publications about their history. This is a view held by many a filmmaker, from countries such as Iraq, Cambodia, Vietnam and China - for they had no words to describe the kind of trauma that history and other nations had inflicted upon their people.

Cinema-goers were captivated for 10 days at Osian's Cine Fan, a film festival focussing on Asian cinema, held recently in the capital. At least 120 international movies were screened at the festival, from countries in Asia, and from some African countries that are considered part of the Arab world.

Although there was no definitive theme to the festival, the underlying thread that seemed to bind many of the better films was conflict and the resultant trauma. Often, the conflict meant physical conflict, like invasion, civic unrest, military oppression and war. At other times, the films reflected conflict spanning generations and cultures, or portrayed the inner conflict of people uprooted from their homes by the assault of poverty.

Take, for instance, the celebrated Turtles Can Fly, the filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi's attempt to describe the human cost of the United States' invasion of Iraq. The protagonists of his film are Kurdish children, who are abused, orphaned, mutilated and hungry. Paradoxically, they make a living by clearing minefields, and selling the mines to local arms dealers. The young boy-hero waits for the U.S. to free them, but is injured by an American landmine. A girl is raped by soldiers and cannot find peace until she kills the baby born to her, and ultimately, kills herself. Chaos and violence are all around, while disillusionment hangs heavy in the air, and the protagonist limps past, on crutches, no longer enthusiastic about an impending `liberation'.

The filmmaker could not have made a more powerful statement if he had made a thousand speeches in front of the White House. Yet, for him, the film is simply a way of dealing with the violent truth his people are, even now, living.

Just as it was for Rithy Panh, a Cambodian filmmaker who now heads a large French film production firm, Fonds Sud. One of the films screened was Panh's latest documentary, The Burnt Theatre, which was also screened at Cannes. The National Theatre in Cambodia was burnt down in 1994, and has not been rebuilt since owing to a lack of funds. But remarkably, a lavish casino is being constructed nearby. Panh also examines the deep scars left by the Khmer Rouge and the struggle to return to normalcy, for the generation who survived the gruesome era. He said, "At least one quarter of Cambodia's population was wiped out. The Khmer Rouge could be judged, but even justice cannot resolve all issues. The intellectual, artistic and cultural groups of our society were decimated completely. If you don't reconstruct culture, you're completely lost. We have to rediscover who we are. This burnt theatre symbolises Cambodia's cultural identity. It is a symbol of how best a civilisation can express itself. But it has been abandoned - to nature, to accident, to the elements. Through theatre, puppetry, cinema, books, we need to find out who we are and who we will become. We need to talk about our past, our trauma, our future."

At present, the future is extremely shaky, according to Panh. Filmmakers in his country are simply copying romantic films from India and Hong Kong. "Now, there's the danger of ultra-capitalism and extreme globalisation, after a bad experience with communism. But how do you expect weaker nations to survive?"

The loud clash of cultures was also reflected in several films from the Arab spectrum. For instance, Shouf Shouf Habibi! , a part-European co-production, was full of laughter and fears. It tackled the lives of young Moroccan immigrants in Holland - their tenuous hold on a new life that they must work hard for, their battles with a conflicting value system, and their attempts to break free of past oppressions. The last scene sums it up succinctly, as the father is laid to rest in his Moroccan village. The emigre may not have any joys, but he gets a nice, expensive grave.

From the Arab world, there came other films of a conflict that is ever-present on our global horizons. The most interesting one was Route 181: Fragments of a Journey in Palestine-Israel. This was a documentary filmed along the border as dictated by the United Nations, as Resolution 181, which divided the state into Arab and Jew. Palestinian Michel Khleifi and Israeli Eyal Sivan created this road-film, by talking to people on both sides about their history, their prejudices, their attitude to peace and conflict.

At several points in the film, the filmmakers invoke the legend of King Solomon and his wisdom in judging the fight between two women and their claims over a baby. The state is compared to a baby that is being cut in two, and the question is raised: "Who allows the division/killing/splitting of the baby - the real mother or the fake one? Who protests?"

Khleifi himself views the film as a `political work of art', which it very much is.

Another Palestinian filmmaker who tries to deal with violence in the region was Elia Suleiman. In his Divine Intervention, he uses comedy and absurdism to cope with the insane conflicts ripping through Nazareth, his home-town.

The filmmaker Saeed Mirza, who was addressing one of the seminars at Cine Fan, was all praise for these films in particular. "It is remarkable how these filmmakers can raise themselves above this vortex of misery and chaos and suffering, and then encompass all these experiences through films which can be funny, nonsensical and yet, very wise," he said. Mirza also stressed the need for festivals like Osian since there is very little space for Asian and African cinema that reflects the concerns of the people in these countries.

Other unusual entrants were filmmakers who tackled their political history and people's suffering in retrospect. In Shanghai Dreams, director Wang Xiaoshuai takes a look at life in China's `Third Line' factories, which were called the `Third line of defence', and required several workers to be uprooted and sent to poor, barren regions. The film has been awarded at Cannes, but Xiaoshuai was once `blacklisted' for his underground projects. He said. "This is our fifth generation of filmmakers, but the government still controls cinema; censorship begins at the scripting stage. Many people are punished for expressing themselves. But the government and I spoke about two years back and we sort of forgave-and-forgot. Now, China is more open. Now, another problem is that the mainstream is trying to model itself on Hollywood, by going the big budget way."

Similar concerns are echoed by the Vietnamese filmmakers. The country has controlled its media so far, but as economic changes sweep the landscape, cinema tends to become more and more populist, not rooted in the nation's reality.

A rare exception is Vo Minh Nguyen, whose first feature Buffalo Boy is set in a daunting landscape of massive flooding and hardships, not to mention the cattle-herding mafia. He said, "Each culture has a way of communicating, often rooted in literature and theatre. Vietnam has a strong oral tradition, and a tradition of respecting scholars. I sought inspiration in two short stories." He added that since the 1980s, the Vietnamese film industry had been changing, though it had been mostly government-funded. However, he doesn't believe that the main problem is censorship. "Even Hollywood has a form of censorship. If they don't fund you, that is also a way of censoring you. Our problems are different. We have hardly any screening facilities. Now, there is foreign funding to build screening facilities, but they screen only foreign films, mostly big-budget Hollywood films. Independent films are going through a crisis. There is huge pressure to do romantic comedies and `sexploitation'. But we still try to look at post-war Vietnamese society in an honest way."

Ho Quang-Minh, the director of A Time Far Past, points out that Vietnamese films are still in a state of depression. "My film tries to look closely at what happened during the long years of conflict. It is not an explanation. It is a personal investigation to understand what was going on. It spans about 50 years (from the French era) to the beginning of the American war and then flash forward to the years after the war ended."

Indeed, the film was like looking into a snapshot, into which one has no background perspective. It was a fresh look at the upheavals of decades past and the emotional toll extracted from the individual, which is often contrary to the ideals of an egalitarian socialist society.

One lesson Indian filmmakers could learn from Osian's Cine Fan is they do not need a song-dance routine and an overwhelming dose of `masala' to draw audiences. There were enough audiences to cause chaos and overcrowding on the last day of the festival. There were long queues for Santosh Sivan's Navarasa and Buddhadeb Dasgupta's Swapner Din, as well as Kaalpurush, the closing film. Indian films also touched lightly upon matter of great import - Bangladeshi refugees, riots, alternate sexuality and prejudices, domestic violence. There was an equally appreciative audience for modern themes of urban disillusionment and moral corruption, in Hindi films like Kal - Yesterday and Tomorrow, and Aye Dil.

Cinema is a source of history, a reflection upon individual, national and international issues. The better kind of cinema is a fine tightrope-walk between fiction and fact. It is about the things that are powerful, and must be said - not just to the public, but to the complacent, the ignorant, the driven, the misled, the criminals of our times - even if they would rather not hear, not see. These films were stories that belonged to us, and which we are often quick to disown.

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