A WELL-ORGANISED film festival is accompanied by a new consciousness as it aims to relight the connection between cinephiles and cinema. Sitting through the screenings at Almaty Towers, the main venue of the 9th Eurasia International Film Festival, held in the middle of September in Almaty, the largest city of Kazakhstan, one got an instant feeling of this consciousness as the halls were filled to capacity. In a six-day event where viewers were commendably disciplined in and out of the screenings—they would sit through not only the film but also the entire question and answer (Q&A) session, with no catcalls, no mobile phones ringing, which is something rare at Indian film festivals—you had your baggage full. There was no award given on popular votes, but the audience cheered every award.
Of the films winning the coveted prizes, the first mention has to be of Wadjda (2012), a Saudi Arabian entry that was adjudged the best film by the FIPRESCI (the International Federation of Film Critics) jury. It was the first-ever feature film made in the desert kingdom, and had already drawn attention in the international film festival (IFF) circuit, particularly after winning the Audience Choice Award at Fribourg, Switzerland. Directed by Haifaa Al Mansour, the first female film-maker of the country, it is Saudi Arabia’s official nomination for the 2014 Oscars, a reason to take note of as the country has no cinema screens, as they were banned three decades ago.
Wadjda is a 10-year-old girl trying to own a bicycle against the strictures of a largely patriarchal and totalitarian society. She is slightly rebellious, a loud pre-teen who parades to American pop songs in her room, secretly paints her toenails and wears tennis shoes to her conservative school, much to the dislike of her scowling headmistress. She sneaks play dates with a boy of her age, Abdullah, with whom she wants to race on wheels. As her mother refuses to buy her a bike, because women riding bicycles is a social taboo, a determined Wadjda enters a Quran recitation competition in her school in the hope of winning the prize money. Ultimately, she gets the prize but is denied the prize money—instead, the headmistress announces that the money will be sent to their Palestinian brethren. (That is an assertion of authoritative rigidity with a political undertone. When Wadjda is asked by Abdullah where her prize money is, she quips: “In Palestine!”). Eventually, her mother, a schoolteacher, presents her with her dream bicycle, bought with savings she had kept aside to buy an attractive, costly gown to impress her husband, who wanted to marry a second woman.
Here the bike becomes a metaphor of freedom, combining wish fulfilment of the mother-daughter duo. Sensing the inevitable—that her husband would go for a second marriage —Wadjda’s mother realises that her only pleasure in life lies in raising her daughter with the utmost care.
Thus, Wadjda is a contemplation of the modern Saudi woman and the individual’s conformity to the traditions and ideas of the collective. Obviously, it is not a sombre tale like Jafar Panahi’s The Circle or Samira Makhmalbaf’s At Five in the Afternoon , both centred around the stark reality of gender bias in the Central Asian sphere, but there are sufficient ingredients in it to become a significant feminist critique of our time.
The main jury at Almaty selected In Bloom (2013), a Georgian-French-German co-production, as the best film. It is also a feature debut for a woman director—Nana Ekvtimishvili co-directed the film with Simon Gross. Dealing with a post-Soviet Georgia when the newly born country was at war with breakaway Abkhazia, the film makes a strong statement on the sublimity of friendship, feud and possessiveness among young people. Here again the theme oscillates between two female characters, 14-year-old classmates Eka and Natia, stuck in wartime scarcity and ferocity. It is a tense situation, with the war forming the backdrop, where not only the young leads but also the entire cast are put on a realistic drama interwoven with a basically pro-feminist orientation and a tilt towards thriller elements.
As the drama unfolds, a young ruffian, Kato, kidnaps Natia and officially marries her; she is not allowed to go to school or meet her female friends. Her gentle boyfriend Lado, who had temporarily gone out of Tbilisi leaving her a pistol with one single bullet to protect herself, is killed by Kato’s gang. This opens up other complexities involving several families and enlivening events of crime, injustice and separation. The young teens no longer remain innocent but embrace premature adulthood, with Eka dictating terms to others much senior to her.
This coming-of-age film is also blessed with languid camerawork by Oleg Mutu, who paints Tbilisi in uncommon hues. The film had earlier won the FIPRESCI prize and also the main prize at the Hong Kong IFF. In Bloom is the country’s entry for this year’s Academy Awards and is a proof of the maturity that Georgian cinema has attained of late.
A special prize was given to the Russian film Shame (2013), an absorbing narrative which examines the effects of a submarine accident on the wives of the deceased navy men. Unlike in a Hollywood disaster movie, veteran director Yusup Razykov concentrates more on those women in a bleak military base inside the Arctic Circle. Shame maintains Razykov's reputation as a staunch social and political critic, both during Communist Party rule and after. “On the service of the motherland”, says a soldier, acting as a courier between an officer in the submarine and his wife, Lena, at the base, almost on a sarcastic note.
The story echoes the notorious case of the submarine Kursk, which sank in 2000 with more than a hundred men on board. The central character, Lena, a newly married arrival at the base, strangely remains chilly and detached from her neighbours. But actually she is compassionate and becomes a helping hand for the grief-stricken women who are seen using different coping mechanisms, like denial and alcohol. One woman even revives an ancient folk tradition by making a sacrificial offering—she tips an old television set into the icy sea in the hope that her husband would return—while another woman ends her life with her two kids inside their car in a fume-filled garage, with no hope in sight.
The role of the authority, represented by both male and female lieutenants, serves to underline the film’s bold criticism of corruption and abuse of power. At first the officers keep denying the accident, but when the grim truth emerges, Razykov does not sensationalise; rather he looks at the lives of the individuals and channels Lena’s muted emotional reaction into a private investigation into her husband’s romantic secrets.
After discovering old love letters addressed to her husband, she goes out in search of the woman who wrote them and finds her devastated. At this point, the film becomes a sour indictment of the Russian mental health policy, as Lena gives solace to the troubled young woman. The last scene shows Northern Lights illuminating the dark sky, with a haunting music track that only synchronises the two lost women in total emptiness and desolation. This modern tragedy previously won the FIPRESCI prize at Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic.
Another jury, of NETPAC (Network for Promotion of Asian Cinema), opted for The Little Brother (Kazakhstan) and Waiting for the Sea (Tajikistan) as joint winners. Waiting for the Sea (2012), by Bakhtyar Khudoinazarov, an auteur with several acclaimed feature films to his credit, is a spectacular epic that blends genres and cultural traditions. The thematic exploit of the film has something unique: earlier there were themes of a river drying out, leaving a community in disarray, but in this film the whole sea has disappeared in a sandstorm, and a village dies slowly.
The film opens with an idyllic village where the inhabitants perform primitive rituals to ensure a good fishing season. But the sand deposited by the storm has completely wiped out the entire habitat’s access to the sea. The sailor Marat, the sole survivor of a vessel caught in the sandstorm, himself widowed in the tragedy, is held responsible by the villagers for the loss of their loved ones. He swears that he will make amends and find the crew that he lost; then he drags his marooned ship across the desert in his bid to find the sea.
The director has based this plot on the real loss of the Aral Sea, though no attempt is made to provide an explanation for the vanished waters, treating the concept much as a fairy tale would. Everything seems to be disorderly, chaotic: the setting mixed with nature and human dwelling turns the script into an absurd drama where individual effort, instead of collective exertion, has the last laugh—a clear deviation from the socialist realism on celluloid.
Marat is followed by Tamara, sister of his wife, who is desperately in love with him; but he refuses to be seduced as he believes that his wife is not dead and that he will one day rescue her. By and large, it is a film of sudden occurrence, uncertainty and the charms of unpredictability. By a miracle, Marat’s Herculean effort pays dividends as an earthquake ensues and there is seawater all around his ship. The film is hailed as a masterpiece of poetic realism in which man’s resilience is celebrated amidst breathtaking beauty of the undulating Kazakh spaces, spectacular adventures and hidden recesses of the human soul.
Some of the other films worth mentioning—though one’s thinking decides how one accepts or rejects a film—are: The Little Brother (2013), directed by Serik Aprymov, a compelling portrayal of a lonely kid’s life following unfavourable changes in the family bonding; Do Not Worry Sara (2013), a modern-day family saga by the Iranian director Alireza Amini that chronicles a day of marriage, unavoidable circumstances and heartbreak in the life of Elaheh who films the day just to send the footage to her friend Sara who is based abroad; and the Lars Kraume-directed German-French production My Sisters (2013), which is a macabre tale of three sisters, one of whom is suffering from a serious heart defect, pictured beautifully by Jens Harant in DCP (digital cinema package) format.
Usually, only a handful of films make the vibes and the memorabilia of a successful IFF: a relatively new one at Almaty was no exception either. It is true that each filmgoer is invested in the film drama in his or her own particular way, be it ideological, narcissistic or emotional. But it only proves the power of cinema, a power that bleeds ideas, enriches aesthetic understanding and takes the collective consciousness to a higher plane.
Manoj Barpujari is a senior journalist based in Guwahati. He won the Swarna Kamal for Best Film Critic at the National Film Awards, 2011. He has published books on cinema, literature and politics. He is co-editor of Perspectives .