Films from MFF organized by Jio MAMI: Platter 2

Barakah Meets Barakah (2016) / Mahmoud Sabbagh
While preparing the list of movies to be watched during MAMI, it came as a surprise that a Saudi Arabian movie was there. It was more amazing to note that it was a romantic comedy! As a serius filmbuff, I tend to reject romantic comedies for what they are - juvenile pastime. But, a Saudi Arabian romantic comedy is different. Entertainment is banned there. The religious army of the Sheikhs made everything haraam - right from music to fashion, from movies to romance. Men and women, caught talking in public, are to be whipped.
This film is about Barakah, a middle class municipal officer, who hands out tickets for minor offenses. He meets Bibi, a fashion model, during an illegal photo shoot in public. He is immediately smitten. Bibi is also quite popular on the internet, where, despite not showing her face, she is considered the most rebellious, modern, young woman. They meet again at an art show. Bibi taunts him, but they start discussing art and their different perspectives on it. Later, they exchange phone numbers to continue the argument. Gradually, they start piquing each other’s interest, although Bibi keeps mocking Barakah for his naïveté, yet, she finds ways to meet Barakah often. When her mother denies to allow these rendezvous, she uses the excuse of introducing her mother, Mayyada, who wants to conceive again, to Barakah’s aunt, who is a renowned midwife and has supposedly helped many women conceive.

But ultimately everything has to stop because Bibi’s parents decide to get her married to her father’s brother. She is heartbroken. She refuses to do photo-shoots at her mother’s choice. Later, while unloading her frustration on Barakah, she admits that she is an adopted child. Her original name is Barakah too, but she changed it because she was ashamed of that name and didn’t want anything to do with her identity as an orphan, before being adopted. They have a little fight due to a misunderstanding and get separated. When they meet again at the baby shower of Bibi’s mother, they share whatever they hadn’t told each other and finally Bibi accepts that she has finally started using her real name and has embraced her identity as an orphan.

The film seems cute and sweet in the first look, but when you look in depth, it does comment on the cultural boundaries built in the country. The protagonist Barakah also comments by comparing his time with his father’s, through a slide show. He complains how in his father’s age men and women could meet in public without any problems and get to know each other. How they had musical legends as the most famous personalities. And how in Barakah’s age, they aren’t allowed to even talk to the opposite sex in open! They have to accept religious leaders as their celebrities. He also complains to his father saying that the time has come to this because the previous generation didn’t fight for the rights of the next generations.

The movie also shows how young people have no place to be together if they want to know each other. In fact, they aren’t even allowed to have privacy in their own houses if they aren’t married. Women aren’t allowed in theatres, so men perform on stage as women. There are even billboards and ads in the movie, which show the faces of the models blurred. Surprisingly, this was not a comment on moral policing, in fact, it is a normal feature in all the ads published in the country.

It is really surprising how this movie was passed by the sensor because it not only comments on religious police in Saudi Arabia, but it also has a scene in which a frustrated Bibi shows middle finger on her online profile.

Despite being a cute and a sweet love story, this film leaves a mark with its comment on freedom of expression, or lack thereof in Saudi Arabia. Cahoots to the team!

P.S. There was no Q & A after the screening. So, there is no way to ascertain what I am going to say. But, I am almost certain that this was the case. Barakah Meets Barakah was shot largely in studio, using chroma. The shots themselves give in, in this aspect. I hope someone from the film's crew could enlighten us regarding this.


Cartas da Guerra (Letters from the War, 2016) / Ivo Ferreira
Based in early ‘70s, this is the story of a Portuguese army doctor, who is sent to Africa as a part of the colonial army. The doctor, Antonio keeps writing letters to his wife mentioning his love to her, his situation in the army. His frustrations, his expectations, his uncontrollable desire to be with her, deaths around him, injured and lost people from army and from the villages that are conquered.

Antonio, through his own situation, comments of his colleagues and conditions the villagers of Africa, brings a critique of the war. But mostly the movie only speaks about his personal experiences. He becomes frustrated when he feels that his wife is drifting apart from him. He is also frustrated because he had to leave his wife while she was pregnant. In the barracks, he receives the news of his daughter being born, but fails to know the exact date. For the time, he finds solace in a four-year-old girl, whose parents have died. He tries to content himself in her company but soon the girl’s grandfather arrives and takes her away.

Antonio is shown writing pages of a novel in the beginning of the movie, but gradually, he admits that with each passing day, the frustration is increasing, which has taken a toll on him and he is not able to write anymore. A calm and cool Antonio is shown screaming and misbehaving with people.

What disappoints me while watching these movies is the fact that most of them speak from a personal point of view. No, I don’t have anything against the depiction of personal perspectives, but somehow, when you choose a subject that is associated with national, international situations, isn’t it your duty as a storyteller to bring forward the political, economic and social situation around it in a broader framework? Criticizing war is good, but wouldn’t it have been better if the movie could comment on its colonial aspect, especially, when by ’70 most of the countries were freed from colonial clutches?

Another aspect that seemed problematic with this film was that as a Portuguese army man, he is quite friendly with the African people around him, which is quite possible, but wouldn’t those people treat him as an enemy? And despite being friendly with them, he criticizes the African rituals, which may be less women-friendly (these rituals vary from multiple sex partners to pre-puberty sex with girls), but the doctor’s criticism comes from a place where he reflects that his culture is better. Isn’t that one of the ideas, which was used as a tool to convince the European masses that colonizing less developed societies were justified? Why the doctor doesn’t then criticize his own society for its norms? Why does he expects his wife to remain faithful to him even when he isn’t there to hold her hand at one of their lives’ most important occasion, the childbirth?

Indian documentary is changing slowly from its initial FFC and FD days. The senile style of Anand Patwardhan, or the rich classical style of Nishtha Jain, fails to initiate any popular movement in non-fiction cinema. Interestingly, non-fiction is more popular among the Indian Elite, so far as English literature goes, than fiction. As a filmmaker for PSBT and FD, I could not move totally away from this rotten template of boredom. It is difficult. 

At least, in that aspect, this Iberian documentary, like many of its Nat Geo and History channel counterparts, instigates the observer to participate in the story.

In Indian documentaries, that is rare.

Criticism of the socio-political scenario on an international level is strongly missing in the movies chosen this year for the Mumbai film festival.  Let us hope other movies are better in this regard.


The War Show (2016) / Andreas Dalsgaard & Obaidah Zytoon
The War Show looks in to the Syrian Civil War in details. The narrator, a DJ, speaks for a group of enlightened young Turks fighting for the civil rule in the State. The film is well-documented in sections - revolution, oppression, resistance, siege, memories, frontline and extremism. The story begins in 2011.

The first section shows how the people in Syria came out to the streets after Gaddafi's rule ended in Egypt. These Turks was protesting against the Al Assad regime. The enthusiasm of the protesting people and their hope for overthrowing the regime is evident in this sequence.

The second section shows how the State increases oppression on people to demoralize them. They confiscate cameras. They do not allow people to shoot. TV channels are not allowed to show anything that is not approved by the government. 

The third section depicts how this increased oppression, without any vent to let the accumulate pressure out, leads to a big burst. People rebelled, and peaceful protests turn to armed uprising. At this point, it is easy to draw a parallel to the contemporary India. The use of alternating wide angle lens to show freedom, and tele lens to show the claustrophobic nausea, is classically put in the context. 

The death toll of civilians increases multifold during the peak. The lensing goes completely reverse at this point too. Upturning the narrative logic, tele lens shows free movement in wide stretches of space while wide angle lenses are used to show the pent up public.

The narrator, the DJ, comes back to her hometown to pick up threads of the story. People form free Syrian army. But, soldiers refuse to shoot innocent people, quit army and join the resistance. By December, 2011, Zabadani is freed. People from all religions celebrate the independence together.

In the fourth section, this joyous moment is reversed. The jubilant youngsters go to Homs, the center of the uprising, to find it had been seized by the Syrian army. The narrators goes on to show how she lost her friends in these confrontations. Her accounts continuously shifts from the personal diary to the war chronicle, back to the diary again. These general to the particular, and back to general, cycle is achieved through scrupulous use of long shots of short duration joined to Close Up of long duration, in sequences. She depicts that brutality leads people to resort to violence as the only form of protest. 

At the end of this section, the narration hits the government strategy to releasing criminals from jails to subvert the consolidated demand for democracy. Again, I remember how the same strategy was implemented against the Naxal movement across India, in the late '60s and early '70s, by the erstwhile Congress government. I also remember how such movements have always been thwarted in India, by using more powerful communist parties and the Janasangh and Janata parties that used the garb of the friend to kill the movements. The result is today's India, where the imprisoned mind has forgotten that it is under control.

In the narrator's version, these criminals, now aiding the government in exchange of war privileges, formed the draft of an Islamic State against personal freedom and the equality of sexes. The unnamed narrator picks up a personal journey which ends in an emotional crescendo. We remember the adversities that our countrymen face everyday. The face of Syria changes to the Indian face, at odd moments. I appreciate this effort especially when it is evident that it must have been difficult to shoot on the face of such opposition.

But, I must admit that watching an insider's perspective of a Syrian citizen also left me disappointed because this film does not address the cross-border international politics outside Syria's regime, Al Assad's regime is undoubtedly brutal. But, in the entire course of the film, America's intervention in the civil war has not been mentioned even once. The international political game that has been played around the Middle-East and the oil wells does not exist for this narration. The word ISIS has not been uttered (or shown).  Does the filmmaker not realize that this whole civil war, in religious disguise, is a trade strategy for the monopoly around the Middle-East oil resources? None from inside the war zone could be such dumb. Especially when this sketches up to the possibility of the WWIII. It is too naive not to find the protesters suddenly bedecked with arms and ammunition. When the world (including Indians) know this for sure, it is crazier than fake for a Syrian filmmaker not to recognize it.

The moment it is recognized, the next question is mandatory - "Who is supplying the war-machines to them?"

The entire hush-hush around the the US-of-A, oil resources and the ISIS is conspicuous. It raised several questions in my mind. First, who funded this film? Any film is funded with some purpose. I intend to ask the question in a similar sarcastic manner to the Director of the film. Second, the situation is similar in the whole Arabian peninsula and the other encircling territories, right up to Afghanistan on the south and Turkey on the north. Why does the film keep mum about the similar situations in other neighboring states? 

Has anything changed in Egypt after the deposition of Gaddafi? Even his fall was not totally a result of the Egyptial internal protest. American intervention in the Egyptian case is a well-known affair. Surely, the people of Syria did not miss this parallel. The narration in this film has been the official version of TV channels such as CNN and BBC (and even Al Jazeera). 

I hope some disillusioned protester would make a film in the future that would help to reveal the actual politics that is going on in the name of Jihad, and the developed States' role in such brigade. 


After the Storm (2016) / Hirokazu Koreeda
Quite surprisingly, this morning, on the second day first show of the Mumbai Film Festival, I encountered a massive crowd gathering for the second screening of Koreeda's latest flick. This film is about a man who is trying to reconnect with his family after his father's death. Ryota Shinoda, a wannabe novelist, makes a living as private detective. He also pays alimony to his ex-wife for the child's financial support. He still loves his ex-wife.

He fails to move on. He stalks her when she is with her new lover. He also creates situation so that she and their son have to stay with his mother on a stormy night. He uses this opportunity to comb through the house to find some relics to pawn. He plans to earn some money, this way. 

But, somewhere a guilt develops in his mind. He does not want to follow in his father's footsteps. He does not want someone suffer like his mother. The camera sees him throughout this dilemma, in half light, in alternating high-angle and low-angle shots, but never on the eye-level. It seems that Ryoto tries to avoid looking anyone in the eye. He tries to avoid the reality.

He is addicted to gambling and lottery, just like his father. He realizes and expresses openly that he could not do what he wanted from life. In that also, it seems, he is following in his father's footsteps. 

The male and female roles are reversed. The camera uses a low-angle, and a more prominent sky background for the women, while the men are shown stooping, from a high-angle camera. 

The indecisiveness of the main characters depict the instabilities of the society for lack of opportunities, job insecurity and lack of space for self-exploration in the society. The situation is similar in India. The filmmaker offers no solution. The problems are presented quite well, however.

The film needs a special mention for performances. Specially, Kirinkiko who played Yoshiko Shinoda, Ryota's mother, deserves special mention. The background score of the film needs a separate treatment, just like that of 3-Iron.

We shall come back to that,soon,  in a special article on Cinema and Music. Stay tuned for that.

Mumbai Film Festival is on for the next four days. You can still make it by registering here.


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