Monthly Archives: June 2015

Jai Bhim Comrade (India 2011)

The revolutionary poet-singer Vilas Ghogre

The revolutionary poet-singer Vilas Ghogre

Anand Patwardhan is a major documentary filmmaker who since the 1970s has courageously produced a series of uncompromising films about the central political and social issues of contemporary India. Jai Bhim Comrade was 14 years in the making. The title is a salutation invoking the memory of Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar (1891-1956) who inspired the Ambedkarite Dalit movement. In 1997 a statue of Ambedkar in Mumbai was desecrated and in the aftermath of the discovery of this act 10 local people from the local ‘colony’ were killed by the police. Four days later a local radical poet and singer was so affected by the events that he took his own life. The police officer responsible for the men who committed the atrocity was suspended but it would take ten years for a hearing and a judgement from the court to come through. In the meantime, Patwardhan set out to put together a complex interweaving of witness statements, reportage, history lessons and, crucially, music performances to represent the persecution of Dalits, the corruption of police and judicial services, the hatred fostered by communalist politics, but also the incredible fortitude of the people forced to live in poverty and work in appalling conditions so that the Indian (upper) middle classes can have a comfortable existence.

‘Dalit’ (‘the oppressed’) is the preferred term used by those Indians who find themselves at the lowest level of the Indian caste system, deemed ‘untouchable’ by the brahmins (priestly caste), ‘warriors’, traders and skilled labourers. Statistics given in the film suggest that one quarter of Indians are ‘Scheduled castes’ or ‘Scheduled tribes’ – effectively second-class citizens. This means that a certain number of jobs are ‘reserved’ for them by the constitution but this quota treatment just emphasises the maltreatment of all the other SC and ST populations. Patwardhan puts all of these arguments before us in painstaking detail. But this doesn’t make the film depressing. He finds wonderfully articulate witnesses. Men, women and children discuss their situations eloquently and with fierce spirit and they are accompanied by wonderful singers and poets. I doubt any audience could fail to be impressed.

Not surprisingly perhaps, for much of his long career, Patwardhan has had to look outside India for the funds to enable him to keep shooting and keep editing. (When Channel 4 in the UK was committed to alternative political voices, it was one of Patwardhan’s funders via its purchase of films for telecasts.) He wields the camera, interviews his subjects and edits the footage himself in the main.

There is a great deal written about Anand Padwardhan. For instance, you can see a visual essay as well as a review of Jai Bhim Comrade by Catherine Bernier on the Jump Cut website. Patwardhan himself has his own website and he guards his rights carefully – the film can be purchased from this website. On Patwardhan’s website you can also find a range of reviews and interviews. I found the interview by John Akomfrah and Ilona Halberstadt very useful. But if you want to see and hear Anand Patwardhan talk about Jai Bhim Comrade, I urge you to watch the BFI interview conducted by the revolutionary dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson at BFI Southbank.

(Jai Bhim Comrade is referenced at the end of Chapter 8 of The Global Film Book.

Only Yesterday (Omoide Poro Poro, Japan 1991)

A pensive Taeko on the night train taking her to the country.

A pensive Taeko on the night train taking her to the country.

This is one of the Studio Ghibli anime that despite huge popularity in Japan seems to have been sidelined in UK and US distribution. I wasn’t aware of the film when it appeared in Film 4’s Ghibli season earlier this year. Most of the films in the season were dubbed but this one, playing very late at night, was subtitled. I’m assuming Disney never bothered to find an English language cast for it. Why has it been overlooked? The most obvious answer is that it doesn’t fit the Western expectations for an anime. Even though it features a small girl for much of the time this is in fact a ‘romantic drama’ for older audiences. It was the highest grossing Japanese film of 1991.

Based on a manga by Okamoto Hotaru and Tone Yuko, Only Yesterday was written and directed by Takahata Isao. Co-founder of Studio Ghibli with Miyazaki Hayao, Takahata is probably best known in the West for Grave of the Fireflies (Japan 1988), the heart-wrenching tale of two children escaping the fire-bombing of Kobe in 1945. Only Yesterday is not dramatic in the same way but it is equally moving.

Taeko is a young single woman working in a Tokyo office in 1982. When the other workers plan exotic summer holidays she decides to visit the countryside and stay with distant relatives. She’s been before and this time she wants to pick safflowers – traditionally used for making dyes and cosmetics. Taeko has already heard the comments that at age 27 she should be married and this trip seems to trigger very strong memories of how she felt as a 10 year-old being taken to a spa town on holiday. Takahata then constructs the whole narrative as a series of flashbacks to 1966 interspersed with ‘life on the farm’ where Taeko’s ‘time off’ is spent with Toshio, a young man who tried working in Tokyo but decided to return to the land as an organic farmer.

In 1966 a pineapple is still an exotic fruit and the family doesn't know how to serve it.

In 1966 a pineapple is still an exotic fruit and the family doesn’t know how to serve it.

There are a couple of informative and very interesting reviews of Only Yesterday on the Studio Ghibli wiki at nausicaa.net. One notes that the Japanese title translates as ‘Memories of Falling Teardrops’ and that this is much more evocative of the mood and tone of the film. I agree and, although I’m wary of referencing Ozu at every turn, I also have to agree that the film has the same careful investigation of family relationships found in Ozu’s films. Takahata even presents the film’s credits against the kind of hessian background used by Shochiku and other studios for their 1950s and 60s dramas. There is the same nostalgia for Japan in the 1950s that appears in Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro. Taeko is the youngest of three girls and experiences a combination of love, bullying and high expectation from her stern father, no nonsense mother and grandmother and older siblings obsessed with the Beatles and the ‘new Japan’. Takahata shows in great detail how Taeko is affected by seemingly trivial incidents and how they build up into almost traumatic episodes – a first crush, embarrassment over discussion of menstruation, an inability to understand division of fractions, a dream about becoming an actor. Some of these are bad memories but they all need to be worked over by the adult Taeko.

The field of safflowers and the distant hills.

The field of safflowers and the distant hills.

In aesthetic terms this is a ravishing film with two distinct animation styles. 1966 is detailed in simply drawn and coloured scenes whereas the landscapes of rural Japan in 1982 are exquisitely beautiful. There is a focus on music, including several East European songs that Toshio tells Takeo that he likes because they are ‘peasant songs’. Like Miyazaki, Takahata seems to have been a big promoter of ecological concerns and there are detailed conversations about organic farming and the relationship between humans and the rural landscape.

The film is primarily about Takeo’s choices and after spending a summer holiday in which Toshio has helped her think through all her childhood concerns it seems fairly obvious that he might be ‘the one’. But Taeko has always been stubborn and self-willed. Will she finally go with what seems a sensible option?

This is a lovely film that ought to make any audience feel better about the world. There is a UK Region 2 DVD and a US Blu-ray, I think – but no English dub (hooray!). Many reviewers have said this is their favourite Ghibli DVD. I think I might still go for My Neighbour Totoro but this is seriously wonderful. Please seek it out – you won’t regret it.

Manga and anime are discussed in The Global Film Book in Chapter 5.

Timbuktu (Mauritania-France 2014)

Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed, left) the herdsman tussles with the fisherman Amadou who has killed one of his cows.

Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed, left) the herdsman tussles with the fisherman Amadou who has killed one of his cows.

The writer-director Abderrahmane Sissako is one of the case study subjects in Chapter 8 of The Global Film Book. He makes beautifully-constructed films – but only three in 12 years starting with Waiting For Happiness in 2002, followed by Bamako in 2006 and this latest film in competition at Cannes 2014. He has also been involved as a producer/executive producer on two films from the Chadian director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun – Abouna (2002) and Daratt (2006). Sissako and Haroun are the only current African directors to consistently produce films that feature at international festivals and are sold to the UK and US and other international territories. Other Francophone directors are often limited to a release in France. In Francophone Africa films are rarely seen by local audiences except via FESPACO, the biennial African film festival held in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Both Sissako and Haroun produce films using French production support since the infrastructure for filmmaking in Mauritania and Chad is limited.

‘Timbuktu’ for audiences in Europe has historically been the signifier of ‘the most distant’ and ‘the most exotic’. More recently it has been the destination of music tourists heading for a festival of desert blues. In 2012 the Malian city was occupied by Tuareg rebels including jihadists who sought to impose Sharia law on the inhabitants of the city. Sissako’s film begins with local wooden carvings being used for target practice by jihadists and later it shows attempts to prevent local people playing music. Most of the film was actually shot in Mauritania but there are enough shots of the unique conical or pyramid-shaped structures used as mosques in Timbuktu to confirm the intended location.

The self-styled 'Islamic Police' waylay a woman in the street. Is there a curfew? Is she properly covered?

The self-styled ‘Islamic Police’ waylay a woman in the street. Is there a curfew? Is she properly covered?

Timbuktu has a distinctive narrative structure that mainly pits the story of what happens to a single Tuareg family living in the desert outside the city against the attempts by the jihadists to ‘police’ the activities of the inhabitants of one part of the city. The narration roams across different mini-stories before returning to the Tuareg family. Each of the separate stories focuses on one aspect of Sharia law – the ban on music, the need for women to cover themselves, the rules of marriage, the judicial procedures that produce severe sentences. The most shocking of these, the stoning to death of an unmarried couple, was a real event which formed the starting point for Sissako’s script (co-written by a young woman, Kessen Tall).

Despite the lack of ‘narrative drive’ as found in commercial cinema, Timbuktu is endlessly fascinating, shocking, emotionally moving and sometimes very funny. The narrative is richly textured and multi-layered and almost seems to define the concept of ‘global filmmaking’. The characters are carefully delineated in terms of ethnicity and personal background. Mali is a country with a dozen official languages although the two most used in official communications are Bambara and French. The jihadists use both of these to warn citizens of the new rules. Yet the jihadists themselves, many from Libya or with experience of training and fighting in that country, speak Arabic, French and English. However many can only speak one of these languages and others must interpret for them, sometimes in quite cumbersome ways. There are even language and ethnicity issues within the Tuareg communities (something I didn’t realise until research after the screening).

Apart from shock of the sickening violence of the stoning, the most controversial aspect of the film for some commentators is the way that Sissako ‘humanises’ some of the jihadists. They are a mixed group of the well-educated and urbane and the much less sophisticated. Their belief in a cause/mission is firmly held but they are chided by the local imam for their lack of knowledge about Islam and they enjoy in private what they forbid in public. For me one of the most compelling sequences occurs at a judicial hearing. The Tuareg ‘defendant’ doesn’t speak Arabic and his answers to questions have to be interpreted. The jihadist leader who acts as the Sharia law ‘magistrate’ listens carefully and writes everything down. He seems genuinely to care about what the defendant says and makes a reasoned judgment. When the defendant realises that he can’t pay the appropriate fine/compensation he accepts his fate because he believes in this Islamic procedure. This scene contrasts sharply with others where Sharia is forced on people for various ‘crimes’, e.g. the family of the young woman who is forced into marriage with a jihadist. Sissako stages both scenes with the same measured and seemingly detached eye – we are the ones who decide for ourselves what to think. This detachment is visualised in a spectacular sequence in which cinematographer Sofian El Fani pulls away from the action and allows it to play out in the widest long shot I’ve ever seen. On a CinemaScope screen this is breathtaking.

Parts of the film reminded me very much of Bamako, with its concerns for judicial procedures while ‘ordinary life’ carries on. Sissako’s detachment also allows him to present a surreal football match in which young men play a game without a ball (playing football has been banned). I read one review that criticised the scene in which young jihadists discuss (in French) who is the best footballer in the Champions League, suggesting that this was unrealistic. I have two objections to this. First it doesn’t have to be ‘realistic’. It can be ‘fantastic’ and still tell us something about the situation and the political discourse. Secondly, the footballers who play in the Champion’s League and the major national leagues in Europe are some of the best known celebrities across Africa. My view overall is that this is too complex a narrative to discuss in detail after a single viewing. I aim to watch it again – perhaps more than once. I have read comments by people who haven’t seen the film and think it would be too harrowing or depressing. I implore you to ignore them and get to see Timbuktu if you get the opportunity. This is a great film.

Press Kit from Le Pacte

Trailer:

More footage and a wonderful song by Fatoumata Diawara & Amine Bouhafa: