Daily Archives: November 26, 2009

Kolkata IFF screening 3: Landscape No. 2 (Slovenia 2009)

I don’t know much about Slovenia, apart from its geographical position and its history as part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and then Yugoslavia after 1945. I imagined that Slovenian culture negotiates between Catholic Croatia and Orthodox Serbia.

Landscape No. 2 is the official Slovenian nomination for the 2010 Foreign Language Oscars but I think it may challenge the assumptions of Academy voters. Writer-director Vinko Möderndorfer has produced a (very) black comedy which purports to comment on the need to escape from the terrible memories of the past – according to his statement on the official website.

The narrative begins with a burglary by a pair of amateurs who are otherwise engaged in repairing domestic appliances. The older of the two, ‘Polde’, organises the job in order to steal a painting known as ‘Landscape No. 2’ from an elderly ex-Yugoslavian Army General. He knows that the General will pay a ransom to get it back, not because of its intrinsic artistic value but because it actually depicts the place where Nazi collaborators were executed by communist partisans in 1945. Unfortunately, the younger burglar Sergej (Marko Mandic) steals some money and a document that he finds in the safe. The document is proof of the executions and could considerably embarrass the General who is implicated in the executions. When he discovers it is missing, he calls in a ‘fixer’ from the pre-1990 Yugoslavian intelligence forces to retrieve it.

In the subsequent narrative developments there are four brutal murders and several explicit sex scenes. The comic moments come from the ‘jack the lad’ actions of Sergej, who leaves his fiancée in their flat whilst he cavorts with an attractive young middle-class woman, and the completely ‘over-the-top’ antics of the ‘fixer’. The mixture of sex, violence and comic fecklessness was too much for some of the festival audience and I wasn’t convinced by the balance of elements in the mix. The fixer is a comic grotesque and the performance by Slobodan Custic seemed to me to be just too much. The character seems to be psychopathic and this is troubling given the ideological work of the film. Those murdered include two pregnant women, a gay man and an older man whose crime is not so great. Whilst the director’s statement implies a wish to ‘move forward’ and free the current generation from the weight of historical traumas, it is, as one IMDB poster outlines, possible to read the film as an indictment of the communist partisans who were in many ways the heroes of resistance to the Nazis. Of course, we shouldn’t condone executions without trial but in 1945 collaborators were not ‘innocent’ by any means. I fear that the sex and violence in this generally well made film will entertain audiences without prompting a serious reflection on the need to come to terms with the past.

The trailer (with subtitles) is available on IMDB.

Kolkata IFF screenings 2: Winter in Wartime (Netherlands 2009)

Martijn Lakemeier as Michiel with Anneke Blok as his mother

Winter in Wartime (Oorlogswinter) was possibly the most successful film I saw in Kolkata, partly because it offers a conventional genre film which is both entertaining but also suggestive of an attempt to explore aspects of the wartime German occupation of Holland through the experiences of a young teenager.

The premise is straightforward. The main protagonist is Michiel, son of the mayor of a small Dutch town in 1943/4. Looking for excitement, he and a friend visit the crash site of a downed RAF Mosquito, searching the wreckage for souvenirs. Michiel is arrested by the Germans but is let off when his father intervenes. This is the first of several references to how families respond to the occupation. Is the mayor a collaborator? Initially, Michiel is unaware that one of the two RAF men bailed out and, from his position dangling from his parachute caught in a tree, shot and killed a German soldier. The Germans are keen to find whoever shot the soldier and enquiries begin.

When a friend entrusts Michiel with a message and is then arrested, the teenager decides to disobey his father and uncle and get involved in the Resistance, albeit on his own. He reads the message, discovers the wounded airman in the woods and plots to get him to safety. The final third of the film becomes an exciting chase narrative as a resourceful Michiel tries to effect the safe passage of the airman across the local river.

There are several reasons why the film works so well. Not least is the wintery landscape, beautifully presented in CinemaScope in very muted tones. In fact, I first began to write about the film thinking that I’d seen a B+W print. I was reminded of one of my favourite war pictures, Carl Foreman’s The Victors, which includes a memorable scene in the snow when an American deserter is shot by a US Army firing squad. Added to this is the high level of the performances by the whole cast, but especially Martijn Lakemeier as Michiel. He actually looked and behaved as I imagine boys in the 1940s did – I have photographs of my brother in the late 1940s and this is my yardstick for ‘authenticity’. Although the film is a genre narrative with conventions intact – Michiel’s older sister is an attractive nurse who naturally falls for the equally attractive young British flyer – there is also an attempt to resist typing. Apart from the stereotypical Nazi commander of the local forces, the Germans are shown as real people not monsters and the real focus is on the Dutch community and how it responds to Occupation. Michiel is the recipient of two acts of kindness from German soldiers who unwittingly help him when he is actually working against them. The narrative is a clever mix of ‘boys own adventure’ and serious questions about how to behave under Occupation, who to trust and how to deal with family loyalties and issues of patriotism in the context of real life and death situations. All credit to writers Mieke de Jong, Martin Koolhoven and Paul Jan Nelissen who adapted the novel by Jan Terlouw and to Koolhoven who directed the film.

Winter in Wartime (an accurate title, but not a commercial one?) follows other recent attempts to explore aspects of the ‘Home Front’/Resistance in Holland (Black Book, 2006), Denmark (Flame and Citron, 2008) and Norway (Max Manus, 2008). Like the last of these, Winter in Wartime is an Oscar contender. Other recent war films discussed on this blog include the Polish-American Defiance and Spike Lee’s Miracle of St. Anna. One suggestion is that the current period offers the last occasion to remember the war while there are still survivors of the period alive. Another suggestion is that the birth of the ‘new Europe’ of the expanded EU has prompted filmmakers to explore the recent histories of their countries. However, it’s worth noting that there has also been interest in the First World War with young people in particular interested in what their great grandparents experienced. So perhaps the genre will survive for some time yet.

These European war films have generally been popular in their own domestic markets but a quick glance at IMDB suggests that in the Netherlands audiences have to some extent divided between those that prefer the action-driven Hollywood style of Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book and those that rate the more muted drama of Winter in Wartime. I’ve only seen part of the Verhoeven flick but I think that both films are worthwhile entrants in the current cycle.

The Dutch trailer for the film is here on the official website.

Kolkata IFF screenings 1: Ploning (Philippines 2008)

I ought to begin with a confession that when I saw this film I was very tired and struggled to keep awake. Coupled with projection problems this meant that I lost the thread of the narrative. On the positive side, I did notice that the audience generally received the film very well, especially the song sequence. Perhaps there is an Asian cultural connection. Apart from watching a significant chunk of a Philippines film on the airtrip out to India, I haven’t seen a feature from this country before and my assumptions/first impressions were that these films are closest to Cantonese Cinema, but with more of an American feel.

The oddly named ‘Ploning’ is actually the central character played by Judy Ann Santos, something of a superstar in the Philippines and producer of this film which was the official Philippines nomination for the 2008 Foreign Language Oscar. The film is set on the island of Palawan and the smaller group of Cuyo Islands where the main language is Cuyonon (as distinct from the national language of Filipino/Tagalog). The story is based on a Cuyonon folk song about Ploning, a woman of 30 who has refused to marry after her teenage sweetheart disappearedwhen she was just 16. Since then she has devoted herself to helping others in her local community where she is widely loved and respected. The narrative begins with the arrival in the small town of a young man who has been working on a Taiwanese fishing boat. He is searching for a woman named ‘Ploning’. What is his connection to her? The narrative appears to shift between time periods (remember that I kept falling asleep) and includes many elements from the original folksong, including references to when the rains come, the local fiesta and the two local enterprises – extracting salt from seawater and processing cashews into ‘brittle’. The film is clearly a form of romantic melodrama with a series of coincidences and cross relationships which in my sleepy state I couldn’t disentangle. Overall, it seemed an attractive and pleasant story that I clearly wasn’t able to properly appreciate. The film has been seen at various festivals and has been very popular in its domestic market where its authenticity is in its favour. The co-writer and director Dante Nico Garcia is himself from Cuyo.

Films like this rarely get a release in the UK but I’m sure it will have played (or will play in the future) in ‘out of hours’ cinema screenings or community-based DVD screenings in London where there is a significant Philippino population. In terms of its relationship to other films in the Kolkata Festival it picks up on the themes of exile and also of the different language communities within most national states in contemporary culture. There is a useful official website for the film at http://www.ploningthemovie.com

15th Kolkata International Film Festival – Overview

The 15th Kolkata International Film Festival showed a total of 170 films in ten auditoria across the city. The festival is effectively two events in one. The official delegates and guests can attend any screening. Consequently in the main auditoria (in the Nandan complex) only a handful of tickets for non-delegates are made available and most morning screenings covering the more prestigious titles are very difficult for non-delegates to obtain tickets. This ‘official’ festival has several sections and here are the 2009 choices:

Centenary tributes: Bimal Roy and Elia Kazan

Homage: Federico Fellini, Rogério Sganzerla (Brazil), Sembene Ousmane, Yilmaz Guney

Honour: Andrzej Wajda, Márta Mészáros, Caroline Link

Discovery: Nikos Panayotopoulos, ‘Encounter’ (various films), Mexico in Focus, Marquez on Celluloid, Remembering World War 2, ‘Passage through Darkness’ (various films), Children’s Screen, Experimental, Indian Select, Short Films and Documentary Films.

The entrance to Nandan a week after the festival. (Security was such that I couldn't take photos during the festival itself.)

There is also a general section entitled Contemporary World Cinema which includes some films also listed in one of the other sections above. Many of these films are screened in venues where tickets are available for the general public. Some films may also screen in two or three different auditoria. Ticket prices are very reasonable at Rs 70/- or less (under £1 sterling).

Several of the featured filmmakers were present, including Márta Mészáros and Caroline Link who discussed their own films as well as joining in the general debate about neorealism that was taken up in a session focusing on Bimal Roy, the Bengali director who later worked in Hindi Cinema and some see as the crucial figure in injecting ‘social’ concerns into Indian films. The principal guest at the opening ceremony was Mani Ratnam who was perhaps a little embarrassed by the intervention of Mrinal Sen, the doyen of Bengali filmmakers, who, speaking from the floor of the Nandan auditorium, condemned the festival organisers for demoting him from the platform. (I wasn’t there but the incident was reported in the local press which covered the festival most days.) Ratnam acknowledged Sen as a mentor and was probably a trifle bemused having flown up to Kolkata from shooting Ravana in Hyderabad. Also embarrassed was the local star actor Soumitra Chatterjee (best known in the West for his work with Satyajit Ray) who was chair of the festival.

Mrinal Sen addressing delegates at the opening of the festival (image from KolkataMirror.com).

The reason for Sen’s intervention was taken to be political by the local media. Sen has long been recognised as one of the leading figures in left film culture in India and the presence of West Bengal’s Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee on the platform at a time when the majority party in the state, the CPM (Communist Party of India – Marxist), had just been thrashed in local ‘bypolls’ was seen as provocative. Bengali film culture has long been enmeshed in left sectarian politics it would seem. Ironically, the Chief Minister spoke about “The world . . . threatened by international terrorism, global warming, military hegemony and other problems. The films have been chosen on the basis of their social relevance and aesthetic excellence”. I think that this is an accurate statement and it’s one of the reasons why I wanted to attend. Kolkata is about as far away from the glitz, glamour and popcorn of competetive festivals with commercial markets (i.e. Cannes, Toronto  etc.) as it is possible to get. The emphasis is on politics and aesthetics, still drawing heavily on the legacy of the Bengali intellectual and cultural heritage associated with Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen himself. This is clear from the Festival’s showreel, shown before each screening. The montage of images contrasts iconic scenes from Bengali films with contemporary footage of similar locations. The two most iconic images of Bengali Cinema that I recognised were the ‘train shot’ from Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955) and the symbolic railway buffers from Ghatak’s Komal Ghandhar (1961) which powerfully represent the partition of Bengal in 1947. I’m fairly sure that there are other Ray and Sen sequences in there as well.

Unfortunately, I was unable to register for the festival – I naively thought I would be able to do this from the UK, but then discovered that the festival website didn’t work and the email address was inaccurate. Consequently, I arrived in Kolkata not knowing if I would see anything. On the day before the festival, the hospitality director provided me with a programme and one ticket for a delegate-only screening and I worked out how to buy tickets for the public screenings of ‘Contemporary World Cinema’ films. I eventually saw the following films which I’ll try to cover in separate posts:

The Unburied Man (dir. Márta Mészáros, Hungary

Ploning (dir. Dante Nico Garcia, Philippines 2008)

My Marlon and Brando (dir. Huseyin Karabey, Turkey 2008)

Winter in Wartime (dir. Martin Koolhoven, The Netherlands 2009)

Landscape No. 2 (dir. Vinko Mordendorfer, Slovenia 2008)

Black (dir Pierre Lafargue, France 2009)

Songs from the Southern Seas (dir Marat Sarulu, Kazakhstan/Russia/Germany/France 2008)

The Contemporary World Cinema selection was, I think, well chosen with at least 41 countries represented (some were co-productions so possibly more than 41). I chose films mainly on the basis of the time slot and what was showing in the Rabindra Sadan – a large 900 seater auditorium used mainly for live theatre but converted for the festival – situated adjacent to Nandan. I found all the films interesting in different ways. Most of the films have been widely seen at other festivals, but Kolkata’s USP is placing them together in such a way that their political/cultural elements become more noticeable. I also appreciated the chance to watch films from countries I know little about, having never seen films from these countries before, i.e. Philippines, Slovenia and Kazakhstan.

Several of the films shown have already opened in the UK and are included as separate entries on this blog, e.g. Skin, Katalin Varga and Cherry Blossoms. The opening film was Mark Herman’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (UK 2008) which I chose not to see on its UK release on the basis of its trailer. It has actually done quite well around the world but I was interested to see that the press coverage in Kolkata outlined the hostility of some some Holocaust survivor groups towards the representations in the film. Here it kicked of the ‘Remembering World War II’ strand.

Individual reviews to follow.