Sunday, June 14, 2020

Notes on Finally Bhalobasha, by Anjan Dutt, India: 2019

The tears I never shared have become a song somehow
The song I never sung has became popular now.”
(from the song Chhiley Bondhu, lyrics Anjan Dutt))

As a child - even though it was strictly forbidden - I loved to stroll in and around old abandoned and almost declined houses - but also on construction places where new houses were built. The ruins promised traces of stories about people gone long ago, the construction places promised stories to come and especially here began everything with sand, concrete and bricks, the first rooms appeared and finally people moved in with all their stories
I often dream films as buildings, dwellings, especially since my passion for Ozu decades ago and recently with some films by Aparna Sen or Anjan Dutt. Among so much other things, Anjan Dutts Dutta Vs Dutta was as well a portrait of a house divided in rooms like the film offered different stories about different family members.

Finally Bhalobasha, one of Dutts more recent films begins almost like a cinematic construction place. The three (at the first sight seemingly unconnected) stories are separated by titles and shutters and they appear in two cycles and a short finale. They grow together gradually and before we are aware of it, we begin already to “dwell” in it. Sometimes it feels like we see rushes of three different films.
The first one, “Insomnia” is about a young man called Bibek, “Bobby” who is hired by a mobster who often abuses his young wife Malavika violently. The second one “Arthritis”, is about an aging ex military officer who brings a young woman to his home who collapsed in front of his car and the third one “HIV positive” is about the relationship about a young man who is going to die of Aids and his male nurse (a wannabe boxer and a former rickshaw driver).

As a film is always built and edited, sometimes the art of cinema offers as well an idea about this kind of work which is needed to for all the moods, thoughts and feelings which the film will evoke in us – or that what mean to “dwell” for a temporary time in a film.

I have seen Finally Bhalobasha last year at my friends place in the USA for the first time (where it was streamed at Amazon) but was very much distracted by my fascination for his previous masterpiece Aami Ashbo Phirey. This year I rediscovered it for myself. It was the time of a worldwide lockdown which brought the 125 years old history of cinema to a halt.

As each of the three segments include a song, it was especially the song Chhiley Bondhu (for the segment “HIV positive”) which gave me a new access to this film, like a hidden door in a building which I have missed before. This mesmerizing song (composed by Neel Dutt, lyrics by Anjan Dutt) stands for the wonderful work of Neel Dutt for most of the films by Anjan Dutt but among others as well for some recent films by Aparna Sen. But its appearance in this film is as well a key to the hidden magic in the films by Anjan Dutt.

Like in most filmy by Dutt, the characters are too much involved in their life in the Here and Now for being able to explain themselves. But between their every day routine, their patterns and habits there are often moments which reveal a deep sadness about the loss of dreams and about the inability to have lead the life they dreamt of.

In “Insomnia”, the first narrative segment with a tendency to the gangster film genre, Bibek tries desperately to make up with his girlfriend. He tries to phone her often but a real communication does not take place. Out of pity wife of his boss he plans with Malavika and a friend to stage a ransom extortion. They stage the abduction of the unhappy gangster bride Malavika to free her from her violent husband.

Arthritis” the second segment has more a tendency to Ozu´s famous “home dramas”. Dinesh the former military officer and the young woman Ahiri the trumpet player of a Folk Jazz band suggest at the first side a kind of romance between an aging man and a much younger woman. But soon it turns into a melancholic dialogue between the different times of a human life. Dinesh lost his wife during the birth of his only son (about whom he does not like to talk very much). His wife must have been in the age of Ahiri when she died. Piece by piece the film changes our perception. Is “Insomnia” still close to the gangster genre, “Arthritis” moves anywhere between Proust and Ozu between the Here and Now and memories as part of human consciousness. I had to think about the simple newspaper article which inspired Ozu to his very last film Sanma no Aji: Aging widower feels reminded in his late wife by a bar hostess.
Behind the Here and Now, the film reveals as well these “beings of time” according to Proust of which a human life is built. Like I mentioned, in this seemingly clearly arranged “cinematic building” other hidden doors are opened.

The cinematic landscape offered by the third segment “HIV positive” is again another possibility of cinema. It takes place in Darjeeling, a region which always had a special meaning for Anjan Dutt. Joey, he dying young man who wanted to be an actor cites without pause dialogues from films to override his fear of death which irritates his male nurse. At the beginning they seem stuck together. They quarrel in the middle the wild beauty of Darjeeling´s mountain landscape like in the middle of the cinematic glory, the dying man is dreaming of. At the same time their mortality and frailty contrasts with the mighty old landscape.
The notion of death is always present. Close before the young man´s death they make an excursion to the environment of Darjeeling. They visit the boarding school the young man once visited (if I am not mistaken it is the same boarding school Anjan Dutt or his Alter Ego Ronno in Dutta Vs Dutta attended once). The moment is a strange moving celebration of fragments of happiness (imagined or really lived) contrasted with the certainty of death and it belongs to the most heartbreaking moments in Anjan Dutt´s work. The song Chhiley Bondhu appears as an advanced requiem.
Neel Dutt sings:
Are you my friend from long long time ago?
The friend who shared my happiness my woe?
If we meet again in some other world
Will you love me like you did once before?”

As the three segments begin to connect more and more with each other one is astonished again how much a film can tell about life (and how much one can learn about cinema) in less than 2 hours film. The short finale lets the single segments dissolve all into one after “Insomnia” ends with a harsh tragedy, “Arthritis” with a journey and “HIV positive” with death. All three paths lead to Darjeeling and the cinemascope images gain landscape images of often mythic quality.

Like in Satyajit Ray´s legendary masterpiece Kanchanjangha, the landscape is divided in paths and viaducts build by men and made for men and which are at the same time the borderlines between civilization and nature.Dinesh´s confession that he failed as a father takes place in front of this landscape. Finally Bibek and his girlfriend are meeting again. But soon they turn their backs to us and with them we can only look into the infinite landscape into the infinite sky. The landscape , the fictive narration and the frame of the cinemascope image are melting into an impressing cinematic landscape close to the relationship between people and landscape in some films by John Ford. In Anjan Dutt´s films there is place for the failed, the mourning, for the ones who lost their dreams and the ones who still believe in their dreams, the ones who lost the strength to hope and the ones who are still able to hope and dream.
In this sense, Finally Bhalobasha is also a love letter to cinema.

Rüdiger Tomczak

Monday, May 18, 2020

Notes on Robibaar (On a Sunday), by Atanu Ghosh, India: 2019

"We know that behind every image revealed there is another image more faithful to reality, and in the back of that image there is another, and yet another behind the last one, and so on, up to the true image of that absolute, mysterious reality that no one will ever see. "

(Michelangelo Antonioni)

At the beginning the law officer Sayani has a heavy nightmare. She wakes up on a Sunday morning. For now she does what we usually do if no work and no schedule are forcing us: she phones with relatives or friends. In a coffeeshop she meets by accident her former lover Asimabha from whom she separated 15 years ago. The film opens with a situation, this unexpected meeting with her former boyfriend. Out of this situation, the film´s narration develops from this and what it evokes in the protagonists. The film offers hints about their past rather than revealing it. And especially these hints give an idea about the complexity of a human life which is not built of one story but a network of numberless stories. Half voluntary and half reluctant, Sayani follows her former lover on a strange sunday journey through places which had once a meaning for both of them but as well through their past. Cinema can always reveal two things at the same time, a journey to concrete datable places but at the same time it can give hints about the inner life of its protagonists.

At the beginning Sayani/Jaya Ahsan and Asimabha/Prosenjit Chatterjee occur to me as actors who never have met before and who just began to work together like on a first rehearsal for a film. The hints about her past as a couple remain fragmental. It is rather our imagination which is animated than our little knowledge about their story.
The places, buildings, streets they walk through are real places and its presence seems totally independent from the films subtle fiction or its narrative strategies. Strangely I remembered (despite the film´s soberness) Alain Resnais´ L´Année dernière à Marienbad. But contrary to Resnais´ film which takes place in surreal designed sets while Robibaar takes literally place in the streets of contemporary Kolkata. The fiction and the real environment exists equally side by side. As the environment´s presence looks at the first sight like in a documentary, the things and places are suddenly loaded up with meaning only the two protagonists can fully understand, no memories but hints to memories: an old Sitar, a locker, a box and a key. They suddenly evoke for a moment traces of pain, lostness. When we are still seeing this places and streets of modern Kolkata, the protagonists dive from time to time into their own past, their memories invisible for us. Suddenly Asimabha is humming a melody unknown to us but related to his past with Sayani.

The hints given to us by Atanu Ghosh are not not enough to reveal the complete story of this couple but they create a strange fascinating suspense.
The film evokes questions rather than answers. Was Asimabha a fraudster involved in crimes? Or did Sayani really had an abortion and the child was from him? The old Sitar or the collection of love letters at all seem like keys to their story and we feel a bit like the reporter in Orson Welles´ Citizen Kane who is trying to find the meaning of Kane´s last word “Rosebud”.

Many scenes of this film take places on highways seen from the front shield of a car. Streets and highways are some of the most anonymous places one can imagine in a film. It is only the film´s fiction which avoids the protagonists totally disappearance into this world they are originated from.

The wonderful jazz music, this unique utopian coexistence of individual freedom and collective musical achievement seems sometimes corresponding with a more lively past this former couple once had with each other, in other moments it seems rather like an engrossing part of the soundtrack.
Two other stories are indicated: a boy from the streets who is a brilliant flute player with whom Asimabha spends some time (like with a son he never had and probably will never have) and a strange mobster-like chracter who keeps his wife like a prisoner. They appear as connections to Asimabha´s life and disappear again in anonymity.
Sayani is always ready to finish this accidental sunday journey. It seems like her intellect has already completed this chapter of her life but her heart is still magnetized by this unhealthy relationship.

There is one scene which tells very precisely about this longing for closeness and the insight of alienation from the person she once loved. It is the only intimate scene in this film towards the end. They hug and kiss but suddenly Sayani frees herself and says: “And now, rape?” Very fast, their bodies separate from each other. The last echo of their relationship trails off and this moment appears as the death of a relationship.

As many emotions in Robibaar seem to be suppressed, the emotional impact of a finished love story remains offscreen. The experience of this film is split into two different films, the one we just saw and the other which will be re-edited in our memory and filled with the emotions which the real film did not show but evoked.
Like Atanu Ghosh´s previous film Mayurakshi, Robibaar is as well a very sober film anywhere between the urban landscapes and lost souls in the films by Michelangelo Antonioni or Edward Yang in its evocation of alienation and lostness in our modern civilization.
But sometimes it is especially the lack of drama and staged emotions which lets a films appear in retrospect as a deeply sad experiences. And sometimes it is an echo of a film which leaves us with a bitter aftertaste of lostness and alienation which remains unforgettable.

Rüdiger Tomczak

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Notes on Ghawre Bairey Aaj (The Home and the World Today) by Aparna Sen, India: 2019

To shoot a film is to organise an entire universe’. (Ingmar Bergmann)

To enjoy or at least to appreciate a film by Aparna Sen, one has to look for the often hidden layers under the surface, in short words – one has to understand the cinematic universe of Aparna Sen as a multidimensional one. The obvious surface of her films always stand in a relationship to the hidden layers. One of the best examples is for me still Mr. And Mrs. Iyer. At the first sight a very simple story but after several watchings it almost appears to me as her most abstract film and among so much other things it is probably the re-invention of the Road Movie at the beginning of the 21th century.

Ghawre Bairey Aaj is her adaptation of Rabindranath Tagore´s famous novel The Home and the World,already 1984 adapted by Satyajit Ray). Like with her “Romeo and Julia” adaptation from Shakespeare, Aparna Sen places the novel into contemporary India. The nationalistic “Svedashi-movement of the beginning of the 20th. Century is here replaced by the pseudo Hindu and fundamentalistic movement caused by the governing party BJP in India (which is never mentioned), an ultra right wing party with para-military cadres, a gang of thugs influenced by the Fascism movement of the 1920s and 1930s like for example Hitler´s SA. Their aggressions are especially against Muslims and other minorities but also against Indians from lower castes and women.
As well interesting are her modifications of the three main characters of Tagore´s novel which is as well one of the most fascinating triangle relationships in world literature. The Maharaja Nikhilesh (Anirban Bhattacharya)is here the left-liberal chief editor of an online magazine called India Online, his friend since childhood Sandip (Jisshu Sengupta) has changed from a leftish radical activist into a right wing activist propagating Hindu fundamentalism and Brinda (Tuhina Das), Nikhilesh´s wife is a Dalit, a tribal girl who came as the granddaughter of a servant into Nikilesh´s family. Later she finally was married with him. Even though converted to the educated Indian middle class, Brinda´s roots (her parents were coalminers)are in the Indian working class.

As far to the film´s obvious reference to India´s presence. Aparna Sen does not even try to encrypt this reference. Sandip is a man with a mask, his evilness is hidden behind the mask of a seducer and he is right between Mozart´s Don Giovanni and these masculine devils we know from some films by Erich von Stroheim.
The direct and unfiltered political aspect of the film is important. All who know a bit of Aparna Sen´s work as an activist from her involvement in the protest movement against the Nandigram massacres or her present opposition against the present political current of intolerance and violence in India, have noticed as well that she is often verbal attacked in social networks and that very often by right wing followers.
Aparna Sen´s motivations are less from a predetermined ideological point of view but rather what we call in Germany “gesunder Menschenverstand” vaguely translated with a “healthy human mind”. I imagine she is a bit like Nikhilesh´s teacher Professor Mitra (played by the wonderful Anjan Dutt). In a arguement with Sandip he says that Hinduism is quite a noble religion, why he wants to “talibanize” it?

Except the opening and closing, the film´s narrative structure appears for now as clear and simple. The scenes taking place in the presence are coloured, the flashbacks and memories in Black and White. But very soon these seemingly simple element begin to move into a spiraling virtuosity.

Ghawre Bairey Aaj is as well mostly a chamber piece. Except some excursions of Brinda and Sandip and Nikhilesh´s long trip to a tribal village for promoting the building of a hospital for the village people, most scenes are captured in the interiors of the house. Even though taking rather place in the “Home”, the “World” is always perceptible, it begins on the terrace, behind a curtain, behind the entrance door.
Even though Aparna Sen remains close to Tagore´s narrative style to illuminate equally the motivations of the three main characters, I think there is a slight focusing on Brinda. As she is relatively uninvolved in the ideological dispute between Sandip and Nikhilesh, she seems to be more in contact with her history. And there is an important flashback, when Brinda as a young girl and now orphaned brought from her village into the wealthy house. What Sandip called sarcastically the “brahminization of a tribal girl” is for the child a painful uprooting. The child which does not want to sit on the table is one of the most heartbreaking moments in the film and it is important for Brinda´s further development as a character. While Sandip and Nikhilesh are arguing from their ideological place in the world, Brinda is always looking for a place she can call home, looking for a point of view where she proof these predetermined ideologies.

When she is finally involved in a sexual relationship with Sandip, she is less the seduced one but it is for her a welcomed self experiment to find ther place in the world. It happens with a certain innocence, neither adultery nor the intention to betray or hurt her husband. She just follows an understandable longing but with the wrong person.

Brinda´s confession to Nikhilesh and the following reconcilation is another unforgettable moment. It is a chamber scene with the intensity of a Mozart-Da Ponte-opera. It is a heartbreaking moment of tenderness between a couple despite they have lost completely any trace of romantic love. But under this eloquent and music-like scene, there are emotions as naked and truthfully like we find only in the films by Ritwik Ghatak or Terrence Malick.

This can happen often when I watch a film by Aparna Sen: Often and much to fast one thinks one has looked through the story, or the structure. But this feeling of my preeminence as a spectator does not last long and it will be always lead ad absurdum and there remains always the insight that the wisdom of her films subdues me. It is not easy to put the finger on the brilliancy of her films.

Neel Dutt´s score is almost like a fourth person invisible but strangely perceptible. It is like a strange phantom-like being which is contrary to the three main characters not bound by space and time. More than in any other films by Aparna Sen, Dutt´s score might hint to the melancholy of a failed marriage, a dying friendship but it remains as well an independent agent, a mysterious matter in this universe. And sometimes the music in its elegiac tone has something of the remains of these Proustian beings of time, the beings we were once in these different phases of our life. While the characters often remember their past, Sandip to his former left radical actions, Sandip and Nikhilesh in their common past and Nikhilesh´s early love or Brinda in her past as a poor village girl, the music seems always referring to past, presence and future at the same time. Neel Dutt´s music and how it is integrated in the film´s soundtrack presents the other side of this film, the more abstract and poetic side of Aparna Sen beside the bleak parable about contemporary India.

Ghawre Bairey Aaj is as well a film about disconnections, the one between the close friends, but also between what they were once and what they are today. There is a moment with an uncanny double exposure. Close to the intense finale of the film, there appears like a phantom the little girl Brinda was once. This now disembodied being goes through Brinda´s adult Self like a neutron through matter and disappears finally.. The connection between Brinda and the girl she once was is suspended. Brinda becomes a second time uprooted and homeless.

The more the film moves to its end the more it becomes a bitter poem about how to feel home less in a culture where you originated from. It is a bit like the American John Ford in Two Rode together (one of the sharpest film on American racism)or the episode Civil War in How the West was one, The last film Jean Renoir made in France before his exile La Regle du Jeu, Ozus bleakest film Tokyo Boshoku (Tokyo Twilight) or the Kolkata trilogy of Satyajit Ray.

Three people are murdered in this film, The first, a young Muslim gay is killed by a squad of Hindu-fundamentalist, the second is a political murder of an intellectual and the last one is one out of revenge. Nikhilesh´s study was always present in this film. With its full packed book shelves, it is like an image for the wisdom, this diversity of philosophy, science and poetry it seems like the stored knowledge of a several thousand years old culture. Now it is converted into a mortuary.

After the last murder, the soundtrack becomes distorted, the movements slow down and one feels like in an event horizon of a Black Hole. Tuhina Das´s beautiful face becomes like stone, without any trace of life. The whole circle of the film is closed The end is not less apocalyptic like Aparna Sen´s Yugant, These last images leave in its consequence a long and painful echo. The world goes apart and this very special sophisticated Laterna Magica of Aparna Sen´s cinema ceases to move.

Fear, anger worries and sadness about the world, in this case her country India is always present in the films by Aparna Sen. Despite that, I am sure, Aparna Sen loves cinema like other cinephile film directors of her generation like Wim Wenders or Martin Scorsese do. The re-discovering of all the diversity of cinema, I owe Aparna Sen, when I discovered her films for myself 15 years ago. Her films are often moving between incredible beauty especially in her her Mr. And Mrs. Iyer and The Japanese Wife (beauty in cinema has for me often something of a lost paradise) and often bleak heavy nightmares about the world today. About my relationship with her films which can fascinate and destress me likewise, a very special scene from Robert Zemeckys´ science fiction film Contact comes to my mind: When the astrophysicist Elli Arroway (Jodie Foster) makes this trip in a multidimensional ship, she encounters an Alien in the shape of her late father. And he says to her that you (Mankind) are very lonely but a remarkable specie, capable to incredible beautiful dreams but as well to such horrible nightmares.

Rüdiger Tomczak

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Notes on Irradiés (Irradiated) by Rithy Panh, Cambodia/France: 2020-BerlinFilmfestival2020 IX.-Competition

At the first sight, the new film by Rithy Panh seems to be his most abstract work, rather a film essay than a documentary. Among so much other things, the film is a triptych, the cinema scope format is divided in three frames. The three frames reveal mostly archive footage of the most barbaric events of the 20th. Century. Some critics compared it with an art installation. I prefer to call it a reversion of the technics used in Abel Gance´s Napoleon or the short lived Cinerama-format invented to make cinema even more spectacular. In Panh´s film, this triptych is a flickering, disturbing flood of images. It is not about the wonders of cinema, but its hell. Mostly poetic texts are spoken as voice over. The relationship between text and image reminds me in some films by Marguerite Duras or Jean-Luc Godard.
tried to shake the images away like a nightmare. But when I close my eyes, I still feel the images are still there just waiting to come back to my mind in the most displeasing moment.

The history of mankind especially the 20th. Century is revealed as an accumulation of genocide, wars and the increasing perfection of weapons, especially bombs, from the poisoned gas in world war I to the nuclear bombs in Hiroshima. Vivisections and experiments with always more “perfect” tools for mass killings. There are permanent cross-fadings between the very specific genocides of the German Holocaust, the Cambodian Genocide, the first atomic bombs or the area-wide shellfire in the American-Vietnamese war or other bombings during world war II. Opposite to some reviews on this film – I am sure that Panh understands the specific differences of these different genocides and mass killings. The common link between them is what Panh calls an abstractness of evil: the extinction of a whole city at the push of a button of a pilot, the frenzied fussy bureaucracy of the Nazis in the extermination camps.
It is an evil which literally wants the people dead. And Rithy Panh knows exactly about what he is telling about. The corps, bones and skulls of the victims of German concentration camps or Cambodian death camps are shown. Sometimes only ashes is left as human remains. Panh´s film tells about the contempt towards human life but as well about the annihilation of identities, whole families where no one is left to remember the dead. If something is left than a name on a list.

Sometimes we see a solar eruption, an amount of energy which can destroy the whole earth. It is a natural event which was imitated by man for no other reason than destruction.
It is true, Irradiés is a film on the limit of what and how one can reveal this horror in a film, of what and how ist still bearable for the spectator. But behind this composition of images and sounds, behind the archive footage and its artistic reworking – there remains something unfathomable.
We see a Butoh-dancer with a ghostly painted face like an exemplary ghost among the uncountable victims. The dead remain silent, some of them are already forgotten. Only through imagination the film can give them a voice.
Before we can judge or criticize this film as an imposition, we have to accept that this dark and often apocalyptic vision is a poem of pain and horror by a filmmaker who was very close to become one these nameless victims. Rithy Panh had a lot of talks with survivors of different genocides, if Cambodians or Holocaust survivors. One of them was director, scriptwriter and actress Mrs. Marceline Loridan (1928-2018), a Holocaust survivor and the wife of late Joris Ivens. They all encouraged Rithy Panh with his film project.

Like Ritwik Ghatak and Patricio Guzman, Rithy Panh is a filmmaker whose work is dealing with history he has suffered himself. For Ghatak it was the partition of Bengal which remained a personal trauma until his death, Guzman could escape the Pinochet-regime only by a hair while a lot of his loved ones and friends where tortured and killed. Panh himself witnessed his whole family dying in one of these death camps and only with luck he could escape as a teenager to Thailand. These filmmaker are also telling about the profound personal sufferings under their history. One of Panh´s most personal films, L´Image manquante is as well his most autobiographic film. With Irradiés he tried to put this specific trauma of Cambodian history in the context of the darkest chapters in the 20th. Century.

In this sense, Irradiés is not a cinematic imposition but the survey of a deeply injured soul and a brave confrontation with the darkest chapters of human civilization. Panh´s cinematic point of view is one which points out the importance cinema as a collective memory, that includes both, the personal memory in the loved ones he has lost but also in the “abstract evil” of the genocides in the 20th. Century. The fact that there are still deniers of these different genocides confirms the importance of this “collective memory”.

And yes, the film is hard to bear and yes, the film can cause pain and nightmares but it should be appreciated as an important work of mourning and an accomplishment of historic traumata. With this film Panh shares a lot with us and even challenges our empathy with less than 90 minutes. With the films by Rithy Panh we either learn to see history from the perspective of the victims or we do not understand history at all.

Rüdiger Tomczak

Monday, March 2, 2020

Notes on La Deésesse des Mouches À Feu (Goddess of the Fireflies), by Anaȉs Barbeau Lavalette, Canada: 2020-BerlinFilmfestival VIII.-Generation14plus

Like Indian cinema, the “Cinéma Québecois” is another highly neglected film region which is given almost regularly space by this wonderful festival section.
At the beginning, I totally forgot that the film takes place in the 1990s, the time when I visited Quebec very frequently, connected to this francophone region through several friendships. Just this beautiful French-Canadian accent brings always back some memories. The 1990s was as well the time of some referendums for the Independence of Québec from the Canadian union. The turbulent history of Northern America´s only francophone province caused a lot of of insecurity especially among young people. Some of the friends I had were only a few years older than the protagonists in this film, just one generation away from these young people in the film.

The main character Cat, a teenage girl goes through a turbulent change. Her parents are going to divorce. And family, often in films and stories a place of protection is here in decay. She looks for protection and shelter in her circle of friends – and unfortunately in the excessive use of drugs. I am not sure at what place the film takes place, but I would suggest it is one of the smaller cities outside the big urban areas of Montréal or Québec City. The amazing breathtaking landscape appears relatively seldom in the images of this film, they seem to be faded out from the film and probably as well from the awareness of the young protagonists. Sometimes they resemble hamsters in the rat race. They try to free themselves as well from the expectations the mostly dysfunctional parents have in them. They try to replace the need for shelter or the need to leave this “rat race with drugs. But drugs consumes their young and wild life energy, and if not it turns into a destructive power and even more isolation from the world around them, this world they do no seem to see or want to deal with. In their actions, parties, music, sex and drugs, their bodies appear as force fields. Even though there are a few moments in which I had wished a bit less voyeurism – Lavalette finds often very intense images for that. Sometimes bodies are clamped at each other in lust, tenderness or ecstasy. There are a few moments of rough violence like in a beating scene between Cat and another girl.
The camera is mostly very close and sometimes it reveals a tangle of blurring shapes and colours, an interesting and non human cinematic perception. The film becomes a too fast rotating Laterna Magica always in danger to be overheated and always in danger to bust. In these moments we perceive the bodies of these young people rather as a spectacular cosmic event with all its chemical and physical reactions. The film often emphasizes the movement of the film between revealing the young peoples enormous power but also their fragility.

Cat is a bit like Ruth in François Delisle´s film (Ruth, 1994) who is also full of rough and untamed energy but who is at the same time frail.
The poetic title “Goddess of the Fireflies” seems to have something to do with a last desperate shining before the end, if a human life or another natural event. When the film has extended its cinematic energy, a deep melancholy is all what remains. The very popular song Voyage, Voyage by Desireless (which used to go on my nerves) is here covered in a very slow and very melancholic version, the pop song is almost altered into a requiem. No film, Rithy Panh´s apocalyptic masterpiece Irradiés included, at this year´s Berlinale left me with such an amount of exhaustion and sadness. Lavalette´s film is neither beautiful, not always very eloquent - but it makes up for this with an emotional power and an aching sincerity.

Rüdiger Tomczak

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Notes on Sweet Thing by Alexandre Rockwell, USA: 2020-Berlin Filmfestival VII.-Generationkplus

And I will stroll the merry way
And jump the hedges first
And I will drink the clear
Clean water for to quench my thirst (Sweet Thing, Van Morrison)

Considering the synopsis in the festival catalogue, I did not really expect that this film can make me happy.
The adolescent girl Billie (they named her after Billie Holiday) lives together with her little brother Nico and her alcohol addict father. The mother left them and lives with another man. Yes, it really sounds like a colportage and one of these social dramas about the poorest class. But very soon, one learns that the film is made by a man who is deeply in love with cinema, and this love is boundless. Billie, Nico and their friend Malik might live on the edge between poverty and total waywardness. But after a while, we learn that Rockwell´s film is at all a protected zone, filled with fairytale-like wonders. The film´s Black and White images, (except some dream,- or memory moments are coloured) shields these kids. Billie and Nico- by the way – are played by Rockwells own children Lana and Nico Rockwell.

Sometimes it is a bit like Hansel and Gretel until the new friend Malik (hard to believe this name is accidental) crossed their way and helps them to deal with their abandoning mother the mother´s lover who is abusing the kids and the mother likewise. The father is kind hearted but totally lost in his addiction. He finally goes to a hospital for a withdrawal treatment. The kids are now abandoned by their loved ones.

The film is filled with quotations from different film genres: horror, film noir, action, slapstick – and yes as well a bit of Italian Neorealism. Yes, and there is also a cinematic greeting to Terrence Malick´s Badlands. But like a shield, most of the violence in these genres are blocked like by a shield. And Rockwells play with quotations, cliches is more than refreshing and never tiring. Sweet Thing is not as much a film but like we dream a film for ourself composed of so many films we fell for. And this declaration of love for cinema is very virulent and I could not hesitate to fell for his film.

Despite the film deals with characters whose life is at the edges of society, the film never wallows itself in the kids misery. The director is here as well the adventurous but loving father who invites his children (and us) through a tour through the realm of cinema. I was not sure at the beginning, but after a while I was confident that I leave the film theatre much happier than I entered it. The only thing I was never sure about is – if this is a film or am I just dreaming.
Yes, it is a homage to cinema and Billie Holiday – but as well to one of the most beautiful songs of the 1960s, Sweet Thing by Van Morrison from his legendary album Astral Weeks, which I listen for more than 40 years.What a joy to hear this wonderful song at the first time in a film! When Billie/Lana Rockwell covers this song several times in this film, I am literally in heaven.
The film takes place around Christmas time and indeed it has quite a cluster of little gifts to offer and with a big lucky bag, the film is probably described in the best way. It is almost defiant how all this evil like racism, social injustice just rebounds from the protection shield against all evil the film finally is.
I attended the world premiere at the Urania in Berlin which was full packed and the screening was in the sense of another song by Van Morrison literally a “Healing Game.” Cinema as a collective and in this case joyful experience – that is during the Berlin Filmfestival only possible in this Generation-section. How else should we celebrate Sweet Thing by Alexandre Rockwell than with a song by Van Morrison or Billie Holiday.

Rüdiger Tomczak

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Saturday, February 29, 2020

Like a lost Paradise of Cinema - on Laila aur Sett Geet (The shepherdess and the seven songs) by Pushpendra Singh, India: 2020, BerlinFilmfestival VI.-Encounters

Pushpendra Singh is both, a modern stylist of young Indian cinema with a tendency to minimalism but his films have as well a certain opulence and this reminds us that cinema will be thought and made for the big screen or it is condemned to die.
Like Lajwanti, Laila aur Sett Geet is based on a folk tale, an adaption of the writer Vljaidan Detha. And like Lajwanti and his autobiographical inspired Ashwatthama, Singh´s new film invites us again to dive deep into a traditional culture. The female characters in Lajwanti and in his most recent film played by Sanghmitra Hitaishi or Navjot Randhawa as Laila are deeply rooted in their culture but in their pride, intelligence and independence they appear as well as modern and self-assured woman with a tendency to rebel. The character of Laila is based on a 14th Century mystic poetess from Kashmir called Lal Ded, an independent women loved and respected by Muslims and Hindus in Kashmir likewise for nearly 700 years.

Like I mentioned, in his restrained style Singh seems to be closer to filmmaker like Straub and Huillet, Mani Kaul or Hou Hsiao hsien. But in his celebration of the visible, perceivable world his films includes often moments of breathtaking beauty like for example in one of the most mesmerizing colour film ever made, Renoir´s The River and herewith an aura of a lost paradise of cinema.

The film is structured in 7 songs like in chapters, they paraphrase Laila´s inner change which is as well evident in her voiceover comments. At the beginning there is a wedding ceremony of a nomadic tribe called Bakarwal. Laila is supposed to be married with a shepherd whose community will move soon to another place .This community seems be protected by the trees they are surrounded by, but as well by the framed image of world on the mighty big screen. It has the fleeting beauty of a world which either will vanish soon or has already gone. When Laila´s Bakarwal-community moves to another forest, they face new problems. Authorities demand documents, proofs of identity and family relations which were never needed in this traditional community. It is a small hint to India´s present troubles. The rich and complex diversity of so much different cultures is threatened. A policeman, obsessed by the beauty of the quick-witted Laila tries to harass her. But Laila refuses to become a victim. If necessary, when she is threatened, she is able to strike back. Her voiceover monologues reveal her reflections and her search for a place in this world as an individual.
Pushpendra Singh does not just present this culture and this people alien to me, he reveals as well their reflections about themselves, the dynamics between belonging to a community and moments of objection. More important than the image we have of them is that we notice their own images about themselves. That is explicit especially in the female characters of Singhs films. To approach these people and their world we have to sing along with them.

A visual key in the film is the wonderful light of cinematographer Ranabir Das. The films seems to be made entirely in natural light or with traditional light sources like oil lamps. Our eyes see the world how it is revealed in this film with the eyes of the protagonists: the dark nights when nothing else is visible than the fire place and the hardly recognizable schemes of the people, the sunlight shining though the greenery of the forest, a dawn and a sky of slight violet tone, the beautiful diverse colours of dresses, blankets or interiors. There are often shots from the interiors of a house. One part of the image remains almost hidden in the half-light of the room and another part leads to the light which shines through the entrance.

I can´t forget the tenderness of Laila towards her sheep and the sounds she uses to communicate with them. From time to time one of these animals, a sheep or a goat is sacrificed. The killing of an animal is never revealed in this film, only suggested by the soundtrack. The beauty of this film does not seem wanted or constructed, it originates from our willingness to adopt what the film and its protagonists share with us. What seems so alien to me at the beginning, turns soon into a paradisiac vision of cinema.And despite Singh´s tendency to reduction, his cinematic approach of the world he reveals for us has indeed an intensity like a film by Terrence Malick.
We are what and how we see. And finally - to use a metaphor of this film - we feel like we have to get rid of our clothes like Laila, searching in the middle of Kashmir for a new definition of our place in the world.

In my euphoria, I like to call this film a celebration of cinema with all its glory in a world where both is endangered, our civilization and the cinema likewise. But there is also – like so often at this year´s Berlinale-edition- the longing to see the world again like a child with all the unbiasedness and the unresisted readiness to be enchanted.

The last shot (I do not want to reveal it for now), is one of these moments where all my passion and love for cinema seems to have an image in these dammed achingly beautiful last seconds. And I feel like a little child which points a finger at a glimpse of beauty to call attention. After last fade out into the darkness of the ending credits, I am not more than a crying child which has to be sung by A lullaby into sleep.
I can´t remember when was the last time one could see 4 excellent Indian films in four different sections at this film festival and especially the selection Laila aur Satt Geet the new masterpiece by Pushpendra Singh proofed that Indian cinema deserves a distinguished place in the International cinema.

Rüdiger Tomczak

Sun, 1 March, 16.15 Cubix 6

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Notes on Huntsville Station, by Jamie Meltzer and Chris Fillippone, USA: 2020-BerlinFilmfestival V-BerlinaleShorts V

The film I saw on the screen is only 14 minutes long but the film I have in my memory seems to be longer somewhere between a Direct Cinema documentary and a film poem by Terrence Malick.

Inmates are just released from prison. Their prison sentence is finished. They are gathering at a bus station somewhere in Texas. A overweight man offers goods the men need now most urgently, new clothes, a phone call to the beloved ones and a bus ticket. Bus stations are like railway stations or airports in films always nowhere lands, places of transition. In this film the former inmates have just finished one big part of their life story (that we don´t know) and before they can continue with their life in the future (we never will know) they are stuck here for a short while. The former inmates are of different ages and from different ethnic groups and even if we do not know for what reason they were imprisoned - at this place of transition and in this film they are all equal to us and we can empathize with them like with other persons we see at this bus terminal.
Some of them will return to their loved ones (they might still have or have not), others will have to find their way of life with their new won freedom. The film and this special place - it creates a special mood of departure into a new chapter of life between the rush to finish the past and obviously unpleasant chapter and to begin a new one.
Since my early childhood I am attracted to these places and the first cinema of my life was one of these film theatres placed in German central railway stations, a reason I still consider these places of transition as very cinematic.

A middle aged Afro-American is reflecting loud about the 30 years of his life he has spent in prison. More to himself ( like one of these lost souls in the films by Terrence Malick) than to others. He can´t face the fact that 30 years of his life are irrecoverable lost. One feels sympathy with him even without knowing why he was imprisoned at all.
At the first sight, Huntsville Station appears as a very sober film rather in the great tradition of Direct Cinema. But what the film evokes in me is a whole ocean of human moods and hopes, longings and the strange euphoria of a departure to a new chapter of life. The whole place becomes cinema. There is moment one hears the beautiful sound of an American railway signal, a quite harmonica like sound.
The last shot reveals a blue sky with summer clouds.
Huntsville Station is a film about the lost souls of our time but at the same time a wonderful short cinematic poem. Even if it is seemingly entirely observed cinema, it has as well the beauty of one of these great folk songs America is famous for. In other words, the film is a high concentrated miniature of pure cinema. One takes farewell from the film like from the departing former inmates. Sometimes the ingenuity of cinema is very simple. And this 14 minutes long film will stay with me for a long time.
Rüdiger Tomczak

Screenings (Berlinale Shorts V.)
Thurs, 27. Feb, 16.30, Zoo Palast 3
Fri, 28. Feb, 21.30, Cubix 9
Sat, 29.Feb, Colosseum 1

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Notes on a cinematic miracle called Sthalpuran (Chronicle of Space) by Akshay Indikar, India: 2020-Berlin Filmfestival2020 IV.-Generationkplus

It feels good to see that the Generation section continues to pick up films from India, which is for sure one of the greatest and most underrated film nations in the world. Directors of Indian cinema out of Bollywood, if Independent cinema, the Parallel cinema or the films of the old masters, they all face a lot of problems. Multiplexes - and even worse - the disease of streaming channels endanger the diversity of of cinema in India like in no other country. Despite all these obstacles, I find each year some Indian films which would honour all the big Film festivals which neglected this country for decades. That includes not only the last great masters of Indian cinema like Aparna Sen but as well talented young filmmaker like Pushpendra Singh or Rima Das. Akshay Indikar´s second long feature Sthalpuran, which is bravely selected for the children section, is already for me one of the most exciting film discoveries of this year´s Berlinale.

It is at the first sight a “Coming of Age”-story but as well the most daring and exciting film I ever saw at the children film festival (Generation kplus).

At the beginning a thunderstorm and city traffic under heavy rain. Later we see the 8 years old protagonist Dighu looking out from a window of a train. The boy leaves with his mother and his elder sister the big city heading towards the countryside to the house of the grandparents in the coast region Konkan. He misses his father and the mother told him he is “missed” without any trace. The kids questions about his whereabouts of heir father are never really answered.
The film is structured by Dighu´s diary records, small and simple sentences which appear like chapter headings. And for now we have a classic initial situation for a “Coming of Age”-drama: change, loss and loneliness in facing one´s own growing up.

Indikar tells this story elliptically in the way of the great minimalists Yasujiro Ozu or Hou hsiao Hsien. The “drama” is hidden in every day rituals: school, doing home works, strolling around in this breathtaking landscape.
There is a sentence from Dighu while just warned by his sister not to hang behind on the way to school: “I like the road to school much more than the school.” The strange beauty of this film is here quite well described. And strolling around through this film composed of poetic every day observations is an encouragement to discover the film from the point of view of Dighu – or even the 8 years old child we once were.
Dighu´s perspective between dealing with loss and change and his dreamy strolling around through the landscape is a movement, the film converts with a nearly uncanny precision for the spectator. Despite – or probably even because – the fact the film takes place in a part of the world totally strange to me – it transfers me back in a far distant childhood. Each shot, each landscape, each action appears as a wonder.

The grandfather explains Dighu how a clock is working and how time is measured. A seemingly simple moment but with the poetry of an Ozu.
The “Coming of Age” element is imbedded in landscapes and every day situations. Sometimes there is only the weather. A mighty thunderstorm which darkens the sky and emphasized the fleetingness of human life but also the light which makes all things visible in the world but also on the big screen.
Sthalpuran is a film which moves between two extreme poles, a certain minimalism but often moments of almost psychedelic beauty.

There are a lot of long shots and the boy seems lost in the mighty landscape, the rice fields, the forest or the beach of the sea. These images have sometimes the power of the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich. When we see Dighu walking on one of the roads or paths in one of the extreme long shots, the camera records with patience his way in long sequences. It seems literally as a piece of space time of a young human life. Sometimes concrete forms and shapes turn into abstract light and colour forms and the film turns into a Laterna Magica.

Sthalpuran is like my last year´s attraction of an Indian film, Bulbul can sing by Rima Das quite a cinematic journey. Indikar´s film is full of breathtaking formal ideas. The images sometimes move amazing landscape images which emphasize the illusion of spacial depth and sometimes, like in a school scene where the sight is literally blocked by a big blackboard, the film reveals the natural flatness of the cinematic image. Sthalpuran is on one hand a very sophisticated meditation about the possibilities of cinema (in this case I mean the mighty big screen) and on the other hand it evokes in me the amazement of a child which is just discovering the world around. And by the way – Sthalpuran is as well with Pushpendra Singh´s Ashwatthama and Anjan Dutta´s Dutta Vs. Dutta one of the autobiographical inspired masterpieces of the more recent Indian cinema.

Sthalpuran by young director Akshay Indikar is not only an exciting discovery of a new great talent of world cinema, it is also a beautiful and respectful gift for the 125th. Anniversary of cinema.

Rüdiger Tomczak

Thurs, 27.Feb, 10.00 Urania
Fri, 28.Feb, 11.00, Cubix 8
Sat, 29.Feb, 9.30 Filmtheater am Friedrichshain