A Review Of The 9th Mumbai International Film Festival 2006
My head is throbbing. It’s like the hangover one gets after downing several exotic cocktails in quick succession. It hurts quite a bit.
But when you’ve just returned from the 9th Mumbai International Film Festival 2006, you can’t be anything but euphoric. After all, you’ve just drunk a year’s worth of amazing movies – documentaries, short fiction and animation - in one week. It’s been four days since it ended, but I’m still on a high, and thirsty for more - neat and on the rocks.
There were several wonderful documentaries, ranging from quirky (Panamarenko: The Magic Of Art) to touching (The Ladies’.) Panamarenko, directed by Francoise Levie and Anna Van Der Wee, was a light-hearted documentary on famous Belgian contemporary artist Panamarenko, a genius who builds weird contraptions that look like flying machines – and actually work! The man’s creative exploits left the audience spellbound by his combination of aesthetic and scientific genius.
A documentary that struck a chord with cricket-crazy India was Save Your Legs, directed by Boyd Hicklin. This laughter riot followed a group of Australian cowboys on a cricket tour with ordinary Indians in five cities – Chennai, Kolkata, Varanasi, Jaipur and Mumbai. A celebration of gully cricket through Aussie lens, this slickly paced film with the colourful narration clicked instantly with the audience.
From neighbouring New Zealand came a documentary by Sandy Crichton and Indian student Pranjali Bhave, titled Lord Of The Ringlets. A documentary on 15-year-old genius Hamish Patrick, who is a local legend for his almost prodigious knowledge of entomology and butterflies, the film follows his efforts to capture the elusive Forest Ringlet, a butterfly that scientists had long given up hope on.
There were two films that dealt with Israel’s modern problems: Dan Setton’s The Next War (Israel) and Elle Flanders’ Zero Degrees Of Separation (Canada.) The Next War deals with the increasing Zionist militancy in Israel, and their obsession with making Israel a completely Jewish state and suppressing democracy. These people, the followers of Jewish extremist Rabbi Kahane, call themselves the ‘Kahanists’ and their desire for a state exclusively for Israeli Jews puts them at odds with the authorities, who are still struggling to restore peace with the Israelis and Palestinians.
Zero Degrees Of Separation is a touching film about two homosexual couples, one male and the other female, living in troubled Israel. In both couples, one is an Israeli Jew and the other is Palestinian Arab. The film, poignant, depressing and comic by turns, chronicles their struggles against the authorities amidst the religious tension surrounding them.
One of the less interesting ones was Television And I, directed by Andres Di Tella, a semi-autobiographical look at the history of television in Argentina and how it changed the course of a whole nation. Andres’s father was closely connected to radio mogul Jaime Yankelevich, who is credited with introducing television to Argentina.
A very touching documentary was I For India, directed by Sandhya Suri. Sandhya’s father Dr. Yash Pal Suri, along with his family left his native Punjab as a young man to work as a doctor in the UK. Instead of writing letters, he and his family back in India communicated by recording events from everyday life on super-8 cameras and audio letters, and sending them back and forth. An honest story of their alienation in the UK, the fervent pleadings of their family to return to India, their brief return in the early 1980s and the realization that life actually was better back in England. It takes a long, hard look at the ‘brain drain’ and the actual reason for its occurrence, and successfully argues both sides of emigration. At the end of the film, you are left with the plain truth: you can take the man out of the country, but you can never take the country out of the man, so it doesn’t matter whether you go or not.
Debutante Sohini Dasgupta’s I Couldn’t Be Your Son Mom examines the life of Thista, a woman trapped in a man’s body, and her struggles against society’s rigid norms against transsexuals and it’s ill treatment of them.
The Fiction category was truly a visual feast, with a smorgasbord of films from all over the globe. Ranging from Felix Von Muralt’s hilariously Hollywood-ish Visite Medicale (Switzerland), which is a peek into a compulsory visit by foreign nationals to a French medical reception center in Paris, to the gritty 00:00 PM (India) directed by Surendra Hiwarale, which looks at the lives of two mortuary workers, the fiction films were openly enjoyed by the audience.
One that stood out was the Australian film Where Is She? The Secret Footage of Dr. F. Height by Richard Vette, which was, uniquely, filmed like a documentary. As a result, the story about an Australian doctor who rears an ape-child for the shock-treatment of patients suffering from Frugell’s Syndrome, and whose chilling practice is caught by other doctors on a Super-8, was so convincing it actually managed to scare the audience!
A touching film was Nilanjan Lahiri’s A Living Illusion, a story about an alcoholic writer’s love for his estranged grandson that compels him to kidnap the boy, and their subsequent involvement in a road accident. In my opinion, Lahiri showed traces of inspiration by M. Night Shyamalan, especially in the twist, but the film was wonderful nevertheless.
K. T. Muraleedharan’s brightly coloured experimental animation Ana, a film about the travails of an elephant and his mahout, was one of the two films by Toonz Animation India. The other was Atul N. Rao’s cute animation film Maharaja Cowboy, produced by Toonz, about a young South Indian prince who runs away to the old West USA.
The Oscar Films, one of the Special Packages, were undoubtedly the biggest crowd-pullers. The first film was The Fog Of War: Eleven Lessons From The Life Of Robert S. McNamara – a brilliant Oscar-nominated documentary by Errol Morris and Michael Williams, which examines the life of Robert S. McNamara, the US Secretary of Defence from 1961 to 1968 (under presidents JFK and Lyndon Johnson), and President of the World bank from 1968 to 1981. McNamara’s honesty on issues relating to the Vietnam War, Cuban missiles and the US relationship with the Soviet was surprising and unexpected, and in my opinion, was a wealth of information relating to US politics and the JFK and Johnson presidencies. One particularly touching part is when McNamara reveals that a lot of fighter pilots in WWII turned their planes back on the first outing because they feared death. It emphasizes the truth that the men who go to war to kill and get killed are no thick-skinned tin soldiers; they’re as vulnerable and scared as the rest of us.
Another North American Oscar-nominee documentary was Hardwood by Hubert Davis and Erin Faith Young, which follows the life of Davis’ s father, former basketball star Mel Davis, a member of the Harlem Globetrotters. Mel fell in love with a white woman and had a child with her, but married a black woman and fathered a child with her too. The film examines the plight of the women and the two sons, whose lives revolved around Mel.
There were several other animation, documentary and short films. Animation giant Disney opened the section with the gorgeous, utterly Latin Lorenzo by Mike Gabriel and Baker Bloodworth, set to foot-tapping Tango music. Made with neon colours on a black background and very reminiscent of Moulin Rouge, it’s about a fat cat who prizes his tail and scoffs at those lacking one, until a jealous tailless feline puts a spell on the tail that makes it come to life and drive its owner mad.
Ryan, Chris Landreth’s homage to maverick animator Ryan Larkin, was a quirky look at the impoverished life of an animation artist, who is so wasted his nerves stick out of the mangled remains of his head and body. Although looking rather like an odd combination of the cyborg in Terminator and the mis-en-scene of Fight Club, it was rendered brilliantly in 3-D.
The twisted but hilarious Guard Dog by Bill Plympton, which attempts to examine why dogs may find butterflies, birds and even flowers as threats to their masters, had an unexpected twist in the end that left the audience laughing and shaken at the same time.
Then there was the wacky Nibbles by Chris Hinton, an experimental animation about the joy that men find in a fishing trip – more specifically, in the fast-food joints on the way to the fishing spot.
But the best animated film was, without any doubt, the beautiful and extremely moving Australian clay animation Harvie Krumpet. Directed by Adam Elliott and narrated by Geoffrey Rush, it’s about a Polish boy, a loser by all accounts who suffers from Tourette’s syndrome and is mercilessly teased at his school. The film follows his migration to Australia, to the neighbourhood of Spotsville, and his hard life, loves and accidents. A must-see for those who think their life is hard; this film was the only one that came closest to receiving a standing ovation.
There were three lovely non-English language Oscar nominees from Canada and Slovenia. Most (Canada) by Bobby Garabedian and William Zabka, about three people – a single father, his smart, adoring son, and a troubled young woman, and the horrific accident that changes their lives.
German student Ulrike Grote’s Ausreißer (The Runaway), an Oscar nominee for best short film (live action), is a touching tale about a man who suddenly meets the son he never knew he had, and their quest for the boy’s missing mother. There was a surprise twist, again a la M. Night Shyamalan, but in no way did it undermine the tenderness of the movie.
(A)Torzija by Stefan Arsenijevic, tells the touching tale of a Slovenian amateur choir waiting to leave for a concert in Paris by an underground tunnel, while the place above ground is being bombed. Suddenly one of the members, a veterinary student, is urgently summoned to attend to a cow in labour, which is in stress from the bombing and in danger of losing her calf. At her impoverished owner’s behest, the student and his choir sing their songs in an attempt to placate the frightened animal since she provides food for the whole family. Poignantly funny, the movie received great applause from the audience.
The Iranian Films were also interesting. The short documentary Poolkeh by Majid Sabagh-Behrouz is about a festival called Poolkeh, a homage to the Prophet Mohammad, which is celebrated by Iranian men, and involves the dangerous art of swinging a burning torch in an arc, along both sides of the body by turn. Not exactly groundbreaking, but it was short and informative.
Zahira Amiri’s Black Box comprises footage taken of an Iranian international airport, right from booking tickets to boarding the plane, set to the chilling narration of voices from the indestructible Flight Data Recorder (also known as “black box”) of an ill-fated Iranian flight which crashed, killing everyone on board. Though not as moving as intended, it was an extremely innovative venture.
The creme de la creme of this ensemble was the brilliant documentary by Mahnaz Afzali, The Ladies’, set in the ladies’ restroom of a park in Iran. This is a gathering place for Iranian women from all walks of life – prostitutes, reporters, impoverished mothers – where they exchange stories and trade laughs, tears and advice on everything, mostly love and sex. Marvellously candid, the raw honesty and the revelation of the real women behind the black veil was the best part of this film, which, needless to say, received a long, hard round of applause.
Indians abroad had a big line-up this year at MIFF – New Zealand’s Pranjali Bhave co-directed Lord Of The Ringlets; US-based Nilanjan Lahiri with Focus and A Living Illusion, Atul N. Rao’s Maharaja Cowboy; and UK-based Sandhya Suri’s I For India.
As far as themes go, sexual minorities had a big presence this year at the box office and will be dominating the upcoming Oscars (with Brokeback Mountain, Transamerica, and Capote winning most of the nominations.) MIFF was, therefore, a perfect prelude, with the aforementioned Zero Degrees Of Separation and I Couldn’t Be Your Son Mom, being joined by, among others, The Bath, Sachin Kundalkar’s daringly honest film about a male prostitute and his encounter with a compassionate client (Rajit Kapoor) that changes his life.
Overall it was such a heady experience that I’m now a certified MIFFaholic. And no, I’m not going to check into a de-addiction clinic.