World Films at The Times BFI 51st London Film Festival (2007)
by Elizabeth Menon

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The Times BFI 51st London Film Festival showed around 184 feature films and 133 short films from 43 countries, at various venues in London, BFI Southbank, Odeon West End, Odeon Leicester Square, Tricycle Cinema, Cine Lumière, ICA Cinema, Ritzy Cinema and Waterman's art Centre. The Festival Started on 17 October with the opening night gala showing David Cronenberg's 'Eastern Promises' and finished on 1 November with the closing night gala showing Wes Anderson's 'The Darjeeling Limited', a train voyage across India. Richard Attenborough, Wes Anderson, Susanne Bier, Saverio Constanzo, Andrew Dominik, Shivajee Chandrabhushan, Shamim Sarif, Amitab Bachan, Robert Redford, Tom Cruise, Halle Berry and Adrien Brody were among the celebrities who attended the screening of their films. Some of the films from around the world are reviewed below.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: Julian Schnabel/France

What does one say after witnessing such brilliance! Perhaps, "thank God for London Film Festival", without which I wouldn't have been able to see this most wonderful French film! Brilliance in performance, acting, photography and technical details were evident through the film, making it totally gripping to the very end. The directorial skill was at its best in the restrain showed at the most crucial moments.

The film is based on a true story. JD Bauby, the editor of French Vogue suffered a stroke and the film starts as he comes out of a coma after 20 days. He was diagnosed with a rare 'locked in syndrome', which left him with his memory and only the movement of his left eye! With the help of the speech therapist, through the alphabet of blinking, he tells his story which became a best seller. The alphabet of blinking and the explanation about moving the tongue on the roof of the mouth to improve the movement and swallowing clearly show extensive research, which I am sure would be quite helpful for families in similar situations. It also shows that a stroke can affect anyone, even the most charismatic 43 yr old Editor in chief of Vogue. JD Bauby's flamboyant lifestyle is shown through the film as flash back just to remind the audience what JD Bauby was like before he was committed to the wheelchair. His relationship with his father was most touching! He still had his imagination and memory and his wonderful sense of humour was shown through his thoughts, by a voice over by Mathieu Amalric who stars as Bauby. A great film not to be missed

‘Frozen’: Shivajee Chandrabhushan/India:

‘Frozen’ is a story told from a young girl's perspective -- a film that makes the audience transfixed to their seats till after all the credits at the end of the film! Perhaps it’s the brilliance of the black and white landscape or more so, the directorial restraint throughout the film in bringing the conflict between individuals and society, which is frozen in time and place. 'Frozen' tells the story of an ageing father 'Karma' (Danny Dezongpa), his teenaged daughter 'Lasya' (Gaury) and her 'little brother' Chomo (Angchuk); the story is told through the eyes of Lasya, a childish and impulsive young girl who imagines to have a little brother as her companion and sounding board!

The story takes place in Ladakh, Indian side of Jammu-Kashmir border, 15000 feet above sea level in freezing conditions at 30 degree Celsius. Lasya grows up watching her father making apricot jam and selling his produce at the local market place. Unfortunately he is unable to compete with the others in the trade who use machines to make jam and lands in financial ruin, having to borrow from unscrupulous moneylenders. Their simple lives are shattered by the arrival of the Army that protects the frontier who decide to set up a camp very close to their house. Karma is asked to take his children and leave his ancestral home which almost brings him to a breaking point. The Army officer almost apologizes to Karma by telling him that he is only doing his duty. Here, Chandrabhusan shows a very sympathetic side of the Army officer.

Amidst all this, Lasya is blossoming into a very attractive woman and meets a young local boy, 'Romeo', played by Shakeel Khan, 'a look alike of Christian Slater' in his younger days! But she is quite capable of looking after herself, in spite of giving an impression that she is very childish and naive! Karma however is oblivious to his daughter growing up till one of the moneylenders tells him that he is willing to forget the money in exchange for her! The turmoil of the financial ruin, worrying about his daughter's safety and having to move out of his safe haven play havoc on the ageing Karma and all these emotions are shown on Karma's most expressive face. Danny Denzongpa's face is like the most beautiful oil painting with multitude of painful expressions -- some of the credit goes to the cinematographer! Unexpected disaster sets in and Lasya runs away to escape from all this, only to be stopped by a barbed wire, and a display of the most wonderful mix of colours awaits on the other side!

The title 'Frozen' is quite apt for this film as it reflects the terrain and the landscape. It also shows the slow pace and the almost frozen state of mind of the characters in this film -- even the traditional festival of chimes and magic wheels appear frozen in time. Chandrabhusan brings a different Ladakh, stripped off its colour, to show what it looks like in winter, the blue sky and the black shadow thrown in by the sun, the barren trees and the brilliantly white snow. The rawness and harshness in monochrome bring out the gloomy warmth which is frozen in time and perhaps, this may have something to do with Lasya's hallucination of having a little brother to brighten up her days.

The cinematography is at its best and one doesn't even miss the colour. The Cinematgrapher Shankar Raman's brilliance is shown through out the film and that beautiful ball of a dog covered in snow will be in the heart of all those who saw the film. I wouldn't be surprised if 'black and white films' make a come back! Ice hockey is shown in this film, perhaps for the first time in an Indian film. Music by John P Varkey from Kerala (God's own country) brings warmth to the frozen landscape. It's Danny Denzongpa's 150th film and he has given his best performance. Gouri in her debut appearance has shown great acting ability and Angchuk as the little boy is a delight to watch.

Finally, Lasya looking through the barbed wire and seeing the landscape in colour at a distance show hope of brightness and colour in her life, and the audience realizes that this beautiful young girl is moving on to a bright future! It is not till the end of the film that most of the audience understood that the little boy is not real and perhaps the realization that there may be an imaginary companion inside of all of us, or could use one! By showing the images of black and white through out the film and finally the brilliant yellow-golden colour outside the barbed wire, the director has succeeded in bringing out the essence of this film -- the rawness and harshness of life giving way to change and a better life.

Shivajee Chandrabhusan in his debut film shows how a simple story from Ladakh can be made into a powerful mesmerizing film; but then what else can one expect from someone who is a graduate in Sociology and Law and who has had training in Photography and mountaineering! Perhaps a National Award is waiting in the wings for him! A must for all those who love cinema in its true form!

In Memory of Me: Saverio Costanzo/ Italy

As the film is set in Venice One expects to see at least a bit of this beautiful city. But that was not to be! The camera has eyes for the outside world only when a large ship slips by the window of the seminary. 'In Memory of me' is a very intense film that goes into the inner depth of spirituality and the conflicts encountered. The story is about Andrea who is accepted into a Jesuit seminary, isolated in an island. The recruits undergo very strict training to prepare them for the disciplined work that awaits these soldiers of Christ. The rituals are repeated in a methodical fashion everyday and that includes cleaning of the corridors of that magnificent monastic building. The inmates' personality is analyzed to such an extent that they start to doubt their own spirituality and whether such mental cruelty is justified. The silence that lingers in the magnificent corridors is mesmerizing, to say the least! We have heard of severe Mother Superiors, but the Father Superior in this film is frightening. Some find this fearsome training unbearable and decide to leave. Andrea too reaches his turning point, but finally realizes that he is made for better things and God has a purpose for him and decides to follow Him. This film is a lesson in itself in how one gives himself to God, then loose that faith and ultimately regaining the love of God and the faith. A very intense film that makes one think.

Mahek: K Kanade/India

The film tells the story of 12-yr old Mahek who spends most of her time daydreaming. In her dreams, she reaches the top at everything she wants to be, but in real life she is an under-achiever both at home and at school. She wants to be at the top but at the same time she also believes that she is incapable of achieving her goals, sort of an emotional lock! This leads to her dreaming of a 'fairy god mother' who helps her to analyze her strengths. She goes into depression and finally the director shows how she overcomes this. This film is a lesson to both parents and children and more so, a warning to parents to be more watchful of their children to avoid situations like this. Delightful performance by Shreya Sharma as Mahek and a must for all children and parents!

The Last Lear: Rituparno Ghosh/India

'The Last Lear' tells the story of an old Shakespearean stage actor coming out of retirement to act in 'The Mask', a film in another film. And it definitely is a 'Bachan film', as there is not a lot left once Amitab Bachan is taken out of the equation! Bachan shows his mastery in acting till the very end and his compelling presence make the audience glued to the chair! Only other actors doing justice to their characters are Vandana( Shefali Shah) and Siddarth, 'a look alike of John Abraham' (Arjun Rampal). If there is any 'chemistry' in the film, it's between Harish(Amitab) and Siddarth during their first meeting! Amitab gives acting lessons to Shabanam (Preity Zinta) and I thought it was quite apt!

The film starts well. It's premiere night for 'The Mask' on Diwali day and Harish is absent as he is in a coma. Harish (Amitab), an old Shakespearean stage actor, is forced to come out of retirement to act as a disfigured clown(a scar on his face! ) by the young director, Siddarth. Vandana is Harish's long term companion and Shabnam is his leading lady and its interesting to watch the conversation between the two women when Shabnam turns up at Harish's house while he is in coma and unable to recognize either of them. Shefali gives a brilliant performance and it’s a shame that she was not the leading lady in the film; but her acting proved that she was! Except for quotes from Shakespeare and the mention of Harish being an old Shakespearean stage actor who loves Shakespearean plays, one doesn't see much in the film to justify the title. Amitab Bachan is larger than life and magnificent with his long white hair and of course his captivating voice is amazing as always! Arjun Rampal and Shefali Shah show great promise. Amitab Bachan delighted the audience with his speech and a 'face to face' with the audience after the film. 'An Amitab Bachan film', for all the Bachan fans out there!

Secret Sunshine: Lee Chang-Dong/South Korea

This film tells the story of a woman who moves to her husband's hometown after he was killed in an accident. Her agony, mental torture, spiritual conflicts and social interactions are portrayed quite well and the actress, Jean Do-Yeon, who plays Lee shin-ae has given a brilliant performance. But somehow, director looses his plot towards the end when he deals with religion and its conflicts and how it affects Lee shin-ae. A film worth watching!

The World Unseen: Shamim Sarif /UK-South Africa

Written and directed by Shamim Sarif,' The World Unseen' tells the story of two women in South Africa and the turmoil in their society in the 50s. Miriam (Lisa Ray), a submissive woman who lives with her husband in an isolated village, meets Amina (Sheetal Seth), who is the opposite of Miriam. Amina is quite unconventional and a free spirit who runs a coffee shop in partnership with Jacob. Jacob is black and Shamim has succeeded in showing the problems they encounter in an apartheid South Africa. Miriam meets Amina in the coffee shop and theycouldn't ignore the strong attraction they both felt. Amina was everything Miriam wanted to be, strong willed and independent. Amina volunteered to give driving lessons to Miriam and their suppressed feelings take over. Director has shown great restrain in showing the relationship, but without loosing any of the intensity. They face hostility from the police and Amina's husband. Amidst all this there is inner conflict and Miriam's realization that she cannot return to her controlling husband, but decides to do what's practical. Sheethal's performance is the backbone of this film that reflects the director's skill in getting the best out of the actor. Shamim Sarif's debut attempt shows great promise. A film worth watching!

Four Women: Adoor Gopalakrishnan/India

Adoor Gopalakrishnan's latest film 'Four Women', focus on four women in four different stories with no continuuity except for the theme. The film is based on four stories by Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai (easily recognizable name in India just like Shakespeare or Wordsworth in the western world) and it's Adoor's journey through the lives of four women with different standing in the society spanning two decades from 1940: the prostitute, the virgin, the housewife and the spinster.

'The prostitute' tells the story of a woman who changes her profession to live with a man who loves her and then ends up in jail. Their defiance in telling the judge that they are husband and wife was quite touching and Adoor clearly shows the atrocities of the legal system at the time or perhaps, even now. 'The Virgin' is about an aging father getting his daughter married to a man who is unsuitable, without even consulting her. The man has no interest in his bride and it's almost comical to see his passion in life, food! He leaves his wife at her house and never returns. Then there is gossip in the village blaming the girl for the break up. She then decides that she has had enough and tells everyone defiantly that there never was a marriage and walks away!

'The Housewife' is about a woman who looses her babies within days of their birth and refuses advances of an old classmate who tells her that her husband is to blame for her predicament; moral values of the women are upheld here. 'The spinster' tells the story of a long suffering submissive woman, who gets left behind while her brother and both her younger sisters get married. Life becomes a real torture after the demise of her mother and she had to live with her sister, almost like a servant. Finally she decides to live on her own in her old house that was left to her when her mother died. The defiance in her voice was very clear when she told her sister that she does not wish to stay with anyone and would rather stay alone.

Adoor has raised moral and social issues in this 'poetry in motion' and succeeded in showing the power of women in the changing society. Though these stories take place more than 6o yrs ago the thematic conflict is still relevant, especially in small villages. Women are not willing to be subservient any more and they fight for what they believe in. All these women are caught up in their own battle of survival, submissive and passive in the beginning, but ultimately each one makes a choice, irrespective of the wishes of the society or rest of the family. A beautiful film that can change the attitude of people on various issues in our society: A must for all!

© E Menon

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