I could only manage two screenings on the last day and as it was I found it difficult to concentrate. How do professional festival hacks manage it? I was worried that because of my tiredness that I would not do the films justice, especially as both of them were relatively slow-paced. Fortunately I managed to keep alert enough to make the screenings worthwhile.
At first I thought that Zona Sur (South District, Bolivia 2009) was going to develop a narrative similar to that of La nana from Chile. Again we are in an upper middle-class household in a Latin American country. Again there are teenage children and a younger sibling. In the kitchen is a butler/cook named ‘Wilson’ and in the garden a maid named ‘Marcy’. The servants are indigenous people. Wilson calls the teenage son ‘whitey’.
But there are differences between the two films. First, this is a very beautiful house, attractively furnished and with a wonderful luxuriant garden. The boy’s bedroom, where he makes love to his beautiful girlfriend, is stuffed with hi-tech TV and video. Second, the beauty of the mise en scène is enhanced by the very deliberate camerawork which uses slow 360° pans around the rooms – and eventually above the house, showing its position high above the Bolivian capital La Paz. This languid (but precise) movement threatened to lull me into torpor, but the detailed look at each character in the household held my attention and eventually I realised that this was a strongly metaphorical story – seemingly about the decline of the European upper middle-class in the country (and perhaps in Latin America generally?). Yet this is in many ways a sympathetic study. Much depends on the head of the household, the divorced mother – or as she describes herself “the typical Bolivian matriarch”.
I won’t spoil the narrative surprises – suffice to say that the developments are intriguing without being apocalyptic. Bolivia elected its first leader from the Aymara peoples (one of the indigenous groups in the country) in the person of President Evo Morales in 2006. I’m assuming that Winston is meant to be Aymara – certainly he and Marcy are ‘indigenous’. I’d recommend the film and I hope it gets distribution.
Harud (Autumn, India 2010) is a rather sombre but beautifully photographed and directed film from the team of Aamir Bashir (director) and Shanker Raman (cinematographer). They wrote and produced the film together on a tiny budget, only being able to fully finance post-production with support from the Hubert Bals Fund associated with the Rotterdam International Film Festival. This is Bashir’s first film as director. He has a track record as an actor in Hindi Cinema including roles in Peepli Live and A Wednesday, films in which he worked alongside Naseeruddin Shah who also played a part in getting Harud onto the screen.
The setting is Srinagar capital of the state of Jammu Kashmir where unrest over the last twenty years has seen the rise of militancy that has been met by increasing activity from ‘security forces’. The narrative focuses on a family who have already lost the elder of two sons – a tourist photographer who has become one of the ‘disappeared’. The younger son Rafiq decides to try to cross the mountains with a small group into Pakistan to join the struggle but he gets left behind and is brought home by his father, a traffic policeman. The main part of the story then follows Rafiq and two other young men as youths in the city trying to get jobs and ignore the tedium and the tension.
The film is an interesting mix of social realism and metaphor. Raman’s camerawork picks up the Autumn colours and in the interesting and informative Q & A with Bashir that followed the screening, the director explained that he saw the ‘slow decay’ of Autumn as symbolised by the changing colours of the leaf of the chinar (maple) as a metaphor for the slow decay of Kashmiri dreams of peace and economic and social development. Bashir himself left Srinagar in 1990 and he said that he had been profoundly affected by the isolation of the region during the period of economic growth in the rest of India. He uses the moment of the arrival of the mobile phone in the region in 2003 as a focus to emphasise this sense of being ‘left out’ as people clamour for something other Indians have known about for several years. ‘Autumn’ seems like a state of mind rather than a season. The Press Notes tell us that clinical depression is widespread in Srinagar.
Making the film was clearly a struggle – shooting for around 30 days with little help from the military authorities. The script was re-worked to include the Eid festivities at the end of Ramadan which would otherwise affect the shooting possibilities. The cast are mostly non-actors who had attended a workshop arranged by Naseeruddin Shah. He himself had to withdraw from the role of Rafiq’s father and this led to bringing in the Iranian actor Reza Naji. The fact that he doesn’t look like the other characters (and couldn’t speak the language) actually worked in favour of a character who is proud but also withdrawn and ultimately bewildered. Bashir explained that the film was made in Hindi rather than Kashmiri simply because no distribution in India would have been possible in Kashmiri. The film hasn’t yet gone to the Indian Certification Board and questions from the audience expressed worries that it might be cut. As it is, the Hubert Bals support has helped the film get entry in festivals.
I’d like to watch it again with the benefit of the Q&A and Press Notes. I suspect that I would get much more from a second screening – definitely one to look out for if it gets distribution in Europe and/or North America as well as India.
A press pack for the film is available here.
The trailer prepared for Toronto: