Sunday, April 08, 2007

Philadelphia Film Festival

ON A TIGHTROPE (dir. Petr Lom)

As dawn breaks at the Yengisar State Orphanage in Xinjiang Province of China, we are made to follow a bunch of orphans belonging to the Uighur community, a Muslim ethnic minority group in China. Over the past few decades, the policies of the socialist and anti-religious Chinese state have ensured that the loyalty of the Uighurs lies more toward the communist party and less toward their own ethnic traditions.

One such tradition is tightrope walking, that has existed for hundreds of years amongst the Uighurs. This practice of walking and doing acrobatics on a rope tied between two poles was, we are told, perhaps an import from the Arab world. Brought over by the Mongols to this part of China along with the faith of Islam, both survived several centuries. But in the relentless pursuit toward a model of an uniform nation state, the religious and cultural traditions of the Uighurs are under threat.

In 70+ minutes of this documentary, we see how the old adage "catch 'em young" has been suitably harnessed by the state apparatus. At the orphanage school, the day begins with the endless reciting of oaths by the students stating their allegiance to the nation, the communist party and to science. When this was followed by a classroom scene with a teacher talking about the first law, I naturally assumed that here would be the elementary physics info of the matter can neither be created nor destroyed sort. Big disappointment. For all the rhetoric on science and rational thinking, the first law turned out to be an oath to refrain from religious and other allied activities and show loyalty to the communist state. How all pervasive the state is, is very obvious by the graffiti that reads "the communist party is our mother and father"; this on the walls of the orphanage.

The film follows a set of orphaned kids, the 11 year old Jumakhun, a 14 year old Sargul, a 12 year old Aijamal and the 10 year old Abliz and their efforts to learn tightroping from a local instructor. Some of these kids are more determined than others, some are more physically fit and agile, while others like Abliz though lacking in the fitness department are endowed with immense vocal talent. Of the lot, it os only Jumakhun who eventually makes a career out of tightroping and is, we are told, being trained by a world class tightroper today.

MAINLINE (dir. Mohsen Abdolvahab) screened as part of the Philadelphia Film festival turned out of a honest and sensitive depiction of a family trying to come to terms with the daughter's heroin addiction and her attempts to clean up her act. Set in contemporary Iran, this rare glimpse of urban Iranian life was so refreshing that one was left wondering how such strong story telling and cinematic traditions survive and flourish in a nation that isn't exactly the mecca for openness or progressiveness. Mainline shows an Iran where cocaine and heroin change hands in the flash of an eye at crowded shopping malls while the youngsters are on alert to avoid the police.

At the centre of the story is the young Sara, who tries to free herself of her addiction as her wedding day approaches. In this she has the help and support of her mother who is taking her on a journey to visit a friend who may be of some aid in the de-addiction process. Once on the road, she finds it extremely difficult to keep away from feeling high; both mother and daughter realize how the monsters of her addiction are not so easy to frighten away.

There was nothing contrived about the film; not a scene seemed out of place or irrelevant, not a snatch of dialogue exsited that didn't belong, and no noise or melodrama where the scope didn't exist. In short, a portrayal that is sincere and brutally honest and mature.

For the past three or more decades since the advent of Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Abbas Khiarostami on the scene, Iranian cinema has faithfully churned out thought provoking and insightful films about its people and problems that plague Iranian society.

And assisted partly by the Philadelphia film festival and partly by the odd video libraries around, one has, over the years, become addicted to films from Iran. An addiction that parallels Sara's own. Well, almost!!!

PS. Iranian cinema: some recommendations
Where is the Friends Home
The Wind will carry us
The cyclist
The Day I became a woman
Marooned in Iraq
Time for Drunken Horses


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