January 9, 2011 (Calcutta Tube): Do lives remain ordinary for ordinary people even after a war or a conflict ends? Their effect, in fact, remains to torture even in the aftermath. Ranjita Biswas discusses a few films screened recently at the 16th Kolkata Film Festival on this theme from different corners of the world
“Sweet Jesus, war does terrible things to people.” :Boss Tweed in Gangs of New York
The ‘war’ in the 2002 Martin Scorsese film may refer to gang wars in New York of the 19th century between early-arrivals and Irish immigrants, but Boss Tweed could be talking about any war, any conflict. War does terrible things to people.
Film, being the most modern form of art, cannot but reflect the times. Naturally many have articulated these conflicts in their own ways. What makes some of these remain in memory is the ‘human’ angle – how conflicts leave behind its devastating effect- the pain sometimes too deep for tears, and the way people are torn apart in the aftermath.
While in the West, in the aftermath of the Second World War, films were made on the heroics of the soldiers, depending on which side of the skirmish the nations were, gradually the stories coalesced into other stories- of men and women in suffering, of simmering tension between neighbouring countries, etc. Beirut, Sarajevo, Rwanda – the modern stories of conflict unfold with images that you can only recoil from in horror.
Sometimes they can bring about the realities closer home than tomes of documents on the subject. A number of films screened at the 16th Kolkata Film Festival recently can vouchsafe for that. Take for example, Whisper with the Wind by Iran –based director Shahram Alidi.
The dastardliness of the systematic persecution and murder of thousands of Kurds in Iraq during the Saddam Hussein regime is told through Mam Baldar, a roving postman who moves from village to village in his battered jalopy, recording audio messages and passing them on to near and dear ones in far-flung villages separated by circumstances- mothers, lovers, underground Kurdish fighters. He has lost two sons to war, his wife has gone mute after the tragedy, but he does his job anyway bringing a modicum of happiness to the hapless people. But it is through his sorrow as he encounters sad events one after another that the conflict’s impact hits you- a wedding party he attended now destroyed by guns , sports shoes and a football lying buried in dust where he had recorded happy voices on his previous visit, and his own housed razed to the ground .
Yet, to the director’s credit, not a single killing is shown in graphic detail. The torture chamber shows only the soles of feet of the victims with marks of merciless beating, people are led to be shot but not shown the act.
Even then it’s not a film ending with only despair. Baldar keeps his promise to an underground fighter that he would record the first cry of his newborn baby whose mother- his wife, has moved to safer areas in the hills. As the cry is amplified on the special band-width the Kurdish fighters maintain and it ricochets through the valley to reach the listeners, it is as if a message of hope for the tormented people. The haunting music, beautiful cinematography of the mountainous region add to the appeal of the film and mourn for the dead.
It may not be a war out there but a simmering hostility that can affect people too, as projected by Israeli director Keren Yedaya in Jaffa through the love story between a Palestinian boy (Toufik) and a Jewish girl. The city of Jaffa has a unique position; it is a part of Israel where Jews and Arabs live side-by-side. Yedaya said in an interview that she wanted to bring up the issue of inherent distrust between the two communities though on the surface there seems to be a calm. Mali is the daughter of garage owner Reuven where Toufik works. The tension comes about when Reuven’s boorish son Meir abuses verbally ‘the Arab’ Toufik at every opportunity though his father does not like it.
The dysfunctional family is also not aware that Toufilk and Mali are in love and that she is pregnant and plans to run away to get married. By a fluke in a skirmish between Toufik and Meir the latter dies accidentally. Toufik is arrested, sent to jail and Mali decides to wipe the slate clean and have an abortion. She cannot do it at the last moment – her love for Toufik still alive and lies to her parents about the identity of the father as a married man. They move to another town and bring up the baby. Only when Toufilk gets released and contacts her, unaware that a daughter was born that old wounds-and love surface. But confronted with the truth the parents- even liberal Reuven, cannot accept that Toufik is the father of his beloved grand daughter.
Sri Lanka’s troubled contemporary history is stylistically treated by young Vimukthi Jayasundara in Between Two Worlds through allegorical figure of a man ‘falling from the sky’ who cannot face the strife-torn present and hides in the hollow of a tree to transform himself into mythical times of a prince. The sabre of assassins in the past, the menacing guns in the background at present, create an atmosphere of fear, and as the storyteller fisherman warns, what has happened can happen again. Vimukthi’s earlier film Camera d’Or Award winner at Cannes in 2005 The Forsaken Land (screened by festival-partner Cine Central) is again a comment on the time and the effect of the Civil War on the ordinary people of Sri Lanka. Once again, the violence of the conflict is always in the background but lives are affected deeply anyay.
Nearer home, Harud (Autumn) by actor and debut director Aamir Bashir focuses on Kashmir. It tells the story of the disappearance of Tauquir , a tourist photographer, and the struggle of his younger brother Rafiq and his family to come to terms with this loss, something many families in the valley say to have happened to them too in the last few years. The path to militancy seems logical and crossing over to the other side of the border is tempting but Rafiq returns home, though to an aimless existence.
Though treated rather amateurishly and there are rough patches, the film nonetheless brings about the tension that underlie valley , the uncertainty and the insecurity that pervade an average person’s life as observed by Bashir, himself a Kashmiri.
True, what war does to people!