War in Films presented at 16th Kolkata Film Festival

Whisper with the wind
Whisper with the wind

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!

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