Cinema Expressing the Gloom of Life Today

in 25th International Film Festival of Kerala, Trivandrum

by Nada Azhari Gillon

Cinema is no longer a refuge. It wasn’t made for this anyway, but it does tend to put the audience in an atmosphere and create meditations that lead them away from reality, if only for a moment. Most of the films in the official competition of the Kerala International Film Festival in South India (February, 11-26) chose a different path, as they focused on this bleak world.

Of the fourteen movies from Asia, Africa and Latin America, those produced in 2019 seem to be preparing for a future gloom, while the 2020 movies are mired in it. The most surprising were the movies from Azerbaijan, not only because they were produced in a country whose cinema is not much heard of, but because of their freshness and originality, and the muddled state of their heroes. Two darkly lit films, where mud is a hero, complementing the characters’ hard lives and disappointed destinies, and their standing on the threshold between death and life.

In Hilal Bidarov’s In Between Dying (Sepelenmis Ölümler Arasinda, 2020), Davud searches for love and meaning of life throughout one day. Davud, who complains about his loving mother, leaves her behind, and sets out on strange journey on a mysterious road. Wherever he arrives he meets oppressed women seeking to get rid of oppression. Every death and every accident cause blurry memories that spring from his consciousness. These transform the hero’s personality and his perception of the world. Some discoveries come late, after paying a high price – love was here, but it was not seen or felt, and when he returns to it, it will be too late. In between Dying‘s visual language flows between dream and reality. Its blurry vision confuses the perception of meaning and intuition before the hero reaches the truth. (The film premiered in the main competition of the 77th Venice Film Festival).

Alvin Adigüzel’s second film takes us to the same places. Belasovar, a forgotten region in southern Azerbaijan, is were five stories about abandonment and search for salvation from miserable living converge. The film tells us in depth of the characters desires, battles, despair and their search for something. The last story is about a videographer who strives to gain a few pennies so that he can return to his village after a failed project. It narrates one of the most severe things that can happen to a person on a downward journey towards disability, from which there seem to be no relief.

In the face of the tyranny machine, when it comes to human emotions, where does the dichotomy of love and moral responsibility leave us? Is there an option to say no when tyrants demand the implementation of inhuman orders? These are the questions raised by the Iranian filmmaker Muhammad Rasulof in his film There Is No Evil (Sheytan vojud nadarad, 2020). There are many stories here, with one theme about individuals in a state where the law is devoted to protecting and preserving the rulers, so they can transform people into mere components of their authoritarian machines.

The movie narrates the destinies of characters fighting to assert their freedom to reject what is imposed. When an authority orders a military person, for Example, to execute a death sentence against a citizen like him, what drives that person to commit or reject such a heinous act against others he does not know? To what extent is he responsible for the execution?  Does he have a choice? These are confusing questions about execution from the viewpoint of executioners and victims in a film that excels in dealing with a sensitive issue.

Bahman Tawosi, Rasulof’s compatriot, directed The Names of Flowers (Los nombres de las flores, 2019) in Bolivia. In this amazing film, the Canadian-Iranian Tawosi, wonders where is the truth in a history invented by individuals and believed by people. A silent, sad faced old woman, with countless wrinkles, holding two flowers in one hand and a bowl of soup in the other, travels a daily to convince eager visitors that she fed Che Guevara his last soup and that he gave her his last poem “The Names of Flowers” before he died. Julia is a teacher who, like many others, spent her youth believing that she once prepared a soup for the great man while he was imprisoned in her classroom. But during the celebrations of the fiftieth anniversary of Che’s absence (1967) the officials want to verify the legends told about him.

The splendor of the film is in its eloquent silence, the slow and enchanting narrative, and in creating a character that can’t help but believe in her illusions. It is a debut film that carries a lot of sadness and disappointment, but is full of promises about a young director who is coming strongly.

In Memory House (2020) by the Brazilian João Paulo Miranda, a black man named Christofam confronts a conservative, fanatical society of politicians and businessmen in Brazil, divided between the wealthier European south and a poorer north inhabited by descendants of African slaves and indigenous tribes. Christofam works at a dairy farm and finds himself confronted with an intolerant society. As he finds difficulty in making social communication, he isolates himself in an old deserted house that seems more alive than its surroundings. He remembers his distant past, searches for his origins and finds traces of his ancestors in animals and gods, so he transforms spiritually and physically into the “myth” of the Brazilian cowboy – a revolutionary figure of the northern black man who forms a popular myth in Brazil. In an innovative and strange way, the film condemns a contemporary world based on racism and exploitation and spreads deep feelings of anxiety and unease.

In Andrea Martínez Crowther’s Birdwatching (2019), memories are banished because of Alzheimer. It is an unbearable cruelty of turning a human being into wreckage. Martínez Crowther is a respected writer who wants to talk about her going to oblivion. Because of the severity of the illness, she would not be able to finish the film on her own, so she decides to hire a female filmmaker who has lived the experience with her mother. The two women work together to compose a painful poem about life, death, and human being’s fragility and impotence without forgetting the sweet moments of life.

From Lesotho, the small country in the heart of South Africa, arrived It Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection (2019), directed by Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese. With gigantic mountain ranges forming nearly three-quarters of its terrain, its water is believed to be among the highest quality in the world. Lesotho annually exports an estimated 780 million cubic meters of water to South Africa.

As more and more reservoirs are built, thousands of highland villagers are forced to move from their lands and relocate to urban living environments. They not only lose their livestock, crops, and way of life, but they also lose their individual and collective identity. This was the director’s drive to make a film about an 80-year-old widow preparing to die and making arrangements for her burial. But when her village is threatened with forced resettlement due to the construction of a reservoir, she finds a new will to live through which she ignites a spirit of collective challenge within her community. The film is full of dramatic moments from her life in a magical setting with myths and ancient souls.

Nada Azhari Gillon
Edited by Yael Shuv