An Overview: Winners Without Prizes By Aijaz Gul

in 10th Mumbai Documentary Film Festival

by Aijaz Gul

The MIFF 2008 (10th Mumbai International Film Festival for Documentary, Short & Animation Films) was a memorable event in which Director Nadia Kamel’s Egyptian documentary Salad House (Salata Baladi) won the FIPRESCI Award. There were other films, despite not winning any prizes, which excited the viewers.

A Mirror of Imagination (Khayal Darpan) produced and directed by Yousuf Saeed from India was a feature documentary with a running time of 100 minutes, filmed on DV Cam in 2006. The director went to Pakistan to film what was happening on the classical music scene across the border. What he found was both good and bad. While certain traditions in music were dying, a new generation was coming up to present the past with innovations in a different way. We get to hear very old fans, the musicians, music critics and singers talking about the decline of music after Independence in 1947 when India and Pakistan became two separate countries on the eve of the British departure. Some point out that it is difficult for music to prosper and flourish in Pakistan due to strict Islamic norms. There are others who continue to work and even invent new instruments to keep up with the changing demands of listeners in the 21st century.

The film takes us at night into the heart of the city of Lahore where the classical music is striving hard to survive. People throw light on the impact of partition and its tragedy. We see Lahore as the center of classical music where singers and musicians gathered every Thursday. In other small town, people gathered on the roof tops of their mud houses. Elaborate food arrangements were made for the occasion. There is nostalgia when old musicians try to recall those events. With the passage of years, the bulk of the mainstream drifts away from the classical to the pop but a few of them still hold onto the old musical traditions and would not let it fade out. Classical music is also being taught with computers in music academies.

The film explodes the myth that with the demise of notable singers, classical music died in Pakistan. We meet a visually impaired girl who has gone to India for four years to learn classical music and then came back with the proper knowledge and training and begins to practice it here. She owes all this to India in spite of her physical limitations. This is an emotional part of the film as the girl narrates the events with her eyes fixed at a spot. We hear the new instructors and pupils talking about traditional music. Director Yousuf Saeed made this film with a fellowship to conduct the research on the development of music in Pakistan. The film moves at a brisk pace and keeps the audiences involved. However, it centers on just a handful of musicians and singers. Here ‘less is more’ is not applicable, and more indeed would have been better.

Another interesting film about music, this time European, was from Switzerland, Yehudi Menuhin — The Swiss Years, a 56-minute film, shot on video in 2006, by Felice Zenoni and Martina Egi. It is obvious from the film’s title that it revolves around one of the greatest violin players of the century. But what moves the filmgoers here are the personal touches. Moments like where Menuhin gets his much-awaited Swiss citizenship and then this event is celebrated with a concert with Menuhin himself giving a performance. We see his marriages, his family being raised, and a church for the first time making provision for a concert hall and then becoming a permanent music school for Menuhin’s work. We see young pupils taking music classes here. For Menuhin, the best only comes with music.

We see his two sons and daughter from private family film clips. The children talk about the pure life they lived under guidance of their father. It has to be perfect life without fizzy drinks, white sugar and other junk food. Once in a while the kids would take bits of chocolate but this was rare (imagine living in Switzerland without eating chocolate!). Menuhin wanted his children to grow up in Switzerland because according him, the European upbringing was essential for the children. He was also strictly a health food addict and this also goes for the family. In another scene, the daughter takes some herbs and health foods for her father in New York and her baggage is checked by the custom authorities. On finding lots of herbs and health food items, the daughter tells the custom people that this is for her father. “Is your father some kind of nut or something” comments the custom officer. This is cut to Menuhin himself picking herbs from his garden and tasting them. Menuhin was once asked if he loves the violin more than his children. “You can’t compare music with children”, shot back Menuhin, “you can compare a violin to a woman but not children”. Menuhin talking to the camera dismisses pop music as loud (signifying nothing!).

The repeated insertions of picture postcard shots of Switzerland with waterfalls and snow-capped mountains are irritating. There are moments when Menuhin begins to brag and compare himself with others, saying “Through music I like to be with diverse periods, with Beethoven and other great men”. He also talks about playing with sitar player Ravi Shankar and how they started far off, then blended, and came together. Menuhin discloses that when he is with his pupils, he knows what is going on inside them. For him, it is not how well these pupils play but what matters is how well they hear. He was open to all kinds of music (except pop music!). He did not like jazz but he played jazz, and to him, the jazz people played with their hearts. The film ends on the sad note of the Maestro’s demise.

Divorce Albanian Style from Bulgaria, scripted and directed by Adela Peeva, on Digibeta, runs for 66 minutes. It’s the account of marital separation forced by the government. Filmed in 2007, we see the events through the eyes of husbands, wives and their children. The three couples are seen from the sixties to the present. The husbands married foreign wives, and they, along with several others, must be punished. The punishment is in terms of divorcing the wives who must then return to the country of their origin (mostly to the former Soviet Union). This is not just painful but shattering as the wives, grown-up children, and husbands recall the tragic events. All this is shown in the photographs and filmed footage from the Communist government of Enver-Hodja and his cronies. The government was scared that the foreign wives would be involved in espionage. Those who violated the order were sent behind bars for long imprisonments.

The worst we see is in the present when these hired hands and petty police officers are still not ashamed of what they have done and with no regrets for what they carried out. According to them, they just carried out the order and these orders were correct and legitimate. The film ends in the present when one family gets together with three generations for a family photograph. Divorce Albanian Style is a sensitive film which moves you to tears as we see the families being uprooted and destroyed for no fault of their own.

Another memorable film from MIFF was a real short film, The Mudcake shot on Mini DV, which runs just for two minutes. Produced, directed, photographed and edited by Gaurav Chhabra, the film is heartwarming and tragic. It shows three impoverished young children from the urban slums making mud cakes, cutting them neatly with a knife and singing happy birthday. No wonder the haunting film got a huge ovation.