Expression, Originality and Recognition

in 14th Dhaka International Film Festival

by Steven Yates

The 14th Dhaka International Film Festival had a total 20 films in the main competition, which went under the sub-title of the Australasian Competition. This was seemingly clear as these were films which encompassed the area from Turkey to the Far East. Alas, there was no representation from Europe, Africa or the Americas. However, despite the title, there were also no films from the Australian sub-continent either. On the flip side, this smaller geographic international competition meant there were enough films from the area represented to get a feel of what innovative visions, or otherwise, are currently emerging in the Asian continent. Sometimes the films were encouraging, at other times they were indifferent or, regrettably, in the realms of the sub-standard.

It was particularly interesting to see what artistic expressions were emerging from the host country, with three films represented in the main competition. These Bangladesh films, reaching out to the audiences, be it local or international, all had their moments but likewise varied in quality and vision. Ghashphul certainly had a promising premise: 21-year-old Towkir has lost his memory and his family doesn’t seem willing to help him out. One day he finds an old letter from one Ghasphul and hopes it will somehow be the key to his life, his lost past hopefully bringing him full-circle in order to help piece his life together again. Though he has been making short films since 1997, this is the first feature of Akram Khan. With best intentions and evident enthusiasm, the film still lacks a certain balance and the acting at times was bordering on moribund, leaving us somewhat dis-engaged by the end.

However, it wasn’t just the newer directors who were at odds with their balancing of expression. A Day in the Life of Anil Bagchi (Anil Bagchir Ek Din) is the latest film from renowned Bangladesh director Humayun Ahmed who made his first film in 1982. Shot in black and white, in its near two-hour length it almost becomes two very different (but of course connected) films, both representing different periods in timid Anil’s life. The first part looks back at his life in the 1960s as he is entering adulthood, living with his father and sister Atashi in a village where she is in love with a young Muslim man. Fast forward a few years to 1971 and the Bangladesh War of Liberation where the 26-year-old finds himself on a bus that is stopped by the Pakistani military. This second section is set almost entirely on the bus. A Muslim husband and father Ayub Ali (played by popular personality actor Gazi Rakayet) risks his own life to help Anil, who wishes for Ayub to visit his sister and tell her to marry the man of her choice. Despite the harrowing situation, there is plenty of light relief in the effortlessly comic and memorable performance from Gazi Rakayet as Ayub, drawing allusions to Roberto Benigni in Life is Beautiful (1997). If this simply set bus scene was expanded further and still remained consistently compelling, with the earlier drawn out scenes reduced, it would arguably have made for a much greater film. Despite this, it was popular enough to be bestowed a Special Mention in the main competition.

Jalal’s Story was certainly the most consistent and better structured of the three Bangladesh films. Young director Abu Shahed Emon created a certain furor at the packed screening by introducing the film with many of the cast and crew on stage with him. Also shot in black and white, the films guides us through the three stages in the life of Jalal: abandoned as a baby by superstitious villagers, a childhood living with his adopted landowner guardians and finally as a young man working for a politician. Humor is aplenty in the film and most of all it shows that the young director has a promising career ahead of him if he can keep up his momentum and originality of expression.

Though out of competition, a special mention should also go to Under Construction, directed by Rubaiyat Hossain (one of only a handful of Bangladesh female filmmakers), which was also the festival’s opening screening. A Muslim actress in urban Bangladesh is attempting to reconstruct the famous Rabindranath Tagore play and subsequently finds a new enlightenment for her life in the process. Encouragingly, the film was omnipresent during the festival and, with a conspicuous publicity campaign on the busy streets of Dhaka; the film was very timely released into local cinemas at the end of the festival. It was also rewarded with the audience award and a Special Mention in the Women Filmmaker Section where Track 143 (Shiyar-e 143), the Iranian film directed by Narges Abyar, won the prize.

The Kyrgyzstan entry Heavenly Nomadic (Sutak) is a simple yet lovely film that stood out individually in the competition. It has already won many international awards and was the Kyrgyzstan entry for the 2016 Oscars. It tells the tale of a near probable final curtain of the way of life in the family of nomadic people up high in the remote mountains in Kyrgyzstan. Seven-year-old Umsunai adores her grandfather, a tough but tender horse-herdsman called Tabyldy, who still works hard to provide for his wife Karachach, along with daughter-in-law Shaiyr. Her husband got carried along the river but she decided to stay in the family as she fell in love with the way of life; the people, horses, beautiful scenery and the splendid isolation from the modern world. Her son Ulan studies in the city and only comes home for the holidays. It is Umsunai who misses him the most and she longs for his next vacation. He, meanwhile, tries to comfort her in the idea that the majestic flying eagle over the mountains is the reincarnation of their father and is keeping watch over them. After the loss of her father, Umsunai needs a father-like guidance, particularly when Tabyldy dies suddenly, threatening the way of life of these people even more.

This is the first film as director by well-known actor Mirlan Abdykalykov who has starred in films since childhood (making his debut aged 11 in Swing (Altybakan, 1993) and notable later for Chimp (2001), thus acquiring knowledge from both sides of the camera. Also, his being a child actor inevitably must have helped because he brings out a superb performance from the young child actress who is both the star and heartfelt audience hero of the film. There are reminisces here of the very popular children’s novel “Heidi” (1881) by Swiss author Johanna Spyri, particularly in its depiction of a different and remote way of life with the child as protagonist and not least being mainly cared for by her grandparents. In the 1970s “Heidi” was adapted into many languages for Television, including the UK and even a Japanese Anime version so could have easily influenced the Heavenly Nomadic child star turned director.

Women involuntarily taking up traditionally patriarchal central roles by the end of this story reflected perfectly well the backdrop of the Second International Women in Cinema Conference which took place over two days at the festival, attended by many renowned female academics and filmmakers. Like the first conference, the late Rebecca was fully acknowledged for her contribution to the Cinema of Bangladesh as the country’s first female filmmaker, beginning with From Dot to Circle (Bindu Theke Britto) in 1970, when the country was still East Pakistan.

Nabat, from Azerbaijan and directed by Elchin Musaoglu, was arguably the finest film of the competition according to our jury but it had already won a Fipresci prize (at Mannheim-Heidelberg in 2014). It contains remarkable acting, compelling direction and captivating photography in the story of a wife and mother who tries to keep order and preservation in a remote village during the civil war. However, the Turkish entry Sivas also stood apart from the rest of the competition so was therefore the ultimate natural choice of winner for the critics’ prize. First time director Hüseyin Kaan Müjdeci maturely conveys a dark and brutal rites-of-passage of an 11-year-old boy called Aslan who has his innocence ripped from him by the adults, namely his father and brother, under the pretense of treating him like one of them. Sivas is the dog he saves but is then opportunistically used by the boy’s elders for commercial gain in savage fighting contests. Just as in the way he almost died, Sivas it seems was born only to fight.

On the whole, it was enjoyable to see such a good range of films from across Asia, even though some were inferior in quality. However, the Central Asian films in competition were better crafted and had a deeper depth to them in terms of conveying stories (not least the masterful handling of sparse narrative and dialogue in Nabat) and the art of directing with rhythmic pacing. Applause should therefore go also to the Iran-Afghanistan production A Few Cubic Meters of Love, directed by Jamshid Mahmoudi. The film portrays a young immigrant Iranian worker who, after finding employment in an Afghanistan factory, faces much overt oppression which becomes full-blown when he falls in love with the daughter of a fellow factory worker, who is totally and fanatically against the union. Showing what happens when romance goes head to head with national and religious divisions, it conveys very clearly that love does not overcome all in certain societies and that intolerance merely creates unhappiness, anger and despair. Its compelling depiction of this made it a very popular film and also the winner of the main jury prize.

Steven Yates