Family Lives: On Borders and Boundaries: Metaphorical and Real By Övgü Gökçe

in 23rd Fribourg International Film Festival

by Övgü Gökçe

The 23rd Fribourg Festival (FIFF) proved to be an exceptional venue for cinemas across continents, particularly of Africa, Latin America and Asia. In addition to the appealing sections that focus on the contemporary trends that shape indigenous film industries and emerging styles, such as “Made in Nollywood”, “Out of Bollywood”, and “Fábulas da favela” (a program composed of Brazilian films across genres and history), the films in the competition selection displayed a set of tendencies that center on social and political concerns in our contemporary world.

Although the official selection consisted of a variety of films from different countries ranging from Mexico to Iran, from South Korea to Chile, the films do share some thematic and aesthetic similarities. The filmmakers — some of whom launched their first feature at this year’s FIFF — engaged with politics and the problems of contemporary culture and society, which led them to simple narratives focusing on borders, either told in a more or less conventional style or reworked through an original vision.

Palestinian filmmaker Najwa Najjar’s first feature, Pomegranates and Myrrh (Al Mor wa al rumman) focuses on the story of a newly-wed Palestinian young woman, Kamar, caught in relationships with her husband and her dance teacher, set against the background of the confiscation of the husband’s olive grove by Israeli occupants. The film portrays Kamar’s passion for dance as a quest for her personal freedom and self fulfillment, a way out from the highly restricted everyday life imposed by the Israeli occupation. In contrast from Najjar’s disconsolate but also hopeful take on borders that force their way to our doorstep, Be Calm and Count to Seven (Arma bash vat a haft beshmar) treats borders and border crossing more seamlessly. Set in southern Iran, on an island by the Persian Gulf, Ramtin Lavafipour’s Tiger Award winning first feature offers an original aesthetic (not like the ones we see in urban or provincial settings of many Iranian films) in the barren, sunlit, and desolate geography of the land. Here, the border crossing takes place in unidentified waters through smuggling that is the main occupation of the islanders. Lavafipour doesn’t invest in sophisticated dialogue nor does he spend too much time on subplots; instead, the film portrays the everyday life of a young boy who tries to find his way in the perils of smuggling traffic that also devours his father, who is absent throughout the film. Both films, although very different in their interest in class, status, and conflicts, present the family as a relatively reliable sphere in a menacing social environment, where everyday life is sustained one way or another.

The interest in familial relations was the main route for more competition films such as the public award winner Ramchand Pakistani by Mehreen Jabbar. The film tells the story of a father and son in a Hindu family living in Pakistan, crossing the border to India by mistake, and getting imprisoned for an indefinite period of time. Similarly, the Indian actress Nandita Das’ first feature as director, Firaaq, incorporates relations of family and neighbors with political conflicts (the 2002 slaughter of Muslims by Hindus in Gujarat) reflected in the social sphere. Here, the compassion of a Hindu woman in an unhappy marriage helping a little Muslim boy whose parents are killed, or the anxieties of a well-educated Muslim man married to a Hindu woman, and uncertain about staying or moving to Delhi, become the short cuts to represent identity crises and moral conflicts in contemporary India.

The competition at FIFF presented more films concerned with issues of morality and kinship in diverse cultural contexts. The harsh South Korean Tiger Award winning Breathless (Ddongpari) offers a difficult experience for many audiences due to its generous use of physical violence mostly carried out by the young Mafioso Kim Sang-hun collecting unpaid debts. Directed by Yang Ik-june, who also stars as the traumatized and fierce Kim, Breathless portrays the traditional family as the site of unresolved issues and burdens in modern Korean society. Familial burdens take up a different face, one that is combined with psychological violence this time, in the Chilean La nana (The Maid) by Sebastián Silva. Raquel who works as a maid for a wealthy family in Santiago, tries to negotiate power with the family members until she has to face a deeper conflict with other maids hired by the family. With its portrayal of class and gender issues in modern Chile relying on a realist aesthetic, La nana invites audiences to rethink different aspects and boundaries of established moral values.

Finally, the two prize winners of Le Regard D’or (the grand prize) and FIPRESCI, My Magic from Singapore and Shakespeare and Victor Hugo’s Intimacies (Intimidades de Shakespeare y Victor Hugo) from Mexico are different in nature — compared with the many openly politically conscious films in the selection. Eric Khoo’s My Magic sets up a minimal story centering on the highly inspiring real-life magician Francis Bosco, playing the poor/deserted once much-applauded magician, who has to look after his young son after the mother’s death. Yulene Olaizola’s Shakespeare and Victor Hugo’s Intimacies, shot as a documentary, focuses on an impressive elderly lady telling stories to her granddaughter about the infamous and mysterious Jorge Rios. Next to the other competition films at FIFF, My Magic’s classical yet beautifully composed tale and Shakespeare and Victor Hugo’s Intimacies’ brilliant, almost experimental style provided the opportunity to think about the current status of cinema, and its authority to speak about ‘the truth’: the personal still proves to be political as it opens up a space to interpret the present as a relation with the past… and a good film is one that arouses either awe or affection.