Marginal Lives

in 19th Black Nights Film Festival, Tallinn

by Martin Botha

Several of the features in the Tridens First Feature Film Competition of the 19th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival exposed audiences to marginalised communities around the globe. A gallery of marginal lives is seen in films such as Food and Shelter (Techo y comida), A.K.A. Nadia (Nadia – Shem Zmani), Anna and Loev.

Marginality lies at the very heart of our human condition. It is an existential state experienced as a matter of routine by many people in any society – even more so, perhaps, in the 21st century. Juan Miguel del Castillo’s Food and Shelter focuses on a single mother Rocío and her son Adrian. She is without work and desperately trying to keep her rented apartment (with several months of debt) while struggling to provide for her eight-year-old son. It is a grim portrait of the financial crisis in Spain during 2012. Rocio’s circumstances could be considered as that of thousands of people in the southern part of Europe. Her daily struggle impacts on her relationship with Adrian. As such, marginality has significant social, cultural, economic, psychological and political implications –– the most damaging being alienation and isolation. Castillo’s depiction of Rocio’s vulnerability is painful to watch, especially when her life is falling apart. The final images of her displacement are powerful.

A marginal person could also be one who is poised in psychological uncertainty between two (or more) social worlds, reflecting in his/her soul the discords and harmonies, repulsions and attractions of these worlds; one of which is often ‘dominant’ over the other. Tova Asher’s A.K.A Nadia is one of the strongest films in the First Feature Competition. It is the story about a Palestinian woman, Nadia Kabir, forced to change her identity during the 1980s, only to experience the re-emergence of her past decades later, threatening the balance of her new Israeli family. Asher’s film is a well-meaning example of subtle critique of the political and ideological status quo in Israel, especially in the glimpses of the fences that keep people apart. Nadia is caught between two worlds and once again, displacement is the only option left to her.

Marginality is always relational; it is an open-ended concept that can foster creativity and exploration of new horizons and limits. In the case of Jacques Toulemonde Vidal’s Anna, the main character is a young woman of Colombian heritage who is living in Paris and has to battle against the fragility of her mental state on a daily basis. She is eager to spend more time with Nathan, her eight-year-old son, but Philippe, her ex-husband, doesn’t think she is capable of doing this and therefore inhibits her ability to do so. Anna thus decides to leave France suddenly with Nathan. She manages to convince Bruno, her boyfriend, to join her as she runs away and the three of them fly off to Colombia. During their journey, Anna attempts to create a new family, but her emotional instability becomes a major obstacle.  Vidal’s representation of Columbia serves as a setting for Anna, Bruno and Nathan’s journey.  It never becomes the Other. The focus is on Anna’s emotional state and the performance by Juana Acosta is outstanding.

I was very keen to view Loev. Over a period of 24 years I have studied queer representation in African, Asian and Latin American cinema. Years ago, when Deepa Mehta’s lesbian drama, Fire, was screened in India (during December 1998) hundreds of female zealots from India’s Hindu Shiv Sena party stormed 12 cinemas in New Delhi and Mumbai and intimidated managers into suspending the screenings. The demonstrators tore down posters, broke windows and destroyed furniture in these cinemas. The Indian censors then withdrew the film from circulation for reconsideration. Lesbian and feminist groups in India organised counter-protest and Shabana Azmi, an Indian Member of Parliament, who is also one of the film’s stars, gave numerous interviews to the world’s press in support of the film and against censorship in India. Finally the film was back on Indian screens during February 1999 – uncut. But the hysteria regarding Fire highlights the irony and contradictions of Indian cinema: Despite having the largest film industry in the world and a long, rich history of homosexuality and bisexuality dating back to the Kama Sutra, all the images of openly gay and lesbian people within Indian society seemed at the time of Fire to be made by Indians living abroad – for example Mehta and Pratibha Parmar. To what an extent these images are representative of contemporary Indian society is the question.

Sudhanshu Saria’s debut feature Loev is therefore a small milestone, especially in a country where sodomy has very recently been criminalised and made punishable by life imprisonment. The story is about Jai (Shiv Pandit), currently working in New York, who visits Mumbai for a few days on business, but aims to meet with his friend Sahil (Dhruv Ganesh), a musician. After an argument with his boyfriend, Alex, Sahil meets Jai at the airport, and the two go to the countryside for long conversations. Tensions surface due to Jai’s romantic feelings for Sahil. Sahil’s behaviour sparks a violent sexual reaction from Jai, which leads to a permanent split. Saria makes queer identity in the film problematic. Queer relationships are framed within a context of money and ownership, especially towards the end of the film. In a hotel scene with Sahil, Jai, Alex and his toy-boy it almost feels one is in a Fassbinder world. Relationships seem to be functional and manipulative, and in the end conformity prevails. Maybe anything to the contrary would have been wishful thinking by the director. The characters remain on the margin of society, as in the case of all the characters in the above-mentioned features.

Edited by Amber Wilkinson