"Postcards from Leningrad": Depicting Women in Conflict Situations By Manoj Barpujari

in 13rd Kerala International Film Festival

by Manoj Barpujari

In a time of much confusion and growing complexities, Postcards from Leningrad (Postales de Leningrado, Venezuela) deserves accolades for maintaining a simple approach to its subject within a complicated structure. There is a kind of unforgettable freshness in its dealing with a subject that concerns the effect of the left-wing guerrilla movement of the 1960s in Venezuela, but told through the minds of the children of revolutionary parents. Without delving into guerrilla warfare and its political ramifications, this approach catapults the narration to an exercise of various cinematic forms — even resorting to 16mm film and split screens with differing colour, very often to comic book style hand-drawn animation over live action in the 35mm format to justify a children’s view of dreams and reality. The young director Mariana Rondón makes it a point to enliven a slice of her own past in only her second feature without being wobbly and pretentious. The vivid sincerity in recollecting memories from a child’s eye-view, as we see the narrative jumping forth and back in time, sometimes abruptly and in chronological disorder, is quite extraordinary.

The film’s principal storyteller, Nina, narrates the story of her family, focusing mostly on her young militant mother forced into hiding and on her cousin Teo, who has not seen his parents since he was an infant but enjoys receiving postcards from his mother, believed to be writing from Leningrad, but actually written by somebody in the family to temporarily shelter the child from the reality that his mother was, presumably, killed. Both the children re-live the adventures of their armed parents, at the same time converting themselves into comic book characters. The spirit of the entire construction is palpable in the unfolding of events involving two women at opposing realms of existence — Nina’s adventurous mother and Teo’s saddened grandmother. The two cousins’ favourite game is to be in company with ‘the invisible man’ (a deep sea diver) in the face of the brutal realities of military offensives or police atrocities. The chaotic world around them becomes more sensational when they overhear conversations — a hyper-reality that makes sense of the diversions employed in the film including a magical realist twist to their wild imaginations of overcoming odds — although the visuals also take the liberty of depicting armed encounters and love affairs as well as treasons within the ranks of the insurgents.

However, though the two children are the mainstay of the film, the characters who make it very serious are the women representing two generations in a tumultuous time. Nina’s mother always looks anxious, deceptive by her face, undergoing all the risks of a clandestine life. The grandmother, on the other hand, holds the unifying knot amidst the prevailing din — created by the lack of a linear timeline in the story and by disjointed events. Apparently she knows a lot of secrets but pretends that she is crazy to get away with things. Evidently Postcards from Leningrad appears to be apolitical creation, but it could not escape romanticizing the ultra-left manoeuvres — a telling instance is the sequence of a group of young women committing an act of looting a department store in a groovy style. (It would be interesting to know how the conservatives in the west — who urged resisting being ‘seduced’ by the revolutionary glamour of Che Guevara, Bobby Sands and Ulrike Meinhof — referring to the recent releases like Che, Hunger, and Baader Meinhof Complex – would react to this aspect in the discreetly Venezuelan story!)

There were other films as well in the 13th International Film Festival of Kerala based on stories on women protagonists against the backdrop of contemporary violence and uncertainty. Huseyin Karabey’s My Marlon and Brando (Gitmek, Turkey) dwells on the true experience of a young theatre actress from Istanbul. Her name is Ayca (played by the real life artist Ayca Damagaci) and she is in love with one Hama Ali, a Kurdish theatre artist whom she met earlier. Hama has been sending her some video love letters and comedy films starring Ayca with him which are filmed and edited on his handycam. She desperately wants to meet her soul-mate who tells her that the ongoing war has made life really dangerous in his place in northern Iraq. Defying all odds she embarks on a journey to meet him. The film does not show the war, but the overall tense atmosphere combined with eerie silence and images of deserted landscapes brings forth the persisting effects of war and at the same time Ayca’s solitude and agony. Poignantly told, the narrative exposes the futility of man-made borders that separate people and the cross-cultural differences that impose discrimination towards women in a very subtle way. It is obvious that the metaphors, including sound, play a consistent part in the film — the telephone conversations, the only feeble communication between the two characters, too become more difficult towards the end leaving the lovelorn woman stranded in the wayside. Kudos to Karabey, that he has made this film look so real in spite of turning it to an authentic non-happening.

Compared to these two films, Girish Kasaravalli’s Gulabi Talkies is quite old-fashioned in the structural sense of cinema. Yet the film arouses interest on account of a master storyteller of Indian cinema taking a cue from a short story written by well-known feminist writer Vaidehi. Set against a village in coastal Karnataka, it revolves around a middle-aged woman, Gulabi, the former wife of a Muslim fish merchant. Abandoned for being childless, she leads a lonely life and earns her living as a midwife. However, her secluded home is totally transformed after she is presented with a colour TV set with disc-antenna that makes the children and women of her neighbourhood turn her living room into a veritable movie-house. Though there is an underlining of humour running throughout the length of the film, a revealing sarcasm cannot be ignored all the time. Being a Muslim woman she is neglected by the communally sensitive and patriarchal society, and when the fishermen are up against a government decision to allow deep sea fishing, things become worse. The economic compulsions make the dividing communal line sharper. Gulabi also becomes a helpless victim and she is thrown out of her house as well as from her locality. The vociferous, all-powerful TV remains just a mute witness to her plight. Gulabi Talkies is a film in transit where the narrative becomes a new direct experience of our time.

And there is the Malayalam-language Behind the Weil (Vilapangalkkappuram) where the veteran filmmaker T.V. Chandran makes a strong statement against religious fundamentalism through the ordeals of a Muslim woman. The story begins with Zahira, a young riot victim, who under trying circumstances evolves into a strong woman at the end. She flees Gujarat mayhem after losing all her family members and arrives in a far distant place in Kerala. But once she is free from the clutches of Hindu fanatics, Zahira falls prey to the fundamentalists within her own religious community, whose members are more interested in forcing marriage upon her, much against her wishes, rather than sympathizing with her mental agony. Social and marriage laws are weighed against women as they seem to be unfolded in this docu-drama. The trauma of violence on human relationships is equally unpleasant whether in the case of those who suffer at the hands of the rioters or those who suffer at the altar of marriage. Zahira becomes an apostle of resistance to both kinds of suffering. There are nail-biting sequences of rioting, though repeated flashbacks make the construction devoid of any breathing space. But it is out and out a film based on secular ideals, as evinced by the helping hands Zahira is getting during her recovery period. All these films — with women as central characters — stand in the criss-crossing of conventional storytelling, hard reality and updated interpretation.