Show And Tell

in 34th Istanbul Film Festival

by Sasja Koetsier

“Labour of Love” was the very first film I saw at the 34th edition of the Istanbul Film Festival. I watched it during the festival’s first week, before the state-imposed withdrawal of “North” (Bakur) unleashed a chain reaction that quickly turned the festival into a protest zone. While absorbed in the turmoil of these events, my thoughts often went back to it, not only for its serenity, but also because it had so clearly demonstrated the power of the image in the absence of a voice.
The film observes, apart from one another, a man and a woman. A couple who, though sharing the same household, live practically separated as a result of their jobs: as he returns home in the morning after having worked all night in a printing office, she has just left for her job in the packing industry. In intimate proximity the camera follows both protagonists at their workplaces, through the streets of Calcutta, and in the house that holds traces of the absent other.
First-time director Aditya Vikram Sengupta hardly needs a story to draw us into the life of his main characters, as little as he needs dialogue to make us understand what they think and feel. Radio bulletins on the desperate employment situation contain the only spoken words in the film; they provide enough background for us to understand the couple’s relatively fortunate position and the pressure they must feel to keep it up.
Both go through their daily rituals with a calm perfection that conveys the notion that these gestures are repeated day after day, and have been for a long time. Only in their solitary sleep they seem restless. And so, while their life opens up to us, the love that anchors it comes to the surface.
The film evokes a sheer delight in watching movement, light, texture, and color. Therefore it was no surprise to hear that its director has a background in painting and music composing, and started out making his film debut – definitely the most accomplished I’ve seen in years – with no formal education in filmmaking. His background in visual arts might explain why Sengupta makes no effort in plot or character development; “Labour of Love” simply shows all it wants to tell. The narrative is so bare that most directors would regard it rather as an outline than a story, yet its substance lies in its emotional dimensions. Purely through images something ethereal becomes apparent: the invisible bond that sustains the characters’ existence.
An equally invisible, though far more destructive force governs the lives of a Calabrian family in “Black Souls” (Anime Nere), one of thirteen films that were to compete for the Golden Tulip Award (the competition was cancelled after the withdrawal of three films and the resignation of the international jury as part of a protest against the censoring of “North”). In his script, adapted from Gioacchino Criaco’s novel, director Francesco Munzi shines a fresh light on an old story, presenting a family drama rather than a crime thriller. The lives of three brothers each represent a different attitude towards their violent family tradition. While Luigi is building an international career in the ‘Ndrangheta, Luciano has shaped his life around a more peaceful activity that is equally typical for the region: goat farming. Their brother Rocco is the middle one in more than one way, engaging in criminal deals while cultivating a decent life in Milan. But regardless of their individual paths, a family feud creeps up on them like an ancient curse. Munzio underplays the plot lines in favor of a study of his characters and their physical environment, which allows him to portray organized crime as part of day-to-day life; so quotidian that it becomes practically inescapable.
Both in their own manner, these films display the potency of art to get meaning across in less than obvious ways; a power they derive from images rather than words. The unfolding of the protest in Istanbul left me puzzled as to whether going ahead with screenings might not have been the stronger weapon in the face of repression, as among the films withdrawn from the national competition and the national documentary competition were several that critically addressed issues that the government prefers to ignore. Most probably time will tell us the answer to this question, if it can ever be given.
Edited by Carmen Gray