Women In Distress, Or Not

in 12nd Dhaka International Film Festival

by Kirill Razlogov

The 12th Dhaka International film festival offered to the public a large and diversified selection of women characters trapped in the labyrinths of different Asian-Australian cultures. The opening film The Waiting City by Claire MacCarthy visibly showed it was a project dear to the main actress Radha Mitchell, who is also one the producers. It is a rather pretentious story of an Australian couple that comes to Calcutta to collect their adopted child who dies in the process, mystically resolving their marital crisis.

On the dark side the forerunner is Scarecrow (Bijuka) from Rajastan (India), the first film by Ashtar Sayed. A village belle is married to an impotent guy who bullies her and is supported by his mother. When the heroine flies to her parents the in-laws force her back supported by the Panchayet (the village council). Then she accuses her husband and has the courage to prove her point openly before the elders. As a result she is brutally raped by the head of the village, helped by the husband and members of the Panchayet. After that act of collective violence she is declared a liar and sent back to the new ‘family’. Finally, she kills her husband. In the true story that was the basis of the film script, the prototype of the heroine serves a life sentence in prison. The image is as dark as the subject matter. Unfortunately the director fails to recreate any genuine feelings in his characters here.

Another young director — Sinan Cetin from Turkey — in his debut feature Paper portrays a woman bureaucrat as the absolute evil. The horrible small lady, played by Aysen Gruda, destroys all hopes of the filmmaker to release his film and pay his debts. The international jury, from my point of view, overestimated this youthful experimental picture by giving it two awards — for best directing and best acting. This last award went of course to the male lead Oner Erkan.

The star of Iranian film directing Tahmineh Melani depicts a psychological male—female duel in her latest film Principles (Yeki Az Ma Do Nafar). Sara (Elsa Firouz Azar) is an emancipated young architect back in Iran after studies in the US, Babak (Bahram Radan) is her womanizing employer. He tries to seduce and humiliate her in every possible way. Following her feminist principles she resists his advances (and her own feelings), so finally he really falls in love with her but it is too late. This portrait of a liberated woman in a country where Islamic rules are very strict is meant to be controversial.

I cannot resist mentioning a simultaneous happening: during one of the festival parties a group of ethnic musicians had involved the guests in local style dancing. Almost everybody participated, except Iranian girls. One of them confessed that she likes dancing but is afraid that someone will film it and then post it in the Internet, ruining her reputation. Considerations of this kind obviously did not bother the ‘principles’ of the director and her heroine, with uninhibited projections from a different standpoint.

Invitation (Davat) by the classic Iranian cinema director Ebrahim Hatamikia depicts several destinies of women facing a non—desired pregnancy and their willing or unwilling partners. One of them – an actress who insists to go on with a risky film project against the will of her husband, dies in the process. All the others succeed in resisting the temptation of abortion (their own or the surrounding men and families) and become happy mothers. This propaganda movie, if not totally convincing, is nevertheless professionally made and well interpreted.

It is more than can be said about Fighting Okan — a family comedy by Naoki Maeda which looks very much like an episode from a soap or even a sitcom. Saya Saeki (Yuko Nakazawa) was an ordinary housewife around 40 years old, when her husband served divorce papers on her. She found a way out by taking boxing classes and aiming to become a professional. A punch in her unfaithful husband’s face reestablished the family and brought admiration from her son. Too old to become a pro in Japan, she went to Thailand to make her dream come true.

Another powerful female character portrayal is in Horizon (Tian Bian) by Nuoming Huari, who comes from the Chinese Inner Mongolia. The actress-director plays two parts — the mother and the daughter abandoned by the father. Souvenirs of lost happiness and her mother’s tragic death come back to haunt the heroine, especially when the father — now an old and lonely man – reappears in her life. The freedom of cinematographic expression, the beauty of Mongolian landscapes and a brilliant ending deserved a FIPRESCI Award, given by a unanimous decision of our jury.

It can be considered as symbolic that the Bangladeshi star Joya Ahasan got the acting award from the main jury for the leading role of Bilkis Banu in the patriotic drama Guerilla, depicting a tragic episode of the fight for the country’s independence in the early 70s.