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October 17, 2019

Around The World With Five Films Showing At MAMI 2019

Text by: Siddhant Adlakha

These must-watch films at the 21st Mumbai Film Festival capture the emerging social zeitgeist of different cultures

You’re bound to see the hashtag “#JioMAMIwithStar2019” all over social media this week. It’s a mouthful, but sponsors Jio (Reliance) and Star (Disney/Fox) teaming up with the Mumbai Academy of the Moving Image is a boon for both Indian and international cinema. The resultant Mumbai Film Festival, which runs 17th to 24th October, costs just INR500 to attend. While it began as a much smaller event in 1997, it now sees films, and film fans, from every corner of the globe — not to mention every corner of the country — gathering to watch and celebrate bold, inventive and even controversial works that wouldn’t ordinarily get the spotlight. This year’s opening film The Elder One (Moothon) from Geetu Mohandas is the first Malayalam production to christen the festival, and the international selections hail from as far as the Philippines (The Halt), Syria (For Sama) and Senegal (Atlantics).

Between shorts, features, documentaries and TV presentations, this year’s programme boasts a grand total of 191 selections (with special spotlights on France, Egypt and Qatar). It’s rife with undiscovered Indian works and all the year’s international festival darlings — Cannes, Berlin, New York. The great thing about cinema is its ability to provide insight into different peoples, cultures and emerging social zeitgeists — which this year’s lineup offers in spades. Here are five such films from around the world to add to your schedule:

  1. Aamis — India

Directed by: Bhaskar Hazarika
Language: Assamese

Assam has always produced great cinema — Jahnu Barua’s filmography alone paints a portrait of the last few decades — though the state has only recently gained the recognition it deserves. Much of this can be attributed to Rima Das, whose Village Rockstars was sent to the Oscars in 2018 and whose Bulbul Can Sing won last year’s MAMI India Gold selection. However, Assamese cinema isn’t limited to thoughtful arthouse pieces about the human condition. With Bhaskar Hazarika’s Aamis, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, Assam’s cinematic resurgence can now add a delightfully deranged genre romp to its fast-growing repertoire.

What begins as an unconventional romance between scraggly PhD student Sumon (Arghadeep Barua) and well-to-do pediatrician Niri (Lima Das) soon transforms into a radiant food-film, but its evolution doesn’t stop there. The young Sumon, who studies North Eastern food habits in Guwahati, runs a “meat club” at his college, where he and his classmates experiment with different exotics foods. The older Niri, a married woman and a vegetarian, gets swept up in both forbidden romance and forbidden taste bud adventures. However, before long, the couple’s culinary experiments begin to take dangerous, even criminal turns, as Hazarika delivers a lavish depiction of romance as a ravening, all-consuming force. It’s fun, it’s twisted, and it’s unlike any romantic film you’ve seen.

Aamis plays at the Mumbai Film Festival on 20th, 21st, 22nd and 23rd October as part of the India Gold section

  1. The Report — USA

Directed by: Scott Z. Burns
Language: English

America uses cinema to define its wartime narratives; one such example is Zero Dark Thirty. Unbeknownst to many (perhaps even to those making the film), Kathryn Bigelow’s war thriller was littered with CIA propaganda and blatant falsehoods about the killing of Osama Bin Laden. The Pentagon has final say on scripts of any films using U.S. military uniforms and equipment — everything from depictions of real wars to the Marvel Cinematic Universe — so when a film comes along that finally lays out a more honest counter-narrative, it’s worth paying attention to.

In The Report, writer-director Scott Z. Burns chronicles the real-world investigation into inhumane torture methods used by the U.S. military (and other cover-ups, including events portrayed by Bigelow’s film). Burns jumps back and forth along a crisscrossed timeline in the aftermath of 9/11, and untangles it through the perspective of Daniel Jones, the investigator tasked with uncovering the truth. The job is mired in red tape, political games and underhanded smear tactics, as Burns turns grunt-work and report reading into a thrilling dramatic narrative. His secret weapon is Adam Driver, the actor tasked with playing Jones. Driver perfectly captures the mental and emotional toll of wrestling with America’s legacy — something the American public has been forced to reevaluate these last few years.

The Report plays at the Mumbai Film Festival on 19th, 20th, 22nd and 23rd October as part of the World Cinema section

  1. Synonyms (Synonymes) — Israel

Directed by: Nadav Lapid
Languages: French, Hebrew

While The Report wrestles with wartime legacy by re-telling real events, Nadav Lapid’s Synonyms takes a more oblique, more satirical approach to similar subject matter. The film centers Yoav (Tom Mercier), a former Israeli soldier who wanders through the streets of Paris in the hopes of shedding his national identity and adopting a new one. Yoav avoids speaking Hebrew if he can help it. As he learns French and the intricacies of western language, so too does he learn their treacheries. The more time Yoav spends trying to be a Frenchman, the deeper he tumbles down a rabbit-hole of bizarre scenarios which yank his past into focus — among them, a porn shoot where he’s forced to talk dirty in his native tongue! — all while undergoing a crisis of identity drives him further toward the edge of sanity.

Mercier is tremendous in his first film role. It’s a challenge no one envies, as Lapid’s film straddles the fine line between nationalism and madness, a journey marked by memorable scenes involving gun fire synced with French pop songs, and a stylish yellow pea coat that Yoav wears like a new military uniform. Last year’s MAMI selection A Tramway in Jerusalem (by Amos Gitai) went a long way to painting both the beauty and the daily cultural tensions in and around the West Bank; Synonyms laces those same tensions with explosives and laughing gas, as a means to interrogate Israeli militarism and its connection to the ideologies of other military nations. An energetic, pulsating work that’s as exciting as it is loopy.

Synonyms plays at the Mumbai Film Festival on 21st, 22nd, 23rd and 24th October as part of the World Cinema section

  1. Young Ahmed (Le Jeune Ahmed) — Belgium

Directed by: Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne
Language: French

In recent years, tension in Europe have flared over the immigrant and refugee crises, adding to already-prevalent racism against Muslims and people from the Middle East. There were understandable concerns over whether white sexagenarians the Dardennes — mainstays of Belgian cinema though they are — would be able to handle Young Ahmed with care, or whether their depiction of a young Muslim seduced by extremism would lean toward demonization. The film, as it turns out, is both carefully conceived and tremendously riveting, despite being an anxiety-cocktail on paper.

While Young Ahmed has nothing of note to say about extremism itself, it feels like the work of two European masters wrestling with their own conceptions of extremist ideology. They do so by telling the story of a young Belgian Muslim teen at his most susceptible. Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi) is already on a destructive path when we first meet him, but the Dardennes zero in on his vulnerabilities above all else. It’s a rhythmic piece of neorealism that imbues the machinations of youth with both stunning violence, and stunning empathy.

Young Ahmed plays at the Mumbai Film Festival on 18th, 20th and 22nd October as part of the World cinema section

  1. Zombi Child — France

Directed by: Bertrand Bonello
Languages: French, Hatian Creole

Like so many other nations, France is now undergoing a phase of reflection on its place in the larger world — a phase in turn reflected by its cinema. The question of what it means to be French gained mainstream attention after France won the 2018 Football World Cup (its team had several players of African descent), and part of answering this question also means answering for the horrors of colonialism. The zombie, as we understand it through western media, is a mindless ghoul who eats brains; this modern American genre trope came to prominence with George Romero’s The Night of the Living Dead (1968). However, the true origins of the “zombie” take hold in Haitian cultural mythology. It was conceived as a response to colonial slavery, exploiting fears of losing one’s bodily autonomy.

In Zombi Child, writer-director Bertrand Bonello explores the tensions of modern French identity at an elite girl’s boarding school. Here, he conceives of a fictional descendant of real-life Haitian “zombie” Clairvius Narcisse, a man buried alive in 1962 and believed to have been resurrected by Hatian voodoo (and a combination of toxins), and exploited for labour. In the film, his granddaughter Mélissa (Wislanda Louimat) immigrated to France after the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Mélissa, who’s trying to find her place at school, retains some mysterious connections to her familial lineage. In the aftermath of teenage heartbreak, Mélissa’s white schoolmate Fanny (Louise Labeque) tries to take advantage of this connection, in the hopes of using zombie voodoo to control her ex-boyfriend Pablo (Sayyid El Alami). Were it handled by a worse filmmaker, a story with this setting might have come off as trite or pulpy; in Bonello’s hands, however, it becomes an exploration of the way cultures are bastardized, told in the form of a slow-yet-steady emotional implosion that glows with the warmth of history.

Zombi Child plays at the Mumbai Film Festival on 19th, 21st and 22nd October as part of the Rendezvous With French Cinema section

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