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Monday, March 26, 2012

Fribourg International Film Festival - Day II Report

Ongoing reports on the 26th Fribourg International Film Festival which Modern Korean Cinema will be covering all week.

Sita Sings the Blues
(USA, 2008)

Dir:  Nina Paley

My first film of the day after a late start was this delightful and frenetic animated retelling of the famous Indian tale of Ramayana.  Sita Sings the Blues throws itself at you from the beginning and it takes a little while to untangle the seemingly random mix of tricks, styles and storylines.  Sita is the long-suffering and loving wife of Rama and her as well as the other characters in the myth appear as different animated versions of themselves depending on the style and purpose of the scene.  For instance much of the story is played out as a musical as Sita literally sings the blues as she takes on the voice of Annette Hanshaw, a jazz vocalist from the 1920s.

The main narrative thrust of the legend is aided by a trio of unidentified Indians who trample over each other's words as they try to remember the details of the famous story, at the same time pointing out its holes and their misgivings with some of the protagonist's motivations.  The three erstwhile storytellers are hilarious and their comical banter is often aided by clever visual cues.  Complementing the various parts of the Ramayana tale are various interstices which range from almost psychedelic music videos set to modern Indian dance music and crudely but warmly drawn sequences of the filmmaker's parallel life which led her to make the film.

Nina Paley is an American animator who vividly brings to life her own interpretation of the classic tale which mingles together numerous Indian influences as well as her own personal touch, notably the classic Jazz tracks that form the heart of the film.  Sita Sings the Blues is a unique and immensely enjoyable experience.  A great synthesis of cultures and an infectious paean to the joy of discovery and the cleansing power of artistic expression.

(Bangladesh, 2010)

Dir:  Tareque Masud

The Fribourg International Film Festival is presenting the largest dedicated section to Bangladesh's cinema that has ever occurred in the west and Runway was my first of the section and also my first foray into Bangladeshi cinema.

A poor family lives right beside a runway of the Dhaka airport.  The father is away in Kuwait to earn money to send home but has not been heard from in some time.  The matriarch has bought a cow on microcredit in an effort to help support her family but it is not producing much milk.  The daughter works at a textile factory and is providing the majority of the household's income.  Ruhul is the aimless son whose has not been able to find work.  He trains about his uncle's cybercafe during the day and meets Arif who quickly befriends him and affords him a path to a new life through fundamental islam.

Runway is a film that takes place in the modern world and engages with ideas of Islam and how they fit into it.  Ruhul exists in a liminal environment, he lives in a hut with his poor family yet they are beside an international airport.  They are both connected to the whole world and entirely cut off from it.  The late Masud's film (he died shortly before completing the film in a car crash) traces Ruhul's engagement with fundamentalism, as it provides an escape to his cloitered existence.  As viewers we understand his search for some form of identity and purpose but we can not condone his brush with terrorism.  However he is never demonized and as such his representation is a successful one as we come to understand how easily such a lost youth could be brought into the fold by friendly religious fanatics.

Technically speaking the film is competently made but missing some finer touches.  Many of the scenes occur at dawn or dusk but these are murky and a little hard to make out because of the techniques and equipment used during the production.  The ending of the film had a relatively neat resolution and yet I felt that it was largely inconclusive and this very well may have been the point but it still left me unsatisfied.

Runway is a worthwhile effort from a little seen national industry.  It cleverly meshes motifs that incorporate new and old world ideas and technologies.  With Ruhul we live in this same liminal space and we are afforded a vantage point on some of the paradoxes of our modern society.

At Home Among Strangers, Strangers at Home
(USSR, 1974)

Dir:  Nikita Mikhalkov

Another film from the 'Once Upon a Time in the South' section, At Home Among Strangers is a fascinating work that combines Western tropes with Soviet images of masculinity and employs an altogether loud style that you will either love or not know what to make of.

I for one loved the style, from its opening montage that showcases the unbridled joy of the happiest Russian men I've ever seen on screen, to its robustly elegiac denouement.  There was one glaring problem though,  I had a very hard time following the story.  Everything hurtles along at a magnificent pace but the elements of the film are often extremely disparate and story elements are not well linked together.  This may have been a product of the nature of the film's production, which had a very restrictive budget.  The filmmakers were only given a certain amount of colour stock and thus many scenes are in a cheaper and grainier black and white, seemingly without rhyme or reason.

Despite this setback, I still had a great time with this picture.  It was frustrating to have to try and follow along but mainly I enjoyed spending time with these Russian characters, each with expressive faces and providing unique takes on masculinity so common to the western genre.  Like the previous night's Salt, the filmmakers tackled the project with considerable enthusiasm but whereas that was too straight a picture to really succeed, here the problem is the lack of focus.

At the end of the screening there were some vocal detractors in the audience but I was very glad to have made the time for this distinctive feature and I think I will seek out some of director Mikhalkov's other works, which I hope he hope he was able to film the way he wanted!

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