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A tasty slice of continental cinema

Films From The South (FFS) had an impressive mix of Asian, African and Latin American cinema, writes GOWRI RAMNARAYAN, who was in Oslo for the film festival held recently.

"Body Drop Asphalt"... remarkably different.

WHILE BOLLYWOOD is yet to discover the Scandinavian panorama (just imagine A.R.Rahman's smorgasbord with Norsk fillings), Oslo has certainly discovered not only Mumbai masala, but Asian, African and Latin American cinema in its rapidly growing Films From the South (FFS) festival of the three continents. Indian cinema is known as song`n'dance bonanzas.

But Oslo has held a Satyajit Ray retrospective as well, naturally best known here for his adaptation of Norway's most famous writer Henrik Ibsen's ``Enemy of the People". Next year, FFS plans to hold a Focus on Indian cinema.

This October, FFS had four Indian films representing parallel and mainstream trends. Rajiv Menon's ``Kandukondein... Kandukondein'', Murali Nair's smart, slick, satirical parable ``A Dog's Life'', and Sagari Chhabria's documentation of lost history in ``True Freedom'' which centre stages the contribution of women to the National movement for freedom.

Finally, the packed hall resounded with laughter and applause at Mira Nair's ``Monsoon Wedding", the closing film of the festival. For this Indian visitor, it was Bollywood tearjerker in disguise, zip-locked, cling-wrapped and branded for foreign consumption.

There was the spectacular pageantry and rumbustiousness of a Punjabi clan gathering and plenty of drama and melodrama — even an ``arranged love marriage" — and modernity in just the right doses so that you know India is globalised now. But have we lost our roots? Dear me, no!

Our marriages are secure, our children loving, they return to the straight path despite occasional straying, and family values bring security and contentment for old and young.

Not to forget that clever touch of child abuse woven into the theme to give it a trendy tang.

Everyone loved it here, raining questions about the ``cultural layering'' — starting with, what else do you expect, the bindi! Also, viewers were puzzled by sudden breaks in the subtitles.

An exquisite love story that won the Best Film award at the Films From the South festival... "Baran".

The long Hinglish dialogue remained mysterious babble.

But the viewers at this special festival are a hardy breed. Mostly Norwegians, with a smattering of ethnic groups here and there.

They make the effort to understand cultures totally alien, including some nightmarish and grisly socio political scenarios past and present.

And yet the FFS is what the yankees would call a Mom and Pop Show. It is a small and homely venture of committed cineastes, started 11years ago at the Oslo University, when Dag Asbjornsen craved for more than what Europe and Hollywood could offer.

This developed into a student movement and then a weeklong autumn affair. It remains intimate and non commercial still, and for that very reason fecund in variety as seen this year, showcasing cultures as disparate as Japan and Argentina, in an ambience that makes them appear simultaneously exotic and normal.

This year the sections included panoramas on the three continents, New Directions, Focus on Cuba and Hong Kong and tributes to Clara Law (Hong Kong) and Tsai Ming Liang (Taiwan).

The last was a star presence at the smoky theatre cafes in Filmen Hus or the main venue Soria Moria.

Small as it is, the festival has good prizes. An audience poll chooses the best film which gets telecast on the local televison network, guaranteeing 70,000 kroner.

This time, the award went to the zany suspense thriller, ``Nine Queens''(Argentina).

The festival's best film gets a sizeable cash award (125,000 kroner) sponsored by the Norwegian Film Institute, to be shared by the director and the distributor in Norway.

This year, corporate sponsorship has also enabled the Fipresci Prize of international critics to carry a cash award of 75,000 kroner.This year's FFS jury had two acclaimed writers on the panel with close links to cinema — Linn Ullman, daughter of Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullmann, whose second book awaits release, and Nikolaj Frobenius, novelist and scriptwriter. No wonder they chose the exquisite love story by Majid Majidi, ``Baran''(Iran), as the best film.

Unmistakably visual as it was, the film also had a writer's quality to it, of reflection on emotions rising and falling, making patterns charged and intricate.

The film had the same features as the festival: small in canvas, restrained, personal. But also depth and poetry for those who look for them. Just when Iranian films are becoming repetitive in theme and treatment, ``Baran'' comes as a breath of fresh air.

Very much part of the subdued Iranian genre, and yet original. The narration is at three levels — speech, sound and visuals complementing and coalescing into delicate rhythms. It has the apparent simplicity of a mind both contemplative and sophisticated. The setting is a bleak construction site where Afghans are employed illegally — good workers at cheap wages. Each time the authorities turn up, the Afghans hide in the basement, a micro re-play of their real life plight through years of tragic history, trying to turn invisible to successive aggressors.

Incessant fights break out when young Rahmat is taken on as cook, demoting Lateef. You catch your breath much as Lateef does when he sees that the boy is really a girl in disguise, in a shadowy silhouette, tying up her hair behind the curtain (a rare visual for an Iranian film).

From then on the mystical tradition and the love poetry of Persia begin to infuse the film with luminousness, though the tale is not of princes and fairies, but of doomed waifs. Their love grows in silence and secrecy, through sigh and sidelong glance, with suffering and sacrifice.

You see beauty now in the rubble, in the sprouting of a leaf in a glass jar, in the cooing pigeons and the falling waters.

There is romance in a hairgrip (reminiscent of Ray's ``Apur Sansar"), in a glass of tea, in the homemade bread...

This is a film in which an old shoemaker has the wisdom to say ``A man alone is a neighbour of God." He can add that ``From the hot fire of separation springs the flame which burns the heart".

The melodic poignancy highlights the political reality of a world in which men and women live without hope. The war in Afghanistan remains an oblique presence which makes the characters vulnerable, fragile victims of an incomprehensible destiny.

The miracle is that they are still capable of retaining self-respect and fellow feeling. Finally, Lateef's selling his ID card to aid Baran's family becomes the means of their separation. The family departs for Afghanistan. Dumbly, Lateef puts back on her foot the shoe that slips when she runs to the truck. All that he is left with is a foot print in the slush, rapidly filling with rain water.

Latin America did itself proud at the FFS. Apart fromthe Audience Award, there was Special Mention by the festival jury for``Maids'' (Brazil, Dir: Fernando Meirelles) which looks at the busy routines of domestic servants in centre city highrises. Unrelieved gloom?

Yes, but the women are etched with warmth. The Fipresci Prize too went to Argentina, to``La Libertad"(Dir: Lisandro Alonso), its dragging pace a test for the doughtiest viewer. You are virtually in real time as the lone protagonist fells tree after tree, only to be dismissed with poor payment as the trunks are not straight.

But Vietnam's ``The Guava House'' which got Fipresci's Special Mention had essentially the same attributes as "Baran". True, it was cast in the well worn narrative mould. It had however a gossamer artistry that made you almost miss the steel of craft girding it in place.

Director Dang Nhat Minh traces the life of a mentally handicapped man whose innocent unworldliness and innate charm remind you of traditional values.

The image of the guava tree planted by his father in the old home, later appropriated by the government, had been his anchor. He had watered it, played under it with his sister, fallen off from it to injure his brain. The cutting of the tree cuts him off from his moorings. The form evolves along with its poised pitching of pace, in this study of simple folk and their profound problems through changing times, changing values.

The director plays with translucence and opaqueness in movements from the concrete to the abstract. And yet he leaves you with hope, not in socio-political solutions, but in the goodness we perceive in the everyday life of ordinary people.

The Oslo festival had its share of the outre and the avante garde, but they were mostly preoccupied with form for its own sake.

A remarkable exception was "Body Drop Asphalt'' where funkiness ends in the chilling prophecies of highrise explosions. Here Eri the romantic fiction writer becomes her character Rei in a bid to find glamour and love. Japanese woman director Wada Junko engages in audio visual gymnastics with digital arabesques, pop music, contemporary art and confessional writing. Yet pizzazz makes perfect sense.

The wit is frolicsome. It underscores the insistent self questioning — and fears too deep for expression.

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