Reel Life: For the love of films

A glimpse of some wonderful movies shown at Red Sea International Film Festival in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia’s first one, and the audience’s eagerness to taste and smell the celluloid

A still from 'Take Me To The Cinema'
A still from 'Take Me To The Cinema'
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Namrata Joshi

It’s odd to have a cinephile find a kindred spirit in a war worn soldier. But it’s precisely what happened to me while watching Albaqar Jafeer’s documentary, Take Me To The Cinema, featured in the Arab Spectacular section at the Red Sea International Film Festival.

The obsession of its protagonist, a former Iraqi soldier Nassif, with the moving images in general and the 1973 Hollywood film Papillon and its star Steve McQueen in particular, is quite easy to relate to. But there’s more to experience in the documentary than just film fandom. It’s a dirge for an important medium of entertainment, arts and aesthetics brought to ruins in the midst continuing wars. A situation that finds a parallel in the violence and strife torn Kashmir as well where, like the Baghdad of Take Me To The Cinema, the film halls have all but disappeared.

The documentary is a heart-breaking travelogue with Papillon as the guiding force. It takes us on a journey into Baghdad as Nassif goes in search of the lost copy of the film. In the process he brings alive a hitherto unseen Baghdad—with theatres like Grand Cinema in ruins gently reminding of cinema’s glory in the past.

A past personified by Nassif himself, a misfit of a man in the rapidly transforming contemporary landscape. He is the one in whom the opposed binaries of war and cinema are brought together, uncomfortably at that—Nassif ran away from mandatory military service to seek refuge in cinemas and describes the escapades quite like a filmi adventure.

But the Cinema Street that was his home and haven once upon a time, is now a bustling market selling military uniforms, supplies and goods. “How could it happen to a beautiful country like ours. We are finished,” he says, visibly in pain while hoping for a day when “Baqar and Nassif Cinema” will bring films back to life in Iraq.

While Take Me To The Cinema leaves you with a sobering feeling, Panah Panahi’s debut feature, Hit The Road, dazzles with the artistic astuteness it invents within the seeming chaos on screen. A dysfunctional family’s (which family is not) road trip in a borrowed car is a mystery that is not entirely solved. Mobiles are buried and hidden, there are hints given to the audience about being followed by someone, the younger son is told about the older one eloping, Batman invoked, and stars seen under the open sky in the rugged landscape.

A still from 'Hit The Road'
A still from 'Hit The Road'

The viewer goes on the ride and experiences it all, almost first hand, with them. Without the specifics spelt out, you know that it’s a ride to flee authoritarianism and has come with a price—home, car gone—but it hasn’t killed the humour, often self-reflexive, that binds the family. “I fell down... from grace,” says the father (Hassan Madjooni) of his injured leg and you can’t help but guffaw.

Each of the members of the crazy family gets lovingly individualised —from the silent elder son (Amin Similar) behind the wheels to a father who hides the phone in the cast on his broken leg to the mother (Pantea Panahiha) who has preserved the photographs of her elder’s son’s pee on the bedding when he was a baby. Every closeup reveals the entire persona than a mere face. And it’s not to do with the human members alone, here even the ailing dog is rightly his own person.

The most anarchic energy gets coiled into the hyperactive younger son played astoundingly by Rayan Sarlak. He is effortlessly himself and virtually like a bullet that hits you from nowhere and lodges itself straight in your heart. As does the finale, fantastically farcical while being intensely tragic. The son of Iranian maestro Jafar Panahi, Panahi speaks to us in a cinematic language uniquely his own; rooted in and yet unlike anything that one has come to associate Iranian films with, over the years. If this be nepotism, then keep giving us such artistically rewarding and emotionally involving ones.

Panahiha’s mother act in Hit The Road is one among the many standout ones encountered in the first ever film festival at Jeddah. Olivia Colman’s in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter is another, one which questions the larger expectations that one ends up having from the mother figure. How much can she be her own woman and how much does she have to play by the motherhood rule book?

Colman plays English professor Leda who is on a holiday by the sea when an encounter with another young mother (Dakota Johnson) whose daughter has gone missing, dredges out uneasy memories from the past and her own relationship dynamics with her young girls.

The ideas of desire, self-fulfilment, choices, betrayals, regrets, guilt and reconciliation, all stir up a heady cocktail of emotions in the film based on the book by Elena Ferrante. In fact, things only get amplified in the supposedly conservative context of the Saudi Arabian society in which the film gets viewed, the spontaneous applause making one notice the stirrings of change.

(This story was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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