Reel Life: Films at Cannes that explored 'otherisation'

Bigotry against immigrants finds a sharp and scary expression in 'RMN'. 'Un Petit Frere' is about desperation to survive in an alien land. And there are other films that sensibly explore the theme

A still from 'Un Petit Frere'
A still from 'Un Petit Frere'

Namrata Joshi

The day after the start of the Cannes Film Festival, filmmaker Pa Ranjith and I are discussing the opening film, Michel Hazanavicius’ Coupez! (Final Cut), both of us appalled, among other things, by the ludicrous and funny stereotype that it boxes a Japanese character—that of a TV producer, the only significant one in the film taken from the original—Shinichiro Ueda’s cult Japanese box-office success, One Cut of the Dead, an inventive and energetic microbudget film about the shoot of a zombie film.

A lot, obviously, seems to have got lost in translation and the occasion. The empathetic, self-reflexiveness of Ueda makes way for Hazanavicius’ unconvincing, wannabe lowbrow filmmaking. The original celebrated cinema of its own kind—low budget and independent, the French remake is at sea when it comes to its own identity.

So, the unheard-of actors of the original, get replaced by well-known names, including Berenice Bejo, who have had previous outings with their films at Cannes. The overt home video elements, deliberately grungy aesthetics and improvisational feel clash with the cultivated sophistication and in your face glamour of the festival’s opening event.

A still from 'Tori et Lokita'
A still from 'Tori et Lokita'

Zombies are nothing new to Cannes. Back in 2019 the jury had been out on whether Jim Jarmusch’s Tilda Swinton Adam Driver starrer The Dead Don’t Die was worthy enough to be given the honour of the opening film. With Hazanavicius the trouble is more of representation and decontextualisation.

Why retain Yoshiko Takehara (Donguri in the original), to play Madame Matsuda here? Her eccentricity that felt rooted in the original plays out like a bad, racist joke in the remake. Is naming French characters after the Japanese originals— Chinatsu, Higurashi, Hosoda, Yamakoshi—is Hazanavicius doffing a hat to the original or othering an entire country and culture?

A still from 'RMN'
A still from 'RMN'

Thankfully, this thread of otherisation, found more thoughtful explorations in a bunch of other films in the festival, most of them set in Europe, America and England.

Swedish filmmaker Ruben Ostlund’s Palme D’Or winning Triangle of Sadness, is a trenchant takedown of privileges of class and deserves a separate writeup but there were others to give it company in the way they cast a gaze at entitlement or the denial and lack of it.

James Gray’s Armageddon Time, set in the early 80s of the Reagen era, is a tale of two boys who refuse to be caged in. The Jewish boy Paul thinks and aims different in life but is understood by none other than his grandfather. Johnny, the only black boy in the school, has an ailing mother, a bleak existence and an uneasy welfare system to contend with.

When they come together to pull off a weird plan, all goes haywire, and the injustices of race come to get reinforced in expectedly prejudicial ways. Paul can get away but where can Johnny run?

George Miller’s Three Thousand Years of Longing, about stories and storytelling, entrapment and freedom is also as much about fantasies and reality. In a press conference, Miller spoke about finding a way to being as grounded as possible in his script to allow it to go on fanciful flights.

So, while Alithea (Tilda Swinton), a scholar, finds a Djinn (Idris Elba) on her fairy tale trip to Istanbul to make her wishes come true in exchange of his own freedom, there are her two next door neighbours back in London who put the reality of Brexit in perspective, away from the world of whimsies. Their suspicion and hatred for the “ethnics” is chilling in its normality. Can a Djinn transcend thinking of this kind? The film leaves you asking for more.

The bigotry against the immigrants finds a more sharp and scary expression in Cristian Mungiu’s Romanian film RMN. A man with problems of his own—that of an estranged wife, collapsing marriage, a son who refuses to speak and the loss of job and income— returns home to rural Transylvania that itself is getting increasingly resentful of the outsiders trying to build a life and home in their town—be they the “Gypsies” back then or Sri Lankans now.

One of the most shocking moments in the film is a meeting of the residents in which they give vent to their insecurities; about their jobs being taken over by the immigrants, conveniently ignoring the fact that none of them was willing to apply for them in the first place.

It gets worse as they speak about refusing to eat the bread being made by the Sri Lankans in the local bakery because they are “dirty”, boycotting the bakery and threatening to bring its business to a halt. As insularity and racism peak, voices of reason and empathy get relegated to the margins. Does that ring a familiar bell?

Armageddon Time
Armageddon Time

Jerzy Skolimowski’s Polish film EO is like a trek through modern Europe—with all its shades of blacks and whites and greys— seen through the eyes of its protagonist, an innocent donkey. Inspired by Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar, it took me back to another film that doffs its hat to the Bresson classic—John Abraham’s 1977 Tamil film, Agraharathil Kazhuthai (Donkey in a Brahmin Village).

The Tamil film is rooted in caste politics, and quite like it EO is also about inequities. What it means to be disenfranchised, to be the vulnerable minority in an authoritarian majoritarian world. In other words, as the film itself states, what it means to be a donkey in the stable of horses.

Two other films in the festival put a human face to the plight and misery of EO’s donkey. Both tell the story from the immigrants’ point of view, about the human movement and its aftermath, the human losses in displacement, relocation, and resettlement.

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s Tori et Lokita is set in Belgium and is about the strong bond that forms in exile between an adolescent girl and a young boy, who have both migrated from Africa. It’s about being proxy family, seeking solace in each other while being exploited by the world at large.

But how long will this bubble of comfort last? Dardennes’ answer is bleak, disquieting and heart-rending, even as they rage on and indict the heartless world.

Leonor Serraile’s Un Petit Frere is also about the desperation to survive in an alien land. While the former is filled with despair, the latter is a like a sprawling epic that begins in the late 1980s and spans 20 years—from the time that Rose arrives in Paris from Ivory Coast with her two sons, Ernest and Jean, to present day.

It chronicles all that they gain and lose in moving home, as individuals and as a family. The search for a better life leaves them with gaping holes of other kinds that are hard to fill but something they must learn to live with. The struggles are persistent, the discrimination and oppressions only grow and mutate to take newer forms. Home, if at all, is not out there but something they carry within.

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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Published: 05 Jun 2022, 10:00 AM