The dark desolate shadows cast on the lives of ordinary people by terrorism and the war that claims to fight it — that was the recurring motif of the festival of Asian cinema Osian organised at the capital recently. It surfaced almost everywhere, even in stories of love and loss, of coming of age, of suffering and overcoming.
In the troubled times we live in, in Asia and the globe, there seems no escape from the consequences of prejudice, fear and hate, that are rapidly overwhelming our everyday realities, our work, our art and our relationships.
Particularly haunting was Seeds of Doubt, directed by Samir Nasr. A Muslim scientist of Algerian origin is happily married to a white German who works for an advertising company in Bonn. A chance wounded retort that he makes in retaliation to the kind of anti-Muslim prejudice that has become the staple of drawing room conversations the world over, alters his life irrevocably. The scientist bitterly remarks to his wife’s boss who baits him, ‘At least one good thing has come of 9/11, that everyone has become an expert in Islam.’ Someone at the party tips off the police, and they are convinced that he is a terrorist. He loses his job, his son is hounded at school, and eventually heartbreakingly his wife doubts him and testifies against him to the police. Too late, the police inform her that their investigations confirm that he is innocent. It is a story that could unfold anywhere, in Delhi or Ahmedabad, London or New York, and convincingly traces how anti-Muslim prejudice can not only destroy innocent lives, but corrode the most intimate loving relationships.
Disturbingly topical also was Josef Farez’s Zozo. A young boy loses his entire family in bomb attacks in Beirut. The film traces his journey of painful healing in Sweden where he moves to live with his ageing grandparents, its tranquil peace initially unable to erase the pain of his memories. His grandfather’s courageous resilience and his friendship with a classmate who is battered by an alcoholic father work in complex ways to help him move ahead. Healing is also the theme of another Lebanese film Autobus, directed by Philippe Aractingi, in which a young composer tries to come to terms with the loss of his father in a terrorist bomb attack, by forming a dance troupe and taking a modernised form of their traditional folk dance to far corners of their country.
The most sombre film in the festival was the recreation of a real life incident of the bombing of a psychiatric hospital in Baghdad during the American offensive, in Mohammed Al-Daradji’s Ahlaam. A kind-hearted psychiatrist scours the streets for his patients, including a soldier who deserted after his friend was killed on the war front, and a woman whose bridegroom was killed by rival militia on her wedding day. The narrative itself is melodramatic and jerky, but the images are unforgettable, as the film relentlessly recreates the astoundingly brutal devastation of civilian locations, and the resultant incomprehensible suffering, death and destruction.
Not every film on terror is as bleak. An entertaining take on both terror and patriarchy is mounted in Mohamed Chouikh’s Hamlet of Women. As jobless young men migrate from their Algerian village in search of work, women decide to defend themselves against the ravages of fundamentalist terrorists by literally wearing pants and arming themselves. Combining courage, humour, irreverence and compassion, they build a resistance that the men could never have accomplished.
The other staple of this festival, as any other, were the eternal themes of love and longing. Exceptional was the gentle Chinese April Snow directed by Wae Chui, in which a couple in hospital discovers that their spouses, now both in coma after an accident, were long having an affair. Also Stanley Kwan’s many films, of which my choice was Lan Yu, an engaging and ultimately tragic gay love story.
The festival was rich in content and politics, but this year there was little cinema that was great. My own favourite was a highly under-rated Chinese film, Roystan Tan’s 4.30, the most moving portrayal of loneliness that I have seen. A single-parent boy is left alone for days in his flat by his working mother. With virtually no dialogue, the film rivettingly captures with unsentimental compassion and acute observation, the many ways the boy tries to fill his time and the empty spaces of his heart, and the wordless and ultimately abortive overtures he makes to a depressive young man who is their new tenant.
The organisers of the festival pull it together each year only for the love of cinema, and they perform a great service. Not just to art, but to dialogues and understanding between people of Asia. The Arab and Indonesian films, for instance, break stereotypes of Muslims, with their bold, independent, thoughtful and often irreverent explorations of themes as diverse as politics and sex. We learn from the sometimes intensely delicate, and sometimes threateningly violent, expressions of film-makers from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan.
Too long have the people of Asia spoken to each other only through the West. The festival creates spaces for us to share and understand the diversity and yet the universality of our concerns, our dreams and disappointments, our philosophical and political dilemmas, and to affirm and celebrate in the end our common humanity.