March 18, 2010

'BORN INTO BROTHELS' (Documentary)

In the aftermath of Oscar fever (and in lieu of my upcoming shoot in India), I took the time yesterday to watch 'Born into Brothels: Calcutta's Red Light Kids', winner of the 77th annual Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

The film takes place in the Red Light district of Calcutta, India, where photographer Zana Briski has spent several years living with prostitutes in an attempt to document them. Over time, she got to know the children of these women, and her focus shifted. She began an initiative to teach these young people photography, which she hoped would empower them, and ultimately help to get them out of the brothels. The film documents her attempts to do so.

The content is amazing. Children in films are generally a winning formula (that why we call them "the money shots"), but because of their backgrounds these kids are particularly special to watch. They have the energy and fun that we associate with children, but lack any sense of childish naivety. For some of them this has developed into a worldy-wisdom that is at once touching and fascinating to behold. Watching them start to discuss the subtle aspects of photography is nothing short of revolutionary.

However, this film is a great example of how story and storytelling are often at odds with each other. In spite of the fantastic content, the directors choose to weave the story around Zana's crusade to help these kids. While there's no denying that her actions are noble and commendable, Zana herself remains a carbon copy, one-dimensional character. (I would like to say she was uninteresting, but I would be lying, because I was interested in her. I would love to have known what inspired a Western woman to devote several years of her life to living with Indian prostitutes and their children. As a film maker I can relate to the need to get to know your subjects intimately, but I sensed from Zana that there was an untold story.)

The kids in contrast, were full of personality, and I would have loved to have gotten to know them better. It would have been fascinating to have witnessed how they developed as people, and how their art progressed. The only child that we get more than a superficial insight into is Avijit, who gets more screen time than the rest. I can't help but feel that their portrayal suffered because of the focus on Zana. The road movie montages instilled a sense of "feel good" into the film, but it's a pretty trite formula.

Without being too crude about it, I felt that the film was a bit of a zoo. The audience is given incredible access to this other world, but there's an emotional detachment from the animals because the zoo keeper keeps talking about them, and saying what's right for them.

I support the initiative that they undertook, and I admire Zana for her commitment to the kids, but as a piece of film making I question their judgment. However, as the success of the film shows - 'content is king'.

In spite of my criticism, it was an engaging film, and an amazing journalistic feat if nothing else. 7 out of 10.

March 7, 2010


'Star Wars' for the next generation? Hmm.

It's Oscar night, and I'm doing what any self-respecting indie director would: denying that I care ;) I thought now would be a good time to review 'Avatar' - nominated for nine of those golden statues, and arguably the most talked about film of last year.

The film takes place in 2154. A multinational corporation has established a mining colony on the moon "Pandora", and has installed a group of Scientists to study it. The environment is toxic to humans, so the scientists have created bodies, called "avatars", that they inhabit mentally. Through these, they explore luscious Pandora and attempt to interact with its native population, the Na'vi: a race of warriors who live in spiritual intimacy with their world.

Jake Sully, a disabled former Marine, takes the place of his late twin brother in the Avatar program. To everyone's surprise, the Na'vi choose him to live with them and study their ways.

But nothing is clear-cut, and soon Jake's mission to Pandora is being compromised is more ways than one.

Let's just get this straight: I liked 'Avatar'. It was entertaining, it was beautiful visually, and being a sentimental sort, I loved the Na'vi's spiritual concepts (like saying "I see you" ie. "I see into your heart and soul", as a way of greeting). Plain and simple, I cannot deny that there were loads of fantastic things about this film.

So why did it leave me feeling cold? The more time that goes by since I have seen 'Avatar', the more it regresses to a shadowy part of my mind called 'meh'.

As beautiful as the film was: visually and thematically, it didn't convince me. Jake was so normal that it was hard to believe he was 'the chosen one'. I'm assuming that this was the whole point: he was special because he was so normal, but I didn't buy it. He had no spark or charisma or intelligence that set him apart as a great leader - apart from the fact that he had "no fear" (yeah right). Plunging this normal bloke into an alien life was an opportunity to create a very interesting character struggle, but this wasn't developed, and the chance was missed.

Apart from the lame protagonist (no pun intended), 'Avatar' was progressing quite nicely, until it became a gung-ho action movie. True, the Na'vi are a warrior tribe, but this change in tone felt inconsistent with the message of the film ("live in harmony with your environment"). If we're supposed to live in harmony with our environment, then why did I feel happy and excited whenever an army man was blasted to hell?

The film was anti-American, but pro-war, which contradicts its supposed themes. The lines between good and evil were unambiguously drawn, in true Hollywood style. Is this really supposed to change people's minds about the way we are living? All it does is find another entity to call evil.

Nonetheless, I can't deny that 'Avatar' cements James Cameron as one of the kings of the Hollywood blockbuster. As the highest grossing film of all time, people's feet have done the talking.

Confused rating: Visually: 8/10; thematically: 6/10.

March 5, 2010

'AFGHAN STAR' (documentary)

A sweet film with a strong message.

For a culture that has reacted saturation-point with accursed reality-talent shows (thank you Simon Cowell), comes a singing competition with a difference.

Winner of the 2009 Sundance World Cinema Audience Award for Documentary, 'Afghan Star' is a feature-documentary about the Afghan answer to "Pop Idol". The film follows four characters as they compete in this competition, watched by approximately 11 million people.

The film borrows many of the tools used by the established TV show formats. It shows some of the terrible auditions, and gives us intimate access to the finalists. But that's where the similarity ends. The film explores the hopes, joys, and disappointments of two men and two women, but also gives a rich insight into Afghanistan's cultural and political history.

In Afghanistan, this simple singing competition means something. For many young people, it is the first time they have ever experienced democracy. They are allowed to vote. The finalists are from different ethnic groups, and two women are even in the competition. There is a feeling that for once, Afghan people are free, and anything is possible. However, not everything is rosy, and as the competition progresses, the women in particular express concerns for their safety.

I was aware that Afghan society was more liberal before '96 (when the Taliban took over, and brought in extremely repressive new laws*), but the reality of this knowledge doesn't hit until you see video footage of a student concert in Kabul in the 80's. A band are playing synthesised music, dressed in shiney 80's garb, and are headed by a female vocalist. Wow.

Without giving too much away, 'Afghan Star' is a little gem of a film. The finalists are interesting characters, and the simple joy that this singing competition brings viewers and fans is sensitive and funny. But underneath this there is a strong political and social message. It certainly made me rethink what the introduction of democracy there means.

9 out of 10, and a well-deserved Sundance award.

Watch it here on Youtube 4OD
* By these, girls schools were closed, women were banned from working and forced to stay indoors unless accompanied by a close relative; and music, television and sport were banned.

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