March 5 2016
Reviews of three films from the Asia House Film Festival which ends today – two features from nations that do not have any real film industry (Burma/Myanmar and Afghanistan), and one short from India about the plight of cows…
NARRATIVE feature films allow us to see into a world we would not otherwise and perhaps more importantly, give us a fresh and different perspective.
“Mina Walking” a rare feature from Afghanistan did precisely that. Made by Canadian-Afghani Yosef Baraki, it gives us a more precise and perhaps more accurate picture of life as it is for ordinary Afghanis than any number of news or documentary films.
This doesn’t have sides in that way many factual films do and focuses just on one family: Mina, her father, and grandfather.
Her lot is a pretty sorry one – her elderly grandfather is weak, virtually infirm, and needs almost constant care. Her father is a junkie and spends much of his time with younger men who have the same afflictions.
There is little of a way out, until her grandfather shuffles off his mortal coil. There is a sense of relief and liberation amid the obvious sadness. Mina’s relationship to her father is a strong and loving one – but he is neglectful and does not pay her enough attention. That maybe the way of some fathers everywhere.
She does have a friend from the market who helps her to make a living by selling trinkets in the market. Following her grandfather’s death, she feels more able to do what she wants. She goes to school and gives whatever she makes on top of the essentials to her Dad.
She is the adult in this relationship and decides there is a way for him to break his habit. Her plan goes awry and has terrible consequences – not for her or her Dad, but for another market seller who treats her with her contempt.
Baraki’s film is beautifully shot and acted and has a strong story and a well-defined plot arc; it deserves to be seen widely and spotlights the continuing pressures and difficulties girls have in rigid and conservative societies where their roles are very strictly defined and any deviation is mostly seen as a threat or subversive act against one’s culture and faith – but it isn’t and shouldn’t be, as this film aptly portrays. (Sailesh Ram)
ACV rating:*** ½ (out of five)
A SEMI-DOCUMENTARY style film, “The Monk” is a simple and poignant tale about a novice Zawana (Kyaw Nyi Thu), and the dilemma he faces of having to choose between the spiritual and the temporal life.
This Burmese-Czech co-production is the first independent feature film from the erstwhile Hermit Kingdom in 50 years and was screened last Sunday (February 28) at the historic and recently refurbished Regent’s Street Cinema.
Along with his three fellow novices Zawana has a playful if regimented existence in the village monastery which is overseen by a strict old abbot who rescued Zawana from the streets of Yangon. Zawana is ever aware of his obligation to the abbot and it draws him back when his friend Thewata leaves for a monastery in the city, gifting his friend his treasured MP 3 player.
The monsoon rains are beautifully captured in the opening scenes of the film along with shots of lush greenery and a soundtrack evocative of the sounds of nature. The rural poverty and hardships that the village community face are softened by this backdrop of the Burmese countryside and its unspoilt beauty. When the abbot falls sick, Zawana has to rise to the challenge of raising money for the operation and taking the old monk to Yangon.
Zawana disobeys one of the fundamental tenets of the abbot which is to keep a safe distance from the village women, and finds himself drawn to a young, spirited girl who seeks to better herself in the city. Their paths cross again. However, soon Zawana and the abbot return to the village and Zawana realises that he has the responsibility of keeping the monastery from closing. The film provides some wonderful insights into the monastic life with memorable shots of the monks at meditation.
The amateur actors deliver subtle and convincing performances. The film is director The Maw Naing’s feature debut. He is a documentary filmmaker/poet/painter/performance artist.
The film is especially relevant in light of the fact that several monasteries faced closure due to persecution from the military junta in the years prior to independence.
A reflective and empathetic look at the challenges monasteries will likely face now that the country has thrown open its doors to the winds of change and the old ways are undermined by new.
You could say Zawana is symbolic of Myanmar/Burma itself – will the country be seduced by the blandishments of capitalism and technology and abandon the traditions that have served it well? As we see in the film, all is not always as it seems. (Chitra Mogul)
ACV rating: ****
MOST visitors to India are amazed and riveted by the sight of cows in the midst of human beings and traffic in towns and cities. The filmmakers behind the documentary short “Panchagavya” explore the reasons cows are revered in India, specifically Bikaner in Rajasthan, by interviewing the man on the street.
“Panchagavya” refers to five blended products of the cow which are considered extremely effective for one’s health. These are cow dung, urine, milk and two derived products which are curd and ghee (clarified butter). The cow is regarded as a mother and in many places and temples one sees idols of the animal. However, when a boy and his mother are asked what the free roaming cows eat, the boy answers that they eat leftovers in the bins as well as plastic bags only to be hushed by his mother, making him sheepishly recant his words. This is one example of how the film reveals the dichotomy in how cows are seemingly revered and at the same time callously neglected.
There is footage of cow carcasses being carted away to open grounds on the cities’ outskirts to be dismembered and skinned without proper hygienic facilities or supervision. The butchers speak candidly to the interviewer: one of them says he can’t bring himself to leave, no doubt due to the easy money. Another says he is ashamed of what he does and dare not tell his family.
The drawbacks of the documentary are that it doesn’t tell you if this is the only method of disposing of cows or where the meat is going to, in a country that largely abhors consumption of beef. The state of Maharashtra recently passed a controversial beef ban and 24 out of 29 states in India prohibit the slaughter and sale of cows and beef. The documentary leaves the audience to draw its own conclusions – and one fact is glaringly obvious – more than reverence, what cows urgently need are shelters and a more dignified exit from the world. (Chitra Mogul)
ACV rating: ***
Asia House Film Festival ends today (March 5) with Singaporeana at The Cinema Museum, The Master’s House, 2 Dugard Way (off Renfrew Road), London SE11 4TH.
More detail: http://asiahouse.org/events/singaporeana-day-cinema-museum/