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Soleil Ȏ / Oh, Sun, Mauritania 1970.

Posted by keith1942 on July 25, 2017

This key film and the filmmaker Med Hondo featured at Il Cinema Ritrovato 2017. The film has been restored as part of the Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project. As is their practice the new version has been restored from existing 35mm and 16mm prints and made available on a DCP in the original French and Arabic with English sub-tittles. The digital version is presumably to aid distribution though whilst I have seen a number of their restorations at Festivals they do not seem to reach ordinary exhibition in the British/Irish territory.

The filmmaker Med Hondo was also invited to the Festival and we also had the opportunity to see two of his other films. He received a warm reception and was visibly moved by this. He also retained and voiced the passionate political commitment which is apparent in his films.

Hondo’s film work is experimental, didactic and sardonic. His tone is exemplified by the opening of Les Bricot Negres in which a smiling black African man, in close-up, addresses the camera directly:

“So you have come to the cinema —But certainly we all love the cinema very much, don’t we? … the camera, the film, the projectors, the techniques, who invented all this? Not us certainly. —

So, to provide us with entertainment – and also to take from us a little dough – sorry, a little money – the “Toubabs” [Westerners] have built theatres for us, they installed their machines,, and we, curious as we are went to see the CI-NE-MA.” (Prologue printed in ‘Framework’ Spring 1978).

It is clear that Hondo’s film provide a directly oppositional cinema to that kindly provided by the benefactors from Europe and North America.

1970 was the release date of this film when it played at the Cannes Film Festival that year. Hondo, who wrote the story and directed the film, had commenced it in 1965 and completed it by 1967. But finding distribution was as difficult as it had been earlier to find funding. Hondo and his collaborators basically made the film on their own for about $30,000. Much of the money was raised buy Hondo who worked dubbing US films into French. Hondo later wrote of the production:

“it was purely by chance that we ended up being artists ‘of colour’ as the term usually used. In Paris together for basically the same reasons, Bachir, Touré, Robert [Liensol] and I found ourselves right in the middle of a country, a city, where we had to get by, for lack of better words, where we had to work: being an actor, a musician, a singer. And where we realized immediately the doors were closed […]. As a solution we thought of creating a theater group and, in the meantime, we all made Soleil Ȏ.” ( Med Hondo in 1970 quoted in the Festival Catalogue).

The film is best conceived as agit-prop. Whilst the narrative is fictional, it is expresses the experiences of black Africans in Paris and is predominately shot in actual locations. The film weaves of complex tapestry of characters, settings, scenes and actions and discussions. These are not presented in a linear fashion; the film constantly cuts between separate scenes, many of which we return to several times. The basic form of the film is montage in the sense developed by the Soviet pioneers. So not only does the film constantly cut between separate characters and settings bit it is full of discontinuities. Equally the sound follows the manifesto produced by Sergey Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin, and Grigori Aleksandrov,; whilst dialogue scenes mainly used synchronisation the soundtrack frequently features dialogue, music and noise that appears asynchronous. This is especially so as the film moves towards its climax.

The film opens with ma pre-credit sequence of Africans playing and communing by a river followed by a cut and film of Africans in Paris. This sets up the contradiction between Africans own cultures and their experiences under colonial domination, be it at home in Africa or when they sits the ‘mother-country’.

After the credits there is an animated section. Then film set in Africa with a dramatised but symbolic treatment of the oppression of Africans by European cultural forms. Africans are shown dominated by European religion: they are accorded identities through baptism and naming with European names. This is followed by  a procession with wooden crosses. In a sardonic move the crosses are inverted and Africans become soldiers/servants in military service: a service that involves fighting amongst themselves. This is pure agit-prop and sets up the cultural dominance that the film portrays.

We then move to a large city, Paris where an African migrant arrives, The rest of the film is a series of dramatised sequences but shot in actual locations and, at times, using actual footage both of the white French natives and the visiting Africans. These separate sequences are constantly intercut and for most of the time a particular action or discussion is not completed, but returned to later in the film.

So we have an African seeking a place to live: mainly suffering racist rejection.. An African seeking work: and suffering racist responses that range from outright rejection to paternalistic employment. The latter is represented by a factory class for African recruits where the white teachers assume that these ‘foreign’ workers re naïve and possibly illiterate. There is a recurring discussion between an African man and a an employer where the latter appears at times sympathetic but take position that such exploitation is necessary.

Later in the film we examples of African workers being housed in Gerry-built buildings, in excessive numbers and the profits that exploiting landlord can make. There are also scenes where sexual exploitation is addressed. There is a sardonic episode where a visiting African President, clearly corrupted by the colonial situation, uses a white French prostitute.

There are signs of solidarity. At a garage regarding a vacancy the proletarian working there advised and assists the African. But later another sardonic episode shows the competing left groupings, basically sectarian, offering rhetoric rather than actual support for African fighting racism.

Actual solidarity occurs in a sequences where we see African socialising together. There are several set in a restaurant where the Africans eat, drink and socialise. There is also a singer there: note, not all the lyrics are translated. One is ‘Soleil Ȏ’, a song from slaves in the West |Indies, which provides the title of the film.

The film develops a crushing weight of racism, discrimination and oppression alongside the exploitation which is the norm in a capitalist society. As we watch the end of the film the protagonist runs through a series of settings, desolate waste land, railways, motorways and more desolation in a forest. Flames appear on the screen and images are superimposed on the frame, of Malcolm X, Che Guevara, Mehdi Ben Barka and Patrice Lumumba. The protagonist grasps and armalite rifle. This is accompanied by increasingly strident screams, drums and percussive noises. The film ends with the onscreen title ‘To Be Continued’.

That continuation could be seen in the other titles screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato. Soleil Ȏ set up a radical discourse that continued in West Indies (1979) and Sarraounia (1986). The film shares a common influence from the ideas and writings of Franz Fanon found in other African directors, for example Ousmane Sembène. There is also the influence of Soviet montage, Neo-realism and European Cinéma vérité. All are combined in a distinctly radical cinematic expression.

Hondo later critically commented, in an article ‘The Cinema of Exile’ (in ‘Film & Politics in the Third World’, edited by John D. H. Downing, Automedia 1987).

The approach in Soleil Ȏ had been constructed from a very elaborate script, and improvisations had remained limited and always under constraint.”

He comments more generally,

“Were I to make a film in Mauritania tomorrow, my film language would not be the same.”

And developments can be seen in his later films screened at the Il Cinema Ritrovato. So Soleil Ȏ is a film of a certain time and place. But it is also a key film in developing an African and African Diaspora cinema. The good work of the World Cinema Project is welcome: let us hope the film is widely seen and discussed.

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‘The Empire Strikes Back’

Posted by keith1942 on December 9, 2014

West Indies 'smash' English wickets.

West Indies ‘smash’ English wickets.

Introduction:

The categories of film in Solanas and Getino’s Towards A Third Cinema are dynamic. Films often hover between the different categories. This is true of their subject matter as well and it is interesting to chart treatments of a particular topic across several different categories. Sport provides a popular an enduring topic for entertainment films: though surprisingly England’s traditional sport of cricket has had only a limited number of outings. It has however provided an effective topic for other cinemas separate from that of the UK.

Cricket on film

In 1984-5, and again in 1985-6, the West Indian cricket team scored a ‘blackwash’ over the English team: i.e. a five to nil series victory. The success was enjoyed by, among others, many West Indian migrants now living in the UK. This was ‘turning the tables’ with a vengeance. It upset the established order of the game. Cricket has always seemed intensely English pastime. Traditionally it is only partially British, played in Wales, but not so much in Scotland. However, it was taken round the British Empire and established there mainly by the colonial rulers. It remains the main sporting focus across what is now called the Commonwealth. Football, rugby and other sports have particular competitions but it is the arena of Test Match cricket and now the International shorter forms where rivalry is most intense. Meanwhile the arrival of large numbers of people from the ex-colonies has changed cricket at home.

There are not that many memorable cricketing moments in British film. (Wikipedia has a page on Cricket in Film and Television). However, sport is not generally a dynamic feature in British cinema, For a long time the best footballing feature was Hollywood’s Escape to Victory (1981). Bend it Like Beckham (2002) does offer a successful contemporary footballing story, though it relies heavily on the modern celebrity aspects of the game. When cricket has been addressed in British film the stance has frequently been individual dramas. Thus The Final Test (1951) is centrally about a father/son relationship. Sam Palmer (Jack Warner) is making his final appearance in an English test team, playing the ‘old enemy’ Australia. However, his son Reggie is more interested in writing poetry than watching his father play. So the film also offers an opposition between art and sport. This divide is bridged by Reggie’s poet-hero Alex Whitehead (deliciously played by Robert Morley) who turns out to be a cricket-mad artist. The film is graced by appearances by several famous cricketers, including Len Hutton. Even more beguiling, we hear commentary by John Arlott. However, the bulk of the film is focused on the conflict between father and son: with a sub-plot about widower’s Palmer’s tentative romance with a barmaid in the Local. The central value of the film is patriarchy. Palmer is at first undermined, but finally reinforced in his role as head of the family. And the female interest is clearly subordinate. In fact, a scene, which has Palmer laying down the moral code of the period, feels rather embarrassing today.

'Backyard' cricket in Wondrous Oblivion

‘Backyard’ cricket in Wondrous Oblivion

The 2003 film Wondrous Oblivion [scripted and directed by Paul Morrison] brings a greater sensitivity to issues of gender and ethnicity. It takes a parallel situation to that in The Final Test: in this case it is the son rather than the father who is the cricketer. And the film addresses this through the discourse of a multicultural Britain. The film is set in London of the 1960s. David Wiseman belongs to a Jewish immigrant family. His father, Victor, works long and hard at his tailoring business. His mother, Ruth, is caught in domestic repression. David attends a middle class school, but his ineffectual performance on the cricket pitch restricts him the lowly position of scorer for the school team.

Then Jamaican Dennis Samuels and his family move in next door. Dennis’ first act is to erect a cricket net in his backyard. It is here that he develops David’s cricketing skills and lays the basis for a developing relationship between the two families. Denis’ coaching transforms David performance and he becomes a star player in the school team.

But serpents soon disrupt the little Eden. Ruth develops an attraction for the vibrant Denis, and he has to gently dampen her approaches. A more serious snare has David succumb to his schoolmate’s prejudices and snub Dennis’ daughter Judy on the occasion of his birthday party.

Now serious racial prejudice surfaces in the local community. Dennis’ house is set on fire by local thugs. It is David who raises the alarm and saves lives; but both the house and Dennis’ cricket net are destroyed. The neighbours stand idly by and the local police do not treat the incident seriously.  Victor is appalled by this passivity, and events also suggest a simmering prejudice against the Wisemans that until now has remained below the surface. David and his family help Dennis rebuild his beloved nets: Victor provides materials and Ruth labour. Other neighbours shamefacedly help repair the damage to the house. The new relationships are cemented at a picnic, which in a reversal of The Final Test, has David missing an important school match.

Clearly, like The Final Test, this film is about fathers and sons. Denis offers a surrogate father to the young David. However, by the closure of the film David’s own family and their relationships have been reconstructed. David has not only improved his cricketing skills but also matured in his handling of these relationships. Just as the film is notably more modern in terms of ‘race’, so its treatment of gender is more modern, David mother’s Ruth has a more prominent role and is able to develop as a person. However, her situation is still subservient to that of the males: it is patriarchy that is central in this film. And there is a class dynamic, though this is not developed fully. At the end of the film, the Wisemans’ are moving geographically to north London, socially upwards. Most notably, we meet members of the current West Indian Test team. But they appear at the picnic rather than in battle with the Empire team at home.

Television, which has featured slightly more outings for the game. seems to mirror this approach. Thus an episode of Inspector Morse features the hallowed game in ‘Deceived by Flight’: Morse is essentially about a surrogate father/son relationship. In this drama Morse’s Sergeant Lewis has to play in the ‘old boys’ team. And during the play he is clearly seeking Morse’s approval. As usual Morse is distracted by a woman: in this case two, the traditional woman and the devious femme fatale.

A rather different focus emerges in a number of films made in the context of the colonial discourse which, whilst retaining overtones of father and sons, have more directly addressed and criticised the Imperial master. So films from colonial and ex-colonial territories frequently offer intriguing dramas.

bodyline_its_not_just_cricket_au

In the 1970s Australian Television produced a mini-series on the notorious Bodyline controversy. (There is a fairly detailed account of this 1932-3 British cricket tour of Australia in Wikipedia). In 1930, the Australian cricket team had toured England with the great Don Bradman. He averaged over a 100 and Australia won the series. The English team captain Douglas Jardine noted that Bradman was not that good at dealing with short balls. Short pitch bowling tends to bounce up directly at the batsman, who can be hit on the body by a ball that may travel at up to 90 miles an hour. Most of the modern protective gear, like helmets, was not available in the 1930s. Jardine worked out a strategy with his fast bowlers, which involved balls directed at the batsman, who was faced with either being hit or possibly nicking a ball which could be caught by a fielder. The tactics had an impact during the tour of Australia both on and off the field. A famous scene includes the lines: “There are two teams out there. One if playing cricket. One is making no attempt to do so.” The row became so bitter that it involved diplomatic exchanges and spontaneous boycotts of goods by fans in home countries. It remains the most controversial event in the history of international cricket.

The mini-series rather sensationalises history, but produces a powerful dramatic retelling. Central to the narrative is the conflict between the superior imperial British and the ordinary colonial Australians. This conflict is about class, but also about colonial dominance and resistance. The Imperial strand is evident early on in Part One. This presents the upbringing of the young Douglas Jardine. A key scene, set in the Indian Raj, has Lord Harris (one-time England captain, MCC President and Governor of Bombay) presenting the young Jardine with a cricket bat. The rich mise en scène emphasises the power and affluence of the Raj. Later, when Jardine joins the English cricket side there is a clear divide between the players like Jardine, who are comfortably upper-class, and the professional, like the fast bowler Harold Larwood, who comes from a mining community. There are also indications of Jardine’s ruthless streak. In one match he instructs his bowler to stump an over-eager batsman out of his crease. This is technically legal, but hardly within the much-vaunted ‘spirit of cricket’. The actual contemporary spirit of the British game is well shown in that Larwood the bowler became the scapegoat after the tour, he was never selected for England again.

The second part of the series follows the actual Bodyline matches. The varied scenes include actual match play: responses by both spectators and journalist: and behind-the-scenes discussions among administrators and politicians. Especially potent are the crowd scenes. These emphasise once more the more proletarian style of the Australian colonials. There are also running gags, one being a fan who smuggles his sheepdog into every game in a Gladstone bag.

All these different scenes emphasise the distinction between English ruthlessness and Australian sportsmanship. When the conflict reaches a climax we see the British government using economic power to face down the Australians. At this point the Australian team consider refusing to play another test: (a sort of prequel to the action by Pakistan players in 2007). Then in a key scene they decide to soldier on and face the British barrage. This is the point at which they acquire heroic status, becoming the representatives of Australian fair play and courage. Clearly in this drama the British are ‘not playing cricket’.

On field confrontation.

On field confrontation.- in PLaying Away

In fact, what is probably the best British film on cricket is Playing Away(1986). The 1980s were a decade when the problems of racist Britain were glaringly visible for all to see. This was a factor in the new, pioneering Channel Four, whose Film Four International produced the film. It was also the decade that saw the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies publish a collection on “race” and racism under the title The Empire Strikes Back (Hutchinson University Press, 1982). As an anti-racist poster of the period put it, “We are over here because you are over there.”

The film was scripted by Caryl Phillips and directed by Horace Ové, both important Black British artists of the period. Ové migrated to Britain in 1960 from Trinidad at the age of 20. Phillips was born on St Kitts, but most of his upbringing was in the UK. Both have produced important bodies of work that address the experiences of Afro-Caribbean communities in Britain.

The main plot mechanism is a cricket match held in the Suffolk village of Sneddington to round off a week of fund raising for the Third World. The village team is to play the Brixton-based Conquistadors in a Sunday league fixture. The film opens on the Friday evening as the two captains marshal their sides and preparations. Sneddington’s captain Derek (Nicholas Farrell, reprising elements of his character in Chariots of Fire, 1981), is a middle class migrant to the rural haven, where he has lived for 5 or 6 years. The Conquistador captain is Willie Boy (a typical Norman Beaton characterisation). He is a Jamaican migrant whose wife has already returned to the island, but who has not quite managed this himself. Horace Ové, in an interview in the Monthly Film Bulletin (December 1987) comments: “It is not the same for their parents – that generation of West Indians who came over in the 40s and 50s. They were encouraged to come here, like Willie Boy in Playing Away. They thought life was going to be great, they worked hard but today they feel outside the gates of society and many of them question what they are doing here and want to go home to the Caribbean. I’ve lived in two worlds ever since I’ve been here.”

The film immediately sets up a series of oppositions as it cuts between Sneddington and Brixton. Clearly there is the contrast between urban and rural culture. But there are also oppositions of “race” and ethnicity, class, gender and a generation gap. These contradictions are not just between rural Suffolk and urban London. They are within both communities. Derek, his wife and best mate Kevin, (the team fast bowler), are marked off from the more proletarian village natives (or Oiks). And Willie Boy has an argument with Errol (Gary Beadle), the young, virile team member who is also dating Willie Boy’s daughter Yvette (Suzette Llewellyn).

In fact, there are a number of sub-plots concerning personal dilemmas and problems. A key character is Godfrey (Robert Urquhart), whose wife Marjorie (Helen Lindsay) is clearly the main organiser of this event. Godfrey and Marjorie have travelled abroad and sojourned in Kenya for a time. However, Godfrey’s knowledge of and sympathy for the Afro-Caribbean communities is slyly undercut in the film. A slide show for the village members with pictures set in Africa clearly includes a still where Godfrey is standing in front of a matte rather than an actual place. (Much clearer in a 35-mm print than on video). Such subversions recur regularly in the film. Some of these character and plot mechanism appear rather like those of television soaps, a genre that Ové also worked in. The development of the sub-plots brings some members of the two groups together, but also exacerbates other tensions. These come to a head in the final match.

Sneddington bat first and score 105. The Conquistadors chase this total but lose six wickets in the process and are clearly struggling. At this point two LBW appeals are turned down by the umpire, Godfrey. (The filming suggests Godfrey’s decision is possibly not impartial). The bowler Ian, (one of the Oiks) storms off the pitch, followed by five of his village mates. The pitch is now set for an easy Conquistadors victory. This is achieved by the partnership of Willie Boy and Errol. Errol, surprisingly, suggest that they take is easy and ‘make a game of it’, but Willie Boy scornfully counters that he is always ‘soft on the white man’.

Thus by late Sunday the Brixton West Indians are more united whilst Sneddington is in disarray. Charles Barr (In Monthly Film Bulletin, November 1987) made a good comment on this point in the film. “In his classic History of Cricket (1938, and much reprinted), H. S. Altham remarked that West Indian teams were handicapped by ‘temperamental weaknesses” when playing away, on tour in England; through all the shifts of on-and-off-field power that have occurred since, the stereotyped opposition of volatile black visitors and phlegmatic white hosts has tended to linger on.” Playing Away subverts it exuberantly, as the hosts from the picture-postcard village of Sneddington, heading for victory over their Brixton visitors on cricketing merit, blow the match through temperamental disintegration.”

Barr clearly identifies the way that the film subverts traditional sporting and media stereotypes. And this extends through the various subplots and characters. Playing Away is a work rich in contradictions. And it is rich in an irony that is usually lacking, not only in UK cricketing films, but UK sporting films more generally.

India seems to have produced more cricketing films than other countries playing the game. The titles include Awwal Number (1990) which combines a one-day series against Australia with a terrorist threat to spectators: and Iqbal (2005) which follows a rural deaf-mute boy who achieves cricketing prowess and a place on the national team. With Lagaan (2001), a major critical and commercial success, a larger dimension has been addressed. The film offers a historical, almost mythic confrontation between the British Empire and the subjugated Indian villagers in the form of a classic cricket match. The film is a star vehicle, produced by as well as featuring Aamir Kahn: plus a guest appearance by superstar Amitahb Bachchan as the film’s narrator. There are star ‘playback’ singers like Lata Mangeshkar, and the music is by the star composer A. R. Rahman.

lagaan2

The film is set in an ordinary village in the ‘heart of India’. It is 1893, the height of the rule of the British Raj. The film’s title, Lagaan, refers to a tax on the harvest of the villagers: officially paid to the Rajah, but mainly expropriated by the British, to whom the Rajah is subservient. And this year the hardship caused by the tax has been aggravated by the two seasons of the little rain. The conflict is embodied in the two leading characters: Captain Russell (Paul Blackthorne), the brutal and arrogant British commander, and Bhuvan (Aamir Khan), a villager living with his widowed mother. Bhuvan is a typical Hindi hero, as central to Bollywood films as the ‘all-American action hero’ is to Hollywood. The film is also conventional in other ways, featuring six large-scale song and dance numbers; a traditional Hindi mother; and Bhuvan’s romance with fellow villager Gauri (Gracy Singh).

However, the plot also has distinctive elements. Captain Russell challenges Bhuvan and the villagers to a cricket match, and wages three years free of lagaan against a triple lagaan payment for the current year. Bhuvan’s task becomes to persuade the village to fight the challenge and to build a team capable of taking on the British. In the course of building the team Bhuvan constructs a representation of an India united against the British. So there are both Hindus and Muslims, and a Sikh member who has travelled to join the team in their fight. Finally, Bhuvan recruits a dalit or ‘untouchable’. Kachra has a withered arm, and (referencing more recent cricket?) has the ability to bowl almost unplayable spin. His recruitment sparks protests from the prejudiced villagers. However, Bhuvan rallies the team and village with a powerful speech: and a song and dance number gives expression to their new unity of purpose.

Bhuvan and the team are also assisted by Captain Russell’s sister, Elizabeth (Rachel Shelley). Initially, she helps the villagers out of a sense of fair play, but it is soon apparent that she is smitten with Bhuvan. This provides a romantic sub-plot, which brings in more conventional references, this time to the mythic story of Krishna and Radha, star-crossed lovers. There is another plot strand when the villager Lakha, jealous of Bhuvan and Gauri, works as a spy and saboteur for the British.

The village team members are subordinate to Bhuvan in the plot, but do develop individually. Like Kachra, most of them have particular cricketing skills. Deva, the Sikh, has played cricket before in the British army. Bhura, who spends his time chasing his chickens is a fine fielder. Bagha, who plays the drum before the village shrine, is a fine batsman. The contrast with the British is also one of class, as that team is composed solely of officers. At one point a vital and dazzling song and dance in the village is contrasted with the cool, formalised and affluent ballroom of the British.

The film climaxes in a three-day match between the British and the Villagers, watched both by the British colonial establishment and a mass of rural Indians. The match is commented on and explained (for both audiences) by Ram Singh, Elizabeth’s servant. The game runs for about 80 minutes of the overall film. And whilst the production has gone to great lengths to produce convincing period detail, the plot also plays on contemporary cricket lore. So, aside from Kachra’s spin. a British bowler indulges in ‘bouncers’ and ‘beamers’. Several village batsmen are injured, including Ismail, who is allowed a ‘runner’, This is the village youth Tipu, who is stumped in a similar fashion to the incident in Bodyline. There is frequent ‘sledging’ by the British officers. And in a moment of rage Captain Russell trashes the British dressing room.

Predictably, the villagers win, but the result is in doubt till the last ball. In fact this is a ‘no ball’, saving the wicket of Kachra, last man in. This enables Bhuvan to hit the winning six. He has, also, carried his bat through the innings. So whilst it is a team effort, the prime focus remains on Bhuvan the hero. The victory enables Bhuvan to win Gauri, and leaves Elizabeth to return to England sadder and wiser. Captain Russell is banished to the ‘Central African desert’, and one hopes that there are not more benighted villagers there to suffer his brutal domination.

The film not only uses the conventions of Hindi cinema, but also subverts those of the Empire cinema. It has a native hero who rallies the ‘troops’, aided by a lovelorn maiden, but a white maiden. And once more it is the British officers who show the least regard for the ‘spirit of cricket’.

These ‘colonial’ films clearly mirror the changing hierarchies of international cricket. But they also consciously dramatise cricket as a metaphor for the larger social and political conflicts.

Postscript:

The Final Test falls into an idea of a national cinema, though one that is most closely related to the dominant mainstream cinema. Wondrous Oblivion offers a much clearer and more autonomous representation of the national. Here we have an independent production that only partially adheres to the mainstream conventions, though its conclusion is not really radical. The Australian Bodyline to a great degree falls within the conventions of mainstream film, whilst at he same time treating critically values around empire without subverting them.

Lagaan clearly expresses an Indian national cinema, which confronts the colonial values. At the same time this national cinema follows the conventions of mainstream cinema.

Playing Away would seem to come closest to a film that dramatises cricket in a completely oppositional way. It is intriguing because it falls into a space of cinema known under the term Diaspora. These are works that follow the modern trails of migrancy. The black communities in the UK have both the cultures that they find here but also the cultures in their original homelands, be it Africa, the Americas, or the Indian sub-continent. Frequently films of this type appear to incorporate different strands of the dominant cinemas, or a mainstream strand and a national strand but with the mainstream dominant. Playing Away is one of the most subversive examples from that cinematic territory that I have seen.  It goes beyond some combination of dominant values. However, its primary focus is the class contradictions within British society rather than the national questions in the Caribbean. Horace Ové is an interesting example of oppositional filmmaking within the imperial base. His first full feature was Pressure (1975), which charts the politicisation of a young second generation Black British [Afro-Caribbean].

This article originally appeared on the ITP World Blog.

The Final TestPlaying Away and Lagaan are all available on region 2 DVDs. Bodyline is available on a Region 4 DVD.

 

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Two films by Mira Nair.

Posted by keith1942 on October 2, 2014

Krishna and Manju in Salaam Bombay

Krishna and Manju in Salaam Bombay

This article is part of the argument set out in Diaspora Cinema and globalisation.

Mira Nair was born in India, but had studied documentary in the USA. She made several short documentaries, which dealt both with India and with the diaspora in the USA. Her first feature,  Salaam Bombay! (1988), was jointly funded by the National Film Development Corporation of India in conjunction with Doordarshan (the State-owner Indian Television Network), Channel 4, and supported by grants from the Pinewood and

and Rockefeller Foundations. Mira Nair started the film’s Production Company, Mirabai, Films Inc. Since its inception, Mirabai Films Inc. has produced the following of Nair’s films, Mississippi Masala, The Prez family, Kama Sutra, My Own Country, The laughing Club of India and Monsoon Wedding. Salaam Bombay won the prestigious Camera D’Or and Prix du Publique at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival.

Salaam Bombay! tells a fictional story, the experiences of a young boy, Krishna, in the slums of Bombay. Parts of the film are quite melodramatic in a manner not that distant from mainstream Hindi cinema. Thus, the narrative involves Krishna in the fate of women caught up in prostitution. One is Rekha, mistress to a district drug baron, Baba. Her daughter Manju is one of Krishna’s earliest slum playmates. The other child/woman is Solasaal known as ‘Sweet Sixteen’, a Nepalese virgin being groomed for sale. Their dramatic situations and fate are important in the narrative.

Other parts of the film are much closer to western docu-drama, as the audience is invited to follow an observational camera. This is especially true of Krishna’s involvement with a group of street boys, who sell, barter, and occasionally steal to survive in the slums. The theft leads to Krishna being placed in a children’s remand centre. The Remand Centre, like the brothel used in the film, was an actual one in Bombay. And in a similar fashion most of the street boys were actual street children from the city. Mira Nair used a workshop approach to develop the children’s performances in the film. Scenes, such as the occasion when the boys act as waiters and helpers at a sumptuous wedding reception, emphasise the poverty, hardship and the social chasm of their situation. The final credits carry a dedication to the street children of Bombay. These aspects of the film stress the sense of presenting and commenting on an actual world of deprivation and exploitation.

The film’s climax is more dramatic, using conventional scenes familiar from mainstream film stories. Krishna escapes from the remand centre and returns to find Sweet Sixteen, now fully trained, being despatched to a customer. Rekha has lost her daughter, who has been placed in a female remand centre. She decides to leave Baba, and when he attempts to stop her, Krishna knifes him. Rekha and Krishna are parted and she is lost in a surging street crowd. The film ends on a close-up of Krishna, alone and presumably fated, a shot that echoes The 400 Blows.

Monsoon-Wedding-1

Mira Nair’s film, Monsoon Wedding, won the Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival. It has been a crossover hit in India, in Europe and the US in both Art House Theatres and in Multiplexes. The script was written by a student Mira Nair met on a Columbia University Masterclass in Film Direction that she taught. The cast mixed established film actors, pop stars and non-professionals, and Nair once again used workshop methods to develop their acting.

If the railway is a central motif in Salaam Bombay! then Monsoon Wedding is very much set on the other side of the track. The celebration is that of an upper middle class Delhi family. The wedding and its preparations take up the whole of the narrative. Nair and her production team created a world of vivid colour for this ritual. They use some conventions of Hindi

popular film music to good effect, whilst avoiding the mere recreation of masala musical numbers. And the complex web of characters and relations in the film is filled out with vivid detail.

The Vermas are preparing for the wedding of their eldest daughter, Aditi. The bridegroom to be is Hemant, a young engineer from Huston. Aditi, who has already enjoyed an affair at the TV studio where she works, is uneasy about this arranged marriage. The celebrations are truly global, including relatives from the USA, Gulf and Australia. Among these is an affluent brother-in-law, Tej, who helps Lalit financially, and who is contributing to the costs of the forthcoming wedding. In the past he made abusive advances to Lalit’s nice Ria. Now adult, Ria’s lack of involvement in men would appear to result from this early trauma and the more recent death of her own father. She observes what appears to be a repetition of her own experience in Tej’s interest in the 10 year old Aliya.

These tensions and contradictions are resolved when Aditi confesses her affair to her fiancé. Initially angry, Hemant accepts her regrets and an arranged marriage becomes a love match. Ria exposes Tej’s paedophile proclivities and Lalit, despite the financial consequences this will involve, orders him to leave the ceremony. The wedding proceeds as the Monsoon breaks. The final reception shows the Verma family celebrating as the rains fall.

Unlike Salaam Bombay!, Monsoon Wedding offers little sight or sound of the poor and dispossessed of the great city. The plot does include a romantic interest between the maid Alice and Dubey, the contractor organising the wedding preparations. Dubey lives in the slum area of the city. But his appearances in the film are mostly restricted to his official and unofficial activities at the Verma house. The one sequence in his own house follows a setback in his wooing of Alice. While he is disconsolate, his mother discusses whether or not to sell their shares. He and Alice form a second wedding couple at the film’s end. But their future would seem to be on the Verma’s side of the track.

Even when the family go shopping in the central urban area, they (and we) glide past the rich mix of classes, urban bustle and slum poverty in a series of tracks and pans. Our focus is firmly on the upper side of the track. And whilst Lalit has to make a difficult decision regarding his wealthier but more corrupt brother-in-law, it no way matches the stark choices faced by Krishna and Rekha in Salaam Bombay!

The feminist perspective is stronger in this later film than in Bend It Like Beckham, As with Salaam Bombay! The narrative centres on the sexual exploitation of women. Young Aliya is saved from a fate parallel to that of Solasaal. In some ways, Ria’s actions in facing up to Tej’s oppressive behaviour play a narrative role similar to Rekha’s. But this safely constrained with a world that remains patriarchal. The film parallels Bend It Like Beckham in the actions of the father. He is crucial in overcoming the central problem, in this case faced by Ria. A key moment is when Lalit embraces Ria, acting as substitute father, with that familiar phrase, ‘let’s go home.’ And in similar fashion this film manages to combine the tradition of arranging marriages with the more western notion of a love match.

Monsoon Wedding does offer something for its women characters. There are a number of important scenes for female bonding and female support. More so than in the UK film. Monsoon Wedding’s complex narrative is closer to that of Art Cinema and offers space for multiple strands. Bend it Like Beckham clearly follows that familiar to multiplex audiences, clearly linear and tightly focused on the actions of the heroine. But Monsoon Wedding still creates a world of the family that is to a great degree divorced from the social network and the city. In some ways the characters and their actions are more influenced by the impact of the relatives from abroad, especially the USA, than by local forces. Indeed, Hemant and Aditi intend to make their new life in the USA.

In terms of her career Mira Nair has been more successful than Gurinder Chadha has been. She has made a number of mainstream films involving Hollywood money and stars. She has also more films to her credit. More recently she has directed several literary adaptations. There was Vanity Fair (2004), a major production with stars like Reese Witherspoon and Gabriel Byrne. Then there was The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2013), a film I thought fairly reactionary in its treatment of the neo-colonial situation in Afghanistan. All these films are resolutely mainstream offerings: they still offer some strands reminiscent of the films and cultures of Asia, but their values are resolutely Western. The exception is 11’ 09’ 01 / September 11 (2002), Alain Brigand’s portmanteau film which offers a response to the general run of media coverage of the attack on the Twin Towers in New York. Like the other films in this compilation Nair’s contribution critiques the chauvinist and at time xenophobic focus of mainstream films However, this is an independent which offers a different approach both in style and content. It also has a different sense of the Diaspora from dominant cinema

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Two films by Gurinder Chadha.

Posted by keith1942 on October 1, 2014

Bhaji on the Beach

Bhaji on the Beach

This article is part of the argument set out in Diaspora Cinema and globalisation.

Gurinder Chadha had already made a short documentary about Asian women when she came to direct her first feature-length film. Bhaji on the Beach was released in 1993. Meera Syal, (an auteur in her own right) scripted it from a story by both Chadha and Syal. The film was produced in association with Channel 4, with its connotations of independent film, new voices and offbeat stories. It centres on a day trip to Blackpool organised by the Saheli Women’s Centre in Birmingham. The female day-trippers provide a cross section of Asian women, and of the problems faced by Asian women in Britain. Among the central characters are Hashida, a teenage girl about to start at medical school. She has just discovered she is pregnant by her African Caribbean boyfriend, Oliver. There is Ginder, who after physical abuse by her husband Ranjit has taken sanctuary in the Women’s Shelter with son Amrik. And there is Asha, who despite her earlier university education, is married and tied to a newsagent’s shop.

The varying contradictions and problems faced by the women unravel during their day at the coast. At the climax of the film Ranjit, with his two brothers, attempts to wrest Amrik from his mother. The action of the women and the men’s own conflicts sabotage this attempt. The bus leaves with Ginder’s situation unresolved, but with her supported by the group. Meanwhile, the bus passes Hashida and Oliver putting together their relationship and future.

One of the pleasures of the film is the way it takes a fresh look at a very traditional British icon, the seaside. The confrontation between Ranjit and Ginder takes place under the pier, on the beach. All of the women have various minor adventures in the entertainment environs of the resort. The film mixes British social realism, the observational depiction of Blackpool and its frequenters, with a more fantastic Bollywood element, a series of dreamlike sequences fantasised by Asha. The values of the film privilege the interests of the women over the male characters. Our sympathies are definitely with them in their struggles with tradition and patriarchy. Crucially the resolution of the film depends on the rest of the group coming to the support of Ginder. This reverses an earlier breach, between the younger women who are striving to break out from traditional Asian mores, and the older women who are upholding them. As the coach leaves Blackpool there is active support for Ginder in breaching

convention by leaving her husband’s home. The acceptance of Hashida’s situation, pregnant and joined to someone from outside the Asian community, is more fragile, witnessed by her absence from the bus.

The men, as is frequently the case in today’s films, are threatened and in crisis. In fact, the review in Sight and Sound commented in somewhat over-the-top fashion, “Syal clearly has an axe to grind about Asian men – ideally against their testicles.” (Farrah Anwar, February 1994) Among the male characters Oliver seems the most positive as he accepts his responsibilities to Hashida and the unborn child. And Manjit, the youngest of Ranjit’s brothers, also emerges in a positive light when he finally takes action against his macho eldest brother Balbir.

bend it like beckham - cinema quad movie poster (1).jpg

Nine years later Chadha directed Bend It Like Beckham, which she also jointly scripted. This has a rather different place in the British Film Industry. It was part-­funded by the newly-formed Film Council and BSkyB, with additional public funding from Hamburg; (there is a sequence in the film set in that city). It received full distribution in the multiplex circuits, and has now appeared on retail and rental DVD. Its mainstream credentials can be gauged by the use of Britain’s major sports icon, David Beckham, in both the title and the story line. In this case, Jess Bhamra, from a Punjabi Sikh family, dreams of becoming a professional footballer

like her idol Beckham. Despite her parent’s opposition to such a breach with tradition, by the end of the film she has achieved her first step on the ladder of this ambition. The wedding in the film is that of her elder sister Pinky, an arranged Asian marriage. However, Pinky and Taz’s relationship is actually one of choice, and is sexually active in a very untraditional manner, though this is kept secret from the parents. Bend It Like Beckham crosses over with the earlier Bhaji on the Beach in highlighting the problems for British Asian women caught between tradition and modernity. It also crosses over in other ways. There are dream sequences that echo Asha’s in Bhaji on the Beach. These though, resolutely follow mainstream conventions. So the scene when Jess imagines her female relatives guarding the goalmouth in a crucial game is shot as a subjective image, whilst Nessun Dorma plays on the soundtrack. Another scene in Bhaji on the Beach featured Ginder treated to a hairdo and new clothes. In this film it is an assertion of her personality as a woman. In Bend It Like Beckham Jess has her appearance transformed by a team-mate. This is so she can attend a disco celebration during the team’s trip to Germany. But here her transformation acts to catch the eye of Joe, the team coach. He and Jess develop a romantic relationship. Another breach with the traditions favoured by her parents.

This romance creates conflict with her friend Jules, a star player in the girl’s football team. These romantic problems and feuding add plot problems to the later part of the film. They are resolved and Jules and Jess renew their friendship. Joe gets a kiss from Jess in an Airport scene. The plotting in of an appearance by David and Victoria Beckham distracts the parent’s attention at this point.

The conflict between Jess’ passion for football and her parent’s opposition is resolved during her sister’s colourful wedding celebrations. Jess’ father’s opposition is in part based on his own youthful problems in Britain, when he was barred from playing cricket by the game’s covert racism. Struck by her misery, he relents. He even attends the match and sees her score a winning goal. This match results in Jess and Jules being offered US sports scholarships.

The crucial difference between the two films is in this resolution of conflict. Bhaji on the Beach foregrounds women’s solidarity. Bend It Like Beckham relies on the more traditional and conventional change of heart by a father. His acceptance of Jess’s desires and ambitions allows Jess to pursue her own choices. The acceptance and embrace by a father of his daughter is a powerful, and usually conservative, closure to many narratives. There is also much less emphasis on the female group in Bend It like Beckham. The film’s focus is on Jess and her close friend Jules. The rest of the football team are ciphers. The Sight and Sound review featured a shot from the film of Shaznay Lewis (who plays Mel, team captain) in football kit. This is presumably because she features on the film soundtrack, as does Victoria Beckham). But Lewis has little to do in the plot, and her presence in the film would seem to be part of the marketing. Bhaji on the Beach leaves the audience as the women express their solidarity with Ginder. In Bend it Like Beckham, the only member of the football team who comes to see off Jess and Jules is the coach Joe, for his token kiss. These rather differing closures speak volumes about the films.

Further both films feature peripheral female characters, Asian girls who pursue western styles and romance. In Bhaji on the Beach, the pair of Ladhu and Madhu do provide humour but they also fill out the action and the group dynamics. ­ In Bend It Like Beckham the equivalent trio of ­Bubbly and her friends are stereotypical and their sole function seems to be ­ humour. The film hints at lesbianism in its depiction of Jules and provides Jess with a gay friend, Tony. But Jules soon proves to be heterosexual and Tony is just nice and not very sexual. I also felt scenes set in the team’s dressing room, with ample display of young women in their lingerie, could be read as just titillation.

Gurinder Chadha’s more recent films have continued to be sited in the mainstream. Bride and Prejudice (2004) is an adaptation of the Jane Austen novel, filmed using many of the conventions of Hindi or ‘Bollywood’. However, the film lacks the irony that suffuses the Austen novel. More recently we have It’s A Wonderful Afterlife (2009), a nice combination of comedy and black humour. The film does focus on the problems of women and in particular Asian women. But a number of the characters seem rather stereotypical. And the unlikely romantic resolution of the film tidies away some of the problems that arose in the story. Gurinder Chadha remains a successful director whose films are always entertaining. But they are resolutely mainstream, partly generic and not unsettling in the way that Bhaji on the Beach seemed.

This was originally part of a longer article in the Media Education Journal, Spring 2003. My thanks to the Editor for agreeing to this posting.

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Diaspora Cinema and Globalisation

Posted by keith1942 on September 30, 2014

chinese-and-indian-diaspora-groups-the-economist

Jean-Luc Godard famously claimed that “a zoom is a political statement’: His comment may appear to have little relevance at a time when many films are seen as only entertainment. Yet it should be clear that even the most anodyne of action films do reflect and refract the values of their time and place. Unfortunately, the type of film Godard advocated is rare. That is, films where there is conscious articulation of political points of view. One factor, which explains this, is the growth of what we call the global economy and the global market. This is an era when the commodity dominates social life, when there is an economic and social emphasis on the individual consumer.

In The World Remade by the Market (in Race and Class, April 2002), Jeremy Seabrook offers a description of the new global dispensation, and comments:

“The richer we become in the market economy, the greater the space of individual self-expression. Sharper differentiation occurs between people. We no longer see our shared social predicament as a common fate. To get out, to be yourself, to locate a self that has become abstracted from place, becomes the aim of the young. Previously unseen barriers and separations divide generation from generation: new, impermeable divisions arise between those who had seen themselves as bound by a shared destiny. Members of the same family, who had always seen each other more or less as an extension of themselves, become aware of their own private, individual needs. They become preoccupied with their own uniqueness. They cultivate features and characteristics that distinguish them from others, rather than submerge these in a common pool of human belonging.”

For me, this paragraph immediately conjures up a host of films where the self rather than the social provide the dynamic. In this article I want to discuss films that seem to me in some way to illustrate this. I have taken two pairs of films by different directors. In each case, I feel that there has been a shift in thematic concerns between a film made late in the last century and one made early in the new one. The development that Seabrook discerns underlying the phenomenon of the new global world appears to provide an interesting perspective in analysing these films.

The first pair of films, directed by Gurinder Chadha, is Bhaji on the Beach (UK 1993) and Bend it Like Beckham (UK 2002). The second pair, directed by Mira Nair, is Salaam Bombay (India/UK 1988) and Monsoon Wedding (India/US/France/Italy 2002). All these films share common themes and motifs. Both earlier films deal with journeys, dislocation and the problems that Asian women face in the sexual arena. The latter pair share these themes to a degree and are both structured round the colourful rituals of a Punjabi wedding. Both these directors might be considered as auteurs. However, my argument is not directly concerned with the individual filmmakers, except in that they provide the ‘occasion’ for analysis. Whilst both directors clearly have a distinctive character, one can argue that career success has enabled them to ­develop that distinctive character: but careers bring their own pressures. Both directors are women, important in terms of the themes of the film. But the developments are not to do with gender but their professional environs. I would reckon one could analyse similar tendencies in male directors, for example, Abbas Kiarostami or Asghar Farhadi. We need to look at the films, the filmmakers and their context.

In their famous polemic for a political cinema among oppressed peoples the Argentinean filmmakers Fernando Solanas and Octavio characterised an ‘authors cinema’ as only reaching ‘the outer limits of what the system permits’ (i.e. mainstream cinema and dominant societies). They foresaw it as becoming the institutionalised as ‘the youthful, angry wing of society.’ Whilst this suggests a cinema of protest, it also suggests a cinema that is constrained by the dominant values and which, in time, (like the bourgeois rebels of 1968) is accommodated within the system. My argument is less that such a development can be seen in the directors’ careers than that their most recent film work is within conventions that preclude certain concerns and approaches. Thus it is about industry and institutions socialising the filmmakers rather than the particular predilections of individual filmmakers.

Both of these filmmakers belong to another phenomenon of the global culture, Diaspora Cinema. That is, they relate both to the Asian culture, which is the object of Seabrook’s comments, and to the western imperialist culture, which is home to the contradictions driving these developments. Like ‘global’, ‘diaspora’ is an ambiguous term. When the BFI organised the ‘Imagine Asia’ celebrations the organisers tried to compile a list of films from the South Asian Diaspora: apparently the ensuing argument over definitions was never fully resolved.

In The Global Film Book (2014) Roy Stafford offers the following: “describes both the process of migration or ‘dispersal’ of large numbers of people from one country/region to another and the community of immigrants in the new host country.” Presumably films from the diaspora have a foot in both camps. But in a global world both camps are subordinate to world capital.  Certainly the two filmmakers discussed, and their four films, are clearly indebted both to South Asian Cinema and to Western Cinema. To varying degrees all the films display stylistic features and conventions from popular film in both cultures. The question is what values dominate these intertwined cultures and cinemas.

The two more recent films by these filmmakers seem to privilege the family unit as the centre of their social worlds. Each film ends with the family united, having overcome the

contradictions that drive the earlier narrative forward. From this point of view they do not exactly fit the analysis offered in the quotation from Jeremy Seabrook. However, I would argue that these are families powerfully moulded by their function as consumption units. Both films include scenes of shopping, and what are presumably deliberate product placements.

The central ritual in both films, the Punjabi wedding, whilst embodying a long-standing tradition, is also the site of conspicuous consumption. This is especially true in Monsoon Wedding, where much of the narrative tension and humour arises from the problems in completing the preparations. Moreover, the narrative closures in both cases are posited on the virtues of the choice of the individual consumer. In Bend It Like Beckham, the two main women characters, Jess and Jules, are leaving for the USA to join both the world of education and the world of US commercial women’s football. And in Monsoon Wedding the final ritual joining of the central romantic couple, Aditi and Hemant, would seem to seal their position as privileged members of the new global elite. Whilst the serving couple, Dubey and Alice, appears destined to cross the tracks into this middle class milieu.

In is in their sense of closure that the recent films depart most clearly from the earlier pair. Bhaji on the Beach and Salaam Bombay! ended with unresolved contradictions and problems, leaving the audiences to consider the characters and their situations. Bend it Like Beckham and Monsoon Wedding are much closer to mainstream conventions in the way that they carefully tie up the different threads of the narrative. In Bend it Like Beckham, the penultimate scene at airport not only shows Jess and Jules setting off to achieve their ambitions, but also offers the promise of a future romance between Jess and Joe [the football trainer]. Then, just before the credits, we see Jess’s father playing cricket with Joe. Joe has been accepted into Jess’s Asian family. It is also a compulsory scene for viewers, in the sense that it shows the father reversing his early exclusion and his own vow, ‘never to play cricket!’

Monsoon Wedding ends with the celebrations in the garden as the Monsoon rains fall. This eruption by nature is like a clearing of the air after the conflicts and problems within the family. As the rains fall the newly-married Dubey and Alice are invited into the wedding tent. Alongside this abolition of difference is even a hint romance for another family member Ria, as she exchanges glances with a late arrival, Umang.

Yet both closures are really about escape. Jess and Joe, Aditi and Hemant, are all leaving for the USA: Dubey will certainly leave the slums. The larger problems raised in the narratives have not gone away. The cultural and sexual conflicts remain. But they are outside the family units. And the protagonists have left them behind. Such a closure fits the films’ status as commodities. Having been consumed they have provided the expected value: nearly two hours in the cinema or in front of the television screen. Whilst the two earlier films also provided this to a degree, they resist being put away after consumption. Their social dimension is likely to remain with viewers for some considerable time after the completion of the act.

That this tendency continues can be seen in more recent examples. The Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami made a series of films that offered detailed examination of the culture but which drew in commentary of the larger culture. Through the Olive Trees (Zir-e darakhatan-e zeyton, 1994) follows a film production and focuses on a young couple in a rural area. The film ends in a long shot / long take of the couple about whom the audience must now decide. His most recent film, Like Someone in Love (France / Japan, 2013) is set in Japan. I found it lacking in that larger social dimension. The final shot of the film seems to sum this up – we see a window, hear an angry voice, but not one of the characters is visible onscreen. Asghar Farhadi achieved praise with two films, Nader and Simin, a separation (Jodaelye Nader az Simin, 2011 and About Elly (Darbareye Elly, 2009 – they were released in reverse order in the UK). Both films focus on the lies characters tell, lies that are symbolic of the larger society. But his most recent film, made in France, The Past (Le Passé, France / Italy, 2013) also featured lies but they seem to remain strictly at the personal level. One can see continuing themes in the work of both directors but the sense of the relevance of a specific time and place seems to diminish. There are films that provide a critical response in all parts of Diaspora culture, but there is a marked tendency for cinematic travel to lead to a greater degree of hegemony.

There are more detailed analyses of the films in separate postings. All of them are taken from an article published in Media Education Journal (Spring, 2003). My thanks to the Editor for the agreement to post these.

 

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