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Cuban Cinema?

Posted by keith1942 on February 12, 2017

The proper place to obtain Cuban films.

The proper place to obtain Cuban films.

Normally when I check ouit a Film Festival I recommend a couple of films. But I received a shock when I looked at the Webpages for the Harrogate Film Festival.

‘Experience screening: Cuban Cinema’ is offering the Hollywood thriller Scarface (1983). This film has a fine performance by Al Pacino in the title role and bears the hall marks of the director Brian de Palma. It is in fact a remake of a Howard Hawks film from 1932. This bore some resemblance to the Al Capone era and had a psychotic Italian-American gangster as the protagonist. In the de Palma’s remake Tony is now a Cuban exile and is certainly more violent than the 1930s model: plus he has progressed to marketing and consuming drugs.

From memory the entire film is set in the USA. And it is debatable in what way people who fled the progressive revolution in Cuba to seek reactionary shelter in the USA can in any sense represent Cuba. If I had the time and money I would take up the case under the Bruitish Trade Description Act.

The screening seems to be organised in conjuction with Revolucìon de Cuba and is to be held in a ‘Latin inspired Rum Bar and Cantina’. I suspect that the ‘Revolucìon’ here bears at much resemblance to the actuality as the title does to Cuban film.

Rather sad as we have been starved of Cuban cinema for over a decade. Apart from Festivals the last time that I enjoyed a screening of a Cuban film was in the 1990s. Yet  it in its heyday it was one of the most dynamic, and inspiring cinemas around.

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Redes, (The Wave, Mexico 1936.

Posted by keith1942 on April 28, 2015

Muriel_Zinnemann_Redes_bn_1

This 61 minute docu-drama was restored by The World Cinema Foundation and then screened at the 2009 Il Cinema Ritrovato.

The film was made by Mexican and US filmmakers for the Secretaría de Educación Pública of the Mexican Government. The story is set amongst a small fishing community and shot on location in Mexico at a river mouth in the Gulf of Mexico. The film is in black and white, with Spanish dialogue and English sub-titles. The film was among the early credits of Paul Strand and Fred Zinnemann.

Strand was a photographer who had worked in the National Film and Photo League. He had also worked on two experimental silent films. He was to become the central figure in a group of progressive filmmakers in the USA committed to politically informed documentaries. His later work included the photography for The Plow That Broke the Plain [1936] and the radical Native Land [1942].

Zinnemann had migrated to the USA from Germany where he had worked as an assistant cameraman, and was part of the team that produced Menschen en Sontag [1929]. Redes was his first directing credit and he later achieved success in this role in Hollywood. The two Mexicans who were important in setting up the project were Carlos Chavez, who was a noted composer, and Narciso Bassols, the Secretary of Educación Pública.

The simple story follows a fisherman, Miro, who is exploited by a local entrepreneur. The latter controls the fishing boats and access to markets. Miro becomes more radical when his son dies because he cannot afford medical care. He leads the fisherman in a revolt. But he becomes a martyr when his death is organised by a politician in the pay of the entrepreneur. The end of the film suggests the fisherman will fight on.

We enjoyed a 35mm print when the film was screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato in 2009. The Catalogue included memories of Zinnemann on the film:

The film – the first and last of its kind – was expected to play a small part in the Government plan to educate millions of illiterate citizens throughout the enormous country and bring them out of their isolation…

We had recruited practically all “actors” from among the local fisherman, who needed to do no more than be themselves. They were splendid and loyal friends, and working with them was a joy. In addition to acting, they carried all the equipment, rowed the boats and did a multitude of other jobs, earning more money than ever before – forty-five cents per day, per man – and enjoying themselves hugely …”

Muriel_Zinnemann_Redes_bn_2

Visually the film is in a style already familiar in Mexican cinema: using the landscape to create a sense of belonging. The figures are frequently posed against water, clouds, their thatched huts and the implement of fishing. The use of camera angles suggests the influence of Sergei Eisenstein, who had worked in Mexico on the unfinished Que Viva Mexico between 1931 and 1932. This is also true of the editing which cuts between characters and actions to create meanings after the style of Soviet montage.

The film’s social consciousness is presented in a narrative that follows many conventions of the Hollywood model. We have an individual hero, and a linear plot, with clearly delineated morals. This is the limitation of a certain sort of cinema. I felt that the film did not present the indigenous culture in the way that [for example] Visconti’s La Terra Trema (1947) manages. The key filmmakers are the two from the USA, though a number of the team are Mexican. In this period colonialism was still a major contradiction round the world, along with a developing neo-colonialism. In the case of Mexico the USA exercised dominance in line with its infamous C19th ‘Monroe Doctrine’. But in this film the exploitation and oppression of the fishermen is vested in an individual capitalist and a corrupt politician: the film lacks a sense of the wider capitalist mode or indeed of the neo-colonial relationship between Mexico and the USA. In fact Mexico already had a vibrant national cinema. It would be interesting to know the factors that governed the choices made by Educación Pública.

From that point-of-view of workers struggling against both exploitation and oppression the film seems to look forward to another set of filmmakers, Herbert Biberman and Paul Jarrico. Their Salt of the Earth, [1953] was set in New Mexico and dramatised a strike by Mexican migrants working in the mines. My memory of the latter film is that it has a more developed sense of communal struggle. The pair of films would make an excellent double bill.

Recently some of the restored films have featured on multi-DVD collections. Unfortunately for reasons to do with copyright the UK version from Eureka does not have Redes included. The French version does but lacks English subtitles. There is a US version which I have not yet been able to check.

Directors: Fred Zinnemann, Emilio Gómez Muriel. Scenario: Augustin Velázquez Chávez, Paul Strand, Emilio Gómez Muriel, Fred Zinnemann, Henwar Rodakiewicz. Photography Paul Strand. Editing Emilio Gómez Muriel, Gunther von Fritsch. Sound Roberto, Joselito Rodriguez. Music Silvestre Revueltas.

Cast: Miro – Silvio Hernández. Entrepreneur – David Valle Gonzalez. Politician – Rafael Hinojosa. El Zurdo – Antonio Lara. With a supporting cast local fisherman.

 

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Titas Ekti Nadir Naam / A River Called Titas, Bangladesh 1973.

Posted by keith1942 on April 17, 2015

Titas

Written and directed by Ritwik Ghatak.

Restored in 2010 by the World Cinema Foundation and Cineteca di Bologna. 158 minutes, in Bengali with English subtitles, black and white, 1.37:1. Available in 35mm and High Definition versions.

“If you were eighteen years old, growing up in New Delhi, a student of cinema, a cinephile or a plain film snob, it was given that you would swoon over the film-maker Ritwik Ghatak and spend endless hours in the Delhi University canteen discussing his film, his alcoholism and his eventual death from Tuberculosis. … years later when I saw his epic, A River Called Titas, [that] I swooned for different reasons. The film is a work of pure genius. A passionate elegy for a dying culture, it moved me profoundly, and continues to haunt me to this day.” Deepa Mehta in Il Cinema Ritrovato Catalogue, 2010.

Ghatak is a key filmmaker and influence in Indian cinema, but is much less well known in the West: David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary omits him completely. Apart from a series of nine feature films Ghatak was also Professor of Film Direction at the Film Institute of India from 1965 to 1967. Here he influenced a generation of young cineastes, including a number who were to become important in Independent Film production.

Ghatak was born in East Bengal in 1925, then part of the Britain’s Indian Empire. Later East Bengal was included in the partition of the sub-continent into India and Pakistan. After the 1971 war of secession it became Bangladesh. Whilst he was young Ghatak’s family moved to Calcutta. In the 1940s he became politically active and worked in the Indian People’s Theatre Association. This was a radical cultural organisation associated with the Communist Party of India. It was very influential in the early years after Independence including in mainstream and independent filmmaking. Ghatak [among other works] staged plays by Bertold Brecht, who was an influence on both his stage and film work. Ghatak started work in Indian mainstream cinema as an actor. He became a scenarist at the Bombay Filmistan Studio in the 1950s, working with the major film director Bimal Roy; [Roy’s most famous film is Do Bigha Zameen (1954) which was seen as influenced by neo-realism].

Bengal was not only the scene of strife in the dismemberment of India. It had suffered badly under British colonial rule, especially in the major famine of 1943. This social and personal history left a strong mark on Ghatak’s work. The sense of loss, exile and conflict are powerfully felt in his films. Bengal was also the home of Satyajit Ray. However, whilst both filmmakers use a form distinct from popular mainstream films, they are themselves rather different. Both filmmakers often create a documentary look, and show the influence of neo-realism. And Ghatak shares with Ray an ability to integrate characters with landscapes, and they also make compelling use of indigenous music. However, Ghatak uses songs rather than instrumental pieces, and these offer a commentary on the characters and events. Moreover, Ghatak favours a style which included the melodramatic, a staple of popular Indian films. His work offer frequent dramatic close-ups where the emotions and conflicts experienced by the characters are powerfully presented. But these are often counterpoised with long shots and long takes, creating a sense of distance from the scene. Ghatak tends to a style which might be term Brechtian, in the sense that it not only encourages the viewer to stand back a little, but also to consider and appraise the events in the film story. The overall style tends to the elliptical; both the overall narrative and individual sequences are often disrupted by abrupt changes due to visual and sound edits. The soundtracks in Ghatak’s films are especially noticeable, with both songs and noise changing abruptly.

A River Called Titas is typical of this approach. The film is adapted from a classic Bengali novel of the same name by Adwaita Mallabarman. The film is structured as much by symbolism and myth as it is by the development of a plot. Especially on first viewing the progress of character and plot can be difficult to follow.

[The following contains general plot information].

The tale is set among the Malo fishermen who toil on the waters of the Titas. The community includes both Hindu and Muslim families, though Hindu characters dominate the narrative. The central figures are Basanti, a young girl: Kishore, a fisherman: Rajar Khi, Kishore’s bride; and Ananta, Rajar’s son. We first see Basanti as a young girl in the village. Kishore and his brother Subol go on a fishing trip. It is on this trip that Kishore meets Rajar, whom he rescues in a village conflict. He then marries her and takes her back to his village. However, river bandits abduct her and this drives Kishore crazy. Basanti, who envisaged marrying Kishore, marries Subol instead, but he is drowned on the day of the wedding. There is an ellipsis of ten years.

Titas 2

Rajar with her son Ananta arrives in the village seeking shelter. Neither she nor Kishore recognise each other. The situation creates conflicts over traditional values regarding marriage and child rearing. Kishore is attacked and dies, and Rajar drowns alongside him. Basanti now takes care of Ananta; a situation objected to by Basanti’s parents. More village and domestic feuding lead to Ananta leaving to live with another family. Meanwhile the Brahmin landowners stir up conflicts and demand the repayments of loan from the fishing and farming families. At the end the river dries up [partly due to a scheme engineered by the Brahmin landowners]. The village falls apart.

The tragic end of the film is signalled in the opening shot, a dried up river ravine, which re-appears at the end. A Bengali song is heard on the soundtrack, which includes the following lines:

“I fear I see the Ganga waters rise to fill the blue sky

I fear I see the boats aground on the dry river bed.”

The dried up ravine re-appears in the film’s final sequence. Women are reduced to begging: a father dies of starvation: fishermen and farmers fight over the dried up riverbed. Basanti sits disconsolate outside a hut and a voice-over informs us:

“The River Titas flows on but tomorrow it may be bone dry.

It may not even have the last drop without which our soul cannot depart.”

We then see Basanti stagger through an arid desert where she digs for water. Dying she has a flashback or vision of a young boy running in green fields, [possibly Kishore], and the film ends on a freeze-frame of her.

The film seems full of Bengali and Indian cultural references: many of which are probably not apparent to western audiences. However, there are two important references, which are common to the art and culture of the sub-continent. Kishore appears to be related to the mythical figure of Krishna. He is a godlike figure found in classic mythical writings. He fought great battles and ruled over a kingdom and finally ascended into heaven. His romantic life was also important and he married a princess, but he had other romances, the most important being Radha. This aspect of the myth is explained in the film Lagaan (2001), where another Krishna-like Hindi hero Bhuvan [Aamir Khan] offers an explanation to Elizabeth (Rachel Shelley) at the Temple to Radha and Krishna,

“Krishna was married to Rukmini and Radha to Anay …But the deep love they had for each other set an ideal … neither united nor separated, They’ve been worshipped together for ages.”

The Radha/Krishna/Rukmini relationship seems to parallel that in Ghatak’s film between Basanti/Kishore/Rajar: [and also relates to the romantic triangle in Lagaan].

Another marital aspect of the Krishna myth includes thousands of maidens who he rescued from captivity and married in order to save their honour. This clearly relates to the situation of Kishore and Rajar after her kidnapping.

There are also mythical parallels to a Hindu goddess. Rajar and Ananta are seen before a shrine to Bhagwati [another name for the Durga, the ‘Mother Goddess’]. Later in the film Basanti is also associated with Bhagwati. This seems a clear parallel for the important theme of motherhood in the film.

Ghatak combines national themes with oppositional themes in his films. But of the films of his that I have seen [five of the nine completed features] this has the strongest element of critical and oppositional standpoint. As in most of his films the story centres on the (at times) melodramatic tale of key individuals: but more explicitly than elsewhere this is grounded in a set of social relations: both exploitative and oppressive. At the end of this film the harsh images expose the way that even after the end of colonialism the struggle against a vicious system goes on.

There is a lot more complexity in the plot and characters of the film, and I think Western viewers will probably need more than one viewing to assimilate all of this. There is also a rich palette in the film’s visual and aural style. Ghatak has a great command of camera and mise en scène. There are numerous fine sequences. In particular late in the film there is a boat race on the river, which is enthralling in its presentation. This is a film which one should encourage local exhibitors to book and screen.

Two online reviews, which I found especially interesting, are one on Hobgoblin Reviews by Lynda Parker. This has informed comments about the political context for Ghatak’s film. And ‘Journey through Bangladesh’ by Audity Falguni relates the source novel to the area in which it [and the film] is set.

Note, film quotes taken from the English subtitles.

Originally posted on ITP World.

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Hello world!

Posted by keith1942 on February 27, 2010

Welcome to WordPress.com. This is your first post. Edit or delete it and start blogging!

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