Tuesday, September 18, 2012

3RD I 2012—Frako Loden Previews the Lineup

It's still summer but 3rd i, or the San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival, has leapt ahead this year of the usual autumn film festivals. In its move from November to September, it now screens during the Indian summer of the Bay Area. I think that's the better season for it, when you can still appreciate the sweltering heat of most of the films on its roster, coming from countries such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Kashmir, Maldives and South Africa.

This year 3rd i screens Wednesday, September 19, through Friday the 21st at the Roxie Theater. It moves to the Castro Theatre for all day and evening Saturday the 22nd, and returns to the Roxie and Little Roxie for Sunday the 23rd. On the following weekend, Sunday the 30th, two final films will screen at Camera 12 in San Jose.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of third i. I want to commend Anuj Vaidya and Ivan Jaigirdar for putting together a jewel of a film festival for every year of the past decade. In a season crowded with other good choices, this film festival stands out for its breadth, quality, musicality and sense of humor. Screening the offerings ahead of time is always a pure pleasure, and I thank the organizers for being so generous with me. What follows are my impressions of 16 of the films.

After a week of watching these films on DVD, my most vivid memories of them involve water: drought and flood, and what humans do to exchange one for the other. Two in the very strong program of international short films are different fictional takes on folk beliefs about women and drought. In Shilpa Munikempanna's Kaveri (2011), an older sister, a swimming champion on the brink of womanhood, ponders a folk tale about a young woman's sacrifice for her village. Abhishek Pathak's Boond (A Drop, 2009) is a dystopian revenge fable set in a parched landscape, about a woman's struggle to defend the only remaining well from the gangsters who killed her husband.

The opening night film addresses the exact opposite of drought: too much water. I saw The Island President (2011) [official site] last year at Telluride, where it was a sensation. From director Jon Shenk (Lost Boys of Sudan, 2003), this documentary profiles Mohamed Nasheed, young former activist-turned-president of the nation of Maldives, a chain of 2,000 tiny islands in the Indian Ocean. Climate change is inundating these flat islands at a rate only somewhat slower than the 2004 tsunami, which reduced the nation's Gross Domestic Product by half. Faced with the outright loss of his country's resources and land area, the candid and creative Nasheed is compelled to make his case for a carbon-neutral future at climate talks in Copenhagen and urges alpha countries like China, Great Britain and the United States to follow his example. The most recent chapter in the tumultuous life of Nasheed, who before he became president had been imprisoned repeatedly by the previous leader, was his claimed resignation at gunpoint in early 2012. But in this film he's still fighting on the global stage against the disappearance of his remote and tiny nation.

There is wall-to-wall fighting in Nirpal Bhogal's London-set revenge thriller Sket (2011) [official site]. Apparently the title is a shortened form of Caribbean slang for "superho," which girls who band together get called simply for physically defending themselves. The pedestrian plot involves an angry young newcomer who must convince a hard-hearted female gang leader to join forces in avenging the death of the protagonist's sister. Reviews for this film, mainly by male reviewers, are aghast at the female violence in it. I liked it for its energetic hiphop / electronica soundtrack and grim atmosphere, in which the East London housing estate resembles nothing so much as the exposed, claustrophobic gladiator slave cells of Rome's Colosseum.

I would recommend Saturday at the Castro for the strongest roster if you don't mind making a full day and night of it. It mingles three disparate styles of fiction and perhaps the strongest and weakest examples of documentary on offer.

Gurvinder Singh's Anhey Ghorhey Da Daan (Alms For a Blind Horse, 2011) [Wikipedia] screened in competition recently at the Venice Film Festival and won a New Horizons special jury award at Abu Dhabi last year. Dustin Chang of Twitch says it is the first Punjabi feature to be shown in an international film festival. The ghost of Mani Kaul's experimental docudramas haunts this production—the slow-prowling camera, location shooting, sensuous reveries, disembodied voices—techniques found in the defiantly noncommercial works of the filmmaker, who was credited as creative producer of this film before he passed away in July 2011. Punjabi villagers of the Dalit caste react passively to the bulldozing of their homes by the new owners of a factory, while one son of the village stays away, recovering from a head injury while lying around and drinking with his fellow rickshaw drivers during a city strike. It is definitely the slowest-moving of this year's films, and I was occasionally left in the dark (literally) as to what was going on.

No blind horse actually appears to enjoy the alms in this film, but Susindran's rural musical comedy Azhagar Samiyin Kuthirai (Azhagarsamy's Horse, 2011) [IMDb] features two. Villagers in Tamil Nadu worship a white wooden horse in the hopes that it will break a three-year drought. When the statue disappears one night, none of the usual squabbling suspects will come forth, and neither of the greedy soothsayers has a solution. One day the appearance of an actual white horse seems to trigger a series of miracles, if not rain. Despite a Herrmannesque soundtrack that sounds like it blundered in from some other movie, this is a broadly funny and entertaining satire of village life with an endearing hero and his beloved horse. It's suitable for children who aren't disturbed by one violent brawl after another, in which Appu the horse sometimes takes part.

I was distracted by the other horse movie—back to Saturday at the Castro. Nisha Pahuja's The World Before Her (2012) [IMDb] is an award-winning documentary that introduces us to two extreme worlds for Indian women: 30 days of preparation for contestants of the Miss India pageant, and a Hindu nationalist camp for girls. Both are grueling, but honestly the Hindu camp seems healthier: the girls learn martial arts and self-defense and don't have their chins Botoxed or feet forced into high-heeled catwalking. Of course, since this is evidently the public's first glimpse of such a camp, perhaps we're not shown physical abuse. At any rate, the irony quickly becomes obvious that both these training regimens, whose participants despise the other for their ideology, are equally oppressive in the way they limit women's opportunities and expectations for a happy life while using them to represent a female ideal.

A more personal exposé is underway in Decoding Deepak (2012) [IMDb], made by best-selling self-help guru Deepak Chopra's son Gotham. As part of their year-long journey together, Gotham visits Deepak as the elder is ordained as a Buddhist monk in Thailand. In this and other travels together, we see an arrogant, self-centered Deepak addicted to his Twitter followers, obsessed with shopping and the New York Times bestseller list, unable to detach himself from a Nightline confrontation with a critic. Gotham frets over his inability to reconcile what the adoring world sees in his father and what he sees as his son. People with strong opinions either way about Deepak will find supporting evidence here, which predictably culminates in a visit back to India and a revelation about the meaning of being the son of such a revered and contradictory figure.

Between the two documentaries is Lucky (2011) [official site], Avie Luthra's feature-length expansion of his acclaimed 2005 short film of the same title. I was not a fan of his 2009 Mad Sad & Bad, so I was pleasantly surprised and quickly engrossed in Luthra's story of a little black South African boy whose mother dies of AIDS. (I don't recall any explicit reference to HIV, but clearly the boy is an outcast in his Zululand community. I understand that the practice of a dying mother leaving a cassette tape or memory box for her child is a custom where the incidence of AIDS is as high as 40%.) Sent to Durban to live with his uncle, who won't let him attend school, Lucky searches for his father and develops an implausible relationship with a racist old Indian woman. It sounds like a nauseatingly heartwarming pair-up, but it's as eloquent in what it doesn't say as what it does. It's the most moving fiction film in the festival.

Another unlikely bond is the subject of Angad Bhalla's Herman's House (2012) [official site], a documentary about the relationship between Herman Wallace, in solitary confinement at Angola Prison for nearly 40 years, and Jackie Sumell, a New York artist. Intrigued by his situation, Jackie sent him a letter asking, "What kind of house does a man who has lived in a 6-foot-by-9-foot cell for over 30 years dream of?" Herman's fertile imagination and Jackie's determination to build to his specifications, as well as both of their considerable personal demons, make for a fascinating exploration of our relationships with our surroundings, each other and history.

The Bollywood film that ends Saturday at the Castro is Homi Adajania's summer hit Cocktail (2012) [Wikipedia], with Deepika Padukone, Saif Ali Khan and Diana Penty and set in London and Cape Town. As usual, I wasn't able to preview it.

I simply can't recommend watching any film in the Little Roxie, which has a wall adjoining a bar and the attendant noise issues. Unfortunately this year's classic film, Jagte Raho (Stay Awake, 1956) [Wikipedia] starring Raj Kapoor and directed by Amit Maitra and Sombhu Mitra, will be screening in this venue. Maybe at its 12:15 start time there won't be barroom brawling, but I would hate for the next film, Nishtha Jain's beautiful and contemplative documentary Family Album (2011), to be drowned out by afternoon drinkers. Jain's film, which moves us from the Kolkata photo studios of her 2005 City of Photos into the mansions of some of the city's oldest families, this time examines family photographs and the fading memories of those who could interpret them for younger generations. Reminiscences of the photos' back stories summon tales of child brides, imprisoned wives, and the costume parties in which caste and gender cross-dressing were privately documented. One deeply intimate marriage photo, which terrified the children so that they would rush past it without seeing it, haunts me whenever I think of this film.

If Family Album is a paean to Kolkata in photos, then Surjo Deb's Adda: Calcutta, Kolkata (2011) [IMDb] is its city symphony in conversation. But in sad contrast to the former's exquisite and mysterious photos, the dialogue in this film is not scintillating or funny enough, and I sense a lack of confidence in the filmmaker since we never stay with one exchange long enough for personalities or relationships to develop. The chapter headings are too numerous and distracting as well. The sole exception to this criticism is Chapter 12, "Pap Smear," in which a woman graphically and humorously tells two incredulous men about her mammogram and pap smear, only to be interrupted by someone reciting from the Mahabharata.

I was able to sample one of the short films in the Sikh I Am: Voices on Identity program at the Little Roxie. Harjant Gill's Roots of Love (2011) is a sober documentary about attitudes toward the male Sikh custom of not cutting one's hair and of wearing a turban. One young man defies his devout, disapproving family by cutting his hair but defers to their wishes by still wearing a turban. He lives with a double identity: On Facebook he is a sardar, or Sikh adherent; but on Orkut he is a shorn Sikh. In one of several awkward moments in the film, his mother declares hair-cutting akin to murder. There's the Turban Pride movement, which explored why young men were abandoning the turban (distracted parents, movie-hero idolatry) and encouraged them to retain it by teaching them how to wind it properly. I wish the film had given some examples of the comic roles, never serious, that Sikhs are reduced to in films. Maybe the other two films do.

My festival favorite was Okul Nodi (Endless River, 2012), a stunningly beautiful, reverie-inducing meditation on the bhatiyali, or boatmen's songs of the low-lying riverine lands of Bangladesh, co-directed by Tuni Chatterji and Clay Dean. Several passages had me in tears. From the opening scenes, listening to a melancholy, anxious song while watching a black screen, I was sent floating through this enchanting documentary full of magnificent singing performances, explained by folklorists and performers. The film has its share of quirks, like the unnecessary black screen, no sound during one sequence, and occasional glimpses of tape leader in an otherwise lovely production.

Another ravishingly beautiful film about a boatman and water issues, this time in Kashmir, is Musa Syeed's Valley of Saints (2012) [Wikipedia]. I saw this narrative feature at the 2012 San Francisco International Film Festival. Two young men living by Lake Dal vow to abandon their region's dying tourist trade and go see the world, but their plans are forestalled by a nearby political crisis as well as the arrival of a young woman scientist measuring the lake's pollution. This debut film contains moments of scenic beauty in the gliding boat and subtle glances exchanged by the parties before they're urged to take action.

If Bill Bowles and Kenny Meehan's Big in Bollywood (2011) [IMDb] were billed as a mockumentary, I would have readily taken it as pure fiction. But it's not—it's all true. Indian-American acting hopeful Omi Vaidya (Arrested Development, The Office) lands a part in the Bollywood comedy 3 Idiots (2009) starring Aamir Khan and becomes an Indian superstar overnight. His film crew of American friends, doubling as a megastar's entourage, captures the jaw-dropping film-crazy world of Mumbai guest appearances and awards shows. At every stop Omi struggles, but then complies, with the demand that he stay in character, delivering a speech in (evidently) hilariously bad Hindi praising a rapist. This crowd pleaser is returning from last year to celebrate third i' s 10th anniversary and first screenings in San Jose.