Film & VideoOutside the margins
16th Annual South Asian Film Festival
Saturday, Oct. 2-Monday, Oct. 4
Enzian Theater, 407-629-0054
It’s an election year, so it should be no surprise that immigration has been a hot topic going into the 16th year of Enzian Theater and the Asian Cultural Association’s annual ode to the films of South Asia. Still, the events leading up to the weekend presentation this time seem to have gone beyond the customary talk of fences, amnesty and humanitarianism. This summer, our federal government was forced to sue Arizona to save us from ourselves, and the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act is approaching a decade of defeat.
Our country is not alone, either. All over the world, immigration continues to be a hot-button issue, one increasingly devoid of human sentiment and facing a battle against ancient feuds and the stereotypes that come with them. The four films on display at this edition of SAFF have their own unique takes on the stories and lives of South Asia, yet all at least brush against – if not directly take on – the immigration issues of their respective homes.
Luckily, a well-told story – not the message – is still the beating heart of the SAFF, as these films from Sri Lanka (Machan), India (Road, Movie and Peepli Live) and even a U.S.-U.K. team-up (Bhutto) make evident. And, in fitting synchronicity with the events surrounding it, this year’s fest is the best lineup in years.
Bhutto (4 Stars) “Oh, crap.” That was the headline in our own Bloggytown the morning we learned of the assassination of Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, a beautiful, Evita-like figure who battled against fundamentalism for the soul of her country her entire life before she was shot on Dec. 27, 2007 – the “saddest day” in Pakistan’s history, said former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. With the wound still fresh, Bhutto’s supporters, family and even detractors come together to paint a fuller picture of the reformer, including her last days. Her daughters describe in heartbreaking detail her desire to wish them both a happy birthday – even though the dates were months off. She knew she had days or weeks to live, at most, having recently returned to Pakistan from exile in the hope that she could bring some level of rationality to the country’s divided discourse. Writer and co-director Johnny O’Hara maintains as much objectivity as could be hoped for in dealing with such a deified person, and his film fleshes out the human – warts and all – that so many failed to see beyond her blinding magnetism.
Machan (4 Stars) From Uberto Pasolini, the Oscar-nominated producer of The Full Monty, comes this charming tale of the real-life, if fraudulent, Sri Lankan National Handball team who used the sport’s championship game in Germany as a means to escape their second-class-citizen status in Sri Lanka. I actually remember chuckling at the Guardian headline from 2004: “Sri Lanka handball team vanishes,” an incredulous account that included a quote, from a German Sports Exchange Program representative, saying, “They even left their dirty laundry.” First-time co-writer and director Pasolini, then, seems like the perfect match for this sometimes tragic, sometimes up-lifting story – with a humorous undercurrent that keeps the film afloat – and his involvement pays off. From the setup, in which toilers below the poverty line in Sri Lanka plot their sporty escape, to the execution – the “team” never bothered to learn the rules of the game, thinking they’d have made their escape to freedom well before play began; they were wrong – Pasolini strikes a near-perfect balance between tropes of several genres. There’s a little bit of Cool Runnings at play here, but with elements of a good, old-fashioned heist film.
Road, Movie (3 Stars) Another escape is at the center of this languid, surrealist portrait of a last-ditch desert crossing as Vishnu, aghast at the thought of inheriting his family’s hair-oil business, takes off in a POS truck to look for India, man. Like, the real India. Standard road-movie beats are hit upon elegantly by director Dev Benegal – picking up quirky strangers along the way, including a potential love interest – but the film lives and dies by the dreamy interludes. At one point, the gang is forced to show one of their smuggled movies to a town that may not have ever seen a movie before, and the result is pure cinematic joy. At other times, such as a lengthy, Doctor Parnassus-like carnival that appears in the desert seemingly out of nowhere, Benegal runs off the rails. Still, there’s enough of the unexpected peppered in with the paint-by-numbers material to hold our interest, even through the dusty, water-starved setting.
Peepli Live (2 Stars) Just last month, India announced it’s putting all its eggs in this film’s basket for Oscar consideration in the Best Foreign Film category at next year’s telecast. For a country with arguably the most vibrant, quality packed film industry in the world, it’s a disconcerting decision. This laborious Mad City take on the intersection of the news media and exploitation is a chore of a film, one that makes its point early then hammers it six feet underground for the remaining hour or so. Two farmer brothers, desperately broke and about to become homeless, hear about a government program that pays $100,000 rupees to the surviving family of farmers who have committed suicides. Whether the program is real or imagined – the government bureaucrats serving as the country’s face are realistically hard to pin down on anything – one of the brothers, Natha (Omkar Das Manikpuri), decides to go ahead with the deed to save his farm. An ambitious TV reporter picks up on the story and things quickly spiral out of control for Natha and his village. Produced by none other than the mighty Aamir Khan, Peepli Live has muscle but lacks narrative drive.