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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. 



16th Third Eye Asian Film Festival: III

16th Third Eye Asian Film Festival: III

Of the 10 feature films screened at the 16th Third Eye Asian Film Festival (TEAFF) during the first three days, I caught four and opted out of a fifth because I had seen it, albeit decades ago. Two of these were Indian, one Egyptian and one from Taiwan-Myanmar.

Ziprya, based on the Arun Sadhu novel and chosen as the inaugural film, was big let-down. Made in amateurish style, full of tropes and stock screenplay, it did great disservice to the memory of the decorated journalist-writer, to whose memory the festival was dedicated. It also raised doubts on the distinctive ability of Sadhu, who parted with film rights of Ziprya after being convinced that writer-director Kedar Vaidya had the sane vision of the novel as his own.

He had steadfastly refused to allow other makers to film his novel, not being convinced about their interpretation of the tale, which is woven around the lives of teenage shoe-shine boys who make an ‘illegal’ living, plying their trade on railway platforms. That two of Sadhu’s published works have been filmed earlier, and that he has himself written/co-written two films, rubs salt into the wounds of unwary viewers. Halfway through the pot-boiler, I made a graceful exit.

By contrast, Midi Z’s Ice Poison (Chinese title Bing Du), from Taiwan-Myanmar, was a deserving selection. Myanmar (Burma) shares its borders with China and Malaysia, both countries being far more prosperous than the poverty struck Myanmar. Not unexpectedly, a lot of Burmese look for work in the two neighbouring countries, often without work permits. Some are caught while others manage to make money. Back home, the only work that is really profitable is a jade mining job or drug trafficking.

Writer-director Midi Z’s protagonists are a woman who has returned from China to see her grandfather breathe his last and a mountain dweller who hope to make some money operating a motor-cycle ‘taxi’. The man’s father has pledged their only cow to get a rickety motor-cycle, since his farm is unable to provide sustenance. However, the taxi is not as profitable a venture as the father had thought. Meanwhile the woman’s grandfather dies, and she does not want to go back to China, where she was sold in marriage, and where she has a husband a child waiting for her. She seeks an easy way out, by turning pillion riding drug-runner, with the man as the driver.

Midi Z won the best directing award at the Taipei festival and Ice Poison was named best international feature at the Edinburgh festival. It was Taiwan’s entry to the Academy Awards, but was eliminated in the final nominations. Ice Poison is Midi Z’s third feature. It is made dispassionately and amorally, without any overt melodrama, although the film is hard-hitting in the compassion and pity it generates for its characters. At 95 minutes, it is short, but one does feel that some of the shots, like the burning of the hay, the man soliciting passengers for his taxi at the bus stand and the man’s long drive home, are overdrawn. Moreover, I do not remember any film showing so much of smoking, in so many variations.

It would rate it ***.

(In obvious proof-reading errors, the film’s title in the programme sheet is printed Ice Poisan and the director’s name appears as Mid Z in the booklet).

Woman film-maker Hala Khalil strikes all the right chords with a riveting screenplay with Nawara (2015), placed in the post Tahrir Square 2011 revolution in Egypt, during the last days of the Hosni Mubaarak regime. Add to that the fact that it is Khalil’s feature debut, and you know what any capable woman can achieve in cinema. Helping Khalil spin her narrative web is a creditable cast, led by a powerhouse called Menna Shalabi. Khalil was inspired by the slogan of the revolution, ‘Bread, Freedom, Social Justice’, but was also disappointed that the slogan largely remained just that.

Nawara works as a domestic helper at a villa whose owners are closely linked to the Mubarak regime. She is married, but the couple do not have a place of their own, so they are forced to live separately. As the revolution unfolds, Nawara’s employers escape, asking her to look after the house in their absence. Her Madam leaves her a large sum of money, to help her move into a house with her husband, and to pay for the medical expenses of her critically ill father-in-law. When a travel ban and property seizure orders are issued against the family, the police arrive at the villa, and confiscate Nawara's money, believing it to be part of her employers’ ill-gotten wealth. Sensitive stuff that holds interest all through the 122 minutes it lasts.

Rating: *** ½

Although the formal inauguration of the festival was held late in the evening, on 21st December, screenings had already commenced the same morning. Even before Ziprya, I got to see Third Bank of the River, produced by a media school in southern India and directed by Indian cinema student Fowzia Fathima. In Malayalam language, it is based on a short story by acclaimed Brazilain author Joao Guimaraes Rosa (died 1967) and is of 62 minutes’ duration. The film has spell-binding cinematography and serves as a tourism poster for Kerala. But it is also among the most difficult 62 minutes if you expect anything like a narrative.

In the story, a father, who seems to be disillusioned with life in a home that is run by his wife, gets a boat made, sets sail in a nearby river, and never steps foot on shore again. This, of course, greatly upsets his wife and three kids. But while they are saddened that he basically abandoned them, they never forget him. As time progresses, the mother and daughter move on with their lives. However, the son never does, and spends the rest of his life trying to keep the memory of his father alive, to the point that he leaves food for his father every day, although there is no sign of the man.

Fowzia Fathima was the cinematographer of Mitr: My Friend (2002), directed by actress-filmmaker by Revathy. She became the first ever woman cinematographer in Malayalam films, with Gulumaal (2009). Third Bank of the River (Nadiyude Moonnam Kara), her maiden film as director, was premiered at the Women’s International Film Festival in Thiruvananthapuram. It will be talked about for its camerawork, though I was not too happy with her tracking. A lot of the footage is repetitive and crawlingly slow. It gets even more excruciatingly and painfully slower as the minutes go by. 

Rating: **, largely due to the painting like quality of the frames and the magnificent angles of several shots.

Zoltan Fabri’s Two Half Times in Hell (titled The Last Goal in the UK), made way back in 1961, is the role model for many ‘sporting victory as a statement of the underdog’ films made in the years that followed. Fabri, a Hungarian, retired from film-making in 1984 and died ten years later. I would have loved to stay back and watch this football match between the Germans and their prisoners again, had it not been screened last on, for me, a tiring day.

TEAFF is organised by the Asian Film Foundation and P.L. Deshpande Maharashtra Kala Academy, and co-organised by Prabhat Chitra Mandal and Akhil Bharatiya Marathi Chitrapat Mahamandal and is supported by Department of Culture, Government of Maharashtra. Screenings are held at Ravindra Natya Mandir Mini Auditorium, Mumbai.

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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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