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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. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



IFFI 52, 012: What I saw and what I couldn’t bear to see

IFFI 52, 012: What I saw and what I couldn’t bear to see

Having given Carlos Saura’s The King of All the World, the inaugural film, a miss, I was hoping my viewing experiences would begin with a bang on the day after the inauguration. No such luck. Charlotte was a huge disappointment and prompted a walk-out. That its lead actress won the best actress prize was rubbing salt into my wounds. Here is the list of films I managed to see, after allowing for four parties that cost us a total of eight films. But then, what is a film festival without festivities? Thus, I could manage to see 23 feature films, wholly or in part, and one documentary. Was it worth going all the way to Panaji, Goa from Mumbai, and staying there for 10 days? You bet it was. Seeing movies in their pristine form, on the giant screen, with impeccable audio, has its own charm. And then some friends made my trip even more memorable: Atul and Lata Mishra, Dr. Charumitra Ranade, Shreeniwas Gadiyar and Anant Salkar.

  1. Charlotte: A forgotten movie star (Ángela Molina) learns that the director who made her famous will be filming his last film in Paraguay so she sets out on an unusual journey in search of something more than just getting the leading role that she feels belongs to her. I walked out of this film, which was in the International Competition Section, almost towards the end. Maybe the film redeemed itself in its dying moments. How could I give it any rating?
  1. Rafaela: Goodbye Charlotte, Hello Rafaela! A young girl from the Dominican slums has drug addicts for parents. Developing macho characteristics, she becomes a gun-toting leader of a criminal gang, but is bullied for being a woman they consider transgender. Mario, a drug dealer, tries to force her to work for him. When he wins her confidence, he leaves her pregnant and steals her ‘savings’ (read loot). I could sit through the film, which took ten years to make, and would rate it ** ½.  
  1. Ahed's Knee: An Israeli film-maker throws himself in the midst of two battles doomed to fail: one against the death of freedom, the other against the death of a mother. Shot in a remote region of Israel, the film raises serious issues about suppression of freedom of expression in Israel. Rating: ***
  1. Leader: Piotrek enrolls in smoking cessation training. By bizarre circumstances, he finds himself in a mysterious self-development training session where, under the influence of the charismatic Leader, he starts doubting his relationship with his girl-friend, which until now he considered perfect. It is an original, genre-defying black comedy, which just falls short of excellence by failing to unravel the knots it has tied itself. So, here was one film that made the cut for the international completion, but only just. Rating: ***
  1. All The Money In The World: Famed for his science fiction films, Ridley Scott focusses his lens on the thing that makes the earth go round: money. The kidnapping of 16-year-old John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer) and the desperate attempt by his devoted mother Gail (Michelle Williams) to convince his billionaire grandfather (Christopher Plummer) to pay the ransom. When Getty Sr. refuses, Gail attempts to sway him as her son’s captors become increasingly volatile and brutal. With her son’s life in the balance, Gail and Getty’s advisor (Mark Wahlberg) become unlikely allies in the race against time that ultimately reveals the true and lasting value of love over money. It was screened under the homage section, a tribute to Christopher Plummer. The film manages to sustain interest all through its 135 minutes, and the performances are faultless. I had seen this Martin Scorcese venture on first release, but it was worth another look. Rating: *** ½.
  1. The Dorm: 1984, in the middle of nowhere in the USSR, a group of friends try to live their lives and maintain dignity despite the corrupt system and people running their student dorm. They share their griefs and joys, all for one and one for all, until a tragic event – a female student commits suicide – sends a shockwave through the dorm. This event sets of a chain reaction that will put their love, friendship and beliefs to an ultimate test. Included in the International Competition section, it was way below par, and prompted a walkout. Obviously, there is no rating.
  1. Promises: French films are often bogged down by walk-walk and talk-talk. This was no exception. So, while they talked, I walked…out. Clémence, the fearless mayor of a town near Paris, is completing the final term of her political career. With her faithful right-hand man Yazid, she has long fought for this town plagued by poverty, unemployment and slumlords. However, when Clémence is approached to become Minister, her ambition arises, questioning her devotion and commitment to her citizens. Will her political integrity and election promises survive her newly found ambition? Rating? Quelle rating?
  1. Mee Vasantrao: Spelt ‘Me Vasantrao’, as in the English, it should have been written as Mee, meaning I, in Marathi. All of 180 minutes long, this biopic about the popular singer Vasantrao Deshpande managed to engage me in its narrative. That it was a musical made it easier to relate to. Performances were of a high order. But holding its own against some of the better films in the competition was a tough ask. Rating: ***
  1. 1000 Dreams: Nazar, Rumia's lover, comes to the workshop of her ex-husband Arsen. He looks into his computer and finds a file in it that changes his life. Nazar penetrates the secret of Arsen, who created fiction and disappeared into it, like a certain artist from China, who painted a fantastic picture, penetrated it and disappeared forever from the world of people. Stretching imagination and belief, the film could not live up to the premise. Rating: ** ½.
  1. Hinterland: A rare breed of a film, with the events following the end of World War II. A serial killer is targetting former armed forces men in Austria, while one of them, an ex-police detective, is trying hard to stop him. The one major clue he has is the number 19, which occurs at every killing, in varying forms. Hinterland has a misleading title, but rivetting treatment. Rating: ****
  1. Land Of Dreams: A political satire set in the near future, where America has closed its borders and become more insular than ever. The story follows Simin, an Iranian-American woman, on a journey to discover the core of what it means to be a free American. She works for the most important government agency of her time, the Census Bureau. In efforts to understand and control its populous, the government has begun a programme to record citizens’ dreams. International Competition fare? No way! The only way I found was out. Consequently, no rating.
  1. The Sun Of That Moon: In the southeastern Iranian provinces of Sistan and Baluchestan, a Baloch widow named Beeban decides to keep silent, and not to speak anymore. She lives in her father-in-law’s house with her son, Miran. When her childhood playmate, Hamraz, returns home, once again they begin feeling in the mood for love. But everyone tries to force her to forget all about this forbidden love. Cannot recall much of the film, which means I slept through part of it and later walked out. Excuse the lack of rating.
  1. Feathers: When a magic trick goes awry at a children’s birthday party, the authoritative father of the family turns into a chicken. An avalanche of coincidental absurdities befall everyone; the mother, whose mundane life was dedicated to her husband and children, is now urged to come to the fore and take care of her family. While moving heaven and earth to bring her husband back and secure their survival, she goes through a total transformation. Demanding a suspension of disbelief, the film is a hard-hitting allegory and has a political sub-text. Rating: *** ½.
  1. Atlantide: Daniele is a young man who lives on the edges of the Venice Lagoon, he dreams a record breaking “barchino” (motorboat). A vestigial tale of male initiation, violent and destined to fail, it explodes dragging the ghost city along on a psychedelic shipwreck. What on earth was going on? Speeding boats and skimpily clad women do not call for a repeat screening, which Atlantide was given. Rating: * 1/2 .
  1. Ring Wandering: An honour well-deserved: Golden Peacock. Rating: ****

No Ground Beneath the Feet: To reach his flood-affected village, physically debilitated Saiful has to go through a bone-tired journey of moral decay, murder, deception, and social bashing. Meanwhile, amidst this deluge, his family in the village wail for a piece of land to bury his dead father which he is not aware of. It was a dark tale of disaster and woe, ably handled. Performances were of a high caliber, particularly of Priyam Archi, who is an MBA turned actress. Not enough to win an International Competition, but watchable nevertheless. Rating: ***

  1. Ninjababy: When Rakel (23), way too late, finds out she’s six months pregnant after a not-so-romantic one-night stand, her world changes. Her boyfriend, who’s not the father, is kind of ok with her having a baby. But Rakel is absolutely not ready to be a mother. Since abortion is no longer an option, adoption is the only answer. That’s when Ninjababy, an animated character who insists on making Rakel’s everyday life a living hell, turns up. He climbs out from her note book, jumps into her tea cup, and keeps reminding her what a terrible person she is. In terms of theme, it has novelty, and some funny moments, but the execution left something to be desired. Rating: **
  1. Saloum: Shot down after fleeing a coup and extracting a drug-lord from Guinea-Bissau, the legendary mercenaries known as the Bangui Hyenas – Chaka Sheikh, Rafa and Midnight - must stash their stolen gold bounty, lay low long enough to repair and refuel their plane and escape back to Dakar, Senegal. When they take refuge at a holiday camp in the coastal region of Sine-Saloum, they do their best to blend in with their fellow guests; including a mute named Awa, with secrets of her own, and a policeman who may be on their tail, but it’s Chaka who happens to be hiding the darkest secret of them all. Too many characters, a confused plot, mindless action and several geo-political references that make no sense to an international audience made Saloum an exercise in tedium. Rating: **
  1. Surmounting Challenges: A documentary on the huge Delhi Metro train network, it was as routine as they come. There was a run through Voice-Over, unrelenting, without a pause. Rating: **----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
  3. Funeral: Heera is a lower-middle class man businessman who is into the world of funeral rites and procession. In the film Heera asks an uncanny question: when a human being is born, he cries but the whole world around him is happy. When a human being dies, he is silent and the whole world around him cries. Why is that? Meanwhile, Heera creates customized funeral processions for the dead, through which the families can bid goodbye to the deceased in a memorable way. Proceedings began to pick-up near the halfway mark. The correct title of the film is Funral, in its original Marathi. I had to leave the film exactly mid-way to meet a friend who had come from Chennai and was leaving the next day, so it would be unfair to give it a rating.
  1. Yuni: Made by an Indonesian director, with multi-country funding, Yuni is about a teenage girl — smart, with big dreams of attending university. When two men she barely knows ask to marry her, she rejects their proposals, sparking gossip about a myth that a woman who rejects three proposals will never marry. The pressure is building when a third man asks for her hand, and Yuni must choose between the myth of a final chance at marriage, or her dream of future happiness. Sensitively handled, Yuni kept its lens right on the subject. An in-character performance by the lead actress contributed to the film’s appeal. Rating: ***
  1. The Hotel: Accidentally finding themselves in a half-abandoned hotel, the happy newlyweds get acquainted not only with its strange owner, but also with each other's unsolved secrets. Will the lovers be able to maintain a relationship after what they have heard? Earn forgiveness? And if the truth is really capable of liberating, then which of them? Pretentious and misleading, this 77-minute film delivered little. Rating: **
  1. Compartment No 6: A young Finnish woman escapes an enigmatic love affair in Moscow by boarding a train to the arctic port of Murmansk. Forced to share the long ride and a tiny sleeping car with a Russian miner, the unexpected encounter leads the occupants of Compartment no. 6 to face the truth about their own yearning for human connection. From a lesbian relationship, to linguistic differences, to strangers on a train, the film tackles all. And partly succeeds. Rating: ***
  1. Fathers: Confrontation of two different generations can lead to some incidents. In Fathers an incident, or rather an accident, brings two generations together. One of them loses a son in the car accident, while, in the same accident, the other’s son is seriously injured. Not the kind of film one would expect from Iran, the film had its high points, especially the revelation towards the end. Co-incidentally, fathers had two other films dedicated to them – Father, by István Szabó of Hungary, a part of the Lifetime Achievement Award package, and Our Father, from Spain, both of which I could not manage to see. Tweak the spelling a little, and you have Feathers, listed above! Rating for Fathers: ***

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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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