Tuesday, 29 November 2016

ART AND FORGERY

Stories about art heists or art forgeries make good material for movies and books. IFFI 2016 featured ‘A Real Vermeer’ (2016), a Dutch film on the life of an obscure artist Han van Meegeren (1889-1947). Van Meegeren, a struggling artist who forged the paintings of Johannes Vermeer, the Dutch master who painted ‘The Girl with a Pearl Earring’. Van Meegeren is put on trial for fraud and treason, and finally sentenced to a year in prison only for fraud. The leading actors of the film, Jeroen Spitzenberger and Lize Feryn were in attendance at the screening. They extensively spoke to The Peacock about their engagement with Dutch art and cinema.

Spitzenberger, who lives in Rotterdam, The Netherlands is best known for his supporting role in the Dutch film ‘Twin Sister’ (2002) which was nominated for the Oscars 2003. Feryn, made her debut film with ‘A Real Vermeer’, and lives in Antwerp, Belgium. Before, she acted in ‘In Vlaamse Velden’ (2014, In Flemish Fields).

While the film draws on the biographical details of Van Meegeren, the filmmakers have also used fiction to weave the narrative of the film. “My wild guess is…60 to 65 percent,” says Spitzenberger. “I would say exactly the same,” Feryn concurs.

Was the film inspired by the story of Vincent van Gogh: a struggling artist with his fair share of eccentricities (to put it mildly)? “To be honest, no,” feels Spitzenberger. “But when you put it that ways…yeah I understand the association. I have been talking about the 60 percent truth in the movies…the writers, Rudolph van den Berg and Jan Eilander may have been inspired by frustrated, struggling artists.”

Spitzenberger explains, “The film is about the development of a young artist, who in the end becomes a forger – in a way he imitates his idol in painting. He is unable, unfortunately, to find his own voice, his own style of painting.” Spitzenberger also reflects on the rather fuzzy boundaries between forgery and art. With some caveats, he tells the audience that he personally does consider some forgery to be art. He explains further to this reporter, “What’s the difference between forgery and art? When are you a true artist? Does it depend on your perception? Does it depend on money? Does it depend on the approval of an audience? It’s a weird relationship that the artists share with the audience.”

Who are their favorite Dutch artists? While Spitzenberger prefers “magisch realisme” or magic realism for art (though he says he likes Vermeer when Feryn prods him), Feryn on the other hand prefers Vermeer: “He puts emotion in his work. I remember as a kid I went to see ‘The Girl with a Pearl Earring’… and I was impressed by the colors, and the depth, the light, the serenity, and the perfect beauty. Even if you enlarge a small part of the painting and observe the detail in it, it will still be beautiful,” she says.

‘A Real Vermeer’ was set in the background of the Second World War. It seems like the World Wars provide a setting for many Dutch and Belgian movies. “I think in Belgium the First World War has a huge impact. But the Second…I don’t know…” she says. The Second World War provides a setting for more movies in the Netherlands. Spitzenberger feels that using the Second World War might be a bit overdone, though he is not entirely against it. “As an actor I hope to be on a very long journey of different films. You don’t want to be the guy who only wears a uniform,” he feels.

“In Belgium we make different movies that in Holland,” Feryn informs, “they choose the safe commercial approach – like romantic comedy, and we (in Belgium) go more with art house.”

Spitzenberger further elaborates, “There is a lack of good story-telling in the Netherlands. The big complaint is that there is not much attention, money, and training giving to script-writers…Young writers need to be given a chance,” he strongly feels.

Both Spitzenberger and Feryn were happy to be in Goa. “A cinema festival can bind people,” Spitzenberger stresses. “It is a very hopeful thing, right? There should be more of such festivals – of poetry, of music, or of food, or anything…it doesn’t matter.”

(A version of this article was first published in The Peacock, 28 November, 2016

GHANA THROUGH AMERICAN EYES



Nakom’ (2016) was filmed in the Ghanaian village of the same name. There is no running water or electricity, and the subjects are steeped in tribal tradition. This deeply rustic setting both attracts and repulses the lead character, Idrissu (superbly played byJacob Ayanaba), a talented scholarship student on the cusp of medical school who is drawn back home by the death of his father. The film directors, Kelly Daniela Norris and T. W. Pittman were present at the IFFI 2016 screening of their film.

San Francisco natives Norris and Pittman previously made ‘Sinnerman’ (2009) and ‘Sombras de Azul’ (2013). Their seamless partnership drives ‘Nokam’ as well. On their first day in India, still a bit dazed from their flight to Goa, Norris and Pittman came all the way to the “pistachio-painted” The Peacock newsroom to discuss their latest movie.

Pittman spent two years in Ghana as a Peace Corps volunteer, in the same village as the film setting. She says, “it struck me that it was a view of a part of the world that is not understood by Western culture. It was totally eye-opening to experience a lifestyle that literally scratches an existence out of the earth. I was taken in as a child of that community and I still feel that way.”
Thus, “I think the most important thing for us was to tell the story of the village of Nakom – to show its uniqueness, its warmth, its struggle, its beauty, its humor.”

There is lots of negative stereotyping about Ghana and Africa around the world. Norris says, “in times when there are films that we associate with trauma or political violence – these big headline sensational stories – our goal was to tell a more nuanced humanistic story. The more specific you are the more universally the story speaks, and that holds true with every project that we have tackled.”

Considering the fact that the ‘going to Africa’ trope is done to death in Hollywood movies, is there an irony that filmmakers from America are trying to do away with stereotypes while traveling to Africa? Pittman explains, “this is a place that I and Isaac (Adakudugu, co-writer) know intimately. We knew that we had to be honest and faithful to what the village was. Of course this is a film that has a multi-national and global perspective – and I think it benefits it.”

“I wouldn’t have been able to commit to a project like this had I not lived in Ghana,” Norris adds, “we have trust and I know that Trav has a special bond with the village of Nakom.”

(A version of this article was first published in The Peacock, 27 November, 2016

MESSAGE FROM MANIPUR



“Today is a very special day for me. This is my first debut feature film. My mom is also here,” said Haoban Paban Kumar, director of ‘Loktak Lairembee’ (2016), before the IFFI 2016 screening of his debut feature. His comments were received with exuberant applause from the large Manipuri contingent which had turned out to cheer their friend.

“I always talk about contemporary issues in Manipur,” Kumar told The Peacock. An experienced documentary maker, his work includes ‘Phum Shang – Floating Life’ (2015) and ‘AFSPA, 1958’ (2016). ‘Loktak Lairembee’ (The Lady of the Lake) draws from his previous work with the unique fishing community that lives on islands of floating biomass called ‘phumdis’ on the Loktak lake. The director’s long association with his subjects helped. Kumar says, “I did the documentary first, spending ten years building a relationship with these people. Now my actors are from the same community.”

A graduate of the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute in Calcutta, but now based in Imphal, Kumar still hopes for a “European premiere.” On prodded for the reason, he says, “for the career. Nowadays it is necessary. Otherwise how will people know about it [the plight of the people in his film]?” The world premiere of ‘Loktai Lairembee’ was in South Korea, at Busan International Film Festival. “That was really an opening, and besides that the film was also well received at MAMI (Mumbai Academy of Moving Image).” Also, “Kolkata was crazy man! There was no place to stand. I had to watch the film from the projection room.”

Going it alone is not easy. Kumar says “my mother, aunt, wife, I and my friends fund my films. My family supports me. Independent cinema is difficult. A documentary is a bit different, it doesn’t need a lot of money. But when you make an independent fiction film everyone expects quality – in sound, for instance – and that needs money.”

About social tensions in strife-torn Manipur, the young director thinks things have deteriorated, “individualism is creating a problem. Now it is like, ‘I want my space’. It has to do with modernization, I think, and I am trying to address this in my next project.” The director used to believe the assertion of tribal identities was a positive factor, but now it is proving problematic. These are the issues he will address in his next project, which Kumar says may be the first film in India to talk about ethnic identity and conflict.

(A version of this article was first published in The Peacock, 27 November, 2016

“HUMAN RIGHTS ARE FOR ALL HUMANS” TAMARA ADRIÁN



The first transgender person ever to be elected to the Venezuelan National Assembly is in Goa. Tamara Adrián, on whose life ‘Tamara’ (2016) is based, was voted into office last year. Even so recently into her term, Adrián has mixed-feelings. “It is very peculiar,” she laughs, asking The Peacock to highlight ‘peculiar’. “We have nothing normal in Venezuela. We are facing one of the worst economic and political crises.”

Adrián is understandably dejected. Venezuela is living a horror story, in the midst of an unprecedented economic and social crisis that has resulted in extraordinary hardship. Despite the largest petroleum reserves in the world, and billions of dollars of annual income from oil exports, the South American country has suffered a precipitous decline in standard of living and human development. The average Venezuelan has lost between five and fifteen kilos in weight over the past year due to an extended food crisis.

Tamara’ is about transphobia. This meant facing down rigid Catholic morality alongside multiple financial and political problems. The film’s director, Elia Schneider says, “it is very sensitive because the cultural and religious environment in Venezuela makes it difficult for people to engage with the film. But I don’t want heroes and villains, I just want to discuss the issue.”

Along with and Schneider, ‘Tamara’ lead actors Luis Fernández and Prakriti Inti Maduro Martin (the lead actors) have joined producer Joseph Novoa at IFFI 2016. Fernández spoke at length about how ‘Tamara’ connected India with Venezuela. “In India and Venezuela we are struggling with human rights – rights of women, children, gays, and lesbians,” he said, “human rights are for all humans!” He added, “this is the most remarkable story. I feel privileged to be a part of the film. I feel very proud of it.”

In the movie, “forty percent is reality, and sixty percent is fiction,” says Adrián, “but the sixty percent is not fiction in the essential sense. It is also the story of many other trans persons. And I think besides some cultural differences, the problems [of trans persons] across the world are the same – of violence against them, no employment, a lack of proper identity. They have to fight for equal rights.”

‘Tamara’ deals with vexed issues of alternate sexualities and gender identities. Perhaps predictably, it earned a mixed reception at IFFI 2016. “It was interesting. I did not know Indians had a problem with nudity,” says Fernández, “but there was also a welcoming of the issues in the film.” Martin agreed, “the audience was very engaged with the story. Many were glad and had a lot of questions.”

Earlier, Schneider says, she was not fully aware of the stereotypes and problems that trans persons face. “I didn’t know about this. I started this film as an adventure. For me the transgender is like any other kind of minority. I wanted to know and see what the reality was.”

(A version of this article was first published in The Peacock, 27 November, 2016)

LONG ROAD AHEAD FOR AZERBAIJANI CINEMA

Mobbed by adoring crowds, Tahmina Rafaella the lead in ‘Inner City’ (2016), manages to make a crucial point that the film is also about the “inner city” of a person’s life. Rafaella, along with her parents, was present at the screening of the film, which she co-wrote and produced. The constant demands of selfies both inside and outside the IFFI multiplex did not stop Rafaella from opening up about Azherbhaijan, her country, and the films there. In a brief conversation with The Peacock, Rafaella gives a brief glimpse into the beautiful country of Azerbhaijan.

“It’s a very special film. I wanted to show the society how women can be different,” she asserts. The film uses the metaphor of a labyrinthine city (shot in the capital, Baku) to show the lives of women, against the backdrop of Azerbaijani society as well as the military conflict in the country. Rafaella, only 21 years old is leading her country’s film industry with her effort in ‘Inner City’. Besides ‘Inner City’, Rafaella has also worked in ‘The Blacklist’ (2013) and ‘Guilt’ (2016).

“It is a very European society,” she says of Azerbaijan, “in the sense that women can wear the clothes they like, even date guys. But underneath there are strong social pressures regarding expectations of marriage and profession.” For instance, the choice of getting into movies as a writer, director or actor – a choice that Rafaella herself made – is not very popular in Azerbaijan, she informs dejectedly.

Rafaella also gives a glimpse of the film industry in Azerbaijan. “They are trying to develop. We have no film with depth,” she states. Films in Azerbaijan are either “art house” films or made for the box office.

Cinema is not considered a “serious” business in Azerbaijan. It is not just women in cinema, but men too face social pressures, Rafaella emphasizes. Getting into professions such as medicine (which Arzu, the lead hopes to study), or working for an oil firm (also depicted in the film) are considered as conforming to the expectations of society. “Nobody makes money making films in Azerbhaijan,” she laughs.

The film as much as about inner struggles is also about “social pressures.” As a country Azerbaijan too faces certain pressures. Its bid to enter the European Union, and the challenges that it brings are reflected in the film. In an Orhan Pamuk-esque sense, Azerbaijan is trying to find a balance between European values and the country’s more traditional values. “They are trying to get into the European mold. They have the resources, such as money,” she informs. “But here is a long way to go,” she indicates hopefully. The film is also about negotiating the pulls of contrasting value systems. Indeed, the film switches between depicting Baku’s modern buildings and its old architecture.

What does this mean for the future of Azerbaijani cinema industry? “If the industry involves the right people and take risks, make more useful films, bring in a young point-of-view then there is a lot of potential,” she concludes on a hopeful note.

 (A version of this article was first published in The Peacock, 25 November, 2016)