I believe that a scene from any movie cannot truly stand out on its own. What comes before and after plays a key role in elevating it and creating an emotional impact. However, when I look back at the ten films I watched at the European Union Film Festival this May, I realise that certain scenes have stayed with me. By sharing one from each film, I hope to introduce you to these ten films as well as give you a taste of the variety of films I got to see at the festival. (27 films from 27 different European countries were screened at the EUFF this year.)
In his book Making Movies, Sidney Lumet mentions that the background score and sound design of a film must add layers to the narrative that are not conveyed through dialogues or visuals. Only then can we say that sound has been used effectively. Jan Palach has a sequence that is reminiscent of this.
The titular character Jan Palach, a university student, and his girlfriend are stepping out of the university building, ready to go to their respective homes for vacation. They are walking towards a street vendor, having an argument along the way. The girl buys a few oranges and Jan buys a pair of carps. The girl has just discovered that Jan has had an affair with her friend. When she confronts him about it, Jan bursts out, “I don’t belong to anyone!” She is visibly hurt by the betrayal. From her face, we can tell this is the end of their relationship for her. She makes a feeble attempt at conversation by asking if he wants the oranges she just bought, he asks her in return if she wants carp. They say “See you” and part ways.
Jan heads to his mother’s pharmacy where she is closing for the day. He shows her the carps. She says they look good, closes the pharmacy and they go home together.
Cut to two pieces of carp being pan fried. Jan and his mother are seated at the dining table nearby. During the course of their conversation, Jan accuses his mother of siding with a political party and indirectly causing his father’s death. The mother breaks down and says the same line that Jan said earlier to his girlfriend, “I don’t belong to anyone. I did what I did and I did it for you and your brother.”
The entire conversation happens over the sound of carps being pan fried.
The Little Comrade
I find it tough to suppress a yawn whenever I read yet another reviewer invoking Joseph Campbell’s theory of a protagonist’s transformation. The analysts go to great extents to study the internal and external transformations of the protagonist, and plot character arcs in different geometric shapes. But this film’s climax has a wonderful moment that has made me excited once again about transformation and how it can be visually conveyed.
Six-year-old Leelo’s mother is taken away one day to an undisclosed prison camp. The movie follows Leelo, her father, and their family members, as they try to make sense of the situation and explore different ways to get the mother released. In the film’s climax, the regime comes to an end, the prisoners are released, Leelo and her father head to the railway station to meet her mother. Leelo is well-dressed and has brought along a bouquet of flowers. They search all over the platform. Leelo looks inside the station office. Finally, after a long wait, she catches a glimpse of her mother and her father through the office’s glass door. She does not break into a run. She opens the glass door, walks slowly towards her mother and stands transfixed in front of her as if she’s looking at a new person. It is Leelo’s father who reminds her to hand over the bouquet. She does so and her mother pats her on the head. Leelo and her mother hold hands and the three of them begin to walk away from the platform. Leelo and her mother exchange a brief glance, the camera pans towards the train’s billowing smoke that glitters in the sunlight.
Why did the movie not have the typical swell in the background score, why did we not see mother and daughter run towards each other for a hug? What was the exchange of glances between them all about? I felt the two of them realised that the separation has changed them. Leelo has changed, the way she sees her mother has changed, and her mother herself can see this change. This is not spelt out verbally or conveyed through a metaphor, rather it is passed on to the audience as an underlying emotion.
[Moved by this film, Elayabharath made a painting. You can view it here.]
Power in Our Hands
This British documentary charting the history of the deaf community’s fight for rights gave me a surprising yet simple revelation, one that no other movie with deaf characters has given me before. Almost every person interviewed in this documentary speaks in sign language and we understand what they “say” with the help of subtitles. But I realised that as they make the signs using their fingers, their lips are actually moving, trying to verbalise the words they want to communicate. This movement of the lips produces sounds that are not exactly words, but sound like bubbles popping. The makers of the documentary have retained these sounds. Without background music, these sounds take us closer to the people on screen, whose fingers work hard to connect with us. After a while, I began to imagine that these sounds were coming not from the lips, but from the gesticulating fingers themselves.
The Cake General
While discussing with friends about having children, I said something that made them feel pity for my child-to-be. My philosophy of bringing up a child, I said, is to choose a very scenic mound that is a few metres tall and covered with thick, green grass, walk to the top with my child, distract him or her by pointing at something, then give a push (if possible with my bum) so that he or she goes rolling down the slope. A character from The Cake General, who plays the father of an eight-year-old boy, seemed to echo this spirit of fatherhood.
Throughout the film, the son is embarrassed of his father, whom he thinks of as a failure. The father, on the other hand, is the exact opposite of Gautama Buddha’s father Suddhodhana. He does not hide any of the cruelties and realities of the world from his son. He imparts whatever he knows, never worrying if his son is at the right age to learn these things. In fact, he takes his eight-year-old boy to a screening of Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom because “he should see the truth about the world.” As the two walk out of the hall after the screening, here is the conversation they have (paraphrased):
Son: But dad, why did they poop on each other (in the film)?
Dad: That’s just an expression of love, son. (after a pause he adds) Of course, your mom and I don’t do that. Ours is a more standard way of expressing love. But you can’t expect everyone else in the world to feel the same way.
Though this may seem outrageous, I truly admire this father’s approach and his open-mindedness. If not for anything else, you should watch this film for him!
I found this biopic of Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis mildly amusing for the way it romanticised a writer’s life. There is this strong urge to stage scenes in such a way as to show the writer as eccentric and free-spirited, someone beyond normal, floating in another realm, whose every word is a divine message. For instance, in one scene, Kazantzakis and another woman have an intense ideological argument. They begin to undress each other over the course of the argument. It is apparent that this scene is staged in such a way to show how passionate Kazantzakis The Writer was in everything he did. Does being a passionate writer mean you have to talk about abstract stuff all the time and be eccentric? Let’s say you are a normal middle-class person with a day job and you write stories and poems in your free time. Maybe you are like Tamil writers Vannadasan and Devadachan, who worked in a bank and a jewellery shop respectively. You may never get a biopic made on your life, because there’s no drama, there are no eccentricities, there’s no simmering political backdrop. That makes me feel a tinge of sorrow that as screenplay writers we fail to find depth in the mundane and keep sifting the bins for drama.
The film had a powerful moment at the beginning though. Kazantzakis’ father drags a ten-year-old Kazantzakis out into the streets to show him the corpse of a martyr who was publicly hanged. The father, who clearly has strong political opinions, pushes the reluctant boy’s face closer to the corpse, almost touching its feet, and asks him never to forget this visual in his life. This visual does remain etched in the mind of Kazantzakis and it embitters his relationship with his father too.
This reminded me of what Sergei Eisenstein said: a close-up shot of a single broken pince-nez could convey the damage of a massive protest. Satyajit Ray did something similar in Ashani Sanket. The Great Bengal famine claimed numerous lives, but Ray ends this film by showing us the very first death that happened. His idea was that narrowing his focus on that single death magnifies the impact of the famine far more than showing elaborate scenes of the famine’s consequences. Likewise, Kazantzakis’ father does not see the corpse as the death of a single person, he sees it as a symbol of defeat of a political ideology. That is why he is emotional about it and does not want his son to ever forget it.
This film opens and closes with the titular character playing the piano. This is a biopic of Maria Theresia Paradis, an Austrian musician and composer, a contemporary of Mozart, who lost her sight at an early age. Franz Mesmer treats her, she temporarily regains her vision, only to lose it again. But throughout this process, we also see how her relationship with music changes. Once she gains vision, her fingers stutter on the piano keys. Being accustomed to playing without vision, the sight of her own fingers freezes her mind. She begins to panic that by regaining vision, she has lost her gift for music.
Her relationship with Mesmer is not an easy one either. Mesmer tries various techniques to win over her confidence and trust, only then can his treatment have a positive effect. And that’s when one of the best scenes in the film unfolds. One morning, a blind Paradis is seated at her piano and begins to play a tune. Mesmer, seated at another piano in the same room, plays something in response. This back and forth conversation through the piano builds up to a crescendo of fast-paced notes that feel like the two of them are dancing and rejoicing together. It leaves Paradis panting and chuckling with delight in the end. This conversation through the piano is the first time in the film that Mesmer makes an emotional connection with Paradis.
You can rarely pinpoint the exact moment when you become friends with someone. You’re talking, you’re hanging out together, and it happens during some inconspicuous moment, which may not even be verbal. But you can feel the click when it happens. Watch this film to see this click happen through music!
Eldorado is a documentary that explores the refugee crisis in Europe, while showing us snippets of postal exchanges between the filmmaker’s younger self and Giovanna, a refugee girl who lived with his family during the Second World War. The film begins by showing us scouting boats heading out into the sea, to track down boats carrying refugees. Once they find a refugee boat, life jackets are hurled, the refugees are brought on board a bigger ship, scanned, health tests are conducted, and then a decision is made on their asylum. The film shows us the facilities where these refugees are temporarily housed until their asylum applications are processed, the illegal jobs that entice them, the makeshift hamlets that rejected refugees create for themselves.
The documentary hits a comparatively lighter vein when it shows us a refugee from Africa, who managed to reach Switzerland. His asylum request gets rejected but he is given a free air ticket back to his home country along with some funds to buy cows, so that he may start his own business. He is more than happy and accepts the rejection. Along with his friend, he boards an intercity train to the airport. As the train whizzes past a farm, they spot a herd of healthy Swiss cows grazing. They are awed and keep staring at the cows remarking to themselves how huge they look.
The film ends with the powerful image of a boat bobbing up and down in the sea. The boat is full of people seen as silhouettes against the evening sky, the immigrants waiting to be rescued. All around them the sea is heaving up and down, as though it is breathing with them, lying in wait.
De Wilde Stad
Big birds eat small birds. I learnt this at school, but the full import is felt only when you watch a kite swooping down on a pigeon, killing it and taking it to the nest where four pinkish young kites tear the pigeon apart among themselves. Their nest, located behind a huge billboard, is filled with feathers and remains of pigeons that met a similar fate earlier. A young girl in the audience began to cry during this scene and her parents had to console her. Later, when a similar scene came up, the girl looked away and shut her eyes. I thought of my friend; as a young boy, he was left alone with a dozen chicks on a terrace. He ran around catching each one of them and twisted their necks, not knowing they would die. He said the click he heard as their necks cracked gave him immense delight.
This documentary focuses on wildlife in the urban space: the birds that live under bridges, the rats that drag leftover pizza slices underground, the seagulls that snatch hotdogs from passers-by. In my home city, there are pigeon nests on the window ledges of a flat adjacent to my house. Below these ledges is a long corridor that serves as the entrance to my flat. On one side of this corridor, the residents park their motorbikes and scooters in a single line. On the other side, you always have a smattering of pigeon droppings in various colours, depending on how recent they are. Whenever I fly back home and take a cab from the airport, the feeling that I am nearing home sinks in only when I walk through this narrow corridor with my luggage in tow and follow the trail of pigeon droppings waiting to welcome me. This film brought back those memories for me, the sounds of the pigeon wings slapping against each other that I always heard in the background as I sat in my room cramming my head with facts before school exams.
I liked the film’s idea of focusing on wildlife in urban spaces. I live in Singapore today, and every night when I walk up the stairs to my house on the second floor, I find a cat curled up at the same spot at the head of the stairs. I wonder why he prefers that particular spot. Perhaps Abatutu, the cat that narrates this documentary, can shed some light.
[Read The World of Apu’s interview with Mark Verkerk, director of De Wilde Stad, here.]
The Art of Loving
This is the biopic of Polish gynaecologist and sexologist Michalina Wislocka, who wrote a book titled The Art of Loving, a frank guide to sex and sexuality. The film begins by showing us Michalina’s personal life and the hardships she encountered while completing her thesis. Following a breakup from a three-way relationship, she heads to work at a seaside health facility. There, she comes across a physical fitness coach, who is smitten by her. He hits on her in an obvious way from the start but she avoids his advances.
After a seaside conversation, the coach takes her to the top of a tower to enjoy a good view. Michalina is munching on some berries wrapped in a small piece of cloth, and she suddenly spits out a seed during their conversation. The coach looks puzzled. Michalina apologises saying she always had contests with her brother to see who can spit seeds the farthest. The coach immediately takes on the challenge, picks up a berry and spits out the seed as far as he can. Michalina does the same. A sudden gust of wind carries the cloth away along with the berries. There is a pause as both of them look down and then at each other. As the breeze fondles their hair, the coach reaches out his hand to touch her lips. A nervous Michalina makes an excuse and leaves.
The berries and the gust of wind somehow elevate this conversation, making it more lifelike. I like that it is the wind that makes the intimate moment happen, and not the coach.
Le Ciel Flamand
Things automatically get interesting when you place a child in the midst of a grownup world, like The Little Comrade that I mentioned earlier, which plants Leelo against the backdrop of the Second World War. Le Ciel Flamand does something similar by placing Eline, a six-year-old girl, against the backdrop of her family-owned brothel. (Le Ciel Flamand is the brothel’s name, which translates to Flemish Heaven.)
The brothel appears to be a mysterious place to Eline. It is run by her mother and grandmother. One day morning when her mother drives to the brothel, Eline asks her what they do inside. Her mother replies, “We help people. We give them hugs when they need it.”
One night, an old man, one of Eline’s grandmother’s regular clients, dies in the brothel. Maybe it was a heart attack. The police and an ambulance arrive on the scene. Eline’s mother leaves her in the car and gets busy with the procedures. A bored Eline steps out of the car and walks around the outside of the brothel, staring at one of the red neon lights. She touches it and looks at her own skin in this light.
She walks around some more and goes over to the back of the building. There, through an open window, she spots her grandmother in her undergarments, standing alone and smoking a cigarette. The grandmother seems lost in thought, her long time client died in her hands a while ago. She takes a deep puff and exhales. Eline watches her grandma for a moment and then waves at her, but she does not notice.
There is something so moving and powerful about the little girl stumbling upon her grandmother. We get to know later in the story that the brothel was set up by Eline’s grandparents and that her grandfather is dead. So what was Eline’s grandmother thinking when she stood in her undergarments and smoked that cigarette? It is a question I keep going back to.
I think Eline’s attraction to the neon light is similar to my attraction to cinema. The light draws you closer, the light takes you to places and opens up windows through which you see people, naked in their emotions. The light falls on you too, touches your skin, makes you see yourself differently. Each of these ten films have done that to me and I hope they do the same to you.
Our special thanks to Shirlene Noordin from Phish Communications, Deepika Shetty and Carlota Fontaneda from the European Delegation in Singapore. They met all of our requests with smiles and made coverage of the EUFF a truly memorable experience.
About the author
Ramchander is a freelance writer who’s written on cinema for Film Companion. Depending on his mood, he oscillates between Medium and Tumblr for blogging. On his desk you might find photos of Steve Jobs, Buddha, Isaac Asimov and Satyajit Ray.