Reading films in 2021 is all about experiencing different worlds in the four walls of your own house, in the absence of what we’d traditionally call- a collective experience. Through multiple lockdowns, if there is anything the pandemic has taught us it is the harsh reality that freedom is felt in closed spaces, away from crowds and the constraints imposed by a society. While films might grow out of their internal socio-political scenarios, when we view it through the spectrum of a population still living in the uncertainty of these times, we are bound to see the similarities across the world despite our completely varied contexts. Thus, when I experience cinema under the 2021 lens, I am bound to be moved by the films that reach their full potential in closed spaces, away from their external realities. Two contemporary films by women directors that take very particular routes to explore this idea are Afghani director Shahrbanoo Sadat’s film ‘The Orphanage’ that screened at the Director’s Fortnight section in Cannes, 2019 and the relatively obscure documentary,by the Turkish filmmaker Pelin Esmer titled, ‘The Play,’ which won the Jury award at Tribeca in 2005.
Few films these days achieve the delicacy and tenderness despite being directed by women! Shahrbanoo Sadat’s emotionally hypnotic ninety-minute film ‘The Orphanage,’ is probably the most poignant coming-of-age film in recent years and yet it originates from a land imbued with a long-standing political conflict. The love Shahrbanoo has for her own land- a country that moves from the Soviet occupation in the late 80’s to the rule of the Mujahideen is self-evident and is probably the sweetest ode a filmmaker can give to her birth country. The interesting quality of this film is how it achieves the same poetically rather than factually, all the whiledepicting a country that struggles to have an identity of its very own.
We follow Qodrat’s journey, the young boy we are introduced to rather intelligently in the opening shot of the film as he sits alone in the backseat of a car in a T-shirt that has the print of Amitabh Bachchan- the biggest Indian star during the era. Right then, the soft power of a giant neighbouring country like India is visibly felt. The love for Indian cinema creates a beautiful escapism and appears in the most emotionally intense moments as a break from the everyday drudgery of existence. Exactly like the Bollywood pot-boilers of the period, the young Afghanis break into a song, allowing themselves to dream. Qodrat selling Indian movie tickets in the black market to others like him, is another exploration of the very same thread. Interestingly the cinema is filled with men of varying ages, who allow themselves utmost freedom inside the closed space of a cinema hall. More than what I see on the silver screen, I am interested in the reaction of the audience because right then I know this is where they feel truly free. Interestingly, the idea of seeing the audience rather than what they see is an idea that reaches its full potential in what Kiarostami wanted us to consider his final film, ‘Shirin.’ However, without needing to resort to the same cinematic language, Shahrbanoo creates a balance of her own by showing us excerpts of the Indian film and the immediate reaction of the men viewing it with a cinematic ease that is hard to come by. Finally, when Qodrat is caught by the authorities for selling tickets in black, he is sent to an orphanage where he learns the Russian alphabet and gradually absorbs and enjoys the culture with others like him.Appearing in different moments throughout the film are the hints of the young boys who desperately want to escape their country and opening a whorehouse seems like the only possibility to have power and in this case, the easiest prey are foreign women.This is both enraging and sad at the same time and holds up the mirror to the society without judgement because once again, freedom can be achieved only in a closed space such as a whorehouse. The boys who could have been socialized into another way of thinking as they are taught by a Russian woman at the orphanage also never really have the chance to alter their perspective entirely.The Russian experience too is cut short, as the Mujahideen take over the country. Who then, is Qodrat really and what will he become? What is the Afghani perspective if we strip away the political context?These are probably the most pertinent questions I don’t have answers to but it makes me reflect on the moments of freedom this closed space gives them. ‘Parwareshgah’ or ‘The Orphanage’ beautifully becomes the safe space for the boys to grow, learn and experience the real emotions as they are often shielded from the harsh political realities of the world outside them.
As the film proceeds, the context seems less important as I start engaging in the world of the boys fraught with their own desires and egos. They are just boys trying to make sense of the world around them and this is the lyrical quality that makes a period film like this seem fiercely modern and if I may say- timeless. The film is filled with little moments that make us question the power the individual can ever have over a system. The Sikh boy, shows his friends how he wears his turban, while one of them innocently implies that embracing the Islamic faith would just make life easier for him as he could avoid all the effort needed to wear the turban. Of course, there was no need for Shahrbanoo to revisit this idea because when the Mujahideen are in control at the very end, we know the Sikh identity would probably cease to exist in there. When the teacher asks Qodrat to write down something to gauge Qodrat’s own educational level, the sentence he asks him to write is, ‘The future is in the hands of children.’ This is a so layered and ironic at the same time and stands out without any forced effort as we explore the helplessness of Qodrat and his friends under the changing political hands throughout the film. Heart-breaking as it is, Qodrat and his band of boys experience the maximum freedom in those moments in the orphanage, rightbefore the world will strip them off their innocence and as viewers, we have the privilege to experience their flighty moments of liberty.
From young Afghani boys growing up to mature adult women, who are just about gain their freedom, is the documentary ‘Oyun’ or ‘The Play’ which I’d also dare to identify as a coming-of-age film because women in this remote Turkish village of Arsalankoy, were barely permitted to experience or rather express the various aspects of growing up until they were full grown women, in most cases married with children. The romanticism of the theatre as a form of self-expression is beautifully exploited in this documentary as Pelin Esmer focusses less on the mise-en-scene aspect as a directorbut instead allows the viewers to imagine what the theatrical space would be. We follow the adventures of women from the village, as they share their most intimate moments, laced with humour and stories of hardships and regret. The bonding between the women is incredibly interesting as they essay different roles from the nurse, to the husband, to the mother-in-law, often cross-dressing and gaining complete freedom to express their innermost thoughts. The theatre, then becomes the metaphor of a space that allows the women to be free. This freedom is gained in the process of setting up their theatrical performance by often externalizing their repressed emotions as an answer to what they face on a daily basis in their male centric realities.
A man who quite blatantly admits his wife has problems memorizing lines as she barely completed primary school, decides to team up with his son to help her learn the lines. In a strange way, this reasserts the patriarchal mindset and showcases a degree of comfort that a man could feel so long as he has the power over his wife. As the women sit together to discuss the role of the ‘mother-in-law,’ some of the very stereotypical attitudes are revealed as one of the women humorously remarks, ‘do not mess with the mother-in-law as one day you will become one too.’ The simplicity of the women highlights that the director herself is well-versed with the mentalities of women who struggle to be respected by their spouses and tend to adopt a more basic world-view. It is respectful that Pelin refrains from tutoring or moulding any thought process artificially, thus allowing the women to experience the liberty, at their own pace and in their own way. This makes Pelin’s documentary seem very refreshing as the women talk directly to camera, work in the fields, communicate with their families and each other without bothering to artificially create anything for the camera.
The power of oppressed Anatolian women simply speaking without a filter creates a hauntingly cinematic experience by insistently defying the usual cinematic language. Often documentary directors too tend to create visuals that would seem more appealing, irrespective of their cinematic function. Pelin has the confidence to avoid the usual traps set up by filmmakers for themselves and that in itself works in favour of this film. In many ways, it is the rustic simplicity of the women, the camera and the approach to storytelling itself that creates immediacy for the viewer to enjoy the documentary. These women are helped by a local teacher to put up their life stories in the form of a play and this in turn becomes not just a retelling but a ‘re-living’ in many cases because the women were not allowed to seek an education. These illiterate women steal the show as they whole heartedly bring to light their darkest moments, whether it was a woman who was abandoned while giving birth to her child, while others were beaten and still others left to fend for themselves. Dressed as people other than themselves, the idea of putting up a play or ‘imagining’ a space before it became real, allowed the women to use phrases and terminologies often used by men in their lives. Traditionally seen in domestic spaces, the women acquire a renewed sense of confidence as they shop for props, rehearse for the play and simply let out their emotions in the form of acting. Thus, theatre here, becomes cathartic not only for the audience but for the performers as well. Interestingly, Pelin Esmer, revisits her same thematic in her documentary 2019 ‘Queen Lear’ where many of the very same women from the Turkish village, travel to other villages and merge with other realities and other stories. Here the focus is less on the liberation of the women performing and more on what they encounter. As one continues to analyse spaces in cinema, Pelin continues to use ‘the stage’ as the imagined space where oppressed women gain their freedom, even if temporarily.
In the light of the current political situation in August 2021 and the Taliban take over, one wonders if Afghani artists would ever really have their space and would find a way to exist without the domination of a power, without the need of being pulled in one direction, rather than the other. A question that remains to be answered as the ‘individuality’ of artists remains a threat is who we are in our spaces without the social and the political influence. Bernando Bertolucci’s 2003 film, ‘The Dreamers,’ set against the backdrop of the 1968 student riots in Paris, focuses on the story of an American university student who forms an awkwardly intimate bond with a brother-sister duo and actually experiences growth fuelled by the personal rather than the political. Intimacy, nudity, sexual discovery and liberation are beautifully laced with references to various classical cinema and the French New Wave films and how they shape the spirit of young adults. While the film is majorly set in the interior of a lavish Parisian apartment- an experience that remains cut off from the riots for a large part of the film, it creates a beautiful escape into the internal spaces of the three youngsters who stand at the brink of adulthood.
Bertolucci’s flamboyance in this film remains memorable as it creates a gateway to the personal at the turn of century. By inhabiting the very personal space, one can surely say that far flung Paris might carry the glamour of a developed European metropolis but the concept of experiencing freedom in the personal space is equally felt and explored in the modern master pieces of ‘The Orphanage,’ and ‘The Play.’
As we ease into life and begin dreaming about a post-pandemic existence, what remains to be seen is how we reconfigure our understanding of the individual inhabiting a space on celluloid and if freedom will then continue to be felt in closed spaces or will our cinematic explorations need the open air to feel freedom as we respond at a sensorial level to the relaxation of restrictions across the world.