San Francisco International Film Festival 2005—Part 1

What should be encouraged

By David Walsh
10 May 2005

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

This is the first in a series of articles about the recent San Francisco film festival, held April 21-May 5

The Gravel Road (Chemman Chaalai), from young Malaysian director Deepak Kumaran Menon, is one of the loveliest and most moving films I’ve seen in years. One has had grounds for asking recently: is this still possible, a work that never strikes a wrong emotional or dramatic note, that uses the camera to evoke quite precise and definite moods, whose performances (by non-professionals) are understated and nearly flawless, that contains a subtle but persistent and deeply-felt protest against social and national  oppression? Such a film exists. And one has to feel heartened by its appearance.

This is not the end-all and be-all of world cinema. It is a relatively small piece, rooted in memory, a recreation of a specific place and time (a Malaysian rubber plantation in the 1960s). Perhaps the director would stumble if he took on more ambitious and contemporary problems. Who knows? We will see. In the meantime we have the pleasure of The Gravel Road. Let’s not be greedier than necessary in these difficult times.

According to Menon (born in Kuala Lumpur in 1979) in an interview, Indians make up eight percent of the Malaysian population, three-quarters of them Tamil-speaking. “The British brought the Indians to Malaysia in the 1940s, to the rubber plantations,” he explained. “And the Chinese were brought in for the tin mines. Of course they left the tin mines a long time ago. They control the economic power in the country, the Malays control the political power in the country. The Indians somehow could not fit into the society ...”

He went on, “As a matter of fact, Indian s in Malaysia have the highest negative statistics. We have the highest crime rate, the highest school drop-out rate, etc. If you type in Google for Indian statistics you will see them.”

The film then, whose publicity amusingly describes it as “An Indian film without singing and dancing,” is in part an effort to give dignity to and put a face on the Indian plantation workers’ contribution and suffering. In the process, something more universal emerges.

A family is at the center of it. The Gravel Road is based on the experiences of the filmmaker’s mother. In fact, she wrote the script! The director made some significant changes in her story, to make the outcome more “hopeful.” But he will explain that himself later on.

Shantha lives on a rubber plantation with her parents, three other sisters and a younger brother. A uncle, Devan, a truck-driver, plays a role, as does one of his happy-go-lucky friends. Shantha has a quiet neighborhood suitor, Narean, as well as a dedicated teacher. The latter writes on the blackboard, “He who is determined will reach his goals.” Shantha takes this seriously; she wants to attend university, something nearly unheard of for a girl from her background.

The family’s financial position worsens. Both parents will have to take on additional work. Shantha studies long hours. Narean gently pursues her. He asks, “If you become a big person, will you forget me?” She, incredulous: “Me without you?” She also helps the family out by taking a job with a Chinese woman tailor, Atchi. When Shantha explains that she only knows a little, the woman replies, “Then your pay is little.”

Money for the eldest sister’s dowry (in an arranged marriage) must be raised. The mother proposes that her own jewelry be sold. The father has an accident on his bicycle; somehow the jewelry, the parents’ only valuable possession, is lost or stolen. A single shot: he lies on the bed in their small room, she sits on it. No words are necessary to convey the pain of the situation.

Pressures are placed on the father about Shantha’s schooling. People ask: hasn’t she been educated enough? The father defends her, “Let her do what she likes.” Someone tells him: “Don’t be offended. You have only one son. He’ll be there in your old age.” The teacher brings an application form for university. The crisis comes to a head. Her mother now tells Shantha she’s studied enough. The girl responds: “Do you want me to forget my dreams? Why’d you have so many children [i.e., so many mouths to feed]?” Devastated, the older woman poisons herself, although she eventually recovers. The girl is told she only thinks of herself; she rejects that, “I will help estate children become scholars like me.” She’s the only student from the plantation able to attend university.

Tragedy strikes people near her, in a traffic accident, and her uncle bears some responsibility. She curls up on her bed and refuses to eat. Now her mother comes to her and says: continue your studies. She replies, “I feel very sad, I can’t do it.” The older sister offers Shantha her wedding money, explaining: “I’m not interested in the marriage. I’m interested in someone else.”

Ultimately Shantha decides to take the university’s offer of a full scholarship. Her youngest sister is devastated. “You broke your promise to take me with you.” “I’ll return and take you all after my studies.” “Definitely?” “Definitely.” In the final sequence, shot from a distance, she’s leaving for school; the family stands outside their small house. The little girl runs to her. An embrace. She goes.

The Gravel Road contains a number of exquisite moments. The youngest daughter recounts the story of the ‘ugly duckling’ (or at least half of it) to her father in English while riding in front of him on a bicycle. The uncle silently and anonymously places a pair of new running shoes by one of his sleeping nieces, after she has bloodied her feet running races barefoot. After the fatal accident, the same man sits disconsolately in the family’s kitchen. Shantha never says a word, but pours him a glass of water, in an act of forgiveness and reconciliation.

One of the most memorable characters turns out to be Atchi, the Chinese tailor. One expects something of a stereotype, that she will be a slave-driver. Instead we feel that her life has been very difficult, dominated by hard work. She sings while she sews, about beautiful, far-off things. When Shantha quits the job, Atchi goes inside her shop and brings the girl a dress, and hands her a bonus. “Study well,” is all she says, and we know what she means—so your life will be different than mine. One’s chest tightens. How does someone know all this at twenty-five or so, when our 40 and 50-year-old American filmmakers have managed to learn virtually nothing of any use to anyone?

In fact, most film artists in the world today are falling down on the job: to lay bare social and psychological reality, to enrich humanity’s understanding of itself, to make sense of life. A devotion to career and wealth is not the only trap set for the contemporary filmmaker; self-involvement, the pursuit of the trivial or outright ignorance have laid low far too many.

Menon’s instincts are healthy ones. He pursues life and represents it conscientiously, movingly, sensuously. Again, more can be done in cinema, more can be attempted, but what has been done here is not insignificant. The life of a working class family, a social circumstance, a moment in history, presented in detail, with care, with sympathy, with sharp eyes, with genuine artistry. Not a small thing. No, not these days. This is also an answer to the semi-hysterical films about the oppressed from Scandinavia and Britain, for example, which prevent the filmgoer from seeing or feeling anything except the director’s own disorientation and morbidity.

Every work is a polemic, and this one argues for a serious approach to lives that are not generally treated seriously today. More than that, the representation of Shantha’s fierce determination to leave the rubber plantation is a protest against a narrow and oppressive condition that provokes such determination. Whether she goes to university or not is secondary, what matters is the life shown, its tragedy, its complexity. The director has succeeded in getting to that.

In our interview, Menon explained the changes he made to his mother’s life story. “She is from a rubber estate. I had to change a certain part of her life. In real life, she was not able to go to university. She settled down on the estate. But her achievement, in her own mind, was that she made sure that all her children made it to the university. And my sisters and myself all graduated from college. I condensed the generations. I couldn’t make it into a TV series!,” he said, laughing mischievously.

He continued: “But also I wanted the film to be more hopeful and so I changed the ending. This is what I had in mind actually: I wanted to present a different part of Indian life, both to the Malaysian community itself and also to everyone else who watched this film.”

We discussed the question of Shantha’s apparent selfishness in pursuing her university education. The director commented, “I had to go into these issues because the estate community is a very close community. It’s not necessarily considered a good thing to leave the estate. I did a lot of interviews with the estate people. Some of them are very happy with their lives. And there are others who want to leave, who want an opportunity to get out. So I had to balance these things.”

I said, “It’s a delicate question. Does someone from the working class simply go off to university and forget about everyone else? The girl says, ‘Well, I’m going to come back and teach the children here.’”

Menon remarked, “My mom is a Tamil school teacher, she’s been a teacher all her life. That is what she wanted. She helps other people. She does a lot of things to get her students into university. I’ve met a lot of her ex-students, she has a lot of passion for education.”

I noted, “It’s clear that the girl is not simply selfish.”

The director: “At a certain point she seems a little self-centered, but I think to help others first you have to help yourself. I teach in the university, in multi-media, in Kuala Lumpur. Because of the quota system it makes it hard for Indians to get into university. It’s a big challenge. I was the first Indian staff to be in my faculty, it’s very hard to get even one Indian guy in my class. What do the Indians do after the age of 12? They reach 12 years old, and they already find it difficult to continue to secondary level of education. And most of them don’t make it, unless they leave the country, unless they are rich enough.

“There’s a huge gap between the rich and the poor, in the Indian community itself. The divide is very obvious. You can see the really rich—the really, really rich—textile traders and others, they might own a lot of Kuala Lumpur itself, then you have the really poor, still in the rubber estates, and still on the outskirts of KL. It’s very difficult to achieve anything at all.”

I mentioned Atchi: “It’s not a nationalist film. I thought the Chinese woman was beautifully done. She’s one of the most remarkable characters. Her farewell to the girl ...”

He replied, “The Chinese in Malaysia always fought for education. They said, you can disturb anything, but do not disturb our schools. The Chinese are very passionate about education, and they always are supportive of anyone who wanted to go in that direction. The scene where she’s singing? I tried not to have singing and dancing, but I couldn’t help it.”

I referred to ethnic and other kinds of stereotypes.

“Stereotypes ... well, I sent the film to the distributor,” Menon explained, “and the first five minutes, which are quite dark, they thought there would be a rape scene and so on. I was playing around. There are a lot of stereotypes about Malaysian Indians, that they’re all criminals, etc. Malay films in Malaysia portray Indians this way. I’ve played small roles in Malay films, as an actor. They give me roles as robbers, thieves who break into houses. I say, ‘Man, why do you always give me these roles?! I can be a good friend or something.’

“The Malay films often portray the Indian characters like this with Malay actors who have dark skin. Already it’s a stereotype, they have to be dark, they have to be moronic. We already had these stereotypes, it’s very easy to go in that direction. But it causes harm somewhere along the line. So when I did the film I tried to portray as much as I could the other side of the Indian community.”

He continued: “The film appeals a lot to the estate people. These [the performers] are all non-professionals. I pulled them off the street. If you pluck any guy from the street they would have a clear idea of the estate, either because of their own experiences, or their parents’. The actors are from KL, but they have the experience. Some of the rubber estates have become palm oil estates—rubber is not doing too well—and also, golf courses. For them it’s a big memory, it’s a big part of our lives. In fact, I lived on a rubber estate with my grandma, every holiday I used to hang out there. A lot of things bring back memories.”

The young filmmaker commented on his limited resources. “I storyboarded the entire film. I could not afford to waste anything. I had to shoot a lot of scenes, and I had to do it really fast. If you watch the film, you see some scenes have a lot of actors in them, and I only had two wireless mikes and one boom. I had to catch the environment. All the sound is natural sound. I couldn’t afford to do voiceovers. I needed to get the shot fast and right. I had to plan everything, lights, mikes.

“A lot of things happened because of practicalities. In the scene with the mother and father, the room was extremely small, I couldn’t fit a lot of angles in it. It’s not always for profound reasons. I love the scene with the ‘ugly duckling.’ The girl came in telling me the story; I thought it was a beautiful story. I have a little meaning behind this. I was implying that if the Indians continued to cause trouble in Malaysia, we are going to be kicked out. You are the ‘ugly duckling.’ Some people got it, they said, ‘Oh my god, what are you doing?’”

He made a final point about ethnicity, which seemed to sum up his attitude. “There’s a scene with a ghost? It’s a Nyonya ghost. That’s a people who are in danger of extinction. A mix of Chinese, Malay and some of the British. They speak their own language. They have no rights, because they don’t fall into the main categories. They fall in the ‘Others’ category. In an Indian film, you see an Indian ghost, in a Chinese film, you see a Chinese ghost, so I thought, why not an ‘Other race’ ghost? She was my production designer, a Nyonya.” [See the film’s Web site: http://www.chemmanchaalai.com/]

Other films, other questions

Another film from Malaysia, Sepet, by a Malay director, Yasmin Ahmad, is not as successful, but it has its moments. About an interracial relationship, between a Malay girl and a Chinese boy, the work is a little heavy-handed in its opposition to communalism and racism. We are not likely to miss the theme. In the first scene, the Chinese kid, ‘Jason,’ reads a passage from the Bengali poet and novelist Rabindranath Tagore to his mother. They discuss it: “It’s a different culture, a different language, yet we can feel what was in his head.”

The film is saved from its own good intentions largely by the performance of Sharifah Amani as Orked, the Malay teenager who loves everything Chinese. She’s a delight in various languages and combinations thereof. “The French fries here are the best!” she proclaims in English at one point. A scene in a hospital between Jason and his friend (who is also in love with Orked) is also memorable. They agree that hundreds of years ago interracial marriage was possible. “How come it’s hard now?” The relationship between Orked and Jason runs into difficulties. In a memorable scene, Orked and her mother weep in a car over the sad fate of love, threatened as it is by ethnic divisions and other social pressures. They weep convincingly.

The Riverside, directed by Alireza Amini—who made Letters in the Wind, about conscripts in the Iranian armed forces in 2002, a film that had censorship problems—is an unsettling work set on the Iraq-Iranian border. A group of Iraqi Kurds is heading toward the border to escape the disaster created by the US invasion. A young bride with a red veil and red suitcase, on her wedding day, is among them. She has stepped on a land-mine. If she lifts her foot, the mine will detonate. Her husband has run to a nearby village for help.

Various people come upon her in her plight: a man carrying the corpse of his young son in a plastic bag; a woman whose only possession, a cow, has run off, frightened by war-planes; a young man loaded down with weapons for sale; a grumpy older man and his thirsty sons. Each sets aside his or her difficulties for a moment in the face of the young bride’s horrifying situation. The old man says, “We’ve become homeless because of war and politics, but since I’ve seen this bride I’ve forgotten my problems.” They talk to her, sing to her, tell her stories. The young man with weapons tells her to place rocks on her foot to keep weight on the mine.

The enormous suffering of the people of the region is brought home. The girl, who, despite her predicament, lowers her veil when the first of the passersby speaks to her, wails and shrieks. Here is oppressed humanity waiting entirely passively, one feels, to be helped, or destroyed. The radio broadcasts news of the US invasion.

Despite its grim premise, the film manages to be both compassionate and even humorous. The cross-talk among the stragglers is entirely convincing. The old woman tells a strange, lengthy story about a woman who keeps divorcing her husbands after she’s not pleased by the wedding feasts. At each meal she’s offered only dried bread and a fish-head, and she demands a divorce! Five, six times! Finally, she gives up, ‘What can I do? I’ve changed husbands, I can’t change fate. I have to live with it.’

What’s the director’s attitude toward this kind of resignation? Presumably he’s critical of the passivity shown by the refugees. “We have to do something,” everyone agrees ... but what? They place their hopes in the husband, whose running legs are the only parts we ever see.

In ironic counterpoint, another old woman carries two girls on her back through the harsh landscape, promising them a wonderful future: “Everywhere in the world is nice, mountains, desert. You’ll be brides, beautiful brides.” Needless to say, the film does not end happily.

Champions from the Czech Republic is not a flawless work, but it seems like an attempt to get at something about contemporary life in eastern Europe. A group of more or less impoverished Czechs, only one of whom seems to hold down a steady job, eke out an existence in a miserable small town. For the men, ice hockey is the center of their life; in fact, it is their entire life. One of their number turns out to be possessed of the ability, when drunk to the point of senselessness, of predicting the outcomes of hockey games. One thing leads to another.

Nationalism and racism feed off the economic and moral despair. “We have to root for ourselves, because no one else will!” says one of the locals. When the Czechs win the world title, chants of “We’re the champions!” ring out from the wretched barroom. The irony will be lost on no one.

Hungary has specialized in gloomy, misanthropic films in the post-Stalinist era (and perhaps before). Dealer, about 24 hours in the life of a nameless drug dealer, is not entirely free of self-conscious moroseness, but it shows a bit of life too along the way. And not a pretty life. The dealer, who mostly sits and listens, is both a dispenser of pain and a source of relief to those in desperate need: a religious leader with an absurdly distended abdomen, a college student whose friend has been groaning for days, an ex-girl-friend whose daughter may or may not be the dealer’s own, his own father crazed with grief and loneliness after the suicide of his wife. One derives a picture of people at sea, without any hope of reaching land.

There are different tendencies in world film-making. The Gravel Road represents one. French director Claire Denis’ The Intruder, another. The latter work concerns an older man who needs a heart transplant and uses his considerable resources to purchase one. He seems cold, brutal. The director says, “He is a loveless guy and a heartless guy. A man without compassion, he is greedy, he wants more life, more everything.” We see him in bed with a woman, murdering a man, conducting business in South Korea, finally pursuing and attempting to reconcile with his son in the South Seas.

The film, like nearly every other work by Denis, does nothing for me. One senses that the director is simply taking shots in the dark, guessing at what might be important. We are told by one critic that the “theme of border crossing, cultural displacement, and societal acceptance or rejection has been consistent in the films of Claire Denis.” Perhaps. But what does she say about this theme? One shouldn’t ask such impertinent questions.

The director expresses her feelings. I don’t know what to make of them. She tells us little about the world, merely something about her feelings. Her feelings intervene between the viewer and the world. I know something about how Denis views her filmmaking and her position in filmmaking. (“By writing the script, I can see the locations and feel what the locations express. I can see the lens that I am going to use. Everything is familiar to me. The film is not taking me by surprise; I am inside the film.” Of what use are these observations to anyone?) We know she aspires to be taken seriously. She aspires to be a serious artist. But we know next to nothing more about the world, which is far more interesting and varied in the end.

As opposed to this, what we see in a film like The Gravel Road, is a ‘surrendering’ by the artist to the world, in the words of Aleksandr Voronsky, Soviet critic and Left Oppositionist. Voronsky wrote, “But it will not be subjective if the artist surrenders himself to the world, if, to use philosophical language, he reproduces the thing-in-itself rather than the thing-for-us. By surrendering to the flood of his initial supra-rational perceptions, by re-embodying himself, the artist virtually dissolves his ‘ego’ into these perceptions, not, however, in order to run away from his own being, but to find the world as it is in itself, in its most lively and beautiful forms.”

One sees affected, self-conscious films, films made to impress, like Duck Season from Mexico, about a pair of teenage boys left on their own in one of the families’ apartment, like The Intruder. And one sees The Gravel Road, The Riverside, with their limitations. Here are two opposed tendencies. I will take the latter any day, twenty times a day.

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