Letters from IFFR #4: Up in Smoke

Courtesy of IFFR Press

Dear Inge,

Sorry to hear about your laptop but glad you had another one ready to work with. Although adjusting to a different keyboard is one of the most frustrating things a writer can experience, I sometimes find that switching devices can give you a fresh outlook that makes the writing process easier. I hope that was the case for you.

Now it’s on with the festival. “Playful” and “happy” are two excellent words with which to describe Chen Hung-i and Muni Wei’s genderbending adaptation of As We Like It. To quote the curriculum of every high school English teacher ever: Shakespeare was a surprisingly progressive writer for his day, even if the female characters of his plays were originally played by male actors. The all-female cast of this modern take not only provides a welcome twist on the age-old formula, but also does away with the tiring machismo that dominates so many other adaptations of the bard’s work.

Courtesy of IFFR Press

In the interest of our correspondence, allow me to discuss two other films that – like As We Like It – were built around the theme of love but – unlike As We Like It – prefer to focus on its darker sides. The first of these, Aurora, follows middle-aged arts and crafts instructor Luisa (played by Rebecca Woodbridge) who tries to help a teenage student named Julia (Raquel Villalobos) get through an unplanned, unwanted pregnancy. Set in a country where abortion is illegal, the film manages to combine high stakes with a life-affirming tone I find in many other acclaimed Latin American family dramas.

Director Paz Fábrega – whose debut feature Agua fría de mar won IFFR’s Tiger Award in 2010 – prefers working with two protagonists rather than one. Luisa and Julia are pulled towards each other by their selfless natures, which make the already tough choice of what to do with Julia’s baby even tougher. Childless, Luisa has devoted her entire career to raising the kids of others and gets along with them better than she does with most adults. Julia, on the other hand, acts much older than she looks. Born in a lower middle-class family to working parents, she spent most of her life acting as her little brother’s caretaker.

Courtesy of IFFR Press

If Aurora centers on accidental creation, Mitra is all about deliberate destruction. Mitra (Dina Zarif) is the name of a girl who fought against the theocracy set up during the Iranian Revolution, until she was betrayed by her best friend. Years later, Mitra’s mother Haleh (Jasmin Tabatabai) – having now started a new life for herself as a celebrated researcher in the Netherlands – runs into that friend again. At least, she thinks she does.

Over the course of the story, it becomes clear that Haleh never really got over her daughter’s death and, consequently, doesn’t want to do a lot of investigation before taking revenge. As she revisits her traumatic memories, the desire for justice starts to outweigh the need for truth. That Mitra’s friend betrayed her because she wanted to protect her own child hardly matters. That said daughter has now grown into a conscientious teenager who struggles assimilating into a new country doesn’t matter either.

Mitra herself is hardly present in the film, appearing in only a few flashbacks. Had the narrative been about the remnants of a mother-daughter relationship, that would have been a problem. But it isn’t. Instead, Mitra explores grief, and how it can change a loving, responsible person into an apathetic, destructive force that can no longer make any rational decisions. Camerawork and editing are cleverly utilized to bring this deeply personal family drama –based on Dutch-Iranian director Kaweh Modiri’s own experience losing his sister – from page to screen.

Courtesy of IFFR Press

Here’s something else I thought of today:

Every film – like every filmmaker – is completely unique, but you know what many of them have in common? Cigarettes! I don’t think I watched a single movie this festival in which a character didn’t smoke. Most times, they’re puffing away from title screen to the end credits. This isn’t a new discovery, but because I tried going cold turkey last week it’s been grabbing my attention more than usual. Some say that indie films love cigarettes simply because smoke looks cool on camera, but I think the real reason for their frequent appearance is that they are an important part of adult life.

To remove them would be a disservice to the reality these filmmakers are trying to capture. I didn’t become a smoker because it looked cool but because I craved the peace of mind that occasionally accompanies the nicotine rush, and that’s something I see all over the selection. In Pebbles, a poor father smokes because he feels humiliated by his family. In Dear Comrades!, the anti-party grandpa smokes because he believes his country is in a downward spiral. In Mitra, Haleh smokes because she is still struggling to process the execution of her daughter. They smoke because they cannot change history, but desperately want to.

Sorry for going on a tangent – and oversharing. Anyway, more good watching to you.



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