17th Third I Film Festival Reviews

by on November 6, 2019

“Cat Sticks”

Vinnie Ann Bose’s animated short “What’s Your Brown Number?” gives colorism in Indian society a well-deserved mocking.

The titular number refers to how darkly brown a particular Indian’s skin is.  Darker skin means possessing a higher brown number. But a person having a high brown number is also presumed to be of lower social and economic status.  For example, a rich man with paler skin has a brown number of 18 while a street beggar with incredibly dark skin has a brown number of 80.

Bose shows how the consequences of brown numbers plays out in people’s relationships.  Waiting parents deny acknowledging as kin a baby having the high brown number of 66. A woman struggles to find the right make-up mixture that will lower her skin’s brown number.  A grandmother wanting to arrange her granddaughter’s marriage finds herself stymied by ads from men who prefer women with lower brown numbers than that possessed by the unfortunate girl.

“What’s Your Brown Number”’s most damning moment comes when the film’s characters enviously regard a white man walking by.  Their longing to have the white man’s really low brown number shows how such desire is little different from internalized racism.

Viewer self-satisfaction that Bose’s scenario would not happen in real life will get dented at the end.  A title card notes that skin lightening products happens to be a profitable and booming industry in India.

***

Prasanna Vithanage’s historical drama “Children Of The Sun” balances engrossing adventure with elements of accepted social prejudice and colonial politics.

In 1814 Ceylon, Sinhalese nobles have failed in their attempted rebellion against Tamil king Sri Wickrama Rajasinhe.  While the rebellion leaders flee, their wives are left behind to deal with the consequences. For Tikiri, that means being forcibly married to Vijaya, a member of the Rodiya community.  The Rodiya, popularly referred to as “outcasts,” happen to be Ceylon’s lowest social caste. While the ex-noblewoman tries to deal with the humiliation of her loss of social status, her outcast husband tries to earn her love and trust.

Vithanage’s tale allows the viewer to see by example the evils of societies which allow social castes to dictate how people are treated.  The outcasts get subjected to bad behaviors heaped on people seen as a combination of the present day homeless and blacks in the Jim Crow South.  Savage beatings await outcasts failing to display sufficient deference. Outcast women have their clothes ripped off for trying to claim even a modicum of modesty.  A Sinhalese nobleman openly refers to the outcasts as little better than dirt.

Aside from Ceylon’s caste system, another villain in “Children Of The Sun” happens to be the British.  They come off looking like snakes in red coats whose promises are totally worthless. Some white supremacist jerk may use this portrayal to claim Vithanage is somehow racist towards white people.  The trouble is a historical note at the end of the film confirms that the British truly lived down to that reputation.

The ugliness of the film’s human affairs is balanced by the often lush images of Ceylon’s countryside.  The forest feels filled with life without appearing overwhelming. A magnificent shot of the countryside from a clifftop may make a viewer believe in the possibility of Tikiri and Vijaya finding some place in that vast land where they can live peacefully.

While “Children of the Sun” may offer a wide vista or two, that visual extravagance does not extend to depicting potential action sequences.  Such important moments as the crushing of the nobles’ rebellion or Vijaya and Tikiri punished via dozens of painful ant bites happen offscreen.

These ellipses in action might be forgivable if “Children of the Sun” compensated by offering deeper emotional insights into its central characters.  But it doesn’t. Vijaya pretty much remains a big-hearted knot-maker doing his best to treat Tikiri kindly. Meanwhile, Tikiri’s inability to adjust to the loss of her noble status and her changing emotions towards Vijaya accounts for the depth of her emotional struggle.  What doesn’t get addressed are such things as how Vijaya overcomes his caste conditioning to relate to Tikiri as a person, or why Tikiri chose to be married to a Rodiya rather than commit honorable suicide.

“Children Of The Sun” does engage viewer interest enough to keep watching to the end.  But generating strong viewer feelings is beyond the film’s grasp.

***

Andrew Sturm’s short film “31 Foot Ladders” delivers a straight-faced razzing of one of the Orange Skull’s insanely wasteful ideas.  That idea, for those in a news coma, is the building of a 30-foot-high border wall to prevent undocumented immigrants from stepping onto U.S. soil and bringing their s**thole countries’ cooties.

The short’s format is a TV interview with the proprietor of the flourishing business 31 Foot Ladders.  As the proprietor talks about how his business came to be, it becomes clear the Orange Skull’s loose lips helped provide both the opportunity and the inspired problem solving to make his business a viable concern.

However, Sturm’s final satirical sting at the end doesn’t quite work.  The satirical point does offer an emotional truth about the unpleasantness of life in the Mad Orange King’s AmeriKKKa.  However, the border wall is in its way intended to be a one-way barrier, something to keep the unwanted furriners out, not keep Americans in.  Even then, the real life use of reciprocating saws to defeat the anti-undocumented immigrant barrier feels like a better satirical jab at the Orange Skull’s folly.

***

“Sivaranjani And Two Other Women” from director Vasanth S. Sai provides one of this year’s Third i Film Festival’s stronger entries.  As implied by the title, this is a dramatic trilogy. But in its focus on showing the tiny moments of its three central characters’ lives, even small actions can lead to changes in the lives of these women being crushed by aspects of Indian society’s sexism.  Some viewers may even see in Sai’s film good arguments for embracing misandry.

The film begins in 1980 with the story of “Sarswathi.”  She’s the dutiful wife of husband Chandra, who frankly treats her like a doormat.  Slapping Sarswathi for talking back or belittling his heavily burdened wife for slowness which causes him to miss a bus is typical Chandra behavior.  But the husband’s threat to strike his infant daughter for disturbing his sleep by crying too much finally pushes the abused wife to take a small action which changes both their lives.

Sai tells Sarswathi’s tale with a heavy reliance on silences and shadows.  Those qualities emphasize how Chandra’s abuses have made his wife act as if she’s invisible.  But these shadows also conceal hidden depths of this abused wife’s character waiting to surface.

The moment when a desperate Sarswathi welcomes Chandra’s slapping her around again will probably cause a woke San Francisco viewer to groan or shout “don’t do it.”  Yet in a way, the wife’s plea is a perfectly understandable reaction. She’s very uncomfortable entering what is for her uncertain and uncharted emotional territory.  Yet her ultimate salvation comes from abandoning those familiar behavior patterns. Whether Sarswathi regrets not acting sooner is left ambiguous at the segment’s end.

Second story “Devaki” takes the film up to 1995.  The titular character works at an accounting firm.  She’s happily married to Mani and displays a streak of genial independence.  To the story’s main viewpoint character, Devaki’s young nephew Ramu, she’s the original cool aunt.  But when the boy innocently lets slip that his aunt keeps a private diary, the news brings to the surface underlying tensions between Devaki and her in-laws.

In contrast to Sarswathi’s story, Devaki’s tale is visually told with generous amounts of light.  It alludes to the more prosperous family that Devaki lives with as well as their more apparently enlightened social tolerance.  Those brighter images could even be called a metaphor for the greater freedom Devaki enjoys by holding down a regular job.

Yet the freedom Devaki enjoys breeds resentment among the more traditional minded members of Mani’s family.   Their fears that Devaki’s diary may allegedly contain material bringing dishonor to the family feels more like an excuse to try curbing the daughter-in-law’s independence.  Devaki’s husband may think he’s being the voice of reason, but it soon becomes clear he’s chosen the wrong side. Ramu, to his credit, eventually refuses to help invade his beloved aunt’s privacy.  But as events reveal, the damage to the relationship among Devaki, her in-laws, and even Ramu has already been done. By the end, it’s not clear that the boy understands why things happened the way they did.

The final tale, which concerns the film’s titular Sivaranjani, begins in 2007.  Sivaranjani shows herself to be a very promising Cuddalore college runner. However, her chances for achieving greater athletic glory goes up in smoke after she discovers she’s pregnant.  Abortion is not an option as Mani, Sivaranjani’s husband-to-be, belongs to a caste that doesn’t believe in terminating unwanted pregnancies. Years of marriage and family responsibilities erode Sivaranjani’s sense of self-worth.  Can anything help her regain it?

Sivaranjani’s story feels particularly heartbreaking because of the price she has paid for her current life.  Failing to obtain an abortion meant giving up a possible career in science. Marrying Mani meant moving from Cuddalore to distant Chennai.  More importantly, as the story’s opening showed, she lost the opportunity to see just how far her running ability would have taken her.

The bitterness of Sivaranjani’s sacrifice feels particularly galling when the viewer sees what she has exchanged it for.  A frenetic morning where she tries to make sure both husband Mani and daughter Priya get out the door on time feels like a more grueling event than one of the ex-runner’s old races.  Sivaranjani’s husband constantly belittles her for one thing or another to the point that a more intolerant viewer may wish the lead character consider the possibility of spiking her husband’s drink with some poison.  Mani’s declaration that married women can have desires independent of their husbands as long as they don’t trouble their mates feels like an extra layer of odiousness.

The sequence where Sivaranjani looks for her old college victory cup had the potential to break the viewer’s heart.  But inadequate lighting robs the sequence of its emotional impact. Fortunately, the story’s climax once again fulfills the film’s theme of showing how a small act can lead to emotional enlightenment.

Each tale in Sai’s film begins with shots of the ocean.  The waves symbolize the social changes that take place in India with the passage of years.  Yet beneath the waves’ symbolic surface, lots of things such as sexism remain unchanged for now.

***

Micropixie’s music video “Como Minimo (#YesIsTheMinimum)” rebukes MRA culture and its advocates with a dreamy 1960s musical beat.  It mixes both symbolism and the exteriors of such familiar San Francisco places as the sadly departed Lucca Ravioli Co. and the Women’s Building in its catchy rejection of sexist attitudes.

Rather than go for the polemical lyric or image, Micropixie generally prefers to let images of a more harmonious, less sexual domination-based world wash over the viewer.  “Como Minimo”’s breathy vocals and evocations of 1960s Latin lounge music help create a chill atmosphere for the video. The only blunt messages come with a group of letters spelling out the word “Impeach” (no context needed) and the “Yes” and “No” list at the video’s end.

One memorable image found in this video is that of a light switch whose “off” position is meant to suggest a flaccid penis.  But that’s topped by the frequent sight of the lead singer wearing a 1960s go-go outfit complemented by an astronaut’s helmet with sun visor down.  Even the traditional English tea room scenes feel oddly and pleasantly off kilter.

The gentle takeaway from Micropixie’s video is that if we want a world freed from sexual violence, then aspiring to much more than a simple consent from a potential partner is needed.

***

Ronny Sen’s must-see debut feature “Cat Sticks” is not an ensemble drama about the addict lifestyle.  Yes, this Slamdance sensation tells the stories of several people addicted to the highs of “brown sugar.”  Yes, the events of the film take place over the course of one frequently rainy night in the Indian town of Kolkata.  But the stories are neither tightly interconnected nor peddling false viewer uplift.

What the film’s stories provide en masse are looks at the various facets of an addict’s life.  These include the abandoned spaces which become makeshift temples to smoking heroin, the petty theft which finances the obtaining of more drugs, the grandiose dreams which have little chance of becoming reality, and the ineffective ways to force an addict to become clean.

Sen brings to these stories his background in black-and-white photography, his personal familiarity with addiction, and his empathy for the people who live to inhale heroin smoke.  His monochrome and grey images don’t deny the squalor of the spaces these addicts inhabit. The abandoned airplane and the graffitti-filled abandoned factory would look a lot more visually unappetizing if the viewer saw them fully lit and in color.  Yet there are also moments of unexpected beauty that Sen is not afraid to let play out. One such bravura graceful and semi-homoerotic sequence involves two addicts who strip down to look for injection points on each other’s body.

Sen’s empathy also prevents his addict characters from being reduced to inscrutable others.  In a memorable moment, one addict notes that if he weren’t an addict, he’d be a gambler or somebody who chased after women.  If anything, his characters are familiarly flawed human beings. Tamanna, for example, lets his pride screw up a drug deal, leading to  unexpected results. Deshik’s ingenuity in finding a way to smoke heroin in his parents’ house fails him when he discovers the counter-measure his parents have taken.

The harsh electric guitar music that is frequently heard throughout the film leaves viewers with a sense of jagged broken lives somehow stumbling through the days.  Hearing those pounding notes feels like hearing a musical articulation of the nature of hardscrabble living.

It’s not clear if the Ronny character seen in “Cat Sticks” is loosely based on the director.  But it is clear that this character, seen early in the film balancing on a plane’s wing left slippery by rain, cannot keep going with the addict’s life forever.  Whether his lung condition will push him into changing his ways, interested viewers will need to see for themselves.

(“Children Of The Sun” screens at 5:00 PM on November 9, 2019 at the Castro Theatre (429 Castro, SF).  “Sivaranjani And Two Other Women” screens at 8:30 PM on November 10, 2019. “Cat Sticks” screens at 9:00 PM on November 8, 2019.  “What’s Your Brown Number,” “31 Foot Ladders,” and “Como Minimo” are part of the “Coast To Coast: Mumbai To The Mission” shorts program, which screens at 6:45 PM on November 10, 2019.  These screenings take place at the New People Cinema (1746 Post, B/F, SF). For further information about these films and to order advance tickets, go to https://thirdi.org .)

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