Interview With Writer/Director Deepa Mehta

Credits include Water; Earth; Fire; and Midnight’s Children

Over the phone her voice came across as authoritative, warm and good-humoured during our interview earlier this month. It was not hard to imagine her holding together a difficult shoot, just like the experience she had during production of her latest film, Water, the last of her controversial trilogy.

Indian film director Deepa Mehta has built an international reputation for bold and beautiful filmmaking with her intimate stories about people in crisis at times of great social upheaval. She is renowned for the way she has brought particular attention to the plight of women in Indian society, and her latest film, now in release, is no exception.

It is set in a holy city in colonial India in 1938, just as Ghandi was rising to prominence, and tells the story of Chuyia, an eight-year-old widow forced to join an ashram or retreat for women who have lost their husbands. A pauper’s life is one of the three choices that widowed women were faced with at the time. It was either their husband’s funeral pyre, marriage to his younger brother or a life of penitence and renunciation.

I ask Deepa about widowhood, a subject on which there are a number of books in India. ‘Child marriage is not possible now and if it occurs it is against the law, but then it was possible for a female child to be married at 3 and kept in her family until puberty.’ The idea for Water came to her when she was in the holy city of Varanasi ten years ago and saw an elderly woman, a Hindu widow with shaven head, scrambling around on all fours looking for something, and hardly anybody paid any attention to her.

Each of Deepa Mehta’s trilogy of films – Fire, Earth, Water – look at the character of Indian society. Fire (1998) is about a lesbian relationship that develops between women in loveless arranged marriages within a family in modern India. It famously caused fundamentalist Hindu groups to riot when screened yet it reputedly enjoys high sales there as a pirated DVD. Earth (1996) is the story of a mixed-faith friendship group and the effect on their lives of the sectarian wars on the subcontinent during Partition. Deepa Mehta is no stranger to controversy.

I am intrigued by her casting choices for her new film. John Abraham has the part of the young Brahmin who falls in love with a beautiful young widow, Chuyia’s friend in the ashram. He is a handsome Bollywood star whom I last saw as the leader of a bikie gang in the movie Dhoom.

Another woman at the ashram is played by Seema Biswas, who had the role of the ‘bandit queen’, in Shekhar Kapur’s unforgettable 1994 movie about an Indian woman folk hero.

And then there’s editor Colin Monie (The Magdalene Sisters) who was chosen to edit because Deepa felt his work had the right balance of sensitivity and passion. ‘I didn’t’ want the woman to be seen as victims, and didn’t want the shots to be held too long’.

Water was filmed in Sri Lanka, after rioting Hindi fundamentalists made production impossible in India. In fact ‘it was wonderful filming in Sri Lanka. (There) they are just as enamoured with film as we Indians are, but they don’t hang around and make life miserable for anybody, especially when you strike to synch sound, it becomes slightly difficult in India. It’s the reason most Bollywood films are dubbed.’

It is sometimes said that Indian cinema can be divided between the arthouse stream and the Bollywood musical extravaganzas. Deepa, who directed Bollywood/Hollywood (2002), could perhaps be said to have a foot in both camps. What are her thoughts on Bollywood? ‘I definitely consider it good entertainment and there’s a place for that in our lives.’

Just bread and circuses for the masses? ‘No, it’s harmless. To be judgemental about entertainment is not to take it for what it is. But put it this way,’ she pauses ‘there’s so many you can see before you just say “Oh my God!”‘

Now Kapur’s serious and potent drama Bandit Queen was a film that ran into trouble with the censors in India, but your film Water didn’t, it just … Deepa finishes the sentence ‘ran into trouble before it got made’. A Canadian production, it received its approvals from the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, but when production began, more rioting Hindu fundamentalists trashed the sets.

Water is very beautifully shot and edited, what was the aesthetic you had in mind when you were making it? ‘I was wanting to capture the flow, the lyricism of water. That was what we were going for. I don’t feel nostalgic about India at all. You have to be away from it to feel nostalgic about it.’

Where is she based? Mehta lives between Canada and India, where she lives three to four months a year.
Fire was officially banned as a public safety risk, and Water couldn’t be made there, but Deepa Mehta will be working in India again. Sometime soon.

The Proposition

Review by Jane Freebury

It’s said that one of the reasons Hollywood has snapped up Australian cinematographers to shoot movies like Dances with Wolves, Chicago and Cold Mountain, is because they bring a new perspective to quintessential American stories. This came to mind when I saw that Frenchman Benoit Delhomme was behind the camera for this new Australian film, The Proposition.

Filmed in the outback 900 kilometres west of Rockhampton, the terrain looks marvellously harsh and inhospitable, and it’s interesting that through Delhomme’s lens it looks both strange and familiar at the same time.

Add to this the haunting and pulsing music composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, a mix of Celtic songs of lament with Aboriginal rhythms, and you have a richly textured fabric for the human drama that unfolds.

This tale from the Australian frontier begins when a police captain (Ray Winstone) makes a deal with the devil. He will spare the life of young Mikey Burns if his brother Charlie (Guy Pearce) will agree to track down and kill their older brother, a wild and murderous Irishman who is holed up with his gang in the distant hills.

The good captain is aware of the dangerous charisma of bushrangers, and he is determined to bring Arthur Burns (Danny Huston) to justice, and show he’s a man like any other. Stanley’s grim vow to ‘civilise this place’ is vain hope from the start, and you fear for his frail wife (Emily Watson).

Charlie has nine days to find his brother if the youngster is to be saved from the gallows. It involves a trek through treacherous country, outwitting the bounty hunters who also want Arthur, and avoiding the indigenous inhabitants who have seen one white man too many.

Some of the movie’s scenes of brutality are hard to stomach, but they seem to me to be in keeping with the time and place. I was reminded of films like The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and Wake in Fright, and also some of the most elegiac and troubling of American Westerns, The Searchers and Shane.

The anticipation of violence stalks you from the start and who could be surprised by this mood from the makers of Ghosts … of the Civil Dead. But Nick Cave and John Hillcoat have done better this time – this is a fine movie.

4.5 stars

Last Days

Review by © Jane Freebury

Clambering through leafy woods and taking a dip in a mountain stream is not what you’d expect a drug addled rock star to be doing, and yet these activities mark the last days of Blake (Michael Pitt) in this film dedicated to the memory of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain. While his hangers-on danced and swapped partners, the man himself went into retreat, as dislocated from others as a person could be.

If writer/director Gus Van Sant has been careful to cover himself with a disclaimer in the end titles, he tells the story of Cobain’s last days with considerable felicity to details on record, while offering no answers to the question ‘who killed Kurt Cobain?’ He also hasn’t used the opportunity to delve into a self-destructive mind, just as he avoided a similar opportunity in his film Elephant, when a Columbine-type of massacre in the schoolyard cries out for explanation.

For all that, this is an intriguing exercise. It may be annoying for those who have firm ideas about camera position and framing, about how dialogue should be recorded and what should in the end be revealed, but Last Days belongs to that modernist cinema tradition that refuses to dramatise ‘real’ life and prefers long takes to quick edits.

An old stone mansion with rotting timbers and peeling paint is Blake’s husk of a home, and its owner all hollowed out, old beyond his years, hunched and demented with drugs. Nothing glamourises addiction here, unlike Oliver Stone’s high camp tale about the demise of Jim Morrison, lead singer for The Doors. Blake’s house guests pause but briefly from their fun to feel his pulse, and occasionally complain there’s no food in the house or that they haven’t the money to fly to Utah.

There’s no Nirvana music to be heard, though we do hear grunge and capella voices bookend the film. Church bells, barking dogs and other incidentals can be heard, though little from the man himself, besides barely audible mumblings. The only time his voice comes loud and clear is when the camera dollies back from an open window as Blake sings and plays, alone in the room with his musical instruments.

Random players come and go, bible bashers, Yellow Pages reps, and assorted others, but the central issue will stay with you after the lights come up.

3.5 stars

Little Fish

Review by Jane Freebury

Little Fish heralds the very welcome return of two talented Aussies to the big screen in a fine Australian film. Cate Blanchett needs no introduction though Rowan Woods might. He directed The Boys, an uncompromising drama that examines distorted family life in a prelude to murder, and this is his first feature since that quite outstanding debut in 1998, though he’s been busy in television.

I couldn’t resist noticing some similarities with Little Fish, like a little Aussie battler mum Janelle (Noni Hazlehurst) and the uneasy social ambience in ‘struggletown’ suburbs. Though simmering violence is not the issue here, both her grown up children, Ray and Trace (Blanchett), as well as her former live-in boyfriend Lionel (Hugo Weaving) have been dependent on heroin. Her daughter’s rehabilitation is a beacon of hope.

Tracy has had a steady job for four years in a Vietnamese video shop and she appears to have swum free of the net of addiction in a way her brother and stepdad haven’t. Every now and then there are images of her doing laps in the suburban pool—a world away from the high-density streets—or of her as a youngster bathed in bright sunshine at the beach. The great Aussie beach experience shimmers in the background, as does the football in Lionel’s past, another motif.

While generally managing to avoid crudely drawn cultural stereotypes, this movie integrates the lives of Sydney westies with the Vietnamese of Sydney’s little Saigon, the suburb of Cabramatta. Khoa Do managed to combine the two in his unusual docudrama The Finished People last year, and indeed, one of his actors, Anh Do has found his way into this movie.

I wondered what I was listening to behind the dialogue – which is too heavily laden with expletives, in my view – it was interesting to see that a number of the tracks were Vietnamese. It only adds to the tapestry.

Blanchett proves her chameleon skills once again, and has slipped back into the broad ocker accent with ease, though there was a Kath & Kim moment with mum Janelle early in the piece. Martin Henderson is totally authentic as her brother, and a lean and bearded Hugo Weaving is quite striking as the addict who can’t kick his habit.

Rowan Woods is back with another strong movie that talks directly to us now.

4 stars

The Beat My Heart Skipped

Review by © Jane Freebury

The world of real estate doesn’t seem to lend itself to cinema particularly, though it worked well enough for Glengarry Glen Ross, and Annette Bening sent it up wittily in American Beauty too. In this new film from French director Jacques Audiard and screenwriter collaborator Tonino Benacquista it presents one of two life choices, whether to stay in property or move over to the sublime world of classical music. The problem for the movie is how to get there.

A young Parisian calls himself a broker but he really operates as a debt collector and an evicter, with a kit bag of rats and baseball bats to chase squatters from rental apartments. The hardman role of Tom is new for Romain Duris, who’s usually seen in amiable roles in films like Gadjo Dilo and The Spanish Apartment, but he certainly rises to the occasion.

In a chance encounter with his late mother’s musical agent, it becomes clear there’s another side to him. Techno might fill his head while out and about, but at home he plays recordings of the work of his mother, a classical concert pianist, and he’s beginning to want to play again himself after a 10-year break.

A young Vietnamese woman recently arrived in Paris becomes his teacher. It is a challenging relationship, as the few words they share are English, which also happens to be the language Tom uses when he is at his most threatening as an enforcer.

Tom’s affair with Miao-Lin develops off screen, but the core relationship in The Beat My Heart Skipped is really between fathers and sons. Tom has two life choices – whether to follow his father’s dangerous occupation as a wheeler and dealer or to pursue a life in music.

Jacques Audiard’s last film Read My Lips was a brilliant contribution to the tradition of French thrillers with convincing characters and great style, though The Beat My Heart Skipped doesn’t reach quite the same heights. Romain Duris as Tom, one-part gangster one-part artist, is tortured and riven and The Beat is made with real flair but it doesn’t satisfactorily resolve the problem it sets itself.

I haven’t seen the Harvey Keitel original, Fingers, on which this is based, but maybe that movie was more convincing at finding a way for its protagonist to shed skins and find another way.

3.5 stars

The Oyster Farmer

Review by Jane Freebury

The last time I remember being on the Hawkesbury River in an Australian movie was afloat in that fantastic glass church, the centrepiece in Oscar and Lucinda. This time the winking river slides underneath the hull of a tinny runabout, past the endless bushland along its banks. No sign of habitation except for an occasional fibro house punctuating the shoreline.

The Oyster Farmer has a great sense of place, and projecting a majesterial and boundless landscape is what works best in this latest flagship for Australian cinema, a UK-financed production. Interludes in long shot that admire the scenery are stirring, and meant to be, with a lilting Celtic score on the musictrack. I predict a holiday rush on Hawkesbury houseboats in the near future.

The Oyster Farmer has been getting a warm critical reception but for me it was a gentle, good natured and meandering entertainment, with little dramatic development to speak of, little that was convincing anyway. The eccentric Aussie types adrift from the mainstream – the oyster farmers and their itinerant workers, a gang of Vietnam vets who’ve gone bush, various odd bods like Slug whose job is sewerage, and stoic women who would rather be somewhere else – are loosely connected through random events, but these are characters who have little impact on each other to speak of.

They’d just jostle each other irritably here, like the river’s flotsam and jetsam, and there hasn’t been such a display of the colourful local vernacular in many a year.

Which is disappointing when there are lively and novel ideas at work in writer/director Anna Reeves’ screenplay – and I don’t just mean the fruit-wrap balaclava, the lobster cosh, and the bath lined with marbles. Also the young couple Pearl and Jack are played with engaging natural charm by newcomers Diana Glenn and Alex O’Lachlan.

Kerry Armstrong is always good, and Jim Norton as Brownie’s garrulous Dad is fun, but the other types on parade are rather shop-worn. Like little Aussie battler Brownie and the biffo who needs anger management therapy.

The Oyster Farmer ultimately suffers from its disinclination for getting under the skin of its characters to find out what really makes them tick. Some might feel this patchwork piece has a good-natured ramshackle charm, but haven’t we been here and done that – over the last thirty years of the Australian film revival?

3 stars

2046

Review by © Jane Freebury

The year 2046 is the last of the ‘50 years without change’ that China promised Hong Kong from 1997. It’s also the number of the room Mr Chow wants to move into when he arrives at the Oriental Hotel from Singapore, and it’s the name of a sci-fi novel he starts writing with the hotel owner’s daughter Jing Wen.

Director Wong Kar Wai has said the idea for this film came from China’s undertaking, but in the spectacular metropolis created in the opening sequences, the year becomes an imagined destination for time travel, a future moment where memory stays the same. This hasn’t been confirmed, however, because no one has ever returned from 2046. And the movie takes place in 1960s Hong Kong, to confuse things.

Events take place in the 1960s and intertitles are thrown in to assist, but clear exposition and sequential development matter little to this director. With his filmmaking partner, cinematographer Christopher Doyle, Wong Kar Wai has built a well-earned reputation for beautiful, moody films in the vanguard of visual experimentation. 2046 gestures towards the future throughout, but it soon turns its attention to what it really wants to talk about—romantic love. Anticipation of love or loss of love are the themes that Wong Kar Wai keeps returning to every time he makes a film.

If you saw Wong Kar Wai’s exquisite In the Mood for Love, which segues into 2046, you will know that when last seen Chow was getting over a failed love affair. The Oriental Hotel where Chow (Tony Leung) now lives and works is low-rent, with peeling paint, bare globes and thin walls, and houses a collection of characters just like him, romantic questers. Holed up writing pulp fiction and newspaper articles by day, Chow plays the field with beautiful women at night. Gong Li, Zhang Yiyi, and Maggie Cheung have parts.

Again and again this playful, eccentric and ravishing movie, is deliciously inventive. The fetish with shoes, whatever that meant, the shots through floors and windows, the scenes with the beautiful android lover ‘with delayed reaction’. It’s just beautiful, infused with yearning and even has an occasional hint of droll humour.

The director of Ashes of Time, Fallen Angels, and Chungking Express has done it again.

3.5 stars

Downfall

Review by © Jane Freebury

The face of actor Bruno Ganz, his gentle, impish features transformed by the intensity of performance in this portrayal of one of the monsters of history, is unforgettable. Bruno Ganz who was the gastronome and lover in Gillian Armstrong’s The Last Days of Chez Nous, and the beneficent angel hovering above Berlin in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, does Adolph Hitler brilliantly.

It’s an extraordinary performance and it’s also a brave one, to show the man as human like the rest of us, not incapable of affection nor of choosing a new secretary who’s pretty rather than skilled, and not the raving loon of Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. Yet in delivering a portrait of Hitler as recognizably human rather than a caricature of evil, the film has been controversial at home in Germany.

Some of the criticism has been from none other than director Wenders, who has expressed the surprising view that Downfall lacks a strong moral position on Hitler. But it’s not the villains with cloven hooves and tail, or disfigurement like Richard III that are the most dangerous ones, it’s the seductive ones that have the capacity for inspiring blind faith in millions of others, like the fanatic Magda Goebbels who couldn’t bear to see her six children live in a world without National Socialism.

It’s a little disappointing that director Oliver Hirschbiegel, a television director of good repute, has been so literal in his approach. However this film’s production, undertaking the re-enactment of the last days of Hitler’s regime as it took place in his bunker system under Berlin would have required grim determination in itself. When we occasionally step out for air above ground to walk the dog with Eva Braun or visit the band of children who are in the last line of defence, it’s an infernal wasteland of walking dead.

Direct mention of the Nazi past was long repressed in German cinema, though this began to change in the 1970s with films from Wenders, Sanders-Brahms and others. But since The Great Distator, conceived and filmed in 1939 while Neville Chamberlain was still making up his mind, there’s been little besides a 1955 film by Pabst. In Downfall, Hitler is centre-stage and the secretary on whose book this is partly based is interviewed, delivering a coda that offers responsibility for the cataclysm of war.

4.5 stars

Head-On

Review by © Jane Freebury

Experiencing this striking new movie from Turkish-German director Fatih Akin is like colliding with an artist’s pent-up fury and frustration. And it is impossible not to be reminded of the same white heat in the work of the late German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder who explored the spaces between parallel communities in German society.

After a destructive night of drugs and binge drinking, Cahit (Birol Unel) is made to visit a psychiatrist and there he bumps into someone with an even more terrifying compulsion for self-harm, a restless young woman half his age who is trying to break away from her very strict, traditional Turkish family. Her brother broke her nose once just for holding hands with a boy.

Will Cahit marry her so she can escape, or will he watch her slit her wrists again? Cahit, a 44-year-old of Turkish immigrant parentage, was living on the outer perimeter of society anyway when Sibel came along. There’s nothing much to lose and they can divorce afterwards.

For the sake of Sibel’s family they marry in a traditional ceremony, which creates some wonderful opportunities for juxtapositions. Cahit in a dinner suit leaving his graffiti-spattered neighbourhood, the newly-weds sharing cocaine in private while the traditional ceremony continues outside, and Cahit carrying his bride over the threshold into his grungy apartment.

They argue and Sibel spends her ‘wedding night’ with a barman, as the freedom she seeks in this marriage of convenience is the freedom to sleep with whom so ever she chooses, to experiment with body piercings, to do drugs. It may sound as though Head-On is going the way of Angel Baby or Requiem for a Dream, but at the end of this journey, this movie is actually more about going home, to where the east meets west at the Bosphorus.

As the wild and willful Sibel, Turkish-speaking Sibel Kekilli brings tremendous conviction to her role. Birol Unel does well as the aging punkster, though his character is prone to posturing and not as satisfactorily developed as hers.

One can only wonder what the large Turkish minority in Germany thinks of Head-On, as one could only imagine what the Greek community in this country made of the terrific Australian film with the same name by Ana Kokinos. Both films are about young people in a dangerous struggle with their cultural traditions, and both are very compelling.

4 stars

Million Dollar Baby

Review by Jane Freebury

Million Dollar Baby sounds more like a romantic romp, a battle of the sexes, or a doco about IVF than a drama about a young waitress who wants to be a boxer. So it was hardly surprising to see that the international movie database has movies listed under the same name, such as a romantic comedy made in 1941, with Ronald Reagan.

Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby ain’t no comedy. Yet there’s rueful humour in his beautifully nuanced film as a relationship begins to emerge between boxing aspirant Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank, so good in Boys Don’t Cry) and the veteran trainer and gym owner Frankie Dunn (Eastwood), who finally agrees to take her on.

We’ve been here before in Rocky, Raging Bull, Girlfight and Fight Club and more, with boxing as metaphor for life in a highly competitive society, but this movie reads like a lesson in living for the underclass, namely white trailer trash who see boxing as the only option for getting a shot at success. Motivational posters on the walls of the Hit Pit gym shout that ‘tough ain’t enough’. Intriguingly, Frankie reads Gaelic in his spare time.

Both Maggie and Frank are noble loners. Frankie is estranged from his daughter and a few devastating encounters with Maggie’s family suggest that she’s better off looking to her roots for inspiration than to her thankless, grasping family.

Hilary Swank is terrific again at last, however it is the old warrior Eastwood whose presence is absolutely everywhere. In front of the camera and behind it, in the vintage Hollywood aesthetic and the elegiac tone also seen recently in Mystic River. Once again, Eastwood is credited with the music.

Eastwood has never been credited with screenwriting on any of his films, but it’s hard to believe he hasn’t had a hand in the words here. Frankie can’t find what he needs in institutionalized religion and makes a devastating stand for euthanasia against established medical practice. Here is a man contemplating his own mortality.

Boxing’s not my thing, but from the iconic shots in silhouette against the white walls of the gym, to the graceful slow fades to the lightly applied guitar strings, Million Dollar Baby doesn’t strike a false note. And is another powerful and moving movie from the 75-year-old who’s still one of the best directors working today.

In a capsule: So soon after Mystic River, another moving and majesterial film from Clint Eastwood shows everyone how it’s done.

4.5 stars