‘Thank you,’ said a surprised Rajesh S. Jala, on winning the prize for best documentary at the recently concluded 32nd Montreal Film Festival. ‘Working on my documentary changed my life. I intend to remain engaged with these children and am setting up a trust fund to help them remain in school and also help their families.’
Reminiscent of Salaam Bombay!, Children of the Pyre is the gut-wrenching chronicle of the lives of seven boys ranging in age from five to fifteen, who stoke the funeral pyres at Manikarnika, the busiest cremation ground in India.
Considered ‘untouchables’, these members of the Dom Caste have laboured for generations in Manikarnika. Fires have burned at this site for centuries. For devout Hindus it is the only cremation ground if one wants to go directly to the afterlife and avoid further reincarnation. To further increase their income the children often steal the ceremonial sari covering bodies. For these they get two rupee. Using the spontaneous language of the children as narration, Jala has crafted a very moving film. The guilelessness and joie de vivre of these innocents captivate the viewer.
Selda (The Dying Inmate), a fictional Philippine film, also contains a strong social message. Rommel, a handsome man in his twenties is with his girlfriend when a child makes off with her purse. He pursues the boy for many blocks and the child is ultimately killed by a car. Convicted of manslaughter, Rommel is sentenced to jail. There he befriends Esteban, the cells’ ‘mayor’. As a handsome youth, Rommel is fresh meat in an unhealthy situation. Some days into his sentence he is set upon by prisoners from another cell and raped by the prison bully, which makes very difficult viewing.
‘We’re already winners,’ said co-director Paolo Villaluna following the screening. ‘This is the first time in the 32 years of the Montreal Film Festival that a film from the Philippines is in official competition. We filmed in an actual prison and had the full support of the administration. Only five of our cast were professional actors, the remainder were the more moderate of the prison population. Twenty percent of the receipts from the release of our film have gone to the betterment of the prison system in our country.’ Hopefully this film will be distributed outside the Philippines.
Two Japanese films drew large audiences and merited extra screenings: Nobody to Watch Over Me and Dreaming Awake. Nobody to Watch Over Me, which shared the best screenplay award, is a faced-paced thriller based on a facet of Japanese life. Because of the enormous number of suicides in the families of teenagers accused of capital crimes, the Japanese Parliament passed a law protecting both the families of victims and perpetrators. An eighteen-year-old student is accused of murdering two classmates. Tokyo police raid his home and place him in custody. Both tabloid and legitimate media surround the house, camping out on neighbouring buildings looking for the ultimate news-picture. Curtains drawn, the family cower in their living room. The suspect’s mother is especially distraught, her husband simply infuriated. A burnt-out veteran investigator and two police law experts force their way through the throng to the family quarters and the legal team quickly annul the parent’s marriage giving them new papers and identities. Covered by a hood, the father is spirited away, reporters in hot pursuit. Through a back exit the suspect’s mother is brought to a hotel. Many events ensue involving invasive media. Writer/director Ryoichi Kimizuka has created a frantically paced thriller. He also deals compassionately with troubling questions. The song ‘You were there’ is used effectively as a theme.
Dreaming Awake, directed by ninety-year-old Takeo Kimura is an eloquent plea for peace within families and between nations. A veteran artistic director and screenwriter, Kimura has worked extensively with Seijun Suzuki. This, his first feature, might be seen as his valedictory. This hauntingly beautiful film charts the friendship between film Professor Kimuro Hajime and Diasuke, a difficult but gifted student. Daisuke is fascinated by the irrational sacrifice of young lives in the Second World War. Hajame, professor emeritus, has lived through that calamity and lost many friends and Daisuke finds a mentor in the older man.
At the beginning of the next semester Hajime learns that Daisuke has been institutionalised. The film also charts the enduring love Hajime has for his wife Emiko. Perhaps the most poignant scene in the film is a visit Hajime makes to a museum for combat airmen. The exhibits include many letters from the flyers to their loved ones; all express the desire to return home. In fact, these mere boys, flying suicide missions, had only enough fuel to reach the US fleet.
Already winner of the Award for Best Editing at the Long Island Film Festival in early August, twenty-four-year-old Irish writer/director Rick Larkin’s first feature Satellites & Meteorites is a playful, romantic fantasy set in the minds of two coma patients. Daniel, a novelist, and Lucinda, a pretty American satellite engineer meet and start a timid relationship. Northern Lights and strange cosmic events fill their lives, affecting satellite transmissions. They seem on the verge of great things. In reality, however, they’ve both been involved in car accidents and are in deep comas. The hospital personnel notice that towards ten o’clock most evenings both patients show heightened brain activity. They also seem to smile frequently. The nurse monitoring Lucinda sometimes hears snatches of conversation and laughter. The senior medical consultant decides to bring both patients out of their comas.
Following the well-attended first screening, producer/director Allan Nicholls, a thirty-year associate of Robert Altman, commended Larkin for ‘The dreamlike and fantasy aspects of his film and the beautiful performances.’
‘We shot the film in sixteen days, often shooting seven pages of script per day. The film’s budget was less than €250,000. Regarding wages, Susan Fitzgerald and the actors involved all acted for scale.’ said Larkin.