Sunday, November 28, 2010

Through The Third "I" Darkly

Earlier this month, San Francisco cinéastes were treated to the Eighth Annual San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival: Bollywood and Beyond. This festival is produced by a group that describes itself as follows:
"3rd I is a non-profit, national organization committed to promoting diverse images of South Asians through independent film. We represent filmmakers and audiences from Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, The Maldives, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Tibet, and the South Asian Diaspora. We support our mission by providing film screenings, filmmaking courses, networking resources, and a distribution channel for the South Asian-American film community and our audiences."
What I love about this festival is that it screens films that rarely receive mainstream distribution in the United States. Some of their screenings provide great armchair adventures. Others take us inside a worldview that is alien to most Americans. Rather than a tour of five-star hotels and tourist attractions in exotic locales, 3rd I's films often delve into South Asian mythology, the gritty reality of Third World poverty, exotic films of heightened sensuality and, of course, the obligatory Bollywood musical.

Two films from this year's festival deal with rarely showcased segments of society: India's working poor and the dumbest of potential terrorists. One entry even went into general release within days of the festival!

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Nishtha Jain's documentary, At My Doorstep, examines the people who -- almost invisibly -- are a part of her daily life. From the front door of the filmmaker's apartment in a highrise building in the Film City district of Bombay, she begins to discover which people take out her trash, iron her shirts, guard the parking lot, and help prepare food for her neighbors. With a documentarian's sense of due diligence she tries to get beyond the facelessness that is such a common aspect of menial labor.

Poster art for At My Doorstep

What Jain quickly discovers is that many of the delivery boys, garbage collectors, and night watchmen whose jobs are designed to make life easier for Bombay's middle and upper classes are often getting by with little or no survival plans. Many live in nearby slums. In heavy rains, they can lose all of their possessions if there is flooding in their neighborhoods.

Some workers never get a day off for the simple reason that skipping a day's work could mean losing a job. “I feel bad about it because I can’t fulfill my family’s needs and that makes me ashamed,” confesses one man.

Sonu (a security guard who must go up to the roof of Jain's apartment building to check the water pumps) explains that in the midst of Bombay's torrential rains he cannot even use an umbrella or wear a rain slicker to keep dry. Should people be surprised that nearly 85% of Bombay's workers are employed in such casual work? Or that most have no organization to help support them? Watching a group of maids calling for a work stoppage is deeply saddening as they try to convince their colleagues that the mistress can heat her own food for just one day.

Then there are the delivery boys from take-away food stands who respond to orders phoned in by people who want their food delivered to them hot out of the kitchen. The greatest irony? Many customers shortchange these workers and refuse to tip them, assuring the impoverished boys that they'll pay up sometime later in the month. As one delivery boy explains:
“The customers know it’s free home delivery. So if we are a little late, they tell us to go away. They expect the stuff to be delivered instantly. ‘I am making tea now, send me milk immediately,’ they say. Or they’ll ask for curds just when they are sitting down to eat.” 

And yet, some of the workers Jain interviews reveal surprising talents. Dayanand is a poet and writer from Bokaro (a small town in the Indian state of Jharkhand) who works as a security guard. Some are husbands who yearn for a better life for their family. Others are men who have found that they cannot earn enough to support their family in a teeming megalopolis like Bombay. As the filmmaker explains:
“I wanted to record the rhythms of everyday work, the slackening pace of the afternoon, the long evening shadows beckoning people back to work, the tired bodies fighting sleep at night, catch the day breaking with the watchmen on the rooftops and see the seasons changing. The purpose was not to limit oneself to showing hardship, inequality, and poverty (which is very important), but also to discover ways to make sense of all this to our hardened minds and immune hearts. I don’t treat my protagonists as ‘subjects.’ They are my co-writers and co-directors. They are participating in the films for the same reason that I’m making these films, in the hope that we can get a dialogue started.  We work together to tell our stories.” 
Although it might inspire them to count their blessings, I doubt many Americans will ever get a chance to watch At My Doorstep. There is a great sadness in this film, despite the determination of its subjects to keep working.

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Given America's general paranoia about terrorists, it would be easy to imagine that a film like Four Lions would do poorly at the box office. But if audiences think of this film as the Islamic answer to The Three Stooges, they might find it a chillingly funny tribute to incompetence. Apparently, man's innate stupidity spans the globe with remarkable ease. In his director's statement, Chris Morris writes:
"Where’s the joke in terror? As Four Lions will demonstrate, it’s staring you right in the face. In three years of research, I have spoken to terrorism experts, imams, police, secret services, and hundreds of Muslims. Even those who have trained and fought jihad report the frequency of farceTerrorist cells have the same group dynamics as stag parties and 'five a side football teams.' There is conflict, friendship, misunderstanding, and rivalry. Terrorism is about ideology, but it’s also about berks.
The Islamic answer to Idiot's Delight

You don’t have to mock Islamic beliefs to make a joke out of someone who wants to run the world under sharia law but can’t apply it in his own home because his wife won’t let him. You know the Hamburg cell was led by Mohamed Atta, but did you know he was so strict that the other plotters called him 'the ayatollah'? And that every time he formed an Islamic discussion group he was so critical he fired them all within a week? The unfathomable world of extremism seemed to contain elements of farce."
Morris points to the following incidents to back up his argument:
  • When 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta was teased for pissing too loudly, he blamed the Jews for making thin bathroom doors. 
  • At training camps young jihadis argue about money, shoot each other’s feet off, chase snakes, and get thrown out for smoking. 
  • Terrorist mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohamed spent two hours looking for a costume that wouldn’t make him look fat on camera.
  • A minute into his martyrdom video, a would-be bomber stopped and asked the cameraman "What was the question again?” 
  • On Millennium Eve, five jihadis planned to ram a U.S. warship with a launch full of bombs. In the dead of night, they slipped their boat into the water and stacked it with explosives. But when they stepped in, it sank. 
The would-be terrorists suit up for their big moment.

Between firing rocket launchers in the wrong direction and using their cell phones to detonate incendiary devices at all the wrong moments, it's no wonder this group of wannabe terrorists becomes its own worst enemy. The one problem with Four Lions is that some of the actors' British accents are so thick that key characters can barely be understood.

While the subject matter may give you pause, there is no need to worry about watching Four Lions. Just think of it as the jihadi version of Jackass. Here's the trailer:

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