This year’s Mumbai Film Festival promises to be a treat, with 190 films from over 50 countries, including world and Asian premieres and some remarkable new Indian films. There are plenty big-ticket items that people will give priority to. As it often happens, in a festival of this scope some smaller or lesser talked about films get ignored, fall through the cracks and are forgotten. Several of these films deserve to be celebrated and appreciated on the big screen. So here’s a list of five important works, all from 2019, two narratives and three terrific documentaries that should be on every festivalgoer’s must watch list.
By the Grace of God (France)
Movie magic: (Clockwise from top left) Stills from Varda By Agnes; By the Grace of God; Talking about Trees; Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am; and Synonyms
French master François Ozon has directed nearly 40 feature length and short films, often dealing with relationships, and especially in the context of same-sex partners. By the Grace of God is one of his most complex films – a multi-layered screenplay, with several characters coming in an out of the narrative.
Winner of the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize at the Berlinale, By the Grace of God follows the lives of several adult men as they band together to bring criminal charges against a priest who sexually abused them when they were young teenagers.
Based on a true story – the trial and the news still makes headlines in France, By theGrace of God deals with themes similar to the 2015 Oscar winner Spotlight. While Spotlight worked like a thriller, set in the editorial offices of The Boston Globe, the new French film focuses mainly on the survivors, especially three adult men from different class backgrounds who undertake a risky endeavour that endangers relationships with their loved ones, and even compromises their own fragile selves.
Yoah, a young Israeli man – played with hypnotic energy by newcomer Tom Mercier, arrives in Paris. Possibly traumatised by his stint serving in the Israeli army, he has one goal in mind – to rid of all elements of Israel in his being and to become a Frenchman.
He stops speaking Hebrew and ignores desperate attempts by his parents to reach him. His efforts to break all ties with Israel only succeed partially, since he lands a part-time job with the Israeli mission. But he sticks to one of his key goals, refusing to speak to his colleagues in Hebrew. Lost in Paris, he befriends a young French couple who practically adopt him, giving him more than shelter when they find him nearly frozen to death in a bathtub.
Director Nadav Lapid’s partly autobiographical film and winner of the Golden Bear at Berlinale this year, makes it clear that while we may try to change our identity, and reinvent ourselves, it is hard to run away from who we are.
Talking About Trees (Sudan)
A delightful film from Sudan, and a salute to those who want to present cinema as an art form at any cost. In director Suhaib Gasmelbari’s documentary Talking About Trees – winner of the Audience Award at the Berlinale this year – four former aging filmmakers, members of the Sudanese Film Club, who were all educated abroad, talk about the golden days when their films won awards at international film festivals.
Sudan had a small, but healthy film industry in the 1980s before military coups and civil wars destroyed all traces of cinema in the war-torn country.
In Sudan, people watch pirated films in their homes, especially Bollywood movies. When the club members ask young people what films they would like to watch, they hear responses like movies with Amitabh Bachchan and Salman Khan.
But the members are keen to resuscitate the country’s film industry and to preserve old prints. The quartet of oldies, set out on a mission to open an old cinema hall – finally settling on an open-air theatre and holding a free screening for the locals.
Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am (US)
Early on, in director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’s gentle documentary, Nobel Prize winning author Toni Morrison narrates a story. When she was young, she and her sister were writing words on a sidewalk outside their house – words they had discovered, though they did not know the meanings. One such word was F**k. As the two girls were about to spell out the word, their mother screamed from the back. It was then, at the young age that Morrison realised words had power. She could see this word had made her mother angry.
Much of her professional life – as a teacher, editor at Random House and a writer of exceptional novels, Morrison spent narrating stories about black lives to black people. The white gaze as she refers to in the film, the approval of white critics and readers did not matter to her. Morrison, who died two months after Greenfield-Sanders’s film opened in the US is very much alive in the film. She sits before the camera like a family matriarch narrating her story, with a lot of humour and some sadness. Whether you know her writings or not, you will appreciate Sanders’s film as it celebrates an American treasure.
Varda By Agnes (France)
Like the protagonist of Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, French master filmmaker Agnes Vardaalso died soon after the world premiere of her final film. And likewise Varda By Agnes is not just a farewell film by the grand dame who directed 55 films (narratives, documentaries and shorts), but it is also Varda speaking to the global audience about her life, her work.
The set-up is a series of master classes that Varda, who was 90 at the time of her death, holds in different settings, sometimes talking by herself on a beach, or in the countryside. Varda starts off by saying there are three words that are important to her – inspiration, creation and sharing. What inspires her to make any film, her motivations; how to structure and create the films; and to eventually share the films with the audience. She then recounts some of her key films including Jacquot de Nantes – the memoir of her filmmaker husband Jacques Demy (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg), who was dying of AIDS as the film was being made. “The film accompanies Jacques as he dies,” she says.
The film’s latter half goes beyond Varda’s films. Like an old grandmother she holds our hand and walks us through her other artistic passions – photography, visual art and her collaboration with other artists. The documentary speaks to all film and art lovers, even those who may not be familiar with Varda’s works. It is a perfect film to sample Varda’s talent and it will make you want to spend more time visiting the works of a delightful friend you have been listening to for the past two hours.