I watched six films at the 2019 edition of Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF): Verdict, Midnight Traveler, Bombay Rose, Africa, Krabi 2562, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire. All six led me to think about reality and fiction. What makes reality? How real is the reality depicted in cinema? Does reality change when you film it? When something feels so real but is actually a rehearsed performance by actors, then is it even real? Let me explore my thoughts on these questions.
A few years ago, during a conversation about cinema with my brother, he remarked, “I don’t get this hooha about depicting reality in cinema. The moment you place the camera in front of people, it’s no longer reality.”
I am not sure if I agree or disagree, but that remark has stayed with me. I was reminded of it when I watched Midnight Traveler, an Afghan film. It is a video log (shot entirely on mobile phones) of the travails of a family of four as they try to escape Afghanistan, and seek asylum in Europe by travelling cross country illegally. The reason for fleeing—in 2015, filmmaker Hassan Fazili profiled a Taliban commander turned civilian. After it aired on national television, the Taliban executed his documentary subject and put a hit out for Fazili. Faced with a hostile homeland, they chart a course to safer soils, but are faced with border fences, anti-immigrant gangs and bureaucracies.
While the crisis they face is real, during the course of the film, you begin to wonder if the family members would be reacting the same way if they were not filming it themselves. On the other hand, it becomes evident that the filming process is a ray of hope for them through the tough times, giving them the solace that should something happen to them, the footage might still survive to tell the world their story.
The film shows us many moments at refugee camps—their little girl dances to Michael Jackson’s They Don’t Care About Us, they steal fruits from someone’s garden almost as if it is an adventure, the husband and wife have an argument after he compliments another lady for her appearance, daughter and mother have a casual conversation about wearing the burqa, the wife learns how to cycle in the camp, falls and soils her dress and is upset because it is a dress she particularly liked. All of this happens while the family is in the process of fleeing from one camp to another amidst mortal peril.
The darkest moment in the film is when the girl goes missing at a refugee camp and they set out in search of her. They have already heard stories of little boys and girls going missing from refugee camps, and later found having been raped and murdered. The director confesses by way of narration that as he went around the camp searching for his daughter, a part of his mind was asking him to film it, just in case he were to stumble upon her dead body, to capture the events on film as they unfolded. And then the same thought makes him feel miserable—that he should even think of something happening to her just so he could film it. He did not record the search and his daughter was found to be safe, but he admits to having this thought. I feel this is the darkest moment of the film, as it dives deep into the recesses of the human mind—how we feel and react to situations, and how those feelings change when we are being watched or are conscious of being recorded or judged. It is a testing moment and how you react during such occasions perhaps defines you. This links to a story narrated in the film’s opening, in which a saint claims that hell is nothing but “other people,” while another disagrees saying hell is within us and life is a long-winding journey through hell.
Raymund Ribay Gutierrez’s film Verdict takes us through a long-winding journey of a different sort. It reminded me of a Tamil short story Dhanabhagyathoda Rava Neram [A Few Moments with Dhanabhagyam] written by Rajendra Chozhan in the 1970s. The short story depicts a domestic feud between a married couple in a remote village in southern India. It begins with the abuses they hurl at each other with graphic descriptions of the husband’s actions and the wife’s retorts. The quarrel reaches a peak, the wife gets thrown out of the house, she settles down in the shade of a tree nearby. She snarls at the lady next door who comes enquiring. The story’s brilliance is in the way it describes the events over the next few hours, as both husband and wife cool down, and eventually go back to living as they always did.
[To learn more about writer Rajendra Chozhan, read our interview with the makers of Asvagosh, a documentary on the writer.]
Verdict has a similar opening. The wife, Joy Santos and her daughter are at home. Her husband Dante Santos walks in drunk, an argument ensues and turns physical. But Joy does something different from Dhanabhagyam. She attacks her husband in self-defence, then flees the house with her daughter and reports to the nearest police station. She cannot take it anymore and wants Dante punished. The rest of the film is about the cold, long drawn out legal proceedings that she has to endure. The two stories are two versions of existing realities, but in Verdict, Raymund goes for poetic justice in the climax, which I felt steered the movie a little bit further from reality.
Having said that, Verdict displays Raymund’s exceptional craft in depicting moments that seem so close to real life. Three such moments stood out for me. One–just before filing the complaint, the police officer asks Dante and Joy to talk it out between themselves once and see if they can settle the issue amicably. Joy is adamant and does not spare a glance in Dante’s direction. But a handcuffed Dante makes an attempt to strike a conversation with her, he even says “Love you,” in an almost apologetic tone. We never know if he means it or not. Two–when Dante is arrested for assault and asked to pose for a photo before being sent to prison. Although he has got himself in a mess and has no clue how he will get out of it, you can see the hint of a smile on his face as he poses for the photo. Even in such a scenario, he wants to look good. That is Dante Santos. (I was quite glad that Kristopher King, who played Dante, won the Best Performer award at SGIFF 2019.) Three–the wounds on Joy’s face heal gradually during the course of the legal proceedings. One day as she gets ready to go out, her daughter helps to apply makeup on her wounded face. That private moment between mother and daughter was beautiful and felt very real.
Verdict raises another question about reality. What is real from the perspective of a court of law? The violence inflicted on the wife is real; we are shown the domestic abuse in the opening scene. But Joy struggles to prove it in a court of law; every piece of evidence ends up turning against her. The film has a colossal climactic moment when after the Verdict is pronounced, the case files are carried away by a court attendant. The camera follows him as he walks through a corridor and enters a room filled with heaps of files, almost touching the ceiling. He deposits the one in his hand somewhere near the top—a graveyard for both realities and fictions.
[Read more in this interview with Raymund.]
Oren Gerner’s Africa takes the relationship between reality and fiction into a different zone. Meir Gerner and Maya Gerner are an elderly couple. The film focuses on Meir’s feeling of becoming irrelevant as he ages. The best part about Africa is that the actors playing the elderly couple are director Oren’s real life parents, and the film is shot at their home. Oren even makes an appearance in the film as their son. You can find their pet dog too. Oren made a similar film earlier with his parents, a short named Greenland and Africa is an extension of it, he says.
[Read more in this interview with Oren Gerner.]
Africa is a hybrid film: the house is real, Maya is a therapist in film and real life, Meir’s passion is carpentry in film and real life. Many scenes in the film are intercut with actual handycam footage recorded by the couple on their trip to Africa. The fictitious part in the film, as Meir revealed in a Q&A session, is the solitude that Meir feels in the film, the feeling of being ignored. Meir also mentioned not knowing how to react the first time when Greenland, a film made at home, was screened at many film festivals. “It was like all of a sudden the whole world got to see our bedroom,” he said. How much of our lives are we willing to show the world?
When Meir’s grandson is given a school assignment to interview a family member, he chooses Meir. Their interview scene made me realise that no matter how much you love your grandchildren, they can never really understand your life in its entirety. Things that happen in your life end up being facts, stories or anecdotes to them. While the younger generation can learn about the “reality” of the past by conversing with the old, a big chunk of that reality, which is the lived experience, stays with the old. Does that mean real films or stories are merely compressed versions of actual reality, and that reality resides only in fading memories?
The other angle is the assumed reality of a nation—director Oren is from Israel. Meir spoke about how they could not escape the question of Israel and Palestine at every festival the film was screened, although the film has nothing to do with it. He simply said, “Aging happens everywhere. In the news (about Israel), you see riots and war. But the youth like to have fun. The young generation is like in every other place.”
Bombay Rose is a classic example of a film that portrays an alienated reality, one which appears to be real for an outsider due to preconceived notions of the country in which it is set (India in this case). I have written in greater detail about it here.
In a few scenes in Krabi 2562, a docufiction film set against the changing landscape of Krabi island, reality is staged so well that it becomes difficult to distinguish the documentary from the staged. For example, there is an interaction between a tourist guide and a foreign tourist couple at a roadside eatery that feels so real, based on how the conversation flows. And yet from the way it is shot (using multiple camera angles), it seems unlikely that it was shot spontaneously. If something we watch feels real but we know that it has been planned and rehearsed before being shot, is it actually real?
The film’s highlight is when a character who has arrived in Krabi for location scouting gets on a boat and rides off into a dark cave never to be seen or heard of again. In that particular sequence, the camera is placed on the boat, showing us her perspective, as it gently glides along a river, surrounded by thick shrubbery on all sides. The only sound we hear is that of water lapping against the boat. Despite trying real hard, this particular scene was so calming that it lulled me to sleep. I do not mean this negatively, the entire film’s tone is meditative; there are long shots with not much happening on screen. It reminded me of Abbas Kiarostami’s quote about his films, “I really think that I don’t mind people sleeping during my films, because I know that some very good films might prepare you for sleeping or falling asleep or snoozing. It’s not to be taken badly at all.”
We are not told why the character wanted to vanish into a cave, that too in Krabi. The only clues we are given are her facial expressions, and the few lines she speaks as she scouts locations. We are left to make out what she might be thinking. Maybe it was a terrible exhaustion she felt with life? Did she just want to rest? Did I end up feeling the same way because the film transported me to its reality?
Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a period film set during a time when there were no photographs, and a painting was the primary means for a woman to receive a marriage proposal. A female painter Marianne is entrusted with the job of getting a portrait done of Héloïse, who is unwilling to marry. Marianne has to pretend to be a companion, observe Héloïse closely, and paint her portrait without her knowledge. As the story unfolds, the two women find themselves irresistibly drawn to each other. The first spark in their relationship is when Marianne shows Héloïse the finished portrait and she remarks with derision, “Is this how you see me?”
Although the portrait is realistic in terms of capturing the physical features, it ends up not being realistic because it did not capture her character, her essence. Portrait of a Lady on Fire can be seen as a quest for reality or the real essence of a person through the medium of painting. The film opens with a painting and its climactic high point is made through a painting as well. Painting is integral to the film’s structure. It also gives a twist to the Greek myth of Eurydice and Orpheus that has been the subject of several paintings. Orpheus tries to bring his dead wife Eurydice back to the world of living—the only condition is that he should walk ahead without turning around to look at her. He does so for a while, but after some time, overcome by suspicion, he turns around to gaze at Eurydice’s face and loses her once and for all. The last gaze on Eurydice’s face before she vanishes has been a quest for many artists to depict. In the film, we see that departing look on Héloïse’s face. And it is like a painting—static, unmoving, impressed in Marianne’s mind forever—just like a photograph.
Photographs are often considered closer to reality than paintings. But in this age of filters and editing tools, are they real? Even if you were to capture an image and add no effects to it, you would have still chosen the lighting and angle to shoot it in. It is your view of reality. So is a photograph more real than a painting? Is a painting just as close to reality as a photo? Is reality merely a function of the angle we choose to look from, a question of perspective? Whose perspective is real?
In his interview to The World of Apu, cinematographer-filmmaker Chezhiyan was asked what if one person’s reality does not feel real to another. He responded, “There is a popular Birbal story about a room full of plastic roses. Only one of them is a real rose. All of the roses look identical. Birbal’s task is to find the real one. Birbal simply opens the window. A bee flies in and settles down on the real rose. You need to explore and discover realism yourself.”
Does that mean in art we have a thousand different realities, and a thousand different varieties of bees flocking to each of them, accepting the ones they are drawn to as the only reality? I have had many experiences when I felt a particular film to be fake, but someone else I knew was able to relate to it. I am not heading towards that age-old adage ’art is subjective’. (That statement has become an excuse for all manner of opinion on art without justification.) Even if a film fails to depict reality completely and merely hints at it, when the viewer is able to fill the gaps with real experiences from his or her life, then the film gains the illusion of being real, while exasperating another viewer who does not have those experiences. Is it the creator who makes art real or the viewer?
I am reminded me of Isaac Asimov’s short story Reason, in which a thinking robot refuses to believe that the humans who assembled it are the ones who made it. The story demonstrates that rational arguments are built on top of postulates which are accepted as the truth purely on faith. Subsequently, anything that fits with the postulates becomes real, and everything else false. I am tempted to think this applies to our perception of reality when we watch films. Anything that produces the comforting click of fitting snugly with our own experiences, beliefs, and knowledge, gets perceived as reality. Anything that does not fit in is discarded as farce. The power of cinema lies in picking up these discarded pieces, turning them around in every possible angle, in the hope of finding that one specific orientation which might just fit in and produce that warm click.
Special thanks to Leck Choon Ling and the SGIFF 2019 team for making this article possible.
About the author
Ramchander is a freelance writer who’s written on cinema for Film Companion. Depending on his mood, he oscillates between Medium and Tumblr for blogging. On his desk you might find photos of Steve Jobs, Buddha, Isaac Asimov and Satyajit Ray.
Special thanks to Suja Chellappan and the SGIFF team.