One of the most telling moments in Obaidah Zytoon's stunning documentary The War Show is a face-off between two sets of protesters in a small Syrian town square, one that lies completely in ruins.
Both sides, from what I could tell, are against the brutal regime of the Assad family, which has been ruling Syria since 1971 (the current president is Bashar al-Assad). However, while one side demands an Islamic caliphate, the other wants a civil state.
A man sporting a mullet, leather jacket, and aviators scoffs at the first group. "They're stupid," he says. "This is the result of outside interference by America and Arab countries." But that group is louder and more vociferous, so much so that a group of young boys, holding a placard asking for a civil state, get confused and also start chanting pro-Islamic caliphate slogans. When a man admonishes them for cheering for the opposite side, a boy sheepishly says, "We got confused."
It's one of the few moments in The War Show that drew incredulous laughter from the audience, in a documentary that otherwise meticulously shows us how Syria is perhaps the closest thing to hell on earth right now. Zytoon, a former radio jockey, uses incredible access and the help of a motley crew of friends to provide human context to the Syrian war and resultant refugee crisis, visible to most of us merely in terms of statistics and reports.
With footage shot over a period of five years, we see incredible images from devastated small towns, with entire families destroyed by war and torture who are just waiting for a camera to show their plight to the entire world. Zytoon's visuals can be brutal and unflinching — one knuckle-whitening scene shows a young woman cursing Bashar as a deep gash on her neck is being stitched up without the use of anesthesia. Its storytelling devices — told as chapters in a manner that mimics the stages of grief — may be standard, but The War Show is journalism of the highest order, told with courage and honesty. When it ended, a significant portion of the audience sat silently all the way through the end credits, stunned into silence.
Zytoon's documentary was a great finish for day four of the 18th Mumbai Film Festival, which I began with Brazillian filmmaker Kleber Mendonça Filho's latest drama, Aquarius. Veteran crossover actress Sonia Braga stars as Clara, a former music critic and breast cancer survivor, who lives by herself in a lovely waterfront apartment. A real-estate giant is looking to redevelop her building (named Aquarius), but Clara, who has memories of a lifetime associated with the place, won't budge.
This could easily be a story from development-crazed urban India. In a way, it is, if you've read Aravind Adiga's (admittedly not excellent) novel Last Man In Tower, whose protagonist is a retired Mumbai college professor who faces off against rich and unscrupulous builders for similar reasons. However, unlike the book, Aquarius is more focused on Clara as an individual and how her sense of identity is linked to her place of dwelling. Braga's tour de force perf is this beautifully acted film's centerpiece and reason enough to watch it; however, I couldn't help wondering why the script left an important plot strand about the other (former) occupants of Aquarius, who are unhappy with Clara's stand as it delays their payments for the homes they happily gave up, incomplete after having set it up. Somewhere, for me, Aquarius seemed like it was confused about whether it wanted to be driven by mood, character or plot.
At every festival, there is the occasional film that defies description simply by dint of sheer audaciousness. Nicolette Krebitz's Wild, a German feature, is one of those films. This one doesn't just push the boundary; it shoves it off a cliff and watches it fall all the way to the bottom with an inscrutable expression on its face.
What is it about, you ask? Oh, nothing — just alienation, sexual repression, mental illness, urbanisation, and, well, bestiality. Ania (Lilith Stangenberg) works an unremarkable job at an unremarkable office situated in an unremarkable city. Her social life is non-existent, she has barely any family to speak of (barring an apathetic sister), and she seems to dislike the very concept of partying.
One day, she encounters a regal looking wolf that has strayed out of the local woods. Ania is drawn to it. She buys an expensive steak and leaves it at the same spot, hoping to lure it back there. She finds herself thinking more and more about the wolf and less about work. Eventually, and incredibly, she eventually manages to drug it and drag it back to her ramshackle apartment.
To say that some scenes in Wild may be a bit shocking is perhaps an understatement — a close-up of a person defecating is one of its, um, tamer visuals. Its 'return to nature' intentions are apparent quite early on, and while sub-plots involving Ania's asshole boss and bedridden grandfather add some meat to the plot, it's not difficult to predict how it will all come together. It's tempting to think of this film as some sort of perverse, gratuitous 'Grizzly Woman' piece and one wishes that the relationship between Ania and her lupine companion had a little more complexity. But Krebitz's storytelling is sincere and Stangenberg's incredibly courageous performance — there's being naked on screen, and then there's this — makes Wild, at least, a fascinating experiment to watch, provided you can stomach the subject matter.