Monday, February 13, 2017

TIFF Celebrates India's Magic Realism and New Zealand's Majesty

Pari takes her brother Chotu's hand as they begin their journey across the desert to
find the great Bollywood actor Shah Ruch Kahn,who is filming in Jaisalmer 
 and encouraging people to give their eyes so new surgery can restore the sight of the blind.   
The second night of the Toledo International Film Festival (TIFF) featured the films Dharak, (Rainbow in Hindiby Indian filmmaker Nagesh Kukunoor (2014), and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, directed by New Zealander Taika Waititi (2016). They were enchanting movies, beautifully crafted. They opened our eyes to new worlds and illuminated TIFF's purpose to explore and celebrate cultural diversity and promote international understanding.

Both films tell the stories of young children without parents who are on their own paths to find their dreams and their sense of self in the larger world of relationships and place, fantasy and reality. Both films were shot in spectacular settings with stunning cinematography.  Dharak was filmed  in the great Thar desert of Rajasthan state in northern India, home of the fairy tale city of Jaisalmer, while Wilderpeople was shot in the lush green rainforests of North Island, New Zealand, near Auckland.

The stories unfold against sweeping vistas in perpetual motion, tan and yellow rolling dunes and ridges and wild vegetation in every shade of green swaying on mountain tops. These spectacular backdrops lend an almost other-worldly quality to the heroic treks and down-to-earth struggles of resilient and resourceful children in search of hope. Will Pari and Chotu, the kids in Dhanak, make it across the harsh, arid desert? Will Ricky and Hec, the "wilderpeople" in Waititi's film, survive the entangling bush?

Dharak is the story of an orphaned sister and brother, 10-year-old Pari, ever ebullient, and 8-year-old Chotu, who live in a small desert village with a wicked aunt and neer-do-well uncle. Chotu, played by Krish Chhabria, lost his eyesight in an accident when he was four years old, but he is a happy and precocious kid. Pari, played with wonderful effect by Hetal Gatta, had promised her brother that he would regain his eyesight before his ninth birthday, and that birthday is coming up in a few months. When Pari spots a poster announcing that her Bollywood idol Shah Rukh Khan is filming in Jaisalmer and that he is encouraging people to donate their eyes for special surgery there, she believes her hero will help her fulfill her promise.

Thus Pari and Chotu, hand in hand, walk the panoramic desert to Jaisalmer. It's truly a journey across the culture and history of Rajesthan as I remember it when a traveler in the late 1980s. Nagesh Kukunoor's India is full of light and sound and saturated color, sacred temples and profane places, and a lively cast of  cool and crazy characters, literally and figuratively. There is the fake fortune teller in heavy makeup and gaudy red costume; the stereotypical American hitchhiker walking the globe for peace, guitar in hand. There's the kidnapper out for no good and the kindly merchants who help with food, water and transportation. There's the stunning bandita dressed in the finest sari and adorned with beautiful jewelry holding a huge fake or real gun.  And there's the eccentric man who lost his family, went mad, and walks the desert with a steering wheel in his hands, going nowhere it seems. A magic realism combined with gritty reality defines the essence of the Indian spirit, and the filmmaker and the actors capture it beautifully.

The Great Brahmin temple in Pushkar, a holy Hindu city. Our
 driver Mr. Gupta took us there from Jaipur, another beautiful city
I perked up every time Chotu said his parents had lived in Pushkar, hoping for a shot of this beautiful white city. Instead, a deep blue lake surrounded by ghats and whitewashed temples rose up in my memory. I met a Hindu man there who took me by the hand as I was coming out of the great Brahmin Temple. He walked to the lake with me as he talked about being a holy man in India. I listened, enraptured.

When I told him I had to leave to join friends at the bazaar near the Temple, where I had seen a profusion of marigold garlands to buy for the gods, he held out his hand. I hesitated, looked at him, and gave him 20 rupees, not knowing if I had talked to a priest or a beggar.  That's when I learned that in India one never knows for sure, and it doesn't matter. And so it was in Dhanak the movie.

From India, following a taste of wonderful food from the Pan Asian Grill and a fluid and  powerful drumming dance performance by Kaze No Daichi Taiko Drum Ensemble, we traveled to New Zealand for the second film. I was again transported into a long-ago travel adventure that introduced me to the magnificent landscapes, diverse cultures, and wonderfully friendly peoples of New Zealand's North and South Islands, including the history and culture of the Maori.
Ricky and Hec in the New Zealand bush, wild and funny at times, learning
from and about each other, with an undercurrent of loss and abandonment.
Ricky the Maori warrior in mudface, ready to battle his demons.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a fascinating adventure drama about the lives of lost kids of all ages who are looking for close relationships and love. Ricky Baker, whose mother abandoned him, is "a city kid raised on hip hop and foster care" (program notes). He is played with great spirit by Julian Dennison. Ricky gets a fresh start in the New Zealand countryside when his zealous social worker Paula and her lackadaisical policeman sidekick Andy drop a jaded Ricky off at the ramshackle home of Bella, played with great warmth by Rima Te Wiata, and her husband Hector (Hec), played in a low key by Sam Neill, New Zealand's gift to cinema.  Hec is distant and self-absorbed, but Bella is able to soften Ricky's defenses with her amazing hunting skills (a wow moment) and the gift of a dog, which Ricky names Tupac, after his hip hop idol Tupac Shakur. Ricky has some pretty good moves, too, and a nice voice.  The happy birthday scene, Bella making up a song and Ricky joining in, is wonderful.

When Bella dies suddenly, and Ricky learns he'll be sent back to foster care, he decides to run away.  A city kid in the bush is pretty helpless,so it's a good thing Hec hunts him down and joins him on the run. Rumors spread that Ricky is with a molester, which starts a wild and crazy national manhunt that spreads like wild fire. It's a comedy of errors and close calls, along with meeting up with some wacky folks like Crazy Sam. Ricky and Hec become folk heroes, while Paula the social worker is given a grand canvas for her over-the-top enthusiastic pursuit of justice.

The film is tops in all categories, a fantastic cast, an up-and-coming director who also wrote the screenplay based on a Barry Crumb novel; and awesome cinematography and music.  I love the bush scenes in winter and spring, so verdant and stunning. Hec, who is illiterate, calls them "majestical."  And they are.

The beauty of the New Zealand Bush.  "Majestical" Hec called it.
"Majestic," Ricky corrected, but he was fine with "majestical," and it fit.
A hilarious car and helicopter chase looks to be the blazing end for our heroes, a sort of Thelma and Louise ending. But wait, that's not really the ending afterall. The end turns out to be a new beginning: the beginning of the blossoming of Hec, who is learning to read; the growing maturity of Ricky, with a new foster family who wants to get close; and the start of a real father-son relationship. It doesn't get any better than that. Ricky and Hec return to the bush, this time not to run away, but to be together, to photograph a beautiful bird, a huia, once thought to be extinct. They have found their calling. Love is not extinct, and hope springs eternal.
NZ Huia bird, sacred to the Maori.
I found it interesting that these birds
find a loving partner for life. Love birds, a
hidden & fitting symbol for this film.
                                                                            * * * *

Saturday, February 18, Last night of the Film Festival 
5:00 pm  Who Is Dayani Cristal? (Mexico/USA)
8:00 pm  Ixcanul/Volcano (Guatemala)

TIFF is a collaborative project of the Lucas County Commissioners' Welcome Toledo-Lucas County (TLC), President Pete Gerken and Commissioners Carol Contrada and Tina Skeldon Wozniak; the Ohio Theatre and Event Center; and United North, a community development corporation in Toledo's Old North End.

Thanks to TIFF's community partners: Zonta Club of Toledo, NAAP (Network of Arab American Professionals), Toledo/Lucas County Public Library, BGSU Department of Theatre & Film, Sofia Quintero Art and Cultural Center, World Affairs Councils of America, BGSU School of Cultural and Critical Studies, Leadership Toledo, Glass City Rollers, ABLE (Advocates for Basic Equality), La Conexion de Wood County, Toledo/Lucas County Sustainability Commission, BGSU Global Village, MultiFaith Council of Northwest Ohio, Adelante.

Sponsors include: Toledo Sister Cities International, Lucas County, The Fair Housing Center, S&G, Toledo/Lucas County Public Library, Manos Greek Restaurant, the Jewish Federation of Greater Toledo, and Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick, LLP.

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