Archive for March 8th, 2016

In a plethora of works more or less directly related with the armed conflict, a suffocating as much as fertile leitmotiv of Colombia’s cinema, Siembra is a breath of fresh and much-needed air. Co-directed by Ángela Osorio and Santiago Lozano, it touches upon a particularly delicate aspect of the country’s internal warfare – and does it with a humane and original touch that makes it stand out as a memorable work of its kind.

Osorio and Lozano set their film in a slum in the outskirts of a Colombian big city. We do not know the city’s name, because it’s the sort of story that needs no specific place to be credible, and which Colombia knows all too well. Turco is a farmer from Colombia’s Pacific coast who has been forced to leave home because of the war, but dreams of returning, until his son’s death will force him to abandon his hopes and roam a city trying to give him a proper burial. He is one of the 6.4 million Colombians the armed conflict has forced to abandon their dwelling: all he’s ever asked for is to be buried under a bread tree, and for his family to be buried next to him when the time will come.

Siembra could have easily turned into a petty fetishization of Colombia’s internally displaced people. But it does not. El Turco’s universe is treated with a compassionate touch which pays justice to the plight of a farmer who only wishes to cultivate his land. But the land is miles and miles away, and as his neighbours warn him, “the owners of your world already took it away from you, your land is someone else’s now”. As time goes by and the drama unfolds it is the hope to have his plot back that fills the void a son’s death has left behind. The earth, in some fundamental sense, becomes a daughter whose memory can only be evoked through the traditional chants of the Colombian Pacific.

Osorio and Lozano handpicked non professional actors with years of experience as musicians. And Siembra is a profoundly musical film. It is music (and dance) which offer Turco’s son the chance to gain the respect of his peers, and it is music (and litanies) which are used to accompany his journey to the otherworld. It is not just Turco’s plight which is respected, but his culture and the cultural heritage of his homeland.

Premiered at Locarno’s 2015 Film Festival, where it won the Independent Critics Boccalino Award for best direction, Siembra won the Jury’s Special Award at Cartagena’s 56th International Film Festival. A much-deserved recognition for a film that touches upon one of Colombia’s greatest tragedies without turning it into a spectacle, but into an opportunity to reflect on the magnitude of a never-ending war.

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There’s a scene in Panahi’s 2015 Golden Bear winner Taxi when the director meets a young fan looking for stories to film. The youngster asks Panahi which movies he should watch and which books he should read, and Panahi replies that no books that have already been written or movies already directed could ever provide the inspiration the boy is after. “One should look elsewhere”.

And elsewhere, or to be more precise, inside a taxi, is where Panahi stages his latest work. Officially banned by his country’s regime from making films and traveling for at least the next decade after being convicted on propaganda charges in 2010, Panahi must yet again resort to unconventional techniques to direct his thirteenth film. After This is Not a Movie, shot entirely with a home video camera and an iPhone, Panahi acts as a taxi driver and fills his cab with cameras to record his conversations with Tehran’s inhabitants who jump in and out of the car after sharing their thoughts on the country’s state, cinema and life itself.

We do not know whether the passengers are professional actors or whether all scenes are entirely improvised (though the latter is hardly the case). Early in the film a movie-smuggler (arguably one of Taxi’s most interesting characters) asks whether everyone else is just an actor, and reproaches Panahi for not warning him it was all fiction. Panahi, however, says nothing.

This unresolved question and constant jumping in between fiction and reality is, however, a hit-and-miss. There are moments in which it is hard not to see Taxi as a self-referential, self-aggrandizing effort: Panahi magnanimously rejects the money he is offered by his passengers and smiles happily when some of them recognise his face as that of the great movie director.

Where the dynamic does work is when Taxi gives in to his profound cinefile essence and turns into a means to deconstruct Iran’s present. At some fundamental level, Taxi is a love declaration to cinema itself. It is hard for a cinefile not to smile when the movie-smuggler invites a client inside Panahi’s cab and deals with art-house cinema as if it were class A drugs, with Pahani nodding at the names of Kurosawa, Kim Ki-duk and Woody Allen. But there are moments when cinema turns into an explicitly political instrument and the smile turns into a much more chilling sensation, as when Panahi and his passengers clash against the regime’s oppression and its coercive apparatus.

Are these moments improvised too? Panahi does not say, but the doubt here is probably even more powerful than a clear-cut answer. By the end, as the real seemingly merges with fiction and the drama reaches its climax, Taxi turns into a vehement, albeit somehow self-congratulatory, cry against a regime’s totalitarianism.

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