The summer solstice is a special occasion no matter where you are. Where I live, in India, it means a day in which the sun is up at six a.m. (approximately six hours before I wake up) and doesn’t set till seven p.m. (when I’ve finally managed to find my bearing).
This year, however, I lived through June 21 while in Russia, attending the thirty-sixth Moscow International Film Festival. The longest day of the year takes on a whole new dimension in what has to be one of the world’s grandest cities. Walking out of a packed theater at eleven p.m. only to find the Sun still beaming cheerfully, capping off absurdly long sunlit hours, is apt for a city that doesn’t do anything to normal scale.
Moscow is a surreal place. Forget the obvious attractions like the Kremlin or Gorky Park, even residential complexes—that most mundane element of so many modern cities—are oversized and extravagant here. The line between the destination, a tourist attraction and the journey to get there blurs when even the mode of transport, the city’s famed metro, is a sensory delight in itself.
This grandiosity was reciprocated by the film festival, which scheduled all public screenings of the documentary competition in an intimidating IMAX theater and of the main competition in a decadent, multi-tier auditorium in the Oktyabr. It’s almost unfair to the films; how were they supposed to match up to the outstanding art all around them?
Jan P. Matuszynski’s Polish documentary Deep Love chronicles the life of Janusz, a sixty-year old man, who is extremely self-confident and an accomplished diver. However, he has recently suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed. His affability means everyone can still stand him, but his state ensures that only his partner, Asia, can understand him. She helps him regain mobility, but hasn’t bargained for Janusz’s undying goal: to dive one more time.
Deep Love won the main prize in its section, and it’s easy to see why. It is blessed with a protagonist who is a champion, but in a situation that allows the filmmakers to treat him like an underdog. Much sympathy is elicited when one sees Janusz just trying to get through his day or converse with someone other than Asia. Moreover, he is so sincere that rooting for him comes naturally. Archival footage from when he could speak reveals an occasion when someone asked him, after seeing his hectic diving schedule, how he has any time to live life. Janusz smiles and replies, “But this is my life.”
In IMAX, the underwater footage is particularly spectacular and photographer Roberto Rinaldi deserves lavish praise. Wisely, Matuszynski doesn’t treat all sea footage like money shots. Offhand images of two divers playing underwater have remained with me a week after I saw the film. Yet, when it comes to the climactic dive, nothing is held back. Deep, blue water engulfs the frame and our senses. Finally, it’s clear why Janusz is so attached to the sea: there’s something magnificent about it.
Japanese drama My Man picked up the equivalent honor in the main category, and I can’t see why. Set in Hokkaido during the aftermath of an earthquake and tsunami, the film sees an adult man named Jungo become the guardian of young Hana, a distant relative. Over the next decade and a half, they grow to love each other like father and daughter…and then just to love each other. This sick turn to their relationship draws the ire of several people around them. These conflicts, far from being resolved, are further escalated when a murder takes place nearby.
The characters in My Man are at the mercy of the elements. The first scene is set in blistering ice and the second in blazing fire, together evoking the extremes. The aforementioned murder also takes place on ice floes and could have been prevented had the weather not been so perilous. In addition, the two protagonists are slaves to their desires, their passion culminating in a scene where blood falls on them as they make love, foretelling the suffering they are about to cause. If there’s a sex scene kinkier than this all year, then I don’t know if I want to see it.
Apart from this, however, My Man failed to involve me and the proceedings ended up being hilarious when they did grab my attention. The film livens up for a limited period of time when Aoba Kawai is on screen, as Jungo’s lover and Hana’s rival. She is luminous, every close-up of hers arresting. But, she’s not there forever and the film at 129 minutes, feels like it lasts forever.
After a few days of braving the festival’s competition titles, the need for being safe and falling back on an already-lauded import became unbearable. So, I sat down in the IMAX theatre for Rich Hill, the Grand Jury Prize-winning documentary at this year’s Sundance. From the very first frames, as we see a small town in the American Midwest that time—and economic development—have forgotten, I was in love. Rich Hill, Missouri may have a population of 1,396 people, but we are going to follow the lives of just three young boys. These children belong to broken and broke families, each day a unique challenge. They let us peek into their lives; the tragedy we witness is eye opening and jaw dropping.
Tracy Droz Tragos and Andrew Droz Palermo’s documentary has an almost Malick-ian sense of awe for nature and its innocence. A shot of birds flying feels like it’s cherry picked from The Tree of Life. The beauty of the surroundings only underscores the deep sadness in the boys’ lives. There are no easy answers or enemies. One boy’s mother ruefully looks back at her past: “I’ve never had a life. I went straight from being in my mother’s house to being a mother.”
I had a lump in my throat and something in my eyes for most of Rich Hill. As title cards at the end inform us how life continues for its subjects, changed yet similar, the girl next to me broke down. Tragos and Palermo have created something special here.
I was in Moscow for nine days, and saw just fifteen films in all. The temptation not to remain cooped up all day inside a dark, dank auditorium was too much when Lenin’s Tomb and the Alexander Gardens were fifteen minutes away. Sure, I’ll remember films like Rich Hill or Abderrehmane Sissako’s Timbuktu, but more than that I’ll remember my first glimpse of St. Basil’s Cathedral.
The best work of art at the Moscow International Film Festival is the city it takes place in.