Michael at the London Asian Film Festival

By Rob Packer

London is in film festival season: the Human Rights Watch Film Festival and the London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival both start next week. But this week is the London Asian Film Festival, which started on Friday with Michael (2011), director Ribhu Dasgupta’s first film, and was opened by Bollywood superstar Abhishek Bachchan and British comic, Meera Syal (“so a not desi” as she tripped over the lead actor’s name).

The film, part of “India’s emerging cinema landscape”, is the story of Michael Rodriguez (Naseeruddin Shah), who is dismissed from the Kolkata police force after he is made a scapegoat for following orders to fire on a peaceful demonstration and (accidentally) killing a 12-year-old boy. Soon after, he begins to receive phone calls from the boy’s father who threatens to kill Michael’s own son on his 12th birthday.

The film plays like a thriller, but more engrossing is the figure of Michael as he struggles with guilt, being cast adrift in the city and his diminished masculinity: his lost livelihood means he can no longer provide materially for his son, but worse is his progressive blindness meaning he can’t protect his son from harm. A leitmotiv is the Happy Birthday jingle of Michael’s lighter—potentially very cheesy in other situations—that here signifies something different each time, ranging from a boy’s pre-birthday excitement and familial happiness to a lament. And one of the most affecting scenes is where Michael is given dark glasses by an optician and he travels through Kolkata, eventually coming across a blind beggar singing: as Michael squats down, his fear about his and his son’s future is palpable.

The film, always grainy, shifts in and out of focus more and more in point-of-view shots as Michael’s eyesight deteriorates and the viewer’s eyes are drawn towards Naseeruddin Shah’s own, often unblinking eyes, like pools of darkness that speak of Michael’s helplessness.

In its commentary on the precariousness of life in contemporary India, the film also has a contemporary feel, most obviously in the anti-government demonstration at the start of the film against the Communist party that ruled West Bengal from 1977 to 2011; and echoes (deliberately or accidentally) the anti-corruption mass movements of last year.

But the film’s other real star is monsoon Kolkata, which adds an incredibly atmospheric touch to the film: whether in the rain, the disorienting cacophony of the horns of passing cars in the opening scene as Michael stands on a traffic island, the jostling crowds and flocks of pigeons of central Kolkata, and (above all) in the monumental and neglected Victorian architecture of the city.

I won’t get the chance to go to any other showings at the London Asian Film Festival, but as an opener, Michael promises great things for the festival. And as Ribhu Dasguptu’s directorial debut this gripping and mature, it promises much more.

Michael is showing as part of the London Asian Film Festival at Rich Mix, 35-47 Bethnal Green Road on 19 March at 18:00 and Watermans, 40 High Street Brentford on 21 March at 20:00.

A Brazilian Volksfest

By Rob Packer

Oktoberfest in Blumenau

I’ve dedicated about a third of my life to the German language and lived in Germany for a year, but have never been to the country’s most famous festival, Oktoberfest in Munich (from Berlin we used to sneer at the strange ways of those Bavarians). This all means that I didn’t have much of a point of reference this weekend at the world’s second-largest Oktoberfest in Blumenau, Brazil. It was quite the disorienting experience.

Frohes Fest!

A Blumenau department store.

Brazil began encouraging migrants to settle its southern states in the second half of the 19th century, above all attracting Germans and Italians and there are dialects holding out here that are now extinct in Europe (here and herein Wikipedia). In Santa Catarina, German settlement was concentrated around Joinville and cutely named Blumenau, the valley of flowers. Today Germans and Italians make up most of Blumenau’s population, the city centre is a pastiche of Central European architecture, and it has proudly hosted the Americas’ largest “Germanic festival” since 1984—a highly successful tourism project after a serious flood.

Mitteleuropa in Brasilien.

I’ve already been to a (delicious) more-German-than-Germany restaurant in Curitiba, where I realized that my limit for non-stop Blasmusik (sometimes in Portuguese) is probably around the three-hour mark. Read more of this post

Ait mairik bolsun! (Eid Mubarak)

By Rob Packer, KF9 Kyrgyzstan

This is a repost from the Kiva Fellows’ Blog.

Islam in Kyrgyzstan feels different; more of a personal matter compared with other countries I’ve travelled in. While it’s probably an exaggeration when the Lonely Planet for Central Asia says that the Kyrgyz “limited it to what they could fit in their saddlebags”, there is probably some truth in the matter in a culture where kymyz, fermented mare’s milk, is a key cultural pointer and a toast with vodka is often not that far away, especially amongst the more Russified population of northern Kyrgyzstan. When you remember that the Kyrgyz are a people with a nomadic heritage who were first permanently settled under the Soviet Union’s policy of ‘militant atheism’, you might expect the relationship with religion to be a little different from the norm. (more..)

An Islamic cemetery outside Kochkor, Kyrgyzstan.

Добро пожаловать, граф Картошка! ジャガイモさん、いらっしゃい!Welcome Mr Potato!

By Rob Packer, KF9 Kyrgyzstan

This is a repost from the Kiva Fellows’ Blog

Inter-Cultural Exchanges in Kyrgyzstan

The words ikebana and prazdnik started spreading around the offices of Mol Bulak Finance, my MFI last week. Prazdnik was the easy part: it means holiday, festival or party in Russian, but the word ikebana was new to me. My first thought was “That word sounds a lot like the Japanese art of flower arrangement!” and then decided it didn’t really sound all that Russian, and used my limited knowledge of Kyrgyz (eki means two) to convince myself it must be Kyrgyz. When I asked I was met with shocked expressions and told it really was the Japanese word and that on Thursday flowers would be arranged, or lunch prepared.

(more…)

Death in Toraja

By Rob Packer

I think I should start by stating the obvious: Toraja is one of the weirdest places I’ve ever been. There are countless cultures referred to as unique in the world, often because they continue practices that stopped elsewhere because the social mores changed (the banning of fox-hunting in the UK), or an invading power has condemned them as barbaric (Spanish invaders put an end to Aztec human sacrifice along with countless other indigenous customs), or there wasn’t space for them in a new religion (Hindu customs in Islamicized Java), they were impractical (no examples as who can qualify a cultural practice as impractical apart from members of that culture?), or a combination. While there are plenty of celebrations no longer practised by the Toraja any one of these reasons, there is an obvious exception: Torajan funerals.

The view over Toraja

The view over Toraja

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