By Gautaman Bhaskaran
One saw some great cinema at the recent Tokyo International Film Festival. And with extraordinary social relevance. French Stand-up comedian, actor and rapper Kheiron narrates the bitter-sweet true story of his parents in All Three of Us — a French-language work set in Teheran, Istanbul and Paris.
Kheiron’s father and mother fled Iran after the man suffered a long prison term under the Shah, including several years of solitary confinement and physical torture — all because he refused the ruler’s birthday cake. He was charged with sedition! Such was the autocratic attitude of the Shah, but Khomeini was no better.
When Khomeini came to power in 1979 after a popular Iranian uprising, he disappointed especially the educated and the rational thinking men and women, because the mullah created an Islamic Republic and ran it on a stiflingly conservative/religious model.
Kheiron, who plays the father, Hibat, and his young wife , Maryam ( Leila Bekhti’s), escape in a car to reach Istanbul — and later to France. The fleeing is fraught with tension, but is laced with an absolutely humorous incident. The most vital papers are hidden in the clothes that Hibat’s infant son wears, and the soldiers at the Iranian border are thus fooled. What is more, one of them takes the child in his arms and might have frisked him — like in the case with others — but the little one pees at the very moment, eliciting laughter from the soldier, whose stern look melts into a broad smile.
The couple soon find themselves far away from the political activism and pro-democracy movement of their earlier years, but a novel kind of adventure awaits them in their new home at a northern Parisian suburb, and this challenge seems greater than the one they faced while crossing into Turkey through snow-bound mountains. The couple’s baby is doped with valium, so that he will not cry, and is sent in a box atop a donkey across the harsh icy terrain.
While Maryam works for women’s welfare in Paris, a trained nurse that she is, Hibat, by now qualified as a lawyer, takes care of inter-racial conflicts or those between blacks and the police. It is just wonderful to see how he manages to soothe angry men, and bring them around to his way of thinking.
Despite tackling a serious political subject and often socially messy situations, Kheiron infuses a great sense of wit into his picture. Look at the way the Shah has been caricatured into almost a buffoon, and Gerard Darmon as Maryam’s father has, despite his stern exterior, a soft corner for Hibat, who first comes to him seeking the hand of his daughter. The father’s pro-Khomeini stance soon gives way to frustration and disappointment when he sees that this regime is no better than the Shah’s, and finally helps the young couple escape Iran.
All Three of Us is an intimate portrayal of the Iran of the 1970s and 1980s, and is narrated and scripted as well as Persepolis was. The movie also captures the spirit of the Iranian upheavals, and aptly draws a parallel between them and the kind of oppressive aggression that Hibat witnesses in Paris.
However, the bottomline of the film is firmly family, and All Three of Us never loses sight of the fact that this is the most important aspect of life and living. When Hibat is honoured with the French Legion of Honour, his grown-up son cannot possibly make it to the presentation ceremony because he is busy performing a play. We will request for the function to be postponed, Hibat tells him over the telephone. All three of us must be there, Hibat adds.
Heartwarming to the core!
* * *
There are only A number of stories in this world, and motion pictures are forever striving to find new angles or perspectives to age-old tales. Now, World War II and the exploits connected with it, both good and bad, have been filmed time and again over these 70 years after the Axis forces were humbled. We have had classics like Von Ryan’s Express and Battle of the Bulge among a host of other movies that narrated the valour of soldiers and their commanders, their victories and defeats. And there have been innumerable other works which had the war as a background to tell us about love and romance that flowered in those very dark times.
So, to make yet another picture on the war could not have been easy, not at all. And this is where Danish director, Martin Zandvliet, scores with his compellingly fresh story and approach. He presents in his Land of Mine — which was part of the main competition at the Tokyo International Film Festival — a bit of war history that is true but not well known, and has possibly never been made into a movie. On a path travelled a million times or more, Zandvliet discovers or rediscovers a tragic episode and lights it up with beautiful sensitivity and feeling. One cannot miss the humanism that the helmer portrays through his taut narrative in the months when almost the entire world hated the Nazis and the Germans.
After the war ended in May 1945, German prisoners of war in Denmark were given a deadly assignment. They were ordered to clear the Danish coast of the two million land mines which the German army had planted in the mistaken belief that this would be where the Allied invasion would take place.
And this task of supervising the German prisoners is given to Danish Sergeant Rasmussen (played superbly by Roland Moller, who has a striking resemblance to Indian actor Rahul Bose). In what appears poignant and even cruel, most of the prisoners are teenage boys, who are terribly home sick, miss their mothers and cry out for them when they are wounded. Also, recruited in the last days of the war by Hitler to bolster his dwindling army, the boys are ill-equipped to clear the coast of landmines.
Like most Danes, Rasmussen hates German soldiers, and he is cruel to the young prisoners under his command. Locked up at night, they are not given enough food and their work on the beach leads to one death after another, one tragedy after another. Even when a boy soldier is burning with high fever, Rasmussen does not give him an off — and this causes yet another disaster.
Although the movie may be somewhat predicable, Zandvliet keeps the sequences going with subtle, yet powerful, tension, and Moller’s performance must be credited for this. It is interesting to see how he gradually stops to despise the boys, begins getting them food from the village. Finally, he keeps a promise he has made to the teenagers.
This touch of humanism makes Land of Mine greatly memorable, and the films conveys how at the end of it all, man will care for man — notwithstanding a Hitler or a Mussolini.
Admittedly, there may not be anything novel in men, soldiers in particular, recognising humanity in their enemies. French auteur Jean Renoir told such a story with brilliance in Grand Illusion way back in the 1930s. But the urge for compassion will perhaps never lose its importance, especially in the kind of hard times we all live in. Land of Mine reminds us about the immensity and nobility of being human — above everything else.
* Gautaman Bhaskaran covered the Tokyo International Film Festival, and me be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org
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