November 4, 2005

Two Reeling films address social intolerance through individual portraits

Reeling: 10 days, 67 programs. While it would be impossible to watch and review each and every film, it is certainly easy to preview some of the most interesting, entertaining, and thought-provoking selections offered by the festival.

High on that list would have to be the Women’'s Centerpiece, to be screened at 7 p.m. on Monday, November 7 at Columbia College’s Film Row Cinema. This year, it is Unveiled, a German film about one woman'’s struggle against the constrictions of gender and cultural identity. Fleeing her native Iran after being found out as a lesbian, Fariba Tabrizi lands in Germany, only to be detained by airport authorities for faking her papers. When a fellow asylum-seeker commits suicide, she assumes his identity and gains entrance into the country for a short time.

After finding work, Fariba—--now going by Siamak, the deceased man’s name--—begins to form a relationship with co-worker Anne, eliciting hostile attention from another worker, who is also interested. It'’s rather ironic: “Siamak” is mainly hassled for being Islamic, the less threatening attribute, while “Fariba” is quietly stirring underneath the façade, caught between her growing attraction to Anne and her awareness of the danger that is sure to befall her should she make one wrong move.

Jasmin Tabatabai is extraordinary as Fariba, playing her as a tightly coiled individual who knows persecution firsthand, yet endures even more of it in hopes of obtaining a single chance at love. Fariba is secure with her assumed male identity, not because she is a lesbian and can “identify,” but because she must be comfortable in order to survive. In small-town Germany where those of her nationality--—and, even more likely, her sexuality--—are openly mocked, individuality and self-expression are out of the question.

The film unfolds slowly, but conveys a strong sense of urgency that compels the audience to study the finely crafted details, such as the evidence of Fariba underneath “Siamak.” Everything about her posture and mannerisms would seem to suggest natural manliness, but when she is with Anne, there is something helplessly feminine in her inflections: During an intimate scene, Fariba asks Anne if the scar from her C-Section still hurts, and at that moment, it is apparent that Anne knows.

If most of Unveiled is like picking at a new scar, pronounced by a constant ache, then the denouement is sudden and sharply painful, like ripping off a Band-Aid. But it is not tragic or even saddening, which leaves the audience with a powerful sense of hope—--oppression may continue to haunt Fariba, but it cannot defeat her.

On Saturday, November 5, at noon, the Landmark will screen My Brother…Nikhil, which has drawn comparisons to Philadelphia while circulating on the festival circuit. The film, the first mainstream release in India with a gay protagonist, is structured as a retrospective, with Nikhil’'s story being told in flashbacks and interviews with surviving friends and family. He was a champion swimmer, but harbored a secret that could and would destroy his budding career: He was gay, and he had contracted HIV. One didn’t necessarily lead to the other (Nikhil had received the virus from a needle when he was sick), but it might as well have, given the ignorance—--and, thus, intolerance--—levels about the disease in the late 1980s.

When Nikhil is unjustly imprisoned in a sanitarium, his family moves away after being ostracized by society. However, Anu, his older sister, refuses to abandon him. With Nigel, Nikhil’'s lover, Anu launches a movement to have Nikhil released and to educate the public about HIV.

The premise of the film is a brave one, though it falters in its execution. The three musical numbers were attached ostensibly to show that the situation wasn’'t always doom-and-gloom, but they seem extraneous to the purpose of the film. The film also shies away from depictions of gay culture as a whole (there is nothing to suggest a relationship, or even attraction, between Nikhil and Nigel), perhaps due to the fact that such a portrayal might have been deemed too scandalous for the Indian censorship boards, and instead chooses to focus on the all-conquering influence of family.

The film succeeds there, as it does in its most important facet: illustrating the fear and social prejudices Nikhil faced during his tribulation, and how, with the help of a loving support system, he was able to regain his dignity. The interviews lend a documentarian feel to the film, but I'’m not sure whether their effect was heightened or dampened by the sentimentality. And during the flashback sequences, Nikhil (played convincingly by Sanjay Suri) allows the audience to experience his alarm, distress, and agony at finding out he is HIV-positive—--he knows all too well what will happen to him, and so do we, a sickening feeling in our stomachs. Anu’'s indignation and courage is felt keenly, as is Nigel’'s determination to stand by his lover.

To hail My Brother…Nikhil as the dawn of a new chapter in Indian film is perhaps going overboard, but there is no denying that this is an important film, mostly for its powerful portrayal of a man who not only fights against his disease but also against a society that fears him because it doesn’t understand him.