Saturday, November 02, 2013

Dog, giraffe, cat, bear: beastly scenes in four MAMI films

[Free-flowing post; meaning-seekers, abstain]

When watching a rush of unrelated films in a short span of time (as I did at the MAMI festival last month) and without needing to write structured things about them, I sometimes find whimsical ways of relating the films to each other, or “arranging” motifs in my head. One thing that struck me was the use of animals in some of the films I saw: animals as sentient creatures in their own right, or as symbols, or pretexts for our understanding of human characters or events; different ways of showing animal perspectives and asking us to consider if they mean anything in themselves, or if they constitute a variant on the Kuleshov experiment, where shots of a blank-expressioned actor were intercut with various objects, so that the viewer imposed his own feelings on them. Anyway, here are fragmented notes on four films:

1) In the last post, I mentioned the very sweet dog – named “Boy” by his human – in Jafar Panahi’s Closed Curtain. On one level Boy is a symbol, a commentary on Panahi’s real-life situation as an artist denied freedom. Much the same way as the screenwriter in the film’s first half must keep Boy shielded from the outside world – and the animal follows him around everywhere – Panahi is forbidden to air his ideas (and yet his ideas and fictional creations don’t stop pursuing him, demanding every moment of his time). 

But within the narrative, Boy is also a creature capable of feeling – intelligent and alert, and very much alive. As he tails the screenwriter around the villa, tennis ball in mouth, the bond between them is evident. And these qualities contrast with the horrible TV images shown in the film of other dogs being brutalized by the Iran authorities – animals in various stages of torture, dead or dying, barely recognisable any more as creatures that were once capable of showing and receiving love. One thing that so distinguishes dogs from most other species – and a foundation of the long and mutually beneficial hominid-canine relationship – is their eagerness to make and maintain eye contact with humans. Psychologically, it helps if there is a certain amount of visible white in a dog’s eyes, and the dog in Closed Curtain has one of the most expressive, “human-like” gazes I have ever seen in an animal. (Casting here is as important to the film’s effect as it is with the human roles, and I imagine it was as carefully done.)

2) The giraffes in the good-natured film Giraffada are another matter. Early in the story we meet a boy, Ziad, who feels a deep connect with two giraffes in a Palestinian West Bank zoo, but the affection is not reciprocated in equal terms: the film doesn’t depict the giraffes as meaningfully interacting with the humans around them (and some of this has to do with our own perceptions of these outlandish, extra-terrestrial-like creatures, which make for funny Facebook profile pictures when you get a riddle wrong: it is hard to relate to them in the manner that one might with dogs, and they certainly don’t make eye contact with us in the same way). After the male giraffe dies, we see the bereaved female wandering about her quarters, craning her neck about as she (presumably) searches for her mate. It is a touching sight, but her loss is not presented in overly sentimental terms - there is no romanticising about giraffes mating for life, like some birds and animals do. Her dead boyfriend can be replaced by another male, hence the plot of the film: Ziad’s veterinarian father must put himself and his family in danger by smuggling another male giraffe in from an Israeli zoo.

The trials of this new male giraffe (named Romeo) reminded me a little of Jose Saramago’s The Elephant’s Journey – a book about another long, hazardous journey and about impossible-seeming things that may become possible. Like Saramago’s elephant, Romeo the giraffe is a blank slate that can stand for different things to different people. One basic yet effective shot catches the film’s attempt to set the wonders of daily life (and of life itself) against grand ideas about nationhood or religion. As Romeo lumbers through the West Bank in the film’s final stretch, he passes a prayer-house where a group of men are doing the Sajdah. At the precise moment that they raise their heads after bending their foreheads to the floor, the giraffe passes the window in front of them, and the sight is so astonishing that they stay frozen in place and forget to continue the rest of their prayer routine. Temporarily at least, the Grand Design has taken a backseat to the here and now, to the possibilities of the real world.

3) An early scene in the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis (full disclosure: I only saw half the film since I had to leave for an urgent appointment) centres on a cat, who has rather inconveniently become the responsibility of the film’s protagonist. And as Llewyn travels in an NY underground train, the cat slung over his shoulder, there is an unusual sequence: the cat is gazing out the window and we get a series of images of stations gliding past that obviously represent its perspective (Llewyn himself is facing in the other direction).

All that the camera appears to be doing here is impassively recording what the animal sees – there is no attempt to imbue the visuals with meaning, to be funny or droll or cute, or to suggest that the images mean anything to the cat. The whole thing has a touch of whimsy or randomness (and whimsy is very important to the Coen Brothers’ universe), though some incidental meaning emerges when the cat – probably dazed and panic-stricken by the rush of images – slips out of Llewyn’s hands and runs down the length of the compartment before he catches up with it again.

4) And a film where the animal in the title never appears, though humans have taken its place by the end. Denis Côté’s Vic + Flo Saw a Bear finishes with an intensely unpleasant, difficult-to-watch-and-listen-to scene where the two protagonists (former convicts and lesbian lovers) are ensnared in a pair of cruel, sharp-toothed bear-traps. Throughout the film, the line between civilisation and the jungle has been made indistinct: Vic and Flo are trying to start a new life, but we never really learn what terrible things they may have done in the past, and if redemption is a realistic possibility for them. Do they even seek it, or are they wild beasts trying to escape the trappings of human society and return to the natural world?

And by the end, that line may have been completely erased. The two women are reduced to the state of the culled dogs in Panahi’s film – their howls come to sound more like involuntary bodily reactions than as expressions of thinking, feeling personalities, with the result that even as we shudder at their fate, it becomes difficult to relate to them. A sentimental viewer might say the scene invites us to reflect on the horrors that humans routinely put animals through, but I think the film is more detached and nihilistic than that. Nature is unspeakably cruel, it says, and nature includes human beings with the traps they construct, for themselves and for others – the mechanical contraptions as well as the emotional ones.

[Related posts: on animals in Teri Meherbaniyan and Mon Oncle; on Temple Grandin’s Animals in Translation. And two other posts about MAMI films: Qissa and Closed Curtain]


  1. Loved this post! I wish there were more films that showed human-animal bonding and that highlighted that animals are sentient beings. It is a mystery to me that many humans don't think of animals as sentient!

    Best wishes,

  2. One reason I'm wary of, and indeed stay away from, film festivals is that there are bound to be disturbing themes and images. I have absolutely no stomach for gore, and have a particular horror of coming across images of animal torture. Could be termed a head-in-the-sand attitude, but I see enough animal cruelty around me. Avoiding such films and images then helps me stay sane!

    Liked this post nevertheless.

  3. Radhika: I have very high gore-tolerance mostly, but didn't keep my eyes firmly fixed on the screen throughout the culling scene in Closed Curtain. (It was only around 15-20 seconds, and intercut with shots of the writer's dog on the couch, watching the TV and looking adorable, but still...)

  4. This may sound a little random but I was watching 'Llewyn Davis' with a friend & he pointed out that the woman who is the cat's owner has a face that heavy resembles the cat herself. Though I didn't pay much attention to that fact it will make for an interesting re-watch .