Tromsø International Film Festival (TIFF) recently visited Longyearbyen. In quick succession I saw three very different movies, that, despite all their differences, had similar things to say about human equality across differences, human dependency and the possibility of reaching across human boundaries. At least they said this to me.
Telling the story of a village girl pursuing her lifelong dream of becoming a trapeze artist, Comrade Kim Goes Flying aims at little more than entertainment. Romantic comedies, where the sun always shines over beautiful and smiling people, is usually not my cup of tea. But this one made an impression on me. It is a fine romantic comedy for sure, with good actors side stepping most of the usual clichés. More important though, this story takes place in North Korea! Going into the theatre I knew next to nothing about North Korean film traditions, but I certainly hadn't expected this.
As it turned out, the film isn't a product of the North Korean film industry (yes, apparently there is such a thing). The director was local -- known, in fact, for his many contributions to the history of North Korean military films -- and the entire cast was Korean too, but the movie was mainly funded, written and produced in England and Belgium. The producers came to TIFF to talk about their venture to this hermetically sealed country in the far East. They had expected difficulties, but the collaboration had been a smooth ride. And the film had had success with the Korean public too. That surprised me (which perhaps reveals little more than my lack of knowledge of North Korean humour). The cultural differences seem so enormous. And, as Robert Rowland Smith writes, "humour doesn't always travel: what makes the Russian roar with laughter leaves the Somali stony faced, and vice versa." I simply wouldn't have expected the grave and intimidating North Koreans we see in the media to laugh at the same jokes as we do. Perhaps western media never let us see the Korean moviegoers, or perhaps this people is less different from us than their (political) culture makes us think. I don't know. What I do know, is that I found this information comforting.
Anton's Right Here is no comedy. This documentary follows an autistic boy on his roller coaster ride through the malfunctioning Russian healthcare system. Due to lack of resources institutionalised persons are habitually pacified with drugs. Some patients, like Anton, ends up being passed from one institution to another. (But Anton is lucky still. He is not forgotten by the outside world. His terminally ill mother can no longer care for him, but in her love she tries her very best to find someone who can. And, of course, the film crew is interested in him. Trying to imagine the fates of the other empty, drugged gazes we see in the film, just eats your heart out.)
The film had me confronting my own preconceptions of autism. Unable to express anything, except for emitting guttural, grunting noises, Anton is at first utterly unable to make himself understood, and impossible for others to understand. This, I thought, is how this boy is: a soul for ever lost somewhere deep inside a human body. Autism (my impression was) is a sort of "steady state". But slowly, as Anton gets used to the film crew, his behaviour changes. He makes contact. How amazing, I thought. But this was nothing! Soon he is talking, writing, dressing himself, making food, and so on. Then his whole existence falls apart again when his designated carer leaves. He is left with people less willing or less able to treat him as a friend, and quite quickly Anton is reduced to someone who cannot be treated as a friend. Luckily the story doesn't end there. When his mother dies, the film crew "steals" Anton from the horrid ward where he now being is kept. They install him in his mother's apartment, where he can live a human life, and provide him with whatever he needs. And Anton blossoms again.
Having seen the film, I cannot believe I ever thought otherwise, but severely autistic people may be just as (or, as Anton, even more) sensitive to their environment and the way people treat them as you and I. If you talk to them and care to listen, they may someday talk back.
The third film was Zaytoun. An Israeli bomber-pilot is shot down over enemy territory and taken hostage by Palistinians. Having just lost his father to an air bomb, the boy guarding the prisoner is less than hospitable at first. He even fires a shot at him. But seeing his prisoner as his one chance of ever getting across the border to "Palestine", where his family used to live, he agrees to free the pilot. Here starts a journey, both inward and outward. The film is a road movie, but also a sort of Bildungsreise. At first the boy and his prisoner (he is still kept in bracelets) are simply enemies in need of each other. They hate one another, but have to stick together in order to survive. But as time passes their relationship develops, first to a strained partnership, then, as they learn to know each other, to genuine friendship. This story has been told many times before. But it is worth listening to when it is well told. And it seems particularly pertinent that stories like this are told in the Middle East.