People’s solidarity across racial and national lines may look like an anachronistic idea at a time when animosities are fuelled and lines are drawn between people at the micro and macro level. Watching such solidarity becoming a reality on screen may perhaps be of some comfort. A few of the films being screened at the 28th International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) depict such stories, which may even seem like wishful thinking now.
In legendary British filmmaker Ken Loach’s ‘The Old Oak’, one sees the pub at the centre of the narrative turning from a place where disgruntled locals vent their ire against migrants into the site of a heart-warming community dining. Loach, who has spent a lifetime bringing working class stories to the screen, has at the age of 87 made a film that foregrounds the racial tensions that have heightened in his country and across the Western world, following the influx of migrants.
The pub is located in a British village, which was once a bustling mining centre, but which now has evidently fallen on tough times following the closure of the mines, partly owing to the privatisation policies of the early 1990s. With the arrival of Syrian refugees into this fraught environment, some of the locals find a target to vent their anger for their economic plight.
But T.J., the owner of the struggling pub, strikes up a friendship with Yara, a Syrian woman. While T.J. does not often openly object to the inflammatory comments the long-time regulars make, he takes a stand and refuses to open the pub’s back room for a meeting meant to target refugees. However, when some of the Syrians suggest the idea of organising community meals to foster some understanding between the locals and the Syrians, as well as to give a helping hand to those struggling to put food on the table, he readily opens the pub’s doors, leading to a community dinner, which to a lesser extent mirrors the inter-caste dining initiative Sahodaran Ayyappan launched in Kerala over a century ago.
However, Loach’s working class sensibilities prevent him from entirely casting as villains the local population, whose justified anger at their economic situation is being misdirected against the hapless migrants.
In Sudanese filmmaker Mohamed Kordofani’s ‘Goodbye Julia’, the opening film of the festival, the evolving sense of solidarity between the two women belonging to the northern and southern Sudanese communities, has quite a tragic origin. Mona, a wealthy North Sudanese woman, offers a housekeeper’s job to South Sudanese woman Julia, to calm her conscience, after her husband shoots down Julia’s husband, and the case is hushed up. Julia and her son stay in the household, unaware of the reality.
But, over time, a rare bond develops between the two women and between Mona and Julia’s son. They almost become friends, even though Mona’s husband sees her magnanimity as a sham. Julia inspires Mona to take up singing again, something she had earlier abandoned following her husband’s demand. Even as their bond becomes stronger, the tensions between their respective communities are mounting and the movement for South Sudan’s secession from Sudan is gaining strength. We even get to hear Mona arguing against secession (which finally happened in 2011), against the wishes of much of her community. Kordofani paints a poignant picture of an unlikely friendship amid turmoil in the film, which became the first Sudanese film to be screened at the Cannes Film Festival.