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International Festival Week brings two acclaimed foreign films to campus

| Monday, March 29, 2004

The phrase “foreign film” has the ability to quell the desire to see a movie in the hearts of many people. Those two little words can conjure up images of bored French existentialists smoking and discussing the meaninglessness of life, or a group of weepy peasants suffering in some unknown ex-Soviet satellite nation until every one of them dies. Fortunately, these stigmas are beginning to die off as more foreign films, as well as better ones, are coming to the United States, and are being made in English – without subtitles or dubbing. “Fire” and “Whale Rider” are two foreign films made in English that received international acclaim. Such films could help to gradually ease a foreign-film-phobic into the world of international cinema. Both films are being shown at Notre Dame this week as part of the International Festival Week, which runs from March 27 to April 2 and is sponsored by the International Student Services and Activities Office.

“Fire” and “Whale Rider” both offer glimpses into cultures that are vastly different than our own, but the fact that they are in English makes them a little bit more palatable to the average movie goer. Each of the films is an interesting departure from both your typical American movies and the types of movies that you might expect to come out of India or New Zealand.

“Fire”

The Indian film “Fire” follows a newly-married woman Sita (Nandita Das), a naïve and child-like woman who is forced to live with the family of her new bridegroom, Jatin (Jaaved Jaaffery). His family displays little regard for Sita, and she is forced to work long, unacknowledged hours at the family’s combination kebab shop and movie rental store. The contempt that the family shows for Sita is not helped by the fact that her husband essentially ignores her, as he is far more interested in his mistress, with whom he spends almost every night. Sita’s sister-in-law, Radha (Shabana Azmi), is equally ignored by the family. The two forge a bond while taking care of a demanding and ancient grandmother who rings a bell every time that she wants anything. Radha’s husband Ashok (Kulbushan Kharbanda) has taken a vow of celibacy, found a swami and is frequently gone as he seeks spirituality. In the midst of the empty marriages in which the women find themselves, they fall in love with one another and forge a deeper relationship than that which they experienced with their husbands. Deepa Mehta’s film depicting lesbian love created a firestorm of controversy in India, with conservative groups like the Shiv Sena protesting its release and vandalizing theaters that showed the film. Indian censors are known for being tough – cutting things that Americans would consider innocuous, such as kisses – but this movie presented different and more difficult challenges. Many critics believed that this was an inappropriate and inaccurate display of Indian culture, and one critic even responded that the movie should have been about Muslims instead of Hindus, because Hindus did not have lesbians in their culture. The fact that the two women are named after prominent Hindu goddesses only fueled the controversy.

Despite the conflicted reception in the Mehta’s homeland, the film went on to win the praise of critics internationally. The movie calls attention to the tension between the traditional lives of Indians clashing with a more liberal, westernized view of culture. The controversy surrounding the release of “Fire” in India is living proof of the very dichotomy between East and West, old and new and conservative and liberal that the film itself deals with. “Fire” plays Monday at 7:30 p.m. in the Montgomery Theatre in LaFortune, with a discussion and Indian food to follow the showing.

“Whale Rider”

The New Zealand film “Whale Rider” tells the story of Pai, an 11-year-old girl born into the Maori tribe that traces its ancestry back to Paikea, the Whale Rider, who according to legend escaped death by riding to shore on a whale. Leadership is passed down through the males in the tribe, in concurrence with the legend. This standard of passing on power comes into contention when twins are born into the leader’s family, and the male child dies while his sister survives. Koro (Rawiri Paratene), the leader of the tribe, will not accept his grand-daughter Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes) as the heir to the tribe’s leadership because she is female. He is also convinced that the tribe has been experiencing misfortunes ever since Pai’s birth, and so he asks the members of his tribe to bring their sons to him in the hope that the future leader of the tribe is among them. Pai must stand up to her grandfather, as well as thousands of years of tribal history, to convince everyone else that she, and not another male, should lead the tribe in the future. She learns tribal rituals without her grandfather’s knowledge. She must ultimately prove herself to the tribe, and more importantly her grandfather, to show them that tradition sometimes needs some tweaking in order to be updated for the present.

Castle-Hughes received a great deal of acclaim for her performance as Pai, being chosen as the Chicago Film Critics’ Best Actress and nominated for a Screen Actors’ Guild award. She was the youngest actress to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress at the age of 13, losing to Charlize Theron at this year’s Oscars. This is great acclaim, considering that Castle-Hughes was discovered at her New Zealand school and had no prior acting experience.

The movie itself won awards as prominent as the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival and the World Cinema Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival.

The critical acclaim of “Whale Rider” was important for the acceptance of movies from countries that don’t produce as many movies, like New Zealand – although “Lord of the Rings” deserves some credit for that feat as well. More importantly, it focused on the daily lives of the Maori, who are an important and often neglected part of that region’s heritage. The movie is based on a book of the same name by Witi Ihimaera, a Maori woman, who was reminded of the Whale Rider legend when she saw a whale spouting in the Hudson River in New York. The film was shot in Whangara, New Zealand, and perhaps the greatest testament to the film’s impact and popularity is the fact that tours are now being offered in the area where the movie was shot. “Whale Rider” plays Tuesday at 7:00 p.m. in room 117 DeBartolo.