Winter Film Awards 2017-Amit Biswas: An Interview

The sixth annual Winter Film Awards will start on Friday, February 23rd in New York City. The volunteer-led festival will showcase 88 films from around the world competing for 16 awards. I spoke with one of its participants, filmmaker Amit Ranjan Biswas, competing in the feature film category, for this interview. Biswas, from Calcutta, has worked in a number of different art forms including dance, poetry, and theater. He is also a neuropsychiatrist, working with children, who moved to London, England. The film, Bridge, his debut feature film and a passion project, tells the story of two people, an elderly man (played by Soumitra Chatterjee, a veteran of Indian cinema who has worked in over 200 films including 14 with legendary filmmaker Satyajit Ray) and a young woman (played by Sandhya Mridul), who head to the top of a bridge over the Ganges river to kill themselves. Instead, the two find new life as a bond slowly forms between them.

Walter Howard: Where did the film start? What was the first idea that led to the movie Bridge?

Amit Biswas: Okay. Well, as you probably know from my background, I worked with children with mental health difficulties. I worked with a similar kind of difficulty with people with hopelessness and helplessness every day. So, in fact, in that way, I have no shortage of stories, but I have a filmic vision that I wanted to say a few things that kind of… in a way that leads to a story, the mythology of man’s or hopeless people’s journey that starts and ends with hope. People finding meaning in their life. That was kind of my filmic vision. To do not just medical input or psychological input, but how human kindness and compassion and bonds between two people is everything and all about really. So, I was planning to make this movie for about the last seven years. This was the story I wanted to write. It kind of matches with the vision I wanted to create. I started the film in 2015. It was shot in 2015, but in 2014, started writing about it. Initial format was about the interactions between two people and how things change. That’s kind of the germination of the idea, but one thing I wanted to establish is, I’m very rooted in my culture in Bengal and in Calcutta and in India, in fact. So, the story has to be deeply rooted in my culture, but at the same time, it has to have the power to break boundaries.

WH: You brought up having a filmic vision. I saw that you’ve worked in a number of artistic mediums. How long have you been interested in exploring filmmaking, and expressing yourself through film?

AB: Sure. I had been trained since childhood, as you probably saw, as a classical dancer. After coming to the west, one of my ideas is to make bridges between the east and the west, and through dance it was possible. I kind of had collaborated with, you know, people with ballet, contemporary dance for art forms. But it has been very difficult, because another one of my professional journeys has been in medicine, and it has been very hard to continue dancing. Then I had to find another form, and another bigger canvas where I can actually put all the colors in, my psychological insight about life. My understanding of arts through dance and acting and medium. And I had been writing for a long time. Some of my plays had been quite successful in India. So, film was a bigger canvas where you can put all these things together. It’s about seven years back, I had started learning about film and filmmaking from the Raindance Independent Film School in London. Since then it’s almost a film a day for me to watch. I started making short films and documentaries based especially on mental health. But obviously, you don’t become a proper filmmaker unless you make a feature film. So, I had been making myself acquainted with art and science of filmmaking for a while, but the journey I think started while I was kind of making the bridge between science and art through putting things together about seven years back.

WH: In that time, what have you found rewarding about filmmaking?

I believe it is probably one of the most important art forms that can not only move people, that can actually change society. One of my life visions is to bring awareness to the humane kind of things: compassion, kindness, as well as bring awareness to mental health difficulties. To create change in the self and society. So, I believe cinema is an extremely powerful medium. I feel that this is the modern mythology; modern storytelling. Cinematic storytelling is recreating myths that happened millions of years ago, with people sitting around a fire, and we are doing the same things in theaters sitting around strangers with larger than life figures talking to us; transporting us somewhere beyond our reality. In this way Joseph Campbell has been quite influential in my cinematic vision. His Hero’s Journey, heroes having a call. Kind of going through a circle, going deep down in the whale’s belly of difficulties, but coming out with the elixir of life. He’s dying. He’s resurrecting. That kind of Joseph Campbellian vision has influenced many filmmakers including me. That’s why film is a very powerful medium for me to work with. To say things I want to say and to move people. Transform people. It’s a transformative medium, I believe.

WH: Many people such as myself as an American, are familiar with Indian cinema mainly through Bollywood film. I have seen the Apu trilogy, but what’s something that you see that distinguishes East Indian cinema, or what’s something that you treasure?

AB: Bollywood has its own place. It’s not that I don’t see Bollywood films. I do see, but at the same time, I feel there is a very strong passion for arthouse cinema in India. And it started quite a while ago. You know Ray and Ghatak. And I kind of keep myself in that parallel space. Bollywood recreations and the films, the larger-than song and dance movies has its place, because in India, this is recreation. People go into movie theaters and feel transported by larger than life heroes, but perhaps I have to come to a place where it is realistic. It is down to earth. Not just we need to be happy and recreated about. Some Hollywood films are like that. It has its place and value. At the same time, I want to have a cinema, want to see a cinema that tells something about life and we transport ourselves. That is cinema for me.

WH: What was your visual approach for the film? You use a lot of straight-on shots and static camera. How did you go about visually expressing your story?

AB: Yeah, one of the things that was myself and Zoran Veljkovic (DP), we started the journey talking about the film before the script even finished. We knew that this is a process of healing. The base has to be right. We want to move through the film and the place that is right for these people to create healing in themselves and create a similar feeling within the audience. We planned the shots while we were shooting the film, but it has to be with the pain, and the pace, and the vision of the film itself. The Ganges is flowing and flowing and I kind of had to hold that in a way, because that’s the flowing of the life. You might have seen that I had a, the parson’s doing a puja in the Ganges with a lighted candle. That’s what the film demanded from me. That was kind of predetermined.

WH: The recurring motif with the candle, how did that materialize?

AB: The first shot was actually impromptu. What I did in the beginning of the film, the budget was tied and the time was tied, I took half of a day creating a space. A kind of scaffolding of connection within the cast and crew where this journey can take place. We did a very big meeting, talking about not only just the film. We put a candle in between. We had a full circle there together, and we talked about why we’re here. We talked about what is cinema. We talked about spirituality. Zoran said why not start with a shot focusing on the candle. The candle in the beginning and the candle in the middle is very much of a symbolic kind of thing. A symbolic archetypal presence I would say.

WH: Did you write with your actors in mind? You worked with Soumitra Chatterjee in theater.

AB: Yes. Absolutely. He is definitely the one I wanted to do my first film with. We collaborated on various levels. We connect very deeply. He’s kind of been my mentor. The inspiration for my film. I knew what I wanted to create. I saw him throughout my film. Not all of them were in my mind, but Mr. Chatterjee was.

WH: When we finally see Tanima break out of her shell, she covers herself in mud and then wades in the water. Where did this idea come from?

AB: Yes. We toyed with three possible endings. We thought about ending with the kid, because she lost a kid. Then I thought it has to be something more iconic. We toyed with this idea and everybody liked this. I had to go to this point where almost these two people died, and there really almost kind of first dead, but death is not the end. As I said, the Joseph Campbellian journey. There is a resurrection. And resurrection is a very important thing to me. I think for Jesus Christ’s life, his resurrection is more important than his death and crucifixion. So, he has to be resurrected. And the mud of life has to be washed away. And that’s hope. I wanted to have an archetypal scene in the end. There is the image of goddess Khali that comes a number of times, and Khali that represents darkness, that dark energy, but it represents both destruction and creation. Right hand has a sword, and left hand is kind of a blessing. I like this goddess and this darkness is not the end, and when the mud washes off we regain hope and blessings and fulfillment in life.

WH: The sun in the distance hanging over the Bridge is a striking image. Did you write the script with that image in mind or did it come afterwards?

AB: Yes, and that is important. The bridge was in my mind. The house this was shot in is my wife’s ancestral house. This is basically my in-laws’ house. I’ve kind of been there, walked around a number of times to conceptualize the rooms before even I started writing, partly because of the money and the budget. We had to use one location. This house is very near to the Ganges. It’s about 5 minutes. The bridge is a very iconic bridge, before Indian independence. It’s been there since British times. So, the bridge and the house were there from the beginning.

WH: You’ve said on your website that Bridge was made on a shoe string budget. Yet you’ve made a feature length film, canvasing past and present. What was that process like?

AB: The last seven years, I have been looking for money everywhere really. Both the East and the West. Independent cinema has a very limited kind of, people don’t want to finance and produce this kind of cinema. So, it has been a very difficult journey. In India, I couldn’t find money. In the west, it was difficult. So, end of the day, I tell myself, I have an inner calling. I have to make this, and I can’t just go into a deathbed saying what if. I had to break my pension fund. I had to self-finance. It was my retirement money, that I put in. But it was still not enough. I had to work and put money in. Bridge has come in stages. After the shooting had been done, for 28 days I had to wait until I got the money for editing. Post production like DI which was done in India. A lot of people came up and helped. I have been quite blessed.

 

You can find more information on Biswas’ website http://bridgethefilm.com/

-Walter Howard

Bond Girls: An Interview

James Bond made his silver screen debut in 1962 played by a then unknown Sean Connery. Connery became a benchmark in a franchise that continued with last year’s 24th entry, Spectre. The conventions of a Bond film are a never ending source of joy for many, but they can also be a source of eye rolls and head shakes for some. Perhaps the most popular convention of the Bond films is “Bond Girls.” I sat down with Emily Deering Crosby, a Ph.D. candidate in Communication and instructor in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies, to discuss “Bond Girls” and their function in these films.

The Bond Franchise is over fifty years old. It’s in its sixth decade. Outside of the Bond Franchise, in western culture, how has the representation of women changed over this time?

Emily Deering Crosby: You have some significant things happening in the 1960s where women were starting to recognize how media was portraying them in particular dehumanized ways- as props, as figures-never really a part of the plotline, but more so props to the male protagonist. And with more recognition of equal rights, gender representation, racial representation, you get a lot more diversity and you get the upswing of genres like Blaxploitation films, but with that comes recognizable backlash in some forms of representation. And women in media today, you see a lot more potential in T.V than you do in movies, because the movie industry is very much geared toward young white men, 18 to sometimes 25 or 34, so you see a lot of the highest grossing films fulfilling that need. So like this year the top films were Furious 7, the Age of Ultron, American Sniper, and so many of them are sequels. There just recycling these same narratives that really resonate with young men, because they’re the ones who are predominantly going to these movies. So it’s very consumer driven. You can think about it that way. There’s not as much room for women to star or write their own movies, produce their own movies, but you are seeing huge franchises that are changing that, like Hunger Games.

What stands out to you about the Bond Girls in what you’ve seen?

I find the camerawork of the Bond Franchise fascinating because it is routinely from the point of view of Bond, or pictures of Bond sexualizing the women. You never get the point of view of the Bond Girl, so she just becomes the object of our visual gaze. And more so in the earlier ones, I find the the issue of consent very interesting, because sometimes we get this notion of no means yes with women and Bond is so enchanting. That offers confusing narratives in regarding romantic exchange between men and women, especially when we have the powerful main character of James Bond who sort of represents the euro-centric or even anglocentric take what you want, it’s yours. You’re entitled to it.

That’s why I think the character of M in the most recent films has been fantastic, because she’s sort of an asexual female who’s a maternal figure but also a leader, so I think she offers a lot of complexity that we don’t get to see very much in film.

I can’t remember which film it was (Live and Let Die*), but there’s one with Roger Moore where he tricks a female character using a stacked deck in to sleeping with him. I don’t know if that would pass today.

Exactly. There’s kind of this notion that the Bond Girls were sort of all body, no brains. Kind of ditzy. When talking with a student who’s read the books, he actually said that he took a picture of a passage in Casino Royale. It was talking about Vesper and how she needs to stay with the pots and pans. She’s going to slow me down. It’s embarrassing that they would send a woman for a man’s job. And really hurtful and sexist remarks that hopefully you see don’t fly today. But there’s sometimes that engrained bias that why on earth would they send a woman to do a man’s job. And you see repercussions of that in the business world where people don’t take contract negotiations as seriously when a woman is sent to do it. Oh, they must not value me as a potential partner because they’ve sent a woman, when it’s in fact, they’ve sent their top person. It just happens to be a woman.

This is kind of a facetious question, but do you see anything in the Bond Girls beyond the superficial?

In the more recent installments with Daniel Craig, I see a lot more, but more so in the Vesper character the most because she’s a part of the narrative, and she’s not just the damsel in distress trope which we see in the two most recent ones Skyfall and Quantum of Solace. You see these ambiguously racialized women, whether they’re South American, Eastern European, it’s not very clear, but he has to save them because they’re beautiful, sexy. The character Moneypenny (Skyfall) is a little more complex because she is clearly a black women who has agency. Who has a role within the narrative, but still it’s not something that’s as developed as it could be. There’s a lot of potential in the recent ones, but still the audience knows what it’s getting with James Bond.

I remember my first experience watching a Bond film. It was Goldfinger. I remember there was a particularly suspenseful scene where you have your damsel in distress in a situation where I’m wondering how Bond can possibly save her, and he just doesn’t. He fails to save her and then moves on. I remember this being shocking to me. What is the appeal of this aspect of Bond?

I think in general, action films promote life as very expendable. It’s more shocking to us because we are so familiar with the damsel in distress notion that he’s going to have to save her and sometimes, he recognizes the sort of fleeting timeline of life and he just walks away from it. And I think that’s why sometimes James Bond is very relatable and likeable, because he’s a flawed guy. He has sort of a darkness to him. He’s ruthless.

I’d like to talk about a few specific Bond Girls: first Pussy Galore, a lesbian converted by Bond.

Of course. I think it hopefully shows our progress in regards to rights for the LGBT plus community. In regards to lesbians don’t just need a good man for them to arbitrarily change teams, but that it’s a larger issue than that. But you have to think, who benefits from that narrative? Potentially men watching the film who think, oh, all lesbians need is a man. They haven’t met the right man yet. Or lesbianism is okay as long as it serves men in a fetishized notion of sexual performance. I think that’s really tough. But they’re also constrained by their context of history. What year was that?

63.

63. So you know that’s before even really the second wave of feminism and notions of LGBTQ rights even were on the docket. It’s just kind of a limitation of its time.

Halle Berry as Jinx in Die Another Day. She talks about the role as being empowering.

I think Halle Berry fills a very unique role just in contemporary pop culture where she’s able to diversify the visual of a movie where unfortunately, she’s black but not too black, and many scholars talk about how to traverse that very difficult line between racial representation and assimilation. And I do think there are empowering elements of her portrayal and I think it’s great that she herself found it empowering. But her famous scene walking out of the water is a great teaching tool in regarding the male gaze because I as an audience member may not have that perspective. But I’m encouraged to look at her first as this sexual being and then maybe as an empowered agent or empowered figure later.

Eva Green as Vesper in her introductory scene is sized up by Bond which we’re used to, but then she returns the favor.

It’s very reciprocal (her relationship with Bond) which you don’t see often because she introduced in a way where she’s his intellectual equal, or at least a sparring partner which shows nuance to her beyond just her looks. But then you argue, she’s the first women to be really an intellectual equal, is that why he falls in love with her? Is she only represented in respectful ways because he loves her where if he were to find her expendable, maybe we wouldn’t get to hear her speak?

How do you feel about the term Bond Girls?

I think historically girls is a term to dismiss women’s potential. It’s infantilizing, but when you look at 1990s feminism and the riot girl movement, you see the recycling of the term girl as a form of empowerment. So like rebel girl, guerilla girls, the way they’re taking a term that was historically used to dismiss women and reappropriating it into a powerful term. But historically girls has not been the best term for grown women.

What do you see happening with the names given to the female characters in Bond films? They are always at least exotic, and often pretty ridiculous. Anya Onatopp, Dr. Goodhead, Pussy Galore.

I think that shows the origins of the pornification of media. By pornification I mean how we can turn seemingly respectable, important figures into nothing more than fetishized objects for men. And even when Sheeler and Anderson in their 2013 book Woman President talk about the pornification of women in politics, where you’re taking some of the most powerful, arguably hardworking and educated women on the planet and really looking at them through the lens of porn and how ubiquitous it’s become. You know the porn industry is bigger the Amazon, bigger than google combined. It’s huge. So James Bond was the first franchise to introduce that in not so subtle ways.

Growing up watching Bond, I feel like I’ve allowed myself to be kind of a hypocrite watching these movies because there is a lot about Bond that I would despise in a real person, and yet there’s also a part of me that would like to be Bond. Is this something you’ve thought about at all, or examined?

Absolutely. I think that any cultural critic or media critic struggles with this notion of I understand there are so many problematic things about this narrative, but I also find it really entertaining. I do hope that the Bond Franchise is listening to contemporary issues in regarding representation and taking that into account.

-Walter Howard