111 Girls wins Best Film Award at Pan Asia Film Festival

A proud moment for Nahid Ghobadi.

The directorial debut by Iranian film director Nahid Ghobadi (sister of the renowned film-maker Bahman Ghobadi) has been dubbed by jurors Nikki Bedi, Hardeep Singh Kohli - Executive Director of the Iran Heritage Foundation - Haleh Anvari and BBC Diplomatic Correspondent Bridget Kendall, as the Best Film of the Pan Asia Film Festival 2013.

In separate interviews conducted in the first week of PAFF 2013, I asked festival director Sumantro Ghose and Artistic Director Alison Poltock if they felt strongly about a particular film in the line-up. They both said that 111 Girls was their film of choice. Ghose made his preference for the genre of Iranian film very clear and added

If you watch one frame, you instantly recognise it as Iranian. There’s an astonishing beauty which combines melancholy and existentialism… there’s even touches of humour in there as well. Considering what is happening in Iran right now, it’s a real shame to see how Iran is becoming increasingly cut off from global contexts when you have these fantastic film-makers who want their films seen, to engage in a global dialogue.

Despite challenges faced by the organisers of running a film festival on a tight budget, Ghose has emphasised how much the festival has grown each year. They are expanding the screening locations to other cities such as Leeds and Glasgow, have received much more attention from distributors in the British film industry this year. Both Poltock and Ghose stressed their inclination toward independent films over large studios in gaining a more accurate representation of emerging and established talent across the Asian film industry. Ghose added that they travel to international film festivals such as Cannes and Busan (in Korea) to select films for the festival as themes of migration and cultural identity are of increasing relevance as a context of production, the films placed emphasis on multiple cultural identities as a modern social condition on account of the amplifyinhg dialogue of contemporary society with past tradition.

Ghose added, candidly: “You can view the film as a stunningly beautiful cinematic piece one level, but there’s so much in that film that lends itself to deeper interpretations.” He added that the shared experience of cinema, bringing together an audience that spans a wide cultural diaspora “is a real thrill.” I couldn’t agree more.

On a parting note, I think 111 Girls was definitely deserving of the title. It functioned as an insightful, contemporary take on Iranian geopolitics - especially due to its setting in Iranian Kurdistan which has been imbricated in the recent events that have taken place in Syria, and it is a remarkable cornerstone for the growing Ghobadi legacy.

Inside the theatre. Image Courtesy: Film Culture 360
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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis