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
Getty
Show Hide image

The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage