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SFS Showcase #2: Politics & Humanity

Programmer’s Note
by Morris Yang

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Thank you for your enthusiastic support for SFS Showcase 1: Children in Society earlier this year. It is immensely heartening and rewarding to see you back with us at the cinema, savouring from around the world the many perspectives and experiences that our selection of international cinema has to offer. And special thanks for the incredible turnout for Pawo Choyning Dorji’s Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom, whose encore screenings at The Projector are happy proof that our appreciation of the arts does not, and should not, have to be confined to Hollywood blockbusters and local sitcoms.

After the cautious optimism of our first showcase, Children in Society, we now turn our programming attention to the heftier but no less accessible theme of Politics & Humanity. Examining the interplay of political systems and structures with the people they are designed to serve, SFS Showcase 2: Politics & Humanity brings to light this often complicated relationship from the perspectives of both fiction and documentary, underlining now more than ever the necessity of political awareness, if not engagement, despite the many obstacles that lie in the way.

POLITICS & HUMANITY

The programming process for this particular theme proved considerably more challenging than before. Given the broad scope of politics, from studies of democracy to portraits of activism and emancipation, to experimental and poetic topographies of war, it took a lot of deliberation and willpower to sieve through a remarkable catalogue of new and upcoming releases, whittling our previously non-exhaustive longlist down to just two films.

Some titles we tearfully bid farewell to, after considering their availability elsewhere — I will take this opportunity to encourage members to consider a subscription to MUBI, an incredible streaming service for arthouse cinema (student and educator discounts available!), on which such works like Valentyn Vasyanovych’s Atlantis, Sergei Loznitsa’s State Funeral, and Gianfranco Rosi’s Notturno have premiered. 

Others we felt were either befitting of a more specialised presentation of political cinema (such as Samaher Alqadi’s As I Want, or Nottapon Boonprakob’s Come and See), or would not have a chance at local exhibition due to certain sensitivities, notably in terms of censor-averse content (as was the case with Radu Jude’s timely, provocative, but also sexually explicit Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn).

In the end, our curatorial efforts led us to two exceptional films from the past year, one of which has made headlines internationally after its shortlist for Best International Feature Film at the Oscars. Quo Vadis, Aida?, the sixth feature from Bosnian filmmaker Jasmila Žbanić, dramatises the atrocities that took place in 1995 during the Bosnian War with a muted anger that underscores the fundamental desecration of humanity beneath the everyday statistical reports and televised footage.

Fighting for Life

Centred around Aida, an interpreter for the United Nations, Quo Vadis, Aida? trains the lens on her for its entire duration as she navigates a ticking-bomb of conflict involving the UN peacekeepers, Bosnian civilians, and an encroaching Serbian army. Tasked with housing the refugees of war, the peacekeepers face escalating pressure on the ground, yet find themselves defenceless against the opposing army (led by General Ratko Mladić, later tried at the Hague for his instrumental role in the genocide), with few resources and no response from their unseen superiors. Aida’s own family, like many others, struggle to gain sanctuary in the peacekeeping compound, while Aida fronts two battles: one for her people, one for her family.

Named by our programming director Eternality Tan as his favourite film of 2020, Quo Vadis, Aida? solemnly depicts the injustice and indignation that necessarily follows the brutal calculations of war, refuting the propagandist threads of glory and patriotism in favour of a sobering realism whose reverberations, even after a generation, continue to be felt by many. In giving up the comforts of intellectual abstraction for the unrelenting horrors of conflict no one should be subjected to, the film situates its political context within the broader and more precarious umbrella of humanity.

Fighting for Freedom

Juxtaposed against this harrowing historical account comes a comparatively light-hearted documentary on political activism. In Sam Soko’s Softie, a photojournalist named Boniface Mwangi decides to run for office in the midst of Kenya’s dysfunctional and endemically corrupt governmental rule. With identity politics divided along ethnic lines as the country’s modus operandi, and local bureaucracy’s self-serving agendas abetted by foreign interests, the battle Boniface prepares to undertake is an uphill one. And doubly so, given his status as a family man, happily married with three young children. Given these inordinately unfavourable circumstances, how would he succeed, even remotely?

Soko’s entertaining and free-wheeling portrait of its subject devotes little time to proselytising on the staggeringly deficient institutions in Kenya vis-à-vis those of the Western world. Instead, Softie captures in intimate fashion both the political and personal lives of Boniface, that of a man optimistic for his children’s future but at the same time sacrificing no little amount of his time and energy in pursuit of a reformative vision for his country. 

As we follow his travails in garnering campaign support, engaging his supporters in debate, and combating the ridiculous odds the incumbent parties force on him, our understanding of a hitherto foreign socio-cultural environment takes on increasing relevance to our own political lives; not just in a frequently frustrating apathy that is no doubt engendered in systems both democratic and authoritarian, but also through Softie’s distinctly energetic rhythm, imbuing the viewer with an infectious urgency to engage in and direct the fight for freedom.

It is our hope that this double-bill we have organised will engage you in the contemplation of politics and its many facets. In accommodating both narrative and non-fiction, past and present, the weighty and the witty, this upcoming showcase aims to broaden our perception of humanity’s shared experiences and deepen our appreciation for the many constants — courage, fortitude, morality, progress — that undergird our messy and fluctuating world. We look forward to presenting SFS Showcase #2: Politics & Humanity to you.

 

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