FILMS in today’s world are the most popular source of entertainment of the masses and this is true about all countries irrespective of their economic status. In this kind of environment, the producers, directors and all others connected with the movie industry are more concerned about hitting the box-office than contributing to art. The movie industry, in general, has already reached a level where it is making some type of contribution to either music or photography or any other aspect of a film at some level even if its primary goal is to make a profit. However, this is my personal opinion based on my decades of experience in the USA watching some high-rated Hollywood films. About films, whether entertaining or work of art, or even short and/or documentary; my knowledge is very limited and could be outdated. Thus, whatever I will say about Nasrinuddin Yousuff’s short film Alpha will not reflect or capture the nomenclature of any art or film critics. By profession, I am a sociologist, specialising in criminology and criminal justice focusing on non-state acts of violence. I watched Alpha as a compendium of many non-state acts of violence — violence against women, violence against children, violence against ethnic and religious minorities and violence against the people suffering from the societal gender-identity crisis like third gender.
Like any other artwork, a film could give a different message to different viewers. The viewers might leave a cinema with completely contradictory messages. This write-up is my take on Alpha that I watched in the Shilpakala Academy auditorium which was not an appropriate place to get the best impact of today’s sound and lighting system of a film. I was at the venue at the request of the director of the film to have some good-time and spend an evening of my summer vacation. On arrival, I learned that a local reputed art critic would make his comments. I was very excited because for decades I never had such an experience.
After the screening, the film critic made a wonderful, highly enriched review of the short film Alpha. His discourse took me to my earlier life of the 1970s when Mahboob Jamil and Syed Shalhauddin Zaki had pioneered their respective film club movements to organise screenings of foreign art movies to Dhaka residents. I was very close to both of them. Mahboob Jamil was Jamil Bhai to me, whereas I was Zaki’s Mokerrom Bhai. The country was just liberated and I got back from India and never bothered to return to my previous job at the Pakistan Press International —the only news agency then, which I left on March 25, 1971, when Pakistani government began genocide against the Bengalis of erstwhile East Pakistan. Zaki dragged me to his movement by literally assigning specific assignment. I still remember my first assignment. Zaki asked me to make an introductory remark on a world-famous film, The Battleship Potemkin — a silent film, made by a world-famous director Sergei Eisenstein. Today we hear about film montage which argues that film has its greatest impact not by the smooth unrolling of images, but by their juxtaposition. Students of film knows that it was Eisenstein who came with the theories of film montage as early as 1925 in his famous shot which is still known as The Odessa Steps, where troops were coming down the steps and shooting. This assignment to make opening remarks on the film made me enriched as I had to do some research on film per se and specifically on the Battleship Potemkin. If I remember correctly, I was assigned to make comments on another film, Last Year in Marienbad, directed by famous French filmmaker of 1960s, Alain Delphine. It was a piece of art which was difficult to appreciate without doing some homework. The characters were unnamed and the time and space where the characters were interacting were also fluid. Characters were moving between the past, the present and the future. Thus, many have hailed the work as a masterpiece, although others have found it incomprehensible.
Over the years, my academic and intellectual interests have shifted towards the understanding of crime and criminal behaviours. In this context, questions arise about why I am making comments on a short-film when I am professionally not a film critic. Alpha got my attention because an unidentified dead body, locally known ‘bewarish lash’, a criminal justice issue, is the central focus of the story of the film. As I was watching the film with keen interests, many of my 1970s exposers to world-famous films crowded my memories. I felt like I was watching a piece of artwork which needs some narratives because without those narratives this film would not become meaningful to ordinary viewers. Earlier I have just mentioned two world-famous art films to make my point to the readers that in Alpha I have seen some fascinating elements quite comparable to the quality that I have seen in those two movies. We should know that to get recognition at world stage one has to prepare the product and send to the right place. The film The Battleship Potemkin was named the greatest film of all time at the Brussels World’s Fair in 1958, with 100 votes among 117 votes of international filmmaker, film historians and critics, ahead of Chaplin’s Goldrush, Vittoria de Sica’s The Bicycle Thieves and Orson Welles Citizen Kane. Nowadays, Oscar and Cannes Film Festival screen short films of different countries and international filmmakers, film historians and critics assemble to select the best short film of the year. In my opinion, Alpha will be able to draw the attention of many critics at those screenings because it has many elements very close to two famous movies I have mentioned at the beginning.
Realism or surrealism
ALPHA, the central character of the film, is a painter who has been struggling to survive by rickshaw painting; however, his market has been shrinking due to the digital take-over of bill-board business and a cultural shift towards non-human figures. Alpha lives on one-room ‘tong’, built over a lake away from the noisy Dhaka city. This whole living arrangement of the artist is intentionally done by the director to depict the total alienation the people are experiencing across the world in today’s hegemonic global village. All the other charters are disconnected to demonstrate how society has been fragmented. Kali Ma, a very illusive character and a trans-gender, still shows some light at the end of our today’s alienated life-tunnel, where the character is pulling together a harmonious life situation for a bunch of street children. It seems that the filmmaker has intentionally created the images of all characters’ shots as juxtaposed to a society’s hunky-dory past and pointing to the process of globalisation as the source of current sufferings. Even the serenity of total alienation was shattered due to some violence taking place somewhere which pushed a dead body towards Alpha’s ‘tong’. This unidentified dead body eventually becomes the driving force of the film as Alpha’s peaceful living is shattered by this dead body. Alpha at the end moves away from his parochial mind-set and becomes a symbol of humanity and seeks ways to give the last respect a dead body deserves a burial or a peaceful closure. The dead body is taken to water again in the name of Prophet Khizr who guards the ocean, in other word water. Here the director moves to a higher level of sub-consciousness which is known to creative artists as a movement to surrealism that came to dominate the creative artists after the creative work of Salvador Dali, a Spanish artist who died in 1989. Following the tradition of surrealism the director has tried to understand and explain the everyday reality in which Alpha lives in a very mystic and bizarre way and has tried to take us to a different world of mysticism that our mind has never imagined before.
As Alpha’s world crumbles down at the clasp of these lamentable events, he seeks refuge in a dream world, where he appears as a hermaphrodite living in blissful isolation. Alpha has a very enigmatic narrative structure, in which time and space are fluid, with no certainty over what is happening to the characters, what they are remembering, and what they are imagining. Its dreamlike nature has both fascinating and baffling impacts; many may find it incomprehensible. But I believe international film critics, film historians and filmmakers might find the film to be a quite fascinating creative artwork, although many at home could find it incomprehensible. Nasirudding Yousuff for a long time has mainly been a theatre director where he brought many of Salim-al-Deen’s plays into life with prolific use of symbolism and historical realism and Alpha is not immune to that kind of symbolism. Alpha, the main character of the story, has a donkey as his companion. Is the director referring to the Old Testament where a donkey was associated with the names of King David, King Solomon, and Jesus? All these prophets are never seen riding a horse; they are always described as riding donkeys. This short-film is a condensed reflection of Nasiruddin Yousuff’s consciousness of history, legends and myth, along with love of symbolism.
Sometimes the scenes are dialectical: point, counterpoint, fusion. Flashes between the fearful news broadcasts of street conflicts of unidentified past and the sounds of grenades or gun shootings of faceless authority, he created an argument for the people against the effects of globalisation where Alpha is losing his business because city billboards are done by digital technology not by typical artist like him. Many other cuts are as abrupt as Tazia procession during Asura celebration of Shia Muslim minority of Bangladesh. Though, this shot is a reminder of what global terrorism could do to a country where the month of Muharram once used to bring a festive mood but now has turned into a sectorial conflict.
The force of a floating dead body arises when the viewer’s mind combines individual and independent shots and forms a new and distinct conceptual impression that far outweighs the shots’ narrative significance. Through Yousuff’s accelerated manipulations of filmic time and space, the burning of garment workers in a scene where hundreds of citizens find themselves trapped between deteriorating law and order situation where meaning of development acquires a powerful symbolic meaning. The agitational appeal of Alpha’s rolling over a large canvas pouring buckets of colours makes the viewers scared of life — life is nothing but roll-over between happiness and sorrows. In his concept of film montage, images, perhaps independent of the ‘main’ action, are presented for maximum psychological impact.
Before the image of the floating dead body turns into a major concern for Alpha there have been images where a dead body elusively appears repeatedly. These repeated appearances of a dead body took the viewers to many instances of recent past where many individuals turned into unidentified dead bodies just to avoid deadly proxy wars taking place in the contemporary world. The world has not forgotten the picture of an unidentified dead body of a young boy with red shoes and blue short on Turkish beach. The floating dead body in Alpha is a static reflection of an event, expressed by a logical unfolding of the action, Nasiruddin proposed a new form: the ‘montage of attractions’ in which arbitrarily chosen images, independent of the action, are presented not in chronological sequence but in whatever way would create the maximum psychological impact. Thus, the filmmaker aims to establish in the consciousness of the spectators the elements that would lead them to the idea he wants to communicate; he should attempt to place them in the spiritual state or the psychological situation that would give birth to that idea.
Alpha, produced by Impress Telefilm Limited, is an elusive reflection of a very fast-moving society in a time when invisible hands of key players of global hegemonic force are very active.
Mokerrom Hossain is professor of sociology and criminal justice at Virginia State University.
Want stories like this in your inbox?
Sign up to exclusive daily email
More Stories from Opinion