Starting from October 24, Tokyo's Hibiya-Marunouchi-Ginza area that once had been the heart of Japan's cinema world once again became the focus of attraction of cinema lovers who enjoyed watching films from different corners of the world that joined in the 35th Tokyo International Film Festival. One of the prime spots of the Japanese capital was in festive mood for 10 consecutive days, as outdoor film screenings along with various film-related events entertained visitors for the first time since the outbreak of corona virus in early 2020. Many of the local movie theatres had shown festival entries as streets were decorated with banners and posters of the festival.

The festival came to the end with the award ceremony on November 2, where winners in different categories made their appearance on the stage to receive the awards. With the total submission of 1,695 films from 107 countries and regions, this year's festival marked a sharp increase in submission of films after two consecutive years of declining trend due to the pandemic. Other figures too indicate a turning back from the COVID downturn. The festival this year screened 169 films, a significant increase from last year's 126. Most significantly, 104 international guests attended the 35th festival, marking a 1,300 percent increase from last year when only 8 international guests visited Tokyo for the festival. All such figures give a clear indication that Japan is probably on way to a full recovery from COVID emergency, though daily infection rate still remains quite high.

The coveted highest award of the festival, the Tokyo Grand Prix, went to a French/Spanish joint production entitled "The Beast." Directed by the Spanish film director Rodrigo Sorogoyen, the film looks at the interesting concept of the relativity of justice, as the director in his message made it clear that according to his own understanding what is justice for one is not necessarily so for the other. In the film the middle-aged couple that migrated to a mountain village in Spain provokes the opposition of two brothers who are prominent local figures. The couple is harassed in various ways that talk much about backlash against strangers in a closed society. The film has also won the Best Director and the Best Actor awards, and thus making it the most award-winning film of this year's festival.

The second most important recognition of the festival, the Jury Award, went to the Iranian entry "World War III"; while Sri Lankan film director Sanjeewa Pushpakumara's film "Peacock Lament" was chosen by the jury for Best Artistic Contribution. In Asian Future category, Iranian film "Butterflies Live only One Day" was selected as the lone winner.

A total of 15 films were initially selected for the main competition from all submitted entries. Significantly, out of the 15, there was not a single English language film and the list represented films from four of the six continents, except from North America and Oceania. This unique diversity was more prominently displayed by the presence of films from countries like Kyrgyzstan and North Macedonia, countries that are not familiar to many of the film lovers around the world.

Despite the fact that "The Beast" was chosen by the jury as the best entry, all 15 selected for the main competition had been of very high quality of cinematographic excellence and also for the clarity of the underlying message of upholding social justice and rights of individuals as human beings. All fifteen, from that standpoint, deserved to be the winner and echoing that presumption, one of the members of the jury rightfully said in the concluding speech that all 15 deserved to be taken seriously and should there had been a different group of judges, the result probably would have been different too.

The film from Kyrgyzstan: a hidden jewel among the best

For me the film that turned out to be most appealing was the entry from Kyrgyzstan. Though it was not singled out for any of the awards, the fact that it was chosen among the top 15 itself was a recognition of excellence. Directed by the 57-year-old veteran film maker of the Kyrgyzstan Aktan Arym Kubat, the film is a family drama based on a tragic event of an extended family living in rural Kyrgyzstan. However, from a broader perspective it also focuses on a number of crucial issues that the country is now facing; more precisely the slowly expanding influence of religion, position of women in the society, as well as the corrupt influence of money in local politics. The result is a well-made collage of ups and downs of the society going through an uncertain time. I had a rare opportunity of interviewing the director who was in Tokyo during the festival.

The story line is centered around a person who returns to his native land after working for more than two decades in Russia. He returns, but without any trace of memory of his past life. However, his sudden return to his native village unfolds another tragedy that puts his wife in an extremely difficult situation where the second story line of the film begins.

His wife, after waiting too long for the return of her disappeared husband, had eventually taken him as dead and then was tacitly forced to remarry a rich businessman from the locality. However, the unexpected return of the husband all of a sudden made everything for her very complicated. Tormented by the inner struggle within herself, she eventually tried to get divorce from her second husband, but was mercilessly beaten up by him after raising the issue.

In the film we see the wife resorting to the imam of the mosque for advice, who told her that only option she had for getting divorce was to receive the consent of her current husband and in rural setting this would mean husband's utterance of the word 'talaq' three times. However, the muazzin of the mosque, after overhearing what the Imam had said, told her that Allah created man and woman equally and in Islam women are supposed to enjoy the same rights and privileges as men. He also advised her that she should act according to the desire of her heart and if she felt she was taking the right decision, she should face her husband and tell him about her intention to divorce him by saying the word in a similar way as men always do, albeit with the utterance of different wordings. The muazzin also did not fail to remind her that option for women to divorce their husbands with verbal proclamation exists in Islam. The tormented lady, convinced after hearing the interpretation of the muazzin, went back home and told her husband that she had decided to divorce him. And no sooner after she uttered the words for divorce, husband became furious and started hitting her very hard.

This sideline of the main story tells very convincingly the precarious situation that women in the family and in society in many of today's Islamic world face when they try to put into practice something which is not convincingly forbidden. Here lies the paradox prevailing in Kyrgyz society that for quite long was practicing a more tolerant form of Islam. However, the emergence of radical Islam in regions adjacent to Kyrgyzstan is gradually drifting the society towards a different direction that some in the country are not comfortable with. According to the director of the film, the Kyrghyz society is currently facing the problem of gradual radicalization of Islam through the penetration of extremist ideas from outside. As he had shown in the film the contrast between the imam and the muazzin not only through their respective interpretations of religious rights, but also through the way they appeared in the film. We see in the film the Imam dressed in the attire not familiar to the locality, while the muazzin was in familiar Kyrghyz dress.

Explaining about the existence of those two different worlds of Islam within the society, Kubat was rather straightforward in saying that, "Religion always had been symbolic for us. Islam for very long had tried to associate itself with our tradition, with our ways of life. It had never been an aggressive form of religion. During Soviet time we had a different relationship with religion. In public life people did not talk about religion, but in private one we kept religion firmly within the family. We observed religious festivals and followed religious teaching, all in a very symbolic way. There were not so many mosques as it is now. Now in every village we can see there are at least two or three mosques and currently there are more mosques in the country than schools. The end result is penetration of contradictory ideas and misleading interpretations of Islam, which are disturbing the harmony of society that always remained Islamic symbolically".

In the poetic ending of the film, Kubat had masterfully shown what we might presume as the ultimate fate of this unhappy couple, without saying much in detail. We see the battered wife appears at son's house where a small gathering of people was celebrating the return of the old man after many years. She takes her place among them and starts singing a song that she used to sing in the past during her happy family days. The husband, devoid of his memories, was not in the room. He was busy in the nature taking care of trees and plants. And as the sound of the song reached him from a distance, a flash of fragmented memories seemed to be making a comeback, and only for a moment. As he looked upward, he saw branches of trees swinging in the wind with distant white clouds drifting fast. The rest is for the audience to conclude what might happen from then on.

(Tokyo, November 7, 2022)

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