Written by Siddhartha Krishnan . 5 Min Read
The year was 1998. I was 15 years old. Inside a packed hall in Lighthouse Cinema (Kolkata), we were watching Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. A few minutes into the film, the famous Omaha Beach Scene happened. The air turned cold and tense. It showed in my breath which was getting heavy. I clenched the arm rest, discomforted by the carnage that was unfolding on screen. The audience around me fared no better. They too were stunned.
Each bullet that pierced the heart of a soldier, and each bomb that shattered their bodies into pieces, made us nauseous. Something changed in me that day. Perhaps it was my idea of war, which until then, had been largely shaped by the Hindi films of that decade. Unknowingly, I was guilty of romanticizing war. But this was very different. I loved the film, but I began to hate war. It left me with several unanswered questions. Who really wins a war? Who are the people calling it?
Recently, I watched two war-based films that made me remember that experience from years ago. The following are my thoughts on these two poignant and beautifully crafted films.
Last Men in Aleppo (2017)
Genre – War Documentary
Director Feras Fayyad
Nowadays, documentary filmmakers have become very innovative with their storytelling. With the latest technology at their disposal, there are a million ways to tell a story. However, letting the camera do the job without intervention, is still perhaps the most truthful and effective. Director Feras Fayyad, does that with Last Men in Aleppo. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.
‘World Documentary Grand Jury Prize’ winner at the Sundance Film Festival (2017), this film is not for the faint-hearted. But it is essential viewing. It documents the everyday life of a volunteer group, called the White Helmets, who were engaged in search and rescue operations during the Syrian Civil War. These are ordinary citizens who have the choice to flee hell, but have chosen to stay on and save lives. They pull out dead bodies, from mountains of rubble, of little children and their mothers, hoping to find one alive. A torso, a hand, a finger, is all they find sometimes, yet, they muster courage to tell stories of hope to each other; that there will be a better tomorrow.
Shot in guerrilla style, this is documentary filmmaking in its rawest and truest form. It shows the cost of war and who really benefits from it. The camera is like a fly on the wall masterfully capturing the anguish and horror, as well as the rare moments of joy that these courageous men manage to find sometimes.
The film asks several questions of us, the fortunate, who do not have to deal with a crisis of this magnitude. Our understanding of happiness is one of them.
The Bombardment/The Shadow in My Eye (2021)
Genre – Historical War Drama
Director – Ole Bornedal
Based on Operation Carthage carried out by the UK’s Royal Air Force towards the end of World War II, Danish film The Bombardment also called The Shadow in My Eye is a hard-hitting story told primarily through the eyes of children. The Air Force’s plan was to bomb the Gestapo stronghold in Copenhagen, Denmark, which was under Nazi occupation. While they do manage to hit their target, they mistakenly bomb a school (Institut Jeanne d’Arc) as well, killing innocent children and civilians. But the film is not just about that unfortunate incident. It captures several moments in the lives of its characters leading to the fateful event; to tell a poignant story about the cost of war.
The film, unusually, does not have a protagonist. It has five lead characters out of which three are children. Their performance is another strong point of the film. However, I found the character of the nun played by a brilliant Fanny Bornedal, the most captivating. Her character is the most complex, and through her, director Ole Bornedal was able to convey the apathy and absurdity that war brings with it. This is a film that needs to be watched for being brutally honest to its subject matter. Again, not an easy watch, but an essential one.
In 2018, I saw a video of a child being rescued from a bomb explosion site in Syria. Both his parents were killed in the incident. Sitting inside an ambulance, he was covered in dust from head to toe. Except for his eyes, everything else was greyed out. The blankness in those eyes was horrifying. Perhaps he was having a meal with his parents, when in an instant his world crashed! His eyes haunted me for days until I decided to put pen to paper.
It was the genesis of my short story Fireworks, which eventually found a way into my debut book Two and a Half Rainbows two years later. It was the story of a toddler and his nanny, and a moment in their life. The child narrates verbatim the stories that his mother has told him about the daily fireworks seen from their apartment window.
This was my way of expressing the angst within me.
They say, war is inevitable. And children, women and foot soldiers must bear the brunt of it. They always have. From the age of the tribal warlords to the age of technocrats. But the question is—if we can tell fabulous stories to each other, that unites us to build spacecrafts, capable of exploring other planets; can’t we tell each other a brilliant story that unites us to end war?
What is that story? I wonder.
Siddhartha Krishnan is the author of Two and a Half Rainbows – A Collection of Short Stories. He is also an enthusiastic blogger and, on his website, www.whatsonsidsmind.com, he regularly puts out his essays, articles, travelogues, book and movie reviews.
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