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The primary purpose of art has always been to remind us that we are not alone, that some experiences are universal despite our differences. By talking about the distance between us, we effectively shorten it.

To that end, a two day film festival recently held at the Alliance Française de Karachi is a very welcome endeavour.

'A French Filmmakers' Perspective' introduced three French filmmakers to Pakistan, allowing them a platform to showcase their beautiful and thought-provoking films.

Cultural exchange and unique viewpoints are immeasurably valuable to the steadily developing local film industry. This film festival allows movie lovers to experience productions that would never be offered in mainstream cinema complexes.

Subtitled in English, these films not only demonstrate the various facets of French contemporary cinema, but also provide insight and context to the way South Asia may look to outsiders. Things that we may take for granted as a default are shown in a new light, and in a way these auteurs reintroduce us to our region.

Two films were screened at the film festival: Noor, a collaboration by directors Çağla Zencirci and Guillaume Giovanetti, and Son Epouse (His Wife) by Michel Spinosa. Both of the movies highlighted the conditions of the marginalised with such sensitivity and empathy that it never felt exploitative or exoticised.

In discovering a new generation of French filmmakers and their distinct ways of filming and storytelling, we may have inadvertently discovered a deeper understanding of the people and cultures we live among.

Noor (2012)

Directed by Çağla Zencirci & Guillaume Giovanetti, made in Pakistan

Nomadic directorial duo Çağla Zencirci and Guillaume Giovannetti have collaborated on a number of short films since 2004 and Noor marks their first foray into feature films.

Beautifully shot landscapes, an atmospheric score and gritty magnificence balance the movie's scant narrative. With no real script and no professional actors the film's effectiveness rests on the shoulders of the subject and protagonist Noor.

Playing himself in a fictionalised version of his own life requires Noor to put his heart on his sleeve which he has done with considerable bravery and aplomb. His raw and honest performance is equal parts heartbreaking and inspiring.

Noor is a transgender man who looks to sever all links to his past and find his place in the world. Personable, illiterate, optimistic – Noor's personality is so charming and engaging that it quickly becomes clear that the sexual aspect is only one of the elements at play. This is not a story of "a transgender" but a story of a human being who happens to be transgender.

  A scene from 'Noor'- Photo Courtesy: eyeonfilms.org
A scene from 'Noor'- Photo Courtesy: eyeonfilms.org

Noor deftly sheds all the labels you put on him. He doesn't want to dance to make money, he wants to live as a man, but he also doesn't want to cut his hair because it is a part of who he is. Instead of blindly relying on stereotypes, Noor reminds us that a person is more than the sum of their parts.

In a country structured in male superiority, being a "real man" becomes the most important consideration.

Noor is an androgynous ghost, he is subject to ridicule and insults because he doesn't conform to regimented gender roles. His greatest desire is to grow a beard, because he feels it's the only way the world will respect him. The struggle to exist as a banished member of a marginalised community while craving to be accepted by a society that rejects difference is no light burden.

  A scene from 'Noor'- Photo Courtesy: en.unifrance.org
A scene from 'Noor'- Photo Courtesy: en.unifrance.org

The fictional cross country journey is an apt representation of the action, emotional and spiritual journey Noor has undertaken in his quest for identity. The difficult self-realisation female features imprison a male identity lead him to discard his former life to become himself.

Specificity has a unique universality. Noor's journey is his own, but his yearning for someone to share his life with, who would accept him for who he is, is ultimately relatable to everyone.

The film's distinctive mix of truth and fiction is compelling and appropriate. If Zencirci and Giovannetti had hired actors, much of the impact would have been lost and it would just be another in a long line of people patronising another person's experience trying to explain what life is like for people they are not. By letting Noor tell his own story they stretch from a place of privilege to create a beautiful piece of work. He needed to fictionalise himself to become a real person.

Son Epouse (His Wife, 2014)

Directed by Michel Spinosa, made in India

The screening of accomplished French director Michel Spinosa's exquisite film Son Epouse was a wonderful note to end the film festival with.

As the title suggests, the film centres around Joseph (Yvan Attal) whose wife Catherine (Charlotte Gainsbourg) has disappeared. Throughout the course of the film, the reason for their estrangement is slowly revealed through skilful flashbacks. He discovers that she died in India, where her spirit has possessed a recently married Gracie (Junagi). Although sceptical, he travels to India to see for himself.

  A scene from 'Son Epouse' - Photo Courtesy: en.unifrance.org
A scene from 'Son Epouse' - Photo Courtesy: en.unifrance.org

In a thoughtful meditation of love, loss, alienation spirituality and forgiveness, Spinosa juxtaposes two different marriages on opposite sides of the globe. Several languages and various locations enrich the passionately told tale.

The emotional sincerity and rawness present in every detail keeps this potentially pretentious film from feeling contrived. Cross-cultural differences abound and different approaches to the mysteries of human nature and the unexplainable metaphysical world are explored. At the same time there is a universality to the helplessness people feel when faced with forces which they cannot comprehend or control.

It's a risky choice to structure the film nonlinearly, with the story jumping back and forth in time to reveal bit by bit how we got to this point. It's a risk that ultimately pays off as the film slowly unfolds to show the ebb and flow of the narrative.

The chronological fragmentation preserves the sense of mystery until it fluidly comes together in the end filling in all the gaps for a satisfying resolution.

  A scene from 'Son Epouse' - Photo Courtesy: en.unifrance.org
A scene from 'Son Epouse' - Photo Courtesy: en.unifrance.org

Grounding the somewhat odd disconcerting events are the understated, yet committed performances.

Charlotte Gainsbourg combines fragility with strength for a compelling performance that is aptly haunting. Yvan Attal, as the tortured husband, skilfully manoeuvres through Joseph’s reluctance, confusion, mourning and gradual acceptance.

New comer Junagi is equally effective. She is perfectly at ease in a role which requires her to be alternately raving, frantic, docile and occasionally almost rational.

Cinematographer Rakesh Haridas’ use of natural light and visual storytelling enhances the already imposing settings that ranged from the French countryside to warmly atmospheric Indian locales. The visual storytelling here is breathtaking and plays a large part in making the film so powerful and poignant.

It is unfortunate that so few people have access to these wonderful movies. Holding this film festival was an admirable undertaking and hopefully there will be more of this kind, where the audience has direct contact with both the film and the filmmakers.

It would be even better if these films could eventually be seen in cinemas in Pakistan.