Chiaroscuro Film Series uses cinema to create understanding

Nate Smith

Cinematic censorship in America is usually reserved for films that feature nudity or graphic scenes. In other countries, however, governments use censorship to suppress dissenting opinions and to bury inconvenient truths.

The 7th Annual Chiaroscuro International Film Series at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts is focusing on cinematic pieces from around the world that have been banned or censored in their home country.

This year’s topic of censorship differs from last year’s topic of “Humor around the World.”

“We wanted to show films that could illustrate engaging cultural issues,” said Julia Petzelt, vice president of the series’ board of directors. “The purpose of the series is, really, to generate conversation.”

The film series is an exercise of a right that doesn’t exist in many of the countries from which the films originate.

“We’re lucky here in the U.S. because our films aren’t censored just for being politically sensitive,” Petzelt said. “We are able to use our right of free speech to feature these great, thought provoking films in the series.”

A short film by a local filmmaker will precede each chosen film in the series, allowing talent from Grand Rapids to showcase their work in front of an audience.

The first movie, shown Jan. 13, was “Earth” by director Deepa Mehta, which was banned in Pakistan because of the way the struggle was depicted. The film focuses on the bloody beginning and ongoing struggle between the Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs upon the creation of Pakistan following the withdrawal of England from the subcontinent. But it shows it all through the eyes of an 8-year-old Parsi girl with polio in a story of love, loss and understanding that illustrates deep-seeded cultural issues that still affect the region.

After the film’s showing there was a discussion panel that featured both former Pakistani military leader Emmanuel Joshua and Grand Valley State University communications professor Vandana Pednekar-Magal.

The discussions started with general questions about the film and its context in the series, but quickly switched to the hard-hitting, overarching issues regarding the cultural issues depicted. Questions ranged from the origins of the conflict, to the effect of the political strife on the individual citizens of India and Pakistan.

“These big questions about media, culture and religion have such broad answers,” Pednekar-Magal said during the panel discussion. “It’s difficult to see what’s happening with the individual lives of the people involved in these situations.”

The film series continues Jan. 27 with the Senegalese film “Moolaade” and will carry on every other Sunday until Mar. 10, when it will conclude with the film “Beirut Hotel,” which was banned in Lebanon. The “Beirut Hotel” screening will be the first time the film will be shown in the U.S. Midwest.

“I think this is a great idea,” Pednekar-Magal said in reference to the festival. “Films aren’t just about entertainment, they allow people a chance to see the culture behind the movies.”
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