Twelve months twelve films

I wondered if I could curate a set of twelve films, one for each month of the year based on a specific theme. While it was easier to decide for some of the months, it was difficult to attribute a theme to some of the other months and zero in on the film. Overall, it took an agonizing three weeks to put together a list that was representative, holistic and took account of what was important to us and our world. The result of that endeavor is what this blog is about.

These are also my favorite films that I want to watch every year. They have the timeless quality to keep nourishing us. These films cover a wide range – some teach us history, some build courage in us, some sensitize us to other cultures, some are reflective, some help us to become better. These films cover some of the most important themes in today’s world – gender equality, drugs and suicide, faith and religion, food, queer acceptance, international conflicts, books, fight against racism, existential reflection, the warmth of human connection, and overcoming personal obstacles. The diversity of these films is evident in their setting too – they span through France, Cuba, Austria, Israel-Palestine, US, Norway, Saudi Arabia, Japan, and Britain.

It is my belief that anyone who watches these twelve films will be a more informed, sensitive, self-assured, empathetic, and a culturally-literate individual. Or to put simply, a better human.

January – Believing and Becoming our Better Selves

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With the turn of the year, most of our look forward to a qualitative development in ourselves. We often assign goals and resolutions to ourselves. What does the passage time mean if we don’t grow? January is the time to brace ourselves to believe that we can do whatever we set our mind to, despite our shortcomings and lapses. It is the time to remind ourselves to put undoubting effort into the project of our lives.

The King’s Speech, a period drama, embodies the spirit of discovering that we’re much more capable than what we’d thought of ourselves. Set in the years preceding World War II, Albert (later King George VI) sustains stammering which he conquers as he works with his speech therapist Lionel. He goes on to deliver a crucial wartime speech that stuns the British public. Albert never believed he could do it nor that he was capable of leading the country, he gets frustrated and gave up more than once. It was his wife and Lionel who keep him at it and showed evidence to him that he was indeed making progress. It is representative of our own unwillingness to put undoubting effort and also that we also could do with support from the people around us.

February – Love and Human Connection

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February is the month of roses and romance. Of course, there is a broader meaning of love. Love as a romantic notion is only a modern invention, while universal love has been time immemorial and more essential to what makes life worth living. February is a time to commemorate the importance of human connection, the joy of companionship and understanding.

The Sound of Music answers the call of February. Set in Salzburg during the Second World War when the Nazis were soon to occupy it. Seven children and their widowed father, a former naval captain, live in a house where warmth and joy had long left. In comes the Governess Fraulein Maria, a nun on a sabbatical from the Nonnberg Abbey. With her light spirit and music, she brings back joy to the children, the household, and the Captain. It is a film that could bestow us with the spirit that could help us spread joy and warmth around us and forge human connections.

March – Courage of Women

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Whether a presidential candidate in the world’s most powerful country, or the wife of a tribal leader in northern Pakistan, or a highly educated professional woman in the boardroom, or a flower-seller lady outside a Hindu temple in India, women face intangible barriers of innumerable layers. On the month of International Women’s day, shouldn’t we make ourselves (even if you’re a woman yourself) of aware of the ‘hidden’ burden that women carry every day?

Wadjda, a Saudi Arabian film by a woman, is an apt watch for our longing. Wadjda, a little girl – who earns her own pocket money by selling bracelets that she makes in her spare time – lives with her mother while her father makes occasional visits to their house. On seeing her male friend driving his cycle and the freedom that it gave him, she desires a cycle for herself. But women don’t drive cycles in her country and the mother refuses. This does not stop Wadjda, she hatches an industrious plan to get the cycle.

April – Reflect on the Deeper Meaning of Food

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Food is not just food. It is a survival material, a pleasure, a tool of faith, often fosters community and companionship, and at times alludes to sex. It is amazing how we humans have elevated a simple biological need of food into fulfilling our social, emotional, and psychological needs. Yet, it is also painful that we don’t appreciate food as much in our 21st century busy lives – we cook less, we eat less mindfully, and we are in general less connected with the food we eat. April is a good time to consciously develop eating and cook if you aren’t already doing these.

Tampopo, a Japanese film, fulfills our longing for our deeper association with food. A widowed woman who runs her husband’s ramen shop wants to become a serious ramen chef. In her endeavor, she is helped by a traveling truck driver. Tampopo is not food porn but connects food with the essential elements of life. You won’t look at food the same way again.

May – Understand the Role of Faith

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Every year, 1.8 billion people around the world observe Ramzan. I’m sure where ever in the world we are, we will probably have a people who observe Ramzan around us. Whether you’re a non-muslim or a Muslim, it is a good time to understand the religion and the culture behind the phenomenon. Understanding the origin of one religion often helps us to understand the workings of another. It helps us to look beyond heinous narratives and the paradigm of a clash of civilizations. Most religions were social revolutions and were the most progressive of their times. While Ramzan may not strictly fall in May, it is safe to assume that a good part of Ramzan will always fall under May.

The Message, set in Arabia during the time of the Prophet Mohammad, tells the story of the birth of Islam. A social revolutionary faces backlash when he attempts to change the rotten status quo that has impoverished the community but benefits the people at the top. A camel identifies a spot for the first mosque, the tradition of calling for prayers, the reason for certain verses in the Holy Quran. The film awakens us to the role of faith and helps us realize that the project of religion was human progress.

June – There are Many Ways of Being

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For too long, much of our social mores have been unfair to people’s freedom of sexual orientation and gender. Worse, a lot of us don’t understand it at all.  We owe to people around us and ourselves to appreciate and understand same-sex love and gender choices. On Gay Pride month, we can do good by watching a film that makes us aware of experiences that may be alien to us. Or if we’re queer, it could help us identify ourselves.

Fresa y Chocolate (Spanish for Strawberry and Chocolate) is set in the 1970s communist social context of Cuba. While there quite a few same-sex romance films, what we need is much more. The chosen film does not have any same-sex romance scenes but it is about how a straight man- also a fierce communist – overcomes his prejudice of a gay pro-individualist man. He eventually understands and forms a warm friendship with him.

July – Being Open to New Experiences

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With half the year pass by, it is a tragedy if our lives settle into the humdrum of sameness. Often, we fight to keep our life constant and intact, very circumspect of anything that might alter the status quo, even if it might be for the better. It only hurts us and prevents us from becoming our more fullest selves. We could do well to open ourselves to the unknown and be transformed and hit by something that we’d never knew existed or that we wanted, but something that makes us better.

The Kid With A Bike is such a story of Cyril and Samantha. Samantha, a young hairdresser, takes in Cyril – a boy abandoned by his mother in a state-run youth farm – for weekend visits. But the boy still lives in the hope of his father’s love, which he later understands is non-existent. Will Samantha adopt Cyril? Samantha must decide what is important to her life and even sacrifice – she had to let go of her boyfriend – while Cyril must emotionally grow to love and trust Samantha.

August – Brace Yourselves to Fight Injustice

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On 28th August 1963, Martin Luther King delivered one of the famous speeches of the 20th century, ‘I have a Dream.’ That moment has been hitched in the memory. The history of racial discrimination of African-Americans in the United States and the fight against it could stand as an alibi for every other kind of unfairness in any part of the world. The world need not be as it is, we can change it for the better. Change is possible if we can dream and prepare ourselves for it.

The Great Debaters, set in Texas of the 1930s, is a film inspired by a true story of how a Professor at a black college in Marshall, Texas, inspired the students to form a debate team and led them to successive wins in debate competitions against the best of the White colleges. The film reminds us that only a few decades ago there was blatant injustice against a particular race that was accepted as normal. The debates-speeches in the film as delivered by the lead characters are as powerful as Martin Luther King’s. My appreciation for the power of words comes from this film.

September – There are Humans Behind Borders

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Conflicts between nations and the proportion of people affected by it today are less as compared to any other time in history. The last world war was over seventy years ago. Yet, international peace is not guaranteed, nor do we have foolproof systems in place. Ethnic conflicts, territorial conflicts between nations, nuclear buildup, cyber sabotage,  and civil wars have been around us. 21st of September is celebrated by the UN as International Day of Peace. We could look for commonness in our humanity and find joy in warmth beyond boundaries and political labels.

Lemon Tree, set in the West Bank territory occupied by Israel is the story of a Palestinian widow who tries to guard her lemon tree grove against being uprooted by the Israelis. The territorial conflict between Israel and Palestine is humanized through the experience of two female characters. Towards the end, we witness the Israeli woman empathizing with the Palestine woman for her travails and finds her own country’s actions as unjust.

 October – Care for Mental Well-being

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Quite suitably, the talk around mental health has been growing. But not quite enough. Often, it is shrugged off as fluff or overly stigmatized. This has been an era of increasing stress and anxiety. There are many around us who silently endure the pains of mental ill-health and various forms of addiction like alcohol and drugs. At times, certainly on more occasions than we presume, the sufferers take the grave step of ending their lives. October, ordained as the Mental Health Month, is a great time to sensitize ourselves mental health issues, and ensure that help is available to ourselves and others.

Oslo, August 31st, is the poignant and reflective story of a young and a recovering drug addict. After a few years at a treatment center, he is given a brief hiatus. He attends a job interview, meets old friends and family, and experiences the outer world again even as he reflects on his early of memories of the places he visits, about other people, and the existential questions of life.Can he resume his life and return to normalcy? Or has he got nothing to live for?

November – Let’s Celebrate Books and Reading

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Books and reading can be crucial elements of a well-lived life. A lot many people have spoken about the life-saving quality of reading, the power of books, the effect books have on our soul, and how good books build character. But it also a fact that in the 21st century, while more people than ever have reading skills we also read less and less because of other attractive media. November is National Novel Writing Month. while the aspiring writers are busy on their keyboards, the rest of us could commemorate the importance of reading.

My Afternoons with Margueritte, is simply a story on the joy and meaning of reading. A man with poor reading skills who had hardly read anything into his thirties is inspired to take up reading by an old lady Margueritte, whom he meets serendipitously on a park bench one afternoon. After his job in the morning, he spends every afternoon with the Margueritte listening to her read out to him.  She encourages him to read and gifts him a dictionary. Eventually, with great effort, he develops a proficiency and liking to reading that transforms his life.

December – Reflect on Life’s Larger Questions

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No matter how old we are, life’s larger questions of meaning, mortality, and existence are something we can never stop reflecting on. Our civilizational heritage, what makes life worth living, and questions on religion and faith are ever enduring. We need to take time regularly to reflect on the bigger picture and update our perspectives if need be. End of a year is the best time to do this. It could be a time when you realize that you have really done well this year – achieved your goals, promoted at work – or that things didn’t go so well at all – you may have lost a loved one, couldn’t get a job you really wanted. Either way, it is a moment to step back and realize the larger canvas of life and human existence.

The Man from Earth is about a history professor in his thirties bidding goodbye to his colleagues, as he plans to move on to a different scene. His unexplained move baffles his colleagues. He is also a man who could have been living for over fourteen thousand years through multiple ages, civilizations, and continents. The conversation flows in the single room setting, as he narrates his past to his colleagues, who believe and disbelieve in equal measure. It sends us into a reflective trail on human life and civilization. A suitable note to end the year.