Janis Rafa's Kala azar is exclusively showing on MUBI starting June 2, 2021 in many countries in the Debuts series.
Before the cat that looks at me naked, would I be ashamed like an animal that no longer has the sense of nudity? Or on the contrary, like a man who retains the sense of his nudity? Who am I therefore?
—J. Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, 1997
ON THE SCREENPLAY
Like in nature discovery documentaries, the plot of Kala azar slowly unravels the different species and inhabitants of a particular landscape. The film is set at the margins of a big city somewhere in the south of Europe. The various characters -human and non-human, living or dead- are all of equal importance in the understanding of this place. In this desolate environment there is an ominous post-apocalyptic atmosphere. The couple, the parents, the migrant workers and the male hunters are the human residents of this land, while the stray dogs, roadkill and remains of dead beings are the others of a city that cannot sustain animal life.
The couple’s relationship with death and life is gradually revealed as moving beyond the context of their job at the local pet crematorium. During their continuous road trips, the couple witness a great loss of animal life. Their remains lay in the landscape as if invisible to the passing eye. The couple attempts to redefine the deathly geography of this place by collecting and disposing of the corpses according to their own ritual. They cremate the anonymous beings together with owned pets, outside of their job constraints and keep the collective ashes in a large pot.
In the paradox of this landscape, it is progressively revealed that the pet-crematorium and rescue clinic the couple is working for, is located next door to a shooting club were hunters are training. After causing a roadkill themselves, the couple is faced with the realisation that their enemy is not death or others but humanity itself.
Meanwhile, an older couple, parents of the young woman, wander in the silence of the house surrounded by tender and therefore sensual moments with their dogs. Another form of care and ownership is tackled here, focusing on non-verbal communication and the human-animal body. The father, named Tassos leads us to the outdoors and connects this story to the same landscape that the young couple travels through. As yet another way to give meaning to his life, Tassos is organising a live concert by a Philharmonic Orchestra, at a chicken factory nearby. Oguz, a migrant worker who lives and works at the factory with other members of his community, helps Tassos complete his task. Nimrod from Enigma Variatios is performed as a tribute to a clutch of chickens, the night before they depart to their final destination.
In this poetic multi-narrative, the characters all deploy strange mechanisms in order to defend themselves against the ordinary banalities of urban life that seems to be rotting from the inside. The characters’ perseverance when surrounded by apathy, condemnation and death, reflects a fundamental claim to value of human existence by giving value to the insignificant, the marginalized and the voiceless.
ON THE CONCEPT
Growing up during the 1990s in Greece, in a family surrounded by pets that were often collected from the streets in order to escape stray life, is the starting point of this biographical screenplay. The archetypes of the father and the mother were distinguishable outside an anthropocentric understanding, in which my parents were taking care of those beings and holding a strong standpoint towards a culture that was marginalising them. Through the years, seeing my father repetitively as the gravedigger of those beings in the garden of our house is an image that haunts me in my work.
Understanding loss, firstly through human-animal relationships in this familial context, allowed me to observe and emotionally attempt to comprehend the life-circles of different species. Apart from pets that died naturally, a great number would die prematurely. Kala azar was the main cause to lose several of our dogs in a period of five years. Kala azar is a parasite killer, spread on dogs through the bite of a female sand fly that needs a blood meal for her eggs to mature. It was then, when Kala azar became an endemic disease and was introduced in the Greek territory and the Mediterranean region. It found dog owners completely unprepared and in shock after the mass spreading of the parasite and the numerous deaths.
A decade later, within this never fully modernised urban landscape, I would encounter another form of animal loss while travelling for work at the outskirts of the urban: continuous roadkill, shot birds, abandoned bodies of farm or pet animals and stray dogs surrendered to the disease, all of which visible to the passing eye. Certainly this deathly aura outdoors, evoked another reading of the city and of humanity.