Savina Petkova on Janis Rafa’s ‘Kala Azar’ (2020)
It is not often the case that a first feature succeeds in devising its own cinematic grammar, substituting written and spoken language as we know it entirely with images. Not to say there’s equability between image and word, but director Janis Rafa shines with a singular vision which permeates every frame and sequence of her debut Kala Azar. Humans and animals interact in between shots, delineating the impossible transition from one to the other, yet the film concedes to a possible, shared world. The film opens with a close-up examination of animal fur, then switches to a handheld exploration of bodies entangled, caressing in a car front seat. From orgasms to contemplative stares, the camera makes a full round to come back to stray dogs in the empty field.
Kala azar, or “black fever”, is a lethal parasitic disease. The film’s bold title is less a diagnosis than a warning — that the fragile balance between life and death, love and indifference permeates both human and animal worlds. A young couple attends to dead pets and arrange their cremation for customers. Penelope (Penelope Tsilika) and Dimitris (Dimitris Lalos) rely on physical intimacy and walk the world hand in hand, with little use of language. When they do speak, it’s always performative. In declamatory fashion, Penelope offers condolences for an old aristocratic woman’s dead bird and the camera focuses on the lady’s blank face, her stringent composure, and elegant attire, as she takes a cup of tea in her hand and stirs the sugar in with a bare finger. Tactility and irreverent gestures break down any simple way of recounting the film’s narrative, oscillating from eroticism to the abject.
In an impressively choreographed sequence, the mother (Michele Valley) takes a bath alongside one of the pet dogs, the frame symmetrically split between human and inhuman body, close-ups aligning feet and paws, hair and fur. Such attention to the inhuman form seems novel, bearing in mind the film’s consistent stepping away from the use of metaphors, dislocating language and images without taking the easy way out of subsuming animals as allegories for human relations. In Kala Azar, species share a world, be it a destitute, forlorn one.
Penelope’s all-encompassing grief for the dead manifests through her presence and bodily details. She seems to be composed of remnants: we often catch a glimpse of some smudged writing on her hand and the natural light caresses her face, revealing glitter makeup, stuck half-washed on her cheek. In gestures, her character is also made up of sensual fragments, the camera gliding over them, as if stroking her strand of hair hanging from the car window, or her bandaged fingers. A delicate point of view governs the camera’s look as it stays with bodies of dead flies, resting on a lace handkerchief, exploring the textile that gives rest to their tiny corpses. As the layered worlds of species, the fabric rests calmly on Penelope’s abdomen, her skin becoming a funeral place by proxy. “Can flies feel nostalgia?”, she ponders, imagining an insect that has travelled long distances by being trapped in a car.
Can a journey, shared between animals and humans, be equally transformative for both? What Kala Azar gestures towards is that possible meeting place, whether it happens in a frame, as conventions might suggest, or in the cut between two shots — animal, cut, human, cut, animal, cut — a new grammar to transcend the borders of (in)human worlds as we know them.
Kalar Azar as part of the 2020 International Film Festival Rotterdam.