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What's So Funny?
by Mary Nyiri

Suicide? Funerals? How about sexual abuse? Not topics that would come to mind when you think about something funny. But this year's Filmfest Hamburg featured comedies about these subjects along with a wide variety of other topics from many different countries.

Comedy and Culture

Television soap operas have been the basis for feature films in the past with Soapdish (U.S.A. 1991) being one of my favorites. This year the Best Film Audience Award at the Mostoles Comedy Film Festival in Madrid, Spain, went to Destiny Has No Favorites (Peru), a film where fact and fiction become blurred when rich housewife Ana is mistaken for an actress by a crew filming a popular soap on her lush property. Ana relishes her new role as a cutthroat bitch and manages to manipulate the director into expanding her role.

The campy silliness of soaps can cut across cultural boundaries with light, mindless laughs that touch on common themes. No question such a film is meant to be a comedy, just like going for laughs in Laws of Attraction (U.K.) about two prominent divorce lawyers who get drunk and wake up married. In both of these films the main actors are smart, the sets are sumptuous, there’s a bit of romance and all you need to do is relax and enjoy.

Another film with similar attributes is Main Hoon Na (I’ll Be There For You) (India). A Bollywood extravaganza, this film has romance mixed with song and dance but includes a political twist on India-Pakistan relations. Some scenes were quite funny like when Ram (a soldier posing as a student) bends over backwards á la The Matrix (U.S.A. 1999) to avoid being soaked by spit, or when he can’t help but break out in song every time he sees the drop dead gorgeous chemistry teacher. Although totally enjoyable I didn’t burst out laughing, so perhaps culture matters more here as Taran Adarsh describes in her review for when she writes: “Desi humour for the Hindustani janta to break into peals of laughter.” Desi is an Indian national as opposed to a foreigner and Hindustani janta refers to Hindi culture. With no personal experience of that culture, I am sure I missed some laughs but that did not lessen a good time.

There are, however, much more complex forms of humor. And whether something is really funny may depend more upon your culture than your funny bone. The best example at the festival was Marmoulak (The Lizard) (Iran). Reza climbs a prison yard wall to rescue a dove caught in barbed wire. But the next time the prisoners are in the yard (after Reza is sent to solitary confinement for his good deed), guards are posted on the wall – a scene that causes laughter. Not that this was particularly funny because he was wrongfully treated but more so due to his personal impact on a tense situation. Some people tend to laugh when nervous or upset. Reza meets a religious cleric or mullah in the prison hospital who provides a means for escape and the real humor revolves around how Reza tries to act like a mullah to reach freedom, mumbling prayers he does not know and ducking questions he cannot answer, but along the way he finds his real freedom in Islam. When this film was released in Iran, it was an immediate box office hit until it was banned by the Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, head of Iran’s Guardian’s Council because it was a “bad influence” and because it is forbidden to make fun of mullahs, so I surmise they did not find Marmoulak funny. From my western perspective, this film is a treasure of subtle humor with the added bonus of a meaningful religious message.

Religious humor is readily found in the western world. Oh, God! (U.S.A. 1977) with George Burns playing God was successful enough at the box office to warrant a sequel. Filmfest Hamburg opened with Oh Happy Day (Denmark), a film about a church choir in a small village. The choir members are thrilled with a performance by a gospel choir from Harlem and take advantage of the choir’s director, Jackson, when he has to remain in town to recover after his tour bus almost strikes village choir member Hannah. Jackson preaches to help the choir members experience the soul of gospel but most of the plot concerns Hannah’s lost dream of being a singer and her romance with Jackson. Is it funny to watch these uptight Danes searching for the uninhibited rhythm of gospel music? Sometimes. I smiled quite a bit but couldn’t help but wonder just how funny the real Harlem Gospel Singers would have found the film, since it seems to make fun of gospel singers more than being humorous.

Funny Film Techniques

Filmmakers are increasingly using documentary film techniques to present a story, blurring the lines between fact and fiction. Whether something is true can make it funny or appalling. Mail Order Wife (U.S.A.), which is promoted as a love triangle-docu-comedy, begins with documentary filmmaker Andrew Gurland (who plays himself, writes and directs) paying for Adrian (an actor) to obtain a mail order bride, Lichi (an actress), from a third world country. Andrew films and asks questions as the couple correspond, then meet, then wed. Andrew follows the couple around the house as Adrian instructs Lichi on the proper ways to cook and clean. Not realizing this was fiction, I found that Adrian forcing Lichi to feed a live rat to the pet boa constrictor, reducing Lichi to tears, was not funny. As a satire, it could be. Later, Lichi arrives on Andrew’s doorstep with videos made of her by Adrian that show nauseating sexual abuse. Whether this is a documentary or fiction, what you see and hear is appalling. The situation gets worse as Andrew takes Lichi in and between cooking and cleaning for him, he uses her sexually as well. Andrew leaves after Lichi’s obsession with pigs causes her to have a tantrum, during which many in the audience laughed. As a documentary, this scene would be tragic but as nonfiction, quite hilarious.

Rather than blur the truth, Casablanca Driver (France) goes over the top in this “mockumentary” about a boxer who can’t box and speaks gibberish but achieves fame anyway. Set in 1969 to take advantage of afros and groupies, Casablanca’s body language is quite silly and engaging. On my left, a colleague snored, while to my right, another continuously laughed out loud. Whack-on-the-head slapstick, no matter where it’s from, requires a certain individual taste, one which I have not yet acquired.

I prefer the simple fun of Podium (France) wherein bank employee Bernard (who lives in a model home visited by potential buyers at all hours) leaves a secure job, wife and son to pursue his dream of impersonating real life pop sensation, Claude François. François sang sappy pop songs surrounded by scantily clad go-go dancers. Original concert footage is spliced in with Bernard as he sings his heart out with his Bernadettes. The costumes are outrageous and the lifestyle of the pop star Bernard/Claude is deliciously decadent. Part documentary, part disco-mania, but all fun.

Funerals and Friendships

Can a funeral make you laugh out loud? When combined with warmth and character as in Crying Ladies (Philippines), yes! Three friends are hired as wailing mourners, an almost forgotten Chinese burial tradition that believes crying expedites entry into heaven. Fake cries turn into real bawling as former actress Doray uses too much ointment in her eyes to make them tear. Stella recognizes the deceased as the gangster who caused her to end up in jail. Choleng does more charity work as penance for sleeping with a married man.

Compassion, forgiveness and friendship help these three overcome their problems, making this a truly “feel good” movie with universal laughs, which is quite a contrast to Wilby Wonderful (Canada) where the humor was lost on me. This film begins with mousey Wilby Island local Dan climbing a bridge to throw himself off. He is interrupted by Duck, a handsome gay handyman. Dan claims to have been exercising. Throughout the film Dan tries various methods of killing himself. Two of his attempts are interrupted by Carol, a ridiculously ambitious real estate agent married to a local cop. Dan is hanging by his neck from a beam in an empty house when Carol arrives to show the house to prospective buyers. She is so intent on making a sale that she stuffs Dan in a closet rather than seek medical help. The heartlessness of her actions came across as depraved, not as some kind of funny quirk. Dan’s depression is linked to a scandal on the island that is slowly revealed through innuendo. The scandal is nothing to laugh about either. Promoted as a “bittersweet comedy”, I would say gallows humor is more apt.

If you want bittersweet comedy, then see Things That Make Life Worth Living (Spain) instead. When recovering alcoholic Jorge meets Hortensia at the employment office, he believes she will change his life. He faints from the excitement and Hortensia helps him. Hortensia feels going out with an unemployed man is like bringing work home. As they get to know each other, with all the embarrassment and amusing misunderstandings that entails, perhaps you will realize that comedy can also make life worth living – as long as you don’t die laughing.