Baseb on the 2016 short film Schirkoa and on the graphic novel by the same name, Ishan Shukla’s debut feature introduces us to the bizarre inhabitants of Schirkoa, some sort of independent urban state. Citizens have to wear a paper bag on their heads, and are identified by letters and numbers written upon it (instead of a far more user-friendly name such as “John”, “Peter”, or Mary”). Government ensures that people are stripped of their face, their individuality, and that they obey sheepishly, otherwise the consequences could be dire. The orders are clearcut: “Safety! Sanity! Sanctity!”. A rather exotic fascist slogan that would fit in well with John Carpenter‘s dystopian sci-fi They Live (1988).
This strange world is gloomy and unwelcoming, despite the abundant urban lighting. A hellish future with a touch of vintage. Think Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) meets American pop video meets Brazilian carnival parade and you’re halfway there. At times, the entire film looks like a drug-induced nightmare, not dissimilar to Gaspar Noe’s Climax (2018) – incidentally the Franco-Argentinian arthouse director also lends his voice to one of the movie characters. The setting is intended to be very international, which is emphasised by the diversity of the voice cast. The entire movie was created in Unreal Engine, a graphics software developed by Epic Games, and indeed more commonly associated with fantasy and war games than with cinema.
Indian director Ishan Shukla, who also penned the film script, sets out to slam authoritarianism, and make a positive statement about immigration. The confusing plot involves a place called Konthaqa, some sort of faraway refugee land. Outsiders are known as “Anomalies”, in an apparent reference to the inflammatory language that government and media use in order to degrade and dehumanise foreigners (in the real world we live in). 197A (Shahbaz Sarwar) is a city bureaucrat running against an opposition candidate. He has an affair with 242B (Golshifteh Farahani), a sex worker from the seedy Blue District. She dreams of leaving this oppressive regime, and possibly moving to Konthaqa (a place where at least she can show her face). The fact that this female character is voiced by a Farahani is no coincidence: the actress fled her native Iran after refusing to comply’s with the country’s strict dress code (which mandates that all women should cover their head).
The movie’s most powerful scene take place on a rooftop overlooking the cityscape. 197A talks to a suicidal character called 33F (French singer SoKo). He urges the desperate young woman to put her head bag back on, to which she promptly replies: “will they prosecute my dead body?”. He shockingly reveals that he has never seen his own face. After asking 197A for a little “hand”, 33F decides in favour of life for very carnal reasons. They eventually end up in Konthaqa, where the second half of the movie takes place. This is a free however tumultuous place inhabited by part-human creatures of all sorts, under the purview of the bigmouthed mermaid Lies (Italian actress Asia Argento). An energetic soundtrack by various artists adds a touch of confusion and despondency to this psychedelic environment.
This highly hybrid film steers away from perfection, aiming to look wilfully chaotic. It succeeds. It overtly raises the question: “Why would an artist create in the perfect world?”. Subversiveness is in the very essence of art. Some like it dirty, ugly and messy. Strangely, the film closes with a conformist message of Eastern spirituality at odds with the revolutionary verve of the story.
Schirkoa: In Lies We Trust premiered at the 53rd International Film Festival Rotterdam.