By Liam Lacey
The theatrical release of the film Hotel Mumbai was suspended in New Zealand on the grounds that the film’s realistic depiction of terrorist attacks comes at the wrong time for a country still reeling from the Christchurch mosque massacres that left 50 people dead.
While film’s release will go ahead in other countries, its reception has obviously been coloured by real-life events, and raises afresh concerns about the appropriateness of depicting real-life violence in an entertainment medium.
As Hotel Mumbai’s director Anthony Maras recently told the Hollywood Reporter, “Unfortunately, I don't think there's ever a good time for a film like this. But I've said it before: I think sunlight is the best disinfectant for these issues. I think the example of the staff and the guests at the Taj hotel are a really worthwhile thing to remember and have discussions about."
His point — that the threat of random mass violence is unavoidable in contemporary life — was clear when the film premiered at last fall’s Toronto International Film Festival. The city was still shaken from the Danforth Avenue shootings in July and the van killings on Yonge Street in April.
The morning after the film’s September 7 TIFF premiere, the director sat down to talk about why he wanted to make the film, to immerse audiences, in a sense, in the midst of an attack. He said the film was originally inspired by Victoria Midwinter Pitt’s 2010 documentary of survivor stories, Surviving Mumbai, and he found himself “wanting to know more.”
Here are some of Maras’s thoughts about dramatizing tragedy.
On the use of composite and fictionalized characters…
“It was a conscious choice from the outset to deal delicately with the subject matter. So Hemant Oberoi, the chef, is obviously based on the real-life man and we use his name. The thinking behind that was he was a public figure prior to going into the attacks and he was one of the persons that I had most contact with at the outset.
“In the case of many survivors, or people who had fallen in the attacks, there was a decision to conceal their identity out of respect for the people who were no longer with us and their families but also others who were traumatized by the experience. We didn't want to basically put their names and their identities up on the screen. But the events that happened to these characters are based on true-life incidents that happened to people.”
On how much on-screen violence is too much…
“I don’t know how much is too much but it was kind of pretty simple. We spent a lot of time listening to the stories of the people who survived and I guess the goal was to try and place the audience in the experience of what it was like in the hotel. The violence that's depicted on screen is an outgrowth of that. I tried not to be gratuitous with it. In many cases the violence is implied. For instance, in the scene with the receptionist you don't see anything but you know exactly what's happening.
“That being said, this film obviously shows violence; not to shy away from it but not to make you feel it was a gratuitous exploitative thing. I hope we succeed but I guess that’s for the audience to decide.”
On the responsibility to portray tragedy…
“I think that we have a responsibility to look for difficult stories to tell because if you relegate them into being too hard or too sensitive, then we don’t use them as forum to get to the heart of really confronting things that we, as people, face. If you look at Shakespeare or at ancient Greek tragedy or stories in the Bible, that’s why they deal with difficult ethical dilemmas. We're trying to hold a mirror up to what is going on.”
What he hopes people will gain from the film…
“I hope they take away from the film what I got from the interviews of survivors which was, in aggregate, the idea that you had people from all walks of life coming together to survive in the most horrific experience that you could imagine.
“You know there are a lot of terror attacks and there are a lot of cases where people are just killed and I'm sure there are other cases of this but Mumbai was, in some respects, unique because of what the hotel was and what it stands for and because of the types of people that you find in that hotel. You have young waiters from the slums in there with hedge-fund managers and when the bullets start flying all of those classes are kind of neutralized because they're all in the same boat together.
“I think the world is pretty divided at the moment and has been for a while but it's unfortunately increasing. I think that the example set by the guests and staff of coming together to try and get through this is a good example for all of us.”