Force of Destiny: Paul Cox (April 16,1940 - June 18,2016)
Dutch-born Australian writer-director Paul Cox waged a fierce, valiant battle with liver cancer, first diagnosed in February 2009 and doctors giving him six months to live. He retaliated by saying, “I cannot imagine a world without me in it”.
He gained another seven years through a liver transplant. Fueled by a stubborn tenacity, he used this precious time to do the things he loved most, specially the making of his last film, ‘Force of Destiny’. He finally had to submit to not being invincible. He died on June 18, age 76, in his adopted home town, Melbourne.
Paul Cox loved India with an abiding passion and Kolkata in particular. His film, ‘Force of Destiny’ is a requiem to all that he held dear in life. The film, an acceptance of both life and death, pays homage to the Indian way of life and thinking.
It is difficult to recall when I first met Paul. Neither could he, when we met on the joyous occasion of the India premiere of ‘Force of Destiny’ at the 2015 Kolkata International Film Festival. I initially got an insight into his distinct mode of filmmaking at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival, which unanimously toasted him for his feature film, ‘Man of Flowers’. The film is about a middle-aged reclusive oddball who enjoys the beauty of art, flowers, music and watching pretty women undress. I participated in the prolonged applause accorded to the film, and later, took in the fulsome praise that came his way at the Press Conference.
It was a few years later, in the autumn of 1987, when a lifelong friendship was ignited at the wonderfully hospitable and inspiring 1987 Vancouver International Festival. Its director, Hannah Fisher, another India lover, had assembled a fantastic array of world names, among them Shashi Kapoor and Ismail Merchant. Paul arrived fresh from another festival success. Since then, I kept tabs on Paul’s work and met him regularly at festivals the world over and especially, almost annually, at film festivals in India, where he was a perennial favourite.
Despite being from the Netherlands (he was born in 1940 in Venlo), he migrated to Australia when he was 25-years-old to work as a professional photographer. Never looking at filmmaking as a career, he discovered that he could not live without it. “It was pure compulsion”, he said, “I had no option”.
Post the 80’s, he came to be known as the icon of Aussie cinema. Prolific Paul Cox has to his name a total of 31 feature films, 12 documentaries and 19 narratives, His early features, ‘Lonely Hearts’ in 1981, ‘Man of Flowers’ in 1983 and ‘My First Wife’ in 1984 were acclaimed in Australia and internationally. His documentaries included ‘Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent van Gogh’ in 1987, ‘The Diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky’ in 2001 and the fictionalized ‘Molokai: The Story of Father Damien’ (1999).
Cox worked invariable worked with people who became his friends for life. Norman Kaye has acted in 16 of his films. Cox’s films have been described by film writer Peter Sobczynski as thematic meditations on love, art, solitude and mortality. They tend to be love stories that revolve around persons who are artists of one kind or another, such as a theatre actor (‘Lonely Hearts’), musicians (‘Innocence’), painters (‘Man of Flowers’), dancers (‘Diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky’) and arts teachers (‘Human Touch’).
Acclaimed film critic Roger Ebert remained an unabashed admirer (and friend) of Paul Cox. To quote him, “Paul Cox has never followed a formula, and his characters are stark originals. He operates outside genres, conventions, archetypes and established cinematic patterns. He begins fresh, with these people, in this situation.” He notes ‘A Woman’s Tale’ (1991) as Cox’s best film and as “an act of astonishing empathy”. The film looks at the last days in the life of an elderly cancer victim played by Sheila Florance, who was dying of cancer herself while filming and passed away nine days after receiving the AFI Best Actress award. Roger Ebert’s well-known Eberfest in Chicago hosted Cox as a featured director as many as six times – the last being just before he passed away, for the US premiere of , ‘Force of Destiny.’ The semi autobiographical film stars Australia’s talented David Wenham as a sculptor who is forced to re-examine his relationships with his daughter, ex-wife and a young Indian woman who comes into his life.
I attended the last day of this shoot in Trivandrum and was amazed at Cox’s relentless energy over extended hours of shooting. Terminal illness had in no way sapped his spirit or his passion for cinema. He said, “It’s very healing. When you suddenly do something together, it all disappears. In ‘Force of Destiny’ I had no fear at all and it was a wonderful film to make. We laughed a lot.” We all did, alongside this amazing man. His impish, and at times acerbic and even insulting remarks, were never held at bay.
‘Force of Destiny’ has been produced by avant-garde Kerala producer Baby Mathews (also the producer of Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s new film, ‘Pinneyum’, made after a gap of 8 years).
There is a move to screen ‘Force of Destiny’ in India as not only a tribute to Cox but as a film that so eloquently espouses the awareness and cause of organ donations.