Undoubtedly the Warsaw Film Festival will rank as one of the warmest cinema event in my experience despite the temperatures dropping to almost 4 degree celcius mid-October. The 10 cinema screens in two complexes are so close to each other that it allows for a lot of time to sit down over coffee and discuss everything under the cloudy sunlight. The Multikino cinema complex is part of a huge shopping mall next to the metro and railways stations and the Kinotheka set of cinema screens is located inside the massive Palace of Culture and Science built during the Soviet era. Almost all the films that we attended between the 7th and 15th of October were packed and as expected every film would start on time with no glitches in projection or sound systems. And this is despite the fact that Stefan, the director of the festival was indisposed from the opening day and could only make it for the closing ceremony. It simply means that the planning earlier must have been so meticulous and his team so well-tuned. Amidst all these wonderful arrangements made by the Warsaw Festival despite the larger sluggish economy that Poland is experiencing, what can anyone do if the quality of films made and shown from across the world keeps wavering at the border between mediocre and average? Unlike their big brothers across the boundary in Berlin, Venice and Cannes, this festival does not insist on premiere screenings. And neither do the films made by big celebrity filmmakers surface at this festival.
On the other hand one is glad to see a good presence of young unknown filmmakers especially from struggling regions, like Mindanao to Bosnia; from Columbia to Iceland. Made within shoe string budgets, these directors look up at Warsaw as the door to enter other film festivals and markets. It is also heartening to see good screening time allotted to the short films made by young Poles, both independent and those graduated as students from the two major film schools. These screenings are packed to the brim with thunderous applauses and wild bonhomie that could keep the chill winds at bay. Especially brilliant was Anna Zamecka’s documentary film called ‘Communion’ which won the best documentary award, about a sister and her deranged younger brother living their life out within the trauma of a broken home. How I wish these film schools could have had a small counter where the rest of the world could buy their DVDs and show it to eager audiences in their respective parts of the world! Similarly the marketing section of the festival also functions at a low key. My young friend and NETPAC jury member Marcin commented that, by and large, the Polish people are quite self-effacing and not willing to trumpet their achievements. He added “Just imagine, it was here that the solidarity movement started in 1983 to bring down the Iron Curtain but all the credit goes to the Berliners who pulled down the wall that divided East and West Berlin as late as 1989.”
One could feel this very strongly when the Festival underplayed the death of their great master Andrej Wajda who passed away on the 9th of October. There was just one photograph of his, against a black background, displayed at the Multikino complex of theaters. When I enquired whether there would be any public event to mourn the death I was informed that it would be kept as a solemn family bereavement and the body would be taken to be buried in Krakow, his home town. All I could do was to walk across to Empik, a well-stocked bookshop and buy a collection of Wajda’s masterpieces on DVD. Wajda will always be remembered in the same way we associate Akira Kurosawa with Japanese cinema and Satyajit Ray with India.
Finally the Asian Cinema section for the NETPAC jury had 10 films for screening and out of which one of them had already got the NETPAC award at the Rotterdam festival held earlier and another had nothing to do with Asia except for the fact that the Dutch producer/ director Harold Monfils had a production housed based out of Kula Lumpur. The films from China, Japan and Korea made by debutants were interesting but somehow marred by actors with poor performing skills and winding screenplays that dragged down the intensities of their subjects. ‘Malaria’, the Iranian film showed enormous promise at the start but ended up halfway between a road movie and an unusual love story. The film from the Mindanao region also seemed to lose track halfway while the slickly edited, power-packed documentary film from India could not contextualize the well-known political rise of Delhi’s Arvind Kejriwal for an international audience. Amidst this fare, one film glowed like a pure gem and that was appropriately called ‘Blessed Benefit’ by Mahmoud Al Massad from Jordan. Packed with wit and humor, it narrated the tale of a poor mason who is charged for cheating a customer for not completing a civil job on time. He is imprisoned for this petty fraud but inside the crowded jail he meets some amazing people serving sentences and realizes that there is far more warmth in this unlikely space than he had ever seen in his entire life outside in the crowded metropolis. Massad has made a couple of films before but this film is empowered by a powerful screenplay, some amazing actors and a neo-realist cinematographic style of a very high order, capable of sweeping many more awards through the next year.
The Iranian film ‘Malaria’ walked away with the best film award while debutant Ahmad Taher, the main actor of ‘Blessed Benefit‘, bagged the award for best performance. Surely a big shot in the arm for Asian cinema although both these films were funded by big European agencies. As the festival curtains come down I realize that the world is becoming smaller with every film in or out of competition being funded/ produced by international agencies. In a few years it is going to be increasingly difficult to identify films by their nationalities and calling for a more inclusive way of grouping films. With the growing rise of internet and web-based reporting the reporters and social analysts are bound to cross boundaries. Undoubtedly Asian Cinema will soon need to be identified more with their Asian socio-political concerns rather than the origins of the people who made the films.
REPORT BY THE CHAIRIRPERSON OF NETPAC JURY MR. K. HARHARAN