Before I set foot in October cinema, the grand, 12-hall multiplex in the heart of the Russian capital which was the main venue for the recently concluded 41st Moscow International Film Festival (MIFF), I was a little wary. For I was going to consume an entire lot of foreign-language films — and that, too, in fairly quick succession — with subtitles (!). But barely a few minutes into the first screening, all my apprehensions were gone. The films literally spoke to me, and soon it didn’t really matter whether I knew any of the languages they were made in. I believe such is the power of cinema — and all art, for that matter.
As a film juror from Pakistan, representing NETPAC, I was supposed to watch a pre-scheduled line-up of films — a mix of features and documentaries — from different Asian countries including India, Japan, China, Turkey, and even Yakutia, a sparsely populated but geographically large district in the north-eastern part of the Russian Federation. That a small feature from this remote region was good enough to devour all competition at the festival was nothing short of a miracle to me. Though, the other two Netpac jury members — Rashid Malikov and Lena Khvan — who were from Uzbekistan and Russia, respectively, seemed more initiated.
Titled Мин үрдүбэр күн хаһан да киирбэт (The Sun Above Me Never Sets), the Yakutian film remained my personal favourite through and through, despite its simple storyline: a young boy named Altan leaves home, having fallen out with his father, to work on a deserted island where he ends up befriending an unexpected (as well as, initially, unwanted) guest, the old Baibal, who reveals that his teenage daughter went missing many moons ago, and that he wishes to be buried next to his wife’s grave. The film has a strong emotional arc that never seems contrived. This, coupled with a delightful native humour, reflected especially in Baibal’s character (played by the inimitable Stepan Petrov), won over the NETPAC Jury’s hearts and also earned the film the Audience’s Choice Award at MIFF. First-time director Lyubov Borisova, an Economics graduate, was there with members of her film’s lead cast to receive the honours.
The jury’s other favourite was the Kazakh film, The Secret of a Leader, a dark and gritty take on the moral contrasts between a divorced and frustrated, middle-aged clerk at a bank on the verge of collapse, and his rich, self-indulgent, pot-bellied friend from university days who wouldn’t mind letting pass the mysterious murder of one of his many mistresses. Director Farkhat Sharipov duly walked away with the Golden George for Best Film at the festival.
Some of the other films that amazed me included debutant Isamu Hirabayashi’s Shell and Joint, a path-breaking feature from Japan that unabashedly bends all possible film rules and genres, eventually making you feel you’re watching some multimedia art installation. Its long-winded sequences, shot with a camera that never pans or tracks; the explicit sexual references; no obvious, logical connection between all action that plays out on screen, except maybe that all the characters you see are somehow part of a ‘capsule hotel,’ seem to reinforce the screenwriter-cum-director’s belief in the absurdity of life and death. It helps that Hirabayashi is also the film’s cinematographer.
Jam, Japan’s other entry into the main competition, deserves a special mention. The feature, by actor turned director Sabu, is inspiring especially by virtue of its clever screenplay that juggles three completely disparate stories of individuals whose lives would intertwine but only once. The film could best be classified as black humour, which sometimes borders on farce. Nonetheless, it doesn’t fail to make a profound statement on how destiny (or fate) mocks us mortals.
Russian director Darya Ivankova’s Anatoly Krupnov. He Was was the only documentary that was part of the Netpac cluster. It was based on the life and times of one of “the brightest rock stars of the late - and post-Soviet era” whose rock music group, Cherny Obelisk (The Black Obelisk) achieved cult status among the public.
Outside of the Netpac jury films, the 41st MIFF, which was held from April 18 through April 25, was significant also for it provided new filmmakers with a glorious chance to interact with some of the world’s most acclaimed cinema personalities such as the Korean director Kim Ki-duk, who chaired the main competition jury and was also awarded the Lifetime Achievement trophy. Turkish director Semih Kaplanoglu, best known for his poetic Egg trilogy, and veteran Russian actress Irina Apeksimova were among other prominent jurors.
This year, the festival especially celebrated the cinemas of Turkey, Hungary, and Italy by screening handpicked works from these countries. There was another section that was dedicated to women filmmakers, and yet another that offered ‘Festival Hits’. Eventually, the Chinese film, In Search of Echo, bagged the Special Jury Prize, the Silver George. Valerio Mastandrea from Italy won the Best Director award for Ride Laughing.
Iran’s Soha Niasti was adjudged the Best Actress for her role in Rasoul Sadrameli’s My Second Year in College, while Finnish actor Tommi Korpela took home the Best Actor award for his act in Aleksi Salmenpera’s Void. Noted British actor Ralph Fiennes was presented the Stanislavsky Acting Prize. Norwegian documentary, Men’s Room, and the French short, Tigre (France), were the other winners of the night.
-- by Usman Ghafoor (Pakistan)
-- Edited by Latika Padgaonkar