Kerala is not just the most literate state in India but also, probably, the most cinema-literate one. One of the best organized film festivals in India, the IFFK, held from 18 – 25 March 2022, not only had audiences filled to capacity in the inaugural and closing ceremonies, but also in the many lively discussions with filmmakers, seminars, open forums and cultural events. It was reassuring to see the massive crowds at the screenings at the 26th edition of IFFK. People sitting on the stairs and aisles because all the seats were full in all the fifteen venues where films were being screened seemed to indicate that the latest wave of the pandemic was over.
Apart from the International Competition there was ‘Sublime Fantasia’ - a tribute to Miguel Gomes; Kaleidoscope, Indian Cinema Now; Malayalam Cinema Today; Framing Conflict: Films from Afghanistan, Kurdistan and Myanmar; World Cinema; Rediscovering the Classics; Critics’ Choice; Shiver - The Medium; Masterclass by Anurag Kashyap; A Tribute to Nedumudi Venu (1948-2021); and Homage - a section devoted to those from the film industry who passed away recently: Buddhadeb Dasgupta, Lata Mangeshkar, Dilip Kumar, Dennis Joseph, KPAC Lalitha, K S Sethumadhavan, Madampu Kunjukuttan, P Balachandran.
G. Aravindan’s 1979 Kummatty was screened in Rediscovering the Classics. Bina Paul, Artistic Director of the Festival pointed out that ‘The first screening of the film when it was made only had about ten people in the auditorium. Aravindan was very upset. If only he could have seen the crowds for his Kummatty at this festival!’ The annual Aravindan Memorial Lecture was delivered by Pa Ranjith this year. The festival also marked 50 years of Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s pathbreaking film Swayamvaram by launching a series of videos titled Swayamvaram@50 on social media. The P K Nair Memorial Seminar was on the theme ‘Whose Archive is it Anyway?’ Inaugurated by Adoor Gopalakrishnan, it had a panel of eminent speakers who questioned the wisdom of the government’s decision to merge and corporatize the National Film Archive of India.
The Spirit of Cinema Award was given to Kurdish filmmaker Lisa Calan, who has valiantly continued to make films despite many severe personal and political obstacles.
The opening film, Rehana Maryam Noor by Abdullah Mohammad Saad (Bangladesh/Singapore/Qatar, 2021) takes up the issue of an assistant professor who cannot ignore the harassment of a girl student and is willing to go to any lengths, even to lie, to see the perpetrator, a male colleague, brought to justice. This includes ignoring her own young daughter’s problems at school. The lead actress, Azmeri Haque Badhon, has given a notable performance as the woman taking on patriarchy.
Films in Competition
There were many Asian films in the international competition. Prabash Chander’s I am Not the River Jhelum (India, 2021) is a meditative film, weaving poetry and theatre into cinema to tell the story of Afeefa, her traumas of loss and the stories of those close to her in the violence ridden life in Kashmir.
Forbidden (Nishiddho, 2021). by Tara Ramanujan dealt with a migrant worker’s death and his nephew who has to deal with the last rites. He falls in love with a novice midwife who is a Malayali. The moving film is about intercultural dialogue. It brings to the fore people trying to bridge the distance between languages, cultures and destinies.
Pebbles by Vinothraj (India, 2021) depicts the life of the marginalized and impoverished with an unsentimental gaze. A estranged, embittered father and his young son walk through the harsh summer rock landscape, sizzling with heat. Water is scarce to come by. The son has learnt at this tender age how to deal with moods of his father, that are harsher than the heat of the scorching sun. The boy puts pebbles in his mouth, like candy to suck on. When he reaches home, we see he has a collection of such pebbles, attesting to all the other difficult times he and his family have faced. The meeting with his sister and the sheer joy and happiness the children have with the little stray puppy the boy has brought along with him is the moment of relief in an otherwise grim film. The minimalistic music score by Yuvan Sankar Raja also contributed to the sense of sparseness.
In Krishand RK’s The Arbit Documentation of a Amphibian Hunt (India, 2020) the deep ecological relationship between nature and humans in Puthuvype, Kochi, is sketched through humble living beings in the habitat such as frogs, snails, fish….The amphibian-man Joe, an ‘outsider’, creates environmental harmony and prosperity for whoever he befriends along the coast. The worms that infest his body turn to plants when kept in the lab. The narrative pithily slips from documentary mode to fiction, fiction to science fiction, fiction to myth, societal to environmental politics.
Emre Keyis’ Anatolian Leopard (Turkey/Poland/Germany Denmark, 2021), on the death of a precious inhabitant of the zoo and the hilarious stories the manager and his female colleague make up to explain its disappearance and delay the privatization of the zoo, captured the sense of quiet tragedy of people whom the times have left behind. The manager is told by the investigating officer that ‘Your story, Mr Director, is too real to be believed!’.
Natasha Merkulova and Aleksei Chupov’s Captain Volkogonov Escaped (Russia/Estonia/France, 2021) and Ilgar Najaf’s Sughra and her Sons (Azerbaijan/France, 2021) go back to history to look at the persecution unleashed by the state on ordinary people. Yuni by Kamila Andini (Indonesia/Singapore/France/Australia, 2021) is about a young girl, who wants to continue her higher studies, caught in a dilemma of choosing from multiple men who have proposed to her.
Mounia Akl’s Costa Brava, Lebanon (Lebanon/France/Spain/Sweden/Denmark/Norway/ Qatar, 2021) is about a family that has moved about a family that has moved away from the bustle of the city to the forest, but the noise, trash and power equations of the city is brought into their immediate neighbourhood when a huge landfill is dug up next to their property. The concept of the border and its transgression is also the theme of Eran Kolirin’s Let it Be Morning (Israel, 2021) deals with an Arab family that has come together for a wedding. The film is based on Palestinian author Sayed Kashua’s novel. The small Arab town is without warning put under lockdown by the Israelis. The older son of the family is in a very lucrative job in Israel and cannot return. He learns that he has been laid off. Relationships break down and are stitched up during the lockdown. The inhabitants of the town try to get together to protest. The ending, however, was utopian, in that the border post is unmanned when the inhabitants finally come out on the streets to march through. Particularly poignant was the father and his unwavering determination to have a house built for his son in these uncertain, violent times.
Malayalam Films The section Malayalam Cinema Today had a wonderful selection of films. The themes were wide ranging as were the styles and genres drawn upon. There were films on journeys that were hunts or searches or about the hunted: Martin Prakat’s The Hunt (a, 2021), Vishnu Narayan’s Bannerghatta (2021), Sidhartha Siva’s The Following Persons (Ennivar, 2020). There were also films like Krishnendu Kalesh’s Hawk’s Muffin (Prapedda, 2020) that dealt with a dystopic world under the cloud of war. Vignesh P Sasidharan’s Kafkaesque Allusion (Uddharani, 2021) shot predominantly in black and white is about a gatekeeper who is diligent to the point of being insensitive and mechanical. The visitors to the Garden Shangri La, who include an old man and a child, have different reasons for wanting to enter the garden with or without the ticket.
Jeo Baby’s The Great Indian Kitchen (2021) gives a humorous but hard-hitting account of the patriarchal relations a newlywed woman has to adapt to in her husband’s home. The complex relationships unravel through food and cooking and the deep traditions of preparation that cannot be evaded or a shortcut taken. The everyday life of women and their travails were captured in Atal Krishnan’s Woman With a Movie Camera (2021). All the meticulous rehearsal for a play in Sajas and Shonos Rahman’s Stomp (Chavittu, 2021), including the man from the RWA who keeps interrupting the music rehearsal, seems to be for naught as the RWA event in which the play is to be staged seems to be more focused on speeches, food etc.
There were films with poetic images that remained in memory. In Sherry Govind and Deepesh T’s Avanovilona (2021), a father who is a priest, has a daughter who is a nun. The son, a transgender, comes to town on a visit. He needs a place to stay and ‘to wash my clothes’, he says to other transgenders sitting out of their dwellings in an deserted street at night. The empty bus stand and the passing train in the distance capture the loneliness outside and within the characters. In R Jayaraj’s elegiac Tree Full of Parrots (Niraye Thathakulula Maram, 2021) a young boy who earns his living doing odd jobs tries to find the house of a lost blind man. There is the sequence in which the boy has to row school children dressed up for a play across in his tiny boat: Gandhi and Hitler get in boat; then Indira Gandhi and Mother Teresa and later, Vivekanand and Nehru.
Indian and World Cinema Ritesh Sharma’s The Brittle Thread (Jhini Bhini Chadariya, India, 2021) depicts the many cultural registers that make up the city of Varanasi in which people living on the margins try hard to make ends meet. Rani has to dance raunchily to makes a living to support her physically challenged daughter; the man who is devoted to her, fails to convince her of his love; a Muslim weaver falls for an Israeli tourist; the weaver’s cousin who marries him is terrified she will lose him in the riots – all these protagonists are as much characters as the multicultural city of Varanasi itself with its gullies, ghats, bridges and lights that is being torn asunder by political polarisations.
Bolat Kalymbetov’s Mukaguli (Kazakhstan, 2021) offers a portrait of the tragic life of the Kazakh poet and translator. Aleksei German Jr’s House Arrest (Russia, 2021) a professor takes on the city administration for which he is put under house arrest. This sorely tests his and his family’s patience and resources.
Almodovar’s Parallel Mothers (Spain/France, 2021) is the story of a swap of babies of two single mothers at the hospital, one older and the other younger, interwoven with the theme of digging up of a mass grave of people killed during the Spanish Civil War. The narrative is clearly melodramatic. The melodramatic moments in the narrative, however, are constantly elided through editing where the cut comes before the emotion reaches its climax.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria (Colombia/Thailand/France/Germany/Mexico /Qatar/UK/China/Switzerland, 2021) is an attempt to bring forth the sensory image, narratively, aesthetically and cinematically. Central to all three is the ‘sound’ that Jessica (Tilda Swinton) hears, over and over again, which no one else does. She tries to get a recording of this sound after narrating it and describing it to a sound engineer, Hernan. The sound she hears is of a concrete ball falling with a thud deep inside the earth. When she later tries to trace this engineer, she is told that no such person has worked in the studio. Yet, the music of his band and the energetic dance that we have seen him break into, remains a vital physical image of the man. Jessica is a Britisher who runs a flower business in Medellin. She is currently on a visit to Bogota to visit her sister who has fallen ill. She connects up with another older man, also called Hernan, deep in the forest, with whom she seems to have interchangeable memories. At one point Hernan goes into a death-like state and Jessica just sits, looking around at the space she is in without much attention. When Hernan comes to, she asks him, ‘So how was it – death?’ The whale-like spaceship/alien being that flies off from the forest at the end leaves behind the sound Tilda has been hearing all along. Jessica herself seems disconnected and alien to the space she moving around in. She seems to be the only unknowing witness to a future and a past, that which is here-already and yet-to-be. Weerasethakul is clearly one Asian director who has crossed over to being a ’world’ director.
The ambivalent threshold between truth and deceit, city and nature, human and alien, home and abroad, friendly and enemy space, gender distinctions, justice and injustice, genetic and non-genetic motherhood, hunter and hunted… these were some of the themes that films at the IFFK dealt with.
Nathalie Alvarez Mesen’s Clara Sola won the festival’s main Golden Crow Pheasant Award and Ines Barrionuevo’s Camila Comes out Tonight, won the Silver Crow Pheasant. The Award for Best Debut Director was shared by Prabhash Chandra for I am not the River Jhelum and Tara Ramanujan for Forbidden. The Jury of the international competition section was headed by Girish Kasaravalli, the well-known director.
Jury Members Dr. Rashmi Doraiswamy (India) – Chairperson Dr. Bobby Sarama Baruah (India) Boodee Keerthisena (Sri Lanka)
Report by Dr Rashmi Doraiswamy is a Professor at the Academy of International Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.
Edited by Raman Chawla