The Kazan International Muslim Film Festival was held from 5 – 9 September 2023 in the beautiful capital of Tatarstan where Slavic and Islamic cultures meet. The festival is organized by the Government of Russia, The Rais of Tatarstan in partnership with the strategic vision group ‘Russia – Islamic World’ with the motto, ‘Through the Dialogue of Cultures – to the Culture of Dialogue’.
The festival offered a wide selection of feature films and documentaries in the following sections: Competition which included the full length and short features, full-length and short documentaries and a selection of films from Tatarstan. The Chairman of the International Jury was the eminent Senegalese director, Moussa Toure. The non-competition programme included films from the Turkic World, Ethnic Cinema, a retrospective of Andrei Konchalovsky’s films. A pre-recorded address by Konchalovsky was screened (since he could not be present) at the gala opening in which he stressed the importance of cinema (and the other arts) as a form of cognition of the world, which was different from, but as important as the knowledge given by science. The opening film was Two Captains by Bair Uladaev (Buryatia, 2023)
The 100th anniversary of Cinema in Tatarstan was celebrated with an exhibition and screenings of films. The highlight was a programme at the Kazan Kremlin in which live jazz music was played to accompany excerpts from the first silent Tatar film, the historical Bulat Batyr (1928). There was also a section of films for children entitled ‘Visiting Childhood’. Days of Turkish, Syrian, Chinese, Greek and Georgian Cinemas were also presented. Student films from VGIK were showcased. Emir Kusturica was the Guest of Honour at the festival with a screening of his 2016 film, On the Milky Way.
Films in Competition
The film awarded by the NETPAC Jury, Ada (Russia, 2023), a feature debut by Stanislav Svetlov, took a refreshingly new look at the coming of age of a young girl in a small hamlet nestled in nature on the banks of the Oka River, a tributary of the Volga. Twelve-year old Ada is loved by the community she lives in and warmly welcomed wherever she goes, by fishermen, by teachers…. The opening sequences that ‘locate’ this hamlet and Ada and the elders she meets are masterful in their pacing and rhythm that allows us to experience the temporality of that space. The high shots of the lush forest, that are repeated through the film give us a feel of life untouched by the high rises of modernity. This idyll is real, though. Ada draws and leaves her scratched drawings as imprints of her having been in those places. In the postbox Ada posts letters without any address to her absent and unknown father. Ada lives with her single mother who loves and supports her. Their relationship is very warm and tender, without both of them losing their independence. Her mother plans on making her relationship with Eduard, a teacher in the local school, permanent. Ada herself is fascinated by Viktor, one of the boys at school. The only ‘conflicts’ in the narrative is Ada inadvertently seeing a moment of intimacy between her stepfather-to-be and his colleague, or that between Viktor and his alcoholic grandfather. The rites of passage - of growing up, first make up, first love, first menstruation, first ‘betrayal’ - are captured in a style that is elegiac and elegant.
The Syrian film, The Road (2022), a different kind of a ‘coming-of-age’ film. A child has been labelled as ‘stupid’ by the school administration. The grandfather who receives this letter decides to teach his grandson himself in a very novel way. He makes him sit on a chair in front of his house and asks him to carefully note down whatever he sees happening on the road. By correcting his grandchild’s spelling, grammar and descriptions, the grandfather enhances his abilities to observe, understand and note down the events that transpire on the road of life. Warring groups that vow to finish off each other and grow more menacing with passing years, carrying more sticks and other weapons, bruised and limping, with old and new members but show no signs of giving up or of reconciliation; a motherly figure who brings in milk for the child, but constantly repeats that the milk can must not be washed; a man who has undergone abdominal surgery and curses the doctor because he cannot help the loud farts, but who later gets cured; a young girl from the boy’s school who goes around distributing traditional bread; the child’s father who occasionally visits and a poet who recites poetry about the times they live in…. these are some of the people who pass by on the road, providing invaluable lessons of life to the boy, making him grow up into an intelligent and capable young man. The director Abdellatif Abdelhamid, who is a VGIK alumni, tells the story of this unconventional education with humour.
Our Home (India, 2022) by Mayanglabam Romi Meitei is about the life of a boy and his family in an isolated fishing community on Loktak Lake in northeast India. The boy goes to school by swimming across the lake every day, carefully putting his uniform and bag in a plastic bag, so as not to wet them. When the family is evicted by the government and the new forces of development take over this village, the precarious existence of the child and his family is further threatened.
The Grand Prize of the International Jury was won by No Prior Appointment (Iran, 2022, directed by Behrouz Shoaibi). It traces the journey back home of a woman who has settled in Germany with her mother. Both are divorced. She learns of her estranged father’s death and returns to Iran to find he has left her a grave in his will. Intrigued and enraged by this ‘property’ she has inherited, she and her young autistic son embark on a journey of self -discovery, healing, and maybe, even love. Fortune, the much-awarded Tajik film (2022, directed by Muhiddin Muzafar)) was also part of the competition section. Set in the period just before the fall of the Soviet Union, it tells the story of friendship between two men, whose long association sours because of a lottery that ‘betters’ the financial situation of one of them. The changing values of the transition period is also depicted in the son of the ‘car owner’ (who keeps calling him on the landline and whom the spectators never see) giving up his training as an opera singer to become a taxi driver in Moscow because this is the job that will get him more money. The other son is corrupt. One of the friends is jailed, but he does not implicate his friend; the other dies unable to bear the stress of living in new times with strange values. The car that had been the bone of contention gets sold and its parts taken out. As this ‘hollowed out’ skeleton of the car is wheeled out on a cart, the dead body of the friend is brought home.
Shorts and Documentaries
The short feature section, Zainab Yunus’ Devotion (Pakistan, 2023) has the director playing the lead role of a young woman who wishes to leave her hometown, Quetta, because she has been offered a job she covets in the media industry in another city. On the day before she leaves her old father takes her around showing her aspects of life she had not paid much attention to and the landscape. ‘When we stay in a city, we become a part of the city’s voice’, says the father, ‘The city will be loyal to you’. The old man’s son has gone missing and he hopes to hear the missing boy’s voice in the hum of the city’s noises. The daughter, whose documentary on schools in her hometown makes a mark, decides to stay back in her city. My Life is for You (Tunisia, 2022, directed by Nasreddine Ragam) is about a young plastic bottle ragpicker who, thanks to the encouragement of her teacher, becomes a well-known oncologist who can repay her debt to her teacher when he is ill. Aigul Ablasanova’s The Manning Up (Kyrgyzstan, 2022) deals with domestic abuse and the difficult life of a woman trying to make ends meet with an alcoholic husband.
Two films in the short documentary section stood out for their evocative use of the landscape. Dmitry Semibratov’s Chechnya and the World (Russia, 2022) dealt with the unusual theme of how the war had affected animals who had left their environs but who were now returning to their old habitat thanks to the efforts of forest officers who were animal experts. Among them is a woman too who fearlessly scours the forests and tracks the movement of the animals. The war had caused the chirping of birds to cease, the migration of animals to Dagestan and other places due to the bombs, and animals who were unable move because they had no legs. As one forester puts it, ‘In comparison to what nature gives us, we give very little in return’. Another moving short documentary on violence was The Land of Buried Women (Kurdistan-Iraq, 2023). An old grave-keeper, who is a gardener as well tends the unnamed graves of women who have died violent deaths due to honour killings, etc. As he remarks, the women are impatient in their loneliness for even their identity is only known to the municipality. He grows plants and trees in this lonely graveyard.
Among the long documentaries Isitas (Iran, 2021, directed by Alireza Dehghan) depicts the oldest adobe city by narrating the history of civilization through the elements (wind, water, earth and fire). A poetic documentary, it underlines the multicultural embeddings of human culture and the need to preserve this heritage. Sachin Ghimire’s Into the Mist (Nepal, 2023) traces the life and work of a well-known Nepali anthropologist, Professor Dor Bahadur Bista, whose research on tribes in Nepal was highly regarded internationally. He disappeared in 1996 and was never found. The film also looks into what might have been the causes for his disappearance. It uses tribal folk songs very evocatively.
Films from the Islamic and Turkic World
The section, ‘Russia- Islamic World’ had films from Indonesia, Bangladesh and many other countries. Of interest was Knots, a debut feature by Oleg Khamokov (Russia, 2023) in the Kabardian language from the Caucasus. It depicts the growing estrangement between a trucker and the woman he has married and the home they have built that has turned into a symbol of power rather than love.
In the non-competition section entitled ‘Turkic World’, two films from Kazakhstan captured landscape on a magnificent scale: Storm by Sabit Kurmanbekov (2021) and Steppe by Maksim Akbarov (2022). Steppe tells the story of officers whose job is to protect wildlife. And older officer is training a younger one. Life on the steppe is arduous and there are those who live off poaching and other illegal activities as well as those who help others.
Well-known Kyrgyz director’s swan song Thousand Dreams (2021) also featured in this section. Sarulu, who passed away in March this year has left behind a body of poetic and ruminative works. This last film is about a young couple, a painter and his girlfriend, their estrangement and her return to bourgeois life because he ‘is a loser’. The story is simple: love, loss and disappearance into another world. The real narrative is in the very images Sarulu has called forth for himself and us. “Your new home is the night and stars; Your new soul is the wind and the stream; A little more and you will be out of the reach of the eyes of this world”, says Maria, a spectral being, who, it seems, has come ‘from the inner sea’. The protagonist tells the story of Wu Tao Tsu, the Chinese painter, who drew a beautiful landscape on the order of the emperor and disappeared into it, away from the emperor. Marat Sarulu in this film has created images of dappled light over layers of more dappled light and shade. The rich contrast of black and white that turns into muted colour every once in a while is ideal for the play of light and shade. The film is about disappearance into a world that is away from the gaze of this one. The disappearance could be into the virtual one of lines on the computer accompanied by the distinctive crackling of electricity sounds, or the play of layered shadows, or the matted light through lit candles in movement. Modernity is present in the light traces of fast-moving trains and vehicles, or the fuzzy images seen through the windows of multi-storeyed buildings. There are the ruins of modernity, too, however, shown to us first by Tarkovsky in Stalker and seen here in abandoned industrial landscapes, empty train compartments, a run-down jeep, huge ducts of deserted factories, an old computer…. Geological images of nature are captured, too: ponds, mountains, rivers, birds, fragile bridges. Sarulu seems to be figuring his own exit ‘beyond the gaze of this world’, bidding adieu through ephemeral images that are real and virtual, of this world and of the cosmos.
The festival had an impressive fare of films. There were talks on industries and films (including one by Sergei Kapterev, the well-known film historian and NETPAC jury member), meetings with directors and a general spirit of bonhomie throughout the festival. The festival deserves to grow and expand, since it is showcasing films from lesser known regions of Russia as well films from abroad focusing on works from Muslim countries.
Written by: Dr Rashmi Doraiswamy. She is a Professor at the Academy of International Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. She was honorary editor (Assistant, Deputy and the Executive) of the world’s first publication on Asian films Cinemaya – The Asian Film Quarterly for many years since its inception in 1988.