In 2010 Third Text published a special issue entitled Cinema in Muslim Societies under the guest editorship of Pakistani-based academician and journalist, Ali Nobil Ahmed. In his introduction, “Is There a Muslim World?” Ahmed explored the responses of those he had solicited to contribute, pointing to the problems in determining what – if indeed it exists – a Muslim cinema might be. After healthy debate he noted that “religion as a determinant of cinematic productions barely figures, and remains largely within the background of the essays”. The responses indicated not only the reluctance of academicians in this field to engage, and indeed the wide gap between academic usage and general parlance. There exists (and existed then) significant evidence that the term “Muslim filmmaking” is embraced outside of academia, enjoying for example frequent usage in contemporaneous Iranian government policy and the rhetoric. In terms of infrastructure, international organisations such as the Union of M uslim Filmmakers and the Union for Short Filmmakers of Muslim Countries and Muslim film festivals have existed for years. Back in February 2013 I attempted my own research in relation to Iranian cinema, asking the then Iranian Deputy Minister for Culture Javad Shamghadri to define it. His frank answer acknowledged the problem of a definitive statement and he readily conceded the ambiguity of the term, noting that people defined it in various simplistic ways – films made by Muslims, films made in Muslim countries, or as films embracing Muslim values.
My having wrestled with this question of definition for some twenty editions of the Fajr IFF, it reared its head again when I was invited to the Kazan International Muslim Film Festival. Kazan is the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan, one of several within the Russian Federation. It is generally held that the Tatar language and the Muslim religion are important elements of Tatar cultural identity, the strengthening of which has been emphasised since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Indeed the festival is presented by the Ministry of Culture of Tatarstan and the Council of Muftis of Russia. Yet this is no Islamic theocracy - statistics on religion seem to place Islam as only “nearly half the population”.
Islam in Tatarstan existed prior to the tenth century, but it was in 922 that Bulgar ruler Almış converted to Islam. Thus 2022 was the 1100 anniversary and was marked strongly although elegantly in the programme. My fellow NETPAC member and juror, Sharofat Arabova, from Tajikistan, was asked in a published interview, “The Prophet forbade Muslims to make images of God's creations, meanwhile we meet at the festival of Muslim films ...” Ofcourse this is a very contentious point and indeed as Radif Kashpov pointed out, Tatar theologian Marjani made the photograph below in the 1860s - 70s "to prove that photography is a physical, chemical process and not the creation of humans".
I asked the new Chair of the Selection Committee, Nina Kochelyaeva, who also selects for the Moscow FF, for her thoughts…
"There is certainly a difference in the selection of films for the Moscow International Film Festival and for the Kazan International Festival of Muslim Cinema. For Moscow, the selection committee, as a rule, is not limited in the choice of themes and plots of the film and is guided by the main criterion - the quality of the selected films. There are certain restrictions on the program of the Kazan Festival. The first is related to the content issues. We prefer to show films that do not focus on violence, wars, as well as films that support and promote the values of world religions. In addition, there are a number of restrictions related to the fact that films contain sexual scenes, as well as scenes of excessive alcohol consumption, scenes of drug use, and scenes of violence are undesirable. Although there are exceptions to these rules when the film has a pronounced social significance, and the overall theme of the film is deeper and more important than certain scenes. In general, the selection committee tries to harmonize approaches to selection, listens to the opinion of the Islamic spiritual culture consultant, at the same time, without fail observing quality criteria in the selection."
Thus, there were many nods to Islam. The opening documentary, Ibn Fadlan, based on the letters of the famous tenth century Arab missionary/traveller sent by the Caliph in Baghdad to the king of the Bulghars, was made by a Tatar director and former Vice - Rector of the Russian Islamic University. But the very rich and meaningful programme extended well beyond Muslim cinema. The festival constituted some 150 films, short and long, fiction and documentary, about a third of which were in competition.
The main jury was under the chairmanship of Vladimir Khotinenko, film director and head of directing at VGIK. Of particular significance to this appointment was his internationally acclaimed 1995 film A Muslim, a drama about a Russian soldier who returns to his home village after some ten years in captivity in Afghanistan, but who is ultimately rejected because of his conversion to Islam while in Afghanistan. (I shall be searching this film out!) The main jury consisted of ten members who worked out a system to deal with fifty films in some two days of viewing.
This 18th edition of the festival saw the establishment of the first Netpac jury at the festival, the only jury besides the main one. Our Netpac jury consisted of local Tatar journalist, musician, and cultural worker, Radif Kashapov, Tajik NETPAC member Sharofat Arabova, and me. NETPAC was free to select its films and we chose to watch first and second fictional and documentary features, which amounted to a manageable nine films. The four dramas were diverse both culturally and in content.
A film which interested the jury and came in for much debate was The Anger which was set in Lebanon and explored terrorism from a West Asian perspective (although the director was Russian, a graduate of journalism from Moscow State University). It started quite delicately, depicting the way of life of a traditional Lebanese country girl, artistically inclined, who wants to follow an unconventional path for a woman. Unfortunately, like many of its Western counterparts the film descended into clichés with the arrival of the European terrorist who manipulates her. But beautifully shot, it was acknowledged with the Cinematography Award.
Readers will be familiar with Natesh Hegde’s debut feature Pedro, about Indian rural communalism, which has been selected for the Busan and London film festivals and which received the Netpac Award at the almost concurrent Vladivostock FF.
Impressively the final two features we viewed were completely independent.
Sinhalese film, The Newspaper, dealt also with terrorism, but more with the media. Awarded at the 2022 Bengalaru FF, it also received best actor awards from the main jury.
The film we selected for our award was Silent Glory, a second feature from Nahid Hassanzadeh (which due to its content seems to take on an added significance with the protests over the tragic death of Mahsa Armini that have erupted whilst I was preparing this report.) A woman of thirty-five, past the marriageable age, agrees to marry the old guardian of the village shrine. She discovers a young boy inside, bound to a railing, who has taken an oath to stay there until he is healed. Both she and her husband, in contradiction of the oath, take him outside for exercise and sunlight. While the old man no longer believes in the healing power of such vows, when the young boy dies, she also suddenly loses her faith in this kind of blind faith. Her journey leads to a new kind of spirituality for her.
In addition to the NETPAC Award the film, a world premiere, was awarded best film by the main jury, and the female lead, Jila Shahi, received the award for best actress.
Our local juror, Tatar journalist, musician, etc. Radif Kashapov suggested what seemed a fitting location for our jury deliberations, a café in the nearby Old Tatar Settlement.
147 guests from 23 countries of the world. 150 competitive and non-competition films, and nine festival event venues, anecdotally always packed to the rafters… A pitching event gathered together producers from Russia and Central Asian countries under one of Kazakhstan’s NETPAC’s members, Kanat Torebay, and so much more. Jetlagged as I was after a 34 hour trip I was unable to explore as much of the programme as I had hoped – the VGIK animation programme, 95th anniversary of Vladimir Motyl, a nod to Tarkovsky’s 90th anniversary, along with many films otherwise difficult to see such as Meghalayam director Pradip Kurbah’s Path, and Kazakh master Bolat Kalymbetov’s biopic about the great poet, Mukagali. It was a festival well worth attending and the jury a great addition to NETPAC’s stable.
Report by - Dr. Anne Demy –Geroe (Australia) Joint President, NETPAC