10-17 November 2008

It is undeniably impossible not to miss some worthy films at a brief seven-day, non-competitive festival of 276 films from 62 countries. It was not only the sheer number of films but the dispersed venues, spread over almost ten halls around the city, that somewhat curbed the privilege of being at the right time at the right place. Nonetheless, perhaps the journey from one cinema hall to another, from film school auditorium to city media centre, and through the commercial cinema halls, became analogous to the cinematic journey of culture, human experience and life itself, that one experiences on the screen during a festival.  Hence, I attempt, or rather am obligated, to give a reasonably subjective account of the 14th Kolkata Film Festival (KFF).

This year the special showcases of the KFF included the five-film program Restored Films of Satyajit Ray, in addition to Remembering Ray, an assortment of the great Indian director’s favourite Hollywood films, including popular classics directed by Ernst Lubitsch, John Huston, Orson Welles, Billy Wilder and Alfred Hitchcock. While almost all the films are widely available on DVD, in this context we got a rare glimpse of Hollywood’s influence and inspiration on Ray’s cinema. Furthermore, it was greatly appreciated by the cinephiles of the audience, who rarely have the opportunity to watch such films on the big screen in this country.

Other classic films neatly distributed throughout the Festival’s various sections included Jacques Tati’s 1950s comedies (Centenary Tribute) and 11 films by Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Homage), while the Great MastersandAll Time Great Films sections included, films from (again) Ernst Lubitsch, Federico Fellini, Carlos Saura, Theo Angelopoulos and Karel Kachyna, to name a few. Tati’s comic criticism of French bourgeois and metropolitan modernity, not to mention his immaculate comic timing and incisive social satire, has always been a favourite of the Kolkata audience. Not only were the early morning screenings full but films such as Mon Oncle (1958) and Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (1953) saw the audience spilling out onto the isles and standing in the entrance.

This year’s opening film Rosso come il cielo (Red Like the Sky), directed by Cristiano Bortone, set the mood for the festival, one that imparts a profound love for the cinema even in the midst of limitations, imperfection and inadequacy. Based on the true experiences of Mirco Mencacci, one of Italy’s leading sound editors, the film portrays the life of ten year-old Mirco, who is blinded in an accident and sent to a rather strict boarding school for the blind. While the film steer clear of overtly emotional and sentimental cinematic ploys, it narrates a simple yet inspiring tale of Mirco’s discovery of his creative talent for sound editing.

The local audience was euphoric after watching Paris, je t’aime, which consists of 18 shorts depicting the theme of love set in the 18 arondissements of Paris. Each “episode” has its own visual style and narrative scheme, ranging from horror and comedy to magical realism and mime, which evokes a particular mood and perhaps memories for the director. Some of today’s most well-known actors, including Ludivine Sagnier, Juliette Binoche, Nick Nolte, Elijah Wood, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman and Gerard Depardieu feature in the films, as directed by an eclectic bunch of filmmakers including Alfonso Cuaron, Christopher Doyle, the Coen brothers, Gurinder Chadha, Gus Van Sant and Wes Craven. Each audience member had different favourites and the debate continued till evening to agree on the best episode among the lot.

Programmed in the Cinema International section, the Dutch psychodrama Nadine (d. Erik de Bruyn) addresses the very contemporary issue of the negotiation between a successful career and desired motherhood, as played out by a cast of three different actresses in the same role of Nadine, who impulsively kidnaps her ex-boyfriend’s baby and runs away. An almost similar narrative runs through the Danish film Ekko (d. Anders Morgenthaler), a psychological horror revolving around a divorced policeman, who kidnapped his own son as he didn’t get custody. But as he hides in a desolate bungalow, where he spent his childhood – the dark deeds of his past seem to come back to haunt him to death. Relatively, lighthearted yet provocative films like Laurent Tirard’s Molière and Gábor Rohonyi’s Konec enjoyed large audiences. The latter plays much like Bonnie and Clyde but with an 80 year-old pensioner Clyde and a 72 year-old Bonnie; together and trigger happy, they loot banks and shops and have the experience of a lifetime, practically fuelling a mini insurgency among the neglected senior citizens of a small town in Hungary.

Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring

But it was Kim Ki-duk and his six films that undoubtedly stole the show at the KFF. The longest queues, the loudest applauses and the ubiquitous discussions on this South Korean director and his deeply brooding cinema with entrenched spiritual underpinnings were evidence enough for his newfound popularity among Kolkata cinephiles. Irrespective of his lukewarm reception in his own country and somewhat mixed response in Europe, Kim was surely the most sought after director at the Festival. Kolkata audiences stood in queue for more than an hour, watched his films from the side of the screen, and rushed from one hall to another by metro or bus to catch these screenings.

His most talked about film, Bom yeoreum gaeul gyeoul geurigo bom (Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring, 2003) is emblematic of Kim’s power in storytelling utilising minimum dialogue and exquisite cinematography. The narrative, written by the director, is divided in accordance to the seasons, and draws analogy not only to the seasonal cycle but also the cycle of innocence, desire and inevitable sin, only to return to the tranquil state of original divine piety amidst nature. Perhaps Indian mythology and Buddhist tenets share certain similar convictions that perturb the modern-day urban existence, and it is these beliefs that Kim’s films successfully evoke. Kim’s use of particular visuals motifs – animals, water and an icon of Buddha – to portray a universal yet original story of the crisis of morality, spiritual atonement and natural innocence etch into the mind a lasting impression, even though some elements of his films remain reactionary and too nebulous. Perhaps he sees the world through a dislocated orientalism and employs pop-mysticism to address a larger audience yet somehow he manages to get away with it through his enviable gift of storytelling, often only through exquisite visuals.

Kim’s Samaria (Samaritan Girl, 2004) consists of three chapters, “vasumitra”, “samaria” and “sonata”, and explores such essential spiritual themes as sin, moral bankruptcy and atonement. More explicit in its violence and sexuality, it creates moments of discomforting beauty and anxiety and continues the introspective gaze of cinema into the social, familial, sexual and certainly spiritual realms; where the opportunity of salvation remains in the crisis itself. Hwal (The Bow, 2005) could be accused of being an evidently romanticised allegory of morality and transgression concerning a 60 year-old man who has been raising a young girl since she was six years old in a secluded mystical fishing boat in the middle of the sea. This latter detail appears as an aide memoire in Spring, Summer, which, as it does for many, remains my favourite of Kim Ki-duk’s films.

Films from Iran, Israel and Turkey always receive a warm reception from the Kolkata audience and this year was no exception. Especially when the director of Üç maymun (Three Monkeys), the celebrated Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan, won the best director award at the 61st Cannes Film Festival and the film had been chosen as Turkey’s nominee for this year’s Oscars. Moreover, the Kolkata audience had been more than familiar with Ceylan’s films, since last year the KFF presented a retrospective of his work. The overwhelming enthusiasm even led to a brawl between the festival authorities and the excited festival-goers keen on entering an already-full auditorium!

However, personally I found German-based director Fatih Akin’s Auf der anderen Seite (The Edge of Heaven) more expansive and intricate in its exploration of national identity, political psychology and unstable individuality as these themes crisscross each other with fortuitous probability. Everything seems like a coincidence in this film – nationality, home and identity – all conceivably the result of a twist of fate. The winner of the Best Screenplay at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, the film narrates a complex account of an estranged mother and daughter, each, more importantly estranged from her own identity. Characters traverse paths without knowing it; the quirk of fate, a cycle of overlooked connections and anxious empathy continue throughout the film.

The Magician

But it was magic, humour, romance and the pathos of being an underdog that brought down the house, while making the audience explode in laughter, as was to be expected from a film co-directed by one of the most admired comedians in Turkey (who holds the record of having 2,500 live performances in 11 years). Hokkabaz (The Magician), directed by Ali Taner Baltaci and Cem Yilmaz, the funniest man in Turkey, portrays life as full of small miracles and magical moments. The story of İskender, a gawky wannabe magician, his reliable but whacky sidekick Maradona and the cranky, little oddball dad of İskender, who just wants his headstone fixed at Çanakkale war cemetery, tells us about the unpredictable surprises, miracle and wonder that is life.

From Turkey to Iran, a similar cinematic critique of identity, nationality and politics runs through Manijeh Hekmat’s 3 zan (3 Women) but with subtler, and more intimate and psychological enunciations. The film depicts three dissimilar generations, grandmother, mother and daughter, drawing a complete image of Iran. The three women are not only different in their social lives but also in terms of their memory, and in their search for their identity, while their identity itself remains the illusive bond that ties them together. The film revolves around Minoo, a middle aged antique carpet expert, trying to save a valuable Persian carpet, a national treasure. While confiscating the carpet from the illegal traders, her aged mother, who suffers from mental illness, gets lost carrying the same priceless antique carpet.  Her daughter, who has already left her, aimlessly travels across deserts perhaps to get away from her lonesome memory, but ends up meeting a young rookie archeologist, who digs up the past to reconstruct memory. While looking for her mother and daughter, Minoo continues to search for the lost tie that may bind these three women together. The antique carpet becomes a metaphor that negotiates between historical memory and lost identity – a shared sign of all generations representing reciprocal understanding.

The cinephiles (the audience and the programmers) at KFF continue to demonstrate a consistent liking for films that comment on profoundly serious political, social or psychological issues but do so through an apparently simple storyline. Etz Lemon (The Lemon Tree) struck the right cord with the Kolkata audience particularly for this reason. The Israeli director Eran Riklis, whose The Syrian Bride was an international hit four years back, this time explores the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from a fairly atypical context. The newly appointed Israeli Minister of Defense relocates into a Jewish community. The lemon orchard of his Palestinian neighbour, Salma, that occupies the front of his suburban bungalow is conceived as a threat to his security. When the Israeli defense department plans to cut down it down, Salma, who nurtures her inherited lemon tree orchards, resolutely confronts the Minister by going to the Supreme Court. The film refuses to take sides, and merely seamlessly narrates the lives of Israelis and Palestinians, who are slowly resorting to more rational forms of reconciliation but continue to struggle and sort out their differences.

Firaaq

From day one of KFF, Firaaq, directed by debutant director Nandita Das, was on many festival-goers’ (including mine) “must watch” list. Especially since it had been the focus of controversy even before its release in India. Indian Selects, the Festival’s Indian cinema showcase, presents some of its most recent and critically-acclaimed films. There have been very few films directly addressing the Gujarat riot, those films that have attempted it (such as Parzania, Black & White, or Vilapangalkappuram) have done so in a wholly “politically correct” fashion, and hence have presented a phony cinematic account. However this regrettable communal conflict has enormous potential as a contemporary event to cinematically express the ravages of communal and religious fundamentalists in the subcontinent. Firaaq attempts to show it all with its stark realities and uncomfortable truths. More than 2,500 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in a series of communal riots in Gujarat in 2002. The state government and the police were criticised for failing to stop the violence, and in some cases encouraging it. Firaaq traces the story of ordinary people from different socioeconomic levels – how they cope with the paranoid anxiety, obnoxious fear and overriding hatred – and explores how suppressed culpability searches for a conduit and whether innocence is able to escape from the nauseating ethos of violence, death and revulsion.

A guilt-stricken abused Hindu housewife; a poor Muslim family, whose house has been burnt down in the riot; a rich, upper-class mixed-religion couple; a Muslim classical vocalist, lost in his world of music and poetry, perhaps deliberately oblivious of the carnage outside – the plight of these characters sketch a complicated, multilayered and penetrating account of the Gujarat riot while capably eschewing stereotypes and sweeping generalisations. The little orphan boy, a feeble, almost mute witness of the irrational violence, searches for a refuge; he seeks innocence, humanity and empathy. Nandita Das, already an acclaimed actress (of Fire fame) deserves accolades for directing a deeply moving film on the agonising violence and bloodshed by restricting the impulse of showing gory carnage on screen. The tagline “A work of fiction, based on a 1,000 true stories” did not bail out Nandita from the Hindu fundamentalists’ accusation of highlighting the state-sponsored violence against Muslims in Gujarat, and even of being an outright anti-Hindu. Hence, I suppose the Festival audience was fortunate enough to watch it on the big screen, since there is fair possibility of its being caught in the web of protests and re-censorship, which may delay the release of the film here for months.

Girish Kasaravalli, unlike Nandita Das, is a veteran when it comes to telling stories in a poetic and allegorical cinematic language. His Gulabi Talkies, based on a short story by eminent feminist writer Vaidehi, depicts a universal yet original story concerning the paradox of globalisation, liberalisation and technological modernisation, particularly in a third world country like India. Replete with evocative images of a dish antenna, TV sets and open windows, and set against the background of the coastal town of Kundapura and Kasaravalli, the film tells the story of Gulabi, a Muslim midwife, forsaken by her husband, who somehow manages to find her little piece of happiness in watching movies on television. She is exploited through every possible means, socially, economically and sexually but when Gulabi brings home a colour television set with a cable connection, not only the villagers but even her husband Moosa, who had abandoned her for another woman, start visiting her house to watch films. “The politics of image”, as Kasaravalli once said in an interview, rearranges the commonplace objects and brings out the cultural and social politics of modernity, development and globalisation. Gulabi is a difficult yet challenging character, a representative of the subaltern, who is at the periphery of modernity but whose life is significantly being shaped by it.

In watching films like these at the Festival, one becomes conscious of the uncomfortable fact that, irrespective of their geographical location, political condition and state-sponsored development initiatives, the suffering of the ordinary poor remains the same. The uncanny parallels between The Lemon Tree and the recently released Yarwng (Roots), Joseph Pulinthanath’s tribal-language film from Tripura (a north-eastern state of India), evidently reminded the local audience about the national debate on industrialisation, land acquisition and the rights of the peasants. Yarwng, selected as the Opening Film of the prestigious Indian Panorama section of the International Film Festival of India (IFFI), is a rare feat, considering the tribe who speak Kokborok had probably never experienced cinema in their lives. The film recounts the wretched lives of about 80,000 tribals, who were evicted from their own land in 1976 when the Dumbur hydel project was commissioned and a 30-metre high dam was constructed across the river Gomti. Less than half the population received rehabilitation or compensation from the government, most were compelled to settle in the hill ranges and continue their struggle for survival through Jhum cultivation. The affectionate romance between the characters Karmati and Wakhirai provides the subplot. The film at times seems amateurish and technically clumsy yet shines as a rare specimen of the power of cinema that has always found an expression, no matter how crude, for the people who have lost their voice.

The KFF has always invited eminent directors, cinematographers, writers and critics to interact with the film enthusiasts that comprise its audience but this year there were very few international filmmakers and dignitaries present at the venue, perhaps because of the shortage of government funds and lack of corporate sponsorship. Among those who were present this year however, the most noteworthy were Israeli director Doron Eran, Beat Presser (renowned photographer of Werner Herzog), Robin McPherson (Director of Screen Academy, Scotland), film historian Marcy Goldberg, the aforementioned filmmakers Girish Kasaravalli and Nandita Das, and Brazilian filmmaker Wolney Mattos Oliveira, who is also a genuine fan of Hindi films, and confessed at the press conference that he would like to make a Hindi film provided he can learn the language.

Chaturanga

The final night of the festival featured the much-awaited premiere of Chaturanga (Four Chapters). Based on the Bengali novel by the Nobel Prize-winning author Rabindranath Tagore, Chaturanga is directed by Suman Mukhopadhyay, a young theatre activist and filmmaker. In an interview with The Times of India Mukhopadhyay said that the film deals with the “Frailty of human existence. It’s been so long since this novel was written. And yet the fundamental questions regarding the position of women in the society remain unanswered. Damini [The leading female protagonist] epitomises the struggle of women in a male-dominated society.”

The novel has, over the years, been intended for screen adaptation by a number of illustrious Indian filmmakers and Mukhopadhyay deserves accolades for taking on such an onerous task. The irrefutably complex novel is set in Colonial Bengal and tells the story of a transitional time, an era of contradictory ideas, and conflicting worldviews between radical positivism and religious mysticism; and amidst all this how the notions of morality, sexuality and domesticity negotiate and impinge upon women. Even though the film has some beautiful and thought-provoking moments, it gravitates heavily towards a literary rhetoric and seems cursory. The viewers seem to expect more from a film based on Tagorian literature; perhaps, the rigorous expectation attached to any of Tagore’s work naturally makes one anticipate a unique cinematic rendition but regrettably Chaturanga fails to make everybody content. But to look on the brighter side, the screening of this film on the last day of KFF may serve as an intimation of creative cinematic opportunity that lies ahead and may also provoke prospective filmmakers from this subcontinent and beyond.

While the 14th Kolkata Film Festival encompassed a wide selection of cinema and showcased some very impressive contemporary works, the general feeling was that somehow it did not equal the experience of the last few years. But I believe such an endeavour is more than welcome not only for its role in expanding and refining the viewing habits of filmgoers of a country that churns out the largest number of films every year but in its duty to remind the people about the sheer power of purely cinematic means, the politics of the image that transcend boundaries of language, culture and temporality. Perhaps that is the reason why the usual glitches of KFF – out-of-focus projection, delayed shows timings, bad prints – were surpassed by the deep, passionate engagement with cinema.

Kolkata Film Festival website: http://www.kff.in