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Global glimpses

Print edition : Nov 20, 2009 T+T-
From "In the Name of Art", a short film from New Zealand, which got a certificate of merit.-PHOTOGRAPHS: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

From "In the Name of Art", a short film from New Zealand, which got a certificate of merit.-PHOTOGRAPHS: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

WHEN I received an invitation from the Film Federation of India (the apex body of the film industry) to be the chairman of the jury for a Global Cinema Festival it was to hold, I was initially intrigued by the choice of Indore as the festival venue. Then I found a clue to the riddle. Soon after the advent of talkies in the 1930s, film production centres took shape, but only in three metros Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai. One has always felt that the somewhat rootless character of the Hindi film may be at least partially attributed to the fact that there is no film production centre in the heart of the Hindi belt. Possibly motivated by this fact, the Film Federation of India decided to encourage film production in Madhya Pradesh, and as a first step organised its first Global Cinema Festival in Indore, for one week in October 2009.

The State government extended financial assistance although there is an unresolved difference in perception between the Federation and the State the Federation, under Jitendra Jain's leadership, insists on developing a film industry in Indore and the government backs the proposal for the State capital, Bhopal. This article is limited in scope to the festival per se.

The Global Cinema Festival was non-competitive for feature films, which were invited from across the world, and competitive for documentaries and short fiction films, which attracted a surprising number of entries from over 50 countries. As the chairman of the jury, I enjoyed the opportunity not only to view a cross section of excellent contemporary short films and documentaries but also to compare the scene today with what it was like over the last four decades, during which time I have served in the jury of different festivals on a dozen occasions as a member, secretary or chairman. I was stunned by the remarkable progress in the quality of the Indian entries in particular.

The documentaries and short films screened for us had been pre-selected by the festival authorities from a large number of entries. We were asked to choose only one documentary and one short film for the awards in the two categories. But the visual excellence, the variety of styles adopted, and the varied subjects selected by the film-makers of the 56 entries were so exciting that we felt some more films deserved formal recognition. The organisers accepted our recommendation to give two certificates of merit in each category, in addition to an award in each.

While award-winning feature films manage to get some distribution, if not in the cinemas, at least as DVDs, equally deserving short films and documentaries get very little exposure; even those interested in them are unable to access them. However, short films and documentaries are emerging as future vehicles of exceptional sensitivity, exploring new vistas, competing with print in investigative journalism and science reporting. Let me describe briefly some of the entries to awaken your interest.

The award for the Best Documentary Film was given to Paradiso, an entry from the United Kingdom, directed by Alessandro Negrini. It is a lyrical recreation of how a group of friends in a small town in Ireland manage to foster harmony between two estranged groups of Catholics and Protestants literally through music. Although the brick wall, built 40 years ago, dividing the village, remains intact, the emotional wall breaks down as old friends of a Boys Music Group begin performing again, now re-assembled as senior citizens.

We gave the award for the Best Short Film to Bebadelse, an entry from Sweden, directed by Jonas Moberg. Poetic, profound and provocative, the film challenges conventional wisdom in hardly 27 minutes. It has an ethereal if not mystic dimension with strong feminist undertones. Mariam, a pregnant Muslim girl, believes she is carrying the child of Allah. She meets a priest in a church and declares this to him, stating that she has never had a sexual experience. The priest does not believe her, and he says so. She considers him a hypocrite, since he preaches every day that Jesus was born to Virgin Mary.

Mariam's deeply disturbed sister takes her to a clinic and discovers to her amazement that the doctors confirm both virginity and pregnancy. Although the family wants her to abort, Mariam decides otherwise. Three years later, we find her and her daughter in a park, where she meets another Christian priest, who is initially sympathetic to her. He wonders whether the child is normal. Even as Mariam confirms that there is nothing paranormal, we find the little girl, who is playing around out of their sight, caressing a dead pigeon which comes alive and flies. The jury was unanimous in applauding this film.

In the documentary category, we gave the two certificates of merit to House of Numbers (Canadian) and Children of the Pyre (Indian). House of Numbers, directed by Brent Leung, challenges the common understanding of HIV-AIDS, with a combination of perceptive research, investigative journalism and a sharp eye for detail, compelling you to change your perspective. One learns that the AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) threat is highly exaggerated. Through interviews with patients, doctors and scientists, the film establishes that the mortality rate among those who receive treatment after testing positive for HIV, or the human immunodefiency virus, is far higher than in people who ignored the diagnosis more than 15 years ago and refused to take the prescribed medicines. Interviews with Nobel laureates and senior scientists reveal that HIV has never been recognised in any laboratory and that all treatment is based on vague hypotheses. The film indirectly suggests that pharmaceutical lobbies have created the threat in the minds of possibly well-meaning but ignorant politicians.

Children of the Pyre, directed by Rajesh Jala, is a visually brilliant and an emotionally disturbing statement about children who are compelled by poverty to work in the cremation ghats of Varanasi, helping to burn corpses. In the short films category, we gave the two certificates of merit to In the Name of Art (New Zealand) and Midnight Lost and Found (India).

Midnight Lost and Found, directed by Atul Sabharwal, is a sensitive film with brilliant performances. The story is about the blossoming love between a call girl and a pharmacist from whom she buys condoms every night. The relationship between a regular buyer and a retailer takes a turn when the pharmacist shows interest to give her a complimentary set of medicines which she may need in her avocation. The film combines stark realism with artistic finesse and never falls prey to the temptation to be titillating. In the Name of Art, directed by Mardo El Noor, combines aesthetically fabricated visuals of live action and animation.

In addition to the two main awards and the four certificates of merit, the jury considered it important to record our high appreciation of three more entries, which narrowly missed the certificates. We made a special mention of Bilal, an Indian entry in the documentary section, which delicately portrays how a blind man and his blind wife bring up their little son, who has normal vision, in a poverty-stricken slum; Grandpa, a Taiwanese entry in the short films section, a tender and poetic portrait of a little girl who searches for her loving grandfather even as the family is performing his last rites; and Sincity Sincerely, an American entry in the short films section, which dramatically narrates the mental trauma of a soldier just returned from the war in Iraq.

Let me conclude with a behind-the-scenes real story which unfolded just before the festival started. The Film Federation of India had nominated two members of the jury, besides me as the chairman. One member, Professor Nilotpal Majumdar of the Satyajit Ray Film & Television Institute, Kolkata, waited with me for the other member to arrive, but he did not turn up because of ill health. The festival authorities approached a delegate to the festival who had travelled with me from Chennai Mohana, an award-winning short-film producer in her own right to co-opt her as a jury member. When both Mohana and I were embarrassed by this suggestion and were unable to decide, Ramesh Tekwani, on behalf of the organisers, asked, How can you think of it as nepotism? Who can be more fiercely independent in judging than a spouse? We conceded the point. There were lengthy arguments after most films.

S. Krishnaswamy has won many national and international awards for his documentaries and TV serials. He is a recipient of the Padma Shri, and the Lifetime Achievement Award of the U.S. International Film & Video Festival, Los Angeles.