A low-key affair

Print edition : November 21, 2003

The 34th International Film Festival of India, held in New Delhi, fails to live up to expectations.

in New Delhi

THE outrageous attacks on two women at the car park of the Siri Fort auditorium in New Delhi - one of them a Swiss diplomat - drew more attention to the 34th International Film Festival of India than the 212 films it offered. Ironically, some people who heard the Indian victim scream for help had emerged from a film condemning brutalities committed on women.

A scene from Iranian director Samira Makhmalbaf's Five in the Afternoon.-

Five in the Afternoon

The festival itself was a low-key affair. There were few stars or celebrity directors. Liv Ullmann, trailing her own aurora borealis from Ingmar Bergman classics, had to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award from Shatrughan Sinha, Minister of Shipping, described by Information and Broadcasting Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad as "the most powerful actor on the Indian screen". Thank God for Shabana Azmi who delivered a perfectly edited introduction with warmth and feeling. "Cinema without Liv Ullmann would be like a camera without a reel, film without a script, theatre without a screen."

The festival was low on vintage stuff, the kind of wine to set pulses racing. There was a section on Switzerland, an assemblage of films produced by Marin Karmitz, films made by veterans such as Claude Chabrol, Alain Resnais and Abbas Kiarostami, homage to yesteryear actress Leela Chitnis, and tributes to film-makers K.S. Sethumadhavan and B.R. Chopra.

The package from Norway stood out for its alliance with literature - it had profiles of Nobel laureates Knut Hamsun and Sigrid Undset, besides films based on their works - Hunger, a Swedish and a Norway-Denmark version of Hamsun's Pan and Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter directed by Liv Ullmann. A portrait of Ullmann herself narrated by Woody Allen offered insights into the work of the actor/director, who has also served as a goodwill ambassador of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) for over 15 years.

Scandinavia was spotlighted again in Lars von Trier. The Danish provocateur of cinema makes films in English to reach out to larger audiences. Co-author of the Dogme Manifesto which shunned roboticising technology in cinema, he has now reached a stage when he is a rule unto himself. His retrospective, a major attraction, had films old (Epidemic, 1987), trendsetting (Dancer in the Dark, 2000) and new (Dogville, 2003). They traced the film-maker's startling style through the years. Von Trier's cruel images and zany treatment of disease physical and mental are not everyone's cup of tea, though the inventiveness cannot but tantalise, and yes, titillate too.

Liv Ullmann, who was honoured with the Lifetime Achievement Award.-S. ARNEJA

IFFI 2003 had to stand or fall by its selection of contemporary cinema. Nothing much on the home front - Nizhalkuthu (Adoor Gopalakrishnan), Mr and Mrs Iyer (Aparna Sen), Shubho Muhurat (Rituparno Ghosh), Abar Aranye (Goutam Ghose), Stumble (Prakash Belawadi), Teen Deewarein (Nagesh Kukunoor), Anbe Sivam (C. Sundar), Makdee (Vishal Bharadwaj), Padham Onnu Oru Vilapom (T.V. Chandran) and Bhavum (Satish Menon) had already been released commercially or screened at other film festivals in India and abroad.

Sibi Malayil's Ente Veedu... Appoontem had a rivetting theme - a child who loves his stepmother kills his stepbrother in a moment of jealousy. He goes through a personal hell, and more torture in a juvenile home. The film managed to touch something beyond conventional presentation. Two debut films had unrealised potential. Oruthi (Amshan Kumar, Tamil) had an earnest approach to a good story without technical finish. Mouni (B.S. Lingadevaru, Kannada) was mere illustration for U.R. Anantha Murthy's novel. Yet the callow camera managed to take us to village life in the past, into palm groves and monasteries. The actors Dattatreya and Anant Nag shaped very credible characters.

Palpable excitement was reserved for Choker Bali, peeking into applause when director Rituparno Ghosh appeared flanked by glamour stars Aishwarya Rai and Raima Sen. Irate views trounced the film as "a second-rate adaptation of a third-rate novel". The sympathetic saw it as a heart-warming effort, crafted with sincerity.

THE world cinema section had its share of drivel. One wondered how a film like Beyond the Soul (Rajiv Anchal) got in - it has an American doctor discovering Ayurveda to diagnose diseases in visions. India becomes a shangrila of tourist dreams, replete with trite images and triter scenes. Gipsy (Ali Shah Hatami, Iran) takes you to a village full of dance, music and folklore, where the killing of larks brings drought. The rains will come only if the young bird-hunting Rassul finds and fetches back the dotar minstrel to play his `Melody of Allah'. A story with possibilities. But all metaphoric allusions were ironed out in the bland treatment. However, the director did make one happy when he disclosed that no living birds were killed for the shooting scenes - such an act would have been deemed sinful by the villagers, with and among whom Hatami made his film.

A scene from her Kristin Lavransdatter.-

Kristin Lavransdatter

Surprisingly, IFFI had several flatter, scrawnier versions of Bollywood melodrama like Francisca (Mexico) and The Olive Harvest (Palestine). The kindest thing to say about features from Serbia-Montenegro or Croatia is that you are glad to know those strife-torn nations are still making films. Women Without Wings (Nicholas Kinsey, Canada) was certainly no Childe Harold odyssey as one had foolishly hoped, since it was set in the same Land of the Eagles where Byron once found inspiration. The amateurish film has Canadian Marije plunging into tribal feuds and ancient vendettas of Albania, and becomes a `vowed virgin' like her manly aunt.

"Masterpieces are rare, anywhere. How can you expect to see more than one good film a day at any festival?" asked an ancient mariner. IFFI did have several good films this year to offset the mediocre. Brazil scored in variety. God is Brazilian (Carlos Diegues) had hilarious fluff over substance as the Almighty decided to find a saint to take care of His business while He went off on a much-needed vacation. Big budget Carandiru depicted the largest, most overcrowded penitentiary in Latin America, unravelled the tales of its inmates, and exploded into the massacre of unarmed prisoners. Jorge Furtado (The Man Who Copied, Two Summers) showed tender humour and empathy for the downtrodden, their right to survive by following their personal dreams.

Small budget, true-life docudrama Radio Favela (Helvecio Ratton) stole hearts despite its barebones technique. Jorge, a young Black in a city slum, a victim of unadmitted racism, launches an unlicensed radio station to oppose illiteracy and drug dealing in the favelas (shanty towns). Brazilian hip-hop and funk are punctuated with news reports, satirical anti-establishmentarian bytes, police alerts and calls for assistance. After 20 years of police harassment and staunch resistance, Radio Favela gets a United Nations award for promoting education and anti-drug campaigns. The story bubbles along on youthful optimism and lovable defiance.

No surprise that the memorable features should deal with human rights issues in regions where they have long been trampled. Amos Gitai's Kedma took a hard, objective look at the Israel-Palestine situation where victims of racism become aggressors in turn, where "Promised Land" spells a two-edged irony. The closing film, Rabbit Proof Fence (Phillip Noyce, Australia), dealt with the results of a government policy that stole a whole generation of half-caste aboriginal children away from their families. They were trained to become domestic servants for the whites in internment camps. Brilliantly filmed, it showed two little girls resisting the mammoth system, and succeeding. Nearer home, Prasanna Vithanage coils three accounts of war victims under the scorching August Sun in Sri Lanka - a wife searches for her husband lost in action, a soldier finds his sister in a brothel, a child weeps for his dog he has to leave behind when he is evacuated. No high drama - a glance, a gesture, a gift and you see into hearts.

Danish director Lars von Trier.-BENAINOUS CATARINA/GAMMA

The matador gored by a bull in Federico Garcia Lorca's poem gives the film its name. Five in the Afternoon (Samira Makhmalbaf, Iran), winner of IFFI's Golden Peacock this year, sees Taliban ripped Afghanistan bleeding under the sun. The visuals are so seductive that they almost numb you to the obvious seams here and there, and to the horrors they frame. The director donated the prize money to Indian NGOs, but did not bother to stay back to introduce her film or receive her award in person.

GERMAN films at IFFI had new things to say about the World War that continues to haunt the European psyche. Jeff Kanew shows Ukrainian and Jewish families entangled in Kiev, during the genocide of 35,000 Jews in the Babij Jar ravine. The title is from the haunting poem by Yevgeny Yevtushenka - "The wild grasses rustle over Babij Jar, /the trees look ominous/ like judges." In Nowhere in Africa, Caroline Link probes the angst of the Jewish family escaping to Kenya before the Holocaust. The wife has learnt to love Africa and Africans after her initial (ironically racist) distrust of all blacks. She does not want to return to post-War Germany with her husband.

Hans Schmid shows a ghostly corridor beside the river Oder that cuts Poland and Germany. From here Ukrainian refugees try to cross the border illegally to seek asylum under the Distant Lights of the West. Most are caught, or fleeced by locals and Bulgarian cabmen. Schmid intercuts and splices many stories to mount tensions and fears. What a range of emotions he covers! Sometimes `success' gets redefined in the process of experience. The boy who saves a girl from the detention centre turns informer against his brother who appropriates the girl for himself. An interpreter who risks her life to smuggle a refugee across the border finds that he has stolen her camera... Nothing black and white here, the film teems with all the colours of human experience.

An informal first-time Critics' Award by festival regulars went to the German film Goodbye Lenin (Wolfgang Becker). A socialist activist in East Germany falls into a coma in 1989. When she wakes, her son fears her weak heart may not withstand the fall of the Berlin Wall - and with it her ideals. He sets up an elaborate pretence to keep her ignorant of the cataclysmic change. The love is heart-warming, though not without the maudlin touch, and both the humour and the film are overstretched. But irony scores in laughing at the rank, gaudy consumerism that enslaves those who think they are free at last. The revolutionary flag is replaced by red banners of Coca-Cola. A bust of Lenin sways from a helicopter, pointing a finger at the bewildered mother. The image disturbs, confounds, and stays with us long after the festival is over.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor