Kolkata Film festival

Old masters, new stars

Print edition : December 25, 2015

The political dissident and director Jafar Panahi in “Taxi”, which was clandestinely produced and smuggled out of Iran.

Sharmila Tagore (left) and Tabu (right) with the Hungarian actor Kinga Vecsei (second from right) and the producer of "The Wednesday Child", Karoly Feher. Photo: PTI

Jafar Panahi’s niece, Hana Saeidi, receiving the Golden Bear Award for the best film for “Taxi” at the awards ceremony of the 65th Berlin International Film Festival on February 14. Photo: Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters

"Arventur", directed by Irina Evteeva.

The Hungarian film "The Wednesday Child", directed by Lili Horvath, won the Golden Royal Bengal Tiger Award for the best film.

"The Idol" tells the true story of Mohammed Assaf, a wedding singer from a refugee camp in Gaza , who won the "Arab Idol" 2013 competition.

Khadija Al-Salami’s first feature "I Am Nojoom, Age 10 and Divorced" is based on the true story of a girl who became the world’s youngest divorcee in 2008.

A scene from Blanka, directed by Kohki Hasei, the festival's opening film which also won the NETPAC Award in the Asian competition section.

The Brazilian film "The Violin Teacher", directed by Sergio Machado, is about the power of music to change hearts.

Patricio Guzman (right) with one of the cast members of his film "The Pearl Button".

Alexander Sokurov's documentary feature "Francofonia" celebrates the Louvre Museum in Paris.

Canadian director Lea Pool's "The Passion of Augustine" is a smartly crafted movie.

"Last Page" by Nikhilmanjoo Lingaiah got the IFCA Award for the best Indian feature.

The 21st Kolkata International Film Festival showcased some of the best works of the masters of the medium across different genres.

A FESTIVAL showcasing recent films by contemporary greats like Carlos Saura, Krzystof Zanussi, Margarethe Von Trotta, Patricio Guzman, the Taviani brothers Paolo and Vittorio, Jafar Panahi, Kim Ki-duk, Nanni Moretti, Otar Iosseliani and Alexander Sokurov makes for a splendid fare that no filmgoer can afford to miss. But, for jurors engaging with particular sections of a festival, there is little time to see every important film screened in it. Gone are the days when one could have access to the archive of such a festival in the form of DVD or Blu-ray discs as international film festivals nowadays screen films mainly in the DCP (Digital Cinema Package) format, with each show costing a few hundred U.S. dollars. The 21st Kolkata International Film Festival (KIFF, November 14-21) had on show the latest gems by the directors named above. At the same time, it was keyed in to the changing norms of the world of cinema. KIFF also offers the highest prize money for an award among film festivals the world over.

A film festival does not merely provide film lovers a chance to see the classics but also exposes them to the new talents on the horizon. KIFF did well to organise a women filmmakers’ competition where 14 films from across the globe vied for the coveted awards. This time, the Golden Royal Bengal Tiger Awards for the best film and the best director, with a prize money of Rs.51 lakh and Rs.21 lakh, went to the Hungarian film The Wednesday Child, directed by Lili Horvath, and to the Colombian director Libia Stella Gomez for her film Ella. The Wednesday Child, the director’s debut feature, tells the story of a teen mother, an orphan, and her struggle for livelihood and her yearning for her four-year-old son. With powerful performances, especially by Kinga Vecsei in the lead role, the film earned an award in the prestigious Karlovy Vary film festival too. Ella, on the other hand, is a dark tale of an old couple living on the outskirts of Bogota and it is heavy with the realisation of the protagonist that the world around him without his life partner would lose meaning. An adept documentary film-maker, Libia Stella Gomez leaves no stone unturned to tell this gritty human drama.

Two other films drew the attention of the audience and bagged the Jury’s Special Mention award. Directed by the acclaimed Paris-based Yemeni documentary film-maker, I Am Nojoom, Age 10 and Divorced is Khadija Al-Salami’s first feature and it is based on the true story of a girl who became the world’s youngest divorcee in 2008. Nojoom is forcibly married off to a man 20 years older than her and subjected to all kinds of abuse until she manages to escape and becomes the first-ever child bride to get a divorce. The chillingly realistic film has an authentic narrative as it draws on the director’s own experience, portraying the social customs, the poverty and the girl child’s plight in West Asia. The other movie was the smartly crafted The Passion of Augustine by the renowned Canadian director Lea Pool, which was a real treat to both the eyes and the ears. It tells the story of a nun with a passion for teaching music, set against the backdrop of rural Quebec. Her bid to steer a convent music school through adversities and her relationship with her pupils and the other nuns is a story of lofty ideals; the way the narrative is supplemented by Western classical music is unique.

The Russian director Irina Evteeva’s Arventur once again showcases her experimental technique, mixing drama, animation and glass painting. Mind-boggling use of colour and sound gives it a different effect. Narrating two different stories—one taking place in the icy St. Petersburg of 1920 and the other in medieval China—the film depicts the dramatic relationships and conflict between reality and illusion. This off-beat film stood out for its sheer beauty of technique. Arventur won three awards at the Moscow International Film Festival, including the best Asian feature, earlier this year.

Music & life

The NETPAC (Network for Promotion of Asian Cinema) Award in the Asian competition section at KIFF went to Blanka, the festival’s opening film. Set in the slums of Manila, the Philippines, the feature debut of the young and talented Japanese director Kohki Hasei is about a 11-year-old orphan, Blanka, who survives on begging and stealing from tourists. The plot takes her on a journey with a 55-year-old blind street musician and she ends up becoming a bar singer. However, her dream of buying a mother with the money she has accumulated lands her in dire straits. Sensitively portrayed, the film delves into the futility of the hopes and aspirations of people who live on the fringes of society.

Brazil’s The Violin Teacher, directed by Sergio Machado, is another film which juxtaposes reality with music. Laerte, a nervous violinist, fails to get into the famed Sao Paolo Symphonic Orchestra and starts giving music lessons to teenagers in a public school in the city’s dreaded settlement area, where drug-peddlers seem to prevail. He is even forced to play the violin at the marriage ceremony of an underworld don’s daughter. But his sincerity pays rich dividends after his students take music seriously after the death of a classmate during a police hunt for criminals. The film ends with a memoriam performed by the students under Laerte’s direction, and he too gets into the symphonic orchestra. The film treads a well-worn path, but equipped with a rich soundtrack that ranges from rap to classical, it consciously avoids melodrama and sentimentality, showing the power and the ability of music to change hearts.

There are many instances of real life inspiring reel life, and there is no dearth of such stories among the 149 films from 61 countries shown at KIFF.

A Palestinian drama, The Idol, tells the true story of Mohammed Assaf, a wedding singer from a refugee camp in Gaza, who became the 2013 winner of the “Arab Idol” competition. Though it is a feel-good film with a happy ending, with the protagonist braving all odds in his bid to enter the competition, even crossing the border illegally, the harsh reality of life in Gaza is omnipresent in the script. After two of his films received Oscar nominations ( Paradise Now in 2006 and Omar in 2013), director Hany Abu-Assad delivers his most commercial effort to date but it does not diminish his importance as a Palestinian film-maker.

A dissident’s clandestine films

Another notable film screened at the festival was Taxi by the Iranian auteur Jafar Panahi, which won the Golden Bear at Berlin this year. Panahi, a political dissident who is facing house arrest and has been barred from making films since 2010, has shot two films within his apartment and his summer house ( This is Not a Film in 2011 and Closed Curtain in 2013). Taxi, too, was clandestinely produced, shot using a dashboard-mounted camera that he passed off as a security device in a car that circled the streets of Tehran with the director himself in the driver’s seat. In the movie, several passengers come and go, narrating their own stories, passions, and moods, giving us a view of society. The passengers are played by non-professionals and their identities remain anonymous, except one—Panahi’s little niece, Hana Saeidi. A striking aspect of the film is that it is quasi-autobiographical as Panahi’s identity is revealed on-screen. A man who sells pirated DVDs of foreign films recognises him and boasts of having sold copies of Woody Allen and Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s movies to him. Panahi even picks up his niece Hana Saeidi from her school and she calls him “my film-maker uncle”. She pulls out a camera and talks to him about her school assignment to make a student film, citing the teacher’s list of guidelines, including avoidance of “sordid realism” if the subject was dark and unpleasant. The dictates of oppressive laws crop up throughout the film as absurd intrusions into film-making itself, and sets the ground for the evolving cinematic language.

If Panahi simply weaves images of contemporary reality into the fabric of the narrative, then Patricio Guzman mixes history with imagination and introspection in his extraordinary documentary feature The Pearl Button. A living legend of Latin American cinema who escaped repression and genocide of dictator Augusto Pinochet’s military regime in the early 1970s, Guzman has made invaluable documentaries on the land and the people as well as on the political history of Chile. In his latest film, he takes water and the ocean as the focal point to which are linked not only the life in one of the world’s largest archipelagos, but also cosmic forces and stars. It documents the life of Patagonian indigenous people whose way of life had been destroyed by English colonisers. The film’s title was partly inspired by a shirt button found wedged in the rails which were used to dispose of the bodies of political prisoners during Pinochet’s regime recovered from the sea. It also refers to a pearl button with which the cooperation of a Yaghan native, Jemmy Button, was bought by the British. There are close links between two vital quests: that of astronomers searching the universe from the Atacama Desert and that of the women of Chile still seeking the truth about family members who were “disappeared”, falling prey to the dictatorship. Just like the ancient inhabitants and the telescopes staring up at the vault of the sky, Guzman sketches profound new shapes in the patterns and the properties he found, developed and studied. With stunning cinematography and enormously soulful sound and musical score, the film gracefully elevates documentary to art, with each sequence attaining archival value. Not surprisingly, The Pearl Button nabbed the Silver Bear for best script at the Berlin festival this year.

The celebrated Russian director Alexander Sokurov’s new documentary feature, Francofonia, evokes the history of the Louvre in Paris, from the Renaissance through the Nazi invasion of the city during the Second World War to the present day. The techniques he uses are flamboyant. From an engagingly different voice-over to colour schemes and sepia tonal effects in single shots, from bringing in Napoleon and the symbol of the French republic, Marianne, to focussing on the officials entrusted with the Louvre, a French and a German officer representing the vanquished and the conqueror respectively, but both intent on protecting the Louvre’s treasures, from photos of literary figures to archival footage of Parisians getting on with their lives during the Nazi occupation, from images of the early 1940s showing colour nitrate stock screened through a carbon-arc projector to some frames shown as artefacts with the sound strip visible—there are a lot more layers of visual and thematic exploits, and everywhere the director’s touch is visible.

Award for Kannada film

For the best film in the Indian category, there were 15 films to choose from, and the Kannada film Last Page by Nikhilmanjoo Lingaiah got the IFCA (Indian Film Critics Association) Award for best Indian feature. It tells the story of an old couple who live all by themselves. The old man, Somanna, is a stern moralist and depends a lot on his wife, Janaki. He refuses any kind of help from their son who lives abroad.

After suffering a heart attack, he undergoes surgery with his savings, but he settles all financial issues before the surgery so that his wife does not suffer in case the surgery is not successful. However, Janaki dies suddenly because of a massive heart attack and Somanna changes forever, learning to cope with life on his own. This film, which makes a case for empathy with the aged, is distinguished by a delicate balance between form and content and a minimalist approach.

Manoj Barpujari is a senior journalist based in Guwahati. He won the Swarna Kamal for Best Film Critic at the National Film Awards, 2011. He has published books on cinema, literature and politics. He is co-editor of Perspectives on Cinema of Assam (2008). He won the Munin Borkotoky Award in 2003 for his collection of Assamese poetry Amlakhi Gasar Suhuri.

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