The International Film Festival of Kerala has managed to carve a niche for itself among Asian film events, thanks to the excellent management skills of its organisers and a literate audience.
ITS budget of about Rs.1.5 crores is modest and less than a fifth of what is spent on the annual International Film Festival of India (IFFI). It concentrates on emerging Third World cinema and includes a large section on documentary films. It is conducted in one of the smaller, less glamorous State capitals, Thiruvananthapuram.
Yet in its tenth year, the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) has become for dozens of globally renowned film-makers an annual `must see' event. A forum for which many are willing to hold back the premiere release of their films.
Why? Because in the Kerala capital, their films are viewed by some of the most well-informed, serious-minded audiences anywhere in the world - and that is speaking of lay viewers, not just critics and cinema professionals. "Directors who have tasted at first hand the ambience of the Kerala festival will not hesitate to send their own films when invited," says Deepa Mehta, whose latest film Water had its Indian premiere as the inaugural film at the recently concluded IFFK.
She is not alone. The festival saw the premiere of 14 other Indian films and at least one global first - the Bengali film Herbert by Suman Mukhopadhyay. Seen in India for the first time were rarely-found classics such as Jean-Luc Godard's In Praise of Love and Werner Herzog's Blue Yonder.
"This is a festival conducted by the audience," says T.K. Rajiv Kumar, Chairman of the Kerala Chalachitra Academy (KCA), which conducts the IFFK. "This year, we asked them what films they would like to see, which retrospective they would like us to include and next year we will be guided by their suggestions," he says.
"We added a competitive section in 1999," reminds Shaji N. Karun, renowned cinematographer-director and former KCA chairman. The prize money is generous: Rs.10 lakhs for the best film which is awarded the Golden Chakoram (crow pheasant) and Rs.3 lakhs each for the best director and the best debut director. Interestingly, the audience too gets an opportunity to nominate a film for an award worth Rs.1 lakh.
Beena Paul Venugopal, IFFK Artistic Director and a well-known film editor, has been steering the festival for four years now. "It was not easy getting good films in the early years. Now directors at Cannes and Venice don't need to be told about IFFK; they adjust their festival plans to send their films and try to be present during the festival."
One reason might be the daily "Open Forum" events, held in a modest thatched hut outside the Kairali-Sree cinema complex. Here directors are grilled for an hour by a discerning, demanding audience of cinema lovers, with most of the eight Kerala-based television channels recording the event for prime time telecast.
A special event this year was a script marketing workshop. Next year the festival will invite scripts for a competition - and, finances permitting, will try and fund the making of it into a film - One more way the IFFK tightens the bond between film-makers and film lovers.