20th Edition of Kerala Festival

in 20th International Film Festival of Kerala, Trivandrum

by Derek Malcolm

No one, it seems, can dampen the enthusiasm of Keralan audiences for their annual Festival. Once again, for the 20th edition, thousands flocked to the widely dispersed cinemas to witness the latest in world cinema. The question is what did they think of it? Neither the competition nor the Malayalam line-ups were particularly strong this time round, though there were two Malayalam films which richly deserved their prizes.

The competition entry was Jayaraj R’s The Trap, in which a young boy born and bred deep in the countryside is packed off to a school in town which turns out to be a factory of the most exploitative kind. This awful warning was a substantial part of the film’s social purposes. But the story is blended with some  superb location work deep in the Keralan countryside which considered the scene with humanity and eloquence. Humans, animals and birds are watched intently as part of a world not yet destroyed by environmental carelessness as the orphan boy and his grandfather go about a way of life that probably hasn’t altered much for centuries. Even the stray dog which follows the boy is a real character in the film.

The result are images which remain in the mind’s eye long after seeing the film. Perhaps sentimentality rears its head on occasions, making this at least an ideal children’s film. But adults can rest assured that this portrait  of an old world fighting against the new has an extraordinary power simply through its imagery and its extraordinary feeling for what may be a fast disappearing universe.

No one could accuse Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s An Off-Day Game of any kind of sentimentality. Again set deep in the countryside, it has five election officials taking a boozy off-day in a retreat where a woman cooks them food, the television blares election results and the five, almost paralysed by alcohol, begin quarrelling amongst themselves. The film looks virtually unscripted but clearly knows precisely what it is doing as the men show the worst side of their macho selves and, incidentally, tell us  just why the Keralan authorities have largely banned alcohol throughout the state.

An Off- Day Game is much cleverer than it looks, and a fine example of film-making on the hoof that strikes home again and again. Finely acted too, and shrewdly controlled by its director.

Most of the other Malayalam films were either too concerned with their social messages to think effectively about the art of film-making or unable to finish their stories in a convincing way. As for the competition, film after film weakened itself by obfuscation and an overall plethora of arty striving.

The best of the also-rans was the Philippino Shadow behind the Moon which portrayed the armed conflict between the military and the Communists at the beginning of the nineties. Three people are holed up in a decaying house – two men and a woman. The film, made by Jun Robles Lana, posits the question: Are they communists or spies for the military and, as the men fight over the woman, we are led first one way and then another.

The film is expertly acted and often exciting. But it looks more like a theatrical venture than a convincing piece of cinema.

One of the most controversial of the competition entries was Hadi Mohaghegh’s Immortal, an Iranian film already prized at other Festivals. It has an old man, sick and desperate to die constantly searching for ways to end it. His  grandson is determined to save him from himself but in the end can’t accomplish the task of keeping him alive. The film is superbly shot In a mountainous and arid area which effectively underlines the drama. But even through the director protests it is about life, not death, it is a trial at times to get through as the old man howls at the emptiness of his life. An extraordinary work perhaps but not for everyone.

Derek Malcolm