It is hot in the beautiful South Indian state of Kerala at any time of the year, but now its international film festival has been moved from April to December, Europeans who attend it do not get heat stroke so easily. April is getting towards the hottest time, December avoids the worst heat and the monsoon. It makes things easier even though Trivandrum, the capital city of the state where the festival is now permanently held, has changed its name to Thiruvananthapuram, which means that foreigners have great difficulty pronouncing it.
One guest who thought he was going to Madras in order to change planes and found he was in Chennai (actually the same town, also with its new name) was aghast until he was told he was actually in the right place. But he couldn’t fathom out why he was going on to Thiruvananthapuram rather than Trivandrum. It is sometimes difficult in India to get anywhere. But now it is doubly confusing if you don’t know that the old British names have been substituted for Indian ones.
Kerala’s 8th International Festival, where our confused delegate eventually landed up safely, might well have been adversely affected by the resignation as Director of Adoor Gopalakrishnan, the distinguished South Indian film-maker who set it on the right path last time round. Fortunately, however, he left a good team, headed by his deputy Bina Paul, behind him, and T.K. Rajeevkumar could take over with every confidence. The result was a further strengthening of this most pleasant of Indian festivals which could soon become, with the continuing support of the state government, the best annual film event in India.
It has basically the same trouble as all Indian film festivals. There is a reluctance of sales agents to send films because there is little or no prospect of an advantageous sale. There is also the fear that prints will be damaged by careless projection or sent back late because of bureaucratic customs procedures. But while the first stumbling block is undoubtedly true, projection at the Kerala event gets better each year and prints are neither lost, pirated nor held up. The festival prides itself on its efficiency in this respect and deserves to be given more support by the international film community.
There are, of course, many political ramifications to be countered by the organisers who work under the umbrella of the Kerala State Chalachitha Academy and are mostly members of it. Kerala is politically divided between the Communist Party and the Congress, who seem to take turns to rule the state. At the moment, the Congress Party is in charge but every time the political climate changes, the festival has another group of politicians to deal with. Fortunately both parties support it but there is many a slip between cup and lip.
This year, there was the usual controversy which might well have clouded the competition section. One of the entrants, selected by a committee at the Academy, was Rajiv Vijayaraghavan’s debut feature Margam (The Path) which Bina Paul had edited, and a disappointed producer of a would-be completion entrant decided to complain. A court decided there was no case ot answer and so did the juries. Margam got no prize from the international jury headed by Humberto Solas, the Cuban director. But the film — the story of a leader of the radical left in the late sixties and early seventies who despairs of his ideals within a now hostile climate — won a special mention from the Fipresci jury as an intelligent and subtle commentary on a troubled time.
Both juries, however, gave their main prize to Mahamet-Saleh Haroun’s Abouna (Our Father), the simple story of a young Chad boy’s search for his missing father. Haroun, who won a share of the Fipresci award two years ago with his debut Bye Bye Africa, is clearly a film-maker of considerable power who dares to shoot his movies without any kind of overt sophistication but with the kind of graceful eloquence that sets it well apart from the ordinary. Bye Bye Africa was about the impossibility of making and showing films in his homeland and he had financial help from France to achieve Abouna after receiving two awards at Cannes for his first film. If his future as a director is still uncertain, like those of all African film-makers, he clearly deserves further support.
The international jury gave two other awards — to Jorge Furtado’s O Homem Que Copaiba (The Man who Copied) from Brazil, and to Mansour Sora Wade’s Ndeysaan (The Prize of Forgiveness) from Senegal. The audience award went to Siddiq Barmak’s Osama from Afghanistan. These were worthy winners but The Clay Bird, from Bangladesh, Silent Waters from Pakistan and A Nation Without Women and Shadow Kill, both from India, each with Fipresci prizes to its credit, were thus left out of the equation.
This meant that the competition was at least meaningful. But truth to tell, there were too many films of little or no merit included as well. A more compact group of films, always selected from Asia, Africa and Latin-America, would suffice next time round.
Outside the competition some outstanding films, like the brilliant Inuit The Fast Runner, and Lost In La Mancha, the extraordinary documentary about Terry Gilliam’s failed attempt to make Don Quixote in Spain, won much applause. But otherwise there were some notable absentees, particularly from Europe, largely because of the aforementioned reasons. The Festival, which always has large and keen audiences, deserves a programme of the very best. Even an attempt to show two films by Solas was thwarted at the last moment. Cuba should surely know better than to let down a festival much like its own in Havana.
© FIPRESCI 2003