A Silent Tribute to Ibsen By Bhaichand Patel
The organisers of the Troia film festival in this delightful town of Setubal in Portugal had a treat for the audience on the opening night. The main film that evening was a bit of a dud (Factotum from Norway, directed by Bent Hamer, and starring Matt Dillon) but it was preceded by a rare screening of A Man There Was (Terje Vigen, 1917), a silent masterpiece made in 1917. The film is of course Swedish and directed by Victor Sjostrom who contributed significantly to the international pre-eminence of Sweden in silent cinema.
In Setubal it was the Norwegian film institute that presented the film since it is based on a poem by Henrik Ibsen who, as the world knows, was a Norwegian. This year happens to be the death centennial of the great man.
The film has all the eye-rolling and melodramatic gestures, common to the films of that era, but Victor Sjostrom was a master story teller and the Festroia audience sat through the 53 minutes spellbound by a tale of the sea and people who earn a meagre living from it. This city was a perfect place for the film’s screening since the fate of both Norway and Portugal has, over the centuries, been determined by the sea and its bounties.
I come from a developing country. We don’t have art houses or small television channels where we can catch such films. We live mainly on a diet of Hollywood and Bollywood, so watching A Man There Was was a treat. The noted Norwegian composer, Ketil Bjornstad, had flown in to play the piano score he had especially written for the film. He made it an altogether more enchanting evening for the packed house.
Bjornstad’s presence took me back to 1982 when Francis Ford Coppola’s father conducted the New York Symphony Orchestra in the Radio City Music Hall in Manhattan. It was at a screening of another silent film, the climax scenes of Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927) made ten years after A Man There Was. That screening was also memorable, for an entirely different reason. Francis Coppola had spent money reconstructing the film and devised a special wide screen process in that huge hall employing three screens and three projectors. It was an unequalled artistic triumph and memories of such events stay with you forever.
Festroia also had a retrospective of Satyajit Ray films. This would have been a good opportunity to see them again but I had problems. The festival projected DVDs, not 35mm films. Why should I come all the way to Portugal to watch DVDs when I can purchase them for four Euros in Delhi and watch them in the comfort of my home on my 55 inch plasma television?
I think it is wrong for festivals to screen DVDs and there are too many of them these days. Granted that it is expensive for small festivals to ship 35mm films from great distances but is DVD the answer? Let me put it this way: seeing a perfect copy of the Mona Lisa painting is not the same as seeing the original. It does not matter how good the copy is. A copy will always be a copy. It is the same with films. A 35mm print gives you the kind of sensual pleasure that no DVD can match. My advice to festival organizers: keep away from DVDs. After all, it is a film festival, not a DVD festival. Or warn us in advance.