Esoteric and Exotic: the Wroclaw Selection

in 15th New Horizons International Film Festival Wroclaw

by Bhaichand Patel

There were over four hundred films spread over nine screens at the recent film festival I attended as a FIPRESCI jury member in Wroclaw, Poland. There were many full-length feature films, some short and long documentaries, thirteen films in the main competition, as well as a major retrospective of films by Ken Russell. I wonder how many still remember Ken Russell, the enfant terrible of the 1970s.

There were films from United States, of course, but also from such unlikely places as Nepal and Tanzania. The film from Tanzania was, in fact, rather good — but more on that later. The point I wish to make is that there was not a single film from India among the four hundred plus titles.

This was not surprising, even though my country is the largest film-producing country in the world by far. This film festival is quite esoteric. As its full name, New Horizons International Film Festival, suggests — it searches out films that are out of the ordinary, away from the mainstream. A number of films I saw had an idiosyncratic structure that eschewed conventional narrative. A few of them taxed my patience, yet I couldn’t help but admire them for being innovative and original. The films outside the competition were probably more fun to watch, but the ones I saw, difficult as they were, were engrossing.

Once upon a time India made films like these, too. Mani Kaul’s Uski Roti and Kumar Sahani’s Maya Darpan, made fifty years ago, immediately come to mind. I can think of only one recent cutting-edge film that would have been comfortable in Wroclaw: Anand Gandhi’s Ship of Theseus, last year’s phenomenon that managed to get a limited theatrical release but sank like a stone at the box office.

A small, modest film from Tanzania won the main jury’s top prize in the competition. Noaz Deshe’s debut film, White Shadow, is about the trade, in certain parts of Africa, with body parts of albinos, people who have no pigmentation in their skin, hair and eyes. They are hunted down and killed by men who sell the meat and entrails to witch doctors who believe that the amulets made from them bring luck and prosperity to the wearers. Alias, rendered in a fine performance by Hamisi Bazili who is himself an albino, flees from his village to the city to escape sure death. Life for him is no better there. He is exploited by his uncle and shunned by other children. It is a gripping film that would have been better if more tightly edited.

There was another compelling film on genetic disorders, this one from Austrian Peter Brunner. Kurt suffers from Marfan Syndrome that affects numerous body parts. He is very thin, nearly blind and learns to cope after killing his caring mother. There is little plot and a lot of improvisation in My Blind Heart, but it is a lovely, carefully crafted film that blurs the line between the abused and the abuser. The lead role is played by Christos Haas, who himself suffers from the syndrome.

Our jury of three members unanimously gave the prize to a film from Argentina, History of Fear, a tense thriller in which director Benjamin Naishrat never reveals what makes his characters uncomfortable in an affluent neighbourhood of Buenos Aires. The audience is invited to provide its own interpretations. Lives are undone by unexplained occurrences, a house alarm goes off for no apparent reason, an elevator gets stuck, helicopters circle overhead threateningly. My colleague, Engin Ertan, will write a more detailed account on the film.

In case you are wondering: Wroclaw is Poland’s fourth largest city. Until the Second World War it was part of Germany and known as Breslau. One of the perks of being on the jury in Wroclaw is that you get put up in a very grand hotel, the “Monopole”, where such luminaries as Pablo Picasso and Marlene Dietrich once slept!

Edited by Birgit Beumers