Like in a Spaceship

in 2nd Mumbai International Film Festival

by Bodo Schönfelder

Somehow you could feel like in a spaceship. The Mumbai International Film Festival of Documentary, Short and Animation films MIFF 2004 was held in a brand new cultural centre, including bank offices, guarded by police and security forces, near to slum quarters and opposite the building of the communist party. It seemed appropriate that in a city like Mumbai with the not-to-be-overlooked social, economic and cultural problems, documentary film could find a platform. Somehow the disappointment could not be greater, when one had to see most of the films in the international selection. Too many films were of an astonishingly poor quality, not really tackling important questions objectively or subjectively. For a festival that only takes place every second year this was a surprising fact. Additionally the technical standard of most projections was questionable. And what led the organizers to open a festival with screening a part of Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia film?

At least two films excelled themselves out of the majority of neglectable films: Suprio Sen’s “Way back home” (India) about former refugees and victims of the partition of Pakistan and India into two separate states who visit their former home villages in Bangladesh, and Adela Peeva’s “Whose is this song?” (Bulgaria) about a very popular song, which is claimed in every Balkan state as originating from them. Both films shared more or less equally the main awards, the latter awarded with the FPRESCI prize. The first is a sensitive study of the losses that come from forced emigration, dreams and memories of a sometimes glorified childhood, and the confrontation with the present and the growing realization that the past is only a landscape of the imaginary. The film sometimes lacks of precise images, and due to the very personal subject the film maker, he was unable to finish the film, when it comes esthetically and rhetorically full circle to the conclusion, that the dangers in the present is menacing as in the past.

The images in “Whose is this song?” on first sight seems not to be very impressive. But it fits the subject, which is a search without a clear goal. A simple idea: a very popular song, which is dear to all, must leave a trace of its history and signify a relation over boundaries and differences. This seemingly straightforward approach opens up a diversity of opinions and reactions, which display a growing hatred, nationalism and racism. It’s like a home video which transcends its limits, when an orchestra first presents the song as a solemn church song and then as a marching war song. Or when, at the end, some roughnecks at a national festivity sing it as a sign of the greatness of Bulgaria. And there the film depicts reality in a way that only documentaries can do. Fireworks go out of control and a meadow is set on fire. Reality and the symbolic merge without force.

At least one film stays in the memory, even if it wasn’t the best. Yasmine Kabir’s “A certain Liberation” (Bangladesh) is a portrait of a woman, who lost her family during the war of independence and obviously went crazy. She takes things she likes, says what she thinks and transcends her traditional female role in a strange way. Somehow she tranforms her suffering into a liberating strength. The question arises, how far she utilize her status for living out her innermost feelings. At the same time her behaviour is a form of symbolic liberation of her neighbourhood. Sometimes the camera depicts in her face moments of deep sadness, only for short moments, but strong enough, to create an image of a real person. Moments which makes documentaries plastic presentations of reality.