Overview: A Festival by the Seat of Its Pants

in 10th Dhaka International Film Festival

by Barbara Lorey de Lacharriere

Attending a film festival that is taking place in one of the poorest countries of the world, ruled by an interim government under a state of emergency which, in addition to its poverty, is still struggling to recover from the devastation of the recent Cyclone Sidr that displaced hundreds of thousands of families and killed over 3,000 people — is definitely a special experience for which one should normally be mentally prepared before arrival. However, this time, the surprises came from an unexpected corner.

Undoubtedly, the Dhaka International Film Festival — organized by the Rainbow Film Society and headed by our FIPRESCI colleague Ahmed Mustaba Zamal — has proven in the past its commitment and dedication, against all odds, to open a wide window with its rich film programs to the world in a country, where it is almost impossible to see foreign films (except Indian productions) in a movie theater.

However, this year, the festival apparently took a financial hit — both from collateral damage from the hurricane, and by unexpected fees imposed by the censor board (this being the only available explanation for the following). DIFF, the Dhaka International Film Festival, was on the brink of collapse, making me feel like I was sitting helplessly on a sinking ship in the middle of the Ganges Delta.

Introduced upon arrival by a prayer “that we reach the end of the festival”, jurors and a handful of filmmakers and producers received, instead of a catalog, freshly printed flyers every day, announcing the following day’s screening schedule based on the films available. A separate list indicated eleven titles for the Australasian competition, however, nobody knew for sure if the whole program would be available. (In the end, two films never actually showed up.) Further information on this bonsai-list of films was cut down to the strictest minimum: There was a title, the filmmaker’s name, the originating country and the year of production. Luckily, the hotel’s Internet connection provided more detailed information to those looking for it — when the electricity was working.

A “tentative titles” list, obtained almost underhandedly from one of the volunteers, announced an ambitious program of 154 films for thirteen eclectic programs, which included the Australasian Competition, World Cinema, Latin American films, Women Filmmakers, Spiritual Films and a children’s program. Ultimately, the list shrank down to only 31 titles.

Were the other films on the list, including the two missing competition features, ever confirmed for the initial program? Did any of these films arrive, only to get stuck in the censor board’s DVD player, or was the festival simply unable to pay this new fee of € 130 to the censor’s office, as we were told? The answer remains a mystery, just like the whereabouts of programs provided by the Norwegian and French Embassies that were also lost in translation.

Screenings for juries and delegates took place in the Public Library, adjacent to the prestigious Dhaka University, where demonstrating students were busy demanding the release of several teachers and students imprisoned since last summer. The only other venue, the National Museum, repeated the program the following day. Unfortunately, the projection conditions didn’t help the films: Shown on DVD and Beta, they appeared frequently out of focus, suffering from a rear-screen projection system that turned the image into a triptych, inadequate formatting, poor sound system, semi-comprehensible subtitles, etc. Sadly enough, the 35mm projector, which I was told had been used during previous festivals, must have also disappeared.

The competition section presented to the three juries (the International jury, composed of Peter van Bueren, Nenad Dukic, American filmmaker Alexis Krasilovsky and two unidentified Bangladeshi personalities we never actually met, the Signis Jury and our FIPRESCI jury) was, to put it mildly, quite uneven in its choices.

Besides our jury’s prizewinner, Sankara, by Sri Lankan filmmaker Prasanna Jayakody, the better moments included first-time director Michael James Rowland’s dryly amusing Australian clandestine-immigrant story Lucky Miles, about Iranian and Cambodian refugees who are dropped off a ship on a deserted beach somewhere in Western Australia, and Mani Haghighi’s Men at Work (Kargaran mashghoole karand), one of the two Iranian entries, an intelligent, absurd comedy about Iranian society.

Bangladesh was represented with four films, some of which probably merited local interest but seemed rather out of place in an international competition. However, the topics the films dealt with — poverty, repression, censorship, child welfare and rural exploitation — certainly raised some important issues. The last entry was a TV soap melodrama, Cinta by Kabir Bhatia, a story of love and love lost from Malaysia, set among the rich and beautiful of Kuala Lumpur.

If there was one festival section that worked more or less as planned till its bitter end, and was widely covered by the local press, it was the Dhaka Talent Campus, which presented a wide range of seminars to a sparse but attentive audience of young, mostly male, students, including such controversial themes as freedom of expression and Hollywood’s domination of world culture.

Despite all the technical flaws and the more than unfortunate conditions under which the festival took place, the festival’s guest service and vast team of volunteers — which actually outnumbered the movies — tried energetically to make the best out of this rather confusing situation. An introduction to the Dhaka Club, the Holy Grail of the ultra-exclusive upper-class refuge left over from British colonial times, gave us an unexpected glimpse into the multi-layered society and political realities of the city, as did the Embassy parties, held in compounds protected by armed guards and barbed wire.

The festival still has an important role to play, if only to benefit the new generation of enthusiastic film-lovers, filmmakers and aspiring critics we met during the discussions after the screenings, seminars and talent-campus. Let’s hope it survives this crisis.