The Movies are Good and the Audience is Great at Kerala

in 19th Kerala International Film Festival

by Aylin Sayin

Once again it was time for cinema lovers in Kerala. The International Film Festival of Kerala is one of the most important festivals in the world. It takes place in Thiruvananthapuram in southern India, the capital city of the state of Kerala. IFFK is a unique, internationally recognized festival, and the mind-boggling enthusiasm of its audience plays an important part in this good reputation. Indian audiences arrived hours before screenings to obtain seats; if none were available, they sat on stair rails or even stood leaning against walls.

Unlike other festivals, IFFK has a delegate system. Instead of buying tickets for each film, audiences pay 500 rupees (7 euros) for accreditation, which gives them free entrance to all venues and films. The logic behind this system is that, since Kerala was ruled by a communist party for a long time, they believe that cultural activities shouldn’t be turned into commodities. However, while the number of delegates turned out to be around 10,000, the theaters could only hold 3000 people, so there were long queues for films. Since commercial movies dominate the local industry, IFFK provides a chance for Indian people to see arthouse films. Audiences clap, laugh and closely interact with the films they watch.

The festival was divided into sections, including the International Competition and Malayalam Cinema Today. Malayalam is spoken in Kerala, but the Malayalam film industry (known as Mollywood) is not as popular as Bollywood. Still, people from Kerala enjoy watching movies in their own language, shot in their own state.

The International Competition was enriched by films from a range of countries, from Brazil to Iran, Morocco to South Korea. One of the films in this section was Oblivion Season (Fasle faramoushi-e fariba), directed by Abbas Rafei from Iran. The film is about an ex-prostitute, although we don’t get a full sense of what it means to be a prostitute in a conservative country. We only register the cruelty of the protagonist’s husband – this woman can overcome many social problems, but not her husband’s prejudices. The other Iranian film in competition was The Bright Day (Rooz-e roshan) by Hossein Shahabi. This film examines the fragility of justice, dealing with issues of ethics. The protagonist struggles with several witnesses who have accused an innocent man of a crime. In its approach to justice, as well as the use of scenes shot in a car, the film recalls the work of Asghar Farhadi and Abbas Kiarostami.

A Mexican film in competition, One for the Road (En el ultimo trago), is the second feature from Jack Zagha Kababie. The film narrates the story of three old men who set off on a journey to fulfil their friend’s last wish. At the end of the film, all three characters are able to change their lives thanks to the journey. With its vivid, intense story and convincing characters, this movie drew huge attention during the festival.

A film worth mentioning is Oonga, the debut feature of young Indian director Devashich Makhija, which focuses on conflicts between the tribes and the state. The state attempts to take over a tribal village for aluminum production, but a teacher and a weaponized radical Maoist group, the Naxalists, want to defend the village. It is eye-opening for us to see the conflict between tribes, Naxalites and the state (or corporations) in India. This is a universal story, since governments and corporations all over the world attempt to displace people for the sake of profits and the exploitation of natural resources. The director places Oonga, a 7-year-old boy at the center of the film. After running away from home to watch a performance of the Ramayana (one of the great Hindu epics), he begins to see the world through the eyes of Rama, the avatar of Vishnu. Oonga returns to his village to try and save it from the soldiers. Having the film revolve around a child makes it less tragic and a pinch of humor softens the movie’s harsh themes.

Another notable Indian film in competition was December 1, which is set in the state of Karnataka and tells the story of poor villagers. Both of these Indian films are significant, since they represent a departure from the commercial movies which dominate the local scene.

Finally, the movie which won the FIPRESCI Prize was They are the Dogs (C’est eux les chiens), Hicham Lasri’s second feature. The main character is Majhoul, an old Moroccan man who was imprisoned in 1981 by the military state. As union activists, Majhoul and his friends had been demanding reforms and change, since many Moroccan lives are oppressed by poverty and a lack of freedom.

When Majhoul is released from jail after 30 years, he comes across a television crew – cameraman, director and presenter – who are looking for stories among the demonstrations in Casablanca held parallel to the Arab Spring. While Majhoul is indifferent to the crew members, they find him interesting and decide to focus a story on him. During his search for his wife and son, whom he lost track of in jail, the crew helps him and records his journey, and a family drama unfolds. Lasri’s camera follows both the crew and Majhoul.

We see the streets of Casablanca through Majhoul’s eyes: they are no longer familiar to him and he is lost. We also witness the sociopolitical situation of Morocco, mostly through the fictional crew’s camera, which gives the movie a dynamism.

In combining the director’s technique with a “realistic” news story, the movie lies somewhere between fiction and documentary. As such, the family drama never becomes a melodrama, since audiences perceive the movie as if it were a documentary.

This film introduces the past to the present in the context of political conditions in Morocco. The director’s challenging technique makes for a multi-layered film. The actors do a wonderful job, especially Hassan Badida (Majhoul), whose character drives the entire movie. They are the Dogs opens new horizons with its style. The film’s tragic story is enriched by the juxtaposition of past and present. After 30 years, the protagonist sees that many things have changed in Morocco, but the present is still haunted by the dark shadow of the past.

Edited by Lesley Chow