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ALIIFF: Bringing fresh air

 

ALIIFF Festival

The genesis of film festivals can be traced to the rise of the film society movement that wanted to alert the viewers about the immense possibility of the wonderful medium. The pioneers thought that if the market-oriented pot-boilers and action packed dramas were allowed to rule the outlets, the enlightening power and charisma of cinema would be lost in the vortex of entertainment. If the audience continued to reel under the pressure of the market, then the society itself would be at a loss. Thus, the film festivals started with opening up of the alternative window to see the better creativity that often get lost in the din created by hegemonic popular culture. Even in times of spreading newer communication technology and making access to films wider and easier, the general filmgoer might find it hard to select better films as media hypes kills the genuine and lift the mediocre and the stereotyped. Film festivals strongly address this problem ever since it came into being at Venice in 1932 and in India two decades later. But the most delightful thing about it has been the continuation of the original efforts. Since then the seeds of the film festival culture grew and their influence spread to new frontiers.

 

So when All Lights India International Film Festival (ALIIFF) was started in Kerala, a home itself to film society movement and avant-garde films as well, it attracted fresh interest and enthusiasm. As a part of the greater, all inclusive Indywood Film Carnival, the festival has shown lots of promises to attain its declared goals. The very next year the new born festival shifted to Hyderabad’s Ramoji Film City with active participation and backing of the Government of Telangana. It is worth recalling that India’s oldest and most prestigious film festival, IFFI, had a fairly long history of being held at major filmmaking cities of the country, finally taking the ultimate decision of making the coastal town of Goa its permanent venue. Perhaps by announcing Ramoji Film City as the venue of the third edition of ALIIFF, the organizers have given a clear indication that the festival could settle down at “World’s Largest Film Studio”. Irrespective of whether it manages to grow into “World’s Biggest Film Carnival”, as founder director of Indywood Sohan Roy declared during the opening ceremony of the second edition, the organizers simply deserve kudos for dreaming big. The sheer vision and hard work, the carnival of film screening, competition, awards, film market, exhibition, product and project launches, talent hunt, investor’s meet, conference and panel discussion, workshop and seminars left a lasting impression on all delegates coming from across the globe. 

The highlight of the closing gala was a resounding speech given by the Union Minister of Information & Broadcasting M. Venkaiah Naidu. It was least expected that the political stalwart was so much informed about the film medium. A major development at the carnival was signing of a Euro 12 million Indo-Lithuania Co-project. It was good for Telangana too, as the state found its place among the top 10 states of the country for film tourism – a real pedigree for a two-year-old state! ALIIFF could serve a practical and effective means of spotlighting the state’s assets as a site for film production, both Indian and International. If the media fails to give proper attention to these developments, it will be their loss only. As a participant juror at the 2nd ALIIFF, I would dare say that as any well thought-out and well-programmed film festival this festival also provides a perfect counterpoint to existing patterns of film culture and there lies its invaluable socio-philosophical asset. Keeping the core tradition of including both competitive and non-competitive section at the film festivals, ALIIFF also accommodated the variety. But any discussion on a film festival cannot be conclusive, let alone being complete, if no discussion on the notable films are undertaken. In a four-day extravaganza of selected films, ALIIFF offered a good number of extraordinary films. The opening film Son of Saul for instance, or the Columbian marvel Embrace of the Serpent, or take the Slovenian wonder The Tree. 

Hungarian winner of the Best Foreign Film Oscar and Grand Prix at Cannes, Son of Saul (2015) is just too good to be garlanded with common superlatives to be described as a contemporary masterpiece. This is a film of robust inhumanity meted out to fellow humans during the reign of the Nazis. It is a sensible, delicate and unconventional creation from one who was known as an assistant to the master filmmaker Bela Tarr. The film refashioned the Holocaust drama as the director Laszlo Nemes took five months of sound design as human voices in eight languages were recorded and attached to the original recording of the production. The soundwork plays a major role in suggesting what is happening around Saul in Auschwitz and adjacent area, with audiences often forced to rely on the sound to imagine the whole, horrible picture. Special lenses and aspect ratio were adopted to realize shallow focus and a portrait-like narrow field of vision contributing to a memorable viewing experience. Critics termed it an “astonishing debut film” and “a horror movie of extraordinary focus and courage” but without any salt of melodrama. But over and above all the praises showered on the film, even these accolades seem insufficient to appreciate what Nemes has achieved in telling a story in truly effective cinematic vocabulary.  

The film chronicles a dramatic episode during the World War II. A numbed looking Jewish prisoner Saul who has only been given a stay of execution because he is part of a Sonderkommando work unit (made up of German Nazi death camp prisoners) comes upon the body of a boy whom he recognizes as his son. He convinces the prison doctor not to perform autopsy on the body as he intends to give the boy a proper Jewish burial. But he fails to convince a Rabbi prisoner to perform it and sets a target to do the last rites himself. Amidst all the ghastly condition at the gas chamber and nearby execution ground, Saul gets associated with an attempt of rebellion and another effort of photographing the atrocities for smuggling them outside to attract attention. Saul retrieves his son's body hidden in a sack at his own barrack and escapes to the woods with an armed group of the futile rebellion. However while they cross a river fleeing the approaching guards, he loses his grasp on the sack and the body floats away. Saul is left with a terrible sense of desolation as he could not even fulfill a timid wish against impending death. When the prisoners arrive at an abandoned shed in the forest chalking out a plan to join the Polish resistance, Saul notices a young peasant boy peeking into the shed. Moments later it is revealed that the innocent looking boy leads the prison guards to the shed as he runs into the deep woods and the sounds of gunfire suggests the eventual burial of the living Jewish in the forest.

A Cannes award winner adventure drama Embrace of the Serpent (2015) is directed by Ciro Guerra and shot in black-and-white. The film was the first Colombian film to be nominated for the 2016 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and won, among other prestigious honours and prizes, the Golden Peacock Award at the IFFI the previous year. Interestingly constructed with two stories in a time gap of three decades, the film follows an Amazonian shaman leading two scientists in their quest for a sacred plant. Visually engrossing, the narrative gives enough exposure to a riverine forest land and ethnographic details which are juxtaposed with dramatic cultural and socio-economic conflicts of bitter colonialism. Karamakate is the last survivor of his tribe who once met a German traveler and revives his life with the magical smoke made out of a native plant leaves, and now he accompanies an American botanist in the latter’s pronounced bid to find the rare, albeit mythical, Yakruna plant. The German is an ethnographer, named Theo, and has already resided in the Amazon for several years, is searching for Yakruna as the only cure for his disease. He is travelling by canoe with his field notes and a westernised local he saved from enslavement on a rubber plantation. Karamakate prolongs his life, blasting white powder called ‘the sun’s semen’ up his nose. They find the sacred Yakruna abused by drunken men and cultivated against local traditions. Karamakate gets furious and destroys the only existing plant in the midst of villagers fleeing an invasion of Columbian soldiers which is actually a dramatic moment taken from a leaf of Amazon rubber boom period.

Many years later the American botanist Evan meets up with a much older Karamakate who has apparently forgotten the customs of his own people. Evan says he is hoping to complete Theo’s quest and Karamakate does assist when Evan declares his devotion to plants, although his hidden agenda is to secure disease-free rubber trees. They discover one Yakruna flower that is on the last plant on a peculiarly shaped rock mountain. The film ends with a transformed Evan remaining enamored by a group of butterflies, as if he attains a feat owned by Karamakate – but not without a preceding discordant friction between them that only signifies the atrocious colonizers’ viewpoint to the native culture and longing. Amidst a praiseworthy black-and-white cinematography and an engaging sound design, the film is not just an ethnographic study – with a serpent appearing as a metaphor – but also delivers a fairly comprehensive critique of the destruction of indigenous cultures at the hands of white invaders. The conflict of interests is represented by outrageous meetings with a Catholic priest and self-styled Messiah in both expeditions.

Yet another debut feature, an impressive entry for the best foreign film Oscar award from Slovenia and winner of several Eastern European film festival awards, The Tree (2014) is directed by Sonja Prosenc. The story element is important in films only when the eventuality is dependent on some incident. As the title of the film suggests, a tree holds centre stage in the storyline and the storytelling is totally unconventional all throughout. Here the viewer is engaged with a widowed mother and her kids. The elder sibling Alek loses his friend from the village in a tragic incident as the latter fells down from the tree in a minor scuffle with the former. The unwanted death occurred to his teenager friend has serious repercussion for the family as the whole village talks of a revenge. It leaves them insecure and their home remains only safe place for them. But at the same time it has turned into a kind of prison, with their stoic endurance often vilified by threatening silence and helpless solitude. The narrative thus gives way to imagination and the audio-visual exploits partake some meaning; and in the process it becomes an intense drama of some friction, may be an outcome of some ethno-centric conflict or a case of individual against the outside forces thing that always remain subdued and unexplained. But there are some hints to it as the family speaks Slovenian among themselves and Albanian when they are outside their home. 

Split into three chapters, each dedicated to one of the family members, The Tree is first of all a visual poetry. The director takes recourse to the theme of death, and how it affects a family at various levels. The opening scene itself shows the younger sibling coming upon a dead bird and carefully burying it in the barren campus of the house. The playmate of Alek who met with an unfortunate death is older brother of a village girl with whom Alek is having an affair. The girl is a lively link on which the future of the family may get dependent, only to be cut short by the effects of the incident. The family gets assailed by the villagers and the ensuing atmosphere is craftily created by a grayish tonal cinematography and visual elements like empty road, a tall wall surrounding the house that gives a feel of a prison, as if the small family members live there under house arrest. The revenge on Alek ultimately takes place in a chase-and-kill sequence caught in a long shot. The sluggish pace and unpretentious unfolding of the drama point towards Sonja’s deep and pure involvement with cinematic language. She is indeed a find of the festival circuit of India and elsewhere in the past year or so

Among other outstanding films, I was specially moved by The Wedding Doll which is a debut feature directed by an award winning Israeli documentary filmmaker Nitzan Gilady. Powered by stunning cinematography and equally mesmerizing performance by young actress Moran Rosenblatt in the lead role, the film already received three international awards at the prestigious Jerusalem Film Festival and won hearts across the globe. The Wedding Doll (2015) depends on a plot that may be praised for speaking “well of its commitment to a kind of realism” as specifically pointed out by well-known critic Roger Ebert. It tells a story about a mentally disabled beautiful damsel Hagit who works at a toilet paper factory. The young woman has an extraordinary skill of making lovely little dolls using toilet paper rolls. Her passions are as normal as any other girl and epitomized in her dreams of love, marriage and a longing for freedom from the strict guidance of her mother, an overprotective divorcee. Skipping her boss’ vigilant eyes she even enamored with his son Omri. When the boss wants to shut the factory down apparently to halt his son’s love affair on the pretext of the factory not doing well, Omri wants to innovate something as a means to keep his flame of love near to him. However they face a rough weather as Omri’s male friends who are oblivious of his love for Hagit, often called ‘weirdo’ by kids in the housing colony, contemplate a cruel plan about her belief that she is getting married soon. Hagit presents herself in a specially designed wedding gown she made with toilet paper rolls and from a scene of unexpected drama she somehow manages to set herself free, eventually leaving the remote Israeli town with a heavy heart but secured in her mom’s company. 

As far as the histrionics is concerned, the film is sincere and compelling to the core, although it avoids the usual pattern where a subject tends to invite. Using the rugged beauty of the desert as its setting, its pictorial quality in widescreen compositions is simply amazing to leave an impact on the viewer. The provincial locale forces its way to the cast to become an inseparable character itself. The screenplay succinctly reveals how the girl’s estranged mother Sara suffers from a sense of guilt and helplessness over certain past events in her daughter’s childhood. The past or the characters’ back-story is not wiped out from her mental state, but never overstated. Sara’s tryst with her frustrated boyfriend is not over-indulged, kudos to the director and the screenplay writer. 

There were many other important films in the festival. It is not possible to see every such film in a festival for anybody owing to fixed assignments. It is worth mentioning just a few of those films which have the power of enlightening both the informed and the common viewer. ALIIFF encompassed 150 plus screenings in sections as varied as Oscar Selected Foreign Language Films of 2016, Hollywood Picks, Oscar Winning Short Films, Palme d’Or Winning Films, Guest Industry Screenings – Bengali Movies, Blockbuster Indian Movies, Noteworthy Reels of ALIIFF, Trilogy of Akira Kurosawa, Special Screenings, international competitions for Feature Films, Debut Director’s Film, Short Films, Student Short Films, Documentaries, and Competition for Indywood Panorama, all packaged together. Decorating these sections, there were films by contemporary greats like Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Michael Heneke, Goutam Ghose, Clint Eastwood, Tom Hooper, K. N. T. Sastry, I. V. Sasi, Raja Sen, Michael Moore, Cristian Mungiu and so on. Without an iota of doubt, the festival holds lots of promises of becoming a major event in the filmfest circuit of South Asia as of now. Who knows, it would fly higher to transform into a greater annual carnival of the whole continent in very near future!  

Author : Manoj Barpujari

 

 

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