International Film Festival of India, popularly known by its acronym IFFI, rests, like many other events in South Asia, on its past glory and nostalgic recollection. The standard received and widely accepted histories of Indian cinema cannot avoid a reference to the first IFFI, held in 1952 and travelled widely across the newly-independent nation, showcasing some of the most iconic and representative Italian neorealist films including Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio De Sica, 1948) and Rome, Open City (Roberto Rossellini, 1945). It was Indian cinema’s first encounter with Italian Neorealism, for the first time two distant national cinemas came together on a common platform. Careers of the so-called Indian “arthouse” masters such as Satyajit Ray were supposedly shaped by this historic encounter, as the then Indian news media aggressively championed the need for a realist cinema of international standards as opposed to the Hindi popular melodrama.1 Down south, in the southernmost state of Kerala, a young artist known as Govindan Aravindan encountered them as well, even though his filmmaking venture took two decades to take off. Indian cinema historians have addressed this 1952 phenomenon as “an alternative mode of becoming part of world cinema,” and this entering into a “global affiliation” is something that was intricately associated with IFFI.2
A review of IFFI 2017, hosted by the Indian state of Goa since 2004 primarily for its immense touristic appeal, should adequately address this history and its remains.3 The mode of global affiliation has now been comfortably reduced to hosting the world’s largest film industry, which has gradually evolved into a part of the nation-state’s cultural diplomacy. Then there are the new Indian films that are showcased almost every year in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard and they give a false sense of hope to their urban Indian clientele about the future of Indian cinema and its “global affiliation”. A nation without cinémathèques, without any training in festival programming and professional programmers, with a film society movement in decline in the aftermath of globalisation, Indian film festivals mindlessly follow the proverbial big Euro-festival model with equally mindless programming. IFFI is no exception even with all the structural changes in place.4
The festival, like almost all other big Indian festivals, looks more like a dumping ground where you can find films from its Euro counterparts, especially those with awards, and awards do not mean a thing. There are no specially curated sections where films can initiate a dialogue between them; there is no rationale for the programs. There are certain tailor-made sections such as the BRICS film festival winners, but then the geopolitical proximity matters most when it comes to selecting films for sections such as this, and the festival-touring Indian audience is unable to raise the absence of rationale in programming as an issue.
Nowhere was the absence of rationale more evident than in the 007 retrospective. A handful of Bond films were chosen without a supporting text to argue in favour of the selection, it was not chronological either. It did not engage with the wider context of espionage and its negotiation(s) with popular literature and culture. It did not critically consider Bond as a representative of the Cold War politics; neither did it showcase Bond as a prototype of a specific mode of masculinity. While the selection of popular and widely revisited 007 flicks at a film festival is questionable, it raised further questions for the absence of a justification and that of the 35mm prints. A retrospective of Atom Egoyan with just three films of the Canadian auteur, one of them being his most recent and non-representative work, seemed equally problematic.
And, as expected from an Indian festival/state event under the incumbent Hindu Right in power, it makes it to the headlines for all the wrong reasons. The Indian Panorama section that is supposed to be a well-thought-out one ends up in the politico-legal quagmire originated in the non-selection (or, to be honest, unexplainable intervention of the Information and Broadcasting Ministry in the selection process through the means of exclusion, the reason why a number of selectors resigned) of controversial films such as Sexy Durga (d. Sanal Kumar Sasidharan). More often than not, the Indian Right helps the films in conjuring a controversy out of thin air, even if it is just for the sake of their titles. The virtue of the Indian film catalogue rested mostly on nostalgia again with a screening of Ritwik Ghatak’s 1952 debut Nagarik (The Citizen), screened in its original format, as homage to its cinematographer Ramananda Sengupta who passed away in 2017.
Apart from the titles in the Indian Panorama, there were films in the international section most of which have already been reviewed in Senses of Cinema a year before, especially in the Cannes coverage. Perhaps we need to deal with the notable absences in the festival instead of the presence of those films that travel around the globe and get their styles determined by the festival aesthetic. One such unpardonable absence was the complete avoidance of Hong Sang-Soo, especially since the Jio Mami 19th Mumbai Film Festival 2017 did feature the recent three films of the South Korean maestro, namely Claire’s Camera, The Day After and On the Beach at Night Alone. There was no sign of the new Philippe Garrel (Lover for a Day has not been screened in any of the Indian festivals) or Kornél Mundruczó films. The absence of the latter’s Jupiter holdja (Jupiter’s Moon) shows that the IFFI selectors went by awards alone; they did not follow the happenings at Cannes and other festivals carefully, despite remaining true to the Euro-festival model only through the means of treating IFFI as a dumping ground.
The Cinema of the World section at IFFI 2017, therefore, was notable for the inclusion of a few extraordinary works, even though their virtue could not lend some to the festival authorities. I would specifically refer to Serge Bozon’s enigmatic reworking on the Stevenson novella in the form of Madame Hyde with the ever-beguiling Isabelle Huppert as its eponymous protagonist, and also to Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts (d. Mouly Surya), perhaps the first Satay Western to come out of Indonesia, based on a Garin Nugroho story.
And then there was Sergei Loznitsa’s Krotkaya (A Gentle Creature) with its lines of flight, its radical break from the tyrannies of the real, its near-hour descent into an oneiric Hades of a Russia bereft of all temporal specificities. Loznitsa’s consistent movements between the apparent documentation of the “real” in non-fiction and the semblance of the real in the façade of a fictional universe bewilders everyone familiar with his canon, as he seems incorruptible, unperturbed by the onslaught of the festival circuit.
On the day IFFI came to an end, another biennial festival kick started its 10th edition in Bangalore. A sui generis in Indian standards, Experimenta, the only festival in India that is devoted exclusively to experimental cinema, is running successfully for a decade thanks to its Bangalore-based sedulous director Shai Heredia. This year’s festival also had its moments of recollection, but it was different from the festivals that rely rather heavily on nostalgia alone. Experimenta treated experimental moving image art as a continuous process not only through its international competition section but also through the presence of Kidlat Tahimik, the indefatigable Filipino maestro who continues to conceive, re-narrate, reimagine colonial and postcolonial histories in his peninsula and accompanies his own essay films. Alive and kicking in all senses of the term, Tahimik performed his historic histrionics after a screening of Balikbayan #1 Memories of Overdevelopment Redux IV (1979-2017). Tahimik’s 1977 debut Perfumed Nightmare was there too, as well as some of the artworks he was carrying, using which he created a space for his performance. Tahimik’s insane movement between spaces and times (a young Tahimik plays Enrique, the slave of Ferdinand Magellan, in Balikbayan, while the older Tahimik features as a mysterious old man in the film that traverses through several temporal tectonic plates of the Malay islands) is something that needs to be experienced in his company, in his physical, tangible presence.
And the notion of presence is so fundamental to the idea of Experimenta, with Peggy Ahwesh accompanying her own films (the 1993 Super-8 work The Scary Movie was one of the many that interested me, with its consistent reproduction of several tropes of the horror genre, representing the age-old negotiations that exist between the experimental and the B movie) serving as the international competition jury, with a film preservationist and curator of Mark Toscano’s stature curating and introducing a section on Chick Strand, featuring significant works such as Artificial Paradise (1986), Mujer de Milfuegos (Woman of A Thousand Fires, 1976), Kristallnacht (1979) and Soft Fiction (1979). The other memorable section that triggered my trip to Bangalore was the one that showcased Peter Hutton’s films including those on New York and the 20 min. Lodz Symphony (1993), his set of city symphonies existing in a time warp. Hutton’s obsession for the monochromatic, in his own words, takes us back in time.5
Experimenta’s global affiliations were also evident in their collaborations with Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre/CFMDC (Michael Snow and David Rimmer showcased along with others, the double screen version of the latter’s 1974 Canadian Pacific being one of the prime attractions of the curated section titled “North of 49”) and Arkipel Jakarta (Yuki Aditya and his colleagues curated a section).
Screenings of Chick Strand or Peter Hutton in India should have been considered a phenomenal event, especially because of the absence of a cinémathèque in near vicinity and future. Experimenta screened all of them in their original formats, in 16mm, something that reminds its participants of the significance of celluloid in the tumultuous and ever-secret histories of experimental cinema that often escapes us for the ubiquitous presence of the digital in the regular, standard received festivals that do exist in the international film festival lexicons. As Luciano Tovoli once said in his response to a question regarding his own supervision of the Blu-ray transfer of Dario Argento’s 1977 Eurohorror classic Suspiria, the physicality of celluloid image should be contrasted with the mathematical image offered by the digital.6 Experimenta, with its assiduous persuasion for the original formats of films in most cases7 in a country that severely lacks an experimental film culture and a consciousness regarding the latter, set the physical, tactile presence of films and filmmakers as its focal point.
Nevertheless, Indian cinema remained where it was with confusion concerning the definitions of the avant-garde/experimental, with the only Indian feature focus in Experimenta being Kamal Swaroop’s Pushkar Puran. Featured also in IFFI, it not only becomes the platform where the standard and non-standard festivals meet, it shows why the experimental remains a conceptual mirage in the history of Indian cinema.
International Film Festival of India
20-28 November 2017
Festival website: http://iffigoa.org
28 November-3 December 2017
Festival website: http://experimenta.in/experimenta-2017-programme/
- For a detailed exploration of the festival reports in the then Indian media, see Neepa Majumdar, “Importing Neorealism, Exporting Cinema: Indian Cinema and Film Festivals in the 1950s” in Saverio Giovacchini and Robert Sklar (eds), Global Neorealism: The Transnational History of a Film Style, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 2011, pp. 178-193. ↩
- Moinak Biswas, “In the Mirror of an Alternative Globalism: The Neorealist Encounter in India” in Laure E. Roberto and Kristi M. Wilson (eds.), Italian Neorealism and Global Cinema, Wayne State University Press, Detroit, 2007, p. 85. ↩
- Goa has certain cinematic connections as well, and it is not for its proverbial serene beaches and pictorial colonial quarters. As Olivier Assayas fondly recollects in the postscript to his epistolary work addressed to Alice Debord, here in Goa he experienced the “sweet euphoria” induced by ganja, crossed a river at twilight, and found his text as a snapshot of that moment. See Olivier Assayas, A Post-May Adolescence: Letter to Alice Debord, tr. Adrian Martin and Rachel Zerner, Austrian Film Museum, Vienna, 2012, p. 69. ↩
- The festival is no longer managed by the Directorate of Film Festivals (DFF); the National Film Development Corporation of India (NFDC) has taken over, successfully putting an end to a very old history of DFF association. But then what is IFFI without its nostalgia(s)? ↩
- See P. Adams Sitney, Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde 1943-2000, Oxford University Press, New York, 2002, p. 429. ↩
- “An Interview with Suspiria Cinematographer, Luciano Tovoli (2014)” in Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, Suspiria, Auteur, Leighton, 2014, pp. 85-86. ↩
- A few, Fernando Birri’s 1978 ORG as closing film for instance, were presented on DVD. ↩