In this contemporary epoch of cyberspace and globalization, when films and television series are abundantly available at hand, an international film festival retains its gravity by a few virtues. To begin a conversation with the World Cinema on the celluloid is definitely one such virtue; a conversation that offers an introspection on a filmbuff’s ability  or limitations at looking beyond the main stream  commercial flicks and stepping into the avant-garde. The Kolkata International Film Festival aims at opening up to people at large and can be an apt juncture for such introspection. 

The 24th edition of this festival in 2018 presented a plethora of World Cinema to its audience in 2018. A total of 321 films from around 70 countries were screened on 16 screens across the metropolis. These films were selected for the competition and the non-competition categories. Among the non-competition category, two sections were attributed to Australian cinema, namely ‘Contemporary Australian Cinema’ and ‘Iconic Australian Cinema’. In the latter of the two, some memorable films were ‘Picnic At Hanging Rock’ and “Priscilla:Queen of Desert”. Particularly, “Ten Canoes” by Rolf de Heer has been a phenomenal cinematic experience. 

Retrospectives were on the Iranian cult-filmmaker, Majid Majidi and the Australian luminary, Philip Noyce. Majidi’s important works, ‘The song of Sparrows’ and ‘Mohammad: The Messenger of God’ etc. were screened at the festival. Special focus was on contemporary Tunisia; ‘Tunis by Night’ and ‘ The Last of Us’ were two important films in this section.

‘Centenary Tribute’ was paid to the Auteur, Ingmar Bergman, as the major films from the different phases of his career,  such as ‘Wild Strawberries’, ‘The Seventh Seal’, ‘Fanny and Alexander’ and ‘Cries and Whispers” etc. adorned the screens at KIFF. ‘Restored Classics’ was a no-nonsense endeavour to preserve invaluable works by the likes of Satyajit Ray, Federico Felini, Michelangelo Antonioni and Vittorio de Sica. The presence of ‘Kalpana’ by Uday Shankar in this section was quite a pleasant surprise. 

The section on rare language Indian films, ‘Unheard India’ brought into foreground ambitious, independent productions such as ‘Crossing Bridge’ and ‘Nana:A Tale of Us’ etc., which would otherwise have stayed completely off the radar. Another important event was the screening of Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s documentary, “Czechmate-In search of Jiri Menzel’.

Obviously, the quintessential segment at this year’s festival was the ‘Maestro’. “Season of the Devil’ by Filipino auteur Lav Diaz has been a gem of a film. Lav, the globally accoladed and celebrated master, needs no new introduction to the serious filmbuff. His 2013 film, ‘Norte, the End of History’ was entered into UN Certain Regard section of the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. ‘From What Is Before’ won the Golden Leopard at Locarno in 2014; ‘The Woman Who Left’ earned the Golden Lion at Venice in 2016.  “Season of the Devil’ , a nominee for the Golden Bear at 68th Berlin Film Festival (2018) and winner of the Gemas Award at the 58th Cartagena Film Festival (2018), is a 234 minutes long black and white musical – the first musical by Diaz, to be precise. The film is curiously subtitled ‘ A Rock opera’ by the director. And what he denotes by this is somewhat ambiguous. The camera is slow in its movement and sometimes quite stationary but this very stillness enhances the oppressive gloom that unfurls in the climax and the denouement bringing catharsis in the audience’s mind. All the songs performed in “The Season…” have been written and composed by Diaz himself. The songs are sung without any instrumental accompaniment and the melody is deliberately broken so that the audience is always ill at ease. 

Here is a film with a scathing criticism of the totalitarian Ferdinand Marcos regime of 1979. But, the caricatured fascist figure in the film is two faced and indicates the out of the frying pan into the fire situation in Phillipines. President Rodrigo Duterte’s current government upholds the good, old creed of extra-judicial killings. The ‘Opera’ sings of these dire straits. Here is a well-crafted masterpiece that retains its artistic truth and pulls the rug from under the fabricated narrative forced and fed by the zealous fascists. Its artistic beauty grows with an air of anti-establishment. Its essence of a ‘Rock Opera’ lies in its inspiring deconstruction of the traditional musicals.   

Another breathtaking cinematic experience has been ‘The Wild Pear Tree’ by Nuri Bilge Ceylan. The Turkish auteur, whose earlier films have been globally accoladed and whose 2014 film ‘Winter Sleep’ won the Palme d’Or, still stands tall.

In ‘The Wild Pear Tree’, Sinan, a young, ambitious would-be writer, craves for a creative inspiration amid a hopelessly barren and futile society. Sinan intends to author a literary memoir on the landscape and the people around him, while staying at his rural, ancestral home. But, his artistic aspiration seems to crumble due to lack of money and nobody cares. On the other hand, the landscape covered with the wild pear trees represents the beauty that Sinan craves for so much in life. The camera projects the landscape in that way. In the shade of those trees, Sinan meet Hatice, the girl from his school days, after a long time. The memories of adolescence coming back, the mellow sun flickering on Hatice, the unrestrained breeze blowing the undone hair on her face weave an engrossing sense of beauty. The film gets philosophical when Sinan and his friends discuss religion, orthodoxy and atheism while taking a walk along a picturesque, winding road canopied by those pear trees. 

Sinan’s conflict returns as a motif in the scene where he and his father, Idris try to remove a boulder from a pit to dig a well. Idris hopes that the water from the well will turn his arid piece of land fertile. This piece of land is highly symbolic. In fact, it is this Sisyphean task of producing something fertile against the onslaught of intellectual aridity that has given both Sinan and Idris a meaning, an existence. In another fascinating scene of dream vision, Sinan is seen hiding in the Trojan Horse. One would wonder if he is about to lay siege to the mad, mundane world.  

‘Memories of My Body’ by Indonesian director Garin Nugroho was also a noteworthy film. It is often told that there does not exist any single ‘Mahabharata’ but one can discover multiple versions and offshoots of this great epic poem. Each of these versions offers a retelling of the central narrative. Nugroho reflected how the Indian mythology and culture share their space with Indonesia. ‘Memories of My Body’ retells the myth of Arjuna’s alter-ego: Brihannala, the eunuch dancer. The film assimilates the ‘Lengger’ dance form to camouflage its exploration of social taboos in a toxically masculine world. Inspired by the life of the famed dancer Rianto, the film looks back to the formative years of the dancer’s life and explores the others outside the traditional gender binary.

Jafar Panahi’s new film, ‘Three Faces’ experiments with forms and the film opens with a self-recorded smartphone footage. The three faces can be interpreted as three stages in an actress’s life in a rigidly conservative society. The three faces are represented within the same time and space by three different individuals. One can not help wondering at Mr. Panahi’s genius.

In the competition category, the various sections were “International Competition: Innovation in Moving Images”, “Competition on Indian Short Films”, “Competition on Indian Language’s Films’,  ‘Competition on Documentary Films’ and ‘Asian Select (NETPAC Award)’. Vietnamese director Ash Mayfair won the ‘Best Film’ award for her feature ‘The Third Wife’. Egyptian director Abu Bakr Shawky won the ‘Best Director’award for ‘Yomeddine’. The ‘Jury Special Mention’ award went to ‘Tarikh’ directed by Churni Ganguly. Another noteworthy film in this section was ‘I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians’ by Romanian director Radu Jude. Jude has been greatly celebrated for his 2015 masterpiece, ‘Aferim!’. Naturally, the audience was optimistic about this new film. It sneaks into the the Romanian mindscape of Holocaust denial and a theatre director, Mariana Marin’s endeavour to destabilize this abominable mindscape.

In the section ‘National Competition on Indian Language Films’, ‘Widow of Silence’ by Praveen Morchhala won the Best Film Award, while Arijit Biswas bagged the Best Director award for his feature, ‘Sun Goes Around The Earth’. Jury Special Mention award went to ”Kedara: The Songs of Silence” by Indraadip Dasgupta. The documentary ‘Say Cheese’ directed by Ishani Kanjilal Dutta won the ‘Competition on Indian Documentary Films’. The NETPAC (Asian Select) award went to ‘The Sweet Requiem’ by directors Ritu Sarin and Tenzing Sonam.

The 24th edition of KIFF also hosted a series of panel discussions. In one panel, the eminent filmmaker Shaji N Karun likened the virtues of painting to films. The discussion also brought up the role of the market in promoting or tampering with the quality and contents of cinema. In a separate press conference marking the world premier of his film , ‘Olu’, Shaji N Karun talked about the role of fantasies and dreams on his film. The festival focused on Australian Cinema this year and the panel reflected this trend. A master class was initiated by the prolific Australian filmmaker, Phillip Noyce. He went on discussing how his crew works as a team and why the trust factor is important among them. Another discussion was on ‘Australian Cinema: Then and Now’ marking the journey from the iconic Australian classics to the contemporaries. Prominent filmmaker and journalist Sudhesna Roy moderated the segment, “!00 years of Bengali Cinema”. The distinguished members of the panel included eminent actors, directors and critics such as Madhabi Chakraborty, Goutam Ghosh, Sekhar Das, Swapan Mallick and Anjan Bose. The mood of the discussion was pensive as the members of the panel expressed their frustration that filmmaker Hiralal Sen’s works can not be restored from oblivion. The discussion gradually took turn to the present crises that the Bengali Cinema world may be facing.  

The festival seems to be a success running at 16 venues across Kollkata. However, the curating of the films, its show times and venues showed mismanagement. Show timings of important films often clashed with each other and it was not often possible to finish watching a film at a venue and travel to another to catch the next show. A Kolkata based independent filmmaker lamented on how the screening of short films away from the main venues kept the larger part of the audience aloof.