At the 40th International Film Festival in Goa, the entries from diverse countries and cultural landscapes had one common affirmation: The universality of the human condition...

A young man knows he is dying: he reaches out to his estranged brother to help him negotiate the last months of his life. A little girl cannot believe that her father has abandoned her in an orphanage. A teacher struggles to hold on to his beliefs and humanity while teaching a rebellious group of underprivileged teenagers. The tongues vary, as do the landscapes, the colour of skin and religious persuasions of the protagonists, as well as the ideology of political regimes, and the wealth of their respective nations. Yet in cinema of the world, we encounter one more affirmation, within our boundless diversities, of the universality of the human condition.

It is this – and the love of cinema - that draws me, whenever I can make the time, to film festivals, where I lose myself for a few days in darkened auditoriums, taking in sometimes four or five films a day, like a man lost in a desert who finds a stream of clear water. It was this that drew me late November this year to Goa, to sample films from the 40{+t}{+h} International Film Festival of India.

The organisation of this official festival was flawed and slipshod in many ways, and the choice of films uneven. There were no master works on display. Yet there were enough films – from every corner of the globe - that reflected, with wisdom and compassion, on eternal human themes of love, loss and loneliness, to enrich the days I could spend there.

My personal favourite was an intimate quiet meditation about the steadying power of love, in Patrice Chereau’s ‘His Brother’ (a French film which carried away the Golden Bear at Berlin). A man in his thirties is terrified by the knowledge that he is slowly dying, and he therefore reaches out to his estranged younger brother in his final months. His brother responds with initial reluctance to what seems an intrusion into his settled life. But as he is drawn into renewing and rediscovering his bonds of love with his older sibling, and he helps his brother face impending death with calmness, he is forced to reflect on the direction of his own life.

A more exuberant celebration of love which also stays with me was the Italian film, Giulio Manfredonia’s ‘We Can Do That’. It recreates a real-life enterprise to form a group of severely mentally disturbed patients from public psychiatric hospitals in Milan, into a construction cooperative, and testifies to their extraordinary healing through the dignity of work. The out-of-work businessman who initiates the cooperative never worked with psychiatric patients earlier, but he succeeds where mental health professionals do not, because he looks at them as people rather than patients. He moves them out of the confined hospital into the wider world, with its risks and inevitable tragedies, but they ultimately triumph. The real-life efforts recreated in the film inspired similar cooperatives which changed the lives of 30,000 differently-abled people across Italy.

Love was the recurring motif of the films I saw at the festival. In the Portugese ‘Goodnight Irene’, directed by Paolo Marinou-Blanco, two intensely lonely men, one old and cantankerous, the other a young man - who spends his days obsessively watching and recording the ordinary lives of his neighbours - unexpectedly find each other in deep affection and friendship. In Dejan Acimovic’s ‘I Have to Sleep, My Angel’, a nine-year old boy growing up in socialist Yugoslavia is devastated by the separation of his parents, but when they come together again, it is because his mother has a terminal illness. There are films about impossible love in times of war, such as the Philippine ‘Baler’ directed by Mark Meily. Set in 1898, the last months of the revolution that defeated the Spanish colonialists, it depicts the doomed love of a Spanish soldier and the daughter of a Philippine revolutionary.

There were many films in the festival about the futility of war. Among the most celebrated was the Bosnian ‘No Man’s Land’, which incidentally (justly) nipped India’s ‘Lagaan’ to win the Academy Award in 2002. Two soldiers from opposite sides in the conflict are trapped together in a ditch in no man’s land, with a third soldier lying over a booby trap which will burst of he is lifted. This first film by Danis Tanovic struck a chord everywhere it was shown. The epic Croatian film ‘Long Dark Night’ tracks the history of the troubled region, and of a man who tried to retain his beliefs and humanity, from the Nazi occupation, the anti-fascist struggle, to the long socialist era and its aftermath. Another attempt to trace history in an epoch of continuous political upheaval is Elia Suleiman’s ‘The Time That Remains’, set in Nazareth from the surrender to the state of Israel in 1948 to contemporary times.

I was moved also by the French film ‘The Class’, based on a teacher’s real-life account of his struggles to make a difference in a mixed-race inner city school. Unlike other films of this genre, the teacher is not portrayed in heroic dimensions. On the contrary, he is intensely human: he is earnest and caring, but he also allows the cheeky teenagers to provoke him, and he therefore makes many mistakes. There is quiet drama played out in the small confines of the classroom: the tensions and misunderstandings between cultures, the eternal war between generations, and the painful coming of age of underprivileged adolescents.

There were also remarkable films that explore in diverse ways the theme of loss. I continue to be haunted by images of the little girl in the South Korean film ‘A Brand New Life’, directed by Yeo Haeng Ja. She is abandoned by her father in an orphanage, because he has chosen to live with a new woman after his wife died. There is a painful dignity and stubborn resistance, as the young child refuses to accept the routine of the orphanage, and the reality of her abandonment. But in the end, her struggles wear down, and she finds she has no option but to concur to move out with a white couple who adopt her and begin a ‘new life’.

The most tragic of the films I saw was Frederic Dumont’s ‘An Angel at Sea’. Set in Morocco, it tells the story of a carefree young boy, whose life changes forever when one day his father shares with him a terrible secret. His father is manic depressive, and he tells him that he plans to kill himself. The boy’s childhood ends abruptly, and he transforms himself into a guardian angel of his father, convinced that if he watches over him night and day, he will be able to save his life. He carries the burden of this father’s confidence on his tiny shoulders, with ultimately tragic consequences. It is a portrait of a child’s love, pushed to its limits.

Among the Indian films in the festival, I was drawn most to the Marathi ‘Gabhricha Paus’, directed by Satish Manwar. It takes the grim theme of farmers’ suicides in Vidharbha, but transforms it into a delightful document again about love. It starts with a suicide. The dead farmer’s neighbour is also farmer who is confronted with the same frustrations - of debt, uncertain rainfall and erratic electricity supplies - which drove his friend to take his life. But the film is about the efforts that the farmer’s mother, wife and six-year old son make, to ensure that he is never left alone, much to the farmer’s irritation, and the many endearing and comical ways they try to raise and sustain his spirits.

The films in Goa, like the best of art anywhere, affirm the endurance of the human spirit - and of love - through war, conflict, abandonment and deprivation. It is this that ensures that I return, again and again.


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