Around the world: an account from the 54th International Film Festival of India

IFFI Goa 2023 screened close to 270 films from 105 countries in 12 halls at four venues in a week. A quick look at the kind of films which where shown and the political, social and economic themes these movies touched upon

Updated - December 15, 2023 01:28 pm IST

Published - December 15, 2023 10:30 am IST

Glimpses from the 54th International Film Festival of India (IFFI).

Glimpses from the 54th International Film Festival of India (IFFI). | Photo Credit: ANI

The 54th International Film Festival of India organised by the National Film Development Corporation, and Entertainment Society of Goa concluded on November 28. Close to 270 films from 105 countries were screened in a week in 12 halls at four venues. There were also over 30 lectures and interaction sessions with film personalities, in addition to a Film Bazar where prospective film producers and film makers could meet and make deals. 

I was there with my daughter, an amateur film maker. We averaged three films a day for seven days after avoiding the red carpet opening and closing events. We picked films randomly but evenly spread across continents. Surprisingly, none disappointed, partly because we were looking not just for cinematic excellence but also for the residues of the political and social climates which shaped these films. The broad pattern was as we expected. Films from Africa generally had some elements of lawlessness, Central Asian films evoked pictures of conflict migration and gender oppression, South East Asian films showed underlying social tensions of the rural-urban divide while in Western European films themes of boredom and juvenile delinquency were common. 

On the state and its people

Take Italian director Matteo Garrone’s Me Captain set in Senegal. Two boys run away from their homes to travel to their dreamland of Europe to escape their stagnant lower middle-class life in Dakar. They join other impoverished migrants to make a perilous journey across the Sahara Desert through Senegal, Mali, Niger and Libya in order to sail to Sicily. We get a picture of the lack of control these countries have over their land, leaving the law in the hands of warlords and gangs. Many refugees do not make it out alive, but the two boys complete their odyssey. The frightening pervasive sense is of the fate of societies where the state no longer holds monopoly over “legitimate violence” — an attribute Max Weber says is a defining character of any state.

But what happens when a state is given too much power and impunity? Argentinian Director Ulises Dela Orden’s The Trial provides the chilling answer. This documentary is a compilation of extracts from 530 hours of film footage of the 1985 trial of former heads of the Argentinian military who staged a coup and remained in power between 1974 and 1983, brutally suppressing all political dissidents, in particular socialists and others they considered left-wing subversives. Segmented in 18 chapters, the nearly three-hour film tells of the horrifying atrocities the junta perpetrated, marked by kidnappings, custodial rapes and murders, disappearances etc. The court testimonies of victims are gut wrenching. However, the defence by junta leaders also pose some deeply troubling moral questions. One General testifies that whatever they did, they did at the bidding of the public, and for the good of the country and its people. Implied here is that, as in any authoritarian rule, there is always some measure of approval, if not complicity, of the public. This is a reminder that the surrender of individual moral autonomy by an insecure public to leaders they see as strong, has always been a factor in any dictatorship. Erich Fromm predicted this in his book Escape from Freedom.

A touch of horror

What about near perfect welfare states? Finnish director Hanna Marjo Västinsalo’s Palimpsest may have some answers. In a completely secure social environment, where income, health and social security are all guaranteed by the State, and high life expectancy has ensured an expansion of an aged population, an elderly couple volunteer for a medical trial that would make them younger. After the first dose they are back to their after-college years. The man regrets his decision and wishes to return to his real age, but will now have to wait 50 years for it. The woman is more adventurous and takes more doses, progressively taking her through different stages of her past life right to her infancy. The impression left is, life without serious challenges can be boring.

Likewise, the South Korean film Sleep directed by Jason Yu, deals with REM sleep disorder, another common, urban malaise. The editing, sound and camera angles are done perfectly to heighten suspense and tension. But the sleep walker’s behaviour soon turns eerie, eating raw meat in a trance while sleep-walking, even killing and stuffing their pet dog in the fridge. While the storytelling is electrifying, the way this common disorder is demonised is rather unfair to those who actually suffer from it.

On gender and women

Two films, by the name of Endless Borders and The Peasant probe the gender question in patriarchal societies. The first by Iranian director Abbas Amini tells of a community of Hazaras and Baloch who escape persecution by Pashtun dominated Taliban in Afghanistan to take shelter near the Iranian border. An activist cum Iranian teacher comes to work among them and soon discovers that a 16-year-old girl is the wife of an elderly ailing man fit to be her grandfather. She had been gifted to the man for a favour the latter did to her family. She has an affair with a young man and for this forbidden relation, comes under imminent threat of honour killing. The Iranian teacher helps them escape first to Iran and from there to Turkey. It is a touching story well told.

The second, The Peasant, co-directed by D.K. Welchman and Hugh Welchman, is set in early 20th century Poland. A young and talented girl has an affair with a married man, but ends up gifted as a wife to her lover’s wealthy widower father, for a healthy dowry. After marriage, the girl resists but the affair with the younger man continues. After her husband’s death, she becomes the object of hate and envy of the village, and on the charge of promiscuity, she is humiliated and banished from the village. Interestingly, chief among her vilest tormentors are women. The movie shows that the gatekeepers of oppressive patriarchy are equally women. Jean-Paul Sartre in his preface to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth said as much. The oppressed, rather than sympathise, often become the bigger oppressor in acts of self-hate to destroy their own hated self-image they see in other victims.

However, a Peruvian movie Once Upon a Time in the Andes provides a different picture. Directed by Romulo Sulca, the film is set amid a war between Peru and Chile. The director chooses a completely amateur cast and this shows in the listless acting and emotionally flat dialogues. Cinematically, except for the stunning landscapes in full cinemascope, there is nothing much to write about. But the story is intriguing. A wounded Chilean soldier who escaped from a battlefield is rescued by a Quechuan shepherdess. Afraid of the consequence if he is discovered in their home, her father takes him to a cave where he is nurtured back to health. The girl also develops an intimate relation with the soldier. But the inevitable happens and he is discovered. A mob prepares to lynch him but the girl arrives and pleads that she is in a relationship with the man and is now expecting his child. The mob retreats, and the man is saved.

IFFI Goa truly took my daughter and I on a journey around the world in seven days.

Pradip Phanjoubam is Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics.

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