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Chennai International Film Festival 2004: Passion for arthouse fare

The second edition of the Chennai International Film Festival, which closed last week, proved the city's passion for arthouse fare. Most of the screenings in three of Chennai's cinemas were packed with an amazingly motley group of people. There were hundreds of young people, many of them college students, as   there were scores of middleaged and older men. Students said that their institutions had given them leave with attendance to watch the 90-odd movies from about 30 countries, and one saw many of these youngsters in film after film. However, what one found odd was the fewer number of women: are they not inclined to watch different kind of cinema or were they apprehensive about seeing uncensored movies in male company? There were no clear answers.

What, though, was beyond doubt was the fascination of Chennai residents for the Festival, and also the organising Indo Cine Appreciation Foundation's resolve to hold the seven-day event.

When the Foundation conducted the Festival in December 2003, there was some apprehension among film buffs, who felt that Chennai could not possibly be in the league of Thiruvananthapuram or Kolkata or Mumbai, all of which have been holding their own international cinema festival, apart from, of course, the main one put together -- this year in Panaji -- by the Directorate of Film Festivals.

The Foundation found sponsors in the BSNL and others to raise about Rs 20 lakhs, a big leap from last year's under Rs 10-lakh budget, provided by Hyundai and others.

A few foreign delegates could also be invited this year. Among  them was an interesting French director, Nathalie Schmidt, whose  "Clear Skies After Rain", had echoes of Quentin Tarantino and  Spike Lee. In the course of a chat after her movie, she said that  she had been influenced by these auteurs even during her long  innings as an actress. Her first directorial venture, "Clear Skies...", is a sometimes shocking, sometimes hilarious story of a rather dysfunctional group of musicians. Rose is a mediocre singer with a violent husband whose ambition to be a vocalist as well sets the tone of a bizarre drama that Nathalie weaves with frames that seem to hit you with the classic Tarantino feel. Each  shot appears to spring right up to your face in what appears like an attempt to shock the viewer into a frightened excitement.

If Nathalie's work was one where form scored over content, there were others whose straight narrative style of story telling  had a more captivating way of holding audience attention.
Phillipe Lioret's French entry, "Miss", is a simple story of casual sex: a sensible and steady woman medical representative meets a whimsical improviser, and in a classic way they are attracted to each other "like mercury and Venus in a leap year". Lioret gets an inspiring performance from Sandrine Bonnaire, who as Claire remembers her brief encounter as she window shops one  afternoon with her family. The film takes us through many probables (!), but if one is in a mood to overlook them, "Miss", remind us of how cinema was in the 1960s and the 1970s. Uncomplicated and unnerving !

Israel's "The Syrian Bride" (by Eran Riklis) gave us the same  kind of feel, though there was a more sensational element here. A  woman living on the Golan Heights is all set to marry a  television actor in Syria, but Tel Aviv and Damascus play  spoilsport. Both claim the Heights to be theirs, and while Israel  stamps an "exit" sign on the bride's passport, Syria refuses to  acknowledge it. The Syrian officer quips: but how can we accept  this when the Golan Heights is ours? Beyond such humour interspersed with the woman's dilemma about not being able to return home once she is inside Syria, Riklis tells us how ineffective the United Nations is. We see an UN officer walk back and forth between the Israeli and Syrian checkposts till she is ready to faint of fatigue. The film ends on a rather clever note. But it is not so much the political aspect that appeals as it is the emotional interplay within the bride's family that pushes the  movie to a higher plane.

The Festival had another work from Germany, "Goodbye Lenin" in  which director Wolfgang Becker brings emotions and State affairs  together in a wonderful sequence of light and shade. A son's  attempt to prevent his mother from a fatal shock after a long  coma forms the basis of this movie: she should not know that her  beloved East Germany no longer exists, she must  not see the broken Wall. Becker carefully orchestrates a picture that the son sets up for his mother, a picture of makebelieve. However, if one  were to look a little beyond the frames, what emerges is a powerful satire on the complex absurdities of Capitalism and  Communism. Becker injects liberal doses of wit that sweetens his pill.

The Chennai Festival had other subjects to offer: Brazil's  "Celeste and Estrela" is stimulating insight into the problems of  making a movie, not that they are very different anywhere else,  but Betse de Paula's method of styling his cinematic process is  different. He creates a love triangle to both help and impede  this process. Equally novel was Bulgaria's "Mila from Mars" that  follows a runaway 16-year-old girl as she lands in tiny  inhospitable settlement of very old people. Director Zornitsa- Sophia gives us a little moral: fear can be conquered by   love. One is not sure, but a touch of authenticity in situational expressions create the mood for the girl's acceptance of the  village as her home. A fairy tale end is somewhat of a put-off to  a style of picturisation that is not often seen: look at the way  the girl and her boyfriend find a home on funny brick tower !

There were still other entries that were not exactly remarkable, but did touch me. Chen Kaige's "Together", talks about the triumph of love over art. A father stands for art, his son for love.  The man wants the little boy to be a great violinist, but  the road to artistic greatness cannot be paved with loneliness. And Chen Kaige helms a great piece of celluloid with wonderful  music. Some may call this sentimental trash, but is not the  beauty of passion and feeling a vehicle that carries some of  mankind's greatest chronicles ?

The Chennai Festival extended a whole week of such intriguing  cinema, which may not have always been critically outstanding, but the effort to programme one must be commended, especially because of the difficult conditions pertaining to venue and finance.

(This story appeared in The Hindu dated December 31 2004)

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