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International Film Festival of India 2003: Festival of discovery
CINEMA was engaging. In many years. At the recent International Film Festival of India in New Delhi (October 2003).
Several movies by virtually unknown makers — certainly in India — were so gripping that they appeared to eclipse well-known masterly works.
Here are some examples. Not many Indians are aware of Australia's Rolf de Heer, whose "Alexandra's Project" and "The Tracker" added a new dimension and definition to the very psychology of this art form.
His "Tracker" is a gripping piece of celluloid, despite its studied and slow pace, where four men are involved in a battle of wits, not always physical. An aborigine tracker leads three white men on a black fugitive's trail on the wilderness of Australia sometime in 1922. The outlaw is always half a day ahead of his pursuers, and the white men, smug in their sense of superiority, ultimately destroy each other. "Tracker" is an amazing picture where De Heer's artistic craft is subtly woven into the plot of moral conventions and the history of a suffering race.
Unlike in neighbouring New Zealand, where the Maori tribe has more or less integrated with the white settlers, the primitives of Australia are still in many ways outcastes, and De Heer's work underlines this in all its pathos.
The Australian director's "Alexandra's Project" focuses on a seemingly happy married couple. But on the man's birthday, the wife deserts him but leaves behind a videotape. Where the woman plays out a tantalising story of sex and seduction.
With just one man on most of the frames, De Heer's method to enslave his male protagonist — in a room — and keep his viewers engrossed is quite remarkable. A little mysterious and a trifle sexy, "Alexandra'a Project" owes some of its narrative success to an imaginative and impulsive camera. Its motion and movement help to build a forceful climax.
But, a lighter film can also make an equally strong point. "Radio Favela" from Brazil is a witty look at the problems of the downtrodden in the country's third largest city, Belo Horizonte. The director, Helvecio Ratton, uses a community radio station as a medium: it is unlicensed, but not unloved by a people that it helps to tide over obstacles. "I have a toothache, and have been applying this particular cream," says a listener. "But that is a pesticide," remarks the radio-man, and helps connect a doctor to the guy in pain.
The radio also mixes in criticism of the government with such good samaritanism, and this proves to be its undoing. The movie weaves a wonderful episodic tale (inspired by actual incidents in the 1980s) through some intelligent inter-cuts. Quick paced, and well enacted, "Radio Favela" is what a modern movie ought to strive for. Another breezy yet powerful entry at the Festival was "Goodbye Lenin".
A tongue-in-cheek effort by a German helmer, Wolfgang Becker, this film is a delightful two-hour effort by a young man to save his mother from a possible cardiac shock when she wakes up from a coma in Berlin eight months after the Wall falls. The man, in a series of almost comic interludes, transforms their apartment into a pre-Wall affair. But, the television threatens to be a giveaway, and the son moves mountains, so to say, to keep his mother in the belief that Lenin did really win. Not capitalism, not democracy.
Mexico's "Francisca" also has a German connection: director Eva Lopez-Sanchez blends a love yarn into a spy thriller. But, no, it does not turn out to be another Bond bang bang. Rather, this Mexican picture is a touching portrayal of a former East German secret service man blackmailed into spying on a group of political students in Mexico. He pretends to be a professor of history, and but falls in love with a student. What follows is dilemma, with the professor torn between, well, life and death.
In New Delhi, there were a couple of more films whose form and content indicated that cinema leant itself to a fascinating variety of treatment. All that one needed was a dash of imagination and commitment.
The French auteur, Francois Ozon's "8 Women" is both Alfred Hitchcock and Agatha Christie in style, where a murder mystery is played out in a snow covered country home in the 1950s. The women are dangerous, but we are kept out of their trick till the last frame, and with an all-female cast (the only man in the movie appears as a mere shadow), Ozon gives us a drama that is electrifying.
Ozon made a film after this: "Swimming Pool" — also screened at the Festival — which created a sensation at Cannes last May. Here an aging writer of thrillers discovers her sexuality in a French country home when she is forced to live with a young, vivacious and free-spirited girl. The plot's twist at the end is just marvellous, and Ozon's creativity is captivating. One admires his story-telling ability, which he mixes with pure cinema to present a heady cocktail.
Also worth mention were Ash's "This Girl's Life" (U.S.), a daringly different look at the emotional life of a porn star, and Wilma Labate's "Domenica" (Italy), a cop's last day at Naples where he has to follow a sexually brutalised orphan girl.
Both these entries — and the others — proved that a movie festival could be a venue of joyful discovery, and the New Delhi event, organised by a small team which works under the label, Directorate of Film Festivals (s), reinforced this belief.
(This story appeared in The Hindu dated November 2 2003)