Sometimes a frisson runs down your back as you sit in the dark, watching a film. Because what you see on screen is like a mirror image of real time in a real place. One such moment happens as soon as I walk into my first film at the seventh edition of the International Documentary And Short Film Festival of Kerala (IDSFFK), in Thiruvananthapuram, held between July 18-22.
During the last few weeks, the world’s attention has been trained on the ongoing death and destruction in Gaza. And there, unfolding on screen, is a rare window to one facet of the events that have led, inexorably, to the present flare-up. At 17, Mosab, the son of a top Hamas leader, codenamed the Green Prince, was recruited by Israeli intelligence. The film, also called The Green Prince, gets Mosab on camera, to talk about how he was induced to spy on his people, and how he battled constant feelings of treason and guilt.
The film, directed by Nadav Schirman, cuts back and forth between the young Palestinian “spy” and his Israeli handler, who tells us how the prize catch was snared. It shows us how the conflict deepens as time goes on, and pushes the “green prince” to the brink: are the choices he makes as involuntary as he makes them out to be?
The film is important, and yet leaves you conflicted. At times it feels like a pro-Israeli showreel, and you wonder how “real” can any film be, which leaves out so much, and aligns itself with only one point of view. Just the kind of film to get you into a festival which promises a showcase of the best Indian and international documentaries which lead you to the inevitable niggle: even in a documentary, which coasts on the real, how much is real, and how much fiction.
The IDSFFK has been gaining steady visibility since it began, and has become a magnet for film makers and viewers of this genre. In my three-day stay, I manage to catch a handful of good films. I also chance upon some nice short fiction. This is something I try and dip into as much as I can, because often you discover an exciting new voice just gearing up to launch into a full-length feature.
In fact, part of the intense discussion you hear emanating from the clumps which swarm the venue and the simple but satisfying Kerala sadya (thali) place right across the road for when you need a quick bite between films, is that the doc-fest is just a stepping stone for young filmmakers who use it to test the waters.
I ask Pune-based Anupam Barve, who has just finished showing his short Afternoon, an almost dialogue-less film set in an apartment bathed in warm light, if that is the sole reason why he is here. He does have a feature in the works, he says, but being at the festival is great because of the films he can catch, and the endless exhilarating conversations around them. Which sounds about right, because that’s what film fests are for: watch till you drop, and then talk till you cannot.
The IDSFKK began small, with about 50 films. This year, it has 200 entries, and the venue is bustling with viewers — local enthusiasts and outstation delegates — rushing from one auditorium to another, though I’m told that this time the crush is less. But the festival is competitive, and offers attractive cash prizes to the winners, so the numbers look all set to grow.
How it will pan out from here on is a bit of a question mark, though. Bina Paul Venugopal, the artistic director who’s run the fest for seven years (she also ran the much bigger, 10-day prestigious international film festival which happens in December) has just quit. The IDSFKK sprang from her desire to create a separate space for non-fiction, which was getting buried at the larger festival. And it’s grown beyond her expectations. I ask her why, after building it up with such care, she’s leaving. She says it’s been a wonderful stint, but it is time to move on.
Meanwhile, I have collected some stayers. Gitanjali Rao’s vivid animated 19-minute short True Love Story makes one hopeful for the future of Indian animation. It is not as strikingly imaginative as her earlier film (Printed Rainbow) about an old lady who loves cats, but I was drawn in by True Love Story’s gorgeous colours and detailing, and the idea of a filmmaker trying to move away from the standard turgid mythological-epic recreation that plagues most Indian animated features.
The history of the Indian documentary movement is the backdrop of the moving The Last Adieu, a questing tribute by Shabnam Sukhdev to her father: Sukhdev was one of India’s most celebrated documentary filmmakers, and this engaging film takes us to an inflection point where Hindi cinema could have turned “more real”, with Sukhdev turning his gaze towards features. But he died young, and things changed.
I also enjoyed Goonga Pehelwan, a 58-minute documentary made by the enthusiastic duo Prateek Gupta and Vivek Chaudhary. It is about Virender Singh, a speech-impaired wrestler with a smiling zest for the sport. And an 11-minute short, You And Me, by Tanushree Das. It melds text messages and images to tell a story about people trying to connect, and forms an intriguing end-note to the festival.