The 24th edition of International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) is all set to kick off this Friday. Focusing on films from Asia, Africa and Latin America, IFFK is known for its eclectic content and public participation. As the festival steps into its silver jubilee year, indianexpress.com catches up with Bina Paul Venugopal, the artistic director of IFFK.
To begin with, what are the highlights of the 24th International Film Festival of Kerala? How different will it be in comparison to last year?
The main highlight is the new set of films. This year, we have the best of world cinema. We also have smaller films that may not have been recognised anywhere. We have a very interesting package called Experimenta, which looks at experimentation in cinema that features cinematic techniques like long take, deep focus, static camera etc.
We have very interesting guests this year at the festival. There is a conversation between Shai Heredia and Ruchir Joshi, who offered a small window into India’s extensive and eclectic avant-garde cinematic landscape. We have two interesting filmmakers Roy Anderson and Tony Gatlif. The other lovely thing is to have Sharada because I don’t think anywhere there has been an acknowledgement of her contribution. We were quite conscious of that fact. She is coming to the festival and will be the chief guest. I think it will be great fun. And, of course, there is Fernando ‘Pino’ Solanas, the pioneer of the Third Cinema movement.
What is the difference? The difference is in the films. Of course, this year we have lectures, seminars, workshops, conversations with filmmakers and film personalities, and other programmes like open forum and film market. This year, we are trying to look at the possibilities of launching a market in the future.
What is the selection process adopted this time?
We have followed the same process because we are answerable to the public. The selection of films for International competition, Indian Cinema Now and Malayalam Cinema Today are done by selection committees set up by the Academy. We invited people from various fields for the selection process. We have committees consisting of filmmakers, writers, thinkers and eminent persons. They watch films and choose films that fit each category. We believe the selection committees understand the aesthetics of IFFK, and they have nominated films that are cinematically, thematically and aesthetically excellent. So we trust the selection committees because it is impossible for us to see all the films and take note of everything. The Academy has due regard for the recommendations made by the selection committee, and their decision is considered as final and non-appealable.
Our country is going through a radical phase. Art and freedom has new meanings, dimensions and boundaries. Kerala is a state which has taken a progressive and secular stance on all these issues. In that way, what is the attitude of the festival this year?
This has been the value of IFFK from its setup. We were set up with the idea that this is a free and open space. Everybody should have a chance whether it is the delegates or the filmmakers. This is a space for healthy dialogue. And I think that has sort of remained our keystone for all our activities. The worst is, of course, that we have censor interference and we have gone to court. As a festival, we feel responsible for protecting the space of artistic expression.
Out of this year’s line-up, which films attracted your attention the most? Do you have a personal favourite?
Of course. That is again a question of personal aesthetic. Everybody asks me, “Give us the best ten films.” There is no such thing as the best ten films. It’s a purely subjective choice, but I believe that there is a certain aesthetic standard. I really like the films The Tale of Three Sisters and Papicha. I have always liked films with women protagonists, not because of the women protagonists, but I think I find that people sensitively deal with women in the narrative now.
IFFK has been scaled down this year as well, as part of the Rebuilding Kerala initiative. Will it have any effect on the festival experience?
No. This is our first condition and promise to each other. We will cut down everything else, but there will be no compromise on the quality of movies. It means we have to implement certain cost-cutting measures. A cut down in guests and other events, but you will find the best films from all over the world.
As someone who has watched and appreciated world cinema so closely, is there an issue which has generated debate this year? What is the festival chatter this time?
It is so fascinating to see so many women protagonists in contemporary cinema. It is just interesting that the world has finally given space to some of the best films that have women protagonists. Gender issues are at the fore. Our opening film Passed by Censor talks about the whole issue of censorship. These are the two kinds of themes that interest me. All films are relevant as these films open the eyes of the audience to a different idea, a different society and altogether different world. These films unite the human community in their expression of emotions and discuss present-day problems and circumstances without reservation. If you can transform even one per cent of the audience through these films, that makes the festival a huge success.
What do you consider as the single most important achievement of the festival?
That ten thousand people can come and watch world cinema. It is equal for everybody. It has become almost a film school. A lot of people come here and learn about films. We know a lot of filmmakers from not only Kerala but from all over India talk about the festival. Many people come and say it was this moment in Kerala film festival that convinced me that I need to be a filmmaker and I started the journey. We believe that we will be able to cater to the strong demand for quality entertainment from the ever-increasing informed and enlightened audience that we see each year.
What is the weak point of the festival that you would like to work on?
The weak point of the festival is to maintain the balance of size and quality. When you have such a huge event, the issues of quality, aesthetic standards, and organisational standards come into play and all of that have to be really top-class. It is greatly limited because of the limited resources available. But, at the same time, we have to take into account the fact that limitations are also part of growth.
Now onto the controversies…
Has the selection process in any way neglected offbeat cinema?
I think not. I think that selection committees had people from both sides, and they have used their discretion to choose the best films. They have informed us about the rationale for the selection of these films. We cannot force decisions and dictate them to select certain films. For us, the whole section of Malayalam Cinema Today is a panorama. They have to show what is happening in Malayalam cinema right at this moment and it was the decision of a very senior filmmaker together with the committee.
There are allegations against the selection committee regarding the rejection of movies without even watching the film. What do you have to say about that?
This is a very interesting thing because it is not that they don’t watch the films. The point is that they are not the jury. I believe that the jury has to watch the whole film. But the selection committee has to judge a film. If you watch fifty per cent of the film and you think the audience is not going to like this film, then it is not worth showing it to an audience. Then they are at liberty to make that decision. I don’t believe that the committee has been unfair in their viewing and selection of films.
So IFFK has decided to launch a film market this year. There is already talk about how it has been planned and conducted in a not so professional manner. How do you want to respond to this?
We are not actually doing a Film Market. We are just launching an attempt to see how a Film Market should be. It is not a traditional notion of a market, but it is an opportunity for people in the field to have a get-together. This market aims to present new Malayalam films to a broader audience and provide opportunities for filmmakers, distributors and producers to explore new means of commercial possibilities for their cinema. In a world where there is so much need for content, the Film Market will also be an opportunity for various stakeholders to discover new talent and network with a regional constituency.
We want to highlight Malayalam cinema. We want to encourage young and upcoming filmmakers in their endeavours by providing them exposure and a space for communication. We want them to make contact with people who are already working in the Malayalam cinema industry. Nowadays it has become easy to discover a film. The moment anybody has made a film, it is easy to get it out there. Now there is great hunger for content. I would say Malayalam cinema as a regional film industry has not been discovered at all while there is more focus and exposure for Telugu, Tamil and Hindi films. We are witnessing a great shift in sensibilities with growing demands from the present-day audience. We very much want to put Malayalam cinema out there for the international audience. We have the greatest talent. So it is a networking event where we are hoping we will show them films. We will give them a chance to present each other, talk to each other and in the next year build on this. We can’t launch the market one fine day. So we are thinking slowly. This is an important and interesting dimension the IFFK can take. Film Markets have changed their vision all over the world. It’s not like the olden times. Now the markets are actually e-markets. So there is a way to display our talent to the world. It is more a networking event where people will be made aware how Amazon and Netflix pick films. Like why hasn’t Netflix looked at our talent, for example?
The festival is stepping into its 25th edition next year. Besides what the campaigners are demanding in the ‘Reform IFFK’ campaign, don’t you think IFFK as an enterprise needs to reform?
I think there is always place for reform. And I think it is most interesting because you can demand this out of IFFK because everybody feels a part of it. I think there is always a space for dialogue. We are clearly not an ossified fossilised system. There is a way of doing this dialogue and shooting your mouth off is not enough. There is a lot of rework done under great constraints, and in spite of that, we are trying to do our best.