IFFI 2017 highlights: From Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Loveless to Robin Campillo’s BPM

A close look at some of the best films screened at the 48th International Film Festival of India (IFFI) in Goa.

MK Raghavendra November 30, 2017 17:14:20 IST
IFFI 2017 highlights: From Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Loveless to Robin Campillo’s BPM

The 48th International Film Festival of India was held in Goa between 20 and 28 November 2017. Goa is an ideal venue for the event because its capital Panaji is still a place where visitors can walk to the venues rather than take cabs or public transport and, unlike in Thiruvananthapuram or Mumbai, tickets/seating is still relatively easier to find. There is, for instance, a queue for ticket-less delegates who are admitted to the venue if there are seats available at the commencement of a film — an admirable practice by any account. The IFFI is held at two venues located close to each other – the INOX complex and the Kala Academy. Free auto-rickshaw rides were arranged for delegates between the two locations on a continuing basis. The Kala Academy is a strange construction in that it is partly built to mimic a European opera house. There are balcony boxes high up in the hall, complete with Mario Miranda’s typical Goan caricatures mimicking Europeans watching opera. The implication is that in a post-colonial set-up, the local elites are parodies of the colonisers as they try to imitate their more refined ways – but with comical results.

IFFI 2017 highlights From Andrei Zvyagintsevs Loveless to Robin Campillos BPM

A still from Andrei Zvyagintsev’s film Loveless. YouTube

This year the festival, traditionally organised by the Directorate of Film Festivals, was taken over by the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC). There were reportedly some glitches in the pre-festival period but I could hardly notice their impact. One rather ludicrous decision taken by the new management was to include a James Bond retrospective: one rarely finds a moment on television when a Bond film is not playing, so one finds it hard to understand the need for a separate section for the British Secret Service agent with delegates coming from all over to see films that they cannot get easy access to.

After arriving a couple of days late, one of the first films I saw at the IFFI was Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Russian film Loveless in the Cinema of the World section. Zvyagintsev is one of the most accomplished filmmakers in the world and his film won the Jury Prize at Cannes this year. Loveless is a bleak film about the break-up of a family but also with lots of political overtones. The husband and wife are both indifferent to their only child, Alyosha, who was conceived by accident. The film begins to unravel when the young boy goes missing. This brief account does not do justice to the film or explain its ‘political side’ but family stability is a marker that film narratives have often used to talk about the stability or health of the national community. The stability of the nuclear family in Hollywood narratives affirms that the national community is itself stable. But, in Loveless, virtually every relationship is doomed as if the cementing bonds of common or community or national interest are non-existent. Audiences can be put off by Loveless’ harsh view of societal relationships but the major problem of the film lies elsewhere; it brings in political issues explicitly – like Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine. Zvyagintsev has emerged in the West as a critic of the regime in Russia but increasingly, it has begun to seem, he has positioned himself this way to win favour there. His attitude to Russia is more a condemnation than criticism and this was also true of his earlier film Leviathan (2014). It could be broadly asserted that Zvyagintsev is not addressing Russians but people attending international film festivals to whom he is reporting on Russia as an authorized insider.

IFFI 2017 highlights From Andrei Zvyagintsevs Loveless to Robin Campillos BPM

A still from BPM (Beats Per Minute). YouTube

This targeting of international festival audiences primarily rather than people at home is a feature of much of art-house cinema today, with those from Iran (like the films of Asghar Farhadi) excelling at it. The Iranian film Mohammad Rasoulof’s A Man of Integrity deals with corruption in Iran  —the dirty money which needs to change hands to get anything done. The film is well-made but the progression of indignities forced upon the protagonist eventually leaves one weary. There is little corresponding to understanding or analysis and the film is simply tries to appeal to audiences in the West on the sorry state of the country. Russia and Iran are both threatening entities to the West and one can see the advantage for filmmakers from these countries to take such positions, highly antagonistic to their own milieus. One may be certain that the films consumed locally in the two countries are vastly different from such festival fare.

Over the years certain issues have gained prominence around the world and ‘gender’ is now an international buzz word. Films dealing with LGBT issues attract immediate attention but the winner of the Golden Peacock, the French film Robin Campillo’s BPM (’Beats Per minute’) — which also won the jury prize at Cannes — shows how shallow activist films can be as cinema. BPM deals with an activist group in Paris in the 1990s called ACT UP, which worked with people who were afflicted by HIV and thus try to influence state action towards helping them.  One can hardly dispute the issues the film raises but the purpose of activism is to influence public policy and action; using the subject only to produce art-house cinema could even be opportunistic – especially if the film does not also embrace social/interpersonal complexities consciously. To rephrase this, art-house films pursuing important social issues should not stop at being motivational exercises since their primary loyalty should not be to an issue, but to cinema. To suggest what the film might have also explored a group such as ACT UP would have its own inner dynamics in which the exercise of power by members would come into play; ACT UP could hardly have been without inner contradictions or political struggles. As an instance of the kind of film I admire, the internecine politics within a radical group is brilliantly explored by RW Fassbinder in The Third Generation (1979). Unfortunately BPM does none of this and its only value may be that it can be usefully screened by NGOs for their trainees.

IFFI 2017 highlights From Andrei Zvyagintsevs Loveless to Robin Campillos BPM

Kala Academy's balcony boxes. Image courtesy: MK Raghavendra

A much better LGBT film than BPM, but that attracted little attention, was John Trengove’s South African film The Wound. The film deals with a group of teenage Africans, taken into the mountains to be initiated into manhood through a brutal ceremony but the story is driven by the rebellion of one of the initiates (who is gay) against the ritual and his discovery that two of those supervising the initiation are also gay. There is a tussle between the initiate and the supervisors and his knowledge gives the initiate power which the older men cannot deal with. The greater self-awareness of the teenager with regard to his sexual orientation sees him use the knowledge against his macho initiators and this leads to tragedy.

IFFI 2017 also had other issues dealt with by more than one film and another pertained to animal rights. Agnieszka Holland’s Spoor (produced by Krzysztof Zanussi) is about an old woman, who is appalled by the wanton killing of animals throughout the year. Her complaints to the local police are of no avail but soon, the poachers and hunters apparently killed by the animals as hoof marks are found near the corpses. The film is very well shot but it tries to involve us in animal rights issues, very much as BPM involved us in other matters, and takes sides. Agnieszka Holland is a globally renowned film-maker but a Finnish film Euthanizer by debutant Teemu Nikki was much more satisfying since it prides itself in creating more interesting characters and situations while dealing with the same issues. In this film, a 40-year old former mechanic does the job of putting ailing pets to sleep. Although Veijo Haukka kills animals, he has a deep moral sense and will not allow animals to suffer. In fact, when he finds that their owners have been callous he subjects them to the same treatment they have given their pets. Veijo believes that people must pay for what cruelty they show to others and he is trying to bring his ailing father around but only so that the old man can be made to pay for the cruelty he showed in his younger days.  While tending to his father he meets the nurse Lotta who finds a kindred soul in Veijo. Under the mistaken belief that she is helping Veijo, she euthanizes his father. It is difficult to say at any moment which way Euthanizer will go and that is perhaps the best thing about the film.

Among the more interesting international films was the Azerbaijani film Pomegranate Orchard by Ilgar Najaf about a father and son conflict over the family orchard, the Hungarian film On Body and Soul (directed by Lidiko Enyedi) which won the Golden Bear at Berlin. This inventive film is about two slaughter-house workers who are (strangely enough) brought together by the dream they share night after night. The Russian film Once Upon a Time (directed by Eduard Parri) is a warm human comedy about two elderly single men in a distant village (where the electric transformer was last replaced in 1977) and the widow both of them are interested in. Of particular interest was a retrospective devoted to Canadian director Atom Egoyan, three of whose films were shown. Egoyan was once a very demanding artist and films like Exotica (1994) and The Adjuster (1991) are as ambiguous and complex as the greatest masterpieces of David Lynch or Michelangelo Antonioni. His films have however become increasingly less demanding; even his ‘Masterclass’ demonstrated how his ambitions have declined. Most great directors (including Satyajit Ray) decline in their later careers and it is as though they unlearned what they once knew.

Among the Indian films, the most interesting one was a non-feature documentary Pushkar Puran by Kamal Swaroop. Swaroop has a cult reputation because of Om Dar-B-Dar (1988), which not many people were able to make sense of and it is, in equal parts, both exhilarating and unbearable. Pushkar Puran is an easier film, a whimsical but poetic documentary on the approach of the cattle festival in Pushkar till its departure, leaving the town as empty and quiet as it had been before visitors turned it upside down and inside out. Kamal Swaroop also pays great attention to the talk and, to illustrate, one conversation has to do with a cattle seller trying to sell a one-eyed cow to a customer at one and a half times the normal price of a healthy cow. The film is wonderfully shot without any kind of explicit commentary. There are so many mysterious moments in the film that defy explanation that a commentary would have surely ruined it.

MK Raghavendra is a film scholar and author of seven books including The Oxford India Short Introduction to Bollywood (2016). He is deeply interested in social, political and cultural issues in India, an interest that informs his books on film. 

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