WHEN YOUNG Iranian director Hassan Nazer met Golden Globe-winning filmmaker Siddiq Barmak at the Stockholm Film Festival in November this year, he latched on to every word the senior Afghan professional uttered. There was, however, one particular piece of advice Nazer thought he should follow forthwith. “Take your movie to the festival in Kerala,” the Osama director told him. A month later, walking along the long-winding queues at the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) in Thiruvananthapuram, Nazer was happy he did so. “We need more festivals with this kind of audience,” says the director of Utopia, a film set in a war-ravaged Afghanistan. Like Nazer, filmmakers around the world are eager to show their films at the IFFK. And there’s good reason why.
No autographs please
“This is the only festival in the world where people approach you not to seek an autograph, but to talk about your film,” says veteran Brazilian filmmaker Julio Bressane, the chairman of the international jury for the IFFK this year, which took place from December 4-11. In its two decades of existence, the IFFK has made Kerala’s discerning audience the darling of directors. “Cinema is an experience you undergo only in a crowded hall,” says Pablo Chernov, who produced Argentine nuclear drama The Project of the Century—part of the competition section of the fest, which had films from countries like Haiti, the Philippines, Kazakhstan, Bangladesh and Brazil.
Factors like packed auditoriums and the awareness and appreciation skills of the Kerala audience have drawn several celebrated filmmakers to the IFFK. Filmmaker Mrinal Sen came here in 2009 to see the fabled IFFK audience and receive the lifetime achievement award. Another veteran filmmaker, German legend Werner Herzog, arrived a year later to receive the same honour. Australian Paul Cox and Spanish cinema biggie Carlos Saura are others who have mingled with the Kerala crowd over the years. Only six months after he won the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes festival for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010), acclaimed Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul was at the IFFK in 2010 chatting about cinema. Scores of Malayalis were bowled over by celebrated South Korean auteur Kim Ki-duk when he attended the festival two years ago.
This year, hundreds of delegates braved torrential rain to attend the screening of Ki-duk’s new film Stop, which was part of the Korean Panorama section of the festival. “When you see this audience, you get the feeling you are here to understand the art of cinema,” says four-time National Award-winning Kannada director Girish Kasaravalli. Manu PS, a Kerala-born debutant director at the IFFK this year, recalls waiting in the queue ‘forever’ to see his favourite filmmakers when he was studying philosophy at the University of Kerala in the state capital. “I watched (Polish director) Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water and was amused with how he could make a film with so few characters and so little space,” says Manu, whose first film Monroe Island—a psychological drama, which was part of the Malayalam Cinema Today section of the fest—was mostly a two-character movie set on a shrinking island in Kollam, Kerala.
Creating a culture
In Kerala, where politics is usually a permanent item on breakfast menus, creating a culture of art appreciation is an ongoing process. As per Malayalam filmmaker T Rajeev Nath, who won the best director National Award in 1998 for Janani, the best way to groom an audience is to give them the best films from around the world. In fact, Nath-led Kerala State Chalachitra Academy, which organises the IFFK, recently staged a 36-film Village Festival in the heavily-forested Nilambur in north-eastern Kerala. “There were 1,500 delegates,” he beams.
“It is a hungry crowd,” says acclaimed Malayalam filmmaker Shaji N Karun, who was roped in by the Kerala State Chalachitra Academy to conceive the IFFK’s artistic content this year. “Over 10,000 films are made across the world on traditional and digital platforms every year,” says Karun, who received a Camera d’Or special mention at the Cannes festival in 1989 for his film Piravi. “Our job is to help each member of the audience pick at least three movies a day, giving them a choice of films with a broad spectrum of values: political issues, women’s issues, experimental ideas, growth of new technology and fresh voices,” explains Karun.
“Many festivals list 500 films and nobody sees them,” says Chernov, citing the example of the international festival in his home city of Buenos Aires, which screened more than 400 films this year. Susana Santos Rodrigues, who has worked as a programmer for many international festivals like the Rio Film Festival in Brazil, says the IFFK stands out because of its “enthusiastic and curious audience”. “There is an interesting amalgamation of delegates and popular audience in Kerala. You go to Cannes and sometimes see empty halls,” she says.
Faizal Khan is a freelancer