The International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala has returned as an in-person event after coronavirus-induced delays. The 13th edition will be held in Thiruvananthapuram between December 9 and 14.

The festival will open with Mai Masri’s Beirut: Eye of the Storm. The Arabic-language documentary examines the recent political, social and economic tumult in Lebanon through four young women artists.

The programme includes nine Malayalam short films dedicated to the continuing effects of the coronavirus pandemic on the way we live, work and communicate. The section titled Surveillance and Control includes French filmmaker Eleonore Weber’s There Will Be No More Night, which draws from video recordings made by American and French troops in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

The noteworthy titles include Kristina Lindstrom’s The Most Beautiful Boy in the World, a profile of the teenaged lead actor from Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice (1971). Irene Gutierrez Torres’s Between Dog and Wolf revisits the spirit of the Cuban Revolution in the 1950s by following three former combatants who continue to wear their uniforms decades later.

Beirut: Eye of the Storm (2021).

Among the Indian films is Rafiq Elias’s If Memory Serves Me Right, a tribute to the deceased film critic Rashid Irani. The film rewinds to the roots of Irani’s cinephilia and his intimate engagement with the Mumbai neighbourhood in which he grew up and died earlier this year.

Ramachandra PN, who made Miyar House (2011), about his ancestral home, revisits the personal documentary form in R For Roshan’s Childhood. The filmmaker and his wife Sushma take their four-year-old adopted son on a road trip to meet their extended families.

R For Roshan’s Childhood (2021).

Jessica Beshir’s reverie-filled Faya Dayi is set in Harar in Ethiopia. Faya Dayi traces, through the centuries-old cultivation of the narcotic-flavoured khat plant, the region’s origin myths, the hopes and ambitions of young Ethiopians, and the larger political climate.

Czech director Francesco Montagner’s Brotherhood follows three brothers from Bosnia who are left to their own devices when their father, an orthodox Islamist preacher, is jailed on terrorism charges.

Faya Dayi (2021).

Gabriel Tejedor’s observational documentary Kombinat is set in the Russian industrial town of Magnitogorsk. The local economy revolves around a massive steel plant that pollutes the air but also employs thousands of workers. Salsa is among the leisure activities organised for the employees – even here, personal pleasure is dictated by the state.

In Straight to VHS, Emilio Silva Torres revisits the cult Uruguayan film Act of Violence in a Young Journalist, which was released on videotape in 1989.

Kombinat (2020).

Eleven Indian documentaries are in the competition section. We examine three.

The Last Man

Dakxinkumar Bajrange’s The Last Man follows after such documentaries as Amudhan RP’s Pee (Shit) and Vidhu Vincent’s Manhole in highlighting the horrors of manual scavenging and the iniquities of the caste system. The disclaimer sums it up: “The film contains shots/sequences that may be disturbing. Viewer discretion is advised.”

Interviews with Dalit sanitation workers in Gujarat and Maharashtra reveal the inhuman nature of their employment. We see for ourselves just how ghastly and risky the work is, from cleaning human refuse and trash to being lowered into noxious septic tanks, from which some workers emerge dead.

Forced by poverty and the lack of opportunity to do a job nobody else will touch, the workers speak angrily and passionately about their condition. We have gone to the moon but our heads are still in the sewers, one of them says. We are no better than animals, says another.

The Last Man (2020).

The prejudice is hardwired into the system, points out Sunil Yadav, a professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences and a former sanitation worker himself. When Yadav applied for study leave to earn the degree that would help him seek new prospects, his bosses repeatedly turned down.

Among the fascinating revelations is an informal practice in Ahmedabad of sharing leftover food with Dalit cleaners. Every night, women take empty pans and boxes and call out to their upper-class patrons. The arrangement, one of the numerous ways in which casteism is normalised in India, ensures that the workers don’t sleep hungry and wake up the next morning to go right back into the gutters.

Chalo Sakha Us Des Mein

Made in 2019, Rajula Shah’s moving documentary speaks both to personal tragedy and the pandemic that was round the corner. Chalo Sakha Us Des Mein (At Home Walking) is dedicated to Arghya Basu, the filmmaker and editor who was married to Shah and who died by suicide in 2019.

In the mould of Shah’s previous documentaries, Chalo Sakha Us Des Mein is filled with poetry, philosophy, spiritualism and poetic images. The film’s concerns with perambulations of the body, mind and soul anticipate the lockdowns necessitated by the global health crisis. But there is equally a timelessness in the documentation of journeys undertaken by the faithful, the needy and the troubled.

Shot by Shah and Basu, the film follows the Warkaris, followers of the god Vitthal, on their annual pilgrimage to Pandharpur in Maharashtra. Shah also draws in traditional nomads and itinerant groups, such as snake charmers and conjurers, who wander from place to place in search of an income and meaning.

Only the distressed can develop true detachment, the voiceover observes. The film’s unhurried rhythms need patience that is nearly always rewarded.

Moon on the Man

If The Last Man is a tour of hell and Chalo Sakha Us Des Mein is a journey into the soul, Moon on the Man is an expedition into the imaginary.

Prince Shah’s debut documentary is set in Mumbai, the city of dreams and dust. Inspired by Malik Bendjelloul’s Searching For Sugar Man, about the American musician Sixto Rodriguez, Shah has made a film that questions the nature of truth that is presented by the documentary form. Seeing and hearing something doesn’t necessarily make it true, the film cleverly suggests.

Sailesh Thadani in Moon on the Man (2021). Courtesy Prince Shah.

The main character is the Zelig-like Praklawn (real name Prakash Lalwani). From music shows on television to citizen protests, the silver-haired Lalwani is everywhere.

Lalwani claims to have come up with the lyrics of the classic song Yeh Hai Bombay Meri Jaan from the Guru Dutt production CID. Lalwani also claims to have hung out with Ian Fleming, who gave him his moniker.

Shah set out to “deconstruct” and “investigate Praklawn’s truth”, he told In the film, two friends, Aasif Shah and Wadood Murshedkar, act as Shah’s proxy in turning over Lalwani’s claims.

Shah befriended Lalwani in 2007 and was soon charmed by the older raconteur’s self-mythologising skills and his generous personality. “He never gave out boomer vibes,” the 34-year-old filmmaker said. “He had an amazing spirit and would sing and spread love and joy.”

The film was initially meant to be only about Lalwani, but then expanded to include another typical Mumbai denizen. Sailesh Thadani is a child actor whose glory days are long behind him. Thadani now lives on the streets and depends on the kindness of strangers for survival.

After intending to make a short film on Thadani, Shah decided to combine it with Lalwani’s fabulist journey. These men, each of them on the fringes of civil society and cinema, bring out the delusion that is as much a part of the Mumbai air as dreaming.

Thadani is clearly worse off than Lalwani. He appears to be both physically and mentally ill, promoting another question: was it ethical to include him in the film?

Shah says he has tried to help Thadani in several ways, from giving him a cellphone (which Thadani then misplaced) to trying to persuade him to move to a shelter for the homeless (Thadani refused). “I do want to help Sailesh in some way with the film,” Shah said.