For an event that claims to be low-key this year, the International Film Festival of Kerala hasn’t done too badly for itself: it will be showing 174 titles from India and the rest of the world between December 7 and 13 in the state capital Thiruvananthapuram. The budget has been slashed after the floods that ravaged the state in July and August, and the main organiser, the state-supported Kerala Chalachitra Academy, has had to do excise a few sections.
There are no restored films this year, for instance. A section titled ‘Human Spirit: Human Spirit: Films on Hope and Rebuilding’ has been included. “The biggest challenge, of course, has been funding,” Bina Paul, the festival’s Artistic Director, told Scroll.in. “Earlier, we used to get titles gratis from archives, but nowadays, everyone charges. Luckily, we have a lot of goodwill, and have been able to pull it off.”
It didn’t make sense to cancel the festival, since that would have caused an irreparable rupture in the programming, Paul added. “Everybody wanted the festival, but they didn’t want it to be over-celebratory in nature,” she said. “This has been a hard year, and it is not a year for celebration.”
Among the measures taken this year to mop up funds is an increase in the delegate fee to Rs 2,000 per head. Media representatives too are being charged for the first time – a practice in line with several festivals across the world. Other sections have been untouched, and reflect the programming focus on films that reflect the times as well as the formal and narrative concerns that contemporary filmmakers are grappling with. Some of the countries that IFFK has nurtured over the past few years have a strong showing, including Iran, Romania, Russia and the Central Asian Republic countries. There are several films directed by women, continuing the festival’s focus on gender parity, and heavy-hitters, such as Roma, Ash is Purest White and The House That Jack Built.
The jury, headed by Iranian director Majid Majidi, will view 13 films in the Competition section (the director’s Muhammad: The Messenger of God will also be shown at the festival). An Indian section called Pot-pourri includes some of the films made over the past few months, including Nandita Das’s Manto and Rima Das’s Bulbul Can Sing. At least 6.000 delegate passes have been issued for the event. Here are the most noteworthy titles at the 23rd edition.
3 Faces (Iran) Jafar Panahi is a festival favourite. His bravery in continuing to make films despite a ban by the Iranian government has only increased his fan base. 3 Faces seems to suggest that the ban has been eased. Panahi stars alongside actress Behnaz Jafari in a narrative that pays tribute to the cinematic universe of Abbas Kiarostami. Panahi and Jafari travel to a village to meet a teenager who seems to have killed herself, but has she?
A Family Tour (Taiwan) Ying Liang’s film, drawn from personal experiences, explores the Chinese experience of exile and displacement. The director, who has been exiled and lives in Hong Kong, tells the story of a woman who attempts to meet her mother during a carefully monitored tourist trip to Taiwan.
A Twelve-Year Night (Uruguay) Alvaro Brechner’s film is based on a real-life incident that occurred in the life of the country’s former president, Jose Mujica. For 12 years from 1972, Mujica was put in solitary confinement by the military dictatorship. Most of the time was spent with a hood over his head.
A Land Imagined (Singapore) Siew Hua Yeo’s well-travelled festival favourite (it won the top prize at Locarno) deploys the thriller genre for a tale of a Chinese construction worker who goes missing. An insomniac police investigator starts digging, and comes up with uncomfortable truths about Singapore’s construction industry.
Aga (Bulgaria) Milko Lazarov’s Siberia-set second feature, which was the closing title at the Berlin Film Festival, has been described as a response to Robert Flaherty’s classic ethnographic film Nanook of the North (1922) as well as a drama about the effects of climate change. The movie follows elderly couple Nanook and Sedna from Siberia who attempt to rebuild bridges with their estranged daughter after their traditional way of life starts eroding.
All the Gods in the Sky (France) Directed by Quarxx and scaled up from his short film A Perfect Blue Sky, this surrealist drama is the story of Simon, his disabled sister, and their belief that one day, they will be taken away from Earth by benevolent aliens. Melanie Gaydos, an American model whose ectodermal dysplasia has stunted the development of her teeth, nails and bones, and who has alopecia, plays Simon’s sister, Estelle.
Ash is the Purest White (China) Chinese master Jia Zhangke’s latest exploration of the intersection of crime and capitalism in China has a riveting central performance by Zhao Tao. The actress, who is also married to Jhangke and has featured in many of his films, plays a gangster’s girlfriend who goes to jail for her love and stubborn belief in her gang’s code of honour.
At War (France) Stephane Brize’s highly topical film fictionalises a labour conflict between workers in an automotive parts company and their bosses, who have decided to shut down operations.
The Bed (Argentina) Actress Monica Lairana’s feature debut is a part of the Competition section. A married couple prepares to separate from one another after 30 years of a life together. The film is set in the house that they will not share any more, and traces their final hours with each other.
Birds of Passage (Colombia) A pre-Narcos crime drama by the makers of the Amazon jungle-set Embrace of the Serpent (2015). Directed by Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra, Colombia’s official entry in the foreign language film category at the Oscars is the story of a Native American family’s involvement with illegal drug smuggling in Colombia between the 1960s and the ’70s. The money rolls in, but the family – and a way of life – is torn apart at the seams.
Bhonsle Devashish Makhija’s second feature is an expansion of his short film Taandav. Manoj Bajpayee plays a Mumbai police constable who settles into a life of post-retirement drudgery, all the while trying to get an extension. A new neighbour and a nativist taxi driver change his plans.
Capernaum (Lebanon) Nadine Labaki’s Caramel and Where Do We Go Now? have had healthy festival runs. Lebanon’s entry in the foreign film category at the Oscars is a courtroom drama initiated by a 12-year-old boy, who sues his parents for neglect.
Cold War (Poland) Paweł Pawlikowski’s black-and-white stunner will represent Poland in the foreign film category at the Oscars. The new film by the Ida director is the story of a music composer and his troubled relationship with a singer, which unfolds against the backdrop of the Cold War in Europe. The film has been shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio, which renders its images in a square format.
Core of the World (Russia) Natalia Meshchaninova’s film is one of two canine-themed features at IFFK (the other is Dogman). Core of the World explores the ethical debate that rages in the mind of a veterinarian who works at a facility where domesticated foxes are used to train hunting dogs.
The Dark Room (Iran) Rouhollah Hejazi’s Competition title centres on a boy who complains of sexual assault. A couple moves into a new apartment complex with their five-year-old son, Amir. He goes missing but is recovered. But when he tells his parents that he might have been assaulted, his father sets out in search of the perpetrator.
Debt (Turkey) In Vuslat Saracoglu’s debut feature, a well-meaning print shop employee bites off more than he can chew when he decides to help out his elderly neighbour. Tufan adopts a crow with a broken wing, but dealing with his neighbour, who has suffered a nasty fall, stretches his precarious finances and stresses out his wife and daughter.
Die Tomorrow (Thailand) The Kerala festival continues its tradition of showcasing talent from the rest of Asia. Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit’s fifth feature is set in contemporary Bangkok and follows six characters on the verge of death.
Dogman (Italy) Matteo Garrone (Gomorrah, Tale of Tales) directs the second canine-themed film of the festival after Core of the World. A dog groomer who has a side business in selling cocaine seeks revenge after he gets imprisoned. Dogman is Italy’s entry in the foreign film category at the Oscars.
Donbass (Ukraine) Acclaimed Ukranian director Sergei Loznista (Austerlitz, A Gentle Creature) has divided his new film into 13 segments, each of which looks at the impact of propaganda and the manipulation of news as Ukrainian nationalists battle against Russia-supported members of the Donetsk People’s Republic. The Donetsk People’s Republic sits in eastern Ukraine, and has been termed by Russia as an illegally occupied Ukranian territory. Donbass is Ukraine’s entry in the foreign film category at the Oscars.
Dovlatov (Russia) Aleksey German’s biopic of dissident writer Sergei Dovlatov will be of interest to delegates keen on understanding the workings of the Soviet Union. Dovlatov’s manuscripts were rejected by the administration, and his writings circulated through underground networks. Dovlatov eventually emigrated to the United States of America. The film captures a few days of his life in 1971.
Dressage (Iran) In Pooya Badkoobeh’s moral drama, a teenager from a working-class family breaks away from her wealthier friends when they commit a crime. The film was screened in the Generations 14plus section at the 2018 Berlin Film Festival.
Ee.Ma Yau (India) Malayalam talent Lijo Jose Pellissery follows up Angamally Diaries with a satire revolving around death. When his elderly father suddenly drops dead, Eeshi decides to organise a grand funeral, but everything and everybody seem to be conspiring against him.
El Angel (Argentina) Luois Ortega’s film is based on notorious teenage serial killer Carlos Puch, whose angelic face belied a record of having killed 11 people and committed at least one rape. Ortega’s film, which will represent Argentina at the Oscars, follows Carlos’s crime spree in Buenos Aires from the early 1970s. The film is a part of the Competition section at Kerala.
Everybody Knows (Spain) Asghar Farhadi is an old favourite at IFFK, and his previous films, including About Elly (2009) and A Separation (2011), were big crowdpullers. The Kerala festival will inaugurate its offerings with Farhadi’s first Spanish-language feature, which also opened the Cannes Film Festival. Real-life couple Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem star in a mystery thriller about a woman who stumbles upon secrets when she visits her hometown for a wedding.
The Gentle Indifference of the World (Kazakhstan) Adilkhan Yerzhanov’s Constructors has been previously screened at IFFK. In his new film, Saltanat, shadowed by her admirer, travels from her country home to the city to pay off a family debt and get her mother released from prison.
Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Ja Riya Hoon (India) Old Delhi and its unfathomable realities and mysteries unfold through the eyes of a pickpocket, a snacks stall owner, a labour activist, and a heritage walk organiser. Theatre director Anamika Haksar’s debut feature was premiered at the Mumbai Film Festival in October, and is a part of the Competition section at Kerala.
The Graveless Three brothers and their sister decide to carry out their father’s last wishes: to be buried in a remote village. The body begins to rot, and family ties deteriorate too. The Competition entry, which is also known by the title As I Lay Dying, has been directed by Mostafa Sayari and is loosely based on the William Faulkner novel of the same name.
High Life (USA) Claire Denis’s first film in English stars French acting legend Juliette Binoche and Robert Pattinson. In the science-fiction horror film, scientists on board an aircraft fool a bunch of criminals into a false mission and instead conduct sexual experiments on them.
Hotel by the River (South Korea) Tireless director Hong Sang-soo’s black-and-white drama centres on two intersecting narratives: an elderly poet organises an awkward family reunion, and a young woman recovering from failed relationship gets a visit from a friend.
House of My Fathers (Sri Lanka) Suba Sivakumaran’s film has the Sri Lankan civil war as its backdrop. Two warring villages in Sri Lanka (one Tamil, the other Sinhalese) come together to fighting rising infertility among the villagers.
The House that Jack Built (USA) The latest shocker from Danish provocateur Lars Von Trier follows serial killer Jack (Matt Dillon) and the murders he has committed over a 12-year period. The cast includes Uma Thurman and Bruno Ganz.
Human, Space, Time and Human (South Korea) Korean director Kik Ki-duk has god-like status among IFFK regulars. Let this official synopsis from his latest film speak for itself: “People from all sorts of backgrounds set sail on a warship. They get drunk on alcohol, drugs and sex. Later, everyone grows tired and falls asleep, while the ship enters an unknown space enveloped in fog. In the morning, the people wake up to find the ship floating in the air.”
I Don’t Care if We Go Down in History as Barbarians (Romania) Radu Jude (Afermin!) directs a black comedy about history and revisionism. An artist is planning to reconstruct the 1941 massacre of Jews in Odessa carried out the Romanian Administration Army. She learns the hard way that her actors and the people at the site of the massacre have differing views on how the event is to be depicted. The film will represent Romania in the foreign language category at the Oscars.
The Image Book (Switzerland) French New Wave iconoclast Jean-Luc Godard’s new film is a meditation on the construction of images. The Image Book weaves together clips from classic films, music, news reports, documentary footage, a voiceover by Godard, and news reports.
Ingmar Bergman retrospective To mark the Swedish director’s birth centenary, the festival programmers have rolled out a mix of features and television projects. The films on the list are Summer Interlude (1951), Summer with Monika (1953), Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), Persona (1966), Autumn Sonata (1978) and Cries and Whispers (1972). Two of Bergman’s masterful television projects will be screened: Scenes from a Marriage (1973) and Fanny and Alexander (1982). German filmmaker Margaret von Trotta’s documentary Searching for Ingmar Bergman will also be screened.
“This section was the most challenging and the one I spent the most time thinking about,” Bina Paul said. “The new documentary became the key for me. People think that Bergman is the easiest to programme, but he is actually the most difficult.”
Jumpman (Russia) In Ivan Tverdovsky’s Zoology, which was screened at IFFK in 2016, a woman with a secret tail embarked on an unusual relationship. In Jumpman, a teenager who cannot feel pain becomes a useful tool for sadomasochistic games and his exploitative mother, who uses him to fake car accidents and then collect the reward.
Lenin Rajendran retrospective Every year, IFFK honours a Malayalam filmmaker through a retrospective. This year, the director in focus is Lenin Rajendran, who made his debut with Venal in 1982. On the list of the films by Rajendran are Chillu (1982), Meenamasathile Sooryan (1989), Swathi Thirunal (1987), Vachanam (1989), Daivathinte Vikrithikal (1992) and Mazha (2000).
“He has a very important body of work, and he is a filmmaker who has kept his edge very strongly in a popular genre,” Paul pointed out. “He has never comprised in his films.”
Maya (France) Mia Hansen-Love’s new film plays out partly in Goa. A French war reporter who has been traumatised by his time in Syria repairs to Goa, where he meets Maya, the owner of an eco-friendly hotel. The cast includes Romain Kolinka, who featured in Hansen-Love’s Things to Come (2016) and Indian model Aarshi Banerjee.
Memories of My Body (Indonesia) Garin Nugroho (Of Love and Eggs, Opera Jawa) has been inspired by the dancer Rianto, who also appears in the film. A young gay dancer’s experiences, including an infatuation for a boxer, are mapped onto political developments in Indonesia in the 1980s.
Milos Forman tribute One of the greatest Czech New Wave exports gets a six-film tribute. Milos Forman, who died in 2018, began his career in the former Czech Republic in the 1960s, rolling out satires and dramas before migrating to Hollywood. The six films that are showing at IFFK are Talent Competition (1963), Black Peter (1964), Loves of a Blonde (1965), The Fireman’s Ball (1967), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), and Amadeus (1984).
Namme (Georgia) Zaza Khalvashi’s experimental feature evokes Georgian folklore. The film is named after the young woman who decides to dedicate her life to saving a local spring that is said to have healing powers. As the construction of a hydro power station commences and the spring water begins to disappear, Namme must take tough decisions. Namme is Georgia’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars.
Night Accident (Kyrgyzstan) A bond of friendship develops between a 70-year-old man and the young girl he nearly runs over. The film is a part of the Competition section at Kerala.
Non-Fiction (France) Oliver Assayas is among the few arthouse directors to be making films about the here and now. In Non-Fiction, a literary editor grapples with the rise of the digital economy while balancing an extra-marital affair and his actress wife’s anger over his refusal to publish a controversial author. The cast includes Juliette Binoche and Guillaume Canet.
Our Time (Mexico) Mexican master Carlos Reygadas (Silent Light, Post Tenebras Lux) and his wife, Natalia Lopez, play a couple in an open marriage. The husband’s latent chauvinism resurfaces when his wife falls in love with a trainer, and their tensions are captured in magnificent widescreen.
Poisonous Roses (Egypt) Ahmed Fawzi Saleh’s feature is an expansion of his documentary on the tanneries of Cairo. In the middle of a toxic environment, where refuse from the tanneries flows freely through the drains, Taheya gets increasingly obsessed with her brother Saqr, who wants to flee to Europe. The film is a part of the Competition section at Kerala.
Pope Francis: A Man of His Word (Germany) Wim Wenders’s biographical documentary of the current Pope is part of the section titled The Human Spirit: Films on Hope and Rebuilding. Wenders focuses on the present as well as includes stock footage from television networks and the Vatican archives and re-enactments.
The films in this mixed-bag section include Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto, Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, Fisher Stevens’s Before the Flood, Justin Chadwick’s Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, and Jayaraj’s Vellapokkathil.
Rafiki (Kenya) All is well that ends well for Wanuri Kahiu’s lesbian romance, which was initially banned in its home country. The film is based on the short story Jambula Tree by Ugandan author Monica Arac de Nyeko, and follows the passion between Kena and Ziki, who dare to fall in love despite the political rivalry between their families.
Ray & Liz (United Kingdom) Visual artist Richard Billingham’s debut feature is a grim family portrait set among the English working-class. Ray, Liz and their two sons struggle through economic hardship and emotional cruelty, isolating themselves from the world and each other in the process.
The Red Phallus (Bhutan) Jigme T Tenzing’s film is in the Competition section. Teenager Sangay hails from a family that makes wooden phalluses, which are considered signs of good luck. Sangay is a troubled teenager, at odds with her family and her surroundings, and to make matters worse, she falls in love with a married man.
The Reports on Sarah and Saleem (Palestine) While Muayad Alayan’s second film has been made without any financial assistance from Israel, the cast includes well-known Israeli actors. The drama traces the consequences of an affair between an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man. Both are married, and the impact of their discovery reaches beyond their families.
Roma (Mexico) Alfonso Cuaron’s acclaimed semi-autobiographical film plays out in lustrous widescreen black-and-white images. The film follows the fortunes of a middle-class family in Mexico City through one of two live-in maids. Between chasing the children and cleaning up after the dogs, Cleo has her heart broken. The Netflix film has been entered by Mexico as its foreign language entry.
Sew the Winter to My Skin (South Africa) Jahmil XT Qubeka’s second feature has been described as an experimental epic drama about a folk hero from pre-apartheid South Africa. The film follows the life of John Kepe, who stole livestock and burgled from a mountainous perch in the 1940s. He was arrested and hanged for committing a murder in 1952. John Kepe has since acquired a reputation for being a rebel against the Apartheid regime. The film will represent South Africa in the foreign language category at the Oscars.
Shoplifters Prolific Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for his examination of a family that steals to survive. Kore-eda’s film, which qualifies for ‘near universal acclaim’ status, will represent Japan in the foreign language category.
The Silence (Brazil) Beatriz Seigner’s second film after Bollywood Dream (2010) is a part of the Competition section. A family flees armed conflict to an island in Amazonia, on the border between Brazil, Colombia and Peru, only to realise that it is haunted. The family patriarch, who had disappeared years ago, reappears, as do others.
Sophia Antipolis (France) Shot on 16mm, Virgil Vernier’s second feature after Mercuriales (2014) is an experimental feature set in the titular technology park in France. In this chrome-and-glass haven, a young Vietnamese woman, a new Right-wing convert, and a grieving girl whose friend has died in a fire seek meaning and purpose.
Sudani from Nigeria (India) Zakariya’s film is a part of the Competition section. A fascinating bond develops between a local soccer club manager and an injured Nigerian footballer. Majeed (Soubin Shahir) decides to treat Samuel (Samuel Abola Robinson) at his own expense, leading to a series of serio-comic incidents. The film is also available on Netflix.
Suleiman Mountain (Kyrgyzstan) The Kerala festival has been promoting films from the Central Asian Republic countries, making sure to programme titles in competitive and non-competitive sections. In Suleman Mountain, Elizaveta Stishova follows a con-man and two wives trying to make a living. The film gets its title from the World Heritage Site Suleiman Mountain, which features as an important location.
Sunset (Hungary) Son of Saul director Laszlo Nemes’s new film is set in Budapest during WWI. Irisz Leiter returns to Budapest in the summer of 1913 to work at a hat store that previously belonged to her parents. She sets out to find her lost brother while Hungary prepares for war.
Tale of the Sea (Iran) In this Competition title from Iran, director Bahman Farmanara plays the lead role of a writer who recovers from a mental breakdown and treatment at an institution, only to run into the ghosts of his past on the outside. The cast includes Saber Abar from About Elly and Leila Hatami (A Separation).
The Third Wife (Vietnam) Ash Mayfair’s debut feature is set in nineteenth-century Vietnam. Fourteen-year-old May is married off to a much older man, and finds unexpected support in her new household from the two older wives.
Too Late to Die Young (Chile) Dominga Sotomayor Castillo, best-known for her coming-of-age drama Thursday Till Sunday, returns with another film in the same genre. At an artists’ commune in rural Chile in 1990, adolescent Sofia grapples with her romantic feelings for a handsome visitor while theft, water cuts and forest fires rage around her.
Tumbaad The midnight or the after dark screening section is a popular device at festivals the world over to reel in younger viewers for films in the horror and thriller genres. This year, IFFK has slotted Rahi Anil Barve’s debut feature Tumbaad for a one-off screening. The period folklore horror film stars Sohum Shah as a man who sinks to literal and moral depths in search of gold. Shot by Pankaj Kumar, the Hindi-language film has had a healthy run at the box office and is being streamed on Amazon Prime Video.
Volcano (Ukraine) Roman Bondarchuk’s black comedy is set in southern Ukraine, where an interpreter on the trail of his missing colleagues has a series of surreal adventures. The cast comprises non-professional and first-time actors.
Widow of Silence (India) Praveen Morchhale’s Urdu-language feature follows a Kashimiri woman who struggles to obtain a death certificate for her husband, who is presumed dead after having disappeared seven years ago. The film is a part of the Competition section.
The Wild Pear Tree (Turkey) Turkish arthouse star Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s talk-heavy new movie is about an aspiring writer who wants to get his novel published, but has to reckon with his father’s gambling habit and the acute lack of money and happiness at home.
Yomeddine (Egypt) A leprosy-affected garbage scavenger leaves the lepers’ colony that has been his home to look for the family that abandoned him. Abu Bakr Shawky’s debut feature is Egypt’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.
Yuli (Cuba) Renowned Cuban ballet dancer Carlos Accosta gets the biopic treatment. Iciar Bollain’s film traces the journey of the dancer from his hardscrabble childhood to London’s Royal Ballet, where he was the first person of colour to dance as Romeo.