Controversy and some cost-cutting have preceded this year’s edition of the International Film Festival of Kerala. The controversy echoes a long-standing complaint against the Chalachitra Academy, the Kerala state government body that organises the festival every year: the selectors are mindful and imaginative about the way in which they pick international titles, but are cavalier in how they choose Indian films, especially from Malayalam cinema. Amidst calls to rehaul the selection process, which, filmmakers allege, has resulted in the exclusion of promising local productions, the festival continues to impress in its world cinema section.
This category features films that have been carefully sifted from the vast numbers of productions churned out from all corners of the globe. While the Mumbai Film Festival has emerged as one of the best platforms for independent Indian cinema, IFFK has been left far behind in this regard. However, it continues to be respected for its world cinema section.
The international selections are in keeping with a continued emphasis on political themes, diverse filmmaking voices, and willingness to look beyond Hollywood’s seductions. These films reflect the big issues of the day (such as immigration or economic unrest) and the evolution of the cinemas of less fashionable places (such as the former Soviet Union and African nations) besides providing reminders of a continuity with classic narrative traditions.
Here, in alphabetic order, are our picks of the most interesting foreign films playing at the IFFK’s 24th edition, which runs in Thiruvananthapuram from December 6-13.
A Dark-Dark Man IFFK keeps up its focus on cinema from the Central Asian republics by showcasing the new film by Kazakh director Adilkhan Yerzhanov, whose sublime The Gentle Indifference of the World played in Thiruvanathapuram in 2018. A boy is killed, and rather than looking for the killer, the police team frames an innocent man for the murder. Things become hairy when a journalist lands up on the scene.
A White, White Day Grief takes unbidden shape in remote Iceland. A former policeman’s behaviour changes after he finds a box containing his dead wife’s things.
About Endlessness Swedish director Roy Andersson, a master of absurdity-laced tales of reality and dreams, gets a much-deserved career retrospective. Four of his six feature films are here, made following a return to filmmaking after a 25-year break in 2000: Songs from the Second Floor, You, the Living, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, and About Endlessness (which won the award for best direction at Venice this year).
Adam In first-time Moroccan director Maryam Touzani’s feminist drama, a single mother reluctantly shelters a women who is unmarried and pregnant. All critics can talk about is the performances by the lead actresses.
Adults in the Room Greek director Costa-Gavras (Z, Missing), in his first film in seven years, examines Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis’s battles with the International Monetary Fund in 2015. The fictionalised account of the Greek financial crisis is based on Varoufakis’s memoir.
August It’s the mid-1990s. Cuba is reeling from the collapse of the Soviet Union. Thousands of Cubans are attempting to flee to the United States on boats and rafts. A teenager weighs his options while caring for his grandmother and navigating a difficult relationship with his parents. This coming-of-tale is based on director Armando Capo’s life.
Atlantis A futuristic film, set in a world all too recognisable: Eastern Ukraine, which has been rendered uninhabitable after years of war with Russia; where buried corpses litter the landscape; where the earth has been poisoned by mining and mindless ecological degradation.
Bacurau The latest effort by Brazilian director Kleber Mendonca Filho (Neighbouring Sounds, Aquarius) has been described as a “weird Western”. The synopsis is disarming and won’t prepare you for the parade of deranged characters and bizarre events: “After the death of her grandmother, Teresa comes home to her matriarchal village in a near-future Brazil to find a succession of sinister events that mobilises all of its residents.”
Balloon Tibetan director Pema Tseden (Old Dog, Jinpa) explores the tussle between tradition and modernity through a family that rears sheep. An object that appears to be a balloon upturns their lives – it turns out to be one of the many condoms being distributed by the Chinese government to keep the rural population in check.
Beanpole Kantemir Balagov’s encomium-decorated film is set in Leningrad in the aftermath of World War II. The unusually tall Iya, nicknamed “Beanpole”, is a hospital nurse with a tiny and adorable son and secrets that become almost too unbearable to contain. The game is up and afoot when her friend Masha returns from the battlefront, also carrying her suitcase of intrigue.
Bunuel in the Labyrinth of Turtles How best to revisit Spanish master Luis Bunuel’s Land Without Bread (1933), in which he satirised ethnographic documentaries? How about animation?
Burning South Korean director Lee Chang-dong’s rightfully acclaimed film has arrived at IFFK a whole year late. It’s worth the wait: this beguiling examination of the tensions and pressures of contemporary South Korean society is centred on a missing women and her relationship with her past and present boyfriends.
Desrances The continent of Africa, along with the former Soviet Union and Latin America, continues to be a focus at IFFK. Desrances, by Burkinabe director Appoline Traore, is set in the Ivory Coast in 2011, and follows Haitian immigrant Francis, who awaits the birth of a male heir to carry his family name forward. When his wife and newborn son disappear as civil war breaks out on the streets, Francis forges new bonds with his daughter.
Diego Maradona The Argentinean footballer’s endorsement of a local jewellery brand isn’t the only reason for screening Asif Kapadia’s documentary. Kapadia, whose subjects include Ayrton Senna and Amy Winehouse, examines the legend’s tenure with the Naples football club in the mid-1980s. It involved glory and, of course, scandal.
Gaadi Sri Lankan director Prasanna Vithanage is on one of the juries at IFFK this year, which explains the inclusion of his latest film. Gaadi could have made it to the programme on its own merit: the period film explores the island nation’s experiences with caste through the experiences of an aristocratic woman who is forced by circumstance into a relationship with a member of the lowest strata.
God Exists, Her Name is Petrunya This title is part of the package ‘Post-Yugoslav Cinema. The Macedonian film is based on a real-life incident. A woman retrieves a wooden cross thrown into the river as part of an annual Christian ritual. How dare she?
Haifa Street Declared the best film at Busan this year, Haifa Street chronicles a strange death in Baghdad: a sniper picks his target and then refuses to allow anybody to retrieve the body. Director Mohanad Hayal’s movie is set in 2006, and has as its backdrop the draining war between occupying American forces and the Al Qaeda.
Inhale-Exhale A woman who has served a long prison sentence finds that she has to work doubly hard to win acceptance and forgiveness. Salome Demuria won the best actress at the Shanghai Film Festival for her performance.
It Must Be Heaven Palestinian director Elia Suleiman’s deadpan demeanour proves to be the apt response to the events in his fourth feature. Suleiman’s films have been previously shown at IFFK, and he has been a guest at the festival too. The director, playing a version of himself, flees his occupied homeland to Paris, and later travels to Hollywood to pitch a subject nobody wants to fund – a Palestinian director retracing his steps.
Les Miserables Ladj Ly’s film has been described as a spiritual sequel to La Haine (1995). It’s set in the seething suburbs of Paris, and through the experiences of three members of an anti-crime unit, examines the impact of the 2005 riots in Paris.
Lillian A Russian immigrant who is stranded in New York City decides to return home – on foot. Her journey takes her across the East Coast into Alaska and beyond. The film is set in the present but based on a real-life incident from the 1920s. The lead actress doesn’t utter a word during her long and arduous journey.
Living and Knowing You Are Alive Alain Cavalier blends fiction with documentary. The movie began as an adaptation of Emmanuele Bernheim’s book about travelling with her father to a euthanasia clinic, but took on another form when Bernheim was diagnosed with cancer.
Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom You had us at the title. A singer who has to complete government-mandated teaching service in a remote village school initially gets a culture shock but eventually learns vital lessons in community living.
Malpaso Shot in monochrome, set in the border town between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and exploring the lives of twins, one of whom has been kept away from society on account of his albinism.
Marighella Narcos star Wagner Moura’s directorial debut has been controversial in his home country. The biopic of Marxist guerrilla Carlos Marighella, who was killed by the Brazilian military government in 1969, has been condemned by president Jair Bolsonaro and down-voted on the Internet Movie Database.
Mathais and Maxine Xavier Dolan, only 30 years old and already a veteran of the red carpet, returns with a comedy about two friends who question their feelings for one other when asked to appear as lovers in a short film.
Mosaic Portrait The new movie by Chinese director Zhai Yixiang (This Wonderful Life) explores the repercussions of a teenage girl’s pregnancy. Is her teacher responsible, or could it be the boy she hangs out with?
My Nudity Means Nothing French writer, actor and director Marina de Van puts her body on the line in this documentary self-portrait. The themes include the self-image, online dating, the changes experienced by a woman in her forties, and her sexual fantasies.
Nocturne In this debut film from Holland, a director hunts high and low for the source of his cinematic inspiration.
Nova Lituania When your country is collapsing, why not create a new version elsewhere? A geographer believes that he has the perfect solution to his country’s problems: a Lithuania 2.0 that is located overseas and to which Lithuanians can move en masse. It’s a satire, of course – and in black-and-white.
Oleg A Latvian immigrant works as a butcher in Ghent in Belgium, but he is barely getting by – and traffickers are snapping at his heels.
Oray The triple talaq debate as seen through the eyes of a second-generation Muslim living and working in Germany. He divorces his wife in a heated moment, seeks refuge in his community and his faith, but begins to have second thoughts.
Our Lady of the Nile Based on Scholastique Mukasonga’s 2012 novel of the same name, this film explores the cocktail of ancient resentment and modern social and economic disparities that contributed to the horrific genocide in Rwanda in 1994.
Parasite There’s nothing left to say about South Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s tour de force, in which a poor family scams its way into a rich household, except that you are advised to queue up the previous night.
Passed by Censor The opening film, from Turkey, is in the vein of The Conversation and The Lives of Others. A censor working in a prison becomes fixated on the wife of an inmate.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire Celine Sciamma (Girlhood, Water Lilies) travels back to the eighteenth century for her new and acclaimed feature about a taboo relationship between women. A female painter develops feelings for a young woman whose portrait she is commissioned to make.
So Long, My Son Chinese director Wang Xiaoshuai’s film examines the fates of two families, whose members worked at the same factory but were estranged over the years. Their lives represent a microcosm of the sweeping changes taking place in China over the past few decades. Wang Jingchun and Yong Mei were named best actor and actress respectively at the Berlin Film Festival for their performances.
Sorry We Missed You The indefatigable Ken Loach follows up his Cannes award winner I, Daniel Blake (2016) with a takedown of the gig economy. A self-employed delivery driver is forced to log long hours to meet his targets. Ricky finds himself going further away from his caregiver wife and children. The cast comprises relatively unknown talent, the screenplay is Loach’s long-time collaborator Paul Laverty, and the anger is entirely Loach’s.
Stitches From Serbia, the story of a seamstress who delivered what doctors claimed was a stillborn baby 18 years ago. She has been pursuing the truth all these years, and finally, her efforts seem to be paying off.
Stories from the Chestnut Woods Set in Slovenia during World War II, a 35mm exploration of an unemployed carpenter with no work, his ailing wife, and a young woman who dreams of travelling through Europe.
The Criminal Man A reserved engineer witnesses a murder and becomes a self-appointed detective. So far, so un-mundane, but the engineer finds himself becoming another beast altogether.
The Hour of the Furnaces The lifetime achievement award at IFFK will be given to Argentinean director Fernando Solanos, one of the key architects of the radical, confrontational “Third Cinema” approach. Solanos’s 1968 documentary, an alternate sweeping account of the history of Latin America, is of its time, but also provides answers to the social and economic unrest sweeping through parts of South America at present. Other films that will be shown include South and The Journey. Solanos will also deliver the Aravindan Memorial Lecture at the festival.
The Orphanage This is as Bollywood as it gets at IFFK: a 15-year-old ticket seller in Kabul dreams of Hindi films.
The Unknown Saint A Moroccan fable, by a first-time director, in which a thief returns to retrieve his loot, only to find that the spot has become a mausoleum.
The Warden From festival delegate favourite Iran, a drama set in the times of the Shah. Lantouri actor Navid Mohammadzadeh plays a prison warden who loses his chance of promotion when one of his inmates goes missing during a transfer. Mohammadzadeh also stars in another Iranian title at the festival, the Iranian box-office hit Just 6.5.
The Whistlers A policeman must wrap his tongue around a most unusual language when he arrives at La Gomera in the Canary Islands in the new film by Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu (12:08 East of Bucharest and Police, Adjective).
The Wild Goose Lake Chinese noir married with the visual panache of Wong Kar Wai: in the new film by Diao Yinan (Black Coal, Thin Ice), a motorcycle thief is on the run from his rivals and the police. Among the highlights are possibly one of the most aesthetic decapitations ever captured by the movies, a strategically deployed umbrella, and exercises in lighting and composition that will linger long after the plot has been forgotten.
Tremors Ixcanul director Jayro Bustamante tackles the delicate subject of homosexuality and the Christian faith. An earthquake strikes Guatemala City on the night that an affluent and married consultant comes out to his family. He leaves to be with his massage therapist lover, but is yanked back into the family fold by his guilt and a hard-nosed evangelist.
Vitalina Varela Portuguese master Pedro Costa’s first film in five years returns to the Fontainhas neighbourhood in Lisbon that he has fruitfully mined for decades. The lead character (also the name of the actress) leaves Cape Verde for Lisbon, to which her husband migrated years ago. A funeral has to be arranged and ghosts have to be exorcised.
You Will Die At 20 A rare production from Sudan, where movie theatres were forced out of business by the government in the late 1980s. The film traces the experience of a young boy who is cursed to die at the age of 20. His heartbroken father leaves the family and his mother tries every trick to keep him safe from his supposedly preordained fate.