There is a fair possibility that in the years to come, 2016 will be recalled as a definitive year in the account of Kolkata International Film Festival. In its 22nd year, the event came across as highly indicative in terms of its future direction, considering that the current administrative body also has a foreseeable future in tandem with the festival.
KIFF 2016 was marked by an all-round efforts to exorcise the old cinephillic-film society like aspects in terms of logistics and presentation which have been both intimate and informal in its outlook, instead going for a more ‘apparently professional’ approach with a strict business like attitude. The preceding months were devoted to a large scale facelift programme across the Nandan campus. It included paint jobs, renovations, installing giant screens and making spaces for food stalls. The old signature film was discarded to be replaced by a snappier video with ad-film aesthetics. And discussions on cinema gave way to light-hearted chit chats featuring local directors and starlets of Tollygunge based film industry. The inherent idea and the apparent message have been loud and clear. KIFF 2016 went for the mass and popular appeal on a scale which was never-seen-before.
The selection of films this year was also an equally curious affair. It was certainly an impressive international line-up of films; but the festival this year featured two competitive categories featuring a mixed assortment of mediocre films, to be honest, which took up most of the slots in Nandan 1, the biggest venue in the festival. Furthermore, there was an unusual number of Bengali and Regional films which were screened at popular venues in prime slots such as in Rabindra Sadan and Nandan 2 during the afternoons and evenings. Consequently, the lion’s share of the films under the ‘Cinema International’ category had to be distributed in other venues across the city, most of such venues located in or beyond the Eastern Metropolis. Whether or not this has been a planned move to decentralize the event and promote the fringe neighbourhoods which is the site of multiple pet projects of the current administration, can be debated. But it definitely resulted in a scheduling and logistical nightmare for the interested audience to catch back to back shows, owing to the proximity factor. The traffic conditions and the recent crisis of currency notes further added to the woes.
Among the commendable efforts taken up by the authorities was definitely the decision to screen the short films and documentaries in comparatively respectable venues such as Sisir Mancha or Nandan 3 which in themselves are nothing to be jubilant about but certainly a world of improvement from the dingy conditions of Bangla Academy and being treated like illegal immigrants. In fact most of the positive efforts seen in this festival keep falling short of their proper outcome which can either be the result of not well-planned strategies adopted at upper tiers or good old short-sightedness! For instance, this time Rabindra Sadan featured a state-of-the-art DCP projection system (though EZCC remained happy with it’s obnoxiously bad conference quality projection) which was intended to enhance the viewing experience. But sadly, it is a theatre venue to begin with. And unless one is planning to completely alter the architecture of the building, it hardly benefits the cause. The guests and delegates are relegated to the balcony and after that whether the filmmaker intended or not, the entire film would unfold in a quasi-top angle shot. So it goes.
Among the popular attractions, Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake resulted in the most polarized opinion. Those who loved it were thoroughly impressed by its direct and contemporary political rhetoric while others criticized its mundane social realism and lacklustre formal aspects. And there were others still who were busy taking selfies and uploading them on Facebook. A somewhat toned down reception, but on similar lines, was seen for The Unknown Girl by The Dardenne Brothers. A buzz was created around Xavier Dolan’s It’s Only The End of The World which boasted an impressive cast of Marion Cotillard, Vincent Cassel and Lea Seydoux. But it turned out to be an agonizingly ‘Nyaka Somporker Chhobi’ (mundane relationship drama) held together by a series of music video like sequences. On the other hand, Cristian Munguiu who is considered to be one of the most exciting filmmakers of this era disappointed with his latest film Graduation. The film was a marked shift in his formal style that ultimately gave way to conventional storytelling in terms of shot taking and editing pattern. And needless to say, there was a wide assortment of typical European/Eurocentric films which tend to go out of their way to prove themselves to be highbrow and arty. They usually take up either of two strategies. The obvious one is nudity which guarantees a houseful show in KIFF without fail. The other typically features white affluent male characters who leave everything and go out searching for father, mother, history, identity, meaning of life, etc. and keep staring at water or mountain or a wild animal and finally comes back and opens a can of beer, all existential queries answered! The less said about them, the better.
The highlights of the festival this year were contemporary slow-cinema offerings from festival favourites like Lav Diaz and Cristi Puiu. While Lav Diaz aficionados seemed to consider his earlier films to be his better works, The Woman Who Left is nevertheless the work of a powerful auteur. Markedly different from the slow cinema of Taiwanese auteur Tsai-Ming-Liang, Lav Diaz has a strong command over his visual compositions and narration as his frames switch between minimal interiors to crowded exteriors. Puiu’s Sieranevada was a slow burner featuring an ensemble and long hand held takes, with most of the film unfolding in a three room apartment where a family gathering is taking place to commemorate the recently deceased head of the family. A deeply engaging film about contemporary political situation in Europe in contrast with their history during the Iron Curtain, veiled within a family drama, resonated with an almost Bunuelesque aura. Among the films which managed to impress a certain section of festival-going audience (after all, the majority this time seemed to have turned up just for the sake of it!) were Clash (Mohamed Diab), Slack Bay (Bruno Dumont), Aquarius (Kleber Mendonca Filho), The Fury of a Patient Man (Raul Arevalo) and The Unnamed (Tauquir Ahmed). One must mention the winners of Documentary and NETPAC Awards, I am Bonnie (Farha Khatun, Satarupa Santra, Sourabh Kanti Dutta) and Lady of The Lake (Haobam Pawan Kumar) respectively, which turned out to be highly deserving films unlike the awards given out in the International categories.
Perhaps the most awaited film this year was Philippe Grandrieux’s Despite the Night which was slated to be the closing film. But the authorities had saved its biggest joke for the last, their ace-in-the-hole! Keeping true to their tradition, there was a last minute change and the audience were left with hardly any option but to turn towards the food court which have clearly been the most crowded venue throughout the festival.
Finally, according to last reports, a large number of people were seen running around for entry passes for the Closing ceremony featuring the Cabinet Ministers of West Bengal and Raveena Tandon.