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An indifferent fare

MIFF 2002 had few surprises, fewer excitements. There were no challenges in short fiction, with prizes going to the best among the mediocre, writes GOWRI RAMNARAYAN.

THE ONCE in two years MIFF (Mumbai International Film Festival of Documentaries, Shorts and Animation) is the only forum of its kind and size in the country. A boon to the docu-buff, film-maker, student, social scientist or activist to update themselves in the field; to learn about issues affecting the familiar and far-flung parts of our nation and the world; as also innovations in craftsmanship and ever-changing technologies.

But MIFF 2002 (February 3-9) had few surprises, fewer excitements. Though the European animation packages were rewarding, the few animation competition entries mostly followed the American model. The witty merit certificate winner, ``By Order'' (Vaibhav Piwlatkar) was a case in point.

There were no challenges in short fiction either, with prizes going to the best among the mediocre. The foreign entry scored better here in style and approach, as the Indian film followed the feature pattern — like abridging a novel instead of writing a short story. Poor sound and visual projection, made even the better entries appear worse than they were. The stolid selection had gone in for the tried and the tested, with apparently no quality control in both the national and international sections. How else can you explain a film as rudimentary in structure as ``Tulasi'' (Rajagopal Rao) about a tribal woman's crusade to save her forest appearing in the same Indian Panorama package along with a subtle study of Hindustani classical music like ``Rasikapriya'' (Arun Khopkar)?

The national competition had both the simplistic picture of the Bhand theatre's survival struggles in the Kashmir climate (``The Play is On,'' Pankaj Rishi Kumar) and surrealist vignettes in Mumbai (``Connected,'' Sunil Bhatia/Zakir Chinde).

In the international section, the conventional profile of music composer, ``Kurt Weill'' (Sven Dufer, Germany) suffered in contrast to the passion that guides the martinet teacher and gifted students in ``Facing the Music'' (Bob Connolly/Robin Anderson).

Docu-films fell into two categories: the larger group was of straightforward protest, propaganda and socio-historical record/commentary. There were fewer films to express a more personal vision. Whether the film was made well or ill, the former hit you in the guts with the striking power of reality. Watching the young lama in close up as he described the tortures inflicted upon him by the Chinese (``The Tibetan Story,'' Pimmi Pande, India/U.K.) was to feel pain on the flesh. You forgot that the film as a whole had no insight to offer beyond the tired assemblage of facts. How could you withhold empathy from ``Kisani Sabha'' (Ulrike Schaz) which traced the hard struggles of legal settlers in unequal battles with landlords in Bangladesh? Likewise who thought of form and style in ``Two Assassinations and an Accident'' (Kabir Khan) which brought the indelible visuals of the Gandhi family saga — the grisly end of two Prime Ministers, and the air crash which spelt the end of Sanjay's ambitions?

The Award winning ``Truth Commission'' (Andre Van In) took an unflinching look at the functioning of Nelson Mandela's Reconciliation Commission to achieve unity among the wounded apartheid communities of South Africa. The negative truths that emerged made you shudder in recognition of similar blunders the world over. The Film of the Festival award plus the award of the international jury went to Anand Patwardhan's ``War and Peace,'' a three-hour long examination of the horrors of nuclear weapons in South Asia, where nuclear tests have fuelled the climate of fear, war, aggression, fundamentalism and intolerance. Patwardhan sees a dim light in the tiny anti-nuclear movement that manages to find adherents, but the focus is on the darkness in physical and mental spheres, the total abandonment of Gandhian ahimsa. We see how the common man maintains sense and balance, too fragile to survive through mob frenzy fanned by hypocritical leaders, applauding Atom Bomb Vajpayee.

The camera is a savage stripper of sham and cant. It crucifies the hypocrite with his own words and gesture. It highlights ugly contradictions, as when the scientist Raja Ramanna plays the piano (didn't Nero fiddle while Rome burned)? More, it lampoons the political leader, whether Bal Thackeray or Pramod Mahajan — catching them at unwary moments.

The film sees the world in absolute contrasts of black and white — leaving no room for contradictions and paradoxes, which underline life's tragedies. In the endless succession of scenes, a debate in a Pakistani classroom stood out. Schoolgirls trounced India in the most inflammatory language, but in informal discussions later, where they expressed concern over the armament race, pointless and costly in countries without basic amenities. Finally, in a poignant moment, the militant child confessed that she was wrong in spewing hatred as she had done, in order to win points by aggressive speech. Hope glimmered, you realised the possibilities of hearts changing, of self-awareness and humane credos triumphing over the politics of violence.

Many film-makers were preoccupied with the arts, both folk and fine, as the repositories of values, aesthetic and socio-cultural. But few knew how to communicate their feelings for painting or music. Take ``Warli Art and Culture'' by Ashvini Bhave. To establish camaraderie with the viewer the film-maker had adopted the trendy travelogue format popularised in television channels — drinking toddy, smoking the local bidi, painting with the craftsman, playing the tribal pipe... with the result that she remained the condescending outsider, her commentary was puerile, naive and trite. What saved the film were the unruffled dignity of the craftspersons and the striking visuals of the white-on-maroon wall paintings.

``Nottam'' (M. R. Rajan) was a marvel of art and craft, as its unhurried, vibrant and seamless sequences profiled seamless visuals profiled Kathakali artiste Keezhpadam Kumaran Nair at home and on the stage. Though Kerala offers an unfair advantage in its lush, arresting visuals indoors and out, this was no calendar gloss but a deliberate, cognitive attempt to capture the rhythms of tradition, its creative expression, and continual growth through changing times. The score of authentic Kathakali music matched the imaginative, reflective visuals, giving you ample time for rumination. The overlong dance sequence at the start (of Dharmaputra) gathered meanings as the film progressed. Concern for dharma became the pivot for the artiste whether in performance, directing dance sequences for films, grooming disciples to carry on, or finding fulfilment in whatever life brought at different stages. The R.V.Ramani retrospective package carried some of these qualities in dealing with the arts — a painters' camp or rehearsals of a bilingual play, or simply getting a Japanese artist to sculpt sand by the edge of the Chennai sea. Ramani's method gave room for self-indulgence and sluggishness, but also sudden spurts of exhilaration.

In the wildlife films the narration fell far short of the stunning visuals. (Naresh Bedi's ``Saving the Tiger'' patted the apartheid Government on its back for success in its Operation Tiger programme!). His film on the Rajhans (bar-headed goose) turned the Ladakh lakeside into a classroom to instruct for son and niece! Mike Pandey's ``The Last Migration'' showed the tragedy of elephant and tribal, caused by urban greed destroying primeval forests. With such excellent visual communication, why drum out the obvious in the commentary? Besides, why can't Indian wildlife films abandon their stock (western) scores and be more adventurous with the music?

The ``Focus on Women'' had some intriguing entries. One was ``Hepzhibah'' (Curtis Levy), a brilliant profile of Yehudi Menuhin's sister who is mostly remembered as his accompanist from the child prodigy days. The film was outstanding in meshing archival footage, old photographs, recorded music, interviews, letters and recollections. What you got was a fascinating character study, throbbing with all the bewilderments, contradictions and delusions of real life. Hepzhibah breaks out of the cocoon of high life, gives up her sons and first marriage to live and work in a London slum. She dies of cancer at age 60, still mixed up about life. But there are no confusions about the music. It had given her the emotional strength to go on with all her pursuits in art and activism. The documentary achieved the goal of all film-makers. It had crafted an individual style to treat its subject from a perspective that was both objective and empathetic — and original.

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