The 22nd edition of Films From the South opens in Oslo on October 4th and runs to October 14th. We had a very enjoyable time there last year and I would certainly recommend a visit to what must be one of the friendliest festivals around with a great programme of films and guests.
This year’s highlights include a retrospective of films from the major Japanese studio Nikkatsu celebrating its centenary. There are 13 films from Nikkatsu ranging from Ito Daisuke’s A Diary of Chuji’s Travels (1927) through to Miike Takashi’s Yatterman (2009) by way of Imamura Shohei’s Intentions of Murder (1964) and Suzuki Seijun’s Branded to Kill (1967). The directors under the spotlight are Joko Anwar (Indonesia), Andrés Wood (Chile), Pen-Ek Ratanaurang (Thailand) and Faouzi Bensaïdi (Morocco).
‘Multicool Nord’ is an intriguingly titled strand that covers diasporic films made in Europe, including German-Turkish director Yasemin Samdereli’s comedy Almanya: Welcome to Germany and My Brother the Devil, a London-based drama from the Welsh-Egyptian writer-director Sally El Hosaini. Other films in the strand include documentaries made by Europeans in the South as well as other diaspora films set in Denmark and on a road trip from Holland to Morocco. The strand represents a new collaboration between Films from the South, Antiracist Film Days in Malmö, and Salaam Film & Dialogue in Copenhagen. The aim is to “zoom in on the ethnic and cultural diversity in Scandinavia, with the help of film, debate and lively dialogue”. There will be discussion and debate including contributions from some of the writers and directors involved.
On 11th October Nitin Sawhney will visit the festival and will play music to the silent film A Throw of Dice (Prapanche Pash, India 1929) in Oslo Concert Hall. The British Film Institute has now restored the film, and Sawhney has composed music to it. The show has had full houses in the UK, USA, Netherlands, New Zealand, Italy and Canada, and will now be performed in Oslo in collaboration between the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, Films from the South and the Mela Festival. The ‘Film and Literature’ section has three Egyptian films based on the work of Naguib Mahfouz.
As well as these special events and strands, the festival has a wide range of films from Asia, Africa and Latin America both in competition and ‘out of competition’. Festival audiences get a chance to see films from new directors from parts of the world often criminally under-represented on screens in the North in the New Horizons strand plus a first glimpse of titles from better-known directors. Tsui Hark’s Flying Swords of Dragon’s Gate (China-HK 2011) and Pablo Trapero’s White Elephant (Argentina 2012) are amongst the latter. So, why not spend a few days at the Filmens Hus and all the other conveniently located festival venues in Oslo? You are sure to have a good time as well as getting to see a wide range of material.
The Films From the South Festival closed on 16th October. I was there for the first five days out of eleven, so more of the festival actually took place after I left. Yet, I felt that I got a good overall view of how the festival worked.
One of the interesting aspects of Films From the South is the complete absence of Hollywood and any of the trappings of studio cinema. The only ‘stars’ on show are the directors of some of the key films in the programme. Oslo is a relatively small city and most of the festival venues are within walking distance of each other. The festival staff are mostly young, enthusiastic and knowledgeable. Festival director Lasse Skagen introduced many of the films himself. Overall, it’s a friendly and intimate celebration of the best of cinema from the South and I would recommend a visit to anyone interested in the diversity of film culture outside Europe and North America.
In the 15 posts that I made from the festival, there is one obvious omission – any films from Africa. There were in fact seven films in the programme listed as ‘African’ but for various reasons I couldn’t get to any of these screenings. Four of the seven were made by Europeans or Americans working in Africa, two were South African, one a documentary and the other an English-language action-comedy. The exception was Riva! (writer/dir Djo Munga, DR Congo 2010) the crime drama that has already been released in the UK. My observation is not intended as a criticism of the festival (or of European filmmakers working in Africa), but just recognition of the overall difficulty of getting access to popular films from across Africa faced by all festivals. The diversity of other films on show in Oslo is to be celebrated
The Nadine Labaki film Where Do We Go Now? won the Audience Award, which was no surprise since it is a very audience-friendly film. The other awards went to films that I wasn’t able to see but I’ll definitely be looking out for. The prize for the Main Competition, the ‘Silver Mirror’ went to the Argentinan road movie Las Acacias (dir Pablo Giorgelli, Argentina/Spain 2011) – earlier this year it won the Camera d’or at Cannes. The FIPRESCI Critics prize for the best film in the New Horizons section went to On the Edge (dir Leila Kilani, Morocco/France/Germany 2011). Finally, the best documentary in the ‘Doc: South’ section went to Tahrir 2011: The Good, the Bad and the Politician (directors Tamer Ezzat, Ayten Amin and Amr Salama, Egypt 2011) – clearly a timely choice that made an impact on the jury. It’s good to see that two out of the four prizes went to women.
I very much enjoyed my time in Oslo and thanks must go to Ingrid Stolpestad, Pia Jensen and Kristian Takvam for their help in getting tickets and answering my questions. I learned quite a lot about cinema in Norway during my stay so look out for some further postings.
There were several new Indian films in the festival, but most were on at times that were inconvenient for me. Virgin Goat turned out to be quite distinctive. Essentially a form of ‘parallel film’ it isn’t what one might expect from that label, nor from its other institutional classification as a ‘festival film’ (with funding from a host of the usual suspects from Europe and North America). Instead it qualifies as an outrageous satire on Indian society, ranging across politics and identity.
The title refers to a slight but very attractive black goat called Laila who, according to her owner Kalyan Singh, is the last in line of a flock which has been owned by his family for 500 years. Unfortunately she has yet to conceive and Kalyan is prepared to try anything to make it happen. Convinced that the local vet has finally got Laila into heat he sets off with her to find the local stud billy-goat. We learn that his desperation arises from what he feels is persecution by the state and his own family. The government have seized his lands and forced him to sell his live stock. His son is a layabout, his wife chastises him and all his wealth has gone on his daughter’s dowry. His daughter returning home from the failed marriage seems like the last straw. When Kalyan attempts to walk the several miles with Laila to find the billy-goat he finds his way blocked by the arrival in the area of a political leader. At this stage the director Murali Nair starts to ramp up the surrealism of Kalyan’s experience. Laila is taken from him and she becomes the model for the symbol of a new political party with disturbing fascist connotations – a black goat on a white circle against a red background (reminiscent of Nazi symbols, but I’m not sure if this has other specific meanings in an Indian context). Can Kalyan rescue her and still mate her before her fertile period ends?
I did enjoy the film and parts are very funny. Unfortunately it was projected from DigiBeta tape and the visual quality was poor. This was a shame because it undermined to some extent the investment I had in the opening sequences (which suggested a conventional ‘social film’) and the subsequent twist towards surrealism. The film is heavily dependent on the performance by Raghubir Yadav who is a well-known and highly respected actor in both parallel and mainstream popular cinema. Because he is a believable figure who we can identify with, the surrealist sequences become more powerful in sharpening the satire. I was reminded of some recent Indian novels and also some aspects of African Cinema such as Sembène Ousmane’s Xala (1974) with its similar satire on politicians.
Murali Nair (born 1965) is originally from Kerala and he had an early success with his Malayalam art/parallel films, winning the Caméra d’or at Cannes for his first feature, Marana Simhasanam (Throne of Death, 1999). At that point he had formed his own production company Flying Elephant Films with his wife Preeya and was supporting the company through his work in UK television. Virgin Goat was made in and around Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh, which is his current production base. He has had several Cannes screenings and developed a profile on the festival circuit, but some of his films have found it difficult to get releases in India. Virgin Goat has a Hindi language soundtrack which should make it an easier sell in India.
Part of the ‘Doc South’ strand of the festival, The Bengali Detective was perhaps the most enjoyable film that I watched during my festival visit, perhaps because it is set in Kolkata, a fascinating city that I visited in 2009. At its centre is the head of a ‘Detective Agency’, Rajesh Ji. British director Philip Cox had become aware of the rise of the private detective agency in India over the last few years and he saw this rise as a symptom of the widespread concerns by ordinary citizens about the ineffectiveness of local police forces. He met many other possible candidates for the central role of the detective in the film before settling on Rajesh and it is clear from the off that he chose well. Rajesh is massively engaging – enthusiastic, intelligent, well-organised, determined – and someone who seems to care both about doing a good job and looking after both his clients and his staff. But Rajesh also has his extravert side – leading his team in martial arts exercise classes and then entering them in a dance competition. He also has a difficult family situation because his wife is dangerously ill with diabetes and he fears for the future of his young son.
The documentary cuts between the home life of Rajesh, his time in the office as manager of the agency, his motivational work with his team and three investigations which the agency is following. We see raids on wholesalers and retailers dealing in counterfeit hair products, an investigation into the deaths of three young men, seemingly killed in a railway accident but claimed as a murder by a relative and finally a classic case of tailing a married man and the report of his extra-marital adventures to his wife. The three cases are well-chosen in that they represent the range of concerns of Kolkata’s residents. The middle-class wife is upset but needs to know the truth. Counterfeiting is a major problem in India. The relatively poor trader who is caught is perhaps more of a victim than a criminal but this kind of activity harms everyone and Rajesh needs the income from clients as important as the shampoo company. The murder investigation leads to a meeting with the police who listen to the careful presentation of the investigation carried out by the team but who clearly aren’t going to speed up their own painfully slow enquiries.
Philip Cox, like Pål Hollender in Finding Ali seen earlier in the Festival, is a European director who is clearly aware of what he is doing in representing South Asia. Unlike Hollander he doesn’t appear in his own film and he is supported by local filmmaker Sounak Chakravorty who he met via the Satyajit Ray Film and TV Institute in Kolkata. They were able to shoot with two cameras and this provided the kind of coverage of events that with tight editing gives a wonderful sense of street life in Kolkata. The film really bowls along seemingly at a frantic pace but I found it coherent and satisfying. Camerawork and music are both very effective. I’ve seen a criticism that the action cuts too quickly between the potential silliness of the dance sequences and the tragedy developing at home, but I don’t agree. I think Cox maintains a close observation that isn’t judgemental and is respectful of Rajesh who certainly seems sincere whatever he is doing.
The film has been very well received at various festivals including Sundance and in an unusual twist, the ‘rights’ have been bought by 20th Century Fox in order to produce a fictional ‘remake’. I’m sure that this must have happened before but it seems an odd development to me. I can’t imagine how a fictional detective’s story could quite top this documentary. The sales agent is eOne and Channel 4 have some money in the production, I think, so it should get a wide distribution and I imagine it will appear on TV in most territories – but I’d recommend it on a cinema screen. The print we saw was projected from HDCam and looked very good.
There is an interesting ‘Director’s statement’ on this site: Native Films (Production Company) Website