Friday, October 21, 2011

The Mumbai Film Festival

Long queues before each screening the the Mumbai Film Festival were taken as evidence of the event’s success. The daily publication brought out by MFF boasted about those queues. It just goes to show how warped our idea of success is. A truly successful (by which I mean, among other things, well organised) festival would have large audiences but not long queues. That would indicate the organisers had arranged screenings of individual films based on a good estimate of their popularity. Lars von Trier’s Melancholia would get four screenings at the main venue, being played simultaneously on two screens twice over.

Instead the film got just two screenings. Both were originally scheduled to start at around 8pm, but one was pushed back to 9.45pm. This meant that the 8 pm screening had two halls worth of delegates waiting in line. One view of this would be: Wow, how eager the Bombay film crowd is, queuing up for hours before Melancholia’s screening, the festival’s a true film buff’s paradise. My view was: What a shambles, preventing people from seeing movies they’re keen to catch because they have to wait in line for hours to have a chance of getting a seat for films they’re even more eager to view.

Actually, less than 10% of screenings were actually full. But even one show where people are turned away creates a ripple effect, the equivalent of hoarding during food shortages which lead to massive price spikes. So, there were people in line two hours before Nani Moretti’s Habemus Papam (We Have A Pope), although the hall was half empty in the end.

The audience for Habemus Papam skewed distinctly to the over thirty-five crowd; I suspect most had, like myself, discovered Moretti when Dear Diary was screened at an IFFI many, many years ago. The youngsters preferred a South Korean gangster movie being screened at the same time.

Unfortunately, Habemus Papam is no Dear Diary. The idea of a Pope with stage fright is a good one, but one-trick feature films tend to get tedious beyond a point. Habemus Papam doesn’t lead anywhere interesting, though it keeps the audience amused.

Another old-timer, Chantal Akerman, was in even worse form than Moretti. Akerman’s Almayer’s Folly is a dreadful adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s first novel of the same name. Why the director thought a nineteenth century tale of Europeans seeking gold in the jungles of Borneo could be adapted to a contemporary context is beyond me. I mean, are modern gold mines found by individuals trekking through tropical rain forest with maps as their only guide? To make matters worse, the main character Almayer is a pathetic loser, his daughter is cold and unfriendly, and their relationship, which is supposed to hold the film together, never comes alive in any form. The only good thing about Akerman’s Folly is its visual quality: elaborate takes in urban spaces, jungles and the seashore that one can stare at for two hours without getting bored.

Not all veterans came up short like Moretti and Akerman. Wim Wenders’ Pina, a 3-D documentary about the dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch (who died soon after filming began) is a pathbreaking piece of movie-making.

For the first time in history, performance does not die in the course of being transferred to screen. The technology needs refinement, of course: characters still appear a bit like marionettes on occasion, and buildings like doll’s houses. But 3-D allows us to experience dance in ways that are impossible for an audience in a theatre to do, while retaining the crucial feeling of liveliness and presence.

Another film I liked was Julia Murat’s Historias Que So Existem Quando Lembradas (which means, ‘Stories that only exist when remembered’).

It’s about a Brazilian ghost town populated by old people, who go through a daily routine that is so set it takes on the appearance of ritual. The main character, a woman named Madalena, starts each day by baking bread. She then takes it over to a shop, shares a coffee with the shop-owner, attends church, lunches with the priest and congregation, sits by her husband’s grave, and writes a letter to him after returning home. This set of actions plays out four or five times in the film, but Murat’s exceptional framing is varied enough to forestall any monotony. The ghost town is disturbed by the appearance of a young photographer, who asks to stay with Madalena, and begins questioning the dogmas on which Madalena and the townspeople base their lives. Though the ending of Historias is unsatisfying, the film is beautifully shot and paced, and enlivened by fine performances.


jaimit said...

Lines. I have always hated lines and I see lines as scarcity due to faulty planning. How can there be a line for a consumer. The other day the public swimming pool opened up at Shivaji Park and there was a huge line to get forms I am sure the authorities would have taken this as an achievement as opposed to seeing this as a dismal failure – where people desperately want access to a swimming pool but are unable to get one. The solution is not rationing the forms but getting more pools. I work near the passport office and I see a line out on the road every day. What the hell? After seeing lines for so many years the authorities still don’t wake up and have enough counters.
I can understand scarcities for private goods such as rock concerts, fine dine restaurants, etc, but public goods, especially where you pay a price for it? It’s just high plain handedness.

Girish Shahane said...

Jaimit, I was going to mention the Shivaji Park pool thing in this post. I wanted membership myself, but was put off by the ridiculous queue. I'm lucky enough to have household help, but he stood in line for four hours and returned empty-handed. The Mahatma Gandhi Memorial pool was open through my childhood; it was where all kids learned to swim. At one point it closed for repairs and simply failed to reopen. Two generations of kids grew to adulthood without a single swimming pool anywhere between Worli and Bandra. What kind of city has a population of a million or so not served by a single neighbourhood swimming pool? Now they've reopened after two decades or so, and naturally everyone's desperate to get in. The pool's going to be absurdly overcrowded, even with the rationing of places, and I expect a meningitis outbreak soon enough. With the land mafia in control of the city, chances of new pools being built are slim to none. Each little patch of land is a potential high-rise, after all. Every day I travel around Bombay makes me feel its degeneration more deeply.

Anonymous said...

I hate to see us lose your input but I wonder if simply publishing articles with no comments enabled and having a members-only forum wouldn't be a good compromise. There's something about the immediacy of the response form and the lack of accountability available from anonymity (oh, hypocritical me) that seems to encourage people's awfulness.

Anonymous said...

Having said all of that, I wonder if Ande's idea isn't the best (regardless of what format you choose to go with for the blog). If it was still public with no comments, but you cross-posted entries in a private forum, you could allow people to respond and discuss in a controlled/private environment, but still keep the blog itself public. I'm not sure how much extra work that would be for you, but if it was negligible I would say that's the best option for running your site the way you have and seem to love, but keeping the riffraff at bay.

Girish Shahane said...

Thanks; I used to have comment moderation enabled only for older posts, which get a lot of spam, and will return to that format soon.