In the world of Indian journalism, international film festival coverage is a privilege. It’s a rare bonus, a job perk that has less to do with practicality than prestige and personal growth. Unless breakout South Asian films come into contention, the coverage itself attracts next to no eyeballs. The consensus is not unsound: Why would regular moviegoing audiences want to read about movies that they don’t have instant access to? For film critics like myself, festivals are a pressure-free opportunity to combine the business of writing with the pleasure of travelling. It’s the whole package – the experience of going to a different time-zone, mixing with foreign counterparts, surviving on coffee and words, recognizing the different cultures of film journalism, and of course, making memories with the movies. It’s romantic to reframe these little escapes as perspective-building exercises.
But given the events of the last 12 months, the last thing on my mind has been the privilege of festival coverage – or any privilege at all for that matter.
Survival has been the only priority. I, for one, felt fortunate to still nurse a writing career. Having a job – and adapting to the prolific language of the streaming landscape – has been the sole focus. When several high-profile film festivals went digital last year, I felt no envy in missing out like I usually do. The mind wasn’t ready to “splurge,” the intellectual bandwidth was already consumed by cabin fever and tri-weekly reviews. Diverting my attention to a distant land felt unnecessary.
Slowly but steadily, my screening schedule branched past the cinema of isolation. Every subsequent premiere became a subconscious attempt to relocate the frailties of pre-pandemic life
When I heard that the Sundance film festival – whose Press Inclusion initiative had previously helped me gain precious international exposure – was going online too, I half-heartedly applied for credentials. I’ll admit it’s the setting that had attracted me more than the programming: I was going to miss the snowy, high-altitude Park City experience. I’ll also admit I was a little sceptical about online viewing platforms – once I landed a regular press pass, I defied my tech-phobia to understand the elaborate process. The 12.5-hour time difference was no small problem either. It was one thing rushing to screenings and catching shuttles in the Utah winter, it was another to frantically maneuver a laptop in my Mumbai bedroom at the dead of night to respect the intricacies of Mountain Time. Without catching a flight (or three) to reach the opposite corner of the globe, there was no adrenalin rush.
But something strange happened over the last 7 days. As I logged into my ambitious schedule (without any glitches) at the inaugural crack of dawn, a narrative started to unfold. The first few titles I chose reflected a latent desire to make sense of the past year. Familiar themes emerged. Nanfu Wang’s In The Same Breath – a disarmingly intimate documentary about the Chinese and American mismanagement of the Covid-19 outbreak – was my opening film. Dayrl Wein and Zoe Lister-Jones pandemic-shot existential black comedy, How It Ends, was my third film. Maybe I was looking for solace in the pre-apocalyptic premise: a Los Angeles woman (Lister-Jones herself) walks the deserted streets with the younger version of herself (Cailee Spaeny) in pursuit of personal closure and a farewell party on the day a meteor is slated to end the world. This was swiftly followed by the other black comedy, On the Count of Three. The oddly moving debut by Jerrod Carmichael subverts the American road-movie trope with a sense of psycho-cultural intelligence: two best friends with a suicide pact decide to settle some old scores on their final day of life.
The last week has taken me to places and people, at a time places and people have become bereft of one another
Then there was luli Gerbase’s The Pink Cloud, an “accidental” pandemic film – about a Brazilian couple whose one-night stand is forced into an indefinite quarantine period when a toxic cloud invades the sky – that was in fact made before the Covid-19 lockdown. There was also the spiritual quarantine of The Most Beautiful Boy In The World: a melancholic documentary about Bjorn Andresen, the painfully handsome teen star of Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice who buckled under the spotlight of early fame.
Slowly but steadily, my screening schedule branched past the cinema of isolation. Every subsequent premiere became a subconscious attempt to relocate the frailties of pre-pandemic life. It started with Sian Heder’s CODA, an unabashedly sweet disability story about a high-school teenager with singing ambitions in a deaf family. Blerta Basholli’s beautifully measured Kosovan drama, Hive, furthered the feeling – the uplifting story of a war widow starting her own business in a patriarchal town adopts the tone of a slow-burning tragedy, eschewing underdog templates in favour of pragmatic, lived-in longing. As did Ajitpal’s Singh Fire in the Mountains, a superbly performed film of feminist rumblings in a Himalayan tourist town. And Jockey, a Wrestler-ish fading-adult tale about a wasted jockey at the twilight of his career. Then came the intense embrace of non-fiction led by Flee, a bracingly animated documentary detailing the journey of a queer Afghan refugee. And Misha And the Wolves, a smartly structured investigative documentary that explores – and humanizes – a scam for the ages. And Writing With Fire, one of the finest journalism stories of – and for – our times. And Sabaya, the unprecedented Syrian documentary following the brave efforts to rescue Yazidi women held by ISIS as sex slaves. And At The Ready and Try Harder!, two proud and starkly observant additions to the ethnic-American-student genre. And finally Cusp, a hauntingly filmed vignette of small-town American adolescence.
After the early jitters, most of “my” films unknowingly doubled up as a reminder that, perhaps in the near future, there exists a world whose stories will continue to reflect the uncertainties of life rather than the dilemmas of death. That the absolution of survival will soon be replaced by the ambiguity of striving. The last week has taken me to places and people, at a time places and people have become bereft of one another. There’s a poetic circularity to the fact that the community viewing adventure of a film festival has been adapted to fit the privacy of our homes. Maybe it’s only fitting that the healing has commenced in a space that hosted the gradual disintegration of our previous selves. It’s only fair that the movies redefine our history without relieving us of the past.