The 25th International Film Festival of Kerala: “The Heart Of The Festival Is Malayalam cinema”

It takes a village to put together a film festival, but when it comes to the films themselves, the proof is in the programming. Bina Paul, Artistic Director of the International Film Festival of Kerala, talks about pulling off a live festival in these virtual times.
The 25th International Film Festival of Kerala: “The Heart Of The Festival Is Malayalam cinema”

"I think that fear psychosis is the primary thing: fear not for yourself, but fear for what you're doing to society. I mean, if this became a cluster, it's disastrous. But on the other hand, I think the world has now reached a stage where we're saying, 'Look, healing, coming out again is really important'," says Bina Paul, Artistic Director of the International Film Festival of Kerala. Excerpts from her conversation with Baradwaj Rangan where she speaks about putting together a physical film festival during the pandemic.

Congratulations on pulling off two big premieres, with Lijo Jose Pellissery's Churuli and Sanal Kumar Sasidharan's A'hr. How difficult was this? I'm sure programmers all over the world must have clamoured for these films.

 Well, Lijo is comparatively easy, because he has recognised that this festival is important. We've had a rather fraught relationship with Sanal, with many years of ups and downs. But I think both of them really realised the worth of being here. I think Sanal's main bone of contention is often that he's not [selected] here and I think that does hurt him, like it does hurt many filmmakers. But the fact is we have 12 slots and about 140 films, so there is this business of choice. And I think every filmmaker does feel their film is very important. So yes, the relationship with Sanal is very fraught, but surprisingly it was easy. There was no question of A'hr not being here.

A still from Lijo Jose Pellissery's <em>Churuli</em>
A still from Lijo Jose Pellissery's Churuli

 One of the things that makes IFFK stand out is that you have a separate Malayalam section, and you have Malayalam films playing in other sections as well (like the International Competition). You really want to foster Malayalam cinema here.

 Absolutely. This has been the philosophy of the festival, that while the Competition is really important, the heart of the festival is Malayalam cinema. I mean, the reason for the festival is also to promote Malayalam cinema. Now we do it in various ways. One is, of course, these 14 films: two in Competition, 12 in the Malayalam Today section. Plus, we have films sometimes in Kaleidoscope, Homages. So there's always this sprinkling of Malayalam films. We also provide an incentive allowance of two to three lakh rupees to each film that plays at the festival.

 This has been really important because I think we have a healthy film industry; and I believe that by fostering this kind of relationship with filmmaking, we are creating new audiences, creating different types of films. And I do believe that the heart of the change in Malayalam cinema could be attributed to IFFK. The filmmakers who come here — whether it's Jeyaraj, who's been here right from the beginning, Lijo, Sanal, Don [Palathara] — they've all sort of grown through this festival. It's very, very important. We've not been successful in markets, if you know what I mean; and I've not been a very keen promoter of markets. But I do think this exposure, this getting onto a catalogue — all that is very important.

Speaking of exposure, in a typical edition of IFFK, you would have a lot of international delegates visiting and this might be their window to Malayalam cinema. That wasn't happening this year. Do you kind of feel that loss?

 Certainly we do. But as I said, once you get onto a catalogue — you and I know that all curators look at each other's catalogues all the time. So I do think that is why it was so important to have the festival also. For me, two things were important: one was, of course, the audience. But also the fact that Malayalam cinema has had an awful 2020 in terms of theatres being closed, people losing livelihoods. So the fact that we could do this and therefore have this collection for the world to see is very important. Of course we miss people being here, but I suspect that these films will travel and I think people do pay attention once the film is in the festival.

 After IFFI, you are the first festival to have a physical edition. You guys did an amazing job. Just how difficult was it?

 It's really difficult because I think the first thing is fear psychosis. As you know, when I saw you, I'm just too scared to even put an arm around you. I'm just staying away from everybody. I think that fear psychosis is the primary thing: fear not for yourself, but fear for what you're doing to society. I mean, if this became a cluster, it's disastrous. But on the other hand, I think the world has now reached a stage where we're saying, 'Look, healing, coming out again is really important.' So I would say that was also another driving thing: asking ourselves, when are we going to go back to being normal? So let's take these baby steps, one at a time.

 So here we had these single seats, social distancing, the antigen test: these were huge logistical efforts. But it's important. And I see all of these youngsters — there's a lot of the younger crowd that's come rather than older, as a result of the fact that there's COVID — and I think, my god, this is fantastic! It's like you're reaping or breeding a new crowd for this festival. So it's been really tough work — travelling, logistics, missing out on so much in terms of just the number of films and, as you said, not having international guests. All that has been rather sad, but on the other hand, the fact that it's happened has been very good.

 Now, one of the most interesting aspects of IFFK this year is that you have a travelling festival. It's literally like one of those old caravan kind of things, where a film used to travel from place to place. And you're showing the same set of films everywhere. How did that decision come about? Because that's four times as much work, right?

 Well, personally I've been involved in all these online festivals, etc., and I was just so fatigued of just watching films online and this whole sense of the festival just being another space. That was one thing: that all of us were really tired of this online business. Secondly, piracy was a big issue. We were writing to sales agents and a lot of people were very reluctant because of the piracy issue, in spite of all this DRM [Digital Rights Management] and all these things that we did explore. Thirdly, I really believe that the heart of this festival is the audience. So the idea is: how do you get an audience? You're not going to get the same audience if you think of it as an online festival. So I think that's what drove us: let's get this audience in other forms.

 When you break it up into four — where we usually have 10,000 or 12,000 delegates who come to Thiruvananthapuram, this year you're saying 2,500 delegates, and four places. And this is also only possible in Kerala, because we have amazing support systems. I mean, wherever you go, there's a film society, there's a group of organisers. I don't see it happening anywhere else. Now we're going to Ernakulam. Half the work's done because there's a whole setup over there, the film industry is there. You go to Thalassery, you've got the most amazing set of film buffs, film society activists, all that. So I think it's all that: you know you have the support system, you have this spine, you have this audience. Now in Thalassery, everything's been booked already. I think it's particular to Kerala, I don't know if it's possible, for example, in UP to have a travelling festival. Maharashtra, maybe, I don't know. But I'm just saying, I think Kerala, with its history, lends itself to this.

 Usually you have the festival by December. Let's say, this December, things are back to normal. Do you think it's a good idea to continue to have a travelling festival or will it be too complicated, logistically?

 It's not only logistically. I think, finally, the heart of the festival is this place where everybody comes. I mean, it is this kind of pilgrimage of coming, staying seven days, taking this time out of your life and saying, 'Look, I'm coming here to Thiruvananthapuram to be with people.' I mean, the travelling festival is a solution for the time being, but I don't think it captures the heart of the festival the way it happens in Thiruvananthapuram, apart from which we, of course, have fiat regulations, which make it very clear that the festival is given recognition in connection to a place. So with all that, I don't see it happening. And yeah, logistically, it's very, very troublesome to travel like this.

 Will you be travelling to all the four locations?

 Oh yes! I'm really looking forward to it. I mean, it's such fun. We were just saying, 'Let's all put little jhandas on our vehicles and go'! Yeah, it's a fun thing. I must say, it's very interesting, it's different audiences. In Ernakulam, we're expecting the whole film fraternity; in Thalassery, you see all the film societies, you know. It's all different kinds of people, and you're going to smaller places. It's really nice, I'm very excited — nervous, this COVID thing really makes me nervous. But yeah!

 Yeah, but again, it's just amazing how you pulled it off. Finally, could you pick one or more films that were your favourites this year. I know you're not supposed to say this, as the Artistic Director, but…

 Uh, very difficult to say. Very, very, very difficult to say. But, well, the film that we just saw, The Man Who Sold His Skin, which is, of course, known worldwide. I quite liked — well, should I say? I mean, really, I shouldn't say because these are all films you choose. I liked Pasolini's film [Nowhere Special]. I just thought that the kind of empathy he created without being sentimental was so beautiful — I was very moved by that film. And I must say he's an old friend of the festival. He's been here, his film has won an award. So, yeah.

 And you found a work-around for that as well: interviewing filmmakers over Zoom instead of having a live session. Again, do you see that as being a stopgap kind of thing or is that something you might explore?

 No, no, absolutely not. Even the five/ten Indian/Malayalam filmmakers who are here — I mean, Arun Karthick being present, showing his film is a totally different experience. And I must say that while the audience is important, the heart of this is also the filmmaker. And I think that sense of having an audience that comes, chats to you, sits with you — I mean, it's not about Q&As. You have a film, you don't need a Q&A really. But when you have the filmmaker here, there's a different kind of chemistry, which, I think, both filmmakers and the audience need. So I'm certainly not hoping to do Zoom. Of course, it's a stopgap arrangement, it wasn't possible this year, but no, certainly not. I'm really more convinced than ever that it's about being together. (laughs)

A still from Arun Karthick's<em> Nasir</em>
A still from Arun Karthick's Nasir

And are there things that you can take from this COVID edition that you've had to do, and say, 'Actually, this is something we can use in the physical festival as well'?

 Well, one is, I think, the number of films. We're a huge festival; it has just grown and grown and grown. For me, I just find that the audience is comfortable when there are fewer films, fewer films to choose from. I think one has to trust one's curatorial skills. Often, when you're doing it for such a large audience, you're thinking: Will everybody like it? Should you have a film for this person, should you have a film for that person? And what happens is, therefore, it becomes kind of a huge programme, which people find difficult to negotiate.

 You know, for us, who go to film festivals, and we know the names, etc., it's a little easier. But for people who are just film viewers, often this negotiation is difficult. So I think that, for me, is a big takeaway: let's think of how we can do a more contained programme. You know, where we give choice, but we don't overwhelm with choice. Because I've really found that people are watching films here, actually being able to — whether they like or dislike — at least engage at that level. So that's been an important learning, I think.

 Nice. So, I hope that the next edition is exactly the kind of festival you want. And not this constrained festival.

 I hope so! I know, we had been looking forward to this, 25 years, and thinking, 'Oh, it's going to be one big bang,' etc. But I suppose it's a bang in a different way. (laughs)

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