Egyptian director Mohamad Diab’s Clash proved to be so popular after its first screening at the International Film Festival of Kerala (December 9-16) in Thiruvananthapuram that the second show caused a riot nearly as bad as the one portrayed in the political drama.

Diab’s second feature is entirely set inside the confines of a military van in which Muslim Brotherhood members, pro-military supporters, and a journalist and his cameraman are locked together. The van is a metaphor for the political divisions that have torn Egypt apart in recent years, and Diab brilliantly channels every available cinematic trick to create an intensely claustrophobic atmosphere that never lets up. The second screening of Clash was held at an IFFK venue smaller than the first one, and delegates who had blocked their seats nearly came to blows with the non-reserved crowds. An impromptu sit-in – not the first at arguably the largest such event in the country and certainly not the last – and loud protests led to the cancellation of the screening. Clash was eventually screened twice again at IFFK, and it unsurprisingly picked up the audience choice award at the end. Clash was also named the best film at the awards ceremony on December 16.

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‘Clash’.

The best director award went to Turkish filmmaker Yesim Ustaoglu for Clair Obscur, a deeply felt drama about an attractive psychologist who re-examines her seemingly fulfilling marriage after she begins to counsel a teenage bride who has killed her oppressive husband and mother-in-law. Ecem Uzun, the young actress who indelibly plays the murderer, deservedly picked up a special mention for her performance.

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‘Clair Obscur’.

Vidhu Vincent’s highly topical Manhole, about manhole workers in Kerala, was declared the best debut director as well as the best Malayalam film by the FIPRESCI jury, which comprises journalists from around the world. Rajeev Ravi’s sprawling account of crime, caste and land grab in Kochi, Kammatipadam, was picked as the best Malayalam film by the Network for the Promotion of Asia Pacific Cinema jury.

The NETPAC award for the best film went to another crowd favourite. Turkish director Mustafa Kara’s Cold of Kalandar, which is the country’s official entry for the Foreign Language Oscar, depicts the hardscrabble lives of a community living in a remote village in the mountains.

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‘Cold of Kalandar’.

Organised by the state-run Chalachitra Academy, IFFK is one of the country’s most astutely programmed and best attended film festivals. Neither Mumbai nor Goa can match the passion for cinema and the appreciation for so-called slow films and challenging arthouse fare displayed by IFFK’s numerous delegates – 13,000 this year, including guests and journalists. The festival unfolds at the rate of five shows a day for a week, 9am onwards, at venues that include state-owned auditoriums, twin theatres and cavernous singles-screen cinemas that are going out of style in other places.

A packed hall at Tagore Theatre for the ‘Diab’ screening.
A packed hall at Tagore Theatre for the ‘Diab’ screening.

This year, the highlights included a mid-career tribute to French director Mia-Hansen Love, whose increased mastery at exploring the tensions that lie at the intersection of the personal and the political resulted in the Cannes award winner Things to Come. A package of restored titles from the Czech New Wave in the 1960s reminded viewers of the importance and endurance of that film movement. Jiri Menzel, whose tour de force Closely Watched Trains was part of the package, was the festival’s lifetime achievement award recipient.

A package of films from Kazakhstan indicated the country’s growing stature in the international arthouse circuit, but older film-producing countries were also well represented. Iran, a crowd-puller at any festival in India, yielded a clutch of fascinating contemporary portraits. Films such as Lantouri, which tackled crime against the wealthy and acid attacks on women, and Inadaptable, which looked at the breakdown of a marriage over allegations of infidelity, decisively proved that in the wake of such directors as Jafar Panahi and Asghar Farhadi, Iranian cinema has travelled far beyond the apple-cheeked children and pastoral landscapes that seduced viewers in the 1990s.

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‘Lanoturi’.

An Iranian master, who died in 2016, was also part of the informal celebration of Iranian cinema. Apart from several older titles by Abbas Kiarostami, IFFK screened possibly his last film, the delightful short Take Me Home, in which a restless football bounces around a maze of alleyways in an Italian town. The moving documentary 76 Minutes and 15 Seconds with Abbas Kiarostami, by Seifollah Samadian, contains footage of the prolific filmmaker at work (including at the shoot of the iconic duck sequence from Five) and on a road trip. The guests include Panahi and Juliette Binoche, who featured in his Shirin (2008) and Certified Copy (2011).

The knowledgeable IFFK crowds clapped when Kiarostami’s name popped up in the credits, just as they brought their hands together in tribute to another master who travelled to the beyond in 2016. Andrzej Wajda’s Afterimage is a stirring account of the persecution of renowned Polish artist Władysław Strzemiński by the Communist state in the 1940s and early ’50s. Wajda’s last film is a critique of the Stalinist country’s literal-minded interpretation of art, its total control over the domestic lives of its citizens, and intolerance of dissent. The movie produced a different kind of afterimage (a visual trace left by an image after it has gone out of view) for viewers beleaguered by the Centre’s demonetisation policy and the Supreme Court ruling that the national anthem must be played before every movie screening across the country, even at a film festival. Thousands of delegates struggled to their feet for screening after screening at IFFK (there were several brave dissenters, some of whom were even arrested). Afterimage, then, wasn’t just about the excesses of the Stalinist era, but also about the dictates that citizens of a democratic system must endure.

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‘Afterimage’.

Another Polish master seems to be in the making. Among the most accomplished and unforgettable titles at IFFK was another biopic of a painter. Jan P Matuszynski’s The Last Family traces the troubled family life of surrealist artist Zdzisław Beksiński from the ’70s to the ‘90s. Set mostly in two apartments inhabited by Beksiński, his long-suffering wife, and mother and in mother-in-law, and his neurotic son Tomasz, The Last Family is a coruscating study of the destruction of a domestic unit.

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‘The Last Family’.

Roars and claps were also reserved for Ken Loach, whose most recent movie I, Daniel Blake, about the crushing impact of welfare cutbacks on the British working class, headlined a retrospective package. International arthouse favourites such as Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, Farhadi’s The Salesman, Thomas Vinterbeg’s The Commune, Hirokazu Koreeda’s After the Storm and The Unknown Girl by the Dardenne brothers, drew crowds too, as did the works of relatively newer filmmakers.

Ivan I Tverdovsky’s Zoology, in which a middle-aged woman grows a tail, is a pointer to the growing preference for dark-edged modern fairy tales and themes based on folklore and religious myths that is increasingly absorbing European cinema. Another film in this vein was Romanian director Ruxandre Zenide’s The Miracle of Tekir, which explores fertility myths in a village in the Danube delta.

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‘Zoology’.

Russian veteran Andrei Konchalovsky’s Paradise, a shimmering black-and-white examination of the Holocaust through the eyes of a Russian countess and a German Nazi officer, was another festival gem. Shortlisted as one of the nine titles for the Foreign Language Film Oscar, Paradise has the potential to provide stiff competition to its rivals, especially the German comedy Toni Erdmann.

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‘Paradise’.

Reflections on the Indian experience came from films made in other countries. The accomplished migration-themed Road to Mandalay, about the journey of two Myanmarese immigrants to Thailand, could have been about Indians in the United Arab Emirates. Sand Storm, in which a Bedouin woman and her daughter lock horns over the father’s second marriage, is a domestic drama about women’s stifled lives that has deep resonance for Indian viewers. From afar, the wide-eyed delegates at the IFFK’s 21st edition participated in a communal viewing experience that is a cinephile’s delight.

The dates for the 2017 edition have been announced: December 8-15. The forthcoming edition will have to deal with the challenges of crowd control (a problem caused by the high number of delegate passes issued) as well as design more rigourous panel discussions, master classes and lectures to enhance the tastes of the largely young delegates. There will be arguments in queues, protests over arbitrary government decisions, and vigorous debates over the quality of the selected films. It’s the least we have come to expect from the festival in the capital of “God’s Own Country”, whose list of religions surely includes cinema.