IFFK at 20: Premieres, delegates reflect a festival that punches above its weight

New Delhi, Nov 30:  As the curtains rise on the 20th edition of the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) on Friday, December 4, 50 films from around the world will make their Indian premiere. For one movie, it will be the first screening in Asia. 

The IFFK, an eight-day extravaganza of cinematic and artistic expression, may be the last major film festival of the year, but filmmakers wait to premiere their works there. Of the handful of Indian festivals that meet the stringent criteria for accreditation by the International Federation of Film Producers Associations (FIAPF), the IFFK has traditionally, and widely, been deemed the best curated.

It concentrates on cinema from the emerging world: only films from Asia, Africa and Latin America can be entered into competition, includes bespoke sections showcasing works by women directors, based on true stories, and new filmmakers.

The festival’s budget of about Rs. 5 crore is modest compared to other international film festivals. It is conducted in one of the less flashy state capitals, Thiruvananthapuram, and like its milieu, is not particularly interested in high frills or glamour quotients. The prize money, while generous, is just about par for the festival circuit.

And yet, the IFFK has become for cinema greats and gourmands alike a ‘must attend’ on the festival carousel. Why? “Because it benefits from a mature, literate film audience,” said legendary Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Zanussi, who was part of the lead-up to the festival. He was speaking of the lay viewers who queue up in several thousands to grab a seat.

“The quality of any film festival is determined by the quality of the audience. If the audience is interested and cultivated, I can expect that more serious, better films will be watched, will be received,” he added.

The IFFK is the best attended of all Indian film festivals – owing to ever-rising demand and with this being a milestone edition, provisions have been made to accommodate 12,000 delegates (that’s besides catering to the foreign attendees, jury and media). With a glitch-free and friendly online registration system in place, it took less than a week to hit that mark.

Filmmakers know their works are viewed by some of the most passionate and well-informed audiences anywhere. Besides being able to drop on a dime names, movies and quotes from filmmaking icons, they actively embrace cinema’s outsiders and iconoclasts. The mercurial South Korean director, Kim ki-Duk, is loved here like perhaps nowhere else beyond his homeland.

IFFK audiences are also rated among the most open-minded. Filmmaker and IFFK favourite Deepa Mehta’s Oscar-nominated 2005 film Water – blacklisted here for content – had its Indian premiere as the inaugural film at the 10th IFFK. In 2012, her Midnight’s Children ruffled political feathers but, once again, found a premiere at the 17th IFFK.

One reason as to how the audience is so clued-in may be said to be the sideline events such as the always well-attended ‘Open Forum’, ‘Meet the Director’, ‘In Conversation’ and ‘Master Class’ sessions as also the scholarly Aravindan Memorial Lecture, panel discussions and buzzing seminars. Intimate evening events where filmmakers and film professionals are grilled by a discerning, demanding audience. Afterthoughts at most other festivals, the sessions are all documented and telecast in primetime slots.

Another way IFFK brings industry hands closer to their audiences is through teaching workshops to alloy practical, hands-on experience to the film theory. A three-day ‘Screen Lab’ hosted by world renowned mentors will be held this week to impart such techniques as cinematography, scriptwriting, make-up and script pitching. It won’t want for eager learners.

“International Film Festival of India is good in many ways, but it has an imported audience,” Zanussi said. “I don’t count many locals among the audience in Goa (and) there is usually a wall between you and the public.”

“At IFFK, young people approach me and prove in the conversations I have with them that they have seen my films. That they care. That it’s not just for a picture or an autograph. This I can respect.”

Everything from the festival’s line-up across categories, its choice of subject for the annual retrospective to a ‘Contemporary Master’ (French-Romany director Tony Gatlif this year), down to the 25-second Signature Film (a cinematic snippet unique to each edition encapsulating their respective ethos) that precedes viewings is a canvas for discourse and heated debate.

The choice of recipient for the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award—this year, Dariush Mehrjui, icon of the hugely influential Iranian New Wave movement of the 1970s—comes in for added scrutiny both at the seminars and the festival’s showcase of his/her oeuvre.

And then there are the movies themselves.

Nearly 180 films, including several award-winners and Oscar nominees, will be screened to packed houses at 13 venues across the city.  

“The line-up is a distillation of the most important films of the year,” said renowned cinematographer-director and IFFK 2015 chairman (Advisory Committee) Shaji N. Karun. “No mean feat considering we are the last film festival on the calendar and our budget is dwarfed many times over by other festivals.”

One achievement among many that will be drummed in come Friday when Ustad Zakir Hussain takes the stage for the opening ceremony.

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