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Trisha Gupta
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Trisha Gupta is a Delhi-based writer and critic. Read more of her work on her blog Chhotahazri (trishagupta.blogspot.in)

Unforeseen effects: Why I love film festivals

The Rathaus Vienna Film Festival.

t's hard to describe the lure of a film festival to people who've never done one. And yes, it is something you do. Like a drug. I'd never quite thought about it before I started to write this column, but clearly my subconscious has known all along — I often call myself a film festival junkie. A film festival isn't somewhere you show up for an evening because you're bored, or something to which you make an obligatory social visit, politely applauding the efforts of the organisers. No, you plan for it in advance, having taken leave from work and from all social responsibility. Sure, you meet people, but the bright light of day soon begins to feel like something to scurry away from. It's in the velvety darkness, as the screen flickers to life, that you do, too. And as you go from one darkened theatre to another, cinema seeps into your veins.

In close to two decades of film-festivalling, I've often been asked how I can possibly absorb five films a day, or even four. Don't they start to bleed into each other? Don't I zone out by the third film, or fall asleep in the fourth? Doesn't every [worthwhile] film I watch make me want to pause for the day and analyse it, instead of rushing to grab a quick lunch and hurtling into the next film? In short, these people want to know, isn't the film festival the very antithesis of the ideal film-watching experience?

The answer to most of these questions is yes, of course, sometimes. Sometimes I zone out, sometimes I decide a particular film is the one to take a nap in, sometimes all I remember from a hectic festival day is a single climactic scene. But the films you remember are ones that have managed to stand out in a sea of images. And anyway, does the leisurely, sit-down, one-film-at-a-time mode really give a film its due? Of course films need free time — but doesn't the multiplex visit, with its absurdly powerful popcorn-and-soda ritual, muffle every film we watch with the unvoiced expectation of sameness? The film festival might seem frenzied, but it rescues film from the domesticated tedium of packaged leisure — by turning it into something a little like work.

nd by juxtaposing all kinds of narratives, from all kinds of places, it reinstates some of the unruliness and unpredictability of cinema. Where else but at an international film festival could I go from watching a Russian postman on his rounds of a sleepy lake-edge settlement (The Postman's White Nights), to experiencing the joys and sorrows of a group of sightless Chinese masseurs (Blind Massage), and then on to Iran in the 1990s, waiting endlessly with a mother whose son never came back from the Iran-Iraq War (Track 143)?

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By juxtaposing all kinds of narratives, from all kinds of places, [a film festival] reinstates some of the unruliness and unpredictability of cinema.

Of course, I understand that there is such a thing as a festival film. Capitalism being the sophisticated thing it is, it has built the so-called "niche" into the market. If you've ever looked up films on the internet to decide what you're watching at a festival, you've read those Variety and Hollywood Reporter reviews with their pithy summing up of the film's chances. Here's one such evaluation of a Greek film I fell in love with at this year's IFFI: "It should appeal to festivals and distributors with a mainstream or more female-oriented sensibility as well as broadcasters of classy European fare." This film, called Mikra Anglia (Little England), is an atmospheric period piece set in (and shot on) the craggy island of Andros. The plot centres on two sisters who fall in love — unwittingly — with the same man. But this is no generic love triangle: after a point, we barely see the man. And then he dies (somewhere off-screen), and it is his death that tears the sisters' lives asunder. If this is a women's picture, it is so in the most gloriously literal way: Andros in the 1930s and '40s is almost entirely female, because most men are sailors, out at sea, sometimes at war, while the women hold the fort at home — often for most of their lives.

A festival can paint a portrait of a country you've never been to. The other Greek film I saw this year, for instance, would seem to have nothing at all in common with Mikra Anglia. Set in present-day Athens, Xenia is about two brothers who dream of winning a national musical talent search. The film uses their marginal status — poor, orphaned, half-Albanian, one of them queer — to highlight the fascist, racist intolerance of contemporary Greece: in one early scene, we hear street thugs harassing some unseen people with the line: "This is not your Bollywood". But placing Xenia next to Mikra Anglia, one sees a country that remains recognizable in many ways — a place where family still counts for a great deal, where high drama is normal. Watching random films back-to-back can make you see patterns — a Chinese murder mystery and a Turkish romantic thriller emerge as unlikely partners in neo-noir; you begin to notice how often filmmakers in cold countries use snow and ice to create a sense of emotional desolation. In a world of torrents downloadable at will, the film festival is no longer about enabling access. Choices, in fact, are limited by the programming. But what you end up watching at a festival can create unintended, powerful effects. It's as close as one can get to fate.

 
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