Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Sight & sound : The Politics Of Film Festivals


Vidyarthy Chatterjee

The season of film festivals is upon us once again. This time of the year, at least two well-known film festivals are held in the country ~ first, the Kolkata Film Festival in the first half of November and then, a month later, the International Film Festival of Goa. They are important if for no other reason than that one gets opportunities to see some of the best work done the world over in the area of film art. Mandarins of art and culture, however, look forward to these events not so much to see as to be seen ~ and heard. At the inaugural function in particular, politicians and bureaucrats are known to hold forth with all the gas at their command on the theme of art and culture in the cause of human values. The Chief Minister of West Bengal, who also happens to be the state’s culture (and police) minister, may be relied upon to make the most of the occasion on November 10 when the Kolkata Film Festival comes to be formally inaugurated.

Moral authority

But, one question that is likely to agitate some thinking people is whether Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee hasn’t lost the moral authority to speak on human values or the relevance of high art after what his party and his government have lately been up to. One wonders how the beleaguered farmers of Singur and Nandigram or the grieving family of Rizwanur Rahman are likely to react to the Chief Minister's words of wisdom as and when he utters them from the dais of Nandan, the West Bengal Film Centre.
From Benito Mussolini to Ferdinand Marcos, many a political tyrant has tried to use international film festivals to cover up their sins of omission and commission. Mussolini thought up the idea of a festival in Venice to glorify and popularise himself, his party and the Fascist ideology. Initially, the Venice festival covered several areas of artistic pursuit and resembled a grand carnival, but in time came to be exclusively devoted to cinema. It was only after Mussolini had fallen and peace had returned to Italy that the Venice film festival came to acquire a democratic character. It is common knowledge that today, Venice is a major international event which annually celebrates lasting human values through the medium of cinema.
Nearer our own times, we have witnessed two dictators of Asiatic origin seeking to employ international film festivals in their respective countries to spread a cosmetic patina on their misdeeds. One was a hereditary and absolute monarch, the Shah of Iran, the last of the Pehlavis; and the other came to power through the ballot but ruled the greater part of his 20-year tenure by the bullet ~ Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines.
Even as the Shah was engaged in systematically liquidating his opponents chiefly by means of his secret police ~ the dreaded Savak ~ he mounted the dazzling Tehran film festival during what turned out to be the closing years of his wilful and bloody reign. One still remembers the parade of celebrities at the festival, duly reported in the media all over, but perhaps nowhere with greater fervour than in the widely-read Mumbai tabloid (now defunct) whose editor was a great one for running with the hare and hunting with the hound. This man, whose heart ostensibly bled for the wretched of the earth and was a self-proclaimed ally of the Soviet camp, saw shining virtues in the Shah and the Empress Farah till the very end of their dubious reign.
Marcos may well have modelled the Manila film festival on Tehran, such was its grandeur and extravagance. This was in 1982 when his infamy as an unbridled dictator had exceeded all limits. In any case, that both Tehran and Manila were shortlived exercises proves, if anything, how mistaken their promoters were in believing that their crimes against humanity could be whitewashed with lofty proclamations of commitment to art and culture.
In its inaugural year, the Manila film festival was an incredibly elaborate and expensive affair. But even then, there were quite a few people who could make out that the actual purpose of the festival was to divert the attention of Filipinos (and that of the rest of the world) from the appalling economic condition of the country as well as the Marcos regime's outrageous civil and political rights record. Anyone who dared to oppose the Marcos couple or their cronies in the army, big business or the media were dealt with severely. This may have been the reason why none of the leading Filipino film personalities came out openly against the festival.
Distinguished film people from other countries did not cover themselves with glory either. It was a tragedy of sorts that directors readily sent their films to Manila; that some renowned film-makers served on the jury, notably Satyajit Ray and Zanussi. Again, critics representing important papers wrote eulogistic pieces on the event. It is difficult to believe that those people had no idea about the actual credentials of the organisers of the show.
However, mercifully, not all the intellectuals and creative people of the world are made of the same stuff; that there were, and still are, some left who actually practise what they say they believe in. For instance, the legendary Ulrich Gregor of the Berlin film festival who, despite being energetically wooed by the Manila festival authorities, refused to have anything to do with it.
It may be a long way from Mussolini's Venice or Marcos's Manila to N T Rama Rao's Hyderabad or Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee's Kolkata, but there seems to be a common thread running between these points when it comes to using film festivals to pull off a fast one. One clearly remembers that the Hyderabad Filmotsav in January 1986 was a hugely expensive and vulgar tamasha mounted with the agenda of popularising NTR and his party. The profusely-lit streets, illuminated buildings and welcome arches, the free food and mementos for delegates, all added up to a Machiavellian attempt at diverting attention from the disastrous performance of the Telugu Desam government in the area of human and political rights.

Intolerant & vindictive

Only a few weeks prior to the commencement of the Filmotsav, the editor of a weekly publication critical of NTR's policies and style of functioning had been stabbed to death in broad daylight allegedly at the behest of the ruling party. Reports in the press clearly indicated that intimidation and victimization of political opponents was the order of the day in Andhra Pradesh. It was no secret that during NTR's regime people subscribing to radical Left politics were done away with in cold blood and passed off as "victims of encounters with the police".
To think that people are better off in Bengal under CPI-M rule would amount to living in a fool's paradise. The mass killings in Nandigram, persecution of alleged Naxalites in the districts, the blank cheque given to the police and party cadres to do as they wish, or the cancellation of screenings of critical documentaries and staging of plays, together they go to show how intolerant and vindictive the party's leaders have become. Should the commissars and those beholden to them be allowed to go unchallenged when they try to pose as protectors and promoters of film and other arts?
Film festivals may come and film festivals may go, but tyrannies ~ big, small and in-between ~ will go on for ever. This could well be the motto of some future film farce, sorry, festival.
The author is editor of Motif, Jharkhand’s only English-language weekly paper