Films in and about a pandemic

The writer speaks of her experience at the recently concluded 52nd International Film Festival of India, and the films she caught there, including India’s Oscar submission, PS Vinothraj’s Koozhangal
Films in and about a pandemic
Films in and about a pandemic

The job of a film journalist demands that much time be spent in theatres. The first time I attended a film festival—the Chennai International Film Festival—a couple of years back, I remember the frantic planning, the running between screens, the long but patient queues of people with an unspoken understanding and a shared love for cinema. The Covid pandemic threw a spanner in the works of the film festival experience across the world. Some were cancelled, some went digital, and a few others chose the hybrid route like the 52nd International Film Festival of India, Goa, which ended this Sunday.

One of India’s premier festivals, IFFI Goa is known for its premieres, but it would be impossible to describe IFFI 52 without another P-word: Pandemic. So, there were masks and vaccination certificates, and at the beginning, a 50% occupancy rule as well that was scrapped later. The off-screen implications were neither new nor surprising, but the onscreen ones were. Two films—The Restless and Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn—were set in pandemic times. For films like Spencer and The Power of The Dog, the pandemic influenced their production. The Pablo Lorrain-Kristen Stewart film was completely shot during the pandemic, while the production of Power of The Dog was briefly halted.

It was fascinating to note that many of the films, even if unintentionally, were about the themes of introspection and coping—which a lot of us can relate to. Even those films that were conceived and shot before the pandemic, like Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s haunting emotional drama, Memoria, are about that. Coping, in its many forms, is also the theme of films like Soudad (Arabic), The Restless (French), Hi Mom (Mandarin), Lamb (Icelandic), and more. It is interesting to witness this universal emotional fabric the pandemic has braided, through world films that documented relatable instances of loss, loneliness, grief, and fear.

Also notable was the introspective style of storytelling that focused more on the psyche than on geography. Take Koozhangal, India’s Oscar Entry this year, for example. The plot is simple: an alcoholic father and his son take a bus ride to bring the mother home. But with this minimalist story, PS Vinothraj’s evocative film speaks volumes on the emotional travails that fester in Indian families. The visual setting isn’t expansive, but the creativity is spectacular.

Film festivals like IFFI Goa also help in the discovery of experiences you cannot find anywhere else. The Kurdish film, The Exam, for example, was one such. With the premise of a young girl cheating on her university admission exam, this film beautifully dissects the socio-political dynamics in the autonomous Kurdistan region in Iraq. Another such film was Thomas Kruithof’s French film, Promises, which follows a mayor who manoeuvres her way through egos, ambitions, and politics to save a dying slum housing colony.

The thing about coping is there is no alternative. You have to move on. The Goa film festival was a similar experience, about moving from one film to another, from one world to another without time for reflection. I remember my racing heart as I walked out of Eskil Vogt’s thriller, The Innocents. Centered around a group of children with supernatural powers, The Innocents brings out a dark side of childhood that’s rarely explored. The film pushes us to introspect on the unmindful violence and amorality in the worlds of children. This exceptional Norwegian horror film is a devastating piece of cinema. As the film ended, I couldn’t breathe. It was also because I was running to catch the next screening, due in 15 minutes. Such is the nature of film festivals.

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