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The Best of DIFF 2020.

Soumyadeep Mandal

The ninth edition of the Dharamshala International Film Festival went online this year. Between October 29 and November 8 the festival that was founded by filmmakers Ritu Sarin and Tenzin Sonam streamed over a hundred features, documentaries and short films from India and around the world.

Soumyadeep Mandal picks and writes on his favorites from the festival, across the categories.

The Fever (A Febre), 2019

Feature film/ Brazil/ 1h 38m

Documentary filmmaker Maya Da-Rin’s first feature evocatively creates a mystery around its title. What is an ailment to modern rationale is a dance of ghosts from the past for a people who seem to be lost in a place and time where they don’t belong. One of them is Justino, a 45-year-old member of the indigenous Desana people, who works as a security guard at the Manaus port. As his daughter prepares to leave for Brasilia to study medicine, Justino comes down with the fever.

Maya Da-Rin directs her film in the veins of the modern Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Uncle Boonmee, Tropical Malady) finding the right balance between not demystifying her characters yet allowing a certain revelation into that unchartered terrain of the forest with its people which the complexities of the city will not dare to fathom. The result is a beguilling cinematic experience, and I’d not be surprised if this remains as my finest watch of the year.

Shell and Joint, 2019

Feature film/ Japan/ 2h 34m

Isamu Hirabayashi’s bizarre experiment of a film is a fascinating achievement, a film too complex to decipher in its entirety in a single watch, and yet never not-interesting for its runtime. The disjointed narrative maze, like the capsule hotel run by Nitobe and his friend-colleague Sakamoto, traverses through multiple lives; every story and conversation around evolution, death, gender and sexual politics and dreams is as comically distinct from each other as threaded together by an universal string of human existence

Hirabayashi juxtaposes the life of the most advanced species to have walked the earth, from birth to death, with that of something as primitive as insects (Nitobe is fascinated with them). This juxtaposition seems to reach a climactic high when a trio of animated arthropods discuss the transference of posthumous dreams while a group of human females dissect their sex lives. This is just one of the many eccentric ways in which Hirabayashi manoeuvre his film through and by the end of it, Shell and Joint therefore becomes a film that is in equal parts funny and serious in its approach, to tell a tale of nothing and everything at the same time.

Exile (Exil), 2020

Feature film/ Kosovo/ 2h

Visar Morina’s second feature Exile, feels like a two hour long condensation of the volatile politics of hate; it grows colder every second, even in the perspiring heat. The perpetual anticipation of something more terrible than what has preceded applies more so for Xhafer, a middle aged chemical engineer who feels grotesquely discriminated against and bullied at work, and then plunges into an abyss, where his personal and the social get merged in an endless cycle of violence at the mercy of the individual; is the individual a product of his society, or vice versa?

Exile boasts of brilliant performances from Misel Maticevic and Sandra Huller. Their scenes together have a raw undercurrent of their immediate outer world that seems to have been infested with dead rats, in a very Michael Haneke (Cache, the White Ribbon) way. There are lots of dead rats in Exile, some in aid to humiliate and torment Xhafer, some leading to the suicide of his most hostile colleague at work, but the stark leitmotif does serve its purpose of sustaining the constant state of paranoia that immigrants are trapped within.

Bittu, 2020

Short/ India/ 17m

Karishma Dube’s Bittu, inspired from real events, is an organic, almost flawless short. In a way, it simply documents the events of a particular day at a small, desolate school, in some Himalayan village, that starts with the bittersweet banter between two best friends, Bittu and Chand, and ends in an unforgettable tragedy. But what makes Bittu a great short, is what lies in between.

With the camera having lived here and realised that it lacks the romance of an Imtiaaz Ali film for its people, Bittu excels in its lived understanding of the unpredictability of life; it doesn’t dwell on poetic justice. Nothing stands a chance before the enormity of fate. Those on the fringes of banal compliance to a system that is further broken with its crumbling administration, might as well be on the other end of a tragedy, by chance event or by the laws of the system, but at what cost?

I have been wounded by the tragedy of Bittu no less than it is to scar her memory for a lifetime, but Bittu is a feisty girl and I believe she will pull a tough fight.

CatDog, 2020

Short/ India/ 21m

Writer-director Asmita Guha Neogi’s short film CatDog, which won the top Cinefondation prize at Cannes 2020, is an unsettling memoir like recreation of childhood, unadulterated by the decorum of civilisation. The film opens with a striking imagery- two siblings in school uniforms absorbed in their fanciful world of play, in a forest. The forest is to the primeval, what uniforms are to discipline.

CatDog then goes on to give us a peek into the whimsical world of the siblings, the functioning of which, though inexplicable to the reasons of adult gaze, invoke a synthesis of desire, power and love, the laws of which have not yet been set, but, for how long? In that sense CatDog becomes a tragedy for the final departure from the non-sense of childhood, the separation of a sister from her brother, makes use of the instrument of its own world, a musical game of cat and dog chase.

Air Conditioner (Ar Condicionado), 2020

Feature film/ Angola/ 1h 12m

Fradique’s strikingly surreal, jazz-infused debut feature extends a particular horror of gentrification in the slow decay of memory for a certain class of the society. But he isn’t so invested in the seriousness of it to make a deadpan drama; instead he invents a bizarre premise; air conditioning units mysteriously falling off in the coastal city of Luanda, resulting in casualties. Amidst this, Matacedo, a civil war veteran, who now works as a security guard must retrieve his boss’s ac.

The film then follows Matacedo in his odyssey, as he walks the streets of the city, absorbed in his ennui, telepathically communicating with certain folk and doing odd jobs. In a profoundly beautiful sequence inside an electrical shop run by a mad scientist, the film finally opens up the wounds of Angolan history, as Matacedo seated back in a car travels through it in bright lights. At this point, Air Conditioner becomes a fitting act of revolution, in creating a memory for a people whose memories have been conditioned for a long time.

Laali, 2019

Short/ India/ 34m

Abhiroop Basu’s previous short Meal was a stunning film with strong undercurrents of recent Indian politics. In Laali, he diverts from the themes of Meal, but not from his cinematic sensibilities. It’s a simple story of a lonely ageing man down with the reminiscence of a long lost love. But Abhiroop extends the scope of the short; long lost love happens to pass through the lanes of a long lost home.

Abhiroop has this penchant for perceiving his characters in close relation to their immediate society, much like his other contemporaries in Kanu Behl and Devashish Makhija. So his shorts are always political; the unnamed protagonist (the brilliant Pankaj Tripathi) spins a larger take on the countless love stories that never blossom, the reasons being more socio-economical than anything else.

There is a lot of Abhiroop in Laali; the craft is so meticulously intricate, that at times it becomes overwhelming for the mundane story it tells. However, it is a painfully aching short, and when the shehnai plays behind the lonely drunk man conversing with his past, all you hear is the melancholy of broken dreams.

Gaza Mon Amour, 2020

Feature film/ Palestine/ 1h 27m

In Tarzan and Arab Naseer’s second feature, even though a younger character reiterates that there is nothing left in Gaza to make a future of, the film is bravely titled Gaza, My Love. In this quirky romantic comedy set in turbulent times in an oppressive regime where one siren might start a war, Issa, a 60 year old fisherman is in love with Shiham who works at the market with her daughter. The premise itself is fascinating enough. What follows is a story of resilience that manifests itself in the form of romance and comedy.

The phallic statue of Apollo that Issa discovers in the seas serves both as a tool to expose the failing machinery of a capitalist economy burdened with war and as a constant reminder of the fact that, if there is any hope left in this world, it must be in love. So even when Issa and Shiham, in a very intimate moment in the seas is being circled around by a patrol boat, you know they have love and laughter to guide them through this.

Last Days of Spring, 2020

Feature film/ Spain/ 1h 17m

As a Spanish family celebrates a birthday in a crumbling house in a shanty town in Isabel Lamberti’s hybrid film, a police inspection interrupts. Within a few days, they receive a letter to evict their illegal home like every other family in the neighbourhood. Every member of the family struggles in their own way with their unstable position. The father is negotiating with the authorities regarding the promised apartments, the younger son is looking for a stable job, the daughter-in-law is grappling with the living conditions, yet everyone acts with such nonchalance that it’s unnerving. This is the portrait of a working class family, who cannot afford the luxury of nostalgia and Isabel cleverly channelizes this lack of emotion with local non actors that lends the film its raw authenticity.

In a small scene, two friends divide their things, as one of them is moving away the next day. In no time the entire neighbourhood would be gone. But that doesn’t bother them. These might be the last days of their spring, but not their last spring. So they would all deck up to attend a local party and dance away their worries or when the final day comes and they have to leave, they would dine at a KFC outlet on their way, together. That is all that matters. That is the strength of those living on the fringes, and that is the power of Last Days of Spring.

Pearl of the Desert (Maru ro Moti)

Documentary/ India/ 1h 22m

Moti Khan is a gifted child from the Manganiyar community of the Thar Desert who must set out on his own journey to realise his true calling, music. Pushpendra Singh’s beautifully shot docudrama hybrid (some of it is too staged for the camera and might as well be off putting for ardent fans of the documentary) traces this fascinating journey, diving deeper into the philosophies of a dying musical form in close relation to its landscape and the origin of a community that survives through it.

The film treads various grounds and travels a long way along with Moti. But there is a certain joy in seeing him back home harvesting and singing with the farmers, after having had performed world tours; I’d like to see the final shot of the tree with a blue sky in the background as an ardent plea to Moti to spread his branches and soar as high as he can, but never to forget his roots.

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Alternate Take

A space for reviews, retrospectives, analyses, interviews around all things cinema, standing left of the field.