Tuesday, 20 December 2016

CULTURE FESTS AND GOAN PUBLIC RESOURCES



The International Film Festival of India (IFFI), which concluded a few weeks ago, seems to have traveled a long way since 2004 when it was first held in Panjim. The Festival did not have either a smooth start or a smooth sailing over the years. It does not help matters that the Festival is marked every year by numerous side-shows along with the screening of films. The hectic last-minute preparations and the arguably extraneous events on the side have always caused logistical and organizational problems apart from seriously inconveniencing people living in or traveling to Panjim. It wouldn’t be too much to say that every IFFI sees the city hijacked by the festivities.

The problem with IFFI and Panjim is not unique. In fact the case is symptomatic of the way in which Goan resources are used, or overused, in order to host national and international galas. The success of such events should not be judged by the good or bad press they receive, but rather by how much these festivals can give back to Goans.

One needs to ask if the promotion of extraneous activities like music concerts, food streets, and other amusements right in the middle of the town promotes a ‘film culture’ in any way. If one consults older news reports it becomes evident that while the government of Goa and the organizers of IFFI claimed to be promoting ‘film culture’, the emphasis was rather placed on IFFI’s potential to bring in the tourists and developmental projects. In other words, IFFI was sold to Goans because it would help the tourism industry. The tourism industry and many of the culture fests think of Goa as a veritable carnival-provider. In fact, more often than not, the imagination of the culture fests in Goa gets trapped within the Goa-equals-fun-times clich├ęs they operate in, thereby losing their intellectual and educational value.

Thus, right from the get-go, IFFI was wedded to the goals of the tourism industry. In fact, many argued that local and international members of the film world would be attracted in coming to Goa precisely because of its natural beauty and tourism-related infrastructure. As far as Goa is concerned, this is where the problem lies. Like mining, tourism is also an extractive industry; it puts pressure on public infrastructure if handled badly. One wonders why the Goa government and the organizers of IFFI, like the Entertainment Society of Goa and the Directorate of Film Festivals, prefer to add to the existing chaos.

One doesn’t understand why the organizers want to have more tourists given that the number of delegates is quite high. This year’s IFFI saw about 7500 delegates registering, a staggering number for a small city like Panjim to accommodate. Why can’t the Festival be more about an engagement with good cinema, and the residents as well as the traffic in Panjim spared the inconvenience and imposition of catering to the tourism industry on such a massive scale? The Festival wants to attract a crowd that has very little to do with films; a crying shame considering the 2016 edition had some very thought-provoking films. In fact, the tourist hoopla – food stalls, music programmes, and children’s activities – created such nasty traffic jams that many cinephiles missed the film shows.

Like literature festivals which have writers and artists in attendance, a film festival is also about the people who make films – writers, actors, directors, and technicians. IFFI 2016 was able to rope in many accomplished personalities renowned for their work internationally. These persons often conducted master classes and were available for interaction after their movie was screened. My impression is that most of these persons were willing to interact with anyone who was interested, young as well as old; sadly there were just a few to engage with the visitors.

Thus, the Festival – or any other such festivals – should be primarily a learning experience for all. Many young Goan filmmakers and cinephiles have written about their experiences that allow us to see the value of culture fests. These young Goans have written how being part of IFFI has allowed them to broaden their interests, expand their horizons, and be more engaged and interested in the happenings of the world. In other words, world cinema opened up the world to them! It is precisely because of such value that IFFI adds to the lives of young Goans that it would be worthwhile to have the festival, despite its numerous problems.

Many delegates at IFFI 2016 were of the opinion that this year’s edition was by far the best organized, and in many ways rightly so. However, the continued dependence on Goa’s tourism image to sell the Festival suggests that a lot needs to be done. Considering that the Festival has been around since 2004, 12 years is a lot of time to get one’s priorities right. And it is only by emphasizing on the learning potential of the Festival and its usefulness to the lives of young Goans (rather than the mindless carnival that is offered) that the Festival – indeed other such festivals – would be meaningful to the people, culture, and history of Goa.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 21 December, 2016)

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

CASH, RELIGIOUS INSTITUTIONS AND THE LIVES OF ORDINARY PEOPLE



What does one make of an openly Hindu nationalist government, under whom the Income Tax (IT) department has sent a notice to the Archdiocese of Goa to declare the 500 and 1000 denomination notes in their possession? This move came in the wake of the central government’s decision to withdraw old notes from circulation; setting in motion one of the worst financial crises in recent Indian history. Arguably, if Christians are incensed, if there is outrage in the press, and if the opposition parties are baying for the blood of the ruling party – even if it is meant for “doing politics” – it seems to be eminently justified. How can anybody be so insensitive as to add to the existing chaos?

By the time this article appears in print, enough would have been said on the issue; with the Church hierarchy in Goa submitting the necessary documents and data to the IT department in record time, the issue appears to be like an open-and-shut case. However, the manner in which the various responses were structured around the issue leaves much to be discussed. It is also long overdue to ask how the interventions of religious institutions affect politics and the lives of ordinary people.

While the Church emerged with a clear moral high ground in this case, past instances of its alleged dubious financial deals have left a bad taste in the mouths of many of its faithful. One wonders why the Church couldn’t have speedily addressed the issue of the Vanxim island sale in a similar manner to the IT department notice? From what the Church authorities have conveyed to the public, all churches and chapels in Goa were pressed into service for providing the necessary documents, proving that the Church can organize itself within a short span of time and rise to such challenges despite the inherent discrimination from the bureaucratic machinery. Arguably, such efficiency in getting things done can also be extended to other issues that are plaguing the faithful in Goa. Otherwise it would seem that the Church acts only when it is arm-twisted into action, but doesn’t heed the pleas of the faithful.

By only acting in extra-ordinary circumstances, the Church is rather abdicating its role and its calling of leading the faithful. It is up to the Church hierarchy to reflect deeply on the happenings of the past couple of weeks and make sure that the functioning of the Church benefits, in reality, the multitude of lay parishioners who have always looked up to it.

The news of the IT notice also witnessed many politicians quickly claiming that the churches, like Hindu temples, should also be exempted from the purview of the Income Tax Act. The Rajya Sabha MP, Shantaram Naik, for instance, said that a similar provision like the Lei das Mazanias or Mahajan Act could be extended to the Churches in Goa. Such statements came in the wake of several newspapers in Goa making enquiries if any of the large and important temples in Goa had received similar notices like the Archdiocese.

The Mahajan Act, which is now being heavily contested by bahujan groups in many places in Goa, exempts temples from the “compulsion” to pay income tax. As Herald explained a few days ago, “Audits of devasthans are verified by Mamlatdars and there is no compulsion to pay Income Tax, as financial auditing is done by their own appointed CAs and finally verified by the Mamlatdar”. Asking the people of Goa – particularly Christians – to not be “misled”, BJP’s Nilesh Cabral informed that the temples “come under the Mazania Act and the government takes care of all the accounts”. Other temples outside Goa have also been sent notices, he added.

Even if this is so, it doesn’t explain why such a short time was given to the Church authorities. Further, saying that everything is fine as per the Mazania Act is to ignore the protests against the said Act. The recent protests have highlighted how temples are under the control of upper-caste groups, thanks to the same Mazania Act, whereas the bahujan groups have little or no say in the functioning of the temple.

Hence it is rather odd that the provisions and spirit of the same heavily-contested Mazania Act would be held up as worthy of extending to other religious communities. 

In such a scenario, where the manner in which the religious institutions are run can affect the lives of the members of that religious community owing to the internal fractures and conflicts, the argument that the IT notice can lead to hurt religious sentiments appears to be misguided. To be fair, protests of hurt sensibilities – in the case of Christians, for instance – highlight how communities are pushed in a corner in a Hindu majoritarian setup. So there is some merit to this suggestion, however to say that the IT notice will hurt religious sentiments would mean that we miss the forest for the trees. While it is definitely a problem with the manner in which the government intervenes (or does not) in religious institutions, perhaps this is not a bad time to reflect on how religious institutions themselves can further marginalize beleaguered communities. It is this that needs to be taken care of as well. 


(And edited version was published in O Heraldo, dt: 7 December, 2016)

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

ART AND FORGERY

Stories about art heists or art forgeries make good material for movies and books. IFFI 2016 featured ‘A Real Vermeer’ (2016), a Dutch film on the life of an obscure artist Han van Meegeren (1889-1947). Van Meegeren, a struggling artist who forged the paintings of Johannes Vermeer, the Dutch master who painted ‘The Girl with a Pearl Earring’. Van Meegeren is put on trial for fraud and treason, and finally sentenced to a year in prison only for fraud. The leading actors of the film, Jeroen Spitzenberger and Lize Feryn were in attendance at the screening. They extensively spoke to The Peacock about their engagement with Dutch art and cinema.

Spitzenberger, who lives in Rotterdam, The Netherlands is best known for his supporting role in the Dutch film ‘Twin Sister’ (2002) which was nominated for the Oscars 2003. Feryn, made her debut film with ‘A Real Vermeer’, and lives in Antwerp, Belgium. Before, she acted in ‘In Vlaamse Velden’ (2014, In Flemish Fields).

While the film draws on the biographical details of Van Meegeren, the filmmakers have also used fiction to weave the narrative of the film. “My wild guess is…60 to 65 percent,” says Spitzenberger. “I would say exactly the same,” Feryn concurs.

Was the film inspired by the story of Vincent van Gogh: a struggling artist with his fair share of eccentricities (to put it mildly)? “To be honest, no,” feels Spitzenberger. “But when you put it that ways…yeah I understand the association. I have been talking about the 60 percent truth in the movies…the writers, Rudolph van den Berg and Jan Eilander may have been inspired by frustrated, struggling artists.”

Spitzenberger explains, “The film is about the development of a young artist, who in the end becomes a forger – in a way he imitates his idol in painting. He is unable, unfortunately, to find his own voice, his own style of painting.” Spitzenberger also reflects on the rather fuzzy boundaries between forgery and art. With some caveats, he tells the audience that he personally does consider some forgery to be art. He explains further to this reporter, “What’s the difference between forgery and art? When are you a true artist? Does it depend on your perception? Does it depend on money? Does it depend on the approval of an audience? It’s a weird relationship that the artists share with the audience.”

Who are their favorite Dutch artists? While Spitzenberger prefers “magisch realisme” or magic realism for art (though he says he likes Vermeer when Feryn prods him), Feryn on the other hand prefers Vermeer: “He puts emotion in his work. I remember as a kid I went to see ‘The Girl with a Pearl Earring’… and I was impressed by the colors, and the depth, the light, the serenity, and the perfect beauty. Even if you enlarge a small part of the painting and observe the detail in it, it will still be beautiful,” she says.

‘A Real Vermeer’ was set in the background of the Second World War. It seems like the World Wars provide a setting for many Dutch and Belgian movies. “I think in Belgium the First World War has a huge impact. But the Second…I don’t know…” she says. The Second World War provides a setting for more movies in the Netherlands. Spitzenberger feels that using the Second World War might be a bit overdone, though he is not entirely against it. “As an actor I hope to be on a very long journey of different films. You don’t want to be the guy who only wears a uniform,” he feels.

“In Belgium we make different movies that in Holland,” Feryn informs, “they choose the safe commercial approach – like romantic comedy, and we (in Belgium) go more with art house.”

Spitzenberger further elaborates, “There is a lack of good story-telling in the Netherlands. The big complaint is that there is not much attention, money, and training giving to script-writers…Young writers need to be given a chance,” he strongly feels.

Both Spitzenberger and Feryn were happy to be in Goa. “A cinema festival can bind people,” Spitzenberger stresses. “It is a very hopeful thing, right? There should be more of such festivals – of poetry, of music, or of food, or anything…it doesn’t matter.”

(A version of this article was first published in The Peacock, 28 November, 2016

GHANA THROUGH AMERICAN EYES



Nakom’ (2016) was filmed in the Ghanaian village of the same name. There is no running water or electricity, and the subjects are steeped in tribal tradition. This deeply rustic setting both attracts and repulses the lead character, Idrissu (superbly played byJacob Ayanaba), a talented scholarship student on the cusp of medical school who is drawn back home by the death of his father. The film directors, Kelly Daniela Norris and T. W. Pittman were present at the IFFI 2016 screening of their film.

San Francisco natives Norris and Pittman previously made ‘Sinnerman’ (2009) and ‘Sombras de Azul’ (2013). Their seamless partnership drives ‘Nokam’ as well. On their first day in India, still a bit dazed from their flight to Goa, Norris and Pittman came all the way to the “pistachio-painted” The Peacock newsroom to discuss their latest movie.

Pittman spent two years in Ghana as a Peace Corps volunteer, in the same village as the film setting. She says, “it struck me that it was a view of a part of the world that is not understood by Western culture. It was totally eye-opening to experience a lifestyle that literally scratches an existence out of the earth. I was taken in as a child of that community and I still feel that way.”
Thus, “I think the most important thing for us was to tell the story of the village of Nakom – to show its uniqueness, its warmth, its struggle, its beauty, its humor.”

There is lots of negative stereotyping about Ghana and Africa around the world. Norris says, “in times when there are films that we associate with trauma or political violence – these big headline sensational stories – our goal was to tell a more nuanced humanistic story. The more specific you are the more universally the story speaks, and that holds true with every project that we have tackled.”

Considering the fact that the ‘going to Africa’ trope is done to death in Hollywood movies, is there an irony that filmmakers from America are trying to do away with stereotypes while traveling to Africa? Pittman explains, “this is a place that I and Isaac (Adakudugu, co-writer) know intimately. We knew that we had to be honest and faithful to what the village was. Of course this is a film that has a multi-national and global perspective – and I think it benefits it.”

“I wouldn’t have been able to commit to a project like this had I not lived in Ghana,” Norris adds, “we have trust and I know that Trav has a special bond with the village of Nakom.”

(A version of this article was first published in The Peacock, 27 November, 2016