A little old lady, pleasantly plump,” is how Agnès Varda describes herself as she walks on the sand in the first shot of her film, The Beaches of Agnès. And thus begins the autobiographical journey back in time, where Varda, the famed French director, revisits places from her past and reminisces about life. In her distinct experimental style, she paints a rich cinematic self-portrait of her life, exploring her memories through photographs, film clips and scenes from the present, and finally celebrates her 80th birthday on camera.
The tragic documentary, Her name is Sabine, is also a personal portrayal. This film offers a sensitive and moving account of Sabine Bonnaire, the autistic sister of French actress Sandrine Bonnaire. Directed by Sandrine, it explores her sister’s life and condition which, for years, went catastrophically undiagnosed.
Another movie, from another land brings yet another poignant story. Directed by Mohamed Diab, 678, a 201 Egyptian film, unfolds the story of three women and their search for justice from the daily plight of sexual harassment in Egypt.
The Seven Islands International Film Festival, which began in Chennai on Friday, brings a wealth of 50 such powerful films from across 18 countries — Belgium, Estonia, Greece, Italy, Romania, Egypt, France and Japan, to name a few. Stories of women — painful, heartening, inspiring and chilling — lie at the core of the festival. The theme of the four-day annual touring festival which was launched at the Cannes Film Festival in May this year is ‘Women Rising, Against All Odds’.
Last year, especially, saw women rise against socio-political and economic odds —from participating in the Arab Spring revolution to taking charge of the opposition party in Myanmar. In India, a ‘Missile Woman’ is being celebrated as the new face of its Defence Research and Development Organisation, says Festival director Sakshi Ojha. So, she says, it was only fitting that the festival should celebrate the spirit of the woman.
Apart from international, national and regional feature-length movies, the festival also brings documentaries and short films. One of them is about the first stuntwoman of India — ‘Fearless Nadia’ who challenged all stereotypes, wore body-hugging clothes, ran on top of trains and jumped from horse carts. Fearless: The Hunterwali Story, the 1994 documentary by Nadia’s great grandnephew, Riyad Vinci Wadia, brings, among other things, archive footage of the legendary Greek-Australian stunt actress.
There is more of India which we see at the festival. Aditi Chitre’s Journey to Nagaland, that offers a glimpse into the ancient folk songs, practices and beliefs of the Ao Naga tribe from the Northeast, is an animated short film about a girl’s subliminal quest for her roots.
The opening film at the festival, which brings together radical film makers with new cinematic approaches, is Leila Albayaty’s Berlin Telegram. This will be Berlin Telegram’s India premiere. The closing film, Sudipto Chattopadhyay’s Shobhna’s Seven Nights — a bold story of a seductive socialite — will also be screened for the first time in the country.
Berlin Telegram is an uplifting journey which the protagonist, Leila, takes us on through Brussels, Berlin, Lisbon and Cairo. It emerges that the man she’s in love with has walked out on her for another woman. So, she leaves for Berlin to start a new life. Before closing the door of her apartment for the last time, she films herself in a mirror, vowing one day to send the man images of her new life. This will be her revenge. Independent cinema, says Albayaty, is an art and it’s an outcome of an individual. “I created my life out of independent movies,” she says.
Director and screenwriter Dibakar Banerjee, who inaugurated the festival along with actor Kalki Koechlin, agrees. “I wouldn’t have been what I am, if it wasn’t for film festivals,” he says adding that it’s only through these festivals that individual voices and talents are showcased. At a time when 90 per cent of cinema is experienced through films, the response to such a platform created for auteur cinema is extremely encouraging, Banerjee adds.
Audiences today are willing to pay attention towards experimental movies, but the multiplex culture in India doesn’t allow a director to present such movies before them, he rues. In such an environment it is film festivals that can make a difference, says Banerjee.
Among the other Indian films that will be screened at the festival are Manjari Makijany’s The Last Marble, Girish Kasaravalli’s 2008 Kannada film Gulabi Talkies, Sumitra Bhave and Sunil Sukthankar’s Ek Cup Chya, Aparna Sen’s 36 Chowringhee Lane and Revathy’s Red Building Where The Sun Sets.
In association with the National Film Archive of India, the Seven Islands International Film Festival has also organised ‘Women in Cinema’, a poster exhibition of women-centric films to celebrate 100 years of Indian cinema. Among the posters on displayed at the venue are those of the 1984 Tamil movie Achamillai Achamillai, the 1988 Hindi film Rihaee and Fire. They are all movies where women take centrestage and the heroine is the hero.