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A film festival needs to predict upheavals in cinematic style and production


To simply call Marco Müller a cinema impresario would be an understatement. The noted Italian-born critic, historian and film producer has long been one of the leading lights of the film festival world, having directed Locarno, Rotterdam and Venice over the last two decades. Müller, now the newly appointed artistic director of the Rome Film Festival, was in New Delhi to chair a jury at the 12th Osian's Cinefan Festival and deliver inaugural Mani Kaul Memorial Lecture. He talked to TOI-Crest about great cinema and managing festivals, both old and new.

Just how challenging a task is putting together a good jury for a festival? 

Composing a jury is parallel work to programming a festival. For each film that you put in the festival, you should look to have at least one person in the jury who would not only understand the film and stand up for it, but be able to explain it to his colleagues. So you really need to know your jury members, you need to know what kind of films they watch. Let me tell you about one revealing instance. When I was at Locarno, Chantal Akerman, one of the iconic figures of new images, was chairman of the jury, and we had the world premiere of Wong Kar-Wai's Chungking Express. And she gave the award to two Iranian filmmakers, both of whom were minor disciples of Abbas Kiarostami and who haven't really done anything exciting in subsequent years, and that's because she hadn't been exposed to Iranian cinema and felt she was discovering a new kind of realism, films with a loose, open structure. She preferred that to the stylistic experimentation of Chungking Express. So the jury did not give a single award to the film. So yes, the chairman of a jury really matters, and that is why I will always make sure that I know the chairman and his viewing habits well enough. I would never go for someone who doesn't see that many foreign films. I need somebody who gets regular exposure to all kinds of filmmaking, high and low, artistic and commercial, alternative and popular, from Asia, Latin America, from Africa and, yeah, also America.

Many festivals trumpet 'interesting' sidebars. Are they critical to attracting audiences?

I'm always scared of a festival creating its own golden ghetto. To have something that would use a totally different aesthetical system of reference;that would show films that we could not play at 7 PM in the main auditorium. That's why there must be two competitions. And yet the second one should answer all the problems left unresolved by the first one, so that whenever you read the daily programme, you create a different kind of arithmetic, where one plus one should not be two. A different quantity and quality must be suggested. So I've always programmed festivals where I never wanted a sidebar that would be the equivalent of the first one. But when you put it together the result must be three, never two.

Tell us a bit about the challenge of making Rome, a relative newcomer to the global film festival scene, a major contender.

You cannot simply start working on the project of a festival if you do not first stop and listen to the needs and desires of the people who make the films, the people who circulate the films, and also to sensitive viewers you would need if you are to prolong the life of a film. And what filmmakers were saying was that we need a good platform in the last quarter. Sure, there are a lot of good festivals in that period - Doha, IFFI, Dubai - but what they were asking for was the same kind of mechanism we created in Venice that would stir curiosity and attention for several highly original films, and also to complement this by putting them on the right path to getting wider market recognition.

So what is the identity you want to establish for Rome?

Very clearly, looking for what could still be called originality in filmmaking, and at the same time trying to register it;we should work - and if this doesn't sound too insensitive in a country like Italy that has earthquakes - like a seismograph;we should retranscribe movement and work like a prelude to bigger upheavals in terms of cinematic style and changing the mode of film production. This is why the structure of Rome is basically, apart from a few gala events that could play out of competition, two parts to the competition: one is for the more conventional, regular feature films, with maybe one or two crossover documentaries. And the other is a parallel competition which we call CinemaXXI. That is devoted to works that are challenging the notions and boundaries of film, of fiction, non-fiction and everything that is waltzing on the thin line that supposedly still divides the two. And at the same time we are still trying to address the filmmaking experiences that would always need to question cinema through the visual arts, theatre, dance or architecture, because this is what has kept film alive. Film has survived all the transformations within the visual continent by stealing, in a way. It's not poaching;it's a very conscientious act. That is why I was comparing this to a seismograph, looking to predict not what cinema will be in the next century, but where it will be in the next couple of years To

stick with the same metaphor, how do you know when and where the next 'big one' would come from? The next big crossover?

Well, that is why I make it a point to visit various countries a few times every year. I follow fault lines;look for others on the ground who will tell me if something here links up with something there. One also has to be guided by instinct. Take a prominent Indian example. When I met Anurag Kashyap for the first time, and then I saw Dev D, I later told him that I think you're the guy who could maybe push Indian cinema into a structural - not just merely stylistic - transformation, and I've made it a point to follow his work. So we are trying in terms of the two competitions at Rome. In the first one I'd like to see a director like Anurag, and if Gangs of Wasseypur was not releasing in the spring, both parts would have straightaway been competition entries.

In a long career looking at new cinema, new perspectives, any hugely satisfactory moments you'd like to highlight?

When you really understand that you've put a filmmaker on the right path - the dynamic path - to gaining wider recognition, you know you've done something. I can think of one example where I was really moved to tears. I fought with Reliance Entertainment for several months to give us the Tamil version of Mani Ratnam's Raavan, which is a far superior film to the Hindi one. We have an award for maverick filmmakers, and he was our choice for that year. We played the film to a totally unsuspecting audience at Venice. They knew a few things about Maniji but did not imagine they would suddenly discover something about production values used in such a creative way. There was a standing ovation, and for 10 minutes afterwards people kept shaking his hand saying things like how it was one of the most amazing of cinema experiences for many. I was moved to tears.

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