Vandana travels with Pankaja to St. Tropez for the International Film Festival 2015.
Pankaja embarked on her latest career making short documentaries less than ten years ago. Her diverse portfolio has focused on many different subjects which have sparked her interest, many taking her to distant locations around the world.
Since meeting in Pune 1 in 1975, Panky and I have remained friends and caught up every few years, each time in a different country. I’d last seen her in Bali in 2013 when we attended my boss’s wedding in a gorgeous mountain resort near Candidasa, later spending a week lazing in Ubud where Panky had lived for a while in the 1980’s and now found almost unrecognisable due to all the traffic, tourists and development – Bali has never been the same since ‘Eat Pray Love’!
Already visiting the planet’s underside, Pankaja decided to travel on to nearby Vietnam and interview some ex GI vets, now living in the place they’d once attacked and bombed as US army soldiers in the 1960’s . One of these men had later come to Pune and taken sannyas.
The film, You’re the Enemy, Welcome Back has since been accepted by a couple of festivals in America, and one in Europe – the St. Tropez International Festival which is held in 4 European cities every year – and the one in France being actually held in Nice, rather than St. Tropez.
I was already coming to England in late April to meet up with some relatives, recently discovered via the internet (that’s another story!) and planning to spend a few days in London with Panky. She suddenly emailed asking me if I’d stay a bit longer and come to France with her as she’d been invited to screen her film at the Festival in Nice. A week on the Côte D’Azure? That was a no-brainer!
When I flew in to Heathrow from Perth I realised the last time I passed through that airport was on a flight to India in 1974 – after which I had resided in Pune for 7 years, then lived in the USA and Australia – so it had been 40 years since I’d last seen London.
After several fun days enjoying touristy outings on double-decker buses – The British Museum, Covent Garden, St Pauls, Thames Embankment – Pankaja and I flew to Nice where we’d rented a pretty little apartment ‘au coeur de ville’ using the marvellous ‘airbnb’ booking site.
For the next 7 days we watched dozens of films at screenings held at the Hotel Novotel. As there were always 2 films being shown at the same time in different rooms we had to make choices which was often really difficult as they all sounded fabulous and were also being energetically marketed by their creators, many prowling the hotel lobby handing out promotional cards and flyers, insisting – even begging – that we see their film. As it was a small festival (with little resemblance to the Cannes hoopla occurring simultaneously down the road) it was impossible to be invisible and sneak out of screenings when we found ourselves watching one we didn’t like and wanted to run to the one screening in the room next door!
It was also impossible to watch more than a small percentage of films on show and by the week’s end could have happily spent another 7 days seeing some of those we’d missed.
I was struck by the sincerity, passion and enthusiasm of the film makers, many of whom were accompanied by some type of entourage – editors, musical directors, actors, family and partners.
There were also agents, mentors and producers attending the festival, some looking for marketable projects, others offering advice to filmmakers and sharing information in Q and A sessions.
Pankaja relates easily with people and was clearly very interested in the other filmmakers and their creations. Watching films one after another was intense; in a normal situation one would go home and digest a single film whereas at a festival there is no time because you have to dash to the next screening.
We viewed one particularly powerful film from the Philippines entitled Dementia with a black magic theme, but also possession and murder, and the main actress, apparently the Filipino equivalent of Meryl Streep, is brilliant. The whole film was so disturbing we came out shaking but the odd thing was that we and one other woman were the only people who watched it. The director looked about 12 years old, but must have been older, and when he accepted the award he thanked his husband, who was the producer. Pankaja was so affected, she rushed to the bar and downed a large cognac before staggering into the next viewing.
One film especially stood out for us both – although it received few nominations and was seen by just a handful of attendees. Gazelle – The Love Issue, was stunning, inspiring, brilliantly filmed and enacted. The story of a Brazilian transvestite working by day as a flight attendant and by night as a magnificent performance artist donning extraordinary costumes, wigs and makeup, filmed in locations around the world. It spoke large of the human spirit and the joy of taking bold artistic risks.
The director of this one was Brazilian Ceasar Terranova, young, gay and obviously very talented, and his partner, don’t know if they’re married, is – wait for it – a French judge in Polynesia! He’s also an absolutely wonderful man who chose the music for the film, mostly classical, but perfectly enhancing the images. He travels round the islands hearing cases, and says that even when he sentences people to prison they smile and wave and say ‘Bonne journée’ as they are carted off to serve their sentence. Pankaja said that this is another documentary that just has to be made and that this is how most independent films are financed these days – someone who loves films or the film maker puts up the money! And she and I were the only people watching that one too…
The director Gustavo Cuervo Rubio I snapped with Pankaja was very interesting and his film Sweet and Sour Salsa was fabulous, in particular also the music. It featured a salsa musician who had been very famous and now has Parkinson’s and allowed himself to be filmed, tremors clearly visible and speech slurred, with flashbacks to him in his gorgeous musical heyday. Originally from Cuba, Gustavo Rubio now runs a very successful martial arts academy in Miami. Panky and Rubio had intense talks about the various forms and traditions of Tai Chi, Chi Gong, Chinese masters, etc.
Another fascinating person we met is an Indian film maker who used to be a pop star, has her own theatre company, and financed by her husband has made three feature films which have won awards all over the place. She wants nothing to do with the Bollywood scene, and her films are really original – influenced by the French New Wave of the ’60’s. She’s called Shomshuklla Das, and is definitely worth looking out for; the film we saw is called Hopscotch and is a one woman monologue, written apparently when Shomshuklla was flying from Delhi to Mumbai, and shot in 3 days. I thought it was too long, but for Pankaja the final 10 minutes which she saw were amazing because of the beauty of the cinematography and brilliant acting. There were several other Asian films – from Korea, Indonesia, Bangladesh… as well as from Canada, Albania, oh – and the UK.
The Festival Finale took the form of an Awards Dinner held at a grand beachfront venue, the Hotel Westminster, which resembled an ornate palace with gigantic oil paintings adorning the walls, sparkling candelabra and sweeping flights of stairs connecting its many floors. The hotel was also under renovation which had commenced after the Festival booked the venue. So the hundreds of awards dinner attendees not only had to tunnel their way into the building through scaffolding but were informed during the dinner that there were only 2 single toilets available—one on the second floor, the other on the fourth! Those sweeping staircases carried many a disgruntled film-y person in glamorous high heeled and tuxedoed attire up to wait their turn for the solitary loo on the fourth floor.
And the close-to-50 awards were presented, in traditional awards suspense style, over 7 hours! However, as Panky said, “Some of the films that won would not have been my choice – why on earth do we as a species love violence so much?”
Pankaja’s film had been nominated in 3 categories – the Jury Award, Best Director of a Short Documentary and Best Producer of a Documentary – and was positively received by all. At its screening she was clearly upset saying the film quality was substandard due to ‘interlacing’ and she realised she should have brought a DVD. Well, this meant nothing to me to whom it looked fabulous on a big screen (I’d previously seen it only on my laptop) and no one else seemed to mind either. The subject, Pankaja’s filming, direction and narration, make for compelling viewing. It is a well-made and important film. A very young Chinese woman turned around in her seat after the screening and asked “When was the Vietnam war and what was it about?” which promoted some interesting discussion.
Occasional morsels of food were served in the long gaps between award presentations, cameras flashing, mobile phones held aloft, endless group photo line-ups shot, shared and facebooked. Whew. A marathon.
We decided to ‘pass’ on attending the nightclub dance party (!) after the last award was finally presented and sleepwalked back to our apartment in the small hours of Sunday morning.
An amazing week at the St. Tropez International Film Festival, an experience unlikely to be repeated. Now jetlagged back in Perth, multiple movie images continue to float across my mind screen amidst shots of the beautiful Côte D’Azure and Pankaja beaming over a bowl of Soupe à l’Ognion.
Article by Vandana
You’re the Enemy – Welcome Back!