One Year in 10 Minutes

I thought I’d post the talk I gave for our presentations at the returning fellows conference this past weekend. For past and future Watson fellows, and for anyone marginally interested in which things I basically arbitrarily decided to address given the endless list of possibilities.

Here goes.

I’d like to start out on a bit of an unconventional and sad note. By the end of the year, I didn’t want to come back. But the death of a dear friend in Mexico City jolted and compelled me to yearn for closer physical proximity to more loved ones. My friend had applied for the Watson but didn’t receive one of my school’s nominations, allegedly because he was already so experienced with his topic (investigative journalism). Given his gregarious and vivacious spirit, it doesn’t surprise me to have discovered this weekend that several of you here knew him. Mando Montaño was living his dream and embodied the Watson spirit as much or more than anyone I’ve met. I’d like to dedicate this presentation to him. 

I once read that a film festival opens somewhere in the world every 36 hours. I’m not sure how someone calculated that because it’s also pretty clear that no one knows how many film festivals there are, since many get born and die too quickly for anyone to hear about them besides the people who were there. These conflicting ideas exemplify how the world of film festivals bursts with contradictions and complexities. 

I discovered this pretty quickly, which was appropriate since it turns out the world itself is also pretty complicated and rife with contradictions. 

In the simplest terms, I set out to learn about the politics of how film festivals work, operating under an intentionally broad definition of “politics,” encompassing everything from film selection choices to government funding structures to sponsorships to internal bureaucracies. I started out the year by volunteering during festivals and interviewing organizers in the Balkans, then moved up the ladder to cover festivals as press or work as a member of the organizing team in the Netherlands and India. About 3/4 through the year we got the chance to put on our own migration-themed festival in Spain. I wrapped up the year with press passes at festivals in Macedonia and Brazil. At the heart of the project lies my love for sharing cinema with others, and a desire to learn about how other people do this in the exciting and oftentimes messy context of film festivals. 

As you all know, this description of everything I did this past year actually leaves out a whole lot. 

Anyway, this project derived from a belief of mine that is so basic and fundamental to who I am that it feels instinctual: I believe that movies matter–in many senses and on many scales. On a grand scale, the status of Hollywood as the cornerstone of American cultural imperialism immediately comes to mind, along with the historical role film has played in shaping national imaginaries all over the world. On a smaller but just as pervasive scale there’s the social significance of our relationships to pop culture, so that “people who don’t like Star Wars” becomes an identifiable category. 

For the record, I like Star Wars. 

Needless to say, and to invoke the title of a film made by a former Watson fellow during his year, cinema is everywhere. As the largest social gatherings devoted to movies, film festivals struck me as ideal places where one could witness and explore numerous and unpredictable examples of movies mattering to people. And oh, the politics. In India, I watched a liberation theologist/ self-described “activist monk” named Benny Benedict persuade a young man to change the title of his film in order to better reflect the festival organizers’ political stance on the subject of the documentary, a dam on the Tamil Nadu-Kerala border that’s ready to burst any second. There already is a fiction film about this impending catastrophe–it’s terrible but also rather ominous. 

In Amsterdam, I watched a Dutch businessman fly straight from Africa and appear on TV to protest the largest documentary festival in the world, which was about to open with a film that exposes him selling a passport and Liberian consul papers to the “undercover” filmmaker for $50,000–all caught on hidden camera. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, I read the fiery open letter of a festival programmer who quit working for the Sarajevo Film Festival after being with them since the beginning, 17 years prior when the city was under a brutal siege. He accused the festival of selling out after a surprise appearance by Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt on the red carpet robbed his own event with an acclaimed Danish auteur not only of press photographers but also of any audience members at all. And in Brazil, the first guy I talked to at a random party turned out to be an incredible young documentarian who films massive protests by indigenous people that are otherwise completely ignored by every media outlet. 

Within any one of these festivals, contradictions run rampant. That festival in Amsterdam may have pulled something bold by showing an exposé of the lives of international “diplomats” on its opening night, but it also functions as the center of the global documentary industry, meaning that a lot of their films are financed, formatted and formulated by European TV networks, so that they follow easily digestible human interest stories and adhere to 52 or 82 minute runtimes. Noticeably absent from the Amsterdam program was the latest film from India’s first independent documentary-maker, Anand Patwardhan. When I talked to Patwardhan in India not long after discovering his amazing film, he told me that the Amsterdam people actually wrote back to him with a list of suggested edits for the 3.5 hour documentary, shot over the course of 16 years. In response, he gave them a piece of his mind. He also looked me right in the eyes and said, “I’m not making films for you. You’re not my first audience. India is my first audience.” 

This brings me to ViBGYOR, the largest alternative film festival in South Asia and our home for two months in Kerala, India. The name for the festival came to that activist monk Benny Benedict during a nap. It’s the acronym for the colors of the rainbow, except the “i” is lower case because, as they say at ViBGYOR, “it’s not about me, it’s about celebrating identities and diversity.” Much more than a film festival, it also marks an annual gathering of activists across all leftist movements in South Asia, and the films embody and extol their causes. The way that these activists deploy documentaries in their communities inspired a major shift in my philosophy about film. Film constantly struggles to legitimate itself as a field worthy of academic study. So, when people want to “use” film as a “tool” to “enact change” or as a “lens” or a “portal” into another culture, I always felt it undercut the necessity of disciplinary study of film on its own terms. 

And I still think this, to an extent. But after being confronted with the urgency with which some stories must be told, I’ve gained a new respect for what one experimental documentary-maker in India calls “pamphlet films.” There’s very much a time and place for these films that break walls of silence to provide information and call people to action. Even if it sometimes means watching a tribal leader launch into a tirade for 20 minutes while staring straight into the camera. 

The awe-inspiring activist-filmmakers at ViBGYOR were not, of course, the only life-changing people we met. By the end of my first month abroad–on the Watson and ever–I learned what would be one of the most important lessons of the year: it’s all about the people you meet. Fittingly, this realization hit me right at dawn, on an island off the Croatian coast, when my new friends woke me up just in time to catch the ferry back to the mainland. Along with about 30 other people, we had spent the past week sleeping on the same floor and using the same cold shower while volunteering on the first edition of Supertoon, an animation festival hobbled together by a group of well-meaning but disorganized animators. As we trudged to the ferry, my friend told me about his participation in the student protests that effectively shut down his faculty at the university in Zagreb–the subject of a couple great documentaries, in fact. 

Over and over again at festivals, I found myself intensely engaged in unexpected but invaluable conversations, in which film acted as a sort of launching pad for learning about all kinds of political passions. It was during conversations like these that I formed what I have no doubt will be lifelong friendships. And it was during conversations like these with festival organizers, volunteers and audience members that I learned the most about the politics of how film festivals work. 

Despite all of the differences in our projects, approaches and the places we traveled, we all no doubt shared a lot of common experiences and emotions. So I shouldn’t end this talk without addressing what made my year markedly different: traveling with my partner, Anand. To sum things up briefly, it was awesome. I barely ever wanted to kill him, and he did a great job of never letting on if he wanted to kill me. But you should really hear from the man himself- 

[at this point, Anand came up and spoke for a bit to wrap things up] 

Rio + Uranium

We arrived in Rio de Janeiro on Tuesday night and set out today for day one of the world’s only Uranium Film Festival. After getting off the bus prematurely and then wandering aimlessly for a while, we finally made it to the Modern Art Museum just a few minutes after the film had started. Missing out on the initial set up and forgetiting anything I had read about the film (or even its title) granted me some much appreciated creative license when watching it. As we searched for seats in the pitch black auditorium, a delicate, almost frail male narrator’s voice emanated from off-screen, addressing an unknown “you” and referring to itself in the collective: “we.” I saw shots of men in bulky reflective suits and heavy boots carrying unfamiliar metal tools as they moved in slow-mo through the blackness of a rocky environment that seemed too big to be a cave and too strange to be a mine. Striking me as more spacesuit sci-fi than documentary, I soon picked up that these men were building a vast underground repository for the purpose of storing nuclear waste for its 100,000 year lifetime. Not equipped to process what this information meant (who can process the idea of 100,000 years?) I found myself deciding that the narrator was warning aliens from the future against opening this vault of toxic waste made by humans.

After seeing the whole film, learning about its context and sitting a bit longer with the knowledge of that nearly inconceivable mausoleum of nuclear waste thrust 5km below the earth’s surface, I’m not convinced that I’m wrong about the alien thing. The film is called Into Eternity and has already made its festival rounds a year or two back, snapping up awards left and right. Danish director Michael Madsen took a philosophical approach to discussing the world’s first permanent nuclear waste storage site, located on (or beneath) an island in Finland. Madsen’s main concern is the future of this city-sized toxic tomb buried beneath Finland’s feet. As Madsen says, the site “transgresses both in construction and on a philosophical level all previous human endeavours.” The sheer length of life intended for the repository far surpasses the entirety of human history. Of course it’s significant and revealing that this is the thing we are constructing with the conscious hope and intention that it will last longer than we as a species have thus far.

So, the narration serves as an address to the future humans of 100,000 years from now. Do you know what we put down there? Will you open the vault? Will you listen to our warnings against doing so? Will you understand our warnings? How can we warn you in a way that you will understand? Madsen poses these questions to an array of scientists and administrators, and naturally, no one is certain of anything. Nevertheless, they busy themselves writing laws and drafting plans and arguing over whether putting up warning signs will dissuade future generations from entering the underground wasteland, or merely encourage them.

Madsen asks his talking heads to take a stab at sending a message to the future. They say things like, “This area is dangerous. It contains nuclear waste. Do not enter here. Turn around and go back.” Listening to them, you know it’s hopeless. If future humans share anything in common with today’s version, of course they will seek the buried treasure (waste can still be used to make bombs, and who knows what else so many years from now). At the same time, the scenario is like a perfect premise for a sci-fi movie, bringing me back to the images of the repository construction workers in a real under-world setting that I easily could have mistaken for the darkly bleak sets of Prometheus (but with the philosophical stakes amped much higher and more interesting).

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Onkalo or Prometheus?

The repository effectively is another planet, given its remote locale, it’s hostile environment and the fact that its existence is and will remain unknown to most of the world’s population. Space is relative, right? So is “foreign” so is “alien” so is “extraterrestrial.” And if humans have evolved or devolved into something as unrecognizable as the repository in the next hundred thousand years, then Madsen’s narration really is directed toward aliens. In a bizarre human-crafted twist, those who may eventually sojourn underground in search of something buried, although virtually alien to us, will in fact be the protagonists of the sci-fi tale. And what role will we play, what identity will we have? 

Of course, Into Eternity also carries much more immediately relevant messages. Madsen does well to splice his interviews not only with footage of the workers digging in the depths or taking breaks or sleeping above ground, but also with floating shots of the secluded natural environment above the repository. Drifting snow in forests of white trees, a moose defecating, an empty path that cuts through the woods–the context of grave human error and impending nuclear horror injects these images with exactly the kind of unease and eeriness that Madsen no doubt intends. I love it when a film–fiction or non-fiction–creates such an effective world so as to transform a symbol into something emotionally potent and meaningful in such a sharply specific way. Suddenly, the defecating moose becomes a paradoxically innocent accomplice, ignorant of its complicit involvement in our monstrous game of nuclear energy and therefore unaware that its turds fall softly upon the earth’s white blanket of snow, under which lies an even darker and fouler substance.

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Forest in the folly, the unknowing and the unknown.

Seriously, though, every sound and image becomes chilling when grappled with in an atmosphere engendered through nuclear waste-talk. It inspires a sense of urgency not only to stop using nuclear energy at all costs–now–but to try to comprehend what it means that we have much more nuclear waste on our hands than that which will be confined in Finland’s reserve. What to do with it? Where to put it? And what do we tell our children and their children about it?

I felt an added layer of displaced strangeness while watching this film since it’s only my second full day in Rio. I am technically an alien in this place, and in many ways it is and always will remain alien to me. My mission right now is to explore and penetrate as much of it as I can in the hopes of unearthing its treasures, without stepping into any traps or disrupting any delicate elements that may cause me harm.

One last note–I realized while watching it that Into Eternity had screened in IDFA instantly upon seeing a shot of a man (Madsen) lighting a match in the dark. This shot was featured in the trailer that played before every film shown at IDFA, meaning that I saw it some two dozen times. It’s funny how you can literally trace the circuits of these festivals, connecting the dots and piecing together the network. 

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Makedox

Makedox, Skopje’s hip and laid-back documentary festival, takes place in Kuršumli An, a former Turkish inn tucked away in the deep labyrinth of the city’s Turkish quarter. In the 15th/16th centuries, traders could stay the night and put up their horses in one of the inn’s 60 stables. A few centuries later, Kuršumli An got a grim makeover, becoming the city jail under the Ottoman regime. Nowadays, the grassy stones, crumbling arches and open space make for a pleasant backdrop to arts events like Makedox.

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When we wandered in on opening night, Anand tried to buy a ticket but was told, “It’s opening night, a party! Free for everyone.” Passing under the stone arches we were greeted by warm candle light, free wine, an excited audience and endless green onions–the symbol of Makedox. Bunches of spring onions were displayed on the rocks next to rows of wine cups, organizers brandished them like flags and one girl even had a stalk stuck through her pierced ear. A small book of poems about onions, Anthology of Tears, sat on each folding chair atop the catalog and a picture of the festival mascot stretched across the movie screen. Before each film, instead of a festival trailer, they play a video of a pair of hands chopping an onion in close-up, while one of the onion poems is read in Macedonian (with the text in its original language on the screen). “Why the spring onion?” I asked someone who had helped write the festival catalog. “Because they’re young,” he replied. “They come out in the spring, they’re full of life, multi-layered.” Indeed, Makedox is a young festival, uncertain about what will come next but excited about what is happening now. When it was time for the films to begin, a young girl introduced the festival to the audience by singing a song about a flying onion. A woman then explained that the opening film, BABIES, was chosen in celebration of a recent birth in the Maxedox community. The next night, a similar display served as the introduction to the program. The same young girl danced to the Do-Re-Mi song.

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With little fanfare and no pretension whatsoever, Makedox focuses on the local community, and I’ve especially appreciated this understated emphasis on women. We missed the past two nights of the festival because we finally took a trip to the famous Lake Ohrid, but now we’re back and excited for tonight’s program: DAD MADE DIRTY MOVIES, about the founding father of sexploitation films, who emigrated to the U.S. from Bulgaria and befriended Ed Wood, and KHODORKOVSKY, about the former Russian oligarch who lost his title of wealthiest man in Russia when Putin threw him in prison in 2003.

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^Lake Ohrid

Tomorrow, I’ll get the chance to see one of my favorite films from Sarajevo again, Mobitel, as well as hear the director speak. Overall, I am impressed by the Makedox program and appreciative of the atmosphere. It’s hard to believe that we leave Macedonia in 4 days, Europe in a week, and end the Watson year in about a month. 

Long time no see

Thought I was gone for good, eh? Me too.
I have returned. Now that I’ve reached the 11th month of the year, I finally find myself at a good vantage point from which to assess how I’ve been doing thus far with the project and overall year of travel.
While it’s hard to attempt to reduce any aspect about this year to a simple list, here’s an attempt, followed by something like a resolution:

Biggest Regrets
-Not journaling enough
-Not learning Spanish
-Not taking enough pictures (really, this translates to not buying a nice camera at the start of the year)
-Not collecting much ‘data’
-Not documenting a list of movies seen as I went

Greatest Successes
-Running our own film festival (not something I initially set out to do!)
-Making amazing friends and getting better at talking to people in general
-Thoroughly exploring and learning about what I set off to explore and learn about
-Emerging with as much love for film and passion for programming as I started with
-Discovering that I’m decent at and quite fond of traveling

By far my greatest regret is how little I’ve recorded in words about my travels. I do not wish that I had blogged more, necessarily, but I wish I had held myself to something slightly more systematic and regular than writing emails to friends and posting snippets on [plans], the blog-like Grinnellian hub. More often than not, the reason I haven’t jotted down more of my thoughts and experiences is that they overwhelm me in the sheer scale and quantity of their meanings. The more you learn the less you know, etc. I am glad to have published a few pieces online (IDFA report for Senses of Cinema, report on film industry in Southeast Europe, and a couple more pieces for “The Independent”) but for my remaining 7 weeks on the road I hope to return to this blog as a place to at least try to grapple with all the faces, films, discoveries and quotations swimming around in my head and gripping my gut.

Extremely brief recap of the past 5 months since I last wrote:
India: the ViBGYOR Festival consumed our lives–in a good way–until its closing night late in February. It represents the single most affecting experience of the year for me. We also got the chance to catch a state-run festival in Mumbai, spend 3 glorious days on a secluded beach in Goa (oh how I miss those Arabian waves crashing against the otherwise silent shore…), and marvel at an eye-opening wedding in Gujarat.
Spain: For three months, we put together Cine Migratorio, a migration-themed film festival in Santander, Cantabria. Check the blog for details about films and see our Facebook page for pics from the festival. We also checked out nearby cities like Bilbao and San Sebastian and fell deeply madly in love with our roommates neurotic and hideous but endlessly lovable dog, Kochi. I took more pictures of Kochi than I have of entire other countries.
Serbia: In March I spent 4 days in Belgrade, where I saw a film or two and hung out with my friend and couch surfing host.
Macedonia: We are now settled in the capital city and birthplace of Mother Theresa, Skopje, after attending the strange and wonderful Aster Fest in Strumica, a town near the Bulgarian border. In less than 2 weeks, the week-long documentary festival MakeDox begins. After that, we’ll fly to Lisbon for 2 days before continuing on to Rio de Janeiro, Brasil, for an animation festival, a women’s film festival, and the world’s only uranium film festival.

On July 23, we fly back to New York, and that’ll be a wrap.

Until then, I hope to write here more regularly, perhaps about the past, perhaps about the present. Who knows, maybe I’ll even post some pictures, although I haven’t mustered the patience for it much in the past.

On a parting note, a Macedonian friend recently asked us what you say in English when wishing someone best of luck with a new article of clothing. Apparently there is a Macedonian phrase that translates to, “Wear it with good health!” I really enjoy and appreciate this, and the fact that we don’t have an equivalent phrase says a lot about the disparities between our cultures, I think.

At the unofficial Aster Fest bar

Hanging out with the Aster Fest gang.

Photos courtesy of Georgi Kostovski

(Most of) Watson Quarterly Report 2

“How does your husband know my dad?” Jeri asks me, and I hope I succeed in suppressing my immediate reaction of distaste when I smile and respond, “We work at the ViBGYOR film festival with your dad.” It’s not the first occasion where I’ve fought the urge to clarify the reason for our presence in India in less polite terms. But it’s all about context, and here we are, sitting in the audience at a Muslim wedding as the groom, father of the bride, and other menfolk sit on stage, assessing the adequacy of the dowry and signing the contract–the bride nowhere in sight. Besides, Jeri, an unbelievably precocious nine-year-old whose command of English surpasses that of anyone else I’ve met in Kerala thus far, is such a fascinating conversation partner that it’s hardly worth getting bent out of shape over his assumption that, as a woman, I am just a tag-a-long on Anand’s travels. He proceeds to tell me a joke about a boy who tricks a baker into giving him free laddus, translating expertly from Malayalam to English as he goes.

In response to my first report, you asked me to write more about my unique Watson experience of traveling with a partner, and whether I was finding ways of maintaining my independence and personal growth. In the Balkans, I sojourned on my own to two festivals for the sake of solo project work, a choice I’m very glad I made. In the Netherlands, I worked more than full time at two organizations in two different cities, meaning I spent very little time at home with Anand in Amstelveen. Keeping my project and my relationship separate was easy; in Holland, the challenge was finding time to hang out with Anand at all.

India, by far my hardest project country thus far, has not failed to deliver the biggest relationship challenges among all the other ones (language, health, culture, etc.). On the last day of November we flew into Delhi and spent the next three weeks traveling south to our home for the next two plus months: Thrissur, Kerala (I wish I had the space to describe Kerala in-depth, but suffice it to say that as the most politicized state in India, it’s the right place to be for this project!). During those weeks of wracking up experiences that ranged from incredible (the sights and food) to confounding (the way things are done) to painful (unavoidable illness) to enlightening (the reasons for the way things are done), I began to feel nervous about our plan for Anand to get involved with my project for basically the first time by volunteering at ViBGYOR too. It had quickly become clear that most people we met, whether they were rickshaw drivers or Couch Surfing hosts, were much more interested in Anand than they were in me.

To an extent, this was to be expected: I knew going in that as a woman, I wouldn’t get as much eye contact as Anand would, and that most people would address him first. Race is also a factor, of course, although one that I am not equipped to analyze in every interpersonal interaction. Anand is half-Indian, which means he can pass for a local in most places. If I’m not with him people always speak to him in the local language first. Regardless of whether I’m with him, they get very excited when they hear that he’s an American with an Indian father (and as more than one person has remarked, a “Mumbai face,” whatever that means). Then they must know what Indian languages he speaks (none), where his family is from (Tamil Nadu), if he’s been to India before (briefly, as a kid), and his name (he usually avoids saying his last name, which indicates that his family is Brahman). None of this is a problem for my project; it makes sense that people are intrigued by him and it’s not exactly an enviable kind of attention–a friend told Anand he should start carrying around a card that says all the inevitably inquired after info.

ViBGYOR (acronym for the colors of the rainbow, but pronounced as a word: vib-jyor) itself turned out to be a superb primary project festival. In my original project proposal I said I would spend most of my time traveling to film festivals across India, but such a lifestyle would be unsustainable for 3 months, and we have already attended the rather progressive state film festival in Kerala and will head to the Mumbai International Film Festival early next month (after the wedding of a college friend in Gujarat!). ViBGYOR is undoubtedly the film festival most committed to political activism in India, with film categories ranging from “Gender/Sexuality” to “Fundamentalism vs Diversity.” The 4-day fest occurs at the end of February, so I am getting to observe and participate in many of the main preparatory stages: receiving film submissions, watching them with the selection jury, writing content for the festival catalogue, brainstorming with the organizers about ideas for events, researching funding options for the future, etc.

India doesn’t let you off easy. You think you have something figured out and then you turn the corner and bump into the opposite reality, existing simultaneously and adjacently. I know I will continue to unpack this blitz of color and grime for years after I leave, so for now I’m just trying to simmer in the spices–and get better at eating large quantities of them.

The Impakt festival in Holland was great, and I made so many good friends from several different countries, nearly all of them with impressive festival backgrounds and therefore a lot of stories to share. My time in Holland culminated with the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), the largest doc fest in the world. Weeks earlier I had interviewed many of the festival staff about their jobs and the recent spending cutbacks in the cultural sector (which is why there wasn’t much left of the EYE Institute I originally proposed investigating), and during the fest itself I enjoyed having a press pass, catching two dozen movies in ten days, interviewing directors, joining in the debates at industry panels, and schmoozing at fancy cocktail hours. In Holland I also scored press passes for a Turkish film fest and an Eastern European film fest, and took advantage of Amsterdam’s vibrant film events calendar.

Happy New Year from India

Kerala: The State

After nearly three weeks of north-to-south travel (squeezing a film festival in there along the way), we are now settled in Thrissur, Kerala–nearly as far south as you can go in India. Kerala is known by tourists for its beautiful backwaters, beaches, wildlife sanctuaries, tropical climate, coconut-based cuisine, and a much more leisurely pace of life than much of the rest of chaotic India. But Kerala is more than a new tourist hotspot: it’s also the most politicized state in India, with more of the population turning out regularly to vote than anywhere else. Communism became popular in Kerala in 1937, and twenty years later, the Communist party won the state election in Kerala, making it the first freely elected Communist government in the world. The two main Communist parties remain powerful today, and red flags adorned with sickles and bundles of corn (which replaced the hammer in the Indian Communist symbol) hang all around town.

Malayalam, the main language in Kerala, is spoken at a break-neck pace and as chock-full of vowels as its name. We are constantly asked if we are figuring out words. We shake our heads, still utterly clueless. Kerala also boasts the highest literacy rates in the country, and accordingly, one of the best education systems. However, as we all know, good education doesn’t necessarily lead to good jobs, and in part due to its small size and lack of agriculture industry, it has higher unemployment than any other state and has to import most of its produce from neighboring state Tamil Nadu. Perhaps the unemployment rate is connected to the fact that Kerala also has the highest rates of alcoholism in India. Portugal colonized Kerala hundreds of years ago and seems to have left behind its nuns: there are more Christians in Kerala than most other states, meaning that we spent a proper Christmas season assailed by images of Santa and prominently advertised baked goods.

Currently, much of the state faces an extreme flood threat due to the worn-out Mullaperiyar dam on the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border. The dam is some 65 years past its expiration date and showing significant signs of damage, with evident cracks and underground seepage. If the dam breaks, it is estimated some 3,000,000 people would die in a 50 square kilometer area in Kerala. The area is prone to earthquakes and has experienced some twenty tremors in the past year, so people are quite scared. However, Tamil Nadu possesses the rights to repair or alter the dam, leaving the Keralaites at their mercy. Currently, the Tamil government refuses to do anything and even goes so far as to call Kerala’s fears unfounded. Things between the states are testy right now, to say the least. If the dam breaks while we’re here, Thrissur would be spared the 36 foot high waves that would wash over other districts, but surely all of Kerala would be affected.

Thrissur: The City

With several arts academies and a vibrant festival calendar, Thrissur, the fourth largest city in Kerala, is considered the state’s cultural capital. The lay-out of the city radiates out from a central round. All roads connect to the round, inside which sits one of the oldest and largest Hindu temples in Kerala. The roads that shoot off from the round are lined with huge five-story jewelry and silk emporiums along with the typical shops and restaurants. And of course, the movie theaters. We’ve already visited three, including what is apparently the worst one in town–but they were the only one showing Mission Impossible 4, so we had to go. For the most part the theaters only show Indian cinema, of course. The local Malayalam film industry has declined in popularity and quality since its heyday in the 70s and 80s. Hindi and Tamil films dominate the screens.

We are staying in a flat about 2km south of the round (city center). It belongs to the friend of my main contact, so it’s already furnished and quite comfy. We have a bedroom, a little balcony, bathroom, nice big kitchen, and spacious front room. The neighborhood is upscale, but our immediate neighbor is a construction site and the few dozen men who work there all day and sleep there at night under a hastily erected tin roof. It’s just one of many images of wealth juxtaposed with poverty that are innumerable and ubiquitous here. But I suppose India just wears all its dirt on its sleeve, lacking the refined infrastructure of western countries to sweep most messes under the rug.

Thrissur is a nice, if unexciting, place to live. It’s definitely a city with plenty to explore in the two months we’re here, but it’s of a manageable size and we are figuring out our way around. There’s a beautiful park in the round, perfect for strolling in after seeing a movie at the theater across the street, and we still need to check out the temple, the zoo, the museum, etc. Friends tell us that just 5-6km outside Thrissur you’re back in the palm and banana groves.

I can’t wait to start writing about the film festival we’re working for, but right now it’s two hours till midnight on New Year’s Eve and we need to go revel in the non-stop fireworks! I just wanted to get something up this month, and realized this was my last chance not only for the month but for the year. In less than a week we’ll be at the half-way point–the year is flying by!

Goodbye Holland, Hello India!

I’m going to miss my monthly blog post if I don’t put something up fast!

Tomorrow, bright n early (or rather, when it is not yet bright because it is so early), we leave for India.

Our time in the Netherlands flew by. From late September through the second week of November, I interned at the Impakt Festival in Utrecht. This started off as most internships do: not a ton to do, mostly research tasks. But I was content because I had found a neat arts org to get to know and the spirit and content of the festival were really progressive and intellectual. Plus, I knew it would heat up as the festival dates in early November approached.

It sure did. I went from tracking down banned and subversive videos for a film program in the festival to becoming the producer for the festival exhibition. This meant coordinating tons of logistics, calling tons of people, fulfilling strange request and tasks (ever tried securing a ping pong ball sponsor?), and in the final days before the fest as well as during the event itself–very very long days.

At Impakt, I met great people from all over Europe (plus another recent college grad from U.S.) and we all scrambled together to pull it off. I had to work outside of my comfort zone and my established skill set, which meant learning new things I’m bad at as well as good at. Although I suppose I’ve always known I’m bad at math and therefore should not be measuring the placements of nails in the wall. The few film programs I got to catch during the festival were fantastic, and I got to interview two of the guest curators. I always love talking to programmers, so I had a great time even when bad skype connections interrupted the conversation.

Impakt is located in Utrecht, about an hour and a half commute door to door from our quiet nook in Amstelveen. In addition to working at Impakt, I interned once a week at the Netherlands Institute for Animated Film in Tilburg, a southern city that takes 2 hours to get to by train. So, I spent a lot more time commuting in the Netherlands than I’d planned to.

Because of this, I didn’t get to do a few things I’d originally proposed in my Watson application, although when I wrote the application, I hadn’t heard of Impakt or NIAF! I’d planned on volunteering at an animation fest in Amsterdam, and while I met with those folks a couple of times and had great conversations, I just didn’t have the time–plus their fest was at the same time as Impakt’s. I’d also wanted to get involved at the EYE Institute, but when I first learned about this brand new national film institute back last September, it was before massive budget cuts in the cultural sector had severed most of the branches from EYE. Instead of becoming the leading distributor, exhibitor, archiving entity, and educator in the Dutch film community, EYE is now forced to focus on international promotion and preservation of Dutch film. A beautiful new building on the Amsterdam waterline that was initially meant to house a wide variety of film activities will now stand mostly as a museum. It’s sad, but I was able to find out a lot about the film and festival community here regardless.

A matter of days after Impakt ended, the largest documentary festival in the world began. International Documentary Festival Amsterdam, or IDFA, is the center of the documentary industry, which meant a lot of business goes down during the fest. This takes place in the form of pitching forums, industry panel discussions, a short film academy for up and comers, markets, industry cocktail hours every night–everything you can think of. I interviewed several directors and more than one of them remarked on how little they got to interact with other directors at IDFA because the event was so huge and sprawling (200,000 individual admissions this year alone) and so many people have accreditation (around 2,300).

As Anand remarked, I “hit this festival hard.” On multiple days I saw 4 or 5 movies, interviewed a director or two, and went to a panel discussion. I got home just as late as I had after Impakt, but the work was much less strenuous! I was able to get a press pass, which meant I could go to unlimited movies as long as I showed up to get a ticket before they sold out.  I’m working on articles for a few different publications, so I will put the links up here when I have them (I sure hope I can find a way to write a bit in India!).

Most of my time in Holland was spent in a somewhat traditional 9-5 workday…although sometimes 9-5 turned into 8-midnight. Anyway, this structure was nice after being on the road for several weeks in the Balkans. But it will also be nice to shed ourselves of a schedule as we dive into the crazy tourist experience of India before arriving in Thrissur, Kerala (hopefully) around December 17 to start working on the ViBGYOR festival. While we’re in Kerala, in addition to enjoying cashews and dishes cooked in coconut oil–after we’ve re-set our cultural barometers enough to settle in a bit and re-establish something like a routine–we’ll also be starting work on our next project and country–Spain! Where we have a chance to organize our own festival with some friends! More soon, but look out for info on Cine Migratorio.

Till the next time I find wifi and wander onto wordpress in India…