Interview: Deepika Suseelan, Artistic director, IFFK

You’ve been in the world of film programming for 12 years. How did the journey begin?

Being from a journalism background, I joined the media cell of the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) in 2009 and later also worked with the International Documentary & Short Film Festival of Kerala (IDSFFK). That’s when the previous artistic director Bina Paul spotted me and gave me the opportunity to be part of her team. In 2014, when she left IFFK, I was given the responsibility of programming until the new programming director Indu Shrikent was appointed. That was my first exposure to independently curating various sections. I continued with the festival till 2017 and then joined the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) as the Programming Head to fill the position vacated by Shankar Mohan. I programmed the 48th, 49th and 50th editions of IFFI post which I started receiving many offers from international film festivals. In November 2021, I joined the Durban International Film Festival and finished it by July 2022. In August this year, I was invited by IFFK to be their Artistic Director, and that’s how I’m back to where I began my programming journey.

A film screening at IFFK (IFFK)
A film screening at IFFK (IFFK)

How does the programming at IFFK differ from IFFI?

At IFFI, the Programming Head takes care of the entire International Programme except for the Indian Panorama, which is handled by a different team. Also, the country of focus at IFFI is decided by the I&B Ministry, and I would curate the films accordingly. On the other hand, at IFFK, the artistic director has the right to choose the country of focus. This time I selected Serbia as the country of focus with six notable films from contemporary Serbian Cinema and a retrospective of Serbian master Emir Kusturica’s four films.

Your eclectic selection of retrospectives has been appreciated a lot. There’s the silent cinema of FW Murnau, the surreal cinema of Alejandro Jodorowsky and the melancholic masterpieces of Bela Tarr. You even managed to bring Tarr to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award. How challenging was all this, considering you joined the festival in August?

I was extremely pressed for time as I was appointed on August 22 and had to lock the programme by the first week of November for everything to flow smoothly. Along with the works of Murnau, there were other silent and early talkie-era films with live music by BFI resident pianist Jonny Best. Jodorowsky’s films have never been screened at IFFK, and I wanted to introduce the Kerala audience to his unique work. Generally, a filmmaker of Bela Tarr’s stature needs to be invited at least six months prior to the festival, but since I had his email id from my time at IFFI, I directly got in touch with him, and he graciously accepted our invitation. Also, American auteur Paul Schrader was supposed to be the Opening Ceremony Chief Guest, but he couldn’t join us in person due to health complications. We honoured him with a retrospective of his work.

There was a lot of excitement around the films of Bela Tarr. I got to watch The Turin Horse (2011) on the big screen, and it took my breath away. But why was his magnum opus, Satantango (1994), not part of the retrospective? Was it not available?

It’s not about availability. I was afraid to programme Satantango as it is a 7-hour-plus film. The IFFK crowd has changed now; it’s all mostly youngsters. For them, it is more of a carnival than a film festival. But for the old-timers and cinephiles, we curated a diverse range of films and tried to spoil them for choice. This year, we showcased 184 films from over 70 countries.

There were some wonderful films in the Indian Cinema section, like Anmol Sidhu’s Jaggi and Siddharth Chauhan’s Amar Colony. So how are the competition films selected?

The credit for that goes to the selection committee because when it comes to Indian and Malayalam cinema, the committee only considers films that have been officially submitted to us. Under the International Competition section, beyond the official submissions, I can recommend more films to the committee for their consideration. The films in the World Cinema section and retrospectives are curated at my discretion, and I had a small team to help me with the recommendations.

Deepika with film maker Idan Haguel (IFFK)
Deepika with film maker Idan Haguel (IFFK)

What was the process followed for the selection of Jury members?

The Jury members of the FIPRESCI, NETPAC and FFSI KR Mohanan Award are recommended by the concerned institutions. Whereas the panel for International Jury is selected by me. This edition had a strong panel with the likes of Veit Helmer, Atina Rachel Tsangari, Alvaro Brechner, Nahuel Perez Biscayart and Chaitanya Tamhane. We gained a lot from their feedback as they come with a lot of experience and exposure, having been to top festivals such as Cannes, Venice, Berlin, etc.

Watching the films of legendary Malayalam filmmakers Bharathan and Padmarajan on the big screen was a treat. How did the festival choose which artists to pay homage to?

The festival director, Ranjith, and our team deliberate over the homage section. We identified the film personalities who passed away in the past year and discussed the films associated with them to be screened. We also released a handbook which contains a small write-up on each artist to whom we pay tribute. In addition, there were special book releases, such as Vidaparayatha John, a collection of anecdotes written by close associates of John Paul — a scriptwriter who penned many films, most notably for Bharathan, and Pratap Pothen Through the Seasons, edited by EP Rajagopal, on the late actor. The special screening of Padmarajan’s Oridathoru Phayalwan (1981) was decided by the festival director. For the restored classics section, I chose Satyajit Ray’s Pratidwandi (1970) and Aravindan Govindan’s Thamp (1978), which were also screened at Cannes this year.

How has the response been to this edition, and what moments do you cherish the most?

We had over 15,000 delegates this time, many have personally congratulated me, and my Instagram and Facebook handles are swamped with messages. All this has been overwhelming, but I always look forward to critical feedback. Luckily, I have such mentors in my life, and Indu Shrikent is one of them with whom I programmed the 2014 IFFK edition. She was also a member of the NETPAC Jury this time. When I started programming for this edition, I called her to discuss my curated sections. The first question she asked was why there wasn’t a single Asian filmmaker’s retrospective since the festival has always focused on Asian, African and Latin American cinema. I informed her I had initially planned to focus on South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook as my contemporary master. But since a couple of other festivals were also doing a retrospective of his recently restored works, digital prints were unavailable. His office suggested we do it next year as we would get better prints and a better set of films. Later, when Indu Ma’am got to see our entire programme of films, she was very proud of my curation. It’s a beautiful feeling to get encouragement from a mentor who always has your back.

Silent films with live music by Jonny Best (IFFK)
Silent films with live music by Jonny Best (IFFK)

You could manage a lot of premieres this time. It must feel very satisfying.

For a festival like ours, with a shoestring budget, it was an unachievable dream to aim for premieres as there are more prominent festivals like MAMI, IFFI and even Kolkata. We always believed ours was not a premier festival, and we endeavoured to bring the best of World Cinema and to present sections with an academic purpose. But I thought it’s high time we changed. Since MAMI is in hibernation and IFFI is not in good shape, this is the right environment for the festival to take a different turn altogether. Because of this, I decided we’ll try for premieres. So that’s how we managed the India premieres of Fatih Akin, Dardenne Brothers and other contemporary masters for the first time in IFFK. So that was a very conscious decision. Despite my approaching the right-holders very late, the kind of relationship I’ve fostered with them for 12 years, all the sales agents completely trusted me and banked on my commitment. They were elated to know of my appointment as the festival’s Artistic Director and supported me by giving premieres. Even the thought behind bringing Bella Tarr was to draw more international eyeballs to IFFK, as there is a lot of spotlight on him wherever he goes.

Arun AK is an independent journalist. Twitter: @arunusual

This winter season, get Flat 20% Off on Annual Subscription Plans

Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access with HT Premium