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Ideas of urbanity and city living at the Urban Lens film festival

This year’s edition has an eclectic lineup, with the films available for free via the festival website

A still from ‘World Taxi’, directed by Philipp Majer.

It has been a year of drastically reduced but heightened contact with cities. The pandemic has cut off most of us from transport systems, workplaces, performance spaces. But we have also become aware of our surroundings in a way that wasn’t possible before. It’s difficult to say how our world will look in a few years, but it’s likely that our expectations from our cities will not be the same.

Ideas of urbanity and city living form the crux of Urban Lens, a film festival organised by the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, which is “committed to the equitable, sustainable and efficient transformation of Indian settlements”. It was first held in 2013, and, save 2015, has taken place every year since. This year’s edition (1-6 December) is the first virtual one, with the films available for free on the festival website.

There are 18 films in all, fiction and documentary: a wide-ranging, stimulating package. Some films talk explicitly about cities and infrastructure, like Mikala Krogh’s Cities On Speed: Cairo Garbage (2009) and Andreas Dalsgaard’s The Human Scale (2012). But there are also titles that capture the urban experience in all its complexity: Davy Chou’s dreamy Diamond Island (2016), set amidst the construction of a luxury plot in Phnom Penh; Thomas Morgan’s Soufra (2017), about an entrepreneurial woman in a refugee camp near Beirut; and Amit Mahanti and Ruchika Negi’s Two Autumns In Wyszogród (2020), which examines the fallout when the wreckage of a Soviet Red Army plane surfaced in a Polish village in 2015. Then there’s the wonderful juxtaposition of Prateek Vats’ Eeb Allay Ooo! (2019) and Sanjeev Shah’s Hun Hunshi Hunshilal (1992), films made 30 years apart but imbued with a similar satirical energy.

Film-maker Subasri Krishnan, who curates for the festival, says over the phone that she hoped the festival going online would open it up for a larger audience, while maintaining the dialogue with attendees. “The conversation has always been an important part of the festival,” she says. Eight of the 18 screenings will include talks with the director—these will be open to public participation. “In the Q&As, some people are slightly hesitant to speak,” she says. “Maybe online will open them up.”

There is a special package of films, curated by Bina Paul, artistic director of the International Film Festival of Kerala: “Works Of Art Are Landscapes Of The Mind”. It’s an eclectic list—from a tender John Berger portrait to Alain Gomis’ vibrant, Kinshasa-set Félicité (2017)—tied to “ideas of memory and its erasure, secrets, discovery of each other and contemplations of death”, says Paul in a curatorial note. She expresses the hope that “these films could probably alter the landscape of a viewer’s mind as all art is meant to do. At this moment when all the world hit by the pandemic is rebooting, perhaps this alteration is what will bring greater understanding, tolerance and joy.”

In addition to the screenings, there will be two panel discussions and two masterclasses. One discussion, “Reflections On Cinematography”, will see cinematographers Fowzia Fathima, Maheen Mirza, Priya Seth and Savita Singh in conversation with academic and former cinematographer Sabeena Gadihoke. The second, “The Many Cinemas Of North-East India”, will have directors Bhaskar Hazarika, Haobam Paban Kumar, Rajni Basumatary, Wanphrang K. Diengdoh and Yapangnaro Longkumer in discussion with film critic Namrata Joshi. The masterclasses are with Malayalam film-maker Anjali Menon (Bangalore Days), talking to journalist Smitha Nair, and Dibakar Banerjee (Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!), in conversation with professor and film-maker Ranjani Mazumdar.

Visit Iihsurbanlens.in for the schedule and films.

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