In a corner of the sprawling Kerala Sangeetha Natak Akademi ground in Thrissur, Mexican film producer Fernanda Robinson is busy entertaining a small crowd with her Mayan trumpet. On the other side of the hall, youngsters are queuing to taste jack fruit payasam (kheer). Everyone talks about cinema passionately, but there is none of the glitz and glamour of Goa’s annual film fest. That has its benefits.
There is no celebrity culture at the Vibgyor International Short and Documentary Film Festival, the largest alternative film festival in south Asia — no red carpet, paparazzi or designer dresses. Instead, the neglected, the counter-cultural, amateurs and students get an audience here.
Vibgyor, in its 10th edition, was started with the objective of creating a parallel movement where everyone could be heard and seen. It gets its name from the seven organisations that came together to create the common platform, says co-founder Benny Benedict, a priest and head of the Chetna Media Institute in Thrissur, adding that Vibgyor is an affirmation of faith in democracy and equality. “Every edition is getting stronger and more popular. It is our firm conviction that diversity, not uniformity, is the basis of beauty.”
The fest has come a long way since its debut in 2006; its latest edition featured 130 screenings and 3,000 visitors daily, with participants from 26 countries.
True Fernanda, producer of the 57-minute documentary Maguey, brought her four-feet-long trumpet with her all the way from Mexico to help tell her story of the maguey tree, once an essential part of the indigenous landscape and now declared endangered by the UN.
“Maguey sap is similar to that of toddy and neera. We have many things in common. Please do not allow the coconut to face the fate of the maguey,” she told a spirited audience after the screening of her documentary.
During the six days of the festival, from February 16 to 21, thousands attended the screenings of other such short films and documentaries, ranging in length from four minutes to 120.
“This is a space for people to speak in many tongues, in different tunes, with many textures. Here, little whispers can be heard and can stir great ideas and emotions,” says festival director Surabhi Sharma, a short-film producer. “Vibgyor has taken care to keep the spirit of difference alive.”
The range of films on offer was wide and varied. The opening film, To Singapore, With Love (Chinese) by Tin Pin Pin, had failed to get the censor nod in Singapore. Freedom for Asia Bibi, another notable entry, tells the true-life story of a Pakistani Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy. While Sojan Babu’s Ache Din took on the political leadership, Ashok Tankk’s 11-minute film Down the Drain explored the horrific work lives of drainage workers.
“What’s great about the screenings is that, after each show, the audience can ask the director questions and debate issues if they wish,” said 24-year-old filmmaker Maneesh Kurup, whose 12-minute film Ithu Vikkuvinte Katha (This is the Story of Vikku) was screened at the festival. “This is how you learn. I made this film with a mere Rs 1,500.”
There are no giant screens and no ear-splitting music at Vibgyor. The films are allowed to speak for themselves, and the audience is eager to listen to what they have to say.
“Here everyone has a space. Despite growing, Vibgyor hasn’t altered its nature,” says theatre artiste K Sarath, a regular at Vibgyor.
Adds Anusha Paul, 23, a post-graduate journalism student from Kochi: “A festival ought to involve the entire community, not just the elite. And that is what Vibgyor does. There is no rat race for trophies here. It is an atmosphere of democratic sharing and learning.”