This month, I am off to Cannes.
I like throwing that phrase around casually. For a second, it sounds oh-so-glamorous. Right now you are probably thinking of a montage of scenes centred around yachts, beaches, and champagne. Please allow me to derail that train of thought. I am a programmer who attends the Cannes International Film Festival to scout for films and meet the people who are in the business of making and selling them. I have never come within hugging distance of any major Hollywood star there (although last year I did see the back of Ryan Gosling’s head, walking a mere 400 metres from me). The one time I got onto a yacht, I got seasick and I may have had to get into a staring match with some doormen to enter the many luxury brand stores that line the Croisette. So when I say Cannes, the picture in my brain is nothing like the one in yours.
Film festivals are like that. Poised right at the intersection of cinema, glamour, travel, and food, they are connected to the cities they inhabit, yet they have their own energy, vibe, and ideology. I highly recommend trekking to the ones listed here to experience why thousands of people migrate to them every year, almost like devotees who find themselves on a pilgrimage.
The Mumbai Film Festival, or MAMI as it’s popularly known, is the youngest on this list. Three years ago, it was about to be discontinued due to lack of funds when a team led by journalist Anupama Chopra and filmmaker Kiran Rao stepped in to galvanise support and money to keep it going. It has since grown by leaps and bounds. MAMI starts the film festival calendar in India and only screens India premieres. This means that every cinephile, writer, actor, assistant director and filmmaker worth his or her salt in Mumbai takes a few days off work and braves Mumbai traffic to cram as many films as possible in one day. Regardless of what kind of cinema you veer towards, MAMI will have a section for you. Indie, genre, world cinema, restored classics, children’s films; it’s all there. For the more populist palette there is the Movie Mela. You can also catch masterclasses with stalwarts like Jia Jhangke, Cary Fukanaga, and Catherine Deneuve. MAMI has venues all over the city. There’s nothing quite like watching the latest Asghar Farhadi film with fellow movie fans in an art-deco theatre like the Regal in Colaba. (www.mumbaifilmfestival.com.)
Year of Inception: 1997
Festival Hub: PVR Icon
Average no. of films screened: 200+
Average no. of people attending: 10,000+
Unanimously crowned the “happiest film festival” Toronto International Film Festival’s unpretentious personality is first made obvious by its friendly acronym—TIFF. Over the years, the festival has become a hub for premiering American and Canadian cinema. It is also one to reckon with come Oscar season. It’s attended by all leading Hollywood studios and talent. Beyond the movies (which are excellent) and the glitz (there is a lot of that), TIFF is a festival that genuinely wants to embrace everyone. That spirit shines through in the hundreds of festival volunteers. TIFF also has the coolest festival merchandise that ranges from brooches to coffee cups to cameras. While the festival is going on, TIFF converts a section of King’s Street in Toronto to a pedestrian-only zone called “Festival Street”, which is choc-a-bloc with buskers, pop up shops, and food trucks, and free concerts. Also recommended is a trip to the Toronto Islands, which is only a 15-minute ferry ride from downtown Toronto. (www.tiff.net.)
Year of Inception: 1986
Festival Hub: TIFF Bell Lightbox
Average no. of films screened: 400+
Average no. of people attending: 5,00,000+
The Berlinale is another leading film festival in Europe that becomes a global agent for cinema each year. Drawing on the legacy and baggage that comes with Germany, it’s carved an identity for itself by consistently curating cinema that is political and addresses critical issues like migration, race, refugees and climate change. In 2015, Ai Weiwei festooned the pillars of the Konserthauswith with 14,000 refugee life vests. Last year, German politician Claudia Roth walked the red carpet wearing a gown that said “Unpresidented”.
Berlin is a city that remembers history. So pieces of the Berlin Wall which came down in 1989 are framed all over the city. You can also visit Checkpoint Charlie which was the most famous crossing point from East to West Berlin and is still patrolled by actors dressed as border guards (€1/`70 for a selfie with them). Also spend some time visiting the Topography of Terror, a museum that is built on the site that used to be the headquarters of the Gestapo.
It’s not all grim though. Berlin is an affordable city with a thriving cultural scene. One could spend a whole day just viewing the incredible graffiti that is everywhere. The food is cheap and comes from all over the world. Once you’ve had the currywurst which is almost the national dish, check out Johnny’s Bar in Zimmerstraße for the Jamaican fare and Linh Linh near MGB (Martin Gropius Bau) for some sumptuous Vietnamese food.
The large Turkish community in Berlin also means the falafel and the doner kebabs are delectable across the board. If you’re in the mood for some pub hopping, Berlin has an astounding selection of beer. Hop over to the hip Kreuzberg district to drink the night away. Also recommended is the flea market at Mauerpark that takes place every Sunday. Independent German artists set up stalls and sell everything from handmade posters to jewellery at prices. The only downside to all this is that it is freezing during the festival, so pack your woollies. (www.berlinale.de.)
Year of Inception: 1951
Festival Hub: Berlinale Palast
Average no. of films screened: 400+
Average no. of people attending: 20,000+
The state of Texas does not immediately seem like an ideal setting for a film festival. But over the last 30 years, its capital Austin has been countering that notion successfully with SXSW (South By South West). It has a unique format with three bifurcations that focus on film, technology, and music. Led by the spirit of discovery, SXSW is a great place to see upcoming films, bands, and technology. The 2007 SXSW was a turning point for Twitter which got a lot of traction and came into public awareness there. SXSW has become a U.S. cultural fixture and former U.S. President Barack Obama even gave a keynote interview here in 2016. The festival is also the backdrop for Terrence Malick’s latest film Song to Song. SXSW features sidebars like the Southwest Invasion which is a three-day concert series that takes place on the rooftop of a Whole Foods Store. If you feel like partaking in some local flavour, try the Tex Mex at Tamale House East and visit the Rodeo Austin which comes to town during the festival in March. (www.sxsw.com.)
Year of Inception: 1984
Festival Hub: Austin Convention Centre
Average no. of films screened: 150+
Average no. of people attending: 85,000
Cannes is the mother of all film festivals. Every May, over thirty thousand directors, producers, writers, journalists, sales agents, and assorted film professionals descend upon the eponymous town in French Riviera. They network, walk the red carpet, pitch films, and try and watch some of the over 180 films that are screened here as part of the official selection. As a festival, Cannes is so exclusive—some would say haughty—that you can attend it only if you’re connected to cinema professionally or are a member of the press. But not to despair, the festival also has some fantastic sidebars like the Director’s Fortnight (which Anurag Kashyap regularly features on) and Critic’s Week for which the general public can buy tickets.
If you do manage to swing yourself an accreditation or place your faith in swinging some last-minute film tickets, Cannes is a town that has much to offer. During the ten days of the festival, the sleepy town transforms itself and films take over. The weather is usually perfect with just enough nip in the air to save one from being broiled. The beach is only 10 minutes away. But to experience Cannes in all its glory, one must set aside hours to stargaze and people-watch. The best place to do this is right outside the Palais des Festivals where all the red carpets take place or in the lobbies of hotels like the JW Marriott, Carlton, or the Grand Martinez where all the A-listers stay. It’s quite normal to see people dressed from head to toe in couture, walking casually down the road as they make their way from the red carpet to the first of many parties of the night. You might also spot your favourite art-house filmmaker in one of the many restaurants opposite the two-kilometre long Croisette. Do try out some authentic Provençal cuisine and pack your walking shoes. Cannes is best covered on foot and cars are prohibitively expensive. Although the Uber in Cannes does have a helicopter option, so that’s always there. If you’re a racing enthusiast, Monaco is only an hour away. (www.festival-cannes.com/fr.)
Year of Inception: 1946
Festival Hub: Palais du Festivals
Average no. of films screened: 180+
Average no. of people attending: 30,000+
Kalpana Nair coordinates the film programme at the Mumbai Film Festival. Her work takes her to film festivals all over the world and she moonlights as a freelance writer when the urge strikes. Her travels are always sprinkled with generous doses of cinema.