Film critic and activist Ahmed Muztaba Zamal has travelled to around 60 countries to attend some 150 film festivals. The road to this exciting and unorthodox career wasn’t paved or mapped. The publicity-shy three time critics jury member at the Cannes Film Festival and Berlinale, and two time jury member for the Venice Film Festival, shares with Dhaka Tribune’s Sadia Khalid his many experiences in Cannes, Berlin, and elsewhere
You were a jury member when Tareque Masud’s ‘Matir Moyna’ got the FIPRESCI (International Federation of Film Critics) award in Cannes back in 2002. Are you at liberty to say what the other jury members thought about it?
“Matir Moyna” was in my section. We were four jury members in charge of the Director’s Fortnight. We had to select one film out of maybe 40. There was another strong contender, “Japon” from Mexico, a huge masterpiece. But ultimately “Matir Moyna” won. It was a good achievement for Bangladeshi films.
You went to Cannes this year as well. Was the atmosphere at Cannes different with the #MeToo movement?
There are always some protests or demonstrations in Cannes. Every year issues arise with some directors not getting a visa or being banned. It doesn’t hamper or alter my agendas or my meetings with directors, producers, festival directors, distributors etc. I went there this year like most years. I’m not interested in the red carpet events.
You’ve been to the Cannes Film Festival three times as a critics jury member. At other times, you go there as a festival director or as press. Do you receive preferential treatment when you go as a jury member?
In Cannes, I don’t want to go as a jury member any more. Cannes is a meeting place. You need to meet people and socialize. If you’re a jury member, you’re in an auditorium all the time. You miss everything.
How many movies do you need to see?
No less than 35 to 40 films. I went to Cannes as a critics jury member in 2002, 2005 and 2009. Of all the sections in Cannes - competition, out of competition, director’s fortnight, critics’ week - I always prefer the latter two.
So, you prefer to go with other accreditations.
Any accreditation, as press, as a festival director, as a director or producer or in the Marche du Film: whatever it is, if you’re in Cannes, you can see movies, you can meet people, you can go to the parties, you can chat; because everyone goes there. So, if you’re inside the theatre watching movies, then you can’t avail any of those other opportunities.
There are other festivals more suited to watching movies I think; like in the cold cities, like in Berlin in February, it’s better to be a jury and find a warm and cozy place inside the auditorium (laughs). You see, you can’t find everything everywhere. To go as a jury, Berlinale is the best.
You’ve been a jury member at Berlinale twice before. What were the changes you noticed this time after 18 years?
Huge difference. Everything was new for me. It’s a massive festival with state of the art screening facilities. All the auditoriums are sophisticated. You enjoy the screenings more.
Has it expanded?
It has. There are lots of cineplexes and screenings inside and outside auditoriums. I felt Berlin is more vigilant about screening than even Cannes. But obviously, Cannes has the biggest crowd.
The critics awards always tend to differ vastly from the popular awards. What are the criteria you pay attention to when judging a film?
I learned the philosophy the first time I was a jury member in Berlin back in 1998. At that time, our head of jury was a legendary British film critic Derek Malcolm. There was a super masterpiece film, “Central Do Brasil,” directed by Walter Salles. This film was so strong, we thought it must win. I was pretty sure we'd award this film as well. I was deciding on the award and many proposed the Brazilian film. But the jury chair smiled and said: “Listen dear colleagues, tomorrow, “Central Do Brasil” will win the “Golden Berlin Bear” award. And also, I am sure that it will be Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars.”
He proposed that together we should find someone from a third world country or a young filmmaker, who needs our recognition. Then we selected one Japanese film about a Geisha. I carry that teaching with me. Critics shouldn’t always go for the blockbuster. That way they can check and balance with the art. A lot of things come into play. You can’t say there are specific universal guidelines for judging.
What are some of the memorable film festivals you’ve been to in your long career as a film critic.
Wherever I go, I enjoy the experience. I started my career in 1991. I’ve been to around 150 film festivals in my life. I’ve been to around 60 countries. What matters to me is who’s accompanying me.
Other than Cannes, Berlin, Venice, Busan is a huge festival. In Busan, I was a jury member back in 2004. In 2006, they screened my documentary, 'Truth and Beyond'. This one documentary of mine was premiered over there.
I enjoy going to a film festival in Italy called “Religion Today Film Festival.” Also in Tehran, there’s Fajr Film Festival. They screen the latest Iranian films. I’ve had a great time at the Kolkata Film Festival because they have the same language and culture. Last year I was at the Kazan Film Festival in Tatarstan in Russia. I saw much diversity, living together in harmony, Churches and Mosques and so many girls with hijab. Azan was sounding from their mosques like in Dhaka.
Has being a Bangladeshi ever been a challenge in voicing your opinion as a judge?
The real fact is in jury, your voice matters, not your nationality. You need the majority to agree (about who should be awarded). You need to discuss with other jury members. Some jury members try to influence the discussion. There are no general rules. You need to observe the script, the making, the dialogues, the acting etc.
In Trento in 2004, most of the jury members loved the Mel Gibson film “The Passion of the Christ.” I thought it relied too much on score and sound effects. Maybe he could get a popular choice award. In the end the other jurors agreed and the film wasn’t awarded.
Becoming a film critic wasn’t a profession many Bangladeshis would know about back when you started out. How did you get into this career?
In 1972 when I was in class 7, I went to the Russian Cultural Centre. Some foreign diplomats were there. Someone asked me: “Are you here to watch a cinema?” The smell of an auditorium, mixing with people from all around the world - it was like a dream world. In 1975, I went to the Indian High Commission to watch a Suchitra Sen film. I saw “Harano Sur” 21 times and became addicted to films.
In the evenings I’d be at one of these cultural centres - Russian, German, or Indian. In 1985, after I became the General Secretary of the Rainbow Film Society, with my vibrant activities, in 1991, the Director of the German Cultural Centre Ms. Lechner told me: “I think you’re different and I like how you work. Would you like to go to a film festival in Germany?” I was surprised. She asked me to see her the next morning. “Do you want to go to Berlin or Munich?” she asked. Then I went to the Munich Film Festival in 1991. It was a huge leap for me. I started the Dhaka International Film Festival (DIFF) in 1992, inspired by this festival.
In 1993, I invited Adoor Gopalakrishnan to attend the Dhaka International Film festival. He was very happy to attend our festival in Dhaka. Then while I was attending Indian International Film Festival in Kolkata in January 1994, I met him again. He then invited me to dinner where Derek Malcolm was also present. During the dinner, Derek proposed that I should open a FIPRESCI branch in Bangladesh. He advised me to stick to 6-7 like-minded members to minimize internal friction.
In January 28, 1994, with Professor Kabir Chowdhury, Shantosh Gupta, Professor Dr. Mohammad Moniruzzaman, and a few other people, we held the first meeting of IFCAB (International Film Critics Association of Bangladesh). I became a FIPRESCI Jury for the first time in 1998 for Berlinale.
After Munich, it was the 15 year anniversary of the Rainbow Film Society when we started DIFF in 1992. We only had one foreign guest even during the second edition but now we have around 100. DIFF has already made its mark in the South Asian film festivals calendar.