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A conversation with Selvaggia Velo, River to River Director

A conversation with Selvaggia Velo
Festival Director; ‘River to River’ Florence Indian Film Festival

Wendy Dent

SV: How did it begin? In ’98 I organised an exhibition of Bollywood movie banners. Still Bollywood was not fashion in Europe. And so this was done, and then in ’99 we invited those same painters, artists, to have a live show during the Florentine summer. There are a lot of events during the summer here in Florence, the start of Fiorentina. And so those painters were coming and they had live performances and they painted Italian films in front of the audience. So the audience could see these big 6 x 3m being done in 4 hours from zero to finish of Italian movies, with their Bollywood technique etc. They usually do it for the Indian movies. And during those 10 days of performance, we also had a few screenings of some Indian films, very easily done. I mean in Betacam. But the audience liked it. And then this was ’99.

2000 and 2001 we realised that there were no festivals in the world at that time totally devoted to Indian cinema. A lot of festivals devoted to Asian cinema. But not one devoted to Indian cinema. So in 2001 the first edition of River to River. Very home made I must say. Very home made! But the extraordinary thing was that when we went – the first edition was October. November, now this festival has moved to February, this festival in India, a big film festival in Bombay. So I arrived in Bombay with a catalogue of the first edition. I was going around and all these Indians were completely astonished – “but you have organised an Indian film festival in Florence city? But you are mad!” I mean why, I said? Because Indian city is not powerful enough to have a festival of its own. Its no use to have it mixed up with other Asian.. I mean its Ok. It can manage to have a whole thing of its own. That is how it all began. In 2001. And now our fifth edition.

WD; So you find the films by going to the Indian festival, and finding them from their catalogue?

SV; Mm. I find them from going to the Indian festivals and going to look at for example this Between The Lines, of yesterday. I saw it in Locarno.

WD; Stunning film.

SV; Mm, stunning. And then, now the time is arriving that also films come towards us. And so of course some film directors, writers, look for us. Not in the first years but now yes, since the last year, third year, yes. And then of course since I have a good relationship with the directors so maybe it happens that a director who came here last year or an actor is working on a new film and so he gives me, he says “oh yes I am working on this, its very good”, or “my friend is doing a short film, I gave him your contacts”. So this is all something that goes by word of mouth.

And of course other festival’s catalogues. And then there is this film drama programmer called Uma Da Cunha and she also gives me contacts, she is a film programmer for Toronto. And she also helps me a lot, she gives me contacts. She knows everyone in Bombay.

WD; So do you draw a line or is it very open that a film can have say an Indian character, an Indian actor, or it has to be an Indian producer .. because I noticed a lot of them are from the USA or Germany. How do you define it?

SV; It has to have something of India. The director. Not the producer. Lets say.. the director or some protagonists, main characters of the film have to be Indian. For example most of the short films, some short films are shot by non-Indians but the protagonists are Indians. Or a short from an arriving, not a residential India, people who live in Canada or whatever. Because they are Indian. Or there is a lot, also, I don’t know if you saw ‘Turn Left At The End of the World’. And that film I adored. And in some way I have to make it go in! And the way it is shot, he is an Israeli director, but one of the main characters is the father, he is Indian. Of course its living with the Indian family and the others. So that is how I managed to put it inside the programming. So everything that concerns India in some way.

We have quite a few documentaries, like Between The Lines, of European directors, on India or Indian issues. For India of course we include also Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh. And yes we have ‘Daughters of Everest’ from Nepal. The documentary on the Sheipa women. And the first year we were very very ‘the director has to be Indian, the subject’ and everything, but now going on you are from India, you are more open minded. You have to be open minded.

WD; I am curious, because you have very much broken the idea of India being about Bollywood movies, which are to be celebrated. But what do you think is the special thing about Indian cinema then which is different to other cinemas of the world?

SV; I think it has also a lot of things in common with Italian cinema. In India, I mean family is very important. Indians have quite a few values that are quite in common with them, like the family. And if you go to India each filmmaker, of course this is all over the world, but in India its really mad, they have studied really really well and they love all the neo-realismo.

So of course I see a lot of films and I have to choose the good ones because not all are… there are still films which talk about a little story in a rural village, shot very slowly. Of course I don’t want to screen only films that take place in a city, that are quick and that. But its very difficult to find the good film that is shot in a little village. A rural story lets say. They are still quite backwards in that kind of way. So that is difficult to be seen by an audience that is not the audience of that region, of where the film has been shot.

And no, I think Indian cinema is completely.. its able to speak globally. And modern. It’s a thing of nowadays. So they are able to speak about a lot of themes that can touch everyone. And that are common to a lot of things. And so this is why I think it can be seen and appreciated by everyone.

WD; Then what is your favourite film? I noticed you liked Turn Left At the End of the World, which is very special.

SV; Yes but there are the other directors!

WD; Ok yes, so you can’t comment! Ok let me ask you a different question then! So if you could invite any person for next year, without a budget problem, any person famous or not, what would be your dream to have a special guest?

SV; The thing of the festival, one of the aims of the festival is to promote young people. So people who are the first, at their first festival. So they are not famous. So I don’t have oh I would love to invite Robert de Niro lets say. Of course maybe I would love to invite Shabana Azmi to have a retro on her. She is a very good actress, she is in her 50s, and she plays the role of the elder sister in 15 Park Avenue. Or Aparna Sen, the director of 15 Park Avenue, who also directed ‘Mr. and Mrs. Iyer’, a film that is beautiful. So again they are not Bollywood people. But you need a budget to invite them anyway.

WD; And you are getting a lot of people to the festival, its great. Actually every screening I have been to, it has been full. How do you manage this, it’s a festival directors dream yes!

SV; First of all I always go around, for example from the 16th of December, the 15th the festival finishes, I will go around for months with 3 catalogues of the festival 2005 in my bag. So wherever I go, I go on vacation to Istanbul I bring with me the catalogues. This I always do. And some little pieces of paper where there are written the new dates of the festival, the website etc etc. And I leave this anywhere I go. It’s a habit. Especially if I go to festivals.

For example I met a boy here, he found one of my little yellow papers written in black at Locarno film festival and he came over. Its not of course that we aren’t also doing advertisements on the radio and on the newspapers, but this thing of leaving everything everywhere and then I have been sending it all over in Italy for people to put in the various cities. I think in some way it helps in some way somehow.

WD; Well congratulations. It seems to be going very well. And I love the idea of the midnight shorts. Tell me about that, its very special.

SV; We had this gap, and f course we could have screened them at 11.30, because we could have. But I said lets do that because its different. Lets do the midnight shorts. Because its nice.

Wendy Dent
Florence, Italy
12 December 2005


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