Camel(s)

In Geoff Bowie’s The Universal Clock: the Resistance of Peter Watkins (Canada, 2001), which screened at the 4th Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema (BAFICI), the notion that the contemporary documentary, and audio-visual mass media for that matter, had become a homogenized, customized commodity, less about revealing reality and more about concealing it, more about determining audience’s thoughts and feelings rather then allowing such thoughts and feelings to shape the viewing experience, was powerfully conveyed. An opposition was quickly set up in Bowie’s documentary between the work of Peter Watkins (The War Game [1965], The Commune (Paris, 1871) [2000]), who considers filmmaking a political, revolutionary act, and the kind of “product” that is bought and sold at MIP TV Cannes each year by companies such as Discovery International. In the former, history is retold in a manner that pushes the format (The Commune runs over 6 hours), that involves a re-enactment by those who genuinely believe in, and learn from, the project (non-professionals ‘star’ in The Commune and, during interviews with Bowie, talk eloquently about mass media control, the ‘sleeping majority’ and the question of whether reform or even a revolution akin to the Commune uprising in 1871, Paris is possible today). The latter, however, is informed by customisation at every level. As a producer from Discovery International explains, only those documentaries that conform to the 47.5 minute duration for a standard commercial one-hour documentary and 23.5 minutes for a half hour documentary are bought. Such strictly defined durations have the requisite advertising time already built into them, so that the system of TV distribution run by sales agents and network programmers can run as smoothly as possible with a product that already fits their requirements. The powerful though bleak message of The Universal Clock was that mass media presents its audience with packaged, streamlined images and sounds that don’t test its expectations, that reinforce what it already knows, maintains the status quo. On the contrary, it is filmmakers like Peter Watkins that pierce this bubble of complacency and complicity with works of art that are demanding, unconventional, committed, and passionate.

I would see the Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema as the ‘Peter Watkins’ of film festivals. It doesn’t look to the cinema to have its worldview flattered or appeased by an affirmation of already held ideas or values, rather it seeks from cinema the element of discovery, surprise, shock, challenge, revelation, to be confronted with that which is conventionally hidden, and to appreciate both past and present landmarks in cinema history. I immediately detected this approach of openness toward film as both an art form and political instrument soon after I arrived in Buenos Aires: from the director’s statement in the Festival catalogue to the program notes to the program itself to the various activities and initiatives organized by the Festival to conversations with local cinephiles, most of whom were involved in the Festival somehow or another. In terms of the program itself, there were many films that fell under the category of “unconventional, committed and passionate”, the kinds of films that you would only see in a Festival context, such as Peter Watkins’ La Commune (Paris, 1871), Leslie Thornton’s Peggy and Fred in Hell (1985-2001), Danièle Huillet & Jean-Marie Straub’s Operai, Contadini (2000) and Sicilia! (1999), Pedro Costa’s No quarto da Vanda (2000), Michael Snow’s *Corpus Callosum (2002), just to name a few. I suspect that this particular approach toward cinema as an exciting, grand medium full of possibilities and promise – one that is separate to and should not be enslaved by marketplace demands or logic – is part of a larger approach toward culture and knowledge in Buenos Aires in general, which Jonathan Rosenbaum touches on in his Prologue, reprinted in this issue, to the “Movie Mutations” book launched at the Festival, when he refers to Buenos Aires as “embodying the magic of a cosmopolitan city”, an energetic, bustling place for the exchange of ideas and thoughts.

The un-compromised commitment to cinema and to the purpose of a film festival was especially demonstrated by the fact that those organizing the event faced incredible odds: an economy in crisis, and a severe reduction in government funding – considerations which threatened to undo the Festival completely right up until 3 weeks prior to its scheduled commencement were it not for the assistance and support provided by key players in the international film community, most notably the Directors’ Fortnight (Quinzaine des Rialisateurs), Cannes, and the International Film Festival Rotterdam. Though the limited budget had some ramifications, for example, not all films were subtitled in English (a minor drawback really when you consider the video library available for members of the press stocked most of the films on tape with English subtitles), BAFICI lived up to its reputation as a major international film festival totally committed to ‘independent’ cinema and to fostering a warm and friendly community environment in which critics, filmmakers and programmers from around the world are brought together. In addition, the size of the program, the high audience attendance numbers, the number of international guests and the many Festival activities kept the event an exciting and energetic one.

Some of the Festival’s initiatives included a daily newsletter containing articles, interviews, and highlights that was printed and distributed throughout the key venues. Others included the publication and launching of books at the Festival, two of which included: Movie Mutations – Cartas de cine (Ediciones Nuevos Tiempos, 2002) and New Argentine Cinema – Themes, Auteurs and Trends of Innovation (Fipresci Argentina, 2002). The former contains in Spanish both the original and second series of the “Movie Mutations” letters, covering a time span from 1997 to 2002. The Prologue to this publication is re-published in English in this issue. The Director of BAFICI, Quintín, also a film critic and editor of El Amante Cine, instigated the second series and also proposed the idea to translate and publish the letters in Spanish and launch the book at the Festival. Quintín’s long-time interest in the “Movie Mutations” letters is evident in his efforts to bring the original Mutants together to the Festival in 2001 and again in 2002. Though my experience of film festivals is quite limited, I have never before encountered such a genuine interest and commitment on the part of a film festival to film criticism as a global and enabling phenomenon nor such collaboration between a film festival and critics (for example, there were many films in the program and special activities that originated from the ideas and tastes of certain critics). The second book, New Argentine Cinema, published in both English and Spanish, is a collection of informative and passionate essays written by local critics that tackle various aspects (cultural, industrial, aesthetic) of contemporary Argentine cinema, and is an excellent introduction to this new, young cinema.

Though the program at Buenos Aires was large and diverse, it was very much cinephile driven with a wealth of retrospectives (Hou Hsiao-hsien, Pedro Costa, Straub-Huillet, Raúl Perrone and Hugo Santiago), director focuses (Kim Ki-duk, Miike Takashi, Avi Mograbi, Manoel de Oliveira, Alexander Sokurov, Straub-Huillet, Leslie Thornton), a section on new Argentine cinema and various other spotlights and special sections. The theme of political documentary and anti-globalisation was discernable across the program as well as a commitment to experimental cinema (including a special impromptu Len Lye presentation by the producers of The Bank, significantly the only Australian film playing at the Festival).

Audiences at BAFICI were treated to the “the complete cycle” of Leslie Thornton’s Peggy and Fred in Hell, a project begun in 1983 and since then continually added to, extended, and revised with new footage. It’s an exemplary illustration of the theme of cinema as a ‘parallel universe’, one that is continually evolving and existing alongside the ‘real world’. I believe the project is still ‘in progress’ with new footage involving interviews with the key protagonists, Peggy and Fred, who are now much older, to be added. Peggy and Fred in Hell is a complex, fascinating meditation on the industrial-technological world, nature, popular culture, and narrative and cinema, in short, the whole twentieth century Western world. As an experimental work, it is a collage of found footage (my favourite being a tracking shot of an industrial, manufacturing warehouse from a panoramic viewpoint with the soundtrack consisting of a music track being played in reverse) and Thornton’s own footage with an equally inventive and textured soundtrack (ranging from mambo to dialogue from Polanski’s The Tenant). Scenes of waterfalls, penguins, and industrial workplaces are interspersed with extended sequences of young Peggy and Fred, Thornton’s real-life neighbours at the time she began the project, who we mainly see in confined spaces of a home, singing, acting and performing in mannered, fascinating ways.

It’s easy to see how Thornton became captivated by these highly expressive, performative children whose behaviour appears completely unaffected by the presence of the camera: in his tightly fitted, white suit, young Fred sings a pop tune, or later pretends a killer is on the phone; whilst young Peggy, in a short dress, sings Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean” and dances wildly later. There is a barrage of signs throughout these scenes: these young children seem not only to be enacting codes of adult behaviour but also those of popular culture. And the fact that they inhabit spaces that are elaborately cluttered with consumer objects and ‘junk’ suggests a kind of post-apocalyptic space and time in which everything is out of kilter and jumbled. There is a science-fiction theme when Peggy and Fred finally exit what appears to be an underground shelter to explore the outside world. But the expectation of narrative is completely subverted: Peggy and Fred in Hell, which literally starts over and over, that is, its opening title and first scene is played forward and then back continually, in its own unique way poses more questions then it ever answers. Rosenbaum, who introduced the screening, sees the film as “a protracted meditation on technology as nightmare”, an illuminating comment when you also consider that Peggy and Fred is some kind of response by Thornton to her father’s involvement in the development of the Atomic bomb. But this complex, evolving text defies any straight, linear reading, and as Rosenbaum, aptly suggests: “What we finally have to ask about Thornton’s perverse, de-centered labyrinth isn’t whether she’s found a jumble or created one, but whether there’s any significant distinction between these two processes”.

Ouvrières du monde

Continuing its commitment to critical viewpoints on the current state of world affairs, the Festival hosted a section called “Globalisation and Barbarism”, comprised of documentaries from Argentina, France, America, and Great Britain that often functioned as case-studies illustrating the main tenets outlined by Naomi Klein in her No Logo, a guest at the Festival several years ago. One particular highlight was Marie-France Collard’s Ouvrières du monde (Women workers of the world, 2000), which documented the closing of Levi jeans factories in Belgium and France and their re-opening in Turkey and Indonesia, where labour is cheap, workers rights are nil, protest is strongly suppressed and the workplace is ruled via intimidation. This was an extremely moving documentary not for the fact that it played on the audience’s heartstrings but for the manner in which it simply and directly revealed the way things are, the nature in which multinationals will pursue the profit line at the cost of the quality of human life. Related was the spotlight “History live”, which showcased documentaries from around the world about moments in world history of racial and religious intolerance, and including works like The Universal Clock, Spike Lee’s A Huey P. Newton Story (2001), and Jean-Louis Comolli’s The Judge and the Historian (2001).

The crop of new Argentine cinema, which screened at BAFICI, was an eclectic mix of genres (documentary and fiction), style (experimental and narrative) and subject matter. In terms of documentary, there was the playful and poetic Balnearios (Mariano Llinás, 2002), about seaside resorts and their place in the local popular imagination, Ciudad di María (Enrique Bellande, 2001), an ironic portrait of faith and religion in a small town, and which won the Jury prize, La televisión y yo (Andrés Di Tella, 2002), about the rise of television and industry in Argentina, and others with an explicitly political agenda (H.I.J.O.S. El alma en dos [Carmen Guarini and Marcelo Céspedes, 2002] and Las Palmas, Chaco [Alejandro Fernández Mouján, 2002]). Whilst those such as Todo juntos (Federico León, 2002) and Cabeza de palo (Ernesto Baca, 2002) experimented with forms of storytelling and extreme characters, both were also limited by the heavy-handedness of their approaches. More mainstream fare included A Lucky Day (Sandra Gugliotta, 2002), about a young Argentine woman whose state of dissatisfaction and restlessness is triggered into action when she falls for an Italian man with whom she had a one-night stand and decides to travel to Italy to find him. Unfortunately, the story shared the same degree of naiveté and shallowness of its main character. El Cumple (Gustavo Postiglione, 2002), a real crowd-pleaser, traced the events of one night at a birthday party in which the normal rivalries, jealousies, anxieties and desires between friends and couples surface. Likewise, this was a superficial film, filled with clichéd situations and stereotypes. One of the most interesting films was underground Argentine filmmaker, Raúl Perrone’s Late un corazón (2002), which had a strong sense of place and time, and which received an Honourable Mention by the Jury. Daniela Espejo discusses some of these films at length in this issue.

The competition section of the program included either first or second films by a director. One highlight was Ulrich Köhler’s Bungalow (Germany, 2002), about a young soldier, Paul, who decides to desert the army, kickback at his parent’s holiday home where he finds his older brother and his girlfriend, develops a crush on the latter, and is then pursued by the miliary authorities and forced to return to service. A friend, with whom I later discussed the film, made two important points: that it’s an ingenious slacker film and that it’s marked by a strong sense of rhythm. For a film in which the director’s regard is detached and understated, the element of rhythm is all-important, since it’s what allows the film – on a formal level – to sow itself together. The sheer precision in the duration and design of shots as well as the placement of the camera – and the manner in which all this was orchestrated to reflect the shifting relations between characters – meant that Bungalow worked by emphasising cinema’s attributes as plastic artform. This film benefited greatly from a second viewing, after which I grasped the depth of its minimal architecture and the subtlety of its themes – feelings of isolation and dislocation, connection and desire, disaffection as a modern condition. With the help of a strong and mainly silent central performance, which won the best actor award from the Jury, Bungalow captures a moment along a journey in a young man’s life with haunting precision.

Similar was The Mars Canon (Japan, 2001) by Shiori Kazama, a beautiful and measured film about a young woman, Kinuko, in a relationship with a married man, who treats her rather insensitively: devoting only one night a week to her, disregarding her feelings of love for him, and satisfying his own pleasure of having a ‘second’ woman. A female friend, who is discovered to be in love with her, forces Kinuko to examine this relationship and the loneliness it causes her. Directed by a woman, about a young woman’s desires trampled on by an older man, and the self-destructive trap which women easily fall into, The Mars Canon is a sensitive, even-handed, and subtle feminist text that totally won me over.

Another noteworthy entry in the competition section was Park Ki-yong’s Camel(s) (South Korea, 2001). Similar to Virgin Stripped Bare by her Bachelors (Hong Sang-soo, 2000) in certain respects – both shot in black and white (though Virgin in sumptuous 35mm; Camel(s) in grainy digital); both make use of public spaces like hotel rooms and restaurants as sites for private, sexually intimate moments; and both linger on the often awkward and unspoken nature of intimate exchanges and moments between new couples. Where they differ is in their style and chosen storytelling form: Camel(s) is an exercise in dialogue minimalism, almost every scene in which the new couple are seen having sex, driving, or sitting together unfolds in silent, long takes. The silent, bleak sensibility that wraps this film is perhaps an index of the alienation and isolation that each character feels and the program notes compared Camel(s) to early Antonioni because of the way it creates “a tension between the surface and inner reality”. The film’s narrative reticence also seems to be an experiment with the way in which emotion and states of feeling are represented or telegraphed in the cinema; opting for a method in which the viewer enters this world and its characters precisely through sharing their space and time, both dimensions which Camel(s) exacerbates and protracts through the long, still take.

Taking home the best new director award was Michael Gilio for Kwik Stop (US, 2001), an amusing, endearing variation on what seems to be a specifically American cultural sentiment articulated well by Bruce Springsteen in his classic song “Born to Run”: the dreams on the part of young, hopefuls from small-town America aiming for stardom, fame and eternity in Hollywood. A young, handsome man (played by the director), modelled on James Dean, inadvertently picks up a young, brash, tough though idealistic woman on his way to Hollywood; in the car, it’s not long before they’re comparing movie and music references. Kwik Stop quickly sets up a familiar set of motifs and expectations – hip young things, true love, the road to the future – but just as quickly subverts and reworks these. The story proceeds along a series of unexpected detours, love is found in the most unexpected of places, characters are sometimes inconsistent and irrational, and the story ends with an air of maturity about life and love, redemption and fulfilment. Kwik Stop is a highly entertaining and refreshing variant on the US indy: the performances balance sentimentality and irony well and the plot steers clear of predictable genre moves or trickery. I loved its B-grade ambience and the fact that it never pretended to be more then it was: a story about love and reality vs. the dream. There was also a good dose of other examples of American cinema, such as Bully, Domestic Violence, Storytelling, Abel Ferrara’s hypnotic R-Xmas and Richard Linklater’s excellent Tape.

The main jury prize went to the Italian film Tornando a casa (Vincenzo Marra, 2001), a socially conscious work. In fact, there was a whole section in the program devoted to contemporary Italian cinema, especially from the Neapolitan region, which has seen a cinematic resurgence. The only film I sat through at Buenos Aires that didn’t have English subtitles was Youssef Chahine’s, Silence…We’re Rolling (Eygpt/France 2001); whether or not I understood the dialogue was secondary to the magnificent colour and music of this film, which was absolutely joyous.

One of the “special activities” organised by the Festival was a “master class” with Jonathan Rosenbaum, in which he showed two extremely rare, favourite films of his, and then discussed them afterwards. One was a clip from Lev Kuleshov’s The Great Consoler (1933) and the other was The House is Black (1962), a dream-like, haunting documentary about a leprosy colony in Iran, made by the highly revered female Iranian poet and one-time film director, Forugh Farrokhzad. It was a rare and precious opportunity to see this 22-minute, black and white film, which contained rather disturbing images of lepers punctuated with two types of voice-over: a dispassionate male voice delivering factual information and Farrokhzad herself reciting her own poetry in a tonal register that moved me to the bone. Rosenbaum compared the film to Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) in terms of both of their “radical humanism”; the force of The House is Black lay precisely in the manner in which Farrokhzad filmed her subjects, which did not posit them as objects of the grotesque or aberrations to be pitied. And yet the film’s tone captured the sad, complex and lamentable nature of their situation. In only 22-minutes, it served as a revelation, and two of Rosenbaum’s preliminary points became clear after the screening: that this was a seminal film for the Iranian New Wave and a key example of cinema’s capacity for social awareness and change.

*Corpus Callosum

Continuing the experimental slant was Michael Snow’s magnificent *Corpus Callosum, where the audience is able to share the filmmaker’s thrilling and wildly imaginative play with digitally created reality. In radically transforming and reconfiguring everyday, recognisable environments, such as the workplace and the TV living room, and subjecting each of their constituent elements to serious digital morphing and ‘elasticisation’, Snow also hilariously comments on and reveals the absurdity of such everyday environments, such as the moment when two people approach the same doorway and there is that awkward ambivalence about who is going to give way to whom; Snow solves the problem by forming them into a block sized to the same proportions of a doorway. Or the seemingly central mode of being in the contemporary world of staring endlessly into a screen (whether it be TV or the computer) or the logic of monotonous, regimented activity in the workplace, which at one point is wildly exaggerated when a couple of workers begin a series of endless jumping jacks, that take on their own independent beat and rhythm, and the role-playing at work and at home. This was breathtaking stuff.

Contemporary French art cinema was present at BAFICI with Laurent Cantet’s L’emploi du temps (2001), Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day (2001), Jean-Luc Godard’s Éloge de l’amour (2001) and Philippe Garrel’s fascinating Sauvage Innocence (2001). The only way to see the latter is as intended: in Cinema Scope, on the big screen. Many have pointed out the autobiographical elements of the film and also what is new about it in relation to Garrel’s previous work, so I will concentrate on my own personal response here. Sauvage Innocence transfixed me from the very first frame; although Garrel can be accused of being morally irresponsible and even lazy, and although its story is almost impossible (how can a director be that ignorant of his surroundings?), Sauvage Innocence proceeded with such a fascinating inexorable logic and fate whereby its world was turned upside down with shocking swiftness and ease. Suddenly what were two mutually exclusive realms – an anti-drug film vs. the world of drugs; the promise of innocence, hope and youth vs. death and destruction; performance vs. reality – collapsed into each other and did so via the merging together of two films, two planes of reality: the film Sauvage Innocence and the film within the film. This formal control, so that the characters themselves are suddenly shocked by the turn of events and the swift reversal of their universe, was astounding.

Another indisputable Festival highlight was Oliveira’s I’m Going Home (2001), and the best film in a recent crop devoted to the theme of losing someone close and the grieving process (In the Bedroom, The Son’s Room, Monster’s Ball). The beauty and humanity of Oliveira’s film lay in its humility: although the main character, played flawlessly by Michel Piccoli, suffers a great loss, he comes to terms with it seemingly by accepting it and, in doing so, also achieves a perfect harmony with the world itself: its small pleasures and its moments that he instinctively knows either work for him or against him. Piccoli’s harmony with the world around him in fact makes others look completely foolish and arrogant. Oliveira of course never shows Piccoli directly grappling with his loss, which means we cannot assume that he ever does undergo any sort of crisis. Humility is the watchword of this film, and it finds a perfect match in Oliveira’s shooting style, so that an entire scene in which Piccoli talks about his loss at the prompting of a blunt, presumptuous friend, comprises a close-up shot of his new shoe.

On one evening, I went from a screening of Straub-Huillet’s magnificent Sicilia! to Pedro Costa’s Où est votre sourire enfoui, an obvious but highly rewarding double bill. I can still recall the marked rhythm and vocal intonation of the performances in Sicilia!, as well as the odd story itself and its take on Southern Italy that I had never before encountered. Costa’s documentary was superb in illustrating the manner in which the Straub-Huillet’s build and create a very definite sense of reality in each shot with such great care and patience.

And in a Festival program as diverse, large and exciting as this one, the highlights continue: the wild Teenage Hooker Became Killing Machine (Nam Ki-woong, 2000) that destroys any sense of logic and cultural taste to create its own unique, eccentric universe; the amazing, intricate and beautiful films of Peter Tscherkassky – L’Arrivée (1997/98), Dream Work (2002) and Outer Space (1999); and the storytelling economy of Jean Epstein’s La belle nivernaise (1923). And I haven’t even begun to talk about the parties …