A Dirty Story (1977)25 March – 5 April 2009

The inscrutable figure of an unblinking owl, its fierce gaze seemingly fixed into the camera, staring the audience down or looking through us entirely: Lisandro Alonso’s untitled minute-long festival trailer ascended the ranks of the 11th BAFICI to become downright iconic. Winged heart, beating in the dark. Whether as pitched provocation or relative meditation, the image was implacable in its economy, firmly lodged into the mind amid the gauzy memory of another epically proportioned festival.

A more bizarrely symbolic but no less indelible image came courtesy of Brazilian director Kiko Goifman’s Filmefobia, a fictional account of a documentarian who is confronting willing subjects with their deepest phobias on camera, involving sex of course but also rats and…buttons. The film, which won a special mention in the Cine del Futuro section, opens with a man bound in rope stranded on an empty beach, who is then subjected to tickling by a naked midget arriving out of nowhere. Cut to title credits. Was there a more apt metaphor for filmgoing at BAFICI?

Despite budget cuts, the festival mounted yet another delirious program, now in its second year under the direction of Sergio Wolf, who defines BAFICI in his introductory notes as having an eternally pioneering spirit. That history should bear him out. Undeterred by a political and economic climate anathema to an independent film festival of such broad civic reach, BAFICI soldiered on with gutsy programming that was nevertheless without a particularly strong boost from the native sector. The void was rendered inconspicuous by a wealth of retros y focos that included Jean Eustache and Straub/Huillet while making strong cases for the emerging careers of Kelly Reichardt and Miguel Gomes, among others. Lest any cinephile take such artistic anthropology for granted, keeping this kind of company is increasingly rare in the current festival climate of pimping out star-vehicles and audience friendly attractions. Were such curatorial efforts merely didactic impositions in the name of cinema, BAFICI might be forced to reconsider its emphasis on auteurism. Yet, in an instance of not merely giving the audience what it wants but stimulating its appetite for even more divergent strains of cinema, the festival succeeds in its method of cultivation over consumption. A full house at a late night screening of Jean Eustache’s rare Une Sale Histoire (A Dirty Story, 1977) was utterly indignant about a subtitling misfire, a problem that bespoke less of technicalities than of sheer concern. Likewise, I was touched by the rapt attention paid to a little North American oddity that obviously had some global traction, Andrew Bujalski’s Beeswax – so unceremonious in its milieu and colour pallette, it did not look out of place among the ’70s evocations.

Time hardly seemed to touch the 1970 tour de force from Eustache and Jean-Michel Barjol, le Cochon (The Pig) so thoroughly modern is its approach to the filming of one village pig’s ritual slaughter and subsequent delivery to communal table. The play of carving blades, the crackle of fire, the patois of Massif Central farmers, cigarettes dangling from their lips and blood staining their hands; this medium length portrait anticipates the heightened observational aspect, bordering on fiction, of some current documentary practice and, at the least, the mindset of an emerging food conscious culture. Any vintage context was furnished by the film’s screening in the trenches of the fabled Teatro San Martin (immortalised by Lisandro Alonso’s O Fantasma) now scaffolded but very much in use as one of the city’s premiere arts venues.

From there one traversed the hectic flow of pedestrians and lane-defying traffic that is Corrientes avenue to arrive at the Abastos shopping complex, once a glorious Art Deco market that now houses all manner of chain stores and boutiques, none of which lends themselves conducively to cinema-going other than loitering in between shows in the public privacy of a mall. This is the festival’s official home, with a dozen or so theatres, and an invaluable “meeting point” just adjacent, where press and industry convene for shots of espresso and daily panels worthy of hushed attention. Claire Denis, present with both 35 Rhums (35 Shots of Rum) and L’Intrus (The Intruder, 2004), was reluctantly articulate in dialogue about the virtues of elliptical style, how it can conjure a sense of vitality not by sheer surprise but through the unexpected. “Something that reminds me and the audience that a character is alive, not completely psychologically confined to the narrative… this to me is very striking, beautiful, and vivid.”

If Denis is by now well-situated as an artist it could come at the risk of one presumably ”knowing” her work all too well – the fate of auteurs who’ve consolidated their strengths and continue to make good, even great, films yet no longer stoke the critical senses. Is it the audience, or the artist, who has become inured?

35 Rhums (2008)35 Rhums is her Ozu homage in its wistful familial concerns and spatial configurations of home life; it is something of a return to previous form after the narrative abstraction of L’Intrus; and it is as always a gorgeous thing to behold, with its handsome actors and sumptuous cinematography (Agnès Godard) and melancholic score (Stuart Staples). Familiarity with Denis’ poetry however does not to my mind signal a lack in form nor absence of charged effect. Watching the cryptic and delicate play of a father (Alex Descas) and daughter (Mati Diop) deepening their bond before surrendering to her imminent adulthood is recognisable yet nonetheless voluptuous, emotionally satisfying, and culminates in a bar scene in which Denis orchestrates a minor cosmology of desire in purely ambient terms, sunken in the splendor of the moment as the Commodores’ “Night Shift” ripples like some sexy heartbreak ballad. Who can rival that?

Ah, to be alive in a time when cinema offers such sensual pleasure. If the sentiment seems arch, well, consider it the contact high of film festing. And it owes to how Denis’ films all now seem in hindsight to coalesce around mortality – characters tough, rabidly sexual, or vulnerable like a small rabbit fumbling on cold tile, all under some vague and menacing spell. Was there a legacy, a link, I wondered (intrinsically feminine at that?), which could be traced to other directors like Kelly Reichardt and Ana Poliak, both getting career dues from BAFICI? In the discrete yet definitive way, pace Denis, that Wendy registers in the frame of Reichardt’s inert road film (Wendy and Lucy), and Poliak’s determined pinsetter struggles in some near obsolete Argentine bowling alley in Parapolos (Pin Boy, 2004). Or was it simply that BAFICI’s vast scope sets up such comparative speculation? Wander over into the festival’s curious sidebar The Photographed Cinema/Freeze Frames and Nan Goldin’s seminal photographic essay The Ballad of Sexual Dependency could be seen as a slideshow, itself an influence on Denis’ aesthetics.

There’s something about loner or dead-beat types (men, naturally) that makes for uneasy viewing, i.e. good cinema. Both El Brau Blau (The Blue Bull, d. Daniel Villamediana) and El Árbol (The Tree, d. Carlos Serrano Azcona) heel closely to enigmatic guys in search of some kind of salvation. The estranged barman in El Árbol wanders the city after a series of rejections – job, wife, prostitute – and it dawns that his life may be coming unhinged in barely perceptible ways that manifest in a rather sacred finale, a kind of holy intervention that belies the narrative’s profane realism. This could be the point, but it feels perilously close to the spiritual coups of Reygadas, who acted as producer. By contrast the seemingly unemployed Catalan matador of El Brau Blau appears metaphysically burdened from the onset, as if struggling to finesse the mythical aspect his job into its physical, quotidian ritual – a wordless procession of real or fake exercises, punctuated by Lorca’s deep song and Bach’s fugue. It’s a film of trancendental ambition (the translated program notes speak of “a pilgrimage through the martyrdom of the open flesh”) that never comes close enough to taking its bull by the horns, let alone slaying it.

<em>Parque Vía</em>Better to locate any martyrdom in a more modest source, such as the aging Beto, long time caretaker of an empty estate in urban mexico in Enrique Rivero’s debut Parque Vía. The mere act of Beto, in starched shirt, fetching a bucket, raking leaves, napping, or slicing a papaya, concedes boredom as inevitable, then slowly accrues into a subtle transfiguration of the lonely custodian, a guardian of emptiness who ocassionally forays into the world outside for tequila, milk or dance at the cantina. That the film is based on the real life of one Nolberto Coria only adds to the delicately played irony. Rivero is an obvious talent, whose name should be included where ever ”New Mexican Cinema” is sung.

From Chile, Sebastián Silva’s Sundance award-winner La Nana (The Maid) offers a parallel study in loneliness and servitude, similarly describing class disparities from within the apparently innocuous realm of domestic labor. Silva is keen to make his kindly pathetic maid a victim of her own design, unreachable and not above deliberately ”losing” the new house kitten, or locking out younger charges. The social and psychological critique is nuanced but lacks sting; will upper-class families in South America invite their nannies to the theatre out of contrition?

Unmistakably sordid but with an uncannily humanist agenda, Pablo Larraín’s Tony Manero has achieved near-cult status in its portrait of one man’s glittering obsession under the spectre of Pinochet’s rule. Larraín maximises an oblique strategy – of a Saturday Night Fever freak who wants to simulate Travolta on a makeshift stage in a sleazy Santiago bar – that links personal and public morality. Fifty-something Raul (Alfredo Castro, winner of the festival’s best actor) cuts a rather unglamorous figure, more faded Pacino than Travolta, clad in dirty underwear, chain smoking, and going to extreme lengths to choreograph a disco show with a family of outcasts (the homemade disco ball of broken glass glued to a soccer ball is one of the finer details). The bruised colour scheme evokes ’70s Chile while conveying a corrosive ambience of daily life under a dictatorship, manifest as a constant irritation to Raul’s dream as he perpetually lurks beyond the eye of the law. It seems like an intentional irony that Larraín has the audience pulling for the creep when he gets his shot on big time television (though not without his own inimitable campaign smear against a competitor).

Intentional irony? In Maren Ade’s perversely true-to-life Alle Anderen (Everyone Else, Winner Best Director, Official International Selection), the line is blurred beyond distinction, as she leaves all manner of incredulously co-dependent behaviour up to her characters, here a young German couple vacationing in Sardinia, their faults and charms laid bare beneath the Mediterranean glare. The film generously adheres to the tedium of their days; nothing much happens save for the gradual dissolution, and resuscitation, of their relationship, exactingly and therefore devastatingly charted in its minor humiliations of body and speech. The cumulative effect is insufferable and unforgettable in equal measure, like taking a trip with a maddening couple who make you feel reassuringly like everyone else, or depressingly like nobody at all.

While there was no Argentine entry that matched the narrative drive of last year’s Historias Extraordinarias (coincidentally playing at the MALBA theatre), its director Mariano Llinás served as producer to the most talked about local film, and eventual top prize winner in the Argentine selection, Castro (d. Alejo Moguillansky). An anxious farce about narrative convention and how it’s propelled, Castro feels indebted to Beckett and Rivette in its absurdist machinations involving an elusive title character being pursued tirelessly, if unpointedly, by a clutch of, well, pursuers (one of whom, in an odd contrivance, is saddled with crutches). Contrivance, however, is the operative mode, yielding some giddy nonsense and diverting chase scenes, delivered by a cast obviously engaged in the proceedings (whose brisk dialogue is undoubtedly lost in translation).

Todos Mienten (2009)If Castro is indicative of a new trend in new Argentine cinema, I might wax nostalgic for the likes of Santiago Loza, but I was too scared off by his previous effort to hazard Rosa Patria, which was rumoured to show good form in its homage to Argentine writer/activist Nestor Perlongher. So it came as a surprise then that Todos Mienten (They All Lie) from the young writer and director Matías Piñeiro, while sharing with Castro a production team, several actors, and sense of insularity, was beguilingly unique: an establishing scene of kids camping out in a country house, loitering before a bonfire, inexplicably shades into a playfully oblique amalgam of flirting, card games, betrayals, and a seemingly anachronistic consideration of 19th century literature (Domingo Sarmiento), yoked by clever chaptering and some rather hypnotic camera work. Defying description and certain intelligibility, Todos Mienten inticed (unlike Castro) for possessing a specific gravity towards its players’ duplicities. The jury rewarded it with a Special Mention in the International selection, where it found suitable company alongside the crowned Aquele querido mes de agosto (Our Beloved Month of August), Miguel Gomes’ disenchanted documentary of an enchanting tour through the Portuguese countryside.

Compounding the sense of irreality was the presence of local actors from this fold of El Pampero productions in the public realm, spotted in the late hours at vintage cafes, conceivably caught up in yet more plots. Which confirms the intuitive sense that BAFICI really is a game, an endless maze of stories to be navigated, taken with levity and utter seriousness. I overheard a joke while assuming my position in what had become a commonly disgruntled queue in the Hoyts Abasto theatre complex, where one rejoinder to the complaining mass swiftly silenced all: “You should try the line for Alfonsín!” he let out, a reference to the hourde of mourners that stretched several city blocks to honor the death at age 82 of the former president, whose democratic rule was dually marked by his attempt to bring to justice human rights violations under the dictatorship while economically the country began its descent into staggering inflation. After what seemed like a moment of collective silence, or utter dismay at the joke, a chorus of laughter kicked in from the crowd. The queue began, at last, to move.

Buenos Aires Festival Internacional de Cine Independiente website: http://www.bafici.gov.ar