As I flipped through the book Dekalog 3: On Film Festivals (1) on my flight to Argentina, the unofficial testimony for BAFICI – the Buenos Aires Festival Internacional de Cine Independiente – as paradigmatic among international film festivals confirms, if confirmation is needed, that it’s an essential destination for the cinephile, be they director, critic, industry or local audience. The aesthetic principle at BAFICI is one of curatorial intent, ranging broadly and deeply; a program directed toward the public that doesn’t shy away from the question of just what and where cinema is today. In this sense BAFICI functions as a survey and a rejoinder, devoted foremost to the medium. What turns up is a reflection less of the festival-as-brand (in spite of ubiquitous posters throughout Buenos Aires) than a treatise on the state of cinema. Clearly the programming team has done their work, leaving the audience the task of their own labour. Arduous!

As a case in point, my shuttle from the airport is auspiciously crammed: a film scholar living in Beijing, a young director from Baltimore, Maryland, and a representative from a Latin/Ibero-American film company. Conversation ensues. Which means that, before I’ve even touched ground at the festival headquarters or perused a catalogue, a nascent itinerary is taking shape.

A random but fortuitous start, and a good enough point of entry: Shelly Kraicer has come with a radical selection of independent documentaries from China (which I will proceed to neglect at my peril in lieu of more local and, regrettably, quaint product); Matt Porterfield is here to present his latest, Putty Hill, a stark portrait of an extended family in rural Maryland coming to terms with a friend’s fatal overdose; and the distributor from Figa films points me toward what will prove to be festival gems from Mexico and Brazil. Nicolás Pereda, who he?

Todo, en fin, el silencio lo ocupaba (All Things Were Now Overtaken by Silence) is a crepuscular film of a poem and a poem of a film, a making-of documentary that takes its star Jesusa Rodriguez as its muse as she ritually enacts the text of “Primero Sueno”. It’s as hermetic, rigorous and expressive as Pedro Costa’s Ne change rien albeit in a more silent way (and I’m still uncertain what it’s about). Conversely, Pereda’s other entry Juntos (Together) is a more recognisable affair – shot in colour, with characters and dialogue – but with an equally cryptic agenda: there’s an apartment in Mexico City with an empty fridge, no running water, a lost dog, and a couple that might combust were it not for the torpour of their existence. The film goes out for fresh air in the country, characters in tow, where perhaps the missing dog may dwell, and Pereda succumbs to a pastoral beauty that quietly transfigures all that has come before. His is a distinctive voice from fertile Mexican soil.

BAFICI indulges some pretty far out categorical sections (La Tierra Tiembla [The Earth Trembles]; Lugares, [Places], Metodos, [Methods]), but two films from Brazil were exemplary in their evocation of place. Avenida Brasilia Formosa (Defiant Brasilia) from Gabriel Mascaro inhabits a teeming seashore neighbourhood in Recife after its denizens have been relocated due to construction of the titular avenue. The film loosely tracks its characters – a woman who works in a salon and dreams of being on a popular TV show, a fisherman who’s always unravelling his nets in the sun, a five year-old who dreams of Spiderman – but Mascaro’s knack here is of naturally capturing daily life, its rhythms and materials. Every shot feels thoroughly composed yet never too mannered, so a horse that strays into the frame, wading in shallow beach water, is at once beautiful but inconspicuous. And a tracking shot of a bike ride through city streets feels epic, only to culminate in the buying of a bodega’s remaining bread.

The unseen narrator of Viajo porque preciso, volto porque te amo (I Travel Because I Have To, I Come Back because I Love You, d. Karim Aïnouz and Marcelo Gomes) is a geologist seemingly exiled to the road for a month to survey the construction of a vast canal running through the Brazilian interior. He is choking on dust, literally and existentially, as the landscape that pours out before him is a vast horizontal plane dotted with truck stops, shrubs, soiled mattresses and geologic specimens. What begins as a sweetly lovesick journey, contained in its title, slowly unfolds into a disillusioned pilgrimage, which the geologist prepares for by stocking up at a rest stop on a supply of soda, sandwiches and lubricated condoms. Sentiments of a lost love cede to a melancholy lust, fulfilled in sordid motels by night; a disparity expressed in the film’s use of alternately sublime and grubby film stocks. It’s also an incidental record of the ravages of infrastructure: the tiny colonial town that will be deserted and intentionally flooded, along with its goats roaming the streets, looks all too worthy of preservation. I didn’t expect anything this lyrically raw from Aïnouz after Suely in the Sky (2006), so chalk it up to the collaboration with Marcelo Gomes (Cinema, Aspirins, and Vultures, 2005).

Looking for a “hit” from native Argentina proved elusive; production was healthy, judging from the number of films presented, but one has come to expect revelatory cinema from these parts. Maximally site-specific, Centro (Downtown) from Sebastián Martinez, former student at Barcelona’s renown Pompeu Fabra program, locks in on Buenos Aires’ city centre with relentless but controlled attention. Nothing goes unnoticed nor is taken for granted, from the spools of thread on a tailor’s sewing machine to the bingo parlours, evangelists, wreath hangers, ashtrays, banks…. It’s an exhaustive tour, odd in its selectivity, with an implied causal chain. And the digital aesthetic is more sobering than flattering, but still, there was no way to traverse excessive Florida avenida during the festival without seeing it anew, an empire of signs and gestures telegraphing the bones of the city, if not its beating heart (its soul resides, I think, at El Cuartito (2) pizzeria, but I digress…).

Elevated, like Centro, into the International Official Selection, the native Lo que mas quiero (What I Love the Most) from Delfina Castagnino had anticipation running high, perhaps on account of the director’s assistant work with Lisandro Alonso. Indeed, its opening sequence, featuring two women simply talking – with their backs to the camera, perched on a precipice overlooking a fecund valley in the South – bodes well. A justifiable point of reference here might be Kelly Reichardt, in the way the film charts the subtle movements in a relationship, here between two friends, set to an implacably natural world. It moves between the comedic – one conversation that takes place on the hood of a car suggests another film entirely – to a kind of near-mystic finale that leaves so much unresolved, save for the forest floor. Winner of the FIPRESCI award, as well as best Argentine Distinction, International Selection, the distinction still leaves the possibility that Castagnino’s follow-up will prove decisive.

Redemptive in many ways, partly for correcting Santiago Loza’s arguable career misfires, as well for its content of social welfare in rural Argentina, Los Labios (Santiago Loza and Ivan Funds) was anointed with Best Argentine Director award as well as a trip to Cannes. This hybrid scripted/improvisational tale of three women, initial strangers who trek to an impoverished village to care for patients, moves in mysterious ways, as the real needs of an elderly man with pneumonia and a teenage girl pregnant for the second time, to take two cases, meshes with the seemingly fictional constructs of the caregivers.

“Anti-Cine!” cried the elderly women beside me who took to the exit in the middle of Un sourire malicieux eclaire son visage (A Mischievous Smile Lights Up Her Face, Christelle Lheureux). I can sympathise with the sentiment, to a point: Does a protracted description of Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), with accompanying soundtrack, by a young well-dressed French man wandering a forested film set at night, constitute a real movie? The answer is positively yes, but then one wonders just how the plaintiff first encountered Hitchcock’s ornithological nightmare itself other than as willfully disobedient? Lheureux’s exercise is utterly boring or trance-inducing, depending on your perspective. That is doesn’t raise questions about how we see, hear, and experience movies is near impossible.

The young man delivering The Birds to a presumably blind audience is actor Adrien Michaux, the Antoine Doinel look-alike who is a staple of Eugène Green’s demi-monde, now extended to Iberian dimensions with his latest, Oliveira-inflected A Religiosa portuguesa (The Portuguese Nun), which alights on Lisbon and Leonor Baldaque’s gorgeous face, saddened by heartbreak but lit from within by some newfound faith. Typically eccentric of Green, the proceedings are both sad and funny, yet in broadening his horizon it may have diluted his peculiar spell.

Speaking of eccentricity, strange dreams and lucidity: who better to honour with a retro than Alain Guiraudie, maker of cosmic-gay-pastoral-anachronistic thrillers? His latest, Le Roi de L’evasion (The King of Escape), makes an unlikely hero of a plump, gay, 43 year-old tractor salesman who falls in love with a 16 year-old girl and lands them on the run, humping in the woods, and moving along. Which fairly describes the narrative thrust of Guiraudie’s cinema: perpetually evading convention while indulging its primal desires.

The dysfunctional Jewish family of Axelle Ropert’s debut feature La Famille Wolberg would seem to exist in some equally eccentric, parallel universe; except here she intends to turn the outwardly comic appearances of a warring family into something latently tragic, particularly the patriarchal figure who is running for mayor while canvassing to discover his wife’s infidelities (of course it’s the kids who suffer in the end). Cue some sweet soul music (as per co-writer Serge Bozon) and soon the insufferable bunch pull you into their milieu, circa Christmastime in French Basque country, hermetically sealed, neurotically intact.

There were dependably assured, and radically organic, excursions in the form of El Vuelco del congrejo (Crab Trap, Oscar Ruíz Navia) and Alamar (To the Sea, Pedro Gonzáles-Rubio), both of which have proven their worth on the festival circuit but were certainly no less welcome here. Each is beautifully rendered but diverges beyond their natural setting, one about a man marooned on the shore, the other freed on the open sea. Conjoining the mysticism of the former and the labour of the latter, albeit in some slow daybreak on the New England coast, was Sharon Lockhardt’s Double Tide. Trap crab, indeed. Like a mud-slung offspring of James Benning, who with his fixed gaze seems to have burrowed a hole in the earth’s surface and popped up in a German valley, first in a traffic tunnel, then a mosque, equipped with a digital camera, looking and listening, as ever (Ruhr).

From formalism to found footage, classic to modern, and so many points between, BAFICI sprawls like the capital itself. I try to make my escape, but there’s a screening at the art museum of a strange little bulletin from rural America that’s apparently a must-see. Massage the History (d. Cameron Jamie) features some ritual dancing that could make furniture burn, and it’s no coincidence that the score is by Sonic Youth. Aren’t those the children of the guitar player Lee Ranaldo in the pathetically funny Daddy Longlegs (aka Go Get Some Rosemary)? Directed with reckless affection by two young brothers in New York, Josh and Bennie Safdie, who’ve baited me to the museum screening on sheer enthusiasm alone. I attempt to say goodbye but they are deep in conversation afterwards, having found unlikely kinship with Chris Petit, here for a retro that includes his latest, Content, an ambient 21st century road movie. At BAFICI, it’s always a case of Radio On, and on, and on…

Buenos Aires Festival Internacional de Cine Independiente
7-18 April, 2010
Festival website: http://www.bafici.gov.ar/home10/web/es/index.html

Endnotes

  1. Richard Porton (ed.), Dekalog 3: On Film Festivals, Wallflower Press, London, 2009.
  2. Talcahuano 937 – Ciudad de Buenos Aires.