To retain only the word cinema, without an adjective.

– Edouard Waintrop, Director of the Fribourg International Film Festival (FIFF) (1)

This pocket manifesto from Director of FIFFs 22 through to 24 ended a column published in the venerable germanophone print film journal, Filmbulletin, just ahead of the 2010 festival. To elucidate the considerable significance of Waintrop’s dictate necessitates a little back story.

The Fribourg International Film Festival was launched in 1980 in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Swiss humanitarian organisation Helvetas, part of whose mission is:

to sensitise the people in Switzerland towards the situation in the development and transformation countries […] (2)

To which end Helvetas has chiefly focused its attentions on the “poorer countries of Africa, Asia – including Central Asia and the Caucasus – and Latin America”, (3) just as had this festival ever since its itinerant infancy. Branded for several years as Le Festival des films du Tiers-monde, not until 1986 did it settle in majority-francophone Fribourg, formally becoming the FIFF only in 1998. It has been striving ever since both to stay true to its original mission, in profiling the “cinéma du sud”, whilst also finding ways to incrementally broaden the ambit of that term lest it become too great an albatross.

Waintrop again:

It is true that my definition of the South, at this time, generally includes all films struggling to reach our screens. To speak of the geographical South no longer has meaning … [S]ome Bulgarian films are much more difficult to show in Switzerland than Chinese and Brazilian works. (4)

That sure is one radical definition! But we can see now how Waintrop arrived at the position expounded at the head of this report. And thus is the festival nowadays afforded the capacity for far more extensive – and attractive – programming than in years gone by; for too long, in some quarters, evidently, the FIFF (believes it) has been too much perceived as just a cavalcade of unsexy conscience-pricking for the well-to-do. It’s meant to be a festival, after all…

So: what of this year’s edition? How fareth “cinéma du sud”, given the above, in 2010?

Features in Competition

13 Swiss premieres, and seven of them first features, vied for the approbation of a jury comprising Hanna Schygulla (there also to introduce a screening of her documentary on Cuban actress Alicia Bustamante); Rakhshan Bani-Etemad (there also to introduce her documentary, We Are Half of Iran’s Population); Positif editor Michel Ciment; Swiss journalist Patrick Ferla, and Igor Minaiev, whose Daleko ot Sanset Bulvara (Far from Sunset Boulevard, 2005) would screen in the “Je me balade dans Mockba” panorama.

Of the seven competition titles I saw, they were, with only a couple of exceptions, reliably very handsome productions imbued with a classicist naturalism, languidly paced, full of well-lensed long takes and location photography and privileging widescreen compositions.

Rigoberto Perezcano’s Norteado (Northless) offers a droll account of one Mexican man’s determination to illegally migrate to the United States. The relationships he builds with two kindly, lonely women in Tijuana – one, a co-worker in a small grocery store, the other his and her boss – between attempts at flight place the virtues of his utopian quest in a certain relief, and deliver a lovely pathos to the film’s very original dénouement. Northless won the Special Jury Award.

Paz Fábrega’s Agua fría de mar (Cold Water of the Sea) flaunts some lovely Costa Rican coastline while distantly evoking Polanski’s Repulsion (1965). Mariana, a beautiful young bourgeois woman, falls into a deep funk after a beachside encounter with a young local runaway from a poor family, who tells her she’s been abused by her uncle. Mariana ceases to be able in any way to enjoy her New Year’s getaway with her handsome boyfriend, while goings-on around her assume a vaguely portentous air, as when thousands of snakes wash up on the beach, or when children look like playfully burying themselves alive in the sand. But perhaps the child’s story is a lie, the snakes beached themselves simply because of a cold sea current, and all the woe betide Mariana is really borne of little more than liberal guilt?

(This film had my favourite exchange of dialogue in the whole festival: Girl: Are you a model? Mariana: No, I’m a microbiologist.)

In the gorgeously shot, unhurried Choi Voi (Adrift), Chuyên Bui Thac tackles themes of infidelity and, surely uncommon to Vietnamese cinema, homosexual desire, in its focus on the everyday lives of a handful of alienated Hanoi dwellers. I don’t doubt it’s a brave production in socialist Vietnam that dares seemingly endorse the extramarital pursuit of happiness and sexual fulfilment; still, this film works not through such provocations as won’t upset the sensibilities of a Western audience anyway, but through a sustained languor that is wholly lovely to get caught up in. You can almost feel Hanoi’s humidity, especially during the scenes of flooded city streets towards its close.

Featuring flooding throughout, prolific Filipino director Brillante Mendoza’s Lola deviated the furthest of the competition crop from classical composition, with restless handheld camerawork ever positioning the audience in the grubby, wet thick of things as two poor, elderly women cross paths. It emerges that their grandsons are on opposite sides of a fatal stabbing, with one the victim, the other the suspect. Consequently, both women need rapidly raise funds: one for a funeral, one to free the accused. Throughout, Manila is subject to extraordinary torrential rains, fully immersing, you might say, these old women in their unenviable tasks. Lest this all sound terribly depressing, the dignity afforded these elderly ladies in all their inglorious scrambling for money and necessities from people around them truly gladdens the soul.

Iranian-French director Nader T. Homayoun’s feature-length debut Tehroun operated at an unexpected genre remove from the languid pace of its fellows in competition. A pacey thriller set in some of the unloveliest areas of the Iranian capital and tracing the rapidly downward-spiralling fortunes of a desperate man, Tehroun miraculously has us feel some sympathy for a fellow who, already at the film’s outset, is stooping to begging using a newborn baby hired (!) from a local heavy as a sympathy magnet. Very well shot and featuring terrific performances, Tehroun only comes at all undone towards its close, which it suddenly seems in too much of a hurry to get to. Nevertheless, it earned Homayoun the “Talent Tape Award”.

The film in competition furthest from the norms of classicist narrative was also, for mine, the strongest. In Sahman (Border, d. Harutyun Khachatryan), the hardscrabble, traditional lives eked out, season in, season out, by Armenian refugees along the Armenian-Azerbaijani border in a post-Soviet time of conflict are borne Kuleshovian witness by a runaway cow. In the dialogue-free Border, brilliant sound design paints a thousand words, and just you try to stare that cow in the face, and not flinch, when you both know another animal is being killed just out of shot. Border was the unanimous winner of the FIPRESCI Jury Award.

FIFF’s Grand Prix winner was Georgian director George Ovashvili’s Gagma Napiri (The Other Bank). Also snaring the Audience Award, The Other Bank grimly follows Tedo, a cross-eyed 12 year-old Georgian boy as he sets off alone from Tbilisi to seek his father, separated from him during the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict and hopefully still alive back in Tkvarcheli, from whence Tedo and his mother fled several years earlier. Tedo’s journey to and across the land of his early childhood, where he can speak neither of the official languages, is constantly fraught with dangerous encounters and alliances, as he traverses territory equal parts naturally beautiful and artificially dilapidated. Come the film’s end, Tedo is in a very dangerous place indeed, keeping mute amongst a group of gun-toting men who are his people and yet also aren’t. Whither Tedo? Whither all the world’s Tedos?

Panoramas

For all that I enjoyed the competition films, the most fun I had at FIFF was in the panoramas and peripheral offerings. One immediate highlight was Georgi Daneliya’s Ya shagayu po Moskve (I Step Through Moscow, 1963) which inspired the naming of a 19-feature strong survey of Russian cinema, and within which grouping it was the eldest, with the great majority of the remainder being produced – if not necessarily set – in comfortably post-perestroika times.

Daneliya’s film is a joyous and picaresque comedy-cum-Moscow travelogue, a lovely summer’s day in the life of a city filled with as much fun and frolics as puckish Kolya (a very charismatic young Nikita Mikhalkov) can pluck out of the air to embroil friends new and old in. Most of the laughs generated are of a timeless quality, but one wonderfully surreal bit of scene-setting early on sees a busy roundabout a-glut with identical Ladas, as if anticipating an Ostalgie re-mix of The Italian Job (Peter Collinson, 1969)!

I also had great fun with Pervye na Lune (First on the Moon), Aleksei Fedorchenko’s ingenious 2005 excursion into space race revisionist historicism, in which it is asserted that Stalin sent people into space in the 1930s. Meticulously faked archival and surveillance footage and interviews support this claim every bit as much as the film’s blanket refusal to wink at its audience. A triumph of postmodern faux-socialist realism, its po-faced temerity even extends to seamlessly incorporating footage from Vasilij Zhuravlev’s legendarily prescient 1936 fiction film, Cosmic Voyage!

The panorama I’d most been looking forward to was “Yakuza Graveyard”, a selection of seven of Kinji Fukasaku’s finest crime flicks, featuring his renowned swansong in 2000, Batoru rowaiaru (Battle Royale) and going as far back as his terrific, jazz-inflected 1964 ode to the criminal desperation of marginalised poor urban Japanese, Ôkami to buta to ningen (Wolves, Pigs and Men). Wolves, Pigs and Men‘s introductory few minutes alone are a marvel, compressing with extraordinary dynamism the backstories of its principal characters – three brothers of different stations within the criminal underworld – into a short sequence alternating seconds-long acts of violence with abrupt freeze frames, a voiceover all awhile recounting the sorry particulars of the brothers’ many ignominies. Omocha (The Geisha House, 1999) greatly impressed too, with a gritty, unromanticised authenticity in its portrayal of the struggles of a small geisha house, against the backdrop of the impending criminalisation of prostitution circa 1958. It features several superb performances and, notwithstanding a curious (lazy?) anachronism or two, utterly puts to shame the dreadfully overhyped Memoirs of a Geisha (Rob Marshall, 2005).

Still at the pulpier end of the program, the Lausanne Underground Film & Music Festival (LUFF) was granted “carte blanche” to program two films; they duly provided José Mojica Marins’ O Ritual dos Sádicos (Awakening of the Beast, 1970) and the fascinatingly gormless, muddledly propagandist and utterly leaden North Korean monster movie, Pulgasari (Shin Sang-ok & Chong Gon Jo, 1985; executive producer: Kim Jong-il – yes, thatKim Jong-il).

Awakening of the Beast features Marins in and out of his Coffin Joe persona, rejecting claims put to him by a TV panel of scholars that he’s the reason Brazil’s young folk are turning to drugs, crime and sexual debauchery. Awakening is one long, psychedelic show trial of Marins’ cinema, allowing its creator and his star persona a platform to disavow all responsibility for society’s failings, while, of course, relishing in depicting many of them – and how!

By chance, both of the LUFF’s selections bore links to other panoramas. “The Curse of the Korean Kings”, alongside the likes of Im Sang-soo’s Geuddae geusaramdeul (The President’s Last Bang, 2005) and Lee Jun-ik’s queer blockbuster Wang-ui namja (The King and the Clown, 2005), featured a rare presentation of Shin Sang-ok’s celebrated 1968 royal court melodrama, Naeshi (The Eunuch). The Eunuch had quite considerable metatextual value in its selection, for Shin was kidnapped in 1978 by North Korea’s current day supreme leader, the film-mad Kim Jong-il… and hence, the ludicrous Pulgasari. The King and the Clown, indeed!

Secondly, one of Awakening of the Beast‘s talk show panellists is Carlos Reichenbach, four of whose feature films were unspooled alongside several of fellow Brazilian Jorge Furtado’s features and shorts in “Buccaneer Souls”.

Of all I could catch of Reichenbach and Furtado’s work – one feature apiece – I don’t really hope it is representative. The former’s Anjos do Arrabalde (Suburban Angels, 1987) was seedy fun, but somewhat grating; the poorly post-produced audio track’s minimal ambient sound offered an impediment to enjoying its dumpster diving through the lives and class warfare of everyday folk on the fringes of São Paulo. Still, its skewering of the retrograde sexual politics of certain of Brazil’s menfolk was interesting, hitting its apotheosis in a perfectly ridiculous police shoot-out. Furtado’s Saneamento Básico, O Filme (Basic Sanitation, The Movie, 2007) was OK too, if with rather more mainstream production values. It’s a lightweight comedy wherein a need to address the pollution of an important waterway in a small village leads to the naïve production of a purportedly educational video about the problem. This video project is hijacked by its creators’ rank incompetence and by a narrative tangent that contrives a “happy ending” which, imposed far too late in proceedings, reduces the whole ecologically-minded narrative hitherto most oddly to a mere MacGuffin.

“Reykjavik, Sofia” brought together new productions from European nations whose cinema has had little exposure in Switzerland. From Iceland, Reykjavik-Rotterdam (d. Óskar Jónasson) is a cracking, multi-dimensional caper flick concerned with the smuggling of contraband from one of its titular locations to the other. Producer and co-writer Baltasar Kormákur additionally gives good Colin Farrell in the lead role and there’s a nicely bathetic bit of comic business concerning a Jackson Pollock painting pointedly thrown in. From Bulgaria, Eastern Plays (d. Kamen Kalev) focuses on a frustrated artist in a dead-end job trying to shake methadone addiction, and on a shiftless young man peer-pressured into being a thug for hire, whose narrative paths cross when the former assists the Turkish victims of a racial hate-crime which was in part perpetrated by the latter; it shortly transpires that the two leads are brothers. Compelling till its last, Eastern Plays ultimately suggests there is hope that these characters, emblematic of a generation of post-Soviet Bulgarians, can yet improve their lot in life, but also that multiculturalism has some way to go before it has any sort of steady footing in Sofia – as elsewhere. And from Slovenia, Slovenka (Slovenian Girl aka A Call Girl, d. Damjan Kozole) follows Alexandra, a university student by day and call girl by night during Slovenia’s 2008 presidency of the Council of the European Union. Somewhat allusively, she seeks custom through newspaper ads, under the handle of “Slovenka”, but soon finds her troubles escalating after a trick, a European Parliamentarian, dies on her. Nina Ivanišin is excellent in the slippery title role, reminding me throughout of a pallid Asia Argento, and an unexpected coda wherein she sings along with Frank Zappa’s “Bobby Brown Goes Down” underscores this highly suspenseful film’s permeative air of New European disenchantment.

Polyglotism and its Malcontents

With the internationalist expansion of its coverage, FIFF’s audience similarly has been growing, drawing moviegoers to its offerings from further and wider each year. As I see it, there is but one impediment to the continuing growth of the festival’s audience, and, by extension, its reputation and influence, and that is a matter of linguistic accessibility.

It’s an issue I ran up against repeatedly at FIFF, as I possess at best a feeble command of French. Of the 13 features in competition, only eight were listed in the pocket festival guide as being anglophone-friendly (which is to say, featuring English subtitles either burnt into the print or appearing electronically beneath the screen or, in the case of Border, featuring next to no dialogue so as not to be an issue). This in fact amounted to only seven as the print of Lola arrived without the expected English subtitling, ambushing me into pressing my high school German into service, something which unfortunately also happened to me twice attending films in “Moi, un Noir”, a 10-film strong tribute to Jean Rouch which would surely have been a personal festival highlight had it been made more linguistically accessible.

Sadder still is that I didn’t trouble to see any of the three packages of short films in competition, as my festival guide made them all out to be screening only in French and/or German. (More unfortunately, many of the shorts may in fact have featured English subtitling after all, according, contradictorily, to the official festival catalogue.)

For the same reason, I also opted out of catching Hanna Schygulla’s Alicia Bustamante and all three features of acclaimed Chinese documentarist Zhao Liang, along with numerous films from each of the other panoramas. Introductions to screenings by festival programmers and/or the many filmmakers in attendance, along with post-screening Q&As, were also often blighted by a frequent non-recourse to ELF, or “English as a lingua franca”. Even the Opening and Closing Night films were compromised; Ciro Guerra’s Los Viajes del Viento (The Wind Journeys) opened FIFF without any English – I was at least forewarned of this – whereas Juan José Campanella’s crowd-pleaser El secreto de sus Ojos (The Secret in Their Eyes) closed it with English provided, albeit via simultaneous translation through headphones, which I always find rather less satisfactory than subtitling (but better than nothing!)

German speakers – over 20% of Fribourg’s own population alone (5) – had it better, with German subtitling on offer for all but one of the competition features, as well as for a lot of the rest of the program. It was not always so; happily, there is credence to FIFF’s assertions that it is demonstrably addressing the problem of being too exclusively a “festival «romand»” (i.e., a Swiss francophone festival), realising that that is to ghettoise itself domestically (just for starters), and to lessen the inland theatrical and DVD distribution prospects for the very cultural produce the festival has charged itself with championing. (6)

While striving for a high level of German-language content in the festival is wholly sensible and laudable, I strongly feel that not offering most everything in English as well, while logistically complicated, is many more parts curse than blessing to the greater (read: international) festival-going community, which importantly here includes an increasing number of neither French- or German-speaking festival guests: filmmakers, critics, et al. (This shortcoming was a blessing for me only in that it made my decision-making that bit easier with respect to the screenings I attended.) That said, hats off to those who produced the handsome, 200+ page, bound festival catalogue, which, rich in essays to contextualise the program and all its panoramas, was published in the one edition in French, German and English.

Pesky language issues aside, there was a great deal to enjoy at my first FIFF. On top of still seeing some very good films, I found the atmosphere of the festival highly convivial, with its “fondue tent” an inspired kitschy bonus. And Fribourg is a nice, friendly place, with a stunning, unspoilt, sprawling mediaeval old town just minutes away from the festival’s principal venues. I do wish the FIFF only the best and fancy that, should it be able to greater surmount the language barrier, its rude health and an ever larger place on the international stage is assured.

Fribourg International Film Festival
13-20 March 2010
Festival website: http://www.fiff.ch/fiff2010/index.php?lang=en

Endnotes

  1. My translation from German. Edouard Waintrop, “«Cinéma du sud» – pouah”, already translated from French by Lisa Heller in Filmbulletin no. 305, March 2010.
  2. From the mission statement on the Helvetas website: http://www.helvetas.ch/wEnglish/
  3. “Helvetas: About us”, on the Helvetas website: http://www.helvetas.ch/wEnglish/about_us/index.asp?navid=2
  4. My translation from French. Thierry Jobin, “Fribourg redéfinit l’intitulé «films du Sud»”, Le Temps, March 13, 2010, accessible at http://www.letemps.ch/Facet/print/Uuid/3127b64e-2e20-11df-a2af-76119ef329a8/Fribourg_red%C3%A9finit_lintitul%C3%A9_films_du_Sud.
  5. According to Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fribourg#Languages.
  6. See, for example, previous festival director Franziska Burkhardt’s thoughts in “Aube nouvelle pour Fribourg” (“A New Dawn for Fribourg”), Ciné-Bulletin no. 365, March 2006, archived and accessible in French and German, just as it was in the original print edition, online at http://www.cine-bulletin.ch/archives/index.php?&lang=f&article=365003F&fulltext=Fribourg.