I

New wine in an old bottle? Such was the challenge faced by Rose Kuo, when she became AFI Fest’s artistic director in 2007. Now it seems that wine has spilled out and flown in a different direction. In other words, the new type of festival offered by Kuo and her team may have outgrown the frame offered by the venerable institute, founded in 1967 to “provid[e] leadership in screen education and the recognition and celebration of excellence in the art of film, television and digital media”. (1) In early January Rose Kuo, festival producer David Rogers and AFI’s Head of Press and Public Relations, John Wildman, officially announced they were leaving.

In the current state of the economy, it may have been unavoidable that the local press ascribe their departure to financial considerations, such as worries about a tightened budget. Like in Rashomon, we are faced with a multi-faceted narrative – in which the most interesting chapter concerns the evolution of the idea of a film festival in Los Angeles. If finances played a role, it was mostly to uncover the contradictions between what the Festival could be and what the Institute would do. There had been a few warning signs. A Los Angeles Times article on 25 October 2009 alluded to “financial pressures” plaguing both the organisation as a whole and the opening of the Festival. (2) The American Film Institute is geographically spread between Silver Springs, Maryland (where it hosts the documentary film festival Silver Docs), (3) Los Angeles and, until recently, Dallas (where the Dallas International Film Festival, produced by the Dallas Film Society, severed its connection with the AFI last June). (4) In Los Angeles, two of its most precious jewels are the 23 year-old AFI Fest, and the 40 year-old Conservatory, housed, in the Los Feliz/Silver Lake area, on the Institute campus (where the festival’s administrative office is also located), and offering an MFA program in cinematography, directing, editing, producing, production design and screenwriting. (5) Unlike most American MFA programs that include critical studies as part of their curriculum, the Conservatory’s teachings are limited to the acquisition of technical skills and masterclasses taught by famous filmmakers; some critics have even asserted that it is more akin to a “trade school” than to an academic program. Like all institutions of higher education in the United States, the Conservatory is subjected to an accreditation process by an independent organisation of academics; in Los Angeles, it is the role of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) (6) and the same Los Angeles Times article noted that, last year, WASC had “deferred its accreditation”, but that a future on-site visit was scheduled for November. A recent phone conversation with Nancy Harris, AFI’s Chief Operating Officer, confirmed that the visit took place, and was “extremely positive. The questions they had about issues of strategic planning and peer review have been answered, and we have adjusted our nomenclature so we are on the same page.” WASC’s official decision will be known in March 2010. WASC’s accreditation is essential for the conservatory to be able to issue nationally-recognised diplomas. In the same Los Angeles Times article, complaints were being voiced about the antiquated state of some of the campus facilities, even though Nancy Harris and AFI’s President and CEO Bob Gazzale assert that film equipment remain top-notch. What is sure is that the Institute has been affected by the crisis. Not surprisingly, General Motors cancelled its sponsorship. A major National Endowment for the Humanities grant was lost. A numbers of position were eliminated, reducing the overall staff, including that of the Festival – which explains, among other things, why Kuo had to simultaneously hold the functions of Artistic Director and Managing Director.

Working with “two-thirds less staff”, (7) she nevertheless invited film critic and hardcore cinephile Robert Koehler on board as Director of Programming. Then she and David Rogers proceeded to run the festival with a limited budget – which meant, first of all, that the event would run for 9 days only (30 October–7 November), that they would show less films (67 instead of 98 in 2008), and that the programs would be shown only once (which echoes the usual practice of non-profit screening venues in Los Angeles). From a close look at how the festival unfolded this year, and from personal conversations, it can be inferred that Kuo and her team decided to use the situation to “create a template for doing a film festival in a vastly different way”, as Wildman put it. The first change concerned the choice of venue. The legendary Grauman’s Mann Chinese on Hollywood Boulevard was used for the galas, and smaller theatres in the new shopping complex that now surrounds it for the regular screenings. The Festival continued its partnership with the Los Angeles Filmforum (a membership-based organisation dedicated to showing avant-garde and experimental cinema) by co-hosting their Sunday screenings in the Spielberg Theatre of the American Cinematheque (at about 5 minutes walk from the Grauman’s): C.W. Winter and Anders Edström’s haunting minimal-narrative-within-a-landscape film, The Anchorage (winner of Locarno’s Golden Leopard’s for Filmmakers of the Present) and Los Herederos, Eugenio Polgovsky’s intimate portrait of children toiling in poverty-stricken areas of Mexico. Seesawing in the opposite direction, it also sought to strengthen its partnership with the American Film Market (AFM) by holding the last two days of screening in one of the Santa Monica theatres hosting market events. The films shown there were of the same high calibre than the rest of the selection (Sabu’s Kanikôsen, Corneliu Porumboiu’s Politist, adj. or João Pedro Rodrigues’ Morrer como um homen). The organisers acknowledge that the audience, unaccustomed to this set-up, did not always follow suit, and that the Santa Monica screenings were not as well attended as those taking place in Hollywood. Shortly after the festival, however, they were confident that, once over its teething troubles of the first year, the new configuration would work… (Nancy Harris declared that the AFI would decide at a later date, after consultation with the AFM, whether or not the experiment will be repeated next year).

The concept of “festival of festivals” – once Toronto’s official name, then used by critics (especially Koehler before he joined the team) to describe Kuo’s programming philosophy, openly became AFI Fest’s motto – and the names of the festivals in which the films had previously screened appeared in the catalogue’s program notes – even for the US or North American premieres proudly touted in the galas: Wes Andersen’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassius, Tom Ford’s A Single Man, John Hillcoat’s The Road and Michael Hoffman’s The Last Station. Three US films had their world premieres: Kirk Jones’ Everybody’s Fine (gala), Agnieszka Wojowicz-Vosloo’s Afterlife (world cinema) and Daniel Raim’s Something’s Gonna Live (special presentations). Spotlights on specific countries had disappeared, but the different sections presented films from a wide array of countries (Israel, Germany, Romania, the UK, Canada, Peru, Mexico, Spain, Japan, France, Brazil, Portugal, China, Iran, Argentina, Czech Republic, Algeria, South Korea, Russia, The Netherlands, Poland, Belgium, Italy, Sweden, Australia), about 20 of them making their US or North American premieres.

This year’s sharp innovation was to use Audi’s sponsorship to offer the screenings for free – an initiative which is largely goes against the grain of what is happening in film festivals, especially in North America. To be honest, both audiences and organisers were a bit taken by surprise – the former not really believing “this was happening”, the latter having to make decisions about spectators who were booking tickets on the net, prompting a “sold out” post – and then not showing up (it’s free, who cares?). After a couple of days of hits-and-misses, the situation was straightened up, the screenings went on without a hitch, and the free ticket policy turned out to be a success – to such an extent that Nancy Harris confirmed that the policy will be re-conducted for AFI Fest 2010. A 26 January 2010 press release identified Jacqueline Lyanga, a graduate of the Conservatory and an AFI veteran programmer, as the New Festival Director for AFI Fest. Another AFI Fest veteran programmer, Lane Kneedler, has been named Associate Director of Programming.

“What Rose and David delivered is truly remarkable”, comments John Wildman, who agreed to talk to me on the record. “They put up a festival with pared-down resources. They had to organise one gala every single night, manage the change of venue. We found a way to produce this festival almost in spite of itself, and we believe we can do much more”. Press coverage was at a record high, so was the presence of stars in attendance, but the most important thing, for Wildman, is that every film was treated with the same amount of respect – what he calls a “community red carpet”.
So, what happened? Kuo’s, Rogers’ and Wilman’s departure is yet another symptom of how troubled the US media landscape is; it poses the question of how well-fitted some older, venerable institutions are to host film programs as they are challenged by the evolution of film production, new forms of spectatorship, the evolution of the notion of “independent cinema”, severe staff reductions affecting the local newspapers, dire budget cuts in academia and the ripple effects of the economic crisis.

“I truly believe in what the AFI is and what it stands for,” continues Wildman, “and there is no contradiction between their mission and an international film programming. What AFI Fest brings to Los Angeles is singular, necessary and special.” Yet he also thinks that “film festivals were not a priority for the AFI” and that the Institute missed a golden opportunity to create a network of film festivals, when it didn’t renew its contract with the Dallas Film Society (note: Wildman is also Director of Public Relations for the Dallas Film Festival). So Kuo, Rogers and Wildman are heading toward new ventures and new horizons, joined by Koehler who announced he “will not be returning to the AFI in any capacity”. The first draft of a statement of intent has just been made public by Kuo:

We want institutions that transmit film culture to become more effective in LA. We intend to create a city-wide international film event that will build new networks between film institutions, archives, film schools and exhibitors. We already have support from many LA films groups and are in discussions with international festivals and national film organizations who intend to lend their support. We’re optimistic that we can all work together in a new collaborative spirit and have a wider impact on the film-going audience in LA”. (8)

It will be interesting to watch.

II

Among the highlights of the 2009 AFI Fest was the last-minute addition of Michael Haneke’s extraordinary Das weisse Band – Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte (The White Ribbon), as a substitute for Jacques Audiard’s Un Prophète (A Prophet), whose US distributor had decided to move the release date). A demanding, rigorous film, a worthy recipient of Cannes’ Palme d’Or, it elegantly springs off Haneke’s long-term fascination for malevolent children to rise to another level – a dream of cinema. How can the specific aspects of film language – framing, editing, off-screen space – function to suggest the presence of evil in their fold? With this question, Haneke inscribes himself in the tradition of the great protestant filmmakers of Northern Europe – Dreyer and Bergman, with distant echoes of Mauritz Stiller and Victor Sjöström – for whom mise en scène was a privileged tool to strive to make audiences aware of the invisible presence of evil in the midst of human societies. Paying indirect homage to these formidable forebears through his stylistic use of black-and-white, Haneke recontextualises their search by the way he defines the historical frame of reference – the 28 June, 1914 Sarajevo assassination, World War I, the Weimar Republic and its nazi aftermath are on the horizon. Another shift is the importance given to the effect of sexual repression (and its corollary, sexual aggression) upon the psychological development of children – the future citizens of the Reich, the vectors of evil. Haneke is intrigued, repelled and seduced by the mysterious world children create away from the adults’ gaze.

As film spectators, we remain on the other side of the fence – sharing the point of view of the school teacher, originally an outsider to the village of Eichwald. Like him, we are exposed to a series of events whose cause remains concealed off-screen: a treacherous wire causes the doctor to fall from his horse; a barn is set on fire; the baron’s young son, Sigmund, is kidnapped and beaten; a baby catches an almost lethal cold in his crib. In counterpoint, the film presents another group of facts, apparently less mysterious: peasants toil in the baron’s field; a farmer’s wife falls to her death in one of the baron’s barns; students create a rumpus in the classroom; the farmer’s older son destroys the baron’s cabbage field; the doctor cruelly humiliates his lover, the midwife; children are caned; the baroness wants to leave her husband; Eva, the young nanny courted by the teacher, while deeply in love with him, sweetly refuses to go picnicking in a place where they may find themselves alone, the prey of desires she won’t name. The unexplained events are the hidden face of the socio-sexual set-up of the village, whose outline is gradually revealed: an almost feudal system in which the local aristocracy and the church rule over the tenant farmers, men dominate women and children are treated as if they were their parents’ god-given property. We see disjunct signs – an unexpected cruelty in the gaze of a young girl; the white ribbon forced by the pastor onto his children, Klara and Martin, as a symbol of “purity” and as a marker that they have “sinned”; strange gatherings of blond teenagers with inexpressive faces and furtive looks; a butchered parakeet; young Rudolf surprising a moment of forbidden intimacy between his older sister, Anna, and their father, the doctor; the bloodied face of the Down Syndrome-afflicted son of the housekeeper.

The White Ribbon brings to an apex Haneke’s skills of alienating (in the Brechtian sense) spectators by keeping them at bay, behind an opaque veil that is never lifted, while simultaneously involving them in the texture of the world he creates. Haneke’s mise en scène is an updated example of the process of suturation analysed in Jean Pierre Oudart’s legendary article, which describes how the spectator is constructed through a special economy that no longer relies on subjectivity or psychology. “Every filmic field traced by the camera and all objects revealed through depth of field are echoed by another field, the fourth side and an absence emanating from it.” (9) For the cinematic exchange “does not take place between two consecutive images, but first and foremost between the filmic field and its echo, its imaginary field.” (10) Whether or not we are given a reverse angle, we are constantly aware, in The White Ribbon, of the presence of an invisible field from which the scene unfolding is observed. Evil roams, invisible, but is waiting for us, at every turn, every cut, at the edge of every frame. And those who keep staring at us are the children, with their beautiful, smooth, yet undecipherable faces. These are not, far from it, the monster seeds of horror movies; they are vulnerable, fearful, sad, often sweet, and sometimes silly. They are real, complex children, growing up in pre-WWI Germany; they carry the weight of their education; they struggle with the sins of their father; their timid souls are moulded by inequality, precariousness, severity; they learn secrecy from the hidden recesses of the family romance. They are looking at us, and we are looking at them, because, in a different set of circumstances, they could have been us. They are our mirrors – and this is how Haneke involves us, prompting us to look at our own childhood, while turning his tale into an ethical reflection. In the face of something as serious as the two world wars and the rise of nazism in Europe – yes, an entire social system was to blame, but it was supported by myriads of individual wills. Nobody is innocent.

Another high moment (in pristine, wide-lens black-and-white cinematography) was the North American premiere of Lu Chuan’s Nanjing! Nanjing! (City of Life and Death), that came haloed with the Golden Seashell awarded in San Sebastián, but already made controversial by a series of negative responses both in China and abroad. (11) The brutal occupation of the then-capital Nanjing by Japanese troops in 1937 (called “the Rape of Nanjing”) has left a deep scar over the Chinese psyche, especially because the Japanese government has never apologised for it. A number of films and television series have attempted to re-enact the national trauma – by compulsively re-staging the spectacle of atrocities from bayoneted babies to mass rape and beheadings. Against the historical-pornographic genre of “Nanjing films”, Lu Chuan never presents the massacre of civilians on-screen but show traces: a woman’s naked body in the street, screams heard at the edge of the image, blackmail and threats on the part of the occupying authorities. As noted by Derek Elley, Lu’s cinema “inhabits a strange space between art movie and the mainstream” (12) which makes his career particularly interesting to watch in the current state of China’s culture and politics. His decision to keep most of the violence off-screen, lauded by the majority of critics, (13) stems not from an ethico-formal analysis à la Straub-Huillet, but a heartfelt, somewhat sentimental form of humanism. Lu believes in a popular cinema that would also be artistic, generous and sensitive.

In his skilled hands, City of Life and Death brushes a compelling, impressionist and moving portrait of the day-to-day conditions in the devastated city, the minute ethical dilemmas demanded by living and surviving in wartime. The first third unfolds falsely as a messy war epic, in which a young general (Liu Ye) and his men, including a boy soldier, are involved in a futile last-minute resistance, only to be rounded up with thousands of other defeated soldiers and hideously massacred. This happens on-screen, and ends up with a close-up of Liu’s dead face (he’s the best-known movie star of the film in China, but he promptly exits the diegesis). With the unexpected survival of the boy solder who climbs out of the dead bodies, the film gets into its second gear, and refocuses on a Japanese trooper, Masao Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi), whose heartaches and moral dilemmas are intertwined with the travails of the Chinese who have sought shelter in the International Safety Zone organised by German businessman John Rabe (John Paisley).

This is when things became problematic in China. Initially, Lu Chuan received the support of the government, and the film was a box office success, but his sympathetic treatment of a Japanese officer angered many, to the point that he even received death threats. Then, for the usual unexplained change of position between factions of the Communist Party, the tide turned and all hopes of an Oscar nomination faded. Other bones of contention reappeared. At moments, comedian Fan Wei steals the screen with his complex portrayal of Rabe’s secretary Tang, a roly-poly man who conceals his fears under the illusion of his importance, then attempts to collaborate with the Japanese in the vain hope of protecting his family, and eventually redeems himself, without a hint of heroic posturing. In 2000, Jiang Wen’s Guizi lai le (Devils on the Doorsteps) had also been bitterly criticised for its depiction of moral ambiguities during the Japanese occupation. Propaganda cinema thrives on Manichean characters, which is why it is impossible for me to accept Shelly Kraicer’s argument that City of Life and Death is but a revamped form of zhuxuanlu (“main melody” or propaganda”). (14) Moreover, dwelling on this controversy is the tree that hides the forest – preventing us to experience what is truly unique in the film: the treatment of the issue of comfort women. Another sore point between Japan (who still refuses to compensate the victims) and its Asian neighbours, thousands of Korean or Chinese women were forced to offer sexual services to enlisted men in the Japanese army during World War II. An excruciating episode of the Rape of Nanjing was the bargain that John Rabe had to make with the Japanese authorities: providing them with a supply of comfort women in exchange for the protection of the International Safety Zone. The earlier contingent of comfort women were Japanese prostitutes assigned to military brothels – and this is how Kadokawa enter the diegesis. A well-bred, sensitive young man, he has his first sexual encounter with the prostitute Yuriko (Yuko Miyamoto). He goofs, apologises, she has a fleeting moment of tenderness for him. Later, she won’t even remember his name – but for him, it is the beginning of a great love, that can only be explained by the moral and psychological tension created by warfare. Kadokawa’s disillusionment at being a cog in a gigantic, anonymous death machine becomes overwhelming. And Lu Chuan depicts the horrors of the military brothel without prurience, conveying instead the immense sadness pervading a mechanism obviously created to control the minds and bodies of the enlisted men. As is well documented by a number of recent films about the history of comfort women, the fate of the female victims was atrocious, but in this debasing of sexuality the men, too, were also losers. Maybe this is what some spectators find so hard to accept.

The screening of Bong Joon-ho’s Madeo (Mother) on the huge screen of the Grauman’s revealed the epic qualities concealed under the fabric of this small-town-mother-centred-melodrama; it is not for nothing, after all, that Bong asked his cinematographer, Hong Gyeong-pyo, to shoot the movie in widescreen. As in The White Ribbon, as in his own Salinui chueok (Memories of Murder, 2003), trouble is hidden within the interaction of the members of a closely-knit community – tempered, as always in his work, by a light touch, a sense of humour and the absurd that opens up toward a true generosity toward his characters. In Bong’s idiosyncratic landscapes, men are often bundling, self-deprecating animals; Mother goes one step further, in the territory of a matriarchy that has always been subjacent to the apparent domination of the Korean male. Mothers as the source of life, sustenance, comfort, but also emotional dependency, and maybe also death. Bong implodes the self-enclosed bubble, made of love, patience, dependency and resentment, between a middle-aged single woman (legendary Korean star Kim Hye-ja) and her beautiful, yet mentally retarded teenage son, Do-joon (Bin Won), to explore the dark layers of the small town they inhabit (the murder of a schoolgirl uncovers stories of teenage mischief and promiscuity, family hatred and instances of indifference or cowardice) and then get back into the initial cell, with a terrifying twist.

When Do-joon is arrested for the strange murder of the girl, the mother, who makes a living as an unlicensed acupuncturist, will not leave a stone unturned to prove his innocence, exhausting her meagre savings and borrowing money to hire a sleazy lawyer, spying on lovers, sneaking in on people’s houses, bribing possible witnesses. One bleak afternoon of hysteria and despair, half-blinded by grief and the heavy downpour that enshrouds the landscape, she meets a junk man, pushing his cart – bringing to mind distant echoes of David Holm’s encounter with the “phantom carriage” in Victor Sjöström’s Körkarlen (1921). The film reaches a point of no return at this moment, but Bong does not overplay his hand, so we don’t realise this is the case, until much later – when it’s too late. Without giving too much away of a plot that manages to remain engrossing and surprising to the last minute, I will just say that the Mother has just met the Messenger of Death – which surreptitiously changes the meaning of the film: the mystery shifts from “who killed the girl” to “who will kill next”. Bong has an uncanny skill in casting suspicion on the “reality” of what his camera presents; at the same time, we never know “more” than his characters, and are as surprised as them by the surreal, fantastic or sinister turn of the events.

III

The two winners of the “New Lights” Competition were welcome surprises and interesting twists on the representation of femininity on-screen. With La Mujer Sin Piano (Woman Without Piano, also awarded the Best Director Prize in San Sebastián), it looks as if, for his second film, Javier Rebello has decided to expand a section of Chantal Akerman’s Toute une nuit (1982) in which a middle-aged housewife waits for her husband to fall asleep at her side, then gets dressed and stuffs personal belongings in her suitcase to wander around the streets of the city at night, checks in a small hotel, then sneaks back to her house at down, gets undressed, gets into bed next to the slumbering man just seconds before the alarm clock sounds and another boring day is about to start. Rebello captures the sense of absurdist melancholia that made this section of Akerman’s film so appealing. While Toute une nuit was a love letter to Brussels in the 1980s, Rebello takes us on a serendipitous journey through early 21st century Madrid – its fractured collage between the wealth of one of Europe’s most vibrant capitals and pockets of sleaze and poverty, the odd persistence of finical bureaucratic regulations contrasting with the messy pervasiveness of cell phones, and the intrusion of globalisation through the shadowy figures of immigrants of uncertain status. Rosa (played by the brilliant Spanish theatre and television actress Carmen Machi, known internationally for her supporting roles in Almodóvar’s films) ends up in the in-between space of the Southern Bus Station, trying to find a way to buy (several glasses of) brandy without violating the correct procedure to order alcohol in a public place. Outside the station, she talks with a street hooker, whose very un-Spanish blondness and tallness marks her as an emigrant from the former Eastern block and, inside, gets acquainted with Radek (the great Czech actor/musician Jan Budař, whom Rebello describes as “silent American cinema meets Tintin”), a repairman proud of his craft and compulsively obsessed with “fixing things” who is on his way back to his native Poland’s debtor’s jail – a commitment he feels it is his duty to honour.

Rebello achieves a miracle though the unexpected joy that comes out of the conjugated, offbeat rhythms of these two bodies emanating from different societies and maybe different filmic écritures. When they are brutally expelled from the station in the middle of the night – along with the retinue of homeless and transients who hurdle there against the cold – Carmen and Radek check in to a cheap hotel, where no lovemaking happens, but Radek fixes the television and has an epileptic fit – while Carmen gazes at his sleeping body, washes his clothes in a near-by laundromat, and tries for the 40th time to reach somebody on her cell phone. Then they return to the station, where Carmen buys a ticket for Nowhere, Poland (the discrepancy between the actor’s and the character’s nationality is certainly no accident) – until film noir intrudes in her plans and sends her back to square one.

The constantly-thwarted desire to leave is also at the core of Andrea Arnold’s second feature, Fish Tank (also co-winner of the Jury Grand Prix at Cannes) but her spirited heroine, Mia (an extraordinary acting debut by Katie Jarvis, met by the director by chance in the middle of an argument with her boyfriend on a subway platform) is given a second chance, which is only fair, for she’s only 15 – and instead of ending on a closed circle, the film concludes on an in-draft of freedom. For what is truly exhilarating in Fish Tank is that meanings and situations are never fixed. Even when filming a single-mother’s poverty-stricken home, Arnold inserts fluidity in the fraught mother-daughter relationship, in the depiction of the older woman’s messy love life – while tempering Mia’s bouts of teenage delinquency with a delicate picture of her affection for an aging horse or her passion for dancing. Even when the alas-too-predictable happens between Mia and Mom’s new boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender, already remarkable in Steve McQueen’s Hunger), the story bounces back, and Mia with it, avoiding the trappings of a possible dead-end situation, allowing the young woman to explore her anger, and then think about it before she commits an irreparable act. We tremble with her, for her, and then against her. In contradistinction with the tropes of the British realist school, to which the film has often been linked, Arnold does not use the grim urban wasteland of Essex to crush the soul of her characters; she gradually opens the landscape, with the proximity of the sea and moments of unexpected pleasures (the horse, the picnic, the dancing, the boy) and reframes her heroine’s trajectory. In two key moments, Mia learns to say “no” (to a dubious go-go dancing competition, to her impulse of hurting the little girl) and stops being a gaping fish in a closed tank.

Winner of the Golden Bear at the 2009 Berlin Film Festival, Claudia Llosa’s second feature, La Teta Asustada (The Milk of Sorrow) is also a liberation story of a young woman directed by another young woman. Fausta (Magaly Solier) is no rebel; she is a demure, timid, repressed, almost insipid character. She carries on her shoulders the weight of a traumatic history, with her violence turned inwards and her hidden strength pouring out of her in these delicate melodies she composes and sings for herself. Once, in a remote village, when her mother, a native Quechua peasant, was pregnant with her, she was raped by groups of armed men who also killed her husband. Such atrocities have been so widespread in Peru (15) that the female children of the victims are often suffering from a psychosomatic disease that popular wisdom says is passed on during breastfeeding, a condition defined by a never-ending fear and sadness, fainting spells and nosebleeds (a more accurate translation for the title would be “the frightened breast”). Now Fausta lives with her uncle’s family in a city slum; when her prematurely aged mother is about to die, in the iconic pre-credit sequence, she sings a mournful ballad recounting her horrifying experience. To her daughter she bequests not only the “milk of sorrow”, but also the power to transform these horrible memories into music. So Fausta sings, throughout the film, but is not aware of her talent, and hides it. And, to protect herself against what happened to her mother, in her vagina she inserts a potato that keeps sprouting, hurting her more and more.

The “clinical” aspect of Fausta’s plight is what upset some spectators; maybe, in the comfort of their middle class lives they never thought of the extremities third world women could go when routinely subjected to rape and sexual tortures; moreover, Llosa bathes Fausta’s situation in a light atmosphere of Latin American magic realism – Fausta is part witch, part fairy, part lost child, with a shyness balanced by poise, secret grace and a sense of her dignity. Finding a job as a servant in the upper-class household of a female pianist, she is caught off-guard singing. The mistress insists – one song, one pearl. A deal is made – for the profit of the professional musician, as Fausta, hidden backstage, hears the audience clapping at the rendition of her songs on a grand piano, and, when commenting on this – “They liked it” – is rudely thrown off the limousine on the way back. Yet, in this tale of exploitation between two women, the lady and the maid, strangely, Fausta finds her way – her voice.

Also awarded at Berlin (Best Director Trophy) as well as in Tribeca and Fajr, Asghar Farhadi’s Darbareye Elly (About Elly) is an incisive exploration of the malaise pervasive in the Iranian middle class. They are well-off, they can get off for long weekends in seaside resorts with family and friends, the wives are often stronger than the husbands but invest their energies in meticulous relationship and domestic issues (such as booking flights, finding the right house or love matching) while the husbands seeks refuge in bemused male bonding, and the children are alternatively cute and naughty – sounds familiar? What is not (to Western audiences) is that the women have to wear a headscarf and that it is forbidden for a young woman to be with a man who is not a relative, her fiancé or her husband. Wilful Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani) invites the lovely Elly (Taraneh Alidousti), her kids’ kindergarten teacher, to the Caspian sea with her friends – planning to introduce her to Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini) who has recently divorced his German wife. After the first initial confusion (the house that was rented is not available), things go without a hitch. Everybody thinks Elly is terrific, and she seems to hit it off with Ahmed. But something is not quite right. She receives mysterious phone calls that she won’t answer. She goes off to call her mother, and then lies to her about where she is. She wants to leave early and take a bus – Sepideh bullies her into staying. Then, in her care, as she was asked to mind the children playing by the sea, a little boy almost drowns. He is rescued, but Elly is nowhere to be found, and her new friends realise they know nothing about her. As in Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960), the gap left by the missing woman forces the remaining characters to confront some truths about themselves and their society. A major voice in the New Iranian cinema, Asghar Farhadi is less radical than Antonioni: we do find, eventually, what happened to Elly – but what remains mysterious is the truth “about” Elly, as we are left with the sad feeling of a life defined by repression and submission.

The AFI Fest selection also contained more experimental fare – including two short masterpieces, Le Streghe, Femmes entre elles, another (and feminist) exploration of Cesare Pavese’s 1947 Dialoghi con Leucò (Dialogues with Leucò) by Jean-Marie Straub and A Letter to Uncle Boonmee, a spin-off of the installation Primitive in which Apichatpong Weerasethakul returns to places in the Thai jungle marked by the memories and the scars of war. Portuguese auteur Pedro Costa came to introduce Ne Change Rien (reviewed in last issue of Senses of Cinema) and Philippe Grandrieux finally had a chance to show Un Lac (A Lake, Orrizzonti Price/Special Mention in Venice in 2008) in the US. A singular artist, who has explored filmmaking as well as video and installation, Grandrieux posits himself at the risky boundary between experimental cinema and horror movies, which allows him to plunge into the half-shaped world of the drive (trieb in German, but pulsion in French, which drifts into “impulse” as well, an apt metaphor for the way Grandrieux cinema functions, its sensual glide from one signifier to the other). It is a physical, carnal world where language is peripheral, and which is organised around obscure bursts of energy. Tactility, mobility, the lure of colours, light, empty spaces reign supreme. In Un Lac, to illustrate his protagonists’ alienation from language – maybe influenced by William S. Burroughs’s famous line “language is a virus from outer space” – Grandrieux chose young actors from Russia and made them learn the (minimal) French dialogue phonetically. “You are my sister – even so”, carefully articulates the young epileptic woodsman Alexis (Dimitry Kubasov) expressing a longing that would not have been so poignant in a “realistic” dialogue. Grandrieux starts with an extreme close-up, almost too tight for comfort, of Alexi exerting himself cutting trees in the icy desolation of a snow-covered mountain. The film alternates between details of a face, the texture of a skin, hands filling the screen, and wide shots dwarfing the protagonists amidst the austere beauty of the landscape. Grandrieux sculpts the light, plays with chiaroscuro and silhouettes (dark figures against the white snow…), creates a haunting dynamic between the visible and the invisible to suggest the unspeakable – a love too strong between a brother and sister and the loss of this love. The thin, tall trees of the dense forest, surrounded by an almost-surreal mist, where the sunlight never penetrates, is like a cathedral in which a strange ritual is enacted between Alexi, Hege and Jurgen. After the serial killings of Sombre (1999), and the descent into civil war hell in La Vie Nouvelle (2002), Un Lac is the least violent of Grandrieux’s three completed features – also the least “narrative” but the most visually superb.

IV

Not surprisingly, Un Lac was not among the 23 films shown both at the AFI and the American Film Market, that organised screenings of no less than 445 films (including 73 world premieres) in Santa Monica between November 4 and 11. They included the ubiquitous Precious, as well as The Woman Without Piano, Fish Tank, Afterlife, Michael Hoffman’s The Last Station, Jean van de Velde’s The Silent Army, and the third documentary by Mongolian director Byambarusen Davaa, Chingisiyin Hoyor Zagal (The Two Horses of Genghis Khan). Avoiding the myriads of horror, action and romance movies that were offered to buyers, and making short detours into the amicable-yet-uneven offering of genre films from Hong Kong and South Korea (still a strong presence in the Market, as the global crisis is less severe in the most industrialised parts of Asia), it was possible to catch some real gems. I don’t have high hopes for the work of Robert Guédiguian to ever make a killing in North America, but he is certainly one of the most interesting French directors, working off of the beaten track in his native city of Marseille (while French cinema is usually concentrated in Paris). Like Atom Egoyan, Guédiguian is part of the Armenian diaspora, and, while telling stories of the working-class or disabused former leftist militants in the South of France, he has also explored issues of ethnicity and the impossible return to the motherland. His sixteenth film, and probably his most expensive, L’Armée du Crime (The Army of Crime), is relatively conventional narratively-speaking but, due to its subject matter, it brings faces of “métèques” not often seen in French cinema, in particular the very charismatic Armenian actor Simon Abkarian. Guédiguian revisits a little-known episode of the French resistance, the clandestine struggle of the group of 22 men and one woman, mostly immigrants having escaped repressive regimes (from Spanish Republicans to Eastern European Jews), lead by the proletarian poet Missak Manouchian. They were arrested by the French police and then executed in 1944. A red poster bearing their names to convince the local population that terrorist actions against the German occupying army were the fact of foreigners with strange-sounding names were plastered all over France. L’Affiche Rouge (“The Red Poster”) became the subject of a poem by Louis Aragon, in which he quotes an excerpt of Maouchian’s his last letter to his beloved wife Mélinée (played in the film by Virginie Ledoyen): et je te dis de vivre, et d’avoir un enfant (“and I tell you to live on, and to have a child”). She never did.

With Chloe, Atom Egoyan remains within the slightly claustrophobic confines of the Toronto upper-class; yet this remake of Anne Fontaine’s Nathalie… (2003) also delves – with devilish intelligence and understated humour – into the filmmaker’s familiar obsessions. In an interesting twist, it is a woman, successful gynaecologist Catherine (fantastically played by Julianne Moore), who starts manufacturing a world tailored to her erotic fantasies. In this, she meets her match – the alluring Chloe (Amanda Seyfried), a high-class prostitute particularly gifted in catering to her clients’ secret dreams. Fearing (or desiring) that her husband (Liam Neeson) is having an affair, Catherine hires Chloe to seduce him – and this is exactly what happens, with the young woman admirably playing the part, at least to give Catherine what she has paid for. In this masquerade of deception and seduction, Chloe, like the fake blonde in Vertigo, is the puppet of somebody else’s fantasy – and, likewise, she will make a mistake, for no performance is ever perfect: she falls in love. Egoyan plays the Hitchcockian reference to the deadly end when Catherine loses what she never knew she wanted and keeps what she probably didn’t want.

Tsai Ming-liang’s Visage (Face) was a welcome addition to the Market – an uneven, atypical film, it is still difficult to see, yet it is a must for anybody interested in the impact of rootlessness on the career of one of the most idiosyncratic directors of the “New Taiwanese Cinema”. Born in Malaysia, Tsai studied in Taipei, apprenticed himself with Wang Xiaodi, got started in television and theatre, and became the darling of the Kuomintang-owned Central Motion Picture Company for the freshness of his representation of Taipei in Qing shao nian nuo zha (Rebels of the Neon God, 1992). The honeymoon lasted until the moment Tien Miao slapped his fictional son (Lee Kang-sheng) with whom he had just had anonymous sex in a gay bathhouse in He liu (The River, 1997) – creating ripples of indignation in Taiwan. Tsai returned to Malaysia, where he became active in theatre. Being a respected auteur in France helped him to secure funding there to make a few more films in Taipei such as Dong (The Hole, 1998) or Tian bian yi duo yun (The Wayward Cloud, 2005). He then made his first Malaysian movie, Hei yan quan (I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, 2006) in a Kuala Lumpur populated with foreigners and marginalised characters.

In the last few years, French museums have lured Asian directors to come and make movies in Paris; both Hou Hsiao-hsien with Le Voyage du Ballon Rouge (The Flight of the Red Balloon, 2007) and Hong Sang-soo with Bam gua nat (Night and Day, 2008) beautifully fulfilled the assignment, Hou immersing himself in the daily life of an unconventional French household and Hong sardonically delving into the milieu of Korean expats in Paris. Tsai seems a bit more ill-at-ease shooting in France; an earlier attempt Ni na bian ji dian (What Time Is It There?, 2001) including a chance encounter between Taiwanese actress Chen Shiang-chyi and French acting legend Jean-Pierre Léaud did not produce the expected sparks. In Visage, Tsai seems intent on revisiting the lost opportunity, and casts Léaud as the main actor of an extravagant musical version of the legend of Salomé directed by Lee Kang-sheng. The film is more a succession of splendid vignettes, some shot in Taipei, where Lee’s mother dies and reappears as a ghost, and some in Paris. Tsai extracts some exquisite performances from his actors – a homosexual meeting between Lee and Mathieu Amalric, shot exclusively in close-ups of their faces; an intimate confession between Léaud and Fanny Ardent; an unexpected cameo by Jeanne Moreau. Moreover, his admiration for François Truffaut’s Les 400 Coups is touching – but, considering the kind of cinema that Tsai represents, it is odd that he’s only interested in Léaud’s Antoine Doinel image, and not in the parts he has played for Jean-Luc Godard, Jean Eustache, Jacques Rivette, Olivier Assayas and Philippe Garrel. This, as well as the casting of Lætitia Casta as “the face”, can be read as the sign of a certain shyness on the part of Tsai vis a vis French culture, a sadness at having become so dependent on European financing.

Mainland Chinese cinema continues to make a foray at the AFM – whether represented by major international companies such as Fortissimo (like Visage or Tian Zhuangzhuang’s Lang zai ji [The Warrior and the Wolf]), commercial Hong Kong outfits or mainland production companies. While hundreds of new movies of all types, budgets and formats are being made in China, the local market remains extremely problematic, and only a handful of filmmakers are likely to turn a profit. Conversely, Chinese box-office hits don’t “make it” to the international film circuit, while movies that are relatively obscure in their own country are courted and awarded in major film festivals (Jia Zhangke being a perfect example of this). So at the AFM, the two kinds of filmmakers pursue different goals. One of the biggest successes of late has been Ning Hao’s Fengkuang de Saiche (Crazy Racer), a syncopated, satirical comedy of greed, errors and speed that has yet to win western audiences. The film had already been presented (albeit without subtitles) at FilmArt in March 2009, but coming to the AFM meant something else: the desire to be seen by North American buyers who may never have set foot in Asia. At the other end of the spectrum, Wang Quanan’s Fang Zhi Gu Niang (Weaving Girl) elegantly plays the “art cinema” card with the story of a young woman (a powerful, moving performance by Wang’s muse, Yu Nan) working in a factory on the verge of closure and who, upon learning she has leukaemia, leaves her husband and son behind for a trip to Beijing. The international release of the film had been originally botched by the producers (the film eventually resurfaced in Montréal where it received several awards) so its presence at the AFM may have increased its visibility.

A generous offering of American documentaries were also presented to both buyers and press, including films that have already left a strong mark: Tom DiCillo’s When You’re Strange about The Doors; Davis Guggenheim’s It Might Get Loud, an exhilarating confrontation between three generation of electric guitar virtuosos, The Edge, Jimmy Page and Jack White ending up in a dream jam session; or Kirby Dick’s latest incisive documentary, Outrage, that examines the moral and political issues at stake when closeted gay politicians take xenophobic positions in public. From a critical point of view, even at a time of economic crisis, the AFM plays a crucial role by presenting its visitors with a quick X-Ray vision of the current state of film production.

AFI Fest/American Film Market

AFI Fest
30 October–7 November 2009
AFI Fest website: http://www.afi.com/onscreen/AFIFEST

American Film Market
4-11 November 2009
AFM website: http://www.ifta-online.org/afm/home.asp

Endnotes

  1. American Film Institute site: http://www.afi.com/
  2. John Horn, “AFI, serving the cineastes of the world”] Los Angeles Times, 25 October 2009.
  3. http://silverdocs.com/
  4. See Eugene Hernandez, “Dallas Fest Moving Forward, Without AFI”, http://www.indiewire.com/article/dallas_fest_moving_forward_without_afi/. IndieWIRE, 18 June, 2009. See also the Dallas Festival Website http://www.dallasfilm.org.
  5. http://www.afi.com/education/Conservatory/
  6. http://www.wascweb.org
  7. See Brian Brooks, “On A High Note, AFI Fest Team Departs”, http://www.indiewire.com/article/on_a_high_note_afi_fest_team_departs/ IndieWIRE, 12 January 2010.
  8. Personal e-mail from Rose Kuo, January 19 2010. It should be noted, for the record, that Steve Anker, my Co-Curator of the Film/Video Series at REDCAT, and myself, have accepted to support this initial statement. Moreover, on 20 January, a press release from the Santa Fe Film Festival announced that “Michael Hare and Rose Kuo [were] selected as co-executive directors of the festival”.
  9. Jean-Pierre Oudart, “Notes on Suture,” in Screen vol. 18 no. 4 (Winter 1977–78), pp. 35-47. (First published in French in 1969.) Oudart was basing his conclusions on a close analysis of Le Procès de Jeanne d’Arc (1962) by Robert Bresson – another filmmaker deeply involved with the problem of evil. Yet Bresson’s catholicity opens a different vista – that of a possible redemption (whether it is attained, as in Pickpocket [1959] or Le Procès de Jeanne d’Arc, or denied, as in Mouchette [1967] L’Argent [1983]) – closed to Bergman, Dreyer and Haneke.
  10. Jean-Pierre Oudart, ibid.
  11. For the record, since I am taking a polemical position in favour of the film, I should say that I was instrumental in bringing the film to San Sebastián.
  12. www.variety.com/review/VE1117940252.html?categoryid=31
  13. See for example Maggie Lee in The Hollywood Reporter: “his refusal to milk the atrocities for sympathy confers dignity on the Chinese who emerge as survivors, not victims.” http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/hr/film-reviews/city-of-life-and-death-film-review-1003978888.story
  14. Shelly Kraicer, “A Matter of Life and Death – Lu Chuan and Post-Zhuxuanlu Cinema”, CinemaScope, No 41, Winter 2010, pp. 12-15.
  15. In May 1980, the Maoist Communist Party of Peru (Partido Comunista del Perú), also known as the “Shining Path” (Sendero Luminoso), started an armed insurrection against the government armed forces that ended up with the capture of its leader, Abimael Guzmán (a former university philosophy professor) in 1992. In the guerilla war that ensued, massacres, rapes and tortures were enacted by both sides – especially against peasants that had initially been sympathetic to the “Shining Path” against landowners. It is estimated that more than 70,000 people perished in the conflict. Splinter groups of the “Shining Path” have continued to operate in Peru, albeit at a reduced rate, until now. The toll of the conflict on women has been particularly brutal: Americas Watch and the Women’s Rights Project released Untold Terror: Violence Against Women in Peru’s Armed Conflict.
    The report found that despite explicit international prohibitions on murder, torture and ill-treatment of noncombatants, both the government security forces and the Shining Path insurgency use violence against civilian women as a form of tactical warfare. Soldiers and police routinely rape women. The Shining Path frequently murders them. The violence is often undertaken to punish, coerce or intimidate female victims or to achieve broader political ends. At times, the violence takes gender-specific forms, as in the security forces’ use of rape exclusively against women… Women are being terrorized by the state security forces and rape is the method of choice. Rape of women by the Shining Path is much less common, perhaps due to explicit prohibitions within its ranks and the high number of women militants. More often the Shining Path threatens and murders women activists with the express purpose of intimidating them and their peers.
    See “The Women’s Rights Project” http://www.hrw.org/legacy/reports/1993/WR93/Hrw-04.htm

About The Author

Bérénice Reynaud is the author of New Chinas/New Cinemas (1999) and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s A City of Sadness (2002). She teaches at the California Institute of the Arts. She edited the Senses of Cinema dossier devoted to Chantal Akerman.