For two years running I’ve attended the Fribourg International Film Festival. The timing of my engagements with the festival has been propitious; it strikes me that the FIFF is a festival just now coming into its own. In 2011 it applied only a few fine tunings to the many renovations to its core mission effected by Edouard Waintrop across his four year stewardship, leaving it in rude good health for his appointed successor, Thierry Jobin, to now inherit.

You’d in fact have had to have spent the whole festival under a rock not to have been aware that this year’s was Waintrop’s swan song, so often was it trumpeted and his directorship celebrated. Farewell messages placed by local newspaper La Liberté graced the pocket festival guide and were emblazoned upon slides projected ahead of many screenings, and the opening and closing ceremonies were both redolent with collegiate valedictory bonhomie. A speech given on opening night from Thierry Frémaux, General Delegate of the Festival de Cannes, was especially totemic of the elevated standing and fettle of the FIFF under Waintrop.

But bouquets for four years’ good work aside, how did Waintrop’s very last FIFF, viewed in isolation, stack up?

In Competition

The competition is very much the festival flagship. It’s far and away the greatest audience drawcard, with very full houses greeting many competition screenings. And with as many as eight awards up for grabs, it’s the FIFF’s greatest emblem of its perennial championing of its struggletown staples: cinema from Asia, Africa and Latin America.

That said, the 12 titles selected this year were up against the least restrictive selection criteria yet. Once “Le Festival des films du Tiers-monde”, the FIFF no longer has so narrow a focus on “Cinéma du sud” and in 2011 only precluded from participation films “… produced in the countries of the European Union, in the United States of America, in Canada or in Switzerland”. (1) This, one would imagine, could even have opened up the competition to entrants from first world Australia, New Zealand and Norway, as well as to entrants from truer to tradition, developing nations like those of the Caucasus and other post-Soviet states.

A laudable measure taken this year, and partial corrective to my main grumble about last year’s FIFF, (2) was to ensure that all 12 competition titles, along with the opening and closing night films, would be accessible to English speakers, a welcome move towards inclusiveness and to maximising those key films’ prospects of finding an audience at – and beyond – the festival.

The competition films were an eclectic bunch and I was pleased I succeeded in making it to 11 of them. Irritatingly though, I now realise the one I missed, Khaneye zire âb (The House Under the Water, d. Sepideh Farsi), was the only one directed by a woman.

Bi, dung so! (Bi, Don’t Be Afraid) languidly observes a few days in the life of six year-old Bi’s Hanoi family, newly extended through the surprise return of a seriously ailing grandfather. His return, however, is almost the least of their problems. An often droll film with simmering erotic undercurrents occasionally boiling over, it came as no surprise to learn that Bi‘s debutante director, Phan Dang Di, scripted last year’s Choi Voi (Adrift, d. Chuyên Bui Thac), a film very similar in mood and in its tweaking of Vietnamese taboos.

Los Colores de la Montaña (The Colors of the Mountain, d. Carlos César Arbeláez) is set against a backdrop of a Colombian civil war so pervasive it even infects remote rural backblocks such as that which would otherwise have been the stuff of idyllic childhoods for all the soccer-mad young boys at the heart of this film. Highly naturalistic, Los Colores is nonetheless a little coy about sexual aspects to the horrors and disappearances perpetrated in the mountains by guerrillas and paramilitary alike as they press-gang hapless farmers into service, accepting no equivocation. But then, much of the action unfolds as if observed through the innocent, uncomprehending eyes of children, for whom nothing could ever be so cruel as to be denied a game of football.

A lovely, bittersweet film, Los Colores won the CHF 5,000 Audience Award, the same-valued Ecumenical Jury Award and a theatrical release after the festival.

Martín Sastre’s Miss Tacuarembó is a high-camp Uruguayan musical pushing the line that prime-time television is the new Catholic confessional, with a confession broadcast on the former carrying much more redemptive weight, and opportunity for betterment, than ever did the latter. The highly distinctive features and élan of Rossy de Palma in the role of a vivacious TV show host contribute heavily to Miss Tacuarembó‘s early-Almodóvarian flavour, as does its breezy, freewheeling blasphemy. Sadly, it ends with rather more of a whimper than a bang; it’s one great show-stopping song and dance number short of making a much more favourable impression.

Sin retorno (No Return, d. Miguel Cohan) is an Argentinian thriller that confounds expectations at every key moment in its narrative, an unnerving discordant background hum permeating its soundtrack all awhile. It boasts excellent performances from Leonardo Sbaraglia, who brings both something of a resemblance to, and ultimately the intensity of, John Cassevetes to his role as a wronged ventriloquist, as well as from Martin Slipak as the tortured young man with the most to gain from a pointedly Argentinian-style miscarriage of justice.

Late Autumn (d. Kim Tae-yong) was a twofold anomaly in the competition in that not only is it an English language production, but its setting is anglophone as well. Curiously, the catalogue didn’t mention that it’s based on a same-named 1966 Korean film by Lee Man-hee, set in South Korea, rather than in, and en route to and from an almost parodically smog-soaked Seattle.

Late Autumn‘s chaste, sometimes funny, fishes-out-of-water romance between a Chinese-American murderess (Tang Wei) briefly released from jail and a Korean gigolo (Hyun Bin) snared the Youth Jury ‘s CHF 5,000 E-CHANGER award as well as a special mention from the jury of the International Federation of Film Societies’ Don Quixote Award which, amidst some good-humoured misunderstandings at the closing ceremony, went instead to Aamir Bashir for his tremendous film Harud (Autumn). Autumn effectively conveys something of the distressing, disappearance-riddled complexities of present day Kashmiri life, ending on an extremely downbeat note tellingly soon after having dared to suggest that life, even when eked out in the direst of straits, is salvageable, redeemable even, through acquiring the power of representation via that most wondrous of conduits, the camera.

In Raed Andoni’s docu-fiction Fix Me, the personal is political and filmmaking is a vehicle for therapy. Fix Me portrays, and subsumes, psychoanalysis sessions Andoni undertakes to treat his migraines, synecdochical for the ails of the Palestinian people under occupation. The irascible Andoni’s quest to conquer his headaches starts off dryly amusing but soon becomes tedious, and a couple of serene moments of Elia Suleiman-esque surrealism stand in too stark a contrast to the narcissistic, verbose monotony of much of the rest of the film.

I responded only a little more warmly to Las Marimbas del Infierno (Marimbas from Hell, d. Julio Hernández Cordón), wherein the unlikely fusion of marimba with heavy metal rhymes with the film’s awkward melding of fictional and non-fictional elements, amounting to an altogether uneven snapshot of life amongst oddball Guatemalan fringe dwellers, some of whom are getting an unpromising band together. Others evidently felt differently, though; Las Marimbas won the CHF 23,000 Talent Tape Award.

Tangshan dadizhen (Aftershock, d. Feng Xiaogang) uses the catastrophic 1976 Tangshan earthquake, spectacularly depicted, as a springboard for a drama in which the lives of twins, lived in total isolation from one another after the earthquake, are offset against a backdrop of 30 years of radically changing Chinese life. It made for uneasy viewing given the recent cataclysms in Japan, and sat awkwardly too alongside its much lower-budget, typically far more naturalistic fellow competitors, with its syrupy score and general air of blockbusteriness. (3) Nevertheless, I found it engrossing, if a little propagandistic and with too predictable a denouement.

A longtime collaborator with Rakhshan Bani-Etemad, Mohsen Abdolvahab’s first solo foray into fiction filmmaking, Lotfan Mozahem Nashavid (Please Don’t Disturb) is an absolute delight, a wonderfully scripted and performed and deftly directed tripartite screwball comedy of Catch-22-like impasses between Teheran dwellers uncertain of how to conduct themselves amongst one another in a mad, mad, mad world. There is no little satirical bite to its very funny depictions of Teheranians, new and old, under duress, not least in the opening episode when an exasperated TV show host, his career suddenly on the line, tries to reason with his battered wife not to press claims against him because, after all, there’s long been a great and august tradition, spanning all cultural divides, of husbands beating their beloveds!

Lastly: Shi (Poetry). Lee Chang-dong is no stranger to the FIFF; he was in Fribourg as the subject of a retrospective in 2008. His elegant latest feature, much praised in Senses of Cinema already, did not surprise in receiving both the FIPRESCI Jury award and the CHF 30,000 Regard d’Or.

Lee was not in Fribourg this year but was able to prepare two gracious video acceptance speeches for closing night, within one of which – with a certain inevitability – he paid tribute to Waintrop.

Outside of Competition

English was somewhat thinner on the ground away from the competition, within and on either side of screenings, but, perhaps perversely, I was almost pleased that the introductions to most films, and many post-screening discussions, were conducted only in French. Sometimes streamlining matters by not trying to please everybody – myself included! – does a greater service than not. Cutting to the chase can be very welcome when schedules are tight.

I will though bemoan the absence of English from one particular event. The FIFF unveiled the world premiere of Tinguely (d. Thomas Thümena), a documentary celebrating a hometown hero, the sculptor and kinetic artist Jean Tinguely, on the 20th anniversary of his death. Tinguely is an artist of such international renown that I would have thought that this film’s world premiere would have merited it being made linguistically accessible to all.

Michael Henry Wilson presented Reconciliation: Mandela’s Miracle, a documentary focusing not only on Mandela, the ghastly privations he endured whilst imprisoned on Robben Island and his halcyon days post-release and post-apartheid, but also on many of “Madiba”’s dissident jailmates who, in Mandela’s curious (humble?) absence, serve as Reconciliation‘s talking heads, in good company with F. W. de Klerk, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Justice Albie Sachs, et al.

Now, I don’t begrudge Wilson interviewing Clint Eastwood for this film; the events depicted in the latter’s Invictus (2009) concerning South Africa’s myth-making, nation-building victory in the 1995 Rugby World Cup are rightly considered integral to the telling of South Africa’s reconciliation story. However, I am flabbergasted by Wilson’s recourse to so much Invictus making-of (!) footage in this film. How could he not see that it’s utterly redundant?

The opening and closing night films, Da bing xiao jiang (Little Big Soldier, d. Sheng Ding), and Tropa de Elite 2 – O Inimigo Agora é Outro (Elite Squad 2, d. José Padilha), respectively, both carried with them a sense of occasion yet each seemed like a strange selection, operating at perhaps too great a remove from the more personal, auteurist nature of much of the rest of the FIFF’s programming.

Furthermore, I didn’t much care for the guns a-blazing, gung-ho actioneering of Elite Squad 2, no matter how commendable its explicit attack on entrenched corruption in Brazil. (Also, I don’t think it’s ever a good idea to run with a voiceover throughout an entire film.)

Little Big Soldier, on the other hand, is a very endearing, peacenik period vehicle for an impressively understated Jackie Chan who, playing a canny coward granted a golden opportunity to bring peace in his time, will ultimately have to forfeit the last laugh to the march of a history we already know to have long been written.

Little Big Soldier‘s ample charms notwithstanding, I still think it odd having such commercial fare bookending the FIFF.

Panoramas

15 films, a mixture of documentaries and fictional works, comprised Black Note, a tribute to the vast richness of the history of black and African musics. Abundant with marvellous archival footage, my highlight was Charlotte Zwerin’s doco on one of jazz’s truly eccentric greats, Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser (1988; producer Clint Eastwood). Eastwood was everywhere! His wonderful Charlie Parker biopic, Bird (1988) also played as part of Black Note. Robert Altman’s made-for-TV Jazz ’34 (1998), utilising performances recorded during the production of Kansas City (1996), also made an appearance, with a photographic exhibition from Magnum Photos’ Guy Le Querrec a welcome off-screen supplement.

Inspired by the Black Note panorama, the Swiss animation festival Fantoche, given “carte blanche”, came up with a terrific session of animated shorts in which music drives the action, from brilliant Swiss animator Georges Schwizgebel’s free-associative roundelay, 78 Tours (78 R.P.M., 1985) to the melancholic hilarity of Gil Alkabetz’s bored, caged parrots getting nostalgic to Charles Aznavour in Morir de Amor (2004).

Producer Fei Ling Foo, director Woo Ming Jin and director-producer Amir Muhammad were in attendance for The Da Huang Network, a seven film-strong panorama shining a light on the Malaysian New Wave, in which low-budget digital productions are telling lesser-heard stories of multicultural, present day Malaysian life. I was charmed by Flower in the Pocket (d. Liew Seng Tat, 2007), a 2008 FIFF Regard d’Or winner in which two young Chinese Malaysian boys comically go about their daily business in the absence of any attention from their father, a factory worker strangely obsessed with realistic asymmetry in the mannequins he builds. And I was especially taken by Year Without a Summer (d. Tan Chui Mui), an Apichatpong-esque, folkloric reverie infused with gorgeous moonlight cinematography, and which, to my delight, presented a vision of a mermaid just as René Magritte had once envisioned it! (4)

Sakartvelo – that’s “Georgia”, transliterated from Georgian – offered a 12 feature, 5 shorts-strong sample of 80 years of an intriguing national filmography, from Mikhail Kalatozov’s legendary, and still controversial, ficto-ethnographical documentary, Jim Shvante (marili svanets) (Salt for Svanetia, 1930) through to Rene Midis Holivudshi (Rene Goes to Hollywood, Aleko Tsabadze, 2010), a Surrealism-inflected consideration – there was imagery in this film, too, straight out of Magritte – of the ills befalling Tbilisi today and previously as pondered, alternately violently and tenderly, by a man trying to embody the Bretonian dream: being equal parts proletariat roused to wanton acts of violence, and artist aspiring to transcendency.

The daring, often hilarious, knockabout comedy of Four Lions (d. Christopher Morris) sat uneasily alongside Hany Abu-Assad’s rather more serious look at suicide bombing, Paradise Now (2005), in the panorama prosaically rendered in English as “Being a Terrorist”. Olivier Assayas’ Carlos further fleshed out “Dans la peau d’un terroriste”, but I hadn’t five-and-a-half hours to spare!

With the producer herself in attendance, a “[t]ribute to Lita Stantic” paid homage to one of New Argentine Cinema’s most important producers, and included screenings of her own feature, Un muro de silencio (A Wall of Silence, 1993) alongside key works directed by María Luisa Bemberg (Camila, 1984) and Lucrecia Martel (La ciénaga, 2001), while “The Woman Who Knew Too Much” represented the culmination of Edouard Waintrop’s four year expansionist survey of film noir by focusing on heroines of noirs new and old, from Hollywood as well as from as far afield as India, in the case of Ek Hasina Thi (There Was A Beautiful Woman, Sriram Raghavan, 2004).

Lastly, in honour of the 50th anniversary of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, a supporter of the festival since its inception, six films from priority countries of Swiss cooperation were programmed in Lima Pristina, including the first Kosovar movie in history, Gomarët and Kufirit (Donkeys of the Border, Jeton Ahmetaj, 2009).

Notes, in conclusion

Record numbers attended the festival. The 30,000 expected were exceeded by a further 2,000, with screenings to regional school groups, under the FIFF’s admirable Planète Cinéma screen literacy initiative, notably accounting for nearly a third of total admissions. These students are encouraged to think, and write, critically about the films they see at the festival, per the Planète Cinéma blog, which can surely only inculcate these future independently moneyed festival-goers with an appetite for the very sort of cinema the festival is charged with championing, hopefully sustaining a happy little feedback loop to help ensure the FIFF will be in a position to abide by its raison d’être for years and years to come.

In a time when murmurings are heard the world over about festivals large and small considering abandoning print catalogue publishing, I applaud the FIFF’s continuing dedication to a printed and bound catalogue replete with erudite contextualising essays provided in French, German and English. I also welcome, atop that, new media value-adding such as, with the festival’s close this year, and honouring its 25th anniversary, digital mementos being made available in the form of 25 second-long video portraits of prominent festival guests taken by pioneering video portraitist, Joan Logue, a festival guest herself.

One change I’d welcome in 2012 from incoming Artistic Director Thierry Jobin would be the introduction of a short film competition. (5) While there were certainly a number of good shorts shown this year across three themed packages, I felt they were comfortably eclipsed by Fantoche’s animations. I feel certain that adding a competitive element to the shorts program would lift their standard that bit higher, as well as drawing even more filmmakers, and attendant energy and excitement, to the festival.

That all said, I’ll reiterate my feeling that the FIFF has really arrived; Thierry Jobin could scarcely have better timed being awarded its directorship. The hard yards have been done, and all that really remains is for Tobin to flavour the FIFF to taste, and for the city of Fribourg to not go changing dramatically any time soon; for all of the film fun of the FIFF, there’s a lot of fun to be had in Fribourg on and beyond the periphery of the festival, too, especially if one has the good fortune to get to know some of the locals…

Fribourg International Film Festival

19-26 March 2011

Festival website: http://www.fiff.ch/en/

Endnotes

  1. “Regulations 2011”, in the catalogue for the 25th Fribourg International Film Festival, p. 35.
  2. See Cerise Howard, “Going South in 2010: Thinking Global, Talking Local: The 24th Fribourg International Film Festival” in Senses of Cinema, no. 55, 2010.
  3. Aftershock is in fact China’s first co-production with IMAX, making for the giant format’s first, and certainly far from last, foray into foreign language films. (See Lauren A. E. Schuker “Imax Set to Partner With Chinese Studio”, in The Wall Street Journal, June 15, 2009.) That notwithstanding, it screened in Fribourg on 35mm – which is what it was shot on anyway. Switzerland’s sole IMAX cinema is in Lucerne.
  4. Per his 1934 painting, “L’Invention Collective”.
  5. Mea culpa – in my report for Senses last year, I wrote of there being “three packages of short films in competition”, when, in fact, there was not a shorts competition then either. See Cerise Howard, “Going South in 2010: Thinking Global, Talking Local: The 24th Fribourg International Film Festival” in Senses of Cinema, no. 55, 2010.