Some festivals take place below the radar of a city: local residents are barely aware that there is a film festival on, and only films by the most well-known directors attract full houses. In the picturesque city of Wrocław – the “Venice of Poland” – on the contrary, it is impossible to miss the fact that there is a festival on. As summer reaches its peak in late July, a giant outdoor screen dominates the Market Square: the heat of a sunny day gives way to the relief of evening, and a thousand people arrive early to claim a free seat or begin a drawn-out dinner in a café with a view of the screen. From the tall, brightly-coloured terraced buildings around the square, there are tiny flashes of light as curious residents take photos of the crowds assembled on their doorstep.

A smaller square nearby is taken over by a man-made beach with a cocktail bar, a trampoline for children, and a mini surfing alley for teenagers. Striped beach chairs encircle the fountain in front of the “Teatr Lalek” puppet theatre. Alongside a peaceful park, a large open-air gazebo hosts the Gazeta Café: a coffee bar on one side, chat-show style sofas on the other, and in between, journalists and public brimming with difficult questions for renowned directors such as Carlos Reygadas, Léos Carax and Lav Diaz.

Meanwhile, at the Helios multiplex just outside the Old Town walls, locals form long queues day and night to snap up last-minute seats for screenings of big new films fresh from Cannes, brand-new Polish features, or retrospectives of experimental cineastes. This is the T-Mobile New Horizons Film Festival, the biggest film festival in Poland, and one of the most important film events in central Europe.

Established in 2001, New Horizons celebrated its 12th edition this year, screening some 469 films from 52 different countries. The festival hosts 4 competitive sections: the New Horizons International Competition (for contemporary fiction features from around the world, with a Grand Prix of €20,000), the Films on Art International Competition (documentaries competing for a prize of €10,000), and separate competitions for European and Polish short films (with three prizes for each section, worth €1,000 and €5,000 respectively). Films in the International Competition are also in the running for an Audience Award and the International Critics Prize from FIPRESCI. As I was a member of the FIPRESCI jury, most of this review will focus on films from the International Competition. Normally, the FIPRESCI prize comes with no more than the honour of critical recognition, but at New Horizons, the FIPRESCI jury had the excitement of knowing that the film they selected would also receive guaranteed distribution in Poland, as would the winners of the Grand Prix, the Films on Art International Competition, and the Audience Award.

Thursday Till Sunday

This year’s Grand Prix went to De jueves a domingo (Thursday Till Sunday) by Dominga Sotomayor Castillo. The film follows a family on a four-day trip through rural Chile. From giant looming boulders to lonely scrub-filled desert, dramatic scenery passes by the car windows, but it quickly becomes clear that we are also witnessing drama on a smaller scale. Placed in the position of the children in the back of the car, the audience is unable to grasp the exact nature of the disagreement between the parents. But like the 11 year-old daughter Lucía, more alert than her younger brother, we are keenly aware that whatever is wrong with the parents’ relationship, it is headed inexorably for breakdown. The theme of separation (between the worlds of front seat and back seat, adults and children, husband and wife) is also mirrored more broadly in the film’s visual style. In nearly every shot, there is a marked division of space: while one action is taking place in the foreground, a separate action carries on in the background. Sometimes it is as simple as Lucía gazing through the window of a roadside café, while passers by are reflected in the glass. At other times, the spatial division is more directly related to the parents’ estrangement: in the foreground is Lucía watching, while, in the background overly intimate exchanges take place between her mother and an old friend they happen to meet on the road. This film was my personal favourite in the competition: not only was it distinguished by an accomplished aesthetic, it also offered an intimate and comprehending portrait of family and childhood, in moments of both contentment and anguish.

Neighbouring Sounds

For the FIPRESCI prize, the critics’ jury agreed on Kleber Mendonça Filho’s O som ao redor (Neighbouring Sounds). This film made a powerful impression on us because, from beginning to end, it evoked and sustained the atmosphere of threat and unease felt by the inhabitants of one neighbourhood in urban Brazil. The film opened with hazy sepia stills of rural scenes followed by dynamic, multi-hued images of present-day city life: low-angle shots of tall apartment blocks, high-angle shots of teenagers making out in a secluded corner, shots tracking after children as they careen around tiled courtyards on rollerblades and bicycles. These modern, dynamic shots were punctuated by a booming soundtrack that accentuated the general yet undefined sense of danger. The irony of this pervasive nervousness is the lack of justification for it in the film: if there is a message in Neighbouring Sounds, it is that serious violence generally emerges from historical wrongs committed by the ruling classes. Meanwhile, middle-class hysteria about petty crime locks people into a prison of their own making: rather than rely on the police, entire streets chip in to hire a private security guard for their area; children have nightmares about home invaders; families live their lives enclosed by high gates and walls, cut off from their neighbours.

Donoma

For anyone who attended the International Competition screenings, it would come as little surprise that the Audience Award went to French feature Donoma by Djinn Carrénard. Of all the films in this section, it drew the most audible reactions from the audience. Putting aside an occasionally disorienting aesthetic, when over-enthusiastic camerawork resulted in image blurring, this was a refreshingly vibrant and original film. It follows three principal storylines that briefly overlap. Most appealing to the audience was the one centred on an attractive Spanish teacher who uses sex as a means of taming the most disruptive student in her all-male class. Wrocław spectators laughed out loud as the teacher’s sexual assertiveness instantly transformed the macho teenager into a lamb. The film didn’t just play the situation for laughs: ethical implications were explored too, when the teacher’s friends were scandalised rather than amused by her story. Donoma was not only unusual for the type of stories it told, but in placing female characters at the centre of all of them. Avoiding the tendency to cast women as uncomplicatedly good or evil, the film presents them ambiguously. As they seize opportunities to change their lives, the characters’ behaviour can seem decisive and empowering. At other times, particularly when viewed in a more realistic light, their actions appear impulsive and erratic.

Francine

While the three prize-winning films from The International Competition were clearly the most deserving of awards, the section as a whole was unusually strong. The only dud among them was James Franco and Ian Olds’ painfully sophomoric but mercifully short Francophrenia – and even that film contained one interesting scene, which put audiences in the unaccustomed and surreal position of the actor, face-to-face with a crowd of adoring strangers. Of the remaining films, I’d like to mention three particularly noteworthy ones. The first is a Canadian-American co-production, Francine (d. Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky). It follows its title character (Melissa Leo) as she is released from prison and attempts to re-integrate into small-town life. Her love of animals sees her gradually fill her house with cats, dogs and mice, and take jobs in a pet shop, a stable and a veterinarian’s office; that same love of animals ultimately lands her back in trouble. The film centres exclusively on the middle-aged Francine, getting to know this withdrawn character through the various emotions that animate her face, changing it from serious and sad to soft and glowing.

Mondomanila

At the opposite extreme from Francine‘s naturalistic approach, Khavn De La Cruz’s Mondomanila makes for a bizarre experience, but also an irresistibly original one. Set in a Philippine slum, this frenetic film centres on a group of foul-mouthed, sex-obsessed, drug-addicted boys. As the characters face real-world problems of poverty, disability and sexual exploitation by foreigners, the audience is lulled into an impression of realism… until their camp costumes and melodramatic behaviour are set against the backdrop of a crowd of genuine residents of the poverty-stricken area, who look on with incredulity. Fiction films which use disadvantaged areas as a backdrop, and unflinchingly focus on their appalling realities, risk being labelled “poverty porn”: rather than exploiting suffering for the sake of a good story, though, Mondomanila puts its eccentric aesthetic at the service of reality, using style to draw attention to unacceptable living conditions.

Like Mondomanila, Sentimental Animal (d. Wu Quan) contained some disturbing scenes, but I think the festival catalogue did the film a disservice. “Overly sensitive viewers should avoid this enigmatic, ailing and, at times, shocking stylised black-and-white film due to the scenes of drastic violence towards animals”: unsurprisingly, the screening was more than half empty, all for the sake of an early scene in which a donkey is slaughtered. While the killing of animals is never pleasant to watch, this film was, as mentioned, in black-and-white, and “stylised” in its approach, and the scene in question was as far as possible from a gratuitous gore-fest. The film’s confusing narrative revolved around an elderly disabled man and his protégés who gather for a celebration; the story unexpectedly culminates in gangster violence. Visually, the film is exquisite. Like moving photographs, its images reflected consummate sensitivity to chiaroscuro, the play of steam and patterns of light on water, creating a haunting sense of mystery.

Man is not a bird

Alongside its competition sections, the festival offered a variety of non-competitive programs, such as an international selection of mockumentaries past and present, and retrospectives of directors including Yugoslav legend Dušan Makavejev and veteran Polish animator Witold Giersz, both of whom attended the festival. Covering the director’s entire career, which stretched from the 1950s to the 1990s, the Makavejev retrospective represented an exciting opportunity. It is difficult to obtain his films on DVD, so I had been familiar with this director of the so-called “Black Wave” by reputation only. In the space of a week I was able to see every one of Makavejev’s feature films. In the case of some directors, this might become repetitive, but Makavejev’s case it was a delight because his films are distinguished by their variety, on both narrative and stylistic levels. His first two fiction features, Man is not a Bird (1965) and Love Affair (1967), have a documentary feel to them, comparable to films from the Czech New Wave’s Forman School. Later work such as The Coca-Cola Kid (1985, set in Australia) and Manifesto (1988) are more commercially-oriented but still complicate their respective genres by straying from standard patterns.

Makavejev’s films were so controversial that they were banned in various countries, and earned the director exile from his native land. Although his work is famed for its shock value, sensationalism is not the director’s raison d’être. Like the Surrealists, Makavejev uses bizarre situations and unusual juxtaposition as a means to an end: namely, to make us see the world differently. He draws out the absurd in society’s obsession with female sexual purity in Sweet Movie (1974) and the ridiculousness of blind adherence to political dogma in Gorilla Bathes at Noon (1993). Makavejev’s satire of middle-class family life in Montenegro (1981) is reminiscent of Buñuel in its darker, more stylised portrayal of madness masquerading as normality. In general, though, Makavejev’s films offer an uplifting portrait of the bizarre, rather than a disquieting one: the audience can feel his delight simply in capturing the inherent strangeness of the human condition in the documentary sections of Innocence Unprotected (1968), WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971) and A Hole in the Soul (1994). In his fiction films, the director’s underlying good-natured approach means that the audience grows attached to the characters and, in general, understands their eccentricities rather than feeling alienated by them. Makavejev says that he never accepted the term “Black Wave” because his films were not intentionally dark: he says that his films are simply about life, which naturally has both light and dark moments.

The Witold Giersz retrospective was also a special opportunity: although you can watch a few of his animated shorts (arguably the most important ones) on YouTube, Giersz made many more (nearly 50 in total), and the festival screened some 40 of them. Now reaching the end of a career that began in the 1950s, the director is currently at work on what he says will be his final film: an animation of cave paintings using the traditional materials of charcoal and rock. Although he has worked using a variety of techniques, Giersz’s films are united by their artistic, often painterly quality. He pioneered the technique of painting colour patches directly onto the celluloid, but also worked on paper, periodically taking pictures of his work in progress so that the images, viewed together at high speed, would give the impression of a living painting. He used the latter approach in Pożar (Fire, 1975), which shows animals fleeing a forest as it is destroyed by flames. His most acclaimed movie, Czerwone i czarne (The Red and the Black, 1963) is a light-hearted film with more simplified figures, showing a bullfight that spills from the animator’s paper onto the desk, where the bull turns a mirror on the director, catching him smoking a cigarette. Different again in style is Gwiazda (The Star, 1984), which uses cel animation to depict an Orwellian world too close for comfort to Communist censors at the time, who banned the film.

New Horizons is outstanding for fulfilling the remit of a film festival on several levels. It is a decidedly public festival, generating excitement and, with free outdoor screenings, promoting inclusivity. It brings the cream of the A-list festivals to Wroclaw and, with its competition sections, asserts its own role in discovering and awarding the best of current international cinema. The festival also supports home-grown talent, reserving a special competitive section for new shorts by Polish directors, and showcasing excellence in Polish feature filmmaking, past and present. Its retrospectives offer audiences a chance to see films that are, in many cases, otherwise unavailable. In fulfilling all these roles and more, the 12th edition of the New Horizons International Film Festival can be firmly classified as a success. Local audiences and international guests alike anxiously await July 2013.

New Horizons Film Festival
19-29 July 2012
Festival website: http://www.nowehoryzonty.pl/index.do?lang=en