The 35th World Film Festival: A Preview, August 18th to August 28th, 2011
For the third year in a row, we are taking on the difficult task of picking a few must-see films for you at this year’s 35th anniversary World Film Festival/Festival des Films du Monde. Even though the press release claims that 230 feature and medium-length films will be showing this year, we count 196 in total, down slightly on the last two years. However, we agree on the number of international premieres: well over 100, including 45 world premieres. (Although such figures can be misleading: this year, TIFF are claiming to be doing the “North American Premiere,” of Starbuck, in Toronto, a film which has been in Montreal theatres for a while). A good place to start would be Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not A Film (In film nist, Iran)—co-directed by Mojtaba Mirtahmasb—a digital film, partially shot on a cell phone, that famously showed at the Cannes International Film Festival, out-of-competition, this year. Remarkably, Mark Peranson, the editor of cinema scope, the best English-language film journal these days, considered This Is Not A Film to be the finest work at Cannes this year, bar none. Obviously his rating is impossible to top, but, we were fortunate enough to be able to see a press screening yesterday. And, given Panahi’s desperate situation in Iran, awaiting a verdict on how long his jail sentence is going to be, and waiting to learn if his 20-year ban on filmmaking will be upheld, This Is Not A Film is surprisingly witty a lot of the time. He poses himself the question: How do I make something for Cannes if I’m not allowed to write or direct a film? Panahi’s answer was to get his friend, Mirtahmasb to film him acting out part of the script that got him in trouble—he hasn’t been banned from acting or reading a script! Cleverly, all of the action, except for the ending, takes place in his apartment, while all the activity around “No Rouz,” the Iranian New Year (March 21, 2011) is occurring outside. Panahi also has to contend with his daughter’s pet iguana, “Iggy,” and a number of important phone calls, including one from his (female) lawyer. I realize if one doesn’t know about Panahi’s situation, or care for his plight, than This Is Not A Film may not be for you. But, it is a brilliant example of how a really interesting film work can be shot and constructed with minimal means—a small tape of it was smuggled out of Iran and into France concealed inside a cake!
This Is Not A Film is showing in the small Hors Concours/Out of Competition section of the WFF, along with another Cannes selection, Michel Hazanavicious’ The Artist (France). We haven’t seen this film, but as soon as I learned of it not only being a film that is set in Hollywood during the late-1920s when the art of the silent film was coming to an end (one of my favourite eras) but is a silent film itself, and pines for that era, I knew I must go and see The Artist. Also, for a cinephile friend of ours, Alice Black who runs the “art cinema” in Dundee, Scotland, and who visits Cannes to choose films for exhibition in her theatres, it was her favourite film this year! We are highly recommending another film in the Hors Concours section, Dervis Zaim’s Gölgeler ve suretler (Shadows and Faces, Turkey). Set in Cyprus in 1963, when communities were seriously split along ethnic lines—Turkish and Greek—Shadows and Faces takes a while to get going, but, throughout, its cinemascope compositions brilliantly combine reality and fantasy through the use of shadow puppets, and, gradually, by staging the action in depth, Zaim and his cinematographer, Emre Erkmen, dramatically represent a bitter struggle between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. Shadows and Faces won seven awards at the Ankara International Film festival, this year, including Best Film and Best Director. Indeed, Turkish cinema is currently one of the most creatively vibrant in the world and is well represented at the WFF this year with seven features. Two of the other six, Press directed by Sedat Yilmaz and Atlikarinka (Merry-Go-Round), directed by a woman, Ilksen Basarir, showing in the “Focus on World Cinema” section, come highly recommended through our Turkish connection, Mustafa Usuner. One of these films might promise to be a popular hit at the WFF—Atlikarinka was the “people’s choice” of Turkish films at this year’s Istanbul International Film Festival—but one other film in Hors Concours will surely fit the bill, Agustí Valleronga’s Pa negre (Black Bread, Spain), if for no other reason than it swept the Spanish film industry Oscars, that is, the Goyas by winning ten of them, including Best Film, Director & Screenplay (also Valleronga), Best Actress (Nora Navass), and Best Cinematography (Antonio Riesta). This film is sure to be a crowd pleaser, although I’m not sure that I’m personally ready for yet another father/son tale.
We haven’t been able to see any films in the main competition in advance of the festival, and therefore, it is extremely difficult to make useful recommendations. Understandably reluctant to suggest any of the titles she has selected, WFF General Director Danièle Cauchard did single out, Tage die Bleiben (A Family of Three) directed by first time German filmmaker, Pia Strietman. Once again the festival is very rich in films directed by women. There is only one other in the main competition, Der Brand (The Fire), directed by Brigitte Maria Bertele, also German, but seven in the First Films competition, and a total of at least 43 feature films directed or co-directed by women, 22% of the total, are included, arguably a stronger representation than in any other category A film festival, in the world!) Our pick this year, a risky one, goes to Corações Sujos (Dirty Hearts, Brazil) directed by Vicente Amorim. We are picking it for its unusual subject, the plight of Japanese Brazilians after World War II, rather than for Amorim’s track record as a director—two ambitious features, O Caminho das Nuvens (The Middle of the World, 2003) and the English-language, Good (2008), which didn’t quite realize their promise—although he has an impressive record as an assistant director to Bruno Barreto, Carlos Diegues, Hector Babenco, and others.
We will make our fifth pick from the 26 titles of films in the First Films World Competition, and with such a large number being selected, we hope that there are quite a few really good works to be seen. Only one of the films in this section was granted a press screening, A Halàlba Tàncoltattot Leàny (The Maiden Danced to Death), a Hungary/Canada/Slovenia co-production, and we are pleased to recommend it, especially for its showcasing the River Danube and the fortress cities of Buda and Pest (and we see some of Montreal, too). The director, Endre Hules is a veteran Hungarian-born actor, theatre director, and video game voice artist, who clearly brings his understanding of the business side of entertainment to his role of theatrical entrepreneur, Istvan Udvaros who has changed his name to “Steve Court” to give more clout to his work in North America. The film continually contrasts this character’s life with his brother Gyula’s who stayed in Hungary, and continued to try and operate his traditional dance company in Budapest. Remarkably the film posits that there is very little difference between the ruthlessness of Court’s North American show business approach and his brother’s alcoholic womanizing posing as an uncorrupted artist. Clearly, Hules benefits from having a brilliant d.o.p. in Vilmos Zsigmond, but his writing and narrative structuring are well articulated, and, ultimately, for those who disliked Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010) for its stylistic hyperbole, potential for misogyny and its representation of the world of ballet, The Maiden Danced to Death might well provide an antidote (although I’m not sure that the dancing is necessarily any better).
We are recommending two films from the largest section, “Focus on World Cinema,” one seen, Un cuento chino (Chinese Take-Away) an Argentina/Spain co-production, directed by Argentine Sebastián Borensztein and one unseen, Almanya – Wilkommen in Deutschland (Almanya – Welcome to Germany), directed by an ethnically Turkish German woman, Yasemin Samdereli. A better English title for Chinese Take-Away would be a direct translation of the Spanish title, “A Chinese Tale,” especially because the film begins with a surreal story of a cow falling from the sky to destroy a romantic moment on an idyllic Chinese lake. Fortunately for Borensztein, he was able to call on the great Riccardo Darín to play the central character of a miserable store owner who is faced with taking care of a Chinese immigrant, Jun (Huang Shen Huang), looking for his uncle, but not understanding a word of Spanish. It is a droll and subtle comedy. Argentina has one of the most interesting national cinemas at the moment and the WFF has smartly chosen nine features produced or co-produced there, this year. Germany is definitely experiencing a renaissance of creative filmmaking right now, and there are no fewer than 17 German feature films included in the 35th WFF (20 including co-productions) topped only by Canada with 19. Almanya, also a comedy, was shown at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, and two of the other German films in the Focus on World Cinema section have also been recommended to me: Über Uns das All (Above Us Only Sky), directed by Jan Schomburg, and, Romeos directed by Sabine Bernardi.
If one scans the short film descriptions in the schedule, one is really impressed by the range of interesting subjects covered by the “Documentaries of the World.” In fact, in recent years, this section has contained many excellent works. We expect most of the documentary films, which have been shot digitally, to also be projected digitally, and one hopes that higher resolution projectors have been installed in Cinemas 11 and 16 of the Quartier Latin multiplex where most of the documentaries are scheduled to be screened. (We know there is no problem with the ONF/NFB theatre’s digital projector.) One of the selected documentaries that we’ve already seen, Shahin Parhami’s Amin is surely one of the best Canadian films of the year. The director continues to document aspects of the Iranian diaspora, and for this film he traveled to the Ukraine to meet Amin Aghaie, a Qashqai (linguistically Turkic, nomadic Iranian) musician, and ethnomusicologist, who has taken upon himself the task of collecting and preserving the Qashqai musical culture by traveling each year to remote parts of Iran. Parhami, based in Montreal secured funding for his project at the Pusan International Film Festival in Korea, and has recently learned that Amin will be shown in the next edition of the world’s premier documentary film festival in Yamagata, Japan. Shame on Toronto’s Hot Docs for ignoring this exciting, poetically structured and revelatory musical journey film! Not as creative as a work of cinema, but equally interesting in linguistic terms, is another film that we have screened in advance (in its shorter, television version), Mac Dara Ó Curraidhín’s A Boatload of Wild Irishmen (Ireland/United Kingdom), an unusually critical portrait of Robert Flaherty, the “father” of the documentary (narrative) film, focusing on the making of Man of Aran (1934). Even more unusually, the film includes many interviews in the Irish language! We recommend that you might try and see more than two selections in this section; the line-up looks really promising.
Our final, ninth pick (all highlighted in bold)—you should still be able to purchase a ten film coupon booklet for only $65—is more of a series than a single film: French film director and extraordinarily knowledgeable film historian, Bertrand Tavernier is introducing six retrospective screenings at the NFB theatre on St. Denis St., from Saturday, August 20 to Monday, August 21. There will be three virtually unknown classics being shown in French (with no English sub-titles), including much-maligned director Claude Autant-Lara’s Douce (1943), and three American film noirs, including the excellent Pitfall (1948) directed by Andre de Toth, which is an important and generally underestimated film in the 1940s cycle. Tavernier will probably talk in French, but his command of English is excellent, and he’s sure to answer English questions in English.