1999 International Festival of New Cinema and New Media Marks Path To Future

One festival comprised of two very separate events

by Jamie Gaetz Volume 3, issue 6 / November 1999 14 minutes (3342 words)

The 28th International Festival of New Cinema and New Media set the marker posts on the route to the future. This one festival comprises two very separate events that, for the moment, have little to do with each other. Many media pundits predict, however, that the two paths will eventually converge, and there will be a total revolution in the way that we watch films. The FCMM is the event to place that time on the near horizon.

Even more than its combination of two events into one unique festival, what sets this one apart is its focus on independent and alternative films from around the world. In fact, “new cinema” does not necessarily indicate new trends in filmmaking but, rather, films by new directors and the new films from generally established filmmakers working outside of the narrow confines of the Hollywood mainstream.

This year, the feature film program covered the gamut from Canadian experimental filmmaker Mike Hoolboom’s Panic Bodies to Iranian Abbas Kiarostami’s latest The Wind Will Carry Us (literal translation of the French title). It included Pedro Almodovar’s Cannes sensation, All About My Mother, Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey and Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, as well as Alain Tanner’s Jonas and Lila, his update on Jonas Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 (1976). In total, 26 films were presented in the feature film category.

The festival jury awarded the prize for the Best Feature Film ($5000) to Claire Denis’ Beautiful Work (literal translation of Beau Travail). The Volkswagen Public’s Choice Award of $5000 went to Abbas Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us and the Telefilm Canada Prize for the Best Canadian Film was shared by Panic Bodies and Cinéma Vérité: Defining the Moment. (For comments on the films by Denis and Kiarostami, and others not discussed here, check out Donato Totaro’s piece on this site.)

Under the News From China banner, a special program screened 10 new films from Asia, some of which were also included in the feature film program. A retrospective of the New Wave took us back to films by Pasolini, Forman, Troëll, Paradjanov, Polanski, Tanner, Oshima, Rocha, and Reisz. Another program, Frenetic Frescoes: Artavazd Pelechian, offered a selection of six of the Armenian’s films spanning 1967-1990.

As the film chosen to open the festival, Pedro Almodovar’s All About My Mother is a perfect representation of the current state of “new cinema.” It is also a gorgeous film with a deceptively simple plot that resonates deeply, and not just for women. Manuela (Cecilia Roth) is a nurse at a hospital who goes with her son to see a production of A Streetcar Named Desire. Outside the theatre he is hit by a car and killed. And so begins Manuela’s journey back to Madrid, into her past to seek the father of her lost son. This journey into the past is also a voyage into her future, as she establishes new relationships that will leave her, at the end, with another son by the same man (a transvestite) and another woman (a nun who dies from AIDS complications). Kitsch and melodramatic as all of Almodovar’s films are, these characters transcend both to achieve a sense of humanism not commonly reached in contemporary cinema. A simple and early reference to Mankiewicz’s Hollywood classic, All About Eve, prepares us for the world of women, with an emphasis on the concept of Eve as the first woman. The combination of that reference with the thematic and structural predominance of A Streetcar Named Desire, specifically the scenes that emphasize motherhood, places us firmly in the realm of the mythical, biblical woman as giver of life. All About My Mother represents a culmination of Almodovar’s oeuvre, with all of his thematic concerns present but refined and deepened, and a visual technique that is inventive without being intrusive.

The News From China program offered the most surprises and was, overall, the most interesting program. Several of these works provide an “unofficial” view of China, where there are professional pickpockets, prostitutes, homosexuals and public toilet encounters. Shuibo Wang’s Swing in Beijing frames the program. Wang, whose films include the 1999 Oscar nominated documentary Sunrise Over Tienanmen Square, has lived in Canada since 1990, and returned to China with a digital camera to interview several “underground” artists. In a coffee shop (i.e. a public space), he gets two punk musicians, whose music is used on the soundtrack, to frankly discuss how they keep themselves supplied with pot, and how the herb is not a real drug. They describe how, in their music video, their producer covered one song’s lyrics about pouring blood and shit on the flag with the sounds of a heavy truck. One image that Wang returns to as counterpoint to these interviews is the traditional courtyard houses being destroyed to make way for the high-rises needed to house the hundreds of thousands flooding into the city. With the gain of the new openness to Western culture comes the loss of the traditional way of living, and the cornerstone of Chinese culture. Wang completed the documentary just hours before the screening and freely responded to questions and comments. He seemed touched when one young woman introduced herself as a native of Beijing who had never heard of any of these artists, and lamented the fact that she had to be in Canada to learn about them.

In Swing in Beijing, Wang also interviewed Jia Zhang Ke, the young director of Xiao Wu, Artisan Pickpocket, a film banned in China and presented at the festival. Zhang Ke is part of an emerging group of directors calling themselves the “sixth generation,” to separate themselves from the “fifth generation” which includes directors Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, Wu Ziniu, Huang Jianxin, and Tian Zhuangzhuang. Zhang Ke uses non-professional actors in a way reminiscent of the Italian neo-realists. And, like his European predecessors, tells a story of poverty that the “official” China would never condone. The young pickpocket’s life is far from noble, rather, it is one of desperation and isolation. Xiao Wu drifts through his days as a petty criminal, with little hope for change in his future, while everything changes around him. Zhang Ke used a “Blair Witch” camera style, with bouncy, uneven, and sometimes oddly framed shots that add to the immediacy and “documentary” feel. Made outside the studio system, it does not surprise that this film will not get shown in China, but one must wonder why, given what our media tells us about human rights in China, Jia Zhang Ke is not in prison!

A second film similar in its dangerous view into a China no officially sanctioned film would show, is Liu Bingjian’s Men and Women, which tracks the voyage of a young homosexual upon his arrival in Beijing. Shot clandestinely, this is an understated film that subtly reveals the profound changes taking place in Beijing, much as Wang’s Swing in Beijing does. The young man finds a job at a shop that sells European clothes and is offered a room by his boss, a woman. When he resists her attempts to set him up with a girlfriend, she speculates to her husband that he could be gay. The husband then tries to rape the young man who flees to the apartment of Chong Chong, a gay man who publishes an underground magazine devoted to “Toilet Poetry.” Chong Chong lives with another man, one the West might label a raving queen. This man, too, is involved in illicit media, broadcasting an illegal radio show, also about toilet poetry. He is replaced however, when Chong Chong chooses to sleep with his new guest, and so moves on. Meanwhile, the shop owner leaves her husband to live with her girlfriend in a gay relationship. When the woman runs out of stock, her shop simply closes. It is a world in which everything is transitory, and nothing is as it seems. Unlike the camera in Xiao Wu, this film employs an almost completely stationary camera, probably because of the need to shoot discretely.

From Hong Kong, and on the flip side of these two films, is Sylvia Chang’s intensely romantic Tempting Heart, a mainstream story of two young lovers separated physically, but whose feelings for each other endure through the years and beyond marriages to others. It is a suitable and pleasing update to The Way We Were (Sydney Pollack, 1973) legacy that plays all those familiar melodramatic heartstrings. The film’s structure is rather complex, switching back and forth between time periods and including sequences where the filmmaker, Cheryl, (played by Chang), works with the scriptwriter in developing the story. As a result, there are confusing moments, but the film is kept from becoming sodden melodrama with this continuous reflexive turn. Nonetheless, Chang hits the mark perfectly in the scenes when the lovers finally say goodbye at the end.

Hou Hsiao-hsien is one of the modern masters of contemporary Taiwanese cinema. His latest work, The Flowers of Shanghai takes us into the luxurious worlds of Shanghai’s nineteenth century bordellos. These bordellos are not so much about sex as they are about commerce, as much for the “flowers” living in them as for the wealthy men who meet there. The women are beautiful, clothed in the finest of silks, while their rooms are richly decorated and furnished. Employing his trademark long take style, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s minimally mobile camera never takes us outside the bordello confines. This visual strategy adds to the social claustrophobia of these women’s live and the impossibility of moving beyond their sumptuous surroundings. In one scene, there is a commotion outside on the street and the characters rush to a window to look, but the filmmaker does not take us along with them— the outside world remains a mystery. Through warm lighting concentrated in the centre of the frame that leaves the periphery always in shadow, we also sense the precariousness of the women’s lives. It is difficult to see past the here and the now, beyond what is most immediate, just as any life is murky beyond the walls of these “flower houses.”

Felicia’s Journey, the new film from Atom Egoyan, takes us into both new and familiar Egoyan territory. Based on the novel by Irish novelist, William Trevor, Felicia’s Journey is a psychological thriller that, on film, never quite manages to thrill. Only in one of the early sequences does Paul Sarossy’s rich and studied photography take us on a visual journey that gives us a feeling of foreboding. The camera travels languorously through the home of the serial killer Hilditch (Bob Hoskins). Finally we stop in the kitsch kitchen where Hilditch is busy preparing one of the many sumptuous meals he eats alone. In voice-over we hear the commentary from a 1950’s cooking show on the television (the chef is his mother, played by Arsinée Khanjian), explaining how to prepare a roast crown of lamb. The omnipresence of television sets us firmly in Egoyan-land, as do the solitary characters at odds with their worlds and their selves. Despite the terrific performance by Elaine Cassidy in the role of Felicia, the young and pregnant Irish girl who has come to England seeking the father of her child, the moments when we feel anything like fear or horror are rare. As a study in human psychosis, the film takes us to no fresh depths either, because of the cool distance the viewer maintains with all of Egoyan’s characters. Sometimes we believe we understand them and can foresee their actions, but never do we enter into their personalities, their psychoses, to become a part of their stories. Egoyan’s studied, controlled and hyper-reflexive form of filmmaking will never lend itself to a genre that demands a willing suspension of disbelief, as this one does. (Look for an in-depth interview with Atom Egoyan posted on this site.)

The one experimental film in the feature program was Canadian Mike Hoolboom’s Panic Bodies, a masterpiece of the genre and nothing short of brilliant. The film is a discourse, in six parts, on the body and its frailties and, ultimately, on mortality. Within that discourse is a section on a man’s relationship with his penis and another, cut from an old movie, perhaps of soft porn, of women romping naked together. All visual techniques are put to use, and as expected, the shots flick by very quickly, sometimes almost too rapidly to capture, sometimes to return and sometimes not. The visuals, the music, sound and dialogue strike our senses, demanding an immediate response which we often do not have time to process before we are struck with something new.

Cinéma Vérité: Defining the Moment by Canadian Peter Wintonick (co-director of Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media) was the sole documentary included in the features program. Wintonick also served as a judge on the new media jury, a point to note because of his ongoing concern with technology and its adaptations. In Cinéma Vérité, Wintonick looks back to the revolution in documentary filmmaking brought about by the development of hand-held cameras and other technological innovations, particularly through the period of 1958 to 1968. Still incredibly cumbersome compared to today’s standards, that technology liberated news gatherers and documentarists in their work, and changed the way that films were shot like nothing has since then. The style has been adapted into wide usage for music videos, advertising, and television series such as Homicide: Life on the Street. Cinéma Vérité was made using digital video and was screened on video-it will eventually be printed on 35mm. Stylistically, however, this is a traditional documentary that relies heavily upon talking heads, (Jean Rouch, Karel Reisz, Al Maysles, D.A. Pennebaker, Frederick Wiseman, Barbara Kopple, etc.) intercut with scenes from the more than 80 works being discussed (Don’t Look Back, Primary and Crisis-J.F.K., Jane [Fonda], etc.). What makes this work interesting is Wintonick’s approach. As a new media guru, he revels in new technologies and, in his looking back to the change wrought by hand-held cameras, we can sense his looking forward to the next technological development that will revolutionize film in the future.

While it is understandable why the festival would want to program Alain Tanner’s Jonas and Lila To Tomorrow (literal translation of Jonas et Lila, à demain), the film simply does not belong in a celebration of new cinema. Even though Tanner attempts a discussion of such contemporary issues as the environment and the problems faced by Jonas’s generation in finding stable work and accommodation, the film is old in its treatment of these concerns. And, despite the intercutting of video images, taken from the one Jonas is shooting about garbage, the film offers nothing new to cinema in visual terms.

Another special program dedicated to “Portraits” presented documentaries about various cultural figures including Nina Hagen (Nina Hagen = Punk + Glory by Peter Semple), Lars von Trier (Lars From 1-10 by Sophie Fiennes, Shari Roman) and Jean-Luc Godard in Godard on TV 1960-2000 (literal translation of Godard à la télé 1960-2000 by Michel Royer).

Canadian Jennifer Baichwal’s Let It Come Down: The Life of Paul Bowles provided one of the most fascinating and pleasant screening experiences of the festival. Baichwal took four-and-a-half years to produce this completely self-financed film. In addition to spending time with Bowles at his home in Morocco, Baichwal somehow managed either to organize, or be present, in New York for the final meeting between Bowles, William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. Beyond their conversation about how they really represent different generations —although they did know one another in Morocco— is the evocative power of the shot tracking Bowles and Burroughs down the hallway: two old, decrepit men, both walking slowly, aided by their walking canes. The interview with Bowles, who was very ill, was shot in extreme close-up, producing a sense of intimacy that occasionally veers toward the uncomfortable. Bowles speaks candidly and the result is a revelatory, and ultimately touching film. Let It Come Down is already beginning to gain notice elsewhere and it is a mystery why it was overlooked in the awards at this festival.

As always, the selection of short and medium length works provided a tremendous variety in genre and style, as well as some of the more challenging works. A total of 82 videos and films were presented in 20 separate programs. Die Dyer, by Canadian Alain Pelletier, won the Telefilm Canada Award for Best Canadian Film, Short or Medium Length. Pelletier is a multi-media artist, the influence of which is strongly felt in this film about two men and one woman who agree to be under constant observation for 60 days. It is voyeuristic, but strangely without context and so, for this reviewer at least, without any lingering meaning.

Okay Bye Bye by American Rebecca Baron shared the Quebecor prize for Best Short Film Award ($2000) with Senegalese Djibril Diop Mambety’s The Little Seller of Sun (literal translation of La Petite Vendeuse de Soleil). Mambety died suddenly while making this film, the second of what was to be a trilogy about street children called Stories About Little People (literal translation of Histoires de Petites Gens).

In Okay Bye Bye, Baron uses a super-8 film found on the sidewalk to construct a relationship with Cambodia and the war, from her vantagepoint in Southern California. Through a series of letters, she discusses the research that led her to discover such things as the thousands upon thousands of I.D. type photos taken of Cambodian prisoners by a prison photographer. She looks for the image of the man in her found film among these innumerable faces. The cumulative effect of the film is unsettling, as the filmmaker speculates upon the photos and the lost lives they represent, rendering the fate of the unknown man intensely present and directly connected to our own.

The Case of Howard Phillips Lovecraft (literal translation of Le Cas Howard Phillips Lovecraft) by Pierre Trividic and Patrick-Mario Bernard is a visually complex biography of the gothic writer H.P. Lovecraft. If such a genre were possible, it would be called “gothic experimental”. The construction of the film, the visuals, and the way in which they are used, actually induce a state that reflects Lovecraft’s “mindscape.” This film was awarded the Golden FIPA at this year’s festival in Biarritz.

Graffiti on a wall around the corner from Ex-Centris, the new film and multimedia centre that houses the festival, proclaims: MOVIES = BORING. The mostly young (under 25’s) people milling around the Media Lounge (home of the new media event), using the computers or attending the nightly live performances, most likely ascribe to this notion. Granted, there is little new in the media of film but, for those of us over 25, for whom movies are rarely boring, there was little in the new media to pique any profound interest. The CD-ROMs chronically froze and the interactive installations, badly explained to begin with, often did not function.

Over 50,000 people attended the festival in total, and I suspect that there was little crossover between the audience at the Media Lounge and that at Ex-Centris. Almodovar’s film sold out early, as did Kiarostami’s, and by mid-week it was virtually impossible to obtain tickets to the performances and DJ happenings (which were pricey).

As the media evolve, this festival will adapt. But that is what this festival is about. Over its 28-year life span it has continually reinvented itself, with greater success in certain years than in others. The New Media section seems to be finding its own niche, and the New Cinema section will continue to attract film buffs interested in independent productions. In attracting a younger audience, one that may find movies boring, one might surmise that the festival is effectively and astutely preparing for its next incarnation.

Volume 3, issue 6 / November 1999 Festival Reports   canadian cinema   festival of new cinema   festival_fcmm   pedro almodovar