What, if anything, are film festivals for?
There are many simple, ubiquitous answers -- to show you the best films from around the world, to give voice to those shut out of the mainstream -- but like most simple, ubiquitous answers, they are wrong. Film festivals serve many purposes -- many admirable, some annoying (though not enough to justify disparaging all festivals out-of-hand) -- and Women in Cinema, like any festival worth its salt, manages to hit them all. That along the way we get to see some great movies is practically a bonus.
1. Film festivals generate buzz. This is why movies get sent to festivals in the first place. Producers and directors hope that good press and word-of-mouth will spread, and either ensure a difficult film's popular release or cement a popular film's appeal. Jane Campion and her producers don't like you, they don't even know you, but they want you to see her latest, Holy Smoke!, and tell all your friends how great it is. But of course buzz can backfire. Alison Maclean's Jesus' Son had been getting good word on the festival circuit, and despite reservations about Maclean's previous effort, Crush, I was really looking forward to her newest. Turns out it's an indifferent mishmash of '70s nostalgia, with failed stabs at visual poetry and black comedy. Without the expectation generated by advance word, I might have been more forgiving (there are some good moments, and several fine performances). But get my hopes up and I come down mighty hard.
2. Film festivals please directors by putting films in a respectable context. In other words, if it's subtitled, it must be good for you. Every year plenty of smart, wonderful films are made around the world; and so are a ton of mediocrities. Audiences that wouldn't dream of sneaking into a theater to see some Hollywood crap don't think twice about paying money and fighting crowds to get the exact same movie from Europe or Asia.
For example, Germany's The First Time is a respectable "girl's coming of age" tale, with a winning young heroine who has a quirky obsession (for the actor Johnny Depp) and an independent willfulness. More of the same old story, of course, though cultural distinctions do pop up in its typically Germanic forthrightness about sex. (Desperate to lose your virginity and your new boyfriend won't play along? Ask your boss, even if he's twice your age.) As good as the film is at times, you can tell from the familiar situations and occasional pretentious touches that the ending will be godawful. The film does not prove you wrong.
Similarly, Black and White in Colour is a nice portrait of Gypsy singer Vera Bílá and her band's visit to France, but what director Mira Erdevicki-Charap has fashioned is purely a puff piece: see Vera play the diva with her musicians, see their music videos, see how sad she is that her son is in jail. I'm sure it's played regularly on VH1 Europe.
3. Film festivals flatter audiences with easily digestible art... predominantly on opening and closing nights, when turnout is highest. Women in Cinema is conveniently bookended by two period dramas. Patricia Rozema's take on Mansfield Park is by far the more interesting, an ingenious adaptation that weaves Jane Austen's own letters and juvenilia with her fictional study of a poor outcast taken in by wealthy relatives. Rozema missteps big-time in the third act by making explicit Austen's supposed subtext of racial injustice and sexual obsession. That the film can't handle that burden supports my contention that Austen never intended for such a subtext to be read. But her overrated novels aren't at hand here. What is at hand is a flawed but worthwhile film, which Rozema manages to pull back together with a marvelous ending, with the camera swooping like a bird to catch up with all the characters, who charmingly freeze into tableaux vivant as the narrator informs us their stories could have turned out differently... but they did not.
All that needs to be said about Martha Fiennes' (yes, the sister of Ralph) closing night film, Onegin, is that it is admirably faithful to Pushkin. The sets are quite lovely, but the whole thing's so damned dull I'm still not sure whether I fell asleep for a few minutes during the screening or not.
4. Film festivals are armchair travelogues. I've never been to the coast of Peru, but I doubt the real thing is as lovely or magical as what's on display in Marianne Eyde's La Carnada. This portrait of a fishing village is so intimate you can almost taste the sea salt and the slices of raw fish that lovers teasingly pop into each others' mouths, and the film's ghostly visitations are handled with equal directness. Maria is a young woman who's bucked tradition by going out to sea with her husband Juan. She's also the most traditionally superstitious person in town, communing nightly with her goddess, the moon, never hesitating to tell Juan when his actions aren't merely misguided but an affront to fate. The village, of course, sees her as a crazy witch, and however much Juan thinks of himself as a supportive fellow freethinker, the pressure's building.
Keeping with my enjoyment of films about places I'll never go, I was delighted by Happy Birthday, Larisa Sadilova's magnificent film about a Russian maternity ward. Low key and black-and-white, the film treats with naturalism and considerable humor subjects generally portrayed as archly mystical and metaphorical: birth, the divide between men and women (literalized by the hospital being off limits to the husbands, so they have to gather outside in the rain and shout up at the windows), and the resiliency of families.
5. Film festivals remind you that some things are universal, and that's not always a good thing. Anyone who's loved both cinema and another human being should be taken in by Tempting Heart, Sylvia Chang's tender evocation of how neither films nor people can give us all we ask of them. A successful Hong Kong director explains to her screenwriter what she intends as her new product: "A love story, a really simple love story." The tale is acted out by a pair of students whose brief burst of passion is thwarted by their parents and their own jealousy. Complications ensue when the writer refuses to accept that love is ever all that simple. The director continues her story (clearly her own memories), and slowly comes around to understanding that things weren't as clear-cut as she had believed. The movie's pitiable relegation of a lesbian-as-victim can leave a bad taste in your mouth, but that's the only flaw I noticed.
The desire to belong, to fit in, is also understood by all, and it finds funny, complex expression in Annette Apon's One Man and His Dog, from the Netherlands. A man with no one in his life but his ailing mother is suddenly cast into the job market, where he bonds with his co-workers by making up stories about his life -- lies supported by the photographs he steals from his neighbors. The film is fond of its hero, but knows how wrong he is, and the movie's creepiness is only helped by the star's spooky resemblance to street magician David Blaine.
6. Film festivals are about announcing new talent. Most attention here will probably focus on Nichola Bruce, whose I Could Read the Sky is composed of an old man's reminiscences of growing up in Ireland, working in England, and falling in love. I hated it. Bruce's one-note visual trick of overlapping images, which resembles no memory or dream I've ever heard of, quickly grew tiresome, and I never believed in the old man as anything more than a written creation.
Mary Kuryla's Freak Weather doesn't try half so hard to be "artistic," but it's far more original and engaging, and its lead character -- an abused wife/party girl dragging her brainiac son around town and trying to get rid of the family dog -- is far more vivid... at least to begin with. After a while, Kuryla's characters also stiffen into behavior and dialogue obviously born on a page -- but ever the optimist, I choose to have faith that Kuryla will get better with time.
For me, the discovery -- of the year, not just the festival -- is Barbara Albert. Her Northern Skirts is a marvelous debut, able to contain the terrors of childhood, the horrors of war, the disillusionment of love, and the fragile spontaneity of happiness. The film effortlessly flips back and forth among a half-dozen or so young adults in Vienna, but its steady focus on a pair of women -- bitter enemies in school, unlikely allies after meeting at an abortion clinic -- keeps up until you realize that everything in this seemingly rambling film (the refugees from Sarajevo, the brutal boyfriends, the abusive parents, the dead-end jobs), has secretly been about friendship the whole time. (Albert has a film in the shorts collection as well; it's called Sunspots and it's just as fine.)
7. Film festivals are about the next movie. Jane Campion is a genius, so maybe her new movie will be stunning. Agnieszka Holland used to be a genius, so maybe she'll pull it back together with The Third Miracle. Or the highlight could be Pilar Tavora's Yerma, or Denise Filiatrault's It's Your Turn Laura Cadieux.... More than anything, film festivals are a handy reminder that your favorite movie -- just like the happiest moment of your life -- could turn out to be the very next one... even if it usually isn't.