I’ve written three times previously in Senses of Cinema on the Fribourg International Film Festival, covering the festivals in 2010, ’11 and ’12. While I missed last year’s FIFF, it is very clear that each successive festival has seen it make better and better on a promise expounded by its previous director, Edouard Waintrop, when I first attended in 2010: “to retain only the word cinema, without an adjective.” (1)
In my report on the 2012 edition, the first under incumbent director Thierry Jobin, I dared speculate that the festival might soon drop altogether a term it had long bandied about, that of “the South”, the cinema of which it had been duty bound to promote but which had become increasingly elastically defined, almost to its vanishing point by 2012. Indeed, 2013 saw “the South” put out to pasture, omitted from that year’s festival program altogether.
Come 2014, the still expansionist FIFF has – sagely, I would argue – nonetheless retained much of its historical focus on cinemas otherwise under-represented on big screens in the Swiss Confederation, notwithstanding that, nowadays, “quality is [the] only criterion” (for selection).” Films from what the FIFF used to refer to as the South – Latin America, Asia and Africa – still predominate, though the selections from these regions are just as likely now to engage with genre and populist cinema as with more traditional “festival film” aesthetics, as we shall see.
In a year in which a theme of resistance was announced as informing the overall program, we’ll begin with an account of what is nominally the FIFF’s main attraction, the films in international competition. From my sample of nine out of the 12 competing for prize money valued at 71,500 CHF, I believe it the strongest selection yet across my four visits to Fribourg.
There was one competition title that was outright revelatory. I speak of Shahram Mokri’s delightful, perplexing second feature, Mahi va Gorbeh (Fish and Cat). Was it really, as claimed, filmed in only one two hour-plus long shot? It both gives, and confounds, that very impression throughout, through a playful, Möbius strip-like approach to spinning a shaggy dog tale, folding in on itself at regular intervals by replaying earlier scenes with significant shifts of point-of-view. It captivates all awhile, maintaining a sense of dread that something simply awful is going to befall at least some of a slew of young campers who’ve come to a lakeside retreat to fly their kites. Hands down, it’s the most extraordinary Iranian film I’ve seen in several years. The FIPRESCI and youth juries were similarly impressed; Fish and Cat was awarded a prize by them both.
The other competition entries were less formally and narratively adventurous but still made for a diverse bunch. Lee Su-jin’s Regard d’or-winning Han Gong-Ju reminded strongly of a previous South Korean film to have won big in Fribourg, Lee Chang-dong’s Shi (Poetry, 2010), in its sensitive exploration of whether art and friendship can serve as a balm against horrific sexual violence, perpetrated in both films by school-aged gang rapists.
Like Poetry, Han Gong-Ju also considers whether South Korean society is capable of handling the fallout of such violence, including grasping who ought really be punished for it. Unlike Poetry though, Han Gong-Ju makes the victim of the sex crime the film’s eponymous protagonist, as assayed impressively by Chun Woo-Hee.
Han Gong-Ju was also awarded the prize of the Ecumenical Jury.
Unable to bring myself to lose four hours with but one film, I missed Wang Bing’s Feng ai (‘Til Madness Do Us Part) but caught the other documentary in competition, the already celebrated Al Midan (The Square, Jehane Noujaim). Aside from being impressed at its even-handedness in covering the events in Cairo that have led to the fall of not one, but two regimes since January 2011 – and counting, I was also very impressed – almost too impressed – by the quality of its cinematography. Not for The Square urgent, lo-res shaky-cam ferreting about the streets and badland passageways of Egypt’s capital throughout. Rather, for every wobbly shot capturing dramatic, revolutionary goings-on in media res, there are just as many beautifully composed aerial sequences to capture the colossal magnitude of the thronging in Tahrir Square of a true people’s movement (or more precisely, peoples’ movement – at least at first).
Marking the first time I had ever seen the Netflix logo in association with a theatrical screening, The Square was the FIFF’s Audience Award winner.
I was also very taken by Eduardo W. Roy Jr.’s Quick Change, a rare queer imprint upon the Filipino neorealism template, a la the work of Brillante Mendoza. Set in an impoverished part of Manila, Quick Change oozes authenticity, amongst other things, in its depiction of a little known cosmetic surgery-obsessed transgender subculture, members of which imperil one another in an endless pursuit of beauty through the administration of injections of what passes around those parts for collagen.
Similarly gritty, equally a matter of life and death for its characters, but rather more so for its makers, whose names were almost wholly absent from its credits, was Dast-Neveshtehaa Nemisoosand (Manuscripts Don’t Burn). Director Mohammad Rasoulof’s latest is a slow-burn paranoid thriller which aligns viewer identification at least as much with an odd couple pair of hired goons as it does with their frail, sympathetic quarry. The thugs are seeking the originator of a manuscript, bearing terrible truths about the regime’s actions in the ’90s, along with friends from within his dissident artistic circles who possess samizdat copies of it. It’s an enthralling work, a fine Iranian counterpart to the recent spate of films from post-Communist European territories which similarly explore the persecution of dissidents at the bidding of a corrupt regime, albeit more often with the safety net of years of history and democratic reforms between the films’ makings and the events depicted.
A friend of the festival – he served on its International Jury in 2012 – Mohammad Rasoulof remains barred from leaving Iran and was the poignant subject of an opening night program dedication from Thierry Jobin.
While the Argentine El Cerrajero (Lock Charmer, Natalia Smirnoff) was an inconsequential affair concerning a manchild locksmith who for some reason begins to blurt out uncomfortable truths to his clientele whilst attending to their doors, I was very impressed by the Chilean Matar a un Hombre (To Kill a Man, Alejandro Fernández Almendras). I was not alone; the beautifully shot To Kill a Man was both a Special Jury Prize & FICC Jury award winner for its relatable, restrained new take on the revenge thriller, which takes adroit snipes at constructions of masculinity, class and legal propriety in contemporary Chilean society, anchored by an excellent lead performance from Daniel Candia.
Rounding out the competition was the Venezuelan Pelo Malo (Bad Hair, Mariana Rondón), in which a young boy drives his single, out-of-work mother to distraction with his innocent yearning for straight, pop idol hair, against a backdrop of lives lived hard in Caracas’ projects. And there was Talent Tape Award winner Koji Fukada’s Hotori no sakuko (Au revoir l’été), a languorous Japanese film allowing several small town story strands to unfurl at an understated pace in harmony with its summer beach holiday setting. There’s a certain amount of post-Fukushima anxiety gently woven into this very leisurely paced film, consonant with the concerns, surrounding disasters both man-made and natural, raised more centrally and spectacularly in several films in this year’s Parallel Sections.
In Genre Cinema: Survive!, the FIFF presented a range of new films from its usual source regions but with blockbuster genre appeal – at least, on paper. Curiously, bar the middling Opening Night Eurasiapudding, A Prayer for Rain (Ravi Kumar), none of the disaster films from this section that I caught were terribly well attended. This was especially a shame in the case of Tao Qu Sheng Tian 3D (Out of Inferno 3D, Oxide Pang, Danny Pang), a spectacular 3D Chinese Towering Inferno (John Guillermin, 1974) which played in the biggest cinema in town to a mere smattering of punters. Despite being pretty darned dumb, it contained some thrilling sequences I found barely watchable in their exhilarating, vertiginous perilousness – and those weren’t even the scenes where it looked most like the star-studded cast might all suddenly be incinerated or crushed to death.
While I’d wager Out of Inferno 3D bore some degree of political subtext beneath its spectacle, Kim Sung-su’s outbreak flick Gamgi (The Flu) foregrounded politics and spectacle equally explicitly in presenting a Seoul besieged both by a pandemic and by hawkish American foreign policy, the former being a problem borne of the shipping of illegal immigrants into Seoul. But whence came these diseased immigrants?
Not for the first time did I consider it a blessing, rather than a distraction, that so much at the FIFF is presented with translations on, or beneath, the screen in French, English and German, for had I not been able to glance at all three simultaneous translations, I would not have grasped that the sickly immigrants were specifically Chinese in origin – only one of the sets of subtitles, clearly sourced from a variety of quarters, pointed this out. But you wouldn’t want to read too much into that, now would you… not when The Flu begins with a handy disclaimer that “this film is not based on real events” – lucky!
As for A Prayer for Rain, it was a well-intentioned but mechanical mid-budget telling of the Bhopal industrial disaster, the biggest catastrophe of its sort in history and, by extension, the crux of one of the most grotesque ever instances of globalised corporate malfeasance. Oddly entrusted to a first-time feature director, A Prayer for Rain could have benefited from a lot of further script development, as well as from a performance from Martin Sheen, as Warren Anderson, CEO of Union Carbide at the time of the calamity, less dependent on a terrifyingly perfect set of teeth to pitch his character around.
Where things really picked up for Genre Cinema: Survive was in its collision with the Midnight Screenings component of the festival (even if films under this banner always started well before the pumpkin hour.). Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer made for a perfect post-apocalyptic straddling of the two program strands and was highly entertaining to boot. This oddball tale of a rebellion on board a train carrying all that remains of humanity, compartmentalised along Social Darwinist lines on an infinitely looping journey around the globe, holds together marvellously, notwithstanding the heterogeneity of its elements. Chris Evans and John Hurt’s stoic heroics butt up against an utterly over-the-top Tilda Swinton and the need for cooperation from a couple of taciturn, drug-addled, Korean loose cannons (Song Kang-ho and Ko Ah-sung), in a film based on a French graphic novel but shot in studios in Prague and alpine Austria, augmented by no small amount of psychedelic production design. Probably it oughtn’t hold together. But it does.
Snowpiercer wasn’t though the most out-there film amongst the Midnight offerings… not by a long shot. I’m not sure whose bright idea it was to run Kim Ki-Duk’s mongrel latest, Moebius, on the festival’s opening day, as it could only overshadow everything subsequent to it for barefaced daring and roadkill fascination, notwithstanding its wholly plebeian setting, but wow – what a film! Not since Jan Švankmajer’s Spiklenci slasti (Conspirators of Pleasure, 1996) has a dialogue-free film been so startling, nor so drolly yet fearlessly perverse and forthrightly Freudian! I doubt Korean family values have ever been subjected to quite so savage a skewering before either.
Almost as much fun, but more tonally chameleonic, was Alex van Warmerdam’s Borgman, a Funny Games (Michael Haneke, 1997 & 2007) as if re-imagined by Samuel Beckett in an especially impish mood. With a winning, enigmatic turn by Jan Bijvoet in the titular role as a one-step-ahead-of-the-game tramp-cum-puppetmaster, Borgman never becomes predictable. It’s great fun, if sometimes confronting, as a well-to-do family’s life is put absurdly through the wringer by a home invader and his several inscrutable colleagues. There’s one particularly hilarious means of disposing of bodies adopted by a pair of them that’ll not soon be forgotten by anyone who sees it.
Borgman was also placed in a program strand named Decryption: Struggle for the Crisis, grouping together a number of recent films to have grappled with the impact of the Global Financial Crisis. Of quite a different sensibility to van Warmerdam’s film, Québécois filmmaker and International Jury participant Sébastien Pilote’s Le Vendeur (The Salesman, 2011) was nonetheless its equal, presenting a moving, cautionary tale concerned with the risks of too greatly pinning one’s identity upon one’s profession, especially during straitened times. Gilbert Sicotte perfectly inhabits his role as a master car salesman in a town in which times have become so bad, that his decision to continue to work his tried and tested schtick brings him into ethically murky territory with ghastly consequences for all, and brings himself to a terrible, but wholly relatable, existential crisis.
Pilote’s more recent Le démantèlement (The Auction) also screened in the Decryption sidebar and, after seeing The Salesman, I sorely wished I’d caught it. I drew more than a little comfort though in having been able to opportune myself of a number of key retrospective offerings instead.
Chief amongst them was a History of Iranian Cinema by its creators, a marvellous grab-bag of films celebrating Iranian cinema’s highest points to either side of the Islamic Revolution, as selected by 14 major present day practitioners. Catching Abbas Kiarostami’s Khane-ye doust kodjast? (Where is the Friend’s Home?, 1987) and Forough Farrokhzad’s startling leper colony-set, New Wave-kickstarting documentary short Kaneh Siah Ast (The House is Black, 1963), both on 35mm, occasioned much cinephilic joy, but perhaps somehow less than in stumbling upon the revelation that was Ragbar (Downpour, Bahram Beizai, 1972), a film recently restored by Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation which I’d never heard of before but was immediately charmed by.
Familiar in its narrative concern with Islamic codes of propriety, but surprisingly progressive in the depiction of events interrogating them (including, but not limited to, its funky Western 1970s men’s and women’s fashions), Downpour‘s antic account of a mild-mannered bachelor’s comical need to publicly, vehemently renounce any affection on his part for the sister of a student of his, even though he is indeed infatuated with her, remains very appealing indeed. The contradiction of its appearing both a time capsule of pre-revolutionary Iran, yet progressive relative to the depiction of interpersonal adult matters in most of today’s Iranian cinema, doubtless added to Downpour‘s appeal.
Not all of the 27 films voted for selection by Asghar Farhadi, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Mania Akbari, Jafar Panahi, Mohammad Rasoulof, et al could be sourced for or included by the FIFF, but this wholly admirable project to excavate the often forgotten riches of Iranian cinema, undoubtedly a huge challenge to organise, hasn’t ended in Fribourg. The Edinburgh International Film Festival is presenting a further selection of titles this June and Toronto’s TIFF Cinematheque will take up the baton in early 2015.
Unfortunately, I managed to completely miss the Dardennes, who were in Fribourg to present a selection of films they had produced rather than directed. I also missed all of the short films newly promoted to competition status and a necessarily brief overview of Malagasy cinema in the annual Terra Incognita section. I did though catch two films, on top of the aforementioned Salesman, presented by members of the International Jury, amongst them, Jerry Schatzberg’s wonderful Scarecrow – why on Earth isn’t this 1973 hobo road movie, a wonderful vehicle for the talents of Gene Hackman and Al Pacino at their early quicksilver best, and a Cannes Grand Prix winner, much better known today?
Erik Matti’s On the Job was good, gritty fun too, a conspiracy action thriller inspired by ’70s American cinema but very much with its own contemporary Filipino flavour, drawing on real events in which corrupt officials ingeniously arranged the day release of prisoners to execute hits that could only later be very difficult to pin on them – a terrible scandal but a wonderful gift to Matti and co-writer Michiko Yamamoto for a screenplay!
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Whither the FIFF next? 2014’s festival followed the script and the trend and broke attendance records, drawing 37,000 people to the festival overall (1,000 up on last year), with record numbers attending the International Competition sessions. The program’s emphasis this year on resistance – or perhaps, more precisely, on that which must be fought back against, with disaster films to the forefront – is unmatched by any sort of doomsday prognosis for the festival, which continues going from strength to strength in its programming and in that programming’s reception.
The FIFF has become increasingly successful in winning its selections a festival after-life in Switzerland, with a closing night press release boasting that “nine films distributed by seven different Swiss distributors will have their theatrical release after the FIFF.” This is undoubtedly a victory for film culture in Switzerland, but one I would hope the FIFF team don’t work too hard towards forging as a norm in future years. Should the equation ever look to be tipping too far in the other direction, with a theatrical release becoming more the norm, post-festival, than the exception, then the festival could enter a decline, its raison d’être and edge diminished.
Meanwhile, though, I think such a scenario is probably still some way off, though it’s impossible to predict the impact of new distribution models, like that of this year’s Audience Award winner The Square, released simultaneously in January in North American cinemas and online on Netflix, whose tentacles reach across much of the globe, albeit not to Switzerland… yet.
I’m sure though that for Jobin and his colleagues right now, the feeling would have to be that the continual upward trajectory of the festival’s breadth of programming and audience reach is a nice problem to have.
Fribourg International Film Festival
29 March – April 5, 2014
Festival website: http://www.fiff.ch/en/
1. Quoted in Cerise Howard, “Going South in 2010: Thinking Global, Talking Local: The 24th Fribourg International Film Festival”, Senses of Cinema, no. 55, 2010.