Ah, anniversaries. How readily a landmark – and a sense of obligation towards its acknowledgment being given a due sense of occasion – might become more millstone than milestone. And so the challenge presented to the team of the 30th FIFF, a festival that prides itself on its bona fides vis-à-vis engagement with social issues typically foreign to its native milieu. What theme to inform the programming, worthy of the festival’s longtime progressive ethos – something to allow for a certain degree of reflection and understated self-congratulation, yet nonetheless be forward looking?
And thus was it duly trumpeted that “instead of proposing a retrospective of the last 29 festivals, the FIFF will mark this anniversary edition by asserting its trail-blazing legacy and pursuing its defence of those artists and cultures that must fight harder than the rest. The 30th festival pays a global tribute to women.”1
A smart move, that, to focus upon a demographic against whom the scale of injustice perpetrated and institutionalised is such that it’s even an issue in liberal, exceedingly well-to-do Switzerland.
Nonetheless, the choice of focus met with a certain amount of hand-wringing over whether it was even a worthwhile enterprise. According to Artistic Director Thierry Jobin, it was “greeted by both men and women with equal amounts enthusiasm and – especially in the West – annoyance”.2 Even when with as broad an ambit as cinema from every which where and when, the meta-question of whether it does women more a service or a disservice for their gender to be the focus of a program of affirmative action, inevitably became a discussion point every bit as much as the content to be mined in each of the films presented. It will likely ever be thus.
And so, in stark statistical contrast to any of its contemporaries, and with a certain timeliness given recent high-profile uproars concerning gender imbalances at Cannes and the Oscars, the 30th FIFF could boast that 75 of its 127 films – drawn from 62 countries and spread across 215 screenings – were authored by women. Many others besides had women as protagonists.
Correspondingly, the 13 entrants in the feature film competition – reliably the biggest crowd-puller at the FIFF, year in, year out – bore this reverse-discriminatory bias, with previous Artistic Directors of the FIFF asked to select an all-female jury to appoint the winner. The festival’s multiple other juries were also stacked in favour of female representation. Not even yet considering the various other strands of the programming (about which more will follow), a new bar has been set, albeit with a certain sadness for this writer that it’s likely to go unchallenged any time soon by any other festivals of comparable size or gravitas.
And so, to the films.
International Competition: Feature Films
Opting to engage with the festival on its thematic terms, I privileged those competition titles – the overwhelming majority – with female directors or protagonists and thus a claim to female perspectives, ultimately catching nine of the 13 films in competition, premiering variously in Switzerland, Europe, or the world.
This still didn’t inure me to the possibility of missing the one remaining film directed by a woman and with a female protagonist which, it should transpire, would win the 30,000 CHF cash prize-winning Regard d’or: Mountain, by Israeli filmmaker Yaelle Kayam. I later learnt she’d studied at Melbourne’s Victorian College of the Arts, situated very close to where I call home, and I was doubly curious about and annoyed to have missed her film.
Those I did catch all impressed, though it must be said that for all their emphasis on empowering women through placing them at the forefront of narratives, these films were almost entirely concerned with female characters suffering disempowerment of one ghastly sort or another. Their oppressors ranged in diversity: there was the brutalising and feckless bureaucracy (Rodrigo Plá’s steely Mexican revenge thriller Un monstruo de mil cabezas, translating to A Monster with a Thousand Heads); a guerrilla military sex industrial complex in the Colombian wilds in José Luis Rugeles Gracia’s gripping Alias Maria; draconian modesty regulations stymieing the will to participation in world championships for three deaf-mute Iranian karatekas in Mahmoud Ghaffari’s superb and exasperating Mou (Hair); and the seriocomic unrealistic expectations created by the mass media for the eponymous Blanka, the 11-year-old lead in Japanese director Kohki Hasei’s new film, who seeks to purchase a new mother after learning of a celebrity adoption of one of her millions of street urchin peers living hand-to-mouth on the streets of Manila. Filipino neo-realism is regularly garlanded in Fribourg, and the highly engaging Blanka won the Audience Award.
Shin Su-won’s Madonna was the most harrowing, yet also the most mainstream, of all the features in competition. Excoriating South Korea’s upper echelons, it suggests in no uncertain terms that the Korean elite vampirically sustains itself by feeding off the exploitation – occupational and sexual – of Korean society’s most vulnerable, represented here by a young, sexually naïve woman with dreadful self-esteem who becomes an unwitting organ donor to a plutocrat under horrifying circumstances.
There were two strong, strikingly composed, black-and-white films in competition in which a woman is wooed by problematic suitors, although in terms of social mobility (if not anxiety levels) the two women could scarcely be further apart. In Indonesian director Eddie Cahyono’s Siti, a karaoke singer is rendered a single mother by the paralysis in a fishing accident of her brooding, now bed-bound husband, with her life made more precarious by his creditors. In Argentine director Ariel Rotter’s 1960s period piece La luz incidente (Incident Light), a grieving young mother of twins who lost her husband in a car crash has to decide whether allowing a peculiarly importunate man into her intimate life will be a satisfactory – or even the only – means of sustaining her bourgeois way of life. The rigour with which both films’ black and white aesthetic is sustained serves them equally admirably.
However, the Special Jury Award worth 10,000 CHF went to the Mexican Semana Santa by Alejandra Márquez Abella, the only competition film I saw in which a woman’s leisure life constituted the narrative’s engine room. An assured feature-length directorial debut, Semana Santa impressed not just by dint of offering welcome light relief from the more profound and institutionally entrenched expressions of female misery elsewhere in competition, but also in its own right as an observational drama set at a holiday resort in which the nuclear family ideal comes under some gentle and humorous, but nonetheless probing, scrutiny.
Outside of Competition
The rest of the FIFF’s program engaged with various constructions of “women’s cinema”, albeit – for all that its coverage spanned continents and epochs – without any avowedly feminist “counter-cinema” per se. Live-action narrative fiction and documentary films, while still mostly “festival films”, were privileged over the programming of any radical, experimental, or formalist second-wave feminist cinema. Perhaps a little more surprisingly, nor was there any animation, given how many women have been key to that protean moving image art form’s evolution, and how many remain so to the current day.
But this seems a little churlish. What actually was on offer was terrific and included on-theme takes on standard programming strands like “Genre Cinema”, this year subtitled “Fiercer than the Male”; “Midnight Movies”, inclusive, would you believe, of a new Sion Sono film successfully on theme, Riaru onigokko (Tag), and “Terra Incognita”, which this year focused on “Being a female filmmaker in Africa”. This section highlighted Moufida Tlatli’s Les Silences du palais (The Silences of the Palace, 1994), a timelessly vital, politically modern, and decidedly feminist film concerning a young woman in 1950s Tunisia reflecting upon her lot in life either side of the overthrow of the French colonial occupation. Whether coming of age as a singer, after being born into a position of servitude in a royal palace (with her unknown father likely to be one of those to whom she was pressed into service alongside her mother) or enjoying a freer life after her country also gains its autonomy, she is forever dealing with claims upon her person. In the latter period, her boyfriend wishes her to have yet another abortion. Such a powerful film, The Silences of the Palace could have been made yesterday and would seem no less of the now.
Another regular strand, “Decryption” was this year appended “And Woman Created the Cinema” and represented the results of a two question survey – “what is the most beautiful film made by one of your female colleagues” and “who is your favourite female character in the history of film?”, with the latter allowing for directorial contributions from male directors.
The print catalogue listed all of the survey’s participants. The 30 emerging and established auteuses are too many to list here but ranged from pioneering Saudi filmmaker Haifaa al-Mansour through to Swiss-Romanian Ruxandra Zenide. All 70 films nominated were listed in the catalogue and were whittled down to a programmed selection of but nine. These predictably included two features by Jane Campion – The Piano (1993) and An Angel at My Table (1990) headed the list, with The Piano out front by a significant margin – and as many as four by Agnès Varda. And the remaining three? A discordant note was sounded in that, while these three titles are all graced by indelible female performances, they rather less represent a woman’s vision off-screen: John Cassavetes’ A Woman under the Influence (1974); Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939), and Roma Città Aperta (Rome, Open City, Roberto Rossellini, 1945).
In fact, the great majority of votes for the second category favoured women’s performances in male-directed films, reflecting of course the vast historical preponderance of menfolk calling the shots in the industry. But still, whither all the Maries, per Věra Chytilová’s Sedmikrásky (Daisies, 1966), and all their anarchic, rabble-rousing, patriarchy-baiting, classical Hollywood form-demolishing, canon-stomping sisters in film? Daisies was one of the many titles to receive a single vote for “most beautiful film”; a shame then that neither it, nor any one other film, was selected specifically to stick it to the man.
On which note, “Genre Cinema: Fiercer than the Male” was less concerned with female revenge narratives than its title might have suggested – at least with respect to narratives where the revenge across gender lines is personal. I should note that the FIFF, under former Artistic Director Edouard Waintrop, ran a program of rape-revenge films back in 2009; current AD Thierry Jobin would doubtless have been keen not to tread that same ground again so soon, especially when such films can be sexopolitically problematic and could have jibed awkwardly with this year’s celebratory theme. That said, a wonderful Ida Lupino retrospective, curated and piecemeally introduced by Pierre Rissient, included Outrage (1950), a still potent feminist precursor to a genre which would sink to some astonishingly sordid and misogynous depths from the 1970s on.
The “Genre Cinema” section encompassed instead a varied bunch of recent productions. Omung Kumar’s Mary Kom, a Bollywoodification of the story of the same-named real world Indian boxing champion (a former Miss World, Priyanka Chopra, plays the lead), is a feel-good production a-glut with boxing movie clichés, like training montages and comically villainous and Othered opponents. However, it’s augmented by scenes and narrative dilemmas more common to the “women’s picture”, especially when matters of child rearing, personal fitness and career advancement all come to loggerheads, and is all the better for it.
Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov’s excellent Urok (The Lesson) demonstrates the extreme fortitude an ordinary lower-middle-class woman – here, a school teacher of English in a small Bulgarian town – might need call upon when patriarchal institutions ranging from marriage (she’s lumbered with a deadbeat husband) to the financial sector (bureaucratic banks and dangerous loan sharks) exert appalling, undue pressure upon her and threaten to deny her and her family a roof above their heads. And Vivian Norris’ documentary Obama Mama on Stanley Ann Dunham (1942-1995) makes her subject out to be almost too good to be true, in a film that cannot help though but be fascinating for how little has previously been broadcast of and about Barack Obama’s mother. Were though that the film was less reliant on public domain footage extracted from the Prelinger Archives; much of that material isn’t of a quality fit for big screen projection.
But for mine, the two strongest films new to me were from members of the main jury. Lithuania’s first queer feature film, Sangailės vasara (The Summer of Sangailė) is a gorgeous coming-of-age tale paralleling a would-be teen pilot’s wish to conquer her vertigo and take to the skies with her falling into a joyous summer fling with another girl. It marks Alantė Kavaitė as a director to watch.
More revelatory still, Nguyễn Hoàng Điệp’s Đập cánh giữa không trung (Flapping in the Middle of Nowhere) – a multiple award-winner at the previous FIFF – is a profoundly unsentimental film about an unplanned teen pregnancy. This core, very personal dilemma allows for surprisingly extensive outreach into life across the broader class and gender spectrum in present day Hanoi and surrounds, and makes clear that in Vietnam – as in so many places from the first world through to the third – women and transgender folk are seldom far from having to take on sex work in order to keep themselves afloat. It also contains some extraordinary imagery, some of it imbued with a brutal dirty realism (the cockfighting scenes are particularly unsettling and unsparing) as well as some imagery of a startling, surreal, body horror persuasion. One especially abject scene in an abortion clinic remains very hard to shake.
For all the female trouble on display at this year’s landmark FIFF (and the varying degrees of success enjoyed by women characters in overcoming it), there can at least be few complaints that the women so depicted were mere ciphers or stereotypes. Rather, they were wont to be fully-fleshed, three-dimensional characters, and even if some were mightily flawed, and we audience members were made to squirm as we watched one after another of them struggle so across successive films, we are surely only the wiser – and our spectatorial lives much the richer – for the experience. It is very much this critic’s view, voiced during a “Think Tank” forum about “The development of a female character” in which I participated alongside moderatrix Marcy Goldberg and directors Alejandra Márquez Abella, Alanté Kavaïté, Vivian Norris and Ariel Rotter – all filmmakers mentioned elsewhere in this article – that there has come the time when we acknowledge there is no longer anything to gain by having women on screen for them only to serve as simplistic window dressing for women’s rights. Women and men (and indeed those who identify as neither) need to see complex, nuanced representations of women’s lives, in order for justice to be done to the great diversity in real women’s lived experience. Otherwise, can progress in understanding the human condition really be said to be being made at all?
If I’m to end this report on any one note, it must be that in acknowledging the terrific work done by the FIFF this year, I can only hope other festivals won’t consider this level of elevation of films by, for, and about women, to be something that’s now been “done” and needn’t be done to such an extent again. I wish I could feel more sanguine on this final point, but let us see…
Fribourg International Film Festival
11-19 March 2016
Festival website: http://fiff.ch/en/