Honour of the Knights

21 February – 4 March 2007

While the holy trinity of contemporary Mexican cinema, Alejandro González Inárritu, Alfonso Cuarón and Guillermo del Toro, stepped up to receive well-deserved Oscars, in their nation’s capital, from which all three directors have drifted away in recent years to pursue high-profile multinational projects, the young, ambitious and fast-growing Mexico City International Contemporary Film Festival (Ficco) was underway. Ficco is part of an effort to make independent cinema exhibition financially viable in Mexico’s capital by giving it a rare platform in commercial theatres (its vocation is “training audiences”, in festival director Paula Astorga’s words), and offers a forum for, without laying special emphasis on, home-grown production. Navigating around Ficco can be as frustrating as trying to move about the vast metropolis that hosts it: the last-minute timetable alterations and lack of information that still plague the festivalgoer would appear to be down to the event, like the city, having expanded beyond its means and with woefully insufficient planning during its lifetime to date. Its efforts to promote independent cinema by working with, rather than against, the city’s dominant exhibitor Cinemex (controlled by a consortium of US-based investment funds) causes consternation in some quarters, although the programmers’ willingness to give prominence to young directorial debuts, and the attempts to forge links with the capital’s academic and critical communities through parallel events, are certainly praiseworthy.

At a film analysis session held parallel to the festival, veteran Mexican film historian Jorge Ayala Blanco observed an austerity of form and rhythm in much current independent filmmaking, which he put down to a generational reaction against the stylistic excesses enabled by technological developments of recent decades. This tendency should strike a chord among the burgeoning young generation of filmmakers in Mexico who are learning to make movies in spite of a harsh financial climate and difficulty of access to distribution (the recent rash of Mexican operas primas is testament to their success); and Ayala Blanco’s comment proved particularly revealing in relation to a certain current within the official fiction selection. Intriguing, and surely aimed more at a festival audience than a wider public, was Albert Serra’s Catalan-language adaptation of Don Quixote, Honor de cavalleria (Honour of the Knights, 2006), which touchingly captures the friendship between a senile, rambling Quixote and a virtually mute Sancho Panza as an unshakeable bond built upon fragility and self-doubt. With a scrupulously honest visual style built on sequence shots that cast the characters stunningly against an empty sky and disorientating roaming hand-held close-ups, and Serra’s skilful management of silence that punctuates an almost music-free soundtrack with Quixote’s wonderful rambling monologues, Honor de cavallería parodies our hero’s illusory pursuit of chivalry as an eternal waiting that would be Beckettian but for the warmth and precision of its comic timing.

Hamaca paraguaya

Another film whose sparse rhythm, style and dialogue betrayed a rare narrative sensibility was Hamaca paraguaya (Paraguayan Hammock, Paz Encina, 2006), which converts silence, inertia and repetition into a captivating emotional portrait of a key episode in Paraguay’s history. Consisting for a good part of a crotchety old couple complaining in their native Guaraní of the heat and a barking dog, wondering when it will rain, and bickering about where to hang their hammock, Hamaca‘s superbly scripted dialogue constantly deflects but also gradually reveals its real subject: the loss and loneliness felt by this couple in their twilight years whose son has left to fight in the Chaco War (Paraguay’s 1930s conflict with Bolivia), most likely never to return, and more broadly, the silent psychological brutality of war, the circularity and despair of old age deprived of its desire for immortality through children, and ultimately the fear and deferral of death, and the quiet dignity with which this is met. Paz Encina’s almost immobile camera and flat, repetitive framing leaves little space for tension, yet communicates perfectly the absurd humour of her characters’ lives, and the constant rumblings of rain on the soundtrack symbolise the long-awaited and elusive catharsis from their purgatory. The festival catalogue’s claim that Hamaca is the first Paraguayan feature in 30 years is misleading, but Encina’s opera prima certainly breathes life into her country’s barely existing film production culture. Tariq Teguia’s desultory feature debut, Roma Wa La N’Touma (Rome Rather Than You, 2006), makes a more cerebral use of silence and reflective sequence shots to flatten out the thriller and road-movie genres into an aimless series of vignettes; the protagonist Kamel’s physical journey from Algiers to a desolate coastal town in search of an opportunity to escape illegally to Europe is a desperate metaphorical exploration of the metaphysics of exile, setting off the difficulties of belonging in a homeland plagued by a distantly rumbling war and paternalistic attitudes against the false exotic illusions of a better life to the north.

Two films narrating national processes of becoming in more upbeat style were Taxidermia (György Pálfi, 2006) and A fost sau n-a fost? (12:08 East of Bucharest, Corneliu Porumboiu, 2006), respective winners of the Best Director (shared with Hugo Vieira Da Silva’s Body Rice [Portugal, 2006]) and Best Film awards, continuing Ficco juries’ predilection for Eastern European cinema following last year’s triumph of The Death of Mr Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu, Romania, 2005). 12:08 uses subtly grafted characters and wry comic timing to portray the self-promotion that drives personal and collective memories of past events, and the vacuity, vanity and implausibility of nationalistic attempts to monumentalise them. The centrepiece is a masterfully inept provincial television program (anchored by a textile engineer who frames his platitudes with quotes from Plato and Heraclitus) that fruitlessly wades through multiple versions of the past to establish whether the backwater town in which the picture is set precipitated or merely followed in line with Romania’s 1989 revolution (which occurred at 12.08 on 22 December 1989). The humanistic – if slightly glib – ending emphasises the importance of lived human relationships and memories, and the gradual dawning of change, rather than glowing, self-aggrandising nostalgia for a glorious past.

Taxidermia

Taxidermia is an exuberant, surreal, grotesque, sometimes hilarious and pleasingly baroque tale that tells a hundred years of Hungarian history through three generations of the eccentric Balatony family, its fetishistic obsession with bodily functions and innards parodying narratives of national progress, substituting generational improvement for a gradual voyage into the putrid depths of human flesh. Each protagonist perverts an ideal of his age: the World War One military officer is less concerned with aristocratic honour than with his violent vaginal obsession that matches the compulsively masturbating orderly under his command; the communist-era hero is a champion sports eater with a famous vomiting technique to his name, grotesquely inverting the edifying Socialist-bloc cult to health and fitness; and the present-day small businessman works in the musty, antiquated depths of his taxidermist’s workshop. Taxidermia‘s taste for the gratuitously bizarre was matched only by Avida (Benoît Delépine/Gustave Kervern, 2006), a self-declared homage to surrealism and Dadaism. We initially wallow in a glorious feast of seemingly unconnected slapstick episodes, the masterful comic energy and contrapuntal use of depth of field in some early scenes echoing Jacques Tati, but once the pleasure of the visual gags runs out of steam, the characters and the story they play out – not unlike the Dalí painting underpinning the narrative – ultimately leave us with a dissatisfying lack of substance.

Mexican cinema has been in the ascendant in recent years, and three new home-grown pictures refer back to some of the stylistic and thematic innovations that shot Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Amores perros to canonical status back in 2000. The weakest was La sangre iluminada (Enlightened Blood, 2006), Iván Ávila Dueñas’ second feature that seems torn between being a postmodern thriller in the vein of Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000) or Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch, 2001), a supernatural fantasy and a visual poem. The psychological puzzle at its heart weaves through a series of characters united by a “transmutation” of a single consciousness, leaving each one with a palimpsestic recollection of their multiple identities; but once this potentially fascinating narrative device becomes evident around halfway through, the film, which is probably not quite as clever as it thinks it is, succumbs to a somewhat overwrought sentimentalism. Out-of-competition Drama/Mex (Gerardo Naranjo, 2006), a slick triptych of interlocking stories bringing together three characters from distinct social classes in a seedy Acapulco at decisive moments in the lives, was not quite as audacious as some rapturous reviews would have had us believe, but its dynamic, fluid visual and narrative style and subtle, non-judgmental portrayal of a set of overtly unlikeable characters make it both thoughtful and a potential box-office success.

Turtle Family

A more measured, slow-burning study of human relationships was Rubén Imaz Castro’s subtle debut Familia tortuga (Turtle Family, 2006), a Mexico City-set urban drama less gritty and more austere in style, but equally as intriguing, as González Iñárritu’s movie, and the best new Mexican picture to come out of the festival. Like many of the best films at this year’s Ficco, Familia tortuga‘s strength lies in its script, which gently teases out the selfishness, vulnerability and ultimately the quiet self-discovery, of the various members of a dysfunctional family preparing for the impending memorial service for their mother/wife/sister, who died in unknown circumstances a year previously. Imaz Castro’s melancholic Mexico City is thoughtfully contemplated by an edgy camera, the low-contrast, washed-out colours casting it as a claustrophobic space that somehow determines the family’s ways of coping with loss: internal repression mollified only by occasional emotional compromise and quiet outward gestures of humour and affection. A less successful exercise in austerity was the Argentine Fantasma (Lisandro Alonso, 2006), a self-reflexive study of the empty spaces of the movie theatre, starring the lonesome protagonist of Alonso’s previous film Los muertos (2004) padding impatiently around the desperately empty cinema at his film’s premiere. Fantasma would have worked better as a succinct short – as the director declared was the film’s original intention – than as the rather thin feature it turned out to be.

Surely no film screened during Ficco enjoyed more viewers, or produced more cringes, than two pre-feature advertisements, warbling patronising and moralising platitudes about civic responsibility, for festival sponsor Fundación Televisa – the social-responsibility arm of Mexican media giant Televisa, whose near-monopoly over the country’s terrestrial airwaves and staunchly rightwing stance gave rise to vociferous protests from the defeated Mexican left during last year’s presidential elections. Sitting uncomfortably next to such corporate interests surrounding the festival was the political documentary Calles amarillas (Isaac D. Quesada, Mexico, 2006) in the México Digital section, whose valuable testimony of the 2006 Mexican civil resistance movement following the purportedly fraudulent elections was offset by the overexcited nationalism of the omniscient voiceover, drawing an improbable political lineage between defeated candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador and Mexico’s independence movement from Spain in 1810. By contrast in the official documentary selection, Yo Presidente (Argentina, 2006), Gastón Duprat and Mariano Cohn’s critique of corruption, ineptitude and vanity in contemporary politics, draws on the finest tradition of political satire, displaying Duprat and Cohn’s Ali G-like malice as they interview, put at ease and ridicule almost every Argentine president since the return of democracy in 1983. The picture has a frivolous air about it – each president is introduced by an insert shot of a dog in various poses (for those in the know, Raúl Alfonsín’s dog is defecating, Carlos Menem’s is copulating and Adolfo Rodríguez Saá’s narrowly escapes being run down by a car) – an effect that perhaps brings a few too many easy laughs, but that acts as an effective platform from which to deflate the politicians’ hypocrisy and pompousness, at pains to be at once statesmanlike and down-to-earth, showing them flounder for dignity as they display a remarkable detachment from the grave consequences of their actions. less judgemental in its approach to its protagonists was Office Tigers (Liz Mermin, 2006), a conventional but eye-opening fly-on-the-wall piece on globalisation’s intertwining of corporate American and traditional Indian values of hard work, productivity and self-betterment at an American-run company in Chennai.

The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández

But of all the documentaries on display at Ficco – and this was an area of particular strength for this festival, which showcased high-quality non-fiction work in the Human Rights and Mexico Digital sections (the latter given over to digital-format films by up-and-coming directors, particularly Mexican), as well as in the official documentary selection – three should be remembered for their subtle, committed, densely-layered and sometimes innovative approaches to their subject matter. Out of competition, one the entire festival’s most convincing expository documentaries was Kieran Fitzgerald’s The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández (2006), a thoroughly-researched investigation into a US marine corps’ shooting of a young Hispanic US citizen near the Mexican border, that wades through a murky sea of misinformation, contradictory evidence, petty prejudices, anger, guilt and military bravado with a complexity and rhythm recalling Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line. Another gem hidden deep in the Human Rights sidebar was Arcana (Cristóbal Vicente, Chile, 2006), the stylistically-original cinematic element of the multimedia Proyecto Arcana on the former Valparaíso prison, researched and filmed shortly before the institution was closed in 1999. Despite its setting, and its obvious vocation as an observational documentary, Arcana is far from being an essay on captivity: its crux lies in a series of interviews with one prisoner who warns the director not to believe the prisoners’ testimonies, including his own: “Not even a priest, if he were a prisoner here, would tell you what goes on here. It’s each man’s law…”. Any notion of sociological portrayal thus relativised, the documentary sets out to create a visual and aural portrait of the sounds, smells, flavours and feelings of a space out-of-bounds: the haunting, abstract sound design bears a symbolic, rather than an indexical, relationship with the images it accompanies, and the stunning black-and-white extreme-close-ups Vicente attains of some prisoners become only a parody of the intimacy most observational documentarians seek with their subjects. The closing scene, in which a close-up of a blade of grass in the now-abandoned prison yard pulls back gradually to a breathtaking helicopter shot of the whole of Valparaíso, suggests that visually we may be able to dominate the entire city, but up close we cannot fully grasp even the tiniest detail of the prison. The pick of the in-competition documentaries, Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Unser Täglich Brot (Our Daily Bread, 2006), also coldly eschews intimacy, offering a chillingly precise portrait of mechanised intensive food production but nonetheless finding a strange, monumental beauty in its subject, such as in the metallic ballet played out by the unfolding arms of a crop-spraying machine. The factory labourers wordlessly manning machines or munching sandwiches are as dehumanised as the chicks that are machine-tagged and literally tossed into an intensive coop, or the cows subjected to an agonising automated slaughter. Geyrhalter’s camera places itself at the coalface of rationalised mass-production, challenging us not to be seduced by the rhythmical dystopia that brings us our daily bread.

The rude health of late of Latin American documentary is beyond the bounds of this review, but the directorially assured and conceptually rich abstract, poetic piece Paraíso (Felipe Guerrero, 2006) adds further depth to the current trend. Inspired by the 1950s Colombian literary movement of Nadaísmo that sought an alternative to the absolutism and violence of contemporary politics in irrationalism and abstraction, Paraíso hangs on Nadaísta poet Jaime Jaramillo’s line that “the poem must be supple, slippery, undulating”. Crisp archive footage of past and present social conflicts blend into images of other mythical aspects of Colombian lore – crystal-clear sea, jungle, Bogotá’s modernity, street vendors, peasant mobilisations, Botero sculptures, cut-flower-sellers, people scavenging through rubbish tips… – transmitted via found footage, grainy super-8 images and time-lapse photography, and combining an array of colour schemes, gauges and formats of film stock against an abstract sound-collage. Together these elements attain a sensory experience that both suggests and belies the rhetorical “paradise” of the title that many Colombians would have us believe is their country. At the other end of the authorial scale, another bold proposal was Chilean José Luis Torres Leiva’s El tiempo que se queda (2007), a respectful portrait of the everyday joy and spiritual freedom of the inmates of a mental asylum that verges so far towards the purely observational and naturalistic as to almost avoid interpretation altogether, its reticence to impose narrative ultimately rendering it less effective than it might have been.

Of the special events surrounding the festival, of note was a screening/rendition of Guy Maddin’s silent film Brand Upon the Brain! (2006): a lovingly nostalgic, invigorating and expressionistic homage to the silent era’s explorations of modernity, the unconscious and the irrational, performed with live orchestral music, foley artists and a playful narration delivered by Geraldine Chaplin. Other American independents were disappointing: the opening night’s Little Children (Todd Field, 2006) effectively critiqued the narrow-mindedness of small-town America but struggled to go far beyond stock characterisation and a glibly moralising conclusion; while John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus (2006), a comic drama on sexual experimentation in post-9/11 New York, managed to bind a surprisingly frank and explicit portrayal of sex into a trite, stereotyped narrative.

Ficco has not yet managed to attract serious critical attention from the local press, with newspaper editors more concerned with unleashing national pride in big-name Academy Award successes than with covering the little-known, and often high-quality, work on offer here. What little attention was paid to the festival tended to focus on the latest offerings of well-established, saleable independents shown in the “Gala” section, such as The Boss of It All (Lars Von Trier, 2006), Inland Empire (David Lynch, 2006) and Lights In the Dusk (Aki Kaurismäki, 2006), rather than on the editorially riskier work of younger filmmakers to which the official selections are dedicated, and as in former editions of Ficco, the films of such independent auteurs generally seemed the best attended. One can hope, though, that the enthusiasm shown by the young student and cinephile audiences that are forming around the event to such fascinating finds as Hamaca paraguaya and Arcana may signal a long-overdue festival culture, and with it a local market for independent cinema, taking shape in the city.

About The Author

David Wood is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Institute of Aesthetic Research, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

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