At the closing night ceremony of the 15th T-Mobile New Horizons Film Festival, the host asked each winning filmmaker that graced the stage what “new horizons” meant to them. Awkward answers aside, it was also a redundant question for anybody who’d been in attendance for the past 11 days. These films were part of a program that consistently asked what it means to chart cinema’s frontiers, across competition screenings, contemporary world cinema, shorts, classics, themed sections, retrospectives and regional focuses.
Held annually in Wrocław, the fourth largest city in Poland, it’s a notion that’s interpreted laterally in a festival that honours the independent, the bold and the experimental. It may be the younger sibling to the Krakow and Warsaw festivals, but New Horizons’ youth is its beauty. The festival’s audience is remarkably young, too, with 60 per cent coming from outside Wrocław to attend; some refer to the “New Horizons generation”, who’ve predominantly gotten their cinematic education there. Where one might expect an atmosphere of exclusivity in a festival centred on the avant-garde, it’s a vibrant and affable mood that spreads beyond the cinema into the wider city. Or maybe I’m just getting dewy-eyed about the pastel facades, gilded churches and cobblestone streets.
Wrocław is a wee bit optimistic when referring to itself as “the Venice of Poland”, but it has a definite charm that the festival harnesses. A free (and enthusiastically attended) open-air cinema takes over the picturesque Town Square nightly, which can be viewed from the restaurants and bars lining the perimeter. Ticketing to the main venue – a nine-screen, three-storey arthouse multiplex in the centre of the city – is an exercise in democracy: each morning at 8.30am tickets are released for the following day’s sessions, for which press and public alike scramble. Held not long after Cannes, it’s the favourites fresh from the monolith that are snaffled most quickly: Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin (Nie yin niang), Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster, Gaspar Noé’s Love and László Nemes’ Son of Saul (Saul fia).
This year’s festival opened with The Brand New Testament (Le tout nouveau testament), a whimsical (if slight) comedy from Belgian director Jaco Van Dormael. The religious satire envisages the almighty as an embittered, alcoholic schlub (played by a very shouty Benoît Poelvoorde) hiding away in Brussels, who assuages his own unhappiness by exercising schadenfreude on his subjects. He loses his grip when his daughter (Pili Groyne) decides to reveal his secrets and wrangle her own band of apostles. While the Amélie-style twee got a tad grating, The Brand New Testament was an enjoyable way to open, and perhaps more weighty for Polish audiences – a country where over 90 per cent of the population identify as Catholic (the highest proportion in the world). It made an interesting companion piece to Dietrich Brüggermann’s Stations of the Cross (Kreuzweg), which I followed it with, which brutally critiques the logic of eternal penance as an unblemished 14 year-old girl (Lea van Acken) from a devout family sacrifices herself as a martyr.
Coincidentally, it was another religion-themed film that took out this year’s Grand Prize (€20,000 and guaranteed distribution in Poland). Lucifer, the final film in Belgian director Gust Van den Berghe’s religious trilogy, which reimagines Lucifer’s (played by the striking Gabino Rodríguez) descent from heaven to hell. Lucifer takes a pit stop in a rural Mexican village – essentially a stranger comes to town story – where his presence wreaks havoc on the simple family who take him in. The film has a gentle, irreverent wit, but its originality lies mainly in its format. Van den Berghe invented a new kind of camera for the project, the “Tondoscope”, which shoots with a circular frame and painterly texture. The limited vision acts like a God’s eye view of the world, often making the space static and transforming scenes into portrait-like tableaux. Such a limited frame encourages the viewer to imagine what is outside the image’s borders as much as what makes it in; disappointingly, Van den Berghe seems uninterested in playing with this dynamic, except when the constricting frame is momentarily torn open (inviting comparisons with Xavier Dolan’s much-discussed 1:1 ratio in Mommy ).
The audience award went to Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz’s Goodnight Mommy (Ich seh, Ich seh), a psychological horror that was the most conventional piece of filmmaking in a difficult international competition. The Austrian duo toy with several of the genre’s clichés: the isolated lake house, the murderous matriarch (a talk show host played by Susanne Wuest, who dares to still quest after beauty – she’s just gotten plastic surgery and spends half the film in bandages) and the disturbing (and disturbingly Aryan) twins (Elias and Lukas Schwarz) who tap into deep-set parental fears – that your children are ultimately beyond your control and may even turn against you. At the mid-point this clever play with conventions descends into the kind of torture porn that presently dominates the genre, with a cruelty that drew obvious comparisons with Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997).
The festival’s international competition houses its most daring visions – whether that be aesthetically, formally or thematically – but it was a somewhat uneven selection in the 12 films on offer this year. One can’t help but compare them unfavourably to Noaz Deshe’s remarkable debut White Shadow (2014), which won the main prize and audience award last year. Too often, however, the films in this year’s international competition were self-consciously provocative (often limply so) or whose aesthetic experimentations often masked a lack of fully-realised ideas. Interestingly, it was the debut filmmakers who presented the most jaundiced views. Sibs Shongwe-La Mer’s Necktie Youth may have been made 20 years after Larry Clark’s groundbreaking Kids, but its insight into disaffected adolescence seems no less developed. Of course, ‘90s New York is a much different political milieu to present-day Johannesburg, but its clumsily delivered ennui and wasted rebellion proved exasperating.
Similarly, Juan Daniel F. Molero’s Videophilia (and Other Viral Syndromes) (Videofilia [y otros sindromes virales]) presented an already-dated technophobic vision of the internet. This descent into underground sex culture in Peru, where the divisions between pornography and real life start to blur, is mirrored in an aesthetic where memes and pixels start rupturing the “real”. There are resonances of Olivier Assayas’ badly-aged Demonlover (2002) and David Cronenberg’s crowning vision of technological perversion, Videodrome (1983), but rather than an affective nightmare, we get a confused schizoid vision whose politics are vague.
It seemed unfair to include Miguel Gomes alongside these jejune filmmakers, considering both Arabian Nights’ (As Mil e uma Noites) epic scale (a trilogy collectively clocking in at over six hours) and the director’s auteur status. Still, it was the obvious choice for the FIPRESCI Critics’ Prize – for which I was on the jury – for its ambition, scope and boundless imagination. In a cinematic landscape where the financial crisis is often strangely evaded, Gomes’ tackles the austerity measures imposed on Portugal in unexpected ways.
Arabian Nights is a freewheeling and sweeping epic, which takes little from the original text other than its framework. Like Scheherazade, who tells stories to hold off the murderous sultan, Gomes frames storytelling as a matter of survival. Combining the likes of docufiction, meta-cinema, orientalist fantasy and bawdy satire, Gomes elevates the stories of laid off dockworkers or residents of public housing blocks to sit beside those of princesses and politicians. He asks how we may blame the impoverished when the fiscal crisis and its ramifications are so diffuse, yet his sensibility is ever-playful and inventive rather than dour.
Beyond the competition, many New Horizons highlights came vetted from the wider festival circuit. Our Little Sister (Umimachi Diary) may not be Hirokazu Kore-eda’s strongest work, but it fits in neatly to the Japanese director’s body of bittersweet family dramas; here he shows as much sagacity about girls as he has previously about boys in this tender and often very funny portrait of three sisters who, after their father’s death, take in their half-sister from his other marriage. Prolific South Korean director Hong Sang-soo’s Hill of Freedom (Ja-yu-eui eon-deok) presents another of his troubled romances as a Japanese teacher (Ryo Kase) returns to Seoul to track down a lost lover but accidentally begins another affair during his search.
New Horizons’ favourite Guy Maddin’s The Forbidden Room is a matryoshka of a film, where each oneiric vision of hapless submariners or amorous lumberjacks opens onto the next often absurd and surreally comic chapter. Pedro Costa’s Horse Money (Cavalo Dinheiro), like earlier works Vanda’s Room (No Quarto da Vanda, 2000) and Colossal Youth (Juventude em Marcha, 2006), documents the lives of the Cape Verdean immigrants in outer-Lisbon. Costa’s ghostly tableaus stand in contrast to Gomes’ vision of contemporary Portugal, even though both deal with the impoverished and disenfranchised. And of course Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s meditative take on the wuxia film, The Assassin, which revels in expressive stillness and stunning, strangely poignant battle scenes. Nanni Moretti’s latest My Mother (Mia Madre) closed the festival on a high note, with its deftly rendered balance of pathos and broad comedy.
Not all Cannes favourites were as notable. Serial provocateur Gaspar Noé’s sexual odyssey Love opts for the cheap shots, whose originality doesn’t extend much further than the first 3D money shot. The gimmick soon chafes, with the format enshrouding the film in a frustrating darkness. But nothing drowns out the lovelorn whining of protagonist Murphy (Karl Glusman), a boorish young American in Paris and wannabe filmmaker, who cannot shake his self-pity when he loses the wildcard Electra (Aomi Muyock) after he impregnates a teenage pro-lifer (Klara Kristin). Any insight into young amour fou gets lost as he drones on (and on, and on).
A festival like New Horizons’ doesn’t focus too much on premieres and marquee guests, instead it concentrates its energies on standout retrospectives. Case in point this year was that of French auteur Philippe Garrel, whose body of work is remarkably cohesive when viewed together. Curated by Japanese film critic and scholar Nanako Tsukidate, it brought together a catalogue that has mostly not been released outside of France. An early work such as Le révélateur (1968) unfolds like a dream, a silent black-and-white vision whose disaffection and rebellion perfectly encapsulates the mood of ‘68. A wide-eyed boy and his parents flee from an unseen threat, the hopeless parental figures lost children themselves. Fluctuating between images of violence and comfort, the child ultimately defies this uncertain world.
It’s a theme he’d return to explicitly in Regular Lovers (Les amants réguliers, 2005), a profound portrait of the May ’68 generation’s malaise in the wake of a failed revolution. It could easily be a companion piece to Olivier Assayas’ Something in the Air (Après mai, 2012), which similarly charted the hopelessness following utopia’s demise. Like so many protagonists in Garrel’s cinema, his protagonist (played by his son Louis) escapes in drugs and romance. Unlike Bernardo Bertolucci’s swooning take in The Dreamers (2003), which also starred Louis, life beyond the barricades is resolutely bleak. Most of the time the group of artists don’t create but rather lie around in opiate reveries, the mood increasingly becoming one of straight-out paranoia.
My personal favourite was I Can No Longer Hear The Guitar (J’entends plus la guitare, 1991). Made shortly after the death of Nico, who he lived with for most of the 1970s, there’s a unique rawness in this impossible love story to which he’d repeatedly return. Here, however, fragility and emotional intensity are at their peaks, with deeply moving performances from Johanna ter Steege as Nico-figure Marianne and Benoît Régent as Garrel’s melancholy stand-in Gerard. Love is at once ruinous and life’s élan vital in Garrel’s worldview; in Emergency Kisses (Les baisers de secours, 1989) this is made explicit in endless conversations about the fact that love gives life its meaning and narrative structure.
In what’s been a remarkably autobiographical oeuvre, the metatheatrical layers in the likes of Emergency Kisses are dizzying. Garrel and his wife at the time Brigitte Sy play a director and actress whose marriage comes under strain when he refuses to cast her in his latest film – a role that she knows is directly inspired by her. She sees his choice as a breach of trust, and an attempt to become intimate with the actress that will take her place. Their son, played by a very young Louis, is caught in the middle. This is Garrel at perhaps his most indulgently navel gazing, but it’s a fascinating meditation on the divisions between cinema and life; it also augured the couple’s real-world split that would eventuate a few years later.
Similarly, the unexpectedly funny Wild Innocence (Sauvage innocence, 2001) depicts a director who compulsively returns to the scene of his ex-lover’s death. He wants to make an anti-heroin film that shows the drug as scourge, but when the only financier he can find happens to be involved in trafficking he convinces himself the film’s reach will surpass that of the drugs he’s importing. What’s more, his new girlfriend (who he casts as his ex-lover) turns to drugs as he becomes more withdrawn, justifying it as a way to play the role more convincingly. Any initial humour soon dissipates: it’s a self-deprecating take on the male artist’s selfishness, as well as his own tendency to reopen the past. At the same time, it’s a rejection of purely autobiographical readings of his work; the past can never be truly recreated, instead bringing with it new sorrows.
Parallels can be drawn between Garrel and the other notable subject of a retrospective – Lithuanian slow cinema director Šarūnas Bartas. Both linger on the landscapes of the human face, but where Garrel surveys big emotional terrains play out in intimate ways Bartas’ is a cinema of remove, never allowing us to get beyond the face’s impassive façade. His disaffection possibly reveals a lack of hope after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but he offers no easy answers, presenting both threatening exteriors and claustrophobic interiors, neither of which offer any kind of comfort to his meandering characters.
His 1997 film The House (A Casa) is perhaps the most striking example. After an introductory monologue about a mother and son’s inability to communicate, the largely silent film follows a protagonist wandering around the rooms of a decaying manor house filled with bizarre and striking scenes: a female dog, it’s teats weighing heavy with milk, devouring the scraps left on an empty table; a room full of naked children in various states of play; the ruins of bourgeois dinner parties; beautiful gardens in bloom. What at first seems perhaps a meditation on the hidden rooms of the subconscious becomes quite literally a metaphor for the mother country by its final scenes, as the military tanks roll in.
Of course any visit to a festival will be an exercise in omission, too. Alongside the Bartas retrospective was a wider regional focus from Lithuania, curated by the Lithuanian Cultural Centre, which I sadly missed. I only caught one film from the retrospective of Polish writer / director Tadeusz Konwicki, who began filmmaking at the same time the French New Wave emerged and whose work shares many stylistic similarities; All Souls’ Day (Za duski, 1961) was an elliptical and fragmentary love story about a couple trying to renegotiate pasts both romantic and political which made me wish I’d been able to see far more.
What resounds in the weeks since submerging myself in New Horizons’ program is how frontiers of vision aren’t always found in the biggest gestures or boldest experimentations. Instead they emerge in the cinema’s intimate moments; in the slow and silent takes; when a filmmaker illuminates a world that too often remains in the shadows. And as Arabian Nights suggests, storytelling can quite literally be a tool of survival. When the Grand Vizier asks his daughter Scheherazade the purpose of storytelling in Gomes’ take, she replies it’s “to bridge the time of the dead with the time of those to come.” Film itself offers just such a bridge, visions of past and future kept alive in its flickering light.
T-Mobile New Horizons Film Festival
23 July – 2 August 2015
Festival website: http://www.nowehoryzonty.pl/?lang=en