Poland cannot complain of a lack of film festivals. The volume is high, but so is the variety as each film festival carves out its own particular programming policies. Among the most internationally buoyant domestic festivals is the T-Mobile New Horizons International Film Festival held annually in the city of Wrocław. The festival prides itself as a hub of young auteur cinema that considers film as an intersection of the arts. This hybrid nature of cinema was celebrated this year through two special “Film Opera” events, the gargantuan work by The Cremaster Cycle creator Matthew Barney, The River of Fundament, inspired by Norman Mailer´s 1983 novel Ancient Evenings, and Natalia Korczakowska’s theatrical rendition of David Lynch´s Lost Highway, featuring a libretto by Nobel Prize laureate Elfriede Jelinek and scored by Olga Neuwirth. Apart from their own special cultural and artistic significance, the two events contributed to the festival´s brand awareness while clearly communicating the festival´s penchant for experimental oeuvres.
Around the festival circuit
In general, the festival´s line-up can be divided into two distinct groups based on their functions. In the first, the programmers fulfill their duty towards domestic audiences and curious cinephiles by bringing the current hot auteurs into the foreground in the Panorama section. Season 2015/2016 also features the crème de la crème of the festival circuit, combining the more powerhouse filmmakers and titles along with the season´s revelations. This section reaches further back into the previous 12 months, bringing award-festooned films into Wrocław´s festival venues.
Featured in this section was Miguel Gomes´ epic cinematic triptych As Mil e Uma Noites (Arabian Nights), which maps Portugal’s social, economic and political upheaval during the implementation of austerity measures that the country had to agree to in order to avoid bankruptcy. In his latest work, Gomes welds two major stylistic and directorial strands he has manifested in his previous works into an unified directorial vision: the magical realism of his so-called musical comedies such as A Cara que Mereces (The Face You Deserve, 2004) and the docu-fiction of Aquele Querido Mês de Agosto (Our Beloved Month of August, 2008). The “must-see” films included Athina Rachel Tsangari´s absurdist buddy comedy, the testosterone-filled Chevalier, which involves an awkward game among men to determine the supreme alpha male; Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz’s Ich seh ich seh (Goodnight Mommy), an arthouse horror that weaves elements of torture and paranoia into a story about motherhood terror and child trauma; Gaspar Noé´s Love, a sensual and transgressive ode to animal sexuality and female empowerment; Gust van den Berghe´s Lucifer, a formally innovative re-imagination of the Old Testament myth of the devil as a mesmerising allegory; László Nemes’ Holocaust drama Saul fia (Son of Saul); and Jaco van Dormael´s playfully blasphemous Le tout nouveau testament (The Brand New Testament) which features the Belgian filmmaker’s trademark magical realism spiked with mild subversion.
The Panorama section, on the other hand, clusters more recent titles making the rounds on the festival circuit, usually plucked from the A-listers such as Venice, Berlin or Cannes, in this year´s case films such as Quand on a 17 ans (Being 17, André Téchiné), 24 Wochen (24 Weeks, Anne Zohra Berrached), Heart of a Dog (Laurie Anderson), La mort de Louis XIV (The Death of Louis XIV, Alberto Serra), Neon Demon (Nicolas Winding Refn), Sieranevada (Cristi Puiu), or the black horse of this year´s Cannes competition, Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade). The festival here provides the (mandatory) service of bringing the most talked about international titles on the festival circuit (mostly from Cannes) to the local audience, often as domestic premieres, as is the standard of mid-sized European film festivals. However, the New Horizons programming veers off from the general template of Central European festivals in selecting less buzzed about films and works of auteurs with specific visions, for instance the Lone Ranger of the Romanian New Wave, Adrian Sitaru. His latest offering Illegitimate features his trademark interest in conjuring up absurd moments from mundane encounters. The director´s regular Adrian Titieni stars as a widowed patron. A fight brakes out over a meal at the family gathering where his adult offspring accuses their father of amoral actions he committed under the Ceaușescu regime while working as a doctor where he revealed the identities of abortion-seekers to the authorities. This moral versus legal conflict magnifies the schism between the father and his progeny. The Romanian writer-director chooses unexpected ways to amend broken family ties as he attempts to cut the Gordian knot of this moral and legal dilemma surrounding the circumstances of an incestual pregnancy. Despite the controversy-baiting incest topic, Sitaru concentrates on the family drama mounting over an intergenerational divide stemming from lives experienced in different political epochs, a fairly common subject of contemporary Romanian cinema. The story is firmly anchored in (social) realism deflecting any trace of on-the-nose moralisations that may be present in his noted long conversational takes.
The partnership crisis was also an inherent theme in Inertia, a drama and first feature by Israeli director Idan Haguel. The premise of Inertia resembles a story and execution one would expect under the banner of the Greek New Wave. Middle-aged Mira wakes up violently from a dream to the sound of her own, almost animal-like, shriek. She soon finds out her husband has vanished without a single trace. The mystery that keeps the plot propelling forward suddenly changes from a rescue mission into a self-discovery quest. In the face of an unimaginable situation, Mira feels a fresh sap gurgling in her veins as she experiences a new life without her husband. Haguel puts a fresh spin on the woman trapped in a loveless marriage scenario, employing a crime story set-up while preserving a cryptic flair throughout the running time. Haguel slowly and smoothly builds scene after scene, the protagonist at the centre of each and every one of them, painting a parallel to Mira´s awakening – an unexpected rebirth shattering the routine and revealing dormant willpower.
A Donnie Darko-like opening lands the leading character Tom a compensation for a freak accident in the film Remainder, based on Tom McCarthy´s book. Visual artist Omer Fast´s feature-length debut revolves around a man, Tom, who suffers a traumatising event, causing him amnesia and abundant source of monetary wealth, eventually leading to a crescendoing series of mise en abyme, as the eccentric haphazard millionaire dedicates all his time and money to recreating obscure memories. However, his obsession for fiction unrecognisable from reality drives Tom from small reconstructions sealed in a house full of actors taking on various roles, to a pitch-perfect re-enactment of a bank heist. Fast manages to capture a downfall into madness while testing the boundaries of fabricated reality constructed in a vein of puzzle films.
Austrian filmmaker Daniel Hoesl came into recognition via his feature debut Soldate Jeanette (Soldier Jane, 2013) and continues his acerbic pillory of capitalism in the farcical sophomore feature WiNWiN. Through fixed shots and economic yet meticulously composed frames, Hoesl mocks (cyber)capitalism as an unsustainable monster devouring everybody around it. A group of hedge-fund managers and high-profile investors comes to the rescue of failing businesses and countries to in fact inflate their greedy corporate portfolios. Hoesl aims to demystify the travesty of financial bailouts and giant enterprises on messianic quests in a picturesque and formally ornamental burlesque.
At the more experienced end of the spectrum, Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky is back in the saddle, vital as ever, and has started shooting a semi-autobiographic five-film cycle to cap off his filmography. After the initial feature La danza de la realidad (The Dance of Reality, 2013), based on the namesake book, in Poesía sin fin (Endless Poetry) he moves forward a couple of chapters, picking up where he left off. The partially crowd-funded project revisits his coming of age and adulthood, this time trading the hometown of Tocopilla for the surrogate home of Santiago where he became a poet, the artist he was destined to become against his father´s will. Endless Poetry recounts Jodorowsky´s rather bohemian escapades as he becomes part of the local art community. His signature style of psycho-magical realism, and surreal, civil and cryptic allegories sprawl into a self-mythologising (and possibly self-aggrandising) testament. His carnivalesque assortment of grotesque and subversive ideas and characters does not alienate viewers nor take on an exploitative character. Rather the transgressive nature of several scenes springs from Jodorowsky´s conception of psycho-magic as a healing act, combining theatrical performance and a certain Dadaesque approach, which the filmmaker carries from his days in the Panic Movement. Crucial encounters and life decisions are revisited, though many from the book are omitted, to keep the larger narrative arc advancing despite the film’s rather episodic structure. Jodorowsky re-constructs them in what he calls “a language of dreams” to communicate with the subconsciousness. His cinematic shamanism focuses on a dysfunctional relationship with his father which he re-examines in one of the film´s most touching scenes recreated by Jodorowsky’s two sons, Brontis and Adan.
Broadening the horizons
The second tendency of the festival’s programming is on emerging talents. Two sections spotlight mostly up-and-coming filmmakers: the International Competition and Films on Art Competition, the latter rounding up experimental and hybrid offerings in a bid to expose a convergent cinema. These feature competitions contribute largely to New Horizons’ profile as a festival of discovery of new cinema.
Egyptian filmmaker Tamer El Said won the Grand Prix in the International Competition for his feature-length debut Akher ayam el madina (In the Last Days of the City). Said´s film defies the label fiction at the level of both substance and form. The story centres on documentary filmmaker Khalid who ends up in a creative dead-end as he doesn´t know what story he wants to tell in his documentary, fragments of which he has been shooting on the streets of Cairo. The film had been in the making since 2007 and emerged this year at the Berlinale as a part of the Forum line-up. This self-reflexive work is partly an autobiographical confession and a rumination on the filmmaker’s relationship to a city on the verge of a grand change. El Said captures Cairo´s architecture in an almost fetishistic way, his city an equal protagonist enveloped in an ambiguous portrait that doesn’t shy away from bleaker circumstances unspooling around Khalid. A personal loss sits among a handful of recurring motifs, and film postcards sent to Khalid serve as a kind of glue keeping the bond together among friends scattered around Baghdad, Beirut and Berlin. This multi-layered docu-fiction offers a meditation on one´s place within a rapidly changing environment, as the gears of history turn more ever more frantically. It is also a film capsule freezing on a particular chapter in history, not only of the city. Khalid´s clips of the unfinished documentary comprise an organic part of El Said´s film, a meta-textual point of filmmaker-character union resulting in a more intimate and authentic elegy created by the same eye.
Ambient sound and the absence of dialogue play a crucial role in Felipe Guerrero’s Oscuro animal (Dark Beast), which was honoured with the FIPRESCI award. The story, rendered in triptych form, concerns three women freeing themselves from (male) oppression and violence. Voicelessness serves as the metaphor for women´s lesser status in a patriarchal society caught in an unstable environment. However, Guerrero empowers the women by following their process of emancipation. Clearly political, Guerrero´s feature debut feels like a follow-up to the recent film of his Colombian colleague José Luis Rugeles, Alias Maria. Both films present a war conflict that devours innocent bystanders as they try to free themselves from the grasp of political and military turmoil.
In comparison, South Korean filmmaker Lee Seung-won chose a less political subject for his directorial feature. Ironically titled, Communication & Lies (So-tong-gwa geo-jit-mal in Korean) hides a poignant character study of two damaged individuals, opening with a long take of a boss scolding her employee, Jang Sun, for promiscuous behaviour around married men. Jang Sun shows little care and shame for the morality lecture. Deeply introverted Mr Kim presents a counterpart to the young woman and he also indulges in an excessive activity, anonymously calling a hotline with ridiculous complaints. Both characters eventually meet to have a mismatched and brief relationship, never baring their inner wounds and scars to each other. Lee proceeds to depict both characters with distance yet offers comprehension in a couple of non-linear flashbacks exposing the traumas behind Jang Sun´s excess for sexual humiliations and Mr Kim´s fixation on the hotline. Dedicating more screen time to Jang Sun (the actress Jang Sun in an exceptional performance), Lee deftly fleshes out a portrait of people stuck in a dark place unable to ask for help, misunderstood by society.
Also in the International Competition, domestic entry Ederly, by Polish animation veteran Piotr Dumała, is an adaptation of the filmmaker’s own prose, first published in the magazine Kino. In his sophomore live-action feature, the filmmaker exercises his signature penchant for bleak humour and surrealism: he crafts a paranoid slow-burning thriller doubling as an absurd comedy by putting a Kafkaesque protagonist in the centre of a Pinterian theatre of cruelty-like circumstances. Weaving together a parable about a prodigal son, a murder mystery and a forbidden romance, Dumała´s application of dream logic sustains Ederly at the edge of reality and fantasy until the anti-climactic finale. Mining the tradition of absurd theatre, he further hones his personal voice with the metaphorical language, visual austerity and evocative imagery he established in his feature debut Las (The Forest, 2009).
The leitmotif of the Film on Art Competition corresponds to the trend currently prevailing on the film festival circuit – the hybrid work incorporating fiction and documentary. This intersection allows for a rather wide spectrum of formal possibilities as diverse as the aforementioned Arabian Nights, Gabriel Mascaro´s Ventos de Agosto (August Winds, 2014) or Pietro Marcello´s Bella e perduta (Lost and Beautiful). New Horizons´ selection of docu-fictions leans heavily towards documentary with some strategies of fiction storytelling. French director Charles Redon chronicles the journey and tribulations of his girlfriend, professional ballerina Mathilde Froustey, as she embarks on a new (professional) life in San Francisco. In a film diary called In California, Redon captures the couple’s most mundane and private activities in a “warts-and-all” style film (including a homemade sex tape). However, in what appears to be somewhat unpolished portrayals resembling candid reality, patterns of dramatical storytelling emerge. Obsession on both partner´s parts, rising tensions, crisis, betrayal and melodrama represent building blocks in a drama of the couple assembled through crafty editing. The disclaimer in the end credits informs us that the timeline of events may have been changed for “dramatic” purposes, while confirming the authenticity of the seen footage. Another entry, Muito Romântico, directed by Melissa Dullius and Gustavo Jahn (who also starred, wrote, edited and were responsible for the film’s set design), brings another perspective to the narrative of realism. The directors fuse staged and/or fictionalised elements (though using only props that could be found on the location to re-enact them) with unscripted parts to form a patchwork of metafilmic fantasies and memories.
The poster child of this docu-fiction tendency, however, might be João Paulo Cuenca´s feature length-debut The Death of J.P. Cuenca, in which the author and director investigates his own death. A true anecdote of a corpse found with Cuenca´s birth certificate jumpstarts the filmmaker´s search for identity in the streets of a labyrinthine (and gentrifying) Rio de Janeiro where fiction permeates the reality. Cuenca calls his first outing “a meta-docu-noir film”, a cunningly edited hybrid oeuvre where the viewer´s personal perception determines the ultimate subject of the film. Individual layers merge together into a seamless plane enabling a narrative incorporating several different stories simultaneously, whether it is a case of identity theft and Cuenca´s contemplation about identity, mapping the process of the city´s transformation and the question of its identity, the dialogue between the two, or a mystery film noir where the abovementioned may or may not matter as the line between reality and fiction is blurred completely.
Cuenca´s experimental feature can be considered emblematic of New Horizons’ intention to spotlight emerging auteur cinema and pioneering new talents with fresh vision that pushes the boundaries. While not exactly breaking new ground, the festival certainly succeeds in picking out close-to-under-the-radar titles on the arthouse fringes. Along with the International Film Festival Rotterdam (which it shares a curatorial attitude with, although it is less adventurous in probing the landscape of provocative films), New Horizons is at the forefront of keeping a finger on the pulse of a wildly pulsating new and daring cinema in Central Europe.
T-Mobile New Horizons International Film Festival
21-31 July 2016
Festival website: http://www.nowehoryzonty.pl/?lang=en