San Sebastian International Film Festival

52nd San Sebastian
International Film Festival
(17-25 September, 2004)
Massoud Mehrabi

Part of the prestige of international film festivals with an official section depends on the films chosen for that section. And we all know of course how difficult a task it is to make a good, artistic and influential film nowadays. A few years ago, around the time when cinema was becoming a hundred years old, some well-known theorists and film-critics – including Susan Sontag – declared that cinema was dead, that it had joined history. Film festivals such as San Sebastian, Cannes, Venice, etc… because of screening the talked-about films from around the globe are the ideal places to put to test such statements. The bitter truth is that by seeing those films in various festivals in the last decade, we come to the conclusion that cinema is not dead but that unfortunately it is very sick. Had it died, we would have organized – with broken hearts and tearful eyes – the biggest and most fabulous memorial service for it and then returned to our caves peacefully to sit around fire and to tell each other stories.
Looking at the last pages of the Festival’s catalogue – where the lists of prizes awarded in previous years at San Sebastian are recorded – we cannot help but sigh deeply when we see that in the 50s, 60s, 70s and the early years of the 80s we had such fantastic films and excellent film directors such as Pietro Germi, Fred Zinnemann, Mario Monicelli, Alfred Hitchcock, Sidney Lumet, Norman McLaren, Anthony Mann, Francesco Rosi, Richard Attenborough, John Huston, Elia Kazan and many others whose films filled us with excitement, love, the joy of living, and fired our imagination and purified our soul. San Sebastian Film Festival was born fifty-two years ago under Franco. Is anything sadder than admitting that the films shown under dictatorships were by far better than those we see nowadays when it seems that democracy fares better in the world. But we must accept that our age is also the age of faithlessness and devalued values. During those decades and the decades before, the majority of filmmakers promoted high human values and believed in the certainty of the triumph of good over evil, things that are totally lacking in today’s filmmaking, even in the films of great directors such as Woody Allen, Istvan Szabo or Claude Chabrol whose anemic films were presented in this festival.

MELINDA AND MELINDA (Woody Allen) which was the opening film of the festival and was shown out of competition showed no sign of the lively, witty master of the black comedy that Allen is known for. The subject of his film, however, is his usual favorite theme on complicated love affairs, the fragility of love, unfaithfulness in marriage and failure in communicating with others. But compared to his first films like Annie Hall (1977) or Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) it had nothing new to say and failed to relate with any strength to spectators. As usual, all the tragicomic elements were present, but presented in such a simplistic and flat manner that it was only out of respect to Woody Allen that we occasionally felt sad or smiled. No hearty laughter as in Take the Money and Run. The time has come, it seems, for Allen to give some variety to his works.
In contrast to the film, his press conference was lively and exciting as expected. He began by saying that his nervous and psychoneurotic persona in his films was in fact a reflection of his own personality. Allen who was accompanied by his cast confessed that he had a very somber outlook on life: “I don’t see the glass half-full. I see it completely empty. Life is essentially tragic but it has its little comical islands here and there.” When asked whether influenced by Shakespeare, chosing the name of Melinda as the name of his main protagonist, he jokingly replied that the only reason he had chosen that name was that it was easy to type! He added that in any event he did not like Shakespeare’s comedies and only enjoyed his tragedies. He emphasized that for an artist, complete artistic freedom was most essential.
When criticized about a lack of variety in the subject matter and atmosphere in his films, he replied that although he did not come from a wealthy family, his stories always took place in the rich upper class circles of New Yorkers because this was the world he lived in. And when asked why his films enjoyed greater success in Europe than in the United States, he said ironically that his mistakes showed less in translation! The most important point he made in his press conference was to admit that he made films because he had nothing to do and got bored if he did not leave home to go and make movies. “To make films is to fill up my free time.”

BEING JULIA (Istvan Szabo) is an entirely different film in this Hungarian filmmaker’s career who has made excellent films in the past such as Mephisto (1981) which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, Colonel Redl (1985) and Sweet Emma, Dear Bobe (1992). Being Julia is an adaptation of the novel Theatre by W. Somerset Maugham. The story takes place in 1938 London. Julia Lambert, a beautiful and attractive actress, is at the height of her artistic career and physical charm. When her marriage grows cold and no longer satisfies her, Tom Fennell walks into her life; he is younger than she is and pretends to be her greatest fan. Julia finds him irresistible and comes to the conclusion that an affair would be the best remedy for her mid-life crisis and starts a torrid love affair with him. Her life becomes daring and more exciting until her young lover tries to push her aside and assume a secondary role in his life. This is when Julia, calling up all her art and talent in acting, plans a spectacular revenge and in a new play, manages to make utter fools out of Tom and his young mistress on the very scene of the theatre. Despite the fact that Istvan Szabo manages to relate this story quite well, thanks to excellent performances and masterful photography, the film nonetheless cannot be considered an important work in his career. His film is like so many colorful Hollywood films that one sees and soon forgets. Szabo, unlike Somerset Maugham, does not manage to convey the bitter taste of a woman’s middle age dilemma – a recurrent story. At the end of the film, one remembers some very beautiful scenes that somehow resemble the paintings of Rembrandt, and nothing else. The producer, Robert Lantos, put it in a nutshell when he said at the press conference which followed the screening of the film that: “After working for fourteen years with Szabo, I suggested this novel to him simply for pleasure and leisure. This was a sort of present to him after his work on so many serious films about the Nazis, war and revolution, etc… Szabo needed a rest.” Maybe that is why during the press conference Szabo said so very little. His most important sentence was: “Only Annette Bening could play the part of Julia Lambert because she is such a very great actress.” Instead Bening who seemed delighted by the compliments of the writers and the critics present there, turned the press conference into an anti-Bush meeting. She wished Kerry and the Democrats to win the elections. A wish that soon faded like Szabo’s film.
BROTHERS (Susanne Bier) was the weakest film shown in the International Competition but it managed, unfortunately, to win both the Best Actor and Best Actress awards while there were better performances in some of the other films in the competition. The truth is that when films such as this one are made by Westerners about us from the East, the result, more often than not, amuses us because of major errors due to a lack of knowledge on the countries portrayed. The image most filmmakers like Susanne Bier of Denmark bear in mind about the East is both faulty and vulgarized. Everyone in the Middle East is seen in a uniform manner despite geographical and cultural differences. In parts of this film that takes place in Afghanistan, all the Afghanis speak Arabic! There was of course only one sentence in (Iranian) Persian in the film. The music of the film is a strange concoction of Iranian, Arabic and Turkish melodies! The Afghans with their ethnic variety (Uzbek, Tajik, Turkoman, Pashtu, etc…) do not possess any recognized classical music. Most interesting of all were the palm trees seen in that country. Ms Bier does not seem to be aware that palm trees grow in hot and humid areas such as the western part of the Persian Gulf, and not in mostly cold and mountainous Afghanistan. The story of the film is about Michael, a high-ranking military officer sent by the U.N. to Afghanistan on mission. His helicopter crashes by a fired missile. The Army informs his family that he has died while he is in fact a prisoner of the Taliban forces. Some time later, a friendly relationship develops between his beautiful wife and his brother. The relationship is neither a love affair nor in any way immoral. When news reaches the family that Michael is alive and returning home they all rejoice. Michael thinks that his wife and brother have betrayed him. One day, Michael wrecks everything in the house in front of his two little girls and then armed with a big kitchen knife runs after his wife to kill her! Believe me, this is no Indian film made in Bollywood, it is a film from Scandinavia whose people are known for their broad mindedness. Susanne Bier wished no doubt to make a fashionable film about present events but the result is superficial and opportunistic.

TARFAYA (Daoud Aoulad-Syad) was another weak film in the competition. The selection of this film cannot be blamed however since festivals wish to present films from different countries, especially African countries, which in a way is to give support to the under-developed cinema of that continent. Tarfaya, as in most films by African filmmakers resident in France, is about the secret and illegal immigration of Africans to Europe with all its ensuing problems, frustrations and tragedies.
In this story which unfolds in Morocco, 28-year-old Myriam goes to a small village in the northern part of the country. She has nothing but a suitcase in her hand and an address in her pocket. She is determined to get herself to the shores of Spain. In this secret voyage she meets other women in the same circumstances and a penniless man called Hassan who falls in love with her. Hassan in order to win Myriam’s heart goes as far as stealing to give her a second chance to cross over. In the meantime, Myriam’s former boss who has found out that she has stolen a good amount of money from him is after her. Finally Myriam succeeds and escapes but while paying a very high price for her freedom. All alone inside a small ship she roams on the sea and it remains unclear whether it is the shores of freedom or death that awaits her.
The problem of Tarfaya does not reside in its repetitive story but rather in its very elementary and unprofessional structure. In the Zabaltegi Section of this festival for example we saw Maria Full of Grace which is about some young people from Columbia who dream of going to America but get involved instead in the illicit drug traffic mafia and whose lives are destroyed as a result. Although Maria… is Joshua Marston’s first feature, it is a highly professional, riveting and memorable film. Instead, Tarfaya is one of those films that should be shown to the students of cinema in order to point out all the errors and teach them how not to make a film. Worse than the filming was its lighting, sound recording and editing in addition to its poor acting. It was as if the entire group from the director to the technicians and actors had just discovered the cinema and the discovery had filled them with wonder and excitement. To show films from countries where cinema is still in its early stages of development is a worthy deed but their place is not in the official competition section.

MY FATHER IS AN ENGINEER (Robert Guediguian) was one unusual and strange film in the competition, and this does not of course imply that it is a good one. It has such a slow pace that it puts severely to test the viewer’s patience. The knot to the plot that is meant to retain the viewer’s interest and keep him in his seat is the complete muteness of Natacha. She is unable or unwilling to talk to anyone. The film’s story is not bad; the fault lies with the mise-en-scene and the film’s structure.
Natacha and Jeremie grew up together and used to be inseparable. They had been in love and both had studied medicine. One day their path grew apart. Jeremie is now an important personality constantly travelling and mixing with the high and the mighty. Natacha on the other hand holds her old job and still lives with her parents. Jeremie is now back and recollects the time when they were both fourteen and studying Russian. He could remember that he was unable to pronounce correctly the sentence “my father is an engineer.” He goes to visit Natacha to find out why she does not talk. His research leads to his getting to know people who are acquainted with Natacha. He also learns to appreciate people Natacha has liked and takes care of her patients. Despite all the problems, Natacha and Jeremy decide to face reality and fate and stay together forever.
At the end of the film certain patient viewers might well ask themselves, well, so what? The lives of the two protagonists and the people around them have nothing to do with our lives or the world around us. This film is the exact opposite of Jean-Luc Godard’s films whose fast paced works treat the same themes but much more deeply and in whose hands this 108-minute-long film would have turned into a 10-minute-long film with a stronger impact.

NINE SONGS (Michael Winterbottom) was the most unexpected work in the competition. Again “unexpected” does not mean excellent. Winterbottom has quite a variety of films in his portfolio. From literary adaptations such as Jude (1996) to The Chronicle of a Living War, from Welcome to Sarajevo (1997) to the mock documentary such as In This World for which he won the Golden Bear of the Berlin Film Festival in 2003.
Winterbottom’s Nine Songs is very like a pornographic film. The surprising thing was that there was no indication anywhere as what to expect to be screened. This is how the story of the film was published in the catalogue:
“London, Autumn 2003. Lisa is an American student in London. Matt meets her at a Black Rebel Motorcycle Concert at the Brixton Academy and falls in love with her. The film follows their relationship and the concerts they attend together (The Von Bondies, Elbow, Primal Scream, The Dandy Warhols, Super Furry Animals, Franz Ferdinand, Michael Nyman). Somewhere between the music and the bands we see Matt and Lisa making love, following their affair until Christmas, when Lisa returns to America.” Who could have possibly guessed that “making love” meant seeing 9 different pornographic scenes? Winterbottom may have thought that by making this film he would kill two birds with one stone and both the fans of such concerts and the “voyeurs” would flock in to see it and thus he would make up for the commercial failure of a couple of his preceding films. He may be right. The amusing thing is that with a few lines of dialogue or the sequence of the plane flying over the ices of Alaska he has tried to give a philosophical tinge to his film. Some of us recollect seeing Last Tango in Paris (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1972) or In the Realm of the Senses (Nagisa Oshima, 1976). Although these films created a lot of scandal in their time, they were films that had a bitter and Kafkaesque look at life. They were films with a philosophy behind them and for that reason they are considered as classics of the cinema.
Another extraordinary event of the festival was the award of the best photography prize to this film when there were other films in competition that were brilliantly filmed, works such as Omagh. Winterbottom has said that he has made “the sexiest film in the history of cinema”. It might be more appropriate to call it the most miserable pornographic film.

Despite what you have been reading so far, this year’s festival was not disappointing. There were good films such as Little Sky, Omagh, Bombon the Dog, Clandestine, Roma, Silver City, Additions and Subtractions, Letter from an Unknown Woman, and most noteworthy the two priceless jewels in the competition, namely Turtles Can Fly and Midwinter Night’s Dream that deservedly won the Golden Shell for Best Film and the Special Jury Prize, respectively. Had these two films been absent in the competition, the jury of the Official Section would have had a tough time deciding which films deserved to be awarded.

LITTLE SKY (Maria Victoria Menis) is about the life of a lonely and rootless young man called Felix. The film begins with his arrival, tired and hungry, to a poor village in Argentina and his starting to work on a small farm owned by a young couple who has a one-year-old boy called Chango. Gradually a violent atmosphere takes hold of the household. The husband is an alcoholic who beats his wife and yet she is the breadwinner of the family. This goes on for so long that she decides to run away from home. In the meanwhile, Felix has assumed the role of father and mother towards Changa. He decides to take the child with him to Buenos Aires where he rents a small room and tries to find a job. But two young men of his own age steal the little money he has and he is forced to leave his room. While roaming about on an empty stomach, Felix meets a brother and sister – 12 and 10 respectively – who live in a hovel. The girl prepares some clear soup for Chango and her brother takes Felix out to find him a job. The job consists of becoming a professional killer. That same night, the two of them go outside a certain villa. When the owner arrives, the boy kills him with two bullets. The owner’s friends open fire at the boy and Felix and kill them both.
The subject of the harshness of life in impoverished Argentina is a subject that most Argentine committed filmmakers tackle. Little Sky is one of such films: powerful, bitter, biting but very humane. A film with no slogans that refrains to exaggerate the depiction of reality. An honest film that shows us how dark and cruel is the world we live in. The married couple we see at the beginning of the film represents the last generation. Felix is the symbol of today’s generation and one-year-old Chango the symbol of the future generation, a bleak and lost generation, maybe without any future.

OMAGH (Pete Travis) with its documentary like structure, is a powerful film. In June 1988, when Ireland gets ready to vote for peace in the elections on Good Friday, a group of dissident IRA members who objected to the peace agreement organized bloody and tragic demonstrations in London and in Dublin and pushed Ireland once again into more bloody encounters. The group called itself the true IRA and chose its targets carefully. Omagh was a small town where Protestants and Catholics had lived peacefully side by side for thirty years. One Monday morning, two cars parked in the city center explode killing and wounding many citizens. The explosion and the devastation that followed are directed with such mastery and attention to details that the film is even more dramatic and realistic than a documentary. The shock and the emotion provoked in the viewer feel as if he had been present on the scene. The outstanding photography of Donald Gilliagan and the extraordinary montage by Clive Barrett deserve admiration and reward. The only weakness of the film is its rhythm in the second part that unlike in the first part is slow and drags on.
What transforms the film into a powerful anti-terrorist manifesto is the fact that Pete Travis depicts this tragedy from the point of view of its victims and shows how the Support Group has started campaigning to bring to justice those guilty of the explosion. At the press conference that followed the film, two members of the Support Group sitting next to the producer, and the actress of the film Michelle Forbes, emphasized that they had hoped that the media would show the struggles of the victims to as wide an audience as possible. One of the two members of the Support Group who had lost his son in the explosion expressed his satisfaction of the fact that in the film the truth was portrayed as far as possible even at the cost of its enjoying a lesser commercial success. Omagh was a film representing the victims of terrorism all over the world.

MIDWINTER NIGHT’S DREAM (Goran Paskaljevic) was one of the few outstanding works in competition. Paskaljevic continues to make excellent films with his usual mastery. In them he shows the essence of man’s tragic destiny. The story of this film like in most of his other films takes place in Serbia. In the winter of 2004, Lazar returns home after ten years of absence. He is a changed man determined to free himself from the heavy burden of his past and start a new life. His former apartment is now occupied by Jasna, a single mother, and her daughter of twelve, Jovana, who is suffering from autism. They have taken refuge there from Bosnia. The husband of Jasna who never came to terms with his daughter’s illness has left them and Jasna too wants to forget her unhappy past. Lazar does not have the heart to ask them to leave since they have nowhere else to go. Gradually an affectionate relationship develops between the three social outcasts. When a psycho kills Jasna all of a sudden, the affectionate triangle shatters. From then on Lazar’s efforts to help cure Jovana remain fruitless. One morning, he takes Jovana in his car and drives her to a beautiful wood covered with white blossoms. Then he takes her out of the car and when she disappears from our view, Lazar shoots at her and ends her life.
Goran Paskaljevic is the poet of darkness. He makes beautiful poetry with bitter and biting themes. Like all good poets, allegory and metaphor play a major role in his works. As an example, the rainfall of white spring blossoms can be compared to the heavy snowflakes at the beginning of the film when Lazar returns home on a dark winter day. Or that autism may be an allegory of society’s sickness. The dark and turbid pictures of the film suggest the cold and depressing atmosphere of Serbia. In his press conference Paskaljevic said that depicting the young girl’s autism in his film allowed him to delve into the autism of the Serbs. Although making the acquaintance of Jovana (who was present at the press conference and whose uncontrolled gestures saddened all those who were present) made him aware of these children who live in their own world outside society. He continued by explaining his aim as to why he made the film: “Films must reflect our times and help us understand various problems. It is only by facing the past and accepting its tragedy that we can build a better future.”

TURTLES CAN FLY (Bahman Ghobadi) was the jewel of the competition, a film that floored not only the spectators, but also the critics and filmmakers. On the day of the presentation of awards, while most announcements were received coldly, when Turtles Can Fly and Midwinter Night’s Dream were mentioned as the winners of the top awards, they were much applauded. Turtles Can Fly proved that the new generation of Iranian filmmakers have something new and original to say in the arena of the world artistic cinema. A critical study of the film, a long and candid conversation with Bahman Ghobadi as well as one with the film’s composer of music is published in this issue of F.I.

The prestige of film festivals such as San Sebastian Film Festival depends on good films in the competition. We hope to see better films in the next edition of this festival and the editions following it than even those made during Franco’s time. In any event man lives on hope.

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