Koehler on BAFICI: Antennae Up, with Unexpected Signals
By Robert Koehler on 5.13.2012
Getting ribbed for one’s tweets is part of what it means now to write and live (at least part of one’s life) on the Web. So after tweeting that I was about to leave my home base in Los Angeles to attend BAFICI, Buenos Aires’ annual mega-walpurgisnacht of independent world cinema, and added that it was, to borrow a favorite boxing term, “pound for pound my favorite festival,” some good-natured smack followed in its wake, especially from colleagues and friends working for other festivals. Twitter is, also, one hopes, where pithy honesty can hold forth, and that was simply an honest tweet. BAFICI has, for awhile, been one of the first festivals, if not the first, that I mention when asked which festivals I love the most.
Now here’s the interesting part. Invariably, when told this, those outside of the U.S. either nod in recognition or engage in debate; they know well of BAFICI and its extraordinary track record of commitment to marginal, ignored and overlooked cinema as well as its centrality to one of the past decade’s most exciting developments—the re-emergence of Latin American cinema as a vital nexus of creativity. But almost invariably, those in the U.S. respond as if it’s the most unexpected thing they’ve heard all day, meaning that they’d never heard of BAFICI until that moment.
This isn’t surprising to a regular visitor of the festival. Buenos Aires is no further from Los Angeles than from Rome or Paris (it’s in fact closer), and yet the number of Americans who attend this crucial film event is dwarfed by the number of Europeans. This includes everyone from filmmakers and industry players to festival programmers and film critics. There can be many complications both institutional and personal which impede individuals from attending this or any other festival, and I’ve certainly not been able to attend BAFICI every year since tracking the international festival circuit. Nevertheless, the consistent pattern holds that while Europe and other areas of the world remain in steady touch with what BAFICI serves up, the U.S. is generally conspicuous by its absence or, at least, under-attendance.
Such a set of conditions actually carries long-term ramifications, not least of which is that American film festival culture has been missing out on a model of what can be best seen as cinephilia in action. If filmmaking is, as Godard famously noted, criticism by other means, then BAFICI provides one of the world’s most vital examples of festival programming as cinephilia by other means, apart from its most common expressions in writing or moviegoing.
From a newsy standpoint, it’s natural to expect a festival report to relate the hits or misses among the premieres and discoveries. But let’s put the need to scratch that itch on hold for a moment and consider the 14th edition in terms of what it meant for cinephilia. A perusal of the vast section with the umbrella title “Foco” (“Focus,” accessible at the festival’s website) will yield the unmistakable realization that BAFICI doesn’t simply survey a given filmmaker or tendency, as many festivals will in the course of the overall programming design. No, it surveys no less than 16 such topics, many of them comprehensively. This year, these included a movement (the raunchy Rio-based Boca do Lixo of the 1960s and 70s, a partial selection imported from Rotterdam, where it was organized by Gabe Klinger and Rotterdam programmer Gerwin Tamsma); a festival (the Viennale, about to celebrate its 50th anniversary); an alternative distribution system (France’s ACID, now in its 20th year); filmmakers who work inside the commercial system (Tomas Alfredsson, the Zellner Brothers, Wei Te-Sheng), outside (Narcisa Hirsch, Grant Gee, Ruth Beckermann, Carlos Prates, Gérard Courant), and in-between (Joao Canijo, Fernand Melgar); animators (Signe Baumane; and—lookee here—a cinephile (Peter von Bagh, the generous and deeply personable Finnish critic and historian and co-founder of the Midnight Sun film festival, whose shared morning breakfasts will be this guest’s most cherished memory of the 2012 edition).
At well over 350 features, not even counting the numerous shorts, BAFICI is absurdly enormous, and the Focus section alone is bigger than many other festivals’ entire slates. But rather than be overwhelmed by the sheer girth of the thing, the visitor is best advised to focus on “Focus,” and take in certain films or filmmakers. I would have dearly loved to spend as much time as possible with Beckermann’s oeuvre, based on my limited exposure to her fascinating nonfiction work, and more time with Courant, given that his work is perhaps the least known of anyone in this year’s program. But in the case of Courant, the first of two “voyages” with filmmaker Philippe Garrel, engaged in (audio-recorded) audience questions and answers during an exhibition of his work in Digne in 1975, was somewhat dispiriting, comprised of — lively back-and-forth exchanges (including some silly questions, such as why Garrel couldn’t be more like Godard) and a visual motif of video-shot fireworks whose welcome wore off after about ten minutes.
A focus on the astounding, dreamy films of Hirsch, nearly as unknown as Courant, was my chosen path, and it ended up being the revelation of my moviegoing so far in 2012. Hirsch, a radical non-narrative cinema artist and a profoundly feminist experimenter, made much of her most vital work during the time of Argentina’s ruthless military dictatorship from the mid-Seventies to the mid-Eighties (thus representing not only everything in opposition to the dictatorship but also everything that BAFICI fundamentally stands for). She is no longer making films, according to several porteños—as Buenos Aires residents call themselves—who either have followed her career or saw her films when they were first screened, usually clandestinely, often in private homes. But the overall impression from watching a sampling of her work—I was able to take in three of the five programs—is that this is a filmmaker who more than achieved what she set out to accomplish. In a daring film such as Ama-Zona, in which a breast amputation appears to take place, it’s less the act (and even less any sensationalism involved) than the entire fabric of the film that floods the senses. Hirsch’s cinema incorporates dream logic, musical montage (music playing a crucial factor, frequently from artists on the great ECM label such as Keith Jarrett and Stephan Micus), memory, landscapes (particularly Patagonia, which is also the title of one of her most extraordinary films, from 1970), and a highly acute sense of the possibilities of film poetry, the associations which one set of images produce in the viewer’s mind when linked by editing to another set.
While those who first saw these films in genuinely underground circumstances related the danger and risk involved for both maker and audience, few if any of Hirsch’s films can be termed directly political. Rather, they express a desire for alternatives, especially alternative states of being and consciousness—not drug-induced, but heightened by actively seeing and listening. Notably, BAFICI programmed the fine American avant-garde filmmaker Betzy Bromberg’s latest film, Voluptuous Sleep, in the competition section Cinema of the Future, and it was impossible not to observe that Bromberg’s brilliant, electrifying dives into the realms of waking dreams flow directly out of Hirsch’s work, presented here in restored digital copies from the decayed 16mm and Super 8 originals which helped greatly enhance the films’ audio qualities.
Speaking of the competitions, BAFICI has three (the aforementioned Cinema of the Future as well as international and national roundups), and here is where the festival makes its most direct statement about the state of things right now. Because it comes up against Cannes on the calendar, BAFICI now regularly loses out on showing the bigtime Argentine films, such as Pablo Trapero’s White Elephant, headed to Cannes’ Un Certain Regard. Still, factoring that in, this year’s survey of new local films disappointed, with only a couple of exceptions. One of them, Gastón Solnicki’s beautiful, bemused video-shot diary of his engaging and flinty family, Papirosen, has been on the festival circuit since Locarno and likely won the top prize in a cakewalk.
Though it inexplicably won nothing, Dioramas, a fleecy in-between-doc-and-narrative by Gonzalo Castro about a dance troupe and two of its female members, is exactly the sort of film that BAFICI was created for: handmade (Castro did pretty much everything himself) and resolutely independent, a serious consideration by a serious artist of the possibilities and excitements of observing the potential of bodies in motion and toward various aims, either artistic or emotional. The rest, ranging from Luis Ortega’s visually ugly Dromomanos (which incredibly won a cinematography award) and Inés de Oliveira Cézar’s dramatically botched Cassandra to 17 Monuments, Jonathan Perel’s lame imitation of a James Benning film (especially painful since a sublime new Benning was on display in BAFICI, the magnificent contemplation of roadside America far from the Interstate, small roads), signaled that, for now, Argentine indie cinema appears to be in the doldrums.
This perception was underlined by the three Argentine films selected for the international competition, where most of the best of the current crop can be expected to be seen. Rumors of big festival hopes swirled around both Maximiliano Schonfeld’s Germania and Alejandro Fadel’s The Wild Ones (Los Salvajes) before they screened, and, sure enough, just after the festival’s conclusion, news arrived that Fadel’s drama would be in Cannes’ Critics Week. The third film, by the director of The Paranoids, Gabriel Medina, was much anticipated for its title alone—The Vampire Spider—and a nice sign that BAFICI continues to defend the cause of genres, especially transgressive work inside genres.
All that the first two did was confirm Carlos Reygadas as the dominant directorial influence on Latin American filmmakers. Theoretically, this could be quite salutary, as Reygadas is developing into one of the world’s most interesting and consistently surprising directors; his Post Tenebras Lux is easily one of the most anticipated Cannes competition films (and happens to be my advance pick as most likely to win the Palme d’Or), and younger Mexican and South American filmmakers unabashedly look to Reygadas as a model of artistic independence to follow.
The problem is, like previous voices wielding tremendous influence by the sheer power of their work (say, Renoir, Rossellini, Hitchcock, Walsh, Antonioni, Godard, Kubrick), the effect on younger imitators can overwhelm genuine expression. Germania, about a German-speaking family in northern Argentina shutting down their failed farm, had the imprint of Reygadas’ Silent Light all over it to a stultifying degree. That film, not incidentally, was in turn directly influenced by Dreyer’s Ordet, but provided an example of how influence is absorbed and transmogrified into something new, much as Rossellini absorbed the effects of silent film in The Flowers of St. Francis and formed a fresh, postwar expression of a peaceful Christianity. Schonfeld, of the same German stock portrayed in his drama, is drawing on personal material, but hasn’t developed it fully—a common failing of many new Argentine films, which frequently deliver a narrative that only partly arrives, as if several pieces are clearly missing.
The Vampire Spider
This is also true of The Wild Ones, even as one could admire Fadel’s desire to embrace Anthony Mann’s seminal, film noir-inspired Westerns in his saga of a group of teens on the lam in the semi-wilderness after escaping a youth detention facility. Once the basic relationships between the teens are established, and just barely, little lies beyond, except for a bit of older-younger brother rivalry which is just hinted at. Such whispered, pencil-sketched matters can’t possibly handle the weighty symbolism invoked in the movie’s final passages, determined by a certain fatalism that The Wild Ones never fully earns. The slight The Vampire Spider was the best of the bunch, if only because it was fairly true to its genre origins (teens in distress, guided by insane adults), but Medina could dearly learn from his American counterpart and horror compadre Ti West (The Roost) about how to tilt a horror movie in the direction of art cinema while maintaining rigorous narrative tension and suspense—both sadly missing here.
Two interesting, even unexpected messages emerged from BAFICI’s competition sections. First, when it comes to discoveries, Locarno (another magnificent festival which few Americans attend) is managing to assert a certain dominance on the international scene. All three top BAFICI prize winners—Nadav Lapid’s Policeman (which won the same prize just last week at the San Francisco Film Festival), Papirosen, and Goncalo Tocha’s sublime nonfiction voyage to Europe’s outermost edge, It’s the Earth, Not the Moon—premiered in last year’s Locarno. Then again, BAFICI serves an invaluable role as a kind of antenna of upcoming possibilities in cinema (it proved to be an early embracer of such phenomena as Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Béla Tarr, and the revived Romanian cinema, as well as the platform launching Trapero, Lisandro Alonso, Lucrecia Martel, and Celina Murga, back this year with her sublime documentary out of competition, Normal School), so if anywhere in the world is going to confirm news like the rise of Locarno, it’s BAFICI.
Second, Chilean independent cinema is on the way up, and in many ways with its current sample, superior to Argentina. (Leaving aside Brazil, also in a major upswing with such triumphs as Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Neighboring Sounds, which—in a rare flub for this usually astute group—was turned down by BAFICI’S selection committee.) Not turned down, fortunately, Dominga Sotomayor’s exquisitely observed family roadie and Rotterdam Tiger winner Thursday Till Sunday indicated an artist already in full development, supremely confident of how to construct a cinematic narrative rich with suggestion and ellipses and yet freighted with understated though unmistakable emotions, particularly the pains children feel watching their parents’ marriage collapse in front of their eyes, powerless to affect it and incapable of articulating any pushback. The final BAFICI surprise—incredibly missing from the competition, and found hiding in the sprawling general non-competing section of Panorama (could this section title be permanently retired, please?)—was Sotomayor's fellow Chilean, Pablo Cerda. Displaying superb tenderness, drive, and cinematic artistry, Cerda’s P.E. depicts a failed man on the cusp of middle age wasting his years in a backwater coastal town and living with his aging dad. Both Cerda (who directed himself in easily the festival's best male performance) and Sotomayor manage fresh perspectives on family life and loss, both practicing supreme mastery of the power of narrative suggestion (as opposed to assertion), both with a keen sense of casting, screenplay writing and directing actors for maximum natural effect, both with a high sense of filmic space and sound, and both with a sense of humor.
It’s hard to ask more of debuting feature writer-directors (in Cerda’s case working with co-writer René Martin). Even better, for BAFICI, nobody saw this coming, just as nobody mentioned during the festival that artistic director Sergio Wolf, a cinephile if there ever were one, would be in his fifth and final year—although colleagues now tell me it was long in the making. With newly appointed director Marcelo Panozzo, a considerable critic and past BAFICI programmer, the festival’s 15th edition will undoubtedly continue to have its antennae up.