The audience call for “Focus!” could be heard day after day during the 26th edition of the Guadalajara Film Festival, the oldest and most established Mexican festival which this year attempted a significant makeover. The chant directed at the projectionists, who had more than their share of problems, was symbolic of a festival that has, in many respects, lost its way even while adopting a new look.
The issues begin with the remarkably poor competition lineup of Mexican narrative features, the key component of a festival traditionally viewed as the launch pad for new Mexican films. The prizes were announced Friday, led by Paula Markovitch’s Berlin-premiering “The Prize” winning best film and best actress (Paula Galinelli Hertzog) and Odin Salazar’s “Burros” scoring for best director and cinematography, with both films earning jury recommendations for the Hollywood Foreign Press Association to be considered for Golden Globe foreign language nominations.
There was wide consensus that this was the weakest lineup in memory, auguring a shaky start for festival director Ivan Trujillo, who assumed the post from Jorge Sanchez. Although the spread of jury prizes for several films including Sundance favorite “The Cinema Hold Up” (best debut), “Between Us” (comedy veteran Jesus Ochoa for best actor) and “Abolition of Property” (best script for writer-director Jesus Magana) might suggest a bevy of riches, just the opposite was the case.
With few exceptions, the new work from the host country was plagued with poor direction, flagrant overacting, ill-judged dramatic and comedic devices, inept stabs at cutting-edge style (or what the filmmakers viewed as such) and obvious thematic considerations. The striking exception was Bernardo Arellano’s fascinating debut, “Between Night and Day,” which traced an older autistic man’s flight from oppressive relatives to a new life in the forest. Yet, in a stunning jury oversight, this fine new film came away without one of the festival’s liberal dose of prizes.
The same was the shocking case with what was, by several light years, the most remarkable new film in Guadalajara: Tatiana Huezo’s magnificent doc about village survivors of the decade-long war in El Salvador, “The Tiniest Place.” Remember Huezo’s name, since she will soon enough be recognized as one of the bright new talents of Latin American cinema, exhibiting a mastery of every aspect of filmmaking typically seen from a more veteran artist. Programmers were beside themselves with enthusiasm for the film after various screenings, and though the Guadalajara jury plainly blew it, the film is set for San Francisco and Visions du Reel festivals, the start of an assured, strong festival run.
The picture was little better for the other main competition of films from Ibero-America (Latin America, Spain and Portugal). But once again, the selection was at best erratic. A small handful of solid works and fest favorites—Pablo Larrain’s “Post Mortem,” Gustavo Pizzi’s “The Craft,” (once again, overlooked for awards) and Laura Amelia Guzman’s and Israel Cardenas’ “Jean Gentil”—stood out in a field of generally weak efforts, including Fernando Leon’s limp “Amador” (best actress winner for Magali Solier), Vladimir Cruz’ and Jorge Perugorria’s poor “Affinities,” Hector Olivera’s creaky “The Mural” and Pablo Perelman’s old-fashioned “The Painting Lesson.”
Given that the larger regional scope of Ibero-America provides the festival’s programmers with considerable options for a worthy selection, this particular program’s weaknesses proved especially glaring.
It’s not as if Guadalajara hasn’t had program issues in the past. Regular visitors know to gird their loins when sitting down in front of the national competition, which is reliably packed with problematic films and sparked by a few noteworthy titles that make a trip to Mexico’s second largest city worthwhile for journalists and festival programmers. This dilemma is hardly unusual for any festival with a high-profile national competition. But Trujillo’s decision to virtually double the number of competition titles in both sections—from eight last year to this year’s 14—was this edition’s most serious problem, confirming that more was actually less. Even past competitions of eight films usually yielded two to three films of note; doubling the quantity meant including many more bad films and simply asking for trouble.
According to sources, dissension in the programming department leading up to the festival was rife. New program director Gerardo Salcedo, replacing Lucy Virgen, is viewed as a weak leader of the crew, and Trujillo’s decision to toss out the fairly refined process Virgen administered with an awkward programming committee model spawned the messy results.
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[Editor’s Note: This article originally incorrectly stated that Guadalajara is the only festival with a competition composed of Ibero-American films. The Miami International Film Festival in fact just completed its 8th annual Ibero-American competition. The dispatch has since been corrected.]
At the same time, Guadalajara at age 26 felt like an entirely new event with many improved aspects. The festival’s graphics, catalog, venues and central headquarters at the city’s sprawling convention center were generally better than in past years. (There was even a new official airline carrier for guests.) Because of a geographic shift within the city, guests stayed at new hotels and habituated at a new multiplex—albeit one strangely buried in the fourth level of subterranean parking garage. Journalists were treated to a significantly revamped press department that truly had its act together. Few complaints were heard about transportation, always an important factor in this spread-out city, where the opening and closing nights are held in the massive, 10,000-seat Telmex Auditorium, many miles away from the convention center.
Word circulated on the final day, however, that the festival is considering adding the number of screenings in a makeshift cinema room inside the convention center. This is where the chant of “Foco!” was heard loudest, since the projection was consistently shoddy. Even worse, the aural spillover from the convention floor and the adjacent market made listening to the competition films screened there sometimes extremely difficult. With no possible way to soundproof the large space, this is simply no place to show movies.
Across the way from the dubious “cinema,” attendees of the Guadalajara film market–Latin America’s largest—were mainly concerned with keeping up with the burgeoning number of projects in development, as many producers and companies kept on the lookout for co-production partners and funding. Marketers generally found the move to the convention center a big improvement over previous editions based in a five-star hotel. It’s the development process more than the deal making associated with Sundance, EFM, Cannes or AFM that typifies the Guadalajara market. The fifth edition of the works-in-progress program yielded some promising films, including “Dust,” the latest from Julio (“Gasolina,” “Marimbas from Hell”) Hernandez Cordon.
Because Trujillo comes out of the film archive world, it seemed natural that he would include a wide-ranging retrospective, a first for the festival. Although the complete survey of Werner Herzog’s features and shorts were mostly on video and non-subtitled, it marked a significant gesture to expose the local public to films by one of the world’s most original filmmakers, films they might never see again. The same might be true of probably the smartest selected section at Guadalajara, a survey of vampire films from the silent era (F.W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu”) to the present (Tomas Alfredson’s “Let the Right One In”). Yet even here, there were problems: It’s hard to excuse away the festival’s decision to project DVDs of some great vampire movies, especially when projecting a second-rate DVD (not even the Criterion edition!) of masterpieces like Carl Theodor Dreyer’s “Vampyr.”
The 26th Guadalajara International Film Festival winners:
Mexican Fiction Feature Competition:
Best Film—“The Prize,” Director Paula Markovitch
Best Director—Odin Salazar, “Burros”
Best First Film—“The Cinema Hold Up,” Director Iria Gomez Concheiro
Best Actor—Jesus Ochoa, “Between Us”
Best Actress—Paola Galinelli, “The Prize”
Best Screenplay—Jesus Magana, “Abolition of Property”
Best Cinematography—Alejandro Cantu, “Burros”
Golden Globe Awards—“The Prize,” “Burros”
Ibero-American Fiction Feature Competition:
Best Film—“Post Mortem,” Director Pablo Larrain
Best Director—Fernando Leon, “Amador”
Best First Film—“The Finger,” Director Sergio Teubal
Special Jury Prize—“Jean Gentil,” Directors Laura Amelia Guzman and Israel Cardenas
Best Actor—Alfredo Castro, “Post Mortem”
Best Actress—Magaly Solier, “Amador”
Best Actress (Special Mention)—Itziar Aizpuru, “For 80 Days”
Best Screenplay—Hector Olivera, “The Mural”
Best Cinematography—Sergio Armstrong, “Post Mortem”
Golden Globe Awards—“Post Mortem,” “Jean Gentil”
Mexican Documentary Feature Competition:
Best Film—“Die Standing Up,” Director Jacaranda Correa
Special Jury Mention—“Agnus Dei—Lamb of God,” Director Alejandra Sanchez
Special Jury Mention—“Circo,” Director Aaron Schock
Ibero-American Documentary Feature Competition:
Best Film—“Nostalgia for Light,” Director Patricio Guzman
Special Jury Mention—“At the End of the Escape,” Director Albert Sole
Mexican Short Film Competition:
Best Short—“Mari Pepa,” Director Samuel Kishi Leopo
Special Jury Mention—“The Other Emma,” Director Jhasua A. Camarena
Ibero-American Short Film Competition:
Best Short—“Sunny,” Director Ricardo Targino
Special Jury Mention—“The Cable Cars,” Director Federico Actis
Mexican Animated Short Film Competition:
Best Short—“Mutatio,” Director Leon Fernandez
FEISAL Prize—“With and Without You,” Director Tuki Jencquel
Best Feature made in the State of Jalisco:
Best Film—“Alejandro Colunga, Stoker of Delerium,” Director Gustavo Dominguez
Audience Prize—“The Misfits,” Directors Jorge Ramirez-Suarez, Javier Colinas, Marco Polo Constandse, Sergio Tovar
Audience of the Future Prize:
Audience of the Future Prize—“Three to the Rescue,” Director Jorge Morillo
Press Warriors Prizes (Journalists’ prize):
Press Warriors Prize for Best Mexican Fiction or Documentary Feature—“The Open Sky,” Director Everardo Gonzalez
Press Warriors Prize for Best Ibero-American Fiction or Documentary Feature—“The Prize”