In March of each year, during the international film festival here, Mar del Plata is a city in thrall to the movies. From early in the morning until well past midnight, the cinemas of this bustling Argentine beach resort are filled to capacity with a remarkably diverse range of people -- from university students to retired pensioners -- all enjoying an exceptionally well-curated selection of international films. It is in fact not unexpected to find people turned away from morning screenings of competition films like Otar Iosseliani's mordant satire "Jardins En Automne" (the jury's special prize winner here), for the 800 seats in the huge beachside auditorium sell out amazingly fast.
It's not surprising that residents of Mar Del Plata would be so committed to their Festival, as its existence has never quite been a sure thing. While the de Chirico-esque posters all around town proclaim this to be the 22nd Annual Festival, the event has had an irregular presentation schedule that in many ways mirrors Argentina's turbulent political history. The first Festival was held in 1954 during the government of General Juan Domingo Peron (his much-beloved wife Eva had died less than two years earlier). In that inaugural year, Mardel (the nation's affectionate term for its most popular resort) was graced by the likes of Errol Flynn, Mary Pickford, Edward G. Robinson, Gina Lollobrigida, and Jeanne Moreau.
After a five year break, the Festival restarted in 1959 and soon entered a seven-year golden period, during which it gained prominence as a powerful platform for Argentine cinema, and saw visits by such major directors as Francois Truffaut, Jacques Tati, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Andrzej Wajda. Yet following the 1966 military coup, which cast a shadow on the whole of the nation's arts, the Festival occurred only twice in four years, before stopping again for twenty-five years. With the return of democracy in 1992 and a vastly improved arts climate, the Festival was relaunched in 1996. It has been held every year since, and in 2001 became the only Latin American film festival with "Class A" status, the highest level assigned by International Federation of Film Producers Associations and one shared by festivals like Cannes, Berlin and Venice.
This year, Festival attendees could choose from over 350 films in 17 different categories. The Official Competition featured 16 films from 11 countries, including one world premiere, Argentine director Gustavo Postiglione's "La Peli". While the Festival's timing between Berlin and Cannes makes securing world premieres difficult, there were some real finds here that have had a relatively limited festival history, including Choi Chang-hwan's exquisite Korean romance "Shall I Cry?" and Marina Spada's haunting Italian drama "Come l'ombra" ("As the Shadow"). These were shown alongside films with a greater festival pedigree, such as Hong Sang-soo's much-adored "Woman On The Beach" and Santiago Amigorena's much-derided "A Few Days In September" (and the Razzie Award goes to... John Turturro!) In the awards handed out Saturday night, Spaniard Cesc Gay's "Ficcio" took the top prize, while Spada and Hong shared the director's award.
The Festival has long been a vital showcase for films from Latin America, as well as an important meeting place for producers, directors and funders from the region. In recognition of this role, the Festival began a competitive category this year devoted solely to Latin American films, in which 16 feature films and documentaries from throughout the region competed for the newly-created Ernesto "Che" Guevara Award. The winner of the Award, the Argentine documentary "M", is a stirring investigation by director Nicolas Provider into the disappearance of his mother during Argentina's military dictatorship. The human casualties of political repression was a recurrent theme. In the moving Chilean documentary "Reinalda Del Carmen, Mi Mama Y Yo", for example, filmmaker Lorena Giachino Torrens tenaciously reconstructs the tragic story of the friendship between her mother and her best friend Reinalda, who disappeared during the dictatorial reign of Agosto Pinochet.
Outside of the competitive categories, festival-goers could find themselves getting acquainted with current Italian and Magrebi cinema, attending a tribute to Aardman Animations (with founders Peter Lord and David Sproxton in attendance), or exploring an exceptional range of African-American films. More adventurous filmgoers dipped into the Heterodoxy section, which focused on films that experiment with form, or sampled student thesis films in Scenes To Come. It was not unusual to find packed houses at films like Heinz Emigholz's marvelously spare documentary "Schindler's Houses", in which a series of static images of forty homes designed by modernist architect Rudolph Schindler had the cumulative effect of becoming one of the most compelling textural portraits of urban Los Angeles ever filmed.
In this feast of film, one disappointment for this writer was a 12:45am midweek screening of Gordon Parks' classic "Shaft" (sold out, of course). Expecting a vibrant, crackling old print, I had to make do with a wan projected DVD image and poor sound quality. More representative of my experience here was a fantastic twenty-four hour period during which I caught Tsai Ming Liang's "I Don't Want To Sleep Alone", Nuri Bilge Ceylan's "Climates", Apichatpong Weerasethakul's "Syndomes and a Century", Jafar Panahi's "Offside" and Paul Verhoeven's "Black Book". That evening, over a great bottle of Argentine red and a fantastic $6 steak (the inexpensive red meat here being one of Argentina's most cliched yet undeniable pleasures), I thought to myself -- in further cliched fashion -- that it really doesn't get much better than this.
ABOUT THE WRITER: On a brief sabbatical from his work in film publicity and marketing (most recently at First Look and Wellspring), Dan Goldberg (email@example.com) is currently studying Spanish in Buenos Aires.