Eating lunch at a table with Morelia International Film Festival (FICM) chiefs Daniela Michel and Alejandro Ramirez (inside the festival's spacious afternoon hospitality venue), acclaimed Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez-Inarritu spent some time chatting with a group of young kids who probably aren't old enough to see his films, but nonetheless seemed excited by the encounter. Given the track record of the FICM so far, it wouldn't be all that surprising if one of those children ends up with a film at the festival a few years down the road. In a country with an increasingly influential and acclaimed cinema culture, the Morelia fest is emerging to fill an important role as what IMCINE's Marina Stavenhagen calls a "meeting point." It is drawing international visitors to a warm, picturesque city, but even more important the event is fostering bonds among Mexican filmmakers, industry, and audiences.
Fest organizers are rightfully proud of their role in supporting filmmaker Elisa Miller months before her short film, "Ver" (which received the FICM's top short prize at last year's fest), would go on to win the Palme d'Or (for best short) in Cannes. Watching this year's crop of titles at a time when Mexican cinema is increasingly marketable -- particularly in Mexico's neighbor to the north where Latinos are a leading minority -- it is hard not to wonder which of this year's FICM alums will make a mark outside of Morelia.
Among those likely to gain future attention are filmmaker Ricardo Arnaiz, director of the completely entertaining new animated tale, "The Legend of the Nahuala" (La Leyenda de la Nahuala). The story of a young boy, Leo San Juan, the Spanish-language film is set in the town of Puebla de los Angeles, New Spain in the early 1800s. Its debut in early November in Mexico couldn't have been better timed as the film is set amidst the dark and festive Mexican holiday "Dia de los Muertos," which celebrates the lives of those who've passed. Arnaiz's "distinctly Mexican" story, as the filmmaker called it after a rousing debut screening in Morelia, follows Leo as he and his brother are drawn into the lair of La Nahuala, a mysterious female figure who many thought was purely the subject of traditional ghost stories. Intending to make a scary film for kids set in a Colonial village, Arnaiz enlisted the support of the people of Puebla and the whole town literally came to his aid. The city itself backed the movie and if the film gets the reception it deserves, it should be only a matter of time before Arnaiz' "Nahuala" story inspires local tourist attractions. City planners are probably hoping for a theme park.
Founded five years ago, the Morelia fest's Daniela Michel (who previously headed a Mexican short film fest) launched the event by emphasizing Mexican docs and shorts because those are the films most commonly created by emerging local filmmakers. The event also launched the Morelia Lab to support emerging filmmakers. While the event expanded this year to include a competition for new Mexican narrative features, docs remain a core of the event. Among the most talked about non-fiction films was Lucia Gaja's "My Life Inside" (Mi Vida Dentro), the the story of a Mexican woman who illegally migrated to Austin, TX in 1999, following her story of being held for suspected murder and later tried in court. Gaja was honored for her work as a female filmmaker and the film was presented the grand jury prize for best documentary at this year's festival.
In the narrative competition for first and second time directors, Nicolas Pereda's "Where Are Their Histories?" (Donde estan sus historias?) won the jury prize in the Morelia fest's inaugural competition for Mexican feature films. The film is the story of a young farmer, living with his grandmother in rural Mexico, who fights to save her land. The concept of "justice" was also explored in Rodrigo Pla's "La Zona," winner of the Discovery prize at last month's Toronto International Film Festival. A dramatic look at life inside a gated Mexican neighborhood, the film explores at how the insular safety of the residents is challenged when three young criminals break into a neighborhood home.
Based on a short story by Laura Santullo, Pla's film provoked one of the many lengthy, provocative post-screening discussions that were common during the festival. Audience members praised the film and even candidly questioned some of the filmmaker's choices. Some challenged Pla and Santullo for ending the film with an open-ended, rather than specifically clear resolution. In "La Zona," one of the three young kids who break into a local home to commit a crime befriends a neighborhood teen who has grown up inside The Zone. The priviledged kid protects the younger one until local neighbors find out and pursue their own revenge against the younger intruder, leaving the viewers to speculate a bit on the future of the families inside and outside the gated community.
"Es una punta de vista," explained Laura Santullo, in Spanish, saying that the film simply offers one point of view, or a look at a general situation that offers a metaphor for other places and other issues. Pushed on the issue by audience members, director Pla noted, also in Spanish, that the social politics of Mexico are connected to those of the United States and the world, noting that he chose not to offer an ending that clearly depicted justice for the characters.
An equally powerful discussion followed the screening of "Atenco, A Crime Committed by the State," a low budget activist documentary directed by the Colectivo Klamve, a group formed in 2006 to document violence against Mexican flower vendors. The film, through straigtforward first hand testimonies videotaped with eyewitnesses, depicts last May's brutal battle between local flower vendors and the government's violent attempts to squash protestors. A post-screening Q & A become an emotional discussion about the incidents and the role of filmmakers and the media in covering such situations in Mexico.
"I am surprised that this film is in Cinepolis," said one audience member, in Spanish, referring to the fact that an activisit film of this sort was shown inside Latin America's largest theater chain. "It's great that it was shown," the viewer continued." The lengthy Q & A session continued with many in the room taking a moment to either comment on the movie or ask a question. "What can we do now," asked one viewer, while another reacted, "We are all angry, but what follows?" "This is still going on, this hasn't ended," noted one of the members of the collective, "This hasn't ended." Finally, a younger attendee stirred debate after pointing out that such a film requires critical thinking, asking about the actual "reality" of a one-sided film that, while based on actual events, seems meant to agitate. He also tried to also reference the way the mainstream news is manipulated, but was interrupted by another viewer who loudly tried to put him in his place. The subsequent discussion became even more passionate, with some audience and filmmakers seeming near tears as they debated the issues.
"When you go to these films, you change the cinema," summed up the discussion moderator eventually, encouraging attendees to spread the word about the festival and its films. "The way you came today," he added, "Invite others."
Inspiring participation in filmmaking and moviegoing seemed a core message of the week in Morelia. The fest hosted a special panel discussion meant to explore how local established and emerging filmmakers can tap into the international documentary scene. "There are so many great voices coming out of Mexico," noted seminar moderator Brian Newman of Renew Media, "But it can be hard to find those voices in the [international] marketplace." While filmmaker Lucy Walker, whose latest feature, "Blindsight," follows a group of blind Tibetan kids attempting to climb Mt. Everest, encouraged local filmmakers to think internationally, while also making sure their subject is worth the time they will put in when telling their story. "Documentaries give an audience the opportunity to see different parts of the world," encouraged Walker, "It's so exciting to see a place you haven't been before."
Eugene Hernandez' previous dispatch from the Morelia International Film Festival was published last week.