By Eric Kohn | Indiewire October 8, 2008 at 8:45AM
It can take over four hours to drive from Mexico City to the capital of Michoacan de Ocampo for the Morelia Film Festival, but the vibrant town in question lies several more metaphorical miles away from recent newspaper headlines. It was only a few weeks ago that Morelia became the focus of an international media scare following the devastating terrorist bombing that took the lives of eight people on September 15. However, the attack, which coincided with local festivities for the Mexican War of Independence in Plaza Melchor Ocampo, hardly made a dent on preparations for the festival's sixth year.
Halfway through the proceedings, streets were packed with moviegoing civilians, members of the Mexican film industry, and guests from abroad; the newly renovated Cine Colonial hosted a diverse range of international fare for local audiences free of charge, and Mexican filmmakers confidently boasted an increased range of possibilities in the country's growing film community.
Although the festival's main venue, Cinepolis Morelia Centro, may have seen larger crowds in previous years, the streets outside remained packed with curious bystanders. "Two days after [the bombing] happened, the Plaza was already full of people," said Carlos Garza Caballero, one of two programmers for the festival (with Joaquin Rodriguez) responsible for the lineup of over forty features. "Everybody back in the city thought it must be like a police state now. Journalists were calling and saying, 'Now that Morelia is the new Iraq...'"
Garca appeared exasperated at the thought. "I was just like, 'Oh, come on, people!' It's ridiculous."
If anything, the festival offered an immediate sense of renewal. Morelia, a city with over 600,000 people and covered in majestic colonial architecture dating back to the sixteenth century, suddenly took on goals not unlike those of the Tribeca Film Festival when it first launched in the wake of September 11. "We want to help people come back downtown," said Garca, "and they have."
Although the current festival hosts international guests ranging from Cristian Mungiu to Todd Haynes, Garca emphasized that the program was mainly assembled for the local population. "The great thing about them is that they're not going to reject auteur filmmaking or anything like that," he said. "They're as receptive to it as they are to commercial films. We don't really have to consider if they'll like it or not, because they like everything."
Morelia has shown festival hits and Hollywood films alike, but many of the entries in the four Mexican competition sections -- short films, documentaries, features and Michoacan cinema -- lie far beyond any sort of American paradigm. With the Mexican film industry on the rise (there were seventy productions in the country last year), more options exist here than ever before.
In its first year, the festival contained only one Mexican feature, but now the programmers are limited to a certain amount so they can show exactly one competition film each day in order to allow maximum exposure for each. "From last year to this year, there was a huge effort to downsize," Garca said. "We do not want to grow more than we can."
Several features in the program contain classical narratives applied to distinctive Mexican characters. "Espiral" ("The Spiral"), a generation-spanning romance set in the Mexican countryside, tells the story of Diamantina (Iazua Larios), a pretty young woman unable to marry the man she loves (Xochiquetzal Rodriguez) until he can afford the hefty dowry demanded by her tyrannical father. As twenty years crawl by, questions of familial allegiance give way to the wear of time, and each character's priorities slowly become redefined. Despite the grandiose themes, however, writer-director Jorge Perez Solano maintains a gentle comic touch, giving the story a coherent, humanistic angle.
"Cinco dias sin Nora" ("Four Days Without Nora") aims for darker comedy, opening with an older man named Jose (Fernando Lujan) discovering that his ex-wife Nora has committed suicide. She was not, however, devoid of motives. Nora killed herself on the eve of Passover, which leads into the Sabbath -- meaning, as a rabbi soon explains to the contentedly secular Jose, that the funeral can't take place until after the weekend. As a result, the cantankerous man must roost in the household while family and friends swarm around him -- Nora's sneaky posthumous intention -- causing a series of awkward incidents (in one memorable sequence, Jose's attempt to get his ex a quickie burial in a nearby Christian cemetery falls flat). Mariana Chenillo directs this occasionally coarse, but mostly sentimental story with a few unpolished scenes, but much of the unevenness gets smoothed over by the compelling nature of Jose's grimy charm.
Dark comedy also permeates the festival's Mexican short film programs. "El deseo" ("The Desire"), which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, follows an elder woman's attempt to rediscover her sexual prowess, but another short playing in the same program combines morbidity with humor to even greater effect. "La curiosa conquista del ampere" ("The Curious Conquest of the Amp") opens with a soft-spoken electrician learning from his doctors that he has passed on. ("Let me be blunt. You are dead.") As he slowly decomposes, the man wanders home to a disdainful family, hesitantly goes on sick leave, and becomes quietly disillusioned. Needless to say, this not your average zombie story. Soon, he discovers an uncanny ability to generate electricity for his impoverished neighborhood, a power that soon overwhelms him. A true oddity with a delightful metaphor for disillusionment at its center, director Ramon Orozco Stoltenberg's tightly constructed story testifies to the viability of the short film structure.
While "La curiosa conquista del ampere" contains a parable about the struggles of the lower class, the festival itself directly addresses that very population with its evening screenings, which remain free and open the public. Although the outdoor screenings have been scaled back this year, the festival has started utilizing the Cine Colonial, a theater in the middle of town that burned down twenty years ago and has recently been rebuilt. The free screenings allow Morelian resident to access a wide variety of cinema from all over the world (just last night, the Cine Colonial showed "Rumba," a fantastically surreal French-Belgian production that premiered at International Critics' Week during the Cannes Film Festival). The festival plans to further utilize the spacious theater next year, allowing the entire proceedings to take place downtown.
But local attendees aren't the only ones benefiting from the increase in film culture both within Morelia and throughout the country at large. Mexican filmmakers have received Media Arts Fellowships from the Rockefeller Foundation since 1992, and the project recently came into the domain of the Tribeca Film Institute. On Tuesday, Tribeca joined with the cable television channel Movie City (LAPTV) to announce the three recipients for this year's fellowships, each of whom will receive $20,000 for their current projects (a runner-up receives $10,000). The winners include Tin Dirdamal, whose debut documentary "DeNadie" won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival in 2006, and experimental filmmakers Andriana Bravo and Andrea Robles, joint recipients of the runner-up prize.
Dirdamal plans to use the money from the fellowship for post-production on his next project, a projected two-and-a-half hour documentary called "Agua" about man's relationship to water assembled from footage during his six month stay in Bolivia. The majority of the film is funded by the Sundance Institute, and Dirdamal intends to premiere the film at the festival in 2009. Working on a completely separate plane, Bravo and Robles will use their runner-up award for a short film about their interpersonal relationship. The duo, whose YouTube channel (www.youtube.com/lasdoblaa) showcases their distinctive animation techniques, intend to screen the new work at festivals and museums around the world.
At an outdoor party last night hosted by Tribeca in honor of the fellowship recipients, contemporary music violently pumped out of speakers on a rooftop overlooking nearby architecture built in previous centuries, providing a striking contrast between the old and new Mexico. The filmmakers in attendance expressed mixed reactions to the festival's growth, in addition to the general progress of Mexican cinema. "I don't necessarily think that more films means better films," Dirdamal told indieWIRE. "I don't think that's healthy." Bravo and Robles, on the other hand, described Morelia (where they have screened their short films in previous years) as a shrewd form of counter-programming to the heftier Guadalajara International Film Festival. "Morelia provides an alternative," said Bravo. "It will bring a lot of good to Mexico."