Edgy World Fare and Innovative Local Films Find a Stage At Buenos Aires' Sixth-Annual Festival
by Leslie Felperin
For all its many indigenous pleasures -- tango, a meat-tastic diet that's almost Atkins friendly -- Buenos Aires remains the most "European" of Latin American cities. It's a quality you can see in the city's Mediterranean-style architecture, its many high-culture-oriented theatres and museums, its Italianate locallyproduced fashion, and the higher proportion (compared to, say, Rio de Janeiro) of second- or third-generation descendents of 20th-century immigrants from Italy, Germany, and the rest of Europe. In some areas, the supersaturation of bookshops creates a cosily dusty atmosphere reminiscent of London's Charing Cross.
Likewise, in terms of programming, the Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema (BAFICI), whose sixth edition wrapped on April 25, is very comparable to the edgy intake at Rotterdam, with a similar accent on fresh talent and the avant-garde. Indeed, BAFICI insiders conspiratorially admit that during the first couple of years of the festival, almost the entire program was made of features found a few months before at the Netherlands' biggest festival. But for the last four years, Argentine film critic Quintin (aka Eduardo Antin) has been BAFICI's director, and he and his crew of "programadores" have been fishing at festivals all over the world, bringing home an eclectic mix of international fare that sits well with the new, often innovative and challenging Argentine films shown at the festival, spread across the main competition and "Argentina: Lo Nuevo de lo Nuevo" sections. Indeed, the winner of the main competition this year was for the first time in the festival's history a domestically produced picture, documentarian Ana Poliak's second feature "Parapalos," a highly original look at the microcosmos of a bowling-alley pinsetter.
Moreover, like Rotterdam, and now many other festivals such as Pusan, BAFICI runs an industry sidebar, the Buenos Aires Lab, at which the audiovisual policies of both Argentina and Chile are explained to visiting producers who then review selected projects put forward by the Lab, some of which will compete for a cash award of 5000 euros. In addition, Work in Progress privately shows, as the title suggests, excerpts from as yet uncompleted films to professionals taking part in the event.
Nevertheless, with its emphasis on arthouse fare, BAFICI feels more like a critic and filmmakers' festival rather than a producers' festival, although the local audience shows a voracious appetite for film, with attendance up by 20 percent this year, and a total 120,000 tickets sold across the festival's 12 days. With its 330 features and shorts, the city-financed BAFICI is now Argentina's biggest film event in terms of numbers of screenings, besting the nationally financed Mar De La Plata festival, which runs in March.
One local distributor observed that the highly literate Argentine audiences are among the most critic-influenced in the world, and observation of audiences at the festival bears out that they are certainly some of the most respectful and inquisitive of viewers. I have seen up to a quarter of an audience walk out of Tsai Ming-liang's beautiful but endurance-testing "Goodbye Dragon Inn" at other festivals. In Buenos Aires, nearly everyone stayed until the last moist frame -- and even applauded politely. The joint winners of the audience award were unsurprisingly more crowd-pleasing choices, Argentine debut "Whiskey Romeo Zulu" about the LAPA plane crash of 1998, and that well traveled Mongolian-German tearjerker "The Story of the Weeping Camel." The former, although shot in straightforward docudrama style, is still a remarkably competent debut for writer-director Enrique Pineyro, a former airline pilot with no prior filmmaking experience, who stars in the film as himself to tell his own version of how mismanagement, incompetence, and greed led to the deaths of 64 people in the notorious crash. Imagine "The Insider" as made by Jeffrey Wigand himself.
Other winners at BAFICI this year included: writer-director Alejo Hernan Taube's "Una de dos," a well-regarded portrait of a small town dealing with the national economic crisis of 2002, which won the top prize in the Argentinean-only, "Lo nuevo de lo nueva" section; a special mention by the main competition jury to Spaniard Jaime Rosales' "The Hours of the Day," which debuted in Directors' Fortnight in Cannes last year; and Portugal's "Antes che o tempo mude" (Before Times Change), a debut by Luis Fonseca, about a live-for-the-moment young woman, which won the critics' prize. Honored individuals included Singaporean Royston Tan, winning the best director award for his "15," a painfully shrill movie about boys in their underpants; Pietro Sibille, named best actor for his performance as a war veteran in "Dias de Santiago" ("Days of Santiago"), and Hwang Jeong-min for best actress the South Korean surreal comedy "Save the Green Planet!"
Although many of the titles at the festival would be familiar to regular festivalgoers, there were a few notable international premiers. Clark Lee Walker's Texan-set "Levelland" -- which has only screened at Tribeca Film Festival so far -- comprised an amiable coming-of-age tale set among skateboarders that played like a cross between a Richard Linklater movie and a G-rated Larry Clark film. Headed for Cannes' Directors' Fortnight this May, Argentine Lisandro Alonso' "Los Muertos," his second film after "La libertad," a deceptively simple road movie with deeper metaphysical resonance. Of the Argentine debuts, my personal favorite was "Love, the First Part" ("El amor, primera parte"), a slightly sour, restlessly inventive love story directed by four different people -- Alejandro Fadel, Martin Mauregui, Santiago Mitre, and Juan Schnitman -- although it was impossible to parse which hands made which scene, so seamless was the whole package that uses animation, ironic voiceover, and febrile eroticism to tell the story of an ordinary relationship hitting the rocks.
In addition, BAFICI featured a tasty spread of tributes to directors, including Raul Ruiz (a charmingly dapper figure in the flesh with the air of a gentleman's haberdasher about him), Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Jonas Mekas, Alexander Sokurov, Glauber Rocha, James Benning, Sara Driver (who served on the main jury), Thom Anderson, and local boys Martin Rejtman and Eduardo de Gregorio. The "Mundos" (Worlds) sidebars revolved around a rattle-bag of themes of such as "Places" (Austria, documentaries, villages, and so on), "Practices" (covering music, bureaucracies, Asian action movies), and "Individuals" (families, loneliness, fantasies, etc.).
As the above would suggest, BAFICI suffers from no shortage of good programming and local enthusiasm, but what it does lack is money and organizational skills. One possibly European import it would do well to shed is the Kafkaesque bureaucratic muddle surrounding the allocation of tickets to press and guests, a bizarre system in which vouchers are applied for on one day and exchanged for tickets the next, but not if one is considered important enough to get them from the right person at the press office in which case you CAN get tickets on the day. The good old-fashioned, show-up-and-show-a-pass system apparently fell apart last year, with the main venue balking at it since it would reduce the number of sellable, public seats.
Ultimately, it took me about five days to crack the absurd ticketing system, by which time many films had been missed and a sense of grumpy resentment had set in, as it had with several other visitors to the festival and the Buenos Aires Lab. At least the rest of Buenos Aires was on hand to entertain us when we couldn't get into the films we wanted to see, including a superb Dada and Surrealism exhibition at Malba, the local museum of modern art, which resonated nicely with the surrealism of some of BAFICI's films. I may not have managed to see everything I wanted to, but at least I brought home a lovely and ridiculously cheap set of new handbags.