FESTIVAL: Local Hospitality and International Scope At the Viennale 2002
by Wendy Mitchell
(indieWIRE: 11.07.02) -- My visit to the 2002 Viennale was my first trip to Vienna, and I admit that I came to town with some preconceived notions about a gorgeous yet conservative city where people sipped coffee, ate strudel, and listened to a lot of Mozart and Beethoven. Thankfully, Vienna, and the Vienna International Film Festival, proved to be much more exciting than that. Celebrating its 40th year, the Viennale welcomed 70,400 attendees this year (a new record) for its 237 films. There are few competitive prizes and little acquisition frenzy, yet Viennale fills a special niche in the European festival circuit -- showing standout new films (especially helpful if you didn't catch them in Cannes) and an impressively large assortment of special programs and retrospectives. Festival director Hans Hurch told me, "What we try to do is to find a mixture between a festival for the city and the people in Vienna, and at the same time to have a kind of international standard and interest."
While it may not have the acclaim of Cannes, the Viennale makes up for that with its hospitality and range of diverse films. The guest department brings together journalists (from many lands), filmmakers, and other guests for close-knit dinners and receptions, which proved to be a great way to stir up some interesting discussions about the films. And there is also the infamous zelt, the tent near festival headquarters where everyone gathered for drinks and discussion until the wee hours. (I left Vienna before I could find out if experimental American filmmaker James Benning received the "I Closed the Tent" T-shirt he so clearly deserved.) The zelt was also host to talks, readings, live bands, and DJs.
Another annual tradition that I was eager to partake in was the party at the Lusthaus in the Prater, Vienna's most famous park. The Americans told me not to translate the name of the location literally, but to think of it as a "fun palace" instead. But the locals were adamant that it was, in fact, a lusty locale. From what I saw, you could find fun or lust or maybe a bit of both. Even director Hurch was spotted dancing on tables to an Eminem song. Vienna's entire film community was in attendance, along with international guests, festival sponsors, and two enterprising local students who snuck into the VIP room to nab some of the famed chocolate mousse and sparkling wine.
Dancing on tables to Eminem songs didn't seem out of place after I had spent a few days in Vienna. On my very first night in town, any quaint old-world vibes I picked up from a stroll along the Ringstrasse were quickly squashed when I attended the screening of Larry Clark and Ed Lachman's "Ken Park" and was treated to a lingering close-up of semen hanging off a teenage boy's penis. I doubt Mozart would be inspired to compose a symphony about that. "Ken Park" has been a labor of love for cinematographer/co-director Lachman (at the Viennale for a career retrospective) and co-director Larry Clark ("Kids"). At the screening, Lachman warned the audience: "You can blame me for half this film." While I admire much of Lachman's cinematography work (including "The Virgin Suicides" and the especially magnificent "Far From Heaven"), "Ken Park" never connected with me. The film follows a group of teenagers in California as they hang out at the skate park, fight with all the adults in their lives, and have plenty of sex (by themselves, in threesomes, or with bored housewives). The explicit nature of the sex scenes was a problem only because I didn't catch any deeper message from them. Lachman told the audience after the screening, "There's an emotional context to the sex. It's not to arouse, it's to make people think." But I was left scratching my head, a sentiment shared by several other folks that I spoke with.
I saw another movie with about as much screen time of private parts, although this film was about goat foreplay, sheep sex, and lots of animal birthing. The Swiss documentary "Hirtenreise Ins Dritte Jahrtausend," follows two of Sweden's last itinerant shepherds and as they try to fit into an increasingly modernized world. It perhaps sounds like a snooze-fest, but "Hirtenreisse" is one of the more compelling docs I've encountered recently. The film was beautifully shot to show the incredible landscapes around the Alps, but I was more interested in learning about these people and their dying way of life. Even the shots of the animals were highly entertaining. If my gig in film journalism doesn't work out, perhaps I'll find myself a flock of sheep.
Another documentary that impressed me with its lack of talking heads was "Blatnoi Mir -- Thieves' World," about several inmates in a Russian prison. The film showed tremendous restraint; much of it was quiet and slow, with time passing for the audience in a similar way to the time passes inside the cells. Finnish director Jouni Hiltunen knows the power of silence, as some of the most meaningful moments here are shots of the prison exterior, which hints at the complete isolation and barren world these men inhabit. The packed crowd at this mid-afternoon weekday screening of a not-so-glamorous film was a testament to how much the Viennese public likes to explore all kinds of cinema. A morning screening of "Bowling for Columbine" was even more crowded, and judging by the laughter, the crowd easily got Michael Moore's humor as he explored gun violence in America.
Agnes Varda was on hand for the world premiere of her documentary "Deux Ans Apres" (Two Years Later), a follow-up to her 2000 film "Les Glaneurs et La Glaneuse" (The Gleaners and I). She said she was shocked at the sold-out crowd: "After 45 years of filmmaking, I still can't believe that people pay to see [my films]." "Deux Ans Apres" was an interesting exercise to explore what happens to a film, and the people connected to it, after its release. Varda revisited some of the subjects from the first documentary to see how their lives had changed and get their reactions. One glaneur tells Varda of her personal interjections in the first film, "I think your self-portrait is not well done. It's unnecessary." Varda also interviews people she meets after the film, like a young French couple so touched by the movie that they wrote her a letter. Even film fans who haven't seen "Les Glaneurs" can appreciate Varda's exploration of the continuing momentum of a project.
As for the features, there was a wide selection of the year's festival faves -- "Russian Ark," "All or Nothing," "Le Fils," "Gerry," "Intacto," "Japon," "Lilja 4-Ever," "The Man Without A Past," "Morvern Callar," "Divine Intervention," and a slew of others. I was determined to see one Austrian feature while I was there, so I sat through "Nachtreise" despite the fact that it was in Turkish with German subtitles (and my German skills don't go much further than "Danke" or "Sprechen Sie Englisch?"). The movie proved to be a rather slow-paced slice-of-life look at the dead-end world of Turkish immigrants in Vienna, dealing with the aftermath of the death of one of their own. (A new pal from Istanbul filled me in on some details later.) Impressed by Kenan Kilic's socio-political snapshot of this unknown group, the jury at the fest awarded him the Vienna Film Award, worth 17,000 euros. (The only other prizes awarded here were the FIPRESCI Prize to Diego Lerman's "Tan de repente" from Argentina and Der Standard reader's jury award to Pen-ek Ratanaruang's "Monrak Transistor" from Thailand). Two German films, Ulrich Kohler's "Bungalow" and Andreas Dresen's "Halbe Treppe" were also attracting a lot of attention, but I wasn't able to see them since they were in German.
I did finally see Shemie Reut's documentary/fiction hybrid "Paradox Lake," about counselors and children at a camp for autistic kids. I'd heard much buzz about the film from other festivals, and I wasn't disappointed in this genre-bending and emotional story. I was less impressed with Phillip Noyce's "Rabbit-Proof Fence," which played a little too straight with its "triumph of the human spirit" storyline to sustain my interest. Of the several dozen short films, director Hurch said he was particularly taken with American Erika Vogt's "Architecture of Riot," which he described as "a 20-minute film that's more interesting than most two-hour films."
Other notable programs included a Sissy Spacek tribute (sadly she was stuck in the States with family obligations), a Yoko Ono exhibition and film series (her first in Austria), a survey of pre-1945 Austrian film, a tribute to documentarian Jurgen Bottcher, a Jacques Rivette retrospective, tributes to Antonin Artaud and film critic Frieda Grafe, and a gala and discussion in honor of a restored version of the quintessential Vienna film "The Third Man" (assistant director Guy Hamilton was one of several guests on hand). "The idea is to try to do a mixture of new films and on the other hand to connect with different persona and historical moments," Hurch said.
In Vienna, I found that extreme mixture of culture on display in many arenas. This is a city where I could drink cheap beer with the locals at Flex or take a stroll through the stately gardens at the Schonbrunn Palace, or eat hearty meat-and-potatoes Austrian cuisine in a restaurant founded in 1858 and glance up to see an abstract painting in animal blood that covers the walls. Likewise, the Viennale reflects that diversity. You can find whatever you're seeking, whether it's the five-hour Chinese documentary "Tiexi qu," a screening of Brian De Palma's classic "Carrie," or the 2002 technical masterpiece "Russian Ark." Hurch tells me they've already got exciting plans for the 2003 Viennale, including their largest retrospective yet, dedicated to Japanese cinema of the '60s and '70s from production company ATG. As for me, I hope to be back to close down the zelt myself.