FESTIVALS: 24th Montreal Film Fest, Iranian and French Entries Gain Favor
by Brandon Judell
(indieWIRE/ 9.12.00) -- Night after night, under the stars, thousands of Montrealers plopped down on benches, home-brought folding chairs, hard stone steps or stood on their tootsies to watch Kevin get high in "Beaute Americaine," Julia and Hugh smooch in "Notting Hill," and Michael perform abortions in "L'oeuvre de Dieu, La Part du Diable" (that's "Cider House Rules" for you Anglophones.)
There's no doubt the Montreal World Film Festival is a people's festival that its city embraces without any stipulations. And this unqualified passion has now lasted for 24 years.
Everyday crowds lined up to sample a smattering of the 360 films from 55 countries offered, often without knowing a picture's director, stars or whether the flick was even any good. Try to get a New York audience to try out a film from Chad, Uruguay or Iceland at 9 am in the morning without offering free lox, cream cheese and a cafe au lait.
Even Liv Ullmann's latest directorial effort, the nearly 3-hour "Faithless" was sold out at its morning screening. With its signature Ingmar Bergman screenplay, this was not the most cheerful way to start your day. The film's a dissection of creativity and a divorce, with the dialogue seeming at times to have been pilfered from a Psychology 101 term paper. But after the first hour or so, with Ullmann's unfussy helming, the superb performance by Lena Endre as the loving wife turned adulteress, and Bergman's sporadic but sharp humor, the picture's basic simplicity and intelligence grabs you.
Afterwards, the simple and intelligent Ullmann, at her press conference, was asked whether great filmmakers were something of the past. "No, I don't think so," she replied. "But I think it is more and more difficult for them to have the possibility to grow because I think more and more producers and more distributors and movie theater owners are scared of allowing them to make the kind of movies that will make a great film director."
As for the difficulties of being a female helmer: "I know why men don't always want to work with women. Our language is different and you know it probably feels safer to work with a man still." After much applause, Ms. Ullmann signed copies of the new book, Per Haddal's "Face to Face: Liv Ullmann and Film," hoping the press would mention in it in their Montreal coverage. Who are we to disappoint her?
On a much lighter vein was Leonard Fritz Krawinkel's "Sumo Bruno," a German tale of a 400-pound unemployed gent who decides to win the Sumo Amateur Wrestling Championship so a young obese boy he befriends won't throw himself on the train tracks. You see the lad's teased all the time because of his weight. Moral: Yes, you can be fat and proud. This one's ripe for an American remake.
Being the world premiere of his film, the thin Krawinkel was in heaven although slightly disappointed when I had to tell him this was not a Sundance appropriate offering. As for the delights of Montreal, he shared: "When the audience came out of the cinema, and it was a theater with 400 people, I had to shake hands like 350 times. Everybody said, 'I like your film. Very touching. When does it come to Canada?' So it was a really very nice impression."
For A-list autograph seekers, Gene Hackman, who's in town filming a picture for David Mamet, did show up for an hour or so with Morgan Freeman, to promote their grating murder mystery "Under Suspicion," a tepid remake of "Garde a vue." But his appearance was extremely brief.
Gong Li, however, who shared a Best Actress Award with Isabelle Huppert (appearing in Claude Chabrol's "Nightcap") was hanging around, promoting Sun Zhou's "Breaking the Silence." She portrays an impoverished mother of a deaf child. In her hotel suite, through an inarticulate translator, she asked to let it be known that she would never leave the movie business and run away to where she'd be unknown. "No, it would be too boring."
She also noted that she never recorded an album of Madonna songs as the press has reported, she'd love to appear in movies with Al Pacino, Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman, plus she does sometimes cover her face with cucumbers. "When I make movies, I'm not sure if it really works."
Less of a fashion plate by Western standards but also quite beautiful, even with no makeup and her hair covered up, was Iranian director and Best First Film winner, Mariam Shariar. This woman was everywhere during the Festival, pushing her film, making contacts, and just drinking in the joys of being part of the festivities. She, after all, completed her film, "Daughters of the Sun," against all odds in a rather restrictive country. The picture, a searing look at the plight of women in Iran, has yet to be shown in her home country.
In it, her heroine shaves her head and passes as a man to be able to obtain a job as a weaver of rugs. Think "Yentl" without songs. That Shariar won the Montreal award for Best First Fiction Film should certainly aid her troubled directorial career. "The censors in Iran wanted me to get rid of some of the scenes. They've held up the releasing for a long time. They made me suffer and aged me about ten years. So, yes, there are some things that don't want to be said."
But do Iranian women have more freedom than Americans think they have? After all, your film and others that are coming out of the country do criticize the current society? "I have to say that it's very difficult everywhere in the world for women," Shariar replied. "In America, in Montreal, in Africa, in Iran, it's all the same. It's just that the head covering I must put on is very different. You may have to dress in a certain way in America in order to get a producer to be convinced to finance you. You may have to go to a certain college and have a certain kind of degree in order to produce something. There is always a doubt.
"I had to prove myself every single time, and it was not really easy to get people to do what I thought was right. This is something difficult for everyone. For all of us and especially for women of black or white, of African or Indian or Iranian or American," she continued. "It's getting better in Iran however. But I went through hell. Really. I don't think that words can express what I lived for two years in making this film. You really have to have lots of balls."
One film that displayed a lot of balls on camera was "Baise-Moi," a last minute addition to the festival that screened at midnight. This is the movie that has all of France blushing. (The English title is "Rape Me" though "Fuck Me" is probably more accurate.) Imagine a hardcore version of "Thelma and Louise" with a good dose of Russ Meyer's "Faster Pussycat Kill Kill" thrown in. Directed by porn director Coralie Trinh Thi, and starring two porn actresses, Raffaela Anderson and Karen Bach, the low-budgeted feature, after much furor in the French government, is the first film in France to include non-simulated sexual intercourse that is being shown on a standard movie circuit. (For the worried, the rapists do use condoms.) Though adequately acted, "Baise-Moi" loses its feminist accreditation when its heroines, after a lifetime of male abuse, start brutally slaughtering women along with the males that anger them.
The audience's reaction? A splattering of applause and more than a few proclamations of "Garbage!" I enjoyed it though, possibly because I didn't have the benefit of subtitles and didn't know what anyone was saying.
Other films of note were Sebastien Lifshitz' "Presque Rien," a startlingly frank and sensual look at two teenage boys who fall in love with each other and find that isn't enough; Eliseo Subiela's Fellini-esque "The Adventures of God" in which a man winds up in an unending, illogical dream and decides he has to kill the dreamer to not lose his mind; Roland Suso Richter's "A Handful of Grass" tells of a young Kurdistan boy imported to Germany to sell drugs and how a taxi driver tries to salvage his life; and Bahman Farmanara's "Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine." This autobiographical movie, which was awarded a special Grand Jury Prize, stars the helmer as a director who must confront his own on-coming death while heeding the comic yet life-threatening daily dos and don'ts of Iranian culture. Other winners included top prize getters Agnes Jaoui's "The Taste Of Others" ("Le Gout Des Autres") and Australian Paul Cox for "Innocence." Additionlly, the Audience Award went to Montrealer Denis Villeneuve for "Maelstrom" which is the featured opener of Toronto's Canadian Perspectives.
I could go on for dozens of paragraphs. As corny as it sounds, if you love adventurous, politically daring films that deal with people and not cardboard stereotypes with gas problems, Montreal will serve as a celluloid heaven for you.