FESTIVALS: Buenos Aires Fest's Rise to Power; Argentine Cannes Preview
by Mark Peranson
(indieWIRE/ 05.07.01) -- In only its third year, the Buenos Aires festival internacional de cine independente (BAFICI) mounted a wildly successful ten days, offering a cornucopia of about two hundred of the past year's foreign films, curated programs from film history, and an atmosphere where about two hundred foreign guests and countless locals tangoed long into the Argentine evening.
When dinner regularly begins at one in the morning, the nights take on "Satantango"-like proportions. Imagine all of this centered in a humongous mall, the Mercado del Abasto, restored by George Soros, and featuring what has to be the world's only kosher McDonald's -- and the contradictions of a postmodern, urban cinephile's film festival become somewhat clearer. The closing awards ceremony and party took place in the dead center of the mall, as shoppers and moviegoers looked down on an atmosphere of joyful relief as disco music played in the surrealistic fishbowl.
And kosher it was. Under the new, aggressive leadership of Quintin, one of the founders of the film monthly "El Amante Cine," there was almost too much to take in. Béla Tarr's films were screened for the first time in Argentina, and the Hungarian master -- in the best of moods -- was introduced and interviewed by Jonathan Rosenbaum (whose book "Movie Wars" was published by BAFICI in a Spanish translation); J. Hoberman presented the films of Jack Smith; French critic Nicole Brenez chose a selection of historical and contemporary French experimental films; an honorary award was given to Jim Jarmusch; the first prize in the competition went to last year's best film, Jia Zhangke's "Platform"; FIPRESCI gave its award to Rotterdam favorite "25 Watts"; AND Olivier and Maggie were in town (that's Assayas and Cheung, for those not in the know). Who could ask for anything more?
The rise of the importance of BAFICI can be traced to two main factors. The inferior, poorly run "A level" festival in Mar del Plata, recently moved from November to March (ensuring that nobody will want to place any films there, following Berlin and preceding Cannes), which is failing to meet the rapacious demands of the aware Argentine film community. As witnessed by a recent retrospective at New York's Lincoln Center, Argentine cinema is also at the peak of its international reputation -- if not also its quality -- in turn spawning the desire for programmers and critics to travel under the threat of a national airline strike to view the 15 odd Argentine films from this year, many produced under the auspices of the Universidad del Cine -- including the opening night film, Ariel Rotter's Wong Kar-waian, "Solo Por Hoy" ("Only for Today").
Almost all local critics feel that Lucrecia Martel's Berlin-winner "La Cienega" (now playing theatrically in Buenos Aires) is one of the best films the country has ever produced, but the recent explosion of Argentine filmmaking traces back to Pablo Trapero's neo-neorealist 1999 film "Crane World." Trapero's influence can be felt, somewhat, in less successful, strongly local films about the young and dissatisfied like "Sábado" (featuring "Nine Queens" star Gastón Pauls as himself) and "Modelo 73," the latter co-written and the former directed by "El Amante" critic Juan Villegas. In both films one also finds strong elements of Rohmer and Beckett, and in case you were wondering, the two really don't mix. Trapero also presented a short pseudo-documentary originally produced for Rotterdam, "Naikor," that was almost impenetrable to foreigners due to its smattering of in-jokes.
"El descanso," another film to explore the shelved ghosts of the Peronista past, was selected from the eligible Argentine films for a screening at the Venice Film Festival, managed to impress few. The greatest division probably came over the other Argentine film in competition, the aristocracy-skewering "Animalada", a.k.a "the sheep fucking movie."
Even viewers impressed by the relative lack of plotting in "Crane World" will be awestruck by this year's sensation, "La libertad," co-produced by Trapero and directed by 25-year-old first-timer Lisandro Alonso, which premiered to great excitement and acclaim before heading off to Cannes's Un Certain Regard program. A normal day in the life of Misael, dubbed by one local critic "the Maradona of woodcutting," the film has something in common with another radical work of art that screened at BAFICI, Jonas Mekas's almost five-hour home movie "As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Glimpses of Beauty," namely, that nothing happens. As the program note for "La libertad" indicates, "That's it." But when "nothing happens," everything happens.
The title refers to both the way the woodcutter makes his own routine personal and liberating, and the freedom allotted to viewers to use their imaginations. "La libertad" is the Argentine Kiarostami film, a comparison that Alonso earns. (I frankly prefer the film to many Kiarostamis.) But the scandal, that I uncovered accidentally -- having watched the film in the videotape library and not at the only screening -- is that there's a final scene to "La libertad" that was chopped off under an ultimatum from Cannes. (This stuff goes on all the time, with little notice; recently, news also leaked in a Thai newspaper that Cannes got 20 minutes cut from Wisit Sasanatieng's Vancouver-winner "Fah Talai Jone" or "The Tears of the Black Tiger").
The missing scene, which also will not appear when "La libertad" opens in Buenos Aires at the end of May because of the cost of restoring it, acts as a "Taste of Cherry"-like coda, signifying that we've been watching fiction all along and that, indeed, life goes on. Considering that many mistook "La libertad" for a documentary, the inclusion of the coda is fully defensible.
Such crude and ill-minded behavior towards filmmakers -- censorship, really -- was driven home in another way, when the news quickly spread that Jafar Panahi would not be arriving in Buenos Aires after he refused to be fingerprinted in transit through New York's JFK airport.
BAFICI is currently fully funded by the local cultural ministry, and despite this year's successes, the collapsing Argentine economy means that an infusion of private funds is needed to prevent the shocks of massive budgetary cuts. (Tickets for the public are a steal at $3.50, half the price of normal moviegoing.) Hopefully this festival was not just a fleeting dream of cinephilia, or, to use Mekas' term, a glimpse of beauty. In his rapidly spliced film, he only presents those moments of happiness that characterized about 15 years of his marriage, and so forges an imaginary world out of his past. I shouldn't have been surprised that most audiences took to the film, with a house of over a hundred staying until the end, and many applauding. When they work as well as BAFICI, film festivals are also imaginary worlds, and even airline strikes aren't enough to bring it crashing down.
[Mark Peranson is editor of Cinema Scope magazine (insound.com/zinestand/cscope) and a programmer for the Vancouver International Film Festival.]