FESTIVALS: Discovering Brazilian Breezes and Asian Airs in the Windy City; the 2002 Chicago Film Fest
by Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE: 10.21.02) -- "Sa-bu! Sa-bu! Sa-bu!" the crowd chanted. Attempting to whip the audience into a frenzy of "Sabu fever," a trio of enthusiastic Chicago International Film Festival staffers guided audiences in the odd mantra. Sabu, the mononymic Japanese director and winner of the festival's emerging director prize in 2000 ("Non-Stop"), was a much-loved figure in the halls of the Landmark Century Centre Cinema, a comfortable multi-screen theater-mall that functioned as the fest's main venue.
Held for two weeks (October 4-18) in the Windy City, about a month after the Toronto festival and overlapping with the tail end of the New York Film Festival, the Midwestern event, the oldest competitive fest in the U.S., combines the scope and audience fanfare of the former (with 100 film programs) with the international highbrow stature of the latter (36 countries were represented).
Though the festival flew in reps from arthouse distributors Magnolia Pictures, Wellspring Media, Cowboy Pictures, plus a handful of foreign sales agents, "The festival exists first for the Chicago community," says Program Director Helen Gramates. Still, she hopes buyers can use the CIFF to catch up on films they have missed around the fest circuit.
If industryites are in short supply in Chicago, critics are not. With a hotel room that looked out on the old Chicago Sun Times building (a vexing 30-minute bus ride from the Landmark), I nearly expected to see a statue memorializing Sun Times critic Roger Ebert, who has fostered movie-going culture in Chicago, alongside "Da Bears" and "Da Bulls" as the city's favorite past times. I didn't spot Ebert, who hosted a screening of Akira Kurosawa's "Ikiru," a masterpiece of urban angst that resonated with a number of titles, among them the Sabu-helmed "The Blessing Bell." But I did see Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, the bold author of "Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Conspire to Limit What Films We Can See," and the Chicago Tribune's Michael Wilmington, who was glimpsed sneaking out (along with his mother) of the festival's top winner "Madama Sata" during the film's most heated male sex scene.
Awarded the Gold Hugo, Karim Ainouz's "Madame Sata" screened in Cannes and Toronto largely beneath the radar, but the Chicago fest's award should deservingly help put the film on the map. A portrait of 1930s homosexual hood Joao Francisco dos Santos (played by blistering, yet unrestrained newcomer Lazaro Ramos), the movie follows this "disciple of Josephine Baker" with a mean roundkick as he strives for respect in Rio.
First-time feature director Ainouz (who worked as an assistant editor to Todd Haynes) tells Santos' story with complexity and reverence. Sumptuous cinematography -- developed using the currently popular bleach bypass process -- by Walter Carvalho ("Central Station," "Behind the Sun"), lushly brings out the film's "landscape of the body," as Ainouz put it during a post-screening Q&A.
"Madama Sata" is the second film produced with the help of Brazilian auteur Walter Salles ("Central Station"). The first is "City of God," which also screened in Chicago and is filled with as much visual panache, though more mainstream. Hence, Miramax acquired "City of God" at Cannes; "Madama Sata" remains without distribution. But both reflect a renaissance in new Brazilian filmmaking.
Program director Gramates was pleased that most of the awards went to films without U.S. distribution this year. She says the juries were also less enthused with the current crop of European and American filmmaking, instead favoring work from Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East. (The festival's other big winner was Cannes notable Elia Suleiman's satirical look at Palestinian life in Ramallah, "Divine Intervention.")
Despite the bloated studio productions that bookended the fest ("Evelyn," "Frida"), and a handful of indie pics (audience winners "Bowling for Columbine," "Real Women Have Curves") that screened in between, there was little to write about in terms of new American film. What is worth noting, however, was an American film that played at the fest last year: local actor Michael Gilio's "Kwik Stop" happened to open at Chicago's Facet's Cinemateque the weekend I was in town. While largely ignored by indieWIRE at past fests, the movie was a pick-of-the-week by Rosenbaum, New City's Ray Pride, and Ebert, who praised it as "one of the unsung treasures of recent independent filmmaking."
Back at the festival, discoveries were to be found from abroad. Fledgling Hungarian director Gyorgy Palfi's masterful gem "Hukkle" is a dialogue-free small-town portrait (except for the sound of hiccups and a final song) that is equal parts exquisitely shot nature documentary, experimental film, and murder mystery. Just when you're beginning to wonder where all these close-ups of hog's balls and worm-gobbling moles are leading, Palfi takes the viewer completely off guard, with unexpected twists and turns that lead to a subtle, insidious conclusion.
Though "Hukkle" didn't win the New Directors competition, I have no qualms with the film that did, Pablo Trapero's "El Bonaerense," the Argentine director's gritty follow-up to festival favorite "Crane World." Like his auspicious debut, Trapero depicts the corrupting effects of the city: a small-town man is swallowed by the banal ills of his new job as a Buenos Aires cop. While the protagonist is less appealing than "Crane World"'s unemployed construction worker, which may account for the film's mixed reaction out of Cannes, Trapero's second film solidifies his stature as a rising international auteur, with a knack for rich images and the cruel truths of life.
In addition to "Hukkle" and "El Bonaerense," a number of other notable U.S. premieres debuted in Chicago: Belgian director Lucas Belvaux's "The Trilogy," "A Time For Drunken Horses" director Bahman Ghobadi's "Marooned in Iraq," winner of the festival's Gold Plaque award, potent doc "Wedding in Ramallah," Korean animated curiosity "My Life as McDull," audience favorite "The Little Monk," and jury favorite "Grill Point," winner of CIFF's best director and acting honors.
From East German director Andreas Dresen, "Grill Point" finds its inspiration from Mike Leigh (whose latest "All or Nothing," a trenchant family tearjerker coming to theaters next week, also screened at the festival). Shot in an ugly digital video, the film nevertheless seizes on the humor, pain, and discomfort when an affair splits two couples apart. "Grill Point" received a Silver Bear at Berlin 2002, but again, it wasn't until its acclaim in Chicago that I became aware of this sharp little film about infidelity and its discontents.
Mike Leigh's workshop-style also influenced Annette K. Olesen's "Minor Mishaps," another highlight in the New Directors program. Produced by Zentropa, "Mishaps" is reminiscent of Dogma entries "Celebration" and "Italian for Beginners," touching on the family evisceration and hapless, amenable characters of each. While all of the intertwining stories may not resonate in "Mishaps," the film's dramatic core -- the codependent, possibly incestuous relationship between a father and daughter -- comes to life with complexity and sympathy. Another find was "Philanthropy," Nae Caranfil's witty, absurdist take on con games, capitalism, and sexual frustration in modern Romania.
And though it's already been celebrated around the festival circuit from Cannes to New York, I caught up with Jia Zhangke's "Unknown Pleasures" in Chicago. I must confess I could not penetrate the genius of Jia's previous films "Xiao Wu" and "Platform," but his third, the immensely pleasing "Pleasures" is a tour-de-force: sad, absurd, ironic, funny, political, prescient, tender, and tragic, filled with direct references to Godard and Tarantino, and some indirect ones to Truffaut and "The Graduate." One of the best films I've seen this year, New Yorker will hopefully get "Pleasures" out to Chicago and beyond when they distribute in 2003. While one of the film's young leads gripes, "There's no fucking future," there's definitely one for director Jia Zhangke.
And let's not forget the Chicago festival itself. At a screening of "Unknown Pleasures," Gramates bemoaned the fact that it took a regrettable two years before "Platform" reached Chicago. Later, Gramates lamented that some distributors no longer consider Chicago the number-three city to open an art film after New York and Los Angeles, instead choosing Dallas or Boston. "We would like to change that," she says. With a roughly 25-percent increase in attendance at this year's fest, from die-hard cineastes to Midwestern folks, they should have a future, too.