FESTIVALS: "Lovely" Vienna, The Screen and the People
by Erin Torneo/indieWIRE
(indieWIRE/ 11.14.01) --The ripple effect of the war in Afghanistan and the Sept. 11 attacks may be particularly damaging to film festivals in the coming year, especially international ones outside the premier ring of "Big 10" fests. Thankfully, however, Vienna's 2001 International Film Fest, the Viennale (October 19-31), was the most successful in the festival's 39-year history, with over 68,000 people coming out to enjoy 200 of the world's most interesting films. Besides showing some of the cream of the crop from the festival circuit in its extensive main program (e.g., "Y Tu Mama Tambien," "Tears of the Black Tiger," "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," "The Deep End," "Eloge de L'Amour," "Waking Life," "Vou Para Casa," "What Time is it There?," "The Man Who Wasn't There"), the non-competitive festival also curated retrospectives and offered special programs and tributes that are as popular among its audience as the high-profile new films. "It's very easy to make a successful festival," says Viennale's affable director Hans Hurch. "There are lots of new films that I didn't show that would have sold out in two days, like Claire Denis' 'Trouble Every Day' or the new film by Kiarostami. It's very easy to find the films for the public," he adds, "but it's much more difficult to find the public for the films."
To a brooding city known for its rich tradition of baroque architecture, soaring classical music, and fin de siecle giants like Freud, Klimt, and Schiele, cinema is a relative cultural newcomer. But the festival is so popular that sales from tickets and catalogues alone provide more revenue than sponsor schillings. "We are in a very good situation," says Hurch. "We don't have to fight every year." With over 80% of its budget coming from government funds, the Viennale isn't reliant upon -- or indebted to the interests of -- its big sponsors. "They [sponsors] have asked me to do promotions and things in the theater, but I told them there's no room for that, there's only the screen and the people. I always wanted to make a festival that was part of the city and the people," he continues. "Otherwise, it's not alive."
This sentiment of the proudly public festival was evidenced at a gala tribute to legendary actress Fay Wray, after a sold-out screening of Eric von Stronheim's delightful "The Wedding March" (1928). Wray stars in the film, which was set in Vienna, though filmed on sets recreated in Hollywood. The diminutive Ms. Wray could scarcely be seen above the teeming audience giving her a standing ovation. "I'm crying with happiness to be here," said the lively 94-year-old, who made the long flight from the U.S. She regaled the crowd with tales of being a "persistent brunette," her natural collaboration with von Stronheim, partying with Billy Wilder, and the take-over of the film by Paramount. "I'm much more interested in inviting Fay Wray than Gwyneth Paltrow," said Hurch. "It wouldn't have been the same."
These tributes and retrospectives are a kind of backbone to the Viennale, and help to distinguish it among the glut of festivals. "Three-quarters of the festival are new films, which are important because they showcase a state of production. But a film is much more interesting when there's some tension with history," explains Hurch. Thus, the festival also paid tribute to documentary filmmaker Peter Nestler, in addition to the topical "From the Heart of the World-Cinema of the Central Asian Republic," a retrospective featuring films and filmmakers from Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and others, which was extraordinarily well-received. In addition, "Restless Souls," celebrated Japanese "ghost" films. Highlights included Kiyoshi Kurosawa (known most recently in the U.S. for his eerie serial killer flick, "Cure," which played the Viennale in addition to his newest spell-binder, "Pulse"), Satoshi Kon's hallucinatory anime meditation on image and identity, "Perfect Blue," and Hideo Nakata's spooky teenager thriller, "The Ring."
Also noteworthy is the festival's commitment to shorts and documentaries. Witness programs such as Jean Painlevé's glorious underwater shorts, a special presentation of the work of French filmmaker Alain Guiraudie and students of the French multimedia school Le Fresnoy, Dutchman Heina Emigholz's series dealing with the human accomplishments in design, and an homage to the late Dutch filmmaker Johan van der Keuken, whose films dealt with globalization over twenty years ago. U.S. native Naomi Uman was a special Viennale guest, who received the Creditanstald Award for her short love stories, titled "Private Movie."
People like James Manning (who premiered his documentary feature, "Los"), previously premiered his films in Berlin or Rotterdam. (The latter festival, in its 70s heyday, is Viennale's model, claims Hurch.) But increasingly, filmmakers have given their world premieres to Viennale. "The world premiere thing is not so important as a film from a student at Cal Arts that hasn't been shown anywhere in Europe," says Hurch. He raves about Joel Lam's short, "The Circle's Corner," a semi-documentary, semi-narrative approach to showing a deaf, blind, and mute perception of the city of Hong Kong. "Only in cinema can you do this," gushes Hurch. "I've never seen a film like this that was so interesting in different views and perceptions of experience. And for me, it was personal and political."
No less personal or political was work coming from female Chinese directors -- an unexpected trend. "I was really surprised by the new generation of films from Chinese directors, mostly women," says Hurch. "These, while they were not all equally good, were all from very interesting young Chinese filmmakers who have studied and lived abroad but now work in China."
These aren't easy films. Li Lin's "Three Five People" is a doc exploring underage heroin addicts, a consequence of the sweeping social changes in China, while Li Yu's feature "Fish and Elephant" openly confronts the double-edged sword of female sexuality and lesbianism, an extremely taboo subject. So taboo, in fact, that a panel planned with the two directors at the festival's unofficial hub, the white Zeldt (Tent) in Stadtpark, was canceled because of concerns that it would attract too much attention to the two directors, who live and work in China. (Many of the other panel discussions at Zeldt were not held in English, so non-German speakers should take note.)
Despite being non-competitive, Viennale does give some awards, including the FIPRESCI, which went to "L'Emploi du temps" ("Time Out") directed by Laurent Cantet, who attended the fest. The International Association of Film Critics also gave special mention to homegrown wundergirl Jessica Hausner for her film "Lovely Rita." In many ways, Hausner's "Rita," (which also shared the Vienna Film Award with Martina Kudlacek's doc "In the Mirror of Maya Deren"), represents a new realism in Austrian film ignited by a generation of female Vienna Film Academy graduates, whose films often center around troubled adolescent girls in harrowing detail.
Outside the kinos ("cinemas," sadly the only real German I learned besides how to politely order coffee), there is plenty to discover as well. Vienna, with a population of approximately 1.8 million, is easily walkable (particularly in Ludwig Reiter trainers, a Viennese specialty), and simply resplendent in its melancholy. Festival events included dinners at the elegant Hotel Regina, and a not-to-be-missed party at the deviously named Lusthaus. Built by Maxmilian II out in the Prater (the deep woods), this once-kingly playhouse is located beyond more modern distractions of amusement parks, like the famed Riesenrad ferris wheel (which stands much the way it did in "The Third Man").
"Every festival has to find a place," concludes Hurch. "Cannes is super, but there is no public. It's important that [festivals like Cannes] exist, and they have a certain function within the industry. I go to film festivals but out of every 10 films I see, I think 7 are not so interesting. Here, I would like to have the opposite ratio. I want people to have the impression that if they come, they will see a good film. If you do this for the public, if you take them seriously, then you can build something over the years."
Clearly, the impassioned director is doing something right. The Viennale stands as one of the most successful and best programmed festivals in the world, offering much more than isolated films. A special exhibition showcased a series from Japanese minimalist photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto. A master of light, Sugimoto's photos were taken at movie theaters and drive-ins all over the world. In each, the framing is always the same: the theater or parking lot is empty and the screen is a sublimely lit white canvas. His spare photos are a poetic reminder to the great hope of cinematic art and the film festivals, like Viennale, which support it: gathering together in communal darkness, we can still dream to be illuminated.
[Erin Torneo is the Associate Editor of ifcRANT.]