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FESTIVALS: Mirvish Goes to Chile-- The Santiago International Short Film Festival

FESTIVALS: Mirvish Goes to Chile-- The Santiago International Short Film Festival

by Dan Mirvish



Four twenty-something filmmakers get disenchanted with their city's biggest film festival, so in defiance, they start their own. Are we in Park City, Chicago, New York or Austin? No. Think farther south. Way south. Santiago, Chile, to be exact.


While some of you may have been following the party scene in Toronto and New York these last couple of weeks, the real western hemispheric action was the first week of September at the Santiago International Short Film Festival (aka Festival Internacional de Cortometrajes de Santiago - the FICS for short).


This was the third annual edition of the FICS, which was started when Antonino Ballestrazzi, Raúl Flores, René Martín and Marcelo Rivera reached the conclusion that the Chilean International Short Film Festival (ARCOS) was no good, and they decided to do something about it. Although just three years old, the FICS has quickly established a reputation as the most prominent competitive film festival in Chile, and by extension, one of the best in all of Latin America.


I was invited to be one of the jurors at the festival (and according to one Santiago newspaper, I was "El Presidente" of the jury!), despite the fact that most of the films were in Spanish -- a language for which my admiration far exceeds my fluency. It didn't help matters that my fellow jurors (two from Chile, one from Argentina) didn't much speak English. Oh well, I discovered that good films work in any language, and besides, the festival paid for my airfare and my hotel. How could I refuse?


Chile has always been a somewhat isolated country. Over 2,500 miles long and scarcely 100 miles wide between the Andes Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, the country has only begun to emerge from General Augusto Pinochet's authoritarian regime in the last few years. Chile is still politically polarized -- often violently -- particularly in light of Pinochet's arrest in England earlier this year. But when it comes to entertainment, the mainstay of Chilean multiplexes is usually big Hollywood movies.


In this environment, the FICS is fulfilling a large demand for challenging film fare. Lasting 7 days, and showing over 170 films, the FICS has a major emphasis on Latin American films, but also showcased shorts from the U.S., Canada, Australia, Germany and several other countries. The festival takes place at an old Hoyt's multiplex in downtown Santiago's theater district, with all the screenings in a beautiful 600-seat theater. In addition to 35mm and 16mm capabilities (with excellent surround sound), the festival had also equipped the projection booth with Beta and VHS decks hooked up to a mighty powerful little Sony video projector.


One of the most talked about films of the festival was the winner of the documentary section, "Fernando Ha Vuelto" by Chilean filmmaker Silvio Caiozzi. The film portrays Chilean forensic pathologists as they clinically describe the torture and murder of one of Chile's "disappeared" from the Pinochet era. The man's widow confronts his skeleton as the doctors count off the bullet holes and bone fractures that the man endured while he was still alive. One journalist told me that by awarding the film this prize, "Fernando Ha Vuelto" has a much greater chance of getting shown on national television in Chile - a rarity for such a politically loaded documentary.


Other than the doc category, most of the other winning films skewed a little more light-hearted. Although the judging sections for film and video were divided between "Chilean" and "International," I think that the best of the Chilean shorts easily stacked up well against the international fare. The Best Chilean Film award went to Claudio Palacios' "Se Arrienda" (For Rent) -- a perfectly droll dark comedy about a couple forced to deal with a deranged landlord who claims to be an expert archer. The Best Chilean Video was Pepe Maldonado's "La Carne" (The Meat) -- a tragic black and white love triangle between a butcher, his best friend and his wife. Like many in the video category, "La Carne" was shot on 16mm, but finished on an AVID and projected on video. In fact, Maldonado plans on using the film as the first of three parts to an eventual feature. Based on "La Carne," he's already found financing for the next section of the film.


On the international side, the Best Film Award went to "El Espejo En El Cielo" by Mexico's Carlos Salces -- a beautifully shot tale of a boy trying to catch the reflection of an airplane. The best International Video was "Pelicula Bruta" by Mariano de Rosa of Argentina. It's a hysterical, politically charged mockumentary about a family barbecue in Buenos Aires.

Some of the best films of the festival were in the animation section, with Chilean Erich Breuer's "Ciro Norte" winning an honorable mention. An obsessively made (it took three years, apparently), experimental journey that stars a guy who looks curiously like John Pierson, with a very real appearance by photos of Nastassja Kinski. Though a very cool film, "Ciro Norte" couldn't keep the irrepressibly funny "Billy's Balloon," by Santa Barbara resident Don Hertzfeld, from charming yet another continent on its worldwide sweep of festivals. Besides winning the Best Animated Film at the FICS, "Billy" has already won the Best Short Jury Prize from Slamdance, and was in the main competition in Cannes. Finally, the Best Experimental award went to Michael Frank's haunting "Purgatory" from Australia -- one of the best uses of twins in casting that I've ever seen. Winning films all received cash prizes (in the neighborhood of US$500 -- courtesy of the Chilean Ministry of Education) -- as well as some film stock from Kodak.


In addition to the competition for shorts, the FICS also showed a number of shorts out of competition, a retrospective of some of their winning films from last year and a daily midnight screening of a feature. One of the best films of the fest (and one of the coolest features I've seen all year) was "La Sonámbula" by Fernando Spiner from Argentina (though much of the post work was done in Chile). Spiner's first film, it's a sci-fi melange of "Metropolis," "Total Recall" and "Blade Runner" that has some surprisingly sophisticated effects for a film that was largely originated on 16mm black and white. The digital revolution has hit the Southern Cone. [Ed. Note: "La SonÞmbula" is screening today, October 5th in L.A. at the Egyptian Theater at 6:30pm as part of the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival.]

One film that I was able to slip into the programming at the last minute, and which we officially dubbed a "sneak preview" of the next FICS festival (which will be held in May 2000), was the '99 Spirit of Slamdance award winner "Herd," by Mike Mitchell. Despite the film not having Spanish subtitles, the crowd still loved the puppet alien comedy.

Finally, some of the most popular screenings of the festival were the sets of 3 or 4 international commercial spots that were screened at the beginning of each shorts program. I've never seen this at a festival before (it had some connection to one of the festival sponsors), but some of the spots were hilarious crowd-pleasers (a particular Australian commercial featuring a singing penis was a real standout) and a good reminder that some of the best short films in the world are only 30 seconds long, and their directors are some of the highest paid filmmakers around. Hmmm, so much for filmmaker snobbery.

Of course no festival would be complete without parties. And at the FICS, the staff (and jurors) don't eat dinner 'til about 2:00am, so the partying doesn't get started 'til at least 3 or 4 in the morning. After one early morning venture to a popular Santiago disco (complete with Chilean hipsters, punkers, barflies and transvestites), we all wound up at Antonino's house for a 6 am salsa and meringue party. I tell you, these guys really know their chops on the dance floor. We dubbed fest organizer Raul "The Mambo King," and it wasn't because he looked like Armand Asante.


One caveat: Unlike Toronto or New York, you have to be a little careful when you ask directions to get to the "party." Turns out that's a euphemism for the almost daily confrontations between student protestors and police in Santiago. I was there during a particularly active week, as it was the anniversary of Pinochet's 1973 coup. It didn't help matters that the day before I got to town, national TV showed a policeman getting enveloped by flames from a not-so-friendly Molotov cocktail. Needless to say, the cops were looking for payback all week. The day I left Santiago, I went to a protest at the national cemetery and managed to get rocks thrown at me from protestors, and then tear-gassed by the cops. Apparently one person had died by the time the day was done. Now that's a party!


Like their fellow upstart festivals in the U.S., the FICS has experienced an uphill battle in establishing itself in Chile. The most notable struggle is money. Unlike the ARCOS festival, the FICS doesn't get any funding support from the national government (other than the awards for the winners). With the festival organizers averaging 25-years-old, "the sponsors don't believe in people with this age," says Antonino, the FICS organizer who learned English from watching Hollywood movies. "That's the biggest problem." Despite having to support the festival with their own savings, organizers have been lucky that a Santiago cultural organization named Centro de Eventos Labarynto gives them office space, a computer, a phone and free tickets to the disco that they run. One of the festival's biggest sponsors this year is Axe - a Chilean underarm deodorant for men -- that cleverly saw an untapped market in malodorous filmmakers. At every screening, two tall, beautiful models offered deodorant samples to every willing man who walked in. With all those fluorocarbons spraying around, it's no wonder there's an ozone hole over Chile.


Like the rest of the world, the youth culture in Chile is leading the way in the digital revolution. The FICS organizers realized early on that if they were to supplant the ARCOS fest and the Viña del Mar Festival (the other established film festival in Chile - which now officially relies on the FICS to program its short films), they would need to take advantage of the internet. Unlike the other two festivals, FICS has its own website (at www.fics.cl) -- with entry information and submission forms in both Spanish and English. They also regularly search other international film festival websites (and get copies of their programs) looking for film submissions. Last year they screened sidebars curated from the Claremont-Ferand Short Film Festival in France as well as Slamdance. "Without the Internet, we can't do this festival," said Antonino. It really is their lifeline to the rest of the world.

But Chile is still not the rest of the world yet, and the FICS has some unique problems it must overcome. The FICS entry form states, "Every movie must go through the National Cinematographic Qualification Council of Chile [the censorship board]. The participation of the short-film in the festival depends on its approval." The problem is as much economic as it is political: if the festival doesn't go through the censorship board, they'll be subject to exorbitant taxes on the box office. The FICS organizers have been making strides in working with foreign embassies in Santiago, including the cultural affairs attaché at the U.S. embassy: If they can get tapes submitted through diplomatic pouches, they can avoid some of the censorship hassles. Of course, filmmakers can also do what I did: smuggled videotapes in my luggage and just hope that customs didn't search my stuff.


[For more information on FICS, visit their website at http://www.fics.cl or send them e-mail at: santiago@fics.cl. Dan Mirvish is a practicing filmmaker and is Co-Founder-at-Large of the Slamdance Film Festival. To see his photographs from Chile, go to http://www.slamdance.com]

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