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October 31, 2000 2:00 AM
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FESTIVALS: Vienna Rises From The Shadows

FESTIVALS: Vienna Rises From The Shadows

by Aaron Krach



(indieWIRE/ 10.31.00) -- The 38th Vienna International Film Festival (October 13-25) was more than a 10-day run of new (and old) cinema. This year's Viennale, as it is affectionately known, was a handful of smaller festivals spread around Vienna's picturesque downtown and across the cinematic map. Attendees could pick carefully from the 150-plus films and spend all their time watching this year's film-festival-favorites like "In The Mood For Love" and "Dancer in the Dark."


A different viewer could spend all ten days catching up on the latest from art-school auteurs like Harmut Bitomsky, Harun Farocki and Sharon Lockhart, (Bitomsky and Lockhart were each given multi-film side-bars). History buffs could avoid anything new by watching everything by Richard Lester -- from "A Hard Days Night" to "Superman II' -- and rewatching dozens of films from the Hollywood Blacklist (both were given thorough retrospectives). There was also a full retro of Cuban documentary maker Santiago Alvarez, as well as a sidebar of Amer-Indies under the bold title of "New American Independents." Of course, an adventurous viewer could have taken advantage of the diverse line-up and sampled a little bit of each; but judging by the significantly smaller audiences for the more esoteric fare -- as opposed to the crowds who flocked to mainstream flicks like Spike Lee's "Summer of Sam" (making it's Viennese debut) -- even in a town that considers cinema a high art, the shadow of Hollywood is as dark and foreboding as ever.


A somewhat less dark, but equally chilling shadow hung over the festival due to Austria's recent flirtation with the far right. Although the somewhat extreme Jorg Haider was voted out of office only months after his election earlier this year, some filmmakers and guests chose not to attend the Viennale in protest. French director Agnes Jaoui refused to attend her own Opening Night gala screening of "Le Gout des Autres" ("The Taste of Others").


Festival programmers were wise to not avoid the issue; instead they scheduled a panel discussion on the possible changes a conservative government may wield in regards to film financing. (American directors who couldn't imagine Uncle Sam underwriting their film are forgiven for their lack of sympathy.)


Perhaps due to the Viennale's place on the international film festival calendar, not many directors were in town to introduce their films. So the programmers took advantage of those that were and scheduled public discussions. These included conversations about recent Iranian Cinema, American Independents, Tom Twyker and his favorite actress Franka Potente, as well as the victims of the Hollywood Blacklist. All of the panels were held in a temporary tent on the edge of a beautiful park. At night it was transformed into a bar/lounge/networking-center. If only they had figured out a way to ventilate the thing, it might have been even more popular. A week of Indian Summer, with highs in the upper 70s, combined with enough smoking cineastes to sink a ship, created a toxic environment under the not-so-big top. The door swings both ways and those with sensitive lungs could wander back to one of the five local theaters given over to the festival from 10am to after midnight each day.


Essays could be written on the peculiarities of Austrian audiences. Most striking to this critic is the fact that in Vienna, no one claps for a film until the last credit has rolled. Problem is that most of the audience has left by the time the credits end, leaving even the most enthusiastic response sounding halfhearted. Such reserve was unfortunate because there were films that excited many viewers. Lou Ye's "Suzhou River" (coming to the U.S. in November from Strand Releasing) continued it's festival success, charming audiences and critics, eventually earning the FIPRESCI Prize from a jury consisting of Marcel Martin, (France) Mireya Castaneda Pinon, (Cuba) Dita Rietuma, (Latvia) David Sterrit, (USA) and Gerald Sturz, (Austria). The prize for Best Short was given to American director Abraham Ravett for "The March," a film about the director's mother's experience at Auschwitz. The closest the Viennale gets to an "audience award" is the Standard Readers' Jury Prize, voted on by readers of the daily newspaper The Standard. Agnes Varda was this year's winner for her personal documentary about poverty and picking, "The Gleaners and I."


Festival trailers can say a lot about a festival. The Viennale commissioned experimental director Matthias Mueller to create a one-minute, digital to 35mm piece called "Breeze." Like a hot wind over the desert, "Breeze" meditated on the shimmering quality of movie screens, dreams, a mother's face and the ability of curtains to blow sideways and reveal a window.


The Viennale lends considerable attention to experimental film in spite of the attention "bigger" films receive. Elizabeth Subrin, so often relegated to museums and video festivals in the States, was served well by having her eccentric, emotional and subtly feminist films shown in a theater. The same can be said for Jem Cohen, Miranda July and Cathy Lee Crane -- all of whose work looked exceptional on the big screen.


There were a few missteps, like the surprisingly low turnout for some screenings, and there were a few bad prints that made subtitles difficult (or impossible) to read. Also, Los Angeles-based photographer/filmmaker Sharon Lockhart may sound exciting as a hybrid artist, but she is not quite ready for her close-up. Viennese audiences were definitely not ready for Lockhart's brand of film as extended photography -- her latest "Teatro Amazonas" almost emptied the theater during the first 10 minutes. Her work is better served in a gallery setting where viewers can come and go as they please. But these are quibbles. What American festival would even consider giving her a mini-retrospective? At least the Viennale's leadership is willing to take that, and many other chances.


Aaron Krach is a regular contributor to indieWIRE.

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