FESTIVALS: Viennale Toasts Native "Nordrand"; Chinese and Jewish-Themes Stand Out
by Anthony Kaufman
Tears came to my eyes while watching the films at this year's Viennale, Vienna's International Film Festival, which finished up its 13-day run last week on October 27. Day after day, one could always find at least one movie with enough beauty and power to make you cry; it is testament to the programming smarts and style of this 37-year-old festival held annually in Austria's capital.
Although several festival stand-bys such as "The Straight Story, "All About My Mother" and "American Beauty" (which had its Euro-premiere here before its previously scheduled bow at the London Film Fest) were screened, it is the more challenging films from the international fest circuit that shine in Vienna, screening to the art-savvy audiences of Austria's cultural center. For foreign journalists, the fest provides an intimate locale to catch up with work often lost in the star-powered hullabaloo of Berlin, Cannes, Venice and Toronto.
This year's Viennale had special cause to celebrate with the hometown success of Barbara Albert's "Nordrand" ("Northern Skirts") which premiered at Venice where it's young Austrian star Nina Proll took home the Marcello Mastroianni prize for best young actress. A Viennese native, Albert has made several films, three of which have screened at the Viennale: "The Fruit of Thy Womb" in 1997, "Slidin' Bright and Shiny World," an omnibus of which she directed one segment, and which received a special mention in 1998, and this year's "Nordrand." The film won unprecedented acclaim as both the FIPRESCI international critics' prizewinner and the Vienna Film Award for a local production (receiving 240,000 Austrian Schillings in cash and services).
Called "a new perspective in Austrian filmmaking," the local Viennese jury praised the film for being "honest, immediate, outspoken and [managing] to develop a close emotional relationship with its characters." The jury also highlighted the performances of Proll and stunning newcomer Edita Malovcic, who is riveting as a Yugoslavian immigrant struggling in her new home. The FIPRESCI critics honored the film "for its sense of rhythm and the richness of its characters which proves the political awareness and the obvious talent of its young director."
Although many in the festival, including Festival Director Hans Hurch, expected the film to win the local film prize, few anticipated the international critics' positive response to the film. "It's the first time in quite a long time," said Hurch, hoping that the film's recognition would inspire other Austrian producers and filmmakers.
"Nordrand"'s story of immigrants is especially prescient in Austria now, considering the recent rise of the ultra-nationalist and very anti-immigrant Freedom Party. In the country's most recent elections, a startling 27.2 percent of the vote went to the right-wingers, headed up by sometimes-dubbed "neo-Nazi" Joerg Haider, who has a history of invoking the policies of Adolf Hitler.
Given this political backdrop, it was also fitting that Emmanuel Finkiel's powerful debut feature "Voyages" was singled out. Awarded a special mention by both a jury of readers from the Austrian daily "Der Standard" and the FIPRESCI critics, "Voyages" is a moving and intelligently constructed narrative involving three intersecting stories around the Jewish Diaspora: a French woman living in Israel visits Auschwitz; an elderly Russian man searches for his long lost daughter in Paris; and an elderly Russian woman looks for her last remaining relative in Israel. "Voyages" won the Youth Jury Prize for a French film at this year's Cannes Film Festival and will be heading to the San Francisco International Film Festival next year.
Two other films with Jewish themes also garnered attention, Berlin entry Volker Koepp's "Herr Zwilling and Frau Zuckermann," which is currently regarded as the most popular documentary in Germany, about two elderly Jews from the Ukrainian town of Czernowitz who survived Nazi deportation, and Cannes competitor Amos Gitai's hard-hitting tale of women suffering under orthodox Jewry "Kadosh," which continues to play at nearly every international festival to much acclaim.
Central and East Asian films also garnered a solid place at this year's fest, but as Hurch says, "it is almost a tradition for the Viennale." Hurch has special interest in the new wave of Central Asian cinema, programming films like Serik Aprimov's well-regarded "Aksuat" (Kazakhstan), and Jamsed Usmonov's "The Flight of the Bee" (Tajikistan).
China and Japan were also well represented at the festival, with Chinese independents staking significant claim. From "East Palace, West Palace" director Zhang Yuan came two films, the entertaining documentary "Crazy English" and the brilliant fiction feature, "Seventeen Years." Arriving directly from Venice where it won the Silver Lion, "Seventeen Years" set itself apart as the most stunning selection at this year's Viennale, a film that had audiences nearly shell-shocked post-screening, reaching for their cigarettes and a place to sit down in the theater lobby.
A quietly devastating story, "Seventeen Years" utilizes a gorgeous, yet transparent filmmaking approach to trace a young woman's return trip home after a 17-year stint in prison. Filled with constant edge-of-your-seat tension, this logline does little justice to the breathtaking subtlety of the story, and a young actress whose constant look of anguish cannot be replicated in words. "Seventeen Years" also received a special mention from the "Der Standard" jury, which gave its top prize to Fruit Chan's "The Longest Summer," a vivid chronicle of the handover of Hong Kong back to the Chinese as lived through a number of Chinese soldiers, formerly serving under the British Military Corps. The "Der Standard" jury also highlighted Emilie Deleuze's "Peau Neuve," continuing the film's accolades after its FIPRESCI prize at Cannes '99.
In addition to "Seventeen Years," "Voyages," and "Nordrand," which deserve a look from small U.S. distributors, let me also put forth "Ponette" director Jacques Doillon's endearing tale of tough youth in the Paris projects "Petits Freres" and Anders Rønnow Klarlund's stylish X-Files-influenced thriller "Possessed," as all viable foreign films for U.S. release.
Back to the Asian influence at the Viennale, cinematographer Christopher Doyle presented his directorial debut "Away with Words," and received a tribute, which included several of Wong Kar-wai's films, as well as the celebrated D.P.'s work with Stanley Kwan, Chen Kaige, Stan Lai and Edward Yang. Doyle was a radiant presence at the festival for the first few days, his exuberant energy taking many of the Austrians off-guard. According to Hurch, Doyle noted a trend of up-and-coming directors from Asia, especially a new generation of filmmakers from Taiwan to look out for.
Surprisingly, the Doyle tribute -- with its popular Wong Kar-wai films -- was not as well attended as a tribute to French documentary production company, Les Film d'Ici. The small, Paris-based company was founded in 1984 by Richard Copans and Yves Janneau, and has produced such acclaimed docs as Robert Kramer's "Route One/USA," Patricio Guzman's "Chile, Obstinate Memory," and Nicolas Philibert's "La Ville Louvre," which all screened in Vienna to much interest.
But for new documentaries, according to Hurch, American work stood out in 1999. "I've never seen so many interesting American documentary films as I've seen this year," he said. "This was something very special for me that the American documentaries were so strong." Of the 27 documentaries in the festival's main program, 10 were from the U.S. Among them: Chris Smith's "American Movie," Jennifer Fox's "An American Love Story," Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein's "On the Ropes," Roko Belic's "Genghis Blues," Christopher Wilcha's "The Target Shoots First," and James Benning's "Utopia." All of these filmmakers flew into the festival, attended their screenings, as well as nightly dinners with international journalists and filmmakers, complete with dancing and drinks well into the evening at the Vienna Lounge, a 2-floor restaurant located in a nearby park open to festival-goers and guests alike.
"The environment here really fosters a sense of community," said "On the Ropes" co-director Brett Morgen who likened the Viennale to his positive experience at the San Francisco Film Festival. "They treat the filmmakers very well," agreed partner Nanette Burstein. "And this is the first time we screened for a foreign audience, so it was pretty exciting for us to see if they understood our movie or not." Added Burstein, "It was clear that the cultural barriers were broken."