"Change of plans. We’re going to Sam’s Place."
I heard this exchange between two of the festival programmers at the Morelia International Film Festival after dining in a restaurant full of upside-down statues of Saint Antonio (women pray to him for a husband), before driving to the opening party. It sounded so mysterious. Sam’s Place. A strip club? A roadhouse? A druggie hangout? It turned out to be a magnificent home owned by a wealthy philanthropist, surrounded by 25 inch-thick walls of the ubiquitous pink granite that defines the city center, where architecture from the 17th and 18th centuries is the norm. (Morelia, Mexico is an official UNESCO Heritage site.)
As our car approached, I saw several armed policemen guarding the block. Inside the massive front door were three more, just for opening and closing. We were maybe 40 guests, with somewhere between 15 to 20 guards protecting us, likely on account of one or two government dignitaries who were in our midst. I became nervous, having recently read about Morelia as a major drug center (factories of crystal meth hidden in the hills), and some unfortunate assassinations in the main square, site of one of the most beautiful cathedrals I’ve ever seen.
But my paranoia was unjustified. I have never felt so safe walking around a city’s streets at all hours. People were warm and helpful, and once I discovered that the state of Michoacan is the avocado-growing center of the country, I became even more enchanted. I’m easy - I can be bought with the guacamole, the best I’ve ever had.
There is a trite lesson here, something along the lines of not judging a book by its cover. My preconceptions of this, the eighth Morelia International Film Festival (October 16 - 24), were way off. Yes, there were some good sidebars, like Quentin Tarantino’s choices of decades-old Mexican vampire and horror films, movies about the Mexican Revolution (this is the centenary year), a section of silent cinema, a retrospective of Olivier Assayas, and smaller tributes to directors like Terry Gilliam, Nicolas Filibert, and Doris Dorrie. Doris Dorrie? Okay, they missed the mark on that one, in which they presented "The Hairdresser," a vulgar little comedy that had been underwhelming in Berlin.
For me, most of the highlights were not, well, the catalog’s highlights. Tucked away here and there were a few Latin American shorts, both fiction and documentary, that were pure genius. And in the main competition of Mexican feature films (only seven), the ones that were pretty much unsung were the discoveries for this guy.
This happens most often at festivals when the priorities are clearly uncommercial. In terms of the symbiotic relationship between art and commerce that both defines and haunts film, the scales here tip heavily toward the latter.
"This is a festival invented by cinephiles for cinephiles," explains Daniela Michel, director since its inception in 2003. “We are not all that interested in the business part.” Wow. What fest leader admits that these days? It’s a confession more than fabulous, and it rang true. "We want to show the diversity of the Mexican film world and the international film scene, but also we have to think of the local audience, which makes up 70% of our attendees, a total of about 50,000 this year. So we show experimental works from Spain but we know many of the Morelian families like Woody Allen."
The festival has a connection to the Ambulante Film Festival, essentially a selection of documentaries that tour all over Mexico, that's recently branched into the neighboring Central American countries of Guatemala and Honduras. Ambulante is a child of Canana, the film company owned by Pablo Cruz, Gael Garcia Bernal, and Diego Luna (who was here to deservedly receive the Jose Cuervo prize for career achievement; this is a great actor who directed an excellent documentary, "Chavez," and a fine fiction feature, "Abel").
On the tour, according to Ambulante director Ricardo Giraldo, are about 60 films, Mexican and foreign, and they are shown mostly without charge in towns and villages where residents would have no other way to see them. In 2006 Ambulante linked up with Morelia for a yearly presentation of a new documentary and a major press conference outlining plans for the coming year. You have to love these people. Among the new sections is one called “Dictator’s Cut,” which focuses on films about human rights. Nothing like dedication and a wicked sense of humor.
One of the features that bypassed my expectations was "A Stone’s Throw Away," a film in competition, the first film directed by cinematographer Sebastian Hiriart, its storyline developed in conjunction with the great actor and theater director Gabino Rodriguez. Rodriguez stars as a shepherd named Jacinto who tends his flock in the San Luis Potosi region in the north of Mexico. One day, after a powerful dream about discovering treasure, he finds a key chain with an address in Oregon. Thinking it a divine sign of impending financial gain, he slips into the U.S.,where he is robbed and beaten by both fellow Latinos and young gringos, but nevertheless he follows through on his plan until he reaches a remote snowy mountain pass where the address is located.
He doesn’t speak English, and the residents tie him up, assuming he stole it from their missing son. Xenophobes like most of the Americans Jacinto encounters in this unique road movie, have him deported. Suddenly the calm life of a shepherd does not look so bad. Besides Rodriguez’s masterful performance, Hiriart’s cinematography — he shot everything himself — is outstanding. His feeling for both natural, urban, and small-town landscapes is unique, as if the steady eye of a divinity were observing the world.
Another revelation in the competition was the feature "Alicia, Go Yonder," shot mostly in the far south of Argentina by Mexican filmmaker Elisa Miller. It’s something of a diary film, about two characters, who come together only briefly, each on a geographical journey to help in mapping out their psychological and emotional turmoil. Miller and actress Sofia Espinosa worked closely together to track her character from Mexico City to Buenos Aires to Calafate and the glacier at Petite Morena, not far from Antarctica. She had Espinosa and actor Martin Piroyansky (the confused teen in "XXY") improvise, never shooting more than one take, but still rehearsing with them individually in advance. A bit of the Mike Leigh approach.
What Miller got in three weeks is Art with a capitol A: superb compositions with unusual facial angles, light streaming through windows and leaving bits of matter in the air, but always cinematic. This is a road movie, so movement is essential. At only 65 minutes, and represented by a French sales agent, Miller is doing what director Michel had been emphasizing: being a creative cinephile without much regard for the business end. She’s brave. By the way, she won the Palm d’Or for best short in Cannes in 2007 with "Watching It Rain," so she’s a recognized talent who has selected her own path.
The shorts: "Glorious Saturday," a fiction by the Colombian filmmaker Santiago Lopez Ortiga, seemed like a Post-‘em in the catalog, a footnote to the Peruvian feature "Undertow," in the strand of international features. Shot for $35,000 on the Colombian island of Orika in the Caribbean, Lopez Ortiga used teen nonprofessionals in this story set in the popular world of cockfighting. A teen boy’s animal, called Bruce Lee, means the world to him, even if he has to lie to his young girlfriend about what he is doing. An assistant director of commercials, this director knows how to make a movie, and he has also succeeded in giving rare screen time to a marginalized community of blacks.
In a section about indigenous peoples called First Nations Forum, Spanish-born Alba Mora Roca, who now lives in Berkeley, presented a 26-minute documentary (a Spanish/Mexican/American co-production) set in Colombian jungles only recently explored. She filmed the plight of the Nukak Maku, who were unknown to the outside world until 1988. With old TV and archival footage, she shows how they were then - naked and proud, before missionaries brought germs and clothing; before narcotics traffickers moved in on their territory; and before necessity motivated them to guard coca fields for paramilitary groups. The interviews with the old-timers are fascinating; this is not only well-made, it is an important record of one of the great mistakes in modern anthropology.
An Argentinian-born resident of Mexico City, Flavio Florencio, known in Mexico as the organizer of the African Film Festival, showed his 15-minute work, "And God Would Know," in the official shorts competition. A deceptively simple tale about a very old woman (played by a centenarian he met in a café) whose sons are too preoccupied working in the States to visit her, it is basically cut between men in a truck and the old woman struggling with a pay phone. The film has a textured placidity, possibly influenced by the years Florencio has spent in Africa.
The main winners of the Morelia International Film Festival:
Best Mexican Feature: "Marimbas From Hell," by Julio Hernandez Cordon
Special Mention: "Mother Earth," by Dylan Verrechia and Aidee Gonzalez
Best Mexican Fiction Short: "The Gold Mine," by Jacques Bonnavent
Best Animated Mexican Short: "Ponkina," by Beatriz Herrera
Best Mexican Documentary: "El Varal," by Marta Ferrer
Best Michoacan Film: "The Idea of My Mother," by Maider Oleaga
Audience Award: "Acorazado," by Alvaro Curiel