By Peter Knegt | Indiewire March 9, 2009 at 1:22AM
On the verge of a major anniversary and a true milestone of longevity, the 19th Cinequest - San Jose's annual celebration of international cinema - isn't ready to rest on its laurels. The festival proudly wears its badge of unorthodox authenticity, invoking the spirit of the maverick as last year's theme, and settling on a rallying call for "Transformation" in its current iteration. Appropriate to the Silicon Valley surroundings, the event's enterprising ways are a direct influence of the tech revolution, reflecting a quiet long-view cerebral shift more so than a feisty off-the-cuff stab at being trendy.
In their attempt to reengineer the basic workings of a film festival, Cinequest has forgone some of a festival's traditional trappings, with results alternating between excitingly cutting-edge and disappointing. Screenings are almost all introduced by eager volunteers, with a thorough lavishing of sponsors, but little to no information on the upcoming film. Out of town guests are rare, so the majority of films stand completely alone; perhaps it is old-fashioned or out-of-step, but a major benefit of festival experiences elsewhere is a curatorial contextualizing of a film's subject matter followed by the opportunity to hear some words from the filmmakers themselves. However, the marked volunteer presence speaks to one of Cinequest's core strengths as well - without a doubt, the community is entirely, enthusiastically, and nearly fanatically in support of the festival. Seemingly irregardless of a screening's production values or subject matter, the audiences respond with uniformly thunderous applause, and the rare Q&A is consistently greeted with overwhelming curiosity broadcast by a sea on inquiring hands. Downtown is plastered over with festival signage, nearly every local businesses within a three block radius of the main screening venues offers incentives to Cinequest patrons, and attendees generally opt for reasonably priced all-access passes instead of individual tickets, demonstrating their commitment to making the festival their second home for the better part of eleven days.
Cinequest earns its maverick stripes not so much from its form as its substance however; easily the most nonconformist and stubbornly eccentric element of the festival is its programming. The offerings aren't cherry-picked from industry stalwarts like Sundance or the Berlin film festival, and premieres are abundant. Rummaging in the all-too-hastily discarded bins of more mainstream indie tastemakers is risky business: the worst features here were dull, sloppily produced, and unmotivated ventures, but along with these flops came significant discoveries - true revelations that without Cinequest's discerning eye may have never received much-due screen time.
As is often the case, straying from glossier American entries pays off. Four of the most notable gems were:
Song From the Southern Seas
The premise of the North American premiere of Marat Sarulu's fabulist tale is deceptively simple: a young Russian couple living in Kazakhstan give birth to a child with a dark complexion (they are both whiter than Kahlua mixed with vodka and cream). Unfounded charges of adultery devolve into general mistrust and a lingering sense of marital unease, but deeper concerns also rise to the surface. The young boy quickly becomes estranged from both his parents, underscoring not only their apparent ineptitude for childrearing, but also salting the wound of a thought-to-be-resolved conflict between their two identities. Maturely engaging sensitive and oft-divisive matter such as national insecurity about race, the tenuous link between blood-lines and religion, and the role of women in a male-dominated society, the film manages a light touch that adroitly balances a painful history of complex civilian struggle with a generous dose of universally affecting humor.
After receiving top marks at the Montreal World Film Festival and landing the audience award at Thessaloniki, Goran Markovic's "The Tour" isn't exactly an esoteric find; nonetheless, it has been criminally underplayed in the United States. The absurdist dramedy concerns the fate of a blissfully naive troupe of thespians from Belgrade who accept an invitation to perform in the heart of the Serb-Croat-Bosnian conflict in 1993. Thrust into a war-zone they don't understand, the actors seek to make sense of the scattered genocide, but clear-cut answers to the simplest of questions are nowhere to be found. What are the differences between the fighting factions? Who started the bloodshed? What, in the best or worst of all possible worlds, could any of the soldiers hope to gain? Seeking an elusive patch of stable intellectual ground through which to examine the horrors surrounding them, they flip desperately from Freud to Feydeau and prepare for the unforeseen possibility that none of their academic leaders have anything to offer in the face of the madness that envelopes them.
The North American premiere of Oezcan Alper's "Autumn" deals with a very different form of obtuse human bleakness, this time on a smaller, more personal scale. The heartrending story of a one-time socialist returning home after enduring ten years of imprisonment on political charges, hinges on a trio of sparse but brave performances by leads Onur Saylak, Serkan Keskin, and Megi Kobaladze. The withered man (Saylak) is still technically young, but the effects of being locked away in Turkey's notoriously cruel prison system for the prime of his youth have had a chilling effect, both on his rapidly deteriorating health and disposition - the light has gone out of his eyes and he is left with little to live for. On an errant trip to town he runs into Eka (Kobaladze), a Georgian prostitute similarly pantomiming life's tired motions, and the two weakly attempt to prop each other up. Both are interminably weighed down by a past of disappointment however, and as she turns away from him to seek a solitary liberation, he too is left alone to resolve the crushing blow of a failed socialist ideal. Dark in message and melancholy in tone, the film's real achievement lies in its ability to maintain a sense of the characters' honor and fortitude in the face of insurmountable challenges, allowing the viewer to empathizes with, rather than pity, its protagonists.
Love As its playfully schlocky title suggests, Oliver Paulus' romantic comedy doesn't shy away from the obvious, the overly exuberant, or the spicy - and that's a lucky thing for the viewer indeed. Part Bollywood, part Bavarian-Swiss fairytale, and all kitschy all the time, this gorgeously shot and masterfully choreographed nouveau-musical is a cross-cultural confection about the bountiful possibilities of love between two people in spite of linguistic, class, and societal differences. When Rajah escapes a Bollywood set to cook in a traditional Swiss kitchen, he falls instantly in love with the property's young heiress, who can only resist his culinary charms for so long, even as she continues on with plans to wed the restaurant's manager. The narrative train really slides off its rails when the Bollywood production's manager, hell-bent with anger over the cook's disappearance, storms into the scene only to be taken out on a stretcher. Careful never to take itself too seriously, the film relishes in odd but delicious combinations, whether they be culinary, musical (Indian yodeling, for one), or dance-oriented (cutting ballet with pop dance maneuvers). The result is so over-the-top saccharine that even a Grinch without a sweet tooth can't help but crack a smile.
A lineup so charmingly diverse ensures that Cinequest's enthusiastic following will not wane as it nears its twentieth birthday. Recapping this year's accomplishments, Co-Founder and Festival Director Halfdan Hussey proudly attests that even the damp economic forecast can't slow down his juggernaut: "we served 80,000+ festival-goers, more than 600 artists from 40 different countries, and saw a 30% increase in box offices sales... Cinequest delivered on its promise to serve Maverick artists, film lovers, students, and innovators more than ever despite the world economic challenges." As bright as this outlook is, smart money says these restless rebels of cinematic exhibition will only be emboldened to further shake up their inimitable concoction in the years to come.