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November 2, 1998 2:00 AM
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Taking Cinema Seriously: Vienna's International Film Festival

Taking Cinema Seriously: Vienna's International Film Festival

by Anthony Kaufman




Anna Karina, in close-up, black and white, with tears just welling in
her eyes -- one of the posters of this year's Viennale says at least a
thousand words about this international festival held annually in
Austria's capital. Taken from Jean-Luc Godard's "Vivre sa vie,"
Karina's forlorn gaze, plastered all over old and new Vienna, suggests
both the intellect of the French filmmaker as well as the beautiful
sadness of his subject, dual characteristics that could be used to
describe the personality of this 36-year-old festival.


At first glance, Viennale resembles any other European regional fest
with a broad program made up of 75 feature films, 27 documentaries, and
24 shorts. Tributes to Jeff Bridges, Luc Moullet, Dean Martin, Kenji
Mizoguchi and a Godard retrospective also played. Additionally,
festival favorites like Erick Zonca's "The Dream Life of the Angels,"
Roberto Benigni's "Life is Beautiful," Walter Salles' "Central Station"
and Todd Haynes' "Velvet Goldmine" had their Austrian premieres. But
look closer and a Zeitgeist begins to emerge.


With little of the narrative film industry or history of other European
countries, Austria is more renown for an avant-garde film movement as
well as the controversial work of director Michael Haneke ("Benny's
Video" and "Funny Games"). During the two week festival, the number of
dark, difficult, or downbeat films quickly became apparent. Even the
festival's promotional trailer, which screened around the city prior to
the festival, was a 1-minute short made by U.S. experimental filmmaker,
Bruce Baillie. In Vienna, spectators take their cinema seriously.


A good example of the fest's aesthetic also comes in the Viennale
Favorites, a sampling of five popular films from the program which are
chosen to screen again on the last day of the festival. This year's
favorites: Iranian director, Ahmad Ramezanzadeh's "Bashir" about a young
Iranian gang member who looks for peace in the death-intoned melody of a
stranger's musical instrument; Kim Longinotto's searing documentary
about Family Law Courts in Tehran called "Divorce Iranian Style" (Woman
Make Moves is distributing in the U.S.); Tsai Ming-liang's bleak Cannes
competition entry "The Hole"; a doublebill of two dark Viennese stories
"Rat Race" and "Gfrasta"; and "My Brother's Gun," a nihilistic,
anti-thriller from Spain's Ray Loriga. Not exactly a happy bunch to say
the least. But they all have found their perfect fit with the Viennese.


Loriga's film was noted as one of the more promising narrative films in
the festival. Well-received at this year's Berlinale, Loriga's debut
film effort (he is a well-known author in Spain), follows a stoic
teenager who kills a security guard and kidnaps an attractive girl
during his escape. Sound familiar? But Loriga's innovative structure
and slicing dialogue surpasses the conventional outlaws-on-the-run
genre. With no support from the Spanish government and Loriga's
entrepreneur-producer busy running a Spanish soccer team and Loriga too
busy with his next projects, there is unfortunately no one really
pushing "My Brother's Gun," a film which deserves wider attention.


Other films previously lost in the whirlwinds of Toronto, Berlin, or
Venice which deserve special mention, include Hans-Christian Schmid's
conspiracy-hacker-thriller debut, "23," Cedric Kahn's relentless tale of
obsession, "L'Ennui," and a couple of strong Japanese entries, Hisashi
Saito's "French Dressing" and Sabu's "Postman Blues."


The Viennale is also host to a healthy collection of documentary,
experimental and unclassifiable work that might be marginalized at
larger festivals, but are given just as much attention in Vienna. Work
like Michael Shamberg's Rotterdam-bound digital feast for the senses,
"Souvenir" or the documentaries of Stephen Dwoskin and James Benning,
push the conventions of film language, and are appreciated in Vienna for
this innovation. "They take my kind of film seriously and you're
treated like everybody else," said Benning, who is at the Viennale for a
second time with his structuralist cultural history, "Four Corners."


Another unique director showcased, was the Toronto-based 25-year-old
Ruba Nadda, presenting her collection of 8 short films. In the last
year, Nadda's films have played in over 20 film festivals around the
world. "I don't even get this kind of attention back home," Nadda said.
"So to get it in Vienna and to have a sold out show, it's just
overwhelming." Ironically, her films were rejected at Toronto, but at
the Viennale, she is hit up for autographs and congratulated everywhere
she goes.


"I have to say this might be the best festival I've ever been to," Ray
Loriga told indieWIRE. Besides Berlin, Loriga has been to fests in
Spain, Puerto Rico, Montreal, Italy, Columbia, and England. "The people
here are really nice. They take care of you like a baby," added Loriga.
"And I really like the selection of movies. It's an honor to be
surrounded by all these great filmmakers. . . and it's not that small,
like, 'What the Hell am I doing here?' and it's not that big that you're
lost, so it's the perfect size."


Also having a positive experience at the Viennale were Tom Betterton and
Jenny Gage, two young Brooklyn-based filmmakers screening their
30-minute "Drift" at the Viennale, their first film festival. "You
imagine what would be good and you hear horror stories about Sundance
and being a little fish," said Betterton, "and when we got here, it was
like the best possible case. There are people here who are extremely
passionate about films, in all the different forms. And film is
definitely treated as an art and filmmakers are treated as artists."


For a festival that plays most of the hits from other festivals,
Festival Director Hans Hurch's discovery of "Drift" is a Viennale
exception. But Hurch hopes to make more discoveries in the festival's
future. "I want to find films in cutting rooms," he claimed. "This
would be my ideal way." Additionally, Hurch wants to follow the careers
of burgeoning directors, citing "Dream Life of Angels" director, Erick
Zonca as an example, whose two short films appeared in the festival
previously.


"This is something that a festival can do," Hurch added. "I want to try
to find ways of getting away from the bigger festivals. Every festival
director I talk to says, ‘Forget it.'" But Hurch is committed to new
works, claiming an interest in everywhere from Cal Arts (which had an
entry called "Finished" in last year's program) to Kazakhstan (from
which one of Hurch's favorite films in this year's selection hails,
Darezhan Omirbajev's "Killer").


One of the perks of the festival is also its intimacy. "We got to meet
and hang out with Ben Gazzara," said Jenny Gage. Other approachable
actors and filmmakers seen to be schmoozing during the festival were
Natasha Gregson Wagner, Larry Clark, Elina Lowensohn, Olivier Assayas,
Don McKellar (who even stayed an extra night to support fellow
Torontonian Nadda), and fest poster-girl Anna Karina.


Although nearly 500 accredited guests attended the festival, nightly
dinners were small, with actors, directors and journalists from
different countries sharing ideas, wine, and mediocre beef in luxurious
locales throughout the city. The festivities also included "the tent," a
nightly meeting spot where film guests and Viennese citizens had
spritzers into the wee hours of the morning. A couple of filmmakers,
however, complained that missing this year was a meeting place during
the day, yearning for years past when the "tent" was just as much a
party at night, as a daily hub where filmmakers met to discuss their
work.

The festival's closing night served up one of the more defining moments
of the Viennale experience. While the festival's ending party began to
wind down, just 5 minutes away at the largest theater in Austria called
the Gartenbrau, cineastes and culturati were staging an all night
protest against the sale of the theater to a major
distributor/exhibitor. More a cultural event than a sit-in, attendees
trickled in and out of the lobby, catching glimpses of experimental film
projected on one of the walls, bumming cigarettes, and reminiscing about
their early experiences at the Gartenbrau until early morning. A
fashion show, speeches and cabaret acts were presented, and just about
anyone who was anyone in Vienna stopped by. Even Festival Director Hans
Hurch left his own party to join the protest. A joyous and committed
spirit enveloped the event, similar to the Viennale as a whole.

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