By Indiewire | Indiewire November 4, 2003 at 2:00AM
Viennale 2003; Impressive Films, Warm Welcomes, and Late Nights
by Wendy Mitchell
The Austrian films currently making the international rounds paint a miserable portrait of life there. Ruth Mader's "Struggle," Ulrich Seidl's "Hundstage," and Barbara Albert's "Free Radicals" show -- among other things -- very depressed Austrians living very bleak lives and having very bad sex. That kind of bleakness is nowhere to be found among the crowds and organizers at the Viennale; in fact, the Vienna International Film Festival is the friendliest festival I attend each year.
The festival's astounding hospitality coupled with its depth of programming should make it a must-attend stop on the European circuit. Vienna's cosmopolitan culture, easy walking ability, and decent autumn weather don't hurt either. Plus, the non-competitive atmosphere and plenty of late-night socializing (coupled with lack of early-morning screenings) create a fun environment for any visitor. During its 43rd year, this two-week event (which closed October 30), a record 75,200 people attended the Viennale's screenings of 302 films. That's nearly the perfect size to feel like a major film event, but not so huge that you lose the personal touch or ability to keep things well organized and on schedule.
"The public is so open and curious that they want to see different things," festival director Hans Hurch told indieWIRE. "I'm happy that it's getting more and more well attended, but I'm also happy that it's not getting too big...then it would become a machine."
Fighting that machine, Hurch says he likes to treat the festival's industry attendees like guests to his own home -- and filmmakers, distributors, journalists, and programmers from other festivals certainly are given top-notch treatment. Even maligned director Vincent Gallo might agree this is a welcoming festival -- he couldn't attend this year, but his newly re-cut version of "The Brown Bunny" captured the FIPRESCI prize; a much more hospitable welcome than he found in Cannes. (For the record, the FIPRESCI jury in Vienna cited the film's "bold exploration of yearning and grief and its radical departure from dominant tendencies in current American filmmaking.") Sofia Coppola, whose magnificent "Lost in Translation" opened the festival, did make the trek to Vienna and enjoyed the sushi and whisky (among other treats) being served at the lush opening-night party at the Rathaus (Vienna's City Hall). Coppola didn't stick around for the dancing in the Rathaus' "jungle room," filled with palm trees, that reportedly lasted til 5 a.m.
There were several venue changes at this year's Viennale. The former HQ at the aging Hilton (now undergoing renovations) was replaced with a new home base at the luxe Hotel Intercontinental -- the nicest hotel this starving journalist has bunked at in a while. (In fact, they put me up in a room so big that I decided to host an impromptu party one night). Also, the festival's hangout spot for cocktails, live music, and panel discussions, formerly a cozy tent (or "zelt") in the Stadtpark, was now a much more sleek bar atop one of the theaters, the modern yet comfy Urania. It wasn't as homey as the zelt, but still good to know there was somewhere to go well after midnight to find a few filmmakers, festival staffers, or journalists to share a beer with. (Strangely, at the Urania's opening night DJ party, one Austrian pal of mine found an abandoned Viennale bag stuffed with bread...to soak up the beer perhaps?)
In addition to late-night activities, there were of course more than 300 films being offered. Because I'd seen quite a few of the program's high-profile films -- "Elephant," "American Splendor," "All the Real Girls," "Free Radicals," "Der glaserne blick" (Dead Man's Memory), "Il est plus facile pour un chameau" (It's Easier For a Camel), "The Eye" -- I'll admit that most of the screenings I did catch while I was in town weren't life-changing. Still, only one film was a big disappointment -- Emilie Deleuze's "Mister V.," about a tap-dancing horse that wreaks havoc on a French family (too bad it wasn't a comedy).
One of the most entertaining films I saw was part of the retrospective of American doc maker Emile de Antonio. "Millhouse: A White Comedy," one of 10 de Antonio offerings playing in Vienna, was a masterful yet playful portrait of Richard Nixon. Predictably, there were quite a few hilarious moments (I was particularly enthralled by the close-ups of Pat Nixon looking heavily sedated). The film served as a reminder of the need for contemporary political docs (beyond Michael Moore), and it was the first time I'd seen Nixon's infamous "Checkers" speech in its entirety.
I was also blown away by Sam Green and Bill Siegel's "The Weather Underground," a hit at Sundance that was one of the sold-out American docs playing here. In our politically turbulent times, it was a telling look of past generations' struggles -- easily one of the year's most important films. I was less impressed with another American doc playing here, John Dullaghan's "Bukowski: Born Into This," which felt at times sloppy and -- at more than two hours -- overly long. Hurch noted that the American documentaries were perhaps the strongest part of his program, and also popular early sell-outs with the public. "The American documentary film seems to be quite alive," he said. "There were films like 'Los Angeles Plays Itself' that sold out in a few days. For 'A Certain Kind of Death' we are doing a third screening due to demand."
"A Certain Kind of Death" filmmakers Grover Babcock and Blue Hadaegh came to Vienna with this impressively chilling, matter-of-fact documentary about what happens to people who die without next of kin. After their trip, the directors told indieWIRE that they were impressed with the "large and very engaged film community" they found (not to mention the English skills of young Austrians). "We were impressed with Hans' broad tastes -- from more popular American festival picks and well-known filmmakers, to the more obscure and challenging films," they said in an email. "Not every foreign festival is willing to be so adventurous with U.S. offerings... nor is every U.S. festival, now that we think about it!"
Other U.S. docs in the program included Joel Katz's "Strange Fruit," Errol Morris' "The Fog of War," and Andrew Jarecki's "Capturing the Friedmans." An American feature, Peter Sollett's "Raising Victor Vargas" (known abroad by its original title, "Long Way Home") played well in Vienna as well, capturing newspaper Der Standard's reader prize.
Among the Austrian works (most of which were playing during the second half of the festival, after I was gone), Ulrich Seidl's "Jesus, Du Weist" (Jesus, You Know) was entirely captivating. It's hard to stomach as a straight documentary -- Seidl isn't a fly-on-the-wall documentarian -- and this film felt as stage directed as a narrative. Still, it's a completely engrossing film that deserves worldwide distribution. The film features Austrian people in conversation with God -- shocking in the honesty and intimacy of their confessions. Seidl not only found an intriguing subject matter, he also found the perfect subjects, including one old woman who asks Jesus for advice about poisoning her adulterous husband. "Jesus" captured one of this festival's few prizes, the Vienna Film Prize, worth 17,000 euros in cash and prizes.
Of the other Austrian offerings, those attracting the most attention were Martin Bruch's "Handbikemovie," about his daily journeys in a wheelchair, and Anja Salomonowitz's "Das Wirst Du Nie Verstehen" (You Will Never Understand This), about three generations of women in her family. I tried to watch a tape of some new Austrian shorts but a quick hop through the tape found the following: film negatives with screeching noise, a picture of an empty office building with a voiceover about the World Trade Center, and poetry on a black screen. Too experimental for this gal.
The Viennale offers plenty of Asian and European films; of the Japanese works I saw Takeshi Kitano's "Zatoichi," his impressively clever take on the classic story of the blind swordsman. Even folks who don't like samurai films (like yours truly) can have great fun with this one (look for it stateside from Miramax). Much less fun was Kawase Naomi's "Sharu Soju," a painfully slow tale about the troubled lives of small-town Japanese teenagers. The camerawork was so shaky that I got nauseous and had to leave. From South Korea, Byun Young-Joo's "Mile-ae" showed the tumultuous life of a woman who suffers an act of violence and then moves to a small town where she starts an affair with the town doctor. Though a tad melodramatic, the performances were good and the many sex scenes were well handled.
From Germany, Rudolf Thome's "Rot und Blau" was slightly absurd but very enjoyable nonetheless. It chronicled a middle-aged woman's reunion with her estranged daughter and also with a man -- the one with the titular red and blue sweater -- that she fell in love with decades before as a child. I never did believe the characters' emotions but I enjoyed the strange relationships and unexpectedly funny moments. Antonio Chavarrias' "Volveras" ("You'll Be Back"), from Spain and Mexico, was a compelling character study of two very different brothers who reunite with unexpected results.
Also on offer were festival faves from around the world -- "Uzak" (Distant), "Crimson Gold," "Noi Albinoi," "Since Otar Left," "Dogville," "Coffee & Cigarettes," and "The Day I will Never Forget." Special programming included a spotlight on Vincent Gallo's directorial and acting work, a tribute to Warren Beatty (imagine the shock of seeing "Ishtar" listed in the program grid), a tribute to the German music label ECM, and the large retrospective (hosted at the newly refurbished Austrian Film Museum) for Art Theatre Guild, the Japanese production and distribution company that was essential to Japanese art-house film from 1967 to 1986. The retrospective was the first of its kind outside of Japan, presenting about half of the 75 films produced by ATG.
One new program at the Viennale this year, News From Home, reflected the tumultuous times in the Austrian film community. Austria typically has two major film festivals each year, the Viennale with its international focus, and the Diagonale, the domestic film festival held in Graz each March. The Viennale is mostly funded by the liberal city but the Diagonale is primarily run by state funds; so when that festival's programming became too critical of Austria's right wing politicians, the Diagonale's directors were replaced. Hurch said that the Diagonale was "a good and interesting festival," and brought up the old adage: "if it ain't broke don't fix it." Now Austrian film directors are boycotting the Diagonale and are planning their own alternative anti-Diagonale festival. Hurch said, "I decided to do something at the Viennale -- not trying to be the Diagonale, but showing solidarity. This program, with a total of 20 features and shorts, narrative and docs, shows that Austrian film is strong and interesting and diverse."
One area where Hurch would like the Viennale to grow in coming years is potentially adding an international prize to a working director (while still remaining non-competitive). Hurch says he envisions the prize "with lots of money to a working filmmaker who is making an important contribution, an independent person who really needs this attention and support." That kind of award, Hurch said, would fit well into the "idea of the Viennale."
Certainly, the ideas behind this festival -- a welcoming atmosphere combined with passion for diverse cinema from across the globe -- is already in full effect. Filmmakers Babcock and Hadaegh summed up their experience in much the same way I would: "We were wowed by the hospitality and organization of the festival -- the many chances to mingle with other filmmakers and critics at dinners and parties -- it really felt like a celebration," they said, before adding a bit of advice for other filmmakers: "If you are lucky enough to be invited to the Viennale, just go."