Viennale Impresses Again With Its Hospitality, Programming & Innovations
by Wendy Mitchell
Every film festival, no matter how well run, usually has a few problems. But in my three years attending the Vienna International Film Festival, I still haven't found any problems at this one -- of the dozens of domestic and international fests I've been lucky enough to attend, this one tops my list. Once again, the Viennale impressed me with its efficient organization, its varied programming, and amazing hospitality. The one tiny glitch I encountered was a film print with German subtitles instead of English as advertised in the program -- that was a film people had warned me about anyway.
The Viennale isn't very well known in the U.S. -- probably because the fest is non-competitive and doesn't have any acquisitions activity to speak of -- but the Americans who do come rave about it. This year, a number of U.S. film directors were in attendance during the festival's run from October 15-27, including Ondi Timoner ("Dig!"), Joe Berlinger ("Metallica: Some Kind of Monster"), Mark Milgard ("Dandelion"), and Jem Cohen ("Chain"), along with U.S. critics such as Peter Brunette, Ed Halter, and Jonathan Rosenbaum. Of course prominent international directors also attended, such as Olivier Assayas, Benoit Jacquot, Arnaud Desplachin, Agnes Varda, and Hirokazu Kore-eda.
The Viennale showed almost 300 films in total, but that includes a large retrospective and short films -- the features program feels more manageable at 63 narratives and 45 docs. Programming trends this year included a number of music films ("Metallica," "Dig!," "Touch the Sound," "Fallen Angel: Gram Parsons"), a heavy load of documentaries (a festival record at about 40 percent), and a number of unusual takes on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Even without a competition, there were a few prizes: the FIPRESCI jury recognized Lisandro Alonso's "Los Muertos" and Debra Granik's "Down to the Bone." A jury of readers of the newspaper Der Standard selected "Los Muertos" as the best film, with a special mention to "Hakoah Lischot" (Watermarks), about a Viennese swim club shut down by the Nazis in 1938.
Even in its 42nd year, the Viennale feels quite vibrant (some new energy might have been picked up because of a new large sponsorship from Erste Bank). The public responded well to this year's program, with more than 81,000 people attending (up about 10 percent from last year). Innovations at this year's festival included a lecture series by Jean-Pierre Gorin, an added day with screenings of the fest's sold-out films and some other works, two film-inspired concerts by the Melvins, and a special program called Propositions, comprised of a dozen riskier films. "The idea was to give some of the films that I think are special kind of works some special attention by putting them under this label of Propositions," festival director Hans Hurch told indieWIRE. "These are films that push the limits a little bit further, they are not so easy to consume, but that need special care and attention." Propositions selections included the world premiere of James Benning's "13 Lakes," "Los Muertos," and Jonathan Caouette's "Tarnation."
In all honesty, the films I attended here were solid but nothing completely blew me away; that's probably because I'd already been blown away by a few being shown here -- like Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinofsky's "Metallica: Some Kind of Monster," Debra Granik's masterful "Down to the Bone," Mark Milgard's "Dandelion," and Hans Weingartner's "The Edukators." Of the films I did see during my few days in Vienna, I was most struck by Wu Ershan's feature debut "Fei-Zao-Ju" (Soap Opera), a Chinese film making its world premiere in Vienna. It starts as a portrait of mundane city life but evolves into a shocking -- yet disturbingly matter-of-fact -- portrait the violence lurking in modern life when morality is lost.
I also admired Olivier Assayas' "Clean," which won Maggie Cheung the actress prize in Cannes for her portrayal of a young widow coping with her rock star husband's death, her drug addiction, and her distant relationship with her young son. Another standout was Hou Hsiao-hsien's "Café Lumiere," a decidedly stark story about a young Japanese woman's quiet life.
Other international features included the clever but emotionally honest "Story Undone," a narrative about an Iranian filmmaker trying to document illegal emigration, and Ahmet Ulucay's "Boats Out of Watermelon Rinds," an uneven but ultimately charming Turkish feature about two country boys who work in the city and are dreaming of opening a cinema in their village.
Docs always seem to be strong here; I saw Ruthie Shatz and Adi Barash's "Gan" (Garden), an impressively told story of two teenage male prostitutes in Tel Aviv, one Israeli and one Palestinian; and Robert Stone's "Guerilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst," a stylish and informative look inside the Symbionese Liberation Army. As part of the festival's tribute to Amos Vogel, Paul Cronin showed his doc "Film as a Subversive Art: Amos Vogel and Cinema 16," which is admirable in its quest to expose the world to Vogel's important work in the film world. But I don't know how you can take such a charismatic subject and make such a blah film. Director Cronin (also a film writer) told some entertaining stories about Vienna-born Vogel after the screening; at least one audience member wondered aloud why those didn't make it into his film. The Vogel program also included a number of films that he championed with his cinema club; I took the opportunity to see Antonioni's "L'Eclisse" on the big screen and there were a number of lesser-known films showing as well.
There was, thankfully, little Hollywood fare here -- the "biggest" films to play during these two weeks were Jonathan Demme's "The Manchurian Candidate" and a surprise screening of the Ray Charles biopic "Ray." Still, everybody loves to see at least a star or two, and this year's most famous guest was Lauren Bacall, who attended a gala showing of "The Big Sleep" (among several of her films showing in a tribute).
The one thing that was missing from the program this year was a wealth of Austrian films; last year the shaky situation with the Austrian domestic film festival, the Diagonale, spurred the Viennale to include a larger number of local films. Now that the Diagonale seems settled, Hurch says he didn't feel the need to program a significant number of Austrian films. "The situation with the Diagonale is now stable, and also I thought there were not so many interesting Austrian films this year." Titles showing include Austrian co-production and Cannes sensation "The Edukators," doc "Calling Hedy Lamarr," and the winner of the Vienna Film Prize, Hubert Sauper's "Darwin's Nightmare," a documentary about Tanzania. The only Austrian film I saw here was the the latest installment in Thomas Woschitz's "The Josef Trlogy," entitled "Girls and Cars," in which the titular Josefs (four of them this time) venture from Austria to Canada to find their other friend Josef. The short was both funny and charming; it reminded me of early Coen Brothers mixed with Jim Jarmusch's "Stranger than Paradise."
Hurch hasn't started programming for next year's event yet, but he does have a few ideas in mind, including a program about Andy Warhol's influence, and -- because Austria will be celebrating its 50th anniversary as a republic -- something as an antidote to government propaganda, because as Hurch says, "The republic isn't something the government owns, it's something you claim for yourself."
With all the talk about the films, I can't neglect the other reasons why this festival is so glorious: Vienna's an amazingly beautiful city (especially in the fall), and there are plenty of museums and culture outside of the cinemas. Also, the festival social scene is the most welcoming of any festival I attend. The Viennale provides ample opportunities for industry guests and filmmakers to have meaningful conversations (or dancing, if that's more your style) with hearty dinners and late nights at the Zentrale bar. And the parties are always outstanding... I missed the opening and closing galas, but I did catch my favorite party here, at the Lusthaus, a magnificent 18th century pavilion where guests dine on local specialties, drink plenty of wine, and then hit the dancefloor downstairs to get down to songs like Michael Jackson's "Thriller." Whether you're in the cinemas, at late-night discussions, or just hanging around festival venues, the Viennale is the kind of event that can erase your cynicism about film festivals and renew your passion for cinema. I, for one, am already ready to pack my bags for the 2005 Viennale.