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DISPATCH FROM BRAZIL: At 30 Years, the Sao Paulo International Film Festival Celebrates Its Legacy

DISPATCH FROM BRAZIL: At 30 Years, the Sao Paulo International Film Festival Celebrates Its Legacy

How fitting that the Sao Paulo International Film Festival, or the “Mostra” (short for Mostra Internacional de Cinema), celebrated its landmark 30th year as Brazilians went to the polls to elect their next president. (Lula was re-elected on Sunday.) On opening night on October 19 in the Auditorio do Ibirapuera, festival director and founder Leon Cakoff emotionally recalled a time when the Mostra was constantly at odds with the dictatorship that controlled Brazil from 1964-1985. “The support of the authorities is something new for us,” he said. “We used to say that we were the only place in the country where one could vote.”

As the Mostra has grown from its humble beginnings (from 30 films in its first year to a mammoth 420 this year) and democracy has spread throughout Brazil, the intersection between cinema and politics has remained one of the event’s primary concerns. Planned to coincide with the presidential election, a selection of 23 classic Italian films from the ’60s and ’70s are showing in a special political retrospective. Add this to the opening night film, “The U.S. vs. John Lennon“, and a score of works highlighting contemporary issues–from Nanni Moretti‘s Berlusconi-themed “Il Caimano” to the coffee exploitation documentary “Black Gold“–and it becomes clear that the festival hasn’t lost its rebellious steak with older age.

Speaking of voting, a new audience award, the Premio Petrobras Cultural de Difusao, has been created this year for the best Brazilian feature and documentary in homage of the Mostra’s 30th anniversary. Winners will receive a sizable cash sum to help them achieve wide distribution. Look for favorites “Drained” and “The Year My Parents Went on Vacation” to have good chances of winning big, though “The 12 Labours” and “Noel” are also popular candidates. “Pixote in Memoriam,” which investigates the tragic life of the actor who played Pixote in the controversial ’80s classic, has been a standout among the documentaries, while critics are favoring “Suely in the Sky” and “The Hills of Disorder” as their picks for the best Brazilian films of the festival.

A scene from Tsai Ming-Liang’s “I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone.” Image courtesy of Sao Paulo Film Festival.

The Brazilian program is only a part of the Mostra’s repertoire; many of the year’s best films come from around the world make a stop at this two-week event in South America’s largest city. The Chinese have a strong presence in the international program, from Jia Zhang-ke (“Dong” and Venice winner “Still Life“) to Zhang Yimou (“Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles“), while the latest from other Asian auteurs such as Apitchatpong Weerasethakul and Tsai Ming-liang have been the subject of breathless discussion throughout the festival. Jafar Panahi‘s “Offside” has led the formidable Iranian contingent, and Pedro Almodovar has inevitably been one of the most sought-after European tickets, along with Cannes winners like Bruno Dumont‘s “Flandres.” As for the Americans, what would an international film festival be without them? Independent hits “Half Nelson” and “Shortbus” played well, out of a whopping 50 films from the United States.

Arriving after the first week of the 30th Mostra to begin the judging process, the international jury this year is comprised of Bahman Gohbadi, Jorge Sanchez, Wolfgang Becker, Florinda Bolkan, Lauro Escorel, Contardo Calligaris, and Jose Maria Prado. (Check back after November 2 for a list of the winners.) Unlike other large festivals, the top prize, the Bandeira Paulista, is chosen from 14 films by new directors that received the highest marks from the audience. Who says voting makes no difference?

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