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DISPATCH FROM MEXICO: Fast Rising Morelia International Film Festival Attempts to Stay Small

DISPATCH FROM MEXICO: Fast Rising Morelia International Film Festival Attempts to Stay Small

The formula for a successful film festival is not always straightforward. It can vary from country to country and even city to city. So many elements factor in–local geography, industry connections, cultivating a regional audience–that finding the right mix must often seem like advanced alchemy to festival directors. The Morelia International Film Festival has known their formula from day one. This clear vision has resulted in their quick ascent on the international festival scene, and finds them, in only their fourth year, as the most important fest in Mexico.

The fest continually benefits from its strong curatorial vision. Director Daniela Michel ran a small but successful short film festival in Mexico City, and co-founder Shannon Kelly brought experience and contacts from his work with the Sundance Institute. Programmer Carlos Garza began as an assistant, but now deftly balances the shorts, docs and international features that make up this week-long festival. Add founding funder Cinepolis (a Mexican theater chain with over 1500 screens), whose CEO Alejandro Ramirez brought an intense love for documentaries to the table, and the stage was set for these elements to combine as the focal points for Morelia.

Though Mexico is in the midst of an especially creative and prolific film renaissance, there is still relatively little money to fund feature films. Thus, short films have become the dominant form of expression for young Mexican filmmakers looking to make their mark. Many function as “calling cards” for commercial work, but plenty offer fully realized, pocket-sized visions of Mexican life. And documentaries have also come into their own in Mexico, with the internationally successfu “In the Pit” (En El Hoyo) and “Black Bull” (Toro Negro) at the top of the pile. The Ambulante traveling docfest, dreamed up by Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal has also helped bring nonfiction work into theaters around Mexico.

Morelia thus offers an carefully planned mix of films, with Mexican shorts and docs standing shoulder to shoulder with the best work from CannesCritics Week, with whom the fest has forged a partnership. This international flavor certainly helps attract audiences and starpower to the fest, but even mid-morning screenings of shorts tend to be full of eager Morelians looking for their cinematic fix.

This attentive audience is another key element to the fest’s success. The lobby of the home theater (the five screen Cinepolis) was full all week with audience members buying tickets, queuing up, and discussing what they’d seen on screen. And with ticket prices set at US $2.50, below the cost of a standard feature film, the audience is incredibly varied, with young students and artists rubbing shoulders with Morelia’s older, well-heeled arts patrons.

“Drama/Mex” director Gerardo Naranjo (left) producer Pablo Cruz, actress Miriana Moro and executive producer Renato Ornelas (exec. prod.) following the Mexican premiere of their film in Morelia. Photo by David Wilson

This youthful energy at the screenings carried over to almost all of the festival events. Most of the filmmakers themselves are younger, and they dominate the fests nightlife, guaranteeing one late night after another for those aboard the festival party train. After the nightly parties for filmmakers and festival guests (most with open bars), an especially popular after-hours destination is La Burbuja, an all-night taqueria, not far from Cinepolis, that also offers weekly drag shows.

Though the films are at the heart of Morelia, there is certainly not the industry-driven buzz that accompanies fests like Sundance or Toronto. The shorts are consistently solid, and well organized, with occasional standout pieces (like Andrea Robles and Adriana Bravo‘s “Microftalmia“). Likewise, the documentaries all offer compelling subjects, but few are likely to see a theatrical release. Among the better docs were “Maquilapolis,” the new film from Vicky Funari (“Live Nude Girls Unite!“) and Sergio de la Torre. This artfully constructed look at the lives of a group of Tijuana women who all work in the maquiladoras (international factories along the US/Mexico border) and the direct impacts of globalization upon their world. The characters are especially strong, and the cinematic touches–like a dance-like sequence in which the women mime the actions of their assembly line jobs while standing shoulder to shoulder in a barren field–strengthen the film.

Another much talked about film enjoying its Mexican premiere was “Drama/Mex.” This feature, which had its international bow during Critics Week at Cannes, employs a visually rough and expressive style to tell the story of bored, self-destructive Mexican teenagers. Stylistically, the film owes more to “Kids” than “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” and it gets standout performances from the largely nonprofessional cast (especially Diana Garcia and Miriana Moro, the two female leads). While the film’s intersecting storylines are not uniformly strong, director Gerardo Naranjo has made an impressive effort, and one that bodes well for his future as an international filmmaker. IFC plans to roll the feature into U.S. theaters in 2007, and it will be interesting to see whether this gritty film about Mexico’s disaffected youth finds an audience north of the border.

On the international front, the fest opened with the Mexican premiere of Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland‘s “Quinceanera.” The film, a double winner at Sundance, opens in Mexico on November 3rd and Westmoreland and Glatzer were on hand to soak up the red carpet ambience and meet the press. Asked about what drew them to Morelia, Westmoreland said, “This is a gem of a fest. It has the energy of a new festival, but the organization of a much more established fest. And we want to see loads of Mexican films that we’d never see in the US.”

The Morelia Film Festival takes place within eyesight of the city’s cathedral, which was completed in 1744. Photo by David Wilson

Also appearing was British director Mike Hodges, screening “Get Carter,” “The Croupier” and his most recent feature, 2003’s “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead.” And Mexican hero Guillermo Del Toro was in a great mood (despite having some delayed luggage), citing Morelia not only as a great window into Mexican cinema, but “the best place to launch a film in Mexico.” Which he did with his newest feature “Pan’s Labyrinth,” set to open on Dec. 29 in the US (it is Mexico’s submission for best foreign language film for this year’s Academy Awards). Del Toro is a hero in Mexico and throngs of giggling, gothic school girls swarmed after him as he walked around the city.

Other screening highlights included the first official Mexican screening of Alejandro Jodorowsky‘s “The Holy Mountain” in 35 years. The legendary film, unspooling from a pristine new print, still feels as far ahead of its time now as it must have when it premiered in 1973.

The fest awards a number of prizes, many of them to young or first time filmmakers who are less likely to receive financial support from the Mexican Film Institute (a major source of film funding in Mexico). Among this year’s prizewinners was Juan Carlos Rulfo, who won both the Jose Cuervo award and the Audience award for best documentary for his internationally acclaimed “In the Pit” (En el Hoyo). “El Violin,” directed by Francisco Vargas won the Audience Award for best feature. In the competition section, Gustavo Gamou‘s “La Palomilla Salvaje” won best documentary, and “Ver Llover,” directed by Elisa Miller won best fiction short. “El Doctor,” by Suzan Pitt won for best animated short and “En el Cielo Como en la Tierra” (Natalia Lopez) won for best experimental short. For a complete list of winners, visit the Morelia Film Festival website.

Capping off another banner year, and one that adds to their growing international reputation, festival director Daniela Michel expressed a desire to see her fest maintain its direction. “I don’t want the fest to grow. Our size is good, but we can polish the fest, and work to create more of an audience, ” she said. It is this clarity of vision that is shaping Morelia into one of the great festivals. As their audience swells, they continue to realize their mission of aiding Mexican filmmakers and bringing their work onto the international stage.

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