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DISPATCH FROM MEXICO | Todd Haynes, “Wadley,” Christian Mungiu, and Mexico’s First Lady at Morelia F

DISPATCH FROM MEXICO | Todd Haynes, "Wadley," Christian Mungiu, and Mexico's First Lady at Morelia F

Security measures suddenly became intense on Thursday at the Morelia International Film Festival (FICM), but not due to a looming threat. Quite the opposite, in fact: The wife of Mexican president Felipe Calderon paid a visit to the small town and spent the day watching films, bringing a protective army in tow. Her presence attracted a swarm of media attention, while droves of filmgoers clustered at the door to the Cinepolis Central, their progress hindered by the abrupt installation of two metal detectors at the entrance. (The next day, the metal detectors were gone, and so was the Mexican first lady.) The high profile brouhaha would seem to contradict festival founder Daniela Michel‘s frequently stated intention of limiting the size of the six-year-old festival to maintain its intimate reputation. However, FICM‘s largely non-commercial program allows it to continue cultivating a unique, tightly controlled identity. “Luckily, we’re growing in audience, not in number of films,” Michel told indieWIRE on Friday, once the madness died down everywhere but in the papers.

Michel, formerly a veteran film journalist and television personality, used to program a short film festival in Mexico City and came up with the idea for the gathering in Morelia specifically because the constrained setting seemed ideal for an audience of would-be cinephiles. While the recent boom in the production of Mexican cinema has caused significant expansions to the lineup — there has been an increase in international films, documentaries, and competition entries — the emphasis on cinematic ingenuity over industry product engenders a sincerity to the proceedings, leading one visiting programmer from the United States to compare it to the early days of the Sundance Film Festival. Without a buying frenzy in sight, the description was apt. “People sometimes ask me why I don’t do a marketplace,” Michel said. “That would go against the spirit of the festival.”

Although FICM gains much of its distinction from the colorful Mexican environment, the past and present filmmaker guests indicate a steady effort to incorporate international voices to the festival. Previous gatherings have found Gus Van Sant and Werner Herzog paying visits to Morelia, while Barbet Schroeder made his third sojourn this year. Todd Haynes came to the city for the first time on Wednesday, calmly strolling into the Cinepolis Central immediately after a long journey into town to introduce screenings of his early short films. Haynes’ long-awaited arrival in Morelia has deep roots in the history of the festival, since he served as a producer for the Latino drama “Quinceanera,” which screened at the festival during its fourth year. Ever since then, the filmmakers continually urged Haynes to make an appearance. He fit right in on a Thursday afternoon panel, where the director discussed the nature of truth in storytelling with a broad group of established craftsmen, including Mike Hodges, Cristian Mungiu and Schroeder.

“It all comes back to what we mean by ‘reality,'” Haynes told moderator Geoff Andrew. “I look at the practice of my subject and let that be my cue.” It was an observation applicable to any number of films at the festival crafted to suit the nature of the stories they intend to tell, sans commercial restrictions. This sentiment permeated many of the short programs, but it was also apparent in the particularly unorthodox features in the main sections, such as the brilliantly experimental project “Wadley.” A wildly unpredictable sixty minute narrative, “Wadley” centers on one man’s journey to the middle of the Mexican desert to eat peyote. The virtually wordless account of his solitary mindtrip constitutes one of the most contemplative movies about a hallucinogenic revelation ever made. At times recalling both Gus Van Sant’s “Gerry” and a microcosm of Carlos Reygadas‘ “Silent Light,” Matias Meyer‘s first feature (although at barely an hour, it’s hardly that) immerses patient viewers in a truly cinematic experience. Meyer evaluates the deeply felt currencies of time and human emotion in purely filmic terms, concluding the story with images rather than salient ideas. In other words, pure poetry.

Although “Wadley” isn’t a short film, it has a lot in common with the shorts at the festival, which are considered by many to be its strongest suit. With several sections on the schedule reserved for narrative and documentary shorts in separate programs, it’s possible that Morelia gives more prominence to the format than any other festival with feature-length content in recent memory. Spurred by the success of Elisa Miller‘s short film, “Ver,” which eventually won the Palme D’Or for best short at the Cannes Film Festival, the Morelia festival has entered into a deal with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in which it will accept the festival’s winning short films as official submissions for Oscar consideration. “We have to appear relevant to young filmmakers,” Michel explained. “We have very high standards for the programs.”

The deal with the Academy arrives on the heels of many relationships the festival has forged with communities in other parts of the world over the course of its existence. Four years ago, Gael Garcia Bernal founded Ambulante, a traveling showcase for documentary films that came together after the actor saw the documentary short “Tropica de Cancer” in Morelia and wanted to share it with a global audience. But most of the festival still plays to its local audience, even when dealing with other regions. A playful new program this year called “Imaginary Mexico” builds on an idea suggested last year by visiting filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier: The screening series includes a variety of features and educational films about Mexico made by foreigners and for foreigners (including a survey of Mexico City narrated by Orson Welles). Rather than criticizing the outsider perspective, the series appears to explore multiple interpretations of the country’s identity with sly curiosity. A similar mentality is applied to the Cinema Without Borders section, which emphasizes Mexican filmmakers working abroad (including Alex Rivera‘s chilling futuristic drama about immigration, “Sleep Dealer“). The festival also has an ongoing deal with Cannes’ International Critics’ Week, screening several features from the prestigious sidebar.

For many non-Mexican filmmakers attending Morelia, the festival provides an opportunity to encounter audiences with culturally distinct attitudes and beliefs. When Kelly Reichardt fielded questions after a Thursday night screening of her new feature, “Wendy and Lucy,” she responded to a question about the message of her film as if bridging a cross-cultural chasm. “I feel that the film is looking at this time in America where the divide between the classes is so huge,” she said. “It’s not so much a disregard for poverty, but a real disdain, like they’re bringing everybody down.”

Christian Mungiu spent most of the festival on the Mexican Feature Film Jury, but he got a chance to screen his 2007 Palme D’Or-winning Romanian drama “Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days” on Friday night, where he requested that any Catholic members of the audience find him on the street after the film and share their opinions about the abortion-centered story. “People need to have an opinion of the film, and I’ve very curious to know what it is,” Mungiu told indieWIRE. “What I like most about being here is that there are a lot of people coming to watch films. This is not happening in my country. It’s so great to see people excited to watch films, no matter what kind.”

Diversity is key to the festival’s success, but it does have one notable near-omission: Hollywood films. While the Coen Brothers‘ “Burn After Reading” and Fernando Meirelles‘ “Blindness” both made appearances in the program, the red carpet outside Cinepolis Center unrolled for the likes of Guillermo Arriaga (sans the movies stars from his upcoming “The Burning Plain“) and the Guillermo del Toro-produced Mexican drama “Insignificant Things,” but no American movie stars. “We try to have films that are really more challenging or adventurous than Hollywood,” Michel said, applying the same assertion to the festival’s opening night film, Steven Soderbergh‘s “Che.” “It’s interesting that an American filmmaker made a film that’s very relevant to Latin American,” she said.

Incidentally, when “Che” had its first public screening on Thursday, several patrons were dismayed to learn that the screening replaced a previously scheduled showing of Woody Allen‘s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.” For the festival, however, the decision made sense: Jovial one-liners have no place when faced with the prospects of a revolution.

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