The 32nd Moscow International Film Festival (MIFF) wrapped up last week, attracting throngs of movie-loving Muscovites to theatres around the sprawling city to take in a sampling of the ambitious cinematic feast on offer. Dispel any pre-conceived notions you might have about the festival or even about the city itself: the Moscow International Film Festival runs a tight ship, no doubt about it. It’s really modeled in the classic European festival tradition, which unlike Asia or the Americas, can lay claim to years leading up to World War II. First commissioned in 1935 by Joseph Stalin as an uneasy rival to the Mussolini-founded Venice Film Festival (the world’s very first film festival), Moscow’s was hastily canceled not long after it was founded, before its rebirth in 1959. It was then staged every other year before finally becoming an annual event only as recently as 1999.
Like Karlovy Vary, its sister-festival in the Czech Republic, hordes of movie lovers descend on its multiplexes, eager for the cinematic treasures on display from Eastern Europe and around the world. Moscow’s audiences are patient, enthusiastic and worldly; like Cannes, there is formal reverence in honoring the role of the Main Competition Jury (chaired by famed French director Luc Besson this year) and in putting on a pedestal the films chosen for competition, whether in the main event or in the somewhat murkily-defined Perspectives Competition. Critics are also given an opportunity to do what they do, with awards offered by a Russian Film Critic’s Jury as well a FIPRESCI jury so familiar to many of the world’s leading film festivals.
Like Berlin, Moscow’s festival is thoroughly branded at each venue, especially at its main October Multiplex Cinema venue, with the event’s red and purple imprimatur on every door and signpost and on the wall behind every press conference and gala red carpet. Closed-circuit monitors around every corner broadcast live, and then replay interviews, arrivals and press conferences for festival-goers, creating a sense of excitement and momentum even very early in the day (public screenings don’t start until after noon), when the drone of a vacuum cleaner in the lobby has yet to be replaced by the chatter, mobile ring tones and the omnipresent cigarette smoke of the crowds to come. And, like any festival in the world worthy of its claims of character and hospitality, MIFF features a tireless, perpetually cheerful staff making sure, among countless other details, that out-of-town guests are welcomed graciously.
The Opening Night party occupied a chic terrace on the twinkling banks of the Moskva River followed the world premiere of Claude Lelouche’s “Ces Amours-La” (which I arrived too late to see but didn’t seem to have generated too much interest). Tables groaning with savories and deserts, bars hawking vodka mojitos and that comforting, familiar festival fixture Stella Artois beer attracted as wide a spectrum of fashion do’s and don’ts as you’re likely to see in this anything-goes, sometimes ostentatious metropolis – everything from black tie (which I wore because it was on the invitation, thank you very much), to acid-washed, strategically ripped designer jeans.
That memorable night getting acquainted with our hosts and our fellow guests kicked off nine days of screenings at two primary venues: Khudozhestvenny Hall and the October Multiplex Cinema. Both are modern, comfortable and well equipped. Screenings started pretty much on time and competition films were graciously (some thought a bit stuffily) introduced by a well-dressed emcee, sometimes up to three translators and the honored filmmaker of the hour. The October served as the headquarters of the festival and housed the ticket, accreditation and guest service offices. Frequent shuttles plied the hectic Moscow traffic between the Radisson SAS Slavyanskaya Hotel (MIFF’s host hotel) and this theater. Concurrent to the festival itself, the Co-Production Forum and International Film Market attracted a strong regional industry turnout and a smattering of film professionals from across the map. More about these activities over on SydneysBuzz.
Seventeen films filled out the main competition with Eastern Europe commanding the most attention. Indeed, a Special Jury Prize (the “Silver George”) was awarded to the German/Albanian co-production “The Albanian,” which represented a prevailing theme in several films in the line-up dealing with illegal immigration. German director Johannes Naber’s narrative feature debut, “The Albanian” follows Arben, an immigrant who leaves Europe’s poorest country for a chance at a new life in its richest one. The Turkish competition film “Brought By The Sea,” from director Nesli Colgecen, also pursues this theme, this time with African immigrants crossing into Turkey. While the story of a Turkish policemen – tormented by the accidental slaying of an African immigrant before befriending a young boy separated from his country and his parents – is illuminating and at times quite touching, the story never really wins over what turns out to be a pleasing if unspectacular melodrama.
Seemingly gripped with World Cup fever, the jury awarded their main prize, the Golden George for Best Film, to the Venezuelan film “Hermano” (Brother), about two brothers who grow up playing soccer in the hard scrabble Caracas slum of La Ceniza. When a scout from the Caracas Football Club comes to a match, it’s Daniel’s shot at the big time, but Julio’s entanglement in neighborhood gang activity threatens to derail their dreams. Gritty and pulsing with energy both in the streets and on the soccer pitch, “Hermano” is director Marcel Rasquin’s feature debut. While sufficiently impressing the jury, “Hermano” is a far cry from other urban dramas of its ilk, such as “City of God” from Brazil or even Mexico’s “Sin Nombre.”
A pleasing discovery was “Besa,” the competition entry from Serbia. Set at the dawn of the First World War, “Besa” tells the story of Lea, the young and pretty new wife of a Serbian teacher who is summoned to Belgrade to serve in the war effort, leaving her alone in a small Serbian town. Before his departure, he makes a traditional sworn oath (a “besa”) with Azem, a swarthy Albanian, to protect his wife while he is gone. Bored and restless, Lea’s relationship with her devout Muslim guardian grows more intimate and their feelings for each other more complex. With the besa in place and his strong religious views guiding him, Azem is forbidden from even touching Lea (quite literally), and this makes the tension between them tight as a drum. “Besa” is a spare and stark period piece that focuses on the longing – rather than the love – felt by these two lonely characters, even as the drums of war beat menacingly louder. Director Srdjan Karanovic makes great use of the uncertainty and growing unease of the impending war to ask some probing questions about faith, faithfulness and indecision.
MIFF also seems to take great delight in presenting films that might be considered risqué even on the seen-it-all festival circuit. One such film – German director RP Kahl’s “Bedways” – both delighted and divided the audience at its debut screening at the festival. Shot on HDCam and coming in at a trim 76 minutes, “Bedways” is about a Nina Bader, a filmmaker who wants to shoot a film about love and sex. She invites her friends Hans and Marie to her crumbling but cavernous Berlin apartment for a few days of screen tests, and what starts out as an experiment soon bleeds into their private relationships, as the boundaries between erotic fantasy and emotional reality begin to dissolve. “Bedways” has a kind of 16mm film school experimental brashness and defiance to it, featuring non sequitur quick-cuts sparring with extended scenes of (surprise!) explicit sex and some moody street tableaus of a windswept Berlin. While easy to appreciate as art and deserving of its place in the Perspectives Competition gallery, ‘Bedways” failed to either truly provoke or readily inspire.
Beyond the up-tight strictures of the regulations that come with any major international competition, MIFF clearly has a blast in its programming sandbox: sections dedicated to the French New Wave; showcases of films from Asia featuring not-new-but-not-old films from the likes of Yonfan, Park Chan-Ok, Tsai Ming-Liang and Tian Zhuang Zhuang; ambitious and thoughtfully curated retrospectives of cinema’s masters Claude Chabrol, Akira Kurosawa, Sergio Leone and (perhaps not surprisingly) Luc Besson; a healthy dose of Russian cinema, not only in competition (just one film, Yury Shiller’s “Sparrow”) but also represented in special sections like the Socialist Avant-Gardizm (sic), Part 3. But, perhaps my favorite specially curated section in the program had to be Epic Cinema About Great War, featuring films like “Das Boot,” “The Longest Day,” “The Bridge on the River Kwai” and “Tora! Tora! Tora!,” films that really taught the world that war could be something other than “great.” All of this, and “Despicable Me.”
Beyond its still-to-be-determined merits as a showcase for the discovery of emerging talent, the festival itself features a sprawling and impressive program that would enchant and delight any serious cineaste. MIFF’s quietly scholarly and affable Program Director Kirill Razlogov describes his efforts thus: “This year’s priority is the widening of cinematic borders, the borders of culture, knowledge, of our images of our own history. If the festival serves this purpose even to some degree, I’d say it has fulfilled its mission.” Mission Accomplished.
[Christian Gaines heads up Festival Strategy for Withoutabox, a division of IMDb.com]