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Critic’s Notebook: How to Tackle the Palm Springs Film Festival’s Massive Program

Critic's Notebook: How to Tackle the Palm Springs Film Festival's Massive Program

Confronted with a massive lineup of some 187 films, what’s the festivalgoer to do? If you’re at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, which just concluded in the balmy Southern California low desert, you pick carefully.

But what does this mean? Aim for the foreign-language Oscar submissions, all 40 of them, of which this festival is best known? Go for the big-name directors from Cannes, some in the “Modern Masters” section, such Lynne Ramsay with “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” the Dardennes with “The Kid With a Bike,” Nanni Moretti with “Habemus Papam” or Robert Guédiguian with “The Snows of Kilamanjaro”? Maybe target those films set for upcoming release, and see them before your friends, like Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia,” Bela Tarr’s “The Turin Horse” (which won the FIPRESCI jury’s prize), Athina Rachel Tsangari’s “Attenberg,” Philippe Falardeau’s  “Monsieur Lazhar” or Zhang Yimou’s “The Flowers of War”?

As these lists indicate, the viewer could—again, picking carefully—have a generally good experience in Palm Springs, and maybe even catch a few masterpieces, like Ceylan’s. The reality, though, is that general audiences at the mega-festivals like this one, Seattle or Toronto, often aren’t or can’t be discriminating, and just as often they don’t see the films they manage to get tickets for.

Moreover, the sections themselves aren’t necessarily the best indicator of what the choosy audience member can expect: the most specifically curated competition section, “New Voices, New Visions,” supposedly comprises fresh, cutting-edge filmmakers’ work (with the provisos that the filmmaker is making his or her Palm Springs debut and that their film lacks U.S. distribution), but this year’s collection was an odd grab-bag, from excellent to wobbly, an uneven representation of the latest and most interesting work off the recent festival circuit.

For example, on one end of the spectrum was a superbly wrought film like Pablo Giorgelli’s Camera d’Or-winning “Las Acacias,” following a emotionally fragile road trip with a trucker and a young mother across the Argentine countryside. With his feature debut, Giorgelli already proves a master of cinematic space and of generating understated feelings that his characters struggle to convey but which are tangibly painful. An oddity like Victor Ginzburg’s “Generation P,” on the other hand, is the by-product of a mind that has no governor and just lets it all out, regardless if it amounts to anything.

Ginzburg’s Rabelaisian satire on 1990s Russia and its go-go oligarchical greed is ambitious all right, and worthy of belonging in a broader international survey, but hardly good enough to be in a more select program. (And besides, if the matter is exhibiting the latest in Russian movie madness, where was Alexander Zeldovich’s infinitely superior and more inventive sci-fi fantasy “Target”?) And though I’ve been a fan of Nicolas Provost’s highly-charged and mesmerizing short films, his senseless first feature, “The Invader,” about an illegal African immigrant barging his way into conference rooms and condos in Brussels, is just a mistake, and a puzzling inclusion in this section.

Not unlike recently troubled programs like Cannes’ Directors Fortnight, “New Voices” is a section full of minor work unlikely to make much impact, such as John Shank’s extremely solemn and surpassingly pretentious requiem to a young farmer’s collapsing life, “Last Winter,” and Maya Kenig’s perfectly amiable but forgettable father-daughter dramedy, “Off-White Lies.” The “New Voices” jury winner, Zuzana Liova’s glum domestic drama “The House,” has made its mark at festivals since its Berlin Forum premiere last year. The best that can be said for it is that it makes one want to see what Liova does next, if only to see if she can step out of this film’s standard storytelling tropes, such as backwards dads and rebellious offspring, that play like hand-me-downs of older, better films.

“New Voices,” though, does provide a helpful guideline for audiences climbing up the Palm Springs wall o’ movies: Go for the orphan titles, those lacking a domestic distributor, since they may never be seen again. (Even better, these are also easier to get into, since the popular titles are frequently sold out; after all, they’re coming soon to a theater near you.) Even more, such a filmgoing strategy brings a window on the currently challenged state of affairs for films trying to bust into the American market.

A Venice film festival alum like Rolando Colla can report that his new film, “Summer Games,” a raw, problematic depiction of sexual and other explosions in a working-class family on vacation in a crappy Tuscan campground, has sold to dozens of territories around the world, but not to the U.S. It can be safely predicted that no American distributor is likely to buy the film; thus, for all of its flaws, a natural must-see on a Palm Springs viewing list, underlining the festival as one of the few of its kind in the country to even bother screening such a film.

Even less likely to be seen anytime in the future are most of the films in the “Arabian Nights” section, an extremely choppy lineup of new Arab cinema seemingly inspired by the events of the Arab Spring. Nothing more accurately exemplified the Palm Springs programming style than this sidebar, which—with one striking exception—avoided more challenging Arab and Arab-set films (such as, say, the masterful Berlin Forum-premiered doc, “Territoire Perdu”) for straightforward topical dramas like Amr Salama’s “Asma’a” from Egypt, dramas mimicking “Crash” and Alejandro González Iñárritu movies like fellow Egyptian Mohamed Diab’s “Cairo 678,” or facile crowd-pleasing comedies like Palestinian Sameh Zoabi’s “Man Without a Cell Phone” and Moroccan Fatma Zohra Zamoun’s “How Big Is Your Love.”
Better was another Moroccan drama, “On the Edge,” by writer-director Leila Kilani, who’s clearly schooled herself on Dardenne-style working-class cinema infused with documentary immediacy. Focused on a wily, rebellious young woman who desperately wants to get out of a shrimp factory in Tangiers, Kilani’s film suffers from bluntness but is graced by genuine anger and cinematic tension.

The real outlier, and certainly the most radical film in the festival’s entire program, was Lebanese filmmaker Rania Stephan’s Godardian reconstruction of an Egyptian movie star’s career, “The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni,” which received mock applause and heckles at the screening I attended. By viewing Hosni’s meteoric career through mostly video clips of her many hit movies of the 60s and 70s—often broken down into fragments, serial repetitions and double-exposures—Stephan questions the ways in which stardom becomes restrictive, and for beautiful women stars in cultures unused to Hosni’s prominence, how their glamorous image becomes a double-trap in which the roles fit pre-ordained types, and the types must be reinforced by recycling the same kinds of roles. Form, in the manner of Stephan’s sly serial editing, meets content.

With a bevy of crowd-pleasing fare, the sight of another radical film like Kongdej Jaturanrasmee’s “P-047”—another of a handful of Venice festival films on display—came like a shock. But Jaturanrasmee, who’s previously made mainstream Thai commercial product yet has felt the impact of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, constructs a clever comedy involving two cool, amateurish house thieves whose inner lives begin to take over and transform the film into a loopy mind-game that ends as—surprise—a lovely romance.

It’s this kind of movie, as well as the idea of having guest curators (like the enthusiastic Irish cinephile and filmmaker Mark “The Story of Film” Cousins) select a roster of their personal favorites, that Palm Springs — hecklers be damned — would do well to support more often. As was noted to me by a few veteran film writers, the festival lacks a distinct mission and identity outside of its role as an exhibitor of a broad, mostly middlebrow foreign films. But by showing more works of the caliber of “Soad Hosni” and “P-047” to bring some balance and flavor to a huge program, Palm Springs could become a North American destination, much like the Vancouver festival for Asian cinema, for vital, next-to-impossible-to-see films.

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