ART hound

Geneva Anderson digs into art

The 40th Mill Valley Film Festival opens Thursday—¡Viva El Cine! features prize-winning Latin American and Spanish language cinema

Janis Plotkin, MVFF senior programmer, curated the festival’s ¡Viva El Cine! series—eight prizewinning Latin American and Spanish language films with stories from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Columbia, Cuba, Spain, Venezuela, and the US.  ¡Viva El Cine! is in its 4th season and MVFF40 marks Janis’ 14th season with MVFF. MVFF40 is Oct 5-15, 2017. Image: Geneva Anderson

The fortieth edition of the Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF 40) gears up this evening with three big opening night films–Joe Wright’s, Darkest Hour, intense Churchill drama; Jason Wise’s Wait for Your Laugh, a soulful profile of comedian Rose Marie; and Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman’s Loving Vincent, an astounding animated portrait of Vincent van Gogh.  Starting Friday and running for the next 10 days, MVFF40 will offer an exciting and eclectic line up of the very best in America independent and world cinema, with more than 200 filmmakers in attendance.  There are several special seminars, panels and musical performances as well.  For me, the biggest draw is the world cinema and some 50 countries are represented this year.  Experiencing the world from someone else’s point of view can be life changing and the exceptional storytelling that characterizes MVFF’s foreign lineup always tends to be full of unexpected twists.

Recently, I spoke with senior programmer Janis Plotkin who curated the festival’s ¡Viva El Cine! programming—eight prizewinning Latin American and Spanish language films with stories from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Columbia, Cuba, Spain, Venezuela, and the US.  At MVFF, I often find myself in a theater with Janis and her film introductions are always packed with insight and a pure passion for cinema.  I’ve come to consider her as my MVFF person–if she’s in the room, I’m probably going to love the film.  MVFF40 marks Janis’ 14th season with MVFF.  From 1982 through 2002, she was the executive artistic director of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival and was renowned for showing great films and building community.  When I learned that Janis programmed this influential Latin American film series, I couldn’t wait to discuss it with her.

¡Viva El Cine! launched in 2014 and has continued to grow in scope and attendees.  In 2016,  at MVFF39, more than 4,000 patrons attended screenings, which included a series of new works from Mexico as well as seminal films from Peru, Chile, Argentina, and Spain—and a very special musical performance by the Alejandro Escovedo Trio at the Sweetwater Music Hall as part of the MVFF Music program.

Chilean director Marcela Said’s Los Perros is set in post-Pinochet era Chile and is galvanized by Antonia Zegers’ (El Club, MVFF2015) performance as Marina, a wealthy forty-something equestrian whose riding instructor is charged with human rights abuses stemming from the Pinochet era. The film thrillingly tackles issues of class, power, and historical culpability.   Los Perros is also part of the festival’s Mind the Gap Initiative which promotes female filmmakers and the portrayal of strong leading female characters in film.. Image: courtesy MVFF

ARThound:  What is special about ¡Viva El Cine! and how did it get its start?

Janis Plotkin:  Four years ago, we received a grant from the Marin Community Fund to support programming efforts to reach out to Marin’s Spanish speaking community.  At that time, Spanish speaking people were one of the largest growing groups in the county and this was our response.  We also did some community organizing by bringing together a group of community advisors to see what type of films the community was interested in and to help get the word out.  Last year, we had Mexican actor, director and producer, Gael García Bernal visiting with two of his films and that was a kind of benchmark in terms of aspiration.  We sold out all those shows and it was very satisfying for us and for the audience.

This year’s films reflect the vitality and high quality of the Latin American film world which is producing really excellent work on both the artistic and technical sides.  We have new films from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Brazil, Venezuela, Spain and Cuba.

Tension and apprehension flow like a river in the drama El Amparo, based on a 1988 incident on the Venezuela/Colombia border, where two men were accused in the disappearance of 12 of their fellow fisherman. In this debut feature, Venezuelan director Rober Calzadilla focuses his lens on tenderness and vulnerability as a weapon. Image: courtesy MVFF

ARThound:  The storytelling is amazing too. You picked some fine examples.

Janis Plotkin:  I tend to enjoy most world cinema because I feel these films aren’t under the same pressures that US films are for commercial viability.  They are made for the art of film and yet the story telling is very good, with historical or present day issues impacting all social strata.  Rober Calzadilla’s El Amparo, from Venezuela, for example, is done with non professional actors and tells a true story of what happened when 12 fisherman disappeared in 1988 and it’s from the point of view of the victims.  This a film full of dignity, truth telling and fighting for justice.   I would rather see and hear it from their point of view, the point of view of the people, rather than a sensationalized version of the government actions.  We don’t often get to hear stories like this, so this was one of the first films I looked for the series.

ARThound:  When do you start preparing for MVFF and for this series?

Janis Plotkin:  Officially, I start on May 1, but I went to the Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale) with Zoe (Elton) in February and saw Vazante and A Fantastic Woman and that was how it began.  We also do a lot of research with interns who scour every country’s national cinema and we try to find the best films.  It’s a lot of watching and eliminating. We have weekly meetings where we present and discuss films and we’re looking to have a balance of themes as well as making sure that we have 50/50 by 2020.  In ¡Viva El Cine!,  you’ll see we have lots of talented women.

Esteban is Cuban director Jonal Cosculluela´s debut film. It is an intimate drama about a ten-year-old boy who discovers his musical talent and falls for the piano. This is a story about dreams, about not quitting, about doing something every day to achieve your goals. Much of the music in the film is by the legendary Chucho Valdés. Image: courtesy MVFF

ARThound:  Special guests really make a film come alive.  Who are you bringing in this year?

Janis Plotkin:  This year, we are expecting Jonal Cosculluela, from Havana, the director of Esteban, his first feature film.  All screenings of this film are at rush and we’ve got educational screenings planned too, so I am very excited about this. We just heard that the US embassy’s staff in Havana was being cut by 50 percent and we still don’t know how that will impact Jonal’s visa interview, which was delayed initially by hurricane Irma.  Barring these political and weather-related issues, we hope to see him here.   This is a very special story about a child who basically has no resources but he is passionate about playing the piano and he has real talent and his persistence wins over his teacher and his family.   We’ve also got Santiago Rizzo and the cast of Quest attending.

ARThound:  I saw Esteban last December in Havana at the International Festival of New Latin American Cinema and Reynaldo Guanchein, who is nine and plays the child prodigy, Esteban, gave an amazing performance.  He took on the entire project with just three month’s training in acting. There’s something so special about children who can play the part of a child in very precarious circumstances and yet what shines through is their beautiful spirit and innocence.

Janis Plotkin:  We also have some amazing child actors in Summer of 1993, Spanish director Carla Simón’s feature debut film set in Spain’s Catalan region.   This film is from the point of view of an orphaned little girl who has lost both of her parents.  We assume it’s from drug use and AID’s-related but it’s never made clear.  The story deals with how she comes to adjust to a new life while living with her aunt and uncle and her realization that her life has changed forever.  It’s also about her relationship with her three-year-old cousin.  Carla Simón is known for her ability to work with children and these three and six-year-olds are quite spontaneous and natural.  The film received the first best film award in Berlin and went on to win many awards.

ARThound:   I have discovered from Havana that there is an entire genre of Latin American films that reflect back on the atrocities of past regimes as a form of truth-telling, honoring victims and societal healing.

Janis Plotkin:  Los Perros reflects on the post-Pinochet era and how the next generation either is or is not dealing with it.  This 40ish woman (Antonia Zegers) who comes from privilege did not know that her father was involved in the anti-Pinochet actions and she has a fascination with her older riding teacher who turns out to be one of the generals who was in charge of disposing of pro-Pinochet leftists.   It’s really about her specific emptiness, a specific type of apathy and denial and what a privileged life in Chile looks like.  She’s so spoiled and without empathy for what happened.  Antonia Zegers is the actress who was in El Club who played the housekeeper and nun who stole babies and she is very icey here too.

ARThound:  The segment also introduces us to Latin stars who really aren’t on our radar like Chilean actress Paulina Garcia (Gloria, MVFF 2013) who stars in The Desert Bride.

Janis Plotkin:  The Desert Bride is Argentinean directors Cecilia Atan and Valeria Pivato’s first feature.  It was launched at Cannes to very favorable reviews and is anchored by Garcia’s performance.  She was the main character in Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria (2013), where she played a lonely and sympathetic divorcee, and she won the Berlinale’s best actress prize.  In The Desert Bride, her character— a housekeeper—is also at the center of everything and she pulls off a subtle performance.   After a rather closed and cloistered life as a housekeeper, she goes on a trip to another part of the country.  Through small moments and encounters that she has on her way, she starts to open up and her transition mirrors the dessert and mountainous landscape of rural Western Argentina that she is traveling across.

Daniela Vega plays Marina, the transgender heroine of Chilean director Sebastián Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman. Marina is young, beautiful, enigmatic, and plunged into a precarious situation after her middle-aged boyfriend dies unexpectedly in her company. As she struggles with her own grief, social prejudice and ostracism, she must summon her own inner strength to survive. Image: courtesy MVFF

This year, we have another incredible performance by Daniela Vega, a Chilean transgender actress in her breakthrough role in in A Fantastic Woman.  This is Sebastián Lelio’s latest film and it is getting lots of attention.  In comparison to The Danish Girl (MVFF38), where we had Eddie Redman— a man playing a male transgender who transitions to a woman—here we actually have a transgender actress playing herself.  Her performance actually walks through the kind of walls that she faces with the family of her beloved who dies suddenly and his family who won’t let her grieve.  It’s how she finds her dignity in fighting them all the way through .  Daniela Vega gives an outstanding performance and the script itself won a prize in Berlin.

Daniela Thomas’ period drama, Vazante, is set in 1821, when Brazil was on the verge of independence from Portugal. Brazil was one of the last countries to officially abolish slavery in 1888 and Vazante relives the tale of a wealthy slaveholder who marries his young niece.  Photographed in black and white, the film was shot on rugged locations in the craggy and wild Diamantina Mountains. Image: courtesy MVFF

ARThound: You have what sounds like an amazing Brazilian period drama in Vazante.

Janis Plotkin:  Vazante is a real work of art and tells a transitional story of Brazil in the death throes of colonialism and the desperate efforts of a wealthy plantation owner to sire a child after his wife and baby die in childbirth.  He marries his 12-year-old niece and the story is about what happens and it’s also a racial story of the plantation owner’s relationship to the slaves that work on his plantation.   It’s shot in black and white and very naturalistic.   Daniela Thomas, the director, was a protégée of the great Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles (Central Station (1988), Motorcycle Diaries (2004)) and has been engaged in the best of Brazilian cinema and this is her first outing as a director.  This is the kind of film that needs to be seen on a big screen.

Filmmaker Santiago Rizzo and most of the cast of Quest will attend the film’s three screenings at MVFF40. Quest is set in 1995 Berkeley and tells Rizzo’s own heart-breaking and life-affirming story of his relationship with a teacher who took such an interest him that Rizzo’s life took an completely unexpected course.  Gregory Kasyan, above, plays Rizzo, his first lead role in a feature film.  Image: courtesy MVFF

ARThound:  Quest, produced by Santiago Rizzo does not have Latin American theme; it is not in Spanish; and he is living in the US.  Why is it in this series?

Janis Plotkin:   We like to include films that are produced in the U.S. that are somehow relevant to Latinos’ experiences here.  Last year, we screened Rodrigo Reyes’ Lupe Under the Sun, which was set in Modesto and used migrant workers to tell a story about life in the fields of the Central Valley.   Quest is a new American indie film by Los Angeles-based Santiago Rizzo that is set in Berkeley in 1995.  Rizzo is Argentinean.  He was raised in Berkeley and went to Berkeley Middle School.  This film tells his own story and the story of a teacher who mentored him and basically saved his life, enabling him as a high school student who was fast on his way jail to instead becoming a such a good student that he got into Stanford.  When he graduated from Stanford, he went on to become a very successful hedge fund manager.  He made a commitment to himself and to his teacher to tell the story.  This Bay Area set film is the end result.  I was very moved by all aspects of it.   Rizzo and most of the cast will attend and that will make for a very exciting program.

ARThound:  Stepping outside of ¡Viva El Cine!, what are the highlights of MVFF40?

Janis Plotkin:  MVFF is operating on all cylinders: it has its upper crust strata of big films that are going to be presented in 2017-18 but it’s got this depth of inquiry that’s going on with its Mind the Gap program which looks at the intersection of women in film and women in tech and compares the experience of female directors to those of leaders in tech.  To me, that’s spectacular and very important.

In terms of films, Guillermo del Toro’s film, The Shape of Water, just won the Golden Lion at Venice and should be a huge winner at the Oscars.   On the big picture level, this is the one to see—the quality of his film-making and humor which is so satirical about the Cold War era, CIA operations and politics.  There’s also the whole magical aspect of a creature that a deaf woman falls in love with and their relationship, so it’s a love story.  It’s very special.

MVFF40 details:

MVFF 40 runs October 5-15, 2017.  Main venues this year include: CinéArts@Sequoia (Mill Valley), Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center (San Rafael), Lark Theatre (Larkspur), and Cinema Corte Madera.

¡Viva El Cine! programming

Full festival schedule

General Public tickets during the festival available online (with convenience fees of $3.75 per order) or in person (no fee) at Smith Rafael Film Center Box Office (1114 Fourth Street, San Rafael) or Mill Valley Chamber of Commerce, 85 Throckmorton Ave.)  Tickets will be available 1 hour before the first screening of the day to 15 minutes after the last show starts.  Rush tickets:  rush line forms outside each venue roughly 1 hour before show time.  Rush tickets are sold on a first come, first sold basis roughly 15 minutes before show time.  Patrons have a 90% chance of getting into a show by using the rush line.

Lines during the festival:  CFI (California Film Institute) Passholders get first dibs in lines in order of their pass status. Premier Patron, Director’s Circle, Gold Star.  Non-pass holding CFI members and general public enter the theaters last.

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October 5, 2017 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Havana’s 38th International Festival of New Latin American Cinema, so much to see!

Argentinean directing partners Gastón Duprat and Mariano Cohn’s comedy, “El ciudadano ilustre” (The Distinguished Citizen), opened the 38th International Festival of New Latin American Cinema at Havana’s Karl Marx Cinema on December 8, 2016. The film stars Oscar Martinez as Daniel Mantovani, a cosmopolitan Noble Prize-winning Argentinean author who returns to the village of his birth for the first time in 40 years. The film picked up a Coral award for best screenplay at the close of the ten day festival and was Argentina’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film.

Havana’s renowned International Festival of New Latin American Cinema—December 8-18, 2016—is a ten day extravaganza that gives attendees a chance to roam widely through an immense selection of cinema and spend time in fascinating Havana.  My second experience of this wonderful festival, the 38th edition, was even more rewarding than the first, which was in 2015.  The festival is one of the Havana’s and Latin America’s most anticipated annual events, offering the best and latest in Cuban, Latin American and world film—roughly 440 features, documentaries, fiction, animation, and archival gems from roughly 50 countries.

Due to bad weather in Miami and delayed flights stateside, I arrived two days late and missed opening night, which drew hundreds to  Teatro Karl Marx in Havana’s Miramar district.  Festival director Iván Giroud dedicated the evening to Fidel Castro and to Julio García Espinoza, whose his acclaimed film school, EICTV, was celebrating its 30th anniversary.  The Argentinean drama, The illustrious citizen, directed by Gastón Duprat and Mariano Cohn, was the opening night film.

Last December, the 30 minute (9 mile) cab ride from the José Marti International Airport in Boyeros to downtown Havana was marked by banners and billboards commemorating Fidel Castro’s life and influence, some had been there for years and others put up in response to his recent death. Photo: Geneva Anderson

Overshadowing the 38th festival was Fidel Castro’s recent death, of natural causes, on the evening of November 25, 2016.  Castro, whose health had been failing for years, had held onto power from 1959-2008.  Gradually, he had turned things over to his brother, Raúl Castro, who is now nearing the end of his second five-year term and will step down from the presidency in 2018 when a new ruler will elected by the National Assembly.  A large part of Cuba’s attraction, festival aside, is exploring Castro’s complex legacy.  His death took place amidst an undeniably cinematic moment—Cuba’s rebirth.  Everywhere you go in Havana these days, architecture and attitudes are in flux and Capitalist consumption is perched to spread like wildfire.  In a society that has long touted the ideals of social equality, there’s a feeling both of hopefulness and of anxiety over being left behind.  Not surprisingly, the motif of nostalgia and change permeated the Cuban films I saw as well.

My goal for my 8 day stay was to see as many films as I could and to hit Havana’s rustic streets and start exploring the changes firsthand.  Using my hotel, the Hotel Nacional, as a base, I walked to as many of the 14 screening venues as possible and to tried to take different routes each time.  In all, I saw 48 films during my 8 day stay, usually 5 to six films daily, from 10 AM to midnight, and I covered a lot of downtown Havana.

The Hotel Nacional de Cuba is the festival’s hub and main host hotel. Built in 1930, the beloved five-star hotel is situated on a hill in Vedado just a few meters from the sea; it has a fabulous outdoor bar facing the water that is the perfect spot for an interview and a cocktail.  Guests have included Winston Churchill, Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner. Photo: Geneva Anderson

A ride in a taxi colectivo (shared taxi) is a cliche waiting to to be exploited: it’s cheap, about 30 cents in Cuban “CUP” (the national coin used by Cubans), and fun.  Most tourists use Convertible pesos or “CUC” and pay the equivalent of US $5 to $10 dollars to go from venue to venue in some form of private taxi.  The locals all use buses or taxi colectivos—big classic cars from the 1950’s—which serve as shared taxi’s and go just one way, up or down Havana’s long boulevards. People cram in like sardines and hop in and out. Photo: Geneva Anderson

 

 

The festival catalogue, mi rollo, my película (mi role my film) offered 231 pages of films, with all program information in Spanish.  About a third of the films were subtitled, mainly in English, but also in German or French.   Immediately evident is the depth of the programming, a challenge that Programming Director, Zita Morriña and her small staff revel in. (Read my 2015 interview with her here.)  The festival receives well over a 1,000 film submissions directly and seeks out prizewinners from Cannes, Venice, Berlin and Toronto.  It acknowledges talent across the board, offering juried competitions in eight areas and numerous awards, including best unrealized screenplay and even one for the best artistic design of the festival’s poster.

Every morning at 9 a.m., the 8-page daily festival newspaper,  Diario del Festival, arrived hot off the press, listing screening times and venues for the current day and the next day, and whether a film was subtitled.  The Nacional’s lobby and breakfast room came alive with discussions of what to see, how to get there.

The “Diario del Festival,” the festival’s daily newspaper (entirely in Spanish), is indispensable for scheduling and the latest festival news. Photo: Geneva Anderson

One can’t help but be swept up in the moment—the excitement of the crowd, the lines, the impassioned conversations, the glory of stepping into these historic cinema houses— Infanta, La Rampa, America, Yara, Charles Chaplin and 23Y12.  Most Cubans have not traveled or been able to surf the web much but they are voracious cinephiles and will wait in lines that stretch on for blocks to see a film that generated a buzz abroad.  Seeing Latin American and Cuban films on native soil with such an energetic audience added tremendously to my experience.

This year, the festival flew in Sonia Braga, Oliver Stone and Brian De Palma.  Over the years, a good number of Hollywood stars have attended—Jack Lemmon, Gregory Peck, Robert DeNiro, Chris Walken, Annette Bening, Spike Lee, and others.   I was equally delighted to see the many Cuban and Latin American directors and actors and full productions team that participate, taking the stage for brief conversations and rounds of applause.

Cine Yara, on Calle 23 in Havana’s Vedado district, is one of the main venues for Havana’s International Festival of New Latin American Cinema. A key example of Cuba’s “Modern Movement” in architecture, it opened in 1947 as “Teatro Warner Radiocentro” with 1,650 seats, and was operated by Warner Bros. In 2015, it became one of Havana’s first cinemas to embrace digital projection but retained a 35 mm projector to allow screening of classic films. Photo: Geneva Anderson

Cine Yara is huge inside but its narrow spacing of rows makes for slow entry and exit. Photo: Geneva Anderson

Cine Riviera in Havana’s Vedado district is immediately recognizable by its blue and white motif. Built in the early ’50s on the site of the previous 1927 Rivieria Theatre, it became the first “atmospheric” cinema in Cuba—its walls were once painted with imitation Spanish facades creating the illusion of being outdoors. Currently, it seats 1,200 and also functions as venue for contemporary music. Photo: Geneva Anderson

Contemporary Cuban movie posters, with their bold and saturated colors, are masterpieces of graphic design which tend to focus on concepts in the film, not on the actors. They are sold at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, and displayed and sold at most of the festival’s screening venues.

 

If you’re looking for perfect screening conditions, creature comforts, or envision sipping a mojito during a screening, Havana is not for you, at least not yet.  There were some technical issues, primarily with sound or films that would not play, and, a few times, there were no subtitles.  Substitutions were made on the spot.  As for fuel, there is no “to-go” coffee but basic inexpensive snacks—chips, cups of popcorn, nuts, candies and fruits—are sold outside the theaters in huge shopping carts. One mitigating delight is that each theater displays and sells wonderful movie posters, very artfully designed, and t-shirts for a song and you’ll be tempted to stock up.

38th edition highlights:

exploring depths of the Latin American psyche:

Mexican actor Gael García Bernal appeared in two big films in Havana, Pablo Larraín’s “Neruda” and Jonas Cuarón’s border drama, “Desierto.”

For those intrigued by the lyrical, the sinister and the outrageous factors that have come to shape Latin American identity, they need look no further than Chilean director Pablo Larraín, whose work is deeply appreciated in Cuba.  In 2012, his No won the top award for fiction film.  In 2015, his The Club won the Coral Prize, the festival’s top prize.  For the 38th festival, Larraín screened his new films Jackie, starring Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy in aftermath of her husband’s assassination, and his semi-fictional Neruda, starring Mexican actor Gael García Bernal and Chilean actor, Luis Gnecco, who first appeared together in Larrain’s No.

Neruda lays out the struggle between political authority and the creative impulse in a detective story about the 1948 political exile of the Nobel-Prize winning poet and Chilean Communist Party Senator, Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco), who lived in hiding in Chile before fleeing to Argentina and then on to France.  Bernal plays the obsessive detective, Peluchonneau, who is hot on Neruda’s trail but instead is undone by the chase.  Neruda, embodied brilliantly by Gnecco, is a complex, hedonistic larger-than-life figure whose identity is fueled by his own mythology.  Everything about this philosophical drama played well in Havana.  The audience was familiar with both Neruda’s poetry and his January 6, 1948 denouncement of Chilean President Gabriel González Videla which made Neruda a target of the same anti-repressive policies he was fighting as a senator.

A scene from Colombian director Víctor Gaviria’s “La Mujer de Animal” which uses graphic violence to denounce violence.

Looking beyond those films that had big splashes at European festivals was eye-opening. The violence in several films that came highly recommended was hard to stomach. Columbian director Víctor Gaviria’s La Mujer de Animal (The Animal’s Wife, 2016) was most extreme in depicting the utter terror of living with unrelenting  domestic violence.  The abuser is Animal (Tito Alexander Gómez), a revolting, rage-filled criminal who dominates the shantytown he lives in and abuses everyone he comes in contact with. When he becomes obsessed with innocent 18 year-old Amparo (Natalia Polo), he kidnaps her, rapes her, forces her to marry him, and soon impregnates her.  Powerless, she becomes his whipping post and the entire community, out of fear, turns a blind eye to his horrific abuse which escalates after their daughter is born.  Had I seen this in the States, I would have had my fill and walked out.  In Havana, despite being numbed out, I opted to stayed for some insight into the context—the dire and marginalizing poverty—that had bred such evil and complicity.  Cringing in my seat, I waited to see if she would muster the strength to retaliate and kill this monster.  To my surprise, Gaviria walked away with the festival’s award for best director.  After a chat with a Colombian sociology student about the aesthetics and complex role of violence in Latin American cinema, I saw the film differently but would hesitate to recommend it.

Another soul-crushing domestic violence drama was Brazilian director Marco Dutra’s Era El Cielo (The Silence of the Sky, 2016).  The violence in this one was easier to stomach but its psychological chill lasted for days.  Set in an entirely different economic strata—a gorgeous middle class home in Montevideo, Uruguay—the story presents a husband’s unexpected response to his wife’s brutal rape.  The film takes a captivating twist into his obsession and the rape becomes more about him than her.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan (L) and Gael García Bernal (R) in a scene from Mexican director Jonas Cuarón’s border drama “Desierto” (2016), awarded the festival’s top prize.

The premiere of Mexican director Jonas Cuarón’s border thriller, Desierto, earlier in the year had coincided with Donald Trump’s anti-immigration campaign rhetoric and it became a film of note at several festivals.   The plot is conventional and straightforward: it takes a truck full of Mexican migrants attempting to cross the US border illegally and introduces a crazed racist vigilante sniper, Sam (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who along with his vicious dog, is ready for a slaughter.  Most of the people are killed off early in the film but Moises (Gael García Bernal) becomes Sam’s primary target and a chilling game of cat and mouse ensues in the desert.  This was Mexico’s Foreign Language submission to the 89th Academy Awards and it won the festival’s top prize, the Coral for best film.  Seeing it in Cuba with a very sympathetic audience still didn’t convince me that it was anything more than an excuse to make a chase film with excessive gore.

Docs from far-flung corners:

A scene from Czech director Helena Třeštíková’s documentary “Marcella” (2007), a quiet masterpiece that feels like stepping into a memory of a family and a specific culture.

Exploring this festival’s broad selection of documentaries is always a pleasure.  I had never heard of Czech director, Helena Třeštíková, who was a special honoree this year.  She is legendary for Marriage Stories, her series of documentary films which explored 25 years of Czech society through the lives of six married Czech couples.  The series screened on Czech television and elicited rave reviews.  How wonderful to meet her in person in Havana and watch two of her insightful films.

Marcella (2007) begins with commonplace Marcella marrying Juri and it follows her for the next 26 years as she navigates her crumbling marriage and the agony and joy of raising a daughter who is developmentally challenged in a society that is churning in all directions as it emerges from an era of communist rule. Shot incrementally, Třeštíková gives us everyday occurrences as well as milestones (the birth and then tragic death of Ivanka, Marcella’s daughter, moving to another apartment) and weaves it all together with an incredible fluidity and empathy.  By the end of the film, we see Marcella as anything but commonplace, because we have witnessed the molding and emergence of her true self.  As for marriage, we witness that in the Czech Republic, in those pre-Velvet Revolution days, it required a team to function and going it alone was next to impossible. The decision to choose a mate was also pragmatic.  When you consider that Třeštíková was creating six of these marriage portraits simultaneously, you get a real sense of her artistry as well as her powers of organization, collaboration and patience.

The processing of historical memory and documentation of atrocities is an essential role of Latin American film and the festival always honors this with outstanding examples.  El Salvadorian journalist and director Marcela Zamora Chamorro’s sensitive documentary, The Offended (Los Offendios, 2016), offers poignant insight on the 12 year-long Salvadorian civil war in which 75,000 civilians died at the hands of government forces.  Through interviews with several victims of torture and imprisonment who tell their stories in their own words, some for the first time, a pressing narrative of El Salvador’s ongoing struggle for truth and justice emerges. Chamorro’s father, Rubén Zamora, led the Revolutionary Democratic Front during the war, went into exile, and was tortured by the Salvadorian National Police and his articulate and detailed re-telling of these events is the focal point of the film.

Andreia Horta is Brazilian legend Elis Regina in Hugo Parto’s bio-pic “Elis” (2106).

It’s not all heavy.  The festival introduces talented Latin celebrities who are not well known in the States, both as subjects of films and as actors.  Brazilian director Hugo Prata’s musical bio-pic, Elis (2016), introduced me to Elis Regina (1945-82) one of the biggest Brazilian singers of all times.  The film balances her singing career with her tumultuous personal life.  Brazilian actress Andreia Horta’s dynamic performance as this velvet voiced bossa nova and suadade powerhouse could not have been more captivating.

Special Guests

Brazilian actress Sônia Braga at a press conference for “Aquarius” at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba. In “Aquarius,” Braga plays Clara, a retired music critic, and widow, who is striving to hold on to her beachside apartment in upscale Recife, Brazil. When developers buy up all the apartments in the 1940’s-built complex with the intent of bashing it down, Clara holds her ground. A stand-off ensues with the developers and her children both pressuring her to sell. The film is a metaphor for present day Brazil with Braga as its inspirational and unshakable heroine. Photo: Geneva Anderson

Afternoon press conferences with Oliver Stone and Sônia Braga at the Hotel Nacional were packed and included lengthy and enjoyable Q & A’s with the celebrities.  Oliver Stone spoke passionately about his bio-pic, Snowden (2016), pointing to the villainy of the US intelligence community and Snowden’s heroic outing of our appalling post-9/11 lack of privacy.  Experiencing Stone slickly field questions from the impassioned journalists in attendance, many from countries who had been the puppets of US policy, was an unforgettable experience.

Snowden’s gala screening at Cine Yara was packed with an audience eager for a hefty exposé.  Sorely missing in the evening was an in-depth on-stage conversation with the multi Oscar-winning Stone, who had also had extensive interaction with Fidel Castro, the subject of two of his films.

Brazilian actress Sônia Braga captivated journalists at her press conference for Aquarius, Kleber Mendonça Filho’s new film that has garnered numerous festival awards the world over.  She told journalists that she identified deeply with her character, Clara, because “she expresses much of what I need to say as a citizen” and the film “is a metaphor for both Brazilian and international resistance against global dynamics which bolster the wealthy.”   At the festival awards ceremony, Braga was honored with the Award for Best Female Performance and Aquarius went on to receive the Signis Award, granted by the World Catholic Association for Communication, and the Fripresci Award, of the International Federation of Movie Critics.

Cuban Film

The festival’s vast selection of  Cuban cinema was enticing—85 films!  I got my list of must-sees from Cuban editor Nelson Rodríguez who, since the 1960’s, had worked with all the leading Cuban directors and several prominent Latin American directors.  He steered me first towards the four classics in the festival’s new “Restored Classics” programming.  Three of these were directed by Tomás Gutierrez Alea (1928-1996), Cuba’s most influential director who was largely responsible for catapulting Cuban cinema into the international limelight.  Rodríguez explained that, even 20 years after his death, Alea still permeates Cuban film culture.  He walked the line with his witty, allegorical portraits of Cuba and his gaze reflected both a dedication to the revolution and a critique of how contemporary society measured up.  I attended all the screenings in this category.  The theaters were packed and the audience enthusiastically cheered the cast and creative teams who came on stage and spoke about their experiences.

Memories of Underdevelopment  (Memorias del Subdesarrollo, Tomás Gutierrez Alea, 1968)   

Sergio Corrieri as Sergio in a scene from Cuban director Tomas Gutierrez Alea’s fifth film ” “Memories of Underdevelopment” (1968), one of Cuba’s most important and beloved films. Recently restored via the collaboration of several global film foundations.  Sergio’s family flees to Miami shortly after the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion but he chooses to stay in Havana.  The plot follows Sergio’s thoughts and experiences as he is confronted by the new reality.  He lives as an alienated outsider, disdainful of his bourgeois family and friends and highly skeptical of those who believe naively that everything in Cuba can be transformed suddenly.  He sustains himself as a rent-collecting property owner and chases women until he is accused of rape.

The Survivors (Los Sobrevivientes, Tomás Gutierrez Alea, 1979)

A scene from Cuban director Tomas Gutierrez Alea’s “The Survivors” (1979), a biting portrait of a clan of Cuba’s pampered and childish aristocrats, set in post-revolutionary 1960’s Cuba. In order to evade the contamination that has befallen society, an extended family decides to hole up from the outside world (with their servants) in total isolation in their large villa and live the good life.  Over time, the family experiences a total reversal of fortune corresponding to the phases of capitalism. They begin their exile in capitalism which degenerates to feudalism, then to slavery, and in the end, all out barbarism.

The Cuban classic films were restored in collaboration with Cinema House of Cuba and the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC) and with the financial and technical assistance of several international film foundations and dedicated individuals.  Representatives from these organizations participated in the festival’s well-attended informative public symposium on restoration, an issue of importance throughout Latin America. Cuba’s problem: the island’s humidity is hell on celluloid and many important Cuban films have deteriorated entirely and many more are in jeopardy, each a vital chunk of Cuba’s cultural heritage.  Cuba needs both money and technical experience to preserve these films.  Using Memories of Underdevelopment as the main example, but drawing on other films too,  panel members spoke of their painstaking involvement with the film’s restoration and issues associated with digitization and audiovisual patrimony.

contemporary Cuban film:  It’s Not Like Before (Ya no es antes, Lester Hamlet, 2016)

In Lester Hamlet’s “Ya no es antes,” seasoned Cuban actors Isabel Santos and Luis Alberto García play former lovers Mayra and Esteban who are in the second halves of their lives and are grappling, very awkwardly, with how to let down their guards and explore their feelings for each other.  Separated since their teen-age years by immigration, they meet again in Cuba four decades later when Mayra comes back from the States and meets Esteban, who remained in Cuba.  The tender drama is an adaptation of Cuban writer Alberto Pedro Torriente’s’ beloved play from the 1980’s, “Weekend in Bahia.”  It explores a question very relevant in today’s Cuba—is it possible for people with different world views and life experiences to put all that aside and take a chance on love?  The wonderful chemistry of this Cuban duo, especially in their neurotic freak-outs, evoked belly laughs and tears.  The film won the festival’s Popularity (People’s Choice) Prize and Luis Alberto García was awarded festival’s Best Actor prize.

For the past ten years, the festival’s experimental film section, “Cine Experimental” has been in the hands of San Francisco experimental filmmaker, Dominic Angerame,  who has rigorously taken his enthusiastic audiences through the history of experimental cinema, showing them important gems they would have never encountered in Cuba were it not for his dedication. This year, celebrating his decade of Havana programming, he outdid himself with eight separate programs featuring dozens of important experimental and avant-garde films.  I spent an afternoon catching the lyrical “Programa No.5” that featured 15 films, six of which were by Guggenheim Film Fellowship winner Lynne Sachs, working solo or in collaboration with Mark Street, or Noa Street.  The high-point of the afternoon was seeing one of Angerame’s vintage experimental films shot in Havana some 20 years ago.

Details: The 39th Festival of New Latin American Cinema is December 8-17, 2017 in Havana.  Click here for information.  Plan on securing plane and hotel reservations well in advance of the festival.  Once in Havana, festival passes can be purchased at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, where the festival is headquartered, or, individual tickets can be purchased at various screening venues.  Due to the immense popularity of the festival, and to avoid long lines, purchasing a festival pass is advised.

 

February 12, 2017 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Interview: Zita Morriña, Programming director, Cuba’s International Festival of New Latin American Cinema

Zita Morriña, Programming director, Havana’s Festival of New Latin American Cinema.

Zita Morriña, Programming director, Havana’s Festival of New Latin American Cinema. The 38th edition of this popular festival is December 8-18, 2016.

As I travelled to sunny Havana, Cuba last December for my first visit to the  International Festival of New Latin American Cinema, I had a myriad of questions about what goes on behind the scenes to bring over 650 films from 49 countries to Havana.  Virtually unknown to most Americans, this 10 day festival, which is always held in the first two weeks of December, keeps getting bigger and better each year and is one of Havana’s and Latin America’s most anticipated annual events.  I spoke with festival Programming Director, Zita Morriña, who has handled programming for the past 37 years.

The 37th edition of the festival received roughly 1500 films that were submitted from the region for consideration, the biggest year ever.  The festival also seeks out prizewinners from Cannes, Venice, Berlin and Toronto.  Morriña and her team of four energetic programmers turn all of this into a 10-day program that runs in 14 historic theaters all across Havana.  They also organize the festival’s awards program which involves juried competitions in eight areas and numerous awards, including best unrealized screenplay and even one for the best artistic design of the festival’s poster.  I meet with Morriña mid-way through last December’s festival in a large house in the Havana suburbs, owned by the festival; it was raining cats and dogs and the place was absolutely chaotic, with a stream of very wet people coming and going.  Confident at the helm, Morriña gave me the lay of the land.

What is the philosophy of programming?  How many submissions do you get and what are your standards for what you accept?

Zita Morriña: This year, we had over 1500 submissions.  Every year, we usually get over 1000 but after the digital system of film became more popular, we started getting many more submissions from all over the world.  Our philosophy is to emphasize Latin films so the areas of competition are only open to Latin American films.  Some are submitted and some are by invitation.  We always open our submissions in January or February.  Including me, We have five programmers here and we have a budget for travel that’s not very big, but allows us to go to the big festivals—Berlin, Cannes, San Sebastian, Rotterdam—and some that are not so big but which are important for Latin film.  We go to the principal countries—Argentina, Chile Brazil Venezuela and sometimes Colombia—and then we will go to a festival in Lima, Peru, and two to three festivals in Brazil.  We’ve also attended Bogota Audiovisual Market (BAM) where they screen films. We invite the films that win the awards and get recognition.  It’s always a combination of films we want and films they send us.  This year, the majority is by submission not invitation.

How has the festival grown over the years in terms of participants?

Zita Morriña: In the beginning, the festival was more Latin American than international.  In Latin America, almost all the countries have participated and that has just solidified and broadened.  In the beginning, everything was in the contest.  That worked for awhile but then it grew so much that the jurors couldn’t watch 40 or 50 films, so we decided to have separate contests and limit the number of films.  We started with the fiction film category for the contest and, within that, created a prize for the first fiction film and the best short film.  As we grew, and first films became more important, we created the contest for first films.  This year, we have over 21 films full-length feature films, 21documentaries, 21 shorts, 21 first films, 21 animation and over 40 long and short features in fiction.  We also have a script contest and we receive more than 100 every year.

Are you free to accept films of any subject matter?

Zita Morriña: Not for the contest.  We decided that it would only for Latin American films or films with Latin American subjects.  Outside the contest, we accept everything.

How is the jury selected?

Zita Morriña: It varies but it’s always a different jury each year.  Sometimes, we select filmmakers who have received the award in the past.  We try to make each jury a composition of many countries so there is balance.

What are you most proud of about this festival?

Zita Morriña:  Our programming.  We show the very best films produced in Latin America.  This year in our “Gala” section we have a few films produced by Latin American directors that do not have a Latin American theme or subject per se, but we feel they are so relevant that they have to be shown.  Our “First Film” category keeps better each year.  These films are as good as or better than the other films we are showing.  Over the years, we have had 500,000 people attending this festival and that’s very gratifying, very good.

Venezuelan director Lorenzo Vigas’ “Desde Allá” (“From Afar”, 2015) picked a Coral award for best “Opera Prima” “debut film” at the 37th Festival of New Latin American Cinema. Winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, this richly textured first feature explores the relationship between a lonely middle-aged man (Chilean actor Alfredo Castro) who trolls the streets of Caracas looking for young men for sex and meets his match in a young bi-sexual hustler (Luis Silva) who has a girlfriend. The young man manages to shift the balance of power between the two and the story takes unexpected twists as their emotional baggage is laid out.

Venezuelan director Lorenzo Vigas’ “Desde Allá” (“From Afar,” 2015) won a Coral award for best “Opera Prima” (debut film) at the 37th Festival of New Latin American Cinema. Winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, this richly textured first feature explores the relationship between a lonely middle-aged man (Chilean actor Alfredo Castro) who trolls the streets of Caracas looking for young men for sex and a young bi-sexual hustler (Luis Silva) who becomes much more than a hook-up.  The young man manages to shift the balance of power between the two and the story takes unexpected twists as their emotional baggage is laid out.

This year, there are a lot of films addressing sexual and gender orientation.  Is this intentional, to use film as a vehicle to explore these topics in Cuban society?

Zita Morriña: For the past five years, these themes have been very present in all the films throughout the world but, in Latin American films, we’ve have about 10 to 15 films that deal with homosexuality, trans, so forth.  This is not a theme we are seeking; it comes to us.  Our criteria has always been if the film is good we take it, never mind the topic.  But, in our large panorama of subjects/categories, we do have one for diversity.  There, we show films that address all sorts of topics beyond sexual and gender orientation like albinism.

I’ve seen an uncanny number of psychologically intense and dark films at this festival.  Is this a characteristic of current Latin cinema? 

Zita Morriña: Right now, yes it is.  I think it’s a reflection of the social and political situation in Latin America right now that has given rise to this type of story.   They are moving from the militant films that we saw up until the 1990’s to films that are more socially engaged and delve into heavy psychological issues that are often the result of the environment in these countries or of events in history.

Argentina’s Oscar entry and its box office sensation “El Clan,” directed by Pablo Trapero, was the opening night film for the 37th International Festival of New Latin Cinema, December 3-13, 2015, in Havana, Cuba.

Argentina’s Oscar entry and Latin box office sensation “El Clan,” directed by Pablo Trapero, was the opening night film for the 37th International Festival of New Latin Cinema, December 3-13, 2015, in Havana, Cuba.

Has new film technology presented any special problems here in Cuba?  I attended about five screenings here where the audio did not work correctly or where they had to switch the film and show another that wasn’t scheduled due to technical issues.  How are you tackling these issues so that the people are not disappointed?

Zita Morriña: Technology is one of our greatest challenges that will be solved only by time and money.  Until about two years ago, cinemas in Cuba only screened 35mm and Blu-ray because we didn’t have any digital projectors.  Last year, 2014, we introduced this technology in two theaters—Charles Chaplin and Yara.  This year, we have fve theaters but, on the human side, we need to train our projectionists and technicians.   Also, we need to improve film transport for receiving the films.  There’s no Fed Ex here in Cuba; the films still have to come by DHL, which can take 10 to 15 days.  Right now, a week into this festival, we are missing a film from the Dominican Republic, which is just 200 miles away but I still don’t have the film.  And on the new technology side, there are problems everywhere but, here in Cuba, it’s triple.  We have a film from Mexico, Gabriel Ripstein’s 600 Miles, a very good film about the Mexican cartels, which we can’t get to open and play, so we can’t screen it.  Naturally, we always ask that films be sent ahead of time so we can work these things out but sometimes they tell us that the only copy they have is at another festival and they end up carrying the film with them when come. Also, we don’t pay any fees for films and charging a fee is very common nowadays so we have to deal with that money factor which gives us a lower priority.

Costa Rican director Esteban Ramírez Jiménez’s “Presos” (“Imprisoned,” 2014) is Costa Rica’s foreign language Oscar submission and picked up numerous awards at Latin American film festivals. The director is known for tackling on social issues and this subtle thriller is about a naïve young woman (Natalia Arias) from a traditional family who is engaged but embarks on a clandestine relationship with a prison inmate. The film was inspired by a 1973 documentary of the same name about prison conditions in Costa Rica that was filmed by his father, Victor Ramírez. This is Ramírez’s second film to become Costa Rica’s nominee for an Academy Award. In 2005, his “Caribe” was the country’s first entry.

Costa Rican director Esteban Ramírez Jiménez’s “Presos” (“Imprisoned,” 2014) is Costa Rica’s foreign language Oscar submission and picked up numerous awards at Latin American film festivals. The director is known for tackling social issues and this subtle thriller is about a naïve young woman (Natalia Arias) from a traditional family who is engaged but embarks on a clandestine relationship with a prison inmate. The film was inspired by a 1973 documentary of the same name about prison conditions in Costa Rica that was filmed by the director’s father, Victor Ramírez.  This is Esteban Ramírez’s second film to become Costa Rica’s nominee for an Academy Award. In 2005, his “Caribe” was the country’s first entry.

 

What are the awards─are they money or recognition?

Zita Morriña: Just recognition.  One of our awards, however, a script award, has financial support from Spanish institutions so that we can give money to the writer so to develop their idea.  There’s also a post production award we give that supports films that are already done but need to be finished, so we do give some money for that.

The Cuban cinema here has been fantastic. Does the festival, extend financial support through the Cuban Institute for Cinema, to commission any films?

Zita Morriña: No.

For the past ten years, San Francisco filmmaker Dominic Angerame has presented an important experimental and avant garde film program at the festival.  He started with a historical retrospective of experimental films from the 1920’s and, covering a decade each year, has worked his way up to contemporary experimental filmmakers. “Cuban audiences are in awe of avant garde film, “ says Angerame. “They want to understand how certain things are done and have been eager to explore cinema as an art form,” says Angerame.  Photo: Dennis Letbetter

For the past ten years, San Francisco filmmaker Dominic Angerame has presented an important experimental and avant garde film program at the festival. He started with a historical retrospective of experimental films from the 1920’s and, covering a decade each year, has worked his way up to contemporary experimental filmmakers. “Cuban audiences are in awe of avant garde film, “ says Angerame. “They want to understand how certain things are done and have been eager to explore cinema as an art form,” says Angerame. Photo: Dennis Letbetter

How does the festival survive financially?

Zita Morriña: (Outburst of laughter) We have this house, which is ours and a small full-time staff which is here year round.  We have about 20 people including four programmers, the director and we have economic and administrative staff and maintain a video-library with copies of all the films that have been in the festival.

I met the American experimental filmmaker, Dominic Angerame from San Francisco and he told me that he’s been bringing films here for the past 10 years.  How has it been collaborating with American’s over the years?

Zita Morriña:  It’s been very easy.  You know in our 7th festival, some 30 years ago, we had Jack Lemmon here and we opened our festival with Costa Gavras’ Missing (1982) about Allende and the missing or disappeared people.  We awarded Jack Lemmon the Coral of Honor, so we have always been there collaborating and communicating.  So now, let’s say, it is legal.  The Academy (Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences) has been sending delegations here for years.  Annette Bening came in 2010 with The Kids Are All Right.  We’ve had Gregory Peck, Robert DeNiro, Chris Walken, Milos Forman and Spike Lee. Harry Belafonte came many times. The former president of the Academy, Sid Ganis, was here and was very supportive.

Are you ready for the onslaught of Americans that will want to attend this festival?

Zita Morriña: We are more or less ready but I’m not so sure about the country.

 

To read ARThound’s previous coverage of the 37th International Festival of New Latin American Cinema (Dec 3-13, 2015), click here.

Details: The 38th Festival of New Latin American Cinema is December 8-18, 2016 in Havana.  Click here for information.  Plan on securing plane and hotel reservations at least 2 to 3 months in advance of the festival.  Once in Havana, festival passes can be purchased at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, where the festival is headquartered, or, individual tickets can be purchased at various screening venues.  Due to the immense popularity of the festival, purchasing a festival pass is advised.

September 15, 2016 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment