Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media
Sunday, October 18, 2009
There’s a lot more to Mexico than cheap location shooting for Hollywood films and narcotrafficantes.
At the 7th Festival Internacional de Cine de Morelia from October 3-11, the Mexican documentary, feature, and shorts scene pulses with topics like labor, agribusiness, and toxins in the muckraking documentary Pueblos Unidos (Felipe Casanoa, Miguel Angel Diaz, Mexico, 2008) charting the relationship between swine flu and the Carroll Company pig farm in Veracruz, and visual and editing innovations in epic hybrid experimental/documentary films like Natalia Almada’s exquisite El General (Mexico/USA 2009), a film questioning Mexican political history and the articulation of power.
Exceptionally programmed and impeccably organized, the Festival Internacional de Cinema de Morelia is one of three major film festivals in Mexico--and the only one to showcase Mexican cinema in all its forms and production levels. It’s a heady, intoxicating, eye-opening concoction that changes how you see and think about Mexico. One notable programming sidebar was a screening of Hollywood film director John Huston's films shot in Mexico called Imaginary Mexico, featuring Night of the Iguana (1964), Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), and Under the Volcano (1983). The mostly Mexican audience chuckled at the stereotyped muraca-wielding cabana boys in Night of the Iguana, but gave the film a rousing reception anyway.
The Mexico City International Contemporary Film Festival screens international fare, while the Guadalajara International Film Festival serves as a market for Latin American Cinema. Unlike these other two festivals, the Festival Internacional de Cinema de Morelia, although it rolls as many as 12 films at a time, is easy to navigate, since most of the screening venues are within four blocks of each other.
A historic, well preserved colonial city founded in the 1500s, Morelia, the capital city of Michoachan, was declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 1991. The city center, where most of the festival screenings, parties and panels take place, features a large plaza constantly throbbing with music, clowns and people, a jaw-droppingly beautiful 17th century cathedral, and well-preserved colonial architecture and porticos flanking picturesque cobblestone streets. Outdoor cafes abound, where you can sip chocolate moreliano, a regional speciality.
Through collaborations with the Critics’ Week of the Cannes Film Festival, the Oberhausen Festival, the Romanian embassy, and curators like Daniela Michel (the General Director of the festival), Jesse Lerner, Shannon Kelly, Elena Fortes, the Morelia Festival functions as a fulcrum where international art cinema, experimental shorts, Mexican films, indigeneous community productions, and long form documentaries coexist in dynamic intersections.
This year, director Cristian Mungiu curated 26 Romanian narrative, documentary and short films. Highlights included the silent film The Independence of Romania (1912) with live piano accompaniment, Boogie (Radu Muntean, 2008) a look at gender and postcommunist capitalism starring Anamaria Marinca (from Four Weeks, Three Months, Two Days), and the stunning Children of the Decree (Florin Iepan, 2004), a startling documentary expose of Nicolae Ceausescu’s Decree 770 that forbade abortion and all forms of contraception.
You can see Michael Haneke’s White Ribbon and then watch a program of Mexican short films in the same theater. Extraordinary detailed, nuanced narrative films exploring diasporan North African muslim populations in Europe like London River (Rachid Bouchareb, UK/France, 2009) and Adieu Gary (Nassim Amaouche (France, 2009) were mixed in with more commercial festival fare like Coco before Chanel (Anne Fontaine, France, 2009)and The Informant (Steven Soderbergh, USA, 2009). One of the most compelling, evocative discoveries of the festival was Whisper with the Wind (Shahram Alidi, Iran/Iraq,/Kurdistan, 2009), a surreal narrative with compelling cinematography telling the tales of a postman who makes and delivers recordings of people’s messages amidst the devastation of depopulation, genocide and destruction in the mountains of Kurdistan.
US based programmer Jesse Lerner curated the Cine sin Fronteras section, a challenging, well conceived mix of Mexican and American short experimental and documentary films exploring immigration and its devastating human costs. Two of the most dramatic, well researched films on this topic were In the Shadow of the Raid (Greg Bosnan, Jennifer Szymaszek, UK, 2009) and Migrar o Morir (Alexandra Halkin, Mexico, 2008). Omar Delgado, Elena Pardo, and Regina Melo represent new voices in Mexican experimental work.
The Morelia Festival provides a critical space for art cinema in an exhibition environment colonized by Hollywood transnationals. As a result, it also functions as an incubator for an astoundingly heterogeneous array of Mexican films: a retrospective of Purepecha filmmaker Dante Cerano, films from Michoacan, Mexican narrative films (particularly notable was Alamar by Pedro Gonzales-Rubio, , Mexican shorts (with provocative works by David Romay, Benjamin Lezama Gonzalez, and Ileana Leyva, Isaac Ezban), and documentaries.
Presumed Guilty (Roberto Hernandez and Georffrey Smith, Mexico, 2009), about the problems of evidence and injustices in the legal system in Mexico, grabbed a ten minute standing ovation and nabbed the top prize for documentary. Clearly, a new wave of Mexican documentary has blossomed beyond the tales of immigration, in such collaborative poetic films like Flores en el Desierto, made with the Huicholes people, hybrid experimental, performative documentary essays about violence in border towns like Tijuaneados Anominos: Una Lagrima, Una Sonrisa (Ana Paola Ridriquez, Jose Luis Figueroa, Mexico 2009), and La Cuerda Floja, a Spanish produced acutely photographed observational film about a traditional circus family.
By jacking Mexican cinemas into conversation with other international cinemas, The Festival Internacional de Cine de Morelia is one of the most thoughtfully programmed, politically provocative, high profile festivals in the world. It reverses one’s vectors in every way, where you leave seeing the world through Mexico's eyes.