One of the key reasons why the Buenos Aires International Independent Film Festival (BAFICI) is one of the world’s best can be found in the one of least examined yet most crucial aspects of festivals: programming architecture. The blueprint for BAFICI’s construction, distinguished by considerable balance and depth, is divided into four wings. On one end are competition zones for Argentine, international, and more radical films (the last under the title “Cinema of the Future”). The giant midsection labeled “Panorama,” often comprising over 100 films, is split into multiple tiers under thematic titles such as “Places,” “People and Characters,” “The Earth Trembles,” and “Careers.” The crucial third wing involves typically comprehensive retrospectives and surveys of living and dead filmmakers, frequently those neglected and long overdue for review and recognition.
Yet another wing, which has been gradually built up for the past four years and has now fully come into its own, is BAL, the Buenos Aires Lab. It’s designed along the lines of works-in-progress and co-production development workshops in Rotterdam and San Sebastian, but with a keen eye toward encouraging new and adventurous Latin American filmmakers (along with several prizes for the juried films-to-be). BAL’s growth gives BAFICI an additional dimension that makes it fairly rare—certainly in terms of sheer quantity—in the festival world. In effect, the program offers a varied set of in-depth observations on cinema’s past, a survey of the present through national and international lenses, and a glimpse of the future.
The context for appreciating BAFICI is that many festivals, pursuing world premieres and hot names, neglect their architecture for smoke and mirrors—laying down a red carpet, which then leads nowhere. Tellingly, there isn’t a single red carpet to be found during this festival, in line with its 13-year-old founding mission to highlight independent cinema worldwide and value cinema over celebrity. It’s notable that this core value has withstood several turnovers of artistic directors (current director Sergio Wolf has held his chair the longest, thus reinforcing a sense of BAFICI’s stability) as well as the always unpredictable and volatile involvement of the Buenos Aires municipal government, which functions as primary funder. Cinema is taken with a certain seriousness during April in Buenos Aires, as if one’s life depended on it; almost nowhere, at least among anglophone festivals, is a similarly radical commitment to the art form in evidence.
Now, this seriousness can sometimes send the programming into cul-de-sacs, especially when the need to fill a gargantuan program of over 250 feature slots (to say nothing of the many dozens of shorts) compels the inclusion of artistically minded junk. The intention behind the national competition (namely, to champion the independent side of Argentine filmmaking in opposition to the country’s burgeoning commercial offerings, whose producers openly revile the festival) is laudable but can run afoul of circumstances, as happened this year. Almost nothing in the competition will be heard of again anywhere else in the world: not Today I Felt No Fear, Ivan Fund’s incomprehensible follow-up to his (co-directed) The Lips; nor Román Cárdenas’s vacuous The Stones; nor Sebastián Lingiardi’s wretchedly filmed Sipo’hi—Manduré Place. The bad signs came early in the screening schedule, when writer-director Néstor Frenkel, whose previous film Construction of a City was such an original work, arrived with the extraordinarily lame mock-doc of Super 8 culture, Amateur. It hardly helped the section that it included recently premiered disappointments, such as Rodrigo Moreno’s empty-headed A Mysterious World (from Berlin) and Mauro Andrizzi’s pseudo-experimental In the Future. Even Nicolas Grosso’s Animal’s Run, the prizewinner of the jury—which struggled mightily to find even one deserving pick—proved to be an elliptical, intriguing, but ultimately unrealized drama of a factory-owning family’s conflicts.
For many festivals, such a disappointing national competition might spell doom, and it’s hardly unusual for the local lineups inside large international festivals to be full of films going nowhere fast. The keen-eyed visitor to BAFICI, however, could recognize two things: first, that the Argentine films on view are those which are ready and available for the festival’s April dates (not necessarily the best, just the most available) and those not being held back for consideration in Cannes, whose selection is announced during the middle of BAFICI and is a reliable point of post-screening coffee talk. Early in BAFICI’s existence, before Lucrecia Martel, Lisandro Alonso, Adrian Caetano, and other Argentine filmmakers were “discovered” by the major European festivals, they screened in Buenos Aires; the festival game for these directors changed when they began to win major prizes, and now the sales companies representing their films typically hold out for the best offers from Cannes, Venice, and Toronto, thus denying BAFICI most of what are likely to be the best of the annual national crop.
These days, more often than not, the best of the rest that are ready to screen are slotted into the international competition, which can be said to be a more properly curated section. And this year, the BAFICI got this detail right: both Santiago Mitre’s The Student and Hermes Paralleulo’s Yatasto easily stood out from the rest of the local field—the first for its strong storytelling acumen and ability to drill down into the muck of university student politics and its unholy intersection with the (all-too-living) ghosts of Argentina’s highly colored leftist past, the second for a sophisticated balance of humor and pathos in its documentary observation of a family of trash recyclers literally living on the edge in the city of Cordoba.
A revealing example of BAFICI’s idea of an international competition film was Sylvain George’s brilliant May They Rest in Revolt (Figures of War), his latest in a string of highly charged films on the plight of undocumented Third World workers in Europe. Inexplicably ignored by festivals since its premiere at FID Marseilles in 2010 (an event which, along with Jeonju, Vienna, and Gijon, has become a kind of sister festival to BAFICI), George’s virtually solo-made epic tracks with animal-like intensity the slowly boiling battle between the workers and French police in the port city of Calais. It’s precisely the kind of personal, committed, and uncompromising film abhorred in the commercialized hothouses of most festivals, and canonized by BAFICI. The same is the case for several other competition works, which, though strongly admired by some, have been underexposed on this year’s festival circuit: Julio Hernandez’s Marimbas from Hell, Marian Crisan’s Morgen, Nikola Lezaic’s Tilva Ros, and Federico Veiroj’s A Useful Life, featuring the best lead performance I’ve ever seen by a fellow film critic, Jorge Jellinek.
For some, the Panorama section, much like the identically titled section in Berlin, is too widespread and amorphous to mean anything in particular, except as a general survey of current films. But it’s best viewed as BAFICI’s own festival-of-festivals, a selection of the work from the past year on the festival circuit which the programmers, led by Wolf, deem essential viewing. Some inside the sprawl are great enough to prompt serious question as to why they weren’t placed in competition, such as Aita, José María de Orbe’s masterpiece about death, light, and the paired declines of a house and its caretaker. But beyond many familiar titles that premiered over the course of the past 12 months, it was the nonfiction work that asserted a powerful presence in the general program. This is because they reflected contemporary nonfiction’s enormous range of expressions, from the poetic to the more pointedly topical, as well as the in-between cinema straddling fiction and nonfiction.
Théo Court’s astonishingly filmed Ocaso (frequently compared to Aita, since it too is about an aging abode and its caretaker) perfectly summarized both the poetic and the in-between: the old man is faced with a real-world dilemma, but it’s framed and expressed in ways that are out of place and out of time and encased in a mood that verges on dramatic fiction. German documentary filmmaker Thomas Heise’s Solar System applied a cosmic view of an indigenous tribe in a sylvan valley in northern Argentina, while Nicolas Rincon Gille slyly mixed mythology and social tragedy in The Embrace of the River. Minda Martin proved a true BAFICI find with Free Land, one of the festival’s several interesting U.S.-made or U.S.-based nonfiction films, and one that ambitiously mingled overtly experimental uses of chemically and optically manipulated moving images with a personal tale of her family’s troubled Native American history. Austrian filmmaker Ruth Beckermann played a cinematic de Toqueville in her free-spirited look at the U.S. in the Obama era, American Passages, and Kevin Jerome Everson—an African-American filmmaker, devoted to documenting African-American working life, whose work is ironically more frequently shown at festivals outside his country than within—contributed a rigorous and raw take on life in a dry-cleaning shop with Quality Control.
Looking toward the future at BAFICI’s Buenos Aires Lab, FID Marseilles artistic director and BAL jury member Jean-Pierre Rehm perhaps summed up the lab’s purposes best in his pre-award remarks, noting that BAL’s basket of works-in-progress provided “a different vision of what tomorrow’s cinema could and should be”—different, he meant, from other more conventionally minded festival’s works-in-progress programs. The winners included Dominga Sotomayor’s promising-looking family road movie, Thursday through Sunday, and Alejo Hoijman’s Argentina-Spain co-production shot on Nicaragua’s seldom-seen Caribbean shore, The Shark’s Eye, along with Nele Wohlatz’s documentary of a German colony in Argentina, Aurora (a title that some noted, in light of Cristi Puiu’s own Aurora, which also appeared in BAFICI, might best be changed). But the lineup was strong enough that a few non-winners, based on the screened footage, presaged excellent possibilities, including Celina Murga’s turn to cinema verité with Normal School and Mariano Luque’s impressively acted widescreen drama, Salsipuedes. As a bonus, just before its Un Certain Regard premiere in Cannes, Cristian Jimenez provided a slice of his gentle and smart adaptation of Alejandro Zambra’s novella, Bonsai. It was the kind of project that BAL’s co-production meetings are intended to initiate, and rising Latin American filmmakers like Oscar (Crab Trap) Ruiz Navia and Alejo (Castro) Moguillansky were seen discussing their future projects with a rotating roster of prospective producing partners, most of them European, through BAL’s “Puentes (Bridges)” program, held in both Buenos Aires and Gijon in November. The absence of American producers was striking, and Puentes participant and German producer Peter Rommel explained why: “The unfortunate attitude that we get from the Americans is that they want to treat as us as the little brothers and sisters in any arrangement. That’s not going to work with Latin Americans and Europeans. We want to be partners, not underlings.”
© 2011 by Robert Koehler