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Festivals: Robert Koehler on Guadalajara

By Robert Koehler on March 19, 2012

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What a strange trip it’s been: Robert Koehler on the 27th Festival Internacional de Cine en Guadalajara.

I’ve attended the Guadalajara film festival long enough to see the transfer of leadership from Kenya Márquez, who left the festival in 2005 to resume her filmmaking career, to Jorge Sanchez, who left the festival in 2009 to resume his producing career, and then to Iván Trujillo, the current director. During that same period, I’ve witnessed the comings and goings of at least four press directors, plus plenty of other staffers, to the point where I could count on having to reintroduce myself to new people nearly every year I attended. Now, there’s always turnover on a festival staff; folks hit their burnout point, especially when they’re having to handle the work of two or three people in the kind of compressed scheduling and deadlines that are the realities at every festival. When I served as director of programming at the AFI film festival, I was amazed and impressed at how many fellow staffers stayed aboard, given the churn elsewhere. But the turnover at Guadalajara has been extreme, and it’s behind my theory about why the festival is now suffering and amounting to less than it could be.

Grizzled veterans of the Latin American festival scene will remember when Guadalajara started 27 years ago as a modest but important event, located mainly at the Cineforo, the city’s cinematheque (its exterior on one of the campuses of the University of Guadalajara even recalls the old Cinémathèque Française). Mexican cinema was seeing its first real resurgence in substantial production since the end of the “Golden Era” of the 1940s and 1950s; figures as diverse as Alejandro Jodorowsky and Arturo Ripstein had made Mexican cinema relevant again, and younger filmmakers were getting busy. It wasn’t even a festival proper at first, but more of an exposition, a showcase of new work. Everyone stayed at the same hotel, within easy walking distance of the Cineforo. Word spread, and Guadalajara started drawing an international following across the Americas and Europe. With success came growth and, eventually, the notion first to expand the program to four sets of competitions (Mexican narratives and docs, Ibero-American narratives and docs), and then add a market. In the Nineties, Guadalajara had firmly established itself as a festival and industry hub for anyone involved in Latin American cinema.


A Secret World

Then something happened. A new generation of Latin American filmmakers emerged, and a new set of festivals, such as BAFICI in Buenos Aires, started drawing them in and simultaneously building on their work. By the early Aughts, Guadalajara was starting to look like your daddy’s festival, especially with the rise of upstart events in Mexico like FICCO in Mexico City. Guadalajara was perceived as an "official" event, industry-approved, supported by the Mexican Film Institute (IMCINE); like the once radical and now ultra-establishment PRI political party that had ruled the country for seven continuous decades, the once young and adventurous Festival Internacional de Cine en Guadalajara had gotten long in the tooth. Worse, it was stuffing its competition program with too many bad new films.

Sanchez’s arrival, with program director Lucy Virgen, shook things up, especially beefing up the international selection. The festival was beset with a fundamental problem, though: since Guadalajara’s central mission was to showcase new Mexican cinema, it could only ever show what was available. If only, say, 20 or so new films were ready by festival deadlines, that’s what could be shown. Curation wasn’t really an option; this wasn’t Sundance, in which programmers annually select from a massive pool of thousands of entries.

With FICCO’s collapse (a saga unto itself) a few years ago, and Mexican film production seeing a major uptick (the 2011-2012 period saw over 60 narrative features and nearly as many docs in process or completed), Guadalajara had a chance to grow to a new level. The irony is that, with Trujillo as the new director in 2011 and a big move to the city’s main convention center, the beneficiary has been the market side, not the festival. Although some key players were absent this year (such as heavy-hitting UniFrance), anyone paying attention noticed that the market worked like a well-oiled machine. And anyone paying attention on the festival side noted that the festival was hitting too many potholes in the road.

Put aside the program for a moment. It was apparent from “day zero,” as organizers termed March 1, the day before official opening but the first day of press screenings, that something was off. Great news: the festival had built a second cinema inside the convention center for screenings, theoretically allowing press and programmers to simply walk there from their nearby hotels (a big plus in the sprawling city) to watch the competition films. Bad news: only some of the competition films were actually screening there, specifically, the narrative titles. The documentaries? They were showing at a multiplex across town, 10 to 15 minutes by car. More bad news: the festival’s press pass didn’t allow press into the multiplex. In order to see these films—and bear in mind that in recent years, the doc sections had become the festival’s nexus of discoveries—press would have to buy their own tickets. Yup, you read that right.

Then there was the everyday stuff, like breakfast. The festival had always provided festival guests and working press with breakfast vouchers. A nice gesture, and a tradition. That seemed to be the case this year too. Only one problem: the vouchers had somehow not arrived, or weren’t printed, or something. The upshot was that while industry attendees were happily dining in the morning at the convention center’s balcony buffet, a long line of hungry journalists waited to get in, to no avail. One Mexico City–based reporter asked me if he hadn't gotten the memo that there was some kind of war declared on the press.


Carrière 250 Meters

Now this lack of breakfast tickets may seem trivial. But it actually pointed to a systemic reality: the market, run by IMCINE vet Andrea Stavenhagen and Alejandra Paulin, clearly had its act together, and the festival didn’t. While the market staff hummed along efficiently, there had been so much turnover among those on the festival side that it was as if the festival—despite its 27 years—was starting over from scratch, and everyone was learning their jobs.

Putting on my festival staffer’s hat I immediately surmised that the grave matter of the press pass problems at the multiplex had a solution: once it had become clear that the festival wasn’t going to be able to arrange for press access to the multiplex (likely by January, if not earlier), simply schedule all the competition films in the four sections at the two convention center cinemas. Everyone goes there, every morning, afternoon, and evening. Easy.

But no. I was able, through something like the festival equivalent of the parting of the Red Sea, to see the docs at the multiplex, but I know of several reporters and critics who either didn’t, paid out of pocket, or—incredibly—attended screenings because the filmmaker whose film was screening paid for their ticket.

To put it mildly, this was a weird, uncomfortable, and unprecedented situation at a film festival. Irate Mexico City–based journalists reported about it, but there was never a full resolution of this matter to the end of the eight-day festival. Oh, and those breakfast vouchers suddenly appeared about four days into the proceedings. It didn’t help anyone’s mood when a shootout between a local drug cartel and police erupted near the end of the festival on the city’s streets, some of them in close proximity to festival venues. (A similar incident occurred last fall during Guadalajara’s annual book fair.) In one of those quirks of being in the right place at the right time, I never noticed the shootout, even though I was commuting between venues.

The struggle to see the docs was not quite rewarded upon seeing them. Too many, such as Jorge Prior’s What Do Goats Dream?, about goat herders in Oaxaca (and very likely featuring the largest number of on-screen goat slaughters in cinema history), suffer from old-fashioned notions of nonfiction filmmaking, aiming more for education material than a film. Others, like Alejandra Islas’s The Shelter, concerning one pastor’s loving efforts on behalf of Central American refugees, were flat-out badly shot and edited.  

A few stood out. In Drought, Everardo González ventured with his camera to northern Mexico to document desperate conditions in a community based on the cattle business, but he did so with an acute sense of the poetic as well, which is likely why he won the prize for best Mexican documentary. That competition’s jury generally got it right across the board: while Drought was the best premiere in a thin field, special-mention winners were deservedly Carrière 250 Meters, ever-reliable Juan Carlos Rulfo’s globe-hopping portrait of screenwriter-author-playwright Jean-Claude Carrière, and Alejandro Solar Luna’s The Convict Patient, a shocking exposé of how the Mexican government illegally incarcerated a man accused of a presidential assassination in dungeon-like conditions for over two decades. The jury only missed in ignoring the section’s best film, José Álvarez’s astonishingly beautiful and musical Canicula, which premiered last fall at the Morelia International Film Festival. Then again, Guadalajara’s doc jury made the same mistake last year, when it ignored Tatiana Huezo’s The Tiniest Place, what I deemed at the time (and still do) the most audacious debut by a Mexican filmmaker since Carlos Reygadas’s Japón in 2002.

The Ibero-American doc lineup proved to be full of minor and excessively long work—that is, films which should have been shorts, but were strategically stretched out to a more marketable feature length. The biggest infraction in this department was committed by Chile’s Boris Peters, whose borderline creepy 74-minute study of his grandmother, Leontina, is possibly 60 minutes too long. Films like Sanjay Agarwal’s laundry-list music vid Colombian Gold: 400 Years of Music from the Soul, Silvio Da-Rin’s Amazon jungle adventure 10th Parallel, and Manoela Ziggiatti’s Pulsations elicited little more than shrugs. Maite Alberdi’s The Lifeguard (a jury special mention winner), ostensibly a nonfiction study of the working life of a lifeguard on a Chilean public beach, displayed some moxie in her crafty method of slipping in and out of dialogue scenes that may or may not have been scripted, and her sneaky telephoto lens which Robert Altman would have admired. The jury picked probably the best of a mediocre lot with a film that’s arguably Ibero-American—Russian nonfiction filmmaker Victor Kossakovsky’s Long Live the Antipodes!, whose stream of pretty pictures and spectacular helicopter shots filmed sideways make it a no-brainer for conversion into an Imax movie.


Long Live the Antipodes!

While the Ibero-American fiction jury nailed it with its top prize to Milagros Mumenthaler’s painstakingly staged and written Back to Stay (already the recipient of many prizes worldwide, including Locarno’s Golden Leopard), it gave awards to several bad films, including a screenplay prize to the clunky The Squad, a horror movie that never becomes one, and cinematography to Sudoeste, an ultra-pretentious and ultra-ultra-widescreen display (direct from Rotterdam) by first-timer Eduardo Nunes of his adoration of Tarkovsky. On the other hand, the jury affirmed what was the real find of the festival, even though it had been traveling on the festival circuit for over a year, but so quietly under the radar that hardly anybody has noticed it: Brazilian filmmaker Eryk (son of Glauber) Rocha’s narrative feature debut, Passerby, a majestically crafted and sensually overwhelming portrait of a lonely widower passing his days away in Rio.


Passerby

However, as the surest sign of all that Guadalajara needs to tend to its festival as well as it does its market, the Mexican competition race went to something called Mariachi Gringo, accurately described as a fourth-rate American indie film, starring an American actor and containing 95% English dialogue. The audience at the awards announcement was shocked that a film not remotely close to being a genuinely Mexican production won the top prize at the festival designed to showcase the best Mexican productions. National identity aside, it’s a terrible piece of hackwork about a Kansas guy (played by X-Men’s Shawn Ashmore) who ventures to Guadalajara to become a mariachi player…and does, and almost gets the girl (Martha Higareda, who won a prize for best actress, almost as shocking).

The win doesn’t even make sense in the context of the generally weak roster of new Mexican narrative films, most of which will never screen outside of the country. Not when this competition included both Gabriel Marino’s exquisitely filmed A Secret World, a low-boiling road movie about a teenage girl venturing north to Baja, and what proved easily the best of show from Mexican filmmakers: Rodrigo Plá’s just-in-from-Berlin The Delay, which shows the director making huge artistic strides from his previous features, The Desert Within and La zona.

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