Now in its 53rd year, the FICCI may be the oldest film festival in the Western Hemisphere, yet during its weeklong run (February 21-27) film itself often felt secondary. That’s not to say it’s just another destination festival—even if the map provided by the FICCI indicated the locations of restaurant partners but not screening venues. The Colombian city’s complicated, bloody colonial history and extreme present-day racial and economic inequalities—set against dazzling ocean views—sometimes felt like a stranger hovering over your shoulder, making it difficult to truly focus on watching films. (To be fair, every country is racist, sexist, classist, xenophobic, etc. in its own way; it’s just experiencing those differences, and knowing that they are not being addressed, that can get you all riled up.)
The Eternal Night of Twelve Moons
Some of these issues, however, were offset by programs like “Cine en el Barrio,” which brought children and the elderly into select screenings (even if many kids just chatted through the movies), and by the fact that five of the seven screening sites were positioned within Cartagena’s ciudad vieja, shielded from the grinding poverty of other parts of the city. Also, the films in the documentary competition reflected a desire to incorporate a broad range of voices. Priscila Padilla’s The Eternal Night of Twelve Moons, which won a special jury prize, is perhaps the best example of this impulse. The film focuses on the custom of Colombia’s Wayuu Indians to isolate a girl from all men for an entire year following her first period, and while its approach is sometimes a bit questionable and stagy (in particular, there’s a rather loopy, Enya-esque song that plays as subjects stare into space, the shots cross-dissolving against setting suns), the tradition raises so many philosophical questions that it’s impossible to turn away. (The main question being: is this Buddhism or child abuse?) The documentary is carried by Pili, a little girl who is put into seclusion. Whiling away the hours inside her windowless, custom-built hut lying motionless on a hammock, weaving, and eating corn gruel brought in by her paternal grandmother (the one who insisted on her undergoing this process in order to get a higher bride-price), Pili quietly exudes a tenacity and strength of character absent in most adults. Without any sense of hyperbole, her final voiceover delivers one of the most powerful feminist statements ever committed to film.
The Girl from the South
Other notable documentaries (screened inside a suitably uncomfortable room at the Palace of the Inquisition) included Andrés Di Tella’s meditative yet engaging Hachazos; Cao Guimarães’s dreamy tone-poem Otto; Emiliano Altuna, Carlos Rossini, and Diego Osorno’s Fog of War–like portrait The Mayor; and José Luis García’s The Girl from the South, which is less revealing of North/South Korean relations than of the immense toll public visibility can take on a formerly warm personality. Long before anyone pleaded to leave Britney alone, peace activist Su-kyung Lim (who was jailed for crossing into North Korea) was continually in the South Korean press, with even the death of her only son receiving the headline “Son of Communist Bitch Drowns in Philippines.” Through video footage shot at the final USSR-sponsored international festival for Communist youth in North Korea 20 years ago and present-day interviews with the mercurial Lim and her small social circle, the patiently curious Luis García shows how a documentarian can approach an openly hostile subject without harming the film. The trilingual maneuvering as director and subject communicate in emotionless “global English” and through a Spanish/Korean translator (who desperately struggles to remain neutral as Lim makes fun of Luis García’s questions) should also delight linguaphiles.
The fiction offerings at the FICCI were less tantalizing, with the overwhelming majority having been in circulation for a long time. Three of the stronger ones included Pablo Berger’s beautifully composed Blancanieves, Juan Carlos Maneglia and Tana Schémbori’s bouncy Paraguayan box-office hit 7 Boxes, and Joel Calero’s Cielo oscuro, another fundamentally dreary entry, though its take on a middle-aged man’s lust for a college girl and ensuing struggle with jealousy did have some teeth. But others seemed to suffer from an acute One Hundred Years of Solitude syndrome, gloomily focusing on hopeless characters who cannot connect to one another, rendered in the dull glaze of international art-house vernacular. Despite hailing from three different countries, Bárbara Sarasola-Day’s Deshora (Argentina), Francisco Garcia’s Colors (Brazil), and Pablo Delgado Sánchez’s Las lágrimas (Mexico) could have very well been the same movie, operating with all the appearance of soulful introspection but lacking an actual soul.
Particularly painful was Lina Rodríguez’s directorial debut, Señoritas, a low-budget indie that was introduced at the screening as “intelligent,” “honest,” and “Cassavetean.” Far from resembling any of those adjectives, the film was instead a hard slog through the lives of four white twenty-something urbanites. They drink, they fuck, they talk about bullshit—the futility of existence expressed through shallow rich chicks. The audience I saw it with, unwilling to accept a Colombian Lena Dunham, murmured throughout the film, and someone jokingly burst into applause after a nearly five-minute shot of the lead character walking home at night. The other two worst fiction films (which coincidentally opened and closed the festival) were the exact opposite of the lo-fi blundercore of Señoritas: Andrés Baiz’s Roa and Hernán Goldfrid’s Thesis on a Homicide. Roa is worthier of examination because it exemplifies the unfortunate trend of treating the painful histories of dictatorships in Latin America with Hollywood-style storytelling and aesthetics. As evidenced by the other films at the festival, not everyone should mimic overly precious quietude, but reliving U.S.-sponsored coups in three easy-to-digest acts and cloying melodrama in the manner of Roa (or earlier examples such as The Year My Parents Went on Vacation and Machuca) feels like cinematic Stockholm syndrome.
Misgivings aside, there’s something that must be said for the continued existence of the festival, which has endured civil war and extremely negative external perceptions about Colombia. Walking past the convention center during one of the “cinema under the stars” screenings, I saw neither empty seats nor unengaged audience members. It gives one hope to think that despite constant changes in exhibition and distribution formats, the FICCI—and cinema—will live on.