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I Left My Film Festival in San Francisco

Glenn here with a report from the recently concluded 56th San Francisco Film Festival. I travelled to the Golden Gate city and sat on the FIPRESCI jury, judging a roster of eleven films from first and second-time directors. Given the attention given to FIPRESCI – The International Federation of Film Critics, or Fédération Internationale de la Presse Cinématographique if you want to be European about it – I wasn’t allowed to discuss the films as the festival progressed (can’t let the pundits in on what we’re going to reward now, can we?), but now we can take short looks at each of the competition titles.

Directed by Justine Malle (yes, Louis Malles daughter), and starring Esther Garrel (daughter of Philippe; sister of ubiquitous French star Louis Garrel) and with a title as definitive as Youth (there should be an "!" there just for effect), Malle’s debut has the weight of baggage. Appropriate then given it’s about a young woman dealing with first love, sex, parties, exams, an ill womanising filmmaking father, and wine. So much wine. From the very opening scene Malle does a fine job of establishing this young girl torn between the city life with her mother and the country life of her father. Her train trips back and forth are very literal back-and-forths with her personality as she tries to decide what she wants. And that includes one of her classmates, Benjamin (Émile Bertherat that my notes proclaim has “DREAMBOAT HAIR!”) The film has some pertinent things to say about young women and society’s view of them – a stranger sees her crying over her dying father and asks “is it about a boy?” I enjoyed it a lot, even if it did feel somewhat like a film I’ve seen before.

10 more films (some maddening, some great), one strange cat, one possible Oscar submission after the jump...

Everyday ObjectsEveryday Objects
My second favourite film of the festival – and not just because the Q&A with director Nicolas Wackerbarth confirmed my reading of the film as a series of moments taken out of context. As Merle (Anne Ratte-Polle) watches over the teenage children of her publisher boyfriend, scenes of seemingly random obtuseness unfold. Merle is a woman who avoids drama at all costs, but even in the picturesque south of France it inevitably finds her in escalating fashion. The end is haunting, and Ratte-Polle’s performance held me captivated. 

The festival description for this Spanish/Georgian/Russian/French Russian-language film that was filmed in Kazakhstan (phew) calls it “startlingly bleak”. Yup, that sounds about a right. An almighty slog of a film about a prostitute who gets pregnant and moves to the Siberian flats to live with the father’s hostile family. Miguel Ángel Jiménez Colmenar’s film is beautifully lensed, but I was as dissatisfied with the film’s ho-hum downward trajectory as its lead character was with her chilly newfound circumstances.

Could The Cleaner be Peru's Oscar contender this year?

The Cleaner
A sly Peruvian film that I seem to recall being funnier than its premise implies. Was I imagining things, or does it actually have a very dry sense of humour hidden amongst its apocalyptic plot? Victor Prada plays a “cleaner” who mops up after somebody has died in the city of Lima. When the adult population begins to drop dead from a mysterious plague, he discovers a young orphaned boy and takes him in. Played with the same dour face that made Catalina Saavedra so memorable in The Maid, Prada is the film’s centre and trump card. This probably would have gotten an honourable mention by the jury if we were allowed to. Could be Peru’s Oscar entry, too!

They’ll Come Back
Two affluent teenagers are left on the side of the road by their tempestuous parents in this Brazilian film by Marcelo Lordello. The eldest ventures off to an oasis-like service station leaving young Cris (Maria Luiza Tavares) to fend for herself. Taken in by a succession of lower-class families, this film thankfully diverges from the path of most rich-meets-poor stories. What I loved was the way Cris is at a moment of life when she’s deciding where she stands on politics and social issues like class, what friends to be around, how to form adult relationships, and how to be on her own. All of this only exacerbated by her situation, which is handled with a remarkable lack of pomp and pageantry. Another favourite of the fest. 

Mai Morire
In Enrique Rivero’s reserved, but rewarding, second feature, a woman (Margarita Saldaña as Chavo) returns from the big city where she worked as a chef for a rich family to take care of her own ailing mother in a house that sits on the banks of a lagoon. With her husband and children there with her, she eases back into a life of fetching watch by pale and catching a canoe to do the grocery shopping. Much like many other lead characters from the fest, Chavo is deeply unsatisfied and barely able to contain it. I admired the film’s rarely seen perspective of a mature working woman, and the way Arnau Valls Colomer’s award-winning cinematography perfectly encapsulated the way that “time passes differently here”. Another stand out. 

The Strange Little Cat
A baffling German oddity that produced one of the craziest Q&A session I can recall. For a film in which the action never leaves the one compact apartment, it’s certainly a busy film. Characters come and go and it’s up to the audience to figure out who is who and what their relation is to one another. In this regard, The Strange Little Cat is fascinating (also: there is an adorable cat). However, the going-nowhere story quickly grates and makes for an exhausting chaotic experience. The director and producer are twins and they are mad. MAD! 

Memories Look At Me
Song Fang (The Flight of the Red Balloon) plays herself, visiting her real parents in Nanjing, where they discuss dead relatives. Is this even a feature film or just thinly-veiled documentary? Much like The Strange Little Cat, the entirety of the runtime is confined to the interior of an apartment. Also like The Strange Little Cat, the film becomes quickly anecdotal, tedious and frustrating. A brief cameo by a neighbour and her chicken are the highlight. The stripped back, Woody Allen-esque credits only underline its seemingly limited ambitions. 

Present Tense
Winner of the other “New Directors” jury prize, this debut is a wonderfully complex examination of modern day Turkish life from a distinctly feminine point of view. Mina (Sanem Öge in the best performance I saw at the festival) takes a job as a fortune teller at a café, despite implications that she’s making it all up as she goes along. With the threat of eviction hanging over her head due to her building being renovated into yet another hotel and an increasing desire to move to America and hunt down a relative she barely knows, Mina seems to drift about in an uncertain haze. For a nation that’s so rarely seen as anything other than foreign exoticism, I greatly enjoyed director Belmin Söylemez’s realistic and blissfully not overly bleak look at a rarely seen culture.

Juvenile Offender
With the modernising world rapidly effecting people at a younger and younger age, an increasing number of South Korean teens are finding themselves placed into juvenile detention. An unforgiving justice system has reacted to rising numbers of broken homes, theft and street fights by putting the likes of Gi-ju (Young Ju Seo) and his hoodlum buddies away. When put into the custody of a previously absent mother (Jung-hyun Lee), he begins to focus on the affections of a girl he got pregnant before being sent away. Yi-kwan Kang’s film is frequently tough going, with the escalating dire situations inciting frequent pangs of queasy sadness. However, the film is ultimately more well-intentioned than dramatically rewarding. Great performances though!



Nights with Théodore
Our FIPRESCI jury chose Sébastien Betbeder’s brief (it’s only 67 minutes long) but hypnotic genre-bender as the winner. Two twentysomethings leave a party together and sneak into the Buttes-Chaumont Park and find a mystical allure that brings them back time and time again. Our official statement reads: “With a bold and inventive take on narrative and structure, this beguiling and truly original film is a glowing testament to a new generation of French filmmakers. Its mix of genre, documentary, and fiction makes for an enthralling experience”, and I stand by that. It was an invigorating experience to watch this movie. My full review will be on the FIPRESCI website sometime soon and I'll make sure Nathaniel lets you know.

You can read a bit more of my San Francisco coverage at Quickflix.

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Reader Comments (1)

"Dreamboat. Hair" is one of my favorite critic notes ever. I wish my notes were as a) legible and b) important.

thanks for doing this. Isn't jurying a fascinating thing?

May 18, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

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