A Festival Close to its Audience

in 32nd Montreal World Film Festival

by Pierre Pageau

The Montreal Film Festival comes after Cannes and just before Venice. The Official Competition therefore doesn’t attract as many “high culture” films as these two festivals. But every year the festival directors Serge Losique and Danièle Cauchard manage to find some interesting films, though they tend to be more of the “popular culture” variety. They did the same for this 33rd Montreal World Film Festival.

Among these more mainstream films is last year’s winner of the Grand Prix, the Japanese film “Departures” (Okuribito) by Yôjirô Takita. It was shown in Montreal for the first time and went on to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. The year before, the Belgian film “Ben X” started its career in the Official Competition of Montreal and also went on to win many prizes elsewhere. “The Necessities of Life” (Ce qu’il faut pour vivre), a French-Canadian film by Benoit Pilon, won the Special Grand Prix of the Jury in 2008 and other prizes in Washington, Palm Springs, and Vancouver. We see therefore that, even when the selected films are from the mainstream of cinema, from “popular culture,” they can still go on to be recognized by different juries from all over the world.

These “commercial” or “popular” films give us, in a way, probably a better picture of what is being produced around the world. The films of Michael Haneke, Pedro Almodóvar, and Alain Resnais are exceptions. Cinemas will generally show simpler films made for bigger audiences.  Hollywood and other film industries recognize more than ever that their biggest demographic are teenagers. Therefore critics have to realize that they will have to write more about “popular culture” – as is the case for Montréal, where the Official Competition offers intelligent popular films.

Thus the FIPRESCI jury had the opportunity to vote on eight movies that could qualify as “intelligent popular movies.”  They are: the Polish “I Am Yours” (Jestem twój) by Mariusz Grzegorzek; the German “Ceasefire” (Waffenstillstand) by Lancelot von Naso; the Japanese “Villon’s Wife” (Viyon no tsuma) by Kichitaro Negishi; the French films “Freedom” (Korkoro) by Tony Gatlif and “I’m Glad That My Mother Is Alive” (Je suis heureux que ma mère soit vivante)  by Claude and Nathan Miller; the Danish “Love and Rage” (Vanvittig forelsket) by Morten Giese; the Iranian “Fire Keeper” (Atashkar) by Mohsen Amiryoussefi; and the Chinese “Weaving Girl”  (Fang zhi gu niang) by Wang Quan’an.

That makes eight quite good movies out of twenty – which is not a bad average. This confirms the perception I have had of the Montreal World Film Festival for many years now: movies from all over the world, featuring uplifting moral values that are generally well crafted. This really seems to please the general public attending this festival, and consequently the attendance this year has increased significantly compared to the last three or four years. We have to conclude that the festival directors know what the public wants and answer to its demands.

But at least one movie this year was of the “high culture” variety:  the quite experimental “Redland” by Asiel Norton from the United States. This first picture by a young American filmmaker has a specific visual style thoroughly linked to the subject.  We see and feel everything. “Redland” is a very physical movie. We feel the bare skin of the characters, the landscape and the light it produces.  These elements seem to be imprinted on the grain of the film-stock. This impressionistic, dream-like sensibility expresses the cosmic fragility of the world and the difficult relations between people who have to adapt to a specific surrounding (poor rural America of the 1930s). The general public did not like this movie; it was too far removed from what they are used to seeing in Montréal.

We have spoken of films with uplifting moral values.  This year there were many of those, such as “Freedom” and “Ceasefire”. Upon receiving the Grand Prix des Amériques from the official festival jury for “Freedom”, Tony Gatlif said that films should be like a “lawyer for repressed people.”  He went on to say that he wanted his film to be like “a candle in the black hole of history,” especially concerning the plight of Roma (Gypsies) in France and Europe in general.

“Ceasefire” is a movie about the war in Iraq and how journalists and doctors can still help, even if the situation gets worse and worse. At the film’s end the doctor speaks directly to the camera, taking the place of the director. He asks himself why he tries to help the wounded people of Iraq? Does it really help? The journalists in the film have the same question. And the young cameraman gets killed: did he die in vain?

In Montreal, the Ecumenical Jury, which often chooses such uplifting movies for its prizes, unsurprisingly singled out these two films. As mentioned above, “Freedom” also won the Grand Prix, but we have to bear in mind that the esteemed Iranian director Jafar Panahi (“The White Balloon”, “The Circle”, “Offside”) headed the jury. No doubt human rights were on his mind, as he has recently been jailed in his own country for his participation in post-election protests. In fact, everywhere he went at the festival, Iranians from Montreal would follow him dressed and painted in green, the colour symbolizing resistance to the current regime.

As for our FIPRESCI jury, it gave its prize to the Chinese film “Weaving Girl” (Fang zhi gu niang) by Quan’an Wang. It is a highly aesthetic piece with a slow editing pace.  The emotions are clearly cut, but subtly expressed.  The director made a really fine movie; though he gratuitously employed too many beautiful long shots. His empathetic gaze at an ordinary Chinese working girl works well.

Though the World Film Festival showcases international filmmaking, it also provides a rare opportunity to see Canadian films that might otherwise go unnoticed, especially in the field of documentary. This year there were two features from Québec: “1981” by Ricardo Trogi and “A Cargo to Africa” (Un cargo pour l’Afrique) by Roger Cantin. “1981” was the opening film and, unlike other years, it did not participate in the official competition. Too bad: it would have been a better choice than “A Cargo to Africa”.

“1981” is a semi-autobiographical film. In the year 1981 the director was eleven years old and his family had just moved from a poor neighbourhood to a rich one. There young Ricardo has to invent lies to impress his new friends. As in his two other films (“Quebec-Montreal” and “Dodging the Clock”), Trogi uses surreal scenes to convey the fantasy life of the young boy: these include an imaginary flashback to his father in Nazi-occupied Italy, or involve scenes from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s book “The Little Prince”. Also, as in his two other movies, Trogi expertly combines comedy with more serious material. And many of the details in “1981”, such as the K-way shirts, the Sony Walkman, and the Star Wars sheets, successfully evoke the period. But the film’s real strength lies in the director’s work with the cast, such as with the young Ricardo and his friends. Also, Sandrine Bisson playing the mother has an exceptionally convincing scene when she gets angry at Ricardo, who accuses her of not knowing how to manage the family’s money. On the negative side, however, the film does feel a little too long.

“A Cargo to Africa” is directed by Roger Cantin, but it has more affinities with the producer, Rock Demers. Demers has been making films since 1970 and – as with his film series “Conte pour tous” — he has always fought for quality movies for children. In “Cargo”, Norbert (Pierre Lebeau, who was given a lifetime achievement Grand Prix des Amériques at the festival and whom some describe as a Canadian Mickey Rourke) is back in Montreal after having worked in Africa for twenty years. Because he has no papers, Norbert plans to stow away on a cargo ship headed for Africa. But first he must get rid of Trotsky, his pet monkey. An annoying kid spoils his plan. What starts as a confrontation slowly evolves into true friendship. Sometimes it looks like a road movie, but elsewhere melodrama is the most important thing.

The National Film Board produces documentaries about various issues of human interest in Canada. I would mention one: the documentary “Tusarnituuq! Nagano in the Land of the Inuit” by Félix Lajeunesse. It follows the Montreal Symphony Orchestra in their first-ever tour of the Canadian Arctic. The orchestra, directed by Kent Nagano, performs on stage with celebrated Inuit throat singers in Nunavut. The incredible landscape of the Great North, seen with a soundtrack of either classical music or of the throat singing of the Inuits, is totally impressive. The film demonstrates that the distance between Montreal’s celebrated conductor Nagano and the people of North Québec and Nunavut is not so huge after all.

In conclusion, the 33rd Montreal World Film Festival offered a varied selection of films from around the world in an Official Competition that appealed to the public and continued to draw large audiences.  As long as this public is still there, the Montreal World Film Festival will survive; but will it ever develop beyond that?

Edited by Birgit Beumers