A Guide to Recognizing Good Films By Ivan Karl

in 44th Gijón International Film Festival

by Ivan Karl

The Spanish appreciate life. This is a land of excellent cuisine, fine wines, quality football and basketball. One can say that hedonism is an ingredient of their national identity, and when a culture loves life, it cannot be indifferent. You become aware of yourself and those around you. I guess that’s why festivals keep going — it’s not just for the parade of awards, prestige and glamour. It’s to mix up the sundry, to combine the similar to discover something new.

This notion defines the Festival in Gijon, one of the oldest big-screen events in Spain, which just celebrated its 45th year of existence. Situated in the north of Spain, Gijon is an inspiration to any visitor: There are no big-city noises, crowds or speed, apart from the waves which splatter the beautiful central city beach. It’s an ambience suitable for any kind of festival.

In the worldwide procession of competing festivals, it’s difficult for a festival programmer to create a sense of genuine discovery. So the best thing to do is to find one’s place in that long chain, and — if possible — choose the best movies one can. Gijon therefore offers its audiences the opportunity to encounter works that would otherwise be unavailable to local theaters. Mostly avoiding conventional films and mainstream directors, Gijon’s accent is on European co-productions, American independent works and, in lesser proportion, movies from Africa, Asia and Middle East. The dramatic content includes multilayered love stories, coming-of-age tales, family tragedies, community studies and sophisticated social experiments.

The main selection offered 15 movies, plus seven out of competition. Some belonged there, some didn’t — like Nicholas Hytner’s The History Boys, Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer’s Quinceanera, Toa Fraser’s No. 2. On the other hand, a title like John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus seemed more suited for some kind of special program because its art direction and expressionistic style was so different from every other film in competition.

Real refreshment was found in the assortment of short films presented before the features in competition. Among them were shorts from Eastern European countries like Hungary, Poland and Romania, whose feature films, for whatever reason, were not in the main program. Perhaps by way of compensation, Gijon presented a major retrospective of motion pictures from that region produced in the 1960s and 1970s, among them such masterpieces as Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrey Rublyov, Milos Forman’s The Fireman’s Ball (Horí, má panenko), Jiri Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains (Ostre sledované vlaky) and Dusan Makavejev’s W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism (W.R. — Misterije organizma).

A festival within the festival was a selection called “Enfants Terribles”, which presented 14 movies — ten live-action, four animated — dealing with the concerns of young people’s lives. This sidebar was a major treasure of the festival in Gijon, supported by three key director retrospectives dedicated to the opuses of France’s Bruno Dumont, the young and agile work of Argentina’s Lisandro Alonso, and the controversial films of Larry Clark — the biggest star of the festival — who apart from his movies presented a collection of photographs he’d shot between 1963 to 1983. (Fantastic!)

And that is not all: Several other sections of the festival comprised some 60 more short, documentary, musical, animated and experimental films. All in all, it seems that other programs were better orchestrated then the main selection. (I suspect this was less indicative of an oversight than the fact that certain highly desired titles were simply not available to be programmed.)

My jury didn’t face a difficult choice: The decision to award the International Critics’ Prize to Valeska Grisebach’s Longing (Sehnsucht) was in every way justified and right. (This appears to have been confirmed by the film’s selection by the festival’s official jury, as well.)

Certainly, there were also other movies worthy of acknowledgment: Dito Monteil’s A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, Jafar Panahi’s Offside, and above all Julia Loktev’s Day Night Day Night. I presume that, as they make their way through the crowded festival circuit, they will not be short of awards.