A Mature Festival

in 13rd Films From the South Festival

by Guri Kulas

For someone who has followed the Oslo Films from the South (FFS) for a number of years, the thirteenth festival confirmed that the FFS has become a “mature” festival – well organised with a solid program of some of the best and most interesting new films from Asia, Africa and Latin America.

FFS is an audience festival – not a festival for the film industry. The main programmes (the “Competition” program and the “New Directions” section) therefore consist of highlights and prizewinners from other international festivals. Films like Hong Sang-Soo’s “Turning Gate” (South Korea 2002), Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “Distant” (Turkey 2003) and Rassul Sadr-Ameli’s “I’m Taraneh, 15” (Iran 2002). All of which deserves the big audience they get at an audience festival. But the fact that these and several more of the films in the two competition programmes already have been honoured by the FIPRESCI at other festivals, limited the choice of the FFS FIPRESCI jury. Some of the most interesting films in the competition could not be considered for a prize. It could also be mentioned that the New Directions section is of a more various quality than the main competition programme, and the label “New Directions” often just means a film by a first time- or young director – not a film representing cinematic innovation.

The FIPRESCI Jury was unanimous in its decision to give the prize to the promising Israeli feature debutant Ráanan Alexandrowicz for his witty and sharp satire “James’ Journey to Jerusalem” (2002) – a story about a naïve and spiritual young pilgrim who’s rough meeting with reality in the unexpectedly materialistic “Holy Land” turns him into a cynical, shady businessman. The film could easily have ended up as a simple parable of a modern day Jesus, but due to a well developed main character and a (straight but) clever realisation of a solid script, it becomes a more complex story, which also addresses what is – sadly – a burning problem in large parts of the world today: the exploitation of desperate and illegal immigrants living outside protection from any law.

There was also little argument in the jury about the quality of the rest of the program. The most successful films – what concerns quality – were ‘mainly’ (not all!) traditional realistic dramas. The more experimental films all lacked something in respect of a clear, focused idea or professional direction – like Fernando Pérez’ “could-have-been-brilliant” “city symphony”, “Suite Habana” (Cuba 2003) – a film following in the tradition of Walter Ruttmanns’ classic “Berlin – the Symphony of a Great City” (1927) – but with a humanists heart beating the rhythm of the film, rather than the mechanical pulse of the city. This evaluation of the competition program is reflected in the two other films we all agreed on considering for the prize.

“Balzac & the little Chinese Seamstress” by Sijie Dai (China 2002) is a historical drama about two young urbane “bourgeois” men, sent by the Maoist authorities to be «re-educated» in a remote Chinese mountain village during the Cultural Revolution. There they both fall in love with the same girl. “Balzac…” was one of the best scripted, most beautifully shot and well directed films in the festival – as well as one of the most “professional” productions. But in my view the film is also a very mainstream (in a “Hollywood” sense of the word) epic. The film deals with some of the same topics Chen Kaige have been exploring in his works – about life and art in a totalitarian society. But the extreme sentimentality in “Balzac…” overshadows many of the film’s very interesting themes – as well as its powerful symbolic use of classical literature. The story is told in retrospect by one of the two men, and in light of the memory of lost love at the centre of the drama, even the intellectual stupidity and the physical violence of the political oppression (quite literally) get a pink glow to it. The film comes out as the kind of harmless love story that could get nominated for “Best foreign Oscar”.

The third film the jury agreed on discussing as a prize candidate was the mesmerising little adventure “Travellers and Magicians” by Khyentse Norbu (Bhutan 2003) – the director who won international recognition for his debut feature “The Cup” a couple of years ago. Here we witness a young man reconsider his plan to elope from Bhutan – where he finds life dull and of no consequence – to the land of his dreams: the USA. The imagery is exotic and fascinating. Through two parallel stories – one set in a fantasy world, the other in reality – the film is a kind of a humorously told warning tale against the old proverb of discontent: “the grass is always greener on the other side the fence”. The fantasy part of the film are being told to the protagonist by a Buddhist monk – and perhaps this lures the films audience to remember it as a bit more philosophical than it is? In the end it is a quite simple moral(istic) tale. And it is with it’s breathtaking sceneries form Bhutan that it charms us, more than by the quality of its photography, and instead of developing it’s story in a cinematic way, the film draws heavily on verbal storytelling – which despite all its qualities – in a way – makes it an illustrated novel.