An Uneven Competition

in 27th Montreal World Film Festival

by Grégory Valens

Placed under the sign of polemics (the change of dates that matched exactly those of Venice led to the FIAPF decision not to recognize the Montreal film festival anymore, while the fest directors claimed to consider FIAPF accreditation useless and not to wish to be reintegrated in the future), the 27th edition of the World Film Festival in Montreal ended in the astonishing public approval for the main prizes. Those who followed the whole 19 features competition program, like the FIPRESCI jurors, left the closing ceremony rather perplex, not to say more.

Everyone agrees that the public in Montreal is one of the best in the world. Screenings are packed even in the early morning, and the city’s inhabitants are thrilled of this occasion to see the best of world cinema – as from this year, the sections of the festival are simply organized in function of the continents, which underlines the program directors’ efforts to show not only the recent Quebec productions but also many productions from Africa, South America, Asia and Oceania, including documentaries and short films.

The main problem of the Montreal festival, however, is the level of its international competition. Placed at the end of the summer season, two weeks after Locarno and two before San Sebastian, the festival suffers from the same difficulties other festivals of the so-called A category (whose competitions are composed of films that must never have been screened outside of their country of origin), such as Moscow or Karlovy Vary, face to compose a program that could rival those of the main fests. Some of the official entries screened in Montreal – Like a Bad Dream by Antonio Mitrikeski, In the Forest Again by Goutam Ghose, Memory Lane by Fabio Carpi, The Little Polish by Juan Carlos Desanzo, The Gun by Vladimir Alenikov – are among the worst pieces I have ever seen in several years touring the major festivals on five continents.

In other words, one can wonder if the regulations of younger festivals, such as Buenos Aires, which allow films that have been presented in other competitions to participate, are not better for everyone. The best films shown in Montreal are without any doubts those screened in the non-competitive sections. The coincidence of dates with the Mostra in Venice is fatal to Montreal, as most of the established directors would rather be in one of Venice sections, even if not the main one – see the impressive level of the Controcorrente selection.

There are always a few exceptions of course. Raul Ruiz was recently in competition in Montreal. This year, two recognized directors were presenting their latest work in the world competition: Idrissa Ouedraogo with Anger of Gods, and Goran Markovic with The Cordon. The first one offered a work of high quality, but left the fest empty-handed. The latter won the main prize, the Grand Prix des Amériques, with a film that deals with an interesting subject in an excruciating way.

The Cordon (Kordon) takes place during a night of 1997 in Belgrade, a time of intense demonstrations against the regime of Milosevic. It follows a brigade that overpasses its rights and deliberately wounds a man, who happens to be the chief’s daughter’s boyfriend. Although Markovic seems to condemn the police attitude, and states that this kind of behavior was habitual, the complaisance he shows in the violence sequences can hardly be understood, as it is not assorted of any moral, political or humanitarian statement. To comment that the director is far from repeating the qualities of Burlesque Tragedy would be excessively polite: the narration in The Cordon is unbearably repetitive; the digital video may give at first an erroneous realistic touch, but the gratuitous use that is made of it irritates the spectator. The rather disputable approach of the political aspects – even the darker characters have their reasons to behave, and it seems Markovic discharges them in advance – makes of The Cordon an unpleasant viewing experience.

The other Serbian production of the competition, The Professional, on the contrary, gives a contemporary look on a country’s evolution, with a clever narrative structure and a delicate sense of irony.

The Grand Jury Prize for Gaz Bar Blues gave local audience great pleasure, as this Quebec production directed by Louis Bélanger was acclaimed at the festival’s opening. Following the lives of the customers in a local gas station, who share many moments of their nights and days around the paternal figure of the station’s owner, Gaz Bar Blues fails to reach its emotional goal: when the station closes, the characters seem a little sad, yes, but the spectators couldn’t care less.

What to say of the director’s prize to Antonio Mercero, for Fourth Floor (Planta 4a)? The film is far from being uninteresting. In the department of a hospital curing young patients suffering from bone cancer, some of them amputated, the film follows the lives of a bunch of teenagers, overcoming their trauma and trying to experience a normal teenage life. Without any sentimentalism, facing its tough subject quite honestly, the film is deeply moving and served by extraordinary performances, especially from Juan José Ballesta, a young actor already seen in El Bola, who seems promised to a Jean-Pierre Léaud future. The only problem is a rather essential one: the directing is very poor, lacking of point of views. It is a disappointing surprise that the film was prized for a TV-like shape, while its interest is elsewhere.

Disappointing as well that the beauty of August Sun (Ira Madiyama) by Sri-Lanka director Prasanna Vithanage left the jury unimpressed. Telling three intricate stories involving strong characters (a man looking for his brother, a wife in search of her husband, a boy being expelled with his family) who face the difficulties of life in an unstable society – war, terrorism, rebellion and kidnappings – the film has a quiet beauty that contrasts with the tough subjects it deals with. Its impressive cinematography, as well as a delicate attention to visual and sound details, makes it one of the best films screened in Montreal, as well as a second piece from Sri Lanka in one year to deserve attention, after Lester James Peries’ masterpiece, Mansion by the Lake, shown in Cannes.

I would even say that this is one of the three films in competition to be directed by someone who understands what directing is about. August Sun, like The Professional and Anger of Gods, gives a personal vision of the world. Idrissa Ouedraogo’s Anger of Gods (La Colère des Dieux) is very representative of his cinema, the extreme peacefulness and beauty of its form reinforcing the personal dramas of its characters. Following on a two decades period the destiny of Salam, who was raised as the King’s son and learns one day he was born from another father, Anger of Gods is a tale on power and how it makes good men take decisions that will influence the destiny of others. With Shakespearian accents (the Lady Macbeth-like influence of women, the Hamlet-influenced situations of father and son fights, the Gods and witchcraft’s predictions), Anger of Gods shows that Ouedraogo has not lost his talent. His film is one of the very few Montreal’s entries that could have found a place in one of the three major festivals.