Contemplating Film Festivals

in 52nd San Sebastian International Film Festival

by Branka Sömen

With every major international film festival the dilemma regarding the overlapping of interests between film and politics becomes more pressing. Are there films in the service of politics? And if so, how can you determine whether it’s the case or not? Or is it vice versa? And why?

You might argue everything is politics today. Politics make us judge this film harshly and the next friendly. Politics is involved in the choice of jury members and the festivals’ film selection. In the end, politics also decides which film we watch and which we ignore.

How do we cope with that? Do we accept the possibility of being manipulated by directors, producers, actors and festivals sometimes and to manipulate others subsequently and unconsciously? Another option is to delude ourselves that we critics are above such things, secure in our sophisticated intellectual world, perfectly blameless and untouchable… Or do we simply turn a blind eye to some films until we have to face the cruel reality of our profession regarding cases like Mike Leigh whose film Vera Drake was not even included in the official program in Cannes where Leigh might have triumphed over the anti-American documentary which won the first prize?! But then Leigh’s serene, classical, perfect, but also old-fashioned style wins the hearts at the Mostra in Venice and against a furious Italian bunch whose film Le Chiavi di casa (by Gianni Amelio) bout the emotional relationship between a father and his handicapped son was considered a sure winner.

The Americans say a film will irrefutably be nominated for the Oscar if one of the characters is a child or a terminally handicapped or ill person. Based on their own experiences some authors have gone much further using handicapped children as film heroes. Unquestionably, issues like that deserve to be presented because they are an integral part of life and people’s destinies, of the world that surrounds us in the shape of a sad and less attractive everyday existence exhibiting the other ruthless side.

However, it strikes me as rather peculiar and hardly by coincidence that the film industry has recently produced so many films covering these subjects. It started with Amelio’s film in Venice or Pedro Almodovar’s Bad Education in Cannes, a rather candid portrayal of boys being abused in a Catholic school with consequences for their whole lives. This year’s San Sebastian Film Festival displayed an abundance of films with children playing important roles as main characters. These children are mostly portrayed as victims – of war, circumstances, fate, natural disasters, domestic conditions, misunderstanding, illness…

Therefore it is no big surprise that the two best-awarded films deal with children as the victims of other people’s frenzy and injustice. Bahman Ghobadi’s Turtles Can Fly (Iran/Iraq) portrays Kurd refugee children in a mine-infested, unsafe area between Iran and Turkey. These children have become victims of war, lethal landmines and underhand political maneuvers; in their battle for survival may emerge as martyrs, invalids and warriors, all at the same time.

In Goran Paskaljevic’s Midwinter Night’s Dream war is merely a background theme. The autistic girl is a looser in many ways: besides being handicapped, she looses her home, her father and finally her mother.

The Danish film Brothers by Susanne Bier depicts the events surrounding a boy and a girl, who become the victims of a family drama brought along by their father’s drastic transformation after returning from a military mission in Afghanistan. The Brazilian film El Cielit by Maria Victoria Menis deals with a young man’s tender relationship towards a one-year-old infant. He tries to shelter the child from the horror and trauma of family violence.

The Spanish film Horaz de Luz by Manolo Matji tells the story of a multiple killer sentenced for life who falls in love with a nurse and marries her. The story also includes her three children who, having had to grow up without a father, naively and trustingly accept this new father, regardless of the fact that he is in prison and guilty of heinous crimes. They come to see him as the beloved father they had been waiting for all their lives.

This is how contemporary film uses (and perhaps also misuses) children. A lot of things remain to be said on this subject, but let us wait until the next major film festival…

Branka Sömen