Given the fact that the longest-running film festival in the Americas celebrated its 50th edition this year, it was all the more surprising that the event turned out to be such a relaxed and completely hassle-free affair. Indeed, the festival’s atmosphere proved to be perfectly suited to the laid-back rhythm and charming tone of a film like Hana (Hana yori mo naho), Kore-eda Hirokazu’s wonderful tale of a shy samurai, who is supposed to revenge his father’s murder, but instead idles away his days in an Edo shantytown and secretly pines for a young widow neighbor.
For the festival’s most extravagant event, on the other hand, one could hardly imagine a more fitting venue than the legendary “Castro Theater”, built in 1922 and located in the heart of the city’s namesake gay district. The screening of Guy Maddin’s Brand upon the Brain! was accompanied by a 13-piece orchestra, three onstage foley artists, a falsetto singer and a benshi-like narrator (San Francisco resident Joan Chen), who all added to the special allure of this feverish, fast-paced pastiche of silent cinema, which had originally been shot on Super 8mm film stock and then transferred to high-definition video. However, the experience of this outlandish tale of sexual awakening, puritanical repression, and (most bizarre of all) age reversal would not have been complete without the atmosphere supplied by the lavish décor and the unique history of a movie house that a local critic once dubbed “the church of camp”.
While Maddin’s mix of Feuillade, Freud and Foucault was more than well received by the audience, it was Rocket Science, though, which probably drew more applause than any other festival entry. This debut feature about a young stutterer, whom a headstrong girl recruits to the school’s debating team, only to then desert him, was inspired by the teenage experiences of filmmaker Jeffrey Blitz, the director of the documentary Spellbound, who himself was a stutterer before becoming a debating team champion. Yet, despite this deeply personal inspiration the quirky characterizations and deadpan tone of Rocket Science inevitably call to mind another film, namely Wes Anderson’s Rushmore. And since Anderson’s quirkiness has become something of a cliché in American Indie cinema, one might feel that Blitz’s movie lacks a bit of originality. Still, the director always hits the right offbeat tone and coaxes pitch-perfect performances from his young leading actors, Reece Thompson and Anna Kendrick. And, above all, he makes truly hilarious use of one of his film’s main locales, the run-down industrial city of Trenton, New Jersey.
Although Rocket Science was a sure-fire crowd-pleaser, the festival did not shy away from controversial films. At the outset of Ghosts of Cité Soleil an insert informs the audience that the Port-au-Prince slum, to which the film’s title refers, has been dubbed “the most dangerous place on earth” by the United Nations. This underlines the voyeuristic nature of the privileged peek into misery that this documentary subsequently offers its audience.
The film’s main characters are two youthful thugs, who each lead one of those gangs, which Haitian president Aristide in 2004 called upon to quell political unrest. And as is usual with such subjects, you never know to what extent their unscrupulousness is further instigated by the presence of a camera. Even more disturbing, is to watch a French relief worker turn into a gang leader groupie, who at times seems actually to act to the camera while bluntly advising her lover not to surrender his gang’s weapons to the U.N. forces. There is no way not to be fascinated by all this, and Danish director Asger Leth feeds our fascination by foregoing any formal detachment. Seemingly unscrupulous himself, Leth repeatedly mixes impressionistic montage of anonymous people’s misery with the music of Haitian-American Hip-hop star Wyclef Jean – as if this were another one of the music videos or commercials the director made prior to this feature debut. This lack of formal self-reflexion makes it even more impossible for the spectator not to feel implicated in the film’s highly problematic voyeurism. In retrospect, to have Leth seemingly carefree wish us to “enjoy” his film prior to its screening turned out to be one of the few jarring moments of this otherwise enjoyable festival.