Everything is Politics

in 39th Moscow International Film Festival

by Amy Nicholson

The Moscow International Film Festival opened by reading aloud a letter from Vladimir Putin complimenting director Kirill Razlogov for putting together a program that’s “true to our historic traditions while at the same time never failing to surprise us with new projects, ideas and initiatives.” After a dance number, a speech from special honoree Franco Nero, and an introductory slide show of the 13 main competition films, the 39th annual festival began. That was as political as the week got, at least on stage, unlike, say, this year’s Sundance Film Festival, which invited former Vice President Al Gore to introduce his environmental documentary, An Inconvenient Sequel, at the same hour of Donald Trump’s inauguration, or this year’s Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema, which launched just one week after the Culture Minister asked the head of the National Institute of Cinema and Audiovisual Arts to resign, triggering passionate protests outside the opening night screening.

Yet, you could, if you wanted, to see modern Russia reflected in the MIFF’s line-up. Though it’s tough to say whether that was by design, or because the issues challenging Russian citizens—kleptocracy, the stifling of the free press, democracy that creeps into dictatorship—are universal. If problems like these are on your mind, you can’t help seeing them everywhere. (We’re certainly talking about them a lot in my own country, the United States.)

So it was nice to see heroic journalists onscreen, even though in Kim Bong-han’s Ordinary Person [Bo-tong-sa-ram], the bloodiest of the batch set during the 1987 June Democracy protests of President Chun’s last year in power, newspaper reporter Chu Jae-jin (Kim Sang-ho) winds up tortured for trying to report how a sociopathic bureaucrat (Jang Hyuk) is pressuring the police to imprison their fellow countrymen for false crimes. Chu is an idealist and a drunk. During the day, he berates his publisher for not being braver in telling the truth. At night, he pounds soju with his best friend Kang Sung-jin (Son Hyun-joo), a detective who enjoys beating up civilians. Kang is the star of the film, which follows his slow, painful realization that he’s sold his own country out for a fancy car and the feeling of power in a character arc that veers awkwardly from slapstick comedy to snuff film tragedy. But Chu is the soul—he represents the fighting spirit too many people are willing to smother—and when he’s hurt, the wounds sting.

Next door in Liang Qiao’s engrossing black and white melodrama Crested Ibis [Yuan Shang], reporter Vince Kang (Gao Zifeng) returns home to the rural Chinese province he left behind so long ago that local strangers can’t believe this city boy ever knew their corner of the country. Once, he was the top-of-his-class under the control of a strict teacher who forced him to miss his mother’s funeral in order to ace a test. He was miserable. His schoolmates were jealous, especially that Vince made it all the way to Beijing—a megalopolis none of them have ever seen. His former rival Wanpeng Ren (Zhao Jifeng) has opened a cement factory that’s made him rich and the village riddled with lung cancer. When Vince wrote an expose on it years ago, some of his friends lost their jobs, and Wanpeng took the piece as a personal betrayal.

Today, Vince is back for a fluffier story: his hometown has captured a rare crested ibis, a symbol of renewal, which Wangpen fears could inspire the government to close his cement factory for good in order to build a bird preserve. The clash that follows hews to archetypes—the brutish tycoon, the ailing high school sweetheart, the materialistic gossip, and Vince’s naive do-gooder—yet director Qiao is content to leave the audience debating the morality of the film’s solution. Here, politics is personal. So personal that people who cross the line get kicked in the shin, and then grudgingly invited to dinner.

To Argentinean directors Ernesto Ardito and Virna Molina, the personal is the point—or rather, the point of connection. Their Symphony for Ana [Sinfonia Para Ana], a teen romance set during the rise of fascism in 1974, is equal parts superficial, sincere and sweeping. When 14-year-old Ana (Isadora Ardito), a dark, dramatically-eyebrowed beauty, and her best friend Isa (Rocio Palacín) start classes at the National High School of Buenos Aires, all they care about is falling in love. Will Ana’s lucky boy be rebellious older student Lito (Rafael Federman), or goofy haired Camilo (Ricky Arraga)? Both girls are dreamy, a quality that’s as romantic as it is dangerous, especially when the two join their school’s left wing club, which intends to protect their school director from being fired by taking over the school.

Ana’s parents are terrified to see her on the news. They attempt to ground her from both dating and after-school groups, assuming, correctly, that her passions are connected. What they, and we, know that Ana doesn’t is that before she’s able to graduate, government dissenters will start to vanish. Today, we call them The Disappeared, and they number over 6,000, many of them young hopefuls just like Ana, Isa, Lito and Camilo. To say Ana only cares about childhood infatuation is an insult. She truly believes in her fight, which is more consistent than the film’s direction, a hodgepodge of fresh, strange, visual choices that don’t cohere, except to say that this is a young filmmaker who wants to make an impact. Yet the directors never condescends to the idea that Ana is in love with love, and when the people she loves might not live long lives, it’s important to cherish even the briefest, babyish joys.

From there, the festival took a turn toward a character who gets zero respect (and deserves even less than that). Víctor García León’s Selfie follows Bosco (Santiago Alverú), the bratty, idiotic college-age son of a wealthy Spanish Minister. The film—a mockumentary—kicks off like My Super Sweet Sixteen with Bosco starring in a documentary about his lavish birthday party. Before he can blow out the candles, however, there’s life-changing breaking news on the TV: his father has been arrested for embezzlement, and the cameras stick with the son as he drives home to discover protestors threatening to burn down his family’s mansion. Bosco doesn’t fight. He joins them. He’s either that dumb, or that much in denial about the crooked deals that have made his life easy. Here, the line between rich and ridiculous is blurred.

As he’s stripped of home, family, sports cars, and support, Bosco keeps grinning and assuring us that everything will be fine. (Alverú is doing a dead-on impression of Sharlto Copley in District 9 that eventually gets old.) The first half-hour is hilarious, but we don’t get enough time with his back-stabbing rich friends. Even after Bosco is forced to live in cheap housing with leftwing roommates and—ew!—get a job, the film does nothing else but hammer the point that he’s a moron. If there is a twist, it’s that the social safety net his new, poor friends are protesting doesn’t seem that bad: they’re all still pretty happy, even the saintly blind girl (Macarena Sanz) who has the bad judgement to fall for this creep. (Bosco tells her the filming crew is gone when they’re still very much recording.) But though Selfie is frustratingly flawed, the audience laughed themselves silly. Every country has a cluster of powerful, politically connected people ruining everything. And it’s universally great to see them get shamed.