Themes That Travel The World In A Desert Town

in 34th Palm Springs International Film Festival

by Anders E Larsson

It’s a small town, Palm Springs, thrown out in the desert east of the San Jacinto mountains. Nevertheless, due to its many famous inhabitants, it has a Walk of Fame with stars spread out in the streets downtown: names from the past like Bob Hope, Ginger Rogers, and Ettore Scola, and from the ranks of the living, Sophia Loren, Chevy Chase, and—a name that really excites me—Udo Kier (with his unique persona). Kier is an actor who’s never been afraid of trying out his form in demanding films by (the equally unique) Lars von Trier. Palm Springs has, from the 1930s and onwards, been a popular getaway for Hollywood A-listers, so it’s no surprise that Leonardo DiCaprio owns a house here. But from what I’ve heard, he doesn’t actually spend much time here, the house is rather rented out to people with deep pockets who don’t mind paying up for a stay in Casa DiCaprio.

Faced with the opportunity to take in an unusual large and qualitative line-up, the urge to identify what unifies and separates these titles is present from the get-go. As a juror at the Palm Springs International Film Festival you watch around 35 features, to be narrowed down and summarized in four award categories: best film, best screenplay, best actress, and best actor. Among the offerings are several of the candidates for Best International Feature Film at the Academy Awards. While obvious differences in language, cultural context, and cinematic traditions can be found, and give plenty of fuel for discussions, it’s perhaps more interesting to see how similar themes travel the globe and the world of filmmaking.

Conflict is of course the basic building block for any dramatic event, on and off screen. But if you bring the concept of conflict up a notch, raising the existential stakes so to speak, you notice truly life-altering scenarios for the individuals involved: How to survive and deal with the invasion of your homeland (Klondike, directed by Maryna Er Gorbach from Ukraine); how to survive while avoiding being merely cannon fodder (All Quiet on the Western Front, directed by German-born Edward Berger); how to be allowed to be who you are (Joyland, Pakistani feature debut directed by Saim Sadiq); how to come to terms with the fact that the profound explanations you’re looking for may never appear (Return to Seoul, by Cambodian-French director Davy Chou).

These four titles were among the festival stand-outs, fortunately in the good company of at least 15 other films of similar stature. The queer topic in Joyland echoes in The Blue Caftan (Morocco), while the theme of returning to the roots in Return to Seoul (looking for biological parents) also plays out in the Italian Nostalgia (your childhood friend choose to become a high profile mobster). Pictures of contemporary war and terror in Klondike and the First World War setting of All Quiet on the Western Front are extended in Argentina, 1985 (the junta is put on trial) and in the Iranian World War III (a depiction of a film shoot featuring Hitler’s atrocities).

No larger festival line-up can avoid religious matters of some kind. Both the Swedish Cairo Conspiracy (a poor boy gets a shot at prestigous religious studies, but eventually reverts to his father’s occupation as a fisherman when political power struggles discourage him from religious practice) and the Danish Holy Spider (an overly devoted Muslim sets out to rid the world of impure women) shines a light on the underbelly of the religious world.

One of my personal favourites was The Quiet Girl, an Irish feature film in the Irish language. Coming-of-age stories were also prevalent in the devastating Belgian friendship-turned-into-suicide tale Close, as well as in the Tunisian Under the Fig Trees (where young – and older – fig pickers confronts and debates daily issues), but The Quiet Girl, directed by Colm Bairéad (his feature film debut) serves up something special.

The gentleness with which Bairéad constructs the story of a neglected nine-year-old girl, who gets the chance to spend a summer on a farm with loving adults, opens up superb ways of understanding and seeing this little girl’s transformation into a self-confident and trusting human being. The careful pacing and attention to character development are especially impressive. The fact that this film didn’t end up winning one of the awards says a lot about the quality of the festival’s feature film selection.

Palm Springs in January can be a bit wet. I encountered flooded streets the first two days, before the sun broke through, just to be met by yet another rainy day. Still, there’s enough comfortable and well-equipped cinema theatres in this desert resort to keep you dry. But just remember, if you happen to buy a soft drink before the screening: medium size in the United States equals very large in European terms. Go small or be prepared to binge drink.

Anders E Larsson
Edited by Robert Horton