Palm Springs: This Side of Paradise

in 26th Palm Springs International Film Festival

by Michał Oleszczyk

Set in what seems (at least to this newcomer) like a neighborhood adjacent to paradise itself, the Palm Springs International Film Festival is a place where the audience’s love of movies is as palpable as it seems effortless. Currently in its 26th year, the festival sports a diverse program, showcasing movies from all around the world, with an occasional focus on specific trends and regions. Helmed by the artistic director Helen du Toit and programmed by a first-rate team of international experts (such as Alissa Simon and Hebe Tabachnik), the festival has the unmistakable feel of a labor of love. Which is all the more admirable, given just how many star-studded high-profile events it features every year.

As I had the great pleasure of sitting on Palm Springs FIPRESCI jury (together with Ella Taylor from USA and Ernesto Diezmartinez Guzmán from Mexico), I had the full opportunity to discover first-hand just how rich the programming is, and how open the audience remains to exploring even the wildest cinematic rides. Of course, my primary focus were the features we were judging (all of them official Best Foreign Oscar submissions), but I also managed to occasionally sneak in an unrelated screening just for pleasure. Of those, it was definitely Tom Miller’s “Limited Partnership” that I felt most strongly about: in this moving documentary portrait, one gay couple’s struggle for legal immigrant status in the US is treated as a touchstone of immense cultural shift that took place in the last 40 years. When Richard Adams and Australian-born Tony Sullivan first applied for the latter’s green card in mid-1970s, they were called “faggots” – not by a random homophobic bully, but in an official state document. Richard didn’t live to see the shameful Defense of Marriage Act being struck down in June 2013, but the film is a beautiful testimony to the fight the couple continued to put up over the years, as well as to their love, tenderness and devotion to one another. This is one of the most beautiful portraits of a loving marriage ever put on film, and I dare anyone who watches it to deny its subjects the right to be called husbands.

Back to jury duty. While some of the films (including FIPRESCI winner, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s much-praised, dark political fable “Leviathan”) have been watched by our jury even prior to arriving in Palm Springs, there were few titles that were true on-the-spot discoveries. Chief among them is “Charlie’s Country”, Rolf de Heer’s latest love letter to the beauty of Australian landscape, as well as a close examination of the scars and lacerations left upon Aboriginal culture by the steamroller of ruthless colonialism. As the story focuses on Charlie (David Gulpilil, 40-some years after his startling debut in Nicholas Roeg’s “Walkabout”), we follow an individual that is as much defined by the anger directed at the white men as he is dependent on the culture they had brought and forced upon his native land.

By turns funny, heartbreaking and genuinely sad, anchored by Gulpilil’s stunning central performance that at times seem both more and less than acting (he seems to embody his people’s plight in the mere way he stares into the space), “Charlie’s Country” may be not perfect in terms of script and pacing, but it is probably among the year’s finest achievement in turns of sheer compassion and cultural insight. This is de Heer’s finest film to date, as well as one of the most subtle statements about the intricate evil of post-colonialism I have ever seen.

Another welcome surprise was “Today” (Emrouz) by the Iranian director Reza Mirkarmi, with a fantastic lead performance by Parviz Parastui, playing a shopworn taxi driver whose life is suddenly transformed when a heavily pregnant woman gets into his vehicle and demands a ride to the hospital. As the characters confront a wall of cultural inhibitions and downright taboos, as well as a thick maze of everyday bureaucracy that reduces them to mere ciphers, we discover that the man’s life has been opened to a possibility of something new, humane, and exciting. The film is not on a par with its thematic cousin, Abbas Kiarostami’s “Like Someone In Love”, but it’s nevertheless gripping and proves that there is more than one surprise to be expected from a country whose recent cinematic exploits have been pretty much defined by the stellar achievement of Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation”.

Speaking of the latter, there was a film in Palm Springs that clearly aimed at recreating, or at least approximating, the moral scope and the dramatic structure of Farhadi’s masterpiece, but unfortunately failed on most levels it shot for. Don’t take my word for it (since many critics I talked to actually find it very good, and it made a sweep at Israeli Film Awards), but “Gett, the Trial of Viviane Amsalem” (Gett), by a duo of Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz, is deeply disappointing in its treatment of a genre as potentially exciting as a courtroom drama. As we follow the (literal) trials and tribulation of a woman desperately trying to divorce her husband, but encountering a stubborn resistance from the traditionally-minded jury of rabbis (as well as from her spiteful spouse), the film seems clueless as to how to cash in on its one-room setting and a tense, pressure-cooker situation. The dialogue is shown in endless, undistinguished shots that don’t use the confined space for a dramatic purpose, the editing is pedestrian and the acting is incongruent, in that the diva-ish performance by the gorgeous Elkabetz herself doesn’t leave much screen space for her screen partners to shine.

As disappointing as “Gett” proved to this viewer, it was still better when compared to the true misfires, such as Romanian “The Japanese Dog” (Cainele Japonez) by Tudor Cristian Jurgiu and Italian “Human Capital” (Il capitale umano) by Paolo Virzi, the first looking almost like a parody of what we came to expect of Romanian brand of realism, the second a crude anti-capitalist satire that at times resembles a pulp novel read aloud in the most solemn of tones (it also featured what was perhaps single silliest sex scene to be seen at the festival). Compared to those two disasters, it was refreshing to see films that at least tried for an originality of form and concept, such as Signe Bauman’s “Rocks in My Pockets”, the Latvian animated ode to defeating depression and making peace with one’s own troubled past.

Apart from the obvious favorites that have been generously written up elsewhere (such as Ruben Östlund’s “Force Majeure” (Turist), Abderrahmane Sissako’s “Timbuktu” (Le chagrin des oiseaux) and Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Ida”), Palm Springs festival allowed us a glimpse into the state of international cinema unlike any other, since we could not only admire (or hate) the films we were being shown, but also judge the given countries’ decisions as to actual inclusion of specific titles as their Oscar bids (with a new Porumboiu film under its belt, what was Romania thinking when they nominated “The Japanese Dog”, for example…?).

Overall, Palm Springs offered some unforgettable screenings and an agreeable vibe that seemed to be rooted as much in the open faces of the movie-loving locals as it was poured on by the gorgeous California sun. As I was walking down the street from the final Awards luncheon, a big car stopped next to me and who else but Udo Kier (a local resident) should offer me a ride to my hotel…? Try to experience a casual moment like that at Cannes or Berlin, and maybe I’ll believe you that those places are more fun than Palm Springs.

Michal Oleszczyk