Pent-Up Feelings, Upcoming Films

in 53rd Viennale – Vienna International Film Festival

by Dunja Bialas

The Viennese film festival is one of the rare European non-competitive large-scale festivals for both “masters of cinema” and upcoming “young cinema”. Hans Hurch, who has been the festival director for nearly twenty years, is known for his selection of unconventional and established works of world cinema. Amongst the more than 150 feature films listed in the 2015’s program (short films, tributes and special programs not included), 50 were first or second films.

The presence of works by debutant filmmakers next to the latest productions by cheered A-festival directors as well as well-known non-headline filmmakers, attributes to the first films a quality of being the future of the alternative arthouse cinema, which is strongly represented by the Viennale’s program. The catalogue mixes, in alphabetic order, the names of established filmmakers like Jacques Audiard (Dheepan), Hong Sang-soo (Right Now, Wrong Then) or Hou Hsiao-hsien (The Assassin), with future hopefuls as Ion de Sosa (Androids Dream), Francesco Clerici (Il gesto delle mani) or Jakob Brossmann (his film Lampedusa in Winter was awarded the Viennese prize at the 2015 festival), but also Michael Almereyda (Experimenter), Raúl Perrone (honored with a tribute to his work) and Kim Longinotto (Dreamcatcher).

Hurch himself highlighted a selection of fourteen films – not only debuts – as being a “proposition“ within the world cinema, “presenting an independent, radical position and bringing up, in terms of content and aesthetics, a distinctive contribution to the ‘state of production'”. The first and second films, yet, were neither labelled as “young” world cinema nor exactly being from “young” filmmakers (some of the debutants had already passed their forties). Hence they were praised as unexpected finds of invigorating films by more or less unknown directors within the festival’s different sections – by tradition classified as fiction, documentary or short film.

It is, of course, a futile attempt to attribute a common theme of style to all the beginners’ films a from around the world. Nevertheless, some of the popular first film topics like coming of age or documenting daily life did emerge.

The hilarious and inventive, yet in the end rather conventional, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by US-filmmaker Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, former assistant director to Martin Scorsese and Alejandro González Iñárritu, blended “coming of age” with “dying at a young age” into an existential, psychoanalytic and sentimental journey, propelled by the love of popular cinema. US-filmmaker Marielle Heller’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl could be considered as its (female) counterpart. Both films debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, both were awarded in different categories. This also applies to the third debut film accepted by the Sundance film festival – Crystal Moselles documentary The Wolfpack. While filming over the long period of four years the “boy group” of the six Angulo brothers, who almost never left their home in the Lower East Side of New York, she focused on the topic “coming of age” as “becoming social”.

Chloé Zhao, acclaimed as one of the “25 new faces” of independent film by “Filmmaker Magazine” two years before her debut in 2015, bowed wittily to the Sundance Institute – from which she received subsidies and grants – by naming the horse in her film Songs My Brothers Taught Me “Sundance”. She nevertheless manifests an unerring way of independent filmmaking. The picture was shot in a minimalistic yet elegiac style, emphasizing the great plains of South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, with nonprofessional actors found among the inhabitants of the region. In this environment, the young director depicts the confusion of the protagonists while experiencing first love, accompanied by the immediate lust of leaving home and the cultural bewilderment, attributed to the general loss of orientation, that occurs when two distinct ethnic groups – the isolated Indians and the tiny catholic community – gradually mix.

Tired Moonlight by the New York based filmmaker Britni West echoed Songs My Brothers Taught Me in many ways. Like Brothers it debuted at the Slamdance Film Festival, the “counter-festival” to Sundance. Shot on glorious super 16mm film material, with the roughness of a fictional drama imitating the direct cinema style, her film manifests a slight yearning for John Cassavetes’ New Hollywood era. With a fine sense for filming daily life in the small town of Kalispell, Montana, Britni West, herself a native of Kalispell, turned the scenes into a strong poetic narrative about loneliness and desire. Her first film can be seen as a declaration of love for the people stuck in the countryside, as well as to filmmaking itself as a precious means of expression to let reality soar up towards poetry.

Pure document, yet in its purity more poignant than a dramatic mise en scène could ever have been, the documentary Coma, by young Syrian filmmaker Sara Fattahi, was one of the most powerful debut films. Coma was one of twenty films preselected by the festival and the FIPRESCI critic’s organisation (it finally won the FIPRESCI award). From a strictly observational point of view, Fattahi films her mother’s and grandmother’s daily life in Damascus, Syria, during the days of civil war. The three women are gathered together in their flat, like in an intimate play, day after day, forced to a standstill by the war going on outside their windows. Fattahi elaborates a powerful metaphor for the lack of freedom by picking out some recurring elements, like the constant, indifferent tick-tock of a clock on the wall, or the voices and music surging from the pathetic daily soap broadcast on TV, building a sharp contrast to the women’s frozen life. Coma shows the banality of war as a drama of the loss of normality, reinforced by the sudden cuts of the filmmaker’s editing that splits life up into fragments of silent despair that each of the three endures in the end on her own.

Edited by Yael Shuv