Redemption and Movement

in 64th International Film Festival Mannheim-Heidelberg

by Agustin Acevedo Kanopa

After two weeks of the most exotic, varied debut cinema from around the world, the 64th edition of International Film Festival Mannheim-Heidelberg came to a close. With a long, storied history of important guests and discoveries (Fritz Lang as jury president in 1964, an outstanding selection of key Czech New Wave figures in 1963, and one of the first awards received by the young Jim Jarmusch in 1980), the festival has given attention to the cinema of diverse and distant countries, in accordance with the vibrant, multicultural environment of both Mannheim and Heidelberg. Mannheim is one of the country’s melting pots, with its significant population from Turkey and the Middle East, while Heidelberg is known for its historic university attended by students from all walks of life.

Mexico was the ceremony’s big winner, with Celso R García’s The Thin Yellow Line awarded Best Feature Film by the International Jury, while Anwar Safa’s Jeremy won the Audience Award and Alejandro Guzmán García’s Walking Distance received the Ecumenical Prize. This was good news, not only for the state of Mexican cinema, but as an interesting counterpoint to the generally bleak, gritty recent wave of Mexican films such as Amat Escalante’s Heli (2013) and Michael Franco’s After Lucia (2012). At the festival, what the three prizewinning Mexican films shared was an unprecedented emphasis on the dignity of the characters, who collaborate with others to solve some of their most vital problems.

Walking Distance and The Thin Yellow Line had something else in common: a parallelism between the journey of the characters and the quest for redemption. The Thin Yellow Line follows Antonio Marques, a construction worker haunted by the death of some fellow laborers and a bitter estrangement from his only child. One day he regains his former job, and is tasked with repainting the yellow line on 217 kilometers of asphalt road between San Carlos and San Jacinto. In Walking Distance, the story centers on the sedentary, morbidly obese Federico Sanchez, who seems to be a prisoner of his own body. Suffering from severe cardiac disease, Federico can barely take a short walk from his house, but his newfound passion for photography (with the help of his brother-in-law and a bright young guy who works at the camera store) spurs a fresh interest in life.

Both films deal with the quest for redemption, providing an interesting exploration of movement and velocity. They differ from the road movie, in which velocity is an integral part of the equation: both Walking Distance and The Thin Yellow Line are about short, careful steps rather than epic and thunderous journeys. In the former, each step Federico takes may be his last, the one which will trigger a fatal heart attack. His dream of walking to the beach looks like an elephant’s solitary journey to its mythological ivory graveyard. In The Thin Yellow Line, Antonio’s work seems dull rather than dangerous, but the film shows that isolation and boredom are not the only risks of the line-painting business – there are also thefts and fatal car crashes. The concept of the yellow line (including the lines made from blood drops, which unfortunately result in some redundant and obvious flashbacks at the end of the film) has important moral connotations. It represents the life that Antonio has chosen, as a man who thinks he has lost his loved ones only to discover that he himself has been lost all these years. The line does not only indicate the correct path – it stands for the thin yellow margin between good and bad, victim and perpetrator. Reaching the end of the asphalt road means mapping a place where Antonio doesn’t know if he still belongs. It is a long, staggered journey that resembles, in its game of scales and correspondences, Federico’s wobbly steps in Walking Distance.

The themes of walking, continuity and self-discovery appeared in some of the festival’s other films. Two films with a very flâneur approach were Armel Hostiou’s Stubborn and Margot Schaap’s 12 Months in 1 Day. Both films feature an important and organic relationship with the cities their characters stroll through. Stubborn is a wandering tale of loss and acceptance – perhaps the impossibility of acceptance. It follows the downward spiral of a grieving French man who travels to New York to win back his ex-girlfriend. More interesting than the love story is the way that New York can be seen as either a redemptive or alienating place, depending on who walks through it. Thus, even the Dutch manic pixie dream girl who comes to the protagonist’s rescue cannot take him away from his vortex of sorrow.

12 Months in 1 Day is rather different and much more complex and multi-layered. Seb, Misha and Ivonne are three friends who wander through the streets of Amsterdam after New Year’s Eve. At first, the film looks like just another love triangle fueled by poetic and psychological voiceovers (à la Xavier Dolan’s Les Amours Imaginaires), but it unfolds into something more. Some elements don’t seem to match up – for instance, the way that the characters end up in the river on a freezing day in Amsterdam – but gradually we appreciate Schaap’s formal and narrative tour de force. As the title indicates, we are seeing not a single day, but a year in the characters’ lives, trickily condensed through style. This is a complex film of longing and loss, with a psycho-geographic expression of the characters and their surroundings. It successfully blends foreground and background, romance and documentary. Amsterdam itself becomes a character – people who appear to exist in the city’s background suddenly interact with us, just as the protagonists are set loose, ready to vanish and reemerge from the shadows.

At first glance, Margot Schaap doesn’t appear to have much in common with Alfonso Cuaron, but there is a striking similarity in the way that both directors invert the relationship between foreground and background. This doesn’t apply strictly to space, but also to the evocative powers of voiceover (remember the striking side stories related by the voiceover in Cuaron’s Y Tu Mama También). This is one of the many reasons for giving 12 Months in 1 Day the FIPRESCI Prize for best feature film.

Two more films, Rebecca Cremona’s Simshar and Ada Loueilh’s So Long Africa, try to come to terms with a world which paradoxically keeps opening trade barriers while erecting walls and fences. Both deal with symbolically deprived places – the former with the refugee situation in Malta and the latter at a social center in Nice for victims of the civil war in Cote d’Ivoire. The characters in these films cannot find a space to land – often literally. Invisible frontiers divide the world, resulting in a form of travel without movement, a constant changing of names and landmarks.

Cinema is, by definition, moving images, and movement can be the subject of film as well as its byproduct. The films I have described show how movement has shaped the face of cinema, in addition to being an issue which requires further development and discussion. These films from around the globe show that the relationship between movement, frontiers and psychology is far from resolved.

Edited by Lesley Chow