The Competition: A Radiography of Our World By Grégory Valens

in 30th Montreal World Film Festival

by Grégory Valens

A festival competition is a tricky selection to establish. It must have a balance of genres, countries, experienced directors and newcomers. Seeing major trends, or tendencies (such as a radiography of contemporary society) emerge from the program is an asset. Now for those festivals which dare, in between the insuperable events of Cannes and Venice, to present only films as world or international premieres, the task is all the more difficult. In the past, the Montreal World Film Festival had its good years and its bad years, as any other event of the same size. The 2007 competition program was clearly one of the highs.

Of course, it included a couple of nonsensical choices (such as the ugly mafia movie L’uomo di vetro by Stefano Incerti, which compiles all possible clichés of the subgenre) and awkward repetitions (two Japanese films in costume, both minor works). Some other entries seemed to be there for the wrong reasons: Christopher Cain’s September Dawn, to pay a tribute to Jon Voight, whose talent is not apparent in this cable-like production of a Mormon historical melodrama; Issa Serge Coelo’s Tartina City for its statement on the status of political prisoners, independently of the film’s poor cinematography and editing. (Coelo’s compatriot, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, proved with Abouna and Daratt that filming in Chad is compatible with having an eye as a director.) But overall, the selection offered some quite interesting pieces, and was certainlyenhanced by the presence of veteran filmmaker Claude Miller’s latest film A Secret (Un secret), which could have had its place in Cannes or Venice.

Claude Miller shared the Grand Prize of the Americas with a newcomer, Flemish director Nic Balthazar, who introduced, with Ben X, a daring mixture of filmed sequences and 3-D animation. To tell the story of an autistic boy harassed by his classmates, Balthazar visualizes the boy’s escape into an imaginary world by integrating graphic sequences of a video game in which he incarnates a chivalric hero. While the mixture could easily get laborious, the director manages to create a genuinely poetic atmosphere out of this combination. The parallel world is an occasion for Ben to live the life he can’t experience in the outside world, while his ability to escape reality, thanks to his fantasy double, helps him cope with his everyday life. Somehow, and on a very minor note, the film’s structure is reminiscent of Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth – which is not the weakest standard to reach for a first-time director.

Teenage doubts and their ability (or not) to fully integrate into society, a subject that has always inspired filmmakers, from Chaplin to Truffaut and Gus Van Sant, was a significant trend in the Montreal competition. The German The Other Boy (Der andere Junge) by Volker Einrauch depicts the conflicts arising between two teenagers, one of them being more extraverted than the other, until a dramatic event occurs, while the Mexican Partes usadas by Aarón Fernández is another post-Los Olvidados picture focusing on two kids stealing car accessories.

Not only do teenagers have difficulties to find their place in society. The competition, as a true reflection of contemporary tribulations, included several interesting pieces in which the characters have to find their way through geographical, historical or social boundaries. In The Other Side (A outra margem), Luís Filipe Rocha narrates the personal journey of a transvestite who returns to his native village. After an exile of 15 years in Lisbon, he rediscovers his sister and becomes a heartfelt companion to her trisomic son. The classical theme of the return home does lead to a few predictable sequences, but is enriched by the specificity of the characters: Ricardo and Vasco are both pariahs, society has been and may again be harsh to them, but their authenticity and their inner passion for art is enough to make them experience the best of life. As it happened in Cannes for The Eight Day (Le huitième jour) by Jaco van Dormael in 1996, the jury chaired by producer James B. Harris cleverly chose not to separate the inseparable and awarded Filipe Duarte and Tomás Almeida with a joint Best Actor Prize.

While the subtle and moving Samira’s Garden (Samira Fi Adayaa), in addition to the International Critics’ Prize, was honored with the Best Screenplay award, two other films dealing with extreme situations of characters trying to fulfill their destiny were sadly, and strangely, absent from the awards.

With Bliss (Mutluluk), Turkish director Abdullah Oguz offers a variation on the figures of fear, escape and desire. A young woman has been raped in a small village in the East of Turkey. Her parents, as commanded by ancestral traditions, decide to kill her. A family friend is charged with this rough task but can’t fulfill it and finds himself running away with the woman. With an excellent sense of rhythm, Oguz navigates between the genres of thriller and melodrama, helped by the remarkable performances of a very credible cast.

But the most enthusiastic family and social portrait was that of the Canadian Surviving My Mother, directed in English by Quebec director Emile Gaudreault. What seems on paper fated to be nothing but a tragedy (the film starts as a grandmother is entering the terminal phase of cancer and moves into the family house living room to receive medical attention at home) is the opposite, a lively comedy which constantly surprises the audience with its treatment of serious themes such as cancer, suicide, pedophilia, the celibacy of priests, nymphomania and euthanasia. Gaudreault wittily manages not to take them lightly but to create hilarious sequences which nevertheless allow him to treat each one of these intense topics very seriously. Helped by an amazing cast of the most talented Canadian actors (Caroline Dhavernas, Ellen David, Adam J. Harrington, Véronique Le Flaguais), the director attains a subtle form which mixes laughter and tears.

The excellent short film Good Night Malik (Bonne nuit Malik) by Bruno Danan is clearly a part of this consistent competition: its clever integration of two brothers’ stories turn it into a moving comment on how to find one’s place in the world: the pre-teenage worries of Malik, who needs to compose a poem for school, are the counterpoint to his elder brother’s inner struggle, as the job he just got (bouncer at a disco) forces him, the Arab, to select customers according to their race. This bittersweet layer of life, sober and meaningful, received the International Critics’ Prize for the best short film in the competition.