The Competition: The Perception of Reality By Angela Baldassarre

in 28th Montreal World Film Festival

by Angela Baldassarre

Making its North American premiere at the 28th edition of the Montreal World Film Festival in the International Competition program was Roy Battersby’s Red Mercury, the story about three Muslim men who take the patrons of a London restaurant hostage after the police find out they’re building a nuclear bomb. “The freaky thing about it,” said the director before the screening, “is that the film was completed two days before the London bombings.”

British-born Battersby explained that members of the British bomb squad visited him earlier in the year and asked to see the film. “They were afraid that we would give away the details on how to build a bomb,” he said. “They sat and watched it, and then walked away without saying anything. All they said was not to worry.”

Red Mercury stars British stars Juliet Stevenson and Pete Postlethwaite, as well as Americans Ron Silver and Stockard Channing. Silver accompanied the 69-year-old director to the screening and to the subsequent press conference.

Also premiering the competition program was the latest from Belgian director Miel van Hoogenbemt, Miss Montigny. This film tells the heart-warming story of a Belgian woman trying to make it in an economically depressed former mining town. Sandrine is a 19-year-old who sells cheese in the supermarket by day and does manicures in the evenings. Her long-held dream is to open up her own business and gain hold of her own destiny. But getting the money together isn’t easy, and things get very complicated indeed when Sandrine decides to enter a local beauty contest in an effort to raise some cash.

The story, said van Hoogenbemt through a translator, is about a young woman who thrives for independence but can’t leave her family behind. “She lives her mother’s dreams,” he explained. The 47-year-old van Hoogenbemt is mostly renowned as a documentary filmmaker in Belgian. Miss Montigny is his first feature-length fiction movie.

A regular at the Montreal film festival, Spanish director Gerardo Herrero, was in town to present his latest movie, Heroina, also in the competition program. Based on a true story, the film centers on Pilar, the mother of three children, the oldest being a drug addict. In order to save her child, Pilar gathers other parents and begins boycotting bars and locations where drugs are sold. Eventually her cause garners the attention of media and politicians, but it may be too late to save her son.

“The setting of the movie is very important,” said Herrero during the press conference following the screening. “In the 1980s, the area of Galicia where the film is set was re-industrialized and that’s when drugs came into the picture. The mothers had no idea what heroin was. They also didn’t think that drug dealers were bad guys, because these were the same guys that dealt with cigarettes. But when it became obvious that they were the ones killing their children, they rebelled.”

Herrero admits that he’d never heard of the “mothers of Galicia” until he read about it in the newspapers. “We filmed in the same area where the events took place,” he explained. “We were even there during the 20th anniversary of the opening of their center. The producers of the film celebrated with the mothers.”

Also making its premiere at the festival in the competition was Three Dollars, the latest from director Robert Connolly (The Bank). The film recounts the story of Eddie (David Wenham), a government employee who has always played by the rules, and expected that his needs would be taken care of as a result. Sadly, government cutbacks mean Eddie, who’s pushing 40, is out of a job. All the man has as he walks away from his job are $3 in his pocket. Based on Elliot Perlman’s novel of the same name, Three Dollars examines morality in contemporary Australia.

“There’s a conservative streak going through Australia these days,” Connolly explained before the screening. “But what we independent filmmakers are trying to do is make a critique of contemporary Australia. And while doing this we’ve found a way to voice our dissent.”

Though the film is based on the book and very removed from the director’s life, Connolly admitted that the movie is his most personal to date. “It’s the story of a good man in tough times. He’s married, has a child and only three dollars in the bank. Just like me,” he laughs.

Alessandro D’Alatri’s The Fever (La Febbre), also screened in the main competition. Mario (Fabio Volo, star of D’Alatri’s previous film Casomai) was earmarked at birth for a civil servant job by his soldier dad, now deceased, and seamstress mom (Gisella Burinato). Though temperamentally unsuited to be a bureaucrat, he steps into the role to earn money to fulfill his dream of opening a discotheque with his buddies. Starting the new job at city hall, Mario is paired with a mild-mannered civil servant nearing retirement, Faoni (Vittorio Franceschi), who gently teaches him to lower his expectations about job fulfillment. However, Mario’s popularity with women excites the animosity of the slimy mayor, Cerqueti (Massimo Bagliani). Mario is forced to collect an unpopular tax door-to-door, then transferred to a dingy office at the city cemetery. The constant presence of funerals takes on symbolic connotations, as Mario’s dreams are quashed one by one. What brings him back to life is meeting beautiful go-go disco dancer Linda (Valeria Solarino), a literature student with a passion for videotaping the graves of famous poets. This leads to serious reflections about the meaning of life that extends beyond family and community expectations.

Off Screen, by Dutch director Pieter Kuijpers, was also part of the competition and tells the true-life story of bus driver John Voerman (Jan Decleir) who entered the Rembrandt Tower in Amsterdam and took some security guards hostage. The reasons for his actions was to get to speak to a Philips executive, Gerard Wesselinck (Jeroen Krabbé) to find hidden codes and subliminal messages sent out by widescreen televisions. As the movie progresses we get to see how the two of them meet and become friends and the events and circumstances that lead up to Voerman’s extreme actions.

“We all live in a time of fear,” says Kuijpers during the press conference following the screening. “And those who know that make use of this knowledge. That’s a metaphor for what’s happening now. It’s a great pressure for people like us. Look at all the advertising. When we were kids that wasn’t normal. That’s what connected me to this man, the perception of reality. To him this is the truth.”

Kuijpers, who impressed moviegoers in the past with his gritty film Godforsaken, explains that it wasn’t difficult to get Krabbé and Decleir, two of Holland’s greatest actors, to appear in the film. “We knew immediately that we wanted Jeroen to plays the Philips executive,” he says. “And he hadn’t made a Dutch film in over a decade. And when we approached him, he said he’d make the film only if Jan would be in. And of course we had Jan in mind for the John character, so it was easy. And they did the film for a fraction of their normal fee.”

But Kuijpers admits that getting the rights from Philips to make the film wasn’t easy. The film’s original title, in fact, was the name of the CEO of the company at the time, but for legal reasons it had to be switched to Off Screen. “When we approached them about the film, they didn’t like it,” admits the director. “But they agreed as long as we respected the emotional ordeal of the hostages. It was also good for publicity purposes for them. The only thing they were really afraid of was that the film could be seen in China. They don’t want the film to show people rebelling against multi-national corporations. What’s funny is that we released the DVD of film in Luxembourg, but for some reason it’s unable to be played on LG players, which are owned by Philips. I don’t know if Philips did it on purpose, but we’ll have to look into it.”

Jose Corbacho and Juan Cruz’s competition film Tapas, from Spain, tells three loosely connected stories, the first dealing with robust bar owner Lolo (Angel de Andres Lopez), who is abandoned by his miserable spouse Rosalia (Amparo Moreno). Suddenly needing a cook, Lolo hires Chinese immigrant Mao (Alberto Jo Lee) and suddenly the bar starts getting a reputation for good food. Meanwhile, middle-aged storeowner Raquel (Elvira Minguez), also separated and equally isolated, is involved in an Internet relationship when 22-year-old supermarket employee Cesar (Ruben Ochandiano) turns up at her house to fix her video and ends up in her bed. The third story is that of elderly Mariano (Alberto de Mendoza) who learns that he’s about to die and asks his wife Conchi (Maria Galiana) to kill him. Conchi, meanwhile, sells drugs to the local boys through Lolo’s bar.

“The movie is about life and the things we go through,” says Corbacho during the press conference following the screening. “But the message is ultimately life is better as a couple. It’s really fragments of life and we tried to keep the stories open-ended. We took certain characters and brought them through situations but we didn’t give away any endings. It’s like windows on life.”

Cruz explains that they chose the title Tapas for two reasons. “In Spanish tapas means two things,” he says. “It stands for small portions of food, so the film is really small portions of life. It’s little fragments of something about somebody’s life. But tapas also means a cover, so everybody has something to hide in their lives. And this is the philosophy of the film.”

The other competition film was the controversial and terribly received Your Name is Justine (Tu t’appelles Justine), a Poland-Luxembourg coproduction by Argentinean director Franco de Pena. The film follows a Polish girl, Mariola (Anna Cesliak), who leaves her small village with her new German boyfriend for Berlin. But as soon as she arrives she’s kidnapped and sold into prostitution. Despite her attempts to escape, she finds herself prisoner and tortured and unable to get anyone to help her.

“I took out my contact lenses to play with feeling,” Cesliak explained during the press conference. “Sometimes it was easy, but mostly it was very hard.”

The press was not kind with de Pena, who found himself defending his film during the conference. “It’s not just a Polish problem,” he tells a critic who questioned his research into the story. “It’s a worldwide problem. Prostitution is a major commodity, a huge business. Let’s not kid ourselves, it exists in Canada as well. It’s a new consumer good thanks to globalization. I hope some girls look at the film and learn something. And I hope that my friends who go to prostitutes will stop.”

La Pena admits that he had a difficult time finding distributors for the film. “They wanted me to make a comedy,” he says. “But it’s not about that. I met prostitutes who were in that position. I had a grant from the Germans to do research on the film, so I would go to the prostitutes and pretend I was an idiot. Then I’d pretend I was impotent so I could get them talking. I know that Berlin is the center of white slavery for Eastern and Central Europeans. So making a comedy was a lack of respect for these women I met.”

Simon Aeby’s The Headsman (Le Bourreau), is a co-production by Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Luxembourg, Hungary and the United Kingdom. Set in the 16th century in Tyrol, the story follows two orphan friends who meet up after they’ve been separated for 15 years. Martin becomes a soldier and captain of the imperial army, while Georg becomes head of the church and monastery in their village. Things turn complicated when Martin falls in love with Anna, the daughter of the executioner, and when they marry Martin can no longer be in the army because he is now an ‘untouchable.’ Georg, meanwhile, must deal with the threat of the inquisition coming to the village. When the worst happens, Martin and Georg must make life-threatening decisions.

“When I read the original book I was shocked by the bloodshed,” said director Aeby during the press conference following the screening. “Then I sat down with the writer (Susanne Freund) and wrote a screenplay where we reduced the violence a little. What you see in the movie is a small fraction of what these people had to suffer. But in every movie that you see these days there’s violence. I didn’t want to get rid of the authenticity of how brutal these punishments were. For me it was important to reveal a sense of time as accurately as possible in terms of look, clothes, sound. Also, the dichotomy between the rich church and poor townsfolk. I wanted to step back in time as realistically as I could.”

Making its world premiere at the festival in the main competition section was Christophe Otzenberger’s Itineraires, the story of Thierry (Yann Tregouet), a petty thief who is jailed after his partner kills a restaurant owner. After he’s released Thierry tries to go straight, but when one man shows up dead, he knows that he’ll be framed for the murder, so he goes on the run.

“The one theme that flows through the film is the absence of a responsible father,” said Otzenberger during the press conference following the screening. “I know friends who are in these situations. I believe that any delinquent has something missing in the family, and that has most to do with the absence of the father. And it’s evident in all the main characters in the film. The Talmud says that life is not necessarily a punishment, and there is retribution for that. You have to have a model that says life is worth living. And the father is that. In France once they were the teachers, but no longer. The parents are the important ones right now.”

The director also explains how Thierry, although innocent, had no chance of a fair trial in France because of the way the system is set up. “In France you have cops who are judge and jury in the trial, and the cop doesn’t want Thierry to go to jail, because he knows he’s not guilty. So he allows him to get away. He knows that to be on the run is not a good kind of freedom. I think the end of the film represents the end of society in France, because cops are not judges. The system in France is wrong. The cop is after all a civil servant with his duties and rights, and it happens rarely that one refuses an order. In a way the character of the cop is perhaps as important as the main character.”

A family crisis is also at the center of Sex, Hope & Love (Sex, Hopp & Karlek) from Swedish director Lisa Ohlin. Also in the main competition, the film focuses on Birgit (Ing-Marie Carlsson) who is stuck in an uneventful life with her husband Lennart and their teenage daughter Marie (rock singer Mira Eklund). Things change when Bertil, Birgit’s old boyfriend and a host of a popular television show, returns to their hometown after 19 years. Birgit sees Bertil’s arrival as an opportunity to change her life, but while Bertil’s visit raises new hopes for Birgit, it also unearths long-buried memories and some of her family’s uncomfortable secrets.

“One of the things that I worked a lot on when I was writing this was how a child inherits her parents guilt, no matter if you talk about it or not,” said the director during the press conference for the film. “In Scandinavian families they don’t want to discuss this, but the guilt sometimes goes down to the children. You try to protect your children from it, but usually it comes out through the child. I think Marie has two parents who really would like to be attentive parents but she already knows that they have limitations to their love, but it does not include showing who they are, honestly. And because of that she can never show who she is either. The rule in this family is that you never show who you are, otherwise the family will fall apart. And Marie suffers from that.”

Making its Canadian premiere in the world competition section was Hans W. Geissendoerfer’s Snowland (Schneeland) from Germany. In Sweden’s barren hinterland, Elisabeth, a writer who just lost her husband in an accident, has come here to take her life. But instead she finds the snow-covered body of an old woman, Ina, and traces a story that takes us back to 1937. After her mother’s death, Ina runs her family’s secluded farm alone with her father, Knövel, a bitter man. Violent and cruel, he terrorizes his daughter, who is too loyal to leave him. Then Aron enters her life. A stranger with a dark secret. Their love becomes a passion that seems able to overcome Ina’s misery and Aron’s restlessness. Yet Knövel continues to torment Ina, driving her to commit an act that can only be seen as redemptive.

“Snowland is not meant to be a country where we can travel to. It’s meant to be a country of snow that belongs only in the mind,” said Geissendoerfer who added that the film was based on a Swedish novel by Elisabeth Rynell. “This is not a land like Canada or Germany, it’s Snowland. I fell in love with the story and the woman who wrote it, not physically but mentally. It was a very quick decision, a very emotional decision. I couldn’t even explain to my partners why I wanted to do it. Love is irrational. But now after all these years writing and making this film, I understand more why I’ve done it. I was touched from the basic elements of emotion and lives. There are big, big themes in this film of life and love and death, and of course forgiveness. It was because of my upbringing, my studying, my family that I decided emotionally that I wanted to do this film, this story.”