Thierry Jobin Makes Waves in His First Year at the Helm of FIFF

in 26th Fribourg International Film Festival

by Sheila Johnston

In his first year as Director of the Fribourg International Film Festival (FIFF), Thierry Jobin declared it his mission to popularise the programme. I want to open the door to a new audience, to people who previously had the sense that the films in FIFF were basically boring, Jobin, a former critic for Le Temps, who has often been tough on the festival in the past, told another Swiss newspaper, La Liberte.

Fribourg has customarily been known as the festival of three continents (Africa, Asia and Latin America), which some people might see as a euphemism for worthy films from developing countries. The 2012 competition stayed within that geographical remit, strictly speaking. But this enormously eclectic line-up of films seemed deliberately designed to challenge conventional assumptions about Third World Cinema even if you could count Israel or South Korea in that category, and even if such a homogenous entity ever existed in the first place.

In style, the work roved from avant-garde sci-fi (Taiwan’s delirious Honey PuPu) through magical realism (Fable of the Fish, from the Philippines) and traditional arthouse cinema (Iran’s One, Two, One and Mexico’s The Last Christeros) to full-blown genre (South Korea’s Countdown). It all required the festival’s six juries to evaluate like against unlike to an even greater extent than usual.

The quality of the films was generally high. But Found Memories (Historias que so Existem Quando Lembradas), a first feature by the Brazilian director Julia Murat which had previously won the FIPRESCI prize in Ljubljana, virtually swept the board at the awards ceremony. This delicate and oblique piece unfolds in a rural community consisting entirely of elderly people who will not or cannot die.

Their orderly lives, based on obsessive rituals and a fixation on the past (the film’s title roughly translates as Stories that Only Live When Someone Remembers Them) are disrupted by the arrival of a young photographer who calls everything into question and triggers a kind of release for the old woman she befriends. Murat expertly sustains this mysterious poetic conceit even if some elements of the narrative the underdrawn character of the photographer, in particular naggingly refuse quite to come into focus.

The winner of FIFF’s main award, the Regard d’Or, was Never Too Late, in which a young man, Hertzel, returns to Israel after years spent wandering through South America and lands a dead-end job as a bill-sticker which sends him on the road again, this time around his own homeland. When Hertzel whisks off the plastic cover from his family’s rusting car, the effect is of a disinterring of troubling spectres from the past (which, at the end are laid to rest again). But it was a slightly heavy-handed device to have a running commentary from the ghost of Hertzel’s dead father in the front passenger seat and this road movie never strays too far off the map.

Certain issues not-so-dear to the developing world poverty and AIDS — figured inevitably in the competition, and no fewer than three out of a total of twelve films had a protagonist facing a major operation. However that’s certainly not to say that they were all heavy going and many of them drew on dashes of humour to lighten the mood.

In fact, the themes were rather wide-ranging. But if you could discern any kind of leitmotiv at FIFF in 2012 it would be the universal one of fathers and sons.

Wang Xiaoshuai’s immaculately crafted, somewhat conventional 11 Flowers is another of those semi-autobiographical Chinese films revisiting the Cultural Revolution through the eyes of a child, whose father is, in this case, an exiled intellectual. The film explores their fractured relationship, while another subplot which could almost be in a different movie follows the impact of a murder on a small community.

Lucky was the picaresque tale of a young Zulu boy who comes to Johannesburg after his mother dies of Aids to seek out the father who had abandoned them and is befriended instead by an elderly Indian woman who takes him under her wing. A gentle, warm-hearted crowd-pleaser, it was narrowly beaten to the Audience Award by Asmaa, an upbeat melodrama about an Egyptian woman living with AIDS.

A much bleaker vision is offered by the profoundly cynical Jordanian film The Last Friday, which won the Special Jury Award. It’s centred on a middle-aged man who has lost his home and family thanks to his gambling addiction and is now attempting to reconnect with his deadbeat teenage son. Shot largely with a fixed camera, in a style faintly reminiscent of Elia Suleiman’s work, the film fixes on small gestures that gradually reveal a world populated by characters caught up in greedy, self-absorbed isolation there are grim running jokes about stolen electricity connectors and bicycle wheels. And a soundtrack of radio and television commentaries murmuring constantly in the background suggests that social meltdown extends to the macro-political level too.

The festival’s equally varied sidebar events included a retrospective of Bangladeshi films, a screening of the lost American paranoid thriller Cutter’s Way by Ivan Passer, who came to Fribourg to lead a masterclass, and a selection of animated work curated by Georges Schwizgebel, who was also celebrated in an exquisite, small exhibition of his own artwork.

Another strand explored images of Islam in occidental — mainly French — cinema, an initiative lent a grim topicality by the recent shootings in Toulouse and their aftermath. An imaginative programme of international Westerns, originating in countries from Brazil to Belgium to Thailand, demonstrated yet again how easily the genre moulds itself to different times and places and set the seal on this little Swiss festival’s big internationalist perspective.