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Viennale 2009: Not Just Another Fest in the Crowd

I. FESTIVALS AND IDEOLOGY


"I cannot tell a lie," writes Jonathan Rosenbaum in the catalogue introduction to the retrospective on American film comedy he curated for this year's Viennale (in collaboration with the Austrian Filmmuseum), "the initial concept and impulse for this series weren’t my own." A paragraph later, he goes on to explain, "[...] both the selection of the films and the preparation of this catalogue [...] came only after I overcame a certain amount of resistance." And as if he weren't transparent enough, Rosenbaum adds, "I was tempted by [the Viennale and Filmmuseum directors' joint proposal], but various roadblocks stood in the way, most of them either logistical or ideological." One of these roadblocks, "a reluctance to restrict [himself] to 'American cinema' after living through eight years of American separatism and exceptionalism as propounded and promulgated by the administration of George W. Bush," is not much of an ideological leap for those familiar with Rosenbaum. But the point of mentioning it is that his explanation can serve as an intriguing way to frame any criticisms that Viennale's recent retrospectives have been top-heavy with either American films or American cultural tendencies (see Neil Young's post for more on this).

Rosenbaum's introduction, which goes to lengths to answer why he didn't include any films by Chaplin, the Coens, the Farrellys, Mel Brooks, Jim Carrey, Sacha Baron Cohen, Will Ferrel, Richard Pryor, and Adam Sandler, is an example of curatorial coherence that is all too rare nowadays. Another example: in an interview that introduces a Lino Brocka series that he helped to organize, Raya Martin confesses, "I am not a big fan. He lacks this quality of timeliness." Of course, more is said and elucidated on Brocka in Martin's Viennale catalogue interview, but one has to admire the utter sincerity in his remarks. Elsewhere, at one of Viennale's press conferences, the director of programming, Hans Hurch, makes the claim that, had he his druthers, probably only ten films would show up in the entire festival. Sure, it's easy to dis Adam Sandler and Lino Brocka when one is light years from Viennale's orbit and the other's been dead for nearly two decades, but Hurch's comment, on the other hand, can't help but plant a certain disquiet in the contemporary filmmakers represented at Viennale. The idea is not to play favorites; however, what does that say when many of us—filmmakers, programmers, critics, etc.—feel to increasing degrees that there are less and less good films? Are we part of the solution or the problem? After all, it makes one wonder how much of this bellyaching actually nurtures newer filmmakers. The remedies, perhaps, are in retrospective offerings, where one can compare and contrast, giving greater historical context to what's currently being produced. It's significant to note that roughly a third of the films screening at Viennale on any given day fall into this category, and while it means fewer slots for new films, current filmmakers in particular should be grateful that this happening. It enriches their work and gives filmmakers the sense that a film's worth isn't limited to the success it has on its initial festival run.

Going back to the favorites game momentarily, Hans Hurch has made no secret of his holy allegiance to filmmakers like Jean-Marie Straub and Jean-Luc Godard, not to mention disciples like Jean-Claude Rousseau, Peter Nestler, and Peter Whitehead, which would align him closer with radical 60s Marxism than with the comparatively conservative Social Democratic Party of Vienna. The Social Democrats, who had their moment but who are now somewhat diminished on a national level, are still an influential behind-the-scenes voice in Vienna's cultural scene, specifically in such affairs as which events get allocated funds, and who gets to head up which state-funded organizations (such as Viennale). It would be interesting to hear more of a perspective from Hurch (he has likely provided one in German), since it is said that he curries favor with the party even though he is not a member. It may also be worthwhile to mention that it's largely from the party's influence that he was hired in the first place. Whether or not these are some of the reasons for Viennale's 2007 retrospective on Austrian proletarian film, which included an entire program dedicated to films shot and produced by unions and the Social Democrats, may be beside the point. A more stimulating challenge would be to imagine a state-supported North American film festival in which a retrospective is devoted to any one type of political thinking. Some would say there just isn't enough of a political filmmaking tradition (an attitude that neglects filmmakers like Robert Kramer, Emile de Antonio, and John Gianvito).

Opposite from Viennale's publications and curatorial positions, one has something like the Toronto International Film Festival. In the Canadian event's program book, the editorial staff makes sure to convince its attendees that every film is an unprecedented and groundbreaking work of genius. However, not once do its writers venture a single ideological perspective. And TIFF's director, Piers Handling, though well intentioned, would face a world of inconvenience if he were as outspoken as Hurch. The advantage that Hurch has is that his programming rarely seems scattered or lacking in a point of view, whereas TIFF's priorities are impossible to predict and its programming only assumes the safest postures. Take as an example TIFF's "official" response to the controversy over its Tel Aviv spotlight this year, which hid behind aesthetics and obfuscated the possibility for any real discussion. It's remarkable that TIFF manages to evade the question of whether or not it received support of any kind from Israeli governmental agencies—an excerpted interview with Israeli Consul General Amir Gissin makes it perfectly clear that they were working in tandem all along—choosing instead to duck beneath the murky waters of "freedom of expression". This only sends one kind of message to the series' opposers: TIFF thinks they're idiots.

For the record, TIFF's organizers still haven't clarified the extent or the details of Israel's involvement in the event as part of a million-dollar campaign to rebrand the country's image in Toronto (Israel’s first of many "test" cities). Reading TIFF's introduction to the program section on Tel Aviv, which illuminates the city's "vibrant" beaches and cafes, but says nothing about its bloody and controversial history, it's no wonder activists are up in arms about the nature of such a focus. Which is all a way of saying that curatorial coherence and ideological candor is something that few festivals possess, because they would risk losing sponsorships and alienating audience members. While Viennale isn't completely independent to be called radical, it at least offers the space for its curators to express their reservations, and the director of the festival doesn't seem to get reproved (his tenure has just been extended four more years) when he's upfront with his biases.

A criticism leveled at Hurch by a couple local critics is that he should really acknowledge his blindspot for genre and b-films and outsource his programming when it comes to this particular area. Related to this, a prominent Viennese film personality told me that he thinks Hurch's entire approach, programming the festival almost all by his lonesome (which, of course, is only true insofar as Hurch depends on other festival programmers and the shifting and shaping of the filmmaking landscape itself to make his choices), is unproductive. The same people routinely see some of their favorite films from other festivals arrive at Viennale's doorstep, not to mention eagerly line up each year to see new films that they hadn't seen, which isn't just to point out a certain denial, but also to say that this type of scrutiny is common here, and rather than produce an alienating effect, it nurtures the feeling that we must speak out even more often. (I should emphasize that I don't possess any kind of deep understanding of why certain people involved in the local scene have reservations, and that my own outsider's perspective is, well, exactly that. There are better and more elaborate criticisms in print elsewhere.) To address a possible objection concerning its more saleable side, Viennale’s concessions—if one could even call them that—are mostly of the pretty interesting sort. A Tilda Swinton focus means the festival will court the Oscar-winner for an appearance, but then it doesn't forget to show the films in which she stars by Derek Jarman, Isaac Julien and Peter Wollen. And in a touching gesture, the Viennale's reaching out to a larger public this year included switching venues at the last-minute so that it could show the world premiere of Bock for President (2009)—on the controversial human rights advocate Ute Bock (pictured above)—to a crowd of over seven hundred student protestors from the University of Vienna.

The elegant interior of the Metrokino.

II. LOGISTICS


Neil Young's suggestion to expand the Viennale to a multiplex or two does seem like a logical move in the direction of galvanizing patrons, especially those who may not necessarily wander into the types of programs the festival is known for—challenging art films, mostly. But it also likens it to festivals that have completely lost any sense of character and which end up feeling like giant cruise ships that are miles away from the city itself. One of the Viennale's graces is that it insists each and every year on taking place at the same single-screen venues, all of them charmingly configured with coffee shops and lined with small tables and booths. They're also all located not more than ten to fifteen minutes walking distance from one another. Sure, a non-native who sticks exclusively to the Viennale map doesn’t get to see much of the city outside of its historic center; however, the quality of intimacy—both in the sense of an easy to follow diagram and the coziness of the venues themselves—would be forfeited if the festival expanded, even slightly, to include the sterile confines of a multiplex. There's simply not a single multi-screen theater in the world that could compete with the sophistication of a Metro or Gartenbaukino, places that instill moviegoers with a genuine feeling that they are going to an event.

It's for this and other reasons that the Viennale has and continues to be a primary destination for film travelers. Another factor is its egalitarian press office, which may only concede hotel rooms to some of the more high-profile writers covering the festival (and airfare for those who are on the FIPRESCI jury), but who essentially provide everyone with the same courtesy and access, regardless of circulation numbers or media type. Younger writers may want to consider a couple trips to Vienna before they break their Cannes or Toronto cherries, as Viennale's guests don’t have to worry about being roped off from some exclusive dinner, party, or gala event. There's hardly such a thing in Vienna; instead, the festival chooses to host most of its parties in one place (this year, at the Badeschiff, located on one of the Danube’s canals), where anyone may walk in at anytime, and its hot ticket items are normally accessible even if one hasn’t made a reservation. This year Viennale attracted about fifty international press guests, which is a number that Cannes might sniff at, but if looked at carefully, the list represents a selection of critics who are primarily interested in serious discussion on cinema. Perhaps this further adds to Viennale's ideological fortitude: here's a festival which knows its press guests are not interested in covering red carpet events, but rather of discovering Lino Brocka or early Austrian films from 1906 to 1918 for their own erudition.

Villalobos (2009)

III. FILMS


Even a week at the Viennale is often not enough. For example, I did not see the FIPRESCI prize winner, Survival Song (2009), nor the lone title mentioned by Hans Hurch in his introduction to the Viennale program, Volker Koepp’s Berlin-Stettin (2009), nor the film Neil Young describes in his report for The Auteurs as a flatout masterpiece, Palmes d’or (2009). Even my two Viennale roommates from the U.S. were seeing different films. But I am satisfied with what I saw, and even if I was slightly more engaged with the films I viewed on my last Viennale trip, these are still growing in my estimation as I think back on them.

Andrew Barchilon's Alienadas (2009), so titled after the official name for a women's psychiatric hospital in Argentina nearly a century ago, is a short exploration of neuroscience’s strange evolution. In it a New York-based medical researcher, working for a lab that has been sharing information with a hospital in Buenos Aires, goes down to the Latin American city to live and do further research. While there he meets with a doctor who takes him to a decaying building where an assortment of human specimens dating back decades—which he calls one of the most important collections of its kind in the world—are preserved in jars. Conserved heads, brain cross-sections, and other anatomical miscellanea are appropriated by the filmmaker as objects of sculptural beauty. Indeed, most of the film's strength lies in the way its able to convey, in textural detail, the sense of wonder that besets the young American as he explores the many glass cases. In one particularly moving scene, he holds a human brain in his hands and observes, "I'm surprised by its weight; even so, it feels strangely empty [...]"

A similar sense of awe seems to be the normal state of Ricardo Villalobos, the subject of Romuald Karmakar’s latest exploration of electronic music following 196 bpm (2002) and Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea (2005). In the eponymously titled doc, the director observes—in gorgeously framed wide shots—the DJ in the sprawling club spaces and music festivals where he performs as well as in his private studio space. When on his own, he squiggles on records that he likes, enthusiastically describes his speaker system, and chills out to beats while taking hits from a joint. Villalobos—who has lived in Germany almost his entire life but who escaped the Chilean military coup with his family as a child—possesses an inscrutable quality in the way his public and private personas seem invariable. Karmakar’s style is to move the camera as little as possible, except in significant pans that reconfigure the film's individual spaces—from DJ booth to the wide expanse of an audience at Berlin’s famous club Berghain—and make the audience excitement more tangible. In the end, though, it's a studious effort more than a film one grooves out to, exploring questions that are internal and relate to Villalobos specifically.

Character studies, both fictional and non-, were particularly strong at Viennale. In João Pedro Rodrigues's To Die Like a Man (2009), Fernando Santos's Tonia is an aging transsexual who's falling from grace at the Lisbon club where she has performed for years. Her dilemma is front and center, though it only becomes clear near the end of the film, when Tonia and her junkie younger boyfriend Rosário make the sojourn to a forest where they meet with two enigmatic drag queens named Maria Bakker and Paula, as well as a doctor named Felgueiras who cites German prose together with Maria. Together they go searching for mushrooms, capture a "glow-worm", and are bathed in a Martian red light. For an extended sequence, the characters sit still as the audience listens to the hypnotic "Cavalry" by Baby Dee. The song lyrics include verses like "Jesus don’t weep for me/Weep for your children instead" and  "What happened to your momma/Where has your daddy gone" that are resonant as a viewer thinks back to Tonia’s religious devotion, as well as to an earlier confrontation with her estranged son Zé Maria. The slow rock ballad tinges the film with a degree of melancholy, before restoring it with impassioned energy by having Fernando Santos sing a fado, complete with carnival plumes and a jeweled crown. Tonia performs the traditional Portuguese song as a posthumous presence at her own funeral, which is also Rosário's funeral. The combination of folkloric elements and the contemporary situation of a transsexual give the film its distinctive force and elevate Tonia and Rosário from potentially sad figures into glorious depictions, each as richly and lovingly carved out as a religious icon in Caravaggio. Both the Baby Dee and fado songs are presented in their integrity, which just goes to show the viewer how serious Rodrigues is in his intent. A lesser filmmaker would have chopped the scenes by a third, thus only giving a fleeting or touristic view rather than allowing for the possibility to feel as though one had lived through this story.

Another Viennale offering that left one with a sense of lived experience, Jaguar (1979), is sadly a kind of film—from a certain era and place—that's becoming an endangered species. There are two reasons for this: not only because all of the prints of Philippine films made more than fifteen years ago seem to be in precarious physical shape (the 35mm print of Jaguar had been recently struck, but whatever negative elements exist are said to be in rough condition), but also because no one makes movies that talk about marginal people that are as lucidly achieved and forcefully placed as this one. There's certainly a direct bridge and evolution between the director of Jaguar, Lino Brocka, and someone like Khavn De La Cruz, the series co-curator and a filmmaker in his own right who has made lyrical film essays on Manila's slums. However, Khavn’s films do not see a wide release the way Brocka's films did—the mechanism, which is now festival and internet-based, is smaller and more specialized—and the political influence of Brocka, which reached state levels, has left a legacy that has not yet been filled. In Jaguar, a man in his twenties from a shantytown is hired as a bodyguard by a sleazy magazine editor who ends up implicating him in many of his own personal quarrels. The bodyguard—or "jaguar"—at first feels empowered by his new sense of belonging, going to trendy discotheques with his boss and socializing with beautiful starlets, but then learns the hard way that he's the next in a series of fall guys whose only role is to allow a corrupt elite to continue to live with impunity. The taste of indignation that this film leaves in one's mouth is comparable to Clint Eastwood's films from Unforgiven (1992) to Changeling (2008). Indeed, there aren’t too many other examples of mainstream filmmakers that are truly, and pointedly, angry.

Take the comparatively genteel Raya Martin, a contemporary Philippine filmmaker that is nevertheless enormously talented and is fascinated by his own set of strong themes. Next Attraction (2008), which functions as the middle piece in a planned trilogy that already includes Now Showing (2008), is described as a film that he made with the aim of coming out to his parents. Opening with a shot of a woman going out onto a lawn and sitting in a chair, the several minutes-long take ends when an off-screen voice says, “Cut.” Immediately, from the murmurs heard in the background, one knows that this is a film set. Every subsequent scene for nearly the entire film is a behind-the-scenes look at a low-budget production, which is actually a film that Martin is directing (though he has a stand-in for himself, the only person that one could accurately call an actor in the documentary parts). The subject matter of the film being shot only becomes fully apparent at the conclusion, when we see what appear to be unedited black and white dailies. These include an erotic shower scene with two young male lovers, who in the documentary part are revealed as straight actors when someone from the crew asks one of them, “Did you feel like puking?” This is the only part that explicitly addresses the anxieties that Martin seemed to want to overcome, though there’s much more that remains mysterious in the film-within-the-film, and which might be revealed in Martin’s next effort (which he has titled Coming Soon).

Like Next Attraction, U.S. filmmaker Ben Russell's films problematize the form as such. Each independent work in his evolving Trypps series (2005 -) are tightly constructed observations on travel: not necessarily the physical act itself, but what it is to stop and observe details, to lose one's path, or to be inducted into unfamiliar zones of perception (both inner and outer). Black and White Trypps Four (2008) vandalizes Richard Pryor concert footage—by saturating it with brightness or darkness and refracting the stand-up comic in a colliding image—but retains the integrity of some of his comic bits about white people's perception of blacks. The aural familiarity that audiences likely have with the material makes the contrast intriguing, and the intent even more so. The idea of black and white as two colliding visual forces in the film is an associative gesture pointing to the inherent politics of the appropriated material. In another of the films, Black and White Trypps Number Three (2007), concert footage that Russell himself shot has even richer connective patterns, to filmic ethnography, to the mainstream concert film, and to the experimental traditions of trance or psychedelia. In the first category, Russell is observing a strange tribe of devote followers, as in a Jean Rouch film; in this case, it's the uniformly intense audience at a concert for noise band Lightening Bolt. Which relates to the second category: concert films, in which the musicians themselves comprise the majority of the film, always feature tantalizing glimpses of the fans themselves (never more potently than in the genre's prime example, Gimme Shelter [1970]). Here Russell forfeits the band altogether to focus exclusively—using as illumination what appears to be a flashlight—individual clusters of four or five audience members (who only rarely ever suggest any awareness of the camera, even though Russell announces to them at the beginning that he's going to "film [the] song", adding "if you don't want to be in the film [...] turn around or something"). And in the third category, Russell uses as a prompt the transfixed appearance of the audience to reconfigure the speed of the film as well as transition the music from LB's terse beats to Joe Grimm's slow whirring. The film would have been remarkable if it was a concert film alone, but the "trance film" gesture is an added bonus. Russell, whose feature-length Let Each One Go Where He May (2009) is set to have its European premiere in the Rotterdam Tiger competition, has been making films for years but now seems catapulted to a new level thanks to spotlights like Viennale's.

Sometimes filmmakers who have been working for decades are only beginning to earn the attention of filmgoers, in spite or perhaps as a result of generational shifts that are occurring. A prime instance of this is Amir Naderi, once a socially committed Iranian filmmaker, now totally reconfigured as a socially committed American filmmaker. To Naderi this change is perfectly sensible, even if it would be unspeakable to many of his contemporaries. Naderi may have designed himself as a filmmaker able to weather any critiques of socio-political posturing by committing himself to difficult, unglamorous subjects. The downbeat Vegas: Based on a True Story (2008) is a masterpiece that drinks from the same well as classics like Greed (1924) and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) (inevitable comparisons to There Will Be Blood [2007] have also come up).  Conceptually there were stronger films at Viennale, but nothing that I've seen recently tops Vegas as time-honored narrative filmmaking at its most touchingly rendered. Even if Naderi clings onto modernistic techniques, like contemplative long shots and characters with their backs to the camera, he's an expert when he's committed to simply framed confrontations between characters. The three leads, two reformed alcoholics and their teenage son, are led into a self-destructive scheme perpetrated by an illegal betting consortium. As they tear apart their yard looking for a buried suitcase full of money, the glistening Las Vegas skyline and the Nevada mountains—each individual image's symbolic value unmistakable—begin to set in closer and closer, until the characters are mere specks of dust, pale representations of their former, once-hopeful selves.

It was endearing to find something like Vegas after the ironic distanciation of a film like The Informant! (2009), which is morally invested in the subject of how Americans live but doesn’t have a shred of the Naderi film’s commitment or integrity. The message is perfectly clear, even denunciatory, in Vegas: Americans' goal of becoming rich is no longer a viable one. (A studio would balk if Soderbergh didn't favor his perfectly calibrated ambiguity over a clear-cut political stance such as Naderi's.) Perhaps this even places Vegas, however loosely, into the category of "interventionist cinema," a designation that Jean-Marie Straub's latest short, Joachim Gatti (2009), gets in Viennale's catalogue. About the activist French filmmaker of the title, it uses a Jean-Jacques Rosseau text to address an incident in which Gatti had one of his eyes ruptured by a police officer during a peaceful street march. At the end of the two-minute piece, Straub interjects, giving perfect ownership to the voice ("Moi, Straub..."), with a declaration that justice must be served. More than a political film, what is a real interventionist film in 2009? In the most absolute of ways, Straub shows us that it's all about owning up to a voice. They don't make films like they used to, not like Joachim Gatti anyway, and the films in Viennale all have their place if we begin to unpack them as parts of a larger constellation. After all, film festivals are their own work of art, and Viennale offers the opportunity not just to analyze films but to find out what they mean as part of the complex mosaic we call film history.

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That’s the most thought-provoking article on festival I’ve read in a long time. Finally asking insightful questions beyond the common worries about badge colours and timetables… I wish there was as much scrutiny applied to the “Abu Dhabi junket”. Also if you question the motivation of a tiny film industry like Israel (supposedly for political reasons…) what is to say about the hegemony of an industry that engulfs the entire planet (which happens to cause bigger geopolitical conflicts than Palestine-Israel! and are not even disputed when Hollywood movies are screen… in every single festival in the world)? If you have a political conscience tickling you at night, it would make sense to use in EVERY case where it matters to cinema.
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Harry, You’re right. If the Toronto film festival created, say, an Austin, Texas, spotlight for next year’s festival, and then wrote in its catalogue that Austin has great bookshops, alternative music venues, and organic eateries, but didn’t mention gun violence, state-mandated Bible schools or capital punishment, then yes, we would have to hold them up to the same scrutiny. Also, it isn’t the Israeli film industry that supported the series, but a public government campaign that’s called “Brand Israel” which, as far as i know, does not produce or distribute films. I don’t question Israeli filmmakers, I think it’s great to have Israeli films in a festival. JAFFA by Keren Yedaya, which appeared in this year’s TIFF Tel Aviv spotlight, addresses very important issues. No, what I question is the motivation of a campaign like “Brand Israel”.
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Austin??? So if Hollywood is not Washington DC, it’s OK to ignore the foreign policies at federal level and keep on praising a mindless entertainment that has nothing to do with the Gulf war? If it’s your principle, then why do you blame the Tel Aviv filmmakers for what their government does? Filmmakers are not responsible for political policies they may very well disagree with. Culture is not accountable for wars. Israeli cinema is not a piece of propaganda promoting colonisation of Palestine or killing Lebanese, as far as I know. There is no reason to “boycott” (as if the artfilm niche had any symbolic impact on generations old geopolitical issues…) Murnau or Lang because they came from Nazi Germany at the time. As far as this city-specific publicity campaign, why be naive? The entire French film industry is paid for by the Sarkozy government! The cool free LA AFI FEST is paid by Audi. Jia Zhangke was pressured by his government to remove his films from the Melbourne festival. The art scene takes the money where it is, let’s not be picky about it. I don’t assume that you’d prefer Israeli filmmakers to starve and be censored at home and across the world… do you? Please don’t let your political engagement blind the objectivity (the presumption of innocence) we should give to all forms of art. Or else you promote censorship and deny local films their power to investigate these issues and tell the world about it.
Harry, I don’t believe that I understand your logic, or that you understand mine. For that reason I do not wish to get into a larger argument with you. I suggest that you look up the Brand Israel campaign and how it relates specifically to TIFF’s marketing of their City to City spotlight. Then perhaps we can have a discussion. best, Gabe
Just a tiny addendum: it doesn’t seem that Harry has bothered to read what I wrote. To be clear (again): I am not critical towards Israeli filmmakers’ freedom to express themselves. I am critical towards TIFF for treating Tel Aviv uncritically in their program materials. Such an uncritical treatment allies them suspiciously with a dubious campaign called Brand Israel. This campaign quite clearly avoids asking imortant questions in favor of selling Israel as an attractive tourist destination. That should be clear enough, no?
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“For that reason I do not wish to get into a larger argument with you.” My apologize. I imagined you were a critic. “it doesn’t seem that Harry has bothered to read what I wrote” You’re right. My original praise for this article is then undeserved I’m afraid. I’ll be waiting for your (as virulent) article on the Abu Dhabi junket sponsored by corrupted oil money (with probably Texan money in the mix btw). But maybe your obtuse moral only applies to certain countries. ;)

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