Mar del Plata Film Festival
The International Film Festival of Mar del Plata, now its 32nd year, is shrinking. The public probably didn’t and won’t notice it, at least not immediately. Yet instead of improving overall quality some of the changes taking place are instead a response to agendas that don’t have the audience, directors or the films in mind.
The most noticeable change this year was the smaller number of films, around 100 fewer than last year. Gone were a number of established sections, such as Films on Film (in which movies, such as Blue Velvet Revisited (2016), Cinema Novo (2016) and De Palma (2015), had shown in the past). Gone was also the most talked about event of 2016: restored 35mm prints with a live orchestra playing the original music sheets for silent films, such as Show People (1928) and The Iron Horse (1924).
This sense of trouble afoot accompanied the Argentine film presentations, with most directors speaking out in protest, calling for the protection of national cinema. The budget of the INCAA (The National Institute of Cinema and Audiovisual Arts of Argentina) has been severely cut, and along with it, grants and funding for less commercial cinema, such as the one presented at Mar del Plata.
Still, this only A-class film festival in Latin America continues to show signs of life. Particularly with the programmers Cecilia Barrionuevo, Pablo Conde and Marcelo Alderete’s investment in humane and adventurous cinema, as exemplified in the two best films I saw at the festival this year, Faces, Places (2017) and The Shape of Water (2017).
Varda and French photographer, JR’s, documentary is an improvised travelogue, in which they search for and put up printed pictures of common people on the walls of houses in towns around France. In a ludic approach, both directors travel in a camera-van that allows them to meet, for example, a young woman who tends to a café, or the wives of three workers in La Havre, among many ordinary Frenchmen. When the directors get to know these people, their pictures are taken and printed instantly, so these women, children and men from all races, jobs and places can instantly see their image in the area they’ve always lived or worked in. The film finds a way into Varda’s own personal history with photography and her work as a filmmaker on the verge of being 90 years old, through her own reminiscing about friends that she has photographed, or anecdotes spurred by specific situations and conversations with strangers. To see someone with a filmography as important as Varda’s finding importance in small gestures is a testament to the power of the image, to our own faces (which, ultimately, are the most powerful images that cinema can produce) and to Varda’s own face, traced with wrinkles, smiling and crying in the final minutes of the film when she’s reminded of the death of her husband Jacques Demy through a hurtful joke made by Jean-Luc Godard.
In a completely different aesthetic approach, Guillermo del Toro does a creature feature in The Shape of Water that makes us fall in love with its monster. Inspired by the monster-woman relations of genre films, starting with The Phantom of the Opera (1925), King Kong (1933) and the main inspiration, Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), as well as films from the 1960s and 70s with the Dracula films produced by Hammer, del Toro plays with the expectations and reverses them by having the protagonist—a mute cleaning lady (interpreted magnificently by Sally Hawkins)—fall in love with an aquatic monster that’s trapped in a military American facility. The film is a gorgeous period piece that succinctly captures the Americana of the Cold War—not a nostalgia for that time but rather a condemnation of the political and cultural state of the United States: abandoned movie houses, repressed African-Americans, cast out homosexuals and the onslaught of technology. It’s in that landscape that we see how the relation between Hawkins’s character and the creature evolves romantically with simple gestures and no dialogue, resulting in their escape from the facility. One of the characters that help them flee is a Russian spy, further enforcing the idea that this love story is about giving a voice to outcasts.
The spirit of both classic and modern Asian cinema is always present at the Mar del Plata Festival. Last year the complete retrospective of Masao Adachi was the highest point. A continuation of Adachi’s legacy, Also Known as Jihadi (2017), directed by France-based artist Eric Baudelaire, was one of the most interesting contemplative documentaries shown this year. Baudelaire previously directed the documentary L’anabase de May et Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi et 27 années sans images (2011), which helped revive the interest in Adachi. In his latest film, Baudelaire takes one of Adachi’s most famous films, A.K.A. Serial Killer (1969) to structure a real story of a French Jihadist in the same manner that Adachi did a portrait of a young murderer in Tokyo by filming the empty houses, streets and landscapes where the young man was born, lived and later committed his crimes. Baudelaire doesn’t use the same voice-over that guides the Japanese original with information about the killer’s life and deeds, but uses instead official documentation and judicial papers regarding the trial of the accused, presenting them on the screen between filmed images. An entirely dialogue-less portrait mimics the structure of Adachi’s film, but then delves deeper into the psychology and relations of the accused.
This year the Guest Country was South Korea, and it featured the latest blockbusters (A Taxi Driver, 2017, chosen to be the country’s entry in the Foreign Oscar race) and independent films (The First Lap, 2017, part of the Jeonju Cinema Project, which picked up the screenplay award in the main competition). Also shown were the latest films of two of Japan’s greatest genre directors: Takeshi Kitano and Sion Sono. Both films feel like a farewell and both exercise admirable freedom.
Kitano’s Outrage Coda is the third part of his Outrage series, in which he also plays the ruthless Ôtomo. The character condenses all Yakuza characters that Kitano has played over the years. The film starts with a young Yakuza named Hanada who travels to Jeju, a pleasure island of South Korea, where he beats up a prostitute and kills a henchman that was under the orders of Ôtomo, who’s in charge of the business on the island. This starts a chain of long meetings of Yakuza families. Kitano references his own work, from violent films, such as Fireworks (1997), to comedies, such as Kikujiro (1999). Kitano has said that this will be his last violent film: He practically guns down and destroys an entire Yakuza family, as if single-handedly destroying the possibility of making future films about the Japanese mafia.
Sono’s Tokyo Vampire Hotel is on the other hand a farewell to Japan—the filmmaker is moving to the United States after deciding that he can’t make a living in Japan. Sono already signals this move in Tokyo Vampire Hotel by filming parts in Romania. He invents a new mythology surrounding Dracula and families of vampires that secretly rule the world from the underground. By completely destroying Japan with nuclear bombs, the conspiring vampires assure their survival—they enslave the humans inside a hotel. Using an artful palette of mostly primary colors, continuing a creative chromatic work from his previous film, Antiporno (2016), Sono moves freely from epic sword and gun battles to romance and sex that are at the core of all his films.
While Tokyo Vampire Hotel has a wide ensemble of characters, its emotional core is Manami (Ami Tomite, also protagonist of Antiporno), a young woman who’s destined to settle the score in an eternal war between two vampire clans. As she’s dragged into the hotel, Manami comes to terms with her own vampirism (her look in the final scenes is clearly inspired by Nosferatu’s vampire) as well as her strong need for revenge. She is unable to side with the vampires, but is reject by humans. Manami’s mission is to destroy the matriarch vampire, who’s behind the destruction of Japan, and whose body, is connected to the hotel itself—when she’s hurt, the hotel cum prison starts to crumble. The anarchy of the film’s final minutes makes a poignant point about humanity: We are no different from the bloodthirsty creatures; our fight for survival turns us into killers.