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From France to Latin America: San Francisco Festival

The San Francisco International Film Festival
Bence Nanay

For decades, the San Francisco Film Festival has been probably the most unusual film festival in the United States. It has been unusual because very few American films have been on display here. American film festivals tend to pitch themselves either as independent film festivals of the Sundance ilk or as Hollywood showcases with lots of special guests one could see at the Oscars gala. In either way, American film festivals are about American films, either independent or mainstream Hollywood.
The San Francisco Film Festival has not followed either of these routes. Besides being an important event for American documentaries and avant-garde films, as far as feature films are concerned it has shown almost exclusively foreign films. San Franciscans are very much used to foreign films, as the Bay Area has a very lively foreign film life all year round, with literally dozens of cinemas that mainly show French, Italian and Iranian films. The San Francisco Film Festival has become probably the most important showcase for foreign cinema in the United States.
And here foreign cinema mainly means European cinema, with a special emphasis on French cinema. Every year, Michel Ciment, the editor of Positif, picks the best of the year's French films himself and spends a week at the festival introducing them. The French connection has been so strong at the San Francisco Film Festival that this year the executive director of the film festival, Roxanne Messina Captor was awarded the title Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, a distinction the importance of which can hardly be overemphasized.
This image of the film festival as the most important American film festival for European cinema has changed slightly in the last couple of years, as European films become artistically less interesting. While San Francisco has become more open to American, especially independent, films (a tendency that became most pronounced this year), the main change is the shift of emphasis from European to non-European foreign films.
North American film festivals tend to cater for their most important ethnic minorities. Setting up a film festival in the Bay Area has the great advantage that the largest minorities in San Francisco happen to come from those countries (Iran, China, Korea) that has produced the most exciting films in the last few years. The festival was lucky that as European films were declining, the films from these countries became more and more exciting and valuable artistically.
However, the greatest luck of the film festival has been the recent renaissance of Latin American cinema. The biggest minority of the Bay Area is the Mexican/Latin American one, and films from these countries have always been present at the film festival. Recently, however, these films were the ones that made the San Francisco Film Festival worth attending. After having been the major American festival for French cinema, San Francisco has become the major American festival for Latin American cinema.
The renaissance of Latin American cinema is probably most visible in the case of Argentina. The real film-snobs today look out for Argentinean films. In recent years, Argentina produced a new generation of film directors who - like the young Iranian directors of the nineties - tend to win important prizes at major film festivals. Just a few names: Lucrecia Martel, Diego Lerman, Pablo Trapero, Adrian Caetano, Celina Murga, Gabriela David, Luis Ortega, Santiago Loza, Carlos Sorín.
This year, as in the last couple of years, the best films at the festival were from Argentina. Even among these, Los Muertos by Lisandro Alonso stood out; a film almost entirely without dialogues and conflicts. Ronda Nocturna (by Edgardo Cozarinsky) has a very similar narrative structure as Los Muertos, but it is less melancholic, or rather, melancholic in a more youthful way. Both films start out as more or less realist movies to become increasingly surreal by the end.
Still, it is not only Argentina that drives the renaissance of Latin American cinema. At this year's festival one had a better overview of the state of cinema in Latin American countries than in earlier years, when Argentinean films were dominating the program. This year a Mexican and a Peruvian film were especially enticing: Duck Season (by Fernando Eimbcke) and Días de Santiago (by Josué Méndez).
An interesting difference between Argentinean and other Latin American films is the following; in most Argentinean films the audience has no idea what is going on in the mind of the main character. We have no idea why the main character of Los Muertos embarks on his long journey. We don't know whether the young man in Pin Boy is happy or unhappy with his life. This makes any kind of identification very difficult and adds to the detachment we feel when watching the lives of these characters who themselves have a very detached attitude towards their lives.
Films from other Latin American countries tend to be less obscure about the main characters' motivations. In Días de Santiago, we repeatedly hear the inner monologue of Santiago, who cannot find his place in society after leaving the Peruvian army. It is impossible not to identify with him, which makes the ending of the film much more dramatic (or, if you like, less subtle) than the ending of any Argentinean film. In Duck Season, arguably the biggest discovery at this year's festival, it is also impossible not to identify with the four characters, two teenagers, a pizza delivery man and a young birthday girl, who find themselves trapped in an Exterminating angel situation because of a power outage. In this film, however, we are drawn to these characters because they are depicted with much love and empathy.
If there is a stylistic feature that characterises the films that come out of Argentina these days, it is some kind of detachment of the characters. The characters are observing the world and the people around them, but they very rarely get involved. The best examples for this are probably Caja Negra by Luis Ortega, Ana y los otros by Celina Mugra and especially Extraño by Santiago Loza. These films are about disappointed, aimless, but above all inactive people: they sit in cafés observing the world, doing nothing. They are calm, melancholic films with very little emotions expressed. This year the best films of this kind at the festival were Los Muertos, Pin Boy and Ronda Nocturna.
Again, other Latin American films are less detached. Santiago wants to understand and fit into the world, and not just observe it - this is part of his tragedy. One of the Argentinean films at the festival, La Niña Santa is more similar to these films than to the Argentinean ones in this respect. The debut of the director, Lucrecia Martel, La Ciénaga, was one of the first films that heralded the advent of the Argentinean new wave. Surprisingly, however, this film is quite atypical for the new Argentinean cinema. The main character is a doctor who cannot help rubbing his body to young women in the crowd. One of these women is the daughter of the owner of the hotel where the doctor is staying, who finds this nauseating and exciting at the same time. Things get worse when we learn that the girl's mother is attracted to the doctor and that he has a charming family. This dense and emotionally loaded drama unfolds against the backdrop of a hotel that must have been very classy a couple of decades ago, but all that remained of it is a ghastly crumbling rundown building, which elicits some associations of Argentina in general.
Meanwhile, the four characters of Duck Season have very active interactions both with the world (and especially with an atrocious painting of flying ducks) and with each other. This film is very atypical in the sense that it does not have one main character as the overwhelming majority of Latin American films do. The four people who find themselves trapped in an apartment for hours are all equally important and equally charming.
This film is also very different from all other Latin American films in another very important respect. The vast majority of Latin American films are about lonely people. They may just sit around and see their lives go by or try to do something about it, but they are all lonely. In Duck Season, the characters at least attempt to share their loneliness, if only because of the necessities imposed by the power outage. These attempts are of course ephemeral but they make the film less gloomy and almost cheerful, compared to other Latin American films, which are, to quote Buñuel, "exercises in solitude".


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