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Krakow Short & Docu Festival

"L'embarras de choix"

The 'Krakow Internationl Festival of Short and Documentary Films', which is now its 45th incarnation Making it one of the oldest and most prestigious festivals of this kind in the world, has shortened its official monicker to a more simple "KRAKOW INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL" and has expanded its offerings to a mind-boggling 440 films -- all screened within six days as singleton showings in four different locations. With this many films all vying for attention, many at the same time in widely scattered venues, the reporter trying to keep track of what is going on -- (let alone the poor paying customer) -- is confronted with a classic case of what the French call "l'embarras de choix" -- or, way-way too much to choose from!

Each year the festival traditionally honors an outstanding figure of documention or short filmmaking with a "Golden Dragon" (the symbol of the city) for his or her Life Work and presents a complete retrospective of his films. Last year's recipient was eighty year old Albert Maysles (USA), the surviving memer of the legendary "Maysles Brothers" who made one landmark documentary after another in the sixties and seventies, including films on John F. Kennedy, Marlon Brando, The Beatles, and the classic, "Bible Salesmen". This year it was a relatively little known Russian animation master, Juri Norstein, who for various reasons has made only a handful of highly regarded films in a carreer spanning several decades. Mr. Norstein, who has a very personal style involving the use of cardboard cutouts moving simultaneously on several geometric planes, has been working on a film based on Gogol's short story "The Overcoat" (Szynel") for nearly thirty years but is still not satisfied wit h his results. (This guy likes to take his time ... ) A twenty minute segment of this "work in progress" fragment of a Gogolian overcoat was shown as the celluloid centerpiece of the opening ceremony on May 31.
Other Norstein films shown during the week were; "The Tale of Tales", 30', 1979; "Hedgehog in the fog", 11', 1975: "The Heron and the Crane", 11', 1974; "The Fox and the Hare" 12', 1973; "The Battle at Kazhenetz", 10', 1975; and "25th of October -- Day One", 10', 1968. A Polish journalist asked Mr. Norstein what the "Golden Dragon" award means to him, to which the director replied, "Not very much. I'm mainly here to see old friends. For me the important thing is that my films get seen by good audiences such as here in Krakow". While Norstein is not exactly a name to contend with outside of Russia, Adam Pugh, director of the Norwich Animation Festival in England, informed me that a book on Norstein has recently come out in the UK where his work has suddenly come to the attention of animation cognoscenti.

The real festival opener on June the first was a special screening of "Jews, Christians and Moslems -- Children of God", a new sixty minute documentary by Andrzej Trzos-Rastawiecki, (Poland). This film (dedicated to faith) seeks to find answers to the thorny questions raised by the three so-called "mono-theistic" religions in the world today. The body of the film consists of interviews and confrontations of opinion between rabbinical students, Christian seminary students, and future moslem Imams (Kuranic preachers). There are also interviews with would-be suicide bombers, who prefer to call themselves "Shihidin" ("Martyrs"). The only conclusion I was able to reach from this intensive 60 minute study of opinions in collision and argumentation at cross-purposes was that "faith' and "fanaticism" are merely different words for the same thing, and that Religion -- not Money -- is the root of all Evil. Kudos, however, to director Trzos-Rastawiecki for exposing these h opelessly entangled issues to the flickering enlightenment of the silver screen.

The Krakow festival, because of the sheer number of offerings, is organized into many sections; International and "National" (i.e., Polish only) competitions,( forty items each with seperate juries for each) , "Films for Kids", portraits of unusual or famous people, "Short film of the Masters" from the Warsaw Archives, all kinds of retrospectives, various "Special screenings", selections from other festivals, and even a set of free midnight screenings "For Adults Only". Given such a supercharged agenda one can only plunge in and take pot luck, hoping that not too many gems will be passed over in favor of the inevitable turkey or two which is bound to rear its head in a shoot of this magnitude. This being said, what follows is a sampling of films which I found impressive (or unimpressive) for one reason or another.

"The Final Solution", Phil Mulloy, UK,Animation, 25' -- (Int'l Comp.)
Mulloy is getting to be a regular in Krakow with his bizarre Sci-Fi fantasies featuring grotesque black stick figures with blank eyes and block-like protruding black teeth. This is Black British Humor in an animated jugular vein and is the 3rd installment of Murphy's "Intolerance Trilogy", where, in the remote future escapees from Earth are still searching for the planet Zog and split into two warring factions -- the supporters of Zog, and those who are convinced that Zog doesn't exist. Quite funny for about ten minutes, after which it gets to be a little shaggy in the dog and long in the teeth. However Mulloy obviously has his devotees here in Poland.

"Georgy i Peperudite" (Georgy and the Butterflies), Doc. by Andrey Paounov, Bulfgaria,color, 60'.
Georgy Luszek, a very enterprising and idealistic psychiatrist from Sofia, is assigned to run this happy but dilappidated, sadly under-funded sanatorium for the "mentally challenged" (read "nuthouse"), where the inmates are in for the duration. In order to raise money for a new building and to enable the inmates to support themselves, be occupied, and live something like "ordinary lives", Georgy dreams up all kinds of extravagnt economic schemes -- chicken farming, nutria raising, etc. Most of his plans fall through but the unflagging moral support of his wife and the natural solidarity of the staff and the inmates makes for a feeling of belonging to one big family. A very warm, humanistic, and humorous film which makes the viewer think that maybe this poor happy family of retards and their keepers is better off than we schizophrenics watching it on the outside.

Shorts by Great Masters.

It is not a generally known fact that many of the most famous feature directors in film history, such as Truffaut, Antonioni, Visconti, John Huston, and Poland's own Andrzej Wajda, to name only a few, made short films or documentaries early in their careers before they became famous for their full length films. A selection of forty such shorts from the Warsaw archives comprises one of the more interesting sections of this year's festival.

THE BATTLE OF MIDWAY, John Huston, 17', 1942. The sea battle that turned the tide in the Pacific war as filmed by one of a number of leading Hollywood directors whose contribution to the War Effort was to immortalize it on celluloid. Todays CNN type battlefield reports pale by comparison with Huston's work, which puts you directly into an anti-aircraft gunner's seat aboard an aircraft carrier as real kami-kazes come at you head on, or throws you into the shark infested Pacific Waters as the mortally wounded Yorktown goes down for the count. They don't make war documentaries like this anymore -- but, then again they don't have wars like World War II anymore either. This is living history, and You Are There!

"Les Mistons", Truffaut, 25', 1958. During summer vacation five wise-alec urchins stalk the beautiful Bernadette and Gerard, her fiance, just to irritate the amorous young couple at every step. Their adolescent schoolboy pranks are suddenly cut short by Gerard's accidental death on a mountain climb. In this short fiction film which slightly preceded his breakthrough "400 Blows", one already senses the feature filmmaker ready to burst forth from his cocoon, but this is a lovely little film in its very own right.

"A Witch Burned Alive", Visconti, 35', 1967. This is one part of an "omnibus" feature by four different directors (the others were Bolognini, D Sica, Rossi and Pasolini) of the kind that were all the rage in the sixties. Italian star and sex symbol of the time, Silvana Mangano, ( she of the unforgettable thunder thighs of "Bitter Rice") is the star of all five episodes. In this segment she is a super-model who, while putting up at a small Alpine hotel, finds out she's pregnant. La Mangano later appeared in Visconti's famous Mann adaptation, "Death in Venice" as a mature, but still strikingly beautiful Polish lady! (Tadzio's mother)

"RAIN", 1929, 12', by Dutchman Joris Ivens, is one of the earliest examples of the European poetic ducumentary and is arguably, the most famous short film of its kind ever made. Basically the film '"documents" a rainy day in a city in Holland, but this is much more of a visual poem about rain itself -- and the effect it has on people when it suddenly catches them unawares going about their daioly business -- than a document in the ordinary sense of the word. The repeated images of ripples on the surface of puddles, or on the river, are all but hypnotic. If ever there was a film which deserves to be called a "visual poem", this is it. Joris went on to become one of the most famous documentarists of all time and is particularly noted for his battlefield footage during the Spanish Civil War.
Incidentally, the only out-and-out "turkey" I came across, was actually in this section -- Jerzy Skolimowski's bombastic piece of dreck, "Twenty Year Olds", 1968, (29') starring Jean-Pierre Leaud (of "400 Blows" fame) as a disgustingly narcissistic Czech Rock star (the film was shot in Prague). It imediatedly followed Huston's MIDWAY film in the packed-to-the-rafters Pod Baranami cinema on Krakow's splendid Medieval market square, where I was too wedged in to escape as soon as I realized (five minutes into the film) that it was going to be a total loser -- (This was very likely the most walked-out-on film of the festival) -- so I simply accepted my fate and took nap. A good candidate for "The worst film of all time", a genre of film in which Skolomowski is something of a specialist.

Special Screening -- "Previous Laureates of the Dragon Award"
Werner Herzog's, "The White Diamond", 2004, 90' is about the testing of an experimental airship built by British inventor-engineer, Graham Dorrington, at a stupendous waterfall in British Guina. Of course, as in most Herzog films, the "testing" is basically an excuse to shoot in an exotic location where man is dwarfed and by the magnificemce of the untamed wilderness. Though inventor Dorrington is theoretically the central human figure of the piece, the picture is literally "stolen" from him by "Marc Anthony", a local English speaking Indian who wears a battered felt hat with a feather and keeps an incredible rooster as his constant companion -- almost his alter ego.The rooster alone is worth the price of admission. Poetic, epic, large-scale, and off-beat -- like most of Herzog's work. Backed up by hypnotic music as endless swarms of starlings keep sweeping past the roaring waters which fill the screen, with the camera at a dizzying height -- a film which humbles one befo re the mightiness of Nature and makes one realize that Werner Herzog is one of the last of a lost tribe -- the True Celluloid Explorers.

Personal documentary. "Csak Egy Kislany" (Van a Vilagban) "There's just one gal for me in this whole wide world" -- was the theme song from the 1929 film of the same name (starring Eggert in her debut, opposite Javor Pal, the Clark Gable of Hungary), and is, arguably, the most famous Hungarian hit song of all time. This was the film which overnight turned loveable 19 year old Hungarian soprano Marta Eggert, into a national icon. The film is basically an interview with this marvelous lady at age 92, embedded in marvelous archival footage and stills, which paint a fascinatingl portrait of her life and times. At the same time this is a portrait of her even more famous husband, Polish tenor Jan Kiepura who left pre-war Poland to become a leading star at the MET in New York. At one point the narrator tells us that, in his heyday, (the thirties) Kiepura was more famous and more popular than all three of the currently famous "Three tenors" (Pavarotti, Domingo, and Carreras) roll ed into one, and was at the same time an international musical movie star.
The warbling Magyar coloratura who was married to Polish superstar tenor Jan Kiepura for thirty years in the ideal show-bizness marriage of the century (Kiepura died in 1966 at 64), returns to Europe and SINGS at Vienna, location of many of her triumphal operettas way back when -- in 2002 at the age 92! An amazingly beautiful woman still, with her canary like voice still very much intact, Eggert left Hungary in 1939 and didn't come back until 2003 when this amazing film about an amazing woman was made ... and her Hungarian, even after these years were also intact -- to the point where one interviewer describes her use of the language as "so beautiful it makes me dizzy!" I personally found this documentary to be my own favorite of the entire fest -- the kind of film I want a copy of so I can watch it over and over. Two directors; Laszlo and David Kerenyi, and a marvelou s job they've done. Hard to believe this doc is only 27' in length for it's so filled with imagery and information -- and the presence of this incredible woman, Martha Eggert -- that it feels like an hour long film, in any case, time veRy very well spent!

"INSIDE DEEP THROAT" by Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey, USA, 2004, 88'. was screened as a midnight show at the Kino Kijow "for adults only" -- Shocking revelations of the political dirt behind the cinema smut!! -- with Norman Mailer, Gloria Steinem, Erica Jong, Alan Gershowitz, Richard Nixon, Al Goldstein of "SCREW' magazine, Linda Lovelace, her mother, sister, best friend -- Gore Vidal, Gerard Damiano, Harry REEMS, Hugh Heffner, Dick Cavett -- in short, practically the entire spectrum of celebrities and personalities of the "Deep Throat Era" -- for, indeed this film marked an era and was a turning point in America's dialogue with itself with regard to sex and politics. An outstanding piece of Docu-Tainment that left me a bit sad for unexplicable reasons on many levels -- among them sad for the demise of a certain part of The American Dream which was a significant part of my own youthful dreams during the years under discussion in the film, and also for the tragedy of poor Linda Lovelace who made zilch ($140 cash for her throaty efforts before the camera) from the sales of this film, had her personal life ruined by the controversy surrounding the film, and died as the result of a car crash two years ago.

"Deep Throat" cost a mere $25,000 to make and cleaned up more than $60 million dollars making it by far the most profitable (ratio of cost to proceeds) film of all time. Unfortunately, the Maffia took the film over -- forcibly ("you sell ussa da rights or we breaka you laigs") -- so that neither Gerard Damiano, the director, nor any of the performers ever saw much of the profits. Harry Reems, the male lead of Deep Throat, is the only film "actor" (okay, he wasn't exactly a Brando or a Barrymore) ever to be convicted in an American court of Law for the crime of obscenity on screen! This scurvy little fact I was unaware of, and it made me squirm in my seat, oddly ashamed of my "Americanness" at a film festival in Poland.

Festival director, Krzystow Gierat, evidentally pleased with the constant overflow audience turnouts, nevertheless, seems to be aware that size-wise the festival is beginning to get a little out of hand, and expressed the hope that next year an extra, seventh day will be added to accomodate a program which is already bulging at the seams. What is really needed, however, is an extra week -- to establish Krakow's claim as "the Cannes of Short Film festivals"....

Alex Deleon, Krakow


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