State of the Festival: FIDMarseille 2021

Highlights, including the films awarded by Lav Diaz's jury, from the French festival that at its best points towards the future of cinema.
Jordan Cronk

Above: Haruhara San's Recorder

Now in its 32nd year, FIDMarseille found itself in a unique position in 2021. Starting just two days after the Cannes Film Festival wrapped its comeback edition—which was delayed two months due to the pandemic—FID welcomed a number of critics, programmers, and filmmakers straight from the Croisette. While the philosophical differences between the festivals have always been pronounced, this year the calendar proximity only underscored the curatorial disparity—proving not so much Cannes’ authority as FID’s significance in presenting a fuller picture of contemporary cinema. Freely mingling its documentary roots with au courant trends in art cinema, FID offers a snapshot of what’s new and exciting in international filmmaking. Case in point: Apichatpong Weerasethakul, fresh off sharing the Jury Prize in Cannes for his latest film, Memoria, and recipient of this year’s Grand prix d’honneur; the Thai director’s first feature, Mysterious Object at Noon (2000), screened at the festival two decades ago. At its best, FID can point toward the future.

Winner of the top prize in the International Competition (Filipino director Lav Diaz led the jury), Kyoshi Sugita’s Haruhara San’s Recorder is a decidedly modern film. For much of its runtime, characters wear masks, though nothing much is made of the current health crises. Other things preoccupy the mind of the young woman at the center of the story, Sachi (Chika Araki), who, as the film opens, has moved into a new apartment some distance from the cafe where she works. An aspiring actress, Sachi spends her off-hours reading scripts, mingling in the local arts community, and getting acclimated to her new home. Among the items left behind by the prior tenant (the Haruhara of the film’s title) is a flute-like recorder, which becomes a strange object of intrigue in a narrative that mostly dispenses with plot in favor of a more poetic depiction of urban ennui. Based on a tanka by the Japanese poet Higashi Naoko, the film adopts a lyrical form based around short, seemingly mundane scenes (shot in spartan 1.33 compositions by cinematographer Yukiko Iioka) that echo, refract, and accumulate detail through subtle story juxtapositions and unhurried editing rhythms that prize the incidental over the conventionally dramatic. A protégé of Japanese masters Shinji Aoyama and Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Sugita displays a learned sense of the serene and suggestive, hinting throughout at alternate paths a less assured filmmaker would have pursued from the start.

Above: Outside Noise

Only occasionally more forthcoming were two other competition highlights. In Ted Fendt’s Outside Noise, winner of a Special Mention, a group of wayward women flit between Berlin and Vienna over the course of a few uneventful weeks. Never one to rely on traditional plotting, Fendt here reduces storytelling to a bare imprint. Conceived by the director in collaboration with his actresses, the characters, suffering from equal parts insomnia and indecision, are as unproductive as they are overprivileged. For much of the movie, the unemployed Daniela (Daniela Zahlner), the academically frustrated Mia (Mia Sellmann), and the quietly duplicitous Natascha (Natascha Manthe) talk around their issues rather than attempt to do much about them. Instead, they take walks, visit with friends, and go to afternoon parties; at one point, a scene pauses for two of the characters to dance the Charleston, only to reorient itself and proceed as before.

Similarly abstract, the Austrian film Beatrix, by first-time directors Lilith Kraxner and Milena Czernovsky, follows its twenty-something protagonist over the course of a summer spent in and around an otherwise empty house. In largely static compositions (shot, like Haruhara, in the 1.33 aspect ratio), Beatrix (Eva Sommer) is seen watering plants, feeding the cat, watching TV in her underwear, and rolling around on a rubber exercise ball. Occasionally, she’ll make a phone call; one night, two friends stop by for dinner. Nothing in these conversations reveals much about her or her situation. Like the women in Outside Noise, Beatrix is an enigma. Stuck in a state of transition, she yearns to connect with someone new. As in Fendt’s and Sugita’s films, this obliqueness doesn’t negate interest so much as generate a form of intrigue predicated on absences and ellipses. With Beatrix, Kraxner and Czernovsky find meaning in the space between life’s more conspicuous happenings.

Above: Topology of Sirens

A casually inventive work of creative nonfiction, Daniela Seggiaro’s Husek, which received a Special Mention for the Georges de Beauregard International prize, assumes many forms across its 89 minutes. Furthering the Argentine director’s interest in her country’s Indigenous Wichí people, the film—named for the Wichí concept of benevolence—opens in the guise of a documentary, with a pair of community members collecting honey amongst the ruins of an abandoned township. They speak of the region’s violent history, and of the untold number of Wichí that have died at the hands of the national army. Things then shift from the rural to the urban, and in turn into a narrative in which the two men (now clearly seen to be actors and played by Juan Rivero and Leonel Gutierrez) are fighting a corporate construction project—led by Ana (Veronica Gerez), a morally conflicted young architect—that promises to bring a new housing development to the protected Gran Chaco region. Spoken in a combination of Spanish and Wichí Lhamtés Nocten, with occasional gaps in subtitle translation, the film constructs a thought-provoking dialectic based around notions of language, ethnicity, sovereignty—even the supernatural. Intimations of unseen forces haunt the periphery of the film; in one mesmerizing passage, colored lights spill across a grove of trees at night as the sounds of city life rumble in the distance, while in another, a shaman speaks ominously of disrupting the land and its spirits. Productively blurring the bounds of reality and fiction, Seggiaro turns a real-world fable into an enchanting meditation on the idea of home.

Although it went unrewarded by the jury, Jonathan Davies’ Topology of Sirens embodied many of the most compelling aspects of this year’s selection. Like Haruhara, the American multi-hyphenate’s feature debut revolves around a woman and a mysterious musical instrument. In one of the first scenes, Cas (played by artist and filmmaker Courtney Stephens) discovers a small cache of mini-cassettes inside an antique hurdy-gurdy in her late aunt’s Los Angeles home. Curious about the instrument’s origins and compelled by the soundscapes heard on the tapes, Cas embarks on a journey into the past that, as she explores an under-seen side of East L.A., slowly reshapes her conception of the present. Structured around a series of musical performances (the experimental composers Sarah Davachi and Whitney Johnson co-star), the film—quiet in tone but flush with aural activity—gives way on a number of occasions to sighing harmonium drones, wandering synth pulses, and spare piano etudes. (These scenes, captured in slowly drifting camera movements by cinematographer Carson Lund, conjure much of the film’s otherwise unarticulated emotion.) As a musician himself, Davies is unsurprisingly fascinated by analog technologies and the way sound can tell stories and transform reality—here, literally so, as Cas’ existential quest eventually summons a breach in which characters slip away, identities split, and storylines fold into a space where the familiar is rendered strange and intoxicating. Forgoing garden variety narrative markers in favor of a more meditative form of storytelling, Topology of Sirens opens up avenues for thought and reflection that precious few films afford.

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FIDMarseilleFIDMarseille 2021Festival CoverageState of the FestivalKyoshi SugitaOutside NoiseLilith KraxnerMilena CzernovskyDaniela SeggiaroJonathan Davies
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