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Two for the Road: The 2015 Valdivia Film Festival

To better understand the panorama of this Chilean festival, we take two films from different sections and pose them against each other.
Chile is a long country. It takes 12 hours of bus travel from its capital, Santiago, to the city of Valdivia, where one of the most important festivals of the continent happens every October. It’s a two-hour trip by plane, and even that’s surprising considering that the average plane trip from Santiago to Mendoza, the nearest city in Argentina, is only 45 minutes long. So, Chile is also a narrow country, and when you live your entire life in it, one gets used to understand this complex piece of land in terms of dualities or pairs: contradicting forces that give this country its unique identity. For example, you have the dry and hot North (with the second most arid desert in the world), and the rainy cold South (where this festival takes place).
To better understand the complex panorama and program that this year’s Valdivia festival had to offer, I decided to take two films from certain sections of the program, and pose them against each other. As it seems to be a simple approach to understand this country, it might be the best approach to understand what the festival was trying to say this year.
Lost and Beautiful at Valdivia
The winner of the International Competition this year was the 2014 short experimental documentary Motu-Maeva, directed by Maureen Fazendeiro (now wife of Miguel Gomes, director of the Arabian Nights trilogy that was also shown on this festival, right now at the top of my list of best films of the year). An odd choice in between a slate of films that included Une jeunnesse allemande (Jean-Gabriel Périot), Kaili Blues (Bi Gan) and El Movimiento (Benjamín Naishtat), all of them fresh off awards and recognition from major festivals from around the world. During the festival I was lucky enough to hang out with Mónica Delgado, critic and creator of the impeccable ‘Desistfilm’ website, who was part of the official jury that chose this film as the winner, and while she didn’t talk to me about any of the competition during the days previous to the awards ceremony, when she finally spilled the beans after the awards were given, I could understand why they chose it.
The logic behind the award was to give it to the film that best represented the ideals of the festival, its fragility as well as its humble origins, one that is made with little money but lots of heart. I could see that in the Fazendeiro film, shot in Super8 to mimic the vast amount of footage that serves as emotional and historical context to the tale of Sonja André, described as “an adventurer of the 20th century.” On the screen one can see that there was an idea of going back to simpler times, of doing more carefree cinema, where the voice of a person who lived life as free as she could and did whatever she wanted with her past, present and future is in command of the images that we see. As Sonja lives in the island of Motu Maeva on a house built by her own hands, this is a movie that seems handmade with that same passion. The fact that it’s a shorter work also describes a humbler approach to its simple subject matter, as it doesn’t have the need to bloat the story beyond its simple initial conditions: the love of a couple, their travels around the world, and the need of a place to finally call home. A simple approach gives us a simple, yet heartwarming picture.
Also sweet but much more complex in the disposition of its elements, characters and materials is the Italian film Bella e perduta (Pietro Marcello), a movie that humbly bares its soul and the sadness that permeates it just to give way to the love that is all around us in nature. This is a realization that I had has days after experiencing this film, one that starts in a very strange and almost too allegorical way. It slowly presents us the origins of this movie as directed by Marcello: a documentary about Tommaso Cestrone, a shepherd that has taken upon himself the task of guarding and taking care of the cleaning and security of the Royal Palace of Carditello, a beautiful monumental historical building that seems to sprout from nowhere in the countryside of the province of Caserta. Completely forgotten by historians, the government or anyone with any artistic interest, this common man decides to take care of this place, completely ad honorem. Marcello was clearly interested in the reasons behind his choice and how he took care of it, but all of this was truncated by the death of Cestrone two days before Christmas in 2013.
While the documentary project itself wasn’t completely devoid of fictional elements, like in the presence of a newborn buffalo that Cestrone has to take care of inside of the Palace, which perhaps serves as a metaphor for the overabundance of goodness in his soul, the film completely shifts and introduces the pulcinella, an archetype character that was part of the commedia dell’arte, a type of theater that originated in Italy in the 16th century. This character, dressed in the same clothes as the drawings from the era, appears as an agent of innocence and well-being that comes to finish the task of Cestrone, taking the baby buffalo and going through the landscapes of Italy to take the animal to its final place where it can be truly happy. Endings, twists and turns besides, this is a movie that  presents itself as failed from the start, and thus it becomes moving due to its honesty. Its humble principles make it one of the most surprising films of the year in terms of how much Marcello is capable of conjuring here, and how much more he would be able to do in the future.
Perdidos en Japón in Valdivia
With a similar love for animals as the Italian film, Días de Cleo (María Elvira Reymond) starts out as a simple film about a young woman named Cleo who lives in her small apartment with a dog and a bird. Her love for animals before any human interaction is made apparent and obvious quite early in the film, when she leaves a party early just so she can go back to her place, walk her dog and put a blanket over her bird’s cage. Her best friend is worried that Cleo is drifting away from society, sheltering from possible relationships, but we see that Cleo doesn’t want to change, nor she cares what anyone has to say about her present situation. But we know that something is slowly building inside of her, a sexual urge that blasts out in a party thrown by her boss, an Argentinian playing a talk-show host who exhibited the worst acting that I saw in the festival. While far from perfect, there’s a true element to this main character who seems to not care about anyone except her pets, but even that seems a façade for something deeper and more emotionally disturbing that sadly we’re not able to see in this movie.
The winner of the Chilean competition does have more than one element in common with the winner of the Official competition, and it’s wildly different to the previously mentioned fiction. A documentary that features found footage, Vivienne Barry’s Perdidos en Japón is entertaining and terrifying. Much like Maureen Fazendeiro seemed to just stumble upon the world of Sonja in Motu-Maeva, this is the story of how Barry stumbled upon her father’s secret story in his diary: how he as a journalist in the 1940s was invited by the Japanese government, alongside other Chilean colleagues, to travel to the mythic country so they can write about the advances and the incredible country Japan is—all in the middle of World War II. The film uses tidbits of Super8 film that was made by the journalists, as well as the text found on the travels that serves as the narration of how Barry’s father lived the events that had him and his friends circling two oceans in different ships for months and months due to the contingency of war. The documentary feels like the tale of a great adventure that never manages to be great because of how dire the conditions were, the same kind of tale that a father would tell his daughter—a retelling that in this case never happened because of his early death. It’s a film that serves as a recovery of not only a bizarre tale that needed to be told, but also one that the director needed to tell herself.
The Way of the Dragon at Valdivia
Among the best experiences of the festival for me was the possibility of seeing one of the two screenings of works by Stan Brakhage in 16mm, films that travelled half the world to be shown in a small but packed theater. That’s the spirit behind these “homages” in the program, not to show entire encompassing retrospectives, but to make an experience out of it. It was also fun to see a 35mm copy of The Way of the Dragon, one of the two films that were fully directed by the martial arts master Bruce Lee. It’s the film that has Chuck Norris in it, and it’s a strange one, especially considering that Lee himself was in charge of the whole endeavor, that after all that time acting he decided to make this film instead of any other: an Italy-set crime film where he doesn’t punch anyone until forty minutes into the film, with guns and poison darts, completely nonsensical plot twists, taking place most of the time in a Chinese restaurant, with heavy amounts of slapstick and comedic sounds to emphasize falls and failed combat maneuvers. It tells a lot more about the real character of Lee and how he looked at himself, with a much more lightweight view than the later American-produced endeavors. But this doesn’t mean that this film isn’t packed with stupendous fight choreography that ranks among the best of his career.
México, la revolución congelada at Valdivia
The other treat was seeing a 16mm copy of Raymundo Glayzer’s influential documentary México, la revolución congelada that serves as both a history lesson and a political commentary that still works today, 45 years after its release. It starts as a chronicle of the latest political campaign of the government’s party candidate, the same party that has won most of the time since the 1910 Mexican Revolution and recently is in charge of the presidency once again. Devoid of frontal attacks, Glayzer delivers factoids in an orderly manner, deconstructing the concept of revolution itself from the standpoint of those farmers and poor people that started it, and following the caudillos to the ultimate victory, using films, re-creations, drawings and photographs from those years. It is immediately obvious that while the thesis present in the title of the film drives the ending, it is through the almost investigative process that precedes it that we feel that there was another purpose in the beginning. The filming of the elections, the speeches, and those who follow the PRI candidate say a lot about the access that the filmmaker had at the start. It was an access that slowly but surely distanced Glayzer, making him come closer to the realization that maybe the revolution has stopped for those for whom it was started.
Beyond Zero 1914 - 1918 at Valdivia
Using footage filmed around the same years those the used in the history lessons of the 1910 Revolution in Gleyzer’s film, Bill Morrison built up Beyond Zero 1914 - 1918, a 40 minute film made in 2014, just in time for the 100 year anniversary of the start of World War I. Using the same editing method as in his now essential Decasia, he takes footage filmed in war: tanks moving through forests, troops gathering, bombings, archaic planes fighting among each other, soldiers marching through cities and towns, and many other scenes, obviously filmed for newsreels. With that material Morrison edits a semblance of a chronology of the war, taking a deep look at what seemed to be lost footage shot in the trenches from both sides of the battle. Wonderfully scored by Aleksandra Vrebalov and performed by The Kronos Quartet, this film is beautiful and entrancing, but at the same time it doesn’t fully achieve the idea of being a ‘tribute’ to the war itself, as the footage is so damaged in most parts, that the aesthetic pleasure of watching those scratches and the damage of the prints overshadows everything else that would be actually happening in the film. But if that happens to be the purpose of the film, I think that Morrison might be repeating his discourse, using the visual technique from Decasia, putting it in different contexts but expressing a similar visual message.
Chant d’hiver (Otar Iosseliani) was one of the six films chosen for the Gala section, which features the latest films from those the festival considers “the greatest auteurs working today.” I went into this movie wondering what was I going to experience, as I hadn’t seen any film directed by the revered Georgian filmmaker before. What I ended up with is something that I can’t fully comprehend yet, even weeks after the screening ended, a farce that starts with two allegorical vignettes that have nothing to do with the actual plot of the film: a man gets decapitated in the French Revolution and a woman keeps the head for herself, while a group of women wait for their own heads; and an impeccably constructed sequence of soldiers destroying, robbing and raping women and children through a war-torn landscape. What’s weird about this is the way in which they were filmed, as these horrible-sounding sequences end up being funny, even though most of the laughs are guilty and suppressed by the audience. The rest of the movie follows a sort of system in Paris where people that used to be rich turn to robbery to maintain their position, either by pickpocketing or trying to convince an elderly dying lady who the final heir to her fortune will be. While entertaining at spots, I think that the film doesn’t bother with a conclusive idea behind it. This mostly played to me like an empty version of the films of Roy Andersson: funny, cruel, but without any of the wit, sense or “end” that the Swede actively looks for.
We live in a world that is surrounded by acts of violence: war, fights, intolerance, revolutions gone wrong, some that happen outside of our everyday circle, and others that happen right beside you. I think that what fuels most of these acts, may they be awful crimes against humanity or necessary, is the recovery of something that was lost, of something that was taken away: violence is the consequence of a memory that is being taken either by time or by some foreign force. All of the films that I’ve covered are in a way a fight for that fading remembrance, and that’s how the violence and the conflict appear, whether in literal fights, depictions of wars, or through the recovery of an archive that would have disappeared if it hadn’t been recovered through the violent process of putting it in a film.
It is now that I realize how we as humans always seem to pit things in terms of conflict, and even now that I end this experiment in which I paired films and tried to come up with relations between them, as well as relations between the sections, I realize that I was involved in a rhetoric that is embedded in a logic of conflict, the same that was portrayed in most of the movies I’ve talked about. I currently ask myself if we’re perpetuating a violence in all the aspects of our lives, and if I’m doing it myself through this seemingly innocent exercise, that pits films in a fight for who is the best and what works better. We now live in a moment where that violence may seem to have gone out of hand, and we have to do our best to alleviate that.
But then I realized that it’s in this context where the conflict is necessary: the arts and culture discussion builds itself and gets better with the constant retorts, attacks and debate. I’d say that it’s the only aspect of life in which violence works for the better, in which conflict is something that helps get it better, where people from different backgrounds through the retorts and exposition of their points of view become more assured of them, or be shook by the perspective of others. It is the only dimension of human existence in which even the insult is welcome, as it builds a discourse of conflict that helps its betterment. And if we restrict violence only to that, maybe in time it’ll disappear in the rest of the spheres in which the everyday human being interacts.

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