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13th Belgrade New Festival of Auteur Films

Only a handful of international film festivals boast of competitions for films by auteur directors — namely, those intrepid writer-directors who stand pretty much alone for what they put on the screen. Mannheim-Heidelberg in Germany is one of these, Belgrade in Serbia is another. By the very nature of the game, however, these festivals are also compelled to deliver the goods — otherwise, the cineastes in the audience might laugh the films off the screen. Belgrade, to be sure, need not worry. Under artistic director Vojislav Vucinic this popular week-long festival has prospered since the disintegration of Yugoslavia as one of the key cultural events on the Serbian calendar. On one hand, the Belgrade film audiences are known across the breadth of Europe as informed, questioning, and intellectually discerning. On the other hand, film and stage personalities, like singer Charles Aznavour and actor Robert De Niro, like to visit Belgrade — and make no bones about it.

Add to this the mystique of the Aleksandar »Sasha« Petrovic Award, the Grand Prize honoring the late Belgrade master — famous for Tri (Three) (1965), Skupljaci perja (I Even Met Happy Gypsies) (1967), Majstor i Margarita (Master and Margarita) (1972) — and you have a situation in which several European filmmakers even confess to feeling comfortable so far as the idiosyncrasies of its international jury are concerned. Perhaps because the jury is traditionally headed by a well known Balkan film director. This year, for instance, awarded Serb director Srdjan Karanovic — known to international audiences for his Petrijin venac (Petrija’s Wreath) (1980), Nesto izmedjiu (Something In Between) (1983), and Virdzina (Virgina) (1991) — served as jury president.

One glance at the lineup of 18 entries at the 13th Belgrade New Festival of Auteur Films (27 November to 4 December 2007) tells half the story. From the Competition at this year’s Cannes film festival came Alexander Sokurov’s Aleksandra (Alexandra) (Russia) and Carlos Reygadas’s Stellet Licht (Silent Light) (Mexico), plus Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Iklimer (Climates) (Turkey) from the year before. Also, Vojislav Vucinic booked Cristian Nemescu’s California Dreamin’ (Romania) from the Un Certain Regard section at this year’s Cannes, Anton Corbijn’s Control (Australia) from the Directors Fortnight; Lucia Puenzo’s XXY (Argentina), Rafa Cortes’s Yo (Me) (Spain), and Cecilia Miniucchi’s Expired (USA) from the International Week of the Critics. From the Berlinale he selected Özer Kiziltan’s Takva (Turkey), Julie Delpy’s Deux jours in Paris (Two Days in Paris) (France) and Juan Carlos Falcon’s La caja (The Wooden Box) (Spain). Further, Venice was represented by Gianni Amelio’s La stella che non c'è (The Missing Star) (Italy), San Sebastian by Carlos Saura’s Fados (Spain), Toronto by Lone Scherif’s Hjemve (Just Like Home) (Denmark), and Rotterdam by Nora Hoppe’s La fine del mare (The End of the Sea) (Germany). All these festivals pride themselves as gateways for auteur cinema.

The Sasha Petrovic Prize was awarded to Cristian Nemescu’s black comedy California Dreamin’ (Romania). Completed by Nemescu’s colleagues after the 27-year-old director had died in a car accident while still in the process of editing his film, California Dreamin’, based on a true incident that had occurred in June of 1999, sketches the social and political realities in the Balkans during the recent Kosovo War. As the story goes, a NATO-coordinated train, transporting radar equipment and guarded by American soldiers, was stopped at a Romanian village by a stubborn station master in cahoots with a corrupt village mayor, both claiming that the American officer’s papers were not in order. Since corruption is endemic to Romanian rural life, the incident quickly escalates into a chaotic outburst of fiery misunderstanding.

The Prize for Freedom of Artistic Expression was awarded to Özer Kiziltan’s Takva (Turkey). Subtitled A Man’s Fear of God, the film depicts the agony of a simple man chosen by a avaricious Sheikh to collect rent owed to the sect. Slowly, as he sinks into a despairing depression, this simple soul finds himself unable to reconcile his innate fear of God with the ways of the world and his own sexual concupiscence. Although awarded at festivals in Toronto, Antalya, and the Festival on Wheels in Kars, Takva has generally sparked controversy in the muslim world, where religious fanaticism is currently on the rise. The Special Jury Prize was awarded to Anton Corbijn’s Control (Australia). Shot in black-and-white, the film chronicles the short life of Ian Curtis, the lead singer and song writer of the Manchester-based Joy Division rock band, who had committed suicide in 1980 at the age of 23. As the title hints, taken from Joy Division’s popular hit »She’s Lost Control,« the film mirrors the out-of-control circumstances that eventually led to Ian Curtis’s suicide, particularly his epileptic fits and a soul-searing inability to choose between wife and mistress.

By coincidence, the same three films were also awarded by independent juries of critics and film professionals. Moreover, the international jury took pains to praise the quality of the auteur entries in general, singling out Alexander Sokurov’s Alexandra, Carlos Reygadas’s Silent Light, Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Climates, Gianni Amelio’s The Missing Star, Lucia Puenzo’s XXY, and Julie Delpy’s Two Days in Paris. To this list should be added Nora Hoppe’s The End of the Sea, a sensitive portrait of a destitute Italian smuggler plagued by his conscience when saddled by a young woman from eastern Europe by human traffickers. Shot in an abandoned harbor setting in Triest, this spellbinding kammerspiel unfolds with scarcely any dialogue to speak of, the narrative line supported instead by its atmospheric depth. Indeed, Nora Hoppe, an American director based in Berlin, is a talented auteur director to keep an eye on.

As for my personal favorite among the auteur entries, I shared the opinion of veteran Belgrade director Purisa Djordjevic, the partisan fighter whose trilogy on his war experiences (San/Dream, 1966, Jutro/Morning, 1967, Podne/Noon, 1968) had heralded an avant-garde Yugoslav cinema with Tito’s blessing. Djordjevic simply sighed »Fantastic!« when Carlos Reygadas’s Silent Light faded slowly into a closing breathtaking sunset, a masterful shot to match the glowing sunrise at the opening of the film. Reygadas’s portrait of sin and expiation among the Mennonites of Mexico also pays serene homage to the resurrection scene of a beloved wife and mother in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet (Denmark, 1955). Indeed, Silent Light is an auteur film that committed cineastes will savor seeing again. Another personal favorite was Lucia Puenzo’s XXY, an extraordinary debut feature by an accomplished writer-screenwriter that explores in forthright, dignified, and compassionate terms the trauma of a 15-year-old hermaphrodite (or intersex person), who lives with his/her understanding yet uncertain and perplexed parents at a marine research haven on the Argentinean coast. XXY, awarded the Grand Prix in the International Week of the Critics at this year’s Cannes film festival, should not be missed on the local arthouse circuit.

Ron Holloway