THE GIJON INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
by Dennis West

Carlos Reygadas's  Silent Light

Carlos Reygadas's  Silent Light

Establishing a film festival decades ago in Franco’s Spain must have been challenging, given the authoritarian right-wing dictator’s well known penchant for tightly censoring activities in the cultural sphere. Cinephiles in Spain’s northern coastal city of Gijón found the solution in 1963, when they established an annual film festival aimed at children. Forty-five years later, with the Caudillo evermore moldering in his grave, the event has grown into an eclectic international film festival. It still retains, however, one prominent competitive showcase—Enfants Terribles—that presents new international films judged of special interest to primary- and secondary-school students. And flock to Enfants Terribles the young people and children of the region did, to see provocative new work, such as Estonian filmmaker Ilmar Raag’s Klass, an Elephant-influenced and stylistically edgy study of savage bullying in a high-school setting. These 15,000 strong student spectators did not simply watch movies; they actively debated the works and mingled with the filmmakers themselves—and with their votes they even selected the section’s winning film. This strong didactic emphasis, then, is the Gijón Festival’s most unusual characteristic.

Gijón is a mid-sized international film festival; nevertheless, its Official Competition of new features sparkled with fresh, innovative, and diverse projects from new filmmakers as well as renowned auteurs. Talented new faces in the competition included the young Latin Americans Laura Amelia Guzmán and Israel Cárdenas, who presented their first fiction feature, the Mexican Cochochi. The multifaceted Cárdenas and Guzmán personally wrote, photographed, and directed this human-interest-laden road movie, which captured the International Critics Prize. 

Cochochi’s narrative thread is slender—two somewhat clueless but likable indigenous sixth graders search northern Mexico’s spectacular Sierra Tarahumara for a lost horse—but the social vision is vast as viewers are treated to an engaging tour of Raramuri (a. k. a. Tarahumara) society today as it teeters precariously between the dominant, modern Spanish-language culture and the native folkways, between the horse and the truck. The filmmakers’ success is built on a no-nonsense, low-budget mode of production that meshes well with a measured, straightforward artistic approach. This approach integrates convincing performances by nonprofessional actors—including child actors who never play too cute—with a carefully composed, landscape-saturated color cinematography that excels in capturing the characters in their social and natural environments. Guzmán and Cárdenas also succeed with their soundtrack, which alternates sparse dialogs in Spanish and Raramuri to reflect linguistically the growing bilingualism and biculturalism now impacting this indigenous community. Cochochi, then, offers one of Latin American cinema’s most moving portraits of native American societies in transition in this current era of globalization.

Two prominent Spanish auteurs participated in the festival with their latest works. Although Pere Portabella may be best known internationally as a producer (e. g., Buñuel’s Viridiana in 1961) he is also a leading director. His latest feature as director-producer-coscreenwriter is the experimental The Silence Before Bach, an ambitiously conceived, generally non-narrative artistic collage in which Portabella sets himself the astonishing intellectual-esthetic task of assessing—“in a new cinematic language” no less—the socio-historical importance of Johan Sebastian Bach and his oeuvre for European societies. The Official Jury stumbled when it awarded only a Special Prize to this stunning example of conceptual cinema, which in my opinion merited the Grand Prize.

Catalan auteur José Luis Guerín’s esthetic project in the nearly dialog-free fiction feature In the City of Sylvia (screened out of competition) is no less ambitious: to make viewers contemplate, imagine, and dream about urban settings and urban dwellers and their lives in profoundly new ways as the camera realistically, or innocuously, or mysteriously, or in a documentary-like fashion follows in a foreign city (Strasbourg) a romantic, dreamy young artist—played by a young Alain Delon lookalike—as he searches for a beautiful woman he knew years ago. The great themes here are seeing, memory, hope, desire, the power of imagination, and the search for the ideal; and the cultural influences range widely from Petrarch to Goethe to Hitchcock. Portabella and Guerín have not travelled well in the English-speaking world; but readers should know that their latest works are profoundly original stylistic experiments in exploring the artistic potential of cinema—works worth seeing in any format as soon as possible in 2008.

As is Mexican screenwriter-director Carlos Reygadas’s new fiction feature, Silent Light. This drama powerfully explores the emotional havoc inflicted on a tight-knit Mennonite community in northern Mexico in the present day when a respected male “pillar of the community” launches headfirst and tumultuously into an adulterous affair. Silent Light features extensive on-location shooting amongst the endogamous Mennonite communities of Chihuahua; and the actors, who are nonprofessionals, speak their own language which is, according to the director, a still vibrant dialect of sixteenth-century Dutch. Reygadas in his comments stressed his reliance on standard realist approaches, such as natural-light cinematography and the long take, the latter a stylistic feature he shares with Guerín’s In the City of Sylvia. Both directors seek to explore the imaginative and emotional potential as the camera rolls longer than expected. This visual approach I personally found mesmerizing, even occasionally uncanny, in Silent Light. The film, however, came under considerable fire from certain critics who charged that the long takes are frequently downright boring; that the filmmaker shamelessly traffics in cheap, sensationalistic mysticism (details withheld to protect first-time viewers); and that, anyway, the whole business reeks of warmed-over Dreyer (a key influence that Reygadas freely admits). One thing appears certain after viewing the festival’s complete Reygadas retrospective: the Mexican enfant terrible seems determined to become one of the world’s most controversial and imaginative cinéastes. 

As the above examples suggest, Gijón programmers succeeded in providing an impressive lineup of important new work, though inevitably a few full-thudding duds did intrude. Overall, however, this forty-fifth edition proved itself an international film festival with an edge, and with plenty for a wide range of viewers—from eager schoolchildren to somewhat jaded festivalgoers, such as yours truly.

Dennis West is a Cineaste contributing editor.  

Copyright © 2008 by Cineaste Magazine