The Montreal World Film Festival (Web Exclusive)
by Gary Crowdus

Wartime Hero, Emil Fieldorf (aka General Nil) faces imprisonment and torture in Communist Poland in Ryszard Bugajski's film,   General Nil

Wartime Hero, Emil Fieldorf (aka General Nil) faces imprisonment and torture in Communist Poland in Ryszard Bugajski's film, General Nil

Although the Montreal World Film Festival may have lost its appeal in recent years for many hard-core cinephiles and film journalists—largely due to its inability to compete with the Toronto International Film Festival for premieres of the fall season’s most sought-after new films, whether the works of brand-name auteurs or glitzy new Hollywood releases—it nevertheless remains an immensely popular event. Most of the screenings at this year’s edition—whether in the lavish 819-seat Cinéma Impérial on de Bleury Street or several blocks east in one of the nine theaters at the Cinéma Quartier Latin multiplex—were packed, if not sold out, even at 9:00 a.m. on Sunday morning. Indeed, if you weren’t able to get in line at least a half hour before the scheduled screening time, it was often difficult to find a decent seat, unless you were willing to sit in the front row.

Films were also shown in several other venues. A long tent erected on the street in front of the multiplex, for example, housed weeklong screenings of new Quebec feature films, and the festival’s always popular “Movies Under the Stars” screenings were held outdoors each evening on the Esplanade of the Place des Arts on the festival’s main thoroughfare, Saint Catherine Street. Without having to buy a single ticket, Montreal residents were able to enjoy classic films such as Hitchcock’s North by Northwest or Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (and believe me, as a film-music buff, you haven’t lived until you’ve heard, booming out in the open air from blocks away, the rousing strains of Bernard Herrmann’s fandango-inspired main-title theme or Richard Strauss’s “Thus Spake Zarathustra”) as well as artier fare such as Stephen Frears’s Dangerous Liaisons or Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love.

Montreal’s World Film Festival, now in its thirty-third year, has long been one of North America’s leading “megafestivals,” showing hundreds of films—this year’s event included 400 films from seventy-eight countries—and its diverse selection of new international cinema clearly serves to attract many viewers from the long-established or newer immigrant communities among the city’s multiethnic, polyglot population. For those Americans who feel intimidated by the idea of visiting this predominantly Francophone city, however, rest assured that, from shopkeepers and people on the street to restaurant staff and movie theater attendants, you will encounter many more native French-speaking Quebecois who also speak fluent English than you will ever meet native English-speaking Montreal residents who speak even rudimentary French. Anglophone cultural imperialism, it seems, prevails even in the heart of French Canada.

Among the rich sampling of contemporary global cinema at this year’s festival, moviegoers with more cultivated cinephilic tastes were able to see new films by Theo Angelopoulos, Benoît Jacquot, Shyam Benegal, Claude Miller, Ryszard Bugajski, and Andrzej Wajda. The latter’s new film, Sweet Rush, based on a novella by renowned Polish author Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz, tells the story of Marta, a married, middle-aged woman (portrayed by Krystyna Janda) whose doctor, in the opening scene, decides to withhold his diagnosis of her terminal illness. Marta’s later accidental encounter at a local dance with a much younger man soon blossoms into an innocent if mildly flirtatious friendship, which ends suddenly and tragically during a date to meet at the local riverbank for a swim.

This seemingly straightforward narrative is soon revealed to be a film-within-a-film, introduced by the sudden and unexpected appearance of members of the film’s production crew and its director, Andrzej Wajda, thus also instantly morphing Janda from fictional character to professional film actress. A third element blended into this doubled, self-reflexive structure is comprised of extended first-person monologs delivered by Janda—which are dramatically privileged by their fixed camera, long-shot view of the actress in a dimly lit hotel room—as she solemnly muses on the emotional turmoil she has recently undergone, prior to agreeing finally to appear in Wajda’s new film, while caring for her cancer-stricken, real-life husband, the cinematographer Edward Klosinski (who photographed several of Wajda’s earlier films, including Man of Marble, The Promised Land, The Orchestra Conductor, and Man of Iron) during the final months of his life, culminating with his death in January 2008. This unusually complex cinematic structure, blending real and fictional intimations of death and dying, succeeds in emotionally and philosophically enriching Sweet Rush as a profoundly moving meditation on mortality, whether at a young or an advanced age.

Another, although less-known, Polish filmmaker, Ryszard Bugajski, was represented in Montreal by his new film, General Nil. Bugajski is best known in the U.S. as the director of Interrogation (1982) (which also starred Krystyna Janda), a grimly detailed account of Stalinist terror in Poland during the Fifties. Completed shortly after General Jaruzelski’s declaration of martial law, Interrogation was banned for seven years, forcing the director into exile in Canada, and was shown in Poland only in 1989, following the overthrow of the communist government.

Bugajski’s new film recounts the real-life story of Emil “Nil” Fieldorf. A leader of Poland’s underground Home Army during the resistance to the Nazi occupation, Fieldorf was responsible for planning the assassination of SS General and Warsaw Police Chief Franz Kutschera, who had ordered mass executions of civilians. This precisely orchestrated operation, among several other of General Nil’s wartime exploits, are shown in periodic flashbacks amidst the film’s present-tense story, which begins when Fieldorf, under an assumed name, returns to Poland in 1947 from a Soviet labor camp in the Urals, where he had been sent after his 1945 arrest by the NKVD.

After eventually revealing his true identity, in response to a supposed government amnesty, Fieldorf was initially spied upon, and eventually arrested, imprisoned, and tortured. Still refusing to collaborate with the new communist regime, he was then falsely accused in a Stalinist show trial of ordering the wartime execution of communist partisans, and, after being condemned as a “traitor of the Polish nation,” was executed by hanging in 1953 and buried in an unmarked grave.

General Nil portrays the Soviet bureaucrats who dictate policy in their new satellite state as ideological thugs operating amidst a regime staffed by cowed or outright collaborationist Polish apparatchiks. Perceived as a distinct threat to the new government, because of his previous loyalty to the wartime Polish government in exile, this patriot was marked out for elimination, and the film chronicles the entire ugly affair, culminating with the body of General Nil being dumped in a mass grave, and doused with quicklime in order to hasten his complete disappearance.

More Soviet dirty business is dramatized in one of the festival’s most pleasant surprises, One War, directed by Vera Glagoleva, a former actress who has in recent years turned to directing. The film begins in May 1945 with the arrival of Maxim Prokhorov, a Major in the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs, on a small island off the northern coast of the U.S.S.R., where a group of Russian women and their children have been exiled under the guardianship of another NKVD officer. The women have been sent to this desolate location from their previous homes in Russian territories that had been occupied by the Germans because their children are the result of relationships with the enemy. Following the capitulation of the German army, Major Prokhorov has been ordered to remove the women and their children from the island.

Prokhorov (portrayed by Michael Khmurov) is a laconic figure who seems resigned to carrying out his unpleasant assignment. For most of the women it’s a mystery as to what their evacuation will entail, or where they will be sent—only a few of the women seem aware of their likely fate—and the major is not offering any details. The film’s drama derives from the increasingly palpable tensions that develop between the women and their two military overseers, as well as the men’s unstated emotional conflicts between obeying their distasteful military orders or honoring their more humane sentiments.

In addition to narrative features, the World Film Festival is distinguished each year by an intriguing array of international documentaries, and this year was no exception. The standout work among those I saw was Oriol Porta’s A War in Hollywood, which surveys the history of Hollywood’s engagement with the Spanish Civil War, both in terms of the films produced and the support for the Republican cause among members of the Hollywood community. The film is framed by introductory excerpts from an interview with novelist, screenwriter, and Abraham Lincoln Brigade veteran Alvah Bessie (1900-1985) and concluding sequences excerpted from Jaime Camino’s Spain Again (1969), coscripted by Bessie, which dramatizes the return to Spain during the Franco dictatorship of a former member of the international brigades and his visits to the places where he fought during the war.

A War in Hollywood also features informative interviews with screenwriters Arthur Laurents (The Way We Were) and Walter Bernstein (The Front), Bessie’s son Dan (an author and filmmaker himself), the late Moe Fishman (1915-2007), former President of the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, actress Susan Sarandon, and film historians and authors Patrick McGilligan (Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist) and Román Gubern (La Caza de Brujas en Hollywood). The documentary is also enlivened by numerous excerpts from and commentary on some of the more than fifty Hollywood films dealing, directly or indirectly, with the Spanish Civil War or the Franco regime, from Blockade (1938) and For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943) to Behold a Pale Horse (1964) and the legendary but rarely seen 1937 documentaries, The Spanish Earth and Heart of Spain. It examines how these films reflected the political sympathies and commitments generated among Hollywood filmmakers, the Roosevelt Administration’s frustrating foreign policy of nonalignment and its concomitant embargo on arms shipments to the embattled Republic, and censorship of films, both in Hollywood and in Spain, dealing with the controversial conflict (one of the most amusing anecdotes deals with the redubbing of some politically sensitive dialog in Casablanca demanded by the Spanish censors before it could be cleared for exhibition in Spain).

More contemporary social concerns were the focus of Garapa, a new feature-length documentary from Brazilian director José Padilha (Bus 174 and Elite Squad). Filmed in grainy black and white, it at first appears to be one of those many shocking documentary exposés on hunger in Latin America produced in the Sixties, but it was actually filmed in modern-day Brazil. Garapa profiles three poverty-stricken families, the husbands unemployed and the wives struggling to feed a swarm of kids (one family has eleven children), most of them infested with flies and lice, afflicted with scabies, running sores, mosquito bites, and decaying teeth (garapa is a nutritionally valueless sugar and water solution that many impoverished mothers offer in baby bottles to their children to stave off their hunger pangs).

The film makes clear that the well-intentioned efforts of Brazilian President Lula’s “Zero Hunger” program, which provides a small financial stipend to indigent families, is grossly inefficient in terms of even beginning to solve the nation’s widespread malnutrition crisis. In Garapa’s memorable opening sequence, two women walk for miles to a government distribution center only to be told that no milk for children is available that day. Another mother describes the beans supplied by the government relief program as “so hard they could be used in a gun.” One of the men says that he’s never had three meals in a day.

Padilha seems determined not to produce just one more hand-wringing, bleeding-heart liberal treatise on the plight of the poor, but to provide a more revealing examination of the underlying complexities involved in trying to solve this seemingly ineradicable social problem. Although his cinéma-vérité approach is for the most part purely observational, with no voice-over narration, he does occasionally pose a provocative question, at one point asking a couple with numerous children why they don’t use birth-control devices freely available from the local health clinic, while other extended scenes with the same family reveal the woman’s inadmissible fears of leaving a clearly abusive relationship, and expose the feckless nature of her alcoholic husband, who sells family possessions and food supplied by NGO relief agencies in order to buy liquor.

This harrowing social portrait opens and closes with a series of medical facts and UN statistics about world hunger. One title card explains the difference between death from outright starvation and the gradual, more insidious, but equally deadly long-term physical and mental effects of malnutrition, while a concluding text notes that, based on current child mortality rates, some 1400 children are likely to have died from hunger during the projection of the film. Garapa is an alternately grim, poignant, and shocking viewing experience, not recommended for the squeamish or faint of heart, that serves as a much-needed condemnation of inexcusable social inequities and sadly insufficient government welfare policies.

Another documentary exposé of economic absurdities in the modern world is Ben Lewis’s The Great Contemporary Art Bubble, which chronicles the booming market among art collectors and other wealthy investors speculating in modern art—from perennial favorites such as Andy Warhol, Mark Rothko, and Francis Bacon to contemporary artists such as Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst—during the 2003-2008 period, when the prices for contemporary art increased by 800%. Driven by the largely unregulated and clearly collusive practices of hedge-fund managers, art dealers, and auction houses, this artificially stimulated economic bubble peaked in May 2008 and burst the following October, as part of the global economic collapse that fall.

Lewis is a British art critic whose passionate interest in contemporary art has always been tempered by healthy doses of skepticism and irreverence, as is engagingly evident in his eight-part BBC documentary series, Art Safari (time out for a statement of full disclosure: when I’m not busy with Cineaste, I work with Icarus Films, the U.S. home-video distributor of Art Safari). In his new documentary feature, however, Lewis’s focus has moved beyond a social and esthetic critique of what passes for modern art today in favor of a focus on the economic underpinnings of the international art market. Through revealing interviews with art collectors, gallery owners, hedge-fund managers and other investors, plus a bit of explosive investigative journalism, The Great Contemporary Art Bubble reveals how gallery owners and the artists they represent, in collusion with leading auction houses such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s, make backroom deals to artificially maintain or inflate the market value of art works.

This continually amusing and informative documentary makes clear that the presumed cultural and esthetic interests of many, if not most, of the creators, promoters, and purveyors of modern art are belied by the crass financial interests that actually fuel their activities. In one scene, for example, Lewis persuades a wealthy businessman to show him a painting by one of China’s hottest contemporary artists, Zhang Xiaogang, that he purchased at auction. The painting has to be uncrated first, however, since its new owner hadn’t actually looked at it since he bought it, merely putting it into storage until its market value should increase and he can resell it for a huge profit.

The film likewise includes a rare interview with Damien Hirst, perhaps the preeminent and certainly the most controversial member of the “Young British Artists” school, most famous for his series of dead animals (a cow, a sheep, a pig, and a shark) preserved in formaldehyde. Reportedly the richest artist in the world today, Hirst comes off as less artist than very canny businessman, and perhaps the most revealing indicator of his cynicism about the art world today is seen in one of his latest creations available for sale—a large glass display case filled with shelves of his cigarette butts. By the end of The Great Contemporary Art Bubble, in fact, most viewers will be understandably inclined to believe that such grossly overvalued con(temporary) artists and their obscenely wealthy customers deserve each other.

Despite managing to see at least four to five feature films per day, of which the above were for me among some of the most notable, I was still able to see only a small percentage of the films screened. At a megafestival such as the Montreal World Film Festival, with literally hundreds of films to choose from, any discerning filmgoer who carefully peruses the massive, nearly 300-page festival catalog, will surely be able to create their own memorable film festival experience.

Gary Crowdus is the Editor-in-Chief of Cineaste.

Copyright © 2009 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XXXV, No. 1