Film festivals are limited by the juicy premieres secured by their directors and the quality of their programmers. They’re also frequently the only places to view films that would rarely be seen otherwise. Highlights of this year’s FIDMarseille included works that traveled beyond the European continent in search of lost (and unknown) connections, as well as those made beyond the shadow of Euro-American art cinema, notably in the Philippines. But first, to Africa.
Last year’s FIDMarseille opened with Miguel Gomes’s critically acclaimed Tabu. Gomes is one of several contemporary Portuguese filmmakers to use his country’s colonial past as a mirror held up to its present. João Viana’s The Battle of Tabatô superficially resembles Tabu (it’s shot in black and white in a former Portuguese colony in Africa), but the similarities end there. Where Gomes’s introspection into the contemporary legacies of Portuguese colonization in Lisbon and an unnamed African country largely follows Portuguese characters, Viana’s cast is entirely of African origin and his story is set in contemporary Guinea-Bissau, in West Africa. Thirty-odd years after Guinea-Bissau’s 1974 war of independence, an older man, a veteran of a native militia used by the Portuguese to fight against their countrymen, is unable to come to terms with his residual trauma from that experience. Having recently returned to his homeland from Portugal for his daughter’s wedding, he becomes emotionally overwhelmed and accidentally kills her during a psychotic episode. At this point, the film deteriorates, falling back on a narrative device no less tedious than Gomes’s colonial-era Portuguese hipsters screwing and playing rock n’ roll in the jungle—here, though, we’re in the company of an abstracted “African culture,” which, in the case of the villagers with whom the film concludes, involves playing traditional music as an alternative to killing one another. This is a compelling concept, but one that’s disconnected from the film’s otherwise stark aesthetic and critical perspective. It’s an easy and somewhat cheap ending for what begins as an original take on the legacy of Portuguese colonialism in a country that has produced few prominent filmmakers of its own.
One of this year’s award-winners refused to be limited either by stereotypes or formal constraints. A Thousand Suns is an homage to filmmaker Mati Diop’s uncle, the famed Senegalese filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambety, who passed away in 1998. Among Mambety’s most idiosyncratic films was 1973’s Touki Bouki, an imaginative fable about a young Senegalese couple seeking to emigrate to France. Forty years after Touki Bouki, Mati Diop returns to Senegal to locate the male member of the film’s original pair, Magaye, now an urban goat herder and an unapologetic alcoholic. Magaye fights with his wife, his friends, and a cabdriver, seemingly suffering from ennui following his sole starring role and subsequent descent into relative poverty. Toward the end of the film, Magaye decides to contact his former girlfriend, who, as in Touki Bouki, has emigrated to France. The scene in which Magaye calls her number from a telephone booth in Dakar is priceless for its pacing and Magaye’s comic talent; upon hearing that Marème now lives in Alaska, he reacts as though she’s moved to Mars. The following dreamlike sequence, in which Magaye and Marème wander through a snowy landscape failing to find one another, is a faithful afterthought to Touki Bouki. At the end of A Thousand Suns, as in Touki Bouki, Magaye and Marème are apart again. There’s a bittersweet acceptance in the way Diop ends her film, similar in some ways to her uncle’s films’ trademark irony, neither a vindication nor a refusal. Perhaps, niece and uncle allow us to think, this story is still unfinished.
The most visionary works I saw at the FID, Gym Lumbera’s Anak Araw and Sherad Anthony Sanchez’s Jungle Love, were original and youthful yet serious meditations on individual and collective experiences in love, language, and history in the Philippines. Anak Araw is the more formally rigorous of the two films and, given its entire lack of narrative, the more difficult one. It begins with us, the spectators, on the outside looking in. We share the perspective of children reading the alphabet from a primary school’s wall mural. Each letter has a word associated with it—most often an animal or a household object. Next we see these animals on screen—a cat, a dog, a chicken—with their name in English and Tagalog listed below. This, more or less, is the limit of the dialogue in Anak Araw, which otherwise functions through a unique coupling of images and non-synchronized sounds to produce the effect of a life of memories lived between two languages. If Lumbera believes himself unable to fully communicate in either English or Tagalog, he proves to be utterly fluent in cinematic language, to which he adds his own original poetic variations, some whimsical. Lumbera is respectful of pre-existent cinematic forms of communication, but he also refuses to be limited by a particular narrative conceit. And so, an inability to feel at home in one’s own skin is expressed through a misunderstanding of languages, an ability to communicate, a regression to child’s play (swimming, pretending to be an animal) and childlike play (with guns), and an obsession with sex. In sum, nothing abnormal occurs in the film, if the viewer is able to acknowledge that life isn’t confined to our waking reality and that we all live through, with varying degrees of difficulty, experiences of attempting to communicate with one another and ourselves, remembering at times, forgetting at others. Beginning with a dictionary, Anak Araw ends with credits in the form of its maker’s personal encyclopedia naming influences, friends, family, and places around the world, a textual collage which a single viewing of the film can only begin to decipher.
Jungle Love begins as a narrative piece whose characters are subsumed by the jungle itself and the erotic encounters it permits. A group of soldiers, a tattooed, sexually libertine urban couple, their native guide, a woman rejected by her brother-in-law, and a native tribe—none of these groups ever meet directly, but their paths cross via montage and through a series of long, slow, dreamlike tracking shots that reveal the plodding progression of life and love. The young couple acts out the film’s more provocative and exceptional sequences, masturbating or fucking in front of the camera. Sanchez most fully explores his (and our) own voyeurism through their gaze; occasionally it seems that one member of the couple is manipulating the camera, recording their partner pleasure him/herself or play coy. A later sequence shows a young soldier attempting to seduce the camera, though, as we later realize in a final graphic shot featuring his spontaneous ejaculation, the woman he’s trying to seduce is none other than Mother Nature, the jungle itself, which comes to encompass all of life as well as the oft-undepicted dirty secrets of love. Sexual desire in Jungle Love is like political desire, which itself remains obscure, difficult to articulate, and messy. Sanchez’s depiction of the jungle is underlain by a strong sense of humor that forms part of the film’s aesthetic and is never strictly superficial. Interpreting the film as a societal critique is easy enough, but more difficult is to sit, watch, and accept not what it has to tell us, but what it shows. Sanchez unveils the seamy sides of the pleasure of love and the desperation of lust, which are both at home in a primeval jungle that stands in for a nation’s subconscious.
Each screening at this year’s FID began with a still image of artist Gianluigi Toccafondo’s rendering of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s face; in addition to the films in competition, a rich sidebar program of films based around Pasolini’s work and legacy occupied most of the slots. During a festival programmed under such a considerable influence, two young Filipino filmmakers revealed themselves to be most deserving of Pasolini’s legacy both in their innovative style and form and in the uncanny confidence they demonstrated in revealing new ways of looking at the world.
The FIDMarseille ran from July 2—8.