Monday, September 21, 2009

The Final Verdict on Italy's Giffoni Film Festival

Both summer film festivals of Cannes and Karlovy Vary were largely defined by their fantastic scope - presenting a vast swathe of world cinema. Southern Italy's Giffoni Film Festival which ran from July 12-25 stands as the curatorial antithesis to such sprawling international events with its narrow focus on a single theme derived from the experience of youth. Given that the juries were comprised of over 1500 children from 3 to 18 years of age, I expected the films at the 39th annual Giffoni to be rather tame and simple - nothing could be further from the truth. Emblematic of the fearlessness of the world's largest children's film festival, was the driving theme of the year, taboo. Few festivals geared towards adults would focus on unspeakable cultural boundaries. That Giffoni faced the issue of taboo head-on illustrated its deep respect for the intelligence of its young audience.

Luca Apolito chose the films and led the discussions for the Generator +16 series. Aimed at jury members 16 and older, Apolito's selections were among the festival's most hard-hitting. He spoke at length about the philosophy of the festival, as well as the challenges of programming for a teen audience. Apolito stressed that "the main aspect of our festival is not the screenings but the ensuing debates." The festival programmer found that this focus on film as a catalyst for dialogue was ultimately what differentiated Giffoni from all others. Since it brought together young jurors from around the world, Apolito identified his branch of the festival "as the place where we want to amplify the teenagers' voices." Working with films that focused upon the issue of taboo, Apolito hoped that the movies encouraged his jurors to discover their own deep-rooted taboos and think critically of their negative and positive impact. The sometimes shocking works Apolito presented testified to the surprising aesthetic and thematic complexity of Giffoni films.

Two films Apolito that held in high regard from his series were Johnny Mad Dog and the festival sensation My Suicide. He confessed "I wasn't able to sleep for two nights" after choosing the films as they both could be interpreted as cinematic instigations to anarchy and violence. Due to the dialogue oriented nature of the festival, however, Apolito felt confident he could lead the audience to go beyond their superficially violent qualities. Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire's Johnny Mad Dog stood out as Giffoni's most shocking and memorable film. Focusing on a band of Liberian child soldiers, the film presents a reality defined without taboos that borders on pandemonium. Violence becomes the only means these indoctrinated children can gain a modicum of control in their powerless existence. The superbly acted film boldly goes beyond the pop cultural caricature that these fighters are mere brainwash monsters by highlighting moments where their childlike mentality becomes apparent. This deep exploration upon the "child" aspect of the child soldier phenomenon transforms the expertly directed Johnny Mad Dog into an illuminating and sad lament on a modern-day tragedy.

Although David Lee Miller's My Suicide swept the awards in Apolito's Generator +16 bracket, the film remains an imperfect examination of the suicidal mind in the digital age. Archie Williams (Gabriel Sunday) is a video camera enthusiast stifled by the sterile confines of modern-day American suburbia. His hope to commit suicide on camera turns him into a celebrity at his high school and he catches the eye of his here-to unattainable love, the beautiful Sierra Silver. Archie's sudden happiness will force him to reconsider his beliefs even as his dangerous philosophy draws some unexpected acolytes. Film
maker Miller employs a hodgepodge visual style that lends a whimsical creativity to Archie's desperate tale and effectively captures the media overloaded vision of today's teenager. The hero's meeting with a cinema loving psychiatrist becomes a series of animated homage to films ranging from Clint Eastwoord westerns to The Matrix. In response to the doctor's inquiries, Archie suddenly becomes a doppelgänger of Agent Smith and confesses, "I have to get free!" Miller's free wielding direction creates a film of profound relevance crystallizing the perception of the vignette-fed You-tube generation that appropriates the most eclectic pop cultural artifacts into their every day expression. The production's success of Giffoni is no surprise as My Suicide is a film completely attuned to its time.

The very dynamism of the film's construction allows My Suicide to showcase the startling range of its young star Gabriel Sunday. His natural charisma shines during the fits of inspired mania that take place when Archie performs for his cameras. Sunday never disappoints in scenes where his mode of performance shifts constantly, making his character's act of fundamental narcissism into a universally compelling one. His rich and nuanced efforts, however, are undercut by the film's overuse of caricature, particularly Mariel Hemingway as a shallow WASP mom. The whole subplot involving the gorgeous popular girl, Sierra Silv
er, and her malaise created by her distant relationships with her family, smacks of cliché. Ultimately, My Suicide both succeeds in bringing the mindset of today's youth to the screen and fails to convincingly articulate the conditions that drive the desperate to the brink.

A film that offers more insight into mortality's inherent connection with youth was the best film of the +13 series, Phillipe Falardeau's It's Not Me, I Swear!. Its unforgettable first shot presents a long take of the adolescent hero Léon Doré (Antoine L'Ecuyer) attempting to hang himself from a tree. This moment of violence juxtaposed against the perfect 60s suburban home in the background signals the film's subversive intentions to uncover the darkness underneath the joyous myth of childhood. The young boy Léon Doré seems driven towards death, a compulsion that leads to the dissension of his family after his freewheeling mother leaves Quebec for Greece. As Léon, Antoine L'Ecuyer delivers a performance that highlights the subdued hatred of a child always defined as abnormal by his community. Every gesture hints at his desire to break away, even a happy wave hello is a covertly hidden middle finger. Filmmaker Phillipe Falardeau injects the film with unreal imagery that powerfully illustrates the alienated reality of the protagonist. When Leon bashes a hole through the neighbor's wall, he suddenly sees the vast blue sky and the white façades of Greece. The visual frames the dichotomy between the dream of escape and the nightmare of the Québec suburbia that so completely governs Léon's life. With its wry humor and stark imagery, It's Not Me, I Swear! remains a strange and totally distinct meditation on the anti-joie de vivre unique to the experience of childhood.

Falardeau's work failed to strike a chord with its respective
jury who instead awarded the much more blasé Australian production Broken Hill. The award winner focuses on Tommy who lives on an outback ranch but dreams of leaving the rugged life behind to become a composer. Elevating the derivative premise somewhat are the film's numerous attempts to uncover the music within the natural world. When the hero works on the farm, the monotonous sounds of his labor create a rhythm that leads Tommy to envision an imaginary symphony. Although the film contains directorial surprises, the stiff leads are unable to convincingly express a passion for the liberating effect of music, a dramatic failure that consigns Broken Hill to the realm of mediocrity. Other films in the +13 series such as the Dutch production How to Survive... Myself? managed to transcend their well-worn premises using inventive dramatic conceits. The aforementioned teenaged dramedy frames the confusions of a teenager as a schizophrenic battle of selves. That such intriguing productions were ignored in favor of the tired Broken Hill suggested a jury impressed with easy themes and directorial bravado.

By awarding the Iranian film A Time to Love, the jurors for the 10-year-old bracket challenged any conceptions that only the most accessible films could win praise at Giffoni. The film provides a harrowing look at the taboo of disability in Iranian culture. As the disabled child of an increasingly embi
ttered middle-class family, Babek develops a sense of disgust at his own condition due to his deep desire for his family's happiness. Divergent emotions of selfless love and self-hatred are always at play in child actor Mohsen Tanabandeh's portrayal of Babak and lend the character a complexity far beyond that of simple victimhood. Director Ebrahim Farouzesh brings out similarly rich performances in the rest of the ensemble, adult and child alike. Farouzesh's austere visual style allows the rich performances to shine without distraction. This finessed and refined eye capably maneuvers between the contrasting perspectives of the family, so that one's success becomes another's humiliation. So many films attempt to capture familial strife in a bombastic fashion, A Time to Love explores the far more quiet pain brought on by social dogma. Farouzesh's film evokes the helplessness experienced when confronted by such oppressive norms even as it provides a hope for broader cultural enlightenment.

While the selections for the 3 and 6 year old juries we
re lighter in tone, the screenings revealed how the festival organizers hoped to cultivate an appreciation for foreign films in their young Italian jurors. To accomplish this, non-Italian features were overdubbed live by an actor who gave a dramatic reading of the dialogue. This unique approach provided a solution to the dilemma of the subtitled film, and ensured that the enthusiastic audience could have their first immersion into a wider world of cinema.

Even the more broadly appealing slate was not without its gems, particularly the animated short Chicken Wings. The very strength of its execution speaks beautifully to the elegant simplicity of hand-drawn animation. A woman and werewolf are starving on the open range and find a chicken that might satiate their appetite. Things go awry after the werewolf and the chicken suddenly develop a close bond. The question remains: will the hungry gal get her grub? The short black-and-white hand-drawn style permits completely fluid and expressive movements which lend the scenes of physical comedy the same infectious energy of the best Looney Tunes cartoons. As the werewolf and women fight for the bird, it remains utterly passive. The chicken's calm demeanor perfectly counterbalances the increased frenzy of the friends turned antagonist. Director Pauline Kortmann complements the frenetic action with many visual non sequiturs, including a shot of the chicken and werewolf playing a game of chess that saliently establishes their blossoming relationship. Chicken Wings was without peer in a slate that featured far complex and meticulous animation due to its sublime confidence and pitch perfect pace.

Acclaimed French auteur Francois Truffaut famously claimed “Of all festivals Giffoni’s the most necessary.” More than any other film festival that I have attended, Giffoni sought to be a formative experience for its attendees always showcasing the cinematic medium's range. Those in attendance saw Rupert Grint in the new Harry Potter movie which made its Italian premiere at Giffoni. Later, jurors in the +16 bracket could also see Grint in the Northern Irish film Cherrybomb where he plays, with incredible nuance, a model teen that struggles against the expectations of his family and the weight of oncoming adulthood. As Apolito was always quick to point out, Giffoni's most important feature was not the films presented, but its emphasis on the dialogue that the medium can spark. Where Cannes and Karlovy Vary were events where cinephiles congregated, the Giffoni Film Festival was a forum where true cinephiles were created - active viewers who can appreciate the medium's complexities and grapple with how film continually challenges their worldviews.

-Fareed Ben-Youssef '09