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Will There Be a Happy Ending?

BUENOS AIRES – What could make 400 people spend six hours in a movie theater watching a documentary film by an unknown director, then urge their friends to do the same thing?

How can it be that in a country seemingly disintegrating into an economic morass, an independent film festival draws more people than A Beautiful Mind, The Scorpion King and The Count of Montecristo put together?

Whatever the reason, the organizers of the IV Buenos Aires Festival de Cine Independiente are amazed by their success, a wonderful surprise in a Buenos Aires plagued by economic crisis.

Between April 18 and 22, 127,000 people watched 183 films on nine screens. Average ticket sales exceeded the box-office take for this year’s biggest hits, including Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings.

Hollywood’s influence is nowhere to be seen. From globalization documentaries to storytelling by the American enfant terrible Todd Solondz to Eastern action and experimental films, this festival showcased the kinds of films not usually seen on Argentine screens. It was helped by the eagerness of a public with a long movie-going tradition – sometimes dormant, but always present.

However, a passion for films is not enough to explain why a film such as Take Care of My Cat, a Korean comedy about five teenage girls entering adulthood, is a sell-out even though its director is unknown here. Maybe it’s the festive atmosphere in a country that has not had much to celebrate for a while.

The Festival de Buenos Aires, known locally as Bafici, began four years ago as a showcase of independent filmmaking. Sundance, Robert Redford’s film institute, was a strong force initially, although it disappeared after the second year. Perhaps as a result, programming has become more daring and eclectic, and thus more appealing to a larger number of people.

After the collapse of President Fernando de la Rúa’s administration and the currency devaluation imposed by successor Eduardo Duhalde, Bafici seemed doomed to the same fate as a lot of bank deposits: to vanish in the air.

The festival’s budget, reduced due to the peso’s drastic devaluation, was not enough to cover the copyright fees for the movies invited to the festival. But an appeal to the international film community – made at both the Rotterdam Festival (the world’s largest indie festival) and the Cannes Quinzaine des Réalisateurs – was successful. Bafici survived.

The programming was varied and interesting enough to appeal to a broad public. The Rotterdam Festival contributed an entire section to the festival: Exploding Cinema, devoted to the relationship between video and film. It also chipped in with the most popular documentary film at Bafici, Globalization and Savagery. The festival was able to reflect real life and, beyond filmmaking, it became a place to meet and debate.

Bafici’s success can be at least partly attributed to the fact that “the public trusted the festival,” said one organizer, film critic and programmer Luciano Monteagudo. And many young Argentine filmmakers trusted the festival, too, which is important because Bafici provides a springboard for local talent. At least 27 new Argentine films were shown. They were well received, too; European festival judges chose a dozen entries to consider showing at other exhibitions.

That can’t be taken lightly in a country where all industrial sectors are paralyzed. By contrast, filmmaking is a more or less stable and profitable source of employment. Because of their low production costs, independent films can be especially lucrative.

Some films proved surprisingly popular. Take Peter Watkins’ La Commune (1871), which recounts the ephemeral but intense experience of the communist administration set up in Paris following France’s defeat by Germany. The film lasts almost six hours and was shown twice. The first time, tickets were sold out and people sat on the floor.

The movie was not shown in France, with the exception of a few film festivals. A French film distributor could not believe the public’s reaction. “I had to come to Buenos Aires to find out that this film has got a public,” he said. Needless to say, he bought the copyright.

Lectures on digital filmmaking and indie production were well attended, and the festival website had more visits than had been expected.

All of this success puts Bafici at a difficult crossroads. There’s an audience, the festival is recognized outside of Argentina, and filmmakers are willing to travel here to show their work. But there is no money. One possible solution to that, organizers say, is for Bafici to tap its links to other international festivals.

The international film community has a vested interest in seeing Bafici survive. Many films that might never have found a Latin American audience are finding one now, thanks to Bafici. That’s certainly true of Il Mio Viaggio en Italia, a documentary on Italian filmmaking by Martin Scorsese (a film that would never be distributed by Hollywood). It’s also true of the extraordinary Fulltime Killers of Johnny To, which arrived directly from Taiwan, allowing it to escape the censor’s scissors that Miramax generally takes to Asian movies. And it’s certainly true of the aforementioned La Commune (1871).

So the future of this festival, despite its success, remains uncertain; its chances of developing a sustainable source of funding are little more than wishful thinking.

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