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New York Film Festival 2008 notes Sept. 26 – Oct. 12

Like other festivals, the Lincoln Center Film Society’s 46th New York Film Festival experienced a steady increase in films submitted amounting to about 1500 productions this year, far below the 8500 which the Sundance program coordinator Zakheim is quoted as having received for the 2008 edition, even less than the 1600 productions send now to the four year old Dubai festival. Yet the importance of the NYFF and of the 2008 main selection of 28 titles is not measured by competitive numbers, rather by the fest’s impact on the discourse about the status of cinema in the contemporary film world. As a festival that presents a small program compared to the hundreds of film shown at Sundance, Tribeca, Toronto, or the berlinale, the New York Film Festival still does not provide any awards nor require entry fees. The festival does not have to cater to public of private funding agencies nor generate for each edition a new program component as other major festivals do. In short, the New York Film Festival has been able to maintain its role as an arbiter of outstanding films with respect to narrative content and the grammar of production.
Its unique role is tied to the opinion making audience the New York Film Festival serves: cineastes, critics, the upscale intelligentsia and the plethora of media professionals living here. New York City also features a large number of production and distribution companies and a great number of venues for the theatrical release of films, including those focusing on ‘art’ films , films rather than movies, meeting high critical standards. The festival’s’ September schedule right after Venice and Toronto is an added bonus since it fits well into distributor’s programming and release time frame. Thus selection for the NYFF program is tantamount to a seal of critical acclaim essential for the marketing of quality and specialty productions. Among recent break out films first featured at the NYFF were productions such as THE QUEEN, PAN’S LABYRITH, GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK , THE SQUID AND THE WHALE, and last year’s NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN .
Though as Jim Hoberman from the selection committee ( the others included Richard Pena, Scott Foundas, Kent Jones and Lisa Schwarzbaum) pointed out, the New York Film Festival can only be as good as the films produced in a given year. Sixteen of the festivals 2008 features were culled from Cannes with others drawn from Toronto and the Berlinale. Half of the 2008 slate directors were newcomers to the festivals. Some were established already through the Film Society’s New Directors/New Films series, like Darren Aronofsky (THE WRESTLER), Matteo Garrone (GOMORRO) and Antonio Campos (AFTERSCHOOL). Among this year’s discoveries are the Kasakh director Darezhan Omirbaev (CHOUGA), Ari Folman with his superb WALTZ WITH BASHIR, and Alexander Olch (THE WINDMILL MOVIE). As in some past editions the program was spiced with a Hollywood luminary, this year Clint Eastwood’s CHANGELLING served as the festival’s centerpiece. The festival director Richard Pena, now in his twentieth year at the helm, stresses that some studio backed titles do end up in the program but not as a results of deals.

It would be difficult to define one theme underlying the 2008 edition of the fest. What I found remarkable among those I screened, which are by no means representative, were the sometimes painful realistic representations of the settings and characters and the equally startling exploration of memories. Certainly all films were characterized by superb acting with Mickey Rourke’s performance in THE WRESTLER topping the list followed by Benicio Del Toro in Steven Soderbergh’s CHE and Toni Servillo in GOMORRA . Realistic presentations frequently bordered on documentary film making as exemplified by Laurent Cantet’s THE CLASS covering a Parisian junior high school; THE WRESTLER; Jia Zhangke’s 24 CITY on the transformation of a Chinese munitions plant into a luxury housing complex; CHE depicting the rise and fall of Guevara in Cuba, and GOMORRA, the documentation of the power and brutality of the Italian crime empire, the Camorra, to name but a few examples of unhampered realism.
It is a questionable proposition that cinema restores the past by recuperating memories, though it provides as with a visual track of how reality may have appeared in the past. This is as exemplified in CHE; Agnes Jaoui LET IT RAIN on repressed family memories ; Joao Botelho’s THE NORTHERN LAND on a young woman’s search of the life story of an ancestor, and what I consider the outstanding film of this year’s selection Ari Folman’s WALTZ WITH BASHIR, an anime documentary on the recuperation of repressed memories.
The NYFF program notes rightly call this film “ of the boldest films in recent memory”. WALTZ WITH BASHIR is a superb demonstration of reflexive cinema, of drawing viewers into a narrative and prompting reflection about the depicted, with echos of the story roaming the spectator’s mind for days after. Here we have the exploration of a former Israeli soldier who tries to find out through talks with other soldier and professionals why he is blocking the experience he had twenty five years earlier. He served with the Beirut occupation forces and was stationed next to the refugee camp where thousands of Palestinian women and children were slaughtered by Lebanese Phalangists. He knows that he was there but does not recall what he saw. The reconstruction of his memory reveals to him that he actually observed the killing and thus became an unwitting participant in the crime since he did not respond. His role was similar to that of a Nazi guard observing the torture of members of his family in the concentration camp, an experience of symbolically linked events to painful to retain as conscious memory.

Claus Mueller
New York Correspondent


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