Morelia Film Festival: Notes, reflections and winners
As a first-time visitor to the Morelia International Film Festival, I got more than a full dose of what contemporary cinema in Mexico looks like these days. Indeed, I might have overloaded.
Over the course of 5 ½ days at the festival last week, I managed to watch, by my count, 23 short and feature-length films. Even so I felt like I had only scratched the surface, missing several films I was told were "must-see." (And in a couple of cases, I admit I stepped out of the theater before waiting for the end of particularly poor flicks.) Below, a few notes and reflections on the Morelia fest.
The short documentaries competition section offered a rich and diverse array of compelling stories that tend to make journalists snap to attention. I was drawn to several that focused on the lives and ambitions of young people in Mexico. The unifying theme I saw in each was the lack of opportunity for economic and social progress that functions as the subjects' barrier.
In "Vagonero," filmmaker Javier Sanchez Velasco follows a young man who sells DVDs on the Mexico City metro system and is both an aspiring rapper and documentary filmmaker. His efforts are frustrated by police, the unofficial networks of metro vendors who demand he pay them a cut of his earnings, and poor sales in general.
"12 onzas," directed by Patricio Serna Salazar, tells the story of kids working to be amateur boxers on the rough edges of Monterrey. They are ambitious and hungry for glory, and the film is often funny. But at one point, even a trainer admits that he believes his star boxer will just end up in a gang.
The film "Barrios, Beats, and Blood," by Mexico-based journalists Ioan Grillo and John Dickie, profiles the courage of aspiring rappers in Ciudad Juarez. The young men use rapping to express the desperation and social disintegration that their city experiences as the most violent and deadly in Mexico's drug war.
* Big picture 'Nomads' stalls and stutters.
It looked interesting on paper. In "Nomads," Hollywood star Lucy Liu is a New York filmmaker working on a documentary about suicides in the Mexico City metro. Along the way, she explores emotional wounds in her family's history and befriends a Mexican immigrant who washes windows at her skyscraper. The film, by Mexican director Ricardo Benet, is ponderous and a bit self-absorbed, with often implausible dialogue. It also needs more plot.
* Other bold-face names in attendance.
There were numerous stars at the festival, exciting for fans who were often just steps away from their favorite filmmakers and actors. Besides Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Javier Bardem, Terry Gilliam, and Danny Trejo, big-name directors Quentin Tarantino and Sofia Coppola also visited Morelia.
Actor Diego Luna appeared to premiere a film and receive an award, and stars well-known to Mexico walked the red-carpet as well, including Damian Alcazar (star of "El Infierno") and Cecilia Suarez. Another prominent visitor worth noting: Mexico's first lady, Margarita Zavala.
* The scene in Morelia.
Morelia is about as classically picturesque as a visitor to Mexico can imagine. But as I note in today's story in the print Calendar section, there's also a drug war going on, and the state of Michoacan has seen some one of the bloodiest battles in it. I talked to several Morelians about the impact of the festival and the drug war on their city. Many said tourism plummeted after the 2008 grenade attack in Morelia's central plaza, and that the festival has been a bright spot of good energy ever since.
Indeed, I got the sense the city must be pretty depressed when all the stars and film buffs aren't around. I found no traditional cantinas in the central core and most of the newer clubs and bars catering to younger people seemed a bit underused. In the midst of the festival, students took advantage of the heightened press presence to block streets before the statehouse for several days, protesting a budget-related issue (link in Spanish).
I was told there was a smaller police and military presence this year than in 2008 and 2009, but at the same time, as with anywhere in Mexico, the sight of grim-faced soldiers carrying automatic weapons on every other street doesn't exactly warm the heart. In the Morelia edition of the left-leaning daily La Jornada, attendees to the festival were asked what they thought about the security situation (link in Spanish). "I don't feel any risk," said filmmaker Fidel Arizmendi. "But alongside our hotel it was replete with federal police, and it made me ask myself, 'Are we good or are we bad?' "
* And the award goes to ...
The winners of the competition sections in this year's festival were announced Saturday. The best picture was "Marimbas From Hell," about a down-and-out marimba player in Guatemala City, by Julio Hernandez Cordon. The audience award went to "Acorazado," directed by Alvaro Curiel, about a Mexican migrant who tries to reach the U.S. on a boat but washes ashore in Cuba. Best documentary was "El Varal," by Marta Ferrer, about a small town in Mexico depleted by migration.
Curiously, that morning's edition of the festival daily newspaper Cortometraje featured an unofficial survey of 13 journalists or critics covering the festival, asking them which were the best and worst films in competition at the festival. Only one of those surveyed called "Marimbas From Hell" the festival's best picture, three said it was "Acorazado," and seven decided that the best film at Morelia 2010 was one that didn't even make honorable mention: "A tiro de piedra," or "A Stone's Throw."
Directed by Sebastian Hiriart, the film slipped past me amid the marathon schedule. The catalog description says it is about a 21-year-old man "bored with his life as a shepherd in northern Mexico." He finds a keychain, and a journey begins.
— Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City
Photo: Promotional posters for the Morelia International Film Festival adorn a plaza. Credit: Daniel Hernandez / Los Angeles Times