BY Isabel Stevens in News | 10 NOV 10

The Viennale 2010

A report from the Vienna International Film Festival

BY Isabel Stevens in News | 10 NOV 10

Taking place every October, the Viennale quietly rebels against the typical film festival model. There’s no red carpet razzmatazz; films are shown in single-screen theatres, the grand but worn variety. Absent too are publicity-grabbing awards and reductive groupings – films are simply categorized as documentaries, features or shorts. Decidedly anti-hierarchical in its outlook, the main programme is competition-free. While most certainly a showcase for those films at the adventurous and provocative end of the cinema spectrum, there is room for all types here, the outlandish as well as the meditative. Longtime festival director Hans Hurch satisfies the city’s audience, hungry for the greatest hits of the circuit, but he also provides something altogether more idiosyncratic and surprising, combining the format of the film festival with curatorial impulses.

That the Viennale positions itself apart is evident from the outset with the festival’s trailer): that tiring staple which bombards you before every screening is here a commissioned short (previous contributions have come from Agnès Varda, James Benning and even the festival-shy Godard). This year’s offering, Empire, is a torch-lit mystery tour of two of the earth’s most alien landscapes courtesy of Apichatpong Weerasethakul. As ever with the Thai director, it’s a film of two halves: from observing a diver combing a dark seabed, we arrive at a hand plucking a shell from the floor of an underground cave. A puzzling, eerie film about discovery, this two-minute voyage couldn’t have set a more apt tone for the two weeks.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Empire (2010)

Knowing the Viennale’s disposition towards more challenging fare, there are those recent films that have screened at other festivals that you can bet will make an appearance in the programme: among them Apichatpong’s latest feature, the sublime Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) and Cristi Puiu’s elliptical day-in-the-life study Aurora (2010). But also present are those little-known films that didn’t receive the acclaim at previous festivals that they should have done. Among them, German director Thomas Arslan’s Im Schatten (In the Shadows, 2010), a highly restrained, dialogue-light heist movie.

Elsewhere, experimental filmmaker Siegfried A. Fruhauf was the subject of one of the festival’s sidebars, proving that – a generations on from Valie Export and Peter Kubelka – the Austrian avant-garde is alive and well, if not terribly ground-breaking. A tribute to late cinematographer William Lubtchansky was a nice anti-auteurist gesture, while the full retrospective treatment, in association with the Austrian Film Museum, went to the late Éric Rohmer (who died in January) – an entirely fitting homage to a figure who has proved so influential.

However historical sidebars such as these demonstrate why the Viennale trumps other festivals – its calling card is reflection and it is as focused as much on cinema’s past as it is on its present, bringing into the spotlight forgotten directors and films as well as recent movements in cinema. Undoubtedly its most memorable feature is that in the main line-up films old and new sit side by side. There’s no explanation given as to why Raymond Depardon’s 1980 documentary San Clemente is exhumed to the big screen, but in the context of a festival where films regularly interrogate the labels of fact and fiction, it is certainly resonant. Throughout this portrait of a Venetian psychiatric hospital, Depardon’s camera is not the neutral presence we might normally expect, but is continuously being outed by patients in their attacks on him and his equipment.

Indeed, of the contemporary fare it was the documentaries that consistently proved the most exciting. All manner of styles and approaches were visible. Andrei Ujica’s The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaşescu (2010) comprises only archive footage with no sign of contextualizing narration or titles, whereas John Gianvito’s indictment of US involvement in the Philippines, Vapor Trail (Clark) (2010), makes a feature of such devices. There was the talking head at its most raw and dramatic in Gianfranco Rosi‘s terrifying interview with a Mexican hitman but also, at the other end of the spectrum, verité maestro Frederick Wiseman applying his strictly-observational approach to a boxing gym in Texas (El Sicario, Room 164 and Boxing Gym respectively, both 2010).

Two new films focus on artists, but couldn’t have been more different: Philippe Séclier’s An American Journey (2009) revisits the sites of Robert Frank’s infamous series The Americans (1959), while Gustavo Beck and Leonardo Luiz Ferreira’s Chantal Akerman, from here (2010) offers an uncut 62-minute interview with the artist herself. Séclier’s film was the more conventional. It has its moments – interviews with the photographer’s printer as well as some of his subjects give some insight into his practice – but Séclier’s deliberately blurry footage of the scenes of Frank’s images 50 years on strain far too hard towards the lyrical. In contrast, Beck and Ferrerira’s camera stays put, focusing on the feisty Ackerman through a doorway while she muses on all manner of things: from her writing methodology to how Michael Snow’s Back and Forth (1969) blew her mind. Part portrait, part tribute, it is a delight.

Yet, if there was one film that stood out, it was Thom Andersen’s 34-minute tirade-cum-elegy Get Out of the Car (2010). Taking the terrain of photographers from Walker Evans to Zoe Leonard as his subject, Andersen surveys the forlorn, forgotten signage of Los Angeles. From notices commemorating the illegal demolition of a drive in to adverts for funeral services, from independent commercial hoardings that have lost their mojo to lovingly painted murals, his camera lingers on each people-less scene for just a few moments before moving on. What makes it special is the soundtrack – Andersen’s off-camera hectoring as well as the bemused observations of passers-by, but particularly the scope of the music which accompanies the fragments – ranging from rhythm‘n’blues to jazz to corridos, all of which were recorded in LA. The film isn’t just an exercise in nostalgia – with Andersen’s eye for the bizarre and the beautiful, it’s also a celebration of what’s out there but what goes past unnoticed by an urban population happy to drift by in their insulated automobiles.