Film Scouts Diaries

2008 Festroia International Film Festival Diaries
Diary #1: Not for the Faint of Heart

by Henri Béhar

Setubal, Portugal, June 7 -- Something has changed in this 24th edition of Festroia, the International Film Festival in Setubal, Portugal …

The meeting point / field office of the Festival is no longer located in the architecturally lovely (and mercifully cool) building on Avenida Luisa Todi, by the theatre where all of the Official Selection screenings take place. It has been transferred to the middle of the tree-lined central walkway, in a transparent, multi-facetted sphere that, at blueprint stage, may have tried to emulate IM Pei's Pyramid at the Louvre but gave up the minute it was erected.

Inside the "Bubble" – a term most use with the same affectionate disdain as the Cannes festival-goers when they refer to the Palais des Festivals as "the Bunker" -- it is hotter than a sauna in Hell, but the staff manages to keep their composure and collective smile.

No wonder, though, that the dark patches under their eyes are darker than usual.

Every year, beside the Official Selection and the many sidebars (First Works, Shorts, Man and Nature, American Independents), Festroia highlights the film works of a specific country. This year, Fernanda Silva, the indefatigable head of the Festival, has chosen to pay tribute to Polish cinema. Hence, a focus on the Lodz film school and its alumni – most notably Roman Polanski whose early (and rarely seen) shorts are shown here. Hence a series of films, old and new, by such luminaries as Andrzej Wajda and Agniezszka Holland. Hence, the festival opening with Andrzej Wajda's latest opus, Katyn

Nominated at the last Academy Awards, the film deals with the 1940 massacre, specifically ordered by Stalin, of about 20,000 members of Poland's military and intellectual elite in the Katyn forest, ten miles from the Russian city of Smolensk, and the subsequent cover-up by which the occupying Soviet forces managed, for the longest time, to convince the world that the Nazis were responsible. (At the time, Poland was occupied by both Germany and Russia, in a short-lived alliance).

A symbol of the savagery of the nazi occupation, Katyn allowed the Soviets, after the war, to pose as the liberators of the Polish nation, while "integrating" Poland in the Eastern Block. The fabrication prevailed until 1989. (How much the Western block and Poland's post-war government knew is no longer open to debate.). It was only with the fall of the Berlin Wall and, a year later, just before the Soviet empire collapsed that Mikhail Gorbachev officially admitted the Soviets' responsibility in the Katyn murders

It is a subject that director Wajda once described as "an open, festering wound in the history of Poland" (his father was among the victims) and the film tells the story based on the letters and diaries written by the victims that were later given back to their families.

Criss-crossing storylines, the film unfold a whole range of experiences of those who lived and died during that period. It conveys plot points, details characters and creates atmosphere with deft precision and masterful economy, avoiding sentimentality, At the risk of seeming too cold. An argument that can be made until the very last scene – the massacre itself, a mechanical series of shootings that will leave you aghast.

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