Film Scouts Diaries

2001 Karlovy Vary Film Festival Diaries

by Henri Béhar

Saturday, July 7 - The key word today is music, with its two corollaries: harmony and dissonance. The two films in competition have to do with it, as do two others out of competition, while a fifth one in a sidebar deals with CD piracy. Even the Variety Symposium discussed harmonizing production systems and film production efforts locally and throughout Eastern Europe.

Generally considered as Ingmar Bergman's successor in Scandinavian cinema, Danish director Bille August (Pelle the Conqueror) attended the international premiere of his latest film, A Song for Martin. Symphony orchestra's first violin Barbara Hartman has been married for years, she has two grown-up children who founded families of their own, as does composer-conductor Martin Fischer. They fall madly in love, they divorce, they marry. It will take years for their respective families to accept it. Meanwhile, their marriage is everything a mature union can be, fueled by passion both for each other and for music. Until one day, while composing a new opera, Martin Fischer is diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, which will threaten the very fabric of their marriage.

A almost epic tale of intimacy, fascinating in more ways than one, as Bille August serenely details the sexual attraction - and activity - between two mature people (a no-no in American cinema where past the age of 30, the powers that be move you to Madame Tussaud's). Nor does he flinch when describing the debilitating and incontinence-inducing effects of Alzheimer's disease or when the tension within the couple spills into almost Strindbergian cruelty (the film could use a little more of that)… But bless his actors, they are fearless!

The gem of the day, however, comes from Iran. Maziar Miri's Unfinished Song is about the silencing of a nation and the systematic killing of a culture. A young musicologist from Teheran sets out for a northern province (that he actually originates from) to compile and record traditional songs. Much to his amazement, he discovers that only lullabies have been preserved, yet he finds no one to sing them since women are now forbidden to do so. In this village, there was a woman, Hyran, who had the voice of a nightingale and knew all those songs, but she's vanished and no one will say where she is. The musicologist finally tracks her down in jail, where she's been locked up precisely for her love of music. He tries to gain her confidence, she refuses to finish the song he'd somewhat heard the first verse of. Pursing his investigation as far as he can, he comes to realize the impact his own family has had on Hyran's life.

Maziar Miri's indictment is powerful, all the more so as this is his feature-film debut and his filming style is simple and straightforward. Like fellow Iranian directors Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf (and daughter Samira) and Jafar Panahi, he has an uncanny sense of the frame. There is nothing in any single image of his that is there for pure décor, everything within the frame has its importance. (Bets are on that Unfinished Song will figure very prominently on Awards night).

In comparison, Alison Anders's Things Behind the Sun (an international premiere, out of competition) and even more so Kurt Voss's Down and Out with the Dolls (a world premiere, also out of competition) feel fussy and agitated, almost spastic in the case of Dolls. The former deals with a rising rock-singer-songwriter with a hard-living Janis Joplin-like drive (as the Festival's catalogue puts it) and the young journalist who comes to interview her. A set up not so innocent as it seems, as a dark secret is lurking from the singer's and the reporter's common past. Down and Out… is about the rise and fall of an all-girls band that surprisingly, considering Voss's collaboration with Alison Anders over the years, almost never rings true.

Caspar Pfaundler's Lost and Found (Another View section) is about an Austrian's trip to Taipeh to discover the source of pirated CDs and his determination to videotape them being sold. The shooting style, all video-subjective, is somewhere between David Holzman's Diary and The Blair Witch Project. I am sure that after thirty minutes it develops hypnotic virtues, I didn't stay that long - life is too short.

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