A Baker’s Dozen from Tilburg
A new day, a new festival. In theory, more film festivals are a good thing. Films get shown that otherwise would not find an audience in that particular country or region. But if amidst so many festivals the programming of a new festival is not particularly strong or interesting, does it really add something to the existing landscape? The Cinecitta International Film Festival (013CIFF) is a new Dutch film festival in Tilburg. It’s named for that city’s area code, 013, and the name of the local arthouse cinema that hosts the festival: Cinecitta (no connection to the famous film studio in Rome, except for being named in honour of it).
The festival’s name also refers to the fact that it screens 13 films, seven of which have never been screened before in the Netherlands in any way, shape, or form. This is its greatest added value, and also highlights the vagueness of international film distribution, including the festival circuit. Two of the better films at the festival, The Line (2017) and Winter Flies (2018), have already won the Best Director prize at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival in two consecutive years. While the winner of the audience prize, for once actually the best film of the festival, That Trip We Took With Dad, actually started its festival circuit run in 2016.
Peter Bebjak’s The Line is a fine gangster film that ticks many boxes of the genre but still manages to find originality in its specific situation and locale. A patriarch runs a smuggling business across the Slovak-Ukraine border, shortly before Slovakia will join the EU in 2007, which will put an end to his way of doing business. Tragedy and betrayal comes from not wanting to smuggle drugs and having a young associate marry his daughter, combining plots from The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part III (1990). Add to that a sprinkling of attention to everyday details of how the business is run, reminiscent of Goodfellas (1990). Yet, The Line never feels derivative of those films, but more like a Slovakian riff on familiar tropes that is wholly its own thing. One thing that stands out is how much the illegal business and the businessmen are part of the border community. Corrupt policemen they work with attend their weddings and family gatherings, and everybody, including little children, smokes like chimneys because that’s the main product being smuggled.
That Trip We Took With Dad also takes place in the past, but a more distant and personal one. Romanian filmmaker Anca Miruna Lazarescu was inspired by her own father’s story of his trip across Europe in 1968, from Romania to East Germany and eventually including West Germany. In real life he travelled with his parents. However, in the film version he travels with his father and a fictional older brother, who presents a viewpoint really belonging to a cousin who travelled to Germany ten years earlier already. They end up in Munich, on the other end of the Iron Curtain, in a communist commune where people idealise the Eastern Bloc. The older brother refuses to leave his newfound freedom, the younger brother wishes to return home, believing socialism can be better than it is now and be better than the capitalism of the west. That Trip We Took With Dad considers these conflicting ideologies (and that of the father, a former socialist revolutionary, plus that of the Germans) in a fun, engaging way without dumbing down their complexities. With fake 60s music that was created for the film as added bonus, because the rights to actual existing pop music was too expensive.
A highlight from even further East, was the South Korean Clean Up (2018), by Kwon Man-ki. Decades of trauma, guilt and unresolved emotions come to a head in this stylish yet austere drama about two members of a clean-up crew with a shared past. One was kidnapped as a child, setting off a series dramatic events in his life that led to him now coming out of prison at eighteen, the other is an older woman who was involved in the kidnapping and whose own son has since died, leading to a bitter divorce. The drama is subdued as their trauma is submerged, until both come to a boil, briefly.
Kwon’s, Lazarescu’s and Bebjak’s films were all debut features that show exciting promise for their futures. The rest of the festival was … fine, for the most part. Typical arthouse features that all felt very similar: slow, but not terribly atmospheric or attuned to anything. Sometimes surreal, sometimes a bit droll and dry. All aimless and adrift. Like a sheep out on the foam, to borrow a misquote from John Lee Hooker. Nothing much to write home about, even if they weren’t bad per se. But seeing them one after the other is tiring and creates a feeling of listlessness. What was my goal in coming here? 013CIFF’s debut on the festival scene is not as promising in that regard as some of the festival’s filmmaker’s debuts. Nevertheless, the idea behind the programming is good, the location is nice and the pedigree of festival director Jack Vermee as programmer for the Vancouver International Film Festival is strong enough that future editions might yet fulfil and go beyond that promise.