Reporting From Mexico

Mexico City—

Less than 24 hours after the Oscars capped the remarkable year of the so-called "three amigos" by handing out three awards to Pan's Labyrinth and one to Babel, I boarded a plane bound for Mexico City and the fourth edition of the Mexico City International Contemporary Film Festival (Feb. 21-March 4). One week later, as I am writing this, I'm happy to report that film culture is alive and well south of the border, despite the recent assessment of Variety editor Peter Bart that the country's top filmmaking talent are fleeing to Hollywood for fear of kidnapping. What's more, at the FICCO (the acronym for the festival's Spanish-language title), there is the sort of appetite for serious and demanding works of cinema that one finds in increasingly short supply almost everywhere in the world. Indeed, what surprises most about this young festival (by which I mean both the age of the event itself and of much of its staff and audience) is the balance it achieves between the new and the old, the homegrown and the international.

This year, the 300-page catalog alone is something like pornography for cinephiles, with more than half of those pages devoted to the festival's retrospectives of Robert Bresson, Peter Watkins, Portuguese director Pedro Costa (whose Colossal Youth has been the love-it-or-hate-it cause clbre of the festival circuit for most of the past year), and the legendary American experimental filmmaker James Benning; a sidebar of classic and contemporary Algerian cinema; a reduced version of MOMA's recent series showing the winners of France's prestigious Jean Vigo Prize; and a selection of rare films from Spain and Russia programmed by the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Richard Pea. In addition, there's something of an unofficial sidebar of films for audiences with Herculean bladders, including Watkins's 14-and-a-half-hour The Journey and Filipino director Lav Diaz's eight-hour Heremas, which comes bearing the alluring subtitle "Book 1."

Lest I make the FICCO sound like an orgy of obscuria, I hasten to add that there is plenty in the program of the crowd-pleasing variety, including gala local premieres of Paul Verhoeven's Black Book and Todd Field's Little Children and an open-air screening of The Phantom of the Opera (Chaney, not Schumacher) with live musical accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra. But it is clearly the intent of festival director Paula Astorga Riestra and programming directors Michel Lipkes and Maximiliano Cruz to focus on those movies that most dramatically expand notions of what cinema can be—a mission perhaps best expressed by the festival sidebar called "Trends," which includes the likes of John Cameron Mitchell's Shortbus, Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Syndromes and a Century, and Spanish director Albert Serra's inspired minimalist take on the Don Quixote story, Honor de Cavalleria, which nearly a year after its Cannes premiere still seeks a U.S. distributor.

Among new work showing here for the first time, one film sure to create a stir on both sides of the border is director Kieran Fitzgerald's disquieting The Ballad of Esequiel Hernndez, which recounts in chilling, unsentimental detail the 1997 shooting death of the eponymous Mexican-American high-school student by a four-man U.S. Marine border patrol in Redford, Texas. Conceived as something of a companion piece to Tommy Lee Jones' The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (which proffered a fictionalized version of the Hernndez case), Fitzgerald's film is no mere DVD extra. Rather, with its harrowing on-camera testimonials from Hernndez's family and friends, as well as three of the four implicated Marines, it offers an urgent contribution to the raging debate over the physical and psychological divides separating the U.S. from its neighbor to the south.

In its fourth year, the FICCO is not without its hang-ups. Staging a festival in a city as sprawling as this is a daunting venture to begin with, and that sheer logistical challenge seems to cause some simple things (like a map of festival venues or an easily referenced schedule of repeat screenings) to be overlooked. One day, I showed up to see Watkins' ultra-rare August Strindberg biopic The Freethinker, only to find that a power failure in the cinema has caused the screening to be canceled. Later that afternoon, I watched half of Jean-Marie Straub and Danile Huillet's Sicilia! projected through the wrong lens (causing either the heads of the actors or the English subtitles to be cut off at all times) before finally giving up and walking out. And when such things happen, the festival staff tends to respond with a shrug and a smile as if to say, "Welcome to Mexico." Yet even with such bumps in the road, the FICCO is an embarrassment of riches at a time when so many film festivals are merely embarrassments.

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