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 (February 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 is fleeing to Hollywood for fear of being kidnapped. 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 (I’m referring to the age of the event and 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 célèbre 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 rarities programmed by the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Richard Peña, one of which, the staggeringly beautiful 1966 film A Long, Happy Life — the only feature directed by Russian screenwriter Gennadi Shpalikov (who committed suicide at the age of 37) — is the sort of virtually unknown masterwork that makes a trip to any film festival more than worth the while.
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 local premieres of Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book and Todd Field’s Little Children, an open-air screening of The Phantom of the Opera (Chaney, not Schumacher) with live musical accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra and a lavish closing-night awards gala whose budget likely outstripped those of most films in the festival. But if the FICCO is nothing if not a study in contrasts, it is clearly the primary 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 expressed by the inclusion of such films as 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 Hernández, 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. Narrated by Tommy Lee Jones, whose The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada proffered a fictionalized version of the Hernández case, Fitzgerald’s film (which was awarded the top prize of the festival’s human rights jury) is no mere DVD supplement. Rather, with its harrowing on-camera testimonials from Hernández’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 had caused the screening to be canceled. Later that afternoon, I watched half of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle 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.