THE WATER MARGIN: 13th New Horizons Film Festival, Wrocław 2013

Published on: December 23rd, 2013

“How do you explain this dreadful heat hitting Paris? Is it Halley’s comet?”
– The American Woman (Carroll Brooks)
The Night Is Young (Mauvais sang, Léos Carax, 1986)

Not the most obviously comic line ever written by Carax, but during a Sunday-afternoon screening at Wrocław’s New Horizons Film Festival it damn near brought the house down. Midsummers in this south-western corner of Poland, 240 miles from the Baltic, can be brutally hot. And defective air-conditioning at the nine-auditorium, three-storey, 2,300-capacity ‘arthouse multiplex’ Kino Nowe Horyzonty meant the shadowy salles provided no respite. As one Twitter-wag commented: “Major air conditioning failure turned #NoweHoryzonty into world’s biggest sauna film festival. I hope somebody has sanitized the seats afterwards.” 

Dehydration was a real risk for the more hardcore festivalgoers, an ironic hazard given Wrocław’s intricately watery setting. Pronounced “Vrots-waf”, this historic Silesian metropolis – Poland’s fourth-largest city (pop.600,000) – is carved by the mighty Odra into twelve separate islands linked by 130 bridges, its handsomely ornate central area fringed by stagnant, mosquito-infested moats. A host-city of the Euro 2012 football championships, it will be European Capital of Culture in 2016 – along with another notable film-festival city, San Sebastián / Donostia. 

Currently sponsored by T-Mobile, the New Horizons festival moved here in 2006 after starting in tiny Sanok (2001) before moving to Cieszyn (2002-5) and has established itself on the festival scene as a kind of Rotterdam sous soleil. Its founder and Director is 55-year-old Roman Gutek, head of prominent arthouse distributor Gutek Film, who in 2001 dedicated the fledgling New Horizons to presenting “the boldest films by artists who share… an uncompromising approach to cinema.” Nine years later he was able to assert that “in terms of the number of films screened and the number of visitors… [New Horizons] can be compared to such events as the London Film Festival or Viennale.”

Kino Nowe Horyzonty (formerly Helios)

As well as nearly 170 shorts, the 13th New Horizons, under the artistic direction of Joanna Łapińska, presented around 185 feature and mid-length films – a scale more LFF than Viennale. The catalogue, with its lengthy, scholarly, bilingual essays, is nearly 500 pages long, divided into seventeen sections. This year’s sidebars included a selection of Russian underground cinema from the past dozen years (much of it barely known outside the Federation’s borders); a 29-title tribute to Polish provocateur Walerian Borowczyk; a Hans-Jurgen Syberberg homage concentrating on his Wagner-related works; the 1980s output of messieurs Carax, Besson and Beineix (‘French Neo-Baroque’); an imaginatively-curated survey of acting within avant-garde cinema; and a slew of Midnight Movies with a cyberpunk theme.

Given the multiplicity of the retrospective programming, it’s therefore easy to spend eleven full days without once glimpsing a frame shot after 1999 (35 films, mainly pre-2005, were screened from 35mm prints). And the often variable quality of the newer films – many of them apparently selected on the basis of (real or perceived) Viennale-style boundary-pushing – made such retro-centric scheduling all the more tempting.

The International Competition section’s 13 contenders for a €20,000 Grand Prix (won by Russian ethno-whimsicalist Alexei Fedorchenko’s experimentally episodic Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari) included several highly perplexing choices. Particularly perverse was the decision to include not one but two clod-hoppingly pretentious examples of the New Filipino Cinema: Shireen Seno’s Big Boy and Sherad Anthony Sanchez’s Jungle Love, both featuring faux-bygone, murkily arboreal cinematography co-credited to Gym Lumbera.

At the other end of the scale, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s magnificently brackish ethno-sensory ‘fishing documentary’ Leviathan continued a triumphant navigation of the globe’s festivals that had begun nearly a year before, at Locarno in August 2012. Rather newer onto the scene – but already nailed on for many critics’ 2013 ten-best lists – there was Alain Guiraudie’s sun-baked, Petzold-esque noir, Stranger by the Lake (L’Inconnu du lac), justifying the near-universal acclaim it garnered at Cannes.

These were welcome but predictable highlights at a festival with very few (if any) world-premieres, and which, even for the most tenaciously indefatigable scourer of sidebars, provided only a handful of especially noteworthy non-archival discoveries. That said, Conrad Clark’s Dubai-set, UK-produced drama of mushroom-business strife A Fallible Girl and Zachary Heinzerling’s delightfully wry US art-world documentary Cutie and the Boxer would grace any festival worthy of the name.

Vic + Flo

And then there was Denis Côte’s savagely original Québécois tale of a middle-aged lesbian couple’s star-crossed relationship, Vic + Flo Saw a Bear (Vic + Flo ont vu un ours). Côte’s follow-up to experimental zoological documentary Bestiaire proved savagely divisive when premiering in competition at February’s Berlinale, though it did pick up the Alfred Bauer Prize for innovation (won last year by Miguel Gomes’ Tabu.) While welcome, this seems paltry reward for a film which executes such audacious tonal shifts with such striking aplomb, narrowly eclipsing Abdellatif Kechiche’s Palme d’Or laureate Blue is the Warmest Colour as the year’s most affecting depiction of Sapphic love. In the wake of Frédérick Pelletier’s excellent, neo-Loachian, Rotterdam-premiered debut Diego Star, meanwhile, Vic + Flo Saw a Bear further cements Quebec’s status as one of the planet’s more intriguing cinematic hot-spots (see also Denis Villeneuve, Xavier Dolan, Stephane Lafleur, Kim Nguyen, Bernard Emond, Philippe Falardeau, et cie.)

At the other end of the same continent, Mexico has enjoyed similar attention for several years now, including that famous double-whammy of Cannes Best Director prizes courtesy of Carlos Reygadas’ Post Tenebras Lux in 2012 and Amat Escalante’s Heli this year. Odd, then, that Never Die (Mai Morire), one of the most remarkable recent productions from the country – indeed, from any Latin American source – should be flying under so many radars, especially as its director/co-writer Enrique Rivero’s only previous feature, Parque Via, took Locarno’s Golden Leopard in 2008.

Four years later, Never Die premiered (like Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari) in Competition at Rome, part of the much-maligned renewal of that even that saw Marco Mueller take the reins for the first time. Arnau Valls Colomer’s cinematography was recognised by the jury, his widescreen digital images delivering some breathtakingly spectacular evocations of Xochimilco – an ancient settlement, now a suburb of Mexico City which is only a few miles from the centre but feels distinctly and remotely bucolic.

Never Die

Crisscrossed by canals and artificial islands, Xochimilco (“it seemed like a timeless place,” says Rivero) is officially classified as a barrio magico – ideal backdrop for a delicate rumination on mortality, belief and transcendence structured around the death of a 99-year-old woman (Amalia Salas). She’s cared for by Chayo (Margarita Saldaña), who may be her daughter or, more likely given their relative ages, her grand-daughter – Rivero, who co-wrote the screenplay with his sister Aleka, prefers to leave the nature of their relationship ambiguous. Never Die is primarily a character-study of Chayo, light on such precise biographical information (she works in the city centre, and we deduce she’s effectively separated from her husband and children back in Xochimilco) and much more concerned with exploring and illustrating its protagonist’s teemingly rich inner life.

The result is a superb example of genuine, intense but unfussy spiritual cinema, of a kind which so many film-makers strive for nowadays but so few come close to achieving. The placid canals of Xochimilco, while in some ways functional and quotidian, achieve a truly mythic dimension; how apt in this particularly riverine city, during a spell of particularly “dreadful” heat, that Never Die – like Leviathan and Stranger By the Lake, in their different ways – should provide such limpid, immersive transcendence.

Neil Young
13th August 2013
posted online 22nd December 2013

further reading: ‘Shattering Galatea?’ (essay for Fipresci)