By Robert Buckeye.
Film festivals tend to be generic and are, as Tolstoy said about happy families, alike, even if each, in its disappointments, is different in its own way. ArtFilm in Trencin and Trencianske Teplice, Slovakia, follows the festivals at Cannes and Berlin and precedes the one immediately after at Karlovy Vary, as if it is the free night filled on a rock tour between highlight venues, a feeling reinforced at ArtFilm by its audience, two-thirds of whom are students.
From Berlin came Calin Peter Netzer’s Child’s Pose, which won The Golden Bear; Denis Tanovic’s An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker, which won the Jury Grand Prize; Sebastian Lelio’s Gloria whose protagonist, Paulina Garcia, won best actress; Denis Cote’s Vic & Flo Saw a Bear, an in-crowd favorite in Berlin, as well as Camille Claudel 1915 (Bruno Dumont), The Grandmaster (Wong Kar-wai), Before Midnight (Richard Linklater), Paradise: Hope (Ulrich Seidl). From Cannes there was, most notably, Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Color and Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring.
For the first time, ArtFilm screened most of its films in Trencin, which made for logistic issues. One had to negotiate bussing between the larger city and the spa town of Trencianske Teplice twenty minutes away as well as plan for the several-kilometer walk between theatres in Trencin. The space that space, as it were, opened up in the long walk between the ODA and Cinemax multiplexes in Trencin or on a bus between sites altered what we had seen. In the theater what moves us inwardly, Alexander Kluge notes, we share together. We are alone but for the moment not alone. Afterwards, however, the street or, on a bus, the landscape comes between us and the experience of the films we had in the theatre. We have returned to the world and what remains of the films we have seen may be less a story than an image, less talk than a sound, less time than a moment, less film than a life, as if inexplicably we hear a street song we know.
In Ali Aydin’s Mold, we see the middle-aged Basri walking miles each day to inspect old railroad tracks in Turkey, waiting to hear news of his son who disappeared years ago because of his opposition to the government.
In Gabriela Pichler’s Eat Sleep Die, we remember Rasa, a Bosnian Muslim girl fired from a lettuce-packing factory in Sweden because she is a foreigner, being seen off by friends because she has been forced to work in another town.
In Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster, we cannot forget Yip Man, China’s martial arts hero, in battle with Gong Er, the daughter of the man he defeated, the two of them at one moment in mid-air falling from stairs, their faces inches apart, see the look on her face to be the recognition of love.
In Bruno Dumont’s Camille Claudel: 1915, we cannot brush away the compassion and sadness on the face of one of the mad when he realizes that Claudel’s brother, Paul, has consigned her, not one of the mad, to be among them in the hell of the asylum.
If there was an underlying theme at ArtFilm or at least among the films I saw it was the oppressive regime of the modern state, contemporary religion or global capitalism. The surveillance by the state of Basri’s life because his son sought to overthrow the government (a mirror image of his own daily examination of railway tracks); the social engineering practiced by Sweden, exquisitely savaged by Pichler, to train Rasa for a new job; the discipline, ethics and integrity of martial arts practiced by Yip Man and Gong Er, converted after the Second World War to chits in the game of profit; Anna Maria, who proselytizes for Christ in Seidl’s Paradise: Faith, flagellating herself to deny both herself and her husband; Paul Claudel, who speaks of salvation but hears only his own words, not the pleas of his sister; Melanie, an overweight teenager in Paradise: Hope, who must suffer the dictatorship of a phys ed teacher and diet consultant at a diet camp so that she will be acceptably beautiful in society.
Love, what love there is, is doomed. When Yip Man seeks out Gong Er in Hong Kong after the Second World War to speak of his love, she tells him that, yes, at that moment in battle when their eyes met she loved him, but now it is too late. Melanie falls in love with a middle-aged doctor at diet camp and although he reciprocates to a degree, he tells her such love is not only impossible, it is wrong. The Claudel family has institutionalized Claudine not only because she loved Rodin, a man not her husband, but also had a child by him only to abort it. Adele, the teenager who falls in love with an older artist, Emma, in Blue, does not belong in Emma’s world of free love, cutting-edge art and revolutionary social practice and is discarded. Anna Maria is appalled by the randiness of her Egyptian husband who has returned from a visit to family and cannot resolve the demands of Christ with those of her husband.
Seidl’s Paradise trilogy (Paradise: Love screened at ArtFilm last summer) is, in effect, a family story about Teresa, who seeks out sex with boys in Kenya (Love); Melanie, her daughter at diet camp who calls her mother every day in Kenya (Hope); and Anna Maria, Teresa’s sister, who desperately seeks Christ as the only love she can have (Faith). If this is paradise we might ask, what is hell? It is a question one does not have to ask about a Seidl film. The only paradise we can have his films show is the one we have. One is reminded of Walter Benjamin’s comment that, “Only for the sake of the hopeless ones have we been given hope.”
If family is seen to be a reactionary force today (and certainly is in several films at ArtFilm), it is also, we might say, a revolutionary one that resists state, religion and capitalism. In Mold, the letters Basri sends every day to the government about his son, ask, in short, that the state be accountable. In Eat Sleep Die, those who have been cast out by the state come together to form a family that the state has denied them. In The Grandmaster, Gong Er has spent her life honoring the values of both family and martial arts and remains uncompromised, even if after the war she slips into opium addiction. In contrast to Emma, who moves on from her love of Adele in Blue, Adele does not. One loves. What one loves remains. The French title of Kechiche’s film, La Vie d’Adele, not the more erotic Blue is the Warmest Color of the English translation, places his emphasis more acutely. The film is, despite its pornographically explicit (and gratuitous) sex scenes, a defense of traditional values in response to Olivier Assayas’s Apres Mai, which looks back to the freedoms of the Sixties. The implications of Adele, a teacher educating children, have been overlooked by most reviewers.
ArtFilm may be a stopgap between Berlin, Cannes and Karlovy Vary, but the films are the same and its circumstances permit unexpected possibilities. To some extent it escapes the demands of market, industry and authority, which at larger festivals determine how films are seen. Its welcome of students educates tomorrow’s film audience. Perhaps most of all it returns film to its origins, as if Dziga Vertov has stopped his screen train on the Russian steppes, and the darkness in which we see the cinema in our heads becomes manifest on the screen.
Robert Buckeye is author of five books of fiction, including Still Lives, a novel about the Kent State shootings, and Fade, a novel of Bratislava, and has written articles on literature, art and film. He divides his time between Vermont and Bratislava.
 Today film festivals proliferate like topsy and what their role will be in the future is uncertain, even if we see their demise in those watching films on laptops or Ipads in cafes or on benches on the streets of Trencin.
 Dumont does not often use actors. The mad in the asylum where Juliet Binoche as Claudine Claudel is confined are not actors, but patients.