The 56th Viennale promises a more international direction under its first female head
In 1991, Philippe Petit, infamous for tightrope walking between Manhattan’s Twin Towers, crossed high in the air from the Apollo Kino to a neighboring WWII anti-aircraft tower. It was a brilliant stunt cooked up by the then Viennale co-director Werner Herzog, to bring an appreciation of “Cinema as Magic” – that year’s theme – and some much-needed international attention.
Stunts work. From the Viennale’s arte povera roots in 1960, when it screened just 8 features and 10 shorts from 17 countries, over 90,000 are expected to enjoy 300 films from all over the globe this year, welcoming star directors, actors and producers. Past guests include Martin Scorcese, Abel Ferrara, Vanessa Redgrave, Cristi Puiu and Lou Reed.
Following the unexpected death of Hans Hurch last year, the Viennale’s head since 1997, the film festival selected its second only international director, and its first woman: Eva Sangiorgi, the Italian-born, 40-year-old head of Mexico City’s FICUNAM film festival and a jury member of several others. A committee will source and suggest films, but hers will be the final decision.
BIG SCREEN, BIG WORLD
Film festivals have mushroomed. Over 3,000 run worldwide, around 75 percent created in the last decade, with many focused on human rights. “Festivals in our country are a way to show things that otherwise can’t ever be seen, communicate ideas that otherwise won’t be communicated,” commented Selena Valyavkina, programmer of Russia’s Message To Man International Film Festival. For her, festivals are an antidote to censorship and “clip thinking,” presenting ideas in depth, without fast forwarding. “We need this patience at the moment. And we do need to communicate.”
Festival heads juggle many “big expectations.” Sangiorgi promises “a very respectful and appropriate gaze on Austrian films,” while staying true to her interests and vision. Her first major change will be to merge feature and documentary categories, “because this distinction is becoming increasingly blurred in contemporary cinema.” Not such a strange idea: Michael Moore’s documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 won the top film prize at Cannes in 2004.
Highlights of Sangiorgi’s “crossover” main program include Jafar Panahi’s Se Rokh, an unexpectedly light-hearted take on the director’s road trip through Iran with a suicidal actress; Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace (pictured), a powerful indictment of the lost American dream; Gaspar Noé’s Climax, a dance video that descends into a drug-fueled horror show; Markus Schleinzer’s Angelo, an Orlando-esque tale of a young slave in an enlightenment-era, Austria-like monarchy; Hu Bo’s An Elephant Sitting Still, a powerful portrait of lost souls in China’s new capitalism; Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, featuring a searing Ethan Hawke converting from pacifist priest to eco-warrior; and Jumana Manna’s Wild Relatives, which portrays how notso-benign seed banks destroy the world of their refugee workers.
Acclaimed directors Roberto Minervini and Jean-Francois Stévenin will be in attendance for the Special Program screened in cooperation with the Filmmuseum, which is also presenting work from the highly political Argentinian filmmaker Jorge Acha. Surviving Images shows rare glimpses of Jewish life in German silent film as a caveat to today’s growing xenophobia. The retrospective The B Film: Hollywood’s Low-Budget Cinema 1935–1959 features over 50 films, including Roger Corman’s Teenage Doll (1957) and John Farrow’s Five Came Back (1939).
Sangiorgi also wants to connect more young people to the festival and include more work by emerging artists. Parties at the Kunsthalle in Museumsquartier with local DJs, film talks and some definite surprises round out a program that includes a performance by the legendary band The Melvins, who will accompany three short films from Cameron Jamie at the Viennale’s main venue, the Gartenbaukino.
Herzog’s appointment in 1991 was dismissed as a publicity stunt by some local powers, but Sangiorgi already has the establishment on her side. Andreas Mailath-Pokorny, the city councilor for cultural affairs, science and sports, welcomed the appointment of an Italian to head the Viennale as a means to further connect Vienna to the world: “At times of growing nationalism, this view from the outside – also of the Austrian film landscape – is of eminent importance for the Vienna film festival.”
Today’s nationalism feeds off blurred lines between fake and real – something to which art is no stranger. Fellini’s statement “Sono un gran bugiardo” (I’m a big liar), Orson Welles’ film F for Fake, even Barbara Koppel’s documentaries used artistry behind truth on celluloid. The considerate and creative work of the many international artists presenting at this 56th Viennale reveal film as an antidote to unfiltered social media, and as an immensely magical storytelling art form – with its infinite mix of image, sound and motion. Something worth communicating when the lights come up.