Given the degree with which all manners of cultural and artistic life have been affected and disrupted by Colombia's turbulent recent political history, it's nothing short of remarkable that Cartagena de Indias, its fifth largest city, should host the oldest film festival in all of Latin America—a run that, between 11 and 17 March 2015, extended to 55 consecutive editions.
The apparent stability of Festival Internacional de Cine de Cartagena de Indias (FICCI) must to some extent be indebted to the fact that founder Victor Nieto Nuñez remained in charge of managerial duties for its first 48 years—from 1960's inaugural edition to 2008 shortly before his death at the age of 92—and to the preparations he made in entrusting others with such responsibilities in his latter years due to failing health.
Following Monika Wagenberg's four-year stint as artistic director, Diana Bustamante was unveiled as the new festival head as recently as October 2014, and the extent of her previous involvement with FICCI, as well as her international reputation as a producer of quality Colombian productions, no doubt assisted the seamless transition to the latest edition.
Bustamante's know-how adds to FICCI's healthy sponsorships deals, partnerships and collaborations, which have allowed the festival to programme all its screenings and events for free, and to invite once again a surprising number of international guests and industry delegates considering the comparative lack of world-premieres as regards non-Latin American productions.
As such, there's a welcome element of cinephilia at FICCI. Three directors were present to receive honorary tributes: Darren Aronofsky, Kim Ki-duk and Pablo Trapero. These were joined by veteran French documentarian Raymond Depardon, of whose work the festival hosted a partial retrospective, in addition to a 'Gabo' sidebar dedicated to the favourite films of Colombian writer and novelist Gabriel García Márquez, who died a month after the festival's 54th edition.
With '5 + 5', FICCI took the numerical significance of its latest edition as an occasion to screen ten Latin American classics from previous editions, ranging from the 1979 Cuban film Portrait of Teresa (Retrato de Teresa) to the 2001 Brazilian epic To the Left of the Father (A la izquierda del padre). An even more focused retrospective was this year’s tribute to spaghetti westerns.
The festival's visible programming emphasis upon Latin and Ibero-American cinemas goes in tandem with its inclusion and outreach initiative, 'Cine en Los Barrios', now in its sixteenth edition, which seeks to bring the festival to the more impoverished quarters of Cartagena and neighbouring municipalities, by screening features, documentaries and shorts in schools, universities, prisons, churches, cultural and nursing institutions and so on.
This is in addition to the more centrally located workshops and panel talks that took place once again at Salon FICCI, the festival's educational hub inside the colonial walls of Cartagena's old town. The range and depth of these talks—all free to attend—is impressive, ranging from critics' panels to director masterclasses, documentary and criticism workshops, talks from festival programmers and producers, and a juried competition for works in progress.
Since its very inception, FICCI has both drawn upon and enabled the wider riches of Latin American cinema in order to advocate Colombian film culture in particular. And while it's unfair to castigate a film festival for the ineluctable expression of deeper, more pervasive difficulties, it must be noted that FICCI braves some infrastructural and organisational problems that appear to be rooted in the very fabric of Cartagenean if not Colombian life.
Not least among these is the way in which the city's uneven urban development finds multiple expressions, firstly in the visible gulf between wealthy areas depending and thriving upon the tourism trade and those communities temporarily abandoned by the predatory capital of real estate, which will presumably seek to promote the cultural diversity of such areas in order to attract property developers and sell such land, thereby displacing its population. Secondly, there is a palpable disconnect between the conditions in which attending delegates are hosted and the communities to which they are driven for selected outreach screenings.
This, of course, is not the fault of FICCI. Indeed, the festival's 'Cine en Los Barrios' initiative is commendable and valuable, though some scepticism as to the strength of its structural links and actual results should be voiced. One screening, held in a university so as to host members of the FIPRESCI and Official Competition juries alongside local students, was marred by an unmistakeable (visible, audible) disinterest on the young viewers' parts. During some downtime following a brief projection malfunction, their lecturer attempted to generate discussion and sustain attention in the room by asking the students if they had seen any films worth reporting back on at this year’s festival. Apparently, this was the only film they were watching.
The general unrest, apparent indifference and attention deficit in younger audiences was also present among older attendees of public screenings, especially those at the Teatro Adolfo Mejía—something presumably to do with the free admission. While numbers would surely dwindle somewhat with the introduction of a token entrance fee, audiences would perhaps be generally quieter. Though this is not to impose upon a specific culture the cinephilic notions of purity and respect—the ways in which an audience shapes, engages with and responds to a viewing environment is its own business—the cineliteracy of the Cartagenean public is, seemingly and fascinatingly, at odds with the serious intentions of the festival itself.
In addition, transportation for delegates at FICCI is an essential requirement, partly due to the excessive equatorial daytime heat and, perhaps, to ensure the actual safety and perceived security of its attendees—no doubt linked to the uneven urban development and wealth divide already mentioned. On this front, all human endeavours are in an ongoing struggle against the particular conditions of Cartagena: the seemingly unalterable grid of narrow, single-way streets within the old town—a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1984—results, not infrequently, in delayed pick-ups and therefore screenings, while volunteer guest-coordinators work round the clock to juggle and notify of last-minute postponements.
Whether there's a method to this madness or not, FICCI seems to thrive upon—even encourage—its own liveliness, and it’s not difficult to see why so many of its staff expressed exhaustion by the end of the festival’s seven days. For all the hustle and bustle, of course, you can’t go too far or long before coming back to the films. In this regard, FICCI hosts a number of juried competitions, most of which consist of Latin American productions—the sole exception being the 'Gems' section. Other competitions focused on documentaries, shorts, new talents, national productions and the international dramatic category. The latter went to Jayro Bustamante's Guatemalan feature Ixcanul, which built upon previous successes in Berlin.
The FIPRESCI jury, judging from the same selection, handed its International Critics Prize to White Out, Black In (Branco sai preta fica), the first feature by Brazilian filmmaker Adirley Queirós. An idiosyncratic meld of sci-fi, drama and documentary, the film is at once an amusing and melancholic portrait of two old pals who once rocked Brasilia's hip-hop scene in the 1980s, each now traumatised, in his own way, from a horrific act of racially charged police brutality that left one in a wheelchair and the other with one leg, living out separate existences in a displaced suburb far out of the Brazilian capital. (Michael Pattison)
Cartagena International Film Festival: www.ficcifestival.com