FIRST TEXT – MOTIVATION FOR FIPRESCI PRIZE TO “THE BLIND CHRIST”
“For its stylistic elegance and narrative originality in probing the theme of spiritual ambiguity via the story of a man claiming divine powers who journeys across the desert of northern Chile intending to perform a miracle."
It’s not often that the opening night of a film festival can be called genuinely historic, but the March 1 opening of the Cartagena International Film Festival (FICCI) certainly merits that description, and not just because it was the first time in its 57-year history that the festival opened with a documentary. The film was Natalia Grozco’s When the Guns Grow Silent (El Silencio de los Fusiles), which chronicles the torturous multi-year process that led to the peace agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC leftist insurgency that was concluded late last year, ending a de facto civil war that ravaged Colombia for five decades.
As the time for the screening approached in the city’s crowded Convention Center, cameras flashed and the audience was suddenly abuzz when a man entered the hall and took the stage. It was Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for masterminding and rigorously shepherding the peace deal. Introducing Grozco’s film, Santos struck a note of cosmopolitan levity, saying, “Neither the Oscar auditing firm nor Steve Harvey – the famous Miss Universe presenter – will be able to change the name of the winning movie. Peace is the name of the movie that deserves the prize.”
Although polls show Colombians still very divided over the deal, which allows FARC to morph into a legitimate political party, there is an obvious sense of relief at the cessation of a conflict that claimed 220,000 lives and displaced seven million people. In his introduction to the FICCI catalogue, President Santos noted the connection between his country’s history and its art: “In the midst of conflict, Colombia has undergone a cultural renaissance – particularly perceptible in its film industry – in which painful stories of war have been told. Now, with the help of its creative minds, the country prepares to tell the defiant and inspiring stories of reconciliation.”
With an approach that’s journalistic and fast-paced, the two-hour When the Guns Grow Silent narrates a process that evolved over several years, with long sessions of negotiation taking place in Havana. Although the number of characters and the complexity of the issues it addresses can make a first viewing of the film a bit daunting for non-Colombians, it is also dramatic, suspenseful and fascinating. Colombian viewers generally praised it for being even- handed and factual rather than polemical. At the film’s end, when the audience gave it a rousing ovation, Santos rose and posed with FARC leader Pastor Alape – itself a historic moment.
“Historic” also applies to both FICCI and its setting. Founded in 1959 by Victor Nieto, who remained director until 2008, it is Latin America’s oldest film festival and takes place in a coastal enclave renowned as the best preserved and most beautiful colonial city in the Americas, one whose grand plazas, balmy breezes and narrow streets bedecked with flower- covered balconies can remind a U.S. visitor of Charleston or New Orleans. Now headed by general director Lina Rodríguez and artistic director Diana Bustamente Escobar, the festival’s 2017 edition presented 78 films, long and short, documentary and fiction, in competing sections.
Tributes were given to three foreign film artists. One, Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul, announced after the festival that he will make his next film in Colombia. The other two, French actors Vincent Cassel and Denis Lavant, reflected the fact that 2017 is a year of cultural exchange between France and Colombia, as did a special retrospective devoted to the films of Èric Rohmer.
On March 6, standing on the same stage where President Santos opened the festival the previous week, the FIPRESCI jury gave its prize to Chilean director Christopher Murray for his film The Blind Christ (El Cristo Ciego), a Chilean-French co-production. (Godfrey Cheshire)