Around the World, for Better and Worse

When it comes to ranking the SBIFF, in the scheme of the world’s ever-expanding population of film festivals, opinions and mileage will vary. We who have faithfully attended for years on end and have watched its upward mobility and who generally drink the SBIFF Kool-aid may have one feeling. Other more worldly-traveled film festivalers have wider spectra of comparisons.

Early on Sunday morning, we got a certain, certified thumbs-up appraisal from a possibly biased party, being Sasha Guerreiro, the endearing precocious child star of the Swiss film Sam, who, appearing with his mother, the film’s director Elena Hazanov, declared it “bonne festival, tout le monde,” the best festival in the world. Who knew? After the screening, he again appeared for a Q&A with his mother, and spoke of the excitement of meeting Cate Blanchett at her tribute the night before, in the crosshairs of multiple cameras firing away, “chk, chk, chk!”

Sam is a naturally touching and crowd-pleasing film about kids saying and feeling the darndest things, about our child protagonist’s foible-filled visit with his post-divorce-stricken father. We laugh, we cry, we’re impressed with the overall meshing of sight, sound and a universal theme.

WORLDLY WALLS: Two of the finest films in this year’s program, as of the first weekend’s crop of titles, deal with very real hot global zones marked—and marred—by infamous walls/borders. In the stunning and complex Palestinian film Omar, by director Hany (Paradise Now) Abu-Assad, we follow the tangled and morally challenging path of a Palestinian freedom fighter’s plight, with the oppressive and literal West Back Wall playing a starring and symbolic role in the story (this film deserves the foreign film Oscar it is up for).

Much closer to SoCal home, the remarkable Mexican film La Jaula de Oro, beautifully and unflinchingly directed by Diego Quemada-Díez, artfully and naturalistically tells the harrowing and yet stubbornly hope-filled tales of three young Guatemalans making the perilous passage northward, dreaming of a better life in the U.S.. It’s a tragic but powerfully human saga, and one which touches the nerve and heart of American life for many immigrants. The scenes of yearning to cross the U.S./Mexican border, separated by an imposing and cautionary wall across the landscape, is just one of many memorable and telling ones.

Tranquil and sweet scenes, as when groups of travelers ride on trains and share resources and compassion, are interrupted by evil and sometimes sadistic fates, all blended into a narrative which lends an unusually empathetic but also subtle and objective depiction of the hard northward road taken by so many Mexican and Central Americans seeking a better life, in places like Santa Barbara. Other films have dealt with this emotionally volatile subject, all the more volatile in an era of oppressive immigration policies North of the border, but few are as disarmingly affecting and intelligently made as this.

EASTERN BLOCK: This year’s program boasts a stronger contingent of films from Eastern Europe — the Eastern bloc, if you will — which is good news for those of us who have become entranced by the distinctive cinema from this area between Western Europe and Russia. Two such films have in common the general theme of old rockers trying to, and being encouraged to, pick up the beat again, to channel the inner young man’s game of rock and roll.

In the charming Czech film Revival, a supposedly “dissident” ‘60s band called Smoke is cooking up a reunion forty years later (the fate of old rockers seeking connection with old glories, and new moneys), and the follies of the effort make for some fizzy Czech fun on screen, with poignancy and touches of mortality in the margins.

From Slovenia, Adria Blues¸ tells the tale of a convergence of visitors to the Hotel Adria, including philanderers, a reluctant rock star, Toni Riff, who hadn’t played since before the life-changing Balkan wars of the ‘90s, a gangster or three, a massage snake oil salesman and others adding up to a microcosmic stew over the course of one night and multiple stories. A giddy satirical tragicomic air hovers over the film, which writer-director Miroslav Mandic intended to have broader implications about the socio-economic state and post-war stasis in the region.

In a Q&A after Sunday’s screening, which was the U.S. premier of a film deserving wider recognition, the director spoke about the tendency of “Yugo nostalgia,” in which “people asked themselves if it wasn’t better in Yugoslavia during the ‘80s, when there weren’t any opportunities, but at last people were safe.” Interestingly, he also mentioned his love for Edward Hopper paintings and explained that some of the shots in his film were intentionally odes to specific Hopper paintings. In other words, here was another SBIFF entry from the international community—and one which doesn’t get enough attention in the cinema world—dealing with factors beyond what meets the eye and the funny bone.


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