U.S. not at center of Montreal World Film Festival

No blockbusters, so lesser-known filmmakers from other countries shine

September 10, 2009

MONTREAL

The old cliché about foreign travel broadening one’s perspective holds true for the Montreal World Film Festival as well.

With just three American films in the World Competition category — and none of them a studio film — the U.S. plays a minor role here.

And the additional films not in competition but seeking recognition here are not only from the familiar film producing nations represented each week in our art house theaters — Denmark, France, Germany, Greece,  Poland, China, Japan, Russia, Sweden, and, of course, Italy — but from all points of the globe.

This is also borne out by the Ecumenical Jury on which this writer is serving. I am the sole American member.

On Sept. 2 I saw my first film from Azerbaijan, a wonderful film entitled Qala (The Fortress), set in a mountainous region where a film crew has come to shoot a historical tale about a battle fought 300 years earlier at the old fort.

It might be a long shot for director Shamil Najafzada to strike a deal for his film to be shown in the U.S., but that is why he, and so many other directors and producers, have come to Montreal. His film was not chosen for the prestigious “In Competition” — only for a regular screening — but one opening it to a wider audience than in his native land—and hopefully for that sought-after deal with a film distributor.

Other little known film producing countries represented at the Festival include Argentina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Colombia, Czech Republic, Estonia, India, Iran (though several from this country have been well received on the art house circuit), Peru, the Philippines, Switzerland (surprisingly, quite a large number), Thailand, Turkey and Venezuela.

One of the films in competition viewed Sept. 3 by our Ecumenical Jury is the Bulgarian production St. George Shoots the Dragon, an ensemble cast film about a group of Serbian villagers caught up in the orgy of violence that soaked in blood the early years of the 20th century.

The village streets are filled with cripples resulting from two back to back wars fought just prior to WWI — the “War to End All Wars” — in 1912-14, first with the Turks and then with the Bulgarians.

The St. George theme is woven throughout the film, in icons, in the prayers of the soldiers to the saint, in a character named George, and in an amusing but danger-filled scene in which a boy, who bears witness to all the carnage, looks up at a red German monoplane flying overhead and yells, “Look, St. George is riding the dragon!”

The film ends on the same note as The Bridge on the River Kwai — though no one calls out “Madness!” the horrific ending speaks for itself. A postscript says, “And thus it was for the rest of the 20th century.

Not only is the U.S. barely represented here, but in at least two films, both set in Iraq, the role of the U.S.A. in the world comes under severe judgment.

In Cease Fire (Waffenstillstand), a German film, a group of two journalists, a doctor and a nurse attempt to transport medical supplies from Baghdad to their hospital in Fallujah. The battle has practically destroyed the town, filling the hospital to overflowing. Most of the casualties, the characters claim, have been caused by U.S. bombs.

When a 24-hour cease fire is called, the head nurse seizes the opportunity to set out on the dangerous resupply mission. The doctor character is convinced that “this useless war” has only created more terrorists who will cause future trouble for the United States.

Crowds surround the various theaters in sunny Montreal where the films are being shown. Many are from Montreal, but from the Pentecost-like babble of Asian, Russian, German, and other tongues in addition to the predominant French and English, this is a widely divergent group.

They know that there are no Hollywood blockbusters being shown, but they do not care. Neither Brad Pitt nor any of the action thrillers that dominate American screens are missed. Festival attenders just want to see good films, wherever their makers come from. For this judge, it appears they will not be disappointed.

The Rev. Edward McNulty is a free-lance film critic and frequent contributor to Presbyterians Today magazine. He has been selected as the only American to serve on the Ecumenical Jury for the Montreal World Film Festival.

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