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What’s a Presbyterian minister got to do with a film festival?

A memoir of 12 days of films in Montreal

September 15, 2009

MONTREAL

No one asked me the above question when I was at the Montreal World Film Festival, but had I still been pastor of a church, I’m sure some people back home would have wondered about my spending 12 days sitting in the dark looking up at stories unfolding on the screen.

The short reason for my attending would be “To see movies.”

My main disappointment is that even with 12 days of screenings, there was time to see just 41 of the films I wanted to see. Not that all 200 festival films were of interest, but most were highly engrossing, and the catalogue descriptions of the ones I could not fit in added to my sense of loss.

The films, accompanied by their directors and others involved in their making, came from all over the world, so this provided me with a rare opportunity to see works that might not be showing back home in the next year.

And where else would a Presbyterian minister get a chance to walk on the red carpet, the photographers’ cameras clicking and flashing, during the opening ceremony at the Place Des Arts?

Of course, the longer explanation and the means for my seeing the films was the invitation to serve on the Ecumenical Jury.

There is an Ecumenical Jury at several world festivals (such as at Cannes and Berlin) sponsored by the Catholic organization SIGNIS and the Protestant organization Interfilm, which awards prizes not just for artistic merit, but for the embodiment of spiritual and humane themes.

Shortly after the Montreal World Film Festival began 33 years ago, Catholics and Protestants formed the Montreal Ecumenical Jury to recognize films with deep spiritual and gospel themes in the hope of promoting them for theatrical release beyond the festival. Thanks to the support of the MWFF officials, the jury has been awarding prizes ever since.

Like the films, my fellow jury members came from many nations. Besides me, the members appointed by Interfilm were Canadian Connie Purvis, a fellow Presbyterian who is a staff writer with the Presbyterian Record. Gabriella Lettini is an ordained minister of the Italian Waldensian and an associate professor of theological ethics at Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, CA, with a deep interest in the connections between film and faith.

Appointed by SIGNIS was Canadian Niquette Delage, director of communications at Societé Montréal. Delage also served as our hostess, inviting us to her home one evening for a sumptuous dinner. Austrian Julia Laggner is a psychologist and documentary filmmaker. Boston native Sister Marie Paul Curley with Pauline Books & Media in Toronto, is a writer, film critic and documentary filmmaker.

Each morning we gathered at the Cinema Imperial to watch two movies of the 20 that we were to consider. After that we were free to attend other screenings or the filmmakers’ press conferences, except for the times when we met to discuss what we had seen.

Two films seen during the festival’s early days set the bar high, so it was easy to drop the many dark films from further consideration. As good as these were artistically, they were lacking in spirituality or transcendence.

Thus it was to Ceasefire (Waffenstillstand), the story of a band of medical staff and journalists attempting to deliver food and medical supplies to the bombed hospital in Fallujah during a brief ceasefire, that we awarded the Ecumenical Jury Prize.

After Laggner, our chairwoman, presented the prize to director Lancelot von Naso, we learned during a conversation with him that his film almost did not make it to the festival. Not only was he dealing with the birth of his daughter two days before filming ended, but a host of post-production details were completed just a day before the final cut was made. A messenger was kept waiting as the director rushed from the editing room to place the finished film in his hands for dispatch by overnight mail from Germany to Montreal.

We were also so impressed by the French film Liberty — about the plight of gypsies in Nazi-occupied France and the differing responses of the villagers — that we awarded it an honorable mention. This proved to be the film that won the festival’s official jury award, the Grand prix des Americas, as well as the Public Award as “Most Popular Film of the Festival.”

There were far too many films that I hope will open in the United States to detail here. It’s encouraging to see that the Japanese film Villon’s Wife (a tale about the wife of a drunkard discovering her own worth) won Best Director. The Chinese film Weaving Girl (the sad tale of a wife oppressed by the factory system when she becomes ill) was awarded the Special Grand Prix of the Jury. A Cargo to Africa (about the last days of an aid worker evacuated to Canada from Africa attempting to return to help the people) was voted “Most Popular Canadian Feature Film.”

The themes of war and of people seeking worth and dignity in the face of oppression permeated most of the films that we saw. I can hardly wait to write about Japan’s Dear Doctor, the story of an intern upset that he has been sent to a rural clinic (shades of Northern Exposure’s Joel Fleischman!) and is transformed by the dedication of his mentor doctor, who turns out to be a fake; the U.S. film Children of Invention, about two homeless children coping alone in Boston for several days while their non-citizen mother is interrogated by police about a pyramid scheme; or the Serbian-Bosnian-Bulgarian film awarded “Best Artistic Contribution,” Saint George Shoots the Dragon, set during the bloody years in the Balkans right before the outbreak of WWI.

I wrote in an earlier dispatch that there were no Hollywood celebrities or even independent film people that Americans would recognize at the festival. This statement was driven home near the end of the event when a young woman and man fell into step with me on the way to the theater where the Chinese-French movie Death Dowry was playing. When I asked the woman where they were from, she replied Denmark, and I said that we had watched one of the films from her country. It turned out that she and her companion were the leads of Love and Rage, and to my embarrassment I had not recognized either of them!

The Cinema Imperial, where we watched the 20 films we had to consider, is on a street named Bleury, which, as my wife pointed out, appropriately resembles our English word “blurry.” This is an apt description of my sight after watching so many movies in such a short time!

Now that my eyes have cleared, I can recommend the Montreal World Film Festival to anyone who loves good films more than celebrities — and who is up to what amounts to a marathon of film viewing.

Ed McNulty is the author of “Faith and Film” (Westminster John Knox Press, 2007) and editor of “Visual Parables,” a Web journal of film and theology.

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