A rock band from Cameroon, an operatic tour of Latin American colonialism, memoirs of American immigrant Jews: This year's European Community Film Festival -- on throughout June at the American Film Institute -- showcases the improbable reach and range of Western European filmmaking.
Not only are such renowned talents as fiercely intellectual documentarian Chris Marker and experimental Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman on the roster, but also a host of names that will never become household words, whose work ranges from the obstreperous to the obscure.
Friday's opening night, though, featuring the unpreviewed, Warner-released "The Witches," glitters with familiar names, perhaps most poignantly executive producer Jim Henson, whose company provided many of the special effects for the spooky tale from England. Director Nicolas Roeg and actresses Anjelica Huston and Mai Zetterling are some others; the story comes from chiller-writer Roald Dahl.
Now in its 10th year and seventh event, the festival, which traditionally includes at least one film from each of the 12 member nations of the EC, has moved beyond its diplo-community isolation (the kind where only the Dutch show up for the Dutch film). It's becoming a must-see forum for work without broad commercial prospects in the United States. Although the festival will tour three other cities, only in Washington will all 28 films and videos (many of them American premieres) be shown.
Two of the most unusual works were produced, among other agencies, through the auspices of French public TV channel La Sept, justly famed for its innovative risk-taking: "The Owl's Legacy" and "American Stories" (June 2 and 5). "The Owl's Legacy," Marker's latest work, was originally a 13-part TV series, and here is shown in three-part segments beginning June 4. Like everything the contentious documentarian has done ("La Mai Jolie," "La Jetee," "Sunless"), it fiercely challenges received wisdom and the viewer's complacency.
"The Owl's Legacy" is a feast for the mind, an inadvertent riposte to Bill Moyers's public TV interviews with Joseph Campbell and a cure for the doldrums of Philosophy 101. It probes into the meaning of the Greek tradition, honoring its pervasiveness in our culture without groveling before it.
At the core of the series are several banquets Marker staged in sites suggesting the range of Greek influence: Athens; Tblisi, Georgia (where Jason came from); and the Greek Theater in Berkeley. The mostly male gatherings (attended, in a provocative gesture, by lovely but silent women symbolizing the geisha-like hetaerae) feature mouthwatering food and light, intellectual conversation. Themes include "Mythology," "Nostalgia," "Misogyny" and "Mathematics." Interspersed are interviews, many with women scholars. On each subject, the question is not to achieve the distilled nature of Greek thought, but its historical and social context and the transformations of meaning over time.
Why are the ancient Greeks still so important to us, and does modern Greece maintain that heritage? What role does myth have in structuring our everyday thought? How did the Greeks look upon sexual desire and gender? How does a Georgian in full perestroika interpret the legacy of Socratic dialogue, and how does an American woman intellectual see the male-chauvinist Greek tradition? The film stubbornly refuses answers, but its lively conversations testify to a living (and changing) tradition. More televisual than filmic, its wit is in its spicy editing. Too bad Marker waited until the last segment, though, to tell us the series was edited for its humor.
"American Stories" intrigues until, about halfway through, the format begins to pale. Akerman, who has vigorously experimented with the fuzzy line between documentary and fiction, drew on her fascination with the Yiddish storytelling tradition exemplified by Isaac Bashevis Singer, and attempted to replicate the ironic insights into human nature that it can provide. Actors backed by a stark nocturnal urban landscape tell short vignettes of immigration and acclimation, with tragedy, good fortune and joke-telling intermixed. Their performances, though, can make you hungry for the gritty reality of documentary.
The festival also showcases more traditional work, including the classically heartwarming "A Wedding on the Fringe" (June 23, 24), by Greek scriptwriter-director Vassilis Kessissoglou. It's a tale of a love affair among oldsters, an affair that scandalizes their small village. The movie's aged leads should win over even a cynical viewer. The nostalgic French musical "3 Seats for the 26th" (June 14, 15, 16), by writer-director Jacques Demy ("The Umbrellas of Cherbourg"), stars Yves Montand as himself, returning to his hometown where he becomes the nexus of sentimental moments.
Also within the bounds of traditionally elegant storytelling is the disturbing Belgian film "The Sacrament" (June 3), by writer-director Hugo Claus. Claus is a noted poet and novelist as well as filmmaker; his latest novel, "The Sorrow of Belgium," has just been published by Pantheon Books. The film comes direct from the prestigious Un Certain Regard section at Cannes. The sober and slow-developing narrative, in which atmospherics are a part of the story, delicately charts the painful dynamic under the surface of unity during a family get-together. Characterizations and scenario together make a savage commentary on the ideals of the good bourgeois.
This season, the festival seems crammed with music -- a documentary staple, but one with particular energy this year. Fans of the Pogues, a boisterous Irish rock group that draws on traditional music and has attracted fans such as David Byrne and Joe Strummer, will delight in "Completely Pogued" (June 20 and 21). Director Billy Magra fully understands the roots of the Pogues' success in live performance, and he also mocks documentary pretensions to explain their music with some haplessly inarticulate interviews. Paired with the hour-long documentary is Magra's "Clannad in Donegal," about a traditional Irish music group.
"Man No Run" (June 2, 3 and 5), by French director Claire Denis ("Chocolat"), starts off with a bang -- concert footage of the Burning Heads from Cameroon, a group that more than justifies the current appetite for the worldbeat sound. The group plays slyly on its exotic image, with costumes and a stage act that would make Mr. Funkadelic George Clinton slaver. Denis, however, doesn't play to their otherness. Footage from their French tour shows their commonalities with band members everywhere -- a fascination with new equipment, fast food and long days on the road, raucous storytelling. "Man No Run" (the title, in pidgin English, means roughly: "Don't go anywhere, we can play all night") has the vitality of the Burning Heads' energizing performance, avoiding either sycophancy (though the film is dedicated to one of the members of the band) or exoticism.
Other entries also demonstrate the global reach of western Europe -- or at least its financing. "Barroco" (June 8 and 9), by renowned Mexican director Paul Leduc ("Frida"), is a Spanish-Cuban production, and perhaps the most ambitious Latin American film in years. It attempts to retell the story of Latin American colonialism in an operatic format. It may exhaust the viewer long before it ends, but the experiment -- with lush costuming and a majestic musical score -- commands respect. The unpreviewed "China, My Sorrow" (June 22), a French-West German production directed by Dai Sijie, tells the story of a Chinese adolescent caught in the cultural revolution (the film stars nonprofessional Asian immigrants). According to AFI programmer Eddie Cockrell, the film would be impossible to make in today's China.
Entries from Luxembourg, Portugal, the Netherlands and other EC nations not noted for prolific filmmaking demonstrate that possibilities are expanding, with a growing international program market (whose quality is boosted by creative television agencies such as La Sept and the English Channel 4). They also show that the international marketplace doesn't reduce artists' passionate search for cultural roots and a national expression.