New York Film Festival: capsule of world cinema today
The New York Film Festival probably can't be beat for a concise overview of current world cinema. Judging from the latest edition, which just ended at Lincoln Center here, the movie scene is in good shape at the moment.Skip to next paragraph
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Not that it was a brilliant festival with lots of masterpieces. It wasn't. But it was a lively festival with lots of surprises. What it lacked in genius it made up in energy and variety - key ingredients for a healthy art form.
So a smart-aleck street picture by Scott B and Beth B rubbed elbows with a fine Walt Disney drama. Documentaries about gospel music and Siberia shared the screen with a long-lost Yiddish drama and a forgotten Cecil B. de Mille fantasy. Movies arrived from such unexpected lands as Lebanon, Turkey, and South Africa.
Experimental film, long a weak spot in the festival's yearly programming, was represented by several eye-opening shorts and a couple of diverting features. Credit for this goes largely to Jim Hoberman of the Village Voice, a new member of the selection committee, who went out of his way to solicit unconventional works that would otherwise have gone unnoticed.
Films by established masters made splashes of various sizes. New dramas by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Werner Herzog, Michelangelo Antonioni and the Taviani Brothers, Jerzy Skolimowski and Joseph Losey, showed the old guard in active and imaginative form.
It was especially refreshing to find exciting, fully realized features from countries not usually thought of as cinematic capitals: ''Little Wars,'' by Maroun Baghdadi of Lebanon; ''City Lovers,'' by Barney Simon from South Africa; and ''Yol,'' by Yilmaz Guney and Serif Goren of Turkey. Although each is more successful in individual scenes than as a whole, all are capably directed works with strong stories and worthy messages.
''Yol,'' a melodrama about five Turkish men facing personal problems while on furlough from jail, has already opened a regular commercial run. And the others could probably find enthusiastic audiences on American theater or TV screens. Still, for all their virtues, I have a few hesitations about the source of these movies' impact.
Each has a setting most Americans will find exotic, such as the streets of war-torn Beirut or the windblown plains of Kurdistan. And each has a sense of behind-the-scenes drama connected with its own making. ''Little Wars'' was shot piecemeal during cease-fires in the Lebanese civil war. ''City Lovers'' bluntly attacks its country's system of racial discrimination. ''Yol'' was surreptitiously directed from prison by a political dissident (Yilmaz Guney) who has since escaped.
Yet each one undermines its urgency by falling back on common filmmaking formulas. The editing strategies, the sound track music, the plot twists, reflect a mass-market conservatism based on well-tried Hollywood practices.
There's nothing wrong with exploiting Hollywood ingenuity to bolster a story or drive a point home. Still, it's disquieting to see the standard techniques and tricks of commercial film stretching their tentacles into the farthest reaches of world cinema. It's like visiting a far-flung land and finding all the restaurants stocked with hamburgers and milkshakes.
Sure, they taste good. But they homogenize the experience, displacing the unfamiliar with the already-known. They turn the adventure of discovery - even vicarious discovery on the movie screen - into something less risky and exhilarating than it ought to be.
That said, the New York filmfest still deserves hearty thanks for reaching so far from home for some of its key offerings. Even by their failings, such movies serve as strong reminders of the universality of human experience, drawing members of diverse cultures and political systems into an hour or two of shared thought and emotion. That can't help serving the crucial cause of international understanding. Films from major directors