Identity politics, urban terror, and Bulle Ogier distinguish this festival from some of its more pretentious peers
When you think French film festival, you automatically think Cannes or even Deauville. You are unlikely to think of the Belfort festival, and yet the films in competition in this Alsace town are far more indicative of young film production in France than any of the other grandes dames of the Gallic festival scene. Dedicated to new, experimental directors with a social conscience, the festival is international in its scope and this year focused on Chinese, Polish, and German film directors. But where it excels is in showing the underbelly of urban France.
Two films, one full-length feature and one documentary, stand out in this respect. In competition this year with his first film, Rabah Ameur-Zaimeche offered up Wesh wesh, qu’est-ce qui se passe? It was the definite high point of the festival and deservedly picked up the Leo Scheer Prix. Ameur-Zaimeche’s film proves that six years on from Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine, racial tensions in the suburbs are still a hot topic for young French filmmakers. Wesh wesh succeeds where others have failed in this story of a young Maghrebin returning home to the suburbs after a stint in prison. Taking the lead role, Ameur-Zaimeche skillfully exposes the deprivation of the suburbs through his character’s fresh gaze.
Another take on the urban theme is Caroline Chaumiene’s rockumentary Free Style, which follows a group of rappers in Marseille. Although the film has its moments of violence and drug-dealing, the overall outlook is more optimistic than Wesh Wesh. Chaumiene captures the energy of the inner city as she follows the group hanging out and dancing on the streets and also through their music. Marseille is France’s second city and is usually perceived as a hotbed of racism and home of the National Front. Free Style taps into this vein of ethnic friction but ultimately rises above the violence. It works well in combination with Robert Guediguian’s romantic vision of the Marseillais working classes (Marius et Jeanette, A la place du coeur, A l’Ataque, and this year’s La Ville est tranquille), adding the issue of ethnicity to the bigger picture.
Winner of the international feature prix, Wang Chao’s The Orphan of Anyang takes on the urban theme in the Chinese context. The film is shot entirely on location in a typical Chinese ruse to circumvent the heavy censorship of the authorities; to shoot in a studio, a script requires official authorization. The result is a gritty realism that has been compared to the work of Robert Bresson, perhaps explaining the Belfort jury’s prize. Wang Chao tackles the theme of alienation in the wake of China’s fast-track urbanization in the 1980s, and to a certain degree he echoes Ameur-Zaimeche’s bleak vision of life at society’s fringes. Chao’s film follows an unemployed, desperate man who finds a prostitute’s baby and the various wrangles between the baby’s mother and mafioso father. This may sound grim and it proves to be harrowing in parts, but Chao lightens the heavy subject with a shot of irony.
In addition to the competitions, this year the Belfort festival paid homage to actress Bulle Ogier, who has appeared in films by Duras, Fassbinder, Rivette, Lelouch, and Buñuel in her thirty-year career. There was also an interesting sideline in films made by artists, writers, and actors, with screenings of works by Marlon Brando, Peter Lorre, Godard’s one-time muse Anna Karina, and Peter Sellers. The political agenda of the festival emerged clearly in the films made by writers. Among the cinematic output of Genet, Beckett, and Frédéric Dard, l’Espoir reflects director Andre Malraux’s attempt to come to terms with the Spanish Civil War.
All in all, Belfort is a good foil to the bigger, slicker French festivals on offer this year. It carefully balances an awareness of cinematic history with innovation and social critique.