Houston's 2nd Pan-Cultural Film Festival
By Flora Moon
The second Houston Pan-Cultural Film Festival was held February 8-15. It's a young festival, with kinks here and there, but the programming makes up for the lack of experience. The purpose of Houston's Pan Cultural is to provide exhibition venues for underrepresented people and their films, to offer them a voice in a multicultural context. This year's festival was devoted primarily to films from Latin America, with opportunities to meet eight directors from Mexico, Venezuela, Guatemala, Chile, the United States and Pakistan.
As an audience member, I look to films to transport me to another place as much as to inform and entertain me. With a terrific mix of feature and documentary films, the Pan Cultural Film Festival did just that—introduced cultures and issues I may not have found familiar, transported me to different worlds and engaged me with cinematic artistry.
Starting with Robert Young, who showed his films Alambrista! [The Illegal!] (U.S.A., 1977, 110 min.) and The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez (U.S.A., 1982, 105 min.). audiences were introduced to filmmakers who deal directly with culture and politics, history and issues of conflict. Playing against these features were a trio of shorts about Taiwan—The Four Keys to Taiwan Folk Art (1996, 28 min.). What is Chinese Opera? and Confucianism and the Taiwan Experience—also, Gregory Nava's Mi Familia (U.S.A., 1994, 121 min.). (Of course, there were the usual complaints about a festival that tries to do too much, where the scheduling made it impossible to see all the films and also deprived good films of the audiences they deserved.)
The films from Taiwan provided an interesting look at some of the cultural underpinnings and history that permeate all aspects of modem Chinese life. The explanation of Chinese Opera especially was interesting to me. I had been a passive (reluctant) listener most of my life, chiefly due to my father's love of this art form. Yet, I'd never taken the time to find out anything about Chinese Opera. I hadn't known that the use of costumes and face painting was so precise; I hadn't understood the different levels of mastery in movement, martial arts and speaking. In just half an hour, I learned about the training of opera stars, the music and some of the main characters that appear in opera after opera. The spectacles of Chinese Opera and folk performances never cease to delight young and old. The Four Keys to Taiwan Folk Art was a fascinating look at centuries—old art forms of public theater, each with a history traced to specific geographic locales in Mainland China. Probably the most familiar one to Western audiences is the lion dance, traditionally performed during New Year celebrations. Equally fascinating was a kind of street show performed on stilts: troops of stilt performers are hired mostly to perform at funerals, enacting well-loved stories from the past. Confucianism and the Taiwan Experience traced the expression of Confucian values as they're reflected in Taiwanese society and culture. It's the adherence to these values that Taiwanese credit for the success of their economy, which has made them such a force in the Asian Economy.
The high point for me in this festival was meeting Jorge Fons and viewing Midaq Alley and Red Sunrise. Fons was the Honorary Guest Artist of the Festival. With seventeen features to his name, including Los Albaniles which won a Silver Bear at Berlin in 1977, Fons is well known throughout Latin America. I hadn't seen his work before. Midaq Alley [El Callejon de las Milagros] (Mexico, 1994, 140 min.) is an adaptation of Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz's novel of the same name. The film is set in Mexico City and tells the story of three people: a middle aged man with homosexual desires; a young woman whose barber-lover leaves to find work in the U.S. to make money for their marriage; and a landlady who dreams of marrying Mr. Right. Red Sunrise [Rojo Amancer] (Mexico, 1989, 105 min.) was a film made in secret about one of the saddest periods in Mexican history. On the eve of the 1968 Olympics, thou sands of students gathered at the Plaza of Three Cultures for a peaceful demonstration to protest against what they saw as their government's waste of public funds on the Olympic Games. The army and police opened fire on the students, killing more than 300. In an age before satellite broadcast, the "Tlatelolco Massacre" is but a dim memory outside of Mexico. Watching the film—shot al most entirely within the confines of a small apartment—I couldn't help but be reminded of the events in Tiananrnien Square, some 20 years later.
Charles Burnett's Nightlohn was scheduled at the same time as Yakoana by first-time filmmaker Anh D. Crutcher. Both events were lightly attended, which may have had to do with the locations of the screenings, away from the central facilities. NightJohn (U.S.A., 1996, 96 min.) was an adaptation of a children's book written by Gary Paulsen, set in the pre-Civil War South. The made-for-Disney film tells the story of a young slave who risks her life to learn to read and write. Yakoana (U.S.A./Brazil, 1997, 60 min.) had its genesis at the First World Conference of Indigenous Peoples held in Brazil during the 1st World Environmental Congress. This documentary examines the attempt of ancient cultures trying to come to terms with modern life around them, through interviews, dance and ceremonies.
The Track of the Ants (Venezuela, 1993, 54 min.) by Rafael Marziano-Tinoco is a riveting look at life in Caracas, through the lives of people caught in traffic jams, working the streets and out of work. The camera acts as a fly-on-the-wall as drug deals take place in a neighborhood where the old men hang out and play cards on the hood of their pick-up trucks. A naturalistic sound track is often supplemented with random readings of newspaper stories and snatches of TV and radio announcements recounting political scandals, society vacations, economic disasters and commercials... the cacophony of nature and civilization... ennui, violence and commerce colliding within the frames.
The Silence of Neto (Guatemala , 1994, 106 min.) by Luis Argueta is a boy's coming-of-age story set in Guatemala in the 1950s. Political turmoil caused by the CIA, Cold War paranoia and corruption are part and parcel of everyday life. The only person who seems real to the boy is an uncle who disappears for years at a time, only to appear again with wonderful hand made kites. This film played opposite Strawberry and Chocolate, Tomas Gutierrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabio's wonderful comedy set in contemporary Cuba about two friends, a straight political science student and a gay artist (Cuba, 1994, 110 min.). Three documentary shorts—Horse Dreams in BBQ Country, Resilience and Ajayu—were programmed opposite The Girl in the Watermelon (Chile, 1994 , 90 min.) by Sergio M. Castilla, a film about a girl's search for love and family. Horse Dreams (U.S.A., 1996, 20 min.) is about two gay ranchers living their dream in the middle of rural Texas. Resilience (U.S.A., 1997, 14 min.) explores young filmmaker Amy Happ's attitudes toward Yyola, an alcoholic Alaskan Eskimo and Happ's "second" mother who tries to make a life in the midwest. Ajayu [Spirit] (Bolivia, 1996, 26 min.) portrays the Aymara tribe's vision of the afterlife.
Other films I was unable to see included Lola (Mexico, 1989, 120 min.), directed by Maria Novaro and shot amongst the rubble left by the 1985 earthquake that devastated Mexico City, leaving various kinds of fault lines that still exist today; Jerico (Venezuela, 1990, 92 min.) by Luis Alberto Lamata is a drama about the spiritual transformation of a Spanish monk after an encounter with indigenous peoples during the Spanish Conquest; Wichan: The Trial (Chile, 1994, 27 min.), directed by Maga Meneses, is a dramatic story of how the Mapuche tribe in Chile dealt with wrongdoing in their community; and The Only Way (Pakistan, 1993, 52 min.), a documentary video directed by Shireen Pasha, deals with population control in modern Pakistan.
During the closing weekend of the Festival, there were two workshops in screenwriting and independent production. The screenwriting workshop analyzed the script which won the "Set in Texas" screenplay competition. The independent filmmaking seminar looked at experiences of the filmmakers in attendance at the Festival. Discussed were things such as development strategies, casting, audience development and distribution.
Artists from all over Latin America and the U.S. were flown in to speak about their films, illuminate ideas and share information in an intimate and congenial atmosphere. More often than not, there were spontaneous gatherings at local restaurants after film screenings to continue discussions and camaraderie. Exposure to other cultures by people of the culture is what makes this festival work. It's my hope for this festival that more and more people discover the issue oriented films programmed here.
The next Pan Cultural Film Festival, to be held in February 2000, will feature films made in Asia.
FLORA MOON is a former IDA Board member living in Houston. She continues to work on her IDA-sponsored film, The Living Tree. Using computer-generated images that combine archival footage and photographs, she is recreating family stories that illuminate her family's historical and cultural legacy.