Viennale: Window Into the World

Retrospectives and Documentaries led the roster of this year’s festival: 96,000 visitors, 351 showings and 80% of all tickets sold

Winter’s Bone, a winner of the Grand Jury Prize of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival | Photo: Winter’s Bone Productions

The Viennale, Austria’s most important film festival, is both a window into the world of film and a mirror of the world as seen by filmmakers. More than just a parade of names, facts and statistics – of who made what with whom and for how much – it is an opportunity for a predominantly young audience to submerse itself in the world of film and to question film-makers first hand.

It is above all a chance to reflect on the nature of cinema. As such, it is one the most exciting, glamorous and stimulating events of the year.

This year’s festival ran between Oct. 7 and Nov. 4 in several 1st district cinemas. It included a retrospective of films by Eric Rohmer at the Filmmuseum, as well as tributes to director Larry Cohen, at the Urania, and to the extraordinary French cinematographer William Lubchansky, at the Künstlerhaus. At the Gartenbau, Metro and Stadtkino, audiences streamed to feature films, documentaries and short films from around the globe, as well as a series of Austrian silent films from the 1920s. Some 96,300 people attended 351 showings, of which 123 were sold out, with a full 79.8% of all tickets sold, a slight increase over last year’s 79.6%.

Film allows us to focus on what we regard as important and provides a means for ordering our knowledge of the world. As a mirror, it reflects not only our separate realities but also our innermost thoughts, feelings and dreams, and as such, is a window into the soul.  It is also a reflection of what we, as a society, are fascinated about, as well as an invaluable source of information about what is actually going on. And thus, it is also a window into the world.

Of the new films shown this year, there were a number that were outstanding. The best were those depicting somber reality: questions of survival, allegiance and morality.

Winter’s Bone, winner of the Grand Jury Prize in Dramatic Film at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, focuses on the fight for survival in rural America. The father of a family who is due in court disappears and forfeits his bond, which includes the deeds to his family’s house. It is up to his 17-year-old daughter, played by the excellent Jennifer Lawrence, to find him. She turns to friends and relatives for support only to be greeted with helplessness, coldness or plain hostility. Undaunted, she risks her life to save her young brother, sister and sick mother, who would be destitute if their home is lost.

For this relatively simple plot, director Debra Granik relies on the skill of her excellent cast, and despite its unfussy camera-work, the film has a power and resonance far beyond its social statement.

In The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector, Vikram Jayanti portrays the legendary producer of the Ronnettes, the Righteous Brothers and the Beatles, who played such a key role in the development of contemporary pop music. In the film, Jayanti documents not only Spector’s achievements, but also his motivation, his way of working and thinking, as well as his view of the world. Meticulously researched and beautifully photographed, it has the huge advantage of having a subject who is a complex, funny and fascinating. This, added to the incredible quality of the music, the ostentation of his mansion, and the hours of court footage of his 2009 conviction and imprisonment for murder, make this a documentary of the best sort.

The Oath by Laura Poitras focuses on the life of Abu Jandal, the former driver of Osama Bin Laden. Superbly filmed and skillfully edited, it provides a fascinating insight into the mindset, Laden. Beautifully filmed and skillfully edited it provides a fascinating insight into the mindset, life and problems of a former Jihadist. The Oath by Laura PoitrasWracked with guilt about the fact that he is responsible for his brother-in-law being in Guantanamo Bay, torn between his ideals and pragmatic realism, he falls between all stools. He is a suspect because of his Islamic sympathies, while at the same time he is a target of young Islamic radicals. With the limited support he has been given in return for his rejection of Jihad, he finds his life increasingly difficult.

In a similar way El Sicario, Room 164, by Gianfranco Rosi, examines a topical issue seen through the prism of individual experience. It looks at the human aspects of the “war on drugs” in Mexico. Rosi’s approach is simple. He met a former drug cartel killer, a “Sicario,” who simply told his story. Although one only sees his hands, a view that the camera rarely leaves, the story he tells is so powerful that one is quite overwhelmed.  The film – made for just €10,000 – is also proof that quality has nothing to do with the size of budget.

All in all the Viennale was, despite a slush of weak films, an exciting event this year, not least on account of the presence of Lou Reed. Hopefully there will be even more good films to see next year – and fewer bad ones.

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