Jeonju Journal Pt. 1: In a Young Festival, Old Masters Go Digital

The Jeonju International Film Festival may not be the biggest film event in Asia, much less Korea; both distinctions go to its Pusan counterpart, that massive showcase that dominates the Pacific Rim film scene in the fall. But Jeonju has virtues that Pusan’s programming sprawl and industry din can’t offer. There’s a more specific curatorial focus that gives challenging, independent-minded cinema ample room for consideration. Since its start in 2000, the festival has embraced this century’s digital cinema revolution, showcasing low-budget works on consumer-quality DV or HD camcorders, the only technology accessible to emerging filmmakers in much the world.

Championing the cause of digital filmmaking, the Festival has made a name for itself with its annual centerpiece, the Jeonju Digital Project, where it commissions three filmmakers to produce digital shorts to premiere at the festival. It’s proven to be a brilliant means to bring respected auteurs under the Jeonju tent: James Benning, Pedro Costa, Jia Zhangke, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and Denis Cote all count as JDP “alumni.” This year’s triumvirate – Claire Denis, Jean-Marie Straub, and Jose Luis Guerin – may have been the most prestigious to date.

The three directors also have the greatest median age of any JDP class: 62, well above the thirty- to forty-something profile typical of past participants – and certainly well above the overwhelmingly collegiate demographic of the Jeonju film crowd.  From what I was told, the Festival is timed to the end of spring term so as to attract thousands of movie-loving students to serve as volunteers or audience members (not both, however; volunteers get free room and board, but aren’t allowed to watch the films). Not only is this the youngest film festival audience I’ve ever seen, but also the most well-behaved. At every screening I attend, there are virtually no walk-outs; the kids sit through the credits and applaud when the lights go up.

I had to wonder what these kids thought of the JDP projects, since to appreciate them (with the possible exception of Guerin’s short, the most fully realized of the three) likely requires considerable familiarity with these established directors’ previous work.  And yet, there is a spirit of romantic defiance against oppressive forces in each of the three films that might readily appeal to these youths, say, if it was expressed by Leonardo di Caprio aboard an ocean liner.

Straub’s 22 minute short An Heir is a brief adaptation of a novel by the early 20th century writer Maurice Barres, about a young French doctor in German-occupied Alsace after the Franco-Prussian War. Interestingly, the 78-year old Straub films himself walking alongside the doctor as he talks at length about his professional and political struggles, as if Straub were his confidante. Like all of Straub’s previous films (most co-directed by his longtime collaborator, the late Danielle Huillet), it’s a work of intractable dignity, unyielding at first glance but surprisingly supple in how it shifts between modes of fiction and documentary, cinema and literary recitation.

Some expressed disappointment with Claire Denis’ To the Devil as less a stand-alone work as a DVD extra for a project yet to go into production. But as a hardline Denis fan, I was glad to get a significant glimpse of what her next project might look like – provided its sensitive subject matter passes muster with French government purse holders. The 44 minute short follows Denis and an actor to the border of French Guyana and Surinam, where Africans descended from escaped slaves have formed their own tribal community in the jungle, but are now being slowly pushed off their land since gold has been discovered. The governments depict them as bandits; Denis deems them heroes, fighting for their future just as their ancestors did 400 years before. There’s not much of the sensual visuals or dreamy, associative editing that have made Denis a top-tier director; the film plays as raw anthropological research. But the premise is certainly promising for a feature replete with some of Denis’ favorite themes: life on the fringes of culture and community, the borders of human comprehension and endurance.

For another powerful look at life in the Amazon region, watch The Charcoal People:

But the unanimous favorite of the JDP shorts was Guerin’s Memories of a Morning. Those who have seen In the City of Sylvia know that few filmmakers today can work their camera through public spaces with as much live-wire energy as Guerin. Here, the space is both public and deeply personal: the street outside his apartment window, where a musician neighbor fell to his death from the opposite building. Guerin opens with archival video he had taken of the man practicing violin at his window. It was a sound that connected everyone on the block, as Guerin proves through interviews with dozens of neighbors that ring with warmth and intimacy, even in sorrowful reflection.

Guerin weaves their testimonials – heartbroken, perplexed, and somewhat fatalistic – with shots of the spot where the violinist’s body landed, returning again and again to the stark mark of absence in his community. He ultimately ends up in the man’s apartment, where traces of his depressed life remain – a volume of Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther, sketches, a lonely, half-finished wine glass. But these phantom artifacts are cast in an afternoon glow of otherworldly beauty, as if light itself were the last word in the sum effects of our lives. Guerin’s camera is unabashedly romantic, and with it he tries to fathom a darker, deadlier strain of the same yearning impulse. He may not get to the bottom of his neighbor’s fatal mystery, but his attempt is a gesture of near-perfect grace.

For a similarly moving meditation on mortality, watch Griefwalker:

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