Being invited on an all-expenses-paid trip to a film festival you’ve never heard of in the rainforest of Brazil raises some questions, like “Is this some sort of elaborate international con that will end with me in a bathtub minus a liver?” It seemed much too good to be true, but remarkably my invitation to cover the Amazonas Film Festival in Manaus, Brazil, as a guest of the state’s Minister of Culture was legitimate. This promised to be a film festival like no other. It was, for example, a film festival where the international press is feted like visiting dignitaries.
At Sundance, film critics like myself are working stiffs, with the emphasis on “working.” If you don’t see five or six movies a day, then stay up until three in the morning writing about what you’ve just seen, then you feel like you’re a disgrace to cinema, your family, and yourself. The Amazonas Film Festival was more like a working vacation where the work aspect was fairly abstract much of the time. Sundance constantly forces critics to make difficult choices among films playing at the same time. With only eight feature films in competition, it was possible to see everything at the Amazonas Film Festival. Films were the core of the festival, but my experience was about much more than film. Manaus is a city of about 2 million people nestled in the rainforests of Brazil. In his opening remarks, Secretary of Culture Roberio Braga spoke expansively of the festival as an attempt to showcase Manaus for the international stage, to raise its profile and establish it as a destination for the arts. I had been invited to Brazil to experience Manaus as much as I was there to see films and cover the festival.
I was one of four American journalists invited to cover the festival. For roughly a week, the four of us (or rather three Americans and a Canadian transplant) served as a strange makeshift family led by a heroic publicist and her charming husband. For a strange sojourn, our lives were essentially the same. We ate together. We traveled together. We saw the same films.
The journalists, actors, filmmakers, jurors, and organizers all stayed in one hotel, which fostered an infectious sense of community. There was a good chance the actor you rode down in an elevator with would star in the evening’s film. No one at the festival inspired a fraction of the frenzy and excitement as juror Alfonso “Poncho” Herrera, a Mexican telenovela star who apparently commandeers a Justin Bieber-like following south of the border. Everywhere Poncho went, he was accompanied by high-pitched squeals of delight. A line of teenyboppers held constant watch for him at the hotel. They were in such a frenzy to catch even a glimpse of their idol that they were willing to sit through all the art films he was called upon to watch in his role as a juror. Teenyboppers squealed from the balcony. They squealed from the opera box. Oh, but they squealed for Poncho. This is a strange and beautiful power Poncho wielded judiciously. If only American stars used their clout in a similar fashion: Imagine if Kim Kardashian or Justin Bieber influenced fans into sitting through the films of Abbas Kiarostami.
The competing films screened at Teatro Amazonas, an opera house known to cinephiles everywhere as one of the settings for Fitzcarraldo, Werner Herzog’s cult drama about a dreamer (Klaus Kinski) who attempts to bring culture and civilization to the wild by building an opera house in the Peruvian rainforest. For the purposes of the festival, Teatro Amazonas was a movie theater, but it was also of course an internationally renowned and devastatingly beautiful opera house, as I discovered when I tried to enter wearing shorts. (To be fair the airline had lost my bag, leaving me temporarily without clothes during my first day in Brazil.) I was politely taken aside by an usher who informed me that the theater had a strict, unyielding no-shorts policy. This was not a problem however, as the theater was willing to lend me some pants.
The usher couldn’t help but giggle enthusiastically when he showed me the borrowed pants I would be wearing. They were a one-size-fits-all pair of hospital scrubs several sizes too small. Unshaven, scruffy, clad in a blue shirt and mismatched baby blue scrubs and clutching a travel pillow for dear life (it was strongly recommended for the flight), I looked for all the world like an escaped mental patient. At an opera house. In Brazil. But I was wearing pants. That’s the important thing. It was a cure just a little worse than the disease.
The Amazonas Film Festival was an experience that went far beyond films. It seemed like we were always doing something glamorous and exotic, even while on our way to do things even more glamorous and exotic. One afternoon in Manaus, for example, we were taken on a boat to a slightly nicer boat, which then took us to a floating hotel-boat where we spent the night. We were supposed to explore the rainforest the next morning but it had rained during the night, and we were told tourists weren’t allowed in the rainforest when it’s wet, out of concern they might be decapitated by a falling 20-pound Brazil nut.
We never actually got to walk through the rainforest proper, but a few days later I found myself soaring above it in a helicopter sitting opposite the charming and delightful Randa Haines, the director of Children Of A Lesser God and one of the festival’s jurors. We were literally breathing rarified air, being flown to a rubber plantation museum that had been constructed as a set for a 2001 film but was left standing to provide a sense of what life was like on an actual rubber plantation in the 1900s. It was all very meta. A film set had become a museum—a blatantly artificial construct was now being used to illustrate a reality lost to time.
The Amazonas Film Festival was so rich in experiences, parties, and trips that it was easy to overlook the “film” part. The shorts were universally strong, particularly a lovely animated allegory named “The Sky Downstairs” and a Terence Malick-like exploration of nature called “Sunny.” The features were weaker. The First Grader is a solid crowd-pleaser about an old Kenyan man who shakes up his village by enrolling in elementary school after the Kenyan government announced free universal schooling in 2003. But an unintentionally creepy romance called Carteiro was exactly the kind of ephemeral quirkfest I’d dismiss at Sundance. I don’t know enough about Argentine politics, student or otherwise, to be able to understand, let alone fully appreciate, The Student, an Argentine character study about a young man’s political education.
Last year a favorite of film festivals the world over dominated Amazonas when Winter’s Bone picked up the top prize. The same held true this year, as the Iranian drama and festival standout A Separation won the award for Best Feature. A Separation and The Source, the two films at Amazonas that made the strongest impression, deal with Muslim society in antithetical ways. A Separation uses the separation of a middle-class couple and then a legal case involving the husband to explore the ways people and systems fall apart. It’s a small-scale symphony of bruised feelings and uncomfortable emotions that thrives on lived-in intimacy.
The French fan favorite The Source, by contrast, almost feels like the international equivalent of a Tyler Perry extravaganza. The film chronicles the upheaval that ensues when a spirited young woman proposes a sex strike until the men of their village stop forcing women to carry water from a distant and perilous well. Like Perry’s films, The Source bops along giddily between genres and tones, whipsawing madly between wacky comedy and dour drama, rage-choked political furor and musical madness. It’s an extraordinarily messy film bursting with energy, music, and life.
The festival ended with fireworks, literally, as colorful explosions rocketed high above the Teatro Amazonas to punctuate its official end. After the awards show came a dazzling, gloriously excessive dance competition involving dancers dressed as bulls, sexy men and women in a campy burlesque of skimpy indigenous attire, and singing from a performer who looked a little like a fat Kim Jong-Il squeezed into a late-period Elvis jumpsuit.
The steamy night air vibrated with light and music and energy and irrepressible South American rhythms. It was, in other words, not the natural habitat of the pasty American film critic. That’s a big part of what made it so wonderful. It had precious little to do with film and everything to do with spectacle—glorious, glorious spectacle. The Amazonas Film Festival is a wonderful place to see films, but it’s even more spectacular as a festival. I will remember the totality of the experience—flattering, disorienting, and utterly unexpected—long after the individual films that populated it have faded from memory.