Now and Then

Left: Eduardo Coutinho, Twenty Years Later, 1984, still from a black-and-white and color film in 16 mm, 119 minutes. Right: Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Once upon a Time in Anatolia, 2010, still from a color film in 35 mm, 150 minutes.

THE DIALECTIC OF OLD AND NEW ruled this year’s São Paulo International Film Festival, the first without founder and director Leon Cakoff, who died of melanoma complications the week before its opening. One sensed the present addressing the past and future simultaneously. This feeling was even built into the programming. The opening was a twin bill: the Dardenne brothers’ new film The Kid with a Bike and a restoration of the hand-tinted version of Méliès’s 1902 film A Trip to the Moon. On every day following, one could watch repertory in the same rooms as more recent work, including retrospectives of films by directors Elia Kazan, Aleksei German, and Sergei Paradjanov, and a tribute to the composer Nino Rota. Some films, like Visconti’s The Leopard (1963) and Kazan’s Wild River (1960), appeared in dazzling 35-mm restorations, while others, like Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) and Fassbinder’s Despair (1978), passed in pristine digital copies. But good as they looked—and perhaps because they looked so good—the digital copies raised a question: If you’re watching a film on different material than its original element, are you watching the same film?

This year’s Mostra led viewers to examine the differences between film and digital projection by toggling between the two media, sometimes, as in the case of Paradjanov’s films, showing the same movie both in a digital copy and in 35 mm. Festival literature listed 120 titles as screening in 35 mm, 139 in a digital format, and nineteen in 35 mm–to-digital transfers, but these numbers proved unreliable, as many films screened digitally unannounced. Sometimes the transfers proved delightful, sometimes abominable, to the point where festival staff publicly explained that international distributors had sent them copies ill fitted for the city’s projectors. (Many other large festivals, among them Toronto and Vancouver, have had the same problem.) Regardless, it was impossible to say that the changes in projection format didn’t matter, because a good film often takes much of its meaning from its material.

In Julia Murat’s Histórias que só existem quando lembradas and Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once upon a Time in Anatolia—both beautiful 35-mm, wide-screen films of stories about people crossing long, dark nights into daytime—each filmmaker uses gradations of light and darkness across a vast canvas, creating visual effects unimaginable in any other material. But one could also see that Jonas Mekas’s Sleepless Night Stories and Emmanuelle Demoris’s five-film cycle Mafrouza, intimate, personal films that follow numerous people through unbroken, self-surprising monologues, would be hard to imagine in a nondigital format. Marco Bellocchio’s Sorelle Mai, in which many of the director’s family members play semi-improvised roles, mixed a variety of stocks—35 mm, 16 mm, Super 8, and digital among them—suggesting a free mix of documentary and fiction. Yet even more suggestive of the future possibilities for movies, perhaps, was Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb’s This Is Not a Film, in which Panahi, an Iranian filmmaker trapped under house arrest and forbidden to make films, offers images in as many different ways as possible—DVD projection, TV, cell phone, computer screen, and a few other digital cameras. The more that different kinds of footage appeared, the more they all pointed toward a moment in which many people could make movies, and even more could be remembered by them.

Eduardo Coutinho became representative of the shift from a film moment to a digital one, as his films changed not only in appearance but in the way that they viewed mortality. The seventy-eight-year-old Brazilian documentarist has made a lifetime’s worth of cinema about people, of all classes, who irrepressibly, garrulously dream to sustain themselves; this year he presented two films, both about human durability. His newest film, The Songs, is an HDCAM piece in which people sit facing the camera and sing childhood tunes that have helped them pass through tragedies. The camera keeps running as they walk out, and the awareness that the camera could run even longer suggests a life outside these people, a life that continues without foreseeable end in the world beyond the theater.

The people in The Songs all appear in the same set-ups, with the same kind of imagery. In contrast, Coutinho’s 1985 masterpiece, Twenty Years Later, interweaves black-and-white footage of an unfinished, 1960s fictionalization of the life of a murdered political activist with color footage of the director and crew visiting the man’s family in the ’80s, as Brazil’s military dictatorship winds up its rule. Both were shot in 16 mm, and the final film shows people surviving despite the government’s attempts to crush them. A digital restoration of Twenty Years Later screened at the Mostra and, in a way, made the people even more everlasting than they had been in the 16-mm version. It was a touching vision of immortality. As Coutinho and crew wave good-bye to the man’s wife at film’s end, we see her older and wrinkled, but with no scratches, no rips, no warps, no blotches, no faded nor smeared color.

The 35th São Paulo International Film Festival ran October 21–November 10, 2011.