Thursday, September 30, 2010

TIFF 2010—The Evening Class Interview With Programmer Diana Sanchez

This was the first year—more than any other year I've attended the Toronto International—that its signature as a programmers festival seemed especially pronounced, which drew my attention to how the festival lineup has been selected, shaped and promoted largely through curatorial taste and whether, indeed, it could be accomplished any other way? As Mark Peranson has asserted in his introduction to the current issue of Cinema Scope, the preoccupation by "a certain bored segment of the film world today" with "the relationship between programming and film criticism" enforces his general instincts "that the two are one and the same." I'm inclined to agree and—though perhaps suffering less from ennui than Peranson on this topic, angling in by way of film festival studies rather than film criticism, and largely based on the pleasant conversation I had with Diana Sanchez at last year's TIFF—I decided to structure my own "microfestival" this year by exploring the curatorial instincts of three of TIFF's veteran programmers: Diana Sanchez, Colin Geddes and Kate Lawrie Van de Ven. For myself, this was quite a different approach to the festival—I'm usually chasing auteurs, national cinemas or the annointed darlings from Cannes, Venice and Locarno—and it took a measure of trust to surrender myself to the curatorial (i.e., critical) sensibility of three individuals and to limit my festival experience to their selections; but, it seemed a fair experiment. For me, it was a different way to understand the festival.

TIFF is also one of the few festivals I'm aware of—within my limited festival experience—where the program capsules have been written and signed off by the programmers who have selected the films. Naturally, the purpose of a program capsule has an administrative specificity and TIFF's capsules are no less obsessively promotional and adulatory than any other festival I've ever attended. If I were to believe every word I read, every film boasts a brand new vision and every introduced filmmaker is a brand new auteur, and such has been the Faustian pact with festival marketing for longer than I can remember. Devil be damned, however, James Quandt has conservatively argued with a wry raised eyebrow that there can only be 10 great films a year, if that. So there you have it. Caught between the Devil and an endless blue sea.

Over the years as I've honed the practice of festival attendance, I've learned to maintain a certain resistance to what I've been promised, to nonetheless appreciate how it has been promised to me, and—perhaps most importantly—by whom. As someone who is interested in the art and craft of programming, I enjoy discerning signature elements of personal taste hidden in plain sight between the lines of a program capsule. My festival experience will either chafe against or gladly embrace these paragraphs of curatorial enthusiasm (sleight of hand?), and I set about to further adjust my experience by indulging directorial intent (admittedly, authorial self-promotion) by conversing directly with filmmakers. Finally, over a second cup or twobeer or a shared meal, I mix it all up with the received wisdom and unrestrained opinions of my colleagues wherein taste is either distilled to consensus (call it an uneasy truce) or remains rebelliously idiosyncratic. And of course, it always comes down to my own personal taste: what I do and do not like; that final sober arbiter.

As extolled at TIFF's website: "Diana Sanchez is an International Programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival, responsible for introducing audiences to the best in Latin American cinema.

"The year after she joined the Festival in 2002, she programmed the Festival's spotlight on Brazil, Vida de Novo. Sanchez subsequently programmed two surveys of Argentine Cinema for TIFF Cinematheque, in 2004 and 2006. Also in 2006, she programmed a week of Cuban cinema at the Royal Ontario Museum.

"Sanchez is currently a programme consultant for the International Film Festival Rotterdam and has been involved in a variety of other festivals and cinematic presentations. In 2010 she programmed Calgary Latin, a selection of eight Latin American films, with the PROA Foundation in Argentina. In 2007 Sanchez was on the Ecuadorian Ministry of Culture Film Fund jury and in 2008 was on the first Premiera Copia jury at the Havana Film Festival. She has also been a jury member for the script development fund at the Colombian Ministry of Culture."

I was delighted to have the opportunity to sit down and catch up with her current selections as inflected through my current interests.

* * *

Michael Guillén: Diana, our conversation last year had an influence on—not only enhancing my appreciation of the films you selected for that edition of the festival—but, my understanding of curatorial taste in general. We spoke some about your method for selecting films for the festival and how you hoped they would represent the best of each country's national cinema(s). After the fact, certain colleagues of mine took objection to that statement. They argued, "How can she know what is the best of any national cinema?" Which provoked me to wonder: at what point does the primacy of personal taste enter into your selection of films?

Diana Sanchez: Personal taste is obviously going to affect a programmer's vision; but, that's not only what's involved because I do show films that aren't really within my personal taste but that I think will work with an audience. I try to balance that with what I think is interesting in cinema: filmmakers who are taking risks or filmmakers who are good storytellers. It's a difficult question. More what I meant by "best" was that I try to find the best 18 films that I can find; but—how to define "best"?—that's a difficult question obviously. As a programmer, I try to find films that are well-told; that are well-made. It's like when you're reading a novel, you can tell which writer has more craftsmanship than another.

Guillén: Do you have a literary preference towards narrative film?

Sanchez: I do not. My big thing now is this new genre that I'm seeing in films like Alamar, Crab Trap, and the films of Lisandro Alonso, José Luis Guerín, Miguel Gomes: this new genre which is a mix of documentary and fiction with a real sense of play between these two forms. I find that hybrid fascinating.

Guillén: So you mentioned you're looking for the best 18 films you can find, is that an allotment you're given as a TIFF programmer?

Sanchez: Yes, I'm given an allotment of 18 films.

Guillén: So your task is to go out and discover 18 films that you think will work for any given year?

Sanchez: That's right.

Guillén: Since "best" is such a nebulous term, let's approach another term which I've heard bandied about lately: "contemporary." Can you speak to what is a "contemporary" Latin American, Spanish or Portuguese film? Do you have a sense of that?

Sanchez: It's an interesting question. I've actually wondered what that is myself. Would an example be this new genre I'm talking about? Sometimes when people talk about contemporary cinema, I wonder if they're talking about subject matter? Or a matter of form?

Guillén: I bring it up because—though I am delighted in what I believe to be one of TIFF's strongest line-ups since I've been coming to the festival—there are, on the other hand, the inevitable detractors who argue, "No, it's not a strong line-up. The program is being padded with too many contemporary films." As valid a criticism as that might be, I still have no sense of what is meant by such a complaint because I'm not sure how the term "contemporary" is being used. I'm forced to question what "contemporary" means when used to describe a film, especially when it's used to dismiss a film, and I'm not sure there's even an answer to that question, let alone any consensual definition of the term.

Sanchez: A lot of people use that term "contemporary" to describe the subject matters that films are dealing with, which—for me, I would have to agree—are sometimes not the most interesting films to see.

Guillén: Another criticism levied against TIFF's program this year—aimed particularly at the City to City program—has been concern over the loss of national cinema retrospectives, which TIFF explored in past editions. But, for me, that's a concern that must necessarily address the changing face of national cinemas, especially factoring in financing and co-production. Within your domain of Latin American programming, let's say, where films exist only through the combined financing of several countries, what for you at this time determines a national cinema? Is it the content? Is it the nationality of the director? Is it the lead financier?

Sanchez: That's also another question I've asked myself as well. I do go by director. There's two great examples in this year's festival that address this complicated issue. There's Lope, a Spanish film directed by Brazilian director Andrucha Waddington with a Spanish cast about a Spanish playwright Lope de Vega. And then there's Biutiful, which has a mostly Spanish cast shot by Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu in Barcelona. I look at Biutiful as a Mexican-Spanish co-production and I look at Lope as a Spanish-Brazilian co-production. So the lines are being crossed. If I were programming a retrospective on Spain, I would include Biutiful. If I were programming a retrospective on Mexico, I would include Biutiful. The film can fit both. They're both very Spanish films but the topics are different.

Guillén: My premise is that the concept of the national cinema is becoming increasingly elastic.

Sanchez: It is. But then there's films like Marimbas From Hell, which is a Guatemalan-Mexican-French co-production; but, that's a Guatemalan film. It's an absolutely Guatemalan story, a Guatemalan director, and you can feel Central America within that film.

Guillén: So is it safe to say then that a national cinema can be defined by its cultural sensibility, irregardless of external financing?

Sanchez: Yes, a cultural sensibility is important to defining a national cinema.

Guillén: This year I've shaped my festival itinerary to include approximately 10 of the 18 films you've programmed for the festival so I'm hoping we can, perhaps, briefly touch upon those films and then add mention of those I'm not able to catch?

Sanchez: Okay.

Guillén: You've already touched upon the Guatemalan entry Marimbas From Hell. I caught Julio Hernández Cordón's first film Gasolina at the San Francisco International and so I'm curious to see if he has matured as a filmmaker? Do you see a maturation in his work?

Sanchez: Absolutely. Marimbas is a more mature work than Gasolina. It's playful. It's funny. It's melancholic. Cordón has taken characters he's known within Guatemala and meshed them together to create a whole new story that really gives you a sense of the place.

Guillén: Federico Vieroj's A Useful Life from Uruguay? What will we be seeing there?

Sanchez: It's a black and white film, 67 minutes, in two parts. The first part is about a cinematheque in Uruguay and a man who has been working there daily for 25 years. It's also funny. You can tell that the director has great in-depth knowledge of what it's like to work at a film museum. Lack of funding leads to the closure of the cinematheque and then he finds himself without a job. It's about dealing with life without cinema. A Useful Life is an homage to cinema but also a lament for lesser public investment in important institutions like cinematheques.

Guillén: Pablo Trapero's Carancho?

Sanchez: Carancho is a mix of genres. It's a noir; but, it's also a social issues story and at its heart it's a love story. So Trapero mixes a lot of genres in there. I saw it at Cannes and really liked it; but, not everyone agrees with me.

Guillén: I'm intrigued that you would characterize Carancho as a noir. What are the elements that you see in it that lead you to characterize it as a noir?

Sanchez: Stylistic elements. It focuses on the underbelly of Argentine life, especially the corrupt economy surrounding traffic accidents.

Guillén: Julia's Eyes, Guillem Morales's sophomore feature?

Sanchez: It's a horror movie.

Guillén: Is it a true horror movie or more a ghost story?

Sanchez: It's like The Invisible Man.

Guillén: Is it similar to the work of Juan Antonio Bayona?

Sanchez: Yes, it has a similar feel to The Orphanage; but, it has a bit more gore in it. It's by the same production team that made The Orphanage: Guillermo del Toro, etc. It's about a woman who is losing her eyesight and starts to sense an invisible man. The question is whether there really is an invisible man or not. I was terrified.

Guillén: Patricio Guzmán's Nostalgia For the Light? Does this fall within that fictionalized documentary hybrid category you were referencing earlier?

Sanchez: It kind of does; but, it's more a classic essay documentary. It's about astronomers in the Atacama Desert peering into space trying to figure out the mysteries of the universe of the past. At the same desert, you have these women sifting through the sand looking for the remains of the disappeared. Guzmán is asking, "Why, in a country where we can look billions of years into the past, do we turn our backs on and not see what happened 40 years ago?" It's quite impressive.

Guillén: Michael Rowe's Leap Year; a Cannes award winner?

Sanchez: It's crazy. A very dark sadomasochistic love affair. As you say, it won the Camera d'Or at Cannes.

Guillén: This has been a great year for Peruvian cinema and I was pleased to see that you included Daniel and Diego Vega's October among your 18. Can you speak to why you chose that film? I presume they're a brother team?

Sanchez: Y'know, it's funny; but, I try not to include too many Cannes films; but, it was impossible this year. I used to run a program in Miami—and I'm going to be running it again—called
Encuentros Projects and I brought one of the brothers there. I met him about five years ago through that project. Then, out of the blue, the first time I heard of him again was at Cannes with this film October. It's a dark, but funny, story about a money lender in Peru who can only relate to other people through money exchanges. His "personal" relationships are all through prostitutes so one day one of them leaves him a baby and he's got to deal with this baby. A woman, one of his clients, steps in to help him out and the film is all about how they try to form a new kind of family.

Guillén: Talk to me a little bit more about this Encuentros Projects you run in Miami. When is that held?

Sanchez: March.

Guillén: Is it a film festival?

Sanchez: No. In 2003 we brought nine projects to Miami either to find co-production or just to get the word out on the projects. That became known as the Encuentros Projects.

Guillén: Is this a public event?

Sanchez: No.

Guillén: So it's more a venture to put filmmakers and their projects in touch with production money?

Sanchez: Exactly.

Guillén: So back to your line-up: Icíar Bollaín's Even the Rain.

Sanchez: She's a Spanish filmmaker and her film is about a crew of Spanish filmmakers who go to Bolivia to make a film about the conquest of America. They arrive during the water crisis in Cochabamba when a lot of demonstrations are happening. So it's a film within a film; but, it's also about past tensions in Latin America as well as these present tensions. It's written by Paul Laverty who is Ken Loach's frequent screenwriter and both Loach and Laverty will be coming to the public screening to introduce the film and conduct a Q&A. I'm very excited about that.

Guillén: We touched upon Lope, which I'm highly anticipating. I was a fan of Andrucha Waddington's House of Sand and interviewed him when that film made its rounds. Lope has a beautiful look and promises a swashbuckling historical sweep.

Sanchez: It's an epic but it's also a lot of fun with beautiful actors and actresses.

Guillén: Is it a film you can see gaining traction on the circuit?

Sanchez: I wonder. I don't know. I hope so. It's hard with historical dramas.

Guillén: I guess so much is contingent upon whether or not audiences are engaged with any particular history?

Sanchez: Exactly.

Guillén: For me Lope de Vega is a master not known to most and so I'm intrigued by this biopic.

Sanchez: It's just such a wonderful story about an artist coming into his own. I think for Andrucha it's a parallel story to becoming a filmmaker. That's one of the things that's interesting about it. Andrucha will be here, straight from Venice.

Guillén: What about What I Most Want?

Sanchez: That is the first feature film by
Delfina Castagnino, who was previously the editor for Lisandro Alonso's Los Muertos and Fantasma. She's young and this debut is a very small personal film from Patagonia about two female friends that are going through difficult times of loss in their lives—one of them has lost her father and the other is going through a break-up of a relationship—and it's incredibly acted. I love it when films are this personal and you can feel the director's anxieties, which I find fascinating.

Guillén: And how about the titularly similar Anything You Want?

Sanchez: That film is by
Achero Mañas who a few years back did a film called November, which won the FIPRESCI Award that year. This is his first film in eight years. I really like it but I'm wondering how the audience is going to react? It might be an audience favorite. It's a weird story about a little girl who loses her mother. Her father—played by Juan Diego Botto, who I consider one of Spain's best actors—in order to help the little girl go through her grieving process, approaches a drag queen to help him dress up as a woman so at night he can pretend to be her mother. But then—because she always wants her mother—he starts to lose his identity. [We both laugh.] It's kind of morally nebulous because you're thinking, "Ay, is that good for the kid?" So we'll see how that one works out.

Guillén: So of the ones remaining on your slate that I'm not going to be able to catch at official TIFF screenings, which would you recommend I keep an eye on?

Daniel Hendler's comedy Norberto's Deadline, which played in Locarno. Also, you must see José Luis Guerín's Guest; it's wonderful and special. His film definitely falls into that hybrid genre we were talking about earlier and he's a master at it. He goes to all these film festivals and you think the film's going to go one way; but, then he leaves the festivals behind and he gets into the street life of each place he visits. He explores little neighborhoods in Colombia that I didn't even know existed! In hardly any time at all, he achieves an intimacy with the people he meets.

Guillén: Balada Triste is yours?

Sanchez: Ah yes,
Álex de la Iglesia's latest film about the Spanish Civil War. I know that we have seen many but this one is from the gut.

Guillén: Manuel Martín Cuenca's Half Of Oscar?

Sanchez: Another nice film from Spain. Cuenca has made two films before but neither have shown in North America and Half Of Oscar is a truly different look at Spain set in the mountains of Almeria. The landscape becomes a vital part of the film and was one of the elements I found most fascinating about it. I would strongly recommend it. And you have to see
Nicolás Pereda's Summer of Goliath.

Guillén: Why are you so enthused about that film?

Sanchez: It's another documentary-fiction hybrid; but visually, it's experimental, unexpected and visceral. Like Crab Trap last year, Summer of Goliath really achieves a sense of place, of this small town in Mexico.

Guillén: So we touched upon this when we were talking about the contemporary, but you seem to have programmed several of these hybrid films that blend documentary, fiction and essay. Is this a particular development you're seeing in the films of Latin America?

Sanchez: Again, this is a question I've asked myself because these films mostly seem to be coming from Latin America, Spain and Portugal. Is it particular to those cultures? I know that Lisandro Alonso is beloved by many of these filmmakers. They watch his films faithfully. No doubt the new Argentine cinema in general affected the region so, yes, I suspect there must be some Latin American sensibility that is related to the development of the genre. Then again, it's not just being expressed in Latin America. Apichatpong, for example, would speak to its presence in Thailand.

Guillén: When I tell people that I mainly focus on Latin American cinema, I often hear the complaint that Latin American films rely too much on the genre of melodrama, emulating telenovelas to achieve popular success. Can you speak to that?

Sanchez: Well, many of them are overtly melodramatic; but, I try not to select those for the festival.

Guillén: One or two are fine for their broad humor but they tend to wear me out. Well, Diana, thanks again for the preview and your insights into how you developed this year's Latin American, Spanish and Portuguese program and congratulations again on the success of some of your films from last year, namely Alamar and Crab Trap. I look forward to comparing impressions after the festival.

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