Cultural activities and organizations can sometimes be as contentious as politics. Take last week's annual press conference to announce the lineup at the Montreal World Film Festival (MWFF). Reporters were challenging Serge Losique, founder and president of the venerable 29-year-old event, on a number of thorny issues: How did the sudden loss of $1 million in government funding alter his plans? Is he worried about the city's new motion-picture extravaganza, kicking off next month with that cool million in order to marginalize his operation?
"We are not talking about other festivals. This country is big," Losique began, countering the "This town's not big enough for both of us" line from so many old cowboy movies.
Whatever the size of Canada, many pundits wonder if the MWFF can actually survive the clout of its well-financed competition. The similarly named New Montreal FilmFest -- which launches in mid-September this year but will go head-to-head with Losique in August 2006 -- has benefited from his alleged intransigence on monetary matters. He reportedly refused to open his books to scrutiny, which infuriated funding agencies. But as the media continued lobbing tough questions about the brouhaha, Losique came up with at least a dozen variations on "no comment," including a very Donald Rumsfeld-like "The words you use don't correspond with reality." To further undercut his critics, Losique's piece de resistance was "We're not here for anything but the cinema."
Many loyal Vermonters would agree; the MWFF regularly draws movie lovers north for a crazy potpourri of global storytelling. "We've already made our hotel reservations," says Andrea Serota, co-owner with husband Rick Winston of the Savoy Theater in Montpelier. "There's usually a handful of films we're able to bring here, so the festival is a great hunting ground for us. And we always have a wonderful time."
This year, the somewhat scaled-down Montreal fest will spotlight 342 films of varying lengths from 70 nations. Arguably, there's no easier way for Americans to familiarize themselves with such exotic places as Madagascar, Bangladesh or Syria.
In fact the Middle East is pivotal in Losique's current selections.
Red Mercury, a world premiere among 21 features in the festival's official competition, seems to have presaged the July terrorist attacks. This thriller concerns three young Muslim men making a bomb in their London flat. It also offers a few stateside stars, including Stock-ard Channing and Ron Silver, along with a cast of noted Brits such as Juliet Stevenson and Pete Postlethwaite.
Kilometre Zero, a French-Iraqi co-production by Hiner Saleem, follows the shifting fortunes of a Kurd who's reluctantly drafted into Saddam Hussein's army. Ordered to return the body of a fellow soldier to his family, he must contend with the anti-Kurd prejudices of an Arab driver.
Chilean director Miguel Littin's The Last Moon goes back to the Palestine of 1914 -- long before Israel was born -- to examine a lively friendship between an Arab and a Jew. Love + Hate, by Jamin Winans, is about an English-man who sets aside his bigotry when he's attracted to the beauty and temperament of a female Muslim immigrant.
In Little Birds, Japanese documentarian Takeharu Watai witnesses the horrors of war as coalition forces invade Baghdad in the spring of 2003. Me and the Mosque by Zarqa Narwaz looks at the status of women in Islamic worship.
Although Little Birds is one of about 46 Canadian films in the festival, Losique came under fire for a perceived scarcity of local fare. Major distributors in his homeland are boycotting the MWFF in response to those government cuts.
Losique recently ran into trouble again by booking -- and quickly dropping -- a controversial drama that depicts one of the most grizzly crime sprees in the country's history. Karla is a thinly disguised take on Paul Bernardo and his wife Karla Homolka, Ontario residents who kidnapped, raped, tortured and killed three women -- one of them Homolka's own sister -- in the early 1990s. The victims' families expressed outrage at the picture and the festival's initial plans to show it. People who decry censorship suggest that the public should be allowed to make up their own minds on whether to see the film.
At last week's press conference, a journalist asked repeatedly how the MWFF could justify succumbing to pressure from Air Canada, a key sponsor that threatened to yank support unless Karla was eliminated. Daniele Cauchard, Losique's longtime vice president, explained the decision stems from their sense that the movie had started "to overshadow our whole program."
Other tragic narratives will be plentiful during the 10-day gathering. Your Name Is Justine, from Poland and Luxembourg, tackles the problem of impoverished women sold into prostitution each year. Bride of Silence is the saga of an unmarried Vietnamese mother refusing to reveal the father's name to village elders, who then set the baby adrift in a river as punishment. In Awakening From the Dead, a disillusioned academic travels across an embattled landscape to visit his dying father just as the 1999 NATO bombing campaign begins over Serbia and Kosovo.
From a different corner of the planet, Farewell My Concubine auteur Chen Kaige will sit on the jury and be the subject of a festival homage. Chinese cinema is also represented by a handful of tales. Among them, Encounters in the Jungle portrays hardships of the wartime 1930s; A World Without Thieves tracks two crooks trying to go straight; and Kekexili is an eco-mystery about the poaching of rare Tibetan antelopes from a game preserve.
The United States can boast a range of productions at the MWFF, from Michael J. Sheridan's nonfiction James Dean: Forever Young Monty Lapica's Self-Medicated, about a teenage honor student who becomes a party animal after his father dies. Work from Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Colombia keep points south on the festival map.
Africa is in the forefront of several topical pictures. Both I Forgive You, My Killer and Lost Children address the brutality that the Lord's Resistance Army has been inflicting on Ugandan civilians for almost two decades. The health-care crisis in Zambia is the focus of Their Brothers' Keepers -- Orphaned by AIDS.
One of the more envelope-pushing festival entries appears to be Quebec's La Pharmacie de l'Espoir, for which 39 actors spent 12 hours improvising a script before six cameras at a Montreal cafe in late 2004. Muxes: Authentic, Fearless Seekers of Danger, is a doc about indigenous and mestizo homosexual men in the Mexican town of Juchitan who promote gay pride as well as their Zatopec Indian identity.
On the lighter side, Evan Oppenheimer's Alchemy zeroes in on a New York University researcher trying to save his job with an experiment that might make a woman fall for an emotionally interactive computer rather than the campus lothario. To Die in San Hilario, by Laura Mana, is about the spectacular funerals that inhabitants of a Spanish village arrange -- until an important customer disrupts their routine. A grifter fleeces foreigners seeking long-lost relatives in Roots, a Russian black comedy from Pavel Lounguine.
Hawaii, Oslo doesn't aim for laughter, but the festival's one-line printed description is amusing: "Five interconnected stories of love and despair set in Norway on the hottest day of the year." Those of us despairing about Vermont's sweltering summer might not want to watch a bunch of sweaty Norwegians on the big screen. Then again, we're not here for anything but the cinema.