Florence, 1st- 7th November 2009

International documentary film festival

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Edizione 2009

The 50th Anniversary Festival

A film festival is never a finished work, but a work in progress, an open shop, a kind of stop-frame that attempts to unite, in a brief encounter, the image of the world and the world of images, both in constant movement. Each festival, while following a direct historical trajectory (its own personal, human trajectory) is a self-contained event, both repeating and unrepeatable, capturing the evolution of thought and the more humble day to day work; a structure that melds bodies, spaces, viewpoints, acts, words; a party that, in a few days, expends the energies, resources and knowledge that have accumulated over a whole year.

The 50th Festival dei Popoli, previously intended to act as an international shuttlecock (a point of arrival and departure for the world of documentary film), in actuality finds itself, despite the current world crisis and the financial deficit bound to affect the arts, virtue-hunting, seeking to make the best use of its resources and wit to realize an event worthy of its name. Last year’s program focused on three diachronic outlooks: looking backward at past films, reporting on the present, and creating workshops for the future. Ditto this year. Bit by bit, the Festival is shaping into a modern event (within its limited means), not only thinking of films as objects to be shown or subjects to reflect upon, but doing its all to foster the ideas and resources for films to come.

The Past

In the 2009 edition, the voice of “the past” is definitely the most relevant, primarily due to the fact that the Festival dei Popoli has both the honor and burden of measuring up to its fifty year-long renown as a unique institution on the world stage. Not only is it the first festival to focus exclusively on documentary film, it also houses a special Archive whose potential is perhaps still only known to a select few. The present writer is speaking as a “non-Florentine,” from the viewpoint of a “foreigner” who has long admired the legacy of this cultural institute. Fifty years of exploring humans in their various shapes and sizes (psychological, ethnic, social, political) provide good rest stops along the road. Recently, the question “How do we celebrate our fiftieth anniversary?” has run through our minds a lot, alongside another, much trickier one: “How can we avoid patting ourselves on the back? How do we avoid being banal?” I’m not sure this answer will satisfy everyone, but what we found most exciting, closest to the theoretical challenges we like to confront, was to look back on the years in which the Festival was formed, the films that time period produced, putting together classic documentaries, new “direct” cinema, experimental works, films that mix fact and fiction. The end of the ‘50s was a period of great creativity, innovation, hope and toil to unite theory and practice. Remembering that period is not just a pure and simple “The way we were”, but a means of claiming one’s roots, films for which the Festival was founded and from which it still gets all of its vital energy. We have chosen as many lesser known and forgotten films as cult movies to represent the period, and we hope they’ll excite audiences as much as they did us.

The commemoration of the Festival’s fifty years doesn’t end there. Last May we got a preview of things to come at Jonas Mekas’s prestigious Anthology Film Archives in New York, when, as part of the second New York Documentary Film Festival and in the presence of film maestro Albert Maysles, an anthology of films was given to our Archive. Such commemorations will continue through other initiatives: an exhibit of festival memorabilia (photos, posters, videos and other material) taken from both the Archive and the people of Florence, which will take place during the next Festival; and the restoration of an archival film to be shown at the end of the “Cinquanta Giorni di Cinema Internazionale a Firenze.”

One important bit of retrospection will be the screening of the films of Thomas Heise, the German filmmaker who, with great care and determination, documented the changing of the guard in Germany from the RDT to the fall of the wall and subsequent reunification. Born in 1955, the director was the victim of severe censorship by official film boards for many years. Only in recent years has it been possible to see his early films and adapt them to other formats after the original negatives were destroyed. His most recent work, the multiple-award winning Material (first prize at FID Marseille 2009) is an extraordinary film that has attracted the attention of the biggest international festivals and those attached to them. Auteur of a filmography that combines political analysis, autobiography, social activism, experimentation and environmental studies, Heise, a disciple of dramaturge Heiner Müller, deals with a junction of crucial importance, re-introducing a cinema that is at once personal and outward-looking, and tackling a present that is contradictory and complex. The Festival is proud to announce that alongside the Thomas Heise retrospective a theory-intensive workshop will be run by the filmmaker at the end of the Festival.

The Present

Like last year, contemporaneity will be the nucleus of the Festival dei Popoli, centered on two competitions and one out of competition category. The competitions are: an International Selection for feature length films and an International Selection for shorts. The out of competition category, still known as Free Style, includes works of homage and premieres, and acts as a sort of survey of current trends in documentary filmmaking. At the moment we have a group of powerful films, some making their world premiere, others that have gained notoriety in festivals around the world, and an increase in participating Italian films, which seem to be in a phase of development to align themselves to world standards. 

Each film will be followed by a meeting with the director. Filmmakers will meet each day from 12pm to 1pm for Free Speech, a chance for the public to meet professionals and discuss the world, its ways, and why they should be filmed.

The Future

As always, the future has yet to be written. Yet there are initiatives that the Festival supports in the conviction that they will develop quality documentary film projects on a regional, national and international level. Firstly, there is the Fondo Cinema della Regione Toscana, which provides financial support for the production of films of cultural value directly linked to the territory. Its support goes not only to big national and international productions, but also, we hope, towards the production of independent Tuscan films, which will bring value to artistic resources and help establish a sort of “salon” that finds its chief inspiration in the festival, as well as a badge of distinction in the artistic mechanism that has brought glory to Florence and Tuscany for centuries. Our first step in that direction was a collaboration between Mediateca Regionale Toscana Film Commission and the Festival dei Popoli during a competition for documentary projects to be shot in Tuscany, which saw Planasia win. The next step, we hope, will be a collaboration with Mediateca for the selection of projects to be headed up by the Fondo Cinema.

Luciano Barisone