Believe it or not, the best place to see foreign films in LA isn’t some snobby west side movie theatre but the Palm Springs International Film Festival. This was my second year at the fest, and I am always blown away by the breadth and the quality of the programming. 69 countries are represented by 169 films in all of nine days (can that even be right?). I don’t much care for the celebrity aspect of the festival, I even stay away from the buzzier films (mostly because I can never get tickets), but there are some great under-the-radar picks that I always seem to stumble upon. Here are two:
My Life with Carlos (Dir. German Berger-Hertz)
Chilean director German Berger-Hertz relates the tragic story of his father’s disappearance at the hands of a Pinochet death squad in this moving documentary. Not only was the subject matter fascinating and the treatment heartfelt, the film’s pace kept the story fresh and engaging. Berger-Hertz reconnects with his father Carlos’ brothers, Eduardo, a Canadian doctor, and Ricardo, a factory manager in Chile. They reminisce, visit old haunts in Chile, and finally return to the execution site to bid a final farewell. In one of many indignities suffered at the hands of Pinochet, they are never told where Carlos is buried, and wander the desert at the film’s end, offering prayers only to a harsh wind.
As in any good doc, the camera felt like another character in the story, confronting and approaching Berger-Hertz’s subjects, insisting they talk about the still taboo subjects of the dictatorship and the disappearances. While in the post-show Q and A Berger-Hertz called this movie a “letter to his father,” it’s something much more: a record of repression and of finding justice in the midst of totalitarianism. Not just of personal significance, this doc requires the world’s attention.
Illégal, another film with a social conscience, almost worked as well as Carlos but veered too close to melodrama for my taste. A dramatization of Belgium’s deportation centers and the documented abuse committed there, the film follows a Russian immigrant, Tania (played exceptionally well by Anne Coesens), who is detained to the dismay of her son, Ivan. Forced to stay in prison preceding exile, she is defiant, refusing to give her name or country of origin, believing that through a technicality, with no status she will be able to stay in the West.
The film sheds some important light on the horrific ways women and children are treated in these centers and the abuse guards are able to commit against these disenfranchised deportees. Perhaps the most powerful scene, and one I will remember for a while, was one guard’s on-duty resignation and flight from work after she witnesses another prisoner’s grisly act of desperation.
Yet there are also moments during the film that feel unapologetically brutal and exploitatively violent, and other times when I was confused by Tania’s motivations. What is keeping her in Belgium? Why is she having a meltdown in certain scenes? Who are those mafiosos hanging out with Ivan and why are they friends of hers? These answers may just be lost in translation or a signal of the movie’s greater flaw: is this movie meant to be political or merely entertaining? And is it possible that in trying to be both it loses its key inspiration?