International films premiere at ‘Faces of Democracy’ festival

Last Wednesday night, the South Side Works Cinema marquee wasn’t boasting Borat, Happy Feet, or Casino Royale. Instead, the evening belonged to Carnegie Mellon’s “Faces of Democracy” international film festival, a two-week-long event organized by a class in the College of Humanities & Social Sciences. Called “The Film Festival: Faces of Democracy in Contemporary World Cinema,” the course was ambitious from day one, when director Jolanta Lion handed out a 16-page syllabus. The students involved had only three months to organize and promote a festival of global proportions.

“They’ve done a very good job of getting a variety of films that all meet the standards of their theme,” said Andrew Horbal, a local film blogger and graduate of the University of Pittsburgh. “These things are extraordinarily difficult to pull off on the level that they’re doing it.” The festival includes 11 feature-length films, each offering a unique perspective on democracy outside of the United States. “It’s a brilliant lineup,” Horbal said. “They got some great filmmakers that don’t get nearly enough recognition, let alone recognition in Pittsburgh.”

Feature presentation

All but one of the full-length films are Pittsburgh premieres. One, the Croatian I Love You, has never before been screened in the U.S. “Most of this stuff’s never going to play in Pittsburgh otherwise,” Horbal explained. “It’s a service for moviegoers too because this is something you’re not going to get a chance to see [otherwise].”

Lion and her class arranged for six of the films’ directors to appear in the festival by introducing their films, engaging in question and answer sessions, and presenting supplemental lectures. One filmmaker managed to participate in the festival without even entering the country. Often called the Michael Moore of Israel, director Avi Mograbi interacted with filmgoers via teleconference following the screening of his controversial work Avenge But One of My Two Eyes.

The “Faces of Democracy” festival also features student-made shorts from around the world, many of which document countries and regions other than those addressed in the feature-length films, including Siberia and Japan. The shorts were evaluated in a contest organized by the class, featuring guest judges Horbal and Barry Paris of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, among others. “We did a competition and sent out an e-mail with the qualifications to different schools all over,” explained Quelcy Kogel, artistic director to the festival.

Behind the scenes

Working towards a B.A. in architecture, Hispanic studies, and international relations, fifth-year student Kogel was one of the class’s most active participants. “The more you gave, the more responsibilities you would get, essentially,” she said. In addition to working individually, the class divided into four committees: selection, design, finance/administration, and public relations. “Some people tried new things. Some English people went into the budget realm,” Kogel added. “It was a broad range.”

But first, the students had to learn about film as an art form. “The beginning of the course was very difficult,” Lion said. Her class drew from a variety of majors within H&SS. According to Lion, most of her students had little experience with international cinema. Prior to the class, some of them had never even seen a film with subtitles.

Though pressed for time, Lion devoted the first half of her course to educating her students in film analysis. Now, a week into the festival, Lion’s impression on her class is clear. “They know how to watch art,” she said. “The students didn’t watch some of the films in the program, and now instead of staying out of the room talking I see them going into the room watching. And then when I want to talk to them during the film, they say, ‘Don’t interrupt.’ ”

Bonus material

“Faces of Democracy” aims to reach all of Pittsburgh, not just its students. With its various pockets of ethnic communities, the city is a choice location for the screening of international film. “You have people participating because they want to promote their country, their language, and that kind of thing,” said Kogel. In addition to allowing its patrons to explore their own heritages, the festival should promote a diverse cultural understanding. “[It says,] ‘Come see this Czech movie because you’re Czech, but also come see this Polish movie,’ ” Kogel explained. “ ‘Or just come see the one from South America, because there may be similar issues.’ ”

With citywide ambitions, “Faces of Democracy” is larger than any film festival ever to emerge from H&SS. The class is in its 10th year, but this is the first time it’s hosting a festival with off-campus screenings. Though the University Center’s McConomy Auditorium is the primary venue, Lion and students have arranged for some of the showings to take place at the South Side Works Cinema and the Regent Square Theater. “It’s commercial, but it gave the event something special ... for the opening night,” said Kogel of the South Side location. “It’s very dramatic.”

Expanding its venues is only one example of how the “Faces of Democracy” festival has grown. “We have a much bigger budget, we have outside sponsors, we have a lot more movies,” Kogel explained. “We’re hoping for a bigger attendance.” Such an endeavor required an incredible effort from Lion’s class of 19, fueled by the guidance of a director who knew what she was doing. “She has a lot of experience from film festivals,” Kogel said, “so that level of quality is what she wanted for this one.”

Lion started teaching courses in language and film in her native country of Poland. Several years ago, she came to the University of Pittsburgh to pursue the same subjects. There, Lion hosted “Through Polish Eyes” in 2001. “It was another fantastic festival,” Horbal said. “This is probably the best event since then.” Besides Pittsburgh Filmmakers’ “Three Rivers” and “Silk Screen” festivals, he added, Lion’s projects are at the height of Pittsburgh’s film culture. Lion was also in charge of “Exposed,” an exhibition of European film held last summer in the South Side.

Director’s cut

Recruiting filmmakers to attend the festival alongside their art, Lion’s class hoped to increase the strength and memorability of each work of film. “We tried to give as many real voices to the festival as possible and to really push the issues,” Kogel said. “So it’s not just come in, watch a film, leave, and then possibly forget it. There’s someone to explain a little background.”

While editing My Country, My Country, a documentary chronicling the Iraqi elections, director Laura Poitras made an effort to keep herself out of the picture. “As a filmmaker, I didn’t want to put myself in the story,” Poitras said in a lecture in Doherty 2315 last Thursday. Films about Iraq often revolve around the Americans creating them, Poitras explained, but this sort of focus obscures the issues that are most in need of coverage. Her effort was hardly in vain; My Country, My Country provided an account of the elections through the authentic perspective of an Iraqi family.

Though they would have been out of place in her film, Poitras’ experiences told their own story of the situation in Iraq. During the lecture, Poitras shared what it was like to spend eight months abroad. Addressing an aerial shot from My Country, My Country of a sewage-ridden Iraqi street, Poitras explained that she did most of her outdoor filming with an escort from either the U.S. military or a private helicopter service. “It’s actually that bad that you can’t travel [safely] from one part of the country to another,” she said.

My Country, My Country comes with English subtitles to translate its subjects’ native Arabic. One thing audiences might not realize is that Poitras, though shooting a film located entirely in Iraq, understood hardly any of dialogue that she recorded until months later, after her footage had been transcribed. Despite this, Poitras said that she was able to predict which scenes would be important even before receiving any translations.

In the case of provocative, independent films, the process of production is often nearly as interesting as the stories themselves. “These movies, they affect people. They become part of people’s lives,” Horbal said. “It’s easy to forget that a film is more than just what you’re seeing on the screen.”

Coming attractions

Lion chose the title “Faces of Democracy” with great care; she wanted to come up with a compelling label without suggesting a political agenda. “We are trying to explore [democracy] on a very personal level,” Lion said. “Faces” captures the intimate portrayals offered in each of its films, which is something Lion hopes to maintain in the years to come. “I would love to keep the title for future themes,” she said.

Lasting through Sunday, the “Faces of Democracy” film festival has already proven itself a success. “I think they’ve done a great job,” Horbal said. “You cannot have too many festivals like this.”