Around the world with AFI

Raymond de Asis Lo, L.A. Correspondent (The Philippine Star) - November 25, 2013 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - How do you travel the world in eight days for only less than $10 a day? Easy.

Whenever someone would ask this writer where I got my education, I would often lightheartedly reply “from the movies.” It’s true. Yes, I did get my bachelors and own a degree from a university but I credit most of my education to the movies. Through movies, I have educated myself in medicine, law, politics, economics, war, sociology, psychology, religion, relationships, love, and, yes, even sex!

But, apart from the education I get, I have realized that the movies allow me to travel to places in the world that I could not possibly afford to travel to in the comfort of a soft and cushy seat, in the company of my movie buff friends inside the sanctuary that we call cinema.

For eight days this November, I have traveled to France, Bosnia, Palestine, Germany, Chile, South Korea, Georgia, Israel, Argentina, The Netherlands, Poland, United Kingdom, Italy, a remote jungle somewhere in the world, and I even traveled back in time to the 1960s and witnessed how Walt Disney struggle to bring to the screen P.L Travers’ beloved book Mary Poppins.

So, yes, you can indeed travel the world for less than $10 a day. For this writer, all it takes is a 20-mile drive from my apartment to the Hollywood and Highland complex where the American Film Institute (AFI) held the 25th edition of its annual film festival which, for the fifth year now, is offering free tickets to movie lovers, courtesy of the major sponsor Audi.

This year’s festival took place from Nov. 7 through Nov. 14 and had acclaimed French director and so-called godmother of French new wave cinema, Agnes Varda, serve as guest artistic director.

The festival showcased 119 films (83 features and 36 shorts) from 43 countries and was grouped into 11 different categories. World Cinema had 32 selections including official Foreign Language Oscar submissions from 15 countries.

This writer was fortunate to have seen 16 of those 83 feature films and that week in November brought this movie junkie such enormous joy.

The opening night film was Disney’s Oscar contender Saving Mr. Banks which is set to open in the Philippines on Feb. 26 next year. The movie features exceptional performances from leads Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson and a rare look into the back-story of who or what Mary Poppins really was. Make sure you have your hankies ready for this sentimental and emotional film.

From the 1960s Hollywood, this writer took a trip to early 1990s Georgia and glimpsed at the lives of two 14-year-old girls after the collapse of the Soviet Union in In Bloom. In Germany, first-time director Katrin Gebbe promised us that Nothing Bad Can Happen to a young devout Christian after his encounter with a family he accidentally met but surprised us because something bad, really bad, did happen. This German film took the Jury Prize.

My favorite movies from the festival were Omar from Palestine, which tells the powerful and tragic story of a young Palestinian freedom fighter caught between his loyalty to his country and friends and his selfless devotion to the woman he loves. The movie does not offer any solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict but it leads the audience in on what it’s like to live within the walled settlements. This is the entry from Palestine to the Oscars.

I also fell in love, even if it made me cry, with The Selfish Giant, the audience award winner from the UK. It’s a sad tale of two poor boys who resort to petty criminal activities to make money and help their impoverished families. There’s a jolting scene close to the end of the movie that still haunts me to this day.

Another film, Gloria, Chile’s official entry to the Oscars, is the story of a post-middle aged divorcee grappling with a newfound romance while juggling her responsibilities at work and as a mother is also the story and celebration of our lives. The movie is both funny and poignant with a terrific performance from the titular lead Paulina Garcia.

The film that’s really challenged me is Borgman, the film selected by the Netherlands to compete at the Oscars. It’s a twisted bedtime story from Dutch filmmaker Alex Van Warmerdam and it is not concerned with giving the audience a coherent narrative but the storytelling, like all the bedtime stories we make up, is engaging, puzzling and simply beguiling.

The boldest film I saw was the French thriller Stranger by the Lake. The movie was filmed in just a single location (the lake in the title) but it’s a riveting exploration of how far some people go to take risks and face dangers for the sake of love (or perhaps simply just lustful pursuits). The movie features a lot of hardcore sexuality onscreen and nearly all characters in the movie showed their skin, which is striking because despite all the nudity the audience did not get to know any of the characters beyond what they presented to the other strangers by that lake.

The AFI is the foremost film organization in the U.S.A. It aims to preserve the history of the motion picture, to honor the artists and their work and to educate the next generation of storytellers — and, if this writer may add, takes movie buffs like me on a tour of the world for less than $10 a day.

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