By Jefferson Beavers
An underappreciated Chilean folklorist saves the disappearing songs and stories of Latin America. Snow White gets a makeover as a Spanish bullfighter. Beekeepers from Switzerland to Central California plan for the future as the global honeybee population collapses. And a Brazilian filmmaking auteur meticulously interprets an American literary classic.
The ninth annual Fresno Film Festival will explore these themes and more in its April 19–21 run at the historic Tower Theatre. The festival is presented by Fresno Filmworks, an all-volunteer nonprofit dedicated to bringing first-run independent and international movies to the central San Joaquin Valley since 2002.
The group’s president, John Moses, says the feature films at this year’s festival will be emblematic of the abundant variety of international movies that rarely come through Fresno.
“In keeping with what we’ve done in past years, we really do have a diversity of language and style and story,” Moses says.
Two festival selections will particularly appeal to the area’s Latino population: the Chilean biopic Violeta Went to Heaven, the story of acclaimed folklorist Violeta Parra, as adapted from her son’s memoir, and the Spanish silent film Blancanieves, the reinvention of the Brothers Grimm version of Snow White, with the female protagonist cast as a bullfighter.
The Hollywood Reporter calls Violeta Went to Heaven an unconventional biopic that “awkwardly blends melodrama with elements of magical realism.” Andrés Wood, who is best known for his 2004 political drama Machuca, directed the film, which won the World Cinema Dramatic Jury Prize at Sundance.
Parra’s meticulous work in the Nueva Canción movement of the 1950s and 1960s saw her travel all over her native Chile to acquire and preserve rural folk songs and stories that were disappearing. The film traces several strands of her many trips, as she reaches into to rural areas of the country and asks elderly people to share their folk roots with her.
Parra was also a singer, a poet and a painter, and her work would later inspire rural social movements and working-class uprisings across Latin America. But her work was underappreciated at the time, which contributed to her suicide in 1967.
“Between the style of the film, the subject matter, the music, the art and the poetry, it’s quite a film,” Moses says. “The film is not a linear narrative. It’s a beautiful film that is very subjectively told.”
In contrast, Blancanieves makes for a different kind of Spanish-language cinematic experience. The Hollywood Reporter calls the movie “a love letter to 1920s European silent film, liberally mixing humor and melodrama.” It was Spain’s official selection to this year’s Academy Awards as Best Foreign Language Film.
Moses says the makers of Blancanieves have made “a unique and fresh re-telling of the Brothers Grimm version of Snow White.” The film sets the start of the action in a grand bullfighting arena, unconventionally connecting the classic fairy tale to a national tradition in Spain that combines art and spectacle with high drama.
But there are two twists: The heroine is the star of a predominantly male ritual, and a flamenco soundtrack and dancing are woven throughout the tale. With these elements, as well as the resurgence of Snow White interpretations in recent years, both on the big screen and on TV, Moses says he’s curious to see the mix of people who come out to see the film.
The Swiss production of the documentary More Than Honey will also appeal to local audiences. The film, which is still on the festival circuit and won’t get its full nationwide release until June, examines the dire situation of honeybees and the collapse of bee colonies worldwide.
More Than Honey starts with the story of a third-generation beekeeper in Switzerland and includes a stop in China, where bees have disappeared and farmers now pollinate their crops almost exclusively by hand. A good portion of the film then takes place amid San Joaquin Valley almond groves northeast of Sacramento, before ending on the Mexican border with an unlikely story of a new beekeeper who believes that working with Africanized killer bees holds the key to reviving the world’s bee population.
Moses says the movie’s storyline has many familiar overtones for folks in the Central Valley. “Other films have taken up this topic, of course,” Moses says, “but this one has a much more international perspective.”
On the lighter side, the festival will open with the French romantic comedy Paris-Manhattan, the first feature from director Sophie Lellouche. The movie tells the story of a French pharmacist from a Jewish family who has a lifelong obsession with Woody Allen films.
Paris-Manhattan has enjoyed wide acclaim on the festival circuit, in particular at the Washington Jewish Film Festival earlier this year. The film gets its California debut at the Santa Cruz Jewish Film Festival in early April, just weeks before it opens in Fresno.
“It’s a fun film,” Moses says, “a comedy in the way that the French do best.” Time Out London calls the film “a fun, fluffy, and chic romantic comedy that looks so effortless.”
Perhaps the most well-known film at the festival will be On the Road, the new cinematic adaptation of the classic Beat Generation novel by Jack Kerouac.
The movie features young stars Sam Riley as Kerouac, Garrett Hedlund as Neal Cassady and Kristin Stewart of Twilight fame as Marylou Henderson, among others. Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles, best known for his Ernesto “Che” Guevara biopic The Motorcycle Diaries in 2004, directs.
Critics have been divided on the film, but Moses says the many standout performances—in particular, Viggo Mortensen as William S. Burroughs—make the movie a must-see. He also loves the international interpretation that Salles and screenwriter José Rivera bring to the quintessentially American road movie.
“I’m most struck by such a careful reading and construction of America in the 1940s. It really captures that time in this story with a great deal of authenticity,” Moses says. “Maybe the outsider’s eye is important for adapting that kind of iconic novel. He’s able to see it with a kind of freshness that an American director might not.”
In addition to the full features, the Fresno Film Festival will also include two full programs of original short films, submitted from all over the world. For details and the full lineup, visit FresnoFilmworks.org after April 1.
Jefferson Beavers teaches journalism and film studies at Fresno City College. He also serves on the Fresno Filmworks Board of Directors.