Morelia Film Festival shines a light on Mexican cinema and much more


Four of the last five Best Directing Oscars were awarded to Mexican filmmakers. That makes the Morelia International Film Festival (FICM) one of the foremost resources for discovering and understanding a vibrant national cinema.

Founded in 2003, FICM is celebrating its 16th season Oct. 20-28. According to Blas Valdez, a member of the selection committee and part of film-programming management, the festival was established in part to provide "a forum to promote up-and-coming Mexican cinema talents, to create incentives and cultural opportunities for the Mexican and international public, and to display the cultural richness of the state of Michoacán."

FICM offers competitive categories for shorts, documentaries and features from Mexico, as well as a special competition for filmmakers who live in Michoacán. Titles are chosen from some 700 entries by selection committees. In addition, each year the festival honors artists from Michoacán, from directors and cinematographers to composers and performers.

On the festival's opening night, Damien Chazelle will present First Man. Alfonso Cuarón brings his acclaimed Roma for multiple screenings. Other guests include Pawel Pawlikowski (Cold War), Olivier Assayas (Non-fiction, Personal Shopper, Irma Vep), and Julie Bertuccelli (La dernière folie de Claire Darling, with Catherine Deneuve).

Jury members at FICM always include significant filmmakers. Lynne Ramsay, jury president for the Mexican Features competition, will be introducing Ratcatcher, Morvern Caller, We Need to Talk About Kevin, You Were Never Really Here and a selection of her hard-to-see shorts. She will also participate in Q&A sessions after her screenings.

In addition to the competitive categories, the FICM program offers a wide array of recent and upcoming mainstream releases: Beautiful Boy, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Museo, Burning, The Front Runner, The Kindergarten Teacher, The House With a Clock in Its Walls, The Old Man & the Gun, Shoplifters, The Rider and Vox Lux.

Documentaries include Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story; Botero, about the controversial Colombian artist Fernando Botero; and De chaque instant/Each and Every Moment, director Nicolas Philibert's look at candidates in a nursing school. Philibert broke through to a worldwide audience in 2001 with Être et avoir/To Be and To Have, his remarkable look at a year in a rural school.

A tribute to Illumination Entertainment will screen three Despicable Me features, Sing, The Secret Life of Pets and other releases from the animation studio. A separate program honors animator Dominique Jonard, who died this year in Morelia. A painter in France, he began making animated shorts with indigenous children when he moved to Mexico some 20 years ago. FICM is screening nine of his shorts covering that period.

Last year, more than 70,000 attended the festival. This year, some 200 titles will be shown, 90 of them in competition. The crowds and sheer number of screenings can make it difficult to decide what to see. Even so, organizers consider FICM's special series and programs to be as important as recent releases.

Valdez points out that FICM has several programs targeted to aspiring filmmakers. "Students from local universities are invited to attend all conversations and master classes by our special guests during the festival. We also organize several workshops aimed at young and upcoming filmmakers." In addition, many of the entries in the shorts competition came from film schools in Mexico.

"Impulso Morelia" operates as an adjunct to the main screenings. Works-in-progress, both fiction and documentaries, are screened for film industry professionals, including festival programmers, sales agents, distributors and producers. According to Valdez, it's a chance to open a dialogue between Mexican and international filmmakers.

FICM also collaborates with other festivals and institutions. It operates a screenplay lab in conjunction with the Sundance Institute, and for the fourth year will be offering Morelia/IMCINE–Locarno Industry Academy International workshops on sales, marketing, online and traditional distribution, exhibition and programming.

The program also offers a wide selection of titles from the Curaçao International Film Festival Rotterdam Program, the Goethe Institute, The Criterion Collection and The Film Foundation. Screenings include classics like Tomás Gutiérrez Alea's Memories of Underdevelopment and the recent Museum of Modern Art restoration of Rosita, starring Mary Pickford and directed by Ernst Lubitsch.

A special tribute to Cannes fixture Pierre Rissient will present the Mexican premiere of Cinq et la peau/Five and the Skin, a newly restored version of a film Rissient directed in 1982, as well as a 2016 biographical documentary, Gentleman Rissient.

Rissient had his own seat at the Cinépolis Centro for festival screenings, where he would hold forth on his favorite films. To fulfill a promise she made to him, Daniela Michel, a founding director of FICM, scheduled a retrospective of cinematographer Alex Phillips.

While building a career shooting silent features in Hollywood, Phillips was hired for Santa (1931), the first Mexican sound feature. He loved the experience so much he continued to work in Mexico the rest of his life. In all he had credits on more than 250 Mexican films, including Subida al cielo/Mexican Bus Ride, directed by Luis Buñuel. He also found time to train his apprentice and friend Gabriel Figueroa.

According to Héctor Orozco, curator of Fundación Televisa, Phillips considered himself "the slowest photographer in the world," but he remained in demand from the early 1930s until his last film, the 1972 melodrama El castillo de la pureza/The Castle of Purity, from director Arturo Ripstein.

The Phillips retrospective highlights his collaborations with director Miguel Contreras Torres in El padre Morelos/Father Morelos and El Rayo del Sur/The Lightning Bolt of the South, two films about a key figure in the independence movement who was executed in 1815.

Extensive repertory titles include Sombra verde/Untouched, a troubled 1954 production with Ricardo Montalbán; examples of state-financed features from the 1970s; and tributes to Mexican actresses Dolores del Rio, Lupe Vélez and Katy Jurado. Montalbán is also the subject of the series "Imaginary Mexico," exploring his work in films like Anthony Mann's Border Incident, William Wellman's My Man and I, and even an early Soundie short, He's a Latin from Staten Island.

Marking the 50th anniversary of the student movement in 1968, FICM will be screening the documentary El grito, part of the Arcadia initiative to bring film restorations to the public. During the 1968 demonstrations, students at the University Center for Film Studies (CUEC) filmed some eight hours of footage, which was later cut and reassembled in secret by director Leobardo López Arretche and editor Juan Ramón Aupart. (Arretche had been jailed for several months for his role in the rebellion.)

Honoring the past while looking forward to the future has been a goal of the Morelia International Film Festival since its start. The city itself, founded in 1541 as Valladolid, has preserved numerous historical sites, including a cathedral dating to 1660 and the Casa de la Cultura, a former monastery built in 1593. In 1991, Morelia was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The opportunity to see a classic film like Emilio Fernández's Enamorada in a free outdoor screening at the Plaza Benito Juárez is just one of the many reasons the Morelia International Film Festival is attracting more artists and filmmakers every year.