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Highlights from the 2017 Los Cabos Film Festival

Walking along the Los Cabos Film Festival’s sixth opening gala, the shadows of a teeming red carpet press corps grapple for position as grayscale titans on a building across a desert field from the Pabellón Cultural de la República. Spectacle and reality jockey for position just as aggressively during the festival. Last year, my first attending the resort-set fest, was tainted by its proximity to the presidential election, from which fleeing to sunny ‎Cabo San Lucas felt like both a betrayal of those depressed Americans I left behind and a fantasy I could escape into.

This year, another heartbreaking event - the series of sexual assault revelations unveiling the movie industry’s patriarchal exploitation for those not already sadly in the know - lent collar-tugging subtext to the festival’s carefree tone. A throughline of guilt seems to have seeped into the festival’s selection of films, because along with some of the bigger-name films screened at the festival (which included “The Florida Project,” “Downsizing,” “Molly’s Game,” “A Ghost Story,” and “I, Tonya”), many of the smaller, foreign-language films dealt with the repercussions of troubled men abusing their power.

When seated in a luscious, custom-decorated auditorium for a screening of the heavy-handed but surprisingly well-shot “Battle of the Sexes,” you have plenty of time to consider how little has changed from the exaggerated gender politics of the 1973 Billie Jean King v. Bobby Riggs tennis match at the heart of the film. You also have every distraction to keep your mind elsewhere. There’re the rum drinks that come in bags like adult Capri Suns, the red carpet galas, the pools, the beachside afterparties—I’ll never complain about leaving late-fall Chicago for that. But if the celebration of cinema last year felt like mournful escapism, this year it feels even more disingenuous.

That carried over to the talent honored by the festival. Los Cabos honored writer/director Paul Schrader with a spotlight, screening his new film "First Reformed" and the 1985 stunner “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters.” At a press conference, Schrader was questioned mainly about his late career and how he’d transitioned and adapted to the streaming-centric way of moviemaking. However, he was also given a chance to comment on the ongoing flood of sexual misconduct allegations after his seemingly callous reaction to the accusations towards producer Harvey Weinstein. Schrader then compared the current wave of revelations to the feminist revolution, saying that the workplace will forever be changed.

Nicole Kidman, who received an award for lifetime achievement in cinema, was not given opportunity to comment on such matters. Kidman made stops at a press conference and the closing gala on her way to introduce Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Killing of a Sacred Deer.” At her press conference, when she could avoid the barrage of cues from tourism-seeking festival employees, Kidman spoke of her love of stories regardless of medium (citing Krzysztof Kieślowski’s “Dekalog” television series) and her commitment to working with female directors now that she has the power, as both actress and producer, to do so.

As she said this, the conference was quickly winded down, lest anyone question the actress—so recently in the news for being the subject for a screenwriter’s sex scene scandal—about ways to support and further women in the industry. It’s already been a big year for Kidman, as she’s recently won a Leading Actress Emmy for HBO miniseries “Big Little Lies” and starred in the films “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” and “The Beguiled” (of which, the festival screened the former alongside “Sacred Deer”), and her commitment to her female colleagues couldn’t be contained by a festival content to bury its head in its sandy beaches.

While Cabos 2017 closed with a screening of “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” the real stars of the fest were many of the smaller Latin American films making their world premieres at the industry-populated springboard. These films, along with the international selection, were among the best-curated (and most-attended) on the schedule, and the awards reflected this. Gabriel Mariño’s low-key body-swap romance “Yesterday Wonder I Was” took home multiple prizes while the Audience Award went to “Road to Mars,” which I’ve blurbed below. 

A surprising, non-thematic throughline of the festival was actor Willem Dafoe, who had three films at the festival: “Opus Zero,” “Mountain,” and festival competition winner “The Florida Project.” Dafoe’s harshness allows him to play beings on either extreme of the moral spectrum well. His performances, whether deified or demonized, helped carry a festival full of strange gems like the prolific actor. These fringe films, like the festival itself, work best as bastions of hope in opposition to the larger movie industry. As long as the festival’s most avant garde screenings are still filled with hordes of Mexican high schoolers, it will still be vital. The following are some of the fest’s highlights.

“Opus Zero”: This bilingual art film stars Dafoe as a composer coming to his late father’s Mexico residence, searching for meaning in the gaping void of loss. Poetic shot construction hits a series of conversational roadblocks that underscore director Daniel Graham’s thematic interests in the nature of silence. Silence and misunderstanding - the gaps in our communicative abilities—are highlighted by the film’s lack of subtitles and overall strangeness. Dafoe’s grisled charisma makes the ride worth the bumps.

“Angels Wear White”: Another blistering Chinese procedural from director Vivian Qu (who produced the phenomenal “Black Coal, Thin Ice”), “Angels Wear White” observes its bureaucratic cruelty with empathetic impotence. The cultural malaise towards women in China, especially young women, echoes the current international wave of seedy behavior rising to the surface. Here, the brutality is implied and the silence deafening. The suffering of two groups, victims and observers, are writ across the cold urban landscapes and the consciousnesses of its characters. Wonderful child acting alongside the cops, nurses, and parents doing their best.

“A Morir en Los Desiertos (To Die in The Desert)”: A documentary about the dying art of choral cardenche - effectively the slave spirituals of the Mexican cotton plantations—has great affection for its elderly a capellans. The abstract, meandering story brushes on the history of these songs, their place in contemporary Mexican culture, and the cyclical coping that suffering workers must undertake. In the Durango state village of Sapioriz, life is dusty, sweaty, and hard-fought. The respite of song—especially in the warmly-collected harmonies found here—makes the blue collar struggle tangible through its oasis.

“Carte A Marte (Road to Mars)”: A teen romance by way of a science fiction-tinged road trip, Humberto Hinojosa Ozcariz’s film does “Twilight” right. It helps that the chemistry between his cast (Luis Gerardo Méndez, Camila Sodi, and Tessa Ia) helps them navigate their nuanced characters perfectly. A fun, B-movie plot of an unreliable hitchhiker meets the complicated end of fleeting youth all along beautiful and bleak desert roads. Funny, sexy, and just sweet enough to swallow its genre trappings.

“Luk’Luk’I”: A Richard Linklater character ramble by way of David Lynch, director Wayne Wapeemukwa’s film creates discomfort through the otherworldliness and underworldliness of its fringe-residing stars. Crippled by heroin, physical handicaps, or a different otherization, the poetic, strange, and impoverished residents of Vancouver’s downtown eastside bump into each others’ daydreams until collapsing into each others’ tragic realities.

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