Open society and its seasons

Mehru Jaffer

It is cinema season in Vienna. Of course, there is cinema throughout the year here, including the open air screenings under the summer skies when each star seems as big as the moon.

But the Viennale is different. The grand festival of international films forces the city to open its doors every autumn to the whole world, at least on screen. 

Perhaps Vienna is different too. No wonder it has been voted second year in a row as the city with the best quality of life in the world. 

The cosmopolitanism of the city is most precious to none other than Michael Haupl, Vienna's very popular mayor who does not tire of repeating that it equally benefits Vienna to be exposed to outside influences and to remain open to the world. "When people come here and fall in love with our city we profit hugely," Haupl said, flagging off the two-week-long Viennale, where a high percentage of the 90,000 plus visitors from Austria and abroad are made up of a decidedly young audience.

In the same breath, the mayor added that he was not only talking about 'profits' in the economic sense of the word, promising to keep on working on being 'open' as openness does not fall into the lap just like that. This very conscious effort of the mayor to welcome and to want to appreciate the 'other' is infectious and the backbone of the Viennale. 

Today, the festival is admired for its annual fight against forgetting. Year after year it takes stock of this same theme through the work of both early filmmakers and contemporary ones from around the world. The focus is on aesthetic and thematic diversity. What is appreciated here is the untold story of real people in a real way from different parts of the world. 

The access that the Viennale audience has this year  - over 200 productions - this year is no luxury but a privilege, according to Eric Pleskow, President, Viennale. "A privilege that cannot be valued too highly," says Pleskow, reminding film lovers of Larry Cohen. One of the highlights this year is the rediscovery on the big screen of the work of Cohen, the great independent mind of American cinema famous for diving deep into the depths of the often murky waters of US history.

Filmmakers like Cohen are rare these days. To honour Cohen is to live up to the spirit of the Viennale, where remembrance is considered a noble duty. In the bargain, if audiences are entertained as well, so be it - this is the attitude here.

In a tribute to Cohen, German film writer Olaf Moeller points out in the pages of the lush brochure accompanying the Viennale that the films Cohen wrote and directed can be found in video stores, are regularly shown on TV and hurtle down download channels. Only from the big screen do they tend to be missing, both classics of popular progressive subversion, and exquisitely polished gems. 

Cohen, the master of a loud, popular cinema with mass appeal, offering intense emotions and clearly defined moral positions, has always been present, albeit at the fringes, on the edge of vision where things start to get blurry. He is one of the greats among the marginal, and, like the best among them, he is always on the move, restless in his thinking and in his work. 

A talented writer, the 1941-born New Yorker chose to direct films after 1972 as he was unhappy with the way 'other people' adapted his screenplays. Cohen is a guest at the Viennale to share his experiences with the public: this is integral to the aesthetics of public space.

Viennale director Hans Hurch sees public space as a civil right and an integral part of life. Public space is for the exchange of experience, sharing of information, knowledge, emotion, and for balancing interests. Public space in fact is a moral space. And for Hurch, cinema is public space, showing us how space becomes time and movement. 

His biggest concern is that public space is being expropriated a little every day, eaten away by the virus that is money, dissolved into a kind of parallel world governed by private interests, the media and politics. 

Surely, cinema too is commercial, but it is impossible to calculate the worth of all films in terms of money. Cinema is ruled by an altogether different kind of economy and aesthetics.

That is why, everyone roars a big hurrah when Hurch says that films must be made as if money did not exist

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: NOVEMBER 2010

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