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Jeonju 2024: Cinema Projects Past and Future

Protesters walk over a field through clouds of tear gas.Direct Action

It’s not necessarily that, in a pathetic version of Henry Hill’s childhood desire to be a gangster, I’ve “always wanted to attend a pitch forum.” But I’ve admittedly been curious to see how this particular part of the festival-film apparatus works and never had ready access; impelled by both that and ties of friendship, I went on my third day at this year’s Jeonju International Film Festival to the Jeonju Cinema Project pitching panel. Fellow Filmmaker writer and pal Blake Williams was one of the seven projects—four Korean, three international, with one finalist selected from each category—selected to pitch at the Next Edition section of this year’s iteration of Jeonju’s initiative, which is similar in aspects to the Venice Biennale College Cinema program, focused as both are on providing financing for lower-budgeted films that aspirationally will be completed within a year’s time to show at the following year’s edition. (In practice, at Jeonju this doesn’t always happen.) This year, 58 projects submitted—eight more than the previous year, but to me an oddly low number even with all the strings attached; it’s not like private equity is getting any easier to locate, and the program’s alumni include films that have had meaningful festival lives like Lois Patiño’s Samsara and Ted Fendt’s Outside Noise. The vibe split the difference between “becalmed game show” and—thanks to the earpieces provided for simultaneous translation into English—an afternoon at the United Nations. Each project had eight minutes to present, followed by seven minutes of questions from jurors. At stage right, a festival worker would ding a bell first once to signal that time was running out, then twice when time was really running out. (More than any festival I’ve ever been to, Jeonju is extremely serious about things starting precisely on time and lasting not a minute longer than scheduled.) 

First up was Bangladeshi immigrant and documentarian Shekh Al Mamun, seeking a total budget of $133,738 for Unplug, his first fictional feature; one of the jurors pointed out that this didn’t seem adequate to cover presumably expensive song cues written into the script. Fair enough—more dubious was another juror’s claim that the project, which focuses on the exploitation of migrant workers, may be accurate for its late ’90s setting but, given that Korean society has now evolved and treats immigrants well, why such a sad ending? I don’t know anything about the political particulars here, but am generally skeptical whenever anyone claims, in any context, that discrimination is now a thing of the past from where they (i.e., the non-migrant) sit. After Al Mamun’s low-key PowerPoint presentation, Yoo Jaewook offered up a jazzier slideshow for The Gorals with wacky illustrations of ducks and dogs wilding out. His tonal comps were Stand by Me and Napoleon Dynamite (still!); one of the jurors observed that the number of animals involved would be the main production/fiscal challenge (the project is seeking a total budget of $332,998), noting that “I filmed 40 wild dogs” for one project. “It’s hard!” Next was Ko Bongsoo’s The Housebreakers, the presentation given by the director’s extremely calm producer Choi Yi-seul. After she laid out what sounded like a low-key dramedy, one juror asked with a little skepticism, “Is it an independent feature or a low-budget commercial film?”—a question that should be asked way more often. Last was Lee Ilha’s documentary Horoomon, which ended up winning the section—the only presenting project to not give a number for the budget being sought, and, surprisingly, the first to offer actual footage in trailer format, unexpectedly partially soundtracked by “Cum On Feel the Noize.” 

We were told that we would now pause for a ten-minute break and should all be back at precisely 3:26; in a reciprocally type-A spirit, I must note that the second half actually began at 3:29. Marta Popovida, whose Landscapes of Resistance premiered at Rotterdam in 2021, had a very smooth and professional presentation for Body in Plural, complete with a well-cut trailer (and, indeed, was the eventual winner). Then came Blake, who’d brought 85 pairs of anaglyph 3D glasses for his four-minute teaser reel for his next feature, I’ve Seen Water; juror and Jeonju programmer Sung Moon observed that it was the first 3D pitch she’d ever experienced. Fellow juror Beli Martínez commented that Blake’s proposed budget seemed low; he rallied by noting that it was a step up from previous films that cost pretty much nothing, and that when it comes to money, “I think it would be fun to explore ways of spending it.” (Wealthy people reading, take note.) Last came director Clarisa Navas and producer Eugenia Campos Guevara, who acted as an interpreter for the Argentinian filmmaker, seeking to complete The Prince of Nanawa, a documentary that she’s been filming for a decade now; they endearingly noted of their financial position, “The budget is very….dynamic.” 

One past Jeonju Cinema Project selection, Ben Russell and Guillaume Cailleau’s mysteriously hypnotic Direct Action, clocks in at 216 minutes, including a five-minute intermission rendered as a stately/static outdoor shot of rain pouring down, with the word “intermission” at screen left. This prompted a rare introduction from the otherwise intro-avoidant festival, as we were informed in Korean and English that at precisely the 97-minute mark, there would be an intermission that is part of the film, so the lights wouldn’t come up and we should all remain seated. (In a demonstration of the limits of control, lots of people didn’t.) Given a chronological benchmark, I was startled by how fast that intermission arrived, as Direct Action fairly speeds by. Its title is a slight misdirection; though the film grounds itself in a squatter protest community based in Notre-Dame-des-Landes, the vast of majority of its running time, focusing on quotidian daily life, might as well be called Indirect Action. There are reminders throughout of what this is all ultimately about—early on, a woman reads a manual about interrogation tactics to a pig—but time is dedicated to everyday activities like potato farming, dough being kneaded for bread or a man amusing himself by flying a drone. (Here, the film—otherwise shot on Super 16—cedes itself to the drone’s vertiginous perspective.) On the morning of a demonstration, Russell’s camera (he’s credited as the cinematographer and co-edited with Cailleau) doesn’t rush to get to the ruckus, instead observing as a kman makes crepes on nine separate pans to fuel the day’s protests. As someone who’s rarely happier than when seated with a kitchen view and who could watch short-order cooks all day, I was delighted.

I spent a good chunk of Direct Action wondering why I found this so compelling. Normally a bit of lower-key Bordwellian shot analysis helps me figure things out, but Direct Action doesn’t make itself so easy to parse. The film’s visual appeal is textural rather than compositional, meaning it looks welcoming and warm in its palette but not ostentatious in its spatial relations and gets a lot of mileage from meticulous sonic ambience. The film rejects a strong narrative arc or throughline characters, favoring a collective portrait as is only appropriate given the subject, in which time is primarily spent observing the daily lives of activists practicing what Americans might call “self-care” (a term I suspect these French activists would reject)—i.e., the preconditions that then allow for stressful/dangerous activism to take place. There is little urge to embrace the spectacular even when hundreds of people are swarming about, as finally happens when, with 50 minutes to go, we get the titular direct action: marching, tear gas, rockets being fired, the whole bit. (Total running time of said action: 17 minutes.) The only conclusion I could draw was that I enjoyed the feeling of being in proximity to these people, calm and principled as they are; it didn’t give me any of the itchy, irritable feeling I often get when delving into accounts of their American activist counterparts. I recently read a long account of the “Stop Cop City” movement; as admirable as its participants are, what stuck with me more than anything else was the cursed phrase “complex interlocking polycules.” Direct Action renders its activists as people you’d actually like to hang out with and offers plenty of time to do so.

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