Arsenals festival takes a trip to the moon

  • 2002-09-05
Riga's biennial film festival pays tributes to the roots of motion pictures this year, as Laimons Juris G reports.

A gala champagne breakfast in the central ring of Riga's Circus recently kicked off the publicity campaign for the 16th International Film Forum Arsenals to be held Sep. 21-29 in the Latvian capital. Always a chance to see interesting movies from all over the world, this year's event will celebrate a certified classic.

The breakfast was held in honor of the 100th anniversary of Georges Méliès' "A Trip to the Moon." This year's festival is dedicated to Méliès' visionary film. Using it as a centerpiece the organizers have emphasized a "fantasy" theme, which is mirrored throughout the selection of films in the program.

At the beginning of glasnost and perestroika in 1986, a group of Latvians in Riga founded the first independent film festival in the Soviet Union. It was the first time that long forbidden motion pictures from outside the communist empire could finally be viewed. Augusts Sukuts, one of the originators of the idea, is today the president of Arsenals. The event held every two years guarantees a cornucopia of surprises for the filmgoer. The 16th IFF Arsenals will present: "Digital Legends," a collection of Japanese animated films for adults; a distinctive film program from Spain; a retrospective look at the films of Italy's Nanni Moretti; and a unique glimpse of Finnish filmmaker Teuvo Tulio's silent films. It has been hinted that a mysterious assortment of films from Egypt may materialize on time for viewing.

In the Baltic Film Competition some 35 new films from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania will compete in four categories: features, shorts, documentaries and animated films. An international jury will decide the winners. In the Forum Main Competition, 15 films and their directors will be competing for the $10,000 grand prize. But there is no jury to decide which is the very best flick because all are winners. Arsenals tradition dictates that a random lottery will determine this year's best film and director.

However, what I believe to be the best of all possibilities – the chance to see that astounding piece of cinema art, "A Trip to the Moon" - should not be missed. You will be amazed and utterly surprised at how enchanting a film can really be. It is filled with a childlike wonder that is so very rare, or completely lacking, in most motion pictures shown today.

Georges Méliès (1861-1938) is one of the pioneers of world cinema. After buying a camera from the father of French film, Louis Lumiere, Méliès started filming everything and anything that moved.

Méliès was the owner of the Theatre Robert-Houdin in Paris. He was a popular magician and specialized in sleight of hand and electromagnetic marvels. He believed that film was a mechanical extension of magical illusion, with which he could achieve effects never before imagined.

Méliès was the first filmmaker to use miniature sets and is credited with inventing (or accidentally originating) animation, double exposure, stop motion, fast and slow motion, fades, dissolves and practically the entire repertoire of effects that are now accepted as the basic building blocks of film. You just name it, Méliès the conjurer did it – long before computer generated effects.

He is also the creator of narrative film, which have a story with a beginning, middle and an end. Some of Méliès' creations were in color, meticulously hand painted in assembly line fashion. He used trompe l'oeil perspectives to give his sets a sense of depth. This is a method used by artists as a visual deception, where certain objects are rendered in extremely fine detail, emphasizing the illusion of tangible and spatial qualities.

In an 18-year period (1896-1914) Méliès wrote, directed, filmed and produced 532 films. His subject matter included everything from the classic fairy tale "Cinderella" to Shakespeare's "Hamlet" to "Baron Munchaus-sen" to "Jeanne d'Arc" to "Con-quest of the Pole." His most well known film "A Trip to the Moon" (Le Voyage dans la lune) made him a small fortune which helped support his ever more ambitious film projects.

If you were lucky enough to have seen this astonishing film you cannot easily forget the famous scene of a rocket hitting the man in the moon's eye. It's a classic in avant-garde filmmaking. As a matter of fact, Méliès is even regarded as a godfather of the avant-garde.

In 1914, World War I ends Méliès' career as a producer. In 1925 he lost his beloved theater, destroyed all his films and vanished. Several years later the French film industry "discovered" Méliès at a newsstand selling papers. He was photographed, feted, made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, given a free room at an old people's home in Orly and then (again) forgotten.

Motion pictures had become big business and the industry considered Méliès' shorts as novelty items and not serious enough to make bundles of money from. Estranged and bankrupt, Méliès still hoped to get back into making films. Sadly, he never realized his longed-for dream. At the age of 77, the extraordinary human being who Charlie Chaplin called the "alchemist of light" died destitute and alone.

Fortunately, the incomparable Méliès left mankind an incredible legacy – an entire library of delightful viewing. The Society of the Friends of Georges Méliès in Paris will present a special program of Méliès' cinema treats at Arsenals. Introducing over a dozen of Méliès' remarkable short films will be his great-great granddaughter, Marie-Hélène Lehérissey-Méliès.

This year IFF Arsenals will present almost 100 films at the Kongress Nams (Congress Hall), Kinogalerija and Kino Riga. Keep up with all the 16th IFF Arsenals events and screenings via The Baltic Times, as further information will be found in "Out & About." There should be something for everyone to enjoy, to discuss, to wonder at, to think about or to be simply entertained.