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“We’re in a middle of a very annoying generation of Hollywood filmmakers that just want to tell you how evil the world is,” says theater director Peter Sellars. “And each movie outdoes itself in presenting the evil of the world. I don’t need art to figure that out. We got it. The point is: What else is there?” Sellars decided to address this problem head-on. To celebrate the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth in 2006, the city of Vienna tapped Sellars to head up the New Crowned Hope festival, an ambitious arts event in the composer’s honor. Sellars says he agreed to oversee the festival “as long as there’s not one note of Mozart in the whole thing. Because everyone will be maxed out on Mozart.” Instead, “the whole point was to commission new work.” So instead of focusing on 18th- century Europe, Sellars decided to make New Crowned Hope a platform for pre- mieres from international artists in numer- ous disciplines. These include a suite of new films underwritten by the festival, arriving at BAM this week.
Working with Simon Field, fresh from exiting the directorship of the Rotterdam Film Festival after many years, Alexander Horwath of the Austrian Film Museum, and British producer Keith Griffiths, Sellars funded a slate of new productions from outside Western cinema. These include works from individuals long admired by critics and festival programmers—Taiwan-based Tsai Ming-Liang’s I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, Kurdish-Iranian director Bahman Ghobadi’s Half Moon, Chadian auteur Mahamet-Saleh Haroun’s Daratt, and Thai visionary Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century—and some more unfamiliar names as well: Paz Encina contributed the first feature produced in Paraguay since the 1970s, Paraguayan Hammock; Garin Nugroho created a fusion of traditional Javanese music and dance with cinema for the epic Opera Jawa; and South African director Teboho Mahlatsi fused folk fable and contemporary life for his short Meokgo and the Stickfighter.
Drawing heavily from developing nations, Sellars sought to counter the “truly moronic clash-of-civilizations model—as if Islam and the West have to wipe each other out. I thought we could tell some other stories. We gathered a group whose work collectively points to a 21st century that is not defined by George Bush or Osama bin Laden.” But his choices were tactically pragmatic as well. “The reason there’s less film from these other parts of the world is that film is really hard to fund in these places. So the question was, where can this money go the farthest and accomplish the most?”
Woven into Sellars’s overarching mission are more closely Mozartian themes. The festival is named after the Masonic lodge that Mozart joined late in his truncated life, a period in the composer’s career that Sellars used as a conceptual model; he notes that Mozart’s final opera, La Clemenza de Tito, is about “truth and reconciliation. I think that was Mozart’s last vision. And it is the only way forward in so many parts of the world with ongoing civil war, post-genocidal situations, and nonstop low-intensity conflict.” In this vein, Ghobadi’s Half Moon tells the story of a band of Kurdish musicians traveling with great difficulty from Iran to Iraq.
Haroun’s masterfully restrained desert drama Daratt is perhaps the most direct response to the issue of reconciliation, taking place in a Chad still healing from brutal conflicts. “When Haroun was making that film,” Sellars says, “Chad was in the midst of invasion from the south by the Sudanese army and the country was in a state of emergency. Every night you could see the CNN or BBC reporting, and of course the image we’re given of these places is one of nonstop crisis. For me it was the question: Do these parts of the world have other stories to tell? And another reason we should be looking? And is it more than just another red blotch on a crisis map?”
Though Opera Jawa makes its local premiere at BAM, the Tsai, Apichatpong, and Haroun films have already seen New York runs. But Rotterdam alum Field notes how the films function as a curatorial whole. “There are all sorts of resonances when people see the films together,” he says. “A certain kind of mood across very different kinds of filmmaking.” Another continuity, he says, is that the directors’ homelands are undergoing “rapid transitions and substantial political changes. They’re trying to engage with the language of cinema, to find a language to fit their subjects.” Avoiding the typically dry documentary route, the films take on global politics with more nuanced storytelling. “I deliberately invited artists from parts of the world where these are real issues,” Sellars says, adding that he’s seeking to continue the project in some ongoing future form. “Art has a role to play here, and it’s not decorative.”