SAN DIEGO — Some of the latest in international cinematic comedy, tragedy, documentary and animation will be presented during a weeklong film festival that opens Friday at the Fine Arts Theatre in Pacific Beach. The movies, most of them no more than two years old, offer a glimpse of the recent handiwork produced by countries such as Turkey, Czechoslovakia, Spain, the Soviet Union, France, New Zealand and the United States. The Film Festival at San Diego is sponsored by the Landmark Theatre Corp. and the Museum of Photographic Arts.
Landmark (owner of the Guild, Ken, Fine Arts and Cove theaters) is trying to continue the tradition of the San Diego International Film Festival, dormant since 1983, by bringing to San Diego a selection of international films, few of which normally would be seen here in commercial distribution.
More than choosing movies that had not played in San Diego, the real key to the festival was picking films people would like.
"We wanted to provide something the community could call their own event and that they could really enjoy," said David Swanson, formerly manager of the Fine Arts and now manager of Landmark theaters in Denver.
The idea was to avoid what Swanson called "festival films," movies so strange that only aficionados of esoteric or avant garde cinema would enjoy them. "That doesn't mean they won't find something they won't like," Swanson said, "but by and large they'll find films they'll like."
They did not choose movies such as "Boy Meets Girl," which played at the New York Film Festival. It was a "wonderful film," Swanson said. But "by the time it was over, half the audience had walked out. We said if it doesn't play in New York, there's no way it would play in San Diego."
There will be documentaries on Marlene Dietrich and the Los Angeles rock band X; two children's films (a French animation, "The King and Mr. Bird," and "Ronja, the Robber's Daughter," a Swedish adaptation of a child's tale) as well as special tributes to Budd Boetticher, a cult Western director who lives in San Diego County, and Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa.
The showings touch a spectrum of emotions on an array of subjects. In the acclaimed opening feature, "Utu," New Zealand director Geoff Murphy leavens the tragic overtones of this brutal, Western-like film with the humor and danger that accompany two star-crossed lovers. The time is late 19th-Century New Zealand during the Maori Wars. "Utu" is the Maori word for retribution, and the movie, in its personalized tale of the struggle between the natives and the British colonial troops, plumbs the essence of the word.
According to Times reviewer Kevin Thomas, amid the beautiful photography and an excellent cast, Anzac Wallace as the fierce Maori rebel leader Te Wheke, "with his Claude Rains voice . . . brings a Shakespearean terror and grandeur to 'Utu.' "
Gary Meyer, Landmark vice president in charge of programming, made the movie selections. Meyer had long wanted to sponsor a festival, Swanson said. The real problem was in persuading Landmark's operational managers in Los Angeles that, although the festival might lose money, it was important to go ahead with it.
"Realistically, it's a way of giving a thank-you to the city, of building good will," Swanson said. "There are so many films that don't get play in towns like San Diego. There are many fine films that don't fit into the cracks of distribution."
Swanson and Meyer chose 21 out of 300 recent films that haven't been seen in San Diego.
Before the festival's official opening Friday, "Living at Risk," a documentary by photojournalist Susan Meiselas, will receive its first showing outside of New York on Thursday at the Broadway Theatre downtown. Presented by the Museum of Photographic Arts, the 59-minute film centers on a wealthy Nicaraguan family that stayed during the revolution and worked with the ruling Sandinista party. Meiselas, 37, who is known primarily for her hard-hitting still photographs of El Salvador and Nicaragua, will speak after a slide show of her photographs and the movie.
Meiselas' El Salvador photographs, some of which are part of its current show, have been exhibited at the museum. The "Living at Risk" show begins at 8 p.m. Thursday.
The museum will present the Figueroa tribute at 3 p.m. Sunday. Born in 1907 in Mexico, Figueroa moved to Hollywood, working with director Gregg Tolland (the cameraman for "Citizen Kane") before establishing a close association with Mexican director Emilio Fernandez. Figueroa collaborated with Luis Bunuel on "The Young and the Damned" and "The Exterminating Angel," and with John Ford ("The Fugitive") and John Huston ("Night of the Iguana" and "Under the Volcano").
"The Pearl" (1946), directed by Fernandez, will be screened at 1 p.m. Figueroa will speak at 3 p.m., followed by clips from his other works and the 1959 Mexican feature, "Macario."