Reporting from Morelia, Mexico — The movies made it almost easy to forget the drug-related violence that had plagued Michoacán state and its capital in recent years.
For the last nine days, this colonial city rolled out the red carpet for the 8th Morelia International Film Festival, and filmmakers, journalists, industry buffs and a handful of celebrities descended. They packed screenings, talks and workshops, rubbing shoulders with regular Morelians crowding into movie theaters, snapping photos and calling out to stars such as Javier Bardem, Danny Trejo and Terry Gilliam.
"A festival like this, in a country like ours, that invites us to open spaces for culture, to speak of other things, to grow spiritually in moments as difficult as these, deserves a great applause," said Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu, making only a veiled reference to the area's woes as he kicked off opening night on Oct. 16.
Oscar-winner Bardem flew into town, taking a short break from filming in Oklahoma, to attend the Mexican premiere of "Biutiful," the new Iñárritu film in which he stars (opening in Los Angeles in late December). Gilliam drew overflow crowds — mostly throngs of cheering Morelian university students — to screenings of his major films.
The atmosphere of normality this year was all the more striking considering what the festival went through in 2008. That year, a grenade attack in Morelia's central plaza late on the night of Sept. 15, the day before Independence Day, left eight people dead. The festival opened two weeks later, under a heavy police and military presence. Tourism in Morelia, and by extension to the festival, has suffered ever since. Currently, the brother of the state's governor, himself a newly elected federal congressman, is fending off allegations of connections to the area's main drug-trafficking organization.
Before the Sept. 15 attack, "this was full of American tourists, and now you don't see that; it's very rare," said Ulises Guzman, 21, a restaurant chef, sitting in the central plaza last week.
Yet even as he spoke, filmgoers were crowding into the Cinepolis theaters in Morelia's colonial center, the festival's main venue. Kathia Garcia, 17, said the festival and the energy it created were a welcome change from the norm. "We can't live with fear over what might happen," she said, explaining why she was attending.
In the grand scheme of things, Morelia is not a Sundance, a Cannes, a Tribeca or a Toronto. In Mexico, it's not even comparable to the Guadalajara film festival, which is larger and generates more distribution deals. Despite the festival's small size, the city's long distance from major world cinema centers and the violence in Michoacán, Morelia has nonetheless become the most sought-after platform for new cinema in Mexico — and a testament to the maturing cinema scene in Mexico as a whole.
Filmmaker Mariana Chenillo, whose short film appears this year in a collection of 10 new shorts titled "Revolución," said the festival was one of a kind.
"You can feel the affection of the programmers," said Chenillo, a 33-year-old native of Mexico City. "They program films that they love and believe in, and they love them as if they were their own."
Many credit the festival's success to its dynamic director, Daniela Michel, who says she is committed to cultivating new talent.
"We're a festival for cinephiles, made by cinephiles for cinephiles. More than the industry, what interests us is the academic aspect of film, looking into the past and looking into the future," Michel said in an interview. "To me, the most important thing is to highlight Mexican film."
The first Morelia festival took place in 2003, with just a few short films and documentaries in competition. This year, seven Mexican feature films and dozens of documentaries and shorts were in competition.
FOR THE RECORD:
An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that "Acorazado," which won the audience award, was directed by Sebastián Hiriart. It was directed by ÃƒÂƒÃ‚Âlvaro Curiel.
As the festival wound down Sunday, the jury's best picture award went to "Marimbas From Hell," about a down-and-out marimba player in Guatemala City, by director Julio Hernandez Cordon. The audience award went to "Acorazado," directed by ÃƒÂƒÃ‚Âlvaro Curiel, about a Mexican migrant who tries to reach the U.S. on a boat but washes up in Cuba. Best documentary was "El Varal," by Marta Ferrer, about a small Mexican town depleted by migration.
Hernandez is a staff writer in The Times' Mexico City bureau.