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In Features, Issues

With a major change of venue, the stalwart Berlin International Film Festival survives a transitional year, while retrospective programming rules at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. Noah Cowan reports on these two European megafests. Plus, reports from Sundance, SXSW, Sarajevo, the International Festival of Latin American Cinema and the Hollywood Black Film Festival.

Berlin International Film Festival

Major transitional years occur only occasionally in the festival world. It is, in part, continuity of venue and curatorial staff that makes these institutions tick; their very consistency allows filmmakers and film professionals to make informed choices about how films might be received at their premieres. In this context, the 50th Berlinale was a traumatic and difficult event.

Ten years ago, when the Wall fell, rumors had already begun that the Festival would be moved from its hideous, if comforting, decades-old home in Breitscheitzplatz to new digs in the just-liberated wasteland of Potsdamer Platz, the former center of all things cultural in prewar Berlin. It seemed like a stretch at the time, but the crane-filled skies of the new Germany threw up a fully formed cultural complex of theaters, offices and fancy shops faster than an "Achtung!" The results of the location change were good, on the whole. The Festival decided, however, to keep half its screenings at the old venues, a split decision that gave one the strange feeling of being a suburban commuter.

The Berlinale Palast, the new home of the Competition, is the focal point of rebuilt Potsdamer Platz, its red carpet the terminus of the area’s main street. From the outside, the Palast is suitably massive in feel, but inside, the maze-like basement which houses the press center and the curiously intimate cinemas belie the usual overblown Competition hoopla. The other two main venues in the area are modern multiplexes: the CineStar and CinemaxX. Various bits of the Festival used five screens in the former and all 18 screens in the latter. They have all the problems of such places in America: the screens are far too big and the raked seating far too vertiginous. The experience always feels more like a carnival ride than a festival screening. Also of concern is the fact that these places are calibrated to play digital sound, and when they are given 16mm or video or 35mm mono tracks, there is a tendency toward muffled reproduction, particularly at the CinemaxX.

These small problems would not have been so noticeable had the Festival’s old screens not been in operation. The Zoo Palast, the Delphi and the Atelier are spectacular cinemas for movie watching and so comparisons were inevitable and unfortunate. Even with these caveats one must say that the technical presentation at the Berlinale is second only to Cannes in the festival world.

The new Festival neighborhood is very strange. While the proximity of cinemas and offices is wonderful, the insta-city looks strangely like Beverly Hills, with glass malls and lots of parking the dominant features. This incongruity is only underlined by the fact that Mitte, the stunning 19th century Berlin downtown, is within short walking distance.

As usual, the films in Berlin were a mixed bag. Opening Night was not auspicious. Wim Wenders made what could well be the worst film of the new millennium so far, the unspeakably pretentious and silly The Million Dollar Hotel, perhaps best described as an "attempt to understand the poor." Following that debacle, the Festival offered plenty of Hollywood fare (The Talented Mr. Ripley, Three Kings, Magnolia, etc.), some sentimental fluff (Boy’s Choir, from Japan, about singing gay orphans, and Zhang Yimou’s commercial romance The Road Home) and another lugubrious German historical film from Volker Schlöndorff.

The two most interesting films in Competition both suffered in adaptation but were intriguing efforts nonetheless. Jonathan Nossiter, winner at Sundance a few years ago with Sunday, struck a stridently transcendental note with Signs and Wonders, a romantic-triangle film about a man obsessed by chance meetings. The film has a stunning digital aesthetic and extremely strong performances, particularly from Charlotte Rampling and Deborah Kara Unger. The first two thirds of the film play somewhere between lighthearted Tarkovsky and Eurofied David Mamet – the film is set in Athens, was produced out of Paris and, like Sunday, feels far removed from the usual preoccupations of American independent cinema – and then the roof caves in. An overly obvious tip-off to Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now – The Raincoat! The Raincoat! – spirals out of control as Nossiter lifts the entire final sequence of the ’70s classic in an oddly self-immolating tribute to one of his cinematic heroes.

The deeply uneven François Ozon (See the Sea, Sitcom) has talent to burn. Though sometimes painfully obvious in his choice of targets, Ozon has the ability to create hysterically funny situations that both celebrate and deconstruct camp while skewering all sorts of contemporary cultural constructs. So who better to adapt Fassbinder’s great unfilmed manuscript, Water Drops On Burning Rocks? A kind of poem to the bitterness of May-December power relationships, it fits neatly into the German’s canon between In A Year of 13 Moons and Fox and His Friends. Ozon translates the dialogue into French but retains all the jokes about provincial Germany, a conceit that is actually quite amusing as a European Union trope. What Ozon does not quite get right are the sex scenes; there is a violence to the erotic practices of Fassbinder’s characters that engages on many levels with things German, clichéd or otherwise. In French with French actors everything becomes kissy-kissy and overly romanticized, and this creates distance from the narrative’s essential and fascinating cruelty. Still, one scene of this film in this amazing language makes one long for someone of Fassbinder’s skill and artistry to emerge from somewhere!

I also saw The Beach for the first time in Berlin. The world has already judged this film but I would like to say for the record that it is one of the smartest, most knowing and cynical appraisals of contemporary youth culture and its concerns that I have seen in ages. The critical community’s inability to hide its distaste of a shirtless DiCaprio has blinded it to the film’s bold and multilayered investigations of modern notions of Utopia and its fascinating, Zeitgeist-nailing connections to that other blond in an ultimately self-defeating mission film, The Talented Mr. Ripley.

Berlin has two other sections of importance: the Forum and the Panorama. I have long been a fan of the Forum, even if it can sometimes favor work by the old guard – Straub, Huillet, etc. – that is overly hermetic and fighting battles long since irrelevant to the course of cinema. When I became involved with Jem Cohen and Peter Sillen’s Benjamin Smoke as executive producer, this section seemed a natural place for a documentary with a relatively non-narrative character. The organizers were wonderful supporters of the film; we left with very good feelings and they offered to distribute the film throughout Germany to a group of nontheatrical institutions. Films that play in the Forum also appeal to the most aesthetically radical of the European broadcasters – they pay attention to what plays there.

What was perhaps the best-loved American feature film of the Festival debuted here. George Washington is a complex, meditative exploration of a group of kids in a working- class, rusted-out North Carolina town. Its portrayal of small acts of heroism and cowardice and an absolutely stunning 35mm aesthetic set it apart from most American indies. It also features top-notch performances from a group of kids that rival anything that little blond boy at the Oscars did.

The Panorama – typically an uneven showcase of international cinema with a special focus on gay and lesbian work – had an excellent year. For me, the standout film was Chill Out, a rough-and-ready first feature from Andreas Struck which happily points to a new direction in German cinema. Evoking a morning - after - the - drugs - of - the - night - before mood and using some simple, gorgeous visual tableaux, Struck interweaves three characters – a gay guy, a straight guy and an older woman – in a minimalist, tender fashion. The film has much to do with the new Berlin and a great deal about how we create families in our vast urban playgrounds.

The other wonderful discovery in Berlin was Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau’s follow-up to Jeanne and the Perfect Guy, Funny Felix. A shaggy-dog story following a Normandy-born Arab guy on a road trip to Marseille to meet a possibly imaginary father, it has a droll energy and also explicitly asks questions about how gay people form families.

Although this report has been critical of the Berlinale, I found this year that the programmers seem to be in touch with contemporary ideas as never before. Whether acknowledging the desperation of the new spiritualism or rethinking the family or just reemphasizing the importance of challenging cinema, Berlin felt very much like a world class forum for ideas that matter. – Noah Cowan

Photo from Suzhou River, a Tiger Award-winner at the International Film Festival Rotterdam.

Even in a year with few major new films on display, the International Film Festival Rotterdam is still a major event. Created almost 30 years ago as an alternative culture paradise by the legendary curator Hubert Bals, it has always been considered the most radical home for the cinematic arts in the world. The Festival has embraced artists as diverse as Stan Brakhage and Mani Kaul, asking only that filmmakers push the medium to its furthest extent. Throughout, the large and patient audiences of Rotterdam have demonstrated an unflagging taste for mad and outrageous filmic adventures.

Today the festival is run by another legendary curator, Simon Field. Before moving to Holland a few years back, Field transformed London’s Institute of Contemporary Art’s sleepy film program into a world leader in the discovery and promotion of cinema. He is especially revered as the man who brought Takeshi Kitano to the West.

When he began his stint as director, Field combined this thirst for discovery with a museum-oriented impulse for important retrospective programming. On the discovery side, his idea to create a forum for new talent bore fruit immediately with the creation of the VPRO Tiger Awards: three prizes are awarded annually to specially selected first and second features presented as (at least) European premieres at the Festival. A wealth of excellent cinema issued from these awards in Field’s first few years; this year there were less. The only film that seemed truly significant was Tiger-winner Lou Ye’s atmo-

spheric love story Suzhou River, which blends the urban melancholia of Shanghai life with the memerizing romanticism characteristic of New Chinese cinema. Another Tiger went to the excellent, brutally austere Crane World, which shows evidence of a renewed vitality in Argentine cinema (although with the film having premiered in Venice months ago, the shine of that award was slightly tarnished.) The final Tiger was awarded to Bye Bye Bluebird, a standard-issue yarn about punk girls going to the countryside and learning about their past.

Rotterdam has been bruised badly in its proxy war with the Berlin Film Festival, and the result has been the loss of many important new films. Berlin takes place a week or so after Rotterdam, and the Festivals used to have a much more co-operative relationship. Once, for example, Berlin’s Forum for New Cinema allowed several key films to be presented at both festivals, but that cooperation has ceased. In addition, Rotterdam’s impressive thrust into the upper echelons of the festival world a few years ago has been fought by Berlin through a terrifying scorched-earth, rearguard policy of snapping up as many new films as possible and demanding world premieres for each one.

But if the Festival’s films have faltered, Field has more than compensated by creating the most impressive collection of retrospectival programming seen in some time. Individual programs devoted to the overlooked Brazilian radical Julio Bressane — his Killed the Family and Went to the Movies launched the Cinema Marginal movement and is one of the strangest and most harrowing films ever made — and Serik Aprimov, godfather of the fascinating Central

Sundance Film Festival

In the last 15 years the power of the Sundance Film Festival has grown to the point that, for many in the independent film world, it has become the Grinch that steals Christmas. Not intentionally, mind you, but its significance clogs postproduction and effects houses, jams sound studios and forces publicity companies and magazine editors to burn the midnight oil in preparation for those chilly 10 days.

While the Festival itself seems to have a sense of maturity appropriate to its age, it is also widening its breadth, attracting even more fans and spawning countless other ancillary festivals. And keeping with the times, this year the partycrashers were the dot-com folks, who threw lavish parties, sponsored seminars, and, most importantly, bought films. The AtomFilms of the world mostly picked up shorts, but a significant new acquistions force emerged in the form of the video retailers. In a new kind of deal, Blockbuster acquired home video rights to titles such as Valerie Breiman’s Love & Sex, ponying up in the deal P&A funds for the film’s eventual theatrical distributor. A new buyer, especially one with deep pockets, is always welcome in the marketplace; it remains to be seen whether U.S. theatrical distributions will warm to the partnership deal proposed by Blockbuster.

But although the parties, screenings and even public buses were more crowded than ever, gone this year were the flamboyant high-noon acquisition showdowns of years past. No doubt the absence of Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein (due to unspecified health problems) helped keep the calm. Indeed, it was widely speculated that both Karyn Kusama’s Girlfight, picked up by Screen Gems, and Nigel Cole’s Saving Grace, bought by Fine Line, would have wound up on the Miramax shelf had Weinstein been there to bid for them. But perhaps it was Miramax’s big buy last year – Happy, Texas for a rumored $10 million – and its modest theatrical performance that calmed the hordes of roving acquisitions executives.

Instead, this year the Festival returned to its classic formula: small, quirky films by new directors–films like actor and playwright Jon Shear’s debut, Urbania; Miguel Arteta’s Chuck & Buck; Kenneth Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me; Raymond DeFelitta’s Two Family House; and, above all, Girlfight, a feminist Rocky in both content and production. The sense of how much had changed was brought home at the awards ceremony by Documentary Competition juror Jon Else, who in 1981 had won the first Documentary Prize for The Day after Trinity: Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb. Pointing to the front row of jostling cameramen, he recalled how that row had originally been crowded with filmmakers sitting on the floor with buckets of fried chicken between their legs.

Yet despite this transition from "extra crispy" to "Hollywood Extra," the Festival stays stubbornly the same, a big block party for the independent film community. – Peter Bowen

Sarajevo Film Festival

Driving in from the Sarajevo airport down Sniper Alley – the long boulevard that bisects this Bosnian city, so dubbed for the artillery fire that rained down from the mountains on its civilians during the war – I see dozens of posters depicting a young girl amid bunches of flowers. The simple, optimistic poster advertises the fifth annual Sarajevo Film Festival. This year the optimism is well founded. The Festival has survived both the war and the start-up pains that hobble many such new international cultural events, turning it into one of the most rewarding stops on the festival circuit.

I say this despite the fact that the rewards young American filmmakers often seek at festivals – distribution deals and industry connections – are not to be found at Sarajevo. And the regional sales that can sometimes occur in the smaller world festivals are also absent here due to the depressed postwar economy. But what is in Sarajevo is a thrilling connection between film – and, in a broader sense, art –and regional and world politics.

When the Festival was started in 1995, in the thick of the war, the screening of films was in itself an act of political defiance. Filmmakers like Leos Carax had to be flown in on French government planes, and screenings were often on video, underground – no small feat in a city where the power was often bombed out. The exhibition of films and the appearance of their creators in Sarajevo constituted a vital outreach to the international community and a statement that the city’s proud, cosmopolitan intellectual heritage could not be silenced.

The Sarajevo Film Festival’s president is Mirsad Purivatra (or "Miro," as he is affectionately called), who is also the director of Sarajevo’s Obala Arts Center. Years ago I was privileged to produce a masterpiece of performance theater by Obala entitled "Tattoo Theater" at the Kitchen in New York City. It wasn’t until I arrived at the Obala that I learned that Miro, whom I had last seen in 1992, was running the Festival. He explained to me that war-induced financial pressures had forced Obala to turn away from theater toward visual-art exhibitions and then, in 1995, film. The Festival’s own website admits that its first year "could have seemed more like a bizarre act of resistance than a real film festival." But early supporters like Carax, Susan Sontag and Locarano’s Marco Mueller, in addition to the Bosnian filmmaking community, provided solid backing. That first year featured 37 films and attracted 15,000 viewers.

This year the Festival offered many more screenings in six presentation categories. One, "Open Air," consisted largely of Hollywood hits – Shakespeare in Love, American Pie and You've Got Mail – screened in a giant outdoor theater. Miro told me that his biggest regret for this year’s Festival is not obtaining Star Wars: The Phantom Menance. Western lefties may decry the imperialism of the American entertainment industry, but here in Sarajevo, as elsewhere in the world, this mainstream fare is what draws everyday city folk out en masse. As Miro explained, the thought that over 3,000 members of this mixed city could congregate in one place at night is its own form of radical imagination.

Its other sections, though, earn Sarajevo a reputation for presenting challenging cinema. This year the Festival invited American critic and curator Howard Feinstein to create "Panorama," a section dedicated largely to auteur cinema. A strong grouping of 17 films, it consisted of work by established international directors (Egoyan, Winterbottom, Almodovar, Solondz, Ripstein), bold newcomers (such as Yesim Ustaoglu with Journey to the Sun, a bracing tale of friendship in contemporary Turkey, and Australian John S. Curran’s story of obsessive love, Praise) and younger American independents (including Julian Goldberger with Trans).

Feinstein also organized a panel, on which I sat, concerning the current economics of international film production. With Kate Ogborn of the British Film Institute, Praise producer Martha Coleman, Turkish producer Behrooz Hashemian (Journey to the Sun), and Slovenia’s E-Motion Films head Daniel Hocevar, the panel began with each of us describing how films are financed in our respective countries. Yet as the panel progressed, it turned into a fascinating discussion between the panelists and audience members – and, in many cases, among the audience members themselves. Formerly, Bosnian film was supported by a state funding agency and local television, as is the case in most European countries. However, film financing has been virtually halted after the war. Accordingly, one audience member suggested that Western governments participate in the rebuilding of the Bosnian film industry, a proposal that the panelists collectively thought to be impractical and unrealistic. And at one point, a young film student who had travelled to Sarajevo from Belgrade asked the panel what could be done to rebuild the Serbian film industry, which itself has been decimated by Milosevic’s economic policies. Hashemian and I both countered with tales of low-budget production in Turkey and the U.S. – the only two countries represented on the panel without state support for motion picture production. Hashemian went on to admonish filmmakers in the audience to research and participate in international funding ventures, such as the International Film Festival Rotterdam’s Hubert Bals Fund, that would surely be interested in funding young Bosnian talent. With the Festival’s regional program consisting mainly of Eastern European work and the Bosnia section containing retrospective programming, it is clear that the Bosnian film industry is caught between its old methods of production, which is unlikely to return in the near future, and the embracing of newer low-budget forms, such as digital video production or Internet distribution.

The other section at the Festival that was of interest to American independents was "New Currents," curated by the Berlin-based French producer and sales agent Phillipe Bober. Bober, who also produced this year’s Rotterdam winner, Suzhou River, runs the Coproduction Office, a company that sells and finances an exceptional range of innovative work. He has been involved with the Festival for years, and his program sits to the left of Feinstein’s, emphasizing some auteur cinema (such as Bruno Dumont’s Cannes-winner, Humanity) as well as more experimental work, such as December, 1-31, a diary film by Germany’s Jan Peters, in which each of its daily chapters is defined solely by the length of the film reel. Other films in this section included Laetitia Masson’s À Vendre and Shinya Tsukamoto’s Bullet Ballet.

At the screenings I attended, audiences were large and engaged, and the city itself, with its mixture of European and Muslim influences, bustled with signs of life just now returning to normal. Reminders of the war are everywhere in Sarajevo – many buildings are still scarred – but the street behind my hotel was packed every night with young people, and full restaurants and bars. And the Festival is as focused on its guests’ understanding of the region as it is in making sure you get to screenings. Long trips were organized daily to towns like Mostar, the location of a famous Muslim-Croat battle, and to various historical resistance sites within Sarajevo. I only spent a few days in Sarajevo, but I found that even a short trip to this city promotes a political understanding about the region unobtainable in the Western press. And, given its intelligent programming, exceedingly friendly and helpful staff, and enthusiastic, film-literate audiences (I was surprised when one attendee told me that she had rented Gummo on Bosnian home video), Sarajevo is a recommended stop for independents on the festival circuit. – Scott Macaulay

South by Southwest Film Festival

Program director Angela Lee’s advice to filmmakers attending the South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival – "You’re not here to network, you’re here to have fun" – seemed to capture the reigning sentiment of this annual event.

Have fun? If you’re a struggling filmmaker who has just spent the past four years making your opus, not to mention blowing your grandmother’s life savings, do you really just want to have fun? Well, if you are attending SXSW, the answer is probably yes.

Set against the backdrop of Austin, the last bastion of alternative culture in the Lone Star state, SXSW has come into its own. A one-time offshoot of the SXSW Music Festival, the film section has become a staple on the festival circuit not just for its ability to launch a film but as a break from all that mind-numbing ass- kissing. "It’s a good mix between networking and having fun that doesn’t lean too far one way or the other," Lee says.

A rare blend of informative panels, strong programming and a relaxed social scene (i.e., free beer) gives SXSW that "festival" feeling without all the excess baggage – cell phones, business cards and velvet ropes. Hell, you can actually get into a screening here. But despite its laissez-faire attitude to the industry (the Festival is notorious for not offering travel to panelists), SXSW still knows its potential. Screening 200 films this year, it is continuing to grow exponentially. Yet with everyone calling it "the next Sundance," SXSW continues its effort to keep filmmaking paramount. With a stronger emphasis on operations, the Festival has shown that it can run smoothly. (Remember kids: reel four goes after reel three, not before it.) And the filmmakers also seemed much happier than in recent years. (Maybe it was the free Ring Dings from AtomFilms and all those barbecue luncheons.) Whatever the reason, it is clear that the Festival is paying attention to past complaints and the improvements show.

The documentary segment was extremely strong this year. Slamdance favorite The Target Shoots First by Chris Wilcha was the big winner. A disturbing exploration of the music industry and the filmmaker’s former employer, Columbia House, the film took home the Festival’s Audience and Jury Documentary award. Dark Days, Marc Singer’s ominous and dreamy exploration of New York City’s underground homeless, grabbed the Senior Programmer’s Pick and with it a five-minute standing ovation (well deserved for anyone who can get DJ Shadow to score their film). Paul Stekler and Daniel McCabe’s George Wallace: Settin’ the Woods on Fire, presented in conjunction with the Austin Film Society’s ongoing documentary series, packed the State Theater with its illuminating viewpoint on the infamous Alabama governor who used racism to fuel his political rise. And, I think, underappreciated despite winning a runner-up nod was the devastating personal doc Just, Melvin. Filmmaker James Ronald Whitney cathartically exorcises the legacy of his grandfather, a child molester, while cutting to footage of himself appearing on "Star Search" and other ’80s game shows. It’s crazy, but it works, and you can’t help but admire the filmmaker for tackling an intense personal tragedy with such conviction. This was also the first year for the National Association of Latino Independent producers, who presented Gregory Nava’s American Tapestry, a subtle film portraying generations of immigrant families struggling in America. On the other side of the convention center was the U.S. premiere of Grass, a competent and entertaining look at pot smokers. It was, of course, a big hit with the kids.

But it was the panel discussions and seminars that really distinguished SXSW. Local demigods Richard Linklater and Robert Rodriguez were back to share recent filmmaking experiences. Rodriguez and Ain’t-It-Cool-News honcho Harry Knowles teamed up with John Carpenter for a nostalgic revisitation of the horror director’s influential favorites. Another panel highpoint was John Pierson’s sneak preview of How’s Your News 2 – Voyage Across America, Arthur Bradford's touching and hilarious journey with five fledgling newscasters with Downs syndrome as they travel cross-country interviewing the American public at large. Laughing at the mentally handicapped might be shameful, but Bradford’s unassuming and genuine context lets the public know that everyone’s having a great time just being what they are – human.

SXSW and the Austin Film Society’s "American Maverick" series profiled Sam Peckinpah and the elusive Monte Hellman, confirming that Peckinpah is a god and Hellman one of his greatest disciples. Watching a brand-new 35mm print of Two-Lane Blacktop at the Alamo (guys actually serve you beer and chicken wings while you watch the movie) was worth the trip alone. With James Taylor (as "The Driver") and Dennis Wilson ("The Mechanic") in a cannonball race against Warren Oates ("G.T.O."), the film is pure fucking genius.

The narrative selection was, I think, the weakest part of the Festival. Splitting the award were two disaffected films, Rollercoaster, by Scott Smith, and Wildflowers, by Melissa Painter. Rollercoaster, a mix of comedy and drama, examines teen life through a defunct amusement park; Wildflowers is a somber tale of a young lesbian’s coming of age.

The audience, on the other hand, went for a bolder choice in Kwyn Bader’s Loving Jezebel. This delightful romantic comedy centers around its protagonist, Jezebel, a child of interracial parents, and throughout the film he falls in and out of love with women of all ethnicities. Other honorable mentions included a Dogme 95 comedy, Michael Apted’s Enigma, and Mark Hanlon’s Buddy Boy, which the director described as "Buñuel on acid."

On the whole this year’s SXSW ended up being what most attendees wanted it to be. George Ratliff, director of Plutonium Circus, which won Best Documentary here in 1995, attended this year as a judge. Talking to him, you can see why filmmakers are instinctually drawn to SXSW: "Austin’s just a great place to watch movies, and SXSW is big enough to be an important festival, but minus all that bullshit schmoozing. I mean, it’s a bunch of slackers for godssakes." From one slacker to another, I couldn’t agree more. – Josh Zeman

International Festival of Latin American Cinema

The 21st International Festival of Latin American Cinema was held in Havana, Cuba last December. Set against the backdrop of the luxurious Hotel Nacional, the Festival’s home base, attendees chatted and drank mojitos, just happy to be in this cultured yet troubled city.

Politics are always very close to the surface in Cuba, and this year the local press buzzed with news of the anti-WTO protests in Seattle and of the refusal of Miami Cubans to return Elian Gonzalez to his father. The latter event prompted protests during the Festival in front of the Hotel Nacional.

Over 10 days, more than 250 films were screened, viewed by people from over 50 countries. The Festival was not just made up of narrative features, but also included short film and video, animation and documentaries. Obviously, the emphasis was on Latin American films, notably from Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and Cuba itself. For the Spanish speaker it is the premier Latin American film festival, a great and rare opportunity to see films that might never play in the U.S. In the retrospective category, the spotlights were on Hector Babenco, Luis Buñuel and Juan Padrón, a Cuban animator who has been making films since the early ’70s. There were also homages to Claude Chabrol, Norman Jewison (his latest, The Hurricane, screened), and Mario Monicelli.

The celebrity presence was high, considering the difficulties for Americans traveling to Cuba. Danny Glover showed up to promote Beloved (director Jonathan Demme was also in attendance). The historical context of visits by Mariel Hemingway and Rory Kennedy (who arrived with her mother Ethel) was not lost on festivalgoers, but neither appeared tied up by her fathers’s legacy to this storied island, and both fell under the spell of Havana.

Cuba has its own rhythms – the apparent lack of organization and punctuality within the Festival became known affectionately as "Cuba time." Each morning a paper was available that listed that day’s and the next’s schedule of screenings. One day’s notice made it difficult to plan anything in advance, and unfortunately, for English speakers, most films were shown only in Spanish or with Spanish subtitles. When they did have English subtitles, it was not noted in the schedule, making attending films a somewhat dicey affair. Thanks to the Sundance Institute’s nine-year collaboration with the Festival, there was a section called "North American Independent Films," which included Todd Haynes’s Velvet Goldmine, Darren Aronofsky’s , Rory Kennedy’s American Hollow, Todd Solondz’s Happiness, Hal Hartley’s Henry Fool, Marc Levin’s Slam, and Tony Bui’s Three Seasons. Each was well received (with the exception of American Hollow, which was never received at all – a print, that is).

The closing night ceremony began with the awards presentation. The Argentines came out ahead, winning first prize for Garage Olimpo, third for Yepeto (which also walked away with best screenplay), special jury prize and best actor for Pablo Echarri in Sólo Gente, and best documentary prize for Borges, Los Libros y Las Noches.

After the awards were all given out, the struggle of trying to translate the Spanish-only presentation paid off: the Buena Vista Social Club slowly made their way onstage to play for an ecstatic home crowd of 5,000 in the Karl Marx Theater, which by most accounts will probably be the last show comprising the entire group. Their emotional performance was followed by a screening of Wim Wenders’s documentary of the group, which closed the Festival. It was a one-of-a-kind experience and an excellent send-off to a jam-packed ten days.

This year’s Festival was concurrent with the first direct airline flight from New York City to Cuba in 40 years, but its once-a-week departure and customs delays didn’t make traveling any easier. A word of advice to anyone planning a trip to Cuba: make sure you are traveling legally. – Laura Kern

Hollywood Black Film Festival

Black independent film was alive and kicking in Culver City this past February at the second annual Hollywood Black Film Festival. Festival director Tanya Kersey-Henley, along with head programmer Jackie Blaylock, brought together an exciting and well-received lineup of films.

The opening night feature Dancing in September, directed by Reggie Rock Bythewood (co-author of Spike Lee’s Get on the Bus), tells the story of a sitcom writer who falls in love with an executive during the network boycotts by a civil rights organization. Starring Isaiah Washington, Nicole Ari Parker and Vicellous Reon Shannon, the film explores the difficulties of maintaining one’s integrity in an industry controlled by the hunger for ratings.

Special presentations included a Kids Fest, short films from Showtime and the feature Masquerade, a BET/Arabesque Films production. A "Black Women in Film" sidebar featured such highlights as The Book of Ezekiel, by Latrice Dixon; When the Time Comes, by Tracie Dean Ponder; and Burst, by Aida Ghidey. This section proved that the next wave of influential filmmakers need not have a Y chromosome.

Audience Award—winner Marriage Prep, by Donohue Tuitt, was crowded beyond capacity and elicited the most laughter and buzz during the Festival. Rod Gailes’s short film Twin Cousins was clearly the winner among the multitude of short films. Beautifully shot, the film explores the relationship between two 10-year-old best friends who are separated one summer. The Fest’s international section included Elizabeth K. Jackson’s award-winning documentary Surviving Abyssinia, a hypnotic essay on one woman’s search for identity in Ethiopia.

A common theme throughout the Festival was mental illness, a topic rarely discussed in the black community. Love & Fate, by Kenneth Jones; the short film Details, by Eric Daniel; and Dancing in September all attempt to combat negative images of the mentally ill by exploring the prejudice still faced by many African Americans who struggle with manic depression.

With the inclusion of more international films and an extra day added to the Festival, the next HBFF promises to continue to bring black filmmakers and industry professionals together for an event that celebrates the future of black film. – Moira Griffin


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