request - Filmmaker Magazine
Venice Film Festival by Belle N. Burke
Toronto International Film Festival by Peter Bowen
Montreal World Film Festival by Scott Macaulay
Mill Valley Film Festival by Isabel Sadurni
Hamptons International Film Festival by Laura Macdonald
AFI Los Angeles International Film Festival by Stephen Garrett
Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival by Brandon Judell
Chicago Underground Film Festival by Ray Pride
Film Arts Festival by Holly Willis

Venice Film Festival

Even before new director Felice Laudadio was done describing his new, improved film festival at the opening press conference, the same old problems were surfacing in this improbable city. Press passes not ready, inadequate facilities for press releases, and, typically, insufficient seating. This time-honored Venice tradition, which invariably produces the unprogrammed, unlovely spectacle of crowds of complaining critics (and those holding cultural and professional passes) unable to get into screenings despite long waits followed by pushing and shoving, did little to dampen Laudadio's self-congratulatory speechmaking even though an already intensive program precluded additional projections in most cases.

Zhang Yimou's Keep Cool
Granted, Italy is famous for skills other than organization; still, a few unfortunately memorable moments stand out: Zhang Yimou, the internationally famous director of a film in Competition, Keep Cool, unrecognized and unable to find a seat at its public world premiere in the Palazzo del Cinema; and Polish director Jerzy Stuhr being refused admission because he had no pass to the theater where his film, Historie Milosne (Love Stories), also in Competition, was about to receive its second and third awards. Love Stories had already won the prestigious International Federation of Film Critics (Fipresci) prize for Best Film in Competition. (Fipresci also recognized Shane Meadows' Twentyfourseven and gave a special mention to Harmony Korine's Gummo "for bravely going where no man has gone before.")

Laudadio deplored his failure to arrange for a film market at Venice because of lack of time and opposition from a segment of the movie sales business in Italy. He promises a market in Venice next year if appointed again as he is committed to the idea of films as a commodity as well as an art form. This year both the commercial and the arty were in evidence and, while there were the usual big films and big stars to promote them, the indies made an even bigger splash in the lagoon city.

While it may not always be clear, given the creative and convoluted financing of today's film world, what constitutes an independent production, there were many that qualified. Among them were Gummo and Nicholas Barker's Unmade Beds, shown in the Settimana Internazionale della Critica, Jim Jarmusch's The Year of the Horse in Immagini e Musica, Paul Schrader's Affliction in Mezzanotte, Joe Dante's The Second Civil War in Mezzogiorno, and Sarah Kelly's Full Tilt Boogie in the Special Events section.

Europe is in some instances kinder to its independent producers than we are -- Jerzy Stuhr got one-third of his $500,000 budget from the Polish government. For agreeing to film The Informant in the Irish Republic with an all-Irish crew except for himself, the director of photography, and the line producer -- a crew which he says was one of the best he ever worked with -- Jim McBride received $1 million, with additional financing from Showtime. Although the picture is about the troubles in Northern Ireland, McBride had a free hand and believes it was good to have the objective viewpoint of an "outsider." The Informant stays neutral and passes no judgments while dramatically depicting the moral dilemmas of life in Northern Ireland.

Kazuhiro Soda, a young Japanese filmmaker based in New York who was invited to show his 17-minute film The Flicker in the Corto Cortissimo section, was partially financed by grants made through the School of Visual Arts. His short films have been shown at various festivals and his first feature, Freezing Sunlight, was in competition at Sao Paulo in 1996.

Another way to save on salaries is to write, direct and play the four leading roles in your own film. This was done by Jerzy Stuhr in Love Stories. Stuhr, who worked as an actor with famous Polish directors Kieslowski, Wajda, Zanussi, and Holland, directed his first film for television in 1994. Low key, low budget, and aptly named, Love Stories is simple but not simplistic in its thesis of love as the only redemptive force.

Nicholas Barker, anthropologist and photographer who revels in his reputation as "the most sadistic director in British TV" for his commercials, came to New York to film the pseudo-documentary Unmade Beds, calling it his "first foreign-language film" and "an exercise in mendacity." The story of four real New Yorkers trying to connect, Unmade Beds skewers the singles scene. Barker is not surprised that he was rejected by the British film industry ("I am the most presumptuous filmmaker I know. I insist on equal billing with my principal characters.") It took him about 18 months to raise the $1 million budget from the documentary division of the BBC, La Sept/Arte, Cinemax, a small British media company called Baltic, and two of his aunts whom he calls his "Scottish angels" in the credits. Barker was happy to show his film in Venice in opposition to the section called British Renaissance, an idea he calls a complete fiction.

However, British Renaissance showcased some films of merit: Mojo, a finely-crafted film by Jez Butterworth based on his prize-winning play set in a sordid London club in 1958 at the height of rock-and-roll madness, with mesmerizing language and performances; Twentyfour-seven by Shane Meadows; Iain Softley's Wings of the Dove; Philip Savile's Metro-land; and Gilles Mackinnon's Regeneration.

Actor-turned-director Alan Rickman was in Venice for the premiere of The Winter Guest, starring Emma Thompson and her mother Phyllida Law as mother and daughter, which he describes as an indie film. This British entry cost a modest $6 million to produce; no star salaries -- Rickman says Emma Thompson worked for scale because of their relationship -- but 7% to 8% of the budget went to Steve Rundell's digital effects system, Quantel Domino, without which Rickman insists the picture could not have been made, depending as it does on specific weather conditions that do not occur naturally. Perhaps the technology was too successful -- in spite of its fine performances, the movie at times seems frozen and hermetic, focusing as it does on the interaction of four pairs of protagonists to the exclusion of any other character.

The big pictures and the big prizes were on the whole less noteworthy than some of the smaller ones; the fact that 25-year-old Meadows and 23-year-old Korine made it to Venice is almost unprecedented. (There was anticipation for Harmony Korin's Gummo before its arrival and consternation after its screening -- it both repelled and pleased but left no viewers indifferent, the crucial factor perhaps being the age of the audience.) There was a retrospective of films from the 1947 festival and a personal appearance by Malcolm McDowell before a screening of A Clockwork Orange 25 years after it was made, but the themes of this festival -- death, disease, terrorism, alienation -- were very much of our time (as were the off-screen realities of hype, hustle, and hubris).

Two notable exceptions looked back. Vor (The Thief), Russian director Pavel Chukrai's wrenching account of the post-World War II generation in which he grew up, received a UNICEF prize. And Porzus, about a buried chapter of Italian history researched by director Renzo Martinelli, is the story of a group of Italian Catholic partisans massacred by Italian Communist partisans in 1945 (Pier Paolo Pasolini's brother Guido was among those killed). It has opened old wounds, aroused furious debate, and is so controversial that Martinelli says his father has stopped speaking to him.

This time around there were no great cinematic highs in Venice, but its offerings were worthy of respect. So, could the "LIV" before the Venice Film Festival's title stand for Love Involves Victims? Long Interminable Viewings? Less Important Victories? Or is it merely a numeral lent by Rome to Venice for the 54th exemplar? In any case, it was by turns exciting, exasperating, interesting and infuriating -- a perhaps generic definition of a film festival.

Belle N. Burke � freelance writer, translator, and traveller � lives in New York and Venice.

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Toronto International Film Festival

In describing the leviathan growth of the Toronto International Film Festival, John Anderson of New York's Newsday noted, "Precisely because it is so big, no one can get a grip on the entire event." Perhaps the only place this sprawling festival actually appeared like a single coherent event was on the public access television channel that ran a steady stream of press conferences, interviews and clips. After continually missing this film or that party, I could always return to the hotel to watch the film festival on TV.

John Hurt and Jason Priestley in Love And Death On Long Island photo: C. Reardon
And while local Torontonians dutifully sold out theaters, the most overwhelming cinematic event was again a television broadcast -- the live simulcast of Princess Di's funeral at Sky Stadium. And if the festival as an event seemed hard to apprehend, the festival as barometer of current cinema was equally hard to fathom.

The sense of the "next-big-thing" gave way this year to reaffirming the success of personal favorites. The opening night gala for Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter, following the film's Grand Jury Prize win at Cannes, simply cemented the popular adoration of this local boy done good. Likewise, the fanfare for David Mamet's The Spanish Prisoner, a tightly wounded enigma of deceit and desire, merely confirmed for his fans his talent for plotting and language. The kudos for Curtis Hanson's remarkably lucid adaptation of James Ellroy's epic of Hollywood corruption, L.A. Confidential, mainly stemmed from the comforting sentiment that after having made so many so-so films (The River Wild, The Hand that Rocks the Cradle), this time he got it right.

Perhaps it is simply that as Toronto grows more institutionalized, so too do the filmmakers it presents. Indeed with so many mid-career films, middle age, not youth, marked the subject matter of many of the filmmakers. Sally Potter's The Tango Lesson, a quietly wise film about a filmmaker (played by Potter herself) who loses her vision only to find her body and self in tango, was one of the best examples of this trend. One of the worst was Philip Haas embarassing adaptation of John Hawkes' erotic novel, "The Blood Oranges". And in between were an array of people halfway through their lives being forced to reconsider both their fate and bodily functions -- from Antonia Bird's crime thriller Face, about a career criminal growing tired of breaking the law, to Enin Dignam's resonate romantic tragedy, Loved, to Hollywood's mandatory queer-closet comedy, In & Out. Even the indie poet of reckless love, Hal Hartley, returned with a more sober tale of regret and bewilderment in Henry Fool. Perhaps the most telling and hilarious of these mid-life crises was Love and Death on Long Island, Richard Kwietniowski's updating of Death in Venice.

While such films focus personal reflection and memory, the most prevalent genre this year picked up the same themes historically with historical and literary period pieces. Of the 46 films shown as Galas and Special Presentations, 14 were period pieces, with literary adaptations coming from seemingly unlikely directors: Iain Softly (Backbeat, Hackers) soups up Henry James' "The Wings of the Dove" and Dutch filmmaker Marleen Gorris, best known for her insightful contemporary feminist perspective, takes up Virginia Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway."

While such period pieces revisit the past, an emerging cannon of science fiction films are bent on the future. Two feminist time-travel projects -- Lynn Hershman Leeson's Conceiving Ada and Hilary Brougher's The Sticky Fingers of Time -- were both daring and inventive. In Ada, a computer programmer constructs a digital way to reconstruct the life of Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron, who invented one of the first computer programs in 1843. In Sticky Fingers, Brougher makes a poignant and witty no-budget time-travel film in New York's East Village. And while not technically a science fiction film, Thom Fitzgerald's The Hanging Garden deploys a similar cinematic manipulation of time and reality.

Indeed doing something new with a camera seemed vaguely lacking in most films this year. Perhaps the most controversial film of the festival, Gummo, is also the most cinematically advenuresome. For whether one liked it or not, Gummo was capable of doing the one thing desired in a festival film -- provoke strong, visceral emotions that compel people to talk. And the conversations, rather than listing projected markets, box office or critical reception, argued quite passionately ethical and aesthetic questions -- and at a film festival no less!

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Montreal World Film Festival

The last time I attended the Montreal World Film Festival, guest of honor Steve Martin, there to promote his hapless A Simple Twist of Fate, took part in an awkward press conference held in the middle of a shopping center (the Palais des Jardins, underneath the Festival's main hotel). While the Festival has always been known for its large selection of world cinema, Martin, uncomfortably answering questions while shoppers passed by, seemed a foot soldier in the event's futile battle to compete with the artfully staged glitz of a Cannes, Venice, or Toronto.

Returning to Montreal this year, I was surprised to find a more studiously low-key festival. Jacqueline Bisset was there to head the jury and some minor names appeared to plug films but overall, there were fewer gala events and nary a star in site. The Montreal Market seemed not the site of frenzied acquisition activity but rather a mellow spot for TV buyers to view features in and out of the Festival. And few of the Festival's titles seemed to inspire the feverish advance buzz that prompts acquisition execs to claw their way into screenings.

All of this, however, was not bad. That's because there is one simple area in which the Montreal World Film Festival excels. It's a great -- and easy -- place to watch movies. With a huge selection featuring many of the year's noted pieces of world cinema, including most of the Cannes Critic's Week, an Iranian film sidebar, and a smattering of American independents, some good and some oddly chosen, Montreal is a place where one actually gets into films and watches them in superior screening conditions. (The Festival impressively manages that rare trick of having mostly full theaters that are nonetheless easy to get into.)

Montreal has never been known for its curation of American independents. Perhaps because distributor-obsessed American indies fixate on Toronto, the best independents shown in Montreal tend to be films premiering for French-Canadian audiences prior to their Canadian theatrical runs. This year, Star Maps, Sunday, House of Yes, and In the Company of Men all fell under this category while the festival also picked up on Sundance selections Colin Fitz, George B., Franchesca Page (a spirited drag comedy that proves that it is possible to climax a no-budget film with a Broadway theatrical pastiche), and Mr. Vincent. Other American independents included, in the Competition, Bernie Casey's racial talkfest The Dinner; Christian Moore's Shady Grove; Scott Saunders' tape-to-film study of a Lower East Side slacker's relationship with his Latina wife and his middle-class sister, Headhunters' Sister; Tony Spiradakis' only sporadically effective Hollywood satire Self Storage; and Tom Rooney's premiering You are Here, a sort of no-budget Two for the Road. Shot mostly with day exteriors on a series of country backroads, the film tells the tale of a fired white collar worker who impulsively invites a lonely shop clerk on a disastrous first date to a friend's country house. Rooney has a compassionate directorial eye and a good comedic sense but his young cast of unknowns hasn't the charisma needed to conquer this mainstream premise. Better was Frank Ciota's Boston-set The North End. In many ways a working class "guys with girl problems" flick a la The Brothers McMullen, The North End is deepened by a series of engaging "man-on-the-street" video interludes that amplify the film's main themes.

The Festival also showcased another kind of American independent -- the Canadian-produced kind. Norstar's Brooklyn State of Mind, directed by Frank Rainone, and CFP's Another Nine-and-a-Half Weeks both debuted at the festival. The latter, directed by frequent Coppola editor Anne Goursaud and ghost script-doctored by a well known indie scribe, finds Mickey Rourke at his puffiest in a production alternately threadbare and overblown.

As for world cinema, this year at Montreal one could catch up with Palme d'Or winner The Eel as well as Phillip Harel's Cannes competitor La Femme Defendue, a somewhat hoary French adultery drama enhanced by its subjective camera technique. Taking the point of view of its angst-ridden protagonist, an architect romantically fixated on a young girl, the film's cinematic fetishism -- the camera serenely gazes at the face of pretty lead Isabelle Carre for most of the its running time -- may seem somewhat old hat, but it's still fascinating to watch.

Remembering the raves out of Cannes for Bruno Dumont's La Vie de Jesus, a tale of nihilistic rural French youth, I misread my catalog and wandered into Bernard Bonvoisin's Les Demons de Jesus, a tale of nihilistic rural French youth. Bonvoisin's story, however, is set in the summer of '68, and with its assortment of tough-guy poseurs, is intended as both a neo-expressionist latter day Western as well as a mordant take on class politics. Inspired, Bonvoisin says, by John Ford and Abel Ferrara, the film is often way too cool (and narratively underdeveloped), but it does have moments in the second half where violent, complicated emotions are well realized on screen. Dumont's film, on the other hand, is a more consistent and stronger piece of filmmaking. A matter-of-fact, uninflected tale of an epileptic youth who kills an Arab in a stupid bout of racist jealousy, the film's serene study of small-town French life is both emotionally affecting as well as cruelly observant.

Montreal also saw the North American premiere of Stuart Urban's Preaching to the Perverted. Starring American indie icon Guinevere Turner -- and about a year's worth of Skin Two fashions -- the film is both an eye-catching portrait of London's S/M fetish club scene as well as a formulaic British satire that sends up a stock gallery of upper-class prudes and erotophobes. More deeply erotic, although in subtle and mysterious ways, was Sogo Ishii's Labyrinth of Dreams. Best known in America for his disquieting serial-killer thriller Angel Dust, Ishii here plays with radically quiet sound design and icily composed black-and-white images to tell a hauntingly classical ghost story. Alex Van Warmerdam's The Dress tells several different stories in a La Ronde-ish tale of several different owners of a colorfully printed dress. There's real humor and emotion in several of the episodes, but the film derails during a lengthy segment featuring the director as a violent stalker fixated on a young girl. Here, the film goes for one tonal change too many.

Montreal also featured an Iranian Cinema section, although local distributor politics kept Abbas Kiorastami's A Taste of Cherries from being screened. Well received was Majid Majidi's Competition film The Children of Heaven, a Montreal Miramax acquisition. I was only able to catch Mohammad-Ali Talebi's A Bag of Rice, a sort of "Iranian film lite." A young girl faces a series of misadventures when she and her grandmother travel by bus to buy a sack of rice. Although the film features a crowd-pleasing performance by the young girl, its brand of neorealism lacks the profundities of Jafar Panahi's similar The White Balloon.

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Mill Valley Film Festival

Like its original inspiration, Telluride, Mill Valley has the rare ability to host an international film festival while maintaining the home-spun atmosphere of a cozy mountain town. Now in its 20th year, the festival attracts industry luminaries, yet the glow and potential pomp of celebrity attendance is kept in check by the undeniable charm and beauty of the town itself.

This year, the festival's annual New Media/Videofest included Lars Van Trier's Medea, as well as three new and noteworthy documentaries: The Hamster Factor, on the making of Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys; Herbert Hippopotamus, profiling the Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse; and A Visit to China's Mao Country, Eleanor Coppola's new work. Interactive CD-ROM artists from the U.S., Canada, and France were also featured in the New Media Fest.

Screening seven world premieres (including Fools, the first ever feature by a black South African) and 22 U.S. premieres of feature films and offering work from 31 countries during its 11-day run, the Festival holds its own against other American fests like Telluride. International film fans buzzed the brightest for such works as Germany's Lea, featuring Hanna Schygulla in a rich evocation of events following a young girl's traumatic separation from her mother, and Wong Kar-Wai's Happy Together.

Though the festival, perhaps because of its non-competitive format and middle-weight status, may not have quite the gravitational force to attract hungry distributors, a strategically minded indie might do well to take advantage of the relaxed setting where attending panelists such as Larry Meistrich of the Shooting Gallery, Neil Friedman of the William Morris Agency, or Matt Brodie of Miramax Films could be more easily encouraged to lend an ear.

Isabel Sadurni is a San-Francisco-based writer and filmmaker.

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The Hamptons International Film Festival

At the world premiere screening of The Tale of Sweeney Todd, John Schlesinger's new film, I happened to sit next to Michael Braverman, one of the founders of the Hamptons International Film Festival. He quipped that so many people had been asking him if he was Ben Kingsley (who dominates the screen with ease as the infamous barber, opposite the deliciously demonic Joanna Lumley and the multi-talented Campbell Scott), he just had to come and see the film for himself. I must admit, the similarity was unnerving.

Talking with Braverman, I learned that the festival, now in its fifth year, had begun around a dining room table -- an idea born to a small group of friends who are now equally amazed and delighted at how their creation has blossomed. With significantly increased crowds, expanded locations, and an ever-growing board of directors, the Hamptons attracts a diverse following and, above all, quality films.

The challenging range of features, documentaries and shorts, chosen solely by Program Director [and Filmmaker Associate Editor] Stephen Gallagher, had crowds packing into the various venues with impressive consistency. Variety snubbed the festival with the headline "Hamptons Off the A-List," to which Gallagher replied, "I didn't know we were on it!" Despite Variety's claims that industry attendance was lower this year, there were in fact representatives from most major distributors who, along with various press, darted back and forth to New York during the five days of the fest.

Maureen Foley's Home Before Dark and Nestor Miranda's Destination Unknown (both first features written by their directors) tied for the Golden Starfish Award and shared $185,000 worth of goods and services. French actress Anouk Aim�e (best known from Fellini's 8 1/2 and La Dolce Vita) represented the jury at the closing night ceremony. She praised both films for having an amazing edge and for dealing fearlessly with important, engrossing issues. The jury also gave Julie Kessler a special award for her performance in Steven O'Connor's Upstate.

Michael Almereyda's Pixel-vision The Rocking Horse Winner took home the Best Short award. Another short that generated a lot of buzz was Josh Gordon & Will Speck's Culture, a hysterical look at trying to get ahead in today's corporate jungle when an entrenched secretary takes a dislike to you.

Ten student filmmakers, each awarded $2,500, were also part of a showcase. NYU grad Amy Talkington's Number One Fan, about a young girl who runs away from home and stumbles into the path of a photographer who loves recreating death scenes, was singled out to receive the fest's RKO "Best Told Story" award.

Lifetime Television for Women, one of the fest's principal sponsors, presented its "Vision Award" to the film that best dealt with issues of concern to women. James Rosenow took home the $10,000 check for Crossing Fields, a perceptive first feature that portrays the life of a middle-aged mother living in the Midwest whose entire belief system is challenged. The fest's winning documentary, Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen's (which was recently picked up by Northern Arts) was directed by husband-and-wife team Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman, who stumbled across this unique story while in L.A. on business. Director William Greaves represented the documentary jury -- which also included Ian Birnie, R.J. Cutler, Robert Hawk and Renee Tajima-Pe�a -- when giving Chasen's its rather meager prize of $2,500 worth of Kodak film stock. The jury also cited Michele Ohayon's Colors Straight Up for "its emotional resonance and social relevance."

Audience Awards were also dished out to some real fest faves. There was a tie for Most Popular Film between Manuel Gomez Pereira's Love Can Seriously Damage Your Health (Spain) and Leonardo Pieraccioni's The Cyclone (Italy). Elizabeth Schub's Cuba 15, a coming-of-age story shot on the streets of Havana, took home the audience award for Most Popular Short. Finally, Colors Straight Up stormed home with the Most Popular Documentary.

The Q&A sessions that followed many of the screenings were an interesting way of gauging each film's impact. Strong Island Boys, one of the Golden Starfish nominees written and directed by Mark Schiffer, had a lively session. Its raw, tough and sometimes touching look at a group of 15-year-old boys growing up in Long Island had the audience brimming with comments and queries. A man shouted, "I'm 50 years old, grew up in the Bronx, and that's exactly what my childhood was like!" while others were shocked by its content. One woman praised the film's candid observations but said the misogynistic portrayal of women terrified her.

Other films of note included The Winter Guest, Alan Rickman's directorial debut featuring Emma Thompson and her real-life mother Phylidda Law. D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus' latest documentary, Moon Over Broadway, starring Carol Burnett in effervescent form, was a real audience hit. Trekkies, a fascinating foray into the wonderful, wacky world of "Star Trek" fanatics, was directed by Roger Nygard and features "Next Generation" diva Denise Crosby. Another Golden Starfish nominee, Sparkler, directed by Darren Stein, caused the festival to add extra screenings after the first two sold out. Park Overall plays Melba, a trailer-park gem who hitches her glittery star to three L.A. boys (Freddie Prinze, Jr., Jamie Kennedy and Steven Petrarca). It's a kitschy romp that can't help but enchant you, with Veronica Cartwright making a brave and winning comeback as Dottie, a stripper who can do extraordinary things with her baton!

There were also popular mini-retrospectives from Argentina's Alejandro Agresti (his Act in Question warrants a mention), France's Nicolas Philibert and Spain's Julio Medem. Panel discussions, a "Subversive Cinema" section for night owls, and a six-film focus on Spanish production giant Sogetel all added to the plethora of events during the festival.

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The AFI Los Angeles International Film Festival

"Why isn't there a world-class film festival in the film capital of the world?" demanded Jon Fitzgerald, director of the 1997 American Film Institute Los Angeles International Film Festival. "I think with the response we're getting so far this year, everybody feels like it's starting to happen." Not since Gary Essert created Filmex in the early '70s has Los Angeles been home to a major film festival with a young, idealistic director like Fitzgerald, who this past April was hired away from Slamdance, the festival he co-founded, to breathe new life into the AFI Fest.

Having risen from the ashes of Filmex's demise in 1986, the festival is continuing a renaissance of its own after nearly a decade of nomadic existence. After moving from venue to venue, the festival settled two years ago into both Hollywood and Santa Monica, splitting screen time among the GCC Hollywood Galaxy, Mann's Chinese Theater, and Laemmle's Monica 4-Plex.

This year, Fitzgerald consciously scaled back the festival to ten days and added a competitive section as well as new categories like World Cinema, Documentary, Latin American Sidebar, and New Visions, created specifically to champion American independent films. The result was a 30% increase in attendance from last year, with one-third of its screenings sold out.

Those ticket sales included no less than ten films receiving their U.S. premieres, including opening night fave Swept from the Sea by director Beeban Kidron; Mike van Diem's 1920s-set historical Dutch drama Character, which won the Grand Jury Prize (chosen by this year's judges Allison Anders, Charles Burnett and Nick Cassavetes); Zhang Yimou's contemporary comedy Keep Cool (banned earlier this year from the Cannes Film Festival); and the finale of the festival, Alan Rudolph's self-proclaimed "serious farce" starring Nick Nolte and Julie Christie, Afterglow. No film buff could deny the global reach of Fitzgerald's vision. Agnes Merlet's Artemisia (France), Wiktor Grodecki's Mandragora (Czech Republic), Zhang Yuan's East Palace, West Palace (China), Alexei Balabanov's Brother (Russia) and Jose Araujo's Landscapes of Memory (Brazil) all contributed to the continued legacy of the AFI Fest's international agenda.

But Fitzgerald's background is American independent film, and the domestic quota was met in spades by the likes of competitive entry No Child of Mine, Peter Kosminsky's child-abuse drama which won Honorable Mention from the jury; Lisa Addario and Joe Syracuse's Lover Girl, starring Kristy Swanson and Sandra Bernhard in a story about a teenage girl roped into work at a massage parlor; and industry tales like Rodney Lee Rodger's Steamed Milk, depicting an aspiring screenwriter's last day at a coffeehouse and Gary Rosen's Hacks about a group of television writers in Hollywood which boasts a cast including Stephen Rea, Illeana Douglas, John Ritter and Lisa Kudrow.

Films in the New Visions section vied for a select handful of very lucrative cash prizes, such as the Miramax-donated $20,000 award for Best Feature Film which went to Stan Schofield's feminist drifter drama Cost of Living; the film's lead, Edie Falco, also won the award for Best New Actress. Best New Actor went to Joe Russo for his performance in Pieces, a film about hairpiece salesmen which he co-directed with his brother Anthony. Best New Director went to Peter Turman for Without a Map, and Best New Writer went to Jack Perez for his dark, wry take on love triangles in The Big Empty.

Documentaries ranged from Trekkies, Roger Nygard's hilarious look at "Star Trek" fanatics; to fest fave Hands on a Hardbody, S.R. Bindler's coverage of an unconventional endurance contest to win a Nissan truck; and Ira Wohl's study of his mentally retarded 70-year old cousin Philly in Best Man, his follow-up to Best Boy, which won him the Oscar 20 years ago for Best Documentary.

Acutely conscious of the ten-mile gap between Hollywood and Santa Monica, Fitzgerald created a more communal atmosphere than in years past with plush, roomy hospitality suites in both locations. But the festival was ultimately about the films being shown -- especially independent films. "Jon Fitzgerald is a true champion of the independent filmmaker," said Michael Davis, whose entry Eight Days a Week has the most impressive pedigree this year of audience approval and critical laudations for a picture that has yet to win a distributor. "He really goes to bat to get indie films exposed to the audience." Davis even mentioned a recent, post-AFI Fest radio interview in which Fitzgerald mentioned Eight Days. "He has been such a staunch supporter -- even after the festival, he's stumping my movie."

Stephen Garrett is a film editor and freelance journalist based in Los Angeles.

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Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival

The opening bid for Oliver North was $20. For Pat Buchanan, $15. And for General Norman Schwartzkopf? $35. Yes, bidding for autographed 8x10's of these Republican gods along with shots of Connie Chung, Willard Scott and Brian Boitano was just part of the charm of The 12th Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival's opening night festivities. There were also a band, a disco singer, dancing, a bride, catering by dozens of the top local restaurants, white chocolate swans, plus more eccentrics than John Berendt's Savannah could ever hope to populate its streets with.

Once again Fort Lauderdale has easily earned its title as the "fun fest." With its ability to mix screenings of over 120 films from around the world with the need to wear sun screen -- plus galas at the estates of multimillionaires -- how can other festivals compete?

Well, maybe Cannes, Sundance and Venice needn't worry.

But besides the merrymaking and the free trip to Florida, permitting many directors and non-SAG-members to visit their retired relatives at no cost, why should filmmakers attend Ft. Lauderdale?

"Well, this year we were able to attract more distributors than ever before, and we think we sold at least three products out of it," notes the energetic Gregory von Hausch, the fest's omnipresent President and Director.

Which films?

"They're in negotiations right now. American Perfekt and The Island on Bird Street for sure. Those two look like they're going to score from here. Then there's individual offers on other products such as You Are Here which may or may not get distribution, but I think its director Tom Rooney is going to get further work because of it. Up on the Roof, too.

"So we're developing that aspect," von Hausch continues. "We're also a comforting festival that tries to do its best. I get out there and talk up the films and try to get the audience behind them. We give the filmmakers that pat on the back after they've had so many trepidations getting their films made. The directors need a little encouragement sometimes, and I think we're sort of the nurturing festival if you will. We do what we can for them. They're not lost in the crowd."

Kelley Sane, director of Franchesca Page, a polite John-Waterish epic about a white drag queen mother trying to make her black untalented daughter a star on Broadway (Sammy Davis, Jr. supplied the sperm), agrees: "It wasn't our first film festival so we understood the chaos that can happen. It was great. Actually they bent over backwards.

"Fort Lauderdale is unique, like all the other festivals. I had a great time at Cannes. I had a wonderful time at Sundance, Montreal, L. A., Outfest in San Francisco. They're all unique in their own way."

Did you get a tan?

"Not this time around. As for the Festival helping my film with its distribution, it might be a little early to tell that right now since it ended not so long ago. But at least it opened up a few more doors. A few more people saw it than maybe would have if the Festival weren't there."

Andrew Chang concurs. His company, Attitude Films, is distributing Alex Van Warmerdam's The Dress. "It was good publicity for the film. Also, the local film reviews and press we received will help in the future campaigns. There were also a couple of films I saw that I became interested in and will follow. Yes, I recommend the Festival to other film distributors."

Do you have anything nasty or witty to say about the Festival?

"No," Mr. Chang answers. Then after a moment of silence, he adds, "The beaches are beautiful, the weather nice."

The buoyant Tim Chey was, however, more guarded with his praise. His Fakin' Da Funk, one of those features often labeled an "urban comedy," is about the problems occurring after an orphanage mistakenly ships a Chinese baby to a black family. The recently resuscitated Pam Grier stars. "I went from the Hamptons to Fort Lauderdale so that was a real change of pace. You got the sun. It was a pleasant experience without a doubt, and I really enjoyed it and had a good time."

Was it helpful?

"I don't know. I can't really say anything about it. I can't assess the impact. I had a good time. They flew me out and they put me up in first-class accommodations. I can't really . . . I can't really . . . It's hard to assess. I support them very much, but I can't give you an honest assessment. I'm sorry."

Do you mean it's too early or are you just being diplomatic?

"I'm just being diplomatic because I don't want to say anything negative about the Festival this early. I will tell you this though, the film, Fakin' Da Funk, it's something that I hope you guys can cover sometime. If you want to do an article, I'll be more than happy to be completely candid and honest. I think it would make a great article because you have an 18-day shoot in South Central and you have me. I'm also a subscriber to Filmmaker, too."

I'll talk it over with the editors.

John Gallagher, who also won The Spirit of Independent Film Award for The Deli, agrees to be up front without the promise of a possible cover story, but then he has nothing bad to say: "It worked for us big time for two reasons. One was that I actually met two investors, two people who saw The Deli and spoke to me afterwards about investing in some upcoming projects. They were South Florida folk. The other thing was the award they gave the film which helps the portfolio of the picture."

As for the Fort Lauderdale Film Festival, the print of Susan Winter's Noel Coward-y Pousse Cafe burnt on screen, and Ken Loach's venture into Guatemalan history, Carla's Song, ruptured at a pivotal scene. Some features got four screenings (Franchesca Page); others, one, and at a lousy time (Mark Schiffer's Strong Island Boys). Yet for the majority attending, this growing Festival was an unbeatable mix of smiling Mother Nature and celluloid. Especially for Kenneth Schapiro, whose My Girlfriend's Boyfriend was receiving its world premiere. The director of this In & Out-meets-Love, American Style-pic notes: "Unfortunately, it's not a festival that a lot of distributors attend. The benefit was in seeing an audience really enjoy your film... after paying for it!"

Brandon Judell is a contributor to Detour and lead critic for Critics Inc. on AOL. He's also written on film for The Village Voice and The Advocate, and edited The Gay Quote Book.

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Chicago Underground Film Festival

Probably the most transgressive thing left for a self-dubbed "underground" film festival to accomplish is to simply persist over the years until it evolves into a cultural mainstay on its home turf. The Chicago Underground Film Festival (CUFF), which finished its fourth year this past August, got both crowds and critical kudos this time around.

Chicago has a balkanized film festival community with over a dozen film festivals of some scope; there are Latino, Polish and Russian festivals, the second oldest Lesbian and Gay International Film Festival in the U.S., the Film Center of the Art Institute's ongoing weeks of Iranian and Hong Kong Film, and the Chicago International Film Festival, a programming and logistical nightmare even in its thirty-third year. CUFF has attained a delicate but promising balance of organizational responsibility and artistic license. (Well, autistic in some cases, but more about The Bride of Frank shortly.)

Last year was a CUFF landmark -- the first year that any films originated on 35mm were shown (although on video projection). This year, the quantity and quality of features improved, and 35mm film projection was added. Yet CUFF seems to be growing into a festival as much for filmmakers as local filmgoers. Founders Jay Bliznick and Bryan Wendorf report that filmmakers such as Sarah Jacobson, Martin Lucas, Peter Hall and Guy Benoit have returned in successive years, even when they haven't had a new film in competition, giving a "summer camp" aspect to the proceedings. Parties, including a now-traditional bowling excursion, filled the evenings.

The festival began four years ago in downtown hotel conference rooms with an accompanying dealers' convention -- almost like an afterthought to a comicon. "It's only last year that we started to understand what makes a good film festival," Bliznick says. "In the first year people would just wander in and out instead of looking at films as films.

"In the first year, virtually every submission got in," Bliznick continues, laughing. "But once we started improving the programming, we got more selections, and now we can be more impressive." Almost a dozen sponsors signed on for this edition. "They're niche sponsorships," Bliznick says, "and that works for and against us. Certain companies want to be niched to our crowd, but a lot of companies with money trying to appear cool and young are still skittish."

One sponsor suits the mission they see for CUFF. "The Independent Film Channel deals with young, independent filmmakers with an eye on what to do in the future," Wendorf continues. Still, CUFF pays more attention to the history of "underground" than many film festivals do. "It's not just transgressive, it's not just experimental; underground, to us, just means outside the mainstream. If something irritates or confuses the mainstream, we call that underground." A multiple film salute to seminal New York Filmmaker Jack Smith, predating his Manhattan retrospective by several months, began with Flaming Creatures, and John Waters was on hand to chat up his decades of filth with overflow audiences who came out in thunderous rain.

Still, Bliznick says, "You aren't going to see any Piper-Heidsick career awards here. We revel in the history of underground film instead of just what's happening now." Wendorf adds, "You can see the line from Jack Smith to John Waters to directors like Nick Zedd, Richard Kern and Jon Morigitsu. But some of the filmmakers don't know the tradition they're part of. Cassavetes' Shadows was underground when it was first released, and you could trace the whole idea of the American independent feature back to that. If Herschell Gordon Lewis and Stan Brakhage ever collaborated, that would be the perfect CUFF film."

Highlights of this year's festival included Jim Van Bebber's Audience Choice winner, the dense, chaotic Charlie's Family, shown as a nine-years-in-progress preview. An intense, graphic docudrama about the Manson family, the film alternates frenzied re�nactments of their crimes with convincing fictional present-day interviews, and performances of unusual authenticity.

Documentaries comprise a good chunk of the programming. "It seems easier to produce a good documentary with less money than a feature," Wendorf says, "and it gets you over the problem of how bad acting is sometimes in movies without a budget." First-Prize-Winner Sam Green's The Rainbow Man/John 3:16 was a deeply sad and intensely haunting portrait of Rollen Frederick Stewart, a telegenic fool of the late '70s and early '80s who donned a rainbow-striped Afro wig at sporting events to get the cameras to cut to him. Scott Petersen's fluent, understated Chicago rock-band documentary Out of the Loop took the second documentary prize. Doug Wolens' Weed was an entertaining portrait of the eighth Annual Cannabis Cup and Hemp Expo, held in smoky Amsterdam, a hemptronic, weedarific treat for those so inclined and a cheerful glimpse at another culture's subculture for the rest of us.

The best feature award went to Henry Barges' Half Spirit: The Voice of the Spider, a clammy, claustrophobic hallucination from France that bears comparison to Krzysztof Kieslowski's A Short Film About Killing. Craig Schlattman's second-place The Seller has nice moments of absurdist chat, but they don't bring enough snap to a story of a sleazy, self-loathing used car salesman who kills a couple of customers and finds himself stuck with their 12-year-old daughter. (Waters stalwart Mink Stole plays the girl's aunt.)

Other highlights included the local premieres of the feverish, frantic day-glo paranoia of Frank Grow's video-to-film Love God, and Brian Flemming's Hang Your Dog in The Wind, where surreal meets hyperreal in a playful black-and-white L.A. slacker-meets-consumerist comedy. Jason Hernandez-Rosenblatt's nasty, hilarious, prize-winning short, Meat, is a vegan's worst nightmare -- a 16-year-old girl discovers her straight-and-narrow family are actually cannibals. Nanni Jacobson's authorized documentary Straight to You: Nick Cave Portrait, had lines around the block, and "Jeff Krulik and Friends" spotlighted several wonderful snippets of cable-access overachievement, including the simply inspired Heavy Metal Parking Lot, wherein Krulik and D.C. cable-access co-worker John Heyn videotape the metal fans swarming an arena parking lot before a Judas Priest show. Krulik also presented the frightening King of Porn, which introduces the buttoned-down Ralph Whittington and his meticulously cataloged collection of pornography of all stripes. And then there's Steve Ballot's The Bride of Frank. Ballot bombarded local critics with press kits, videotapes and plastic eyeballs and wild-posted all over the appropriate neighborhoods. "I pitched it like a garbageman," Ballot told me. His turn of phrase is appropriate for one of the most relentlessly appalling, inexplicably hilarious movies I've seen in ages. Blessed with sub-porno level production values, Ballot's brassy, goombah comedy is about a creepy, toothless old man, his friends at the trucking company where he works and lives, his not-so-idle threats to all comers, and his love for 300-pound strippers. Cheap shit, but someone has to look out for tradition.

Ray Pride is the film critic of Chicago's arts and news weekly, New City, and is also one of its editors. He is a playwright and screenwriter.

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Film Arts Festival

In describing Eva Ilona Brzeski's film This Unfamiliar Place, my friend Patrick once said that he liked it because Brzeski shows us the impossibility of documentary. And indeed, the filmmaker's inability to uncover the "places" in her father's history that are occupied by Adolf Hitler and World War II, and the concomitant necessity to offer substitute images that merely point to that sense of loss instead, are poignant lessons in filmmaking. Brzeski continues to explore the lyrical sense of implacable absence in her new film 24 Girls, the highlight, for me, of this year's Film Arts Festival.

24 Girls has two threads. One is a series of clips of 24 girls auditioning for a film project. Ranging in age from 10 to around 12, the girls are just on the edge of identity. They still have a natural, uncompromised sense of self, but they are beginning to adopt the performative characteristics that make being both a woman and an adult such a complex and often self-conscious activity. Because they are also performing in front of the camera, the mix of "real" and "fake" identities is often charming and always fascinating. The second story tells of Lynnie Moore, a young girl from Brzeski's past who died before becoming a teenager. In a project that would seem impossible to make work, Brzeski deftly weaves together glimpses of these living girls and the memory of one who has passed away, and in the process makes a film that's quite stunning.

The Film Arts Foundation has a reputation for showcasing such gems, and each year's festival invariably offers a strong mix of wacky narratives, stridently political docs, and uncompromising experimental films. This year was no exception, and many of the filmmakers in the festival, including Jay Rosenblatt, who presented the world premiere of his latest found footage film, Human Remains, and Jon Moritsugu, who screened his dark feature Fame Whore, are FAF regulars. The reciprocity between FAF and filmmakers is great, and it showed, especially on the opening night of the festival which took place at the nearly filled Castro Theater.

Hosted by the dynamic Mark Taylor, who has a daunting act to follow -- both Lissa Gibbs and Robert Hawk are former festival directors -- the festival consistently drew large crowds to a series of strong films. The "Advice to Adventurous Girls" show, for example, featured Amy, Susan Rivo's personal confession of her peculiar attachment to a stuffed animal, as well as two profiles: one by Kimberly Wood of Lilly La France, a motorcyclist from the 1930s titled Advice to Adventurous Girls, and Miriam Is Not Amused, a nicely developed introduction to the wife of Kenneth Patchen, a beat poet, by Kim Roberts. Sarah Kennedy's Dirty Fingernails is a hearty diatribe against the way women are excluded from everyday technology (like rebuilding motorcycle engines) and simultaneously a wonderfully self-conscious meditation in which Kennedy assesses her own complicity in this exclusion. Charlotte Legarde's Swell profiles several women surfers, and its moving conclusion had the entire theater sniffling tearfully.

Several other shows offered a similar series of great shorts back-to-back. Some of the highlights include Danielle Renfrew's Dear Dr. Spencer: Abortion in a Small Town, which profiles a small-town doctor who performed abortions for desperate women from all over the country long before abortion became legal. The film documents the town's clandestine support for the doctor, and offers a moving account of the ways in which people can band together to help others in need. Another compelling short is Rosenblatt's Human Remains, which uses archival footage and biographical excerpts to profile five key historical figures; the play of personal information and photographs against the backdrop of various historical atrocities is fascinating and at times horrific. Rosenblatt's film screened on opening night as part of the "In Glorious Black and White" show, which featured six great shorts. Tom E. Brown's Don't Run, Johnny was perhaps the oddest of the bunch. Brown's premise? Make the AIDS film that Ed Wood might have made. The result is irreverent and quite funny, with a perfectly contrived goofy aesthetic.

I discovered the Film Arts Foundation nearly five years ago when helping program for L.A.'s Filmforum. The collection of great shorts housed there could have filled an entire season's screenings, and the organization's support of its members, not only through screenings, equipment access, and basic membership services, but through real support, both financial and via astute networking, is remarkable. I secretly worried that FAF would be one of the media wonders that would dissolve -- too good to be true, how could it last? Well, it has lasted, and with no hint of dissolution. And Mark Taylor's leadership of the FAF's 13th festival bodes well for the future.


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