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Hawaii International Film Festival, OUTFEST, International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam, International Thessaloniki Film Festival, International Film Festival Mannheim-Heidelberg.

Hawaii International Film Festival by Augusta Palmer

Legendary 93-year-old surfer, Doc Ball, featured in Surfing for Life Photo by LeRoy Grannis
Undeniably, the Hawaii International Film Festival’s trump card is Hawaii itself: the islands’ natural scenery is so eye shattering that locals and visitors alike feel obliged to wear the loudest Hawaiian shirts in order to compete with the landscape’s color and abundance. The setting of the Festival has a way of confronting even the most single-minded of filmmakers and critics with difficult decisions like whether to watch the legendary surf on Oahu’s North shore, or leave the lure of the landscape and the cocktails to go to a screening of one of the over 100 shorts and features "from the Pacific Rim and beyond" featured in the Festival.

Another unique facet of the HIFF is the judging of the 12 films in competition for the Fest’s Golden Maile Awards. They are assessed not only on the technique and artistry of their filmmaking, but also on their ability to promote cross-cultural understanding. This focus on cross-cultural exchange, in addition to the perfect weather, is what provides the relaxed atmosphere in which filmmakers from India greet Australian counterparts like old friends, and everyone mills around waiting for the next pupu platter to come by or the next cocktail venue to be announced.

The HIFF also has an educational bent, hosting more than 10 seminars in addition to the usual post-screening Q&A sessions. This emphasis on exchange, whether educational or cross-cultural, is part of what brings out local audiences in droves. The other crucial ingredient is, of course, star-studded local premieres of long anticipated art-house blockbusters like the Fest’s opening film, Scott Hicks’ Snow Falling on Cedars. Both because the HIFF doesn’t seem to be a major feeding frenzy for distributors and because of its timing in early November, the Fest functions either as a rollicking finale to a filmmaker’s year of making the festival rounds or as a stepping stone to generate enough buzz to be selected for next year’s festival circuit.

The pomp and circumstance of the Festival awards ceremony, complete with traditional songs and hulas, was interrupted by cinematographer/director Christopher Doyle, who is clearly involved in a secret competition with Roberto Benigni for the hammiest performance at a film festival. Doyle broke into Kodak executive D. Brian Spruill’s list of Doyle’s own merits during the presentation of the Eastman Kodak Award for Excellence in Cinematography to complain about Spruill’s hyperbole, and later carried on a continuing repartee with master of ceremonies Paul Theroux occasionally shouting his personal mantra, "Beer is Life!" from the audience. Meanwhile, Golden Mailes were garnered by the Aussie black comedy Siam Sunset and the beautifully shot U.S. documentary Surfing for Life.

In addition to providing the live entertainment at the awards ceremony, Doyle also provided the pick of the Festival litter with his directorial debut, Away With Words, an anti-narrative stream of consciousness rant on the color blue, the elusivity of memory and, of course, the joys of drinking. Other Fest highlights unlikely to get a major U.S. release include: Rainbow Trout, a lushly photographed Korean spin on Deliverance in which the true enemy is the self stripped to its bare impulses, and Chen Guo-fu’s elegantly innovative The Personals, in which a Taipei woman interviews a series of squirming respondents to her personal ad in the restaurant where she met her lost love. The other pleasures of the Hawaii International Film Festival were best summed up by British-born, L.A.-based filmmaker Ash (director of Bang), who arrived at a late screening of his film Pups in time to gush at the audience, "I just spent the day on the North shore and you guys really do live in fucking paradise!"

OUTFEST by Jim Moran

A common refrain uttered by various staff members throughout OUTFEST ’99 (July 8-19) was that the Los Angeles-based gay and lesbian film festival, now in its 17th year, is finally "coming of age."

Well, it’s certainly bigger than ever before. This year it boasted its highest estimated attendance by both gay and straight audiences; debuted a three-city tour of Fresno, Santa Barbara and San Diego to exhibit festival highlights across California; and expanded to provide new and retrospective film and video programming year-round at The Village. Most indicative of the Festival’s self-conscious reach for high-profile prominence was Summit ’99, a weekend of structured forums for international programmers of queer cinema to network with filmmakers and confer with industry executives about studio relations, fundraising, and digital technologies, among other concerns. Nurturing these new developments were such powerful sponsors as Paramount, HBO, Absolut and United Airlines. Even the French government funded a series in their concerted effort to promote gay and lesbian tourism in France.

OUTFEST, it would seem, had come out to the world at large. But in seeking legitimacy through its widening alliances with old-guard institutions, has the festival risked losing its edge at 17? This question will probably nag programmers and audiences alike as OUTFEST experiences growing pains during its rite of passage to the mainstream. The rhetoric of this year’s theme, "Welcome Home," implicitly bespeaks this dilemma: by embracing a shift to Hollywood as the renewed center of exhibition, programmers have apparently pardoned the industry for driving gay and lesbian representation to the margins in the first place. True, a return to Hollywood may add glamour and attract industry types to the screenings, thus augmenting the value of OUTFEST as a market. Yet it also neglects the origins of the Festival as an alternative venue for unconventional artists to explore "queerness" without the pressures of ideological and economic conformity.

Of course, this issue of "difference versus assimilation" is nothing new to any queer venture with public visibility, and the OUTFEST staff has met the challenge with canny creativity by programming "events" that would appeal to mainstream curiosity seekers without necessarily alienating the queer majority. For example, the closing night screening of trick was a safe venture for heterosexuals and executives both, having already been picked up for distribution at Sundance and featuring an over-the-top performance by well-known celebrity Tori Spelling. It tells a gay love story in which personal intimacy wins out over sexual promiscuity. Similarly, the centerpiece film, Get Bruce, Andrew J. Kueh’s documentary about Bruce Vilanch, unsung joke writer for the stars, downplays his homosexuality in favor of his wit during interviews with the likes of Billy Crystal, Whoopi Goldberg, and Robin Williams – in effect, an act of Hollywood royalty inversely paying homage to its court jester. Or consider that the choice of Gus Van Sant as recipient of the OUTFEST Achievement Award at the Opening Night Gala held little chance for controversy, as gay audiences especially could embrace his earlier, homoerotic films (Mala Noche screened as a retrospective), while the mainstream could applaud his crossover into more conventional fare (Good Will Hunting earned him his first Oscar nomination).

So, yes, while some of OUTFEST’s edge may have been dulled a bit by age, the concern of a film festival is as much art as politics, and there were plenty of narratives, documentaries, and shorts that qualified in that regard. Features of note included Lukas Moodysson’s Show Me Love, a Swedish lesbian coming-of-age love story that manages to transcend the clichés of the genre through dead-on lead performances by Alexandra Dahlström and Rebecca Liljeberg; Andre Techine’s disturbing and elliptical Les Voyeurs, featuring "honorary lesbian" Catherine Deneuve as a philosophy professor tragically entangled in a self-destructive bisexual love triangle; the one and only Bruce LaBruce’s Skin Flick, a slyly woven provocation juxtaposing and parodying conventions of documentary, video porn, and narrative fiction to elicit laughs and erections in reactionary situations most spectators would rather not admit to; Ernest Dickerson’s Blind Faith, a thriller starring Charles Dutton as an African-American cop whose son is charged with murdering a white boy (Grand Jury Awards for Outstanding American Narrative Feature and Outstanding Actor); Chutney Popcorn (Audience Award for Outstanding Narrative Feature), a comic tour-de-force by actor-director-writer Nisha Ganatra, who, in a star turn as a lesbian seeking her mother’s approval by becoming surrogate to her sister’s baby, interrogates family values at the intersection of traditional Indian and queer American cultures; Head On (Grand Jury Award to Ana Kokkinos for Outstanding Foreign Narrative Feature), a brutal portrait of Ari (Alex Dimitriades), a young Australian gay man of Greek heritage who, over the course of an eventful 24 hours of sex, drugs, and general cruelty, struggles against the oppressive patriarchal expectations imposed by his community; New Zealand’s When Love Comes (Garth Maxwell), a deeply moving, if schematic story, of love among heterosexual, gay and lesbian couples, who discover the desire for love is not antithetical to that for success; and finally, if not conclusively, After Stonewall, John Scagliotti’s monumental documentary that received a standing ovation and Audience Award for Outstanding Documentary Feature for its chronicle of the gay rights movement from the 1969 Stonewall riots to the present.

This list of noteworthy screenings would be woefully incomplete (animated and avant-garde shorts notwithstanding) without spotlighting the Festival’s most impressive and revolutionary work, ironically not a film, but a British TV series entitled "Queer As Folk." Surpassing many of the features at OUTFEST in its sexual explicitness, complex characterizations and unwavering queer point of view, these 270 minutes of public broadcasting must seem like a miracle to American viewers programmed to evaluate "Will and Grace" as cutting-edge television. As written by Russell T. Davies and directed by Charles McDougall and Sarah Harding, the cads and comrades of the series’ multiple misadventures make Ellen Degeneres look like Mary Poppins, yet remain as loveable (and sexy) in spite of (no, because of) their lonely longings, selfish cruelties, and drug-induced over-indulgences as they hop from bed to work to bar to bed and back again. Although the single marathon screening was not well suited for a serial that benefits from intervals of contemplation and speculation between episodes, audiences were fortunate to have the chance at all, given American distribution is unlikely and that the London Daily Mail has cited the series as evidence that Great Britain needs censorship. This opportunity alone proves that, coming of age notwithstanding, OUTFEST is still the most welcome home we have for art at risk of exile.

International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam by Wellington Love

Centered in the heart of Amsterdam on the bustling Leidseplein, the International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam (IDFA) is undoubtedly the world’s largest documentary film festival. The 12th edition of the Festival presented more than 200 films, with record-breaking attendance of 62,000 visitors, and 1,200 industry professionals. The Festival also hosts "Docs for Sale," a market for documentary films, and "The Forum," a financing market organized specifically for documentary producers. The main program of the festival took place in the seven-screen City Theater located directly across from the Festival headquarters (and main hangout) at De Balie with satellite screenings at the nearby picturesque Filmmuseum. The centralized nature of the Festival created an impressive syncopation, with audience members, filmmakers, and other industry types flowing morning til night between the smoked-filled festival café and the standing-room-only theaters. The primarily Dutch audience were keen to see this dense (and illuminating) program of films about war, religion, slavery, science, activism, family, and famine.

Why do the Dutch turn out in such striking numbers to see subtitled documentary films? Festival director Ally Derks credits, in part, the event’s success to the positive press received in the early years of the Festival. Derk also asserts that "the Festival is about communication between people." Surveying the queue of ticket holders, one might have thought they were at Cannes or attending a Hollywood premiere. But the big studios were only tangentially represented by veteran documentarian (and 007 director) Michael Apted (42 Up), who was there with his most recent labor of love, Me & Isaac Newton. Following his uncanny and perhaps unconscious fascination with the number seven, Apted interviews seven scientists in a ponderous attempt to demystify the culture of science. Amongst other notables in competition were Dan Setton and Tor Ben-Mayor’s Kapo, a contentious examination of the former Jewish work camp commanders, kapos (leaders), who were considered collaborators of the Nazis during World War II. In painful yet unapologetic interviews, several former kapos talk about why they consented to run the ghettos and concentration camps. Not surprisingly the film was received with trepidation, perhaps due to its polemic hypothesizing about the Jews complicity in the Holocaust.

Luke Holland also went head-to-head with the Holocaust in I Was a Slave Labourer. Holland follows a former camp worker turned successful businessman, Rudy Kennedy, in his crusade to secure monetary compensation for the 10 million Jews who were slave laborers for German companies during World War II. Acting as Kennedy’s companion and tool, Holland manages a salient account that is both document and documentary.

In Public Enemy, German filmmaker Jens Meurer traveled to America to interview four former members of the Black Panthers. Meurer constructs a careful and uncritical essay about the valor of civil rights renegades. Former panther Kathleen Cleaver’s presence at the screening lent some cogency to this earnest documentary.

Heddy Honigmann’s Crazy, a series of graceful portraits of shell-shocked Dutch UN soldiers, underscored the psychic casualties of war. The irony and genius of Crazy was not in what the soldiers said but in the compelling subtext illicited by the film’s cunning soundtrack and hypnotic camera work. It was little surprise when Honigmann walked away with the NRC Handelblad’s Audience Award.

Reaction could be described as nothing short of nonplussed when the VPRO Joris Ivens Award went to the Festival’s opening night film, John Appel’s Andre Hazes – The Film, an intimate look at The Netherland’s answer to Wayne Newton. While the film was a thoughtful and humorous portrait of a working class hero’s meteoric rise and fizzle, sentiment suggested that a more socially conscious and less local film would have been more deserving. Other awards included The NPS Silver Wolf Award, which went to Kids from the Coal Land – A Letter to Henri Storck by Patric Jean. The Fipresci Award went to Between 2 Worlds by Bettina Haasen. A special Jury Award went to A Cry from the Grave by Leslie Woodhead.

The nine-day Festival closed with a multi-level disco party at the neighboring Paradiso where Festival-goers, Festival staff, and filmmakers schmoozed and danced until dawn. It seemed an appropriate and cathartic ending for a Festival of consciousness-forming films.

International Thessaloniki Film Festival by Ray Pride

Thessaloniki is seldom more than a couple of pages in guidebooks, whether for Europe or for Greece. My local acquaintances like this. This city of about a million is a secret they want kept quiet. The International Thessaloniki Film Festival is a gleaming artifact as well. In its 40th year, it remains one of the great secrets of world fests, a kind of Toronto-by-the-sea. An international festival since 1992, focusing on the works of first and second-time filmmakers (the only movies eligible for competition), Thessaloniki is one of the best one-stop surveys of a year’s work in world cinema. Taking in the survey programmed by festival director Michel Demopoulos – and others, including Dimitri Eipides, whose New Horizons program repeats some of the estimable programming he brings to Toronto – one has hope for the future of world cinema outside Hollywood.

Attendance leapt this year with a new ticketing system allowing advance purchases, leading to many sellouts, even on weekdays, and an increase in attendance of almost 40 percent by an overwhelmingly young local audience. The festival’s top nod, The Golden Alexander, worth almost $40,000, went to Zhang Yang’s Shower, a sweet generational tale set in a Chinese bathhouse; it also took the Audience Award for Best Foreign Film (and has U.S. distribution). A special jury award (and $23,000) went to Marco Bechis’ Argentine Garage Olimpo, a desolate look at torture. On a lighter note, Best Director went to Justin Kerrigan for his Miramax-bound rave-up romance, Human Traffic, the film also took the first Europa Cinema Award, which recognizes Euro titles. (10,000 Euros were earmarked for its Greek distribution.)

Other awards included an Artistic Achievement Award that went to Sasa Gedeon’s gentle farce Return of the Idiot; and Ed Radtke’s sturdy U.S. road movie, The Dream Catcher, won notice for work by actor Paddy Connor and cinematographer Terry Stacey. Abbas Kiarostami, a four-time guest of the Fest, was given an honorary Golden Alexander before the first showing of his great, enigmatic The Wind Will Carry Us.

Mini-retrospectives surveyed the work of Ildiko Enyedi, Claire Denis, Lea Pool and Allison Anders. A tribute to Pedro Almodovar was marred only by his absence in the wake of his mother’s death; Marisa Paredes was the Festival’s sweet diva among other guests. Each year’s Greek output and Balkan titles are another regular focus, with a retrospective of Yugoslavian Srdjan Karanovic, whose 1988 A Film With No Name was a cool stunner. Latter-day titles including Djordje Milosavljevic’s black comedy romp, Wheels, which puts a Ten Little Indians plot into a Yugoslavian diner, while Janez Burger’s campus-slacker Idle Running showed a knack for dry understatement. A post-revolution Portuguese salute offered a 15-film look at a little-known national cinema, with a few standouts, such as Joao Botelho’s 1988 Dickens riff Hard Times and Pedro Costa’s delirium-tremendous O Sangue, a romantic swoon reminiscent of Leos Carax.

International Film Festival Mannheim-Heidelberg by Diane Sippl

Despite its snowballing growth as an industry hub for central European filmmaking, where directors seek buyers while producers parlay with potential partners, the ten-day Mannheim-Heidelberg Fest, nestled cozily in two neighboring cities along Germany’s Rhine, stakes its claim as a festival on the turf of the artist. For the Festival and its curating, this boils down to films that evince personal responsibility for their individual expressions. That one of the main awards is the R.W. Fassbinder Prize for narrative innovation – this year to Canadian Davor Marjanovic for My Father’s Angel – only stresses the Festival’s bid for idiomatic storytelling in an era of seemingly anonymous electronic frames and synthetic rhythms.

A forum for launching international co-productions with pre-arranged, one-on-one conferences, the Festival hosted 66 projects from 33 countries this year, bringing together 100 producers at 330 official meetings. Projects this year included 11 from the U.S. and Canada, including Mannheim veterans Peter Hall (Delinquent, 1995) and Derek Cianfrance (Brother Tied, 1998). That these two indies were invited back to pitch their new projects – a vampire film and a rock-and-roll love story – testifies to the Fest’s commitment to nourishing young talent.

Czech director Sasha Gideon’s striking second feature, The Return of the Idiot, was submitted as a project at the 1997 Mannheim Meetings and shown this year in the International Discoveries section. "A good film provokes or effects a personal change. Without that change a good film is just a nice film to me," explains Gedeon, whose stark, wintry scenes convey the dark emotions of the Dostoevsky novel that inspired his screenplay. Yet Gedeon’s idiot is no martyr; transplanted to Prague today, he fine-tunes his perception with a resilience that shocks his worst rivals even as he inspires them.

The most deserved prize at the festival went to Anu Kuivalainen from Finland, who won the Best Documentary Feature award for A Black Cat on the Snow. A woman released from prison four years after murdering her husband must now resume life with her young daughter. How does she explain? Quiet close-ups let us ponder the faces that begin as masks and disclose an introspection rarely found in the best of dramas.

This year’s Fest came full circle with its Mannheim opening gala, Farewell, Home Sweet Home! Written and directed by the formidable Otar Iosseliani, the film launched a retrospective of the auteur’s work since his exile from the Soviet Republic of Georgia to Paris in 1976 with the ban of his film Pastorale. In 1999, Farewell. . . embodies his legacy to young filmmakers – that curious, unpredictable flow of images through time, as magical and as real as life. "You don’t need words to experience my film," he told the audience. "Don’t worry about what language the people speak, don’t even read the subtitles. Just listen to what you see, and feel the music." With melancholy humor, tender beauty, and uproarious wit, Iosseliani set the tone for the Festival.


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