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Thread: The 2007 Sarasota Film Festival

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    The 2007 Sarasota Film Festival

    A local told me Sarasota was "the cultural capital of Florida" and recited a long list of arts institutions and events. The proud Sarasotan wasn't saying anything new. This little city of under 60,000 people has had a reputation as an artists' colony since the 1920s. The reputation is well-deserved. Sarasota is the "anti-Orlando". No tourist traps or tacky souvenir shacks, but plenty of small bookstores and gourmet cafes. Judging by their film festival, only nine years old, I am impressed. It's a well-organized event run by an army of volunteers. The film selection was interesting, with an emphasis on American Independent and European films and a high number of documentaries and shorts. The festival features a series of free panel discussions, several extremely popular "Conversation with..." events, and a tribute to director Norman Jewison (along with a retrospective of his films). These special events take place at the Asolo Theatre, a recreation of an 18th Century Italian Court Playhouse from Asolo, Italy. The regular screenings are held at a rather cramped, downtown multiplex.

    After a 234-mile drive, I arrived on the fifth day of the 10-day fest and was able to get tickets to 9 of the 10 films I wanted to watch. I eventually managed to get a ticket to the sold out screening of Klimt, directed by Raul Ruiz and starring John Malkovich. At $8 per film and $70 for a 10-film pass, the Sarasota festival is a bargain (tickets at the the Miami Festival are $12 and there are no passes). Parking is convenient and... free! All the screenings I attended started punctually, a very important consideration when one is watching three or more films daily and has to find time to have a meal. This little city puts together a better film festival than the ones in Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, and Palm Beach, cities with populations of over a million people. If I was to compare it with other American festivals, I'd say the SFF has become in a short decade the East Coast equivalent of the Telluride (CO) Film festival, the model small-town showcase for cinema.

    Over the next few days, I'll review the films I watched and share some impressions of the experience of attending this festival.

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    THE JOURNALS OF KNUD RASMUSSEN (Canada/Denmark)

    Atanarjuat was a phenomenon. The debut feature by Zacharias Kunuk, an untrained filmmaker, won the Camera d'Or at Cannes, Best Canadian Film at Toronto, and four Canadian Academy Awards including Best Film and Best Director. Atanarjuat received worldwide theatrical distribution and good critical response. As an ardent admirer, it made my list of the Top 10 films of 2002. This follow-up, another immersion into the Inuit culture into which Kunuk was born, premiered at Toronto without fanfare before a brief theatrical release in Canada. It received a nomination for Costume Design by the Canadian Academy and lost. The film, co-produced by Canada and Denmark, appears destined to theatrical release exclusively in those two countries. This sophomore effort, co-written and co-directed by Norman Cohn, is not quite a slump, but certainly a disappointment. It's based on the titulal journals by the explorer/adventurer who first crossed the Northwest Passage via dog sled. Rasmussen, along with anthropologist Therkel and trader Peter, visits the shaman Avva and his family. They live some distance from Iglulik, his original tribal settlement. Avva and his wife Orulu share their life stories and culture with the visitors. Their daughter Apak is shown favoring the spirit of her deceased husband over her live second one when it comes to satisfying her sexual needs. Apak's brother Natan takes Therkel and Peter to Iglunik and Rasmusen heads west. Avva and others also decide to travel to Iglunik despite adverse conditions. Nearly starved, they arrive to find that the community has converted to Christianity. The leader seems willing to share his food only with those who acquiesce and attend mass.

    Both Kunuk films have great anthropological import and awesome arctic vistas but The Journals of Knud Rasmussen fails to coalesce into a compelling narrative, it meanders without focus for most of its running time. It's an hour shorter than Atanarjuat but feels longer because of its aimlessness. This time, I couldn't help but notice the directors' lack of finesse as they zoom in and out of subjects without apparent purpose during indoor scenes. Certain dramatic tensions involving Apak are never developed, and Rasmussen comes into the film and leaves it without consequence. The film comes to life when Avva returns to Iglunik. There is a powerful scene in which the viewer realizes the silent characters lurking in the background while Avva and Orulu were storytelling are actually Inuit spirits about to be painfully dispatched. The cultural loss experienced by all targets of Christian missionaries is forcefully conveyed.

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    COMRADES IN DREAMS (Germany)

    A black man teaches a little boy how to use a film projector. That's the opening scene of this documentary by former projectionist Uli Gaulke. Comrades in Dreams introduces us to people involved in film exhibition in North Korea, Burkina Faso, rural India, and remote Wyoming. Anup is a handsome 25 year-old whose dream of meeting someone suitable for marriage is complicated by the fact he spends half the year traveling around rural India with his tent cinema. In Burkina Faso, three former state employees, all young married men, struggle to feed their families by exhibiting Hollywood action films in a large outdoor theatre. A misplaced print of Cellular they hope to screen causes temporary anxiety. Once found, the problem is that many would-be patrons can only pay a portion of the admission price. In Big Piney, Wyoming, a retired lawyer name Penny has converted a barn into "The Flick", an oasis of entertainment run by volunteers that functions as a meeting place for folks from nearby towns. Han, a cheerful North Korean woman with 30 years of experience as a film technician, programs and exhibits exclusively local-made propaganda films aim to inspire and educate viewers to achieve "collective prosperity". This North Korean segment is the only one that felt too long to me, perhaps because Han invariably presents herself as little more than a loyal cog of the government .

    Comrades in Dreams allows viewers to compare and contrast cultural aspects from the four regions. For instance, Anup explains that his landlocked, drought-stricken audiences would find Titanic bizarre and surreal, whereas that film was a huge hit with audiences in Burkina Faso and could not be shown in communist North Korea. Perhaps the scene that most lingers on my mind days after viewing is the huge masses of Hindus pressed against the narrow entrance to Anup's giant tent as a Bollywood musical is about to unspool.

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    FISSURES (France)

    Most murder mysteries aim to be realistic and plausible. Alante Kavaite's debut involves a significant supernatural element. One's opinion of Fissures (French title: Ecoute le Temps or "Listen to Time") depends largely on whether one finds this agreeable. Charlotte (Emilie Dequenne) is a sound recordist who travels to the small rural town where her clairvoyant mother was recently murdered. While doing some recording inside the creaky house where her mother lived, Charlotte discovers that her equipment can pick up sounds (and conversations) from the past. Kavaite effectively uses these sound clues to trigger flashback scenes. Many locals including the town mayor, his adulterous wife, an organic farmer and the dim-witted next-door neighbor emerge as possible suspects. The plot is complicated by the recent disappearance of a 12 year old boy whose parents consulted Charlotte's mom in an attempt to locate him. The picture achieves everything it sets out to do, which doesn't not include transcending genre. Ms. Dequenne is a fabulous actress and this is her best role since debuting in Rosetta. Fissures has yet to open in France yet producer Joe Dante and director Eduardo Rodriguez have already signed a deal to remake it in English. The casting of the lead role will be a crucial decision.

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    MANUFACTURED LANDSCAPES (Canada)

    Jennifer Baichwal's documentary is a companion to renowned artist Edward Burtynsky's large-scale photographs depicting man's violent alteration of natural environments. Burtynsky achieved notoriety when he documented mine tailings, rail cuts, quarries and oil refineries, mostly located in North America. Baichwal shows Burtynsky at a lecture and exhibition of this material then travels to Asia with him to document the process of creating art based on China's industrial revolution. Manufactured Landscapes opens with an amazing tracking shot from the sidelines of a factory so enormous that the shot lasts eight minutes. There are stunning views of recycling yards and mountains of electronic refuse. Manufactured Landscapes takes us to the site of the Three Gorges Dam, 50% bigger than any previous such project, and to the ruins of the eleven cities that had to be demolished to make its construction possible. In Bangladesh, we witness an area that's become the final resting place for old oil tankers, which are being scrubbed clean of oil by teenagers. The central theme of Manufactured Landscapes is that the things we've come to regard as indicative of progress and human advancement have created a huge dependence on the extraction of natural resources that undermines the health of our planet and consequently our own. Beinchwal's documentary doesn't need to lecture because the visual evidence is so compelling and, ironically, so beautiful.

    *Zeitgeist Films will distribute Manufactured Landscapes in the USA. A dvd is scheduled for release in May. Due to the nature of the film, theatrical viewing is almost essential for its impact to register. It's unclear whether Manufactured Landscapes will manage to find space in theatres or continue to screen only at festivals. Jennifer Baichwal's previous documentary The Meaning of Pictures: Shelby Lee Adams' Appalachia is available on dvd.

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    FOREIGN FILM: CHALLENGES IN THE AMERICAN MARKETPLACE

    I attended this conference moderated by Tom Hall, the Festival's chief programmer. Panelists: Jonathan Sehring, President of IFC Entertainment; Paul Hudson, co-founder of Outsider Pictures; Joe Gerrans, co-president of Strand Releasing, Josh Braun, film producer (A History of Violence) and partner at Submarine Entertainment. The panelists were candid and extremely accessible. (At the conclusion of the forum, Mr. Hudson graciously answered all my inquiries regarding a film of particular interest to me that his company will distribute: Klimt, starring John Malkovich).

    Some issues and topics:

    *The number of screens showing foreign films nationwide is holding steady or perhaps decreasing slightly. On the other hand, film festivals has experienced great growth. There are more festivals showing foreign films every year. People who seem to flock to festivals don't necessarily watch foreign films during regular theatrical runs. Or at least not in comparable numbers. Consequently, in most of America, festival screenings of foreign films is the only opportunity to watch these films the way they were intended to be seen. This is not about to change.

    *Very few foreign films recover the cost of purchasing the rights to the film and the cost of releasing the film through theatrical box office receipts. It's dvd sales and rental and cable broadcasts that cause the distributor to break even or make a profit on the films they distribute.

    *The theatrical success of films like Volver and The Lives of Others is great but there's a downside: it keeps other foreign films from coming to theaters because these films occupy for long periods of time screens earmarked for foreign films.

    *American independent films are perhaps more difficult to watch in Europe (and elsewhere) than foreign films here. It's hard for them to compete for screen space with Hollywood and indigenous films. The value of the Dollar vs. the Euro certainly doesn't help when it comes to buying advertisement for Amerindie films. Consequently, to most people around the world, Hollywood films and American cinema mean the same thing.

    *Video-on-demand is increasingly regarded as a viable outlet for distribution of foreign films in America.

    *The panelists were very cautious when answering questions about why more Americans don't watch foreign films. They seem to think that people in general are less resistant to subtitles than before. One of the panelists had the courage to state that, in many western and southern regions, xenophobia, low educational levels and extreme religiosity play a part in the lack of an audience for foreign films. The others seem to quietly concur.

    *The foreign films that attract young people are mostly Asian genre films. The audiences for European films are overwhelmingly white, educated and over 40. In general, they seem to feel most comfortable with French films, perhaps because French was the predominant "second language" when this generation attended school. This audience also seems to like Asian costume epics. The success of Volver was expected said one panelist, because of the popularity of Penelope Cruz, but the fact that Pan's Labyrinth exceeded expected returns perhaps indicates audiences are increasingly more receptive to Spanish-language films.

    *The panelists overwhelmingly agreed with my contention that Sony "fumbled" the release of Paul Verhoeven's Black Book by treating it like the "art film" it isn't. The joked about how they wished they owned the rights to that one.

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    DREAMS OF DUST (Burkina Faso/Canada/France)

    This auspicious feature debut by writer/director Laurent Salgues dramatizes the plight of Africans working under dire conditions in the mining industry. A wandering Nigerian farmer named Mocktar (Makena Diop) arrives in Burkina Faso and becomes a "mole man". The job entails descending over 100 feet down a hole dug in the desert, digging a rock along the quartz vein, and bringing it up in a sack. The doctor conducting the medical check-up tells him to eschew the "blue-blues", popular amphetamines taken to make the descent less harrowing, in favor of marijuana. Mocktar's crew includes the silent Pate, the former data processor known as Techi, and the affable Old Man Thiam. The shafts can collapse in an instant causing many deaths. Mocktar befriends Coumba, whose husband died inside the mine and hopes to save enough to send her little daughter to live with a cousin in Paris. Everyone hopes to find a nugget large enough (finder keeps a third of its value) to make a difference in their lives before tragedy strikes.

    Over the duration of the film, Salgues provides each character with significant backstory and psychological detail, aided by credible, often understated performances. The beauty and menace of the landscape is palpable in every frame, and the viewer leaves with a new appreciation for the life conditions in this part of the world.

    Dreams of Dust is doing the festival circuit. Theatrical runs in France and Quebec are expected. Currently, it doesn't have a US distributor.

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    LITTLE RED FLOWERS (China)

    A bawling 4 year-old named Qiang is enrolled by his father in a residential kindergarten in Beijing. The mischievous boy is either unable or unwilling to conform to the regimental routine at the school. However, he craves the red paper flowers given to the kids as tokens when they do well. Little Red Flowers was directed by the award-winning director Zhang Yuan (Green Tea, 17 Years) and based on a novel by Shuo Wang, whose works have a recurrent theme of the individual against authoritarian entities. Conflicts revolve around bed-wetting, playing fair, dressing, and toilet training (some might be offended by the prevalence of child nudity throughout the film). What is truly special about Little Red Flowers is the director's ability to get such a large number of 3 to 5 year olds to act so naturally. Dong Bowen, the kid in the lead role, is a natural-born actor. The action seems to be set in the 1950s but there are no definite time signposts. Reading the film as an allegory of the Communist Party's treatment of dissenting individuals is complicated by the depiction of the staff as relatively benign and the fact that Qiang evolves into a bully. The inconclusive ending will please some and disappoint others.

    *Currently, Little Red Flowers doesn't have a US distributor. The film was released in UK theaters in January and will be released on PAL dvd there on May 21st. A Hong Kong dvd in NTSC format will likely become available shortly (at half the price of the UK disc). I hope it has a "making-of" extra feature because I'm curious about the direction of the children.

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    BEYOND HATRED (France)

    Documentarian Olivier Meyrou was interested in making a film about homophobia. He read about the arrest of three skinheads in the death of a 29 year-old gay man in Rheims. He contacted everyone involved. About a year later, the family of Francois Chenu, the victim, agreed to participate. The father of one of the accused, the aunt of another, and the lawyers on both sides were also interviewed. What is unique is not only that there is no recreation of the crime, but that Meyrou excludes any footage or even pictures of the victim and the perpetrators. The scene of the crime is glimpsed once, a single static shot of a park, while the victim's sister relates what happened from the time the family started wondering where Francois was, to the moment she identified his body at the morgue. The focus is fixed on how the Chenus reacted to the crime at different stages and how they managed to understand and accept what happened, and get beyond the hatred they felt towards the murderers. Beyond Hatred is a particularly thought-provoking and inspirational film.

    Beyond Hatred opens at the Cinema Village in NYC on June 15th. First Run Features will release the film on dvd later this year.

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    KLIMT (Germany/France/Austria/UK)

    A new movie by Raul Ruiz is always a special occasion for me. The indefatigable intellectual wrote 100 plays between the ages of 17 and 20 then challenged himself to make 100 films. Having reached that mark (if one includes his videos), he now aims to make "more films than all Chileans combined". What's astonishing is that I have yet to watch a film by Ruiz that is a throwaway, and every one is, to some extent, ground-breaking. The itinerant auteur has made films in Chile, Taiwan, the US and all over Europe. Ruiz views any limitation or constraint as a challenge. Early in his career, he was forced to make a number of low-budget films that received limited distribution despite critical acclaim. In the past decade, he has made a series of well-financed films with well-known actors that have been widely distributed. But money comes with strings attached, such as producers having the right to final cut.

    The version of this essay film about the Austrian Art Nouveau painter Gustave Klimt (1862-1918) shown at the festival is a "producer's cut" about 30 minutes shorter than the director's cut of the film_Orson Welles also had to contend throughout his career with producers butchering his films and that's not the only similarity between Welles and Ruiz. Both were child prodigies and "world citizens" who traveled wherever they could get their films made. Moreover, many have referred to Ruiz's camera style as Wellesian, noting his frequent use of wide-angle lenses and low and canted angles. Unlike a Welles film like The Magnificent Ambersons, we will eventually have access to the director's cut of Klimt. But I find it frustrating to have to watch and review an abbreviated version of it.

    Some perspective I can't offer, from critics who've seen both versions:
    "The director's cut is undoubtedly the richer version, making clearer the repeated motifs. A bizarre gilded cage sequence in a brothel feels even more peculiar without the earlier parallel sequence, just as anachronistic Chinese kids have no point in the 96-minute prints without the fuller context of the artist's introduction to Chinese painting in the longer version." (Jay Weissberg, Variety)

    Klimt "feels too brief for its wide-ranging subject matter-a result of the producers' decision to trim Ruiz's original 129-minute cut to 97." (The Hollywood Reporter)

    To Jonathan Rosenbaum, the shorter version "feels half an hour longer" than Ruiz's cut. The comment may appear absurd but this is how we often perceive films that are episodic and forcibly compressed. The structure of Klimt, which is maintained, gives it a great deal of freedom. The film is bookended by scenes of the artist in bed, suffering from the late stages of syphilis in 1918. The time-hopping episodes in between can thus be construed as the dying man experiencing moments of his life flash in front of him, or simply fevered visions of his most significant memories. Like Ruiz's Time Regained (the Proust adaptation, of sorts), Klimt also opens with an old man in bed and proceeds to dramatize his memories: Klimt painting, in his atelier with his invariably Jewish models, visiting his mother and sister, depicted as particularly prone to hysterics; Klimt in the cafes where aesthetic debates rage (functional vs. ornamental views of art, for instance). Ruiz's merry-go-round of fragmented memories involve Klimt's close friend and fellow artist Egon Schiele (Klaus Kinski's son Nikolai) and his muse and elusive paramour Lea (Saffron Burrows). Klimt dwells on the scandalous reaction to Klimt's gargantuan sexual appetite and his eroticized paintings of nude women, including the three commissions to be shown at the 1900 Paris Expo, a crucial event in the career of the artist. Ruiz's affinity for doubles is reflected in a tableaux vivant at the Paris Expo in which pioneer filmmaker Georges Melies impersonates Klimt and a surreal scene involving fake and real versions of Lea. The film invents a character, a type of ghost who appears only to Klimt and facilitates the expression of his thoughts and feelings.

    John Malkovich became aware of how much he resembles Gustave Klimt years earlier, when he was offered the role. It was a "conventional biopic", which he rejected, because he thought it was the wrong approach to the subject. Ruiz's film yields most to those familiar with the artist and his legacy. But it's a visual tour-de-force that will enthrall everyone who approaches it as such. Ruiz's camera glides and probes the lush and lavish interior spaces with elegance, there are mirrors and double-mirrors, and gold leaf rains from above as a evocation of Klimt's gilded works like "The Kiss", perhaps his most famous. In one spectacular scene, inside a crowded room, the backgrounds begin to spin 360 degrees around the actors, one of many circular motifs in the film. Delighted as I am, Klimt is obviously not a film one recommends casually . Moreover, the shorter version shown is apparently more condensed and cryptic than originally intended by Ruiz yet no more accessible to a mainstream audience. I predict the original would have a more organic quality to it and anticipate the chance to watch it with great excitement.

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    THE PERVERT'S GUIDE TO CINEMA (UK/Netherlands/Austria)

    This amazing documentary marries my two main interests: psychoanalysis and cinema. It's an illustrated lecture created by Slavoj Zizek, a renowned Slovenian philosopher, sociologist and cultural critic, in collaboration with director Sophie Fiennes, sister of the thespian brothers. Zizek approaches films both as if they were patients undergoing psychotherapy and as objects providing clues to the human condition. The Pervert's Guide to Cinema includes plenty of movie clips from the 1930s to the present but truly comes to life when Zizek postulates from the sets of the films mentioned or the actual locations of key scenes. The film's title is somewhat deceiving, admittedly chosen to arouse interest, besides being a vague reference to the early reaction to Freud's theories on human behavior.

    The jocular and animated Zizek has split his visionary essay in three parts: the first one deals with the role of fiction in our experience of reality and Freud's division of the psyche. Part two centers on fantasy, as the stage for the battle of the sexes, as a key element of sex and romance, and as defense against anxiety ("the only emotion that doesn't deceive"). These concepts and ideas are illustrated exclusively through cinema. The final segment deals mostly with the parallel between film grammar and our subjective experience of reality. The Pervert's Guide to Cinema is neither salacious, as implied by the title, nor obtuse or academic, as Zizek's reputation might indicate. It's a highly entertaining and stimulating take on life and the movies; dozens of them are quoted, including several by Alfred Hitchcock and David Lynch. This film will, at least, give viewers a new way to experience and evaluate movies, and other forms of narrative art. It just might, in the process, change the way you look at human beings.

    The Pervert's Guide to Cinema has had a few theatrical runs in 2007, and many festival screenings. You can also buy the dvd directly from the producers (NTSC All region, shipping included).

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    JURY AWARDS

    The 2007 Narrative Feature Competition Award was presented to Waitress, directed by Adrienne Shelly.

    The 2007 Documentary Feature Competition Award was presented to Note by Note: The Making of Steinway L1037, directed by Benjamin Niles.

    A Special Jury Prize was presented by the Documentary Feature jury to Beyond Hatred, directed by Olivier Meyrou.

    AUDIENCE AWARDS

    The 2007 Sarasota Film Festival Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature to Canvas, directed by Joseph Greco.

    The 2007 Sarasota Film Festival Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature to Circus Rosaire, directed by Robyn Bliley.

    The 2007 Sarasota Film Festival Audience Award for Best In World Cinema to Away From Her, directed by Sarah Polley.

    The 2007 Sarasota Film Festival Audience Award for Best Short Film to Death to the Tinman, directed by Ray Tintoni.

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