FESTIVALS: Philly Stakes on Expanded Event; Under New Auspices, PFWC Bigger and Better
by Deni Kasrel
(indieWIRE/ 05.24.01) — Whispers of the Philadelphia Festival of World Cinema‘s demise could be heard in the city’s film community last year. Today, the concerns are banished, based on this year’s turnout, the highest ever for the 10-year-old event. At closing night festivities, the organizers hoisted a giant movie theater ticket emblazoned with the 2001 attendance: 30,320. That’s about a 75% hike over last year’s figure.
Many reasons account for the turnaround, such as a three-fold increase in films — to 120 features and 80 shorts. Still, the comeback is largely in response to new management infusing a new attitude. TLA Entertainment Group, which operates a small chain of independent video stores, took over the festival reigns from its founding organization, International House of Philadelphia. As Robert Frost wrote, “And that has made all the difference.”
Past slates focused on cinephile-centric message films about personal hardships, cultural conflict, and political strife, experienced by ordinary people just trying to get by in life. Some of this year’s entries fell into this category, as well: for instance, “Bread and Roses,” a compassionate tightly-written drama by British director Ken Loach, where the primary plot — illegal Mexican immigrant janitors attempt to unionize in Los Angeles — serves as grist for the telling of smaller stories about various individual coworkers. Yet overall, there was a marked shift in direction. Ray Murray, TLA president and PFWC artistic director, says a primary goal was to attract the non-art house crowd, “through more diversified programming.”
The event kicked off with “Dinner Rush,” a melodrama set in a chic trattoria populated by a host of “only in New York” characters, starring Danny Aiello, Edoardo Ballerini, Mark Margolis, and Sandra Bernhard. Aiello, other cast members and director Bob Giraldi were on hand for a post-screening Q&A session, then later mingled with the hoi polloi at an opening night party. A public party with stars on hand added a new twist for the festival; its prior soirees were private, invitation-only affairs. TLA wisely recognizes public parties can create instant buzz.
Some things borrowed
“Dinner Rush” was one of seven “Centerpiece Screenings,” a programming aspect copped from the Toronto Film Festival. These screenings ran at the 970-seat Zellerbach Theatre, versus five other venues used by the festival, which averaged 150 to 200 seats. Murray thinks these films “were not the most adventurous, but perhaps the most accessible.”
As planned, the centerpiece screenings drew the largest crowds. Garnering the highest attendance was a Buster Keaton classic, “The General” with live accompaniment by the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra. Gasps were heard from the audience as Keaton pratfalled his way through a myriad of perilous situations. Rousing applause erupted at the conclusion.
Another new aspect to the Philly event inspired by other film festivals: a juried competition. Juries bestow dual benefits; filmmakers can use the prize as a marketing tool, and, as Murray states, “There’s quid pro quo. They use the award in an ad campaign or video box, which helps heighten awareness of the film festival.” The 2001 jury award winners: Best Feature Film: (tie) “How to Kill Your Neighbor’s Dog” and “Together“; Best Director Krzysztof Krauze, “Dlug” (“The Debt”); Best First Film: “How to Kill Your Neighbor’s Dog”; Best Documentary: (tie) “My Generation” and “Startup.com“; Audience Award winners: Best Feature Film: “Stranger Inside” and Best Documentary: “The Turandot Project.” In accepting his awards, “How To Kill’s” director Michael Kalesniko kvetched about the project being in distribution limbo. He implored audience members to write letters on his behalf to Robert Redford and CAA.
Two programs showcased action-packed Asian and horror films, somewhat reminiscent of recent retros in Rotterdam. The action films were so brutally violent as to make Sam Peckinpah seem tame. The horror fare was downright disturbing, but that’s the point. “I was thinking there’s a ton of people who have not gone to film festivals. There’s a feeling that these things have some kind of exclusivity,” Murray explains. “To break that we went right for the jugular in a certain way, with the ‘Action Asia’ and ‘Danger After Dark’ series, which presented films that for most part were American premiers, and that don’t even get much film festival play because they’re genre films.”
The gambit paid off; both programs attracted what Murray calls “the nose-ring crowd,” clearly a new audience for the festival. Favorites based on ballots provided at screenings were “Freeze Me” (Japan) a no-holds barred thriller where a women takes truly cold-hearted revenge on her attackers, and “Wild Zero” (Japan), winner of the Audience Award for “Best Horror Film,” clearly edited to be disorienting, yet with a cast of cool rock and rollers, zombies and other weirdoes. “Zero” plays like an over-the top fun-house ride.
The festival bestowed its first-ever Artistic Achievement Award to Morgan Freeman. “That was our single greatest accomplishment,” raves Murray. “And the fact that Melanie Griffith is being awarded her Artistic Achievement Award at Cannes, the difference is pretty great. The selection symbolizes the move to more popular programming and focus, but at the same time maintaining a strength of character, intensity and classiness.”
Freeman received his award in a presentation preceding “Along Came a Spider.” He added an unscripted component to the ceremony by inviting members of the audience to ask questions. The favorite of his own movies? “Glory” Generally being quite the comedian, when a woman asked if the rumor that Freeman donated his salary for “The Shawshank Redemption” to the United Negro College Fund was true, he replied “Nope. Spent it.”
Often avoided by the general public, patrons of the PFWC flocked to a series of documentaries. One of several sell-outs in this category was “Uncle Saddam,” an irreverent portrait of Saddam Hussein. Among the “shocking” revelations: the Iraqi ruler is a hygiene freak whose decorating tastes are rather gaudy. Vacillating between sarcasm and “60-Minutes” style expose, this one grows tedious in stating the obvious.
The Festival of Independents received renewed interest with Slamdance Audience Award winner “American Chai,” by Cherry Hill, N.J. filmmaker Anurag Mehta being an early sell-out. The roster of three features and 21 shorts represented the strongest ever for this sub-fest. Sharon Pinkenson, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Film Office, observes, “Fest Indies celebrates the strong locally based independent film community. In the previous few years, that community was practically ignored by the previous festival organizers. But now it’s back on track.”
Pinkenson also lauded the introduction of “Pre-Cannes Screenings,” which gave film distributors a jump-start on the Cannes Market. “The addition of the pre-market screenings was brilliant,” she says. “I believe that next year and in years to follow it will be a driving force for the reputation of the entire festival.” Six films were shown in the program: “Dead by Monday” (Switzerland/Canada); “The Zookeeper” (Denmark); “Movie Fan Darkness of the Light” (Japan); “Berlin Is in Germany” (Germany); “The Dog’s Will” (Brazil); “Flickering Light” (Denmark). A number of smaller U.S. distribs sent reps to the screenings, from Leisure Time Features to The Shooting Gallery, Zeitgeist Films to Madstone.
Reflecting on his first crack at the festival, Murray feels it now ranks among those held in Chicago, Cleveland, Houston, and San Francisco. “But that’s like saying we’re one of the best minor league teams. The top ten film festivals are all non-American,” he asserts. “Our goal is to establish ourselves as a premier festival to show your film, and to have some specialty, like the horror, the alternative films, as strengths.”
For more information on the festival and the films that screened, check out the website:
[Deni Kasrel is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer.]