Pretense is to film festivals what bad dialogue is to a George Lucas film, you can’t seem to have one without the other, which makes the success of the Bermuda International Film Festival so refreshing. Celebrating it’s tenth year, the BIFF has been named a qualifying festival for the short film Academy Award, proving that the little island festival that could, has come quite a long way in a short amount of time. Headed by festival director Aideen Ratteray Pryse, (with an assist from the cerulean ocean, pink beaches, and warm sun) the BIFF has grown from screening 22 films in its first year, to now featuring 85 films from 32 different countries. This year’s spirited line-up showcased festival winners from the past year alongside independent features, favorites of BIFF’s past, and shorts without
sacrificing any of the festival’s unique charm or trademark intimacy.
Things got off to a bit of a slow start due to inclement weather in the northeast section of the United States, briefly stranding or redirecting both attendees and arriving films. Still, the opening night film, Paul Verhoeven‘s warmly received “Black Book” went off without a hitch, and if there is one thing that islanders of the North Atlantic understand, it’s how to wait out bad weather (even the territory’s coat of arms depicts a shipwreck). Festival organizers deftly worked around the delays, tweaking schedules and collecting frazzled travelers and their luggage at the airport during the beginning of the week. Once you’re in the gravitational pull of the Bermudian ethos (aided, of course by a local concoction called the Dark and Stormy, the liquid equivalent of a tranquilizer gun) neither poor travel luck, nor customs officials with cold hands can dampen your spirit.
Honored this year with a three-film retrospective and a “Conversation With” afternoon event was Bermuda favorite son and legendary actor Earl Cameron. Earl, an actor who exudes dignity and grace, was on hand to watch his film acting debut, the 1950 film, “Pool of London.” Asked what it was like to re-watch his first film, the 89 year-old actor laughed and replied honestly, “Frightening, and I say frightening as that was my very first picture, and some of the things…when I watch myself I feel really embarrassed.” Sitting in the theater listening to his rich voice as he retold the story of how he came to fall into acting, was both familiar and powerful, and the afternoon chat ended with Earl receiving a much-deserved standing ovation.
Obviously of the school of thought that two cultural icons are better than one, the festival got Richard Dreyfuss and Carrie Fisher to co-chair the jury. Joining them in the arduous task of choosing category winners from such an impressive list of films were documentary filmmakers Stanley Nelson (“The Murder of Emmett Till”) and Lucinda Spurling (“The Lion and the Mouse”), Ben Newmark, a young actor/writer who has already touched Oscar gold (“West Bank Story”), director Vito Rocco (“Goodbye, Cruel World”), and Tamara Tarasova, producer and co-owner of the Kinoshock Short Film Festival.
This Years World Cinema Showcase, which offers festival goers an opportunity to view the “best of the rest of the film festivals,” included Academy Award winner “The Lives of Others“; Jasmila Zbanic‘s Berlinale Golden Bear winner, “Grbavica: The Land of My Dreams,” a poignant film about a single mother and her daughter living in post-war Sarajevo; Best First Film winner at Cannes, “12.08 East of Bucharest,” a film which hilariously exposes the debilitating effect of pride and alcohol on one’s recollections of the past; Pedro Almodovar‘s warm, dark, and comedic “Volver“; Kim Ki-duk‘s “Time” a dark look at a relationship gone wrong that is simultaneously anti-dating, and anti-plastc surgery; and Amy Berg‘s “Delver Us from Evil,” a heart-breaking look at a pedophile in priest’s clothing, Father Oliver O’Grady, and the lives he was repeatedly allowed to destroy.
BIFF organizers showed some brilliant judgment in starting the films later in the day, giving those in attendance an opportunity to either explore the island on their own or attend the “Chats With” lunchtime panels. The series included “The Rise and Rise of the Documentary film”, “From Script to Screen: Getting Your Short Film in the Can”, “World Cinema: East and West”, and “Tales from Hollywood”, with Richard Dreyfuss and Carrie Fisher. Dreyfuss and Fisher spent their afternoon playfully fielding questions and laughing at one another, and when an audience member asked Fisher about focusing on her writing, the man that helped bring “Jaws” down offered the following piece of advice for swimming with sharks; “Wanting to be a screenwriter is like wanting to be fourth. Not only do they not have any power, they have the daily experience of having their moral character destroyed, and getting laughed at in front of their faces.”
After the films let out, the evenings were filled with organized events and elegant dinners hosted by admirers and sponsors of the festival who graciously opened their homes to the group. One evening saw archipelago royalty Michael Douglas and wife Catherine Zeta-Jones show that the festival is a celebration not just of film, but of art and the artist, with Zeta-Jones breaking into a melodic Welsh folk song, and Douglas displaying his affinity for French verse. Richard Dreyfuss dusted off some of the English classics, and fellow jury co-chair Carrie Fisher recited Princess Leai’s plea to Obi-Wan Kenobi before the legendary actor and festival honoree Earl Cameron delivered soul-stirring passages from “Othello,” And all this at a single juror’s dinner. Take that Sundance.
At the award ceremony, two films tied for Best Narrative feature with the Mary-Jean Mitchell Green Award going to both Dror Shaul‘s “Sweet Mud,” and Sean Ellis‘ “Cashback,” with an added special jury mention from Dreyfuss to filmmaker Aneta Lesnikovska for the “innovative sex scene” in her film, “Does it Hurt? The First Balkan Dogma”. Linda Hattendorf‘s “Cats of Mirikitani” was the winner of the Best Documentary award, while the M3 Wireless Bermuda Shorts Award went to “I Want to be a Pilot” by Diego Quernada-Diez. The final award of the evening, the Bacardi Limited Audience Choice Award, chosen by the festival crowd went to Robert Favreau‘s “A Sunday in Kigali.” Not even the relative pageantry of distributing awards could change the feeling that this festival was more about the work and less about the reward, more about the people that you met and not about making contacts. Winnie Li, associate producer of “Cashback”, explained the allure of the smaller festival this way, “You have enough industry people, where you are networking, but, on the other hand, you get to enjoy the scene, the place your are in, and enjoy the movies.” She added that an attitude of artistic camaraderie rather than cutthroat competition makes it stand out from other distribution-driven festivals, where, “..it’s okay to exchange business cards with people after thirty seconds because that’s all you were trying to do anyway.”
South African filmmaker Quinton Lavery who submitted “Freedom Days,” tried to take a more pragmatic approach to why he chose the festival. “First and foremost,” he said with a laugh, “they didn’t have an entry fee.” Jests aside, Quinton, whose short film is a starkly honest and sometimes brutal look at race, youth, and love in South Africa, left his job and gathered up his savings in order to be able to attend the festival. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity…to have my film shown to an international audience, and there were some greats films here that I really wanted to see.” The young director paused only briefly before smiling and adding, “And as well, Carrie Fisher and Richard Dreyfuss are on the jury.”
The Macedonian director Aneta Lesnikovska was passionate in her feelings for the festival, saying that it serves a higher purpose than people feeling good about their work, gathering trophies or lining up distribution. “You’re cultivating and educating and promoting through an art form, which is the best way, through identity and culture, and art.” When it was pointed out that as a festival, BIFF lacks the name recognition of such heavyweights as Cannes, Toronto, or Sundance, she replied, “We decide if this is important, and we come here, and with our presence we make it important.”