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DISPATCH FROM BERMUDA: Spirit of Discovery Carries Island Fest

DISPATCH FROM BERMUDA: Spirit of Discovery Carries Island Fest

The beautiful island of Bermuda is a haven for Victorian manners in what appears to be a tropical paradise, but in reality is a freak of the north Atlantic Gulf Stream halfway between the Caribbean and Brighton, where strict regulations on development and behavior have kept the feeling of the British commonwealth alive. The coral reefs create an inviting turquoise glow to the water and pink shade to the sand that has tourists jumping into the ocean throughout the winter, despite the fact that the locals typically don’t swim until May 24, which, tellingly, is currently known as “Bermuda Day” and was previously referred to as “The Queen’s Birthday”. The 65,000 well-healed islanders welcomed the 11th Bermuda International Film Festival, currently underway, with their annual show of polite enthusiasm. Residents hopped on their scooters to travel from the quaint town of Hamilton to the quainter town of St. George, past the well-groomed grounds of the Princess Hotel where Queen Victoria’s daughter Louise once stayed, arriving at the unassuming Southside Theater in time to see the 9:15 screening of Martin Gero‘s “Young People Fucking“.

“The audiences here are often a little more traditional,” says festival director Aideen Ratteray Pryse. “You live on a small island, it’s easy to get insular in your thinking. I like to take them out of their comfort zone and make them think.”

Pryse helped to found the festival in 1997, after noticing that there was a lack of options for moviegoers. “The theaters here don’t screen anything with subtitles, they don’t screen documentaries, and yet the audiences enjoy them…. There used to be a $99 day-return flight to New York, and people would go in the morning, see 3 movies and come back. We knew people wanted something like this.”

The festival’s competition helps add to the spirit of discovery. “We wanted to celebrate and showcase younger filmmakers,” says BIFF deputy director Duncan Hall, who programs the festival with Pryse and a team of volunteers. “We thought limiting the competition to first and second time filmmakers would help level the playing field, and if we could invite as many of them as possible to the island, we could really be influential early on in their careers.”

Included among the narrative competition films (not one of which was an AmerIndie, which is a nice change) was Argentinian writer/director Lucia Puenzo‘s gem “XXY“, the story of an intersexed teenager who lives as a girl but is facing the final surgical decision amid a complicated young romance. The film deals with the complexities faced both by Alex and her ever-supportive family, who are never quite sure what the correct decisions are.

Aditya Assarat’s deliberately paced, languid story “Wonderful Town” details the romance between an urban architect and a rural hotelier in a small Thai fishing village that has been devastated by the tsunami; it’s an achingly lovely film, punctuated by violence committed by the young boys who haunt the town like ghosts. There’s very little loveliness to be found in Hungarian filmmaker Csaba Bollok‘s harrowing “Iska’s Journey.” “Iska,” the story of a young tomboy maintaining her spirit as she moves from her alcoholic mother’s abuse, into a bleak state orphanage, and finally into a perilous freedom.

Notable among the feature documentaries is Michael Wilson‘s “Silhouette City“, a non-fiction essay that examines the growth of militaristic elements of the American religious right. The film draws an uncomfortable parallel between a relatively small offshoot of Christian survivalist camps in the 1980s and the current religious hawks that have been taking over the nation’s right-wing, fueled by similarly apocalyptic visions. Nitzan Gilady‘s “Jerusalem is Proud to Present” offers another infuriating view of zealots, this time ultra-orthodox Jews, who in 2006 rioted in the street and made death threats against organizers planning a queer “World Pride” event in Jerusalem, even forming an unlikely alliance with Christian and Muslim leaders to get the parade banned.

From left: Lifetime Television’s Lauren Burger, festival director Aideen Pryse and “Amal” director Richie Mehta. Photo by Charlie Olsky/indieWIRE.

Suzanne Chisolm and Pichael Parfit‘s “Saving Luna” is one of the most heart-warming things I’ve ever seen, about the true adventures of Luna, an orca stranded off Vancouver Island, and the community that fell in love with him after his loneliness forced him to aggressively pursue human contact. The story turns into a battle for the well-being of the whale, which draws in loggers, school children, marine biologists, indigenous peoples, and a few old cranks.

Screened at BIFF this year was one Bermudian feature, Adrian Kawaley-Lathan‘s “Behind the Mask“, about the Bermuda Gombeys- a particular, costumed form of music and dance that has evolved from the days of slavery. Several Bermudian shorts were also screened, including Look Bermuda‘s “Old School/New School“, which brought together in performance one of Bermuda’s older musicians, Stan Seymour, with the young Gavin Smith. Discussing being a musician in Bermuda in the Q&A, Smith stated, “I think people here are afraid of youngsters… the newer, urban music [they’re] making isn’t embraced. Calypso is friendly, so it’s easier to promote that to tourists, it seems like tourists need to be handled with kid’s gloves.”

The film screened alongside “Life in Debt,” filmmaker Stephanie Black‘s invigorating documentary “Africa Unite“, about the celebration thrown for Bob Marley‘s 60th birthday in Addis Ababa by Marley’s family, a tribute concert attended by more than 300,000 near the home of the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, considered a god in Marley’s Rastafarian religion. While the film discusses a lot of Marley’s religion and philosophy, at its heart it’s a concert film, and as such played in the festival’s sidebar series “Reel Music“.

“Last year we showed some music films, and there was such a good response to them,” says Pryse. “And it seemed to come up every year. There are a lot of people interested in music here, there’s a two-month festival of performing arts to highlight it, and so we went for it.”

Several island residents showed their appreciation for the festival by opening their homes to festival guests to mingle and eat. On Sunday night, filmmakers, press and jurors mingled at the elegant Cooper residence on tiny Hinson’s Island in Hamilton Bay, munching informally on lasagna and brownies while admiring the original Chagall, Lichtenstein and Picasso in the living room, listening as the locals complained about the ridiculously cold 60 degree temperature that evening.

“We’re incredibly fortunate to be in a place that has such a thriving commercial sector, with such generous corporate and private citizens,” says Hall. “Among other things, it’s allowed us to provide travel subsidies for all of our filmmakers to come in, and that’s what really makes it such a celebration, allows us to be such a filmmaker’s festival.”

The other main asset of the festival was best put by Canadian filmmaker Richie Mehta before the screening of his competition feature, “Amal“, a charming Hindi-language reworking of “The Prince and the Pauper“. “It’s so exciting to have an audience see this film together,” said Mehta before the film screened. “But above all it’s just really nice to be in Bermuda”.

The festival runs through next Sunday.

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