A refreshing sense of artistic drive and egalitarianism pervades the Starz Denver Film Festival. The 31st edition of this well-respected regional fest doesn’t publish (or even collect) information on film premieres; while glitzier entities such as Cannes, Sundance, or the Toronto Film Festival struggle mightily to secure rights to national or world premieres, Denver happily escapes the frenzy. Not that the festival doesn’t strive – often quite successfully – to provide the best in modern cinema; they simply keep their eye on the prize, recognizing that local audiences and filmmakers, the two communities most directly served by their event, are not enthralled by premieres, but rather by great and meaningful art.
Artistic director Brit Withey explained, “I recognize that some festivals require a certain kind of premiere in order for a film to be accepted into a certain section or competition of the festival. Over the past decade, however, as festivals grew and more festivals came into being…it seemed to me that these policies did nothing except hurt the filmmakers who were trying to get their works out to audiences around the world…I do not believe that is what we as exhibitors, programmers and curators exist for.”
Screenings of 2008 mainstays such as “A Christmas Tale,” “Waltz with Bashir,” and “The Wrestler” are not news for the well-traveled industry professional, but the local population is rightfully excited for their opportunity to partake of the year’s top art films. Opening Night featured the uneven but appropriately light and romantic heist-farce “The Brothers Bloom,” wonderkind “Slumdog Millionaire” served as the centerpiece, and the Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson vehicle “Last Chance Harvey,” a middle age love story, wraps things up.
The real strength of a festival worth its salt is found between marquee events, and this is where Denver’s shines. The inspired choice to honor Majid Majidi and Carolee Schneeman speaks volumes about the trust developed between the programmers and their audience over the last thirty years- both filmmakers are well established and responsible for honest and important cinema, but neither are flashy picks meant to drive ticket sales. Iranian helmer Majidi was on hand for presentations of his ten year old “Children of Heaven” and his newest effort, “Song of Sparrows.” Both delight in human-scale stories portrayed with tremendous sympathy but little sentimentality: “Children” follows a young boy’s struggle to replace a pair of his sister’s shoes that are accidentally stolen, while “Sparrows” tracks a down and out farmer who travels to Tehran in search of a way to provide for his family. Both benefit from phenomenal performances from Mohammad Amir Naji, which are made all the more exceptional considering he had never acted before to the first feature. Majidi’s easy nature and assured storytelling translate to an unparalleled oeuvre of work is at once singularly Iranian and compellingly universal.
Carolee Schneeman‘s appearance is the prize piece of an impressively broad and well received selection of experimental and avant-garde programs. She is a rare artist and provacatuer in that her film, painting, and performance art has retained (and arguably grown) its power to shock and force necessary dialogue throughout a forty-five year career. Her shorts retrospective offers glimpses of her lifelong obsessions with sexuality, raw femininity, political upheaval, and violence: “Meat Joy” (1964) investigates the silly and erotic properties of skin through a collage of bare animal flesh, plastic, and paint; “Devour” (2004) juxtaposes delicacy with tenderness as a comment on politically motivated violence; and “Infinity Kisses – The Movie” (2008) shuffles slides of a housecat to illustrate the varied modes and effects of human and feline expression.
Another notable experimental program was Francesco Conversano‘s and Nene Grignaffini‘s “Megalopolis,” an ambitious project that poetically links the dangers and excesses of rapidly developing urban centers around the world. Shot across four continents, with long sections entirely devoid of dialogue, and set to eerily prescient snatches of narration from 1950s science fiction literature, the film often has difficulty containing the sheer immensity of its subject matter, but nonetheless realizes its goal – replacing the viewer’s complicity with modernization with a sense of dread and serious unease.
A kitschier sense of fright guided several of the entries in the biopic-heavy documentary section. Jeffrey Schwarz‘s “Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story” is an entertaining ride through the work of a prolific and zany B-movie director, whose genius for marketing his material far exceeded his artistic ability. John Waters‘ adoration for Castles’ propensity for joining god-awful dialogue with cheap theatrical stunts (such as electrically shocking his audiences) has him gushing throughout the picture; he is slightly more restrained when speaking of his admiration for the subject of Daniel O’Connor and Neil Ortenberg‘s “Obscene: A Portrait of Barney Rosset and Grove Press.” This entirely conventional effort is populated with talking heads and grainy archival photos, but Rosset’s lifelong battle against censorship, storied associations with figures such as Samuel Beckett and Joan Mitchell, and eventually his unbelievable financial ruin are compelling enough to make the documentary a must-watch.
The narrative feature field did well to mine most major global film markets, with the notable exception of a significant Asian presence. The Festival’s reputation as a first-rate presenter of Eastern Bloc films was bolstered by the selection of Andrzej Jakimowski‘s “Tricks” and Anna Melikyan‘s “Mermaid.”
The former, an airy but touching look at the transformative magic of adolescent imagination, serves as confirmation that the future of Polish cinema is in capable hands. The action centers around the exploits of a young boy doggedly determined to fool fate and win back his runaway father through unflappable determination and a bit of luck. The charming tale is so warmhearted that it is easy to be swept away and become convinced the little boy simply needs the viewer to believe in him for his dreams to come true. “Mermaid’s” splendors are similarly lavish and whimsical, with a fairy-tale story concerning a girl’s quest to find her identity through everyday deeds rather than her magical powers. The sweetness oozing out of this fairy-tale finds an interesting counterpoint in festival favorite, “Idiots and Angels,” a Bill Plympton animation that toys perversely with the notion of morality by damning its central character – a good for nothing violent drunk – with a pair of Angel wings that, against his will, force him to commit acts of kindness.
With a festival so varied and well programmed the future looks very bright to incoming Executive Director Bo Smith, who is filling in for the role of founder Ron Henderson and previous director Scott Rowitz. Smith only came on board two months ago, and was positively gushing (albeit in his understated manner) about the state of festival affairs when he arrived, “The festival has an incredibly loyal audience…that is astute and well read and excited about the festival as a whole…” Here he doesn’t hesitate to credit his predecessor saying, “Ron Henderson was able to do something everybody dreams of, to put on a program where people are enthusiastic about not just the individual films, but really about the concept of the festival as a whole.”