When invited to a film festival in a beautiful or exotic place I’ve never visited before, I usually accept. That’s how my family and I wound up spending the last two weeks in Bologna, Italy, where I served as President of the Jury for the annual Biografilm Festival, a “celebration of lives” founded eight years ago by artistic director Andrea Romeo.
Any successful festival depends on the right mix of good films, good people, and a good location; this one was no exception. I saw quite a few good films, ate a lot of wonderful food, and met a number of interesting people from all over the world. Bologna is a historic city, home of the world’s first university, and the streets are teeming with young people, including the energetic festival volunteers, known as the Guerrilla Staff. I met students from China, Turkey, Russia, and Belgium, just for starters. We also had a most congenial jury, comprised of Italian film executive Marcello Paolillo, British-based writer and filmmaker Mike Freedman (who also presented his excellent debut feature, Critical Mass, out of competition), documentary filmmaker John Scheinfeld (an old friend), and veteran film producer Paul Zaentz.
Paul did double-duty, representing his uncle, the redoubtable Saul Zaentz, for a career tribute consisting of three films: Amadeus, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and The English Patient. Paul has been a key (if unsung) figure in the production of these pictures and regaled us with fascinating behind-the-scenes stories throughout the week. It was an edifying experience to revisit the films on a theater screen; I think I enjoyed—and appreciated–both Amadeus and Ripley more than I did the first time around. (I’m working on posting a video report about the event, which includes a conversation with Paul and festival director Romeo. Stay tuned…)
There were ten feature-length films in competition, and while the majority were quite good, the jury unanimously agreed on the best in show: Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet, by first-time filmmaker Jesse Vile. The story of a young guitar phenom from Northern California who was struck down with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) when he was just on the cusp of fame and fortune, it’s a clear-eyed but deeply moving chronicle of a remarkable life.
We were also asked to choose “Best Life,” which is difficult to define, but we felt strongly about Pepe Danquart’s compelling documentary Joschka and Sir Fischer, about a noted German politician whose career has reflected the changing face of the European political scene over the last forty-odd years. For a two-hour-plus film to hold me in its grip, even though I know nothing about its subject beforehand is, I think, a high compliment.
A special mention was made of Chloe Barreau’s La Faute à mon Père, a personal portrait of her parents’ forty-year marriage which began when her father, a high-profile Catholic priest, left the church in order to wed the woman he loved.
I saw many other fine films, both in and out of competition, including two I had missed at last year’s Telluride Film Festival: Jon Shenk’s The Island President, about the (now-deposed) leader of the Maldive island chain, Mohamed Nasheed, and Shannah Laumeister’s Bert Stern: Original Madman, a highly intimate and revealing portrait of the famous photographer, whose portraits of Marilyn Monroe decorated Biografilm’s posters and programs this year. Getting to chat with Stern and the filmmaker was another highpoint of the week. (He became friendly with Stanley Kubrick when they were both working at Look magazine in the early 1950s; that’s how Stern got the assignment of creating the now-iconic photo of Sue Lyon that became the key image associated with Kubrick’s Lolita.)
Cass Warner Sperling brought along a work-in-progress, HOPPER: In His Own Words. She interviewed the late actor-director four years ago, for her documentary about the brothers Warner, but Hopper was enjoying their conversation so much she came away with 80 minutes of great material about his life and career, beyond his early days at the WB studio. She is still shaping the new feature, which also makes use of a revealing BBC interview from the time of Easy Rider. Her film can’t, and wasn’t meant to be, a complete biography, but Hopper is a great storyteller and Sperling is right to find a way to make use of this first-rate material.
Right up to Sunday night when the festival came to a close with a pair of absorbing, and eye-opening, British documentaries about Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat, we were never bored. Hot, yes, but never bored. And did I mention the great food?
On our last weekend we got a private tour of the imposing library at the Cineteca Bologna, which not only houses thousands of books, magazines, posters, and photographs, but is home to the Charlie Chaplin archives. I can’t tell you how thrilling it was to see storyboards he had created for his last project, The Freak, intended to star his daughter Victoria. I also got a glimpse of a working script for Monsieur Verdoux with Robert Florey’s photographs on location.
Ironically, Biografilm immediately precedes the more famous and established festival known as Il Cinema Ritrovato, which is attended by film scholars and archivists from the four corners of the globe. It is best known for its nightly public screenings of newly-restored films on a gigantic screen in Bologna’s largest town square. I would encourage attendees to consider arriving early next year, if possible, to take in at least some of Biografilm as well. It is a first-rate festival that deserves to be better known.