Whit Stillman and Barack Obama walk into a Polish castle…
This isn´t the opening of a particularly arcane joke, rather the scene which played out one wet Wednesday afternoon last month at Książ, the colossal 13th-century edifice in Lower Silesia a dozen miles from the Czech border.
The "Obama" in question wasn’t actually the 44th President — it was professional impersonator Luis Ortiz, the subject of Ryan Murdock´s documentary "Bronx Obama" — but Stillman was very much the real thing.
Ortiz and Stillman were star guests of the fifth American Film Festival (AFF.5), held from October 21 to 26 in the historic and historically much-contested city of Wrocław (pron. "Wrot-swaff"; pop.632,561). Their trip to Książ ("K-shanzh") was laid on by the festival primarily to show off the Lower Silesian region to independent American filmmakers as a potential shooting location, AFF having in half a decade quickly grown to become one of the leading showcases of non-mainstream American productions outside the United States.
AFF.5 offered a compact program of 70 features (including retrospectives for Stillman and Orson Welles), all shown under the one roof at Wrocław´s Nowe Horyzonty (New Horizons) cinema — the arthouse-favoring multiplex which each July hosts the bigger, more general and international festival of identical moniker. The vast bulk of AFF.5´s new features have already enjoyed festival exposure in the U.S. and farther afield, including two standouts from this year’s circuit, “It Follows” and “Buzzard.”
David Robert Mitchell´s “It Follows” — which bowed in a vintage Critics´ Week at Cannes (alongside another 2014 unmissable, Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy´s sign language drama “The Tribe”) before appearing Stateside at Fantastic Fest in September — is an exhilaratingly imaginative John Carpenter homage whose central conceit harks all the way back to M.R. James´ 1911 story “Casting the Runes.” And it´s testament to Mitchell´s achievement that what on the surface is just another teen-oriented skin-crawler should stand comparison with Jacques Tourneur´s seminal 1956 James adaptation “Curse of the Demon” (aka “Night of the Demon”). The phrase "instant classic" is sorely abused, but seems entirely appropriate here.
Perhaps coincidentally, Joel Potrykus´ SXSW-premiered “Buzzard” (the director’s followup to 2012’s “Ape”) is, like “It Follows,” also a sophomore feature with a significant debt to horror precedents, with action that takes place in Detroit and which offers effectively oblique comment on that city´s economic woes. Both films successfully find that sweet-spot where genre preoccupations and wider social considerations intersect, a magical zone which generally proves disastrously elusive for inexperienced filmmakers.
Elder-statesman Stillman apart, most of the guests at AFF.5 were greenhorns to various degrees, especially those responsible for the half-dozen titles in the fourth "U.S. In Progress" (USIP). This industry-oriented event screens not-quite-completed works to buyers, programmers and other professionals, and culminates with the awarding of post-production funds totaling in the tens of thousands of dollars.
Several USIP pictures have gone on to premiere at Sundance and SXSW, highlights from whose programs form the backbone of AFF´s selections — alongside U.S. indies, which had their first screenings at Cannes (like “It Follows”) and Berlin. Such a reliance on established festivals means that local audiences in this youthful, prosperous university city get to see a stack of "buzz" titles each year (including opener “Whiplash and closer “Foxcatcher”).
But the downside is that AFF has yet to emulate the 20-year-old New Horizons in terms of building up a properly international reputation. These are still relatively early days, of course, and one profitable way forward would be to cast the net a bit wider and trawl that rich, scruffy, often-overlooked constellation of "Underground" festivals to be found in most corners of the U.S., while also broadening the program to include shorts (currently entirely absent from the line-up), avant-garde fare (ditto, pretty much) and more unorthodox documentary approaches.
As it is, AFF fulfills a valuable function as a meeting place for independent American filmmakers — and a chance for them to travel outside of the States — its cosiness and compactness, not to mention the lively nightlife at the festival´s official bar, providing numerous opportunities for socializing and networking.
This year the presence of Potrykus, Nathan Silver (“Uncertain Terms” in AFF, “Stinking Heaven” in USIP), Dave Boyle (“Man from Reno”) and Patrick Brice (“Creep”), plus the dozen or so USIP participants, elevated the festival´s general vibe and the sense of Wrocław as a magnet for up-and-coming Stateside names.
"I felt like I was getting a curated experience," enthused Brice from his Los Angeles home. "It was a chance to see what I went in believing to be some of the best American work from this years festival circuit. The centralized location of the movie theater made you feel like you were in a cinematic beehive. I found myself watching four films a day and still feeling like I was missing out on something."
A giveaway detail which elevates solidly-grounded festivals above their more transient kin is the preponderance of returnees, which this year included California-based Mike Ott. Ott’s “Lake Los Angeles” was the big winner at USIP 2013, when its prizes covered full color-correction, foley, subtitling (the dialogue is almost entirely Spanish), and the creation of a DCP.
Back in town for “Lake Los Angeles” Polish premiere, Ott was understandably enthusiastic about AFF. "The films seem to be bigger this year and the quality of work seems to be getting stronger overall," he said. Ott found USIP especially useful, as "there are hardly any sources for post funds in the States. San Francisco Film Society is one of the only place I know about. I think a lot of filmmakers would be looking for things like USIP, but I don’t think that many know about it things like this in Europe… which is good for poor people like me, so I can apply back with my next film."
The dialogue of "Lake Los Angeles" is almost entirely in Spanish, a refreshing choice given the (understandable) dominance of the English language in the world of American independent cinema. Even more encouraging is the increasing tendency for American directors to look beyond their own boundaries in search of material: two of this year’s six USIP titles are shot and set far from home, namely "Pangea" (Thailand) and "Nakom" (Ghana). Appropriate, then, that such projects should gain vital support and early exposure in Wrocław, a crossroads of trades, nationalities, currencies and identities for a thousand years and more.