A "Great Place," Even With Growing Pains; The Hamptons International Film Festival
by Brian Brooks
"This has been really incredible," Hamptons International Film Festival executive director Denise Kassell beamed as she gave my colleague and I a lift to a Saturday night dinner hosted by New Line in support of their film "Elf" (which screened as a spotlight film during the festival). The dinner was held at Nick and Toni's, an East Hampton hot spot frequented by the charmed enclave's posh residents. "So long in the making, yet over so quickly" I responded to Kassell. The event had just awarded its prizes, among the richest in America, including the $180,000 (goods and services to be used for the directors' next project) Golden Starfish Award for best narrative to Kirk Davis for "Screen Door Jesus," climaxing four days of screenings, parties, panels and many other special events, although screenings were again held on Sunday.
Also sharing in the Hamptons' largesse was Deborah Kampmeier, who won the Zicherman Family Foundation Award for screenwriting for "Virgin," which includes $5,000 in cash, while the Spike TV Best Documentary Award ($10,000 cash and in-kind services) went to Amy Morrison Williams for "The Morrison Project." The Stella Artois Short Film award ($5,000 in cash) went to Aimee Lagos and Kristin C. Dehnert's "Underground." Twenty-two-year-old, first-time director Ryan Eslinger won the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Film Prize in Science and Technology, which honors projects that focus on science. Eslinger was handed a check for $25,000 for his film "Madness and Genius," which had its U.S. premiere at the festival.
The Hamptons continues to grow with new programs, this year adding the Travel + Leisure Magazine International Forum, a gathering place near the fest's main screening venues on Main Street in East Hampton that quickly became a centerpiece of the festival. "It is clearly going to become a cornerstone of the festival in much the same way that Cinemart works for Rotterdam and Galway has the Fair," commented Rajendra Roy, director of programming, about the new venue which offers panels and booths spotlighting international film all housed under a very large tent. This year's colder-then-average temperatures at the fest's outset didn't seem to deter people from the site, which also became a focus for people to meet, socialize and have a snack, somewhat a kin to the hospitality area once offered at Sundance where filmmakers, press and industry et al could happen upon one another between screenings. Roy went on to say after the festival, that the Hamptons will "definitely look to build out [the] program," in addition to augmenting the profile of panels which take place in the tent. Perhaps one difficult challenge to the festival is that most films can only screen once in East Hampton due to the large program offered, therefore making it difficult for festgoers who arrived by Jitney or train (or hitching a ride from a friend) to check out films recommended to them screening later at venues in neighboring towns.
Talent, however, could be readily seen strolling the streets of East Hampton including Hollywood types and visitors from overseas, including actress Isabelle Nanty, who traveled to the festival for the screening of her directorial debut film, "Le Bison." The Cesar-nominated actress has appeared in many films including the enormously successful "Amelie" by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, in which she played a smoke shop hypochondriac. Nanty, who also stars "Le Bison," received enthusiastic applause from the two-thirds-full theater following the screening of her comedy about a French housewife dealing with the aftermath of spousal abandonment while trying to raise several children. "I really enjoyed bringing my film to the Hamptons," she later told indieWIRE as she readied to leave town for the airport shortly after the screening. She added that she wished she could have stayed longer, but that she was starting a new project the following week.
The Hamptons' signature Conflict & Resolution series, launched four years ago at the beginning of the current intifada in the Holy Land seemed to face some growing pains this year, with the jury members judging the films in the category seeming less than enthusiastic about the sections overall offerings. Still, the group did present Spencer Nakasako's "Refugee" the $5,000 Dan & Ewa Abraham and Tammy Abraham Films of Conflict and Resolution Award, which the panel, including writer/producer Lynda LaPlante, United Artists chief Bingham Ray and Variety journalist David Rooney found worthy. "Refugee" also took the $5,000 Brizzolara Family Inspirational Film Award. Conflict & Resolution has apparently grown on Hamptons audiences, Roy said. "The films of Conflict & Resolution had packed houses for the first time in four years," he noted.
A Thursday afternoon screening of Robert Pappas' "Orwell Rolls in His Grave," which screened in the festival's View from Long Island sidebar, managed a mini-political firestorm of its own. Audience members could be heard whispering comments (mostly in agreement) about the assertions the documentary made regarding the current frenzy of media consolidation at the expense of diversity of opinion and critical investigative journalism. Several times, in fact, the audience erupted with applause, albeit tempered by the depressing state of news coverage in the U.S., which the film argues, resulted from deregulation that began in the 1980s. The result, according to Pappas, is the media oligopoly of today with only a few figures such as right-winger Rupert Murdoch controlling ever-greater areas of the media industry.
THINKFilm head Mark Urman (who served as a juror in this year's documentary feature competition) could not have been more excited about the screening of the film his company will release next spring, "Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself." The movie was shown in the festival's World Cinema Narrative Features section. "Wilbur" won the audience award for best international film at the event. "The screenings were enormously successful [with] great attendance and great response," Urman told indieWIRE after the festival. "Wilbur," by Danish director Lone Scherfig ("Italian for Beginners") stars Jamie Sives as a disillusioned man intent on killing himself, but without success. Sives attended the fest, which Urman said gave him "appropriate adoration." Overall, Urman praised the festival for its organization and its "audiences [that] are plentiful, smart, and curious." He went on to say, however, that the timing of the event just after Toronto and the New York Film Festival places the event at a disadvantage in attracting "great, new undiscovered films." He also added, "it still is not an acquisitions event." Even so, Urman said the fest is a "great place to go with a film" and praised the location and social scene as pluses.
Short filmmaker Garret Savage echoed Urman's observations also plugging the Hamptons' parties as well as the programming, but said there were technical difficulties at nearly every screening he attended. Savage picked Jesse Moss' "Speedo" and doc "Trust Me" by Rob Fruchtman as personal favorites as well as shorts "Prom Night" and "Like Twenty Impossibles." Savage's short played along with others in five shorts programs, in addition to the shorts screened prior to features. His film centers on the slogan, "Will work for food," which unleashes a chain reaction of unlikely panhandlers who crawl the streets of New York using their talents to extract change. "My second screening [in] Southampton was with a really cool audience. They asked us great questions during the Q&A [and] were curious about the entire filmmaking process from idea to execution...that was refreshing."
Jamie Johnson's HBO feature "Born Rich," which premiered earlier this year at Sundance, was appropriately packed Saturday afternoon. Johnson, a 22-year-old heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune, created a bit of a stir among his well-heeled crowd by exposing the gilded lives of the super rich. "Born Rich" has also created a wealth of publicity for Johnson, especially considering it is a first-time effort. The director has been featured on Oprah and was interviewed on CNN's "Paula Zahn Now" along with one of the film's subjects, S.I. Newhouse IV on the Friday of the Hamptons festival. "We're a capitalist-driven society," Johnson commented outside the UA Theater in East Hampton during a conversation with indieWIRE after the screening had begun. Asked why he felt there was so much interest in his project, Johnson replied, "People interested in the pursuit of wealth are offered a glimpse from inside and are fascinated by the subject." Johnson went on to say during the casual conversation outside -- interrupted occasionally by passers-by approaching him about his film -- that he intends to pursue filmmaking, particularly documentaries. "I would like to continue with explorations related to social class."
As far as its status on the world festival hierarchy, the Hamptons is definitely on a determined path upward, offering a program that has been ambitious for, at least, the last several years. Films of Conflict & Resolution, despite growing pains, offer subject-oriented programming alongside other issue oriented features, docs and panels as well as a very large selection of international and domestic titles.