AFI Fest 2003: Quality International Films Invade Hollywood
by Jonny Leahan
The AFI Los Angeles International Film Festival, held at the sleek ArcLight Hollywood Theaters from November 6-16, completed another successful turn as L.A.'s longest-running fest, reporting record attendance for its 134 films representing 42 countries. AFI Fest 2003, which boasted 26 world premieres and 24 North American premieres, struck a chord with festival-goers as it managed to combine strong international programming with well-run events in a highly organized environment.
The festival opened with the North American premiere of the British film "Calendar Girls," directed by Nigel Cole, starring Helen Mirren and Julie Walters. The pair play Chris and Annie, respectively, two best friends living in the Yorkshire Dales who are forced to cope with the death of Annie's husband from leukemia. Based on a true story, Chris rallies support from members of her local Women's Institute, convincing them to pose nude for a fundraising calendar, and a fascinating and funny tale unfolds as the middle-aged gals deal with their unexpected time in the spotlight.
Desperately trying to avoid the spotlight is Michael Caine's character in "The Statement," which had its world premiere at the festival to mixed reviews. Canadian director Norman Jewison ("Moonstruck," "The Thomas Crown Affair") is working with admittedly difficult material as he tells the story of Pierre Brossard, a man never brought to trial for the war crimes he committed in his youth. Although Caine is excellent as Brossard, the film occasionally suffers from poor pacing and forced tension, making it a political thriller that never really quite thrills.
Real-life politics seem to work better, at least in the case of "The Fog of War," Errol Morris' documentary about Robert S. McNamara, who served as Kennedy's Secretary of Defense in the '60s but remained a player on the world stage. Structured as 11 lessons from his life, this unsettling but compelling film effortlessly weaves together countless hours of interviews with rare footage, and even includes taped conversations between McNamara and Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.
Another noteworthy documentary was Paul Kell's world premiere of "Five Sides of a Coin," which tells the story of hip-hip through the eyes of those who lived it -- including Run DMC, Mix Master Mike, Jurassic 5, and Kool Keith -- culling clips from vast amounts of material. "Whittling 76 hours of footage down to 70 minutes was the greatest challenge," Kell told indieWIRE. "If I could sit down and watch the film and not feel uncomfortable with anything, then I knew that it was done. It took me over two years of editing to get to that point."
Apparently, the meticulous editing was worth the effort, as the film screened to an enthusiastic crowd. Kell seemed thrilled with the results, not just from his screening but of AFI Fest as a whole. "I don't think I've had as much fun at a festival before," he said, "and that is because of the people who made it possible. Everyone on the staff went all out to make sure it was as good as it could have been, and they should be extremely proud of what they accomplished."
The festival did especially well programming the international shorts section. With four programs in competition, a total of 36 carefully chosen films were screened, including David Vadiveloo's "Bush Bikes." The fanciful Australian short explores the inventive world of Aboriginal kids and their homemade bikes, fashioned out of all manner of found objects, as they find ways to get around the Outback in style.
Another engaging short was Philip Zlotorynski's "Walkentalk," which tells the story of a guy so obsessed with Christopher Walken that he can only communicate using lines from Walken's films. Doing a dead-on imitation of the actor, Neil Hopkins quickly won over the audience in what could otherwise have been an annoying exercise in Walken movie trivia.
In Rocky Morton's comedy "The M Word," a five-minute short from the U.K., two ambitious executives hammer out the terms of their relationship using every business phrase in the book. In their case, however, it seems that "merger" is the only word they can muster as they agree to spend their lives together in holy matrimony.
It was the German short entitled "Fragile," however, which garnered the most attention in this category. Directed by Sikander Goldau, the 20-minute mini-masterpiece tells the story of a woman visiting her loved ones to say goodbye. Festival-goers seemed to agree, since "Fragile" won the AFI Fest audience award for best short film.
The audience award for best documentary went to "Double Dare," directed by Amanda Micheli, while the audience award for best feature film went to "In America," directed by Jim Sheridan. The grand jury prize for international short was given to "Deep Silence," directed by Gustavo Loza, with an honorable mention going to "American Made," directed by Sharat Raju. The grand jury prize in the international documentary competition was awarded to "Beah: A Black Woman Speaks," directed by Lisa Gay Hamilton, while the grand jury prize for international feature went to "Old, New, Borrowed and Blue," directed by Natasha Arthy.
One of the most compelling aspects of AFI Fest was the Made in Germany section, which showcased 10 features from some of the most progressive voices in German cinema today. Even Tomy Wigand's award-winning family film "The Flying Classroom" showed true vision with its captivating story of a troublemaker named Jonathan. After being expelled from eight boarding schools, Jonathan finds his latest roommates in their secret hiding place, an old railway car, where they discover a mysterious script for a play. When they decide to put on their own misguided version of the play for the school's Christmas show, they set off a troublesome series of events that connects the formerly divided Germany and their teacher with the play's original author.
The biggest stir, however, was caused in the Latin Cinema section -- by Rodrigo Bellott's "Sexual Dependency," which had people literally fighting to get into the screenings. When the first two sold out, turning away more than a hundred people, the festival added a third screening that was oversold as well. The film skillfully weaves together five story lines, taking place in both Bolivia and the U.S., while being told in two languages. As if that weren't complex enough, the entire production uses a split-screen format, perfectly symbolizing the duality -- cultural, sexual, and moral -- that engulfs the characters' lives.
"I think the biggest challenge in getting the film made was finding any production company or financiers that would believe in a project with things that up to this point everybody thought were liabilities," Bellott told indieWIRE. "It's a split screen movie... there is the language barrier... then the no name actors. Even independent producers seemed to think that the only way to get people to see a movie is if there is some recognizable face."
With the success of the movie overseas, those faces are becoming more recognizable every day, and now it seems as though Bellott and his cast will have a repeat performance on U.S. territory. "In the three days after the screenings we have distributors fighting over the film, so I'm more than happy with the response," said Bellott. "It's amazing, and I think AFI Fest has a treasured spot in my heart right now."
The festival closed with an equally strong selection, the world premiere of "Monster," directed by Patty Jenkins. The film chronicles the unsettling story of prostitute and serial killer Aileen Wuornos (played to disturbing perfection by Charlize Theron) who was executed last year in Florida for murdering several of her johns. When the suicidal Aileen meets Selby Ward, a troubled lesbian played by Christina Ricci, they fall in some sort of love. With her desire to kill men escalating, the police eventually close in on Aileen, and Selby is forced to betray the woman she loves in order to save herself.
Despite the dark subject matter of the closing night film, the party that followed was anything but depressing. Held at the historic Henry Ford Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, celebrities and industry folk alike enjoyed cocktails and music while celebrating the close of another festival. AFI Fest has truly come into its own, and has grown into an important showcase for both international cinema and independent film in a town that can always use a little more outside influence.