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November 3, 1998 2:00 AM
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AFI International Closes, Awards from "Fire-Eater" to "Free Enterprise"

AFI International Closes, Awards from "Fire-Eater" to
"Free Enterprise"

by Rebecca Sonnenshine




The 12th annual AFI Los Angeles International Film Festival came to a
close on Friday evening with an awards ceremony at the Los Angeles
County Museum of Art. Prizes were handed out by representatives of the
four guilds -- SAG, WGA, DGA, and the Producer's Guild -- as
well as participating sponsors.


After everyone had their awards and a good part of the audience left in
search of more exciting things to do on the Friday before Halloween, the
remaining audience was treated to a screening of Pat O'Connor's "Dancing
at Lughnasa
," starring Meryl Streep. Though the film has received mixed
reviews, it is a beautifully realized, if deliberately paced, adaptation
of Brian Friel's award-winning play. Following the screening, guests
sauntered over to the museum courtyard for some late-night snacks and a
little jazz. And that about wrapped up the festival, though a few stray
screenings spilled over into Saturday.


As always, the AFI Film Festival is a mixed bag, bringing to Los Angeles
an impressive slate of foreign films and U.S. independents -- some good,
some bad -- that might otherwise never see the light of day. Jon
Fitzgerald, the intrepid AFI Film Festival programmer, announced that
attendance had increased by over 90% this year. Of course, the majority
of the industry attendees show up at the opening night festivities and
again at closing ceremonies, leaving the actual viewing of films to
movie buffs, filmmakers, and adventurous ordinary citizens (all of which
there are plenty in Los Angeles).


Though the Mann's Chinese Theater venue which housed screenings is a
sign of unflagging optimism regarding efforts to revitalize Hollywood
Boulevard, most of attendees would be glad to do without the parking
hassles, the mobs of tourists, and the generally seediness that is still
the defining characteristic of that part of town. Despite all this, the
festival continues to strive towards excellence, and the event came off, all
in all, as a solid success.


In the Official Competition, eleven films from around the world vied for
the prestigious Grand Jury Prize. This year, the award went to a
stunning piece of cinema from Finland, "Fire-Eater," directed by Pirjo
Honkasalo. The film centers on the relationship between two twin girls,
abandoned by their mother and raised by their grandmother. When the
grandmother dies, however, the mother returns for the girls and drags
the reluctant girls into a life with the circus. Featuring exquisite
performances from the entire cast, breathtaking photography, and a
tremendously moving narrative, the film is nothing short of a
heartbreaking masterpiece. Unfortunately, the film was seen by a very
small audience: the first screening was canceled when the print didn't
arrive on time, and the second screening lost half its audience when the
subtitles dropped out in the second reel. Hopefully, winning the Grand
Jury Prize will give distributors a heads-up.


Another notable entry in the Official Competition was Sweden's "The Last
Contract
," directed by Kjell Sundvall. A taut, well-acted political
thriller, the film explores a fictional account of the 1986
assassination of Prime Minister Olaf Palme. Crisp direction and
photography, combined with a host of incredible locations and some
terrific action sequences, create a suspenseful narrative in the vein of
U.S. films like "Day of the Jackal" or "All the President's Men." With
such high production values and half its dialogue in English, the film
seems a natural to find at least limited distribution in the U.S.


Also entertaining was France's entry, "The Swindle," by noted director
Claude Chabrol. Starring some of France's biggest talents, including
the always remarkable Isabelle Huppert, the film is a handsome, romantic
caper that tells the story of two mismatched con artists who find
themselves in over their heads when they go for "the big one."
Effervescent, charming, and beautifully produced, the film was a treat
to watch among the more "serious" entries.


An interesting, but not entirely successful film was China's "Mr. Zhao,"
directed by Lu Yue. Designed as a companion piece to Zhang Ymou's "Keep
Cool
," which screened at the AFI festival last year, the film is
essentially a three-character drama exploring the disintegrating
relationships between a woman, her husband, and his mistress. With a
completely improvised script, the film succeeds with some of the intense
interactions between the characters, but can't quite sustain a cohesive
narrative as it wears on.


Other Official Competition films worth mentioning: The Czech Republic's
"Sekal Has To Die," directed by Vladimir Michatek, a compelling,
well-produced period piece that tells the tale of a small town who wants
to eliminate its most heinous, corrupt, Nazi-informing citizen and
Ireland's "Sweety Barrett," by Stephen Bradley, an affecting small film
that has been dubbed an Irish "Sling Blade."


In the European Film Showcase, The Netherlands' "The Polish Bride,"
directed by Karim Traidia, was awarded the European Film Prize. The
piece is one of four Dutch films in a series that studies the end of the
millennium in Holland and tells the tale of a well-meaning farmer that
takes in an abused prostitute. Another excellent film in the section
was Goran Rebic's "Jugofilm," which explores the effects of the Bosnian
war on an immigrant family in Austria. One of the gems of the festival,
it is a delicate, well-acted film that effectively portrays the manner
in which war systematically tears apart the social fabric of a
community.


The World Cinema section was a non-competitive arena to showcase films,
many of which already have distribution or have found previous success
at other festivals. Erick Zonca's "The Dreamlife of Angels," picked up
by Sony Classics in Cannes, is just as good as the hype says it is.
Despite its otherworldly title, the film is a modern, mesmerizing
character study propelled by outstanding performances from Elodie
Bouchez and Natacha Regnier. "Amy," by Australian director Nadia Tass,
was a charming, quirky film that elicited an enthusiastic audience
response. Starring the incomparable Rachel Griffiths, the story of a
mother and daughter trying to overcome paralyzing grief is both
heartbreaking and uplifting. It's also a terrific crowd-pleaser that
should have distributors pricking up their ears.


The majority of the awards handed out on Friday were for films in the
domestic New Directions category, (a program in serious need of some
stronger films) and which seems a bit ironic for an "international" film
festival, but it certainly made for an exciting evening (for the
filmmakers, anyway). The Best New Screenwriter Award went to Mark A.
Altman and Robert Meyer Burnett for "Free Enterprise," and Sean Travis
picked up the Best New Director Award for "The Week That Girl Died." The
Best Editing Prize was awarded to Sabine Brose for her work on "The
Little Girl Who Fell From A Tree
," a thriller directed by AFI grad
Michael Bartlett. The Best Actress prize went to Dahlia Mindlin for her
role in "Last Days of May," and the Best Actor prize went to Patrick
Fischler for his role in "The Week That Girl Died."


The Studio Prize, awarded to the best feature film in the New Directions
section, went to "Free Enterprise," directed by Robert Meyer Burnett.
Since it also won the screenwriting award, "Free Enterprise," was
considered the big winner for the evening. The film is a charming, very
well-written comedy that starts to falter as it drags into the third
act. The writers have a remarkable ear for dialogue and a talent for
creating a sweetly nostalgic setting for their characters to trade barbs
in. It's unfortunate that co-writer/director Robert Meyer Burnett
couldn't apply some of that lightness of touch to the directing: the
film is so studied and glossy and dark that it buries a great deal of
the sparkling wit that should make it so endearing.


[AFI winners are in the today's Festival Briefs section.]


[Rebecca Sonnenshine is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles]

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