Bahamas International Film Festival Launches Strong
by Brian Brooks
It's not a bad gig receiving an assignment to attend the Bahamas International Film Festival in December, especially when it is freezing cold back home in New York. Even more satisfying is lounging around a beach bar with a Bahama Mama in hand, sifting through the film schedule knowing full well that friends at home are getting drenched, in the freezing rain. The terrific weather, the clear blue (but still chilly) Atlantic nearby, and a room with a view at the monolithic Atlantis Paradise Island Resort, the event's headquarters, might be enough to make the festival worthwhile, but fortunately, BIFF proved to be a success in its own right for its inaugural event.
Evidently, the festival's passionate and spunky director Leslie Vanderpool caught the attention of the Bahamian Prime Minister, the Rt. Hon. Perry G. Christie who sat with the audience on opening night for Steven Soderbergh's "Oceans 12." "We will give the resources of the country to ensure that this beginning is a defining moment in our history. I believe it will become [an important festival] among the movers and shakers," said the PM while addressing the crowd prior to the screening. Vanderpool said she had met with him to sell the idea of having a festival -- apparently it worked. Commanding the attention of a prime minister in a country of under 290,000 people, by the way, is most likely less daunting then might be expected.
To ease logistical snafus inherent in starting a film festival, BIFF hired the folks from Festival Consulting Group to organize the event. The chatter among filmmakers and other attendees seemed to indicate organization was surprisingly steady for a brand new festival. "I've never seen a first-year festival run as well as this," said filmmaker Roger Corman, who received the festival's Honorary Maverick Award on Saturday evening of the festival at Mountbatten House in Nassau, the former residence of Britain's last Viceroy to India, Lord Louis Mountbatten's mistress. Corman, who has over 50 directing credits including "Little Shop of Horrors" starring a very young Jack Nicholson, as well as more than 250 producing credit, went on to say that he believed the festival could grow into a "great" festival.
Not surprisingly, Vanderpool echoed similar thoughts to indieWIRE after the festival concluded early last week. "It could not have been showcased, programmed, nor ran more smoothly for a first year festival. I foresee and would like BIFF to be one of the most sought after festivals in the world as well as being a launching pad for Bahamians and Caribbean filmmakers.
Still, there were some oddities that were bantered about among some of the visiting filmmakers, industry and press. Tennyson Bardwell's delightful feature "Doran Blues" received the Bahamas highest restrictive rating presumably because the film's main character reveals he's gay to his disapproving father. This despite the fact that there was no sex scene, and rather PG-13 dialogue. The film's producer, however, told iW that the screenings themselves went well, and the audience that attended embraced the film. "Dorian Blues" also received the Torchlight Screenwriting Award for best screenplay in the fest's New Visions section, which showcased work from first and second-time filmmakers. Torchlight Foundation director Charlene Sullivan presented the award to Bardwell during the awards ceremony held at the Atlantis resort.
"Santa Smokes" director Till Schauder credited the festival for attracting attention to his film prior to its release at New York's Pioneer Theatre on December 15. "[The festival] was great for my film because of the kinds of people that attended -- industry folks from the U.S. and around the world. It's a great place to meet and mingle without the pressure of having to network. In the Bahamas, even the most stuck-up industry player loosens up after half a day at the beach, so it makes for easy living and even networking." "Santa Smokes" is an "urban love fantasy" of a man dressed as St. Nick and a woman dressed as an angel who come across each other in New York during Christmas.
Schauder did say, however, that he believed the festival's awareness among Bahamians went lacking. "I hitched a ride once with some locals after Sunday church, and they had heard of the festival, but [had] no clue what it was about, or that they could even attend. For a filmmaker, it's great to show your stuff to people around the world, not just film buffs." The opening night film, and outdoor screenings took place at the Atlantis resort on Paradise Island, perhaps a bit too tucked away from regular Bahamians. The great majority of films, however, did screen in Nassau, across the bridge from the Atlantis on the isle of New Providence, where the bulk of the population lives.
Also hoping to enlist attention everywhere are the filmmakers of the heart-wrenching doc, "Seoul Train." The film, which has been traveling the festival circuit, captures the traumatic experience North Korean refugees travel through China in a secret "underground railroad." "[We hope] 'Seoul Train' will raise awareness of the crisis in the public at large, both here and abroad, and will educate and support policy makers," said Lisa Sleeth, who along with Jim Butterworth and Aaron Lubarsky directed the film. Immediately after BIFF concluded, Sleeth presented the film to the Council on Foreign Relations, while further screenings are in the works for the European and British Parliaments. Going forward, the primary focus now is to find television distribution. Adding a further comment about her BIFF experience, Sleeth said, "On a personal note, [the festival] took a chance with our human rights documentary... No doubt we will be submitting films in the future to BIFF."
In other festival prizes, Mania Akbari's "20 Fingers" (20 Angosht) took the grand jury prize in the "Spirit of Freedom International Film Competition," BIFF's section devoted to showcasing cinema and "its potential to express the human spirit and how freedom pervades our lives." The film explores the issues of men and women within the confines of tradition and family in Iran. Enrique Pinyero's film recalling the events preceding the crash of a LAPA Airlines 737 in central Buenos Aires in 1999, "Whiskey Romeo Zulu" received an honorable mention.
New Visions director Yann Samuell won the Modern maverick Award for his film, "Love Me If You Dare." The feature centers on the unique friendship between a man and woman who grew up together daring the other to do outrageous stunts -- a competition that continued into adulthood. In audience prizes, Rick Elgood and Don Lett's "One Love" took the best narrative feature award. The film chronicles the story of a lax Rastafarian who falls for a prim gospel singer. Tom Peosay's "Tibet: Cry of the Snow Lion" won for best doc. Tibet's tumultuous recent past is chronicled in the film with personal stories and interviews as well as through undercover and archival images.