Barbarians at the Gate: the LAIFF goes Tokyo
by Rocky Collins
Tokyo has a huge and sophisticated film audience - but virtually no
independent film. One Japanese company, Fab Films, recently fired its
opening salvo in what looks like a long battle to correct the situation.
Fab Films' strategy involves introducing Tokyo residents to a little of
the hype and sense of discovery that comes with a high-profile film
festival. I was a lucky beneficiary of that strategy when they chose my
film, "Pants on Fire," as one of four brought to Tokyo during the last
week of August, for a greatly abridged version of the 1998 Los Angeles
Independent Film Festival.
The four features chosen were, in order of appearance: "Some Girls," for
which Rory Kelly won the Best Directing Award; "Shadrach," which opened
the LAIFF, directed by Susanna Styron; "Mr. Jealousy," which closed the
LAIFF, directed by Noah Baumbach; and "Pants on Fire," which I wrote and
directed, and which won the Best Writer Award. Five short films were
also screened in a single program: "Mad Boy, I'll Blow Your Blues Away,"
"The Regulars," "The Last Supper," "Seed," and "Short Order."
Each feature received four screenings, including individual gala
evenings in the fashion-friendly neighborhood of Aoyama. Ever see
pictures from a fashion show and think, "now who would really wear
that?" In Aoyama and nearby Harajuku, they wear it. The streets are a
sea of creativity that make LA's Melrose, or NYC's SoHo look like
Screenings were held in a 350-seat theater in Spiral Hall, a fascinating
modern building that houses restaurants, galleries, design stores, and
leading radio station, J-WAVE, which, as a key sponsor for the event,
provided ads and documentaries on each film. Absolut, another sponsor,
helped loosen up the post-screening cocktail parties. Screenings ranged
from half-full to packed -- pretty good when tickets cost about $12.00
and when some were held on weekday mornings or during a typhoon named
Rory Kelly, Susanna Styron and I were all flown to Tokyo by Fab Films,
as were pretty much the entire LAIFF posse: Festival Director Robert
Faust, Programming Director Thomas Ethan Harris, Managing Director Linda
Rattner, Programming Coordinator Amy Goodman and Publicity and Marketing
Director Donna Lorenz.
Avy Lerner and Danny Dimbort from Nu Image, which produced both "Some
Girls" and "Shadrach," flew themselves over and brought "Some Girls"
stars with them: Juliette Lewis ("From Dusk Till Dawn," "Natural Born
Killers"), Giovanni Ribisi ("Saving Private Ryan," "First Love, Last
Rights"), and Marisa Ribisi ("Changing Habits," "Dazed and Confused").
Marisa co-wrote the film.
You couldn't ask for a nicer bunch of actors to hang with than Juliette,
Giovanni and Marisa, but the press and teeny bopper crowd that Juliette
attracted, combined with an epidemic of jet lag (it's an 11 hour flight
and a 17 hour time difference from LA) definitely added a punch-drunken
haze to everyone's first few days.
It seems some Japanese young people are not so jaded and cynical about
celebrity as we Americans. Where crowds at an American festival may play
it cool when a Juliette Lewis walks in - or more likely try to slip her
a script - the young Japanese audiences were not ashamed to chase her
for autographs. At a restaurant during one of our early morning dinners
(this is a 24-hour city), strangers had their picture taken with Me,
assuming or hoping that I was famous.
But take note: Tokyo has got to be the most polite city in the world.
Even press photographers avoided interrupting each other, and the first
fans to get close to the actors stayed low to the ground so as not to
block the view of fans behind. This indicates a respect and generosity
that many Tokyo residents seem to have for visitors and each other - and
it impressed every American who made the trip. This is a city where the
subways are not only clean but have velour, cushioned seats. Tokyo may
not be Eden exactly, but we "gaijin" (foreigners) felt like barbarians.
American cities could learn a little about how to be busy, creative and
productive as hell, without the "everybody get out of my way"
Fab Films' efforts are commendable, in their effort to (a) introduce
American independent films to Japan and (b) jumpstart a Japanese indie
movement. Makoto Nishimura, and Jun Goto (respectively the President and
Vice President of Production and Acquisition for Fab Films, Inc.), as
well as Mathew K. Jacobs, and Laurent Isaure (President and European
Manager respectively for sister company Fab Films, International) are
four gracious, good-natured, yet tirelessly ambitious individuals.
Their partners, and their entire hard-working staff of about 15, were
bright and committed, even when driving us home at 4 in the morning.
What was interesting was that only one Fab Films employee that I met
admitted to wanting to be a director herself. Perhaps with very little
by way of an independent film presence in Japan, the idea that anyone
can direct a movie - an idea with positive and negative repercussions -
has not taken hold. The country lacks as yet the mythology of the
maverick auteur jumping off the financial brink for art and fame.
While I sincerely wish Fab Films and all budding Japanese filmmakers the
best of luck, let's hope that the country does not lose its respect and
admiration for artists. (One TV reporter actually watched "Pants on
Fire" TWICE before interviewing me for an hour, with questions entirely
limited to the theme and style of the film -- its heroine, a woman who
fears confrontation, struck a chord among Japanese women that I couldn't
have predicted. This reporter acted as if my film were - heaven forbid -
art, rather than merely an exercise in marketing strategy.) The "how
much did it cost" media fixation hasn't struck Japan yet, and I can't
express how exhilarating it was not to be asked accounting questions.
So let's hope Japan manages to open new doors for its (and our)
filmmakers, without cheapening the artform we'd all like to support.
[Fab Films can be reached through <firstname.lastname@example.org>]
[Rocky Collins <email@example.com> has written, directed, edited
and produced many documentaries for PBS and cable TV. "Pants on Fire" is
his first dramatic feature as