There was a significant moment inside the Berlinale Palast here in Germany this week when Berlin International Film Festival director Dieter Kosslick led twenty-five year-old American filmmaker Ryan Eslinger by the hand, directing him to walk in the spotlight to his seat for the world premiere of his second feature film, "When A Man Falls in The Forest." Eslinger paused momentarily before raising his head and walking with confidence to the VIP row where he was quickly joined by his film's co-stars Sharon Stone and Timothy Hutton. Eslinger's film is a rarity in the Berlinale's high-profile international competition; of the four American films being showcased, his is the only truly indie production, a small $2 million project alongside movies from Hollywood directors Gregory Nava ("Bordertown"), Steven Soderbergh ("The Good German") and Robert De Niro ("The Good Shepherd"). Kosslick, a proponent of emerging talent, has hailed Eslinger as the discovery of the festival this week, noting that he is among the youngest directors to compete at the event.
The inclusion of "When A Man Falls In The Forest" may signal a shift for the Berlinale, according to event insiders, as the festival seeks to welcome a wider array of American films in its main section. While the Berlin festival has a long history of supporting smaller American independent films -- many directly from the Sundance Film Festival -- in the popular Panorama and Forum sidebars, the coveted competition section has traditionally been reserved for Oscar contenders and high-profile premieres from the Hollywood studios. With the shift, some have wondered how smaller indie titles would deal with the intense spotlight that comes from being selected to screen in the international competition at one of the world's tops festivals, specifically where films are highly scrutinized and immediate trade and local newspaper reviews are customary.
EDITORS NOTE: indieWIRE first profiled filmmaker Ryan Eslinger in October of 2003, shortly after his first feature, "Madness and Genius," debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival.
"For me, it's important to know that the competition can be nimble enough to accommodate American independents," explained Rajendra Roy, the only American on the festival's competition selection committee and artistic director of the Hampton's International Film Festival where Eslinger's first film, "Madness and Genius," had its U.S. debut back in 2003. "I am reinforcing what [EFM co-director] Karen Arikian has been doing as the American delegate for indies," he explained, "Trying to include a little bit more of the lightness that the independent film industry can bring to a competition that perhaps was depending on those heavyweight majors all the time."
At a Kodak/IFP dinner for American directors and film industry in Berlin earlier this week, IFP head Michelle Byrd noted that in the decade she has been attending the festival, generally it, "has always been incredibly hospitable, anxious and eager to see American independent work in general." And she added that there is a an interest in, "what you would consider challenging, arthouse work. The programmers do a great job covering a wide expanse of the American independent scene," Byrd added, noting that the Berlinale has also shown a tremendous openness to work by younger directors, distinguishing it among international festivals.
"When A Man Falls in The Forest" fits the bill of challenging, arthouse work from an emerging American and it seems well-suited to a European debut alongside other international titles. Set in a Midwest town, the film is the rather quiet story of a group of adults, from a lonesome late-night office janitor (Dylan Baker) who acts out through lucid dreaming, to a frustrated married couple (played by Hutton and Stone) and their damaged, but healing, neighbor (Pruitt Taylor Vince). Producer Mary Aloe, who backed Eslinger's vision for the film along with executive producer Sharon Stone, financier Kirk Shaw and Eslinger's agents at William Morris, calls the movie "an existentialist drama." With distinctive performances and a striking tone, the film is punctuated by spare, powerful new songs by Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins.
"It's a much more intimate film than the legacy of Berlinale's competition for 57 years," Roy added, "But I thought the combination of the support from the major talent -- which works on the red carpet, let's be honest, thats a key element of any competition film -- combined with his vision as a director, which I think is solid and certainly is way beyond his years in the way he tackles filmmaking." Given the notoriety Eslinger received from his first film, Roy was comfortable opening up the competition to the emerging director.
"I tried not to stick to the classical three-act structure and I tried to do something different," Eslinger explained during a festival press conference this week, "What I find with a lot of international cinema is that there doesn't seem to be a lot of rules that bog down the movie -- I just wanted to do something that felt freer than American cinema."
"He's taken a path that is incredibly smart for a young person in the independent film world," Raj Roy told indieWIRE about Eslinger and the film he has been developing for a number of years, "by going to Cannes in the Atelier (du Cinema section), by going to the Sundance labs, by trying to engage the programs that exist to help people grow in their careers."
Just as making an independent film in America is inherently risky, so to was the move to launch "When A Man Falls in The Forest" in front of buyers, media and audiences here in Berlin. The decision to place Eslinger's film in the main competition has been a hot topic among festival insiders and observers all week, some saying that in the wake of damning trade reviews that hit just hours after the film's debut, such a delicate film shouldn't have screened in the high-profile slot where the tradition has been to showcase high profile studio films from America. While some German papers were apparently upbeat about the movie, Variety labeled it a "precocious Amerindie cinema" and Screen International dissed it as being part of a long line of Sundance misfires (citing its support from the Sundance Institute labs). Perhaps, some argued, the film belonged in the Panorama or Focus sections where audiences and critics alike are more accustomed to challenging, personal work.
"Defnitely it was always was a question of whether ('When A Man Falls In The Forest') could withstand the always intense pressure of Berlin," Roy told indieWIRE the day that the trade reviews hit, "Everyone knows that this is one of the toughest gatherings of the press in the world. Cannes and Berlin are right up there, but Berlin sometimes, I feel, is tougher."
Casually chatting with indieWIRE later in the week, Ryan Eslinger was respectfully good-natured about the reactions to his feature, if a bit surprised by some of the polarized responses, trying to understand why people are calling the movie depressing and sad. But, the director was anxious to discuss the decisions he made in the movie. Coming up, he'll bring the film back home for its U.S. premiere in competition at SXSW next month.
"In the end, Ryan deserved the shot," Roy concluded. "I sat through the premiere screening and the audience seemed to agree." Reflecting further, Roy added, "I am hoping that this is the continuation of an opening for smaller, independent films and as long Dieter has Karen Arikian and me engaged, I think that's always going to be on the forefront."
indieWIRE's coverage from the 2007 Berlinale and the European Film Market continues in a special section.