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November 9, 2006 12:26 AM
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DISPATCH FROM LOS ANGELES: Foreign Films Get AFI Fest Star Treatment

"Ten Canoes" director Rolf de Heer, moderator Jean Oppenheimer, "White Palms" director Szabolcs Hajdu, "Days of Glory" director Rachid Bouchareb, "Pan's Labyrinth" D.P. Guillermo Navarro and "The Lives of Others" director Florian Henkel von Donnersmarck. Photo by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE

AFI Fest rightfully styles itself as an international festival, showcasing foreign films from around the world in a city that is not always receptive to overseas fare. Though non-U.S. work may have difficulty at the box office during their regular rollouts in L.A., screenings are often full for foreign films at the AFI Los Angeles International Film Festival. In fact the festival has added three new sections this year, including a world cinema, African Voices and a "genre bending" Dark Horizons sidebar that includes science fiction/thriller titles from the U.K., U.S. and Asia. Additionally, this year's AFI is screening over a dozen best foreign-language Oscar contenders, of which four of the group's filmmakers met with journalists at a panel last weekend.

"AFI Fest contextualizes the film-going experience to enhance the [overall event] for the moviegoer," commented AFI Fest director Christian Gaines in a conversation with indieWIRE on Wednesday afternoon, when asked how the festival draws large audiences to its overseas offerings. "There is [also] the attraction of having the filmmakers and actors present, [but] there is also a lot of outreach. There is not just media, but also grassroots [marketing] to reach out to a film's basic audience as well as film buffs."

Though the festival makes its selections before the full list of the best foreign-language Academy Award hopefuls is announced, this year's AFI Fest, which continues through Sunday, includes 16 of 2006's 61 country submissions. Films vying for this year's foreign-language Oscar screening at AFI Fest include: Susanne Bier's "After the Wedding" (Denmark); Juan Carlos Valdivia's "American Visa" Bolivia; Zhang Yimou's "Curse of the Golden Flower" (China); Rachid Bouchareb's "Days of Glory" (Algeria); Jesper Ganslandt's "Falkenberg Farewell" (Sweden); Daniel Burman's "Family Law" (Argentina); Jasmila Zbanic's "Grbavica" (Bosnia and Herzegovina); Guillermo del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth" (Mexico); Rolf De Heer's "Ten Canoes" (Australia); Feng Xiaogang's "The Banquet" (Hong Kong); Florian Henkel von Donnersmarck's "The Lives of Others" (Germany); Marwan Hamed's "The Yacoubian Building" (Egypt); Fredi Murer's "Vitus" (Switzerland); Pedro Almodovar's "Volver" (Spain); and Szabolcs Hajdu's "White Palms" (Hungary).

Four of the directors with official contenders for the best foreign-language Oscar gathered in Santa Monica in a room overlooking the Pacific at an AFI Fest/American Film Market discussion moderated by Jean Oppenheimer of American Cinematographer. Perhaps feeling the expectation of the looming U.S. midterm elections this week, she zeroed in the common political themes among the four filmmakers. Algeria's Rachid Bouchareb's "Days of Glory" recounts the experiences of North African soldiers who journeyed to Europe during World War II to fight to liberate their colonizer, France, from the clutches of Nazi occupation, but never received the same official and financial recognition of their French counterparts. He noted that it recently moved the French establishment.

"Over 500,000 North Africans joined the fight to liberate France and their pensions were never equal. [Plus] they were treated with disdain until this pain was corrected," said Bouchareb, saying that France has since moved to correct the pension disparity for North African veterans, directly as a result of his film. The movie is also an IFC Films release, in conjunction with The Weinstein Company.

Florian Henkel von Donnersmarck's "The Lives of Others" from Germany, an upcoming Sony Pictures release, is set in East Berlin in 1984. In the film, an officer of the notorious Stasi (state police) is sent to spy on a celebrated writer and actress couple and bugs their apartment. Eventually, the officer has the incriminating evidence he needs, which could have the side effect of lifting his political aspirations, but he begins to be drawn into their lives, putting his position as an impartial agent of the government in question.

"It's quite soon for people [to be] willing to talk about this subject, because the Stasi was active only a little over 15 years ago," said von Donnersmarck at the panel. "Movies like 'Good Bye, Lenin!' have helped ease tension, [but] in the East, 40% of younger people don't know what the Stasi is, and [I think] maybe that's because people are still not comfortable talking [about it]."

Though not overtly political, "Ten Canoes" (coming soon from Palm Pictures), which won a special jury prize at the 2006 Festival de Cannes, is actually two stories set amidst an aboriginal community in Australia. Dayindi (Jamie Gulpipil) covets one of his older brother's wives. According to the AFI Fest catalog, Dayindi is taught the "proper way of the tribe and is told a story from the mythical past"--a story of wrong love--including kidnapping, sorcery, bungling mayhem and revenge gone wrong. "Issues of indigenous people is [inherently] political in Australia," said "Ten Canoes" director Rolf De Heer. "The film did much better than expected [in Australia] amongst the white population because it's a 'guilt free' movie. But it is still an experience that people can learn from. People in Australia are still very ignorant about aboriginal people."

Likely Oscar nominees Pedro Almodovar's "Volver" from Spain (another Sony Classics release) and Guillermo del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth" from Mexico (from Picturehouse) are among the highest profile AFI Fest foreign language films. Del Toro's film, an exploratin of fascism, is a rich, dark tale of a young girl and her mother who move into the home of a captain in Franco's army. She escapes the realities of her harsh life and enters a fantastical world where a mysterious faun explains to her that she is a princess. But, in order to realize her dreams, she must first accomplish three challenging tasks detailed by the mysterious figure (called "Pan" for the U.S. release of the film).

"Pan's Labyrinth" will be in the AFI Fest spotlight at recently added Thursday and Friday screenings here at the festival in Los Angeles, but other Spanish language films have also benefited from the aforementioned outreach referenced by AFI Fest's Christian Gaines.

A scene from Gerardo Naranjo's "Drama/Mex."

A sizable crowd turned up on Tuesday for a Noon screening of Gerardo Naranjo's "Drama/Mex," the sexy new Mexican film that stirred audiences in Cannes and Toronto.
Chatting with the audience on Tuesday, filmmaker Naranjo called his project a movie with "a low budget and a big heart." He paid his young, non-pro cast with drinks at the end of the day during his three week shoot.

The film, set for release in Mexico in January, had its U.S. premiere at AFI Fest this week and the filmmaker proudly announced that a U.S. release is on tap. Backed by Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna's Canana Films, a distirbution deal for the film is in the works with IFC Films expected to close a pact for the artsy foreign film.

[Eugene Hernandez contributed to this article.]

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