By Eric Kohn | Indiewire October 6, 2008 at 5:35AM
Woodstock is a town perpetually caught up in its funky mythology. However, the Woodstock Film Festival -- now on the verge of its tenth anniversary -- has a separate legacy in the works. The cozy scenery of this quaint artists' colony hides a passionate gathering of cinephiles and professionals alike. Founded in 1999 by Meira Blaustein and Laurent Rejto, the festival's ninth year culminated on Saturday night with an impressively upscale awards ceremony in the nearby city of Kingston, where the combination of guests in attendance looked like the set-up for a film industry geek joke: Ang Lee, James Schamus, Kevin Smith and Haskell Wexler walk into a bar...
Actually, the jokes at the podium (where Lee presented the festival's Trailblazer Award to Schamus, Smith accepted the Maverick Award and Wexler took the Honorary Lifetime Achievement Award) had a much broader topical bent. You might call it the Woodstock way. "We believe you're a heartbeat away from being the free leader of the world," said presenter Ron Nyswaner to Kevin Smith in his opening remarks for the evening. "Wouldn't it be great if Kevin Smith, James Schamus and Haskell Wexler ruled the country?" Later, Smith worked the mic with his characteristically spot-on raunchiness, but even the dick-and-fart-joke guy couldn't avoid stating the obvious about the political climate. "In any other year," he said, "it would be great to be called a maverick."
In her opening remarks, Blaustein urged attendees to vote, but noted that the festival had to remain non-partisan due 501(c)(3) regulations. Still, that didn't stop at least one filmmaker from relating his profession to the larger world surrounding it. "It feels like our industry is a little broken," said Sean Baker, director of "Prince of Broadway," the enthralling urban dramedy that won the Lee Marvin Narrative Feature Award. The movie continues to seek distribution even as Baker's first feature, "Take Out" opens in limited release in Los Angeles. "More importantly," he continued, "our country is a little broken. Let's get Obama in office, and then find new ways to get audiences to see independent films." The crowd went wild -- for Obama, for independent film, for the future of the creative class.
That combination of artistic yearning and a general appreciation for humanitarian ideals permeated many of the premieres at this year's festival. "Diplomacy: Responsibility to Protest," a concise documentation of the United Nations Security Council's 2006 attempt to send peacekeeping forces to Darfur, provides an insightful verite portrait of the inner-workings of the U.N. Danish filmmakers Rasmus Dinesen and Boris B. Bertram gained unprecedented access to private meetings and exchanges in the building.
The directors owe much to their native country, Denmark, which presided over the council during production and tends to be much more transparent with its media than other parts of the world. As a result, the movie offers a sharp account of the differing opinions hindering the operation ("the West is not willing to send its men off to die in the sands of Sudan," asserts one Danish employee) and the crippling effect of Darfur's disinterest in the peacekeeping council, which it perceives as a coalition force. Dinesen and Bertram said after the screening that they hope to set up a film festival dedicated to the Darfur situation in New York next spring.
It might be a stretch, but they could certainly bring along the marvelous animated short that preceded the film at its Woodstock premiere. "Only Love," directed by School of Visual Arts student Lev Polyakov, uses a delightful 2-D visual approach to tell the darkly humorous, virtually wordless account of a dictator combating the ghosts of his past misdeeds. Wielding a style reminiscent of Bill Plympton -- but packed with far richer metaphor -- Polyakov proves the ongoing versatility of the 2-D format and announces his arrival as a fresh talent in the animation scene.
Dictators weren't the only people in the crosshairs of Woodstock's socially relevant entries. "Blind Spot," an intellectually dense, but utterly gorgeous, look at mankind's dangerous obsession with fossil fuel, blames the whole world for its wastefulness. Although at times overbearingly verbose, Adolfo Doring's astute, thoughtful portrait has enough sweeping visuals to offset the barrage of scientific talking heads. In other words, it makes "An Inconvenient Truth" look like a sitcom.
Speaking of broadcast standards, the Woodstock world premiere "Gospel Hill" suffers from made-for-television conventions, but contains enough heart to at least meet that criteria and speak to its intended audience. First-time director Giancarlo Esposito (building on his extensive acting career) constructs an ensemble narrative about racial conflict in a small American town with a strong cast of familiar faces, including Danny Glover, Julia Stiles, and even Samuel L. Jackson, seen in flashback footage as a black activist who was mysteriously murdered twenty years earlier (Glover plays his beleaguered adult son).
Preachy and slow, the movie at times feels like sub-par John Sayles or less scandalous Tyler Perry, due to a series of unlikely plot twists and heavy-handed dramatic deliveries, but Esposito ekes out magnificent performances from his cast and occasional finds lyrical moments amid the chaos, which involves an attempt to level the town and make way for a golf course. Esposito captures the tragedy of gentrification in a single painful moment when a poor black resident with one leg falls down in the street and can't get back up. Should "Gospel Hill" impress the right people (it currently has a video deal with Fox and Esposito needs to raise $2 million to release the film in seventy theaters next year), the director shows the potential for stylistic growth.
One artist with enough ongoing versatility to build new audiences while maintaining many more from decades past spent the weekend in Woodstock pushing "Sunshine Superman: The Journey of Donovan," a detailed portrait of the legendary '60s pop icon directed by Hannes Rossacher. While not a trenchant expose on sixties counterculture -- who needs another one of those, anyway? -- the movie chugs along at a swift pace thanks to the survivability of Donovan's jumpy rock rhythms and his abilities as a natural storyteller. In the film, and throughout several speaking engagements at Woodstock, Donovan transformed into a fantastic guide to his own life. Rossacher shows Donovan speaking directly into the camera about the musician's early love for beat literature, the unfair accusation that his work ripped off Bob Dylan, and other great anecdotal details. The 120 minute running time makes the film somewhat inaccessible to those with little interest in the music, but clearly the filmmakers don't care, since a DVD of the 180 minute cut was for sale in the lobby following the premiere.
With far less lofty ambitions, the quaint Irish coming-of-age drama "32 A" possesses a sweetness to it rarely seen in modern youth dramas. Suggesting the "The 400 Blows" meets "Freaks and Geeks" with thirteen year old girls, the movie follows a troubled young woman named Maeve whose awkward growing phase leads her to date an older teenager and become estranged from her formerly devout clique. Marian Quinn, making her directorial debut, shows a flair for bittersweet teenage romance and burgeoning friendships with a refreshingly sincere approach. She plans to self-release the film in Ireland, but it could certainly survive in American theaters as a welcome reprimand to the male-dominated Apatow Universe.
While by no means a breakthrough accomplishment, the distribution possibilities of "32 A" demonstrate a truism about festivals set forth by James Schamus during a panel discussion on Friday. "The festivals maintain film culture," he said. "They form a kind curatorial class that does manage to break out a few movies a year." If the momentum keeps going through the end of its first decade, Woodstock will surely keep that traditional alive.
The full list of the 9th Woodstock Film Festival awards (with descriptions provided by the festival).
Best Feature Narrative: "Prince of Broadway" is the story of Lucky and Levon, two men whose lives converge in the underbelly of New York's wholesale fashion district. Set in the shadow of the Flatiron building and soaked in the colorful bustle of Broadway, the film is as much a brutal drama as it is a tender comedy. Shot in a fast-paced guerilla style that is akin to the hustler lifestyle, the film reveals the lives of immigrants in America seeking the ideals of family of love, while creating their own knock-off of the American Dream. (WFF East Coast Premiere).
Best Feature Documentary: "In a Dream," quickly turns from a character study to an incredible personal, powerful and stirring drama. It is an unparalleled visceral and emotional experience. Shot over the course of several years, Zagar's film is the kind of brutally honest and often beautiful look at the tumultuous time in his parent's marriage that only a son could have captured.
Best Short Narrative went to "Glory at Sea," directed by Benh Zeitlin.
Best Student Short Film went to "Sikumi" (On the Ice), directed by Andrew Okpeaha Maclean.
Best Short Documentary went to "Pickin' and Trimmin'" directed by Matt Morris.
The Maverick Award for Best Animated Film went to "Berni's Doll" directed by Yann J (Jouette).
Best Cinematography went to "At the Edge of the World," directed by Dan Stone and shot by Daniel Fernandez, Tim Gorski, Simeon Houtman, James Joyner, Jonathan Kane, Mathieu Mauvernay, and John "Rip" Odebralski.
Best Editing of a Feature Documentary went to "In a Dream" Keiko Deguchi and Jeremiah Zagar, Editors.
Best Editing of a Feature Narrative went to "Were the World Mine," Jennifer Lilly, Editor.
The Honorary Lifetime Achievement Award was presented to cinematographer Haskell Wexler, by writer/director/actor John Sayles, producer Maggie Renzi, and actor David Strathairn (award previously announced).
The Honorary Maverick Award was presented to director/screenwriter/actor/editor/comic book writer, Kevin Smith, by producer John Sloss (award previously announced).
The Honorary Trailblazer was presented to James Shamus, CEO of Focus Features and award winning writer/producer, by director Ang Lee and actor Melissa Lee (award previously announced).