by Jason Guerrasio
It begins with whispers while waiting at the airport. Casino. Lazy river. Rock climbing. Water slides. White sand beaches. They are all intriguing when you're in thirtysomething degree weather, but you really don't know the attractiveness of those amenities until you attend the Bahamas International Film Festival (BIFF) and try to weigh them against going to see movies during the day.
In some cases the decision is made for you. If the shuttle doesn't show up at the Atlantis resort when it's scheduled to (which often happens) you head back to the beach feeling some guilt but knowing you'll see many attendees there.
In its fifth year BIFF (Dec. 4-11) has become known as a working vacation. With minuscule attendance at screenings but big name sponsors on board like Versace, Chopard and the Atlantis (which some of us in the press dubbed "Disney McVegas"), filmmakers don't mind that no one comes to their screenings because hey, let's face it, how often will they be able to lounge poolside in the Caribbean during the afternoon and watch a Versace fashion show in the evening?
Along with programming a mixture of films that have already been released in the States, like Austin Chick's "August," Stephen Higgins's "The Matador" and closing night film Spike Lee's "Miracle at St. Anna," with soon-to-be released titles like Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden's "Sugar," BIFF has a healthy dose of what's been on the festival circuit throughout the year as well as conducting informative poolside panels with top industryites (this year included lawyer and BIFF Advisory Committee member Steven Beer, Variety's Steven Gaydos, "Sugar"'s Fleck and Boden and actress Lisa Gay Hamilton to name a few).
The fest also uses its heavenly locale to nab impressive talent for their award ceremonies (this year Laurence Fishburne received their Career Achievement Tribute and Anna Faris was given the Rising Star Tribute) and hold glitzy parties at night. Two that stood out this year were the chic Chopard/Versace Opening Night Party at the stunning One & Only Ocean Club that included a fashion show with models flown in from Italy and ending with a fireworks show, followed days later by an intimate dinner after the Fishburne tribute at the historic Graycliff Hotel and Restaurant, that not only served a delicious meal but hand rolled cigars to close the evening.
Besides its more dapper qualities, BIFF plays a crucial part in expanding the arts in the Bahamas. The opening night film "Rain," directed by Bahamian filmmaker Maria Govan, saw the local arts community out in full support. By far the largest audience turnout of the fest, Govan, who premiered the film at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this year, became emotional as she introduced the film, thinking back on the financial support she got from those on the island as well as from BIFF, as the script was in its Residency Program. The film stars CCH Pounder and an impressive debut by local teen actress Renel Brown. Shot entirely in Nassau, it's a coming-of-age story that follows Rain (Brown) as she heads to Nassau after the death of her grandmother to find her estranged mother.
There's also hometown wunderkind 28-year-old Kareem Mortimer's film "I'm Not A Dummy" which marked his fourth time premiering a film at BIFF. Programmed in the Caribbean Spotlight section, Mortimer's intimate 60 minute doc chronicles the life of Bahamian Michael Wells, who was born with cerebral palsy, as he overcomes enormous odds to learn how to read and type on the computer which has lead to him making a series of short stories and producing a newspaper that caters to disabled people. Mortimer, who is now working on a narrative feature, says BIFF has given him opportunities for a career in film that would never have been possible if it wasn't created. "There weren't any indigenous filmmakers before this festival," he says. "Now there are around eight and there will be more now because this festival allows Bahamians to see that there are other films out there and other stories that can be told outside of the Hollywood blockbusters."
From left: Producer of "Gone Fishing" Ivan Clements, director of "Gone Fishing" Chris Jones, producer of "Rain" Pamela Kohn, lawyer Steven Beer and Moving Pictures Magazine editor-in-chief Elliot Kotek at a film financing panel.. Photo by Jason Guerrasio.
However, BIFF founder and executive director Leslie Vanderpool is aware that though the fest has come a long way at the five year mark, there's still much work to be done, one being the low attendance numbers. "It's been hard," she admits. "We moved the screenings from the theater in the Atlantis resort to the Galleria Cinemas in Nassau this year so it would be more inviting to the locals, we just have to continue to put the word out." When talking to filmmakers it wasn't the lack of attendance at their screenings that bothered them. Their frustration was the shuttles which never went by the schedule leaving most to wait for sometimes up to an hour to get picked up or take a cab (which for a broke filmmaker staying at the Atlantis where a hamburger is $10 isn't the best option). "Shuttlegate" even affected the jury members as one who took a cab to a screening was brought to the wrong movie theater; unbeknownst to the juror there are two Galleria Cinemas in Nassau. Numerous people close to the festival blame the casual Caribbean attitude as being the reason for the lax shuttle service.
The trek to the theater was worth it. Screening in the Spirit of Freedom Documentary section, "Darfur: War for Water" is an insightful doc that takes an inside look at Tomo Kriznar's journey as the Slovenian special emissary in Darfur. Though at times repetitive of the other Darfur docs that have been released, Kriznar, who also directed the film, shoots handheld footage of his travels and the people he meets while shedding light on one of the major yet under publicized reasons for the war: the battle over drinking water. There was also Eva Sorhaug's "Cold Lunch," which won the New Vision Award. The Norwegian film which has played at Venice, Toronto and London fests, has a distinct visual style and episodic story arc that matched with strong performances from the ensemble cast made for a solid debut feature by Sorhaug.
U.K. filmmaker Chris Jones, who won the Best Short award for his film "Gone Fishing" and learned at the festival that his film made the Oscar shortlist, puts the festival in perspective: "Coming here was partly to showcase my film but mainly to meet new people," he says. "Meet people in the industry, especially from New York and L.A. that I never get a chance to. You can't really complain when you're networking at a place like this."
Bahamas International Film Festival winners:
The New Vision Award: "Cold Lunch" (Norway, 2008), directed by Eva Sorhaug.
**Jury Special Mention: "Jay" (Philippines, 2008), directed by Xavier Pasion.
The Spirit of Freedom Narrative Award: "Lion's Den" (Argentina/Brazil, 2008), directed by Pablo Trapero.
The Spirit of Freedom Documentary Award: "Youssou Ndour: I Bring What I Love" (USA, 2008), by director/producer/star Chai Vasarhelyi.
**Jury Special Mention: "War Child" (Germany 2008), directed by C. Karim Chrobog.
The Award for Best Short Film: "Gone Fishing" (UK, 2008), directed by Chris Jones.
BIFF Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature: "Rain" (Bahamas, 2008), directed by Maria Govan.
BIFF Audience Award for Best Documentary: "Youssou Ndour: I Bring What I Love" (USA, 2008), by director/producer/star Chai Vasarhelyi.