FESTIVAL: Despite the Pampered New Digs; AFI Fest Offers Hope for L.A.'s Cinephilic Complacency
by Tommy Nguyen
(indieWIRE: 11.21.02) -- In Angela Christlieb and Stephen Kijak's "Cinemania," one of the more popular documentaries screened at AFI Fest 2002 (November 7-17) and an obvious point of departure for any discussion on movie-going love, five out-of-control film buffs make their way through New York City's "cinema ecosystem." In addition to eating certain diets that increase the chance for constipation (bowel movements can annoyingly interrupt film viewing) and giving up on sexual contact because it will "never live up to its cinematic models," each day these mildly obsessed kooks have to rely on their own homemade, startlingly comprehensive program schedules, which also calculate the amount of subway time between Walter Reade and MoMA, Film Forum and AMMI, BAM and the Gramercy Theater and so on.
Judging from the good looks of AFI Fest's record-breaking crowds -- which confirmed "City of God," the audience award winner for features and Brazil's official Academy Award entry, as the hottest ticket of the festival-circuit year -- the kind of film buffs you get in Los Angeles eat very healthy diets (Amanda Plummer looked stunning in person) and probably get plenty of sex (Penelope Cruz was also spotted). And, thanks to Hollywood's ArcLight Cinemas, the grand new home of Los Angeles' longest running festival, festival-goers no longer have to make their own program schedules and scuttle between the Egyptian, the DGA, the Vogue, and beyond. Except for a half-dozen Michael Caine films screened at the Skirball Center as part of the actor's retrospective and tribute, audiences found everything -- from Germany's modest winner in the shorts film category, "Dr. Cuddle," to the Cinemascope grandeur of India's "Samsara" -- under one roof. (Or, perhaps, two roofs, if you were fortunate enough to get a ticket to the U.S. premieres of Denzel Washington's "The Antwone Fischer Story," Atom Egoyan's "Ararat," or the closing-night gala of Pedro Almodovar's "Talk To Her," all of which took place at the historic and ArcLight-acquired Cinerama Dome.)
"We love it here," says festival programmer Shaz Bennet. "We never expected this many people, but it just goes to show that people in L.A. just like to be pampered. It's easy to park, you can get a drink in the lobby, and then walk a few steps to your movie."
Who knows what effects convenience and booze will have on cineaste culture in Los Angeles, but the discussion can be avoided for now, since the jury prize in the documentary competition didn't go to "Cinemania" but to "A Wedding in Ramallah," a beautifully intimate, impossibly joyous film about an arranged Palestinian marriage in the now-notorious West Bank city.
Though she only shot 50 hours of MiniDV footage between September 2000 and May 2001, director Sherine Salama, a strikingly articulate Arab-Australian journalist making her feature documentary debut, enters each neighborhood, living room, and mundane squabble and dream as though she's been living in Ramallah all her life, finding an irrepressible vitality in a landscape rubble of the wounded. "I really wanted to make a film about the impact of occupation, which I haven't really seen before," says Salama, who first became connected with the region when she trained Palestinian journalists in 1996. "Of course, things have moved so dramatically in the area since the last time we shot -- there are no more public celebrations like the one we see in the film."
"Ramallah" was one of the films that benefited from a front-page timeliness associated with the current Middle East conflict; others included Elia Suleiman's "Divine Intervention," a determinedly experimental and somewhat comical journey through Israeli-Palestinian co-habitation, and Ghazi Albuliwi's $39,000-in-the-can "West Bank Brooklyn."
In fact, for audiences whose taste in films lies in political awareness or social consciousness, there was plenty to choose from. Phillip Noyce notwithstanding (his "Rabbit-Proof Fence" and "The Quiet American" made him the director of note for the festival's substance seekers), it was the documentary competition that stood out in this respect. Filmmaker Joan Sekler was practically mobbed by wide-eyed supporters after a screening of "Unprecedented," which powerfully delves into the 2000 presidential election scandal in Florida with an engaging (albeit partisan) pace of facts and emotions. Among other favorites were "Mozambique Where Film Goes," about a group of activists using their roving film festival as subterfuge for spreading information on AIDS prevention, and the audience award-winner "The Smith Family," which centers on a Mormon family's recognition of its homosexual husbands, fathers, and lifelong members.
Overall, the documentary competition was excellent this year; less impressive was the international feature competition, which had its share of dated, Greg Araki-like whimsies ("Snakeskin") and shockingly lame musicals deaf of any conceivable tone ("Hypnotized and Hysterical"). At least the winner of the category was a bold choice: "Shoujyo: An Adolescent," the directorial debut of one of Japan's most popular contemporary actors, Eiji Okuda.
"The way I want to make films is to maintain the best parts of traditional Japanese filmmaking, but conveying them in a newer way, rather than using the style of the great European directors," says Okuda through a translator. "(In light) of this award, I would love to find a U.S. distributor who will work with us, but I know it will be very difficult."
Finding a U.S. distributor for such a sexually-candid movie -- about a middle-aged cop's tumultuous but ultimately earnest romance with a 15-year-old girl -- will be very difficult, and the fact that the film didn't do particularly well in Japan doesn't help. Even festival director Christian Gaines thinks the film's American future is anyone's guess, though it should be said that finding distributors isn't the most pressing goal of the festival. "What we really try to be is a complete and thorough festival for international film," says Gaines. "We feel that in order to make better films at home, it's more important to look at our counterparts abroad, especially now in this crazy mixed world we live in." (The French, of course, are reportedly gaga over the film, which will open in Paris in March.)
A win for a film like "Shoujyo" should be seen as a reflection of AFI Fest's maturing film-going community. The rest of the American movie-going audiences, and the domestic distributors who want their business, will have to decide if they want to catch up. "Our confidence in an alternative audience in Los Angeles, and alternative exhibition in Los Angeles, has never bee stronger," says Gaines. "The way all of this will manifest next year is more films, more screenings. It's growing tremendously."