FESTIVAL: Hamptons with a Conscience, "Pollock," Middle East and Teen Burnout
by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE
(indieWIRE/10.24.00) --Idyllic nearly to a fault, the Hamptons conjures up impressions of long sandy beaches bordered by tall grass and the homes of the beautiful people. Not entirely untrue. Naturally serene and perfectly quaint, this area near the end of Long Island is certainly the East Coast's Malibu (or vice versa) with an obvious colonial past, but enriched with tony boutiques and elegant eateries. The village of East Hampton, sight of the eighth annual Hamptons International Film Festival, is a true gem, a perfect place to lure well-heeled cineastes.
And appropriately, the Festival had some big films that satisfied those attending. The Spotlight Films section included the East Coast Premiere of Bob Giraldi's "Dinner Rush," a father-son drama centered in a TriBeCa eatery, as well as E. Elias Merhige's "Shadow of the Vampire" about the making of the 1920s German Expressionist film, "Nosferatu." Most appropriately for this Festival, however, was Ed Harris' "Pollock," based on the book "Jackson Pollock: An American Saga" by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. Often considered America's first superstar artist, abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock evolved his famous drip in East Hampton where his life ended in tragedy. Strolling through East Hampton, however, tragedy seems like an abstract concept, especially with the unseasonably warm weather and vibrant reds and yellows in the trees lining the village streets.
Yet the Co-Directors of Programming for the Hamptons Film Festival, Lynda Hansen and Linda Blackaby, debuted a new program series this year entitled "Films of Conflict and Resolution" -- hauntingly appropriate as horrifying events unfolded on the first full day of the Festival thousands of miles away in the Middle East.
Quickly permeating the usual chatter about film was the degenerating situation in Israel, the West Bank and Yemen, creating a chilly mood among many fest-goers. Israeli director Ilan Yagoda's "Rain 1949" and the accompanying short, "The Jahalin" by Talya Ezrahi, focused attention on the crisis by telling personal stories. Following the onslaught of heavy rains in 1949 (hence the title of Yagoda's film), refugees from the Holocaust founded Kibbutz Megido in Palestine, as Arabs in the village of Lajun, which occupies the same territory, were consequently displaced. Director Yagoda experienced the division of the two groups first-hand; he grew up on the Kibbutz and returned to document its history.
"The Jahalin" uses a decidedly partisan approach to tell the story of a tribe of traditionally nomadic Palestinians known as the Bedouin who lack legal documentation to any land and find themselves facing exile -- and consequently an end to their way of life -- to make room for further Israeli settlements. Very passionate and emotional, the short elicited heavy reaction from some audience members. One woman in particular seemed determined to engage the Israeli filmmaker in debate, while a few others politely criticized her unabashed pro-Palestinian viewpoint. For her part, Ezrahi commented in an interview with indieWIRE editor-in-chief, Eugene Hernandez, "I do not think films can change someone's opinions. That should be a goal. [However,] in the Israeli/Palestinian context, I think it is difficult to achieve that." She continued to say that a film such as hers is not so much about attempting to change views, as it is an attempt to come to terms with her own.
Other films screened in "Conflict and Resolution" were the '70s set "Vulcan Junction" by Eran Riklis about four counter culture youth in a rock band waiting their big break on the heels of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and "Happy Birthday, Mr. Mograbi" by Avi Mograbi which, along with Najwa Najjar's "Naim and Wadee'a," won the Festival's Films of Conflict and Resolution Award, sharing a $25,000 prize.
Screening as part of the Festival's World Cinema series, "Marshall Tito's Spirit," from Croatian filmmaker Vinko Bresan (Best Director, Karlovy Vary Film Festival), also had a beguiling relevance when considering the recent events in Yugoslavia. Yet the film takes a clever ironic commentary on the demise of Yugoslavia when a fictional village on an Adriatic island capitalizes on the appearance of the ghost of Yugoslav communist dictator Marshall Tito. Also appearing in World Cinema was Hans Petter Moland's clever "Aberdeen." The Norwegian/UK co-production, winner of the audience award for best narrative film, uses a decidedly unique approach to the unsavory results of alcoholism, made chillingly real through the vibrant performances of Stellan Skarsgard who portrays the dismissive alcoholic father of Kaisa, played by the beautiful Lena Headey.
Some interesting programs organized by the Festival included panels on Conflict and Resolution, as well as informal Q&As. Aiden Quinn sat down to an informal session moderated by indieWIRE's Eugene Hernandez. Quinn stars in Maggie Greenwald's "Songcatcher," which opened the Festival. One particularly memorable moment of the Q&A was Aiden's response to a question about whether he liked working for "indie" film companies or studios to which he shot back, "We're all working for the same corporation."
One defiantly indie production is Dani Minnick's "Falling Like This." Already lauded with a seal of approval by Cameron Crowe (who used actors from the film as extras in "Almost Famous"), Dani Minnick's "Falling Like This" more than earned its Golden Starfish feature film prize at the Hamptons. The film should go on to garner similar acclaim as past teen classics like "Over the Edge," "Rivers Edge" and "Kids," though its bare-bones production values might hurt its chance at finding the distribution it deserves. Shot in cinema verite style on digital video, peppered with Ani DiFranco songs and blessed with the most natural, down-to-earth cast of young actors in memory, this unsuspecting teen romance serves up kids as they are (or at least as they were in the bleaker suburbs of the San Fernando Valley during the early '80s). Minnick understands the power of oil stains on the driveway and skidmarks on the heart -- this one's a burnout "Romeo & Juliet" for the ages.
The indie documentary "Keep the River On Your Right: A Modern Cannibal Tale" also garnered a decent amount of Festival buzz including the Golden Starfish documentary award. David and Laurie Gwen Shapiro's fascinating look at anthropologist/artist Tobias Schneebaum certainly counted as one of the most unique films in the selection. Alex Nohe's "Burning Man: The Burning Sensation" was not far behind, which documents the annual pyrotechnic art love-in that takes place in the Nevada desert. Amir Bar-Lev's "Fighter" also captured significant attention in East Hampton winning the Audience Award for documentary, following a special mention prize at Karlovy Vary. "Fighter" documents the remarkable lives of two Holocaust survivors Jan Wiener and Arnost Lustig, the former still wrestling with the ghosts of his tumultuous past, which also included persecution by the communist regime in post-war Czechoslovakia. The real story, however, unfolds in the emotionally charged relationship between the two men and the near destruction of that friendship as the past continues to haunt them both.
In all, the Hamptons International Film Festival counts as one of the more enjoyable festivals, which isn't hard to imagine considering the beautiful setting. That coupled with some rockin' parties and the penchant for festival-goers at this particular event to "party hard" made it especially fun. In fact, the several dozen or so who took part in a spontaneous late night beach debauch made the troubled sands of the Middle East seem so very very far away.
[Andy Bailey contributed to this article.]