FESTIVAL: Scuba Meets Screenings; Warm Welcome for an Eclectic Group of Films in Bermuda
by Andrea Meyer
(indieWIRE/ 04.26.02) -- The most striking thing about the Bermuda International Film Festival is, of course, Bermuda. Stepping off a plane in the middle of April -- after a mere two hour flight from New York -- into balmy sunshine over an airport that's smack dab on the oceanfront feels like getting a preview of heaven. And you don't have to be a New Yorker who spends her life in front of a computer or a movie screen to appreciate it. Gilbert, the lively cab driver who drove me to my hotel one night after I'd sipped too many rum swizzles, informed me that Mark Twain once said, "If you never get to heaven and by chance you do get to Bermuda, at least you can say you've been halfway." I don't know if Gilbert got the quote right, but I do know that Bermuda is an amazing place to go watch movies for a week.
The Bermuda International Film Festival (BIFF), which ran from April 12 to18, takes place at the ideal time of year. The weather is warming up, with temperatures in the 70s, plus a cool breeze and a hovering cloud cover that sporadically sprinkles thankful sunbathers (and sometimes drenches and scares the shit out of beginning scuba divers like myself).
Festival Director Aideen Rattery Pryse is as conscious of the locale's allure as she is determined to make the films an equally strong attraction for international filmmakers, industry, and press. "Our goal is to continue to improve the film program and to have the festival become a destination that filmmakers seek out," she told me. "There's no doubt that Bermuda is a draw, so we try to bring as many filmmakers as possible to the island. We find that once they're here they think it's great and tell their friends about it."
The strategy seems to be working. Vicente Franco, co-director and director of photography of the widely screened documentary "Daughter from Danang," shouted his praise over late-night festivities at a bar called the Pickled Onion. "Most festivals don't provide excellent snorkeling and excellent scuba diving," he said. "But there's also excellent organization. And a filmmaker gets the experience of feeling that your film counts, whether you have a short, a documentary, or a feature. It doesn't get buried in an immensity of other films. There are a few technical problems, but who cares?"
In only five years, the ultra-organized and hospitable BIFF staff has created an event that runs remarkably smoothly and keeps locals and out-of-towners smiling, providing ample opportunity to rub shoulders with visiting filmmakers and celebrities (Martha Plimpton and Stephen Baldwin attended) and a tight program of 12 narrative features, six documentaries, and 24 shorts that, while uneven, included enough strong, interesting work to justify attention.
As a group, the strongest films were the documentaries. In Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco's "Daughter from Danang" (winner of the Sundance Grand Jury Prize for best documentary and a special jury award in Bermuda), Heidi, the daughter of a Vietnamese woman and an American soldier who was taken from her mother as a child and put up for adoption in the States, returns to Vietnam to meet her birth family. After setting us up for an inevitably heartwarming reunion, the film takes an unpredictable turn that forces the filmmakers, characters, and audience alike into astoundingly complex moral and psychological territory.
Equally compelling is Judith Helfand and Daniel B. Gold's "Blue Vinyl," also a Sundance award winner and recipient of the Bermuda award for best documentary, which co-producer Julia Parker described as "'Roger and Me' meets 'Erin Brockovich' meets Woody Allen." As funny as it is frightening, "Blue Vinyl" (airing on HBO May 5) uses the personal -- co-director Helfand's parents' decision to put vinyl siding on their Long Island home -- as the launch pad into a far-reaching quest for the toxic truth about this alarmingly ubiquitous product. The film ends up prying open an insidiously global can of worms that will not be easily contained. Less polished but very entertaining, Dennis O' Rourke's "Cunnamulla" introduces us to the eccentric inhabitants of this isolated Australian town at the end of a railroad line. This is a doc that confirms the old saying that truth is stranger than fiction.
While American indies were poorly represented (though I have a soft spot for Doug Finelli's crowd-pleasing romantic comedy, "Grownups," about two New Jersey couples who plot to swap spouses), BIFF's international selections provided pleasant surprises. South African director Stefanie Sycholt's "Malunde" is about an embittered war veteran who reluctantly hits the road with a homeless black 11-year-old. The film transcends cinematic clich