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March 13, 2001 2:00 AM
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FESTIVALS: 11th Cinequest Makes Digital Official; Leacock and Spike Lee Tell It Like It Is

FESTIVALS: : 11th Cinequest Makes Digital Official; Leacock and Spike Lee Tell It Like It Is


by Cynthia Gentry



(indieWIRE/ 03.13.01) -- The old saying, "When it rains, it pours" took on both literal and emotional meaning at the 11th annual Cinequest San Jose Film Festival (Feb. 22-March 4). More than 47,000 film fans -- a 17% increase over last year's attendance -- braved sometimes-torrential downpours to pack festival events. In fact, Cinequest officials reported that more than half of Cinequest's screenings and panels were sold out.


It's probably no surprise, then, that The Ultimate Film Festival Survival Guide named Cinequest one of the world's top 10 film festivals. "Cinequest's board and staff are very honored by this recognition, especially since Cinequest is only a decade old," said Halfdan Hussey, Cinequest's executive director. "It feels great to know that Cinequest's commitment to serving filmmakers and film lovers is having such a strong impact."


With help from the San Francisco Chronicle, Cinequest expanded geographically as well with the addition of film screenings at Landmark's Aquarius Theater in downtown Palo Alto.


Thornton A No-Show for Tribute Event


Cinequest bestowed its Maverick Spirit Award on filmmakers Richard Leacock, Spike Lee, Ron Shelton and Billy Bob Thornton, who joined a recipient list that includes Alec Baldwin, Gabriel Byrne, Jackie Chan, Rod Steiger, Kevin Spacey, John Waters, Peter Fonda and Jennifer Jason Leigh.


Thornton dealt the festival's opening weekend a slight setback when he cancelled his appearance at the last minute, citing a personal emergency. Cinequest officials toggled quickly, offering ticket holders passes to other festival films and panels. Perhaps conditioned by the vagaries of the local dot-com economy, most of the 900 fans took Thornton's no-show in stride, and the rest of the festival ran smoothly.


The other Maverick Spirit Award recipients more than made up for Thornton's absence. On March 2, Spike Lee mesmerized a standing-room-only audience of 1,100 at the Fairmont Hotel during "A Conversation with Spike Lee," moderated by Rudy Langlais (producer of "The Hurricane"). Addressing issues ranging from Quentin Tarantino's gratuitous use of racial epithets to the stereotype of the "mystical magical Negro" who appears in such films as "The Green Mile" and "The Legend of Bagger Vance," Lee kept the house in stitches. Referring to the character of Bagger Vance, Lee commented, "They were hanging 'em high in Georgia then. If Bagger Vance really did have magical powers, wouldn't he help out his brothers? Do you really think his number-one concern would be helping Matt Damon with his golf swing?"


The following afternoon, Lee introduced an afternoon screening of his powerful 1997 documentary "4 Little Girls" at the AMC Saratoga Theaters. The film so moved the crowd that when Lee was late returning to a post-film Q&A, audience members held an impromptu discussion of racial issues until the director arrived. Lee returned to the AMC later that evening for a sold-out evening showing of his "Bamboozled."


Inaugural DXD Event A Hit


As befits a festival located in Silicon Valley, Cinequest has always highlighted the latest high-tech developments in cinema. This year, Cinequest expanded its traditional technological focus even further. The inaugural year of Cinequest DXD (Digital by Digital) got off to a stellar beginning when Macy Gray -- who had won a Grammy Award just days before -- headlined the Applied Materials DXD Launch Party on February 23. More than 650 excited patrons packed the Usual nightclub in San Jose to hear Gray perform electrifying renditions of songs like her hit "I Try."


Gray's soul-influenced performance may have harkened back to the '60s and '70s, but another DXD participant looked back even farther. Renowned cinematographer-director-producer Richard Leacock led audiences through a retrospective of a 66-year career that began in 1935 with an 8 mm silent short called "Canary Bananas," made at age 13. The unfailingly energetic 79-year-old took a look at the history of film technology in the process, gushing with enthusiasm over digital cinematography. "I sold my 16mm camera five years ago and went totally digital," avowed the director, who screened his all-digital "A Musical Adventure in Siberia" the next day.


Meanwhile, Panasonic and Sony Electronics converted theaters into state-of-the-art digital projection and sound cinemas for the presentation of an eclectic slate of digital feature-length films.


Shot in vivid colors on the latest 24p high-definition camera, "Nicolas" from writer-director Pete Shaner showcased the potential of the technology. Shaner's attention to set design, lighting and costume helped his cause. "It was one of the finer productions I saw at the festival," said one audience member, although Shaner apologized for the film quality in a post-screening Q&A. Also shot on high-definition 24P, Robert Emery's "Swimming Upstream" was a touching coming-of-age story.


"The Bingo Robbers," a screwball comedy shot by Canadians Lois Brown and Barry Newhook on digital Beta, told the energetic and offbeat story of two petty thieves who decide to rob the 24-Hour All-Night Bingo Extravaganza. Audiences also responded enthusiastically to Matt Gavin's digital video entry "Fat Chance," which offered a quirky role-reversal war of the sexes with Seinfeld-esque situations.


Many of the digital films were shot on digital video and then transferred to 35mm. The gripping "Gang Tapes," by Adam Ripp, presented a brutal fictional video diary of a wannabe gang member. With its striking black and white images, Belgian filmmaker Harry Cleven's "Why Get Married The Day The World Ends" was an offbeat psychological thriller. And Jean-Marc Barr's "Lovers" the first Dogme 95 film to be shot in France, seemed nonetheless standard fare. Barr's other entry (with co-director/screenwriter Pascal Arnold), "Too Much Flesh," purported to be a study of sexual freedom in a Puritanical town, but left audiences unmoved.


Cinequest DXD panels offered something for everyone, from techno-filmmakers to home theater enthusiasts. A panel led by Sony's Larry Thorpe, a perennial Cinequest favorite, wowed audiences with eye-popping digital film clips ranging from miniDV to stunning footage shot by panelist Allen Daviau with a progressive scan high-definition digital camera at 24 fps. Panasonic showcased the latest modes of digital projection, including special home screens and portable devices. The company also gave a nod to budget-conscious indie filmmakers with its demonstration of recent developments in variable frame rate/resolution progressive scan cameras, as well as advancements in non-linear editing and digital HD cinema and multimedia program production. An Apple Computer-sponsored session on leading-edge post-production technology rounded out Cinequest DXD.


Black Filmmaker Panels


But Cinequest isn't just for techies. Cinequest 11 also launched the "Black Maverick Filmmaker Showcase," culminating in a packed panel discussion entitled "Have Things Changed? Black Portrayals in the Media." Former San Francisco 49er and "Any Given Sunday" screenwriter Jamie Williams took over moderating duties from civil rights activist Angela Davis, who had to bow out due to illness. Panelists Elayne Fluker (Essence magazine), Angela Northingon (Urban Entertainment), Rudy Langlais and comedian Doug E. Doug ("The Cosby Show") fielded questions from an occasionally contentious audience. "We've got to start thinking outside the box," said Northington, "and look at alternative forms of distribution. The digital age has opened up a lot of new opportunities." Doug also screened his comic first feature, "Citizen James," during the festival.


Closing Night


Cannes Critic's Prize Winner and Academy Award Nominee "Amores Perros" closed the festival on March 4, playing to sell-out crowds at two theaters. Filmgoers flocked to the Closing Night party at A.P. Stump's restaurant, where Cinequest President Kathleen J. Powell and Programming Director Mike Rabehl announced the winners of this year's Maverick Competition, chosen by dramatic feature jurists Christopher Coppola, Nick Redman, Marla Miller and documentary/shorts jurists Robert Miller and Bernardo Gigliotti. In addition to previously announced prize winners, Mia Trachinger's "Bunny," German writer-director Oskar Roehler's "No Place to Go," Tom Zuber's debut "Landsown," Todd Robinson's "Amargosa," and Indian director Jagmohan's "Sandstorm," and Korean director Yu Young-Sik's "The Anarchists," described as "Goodfellas" in 1924 Shanghai, an Audience Choice Honorable Mention Award went to "Maze," the directorial debut of Rob Morrow that also starred Laura Linney.


Cinequest audiences flock to the festival's shorts programs, and with entries like "Shit--The Movie," this year's slate was nothing if not eclectic. Best Dramatic Short Film Award went to "Clothesline Patch," a coming-of-age tale from Canada, while Jacques Thelemaque's "Egg" took the Best Comedic Short Film Award. "The Adventures of Barry Ween," by Sharone Katz Jelden and Gregory Noveck, won Best Animated Short Film. Greg Marcks' "Elmina" took Best Narrative Student Short Film honors, and Chris Harris' "Family Portrait" won the Best Animated Student Short Film award.


Exhilarated festival staff and hungry festival-goers swamped several sumptuous buffet tables that groaned under plates of seared ahi, grilled lamb chops and other delicacies. With the wine flowing from festival sponsor J.Lohr, the mood was celebratory, and there seemed no reason not to expect an even bigger and better festival in 2001. One thing's for sure: Cinequest knows how to party.


Additional reporting by Anne Gelhaus.


[Cynthia Gentry is a screenwriter and published fiction writer whose work has appeared in Reed Magazine and The Montserrat Review (www.themontserratreview.com). She is currently at work on a novel, "Catherine Saunders: Her Super-Fabulous Life and Times."]

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