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November 21, 2000 2:00 AM
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FESTIVALS: 9th St Louis, Slimmed-down and Fighting-fit; "Maryam" Emerges

FESTIVALS: 9th St Louis, Slimmed-down and Fighting-fit; "Maryam" Emerges

by Rich Cline



(indieWIRE/ 11.21.00) --After bit of organizational restructuring, the new staff of the 9th St. Louis International Film Festival (Nov. 2-12) put on a smaller, tighter event this year. Having fewer films (60 as opposed to last year's 100) meant the organizers were able to more finely focus the film selection in venues that were closer together; the two central movie palaces this year were better positioned to create a festival spirit than the suburban multiplexes of 1999. Otherwise, the festival boasted its usual creative programming and a warm atmosphere that makes it a favorite for filmmakers.


"This is the best festival I've attended," said "Maryam" director Ramin Serry -- before he won the New Filmmakers Forum's Emerging Filmmaker Award. "It's through festivals like this that the word is getting out about films like mine. And the buzz is growing." "Maryam" is a startlingly well-made first feature about an Iranian teenager facing prejudice in New Jersey during the 1979 Teheran hostage crisis. It fought off strong competition from the other shortlisted films (Scott Smith's vivid teen drama "Rollercoaster," Mari Kornhauser's agoraphobia thriller "Housebound," Clay Eide's North Dakota noir "Dead Dogs" and Stephen Reynolds' quirky family drama "The Divine Ryans") to win the award.


Audiences had a lot to choose from. The most heavily booked screenings were, surprisingly, two documentaries: the Hughes Brothers' "American Pimp" had never screened locally. Neither had "The Lifestyle," David Schisgall's look into the life of middle-aged swingers that carries the tagline "Group Sex in the Suburbs." As festival programmer Chris Clark said while introducing the film and director before the screening: "Watching this film is like watching a train wreck. You don't want to see anything, but you can't take your eyes off it." Indeed, the film was compulsive (and often repulsive) viewing. By popular demand, extra screenings were added for both films.


Some American indies on offer were a bit uneven. Tim Disney's monastery drama "Blessed Art Thou" (aka "A Question of Faith") never quite springs to life. Stephen Kane's marital thriller "The Doghouse" descends into a slasher film. And Lane Janger's sexuality comedy "Just One Time" is amiable but ultimately unsubstantial. On the other hand, "We Married Margo," JD Shapiro's frenetic faux documentary comedy, is remarkably good fun.


The vast selection of foreign gems ranged from South Africa's "Kin" to Japan's "The Frame," from Turkey's "Journey to the Sun" to Australia's "Looking for Alibrandi, Envy and Passion." There were also a few offbeat hybrids like British director Ken Loach's "Bread and Roses," about Mexican immigrants in L.A., as well as the festival's opener, the world premiere of Zheng Xiaolong's "Gua Sha: The Treatment," a drama about Chinese immigrants in St. Louis. Both are fascinating films, although neither is quite sure who it's audience is meant to be -- and as a result will probably never play successfully away from home, wherever that may be.


More high-profile productions also drew strong audiences. Two behind-the-scenes filmmaking comedies -- Elias Merhige's "Shadow of the Vampire" (written by St. Louis' own Steven Katz) and David Mamet's "State and Main" -- will both get well-deserved general releases and (perhaps) Oscar nods. Meanwhile two in-your-face comedies may struggle. Tamra Davis' "Skipped Parts" features yet another heavily mannered performance from Jennifer Jason Leigh, as well as a strange cameo from Drew Barrymore. Del Shores' "Sordid Lives" is surprisingly deep and thought-provoking for such a raucous celebration of white trash vulgarity. It deserves to get out there merely for the fantastic performances by Bonnie Bedelia, Delta Burke and Beth Grant. St. Louis, at least, loved the film, not to mention Shores' post-film Q&A with producer Sharyn Lane, which was an uproarious comedy routine all its own.


Then there was music video pioneer and New York restaurateur Bob Giraldi, who brought his directorial debut "Dinner Rush," starring Danny Aiello, Summer Phoenix and Sandra Bernhard. Before the screening he seemed both anxious and curious to find out how it would play in Middle America. Well, now he knows: The twisty comedy scooped up the Audience Choice Award. But the vote was nearly too close to call (echoing another election that took place during the same week), as Maggie Greenwald's period drama "Songcatcher" came in second by less than two ten-thousandths of a point.


In a very strong field, the Documentary Award went to "Sound and Fury," directed by St. Louis native Josh Aronson, while the Interfaith Award was given to another doc, "Long Night's Journey Into Day," Frances Reid and Deborah Hoffman's stunning look at reconciliation in the wake of Apartheid. "Dolphins," by German director Farhad Yawari, won the Short Film Award; at 40 minutes it was the second longest of the 32 shorts shown.


But the films are only part of the story in St. Louis, which prides itself on creating a warm party atmosphere for its guests. Unlike most festivals, filmmakers and distributors mingle socially with journalists, jury members and festival staff. Everyone attends screenings together, cheering each other on and then going out afterwards to celebrate. The partying started slowly this year, but by the second weekend there was some serious bonding going on, leading to a 20-strong impromptu bowling extravaganza late Saturday night at which hitherto unknown talents were discovered.


"St. Louis was a great festival and a great time," said writer-director-bowling ace Kornhauser. "It's rare that a group of people who just met can get along so well. It was a very special time and I know, from the filmmaker POV, it made all the difference to us in terms of appreciation of our films and emotional support."


[Rich Cline is a film critic for BBC Radio in London and writes for Britain's first film ezine Shadows on the Wall; he served as a jury member at the St Louis International Film Festival's New Filmmakers Forum in both 1999 and 2000.]

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