FESTIVALS: From Chowder to Truth; Newport's Standouts Better Than Fiction
by Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE/ 06.12.02) -- Newport, R.I., is not exactly your cultural hotbed. Mansions, sailboats, colonial history, and a wide variety of fudge are its stock and trade. So a visit to the New England harbor town for the fifth edition of the Newport International Film Festival (which closed Sunday) would appear to be a welcome break from serious considerations about art and industry. And yet, in the midst of the Great Chowder Cook-Off, Clamdance 2002, and the festival's own live improv night courtesy of the Upright Citizens Brigade, imagine my surprise to find a selection of American documentaries that proves how solid, serious, and formidable the nonfiction format has become here in the western world.
In the festival's documentary competition, all 10 films came from North America (nine from the U.S. and one from Canada), compared with only four U.S. entries in the dramatic competition (Sherman Alexie's poetic "The Business of Fancydancing," Boston local Pamela Corkey's debut "Easy Listening," Brian Flemming's mockumentary "Nothing So Strange," and Will Keenan and Gadi Harel's ludicrous no-budget bore "Operation Midnight Climax.")
The documentary jury gave its top award to one of the best films in the fest, Lucia Small's wry and penetrating "My Father, the Genius," which focuses on the filmmaker's arrogant father -- a once celebrated, now struggling visionary architect who abandoned multiple wives and children to pursue his dreams of building a biomorphic biosphere. Personal and family-oriented documentaries were so prevalent this year (festival favorites "Uncle Frank," "Daddy and Papa," and "Mai's America") that a panel was devoted to the subject called "Color, Culture, Conflict: Complex Relationships of Parents and Children in Film."
The doc jury also gave an inaugural award for Humanitarian Cinema to Steven Silver's "The Last Just Man," a devastating portrait of Canadian General Romeo Dallaire, the UN peacekeeping commander who tried -- and failed -- to prevent the slaughtering of some 800,000 Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994. Dallaire's overwhelming pain, guilt, and desolation, captured in close up (a single tear falls slowly from the general's steadfast eyes) made "The Last Just Man" the most stunning viewing experience of the festival. Newport's maritime quaintness didn't quite look the same after that.
The jury also singled out Rebecca Cammissa and Rob Fruchtman's HBO doc "Sister Helen," a complex portrait of a feisty nun who runs a halfway house in the Bronx. Other standouts included Alexandra Pelosi's eye-opening, irreverent examination of the George W. Bush presidential campaign "Journeys with George" and Whitney Dow and Marco Williams' "Two Towns of Jasper," an insightful investigation into the dragging death of James Byrd in southeast Texas in 1998. A special music sidebar also showcased bass player tribute film "Rising Low," which shared the audience award with "Uncle Frank," and festival circuit hit "Breath Control: The History of the Human Beat Box."
Before every screening at Newport, festival organizers thanked sponsors with an almost religious fervor, and one of this year's inescapable names was HBO, the cable network notable for increasing the visibility and viability of nonfiction works. I rode into Newport with a representative from HBO, a few of the films will appear on HBO, and the first event I attended, DocuClub's In-The-Works, was sponsored by HBO.
A non-profit organization based in New York, DocuClub hosts documentary works-in-progress and invites professionals and non-professionals to comment on the rough drafts. For Newport's first DocuClub session (I hope it returns), the festival invited Harvard film professor Robb Moss's "The Same River Twice," a sensitive portrait of five former hippies now approaching middle age ("from peyote to Prozac," Moss jokes). Moss and editor Karen Schmeer (also in Newport with "My Father, the Genius") juxtapose 16mm footage that Moss shot in 1978 for a film called "Riverdogs" about he and his friends' communal (and often naked) experiences as river guides on the Colorado River with DV images shot 25 years later of their married-with-kids domestic lives. Moss described the experience as both a "treat," but also "scary as hell." And what could have devolved into a confused, critical free-for-all instead produced a stimulating discussion for filmmakers and participants alike.
"The documentaries were so strong," admitted Donahoe, regarding this year's program. She said organizers even considered expanding their slate to include more documentaries. One of the reasons for so much excellent work, Donahoe reasoned, was the proliferation of digital video, a format particularly suited to the intimacy and spontaneity of documenting real life (and not necessarily to the fabricated world of fiction films.) But the closing night offering, Gary Winick's DV feature "Tadpole," screening in its new Miramax-spruced up, color-corrected 35mm print, was highly popular with the Newport audience.
Other domestic fiction favorites at the festival included special screenings of Peter Care's "Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys" and Dylan Kidd's "Roger Dodger." But it was largely the foreign films that drew the most fans. Italy's comic drama about commitment, "The Last Kiss," sold out its two scheduled screenings and received an additional slot; the Inuit epic "The Fast Runner" won the audience award for dramatic film, and the foreign films in the competition swept the juried awards, with Iran's "Secret Ballot" taking the top prize and France's "Read My Lips" winning prizes for best director (Jacques Audiard) and best actress (Emmanuelle Devos).
Newport's panels were also meatier than expected. One called "Truth as Drama" (also sponsored by the ever-present HBO) got heated around a discussion of racism depicted in "Two Towns of Jasper." Another panel, "She Said, She Said," grouped five female producers to hash out the challenges of their job, from facing male prejudice in their crews to sustaining a career through motherhood to the obstacles fostering women directors. But it was IFC Production's Caroline Kaplan that left with the quotation of the afternoon: "I don't want to fuck her, so I don't want to cast her," Kaplan recounted hearing from male executives about casting an older actress.
That comment was about as dirty and bitter as things got in Newport. By all accounts, filmmakers traveled from hotels to screenings to parties satisfied with the mellow vibe and attentive audiences. The only exception was perhaps Friday night's party at Beacon Rock, a mansion overlooking Newport Harbor fashioned after the Greek Parthenon, complete with white columns and marble porches, where hungry filmmakers faced an hors d'oeuvres spread of Twinkies, Ding Dongs, and cheese puffs.