FESTIVALS: Hopeful Yet Cautionary; Hollywood A-List Talks Shop In Breezy Santa Barbara
by Fiona Ng
(indieWIRE/ 03.07.02) -- With its breezy sunshine, smog-free air and the ocean as its front lawn, the kick-back city of Santa Barbara, California gives the impression of being on perpetual vacation, seemingly unperturbed by the inconveniences of the everyday. As such, the location makes a pleasant enough anecdote to the bustle and hustle of Los Angeles, just 90 miles south. On the same token, the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, which was held Feb. 27 through March 3, can be thought of as something of an alternative to the Hollywood attitude, having fashioned itself after (or perhaps succumbed to) the casual leisureliness of the city in which it was spawned.
Still, the SBIFF has at least one eye on the industry. Now in its 17th year, the festival has worked hard to become a destination event, steadfastly lining up high-wattage, A-list Hollywood folks for marquee award events book interesting players to sit on its industry-minded symposia and digital seminars. This time, Sean Penn (modern master award, presented by Kevin Spacey), Anjelica Houston (A Salute to Anjelica Houston), and director Henry Jaglom (Spotlight on Directing) all received their due. Among the many panelists in the symposia and seminars were scribes Michael Sloane ("The Majestic"), Akiva Goldsman ("A Beautiful Mind") and "Memento" writer/director Chris Nolan, dropping both hopeful and cautionary tales on the machination of Hollywood.
Coming out of "It Starts With the Script" and "Directors on Directing" -- the festival's notable screenwriting and directing symposia -- one felt the vibe that working under the studio system is just a series of negotiations and maneuverings, a David and Goliath struggle to protect an original vision against studio whims. Jessie Nelson, who directed "I Am Sam," recounted how and why most studios refused to pick up the project with Sean Penn in the lead. "Ghost World" director Terry Zwigoff fumed over not getting his first choice for music saying, "99 percent of the things I wanted to use were nixed because of the clearance lawyers," while "In the Bedroom" director Todd Field sighed at the futility of "preview screenings."
While some were battle-weary, others admitted to being just plain lucky. "Monster's Ball" director Marc Forster confessed to having close to total autonomy under Lion's Gate, and "Gosford Park" scribe Julian Fellowes said he was never bothered by the studio, citing that "when Robert Altman wants to make a film, it gets made." When not raging back against the machine, the two panels talked extensively about the art of their craft. While Nolan's approach to writing "Memento" was "to try to get inside the character's head [and find ways to] withhold the same information from the audience that you withhold from the protagonist;" Ted Griffin, who penned "Ocean's 11," spent his time figuring out the mechanics of the heists in the flick. Gina Wendkos, screenwriter for "The Princess Diaries," relied on personal experiences. On the directing front, both Field and Forster reconfigured directing as much more a process of "reminding" actors, where Zwigoff maintained that "casting is 95 percent of the thing."
The most interesting film at the SBIFF this year for me was the world premiere of Marlo Poras's documentary "Mai's America." The film starts in Hanoi, where Mai mulls over billboards and posters of Hollywood movies on the streets. The irony of this sequence would soon be revealed as Mai finds herself in Mississippi -- an America that is as far from her imagination as her home, and a South that is as true to type as any mythology. Her first host family included poor self-described "rednecks," and misunderstandings filled the air, becoming all the more comic the greater the differences appeared. The camera trails Mai as she befriends a drag queen, leaves her first host family for another in Louisiana, attends Tulane University in New Orleans, and works as a manicurist in Detroit after financial problems force her out of school. Funny and sad, bitter and sweet, the documentary would not be as engaging and insightful without the virtue of such a charismatic and precocious subject. One gets the feeling that Mai's curiosity is always bigger than her surroundings, and the faith that she will only settle for more in life.
Another notable documentary was "The Making of the Revolution" by directors Katarina Rejger and Eric van den Broek, which took The Fund for Santa Barbara Human Rights award this year. Clocked at 52 minutes, the film is an exercise in cinema verité, with the two documentarians going undercover as tourists and risking their lives to record the student movement in Serbia, which helped bring down the Slobodan Milosevic regime.
As for awards, Tony Shalhoub's enjoyable and funny film "Made-Up," starring Brooke Adams, Lynne Adams and Shalhoub about a middle-age woman who becomes preoccupied with beauty and youth, nabbed the independent voice award for best U.S. feature. Chinese director Wang Chao's "Orphan of Anyang," which revolves around the changing lives of three people in an industrial Chinese city after the discovery of an orphan, took the world prism award for best foreign film. The audience choice award for best feature length film went to "Bug," from directors Matt Manfredi and Phil Hay. Dana Janklowicz-Mann and Amir Mann's "Shanghai Ghetto," about the community of Jews seeking refuge in Shanghai from Nazi Germany in the late 1930s, won the audience award for best documentary. John Carlos Frey's "The Gatekeeper" which follows the hard-knock lives of undocumented immigrants from Mexico won the Phoenix prize which honors an "outsider" film.