FESTIVALS: It's Just About the Films at New Directors
by Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE/ 04.10.01) -- "It's just about the films," commented Michael Cuesta, director of "L.I.E.," describing the New Directors/New Films (ND/NF) festival, which finished off its two-week run last weekend at New York's Museum of Modern Art. "Sundance is such a market; cellphones were going off at my screening, I felt pressure from my producers, and it was just about the business. [New Directors/New Films] is not that kind of festival," Cuesta said from his home in Long Island last weekend. "There's such a contrast."
"L.I.E." was one of the success stories of this year's event, the kind of local (or semi-local) subtle New York indie that thrives at ND/NF -- and can often get lost at Sundance. An additional screening was added for "L.I.E." due to swift ticket sales -- a bonus also afforded French entry, "The Confusion of Genders," the Argentinean "Nine Queens," and American films "Bartleby," "Lift," and "Dinner Rush."
"Dinner Rush," directed by Bob Giraldi, a NY commercial director and Tribeca restaurateur, did especially well, because of the hometown advantage. The film also benefited from its recognizable cast (Danny Aiello, Sandra Bernhard, Summer Phoenix), slick production values, and mainstream wannabe aesthetic (it also had the most expensive press notes.) New distributor Access Motion Picture Group will release "Dinner Rush" in the fall. The new company was established at the American Film Market, according to the Hollywood Reporter, by Entertainment Capital Group, a London-based P&A funding and marketing company and will be run by Robert Cheren, a former senior VP of distribution at Fox Searchlight.
Another film poised for a pick up is "Lift," DeMane Davis and Khari Streeter's subversive urban drama that premiered at Sundance. "We're confident it's going to happen and so is my Mama," revealed Davis in an e-mail to indieWIRE. The rising star of "Lift," Kerry Washington, is herself on the brink of even wider exposure with a role opposite Anthony Hopkins and Chris Rock in "Black Sheep," the latest film by Joel Schumacher, who showed his support for the actress by showing up at one of the afternoon screenings for "Lift."
Now that these filmmakers have New Directors/New Films out of the way, Cuesta and Davis are hoping their next big fest will be Cannes. Both directors told indieWIRE they hope to hear word from the French festival this week. Cannes' official line-up announcement goes out next Thursday, April 19th.
Another winner at New Directors -- and "the runaway hit outside of the American films," according to a rep from the fest -- was Fabian Bielinsky's "Nine Queens," the Argentine con-artist dramedy that has received interest from Miramax and Sony Pictures Classics. The top grossing Argentinean film of last year, which ranked 5th at the local box office (all the more impressive when you consider it was up against Hollywood blockbusters like "Mission Impossible"), Bielinsky's "Nine Queens" is the latest homegrown hit from the South American country. A new generation of indie-minded filmmakers is on the rise in Argentina; among them, Lucho Bender ("Merry Christmas"), Jose Luis Marques ("Fuckland"), Adrian Caetano ("Pizza, Beer and Cigarettes"), Pablo Trapero ("Crane World"), and Martín Rejtman ("Silvio Prieto"). Many of their works will be showcased later this month in New York when the Film Society of Lincoln Center (New Directors' co-presenters) unveils their series, Passionate Stories: A Passion for Storytelling: Recent Argentine Cinema (April 27 - May 17), which will open with "Nine Queens."
"In the last two years," admits Bielinsky, "there is a new generation of Argentinean directors, but it's not a new wave in a way that we don't share the same concepts, the same themes. We don't share the same visuals, we don't share anything." In fact, Bielinsky may come from a different generation from this "new generation": at 42, with almost 20 years of experience as an assistant director on features and commercials, he is no neophyte. But feature filmmaking was no easier on Bielinsky. He spent years trying to get "Nine Queens" made, and finally found the means when he won a screenwriting contest. He signed the rights away to the film, never received a dime more than his writing and directing fee (despite the over million dollar grosses), but still feels vindicated. "Before I was knocking on doors," he says, "now the doors are open."
Another ND/NF talent with doors sure to be opening for him is 33-year-old Yoshimasa Ishibashi, a self-described "visual expressionist." "The Fuccon Family," Ishibashi's series of short surreal vignettes involving a sitcom-like mannequin family was shown for the first time in the U.S. at New Directors. Producer Miko Kurosawa told indieWIRE, "We wanted to sell it to USA or England, but we realized it is not easy to contact a TV station directly. That's why we decided to make a 35mm film and apply to good film festivals." Note to MTV: this is your future.
"The Fuccon Family" is just one segment of a longer program called "Vermillion Pleasure Night," a strange Saturday Night Live meets Whitney Biennial Art show that airs midnights during the weekend in Japan. Other segments include "Midnight Cooking," "Starship Residence," and animated, music and sci-fi laden interstitials. Ishibashi's work on the Fuccons is the most prone to cross over -- its mix of sick humor, basic language and po-mo art is both funny and fascinating. Inspired by "Bewitched," and "Star Trek," Ishibashi says he also received the idea from dinner party spreads in American cultural magazines. "They looked to be happy, but very pretentious, and whether they're happy or not, they appeared happy," Ishibashi said through a translator. "The photo impressed me very much, and gave me the idea to use mannequins instead of humans."
The simplicity of the work -- mostly a series of stills -- also looks to the future. "Not only does it make sense for TV channels," he explains, "but also, it's possible to screen 'The Fuccon Family' on Internet channels." Ishibashi hopes to make a feature length film soon as well; his first effort, the 60-minute "I want to drive you insane" (1997) screened at Stockholm and won a New Director Award in Japan. His ongoing work with Kyupi Kyupi, an art and performance group, also continues (you can see more at:
Speaking of the future, it's worth noting that this year's New Directors/New Films festival included only one work shot on digital video, an American short called "Upheaval." When confronted about the digital dearth, the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Richard Pena explained, "For me, they didn't bring anything new to the table. People are going to be working digitally, because a.) they want to expand the medium and/or b.) because it's cheap. And I think there were far more [submissions] that I saw on the second half of that equation."
"If anything," Pena continued, "some of these directors are not going forward with the digital revolution, but in fact, are looking back and exploring older forms, like 'Bartelby' or 'Wojaczek,' which can be refreshing."
Other refreshing entries appreciated by the New York crowds included Marziyeh Meshkini's "The Day I Became a Woman" (now in release via the Shooting Gallery Film Series), Abdel Kechiche's "La Faute a Voltaire," and Mimmo Calopresti's "I Prefer the Sound of the Sea."
And if the New York Times reviews of the festival films mean anything -- and to many in the industry they do -- special mention must be noted of A.O. Scott's rave of "Bartleby" ("Mr. Parker has brilliantly updated his source and grasped its essence, composing a sorrowful and hilarious tone poem about alienated labor, or an absurdist workplace sitcom, as if a team of French surrealists had been put in charge of 'The Drew Carey Show'"), Elvis Mitchell's future pull quote for the WWII doc "On Common Ground" ("These men are as heroic and moving as anything in "Saving Private Ryan"), and his other advertisement for "Dinner Rush" ("a mouth-watering display of talent, technique and patience").