FESTIVALS: Lake Placid's Forum of Responsibility; Filmmakers Debate Truth, Violence, and the American Film
by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE
(indieWIRE/ 06.21.01) -- Traveling by early morning train for almost six hours en route to the Olympic resort town of Lake Placid didn't initially seem too appealing, but the journey upstate is one of the most scenic train routes in America -- through the Hudson Valley, Lake Champlain and the Adirondack Mountains. Upon arrival, train passengers, including "Boys Don't Cry" director Kimberly Peirce, New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell, producer Ben Barenholtz, as well as a sprinkling of other filmmakers and press were greeted by a school bus driver for the final leg of the trip.
To my surprise, there were seatbelts on the school bus. Have the years of sensational stories of school children crashing on field trips actually convinced society to pony up some cash for seatbelts? Suddenly, I couldn't help make some connection between the seatbelts and the general theme of the 2nd annual Lake Placid Film Forum, questioning the social responsibility of filmmakers. (Is it no coincidence that Russell Banks, author of the "The Sweet Hereafter," is on the Forum's advisory board?)
Ample opportunity to address this was provided in the festival's 'forums.' With ubiquitous film festivals struggling to find their niche (the Newport Film Festival unspooled the same weekend as Lake Placid), the Film Forum has found its place as one of the more unique regional festivals. Fortunately for this small town, Adirondack Film Society, the organizers of the event, counts among its most active members former New York Daily News film critic, Kathleen Carroll as well as an advisory board that includes Banks, Kevin Bacon, and Willem Dafoe in addition to many others. As a result, the event attracts high-profile names to the event and its signature panels.
"It's wrong to expect films to be like journalism," asserted moderator Elvis Mitchell in the first major forum, "Reel to Reel: When Does Creativity Become a Lie?" addressing the challenge of tackling true stories for filmmakers. Barbara Hammer concurred, arguing that the only film documenting truth flawlessly is one in which "we'd be filming our whole lives." Going further, Kimberly Peirce commented that factual accuracy is important to understand the facts of a story, but added some interpretation may become necessary to guide the audience emotionally. She continued by saying, in reference to her work on "Boys Don't Cry," "People who might not have otherwise understood Brandon (Teena) by reading the facts, but (as a result) were able to identify with Brandon."
Ethics and the role of the entertainment industry was also the subject explored in a later forum moderated by writer Tom Topor ("The Accused") who said, "Politicians make careers by attacking Hollywood," despite statistics showing an overall decline in juvenile crime. Writer John Irving ("Cider House Rules"), also a participant in the discussion added, "It is a parent's role, not society's," and said that even he did not allow his son to read his own novel, "The World According to Garp." Most of the panels, although spirited with a strong conscience, mostly shared liberal views without much counterpoint.
Other forums included "Can Movies Think? The Dumbing Down of the American Movies," exploring the decline of the intellectual character in American film and "Back to the Future: Is It Too Soon to Declare Film Dead?" looking back at the digital revolution. Additionally, the Forum hosted workshops and classes on an array of topics including "The Internet and the Independent Filmmaker" hosted by indieWIRE editor-in-chief, Eugene Hernandez and "Comics and Film" led by Jordan Gorfinkel, the DC editor who spearheaded the spectacular growth of the Batman franchise.
"Feminist propaganda!" announced a gorilla as she passed out flyers to attendees entering director Allison Anders' forum, "Where are the Women? Or Climbing Out of the Girl Ghetto." Actually, the "gorilla" was an anonymous member of the Guerilla Girls, a group that has appeared at many film events nationwide including Sundance to educate film aficionados about the role of women in film history and of the industry's lack in distributing female work. The flyer included such trivia as: "The U.S. Senate is more progressive than Hollywood, Female Senators: 9%, Female Directors: 4%" in addition to other statistics and a list of studios that distribute few if any films by women.
In addition to moderating a panel, Anders, who traveled to Lake Placid from L.A. by train, hosted a full-house screening of her latest film, "Things Behind the Sun." Some filmmakers had grumbled that screenings scheduled opposite some high profile events and forums resulted in low attendance. This undoubtedly was exacerbated by the perfect weather luring some to the lake or for a hike. Not the case, however, for Anders' screening: the movie about the aftermath of a woman's rape left the audience spellbound. To some gasps, she admitted in a discussion following the film that the house in which the rape scene took place was also where she had been a victim.
One particularly unique work screening at the Forum was "Ever Since the World Ended," by Calum Grant and Joshua Litle. Presented documentary style, the film, which debuted at the LAFF, is set in post-apocalyptic San Francisco, population 186. It follows the lives of a small group of survivors who cheated death from a plague that wiped out most of the world's population. Among the notable observations of the film is the obvious generation gap between those too young to remember the old civilization, and their consequent disregard for the past, and the older survivors whose memories remain vivid.
Eric Valli's "Himalaya" (which won the Silver Deer audience award for narrative feature) explores an ancient Nepalese culture in an area of the Hindu kingdom that is still off limits to tourists. Valli likened his film to a "Tibetan western." Another notable work, "Lumumba" directed by former Haitian Minister of Culture Raoul Peck is the real-life political thriller story of Patrice Lumumba who played an instrumental role in liberating his country, Congo, from Belgium and became its first prime minister. Lake Placid world premieres included Mario Andreacchio's "Three Musketeers" themed "Young Blades" and by Adam Davidson's "Way Past Cool."
Michael Kalesniko's "How to Kill Your Neighbor's Dog," Tom Tykwer's "The Princess and the Warrior" and Barbet Schroeder's "Our Lady of the Assassins" were among high profile films touring the festival circuit at Lake Placid. Also showcased were a number of documentaries including Alan Berliner's unusual "The Sweetest Sound" in which the veteran director delves into the name Berliner and finally invites twelve other Alan Berliners to dinner.
On Saturday evening at the beautiful Palace Theatre, John Cameron Mitchell's "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" was screening. Having already seen the film twice, most recently at the New Festival the previous week, it did not seem necessary to go for round three. This time, however, the audience was not comprised solely of cineastes or gay fest enthusiasts. Instead families, a posse of teenage boys and other virgins of androgyny entered for the film's upstate premiere, so I decided to witness how this audience would react to the transgendered rock musical. Not one person walked out and the audience erupted in thunderous applause afterward. Stephen Trask, who composed the film's lyrics, songs and score (and co-created the original stage version) joined for a Q&A, and received much congratulations. Perhaps most poignant was the sight of a 15-year-old boy bopping up and down playing air guitar as he exited. One of the festival organizers whispered, "If this can play well in Lake Placid, it will do well anywhere."
The same night, Academy-Award winning director Norman Jewison received a tribute by the Lake Placid Film Forum for his work including "In The Heat of the Night," "The Hurricane," and "Moonstruck," which screened throughout the weekend. The celebration, awarded to Milos Forman last year, included a benefit dinner for Adirondack Fledgling Films, which brings the art of filmmaking to teenagers.
On the final day of the Lake Placid Film Forum, traveling back by train, there were many participants who would have liked to stay longer. Commenting on the festival's friendly atmosphere, one filmmaker observed that the few people who dished attitude seemed out of place among the otherwise affable crowd.