FESTIVALS: Newport 2000, "George Washington" Back in New England, Strong Docs and Naked People
by Mark Rabinowitz
(indieWIRE/6.21.2000) --In an era where there are FAR too many film festivals for the industry to support with filmed product and sponsorship dollars, I have a couple of favorites among the ranks of regional events -- among them, the Newport International Film Festival, which wrapped on June 11th. The Newport International Film Festival (NIFF) is one of those rare events where solid programming, community support and effective management really converge to help create a special festival. Of course, a mass of naked people on the beach in the wee hours of the morning doesn't hurt, either! More on that, later.
"Gotta Dance! Gotta Dance, Gotta Daaaaaannnnce!"
Opening the fest for a third year was a Miramax film, this year the swells in Newport were treated to a screening of Kenneth Branagh's latest Shakespeare treatment, "Love's Labour's Lost." Of course Newport programming director extraordinaire is the sister-in-law of Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein, so the fact that Miramax has had a lock on opening night of this festival is no surprise. Word after the screening was pretty subdued, with many of the attendees expressing rather ambivalent sentiments about the song-and-dance effort. Considering some of the reviews the film has been getting, that's considered a rave. For my money, I saw the film in Berlin and was dutifully impressed by Branagh's rather game attempt at an old-school musical. Adrian Lester was great, as were some others. Matthew Lillard, however, should hang up his tap shoes.
While Newport may indeed be the whitest place on earth, and not accustomed to the brash manners of its Southern neighbors (the Banana Republic clerk almost had a heart attack when a woman asked, in a thick New York accent, "You got any more Guinea T's?") it is also tremendously supportive of the film festival. Locals packed the screenings over the weekend, even on days with pristine weather, when they'd presumably rather be out yachting. Festival officials were enthused about the attendance, indicating that the number rose from 7,000 last year to 10,000 in 2000.
As is frequently becoming the case, at least at regional festivals I have attended lately, the documentaries were much stronger than the narrative films. The weekend screenings of such fine films as "Fighter" by Amir Bar-Lev and Arlene Donnelly's "Naked States" were packed, with local Newporters and other festival filmmakers staying long after the screenings, asking incisive questions about the films.
"Fighter" and "George Washington" -- Two Award Winners That Deserved It
Best Documentary award-winner "Fighter" is an extraordinary and moving recounting of a pair of extraordinary lives, told by the men that lived them. Jan Weiner and Arnost Lustig, two Czech Jews persecuted by the Nazis during WWII return to Europe in 1998 to retrace Weiner's six-year journey across Europe -- a trek in which Weiner escaped occupied Prague on foot, walked through Yugoslavia to Italy where he continued his odyssey clinging to the bottom of a railway car. Weiner spent time in an Italian P.O.W. camp (a preferable alternative to the concentration camp endured by Lustig) before escaping and making it to England where he joined the Royal Air Force and helped to liberate his homeland from the Nazis. Along the way, the pasts of both Jan and Arnost are opened up and examined, bringing their disparate personalities into focus, and their respective ability to survive the war as they did.
Equally as poignant and moving was the triple Newport award-winner, "George Washington," the remarkable debut feature film from 24 year-old Texan David Gordon Green. Shot in Cinemascope, a technique developed by 20th Century Fox in the early 1950's (a daring feat for any low budget filmmaker, much less a first-timer) the film has both the look of both a small documentary and a Terrence Malick-esque epic. Shooting in a widescreen format that could have easily turned the film into a series of Ohhh! Look at that sunset! shots, Green manages to make a film so knowing, intimate and tender, that audiences are moved to silence by the time the credits roll.
The film is a portrait of 5 kids, caught in that oh-so awkward phase of life called adolescence. However, this is an adolescence not often seen in contemporary films, one bereft of responsible adult supervision, leaving the children to grow up by themselves. Before you think "Hey! I've seen this in 'Kids,'" don't. This is not a look at teenagers growing up too fast, but more a case of them simply growing up alone. As Green mentioned at the post-screening Q&A, "This is a very difficult film to describe. I just hope that when people see it, they understand it." Well, I can tell you that I think I understand it, but I can't do it justice, here. See it at your first available chance when Code Red (a joint venture between Cowboy Booking and Antidote Films) puts it in theaters this Fall.
Overall, this year's lineup of features was particularly strong, including one of the most clever films I've seen in some time, John Paizs' quirky Canadian feature, "Top of the Food Chain," both a parody of, and homage to the great (awful?) B-movies of the 50's. The quiet town of Exceptional Vista is on the downturn because the nut factory (as in nuts and bolts) closed down. Well, along comes Campbell Scott in an inspired comedic performance as a VERY straight-laced atomic scientist, in town for a vacation. Of course, hungry aliens and government agents muck up his rec time, and we are soon neck deep in half-digested townsfolk, randy innkeepers and insane constabulary! Let's hope that this inspired lunacy finds stateside release.
Some of the other notable films at this year's event included Eric Paul Fournier's "Of Civil Wrongs and Rights: The Fred Korematsu Story," a doc about a Japanese-American who refused to report to a relocation camp in the early days of the U.S. involvement in WW II; Fenton Baily and Randy Barbato's "The Eyes of Tammy Faye"; Frances Reid and Deborah Hoffman's look at four cases brought before South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission "Long Night's Journey Into Day," and crowd-pleasing features "Stanley's Gig" by Marc Lazard and "Sunburn" by Nelson Hume, which both received strong word-of-mouth reviews from attendees. Of note among the short films that screened, were two installments from Jonathan Judge's "Actual Jokes" series of shorts airing on HBO, and a hysterical look at coming out, "Dream Kitchen" by Barry Dignam.
I See Naked People
On a much lighter note, Friday morning at 5 AM found famed nude landscape photographer Spencer Tunick, the subject of NIFF U.S. premiere "Naked States," directing a photo shoot on Middletown's Sachuest Beach, a scant few minutes from Newport. Arriving at the beach before 5:00 AM began to resemble the final shot from "Field of Dreams" ("If you strip, they will come!").
There were, in fact, 71 intrepid souls who made the trip that morning, ready to bare their bodies for art. The entire shoot took about 40 minutes, with the group doing three setups, and the cops helping to make sure no one got run over. I guess when the US Supreme Court rules that your art is protected by the First Amendment, the police stay out of your way. In fact, the coppers were even more helpful.
The Newport Daily News quoted Middletown Police Chief William J. Burns as saying "[Tunick's] a legitimate artist. It's First Amendment-protected. It's early in the morning in a secluded area. So we'll let him do his thing." While most of the attendees pretended post-shoot that they hadn't taken a gander at any of the other attendees, one attendee stated, "Hell No! I was checking everybody out, and you know they were checking me out, too!" Amen, sister! I have to admit I felt a semi-prurient semi-curious urge to check out the other folks during the shoot. . . so I did. So there!
Well-Run, Friendly Fest
This year's festival had the same friendly and well-organized vibe as past years, but as the festival grows, its needs, especially its financial ones, grow also. This year saw a new leading sponsor, Vanity Fair magazine, and there was some growling by attendees that the mag, famous for throwing its weight around at another New England fest to which it is no longer attached, extended undue influence over this year's NIFF.
Now, while attendees might have noticed some differences this year over past years, such as the absence of balloons at a certain party, or the absence of red wine at all the parties, the community of film-goers that support the festival through ticket sales from year to year surely didn't notice, and the programming by Programming Director Maude Chilton and her team was above par. While I may grouse that there were no pasta bars or champagne at a certain party, the fact is, it's about the films, mainly. I did miss the pasta, though.
[Mark Rabinowitz is a co-founder of indieWIRE.com and former Associate Editor of ifcRANT. In addition to those two publications, he has written for FILMMAKER Magazine, Huh Magazine and others. He is currently writing freelance and returning to his filmmaking origins. He wears hats and doesn't much care for eggplant.]