FESTIVALS: Over 88,000 Hit 26th Flanders, Hail "Himalaya"
by Hal Levy
A small city with its own vibrant culture, Ghent struggles in the shadow of Belgium's massive nearby capital city of Brussels. Bound together with side canals once used for commerce, but now restricted to tourist boats and restaurants, Ghent is studded with great medieval towers and is divided by the Schelde River. Whereas Belgium's major cities are primarily French speaking, Ghent's population speaks mostly Dutch; in fact, many of its inhabitants would rather speak English than French. But linguistic differences are buried when the Flanders International Film Festival comes to town -- with all films subtitled in French and/or Dutch -- and announcements made in these two languages plus English, all is forgiven and forgotten.
The 26th edition of the festival, running October 5-16, screened more than 190 feature films from some 40 countries. The U.S. was represented by 60 titles in all categories. Festival screenings took place at the 16-screen Decascoop cineplex, Studio Skoop, Sphinx and Ghent University's Film-Plateau. New this year was Festival Village, with The Director's Club as the central venue where foreign guests, film professionals and journalists were able to meet. And this year turned out to be the biggest festival yet with a record attendance of over 88,000 tickets sold.
The night before the official opening the festival traditionally schedules a pre-opening film. This year, Woody Allen's latest "Sweet and Lowdown" took the spot. The festival started off somberly with Israeli director Amos Gitai's Cannes '99 entry "Kadosh" and closed with Sidney Pollack's "Random Hearts." Pollack, who flew his own jet in from the States, attended the event and held a press conference for Belgian journalists.
U.S. films in the main competition included "Drowning on Dry Land," starring Barbara Hershey, and directed by Carl-Jan Colpaert (director of "Delusion," executive producer on such films as "Hurly Burly" and "Gas Food Lodging") and Sundance '99 favorite, "Judy Berlin," from writer/director Eric Mendelsohn. Both, interestingly enough, were based all or partially in the New York area. Mendelsohn suffered the fate every attending director fears -- during the first screening, the print was discovered to be faulty with the last reels incorrectly developed. No new print became available, so all screenings were subsequently called off.
Among the out-of-competition films most talked about was Mark and Michael Polish's Sony Pictures Classics film "Twin Falls Idaho," about an odd love triangle involving conjoined twins, played by the Polish brothers, who are identical twins. They also wrote and co-directed the film, which was featured at Sundance earlier this year. The film is currently playing the festival route because, as the brothers said, "it gives us the chance to see the rest of the world." Meanwhile, both of them are working on their own scripts.
The Ghent festival sets itself apart from other festivals by its theme of "The Impact of Music on Film," with 13 films competing in this area for the Grand Prix. This year's opening concert "Film Music At The Opera" featured the works of Elliot Goldenthal ("Interview With A Vampire," "Batman & Robin," "Michael Collins"), Stephen Warbeck ("Shakespeare In Love," "Mrs. Brown") and Jean-Claude Petit ("Cyrano de Bergerac"). Later in the week, the composers participated in a special workshop, "Making Music LOOK Great."
Tributes and retrospectives were paid to special guests, Oscar-winner producer/director Irwin Winkler ("Rocky," "Good Fellas," "Guilty By Suspicion," "The Net"), Sandra Bullock, ("The Net") and acclaimed director Stanley Donen ("Singin' In The Rain," "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers," "Funny Face," "Charade"). All three showed up at their screenings.
New technology was served by the Digiforum where specialists from around the world talked about the digital future of film. In addition to Peter Greenaway, who was honored with a major exhibition of his artwork in connection with the premiere of "8 1/2 Women" as well as his new video work, "Death of a Composer," Lance Weiler and Stefan Avalos screened their digitally produced "The Last Broadcast," and film veteran Rob Nilsson talked about "digital action cinema." The event also showcased the latest developments in Electronic Cinema. Attending Digi-experts included Darin Hollings (DreamQuest/Disney), Carl Machover (MAC), Bart Cheever (D Film), Milan Krsjanin (Sony Broadcast & Professional Europe), Matt Smith (Sightsound.com), Judith Merians (The Hollywood Experts Online), and digital filmmakers Frank Grow, Bennett Miller and Michael Raeburn.
Sidebars this year included a section called "The Memory Of Film" which featured an 80-year retrospective of Swedish cinema with works from Ingmar Bergman, Bo Widerberg, Maj Zetterling, Jan Troell and Lasse Hallström, as well as recent work from new Swedish filmmakers. Another section titled "Biopics" screened the lives of Freud, Malcolm X, Winston Churchill and other 20th Century greats.
This year also included YO!ZONE and YO!PLUS, two programs aimed at the youth audience whose student jury awarded their best winning film prize to Lukas Moodysson's Swedish film with the provocative title "Fucking Åmål" (U.S. title: "Show Me Love").
Actors Amanda Plummer, Christopher Lee and Robert Forster headed the international jury together with Hollywood entertainment lawyer, Jay L. Cooper. The jurors awarded the top prize to Eric Valli's "Himalaya" (L'Enfance d'un Chef), a France/UK/Switzerland co-production about a tribal chief's son who leads an annual salt caravan up the dangerous Himalayan mountains while competing against a rival caravan. The film also won the Audience Award and a Special Mention Music Award. Best Director award went to Solveig Anspach for "Haut Les Coeurs" (France/Belgium), a drama about a pregnant woman who chooses a cancer treatment which could kill her, but save her baby; the film also received a Special Mention for the film's actors, Karin Viard ("La Nouvelle Eve"), Laurent Lucas ("Pola X"), and Claire Wauthion ("Port Djema"). Best Music award went to Rachael Portman for her work on Lynne Ramsay's "Ratcatcher."
The International Film Critics FIPRESCI Award went to Veit Helmer's "Tuvalu" (Germany), an almost wordless film using techniques from early screen comedy with a hero, heroine and evil bad guy, also featuring an international cast including American comic E.J. Callahan.
Lastly, each year Belgium's VRT television station buys two festival films for their network. This year's choices were Michael Winterbottom's "With or Without You" (UK) and Togay Can's "Un Hiver Au Bout du Monde" (Hungary/France/Belgium/Slovakia).
[Hal Levy, international correspondent for Location Update, moved to Ireland when he retired after ten years as The Hollywood Reporter's assistant international editor.]