FESTIVALS: W-Burg Provides Comfy Hood for Experimental, Brooklyn-based, and Intern'l Film
The third annual Williamsburg Brooklyn Film Festival (May 10-14) should have erased any doubts about its place in New York's film scene, giving punctual time to a range of fresh short, experimental and documentary films, and a handful of American premieres -- "6ixtynin9" (Thailand, 1999), "Bad Money" (Canada, 1999), "Venti" (Italian, 1999) and "Sonnenallee" (Germany, 1999). Playing to growing audiences in a capacious old-style theater of 1,000 seats, this year helped mark a departure for the now five-day event that was begun in a bank building three years ago.
Since its inception Williamsburg has achieved nothing short of the amazing, according to Manhattan filmmaker Eli Kabillio, whose one-minute animation "Beat the Brat" (2000) was among the festival's 17 experimental films. "The first year, the attendance was not that great, the projection wasn't great. Last year, the theater was good, and the films were still good. By the third, I was blown away. It was great sound and I could get around and enjoy the films."
Robert Drummond, a relative newcomer from Los Angeles, whose experimental "Phoenix Crossing" (1999) has been shown at four other film events in both cities, was enraptured about the space given to work such as his. "They have a desire for experimentalism that is unfathomable," he said. "Usually a festival will choose a piece that's a really strong indie film that's going to be bought out in Hollywood and the festival's name will be tagged on it, you know, imagine if 'Blair Witch' was first shown at. . . These guys weren't doing that, they were interested in the art; it almost makes me cry with joy."
There is a void, say Kabillio and other participating filmmakers, that is filled by a festival just like this one. He commended a "true indie festival image" that does not exist elsewhere in terms of quality. There are so many fourth-rate festivals and here they seem to care. In New York you don't need to care. It's got millions of theaters, it's got Broadway. It's got two basketball teams and it's got two hockey teams."
Not unlike the setting for one of its films, Williamsburg showcased its 61 films from 18 countries at the Commodore Theatre in a gritty Brooklyn street that divides Israeli and Hispanic neighborhoods and looks bereft by night. One-dollar fresh Samanthas aside, a state-of-the-art projector, solid local and industry sponsorship, an effortless website, and reportedly good parties were the marks of a distinctly business-like event.
Thai director and producer Pen-ek Ratanaruang's "6ixtynin9," which won Best Feature Film, delighted a nearly full house with the foibled breeziness of Tum, a downsized 25-year-old and admirer of Lady Di, who embarks on some murderous antics when finding a million baht in a box of noodles. "Venti" ("Twenty"), a blend of gothic and modern day "Thelma & Louise" from Italian director Marco Pozzi, combines a dark treatment of Catholicism and sloganeerism with an overlay of role-swapping and maze-running. Beatriz, a "lesbo" porn star grown complacent with steady work, takes up with Eva, a burnt out television journalist. Their fast friendship hurtles past unintelligible road signs in golden-hued countryside, sex -- which concludes in a fantasy about giant sperm -- as well as random encounters with a shadowy vendor who is by turns, gas-pump sadist, beachside soda seller and pizza delivery man in an icy morgue with a dog called Pancreas.
Canadian John Hazlett's directorial debut "Bad Money," with a cast including Graham Greene and Karen Sillas, dealt with bankruptcy and the struggles of being affluent, alive and "nice" in the New Economy. The day of her husband's funeral, a widow who is preparing cookie-dough treats wrapped in black parchment tells her daughter, "I know you think I'm a middle class zombie but at least I've got style."
Other notable features: Mexican director Adolfo Davila's "Reves" (1999 absurd comedy on the media told in visual circles) was winner of the Grand Chameleon Award ($25,000 in services) and Best Experimental film; "Intervista," (France, 1998, a journey to salvage the flawed newsreel interview of a female youth leader in the Albanian Communist Party) directed by Albanian Anri Sala was awarded Best Documentary; Best Short Subject went to "A Feeling Called Glory" (1999, about a unique summer friendship) by Canadian Coreen Mayrs; and "Waiting" directed by Patrick Hasson (U.S. 2000 digital comedy about the down and out side of the Philadelphia restaurant industry as told by a waiter on the rebound), took the audience award for Best Feature Film.
Humanity and its compromises in the confines of millenial living was more or less the concern of several experimental, documentary and short films shown to some visually stunning and sophisticated results. "Last Request," directed by Tom Hodges, about the last-word encounter between a first-time hitman and his victim to be, and "WADD" (1999) a strong journalistic foray into porn-star John Holmes' life by Cass Paley, strengthened the mix of lesser films.
"Humidity" (1999), a sharp short film by New York filmmaker Nyle Cavazos Garcia with slick bassy sound, showed the tyrannies of close quarters in simmering Queens. Neighbors use cameras to spy on each other. The laundry room is a world of salacious possibility, and in a restroom, a young woman corals another, who goes down on her knees to relieve what could just be another bad hair day.
"Phoenix Crossing," shot on digital video by Robert Drummond, provided suave urban slices of Los Angeles resonant with the tribal beat of the desert and the trance of dance. "There's a feeling of all importance that we have," he said of his film, "the good economy and everyone having cars and America being such a wonderful international place of power right now, and there's this feeling that it all could change."
"Torments" (1999), by Sao Paulo filmmaker Andrea Seligmann, offered a brave study of a young woman who has outgrown her family and can hardly live in her own skin for all its nerve endings. Seligmann echoed others in saying Williamsburg made her "feel like a filmmaker at a festival."
And like them, she has since been inundated with solicitations by Internet distributors with wildly varying offers. Commented Brendan Flynt, maker of "Auf Besuch In New York" (1999) in cinemascope about a German actress who is visited by her mother, "None of it entices me enough. It's not like I need the exposure for the sake of it. And why do I want to let someone use my film to put up there as bait for everyone to click onto?"
[Philippa Bourke is an Australian journalist who lives in New York.]