By Andrew Lapin | Indiewire April 23, 2012 at 4:10PM
Tony Gittens, founder and director of Filmfest DC, pushed laughter and lightness throughout Washington, D.C.’s 26th annual international film festival. But when the big prize came out, it went to a far more somber affair.
A five-member jury at Filmfest DC (which ran April 12-22) selected Negar Azarbayjani’s Iranian drama "Facing Mirrors" to receive the Circle Award Sunday night. The award, given to a film the jury believes is “deserving of increased recognition,” comes with a $10,000 cash prize and a chance for a distribution deal with Indiewire parent company SnagFilms.
“Facing Mirrors,” which follows a pre-op female-to-male transsexual in Tehran as she recruits a female taxi driver to help escape an arranged marriage, beat out five competitors for the award, two of which were comedies. Producer and co-writer Fereshteh Taerpour drove in from New Jersey to accept the award at the closing-night ceremony, held at the Embassy of France. “I hope that this award will add as a page to the book of awards of Iranian film,” Taerpour said, expressing her wish that “Facing Mirrors” and other establishment-challenging Iranian movies might receive the same positive international reception as Asghar Farhadi’s Best Foreign Film Oscar winner “A Separation.”
“Facing Mirrors” is the first Iranian film to be made about transgenders. The movie has not been released in Iran, and Taerpour remains doubtful of its chances to screen in the tightly censored country. Yet it has found success at numerous international festivals, and will play in Boston, Seattle, San Francisco and Toronto in the coming months.
Two other cash prizes were presented at Filmfest. The Justice Matters Award, given to a documentary that trumpets a social cause, went to “Granito: How To Nail A Dictator,” in which American director Pamela Yates mounts a case to prosecute human rights abusers in Guatemala. India’s Salim Ahmed picked up the festival’s inaugural First Feature Award for his drama “Abu, Son Of Adam.”
The festival closed with two sold-out screenings of France’s box-office smash “The Intouchables.” Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano’s odd-couple comedy, about a Senegalese immigrant who becomes caretaker for a rich, white invalid, was one of more than 20 comedies screened at Filmfest.
“We thought that the comedies might be a way of lightening up a little bit, especially in Washington, D.C.,” Gittens said prior to the ceremony. “Every culture will take out time to laugh and smile. And it’s those points, those parts of the culture, that we want to put into this series.”
Festival opener “Starbuck,” a genteel French Canadian romp from Ken Scott about a loser who fathers more than 500 children as a sperm donor, was met with warm laughter and applause. Ditto for Japanese auteur Takashi Miike’s video game adaptation “Ace Attorney,” a hyper-stylized courtroom farce.
But Telmo Esnal’s pitch-black Circle Award nominee “Happy New Year, Grandma!,” hailing from Spain, was met with stunned silence and a few walkouts from an audience unprepared for a gruesome battle between a taxi driver and his psychotic mother-in-law.
Unsurprisingly, “Grandma” did not win an Audience Award. But two other films did: Canadian Philippe Falardeau’s schoolroom drama “Monsieur Lazhar” and Scotsman Kevin MacDonald’s Bob Marley documentary “Marley.” One of eight films presented as part of Filmfest’s “Caribbean Journeys” series, “Marley” rolled out (no pun intended) to a $260,000 opening gross in 42 theaters across the country in the same weekend it wowed Washington.
Finally, the SIGNIS Award, presented by representatives from the World Catholic Association for Communication to a film that “best illuminates and celebrates what it means to be human in a diverse and challenging world,” went to Robert Guediguian’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”
Though the majority of the Filmfest selections did not yet have U.S. distributors, there was no sign of studio representatives on the prowl at the audience-oriented festival. Gittens emphasized that he had no desire to see the event turn into an acquisitions hub. “That’s not our role. That’s not what we do,” Gittens said. “There are other festivals that do that a lot better.”
For now in Washington, the laughter is enough.