Despite the autumn serenity in East Hampton last weekend where the leaves are turning and the boutiques are marking up their prices on muted fall sweaters, there was much tumult to be found at the 15th annual Hamptons International Film Festival, and not just within the festival's films (17 of which were premieres). The festival recently lost both festival chief Denise Kassell and artistic director Rajendra Roy, though programming consultant David Nugent, managing director Gianna Chachere, and programmer Josh Koury managed a seemingly effortless segue. The well-healed audiences were likely too busy ogling the myriad attendant celebrities to notice a difference, in any case.
"What I'm most excited about here is the location," said Nugent. "So many people have houses out here, and it's so easy to get here from New York City, that you see more celebrities and filmmakers and actors here than you'd ever expect for a weekend festival."
Director Bob Balaban's joined the festivities for opening night film, "Bernard and Doris," while Al Maysles was the most appropriate guest in town for the world premiere of his film "Grey Gardens: From East Hampton to Broadway," about the adaptation of his beloved documentary into a celebrated musical. Phil Donahue and Ellen Spiro were in town for the U.S. premiere of their Iraq film "Body of War," which won the audience award for best documentary, and Marsha Gay Harden appeared in town alongside director Alison Eastwood for their marital tragedy "Rails and Ties." Harvey Keitel showed up for his coming-of-age film 'My Sexiest Year," and Kerri Russell showed off her celebrated tresses with the closing night film, the saccharine "August Rush." Vanessa Redgrave, meanwhile, picked up a career achievement award in addition to supporting her film, "The Shell Seekers" by Piers Haggar.
Lisa Kudrow was in town with director and co-star Scott Prendergast for the east coast premiere of "Kabluey," a sweet, quirky little film about a sad sack 32 year-old loser who moves in with his prickly sister-in-law when his brother is dispatched for a lengthy stint in Iraq. The story plays as a catalogue of contemporary fears, as Prendergast's character goes to work in a thankless job as mascot for a fallen Enron-type corporation whose bankruptcy has devastated the residents of Kudrow's small town. Kudrow is always a delight -- her character here starts off so disinterested and nasty that it's a marvel to see her become so sympathetic in the final act.
Famke Janssen traveled to Long Island's east end to receive the jury prize for acting for her tough, occasionally self-conscious performance as a ragged pool hustler in Chris Eigeman's "Turn The River," which had its world debut at HIFF. One imagines her main competition must have been young Jaymie Dornan, as the son Janssen with whom Janssen is desperate to reconnect; his grounded, subtle and altogether stellar performance lends believability to the film's occasionally contrived, theatrical script.
New Line again hosted a swank dinner at popular local eatery Nick and Toni's for Menno Meyjes' "Martian Child," which was the invitation most sought after Friday night. Two of the film's stars, John Cusack and Amanda Peet came out for the world premiere, which screened to a not quite full house on two screens, though the response seemed resolutely positive during the Q&A. "It's rare to have a character-driven role these days," commented Cusack on why he was attracted to the project. In the film, Cusack's character adopts a child in the wake of his wife's death who desperately wants a father and is convinced he's from Mars.
The documentary competition tended towards portraits, the most complex being Matthew Galkin's jury prize winning "I am An Animal: the Story of Ingrid Newkirk and PETA," in which Newkirk is alternately praised for following her conscience and berated for engaging in publicity stunts that may not be altogether effective in the cause of animal rights. For an organization dedicated to the welfare of animals, PETA draws some massively negative press -- in the film's opening montage, even Barbara Walters hates on them -- but Newkirk's intentions, at the least, seem remarkably pure. Film critic and game-show mainstay Rex Reed was given his very own hagiography in Marshall Fine's "Do You Sleep in the Nude," in which a number of celebrities and cultural commentators praise his pioneering of tell-all celebrity journalism, while tastefully declining to discuss his sexuality. Reed voices from the beginning a wish for Fine to focus on his life's work, but Reed's main subject was always more-or-less himself, making his decision not to discuss his personal life all the more galling.
Breaking from the character-study crowd of documentaries is Greg Whiteley's film "Resolved," a documentary about high school debate teams that starts off like any number of the Oddball Competition Docs currently in vogue ("Spellbound," "The King of Kong", etc.) until its halfway point, at which point it veers direction sharply. While the first half focuses on the standard high school debate competition, in which overworked, type-A children scream as much information as possible in an incomprehensibly fast Nadsat called "Spread," the second half tells the story of a pair of African-American students from Long Beach who, after winning the state tournament in a traditional debate format, get into the teachings of Paulo Freire, and change their debate style to challenge the entire concept of high school debate as racist and antithetical to real discussion. It's an alarming strategy, and one which the debate moderators do not know how to handle. Ultimately, Whiteley's film really details the disturbing truth of what it takes to make it in American society today, and how so many are excluded.
The most political of the festival's films, both narrative and documentary, feature in the "Conflict and Resolution" category, which has films both in and out of competition; it's difficult to say if this helps to highlight or marginalize the films in question, but it's interesting to note the increasing quality and quantity of agitprop in this country. Catherine Ryan and Gary Weimberg's tremendously effective documentary "Soldiers of Conscience," which shared the C&R prize with Anthony Gilmore's "Behind Forgotten Eyes," tells the story of soldiers in the Iraq war who decide to become conscientious objectors, a difficult process whereby the soldier is questioned, distrusted, mocked and often times not removed from duty. The film starts out with the information that the U.S. military discovered that most troops in combat had moral qualms about killing, and dealt with this information by training them to reflexively shoot to kill as often as possible. They are not, however, given any psychological training to handle the fallout, and as a result many remain haunted and scarred by what they have done.
The festivities continued throughout the weekend in locations that recalled the wealthy socialites who often frequent them. At the New Line dinner for "Martian Child" at Nick and Toni's, you could superimpose Brandon Davis' head onto John Cusack's body, the ghost of Paris Hilton haunted the Heineken Green Room's tenure at Laundry, and all of the guests at the filmmaker's party strolled out of the Star Room, past the spot where Lizzie Grubman hid after casually running over a bunch of people, and out into the autumn night.
[Brian Brooks contributed to this article.]