Looking Beyond Hollywood At the Sixth Bermuda International Film Festival
by Brian Brooks
After yet another harsh New York winter day in April, my co-worker read the bleak forecast for the coming Friday: "miserable, cold and rainy all day." I fought to repress a smile; I surely would avoid yet another wet freeze as I prepared to take off for the sixth Bermuda International Film Festival. Fast-forward one day later, I'm in my room at the beautiful Fairmont Hamilton Princess watching a BBC World story on the anarchy taking hold in Baghdad. I opened the drapes to take glimpse at the Bermuda morning, and...rain. Not just rain, but a complete downpour. So, perhaps the mere two-hour flight was not long enough to satisfy my tropical longings. Contrary to popular belief, Bermuda is not in the Caribbean or nestled off the Florida coast, but is a sub-tropical island 890 miles off the coast of North Carolina.
Festival director Aideen Pryse apologized for the rain later that afternoon, during the festival's opening reception. She assured us that the weather would change and touted the fest's line-up of competition features and docs as well as its world cinema showcase and a tribute to Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira. As Pryse later told me, one goal this year was to tighten up the competition section so bigger Hollywood films were not competing -- "to level the playing field." This year's jury -- headed by Newsweek movie critic and senior editor David Ansen -- chose Swedish director Josef Fares' comedy, "Kops," as the best narrative feature winner. Patricia Lynn's "Discovering Dominga" took the best documentary feature prize. The film follows Guatemalan-born Denese back to her Central American roots rediscovering her family and their tragedy.
Pryse called Bermuda a great place for filmmakers to screen for lively audiences. "They're not jaded L.A. types," she said of the audiences at this fest, which ran April 11-17. Bermudians "appreciate finding out the process behind the story [and] enjoy meeting the filmmakers," she said. Filmmaker Mary Louise Stoughton, in Bermuda with her short "Katherine," seemed to agree. "Both of my screenings were well attended [and there were] a lot of questions at the second screening," she said. Stoughton's film, about a woman's troubled family relationship, received a special jury mention and screened prior to James Howard's doc, "School of Hope," about a school that works to improve the prospects of rural Chinese women. Stoughton also joined audiences for screenings, mostly held in the late afternoons and evenings to allow visitors time to enjoy Bermuda's beautiful beaches and scenery. The pleasant island climate I had anticipated returned on the festival's first full day.
Stoughton said she particularly enjoyed "Respiro," "Man on the Train," and the competition documentary film "Drowned Out." The winner of the 2002 Cannes best film prize in Critics' Week, "Respiro," by Italian director Emanuele Crialese, focuses on a small town Sicilian mother who becomes the object of scorn by her provincial neighbors un-amused by her free-spiritedness. Patrice Leconte's "Man on the Train" centers on the unlikely friendship that forms through circumstance between two men on different sides of the social strata. Both films screened in the festival's world cinema showcase. Franny Armstrong's "Drowned Out" navigates the long struggle of villagers fighting the Indian government's massive dam projects on the Narmada River, which threatens to submerge their lands and ancient way of life.
New York filmmaker Liz Garbus, whose 1998 film "The Farm", Angola, USA received an Oscar nomination for best documentary, attended Bermuda for her emotionally compelling film, "The Nazi Officer's Wife." This doc features narration by Susan Sarandon and Julia Ormond, who help uncover the spellbinding story of a well-educated Jewish woman, Edith Hahn, who was torn from her family in Nazi-occupied Vienna to survive the Holocaust as a so called "U-boat," a person assuming a false identity to hide from the Nazis. Through bizarre circumstances, she eventually became a German officer's wife. The story had "everything a filmmaker looks for," said Garbus. "War, romance, sleeping with the enemy, and we had visuals to go with it to tell the story." Hahn managed to live in Munich and later Brandenburg, even giving birth to a daughter through sheer determination and luck.
After her screening, Garbus dined with festival attendee Johnnie Cochran who traveled to Bermuda to attend the festival with wife Dale. The famed U.S. lawyer told local paper "The Royal Gazette" he needed a break from being a lawyer. Cochran, who met Garbus when she was a guest on his television talk show, kept a promise to the filmmaker to represent the subject of her 19XX film, "The Farm." The subject Wilbert Rideau (one of the film's co-directors with Jonathan Stack) has been in jail for four decades. "It was a wonderful result from documentary film," said Garbus, obviously delighted that the project attracted Cochran's services.
Garbus was also quick to praise the Bermuda festival, saying, "It's an amazing location for a film festival, it's a treat and I'd look forward to returning." "Nazi Officer's Wife" will be released later this spring by Seventh Art Releasing and her latest project, "Girlhood," will screen at the upcoming Tribeca Film Festival.
Bermuda hosted a special series from its fellow island nation well to the north, Iceland, in its "In from the Cold: The Films of Iceland" section. Pryse said the program was conceived after seeing Baltasar Kormakur's "101 Reykjavik." The director's latest, "The Sea" also screened to an enthralled audience watching the story of a family that discovers new realms in dysfunction, set in a picturesque decaying fishing village. Four features and three shorts screened in this special sidebar.
Also transfixing local and international festival attendees was Richard Ray Perez and Joan Sekler's doc on America's 2000 ballot debacle, "Unprecedented: The 2000 Presidential Election." The film explores how George W. Bush prevailed by the slimmest of margins in the home state of his brother, Florida Governor Jeb Bush, and sifts through electoral irregularities and injustices. "People were shocked about what happened," said Pryse on the film's assertions. "A [festival] guest had said he knew what [the film] was going to say, and said it made his blood boil." The film, which also points out errors made by the Gore camp, left quite an impression on the audience. "It's horrifying about what had happened in a place that's supposed to be the most democratic country in the world," said one filmgoer.
Hanging chads and disenfranchisement seem far away from an idyllic place like Bermuda, and despite the occasional rain shower, it's an undeniably beautiful country (actually, a self-governing British overseas possession). The outside does penetrate this remote island, however, and the festival is an annual embrace of the world through film. On my last full day in Bermuda, I stole a little time to explore some of the island's 26 square miles and relished its surprisingly diverse beauty. On his first visit in 1877, Mark Twain wrote about Bermuda, "You go to heaven if you want – I'd rather stay here." Sitting in the sun that final day staring at the turquoise water, I didn't consider the beyond much, but I sure didn't want to return to stormy New York.